Archive for the film Category

Best of 2011: Attrition Edition

Posted in film, Lists, Music with tags on March 12, 2012 by N.W. Douglas

FILM

As usual, the process of catching up with the dozens of titles I missed in 2011 will take something like the next 10 years to carry out properly. Hopefully, that amount of time will help to winnow some of the overpraised chaff out of the viewing queue, as various titles that earned December buzz  recede into their proper places in the grand scheme of things (I’m looking at you, Animal Kingdom).

For now, I will name only the films I saw in 2011 that I know I will be revisiting for the rest of my life.  It’s pretty brief; there’s still a lot left to see. Nothing is budging #1 from its spot, though.

1. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
2. The Tree of Life (Malick)
3. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Alfredson)
4. Of Gods and Men (Beauvois)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

  • Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog)
  • Melancholia (Von Trier)
  • The Mill and the Cross (Majewski)
  • Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Bird)
  • War Horse (Spielberg)

MUSIC

A bit more complete, but when you consider it’s cheaper to buy most of these albums on iTunes than a regular multiplex movie ticket in Vancouver, it starts to make sense. My favourite albums of 2011, including one (or two or three) favourite songs from each:

1. Joe Henry – REVERIE – “Strung” “Eyes Out For You” “Unspeakable”
2. The Roots – UNDUN- “The Other Side”
3. The Decemberists – THE KING IS DEAD – “Down By The Water”
4. Aaron Strumpel – BIRDS  – “Never Finished”
5. Kate Bush – FIFTY WORDS FOR SNOW – “Snowed In At Wheeler Street”
6. Hugh Laurie – LET THEM TALK – “Let Them Talk” ”
7. M83 – HURRY UP, WE’RE DREAMING –“Midnight City” “Wait” “Splendor”
8. Over The Rhine – THE LONG SURRENDER – “The Laugh of Recognition”
9. Josh Garrels – LOVE AND WAR AND THE SEA IN BETWEEN –  “The Resistance”
10. Moby – DESTROYED – “Slow”

Honorable Mentions:

  • In Media Res – IT WAS WARM AND SUNNY WHEN WE FIRST SET OUT – “Tonight I Am New”
  • Okkervil River – I AM VERY FAR – “The Valley”

Not All DVD Artwork Is Equal

Posted in film, Miscellaneous with tags , , , on November 23, 2011 by N.W. Douglas

The current state of my desk and two of its more  conspicuous residents, who wound up side by side today purely by coincidence, leading to the entirely unexpected revelation that Tom Cruise DOES kind of have a pop-art-Christ-look thing going on there, glower aside. Having such an association in mind while watching a romanticization of warring Buddhists-cum-Bravehearts makes the effort of sitting through Samurai all the way through seem more enticing than when I started a few days ago, with the intention of revisiting favourite movies of my childhood and teenage years to see if they’re still all that beloved, stopped for perfectly menial reasons, and failed to pick it up again. We’ll see how it goes. Buñuel might have saved the day.

Master Shots #1

Posted in film, Master Shots with tags , , , , on November 23, 2011 by N.W. Douglas

In traditional film terms, “master shot” refers to the widest angle of a scene, typically cut and left behind in once it’s provided a perfunctory overview of the scene’s geography. An “opening shot” is of course the first image of a film, and when used by filmmakers so inclined, can serve as a spiritual or symbolic (and for some daring folks, even literal) master shot for the entire film it is introducing. It could be ingenious, inept, or just functional; in every case, the construction of the shot tells you something about the experience of the rest of the film. Should you trust this film? The opening shot, like any first impression, hints at the answer.

It’s truly exhilarating to experience an opening shot that seems to resonate deep down, generating excitement simply because it exists, and because it exists exactly the way it is, and then have that tingle of intuition confirmed by the rest of the film matching that one frame in skill, precision, and intention. It’s all of a whole, of course, and the opening shot is really but one element working in concert with many others, but we don’t think like that when we’re in the middle of seeing it. The gift of time allows us to discover the film, peel the layers, and tremble, wondering if our trust in such a strong first impression will be validated. The films that launch on such a single, compelling image, and sustain the trust earned by it are the films I consider masterful. The experience of learning that they are “true” in a sense, true to that tingle, makes me think of them like friends.

And so, as the title suggests, here are three master shots in spirit and in truth:

In order: Three Colours: Blue (Kieslowski, 1993); Birth (Glazer, 2004); Certified Copy (Kiarostami, 2011)

Related: Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots Project

On Masterpieces and The Tree of Life

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film with tags , , on June 29, 2011 by N.W. Douglas

I think it’s pointless to try to label this a “masterpiece” in any way. Not because it isn’t skillfully made, but because the film indicates a filmmaker who is groping so passionately with matters far beyond his grasp, with such a sense of reckless pursuit, that any attempt to bring the sort of control and perspective needed to create a “masterpiece” – the greatest work of a craftsman – is useless. Masterpieces keep a grip on their subjects; some looser than others but none ever losing complete control. Masterpieces enthrall while reminding us of their maker’s skill. The Tree of Life has moments that approach that, but I find this film’s formal humility places it on its knees more than any other work by Malick, and in a way that Kubrick would never deign to suffer. For all of the charges of overambitious efforts and grandiose pretentiousness and maybe/maybe-not autobiographical details, The Tree of Life is not *about* it’s maker. It’s about ours.

That might be stating the obvious for a film that opens with a quote from Job. What I’m trying to get at is this: masterpieces may bubble up unplanned from blissfully unaware talents, or they may be ultra-controlled and premeditated, or most likely, an unqualified marriage of the two; either way they always draw our attention back to the maker in some way. Tree of Life is too messy, too lumpy, too unrestrained in the right places to really do that in a way that ratchets up my opinion of Malick as someone with a handle on what he’s doing with complex themes. He clearly doesn’t; not like the sublime balance he achieves in The New World, nor even the comparatively shallow “mastery” of The Thin Red Line. This is different. This is a man being mastered by what he doesn’t know. This is a master learning that he is still a babe. The Tree of Life is a blessed mess. Sort of like us.

Battle Surfaces: Epic Warfare and the Cinema of Attraction in the 21st Century

Posted in Essay, film with tags , , , on May 25, 2011 by N.W. Douglas

Battle Surfaces from N.W. Douglas on Vimeo.

The above video and below written essay comprise my final project for one of Dr. Laura U. Marks‘ arts and culture classes from this past spring. Both are reproduced here with little tweaking; both only begin to scratch the surface of this topic, and while I’d like to devote more time to a film by film analysis of the mass battle on film as its evolved over the decades, that’s probably something more suited to an actual graduate study. In the meantime, I hope that this whets the appetite for deeper discussion and raises questions about the digitally-aided mass battle — and its stunning rise and fall in recent Hollywood moviemaking.

Tom Gunning characterized the earliest, pre-narrative films as the “cinema of attraction.”[1] This was filmmaking that was exhibitionist in nature; it was eager to show audiences both the real world reproduced on screen, and fancy tricks only available to the cinema (such as the visual effects employed by Georges Méliès). After 1906 and the rise of the narrative as the dominant framework for filmmaking, the cinema of attraction did not disappear but went underground “both into certain avant-garde practices and as a component of narrative films.”[2]

What drove home the immersive effect of these early films on their spectators? Using the Lumiere Brothers’ “Train Arriving at a Station,” Akira Lippet answers that question by drawing out the spatial impact of the cinema of attraction as described by Gunning: “The image-become-life – and not the train – threatens to breach the space of the spectator and swallow him, her.”[3] The cinema envelops its viewer and draws them into an interior psychology that belongs to the cinema surface alone. With the advent of the narrative, would this “swallowing” ability be retained in any form?

Over 100 years later, the cinema of attraction is still alive and indeed functioning as a component of narrative films. It survived over the decades, attracting audiences with each new innovation after another: the introduction of synchronized soundtracks, the creation of widescreen, 3-D, the rise of blockbuster practical effects, and more recently, the seemingly endless development of digital visual effects.

The rise of digital effects to become the cornerstone of the Hollywood blockbuster suggests that the swallowing power of the image surface has indeed survived and evolved with the cinema of attraction.  What’s intriguing about the current period is the sense of reversal accompanying the application of artificial effects. When the cinema was born in 1895, it immediately found a foothold with films based in reality. The “actualities” were a raging success for simply showing audiences elements of real life recorded by the camera.  Once Méliès began plying his trade, though, the cinema-as-magic-show model took off and became the most prevalent type of attraction until the narrative took over.[4] The cinema of attraction’s means of enthralling transferred from that of total realism, to that of artificiality. The digital effects-dependent film of the late 20th/ early 21st century has seemed to take the opposite path. What began as an obviously artificial creation (as seen in The Abyss or Terminator 2) has become the most indispensable feature of the 21st century’s blockbusters, not least because of efforts to make such effects appear more realistic.

As Lev Manovich points out, though, perceiving what is real is not the same as perceiving that which is photoreal, and it is only to the photoreal that the current effects-driven cinema really aspires.[5] The drive towards realism, of creating a seamless composite of the animated and the filmed with no visible seams, has itself been mirrored by recent efforts to craft blockbuster films that attempt to show the usual spectacles they’ve always shown, but without the glossy production values symptomatic of the Hollywood picture.  As the modern war film was turned upside down by the unhinged documentary aesthetic of Saving Private Ryan, and the horror film adopted a video-diary style (pioneered by The Blair Witch Project) so the epic period film, which we will be focusing on, embraced incoherent, hand-held visual styles, cold palettes, and graphic violence.  The past would be shown the way it was, warts and all.

In my video essay “Battle Surfaces,” I chronicle the visual progression of the epic battle sequence in cinema. For the purposes of my study, I’m focusing only on depictions of battles where the use of gunpowder and firearms is either completely absent, or very minimal.[6] The blueprint of the standard epic-scale battle sequence is laid down in Alexander Nevsky (1936). Sergei Eisenstein’s combination of wide shots of crowds charging each other with close-ups of hacking and slashing, filling the frame with constant busyness, set the standard for how a battle would build peaks and valleys of movement and emotion. This is a pattern repeated again and again over the decades, particularly in Hollywood’s 1960s sword-and-sandal epics (Spartacus, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire), and continued with updated brutality in Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000). What all of these films have in common, is the use of real human extras to populate the wide shots. There may be hundreds (or in the case of Spartacus, thousands) of men on screen, but most films attempting to recreate a battle involving tens of thousands must rely on the power of implication, of the sense of offscreen space created by the moving frame.[7] Such attempts at conveying the sense of battle were not helped by limp fighting styles (see the 60s’ films for examples) and clean coverage of the action. Every angle of every battle shot could be attributed to a human perspective of some kind; even the usual crane shot carries an implicit knowledge of limitation within itself, rarely rising high enough or moving forward in a way that doesn’t necessarily preclude human movement.

When The Lord of the Rings stormed onto the screen in 2001, it opened with a mobile aerial shot of a battlefield where tens of thousands of creatures engaged in battle. The camera swooped like a bird over a landscape that could not exist, recording millions of discrete, intense actions that could not have all been carried out perfectly by human extras. The LOTR films went on to claim that image – the aerial, computer generated shot of thousands of computer programs – as their major legacy. A spate of similarly epic-sized films centered on huge battles soon followed. The epic battle was reborn.

The aerial CG shot offered two things to audiences. First, it provided the “wow” factor that the epic film, dormant since the end of the 60s,’ needed to draw crowds back to theatres. Filmmakers could now let the audience feel like gods, floating high above the action while enjoying the sheer scale of the image. This type of shot offered a higher-resolution, more dynamic, and more spatially-developed experience of the same basic camera angle developed by real time strategy (RTS) computer games, in which players assume god-like sight and managed armies and cities.  The thrill of the entirety of a humongous spectacle could be savored, and the montage could stitch multiple takes of this panorama together to make something truly operatic and geographically relatable. And it all looked so photoreal, carefully blending thousands of digitally animated extras with the background, the film grain, and the colour palette. In cutting his battle scenes, Peter Jackson followed the example of Gladiator and Braveheart by covering the action with hand held cameras, cutting swift and often incomprehensible movements together before cutting back to the CG wide, stabilizing the scene in its vast steadiness.

But the CG aerial shot also offered audiences the tools for defusing its awe: it was not just its vastness alone, or its complexity of visual content, but the combination. It was too perfect. No real attempt at filming on such a scale could yield the right combination of well-timed choreography, frame size, and camera movement. And so almost as soon as it changed the nature of huge action scenes, it could already be defeated. The first few times it was used, it carried the potential of Lippet’s swallowing surface, both colliding with the viewer and sometimes enveloping them with the promise of a wider expanse beyond the frame; however subsequent over-use in post-LOTR films exposed the weaknesses of relying too much on the mass CG shot: it corralled such large elements (an army) into the frame and eliminated the centrifugal power of the shot.[8] In addition, the behaviour of each soldier was bang-on. Not one extra was caught messing up. This is, of course, because the soldiers were animated figures operating under individual AI programs, and it is this algorithmic efficiency that calls attention to itself so readily.

My video essay intends to show the progression of the battle as filmmakers sought to make each one more convincing than the last. Limp choreography in the 60s’ gave way to fierce and graphic bloodshed in the 90s; with that problem solved, the question of conveying the scale of a real battle became the next obstacle to achieving total realism. And as we can see in shot after shot from the last decade, such realism is elusive when simulated by a computer.

Phenomenonologically, these aerial shots fail to genuinely engage the senses. The visual element is compelling, but the use of sound is often what gives away the artificiality; if we were to reach out and use every sense to feel the depth and scale of a wide aerial shot, we’d experience a distant perception of the battlefield’s din. These shots, though, are inevitably paired with a stirring score, which overpowers the ears; the sound mix is often turned up to keep excitement high, but to such a level that would be unrealistic if heard from so high. What these shots accomplish is much more metaphorical than literal; the sight of an army of good sweeping in to save the day says more about the emotional significance of the scene than it does of the sensual significance.

Add to these problems the issue of the drive towards realism affecting the types of stories being adapted after LOTR; the very approach towards even myths such as The Iliad, with the film adaptation (Troy, 2004) refusing to include supernatural elements and opting for a straight warfare-focused rendition, is telling of the urge to press the aerial shot into the service of realism.  In that spirit, filmmakers kept expanding the height of the shot, turning little figures into little dots (Alexander did this to limited effect in the battle of Gaugemala sequence), perhaps in an effort to hide their artificiality. As the decade wore on, such large-scale shots either took the super wide approach or disappeared altogether (the fantasy-war film 300 is noticeably bare of such shots, for a film so focused on a massive army’s attack). By the time Ridley Scott made his third historical epic of the decade, Robin Hood (2010), he’d eschewed the wide-scale CG shots used on Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and, save for a few kilometers-wide panoramas, relied on practical footage to edit his climactic battle sequence; while the wide panorama used to be all about savouring the climax of two forces crashing together, its appearances in Robin Hood limit it to being merely a geographic tool. The battle scene came full circle; the director credited with reviving epics in 2000 effectively performed the funeral for the extravagant effects-driven epic ten years later. The general sentiment in this particular genre and other effects-heavy fields seems to be favouring a slow return to more practical effects work.

One other element may have contributed to the swift decline of the epic digital battle: easy public access to filmmaking documentaries (included on DVD releases of the epic films themselves) that expose the secrets of such sequences and demystify the image-making process. Once one sees how “easy” it is on a physical scale to create such sights, the “wow” factor may indeed decrease. A great part of the appeal of the old epics was the sheer pleasure of seeing so many real moving parts working together and knowing that someone had pulled off a great feat making it all work. The digital battle scene does not lack comparable expertise, but its creation within a world of code makes the achievement far less glamorous.[9]

What does it all mean? The final movement of “Battle Surfaces” is called “Apatheosis,” which attempts to sum up the effect of so many digital battle scenes unleashed on the public over such a short span of time: apathetic climaxes. One money-shot looks like another, and when they are taken out of their original context, one can see how similar they tend to be. It’s intriguing to consider the possibility that such shots actually might serve a pacifistic agenda; though designed to awe and excite, the way in which such wide views reduce a body of humans to amorphous, algorithmic mob serves as a warning of sorts to the dehumanizing aspects of warfare, and of film as war propaganda.

But overall I want to emphasize the fact that these shots began life ten years ago as the newest and most exciting iteration of the cinema of attraction, and now find themselves virtually defunct, as far as Hollywood is concerned. The drive for realism has left them behind, and their ability to swallow the viewer has been exposed as shallow. As far as surfaces go, these ones have very little depth[10]. Removed from their proper context, they have no purpose and no place to gather or extend energy. On the more modest scale of that first shot in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, they contained some of the raw energy of the earliest cinema, and had a frame that was limited enough to point beyond itself. Once the filmmaking industry grabbed the concept, it grew, tired out audiences, and drew the outside into the frame. It gobbled up itself, not the viewer. And thus, it has to go.

Works Cited

Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” Film and theory: An Anthology. Ed. Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2000.

Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2001.

Endnotes

[1] Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” Film and theory: An Anthology. Ed. Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2000. p. 230

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. P. 65

[4] Gunning, p. 231

[5] Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2001. P. 200

[6] The type of battle scene that enjoyed such a lusty revival in the first decade of the 2000s was almost exclusively pre-Renaissance.

[7] Lippit, p. 73

[8] Ibid.

[9] Another possibility: RTS games quickly caught up in graphics resolution and performance to mimic the best of the mass aerial shots, eliminating the need for players to vicariously experience the thrill in a theatre.

[10] Consider how the higher the perspective of the shot, less depth is perceived at ground level, crushing the armies flat against the distant ground.

The *Other* Best Films of 2010

Posted in film, Lists on March 16, 2011 by N.W. Douglas

Every year has its discoveries. And since my progress at catching up with the acclaimed titles of the most recent year is advancing at its usual crawl, I tend to get more pleasure out of compiling my list of favourite non-2010 films that I watched for the first time over the last year.  In that sense, 2010 was a rich year.  Below are my top 11 films that didn’t come out last year, followed by various other rankings.  You can find the entirety of my 2010 film journal on the sidebar.

* Denotes a repeat viewing that provokes a considerably different reaction from the last remembered viewing.

Image: The unforgettable Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond, one of the most haunting films I’ve ever seen.

New Favourites:

1. The New World [2008 Extended Cut] (USA, 2005) Terrence Malick

2. Vagabond (1985) Agnes Varda

3. Citizen Kane (1941) Orson Welles

4. The Gleaners and I (2000) Agnes Varda

5. *Pinocchio (1940) Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen

6. Memories of Murder (2004) Bong Joon-ho

7. Beau Travail (France, 1999) Claire Denis

8. The Ice Storm (1997) Ang Lee

9. Being John Malkovich (1999) Spike Jonze

10. Vertigo (1958) Alfred Hitchcock

11. Raising Arizona (1987) Joel and Ethan Coen

Films to be grateful for:

  • After The Thin Man (USA, 1936) W.S. Van Dyke II
  • A.I. Artificial Intelligence (USA, 2001) Steven Spielberg
  • Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) Michael Curtiz
  • Another Thin Man (USA, 1939) W.S. Van Dyke II
  • Bad Lieutenant (1992) Abel Ferrera
  • Brakhage (1998) Jim Shedden
  • Brazil [Dir. Cut] (1985) Terry Gilliam
  • Bright Star (UK, 2009) Jane Campion
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938) Howard Hawks
  • Defiance (USA, 2008) Edward Zwick
  • Election (China, 2005) Johnnie To
  • Election 2 (China, 2006) Johnnie To
  • The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) Roberto Rossellini
  • Hallelujah (1929) King Vidor
  • Junebug (2005) Phil Morrison
  • Loves Of A Blonde (1965) Milos Forman
  • Match Point (USA, 2005) Woody Allen
  • Nights of Cabiria (Italy, 1957) Frederico Fellini
  • Putney Swope (1969) Robert Downey Sr.
  • Rope (USA, 1948) Alfred Hitchcock
  • A Serious Man (2009) Joel & Ethan Coen
  • Sonny (USA, 2002) Nicolas Cage
  • Still Life (China, 2005) Jia Zhangke
  • Stroszek (1977) Werner Herzog

So, What’s The Big Deal?

  • Bronson (2009) Nicholas Winding Refn
  • Days of Heaven (1978) Terrence Malick
  • The Five Obstructions (2004) Jorgen Leth & Lars Von Trier
  • In The Loop (2009) Armando Iannucci
  • Killer of Sheep (1977) Charles Burnett
  • Let The Right One In (2008) Tomas Alfredson
  • Punch-Drunk Love (2002) Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Superman: The Movie (USA, 1978) Richard Donner
  • Taste of Cherry (1997) Abbas Kiarostami
  • The World (2004) Jia Zhangke

Blech/Yuck/Yawn

  • Daughters of the Dust (1992) Julie Dash
  • Legends of the Fall (USA 1994) Edward Zwick
  • One Hour Photo (2002) Mark Romanek
  • Super Fly (1972) Gordon Parks Jr.

 

Of Gods And Men

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film, Reviews - Film with tags , on March 10, 2011 by N.W. Douglas

The following was originally written in October 2010. I have revised it slightly for publication here. Of Gods And Men opened in limited US/Canada release on Feb. 25.

Prior to seeing Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men at the VIFF last year, I had read a few positive reviews from its screenings at Cannes.  The reception in Toronto and New York was no less encouraging thanks to positive pieces penned by Michael Sicinski and Glenn Kenny, both of whom are well-known for their insight, scrupulousness, and grounded opinions of any film, whether prestigious or not.  These are not fellows who will offer knee-jerk praise to any Palm-baiting arthouse flick that makes it over here.  The advance word was very good, to say the least.

I mention this in order to talk about a couple more reviews that were filed from Cannes, both somewhat negative and similar in one specific way.  Both Michael D’Angelo and Matt Noller criticized the film for being, in Noller’s words “somber and respectful to a fault: the Cannes equivalent of Oscar bait.” D’Angelo unenthusiastically described it as “mass hagiography.” Watching the film, I couldn’t help but reflect on these words and the assumptions behind them — especially the hint of an attitude that seems to automatically roll its eyes at works that approach subjects of intrinsic gravity with reverence.  As a film about men who gave up lives of comfort, romance, and eventually their blood for the spiritual path to which they felt called, a certain amount of seriousness should be expected.  Faith, religion, doubt, and death are all “heavy topics,” and a film that tackles them, as this one does, is bound to be “somber” in places.  Why all the fuss?

I’m frustrated by this seemingly detached way of viewing and dismissing a film that deals with difficult subjects as “too reverent.”  The implication of this complaint is that Beauvois’ respect for his subject somehow morphs into a technical flaw in the film’s storytelling. “Beauvois is less interested in humanizing the monks than in sanctifying them” writes Noller, while “Of Gods & Men never sets a foot wrong, but neither does it challenge the viewer to feel anything but passive admiration,” says D’Angelo.  “Good” people doing good things. Ho-hum.  Compounding the situation is the fact that Beauvois has made an intensely detailed film, materially and intellectually, about religious devotion (which may or may not make either critic uncomfortable, though wondering about that reads too much into brief comments) that does nothing to coerce the viewer to take one side or the other (Christian or Muslim), but also doesn’t leave plenty of room for the atheist to make moral claims about the problems of religion. It takes great pains to portray its characters’ faith in action while avoiding adopting any religious opinion (including atheism) as a worldview for the apparatus.  Its reverence is almost anthropological in nature; full of deep respect for the way a long-held tradition inspires courage in its adherents.

Of Gods and Men is an inherently “spiritual film,” in the sense that most of its scenes seem haunted by a spiritual presence.  I do not invoke these terms to describe something vaguely intuited during the film, but to give weight to a presence, even a character, that is rooted in the religious identity of the subjects.  What’s intriguing is how this presence is evoked not necessarily through obvious formal choices, but through performance and character.  One monk tells a young woman of how he used to be in love with a woman, until he encountered “a greater love,” which he followed into the monastery.  Later we see this man’s loving care of the villagers around him, whom he heals and binds, acting in the manner of Christ.  The words of the monks tell us how God is moving in their lives, but this sort of interaction is never physicalized in a supernatural way.  Everything that happens is internal, both on the screen and off.

Keeping that in mind, a certain scene late in the picture inspired a curious effect in me as I watched.  Somewhere during one of the monks’ communal prayer times, I felt compelled to close my eyes as they prayed.  What’s fascinating to me about this compulsion was not that I felt like I too needed to pray along with the characters, but that I had an inexplicable sense that closing my eyes would actually allow me to “see” the scene in front of me “better”, or perhaps, more clearly.  I did close my eyes, briefly, and certainly felt like I didn’t miss anything by doing so.  Indeed, I think I had a brief moment of perception where I felt in tune with the monks on screen, with the rhythm of their lives and their worship, such that this late scene of religious devotion invited me to participate.  I sensed that I what I was seeing and hearing was not the whole picture, that something else on another level entirely was going on, and that closing my eyes might bring me closer to seeing it.

The whole film is conventionally narrative, but punctuated by regular interludes showing the monks at chapel together, chanting and praying.  These moments become a ritual within the editing, allowing Beauvois to shape the film into something approaching a liturgy.  This cycle of prayer and praise sinks in over time, easing the viewer into the film and pointing them towards the Holy.

I believe that Beavois’ evocation of a sense of the Holy is also result of a phenomenology closely attuned to the monks’ faces and bodies, both individually and collectively.  Or to put it another way, if Beavois is deploying a spiritual or transcendental aesthetic, it’s one that hews closer to Rossellini than to Bresson.  The film’s formal asceticism only extends as far as the sparseness of its subjects’ lives.  If Beauvois’ frames seem bare, it is because of the settings he’s capturing: outside, it’s uncomplicated mountains, deserts, and fields; inside it’s sparsely furnished rooms of people with few possessions.  The images seem devoid of distraction because that is precisely the world these monks have created for themselves — Beauvois is ultimately operating in a tradition of historical realism that recalls Rossellini’s own picture about monks, The Flowers of St. Francis.  Beauvois’ monks, like Rossellini’s, are miles removed from Bresson’s inexpressive “models;” and like Rossellini, Beauvois spends most of his time meditating on the human face in flux, not set in stone.  There is a rich humanism humming under the surface of both films, a deep respect for each man as he struggles with doubts.

The film is intriguing in its refusal to follow Bressonian models of transcendental filmmaking, or to dabble in Bergman-style expressionism.  Except for one shot — a praying monk backlit by dusty rays — Beauvois avoids the sort of austere flamboyance that spiritual and existential dramas have typically indulged. And except for a climax of flat close-ups of each monk listening to a cue from Swan Lake, Beauvois also eschews the visual purity favoured by Bresson (and even this, Beauvois’ most Bressonian moment, is dominated by cathartic music; a choice that, diagetic source or not, is a direct affront to Bresson’s values).

If the film speaks to our time, it does so by addressing the gap between Christians and Muslims, particularly in taking steps to care for and humanize Muslim believers from the perspective of its protagonists – that is, from a peaceful, loving worldview rooted in the specific traditions of these Christian monks.  Beauvois avoids trying to reconcile Islam and Christianity as equally viable paths within a fundamentally secular world – indeed, the issue is never raised — but instead focuses on how the two might respect each other while gently affirming their own exclusive creeds.  A deep respect is preserved between the monks and the villagers, with neither side feeling compelled to shuck their beliefs and convert.

The final shot is a masterful summary of faithfulness in general, for both sides involved.  It’s a wide shot of the monks and their kidnappers, Muslim extremists, marching up a mountain into a snowstorm.  The monks walk gracefully to their fate; the would-be killers go matter-of-factly.  There is no judgment to be found in the framing; it is just a simple statement of the faith dynamics that drive these two groups.  One will love and keep dying for that love, regardless of who’s pulling the trigger; the other will keep killing, as they believe they must.  The viewer may pick sides but Beauvois’ staging doesn’t force it.  It’s a fitting end to a film that coolly examines faith tested by doubt and decision-making.  It’s a moment of facts, not opinions.  It is a moment of natural reverence, of understanding the gravity of what’s about to take place.  It needs that breath of anticipation, of waiting, in order to register an effect.  If there is no holiness to be found in that moment, then it’s all a waste of time.

Maybe that’s what the naysayers were looking for. And they can keep on looking. This is one of those rare films that observes the religious experience and does not blink. It does not preach.  It simply records. If one can’t help but feel reverent, then so be it. This is about as unobtrusive as a film about this subject gets.