Thematically, this year’s New York Film Festival was strong on sophisticated explorations of religion and spirituality. From the violent Gnosticism of No Country For Old Men to the secular miracle featured in Stellet Licht (Silent Light), the films considered the possibilities of transcending the material for the ideal. Stylistically, many eschewed intricate plotting for evocative visuals, typified by the long takes, patient rhythms, and stark close-ups.
The Man from London
Béla Tarr’s The Man From London was certainly one of the most controversial entries in the Festival. At their most unforgiving, Tarr’s movies seem almost parodies of Eastern European art-house: black and white, painfully slow and bleak as Siberia. At a screening of The Man From London, a section of the audience cheered when a gap between reels appeared to end it early and groaned when it started up again. Others yelled bravo and clapped enthusiastically at the credits.
Based on a novel by Georges Simenon, it is a crime thriller on cough syrup, focusing on the moral (and visual) gradations between light and dark. In its superb opening shots, port night watchman Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) silently observes a suitcase-with-money handoff gone bad and then retrieves the money for himself; eventually he succumbs to temptation, committing a grave act of violence. Fred Kelemen’s camera moves so slowly, the shots seem like still portraits. I wasn’t bored, but the film includes a few awkward scenes, and Tilda Swinton, her speech dubbed into Hungarian as Maloin’s wife, is distracting. Yet the movie is still as revelatory and haunting as Tarr’s best work.
If London‘s guilt-ridden characters emerge from a dank Central European Catholicism, the Mennonites in Carlos Reydagas’ Stellet Licht, one of the Festival’s highlights, bring their rigid religious structures to the Mexican countryside. The film is book-ended by breathtaking shots of dawn and twilight, setting a domestic tale—a man’s infidelity leads to his wife’s death—within the outsized cycles of nature. While waiting for the screening to start, I happened to come across a quote from Emerson that captures what Reydagas accomplishes: “If you do not need to hear my thought, because you can read it in my face and behavior, then I will tell it you from sunrise to sunset.”
The Coen Brothers also use silence, punctuated by bursts of violence, in adapting the pulpy prose of Corman McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book-to-film adaptation that so closely mirrors what I had pictured while reading. That said, the Coens insert a few of their trademark regional “characters” (in this case, from Western Texas) who are tonally out of place. More importantly, the film cuts short a closing scene featuring ruthless killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) that states the book’s theme concerning men’s struggles with amoral “nature.” This muddies the movie’s otherwise stark clarity.
Todd Haynes offers another sort of obscurity in I’m Not There. Like Bob Dylan’s most dubious music, the film might be interpreted either as visionary poetry or a nonsensical con job. But like Dylan’s best music, its point lies not in eccentric details. An experimental essay on the nature of identity, the film cuts among six actors playing facets of the “Dylan” character, with each section shot in a different style. The sheer busy-ness can be a bit exasperating, especially when the movie indulges in the “Dylan” mythology (the multiple references call to mind Across the Universe). I suspect the movie will stir up some emperor’s new clothes-style questions. About halfway through, I felt it tottering perilously close to an overambitious disaster, though it recovers by the end, the crosscutting among disparate elements achieving a vivid, if transitory, vision of psychic unity.
Cristian Mungiu’s 4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) is also interested in the relationship between a community and a representative individual, here Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). In Bucharest during the 1980s, she resists the severity of her surroundings even as she is also victimized. The film mimics a thriller, following Ortilia over a day, guiding her college roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) through a backroom abortion. She secures the hotel room, meets the “doctor,” and purchases the cigarettes need for bribes. Marinca’s remarkable performance gradually reveals Otilia’s mix of drive and vulnerability. With a set design plunged into half-light due to the rotting Romanian infrastructure, Mungiu and DP Oleg Mutu use real-time and documentary-like techniques, much like Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, also shot by Mutu) and, of course, the Dardenne brothers. As we watch, knowing that Ceauescu will fall and this decrepit era will close. Otilia embodies hope for the future, but the greatest suspense comes from wondering whether she will be crushed beforehand.
Lee Chang-dong uses a similar hand-held aesthetic in Secret Sunshine, but his narrative evokes Lars Von Trier’s, a long-form, almost novelistic character study. It opens with Lee Shin-ee (Jeon Do-yeon) lost in her car on the outskirts of Miryang, a Korean town whose name means “Secret Sunshine.” She is rescued by bumbling mechanic Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), who takes an immediate interest in her and helps her to set up a piano school in the city. When her son is abducted and found dead, Lee undergoes a spiritual transformation in the form of a long-term mental breakdown, joining a born-again Christian church and then rejecting God through self-abasement.
The film is refreshingly unpredictable. “There are things you can’t see,” advises a Christian pharmacist, hinting at the Miryang’s underlying beauty and cruelty. The men are callous towards women, but Song, adding layers to the bumbling yet cocky comic character that has made him so popular in Korea, here shows a range of personae, from puppy dog to stalker to and harmless fool. The open-hearted Christians can be delusional and naïve, as well as generous. The blue sky that often fills the frame can be oppressive or reassuring. As Lee weaves disparate elements into a harmonic whole, the film reveals a deeper connection that sustains the community. For all his mastery, though, Lee has a maddening tendency to overstate. Similar to his Oasis, this movie risks romanticizing a medical issue (physical handicap in Oasis). To her enormous credit, Jeon’s searing performance insists that insanity is not a road to enlightenment.