By Jeffrey Overstreet
#7—Syndromes and a Century
Is it a drama? A series of dream sequences? Finally available in the U.S., this experimental film about time, science, superstition, and medicine is strangely hypnotic. I'm not sure how to summarize it. We spend a lot of time in a small, country hospital and a bright modern hospital. Old-world practices are clashing with the new. Some conversations are repeated in different contexts, accentuating differences in worldview. It feels like a long poem about fragile threads between eras, and about the tenuous connections between people of different traditions, beliefs, and genders. It's fascinating and often confounding. And it contains three or four of the most breathtaking scenes I've ever experienced—including a celestial event as beautiful as it is unexpected.
“All creation groans” in the unforgettable long shots that open and close Reygadas' remarkable film. It's hard to believe this movie was released in 2008—it has a quality that will make it a major event for film students for many decades to come. It's set in a Mexican community of Mennonites, where an unfaithful husband tries to rationalize his infidelity to devastating consequences. The movie's a marriage of the religious exploration of Carl Dreyer's Ordet and the metaphors of the natural world in Terrence Malick's The New World. Personally, I find the film somewhat overbearing in its stiff formality, but I'm left breathless by the radiant cinematography and the film's climactic affirmation of fidelity and faith.
#5—Man on Wire
(See my previous Good Letters meditation on Man on Wire.)
#4—4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
2008's most memorable nightmare came from Romania. Christian Mungiu tells a terrifying tale of two young woman, Otilia and Gabriela, whose mistakes lead to excruciating consequences. Gabriela seeks an illegal abortion, and Otilia's attempts to help her leave them at the mercy of a vicious criminal. Caught in his grip, Otilia makes a shocking decision to help her friend—shocking to me, anyway, living in a culture where such cruelty seems uncommon. But what kind of friendship is this, anyway? Is Otilia's faithfulness really so honorable? Haunted and distraught about the film's depiction of such a bleak existence, I shared my feelings with a Romanian exchange student. He answered with furious affirmation: “This film is the truth about Romania under Communism. Ask my mother. Ask my father. It's a psychology that very familiar to them.” In the end, the film seems to question whether Communism or Capitalism can do much to restrain our sinful impulses.
#3—Flight of the Red Balloon
Critic Michael Sicinski is right to say “childhood is almost always narrativized in a linear fashion, either as the movement from innocence to experience, or as an epiphanic recapturing of the magic of youth. Needless to say, no one really lives like this, least of all kids.” Hou Hsiao-Hsien has captured the way children do experience the world, and in doing so he has offered us a gift. And he's done it in Paris, with French-speaking actors, far from home. Few films capture the tension between childhood and adulthood as poetically as Hou's whimsical tribute to Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon. Juliette Binoche (gone blonde!) plays an actress lending her voice to a production of Japanese puppet theater. While a painful separation from her husband and daughter has left her stressed to the breaking point, she finds joy in her beautiful son, whose relationship with a wandering red balloon becomes an enchanting illustration of innocence lost.
And speaking of childhood.... Pixar has once again produced a treasure for moviegoers of all ages. How many movies can you name that are as provocative for adults as they are entertaining for children? Perhaps a few—but are they also standard-setting achievements in animation? How many begin with twenty minutes of dialogue-free creativity, like the near-silent comedy at the beginning of this film? Andrew Stanton's story is an imaginative fusion of Noah's Ark and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It affirms that human beings are at their best when reaching for something contrary to their programming—love. And it gives us a sharp Swiftian satire of contemporary life, in which humanity has become enslaved to “mechanical” instincts, while an inspired robot inadvertently reminds us that we are designed to transcend those impulses, and reach for the sublime. How ironic, then, that this superb work of imagination, comedy, and heart was produced on computers!
As I noted in an earlier post, Jeff Nichols' meditation on an Arkansas family feud has the timeless quality of an Old Testament tale, captured in beautiful, naturalistic imagery, and understated performances by an impressive cast of unknowns. In a year when news headlines were dominated by reminders of the things that divide us—culture, religion, politics—Shotgun Stories stands out as an uncompromising look at the human capacity for civil war, and a desperate appeal for us to shoulder the burden of reconciliation and peacemaking.