Sunday, October 28, 2007

First Thoughts on Bella the Movie

What can I say about Bella the movie? It's beautifully filmed, beautifully acted, beautifully paced--it has everything a "nice" "inspiring" film has--except it has some unnameable other thing, something more. Director Alejandro Monteverde has given his vignette a subtlety of symbol that filmmakers like Spielberg and Shyamalan should study. The film has a couple of moments in which the significance of people, things, and events deepen beyond their simple appearance--moments and images which, like icebergs, drag with them the immeasurable bulk of Something More below the visible tip.

The best example of this is the Edenic imagery of the film: riding the train out of the city, Bella gives José a very green apple, then pulls another one out for herself. What distinguishes this from all other tired references to the fall of man is that it inverts it: the apples become a communion, a shared meal. It is a refiguring, not a replay of Eden. Stepping off the train, they walk to Jose's parents' house, and meet his father (read Father?) who puts them to work planting his garden. "It will be Paradise," he says in Spanish. Again, the film takes the simple act of gardening--taking with it the events of the fall of man--and refigures it as Eden should have been--man and woman working together WITH the Father, to "till and keep" the garden.

Perhaps more on this later.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has received as many critical awards as its transcontinental name has letters. Some critics love to have their sense of established film conventions jostled significantly, but not this critic. The sprawling episodic plot never departed enough from its literary source (Ron Hansen's novel) to become a good movie in its own right. The haunting riff that signaled the transition between loosely connected episodes grows more clangy and less haunting with each hour that passes until the central story line--Robert Ford's obsession with the glory, power, and mystique of Jesse James, who he follows and eventually murders-- finally gets some steam about 2/3rds of the way through the movie.

The last third of the movie is worth the wait. With all the superfluous characters (and oddly well-developed) dead or in jail, we can focus on the primary psychological conflict between Jesse James and Robert Ford. It's compelling though the camera can never quite reach inside the character's heads the way Ron Hansen's prose can. The camera strains to tell us what's in Jesse James' head through close-up after agonizing close-up, but can never quite articulate it. That's the problem with adaptations that aren't adapted. The beauty of the original is lost in an extended effort to be faithful to the source.

I don't get all the fuss surrounding Brad Pitt's performance either. It was neither striking nor powerful. I guess people are just floored that he took a complicated role.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Central Station - A Film from Brazil

Last night I watched a great foreign film, titled CENTRAL STATION, or in Portuguese, CENTRAL DO BRASIL. I was totally surprised. Director Walter Salles brings together a hardened, selfish retired teacher and a little boy whose mother has just died in a car accident. The retired teacher is a letter writer at the Central [train] Station in Rio, and gets drawn inexorably out of herself as she tries to decide what to do with the boy. The result is a search for the boy's father that becomes a pilgrimage of its own--almost a spiritual journey for this woman who has given up loving others.
Salles directs a paradoxically gritty and transcendent film; the poverty and shocking depravity of Rio contrast greatly with the simplicity and natural beauty of the poorer rural villages. I can only describe the film's visual style as luminous. The picture is filled with shining Light. Not shining lights, but Light. Salles tells a story of a woman who has never been a mother, but who becomes a Mother in the fullest sacrificial sense.

A beautiful and moving film; put it on your list of things to watch.