A Face in the Crowd (1957): Lonesome Rhodes is No Andy Taylor

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It begins unobtrusively enough. In a backwater Arkansas jail, a drunkard plays his guitar on a radio segment of “A Face in the Crowd” being broadcast from his cell. They don’t know it quite yet but soon the host who found him, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) capture the public’s imagination. Far from just plucking Rhodes out of obscurity, Jefferies also rebrands him with an off the cuff remark and uses her daddy’s radio reach to broadcast him all around.

With such a platform, Rhodes does the rest with his wild whoops of down-home charm and strangely beguiling magnetism. He’s a natural performer and showman who knows how to form a connection with the folks at home. Soon they have created a following or as is popular in the lexicon these days a “tribe” giving him real media presence in the cultural conversation.

Someone asks him the question, “How does it feel to be able to say anything that comes into your head and be able to sway people?” But it’s true. He’s at the forefront of a grassroots democracy turning into a television phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Jefferies watches it all unfolding with bright-eyed awe and deep enthusiasm. It’s absolutely rich seeing it sweep over the country. One of the cogs in the machine is a jaded writer named Mel (an early Walter Matthau) who watches the unfoldings with grim amusement. Meanwhile, Lonesome’s ever-ambitious and cutthroat promoter (an even younger Anthony Franciosa) positions his man to continue broadening his success. Everyone’s trying to get a piece of this new pie. Because what’s more American than pie?

Rhodes keeps up his side of the bargain by purveying his own brand of “authenticity.” On one show he brings on a destitute African-American woman and gives a call-to-action and the money comes pouring in, in response. Another week he crosses a mattress sponsor and subsequently raises the man’s sales all across the country simply by belittling his product.

Soon he’s brought on to promote the product of the stuffy Vitajex company and he takes their pride and joy, disregarding their focus groups and tradition, selling the pill straight to the public. By the time he’s done with them, the public’s buying them up by the barrelful.

He also captures the imaginations and the fancy of all the young girls all across the nation — soon has them all swooning over him — but one lucky girl wins out (Lee Remick) with her baton twirling during the Ms. Arkansas Majorrette competition of 1957. Of course, Lonesome Rhodes is made the judge and after getting mobbed by the girls, he takes a shine to Betty Lou.

Marcia gets pushed further and further into the periphery of his life as Rhodes weds the frisky twirler and sets his sights on the next domain to be conquered. Politics have entered a new stage — the television age — and no man is more beloved than Lonesome Rhodes. “You gotta be a saint for the power the box can give you,” as Mel notes, and in the wrong hands, this immense power is dangerous.

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Rhodes throws his support behind a stodgy old lawmaker giving him advice in the process. The film was already predicting the famed televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy. Where campaigning is about punchlines and glamor; it becomes a popularity contest and an advertising endeavor as much as a smear campaign. He uses his Cracker Barrel Show to promote the senator in a more relaxed atmosphere and has the position of Secretary of National Morale waved in front of him.

He even notes his candidate should get a dog, observing that it didn’t do Roosevelt any harm or Dick Nixon neither (referring to the well-received “Checkers” speech in 1952). Because these events begin to hint out how corruption, even double talk, begin to make the general public question “authenticity.”

In one off-handed remark, Lonesome crows, “This whole country is just like my flock of sheep.” However, like Arthur Godfrey, his downfall (though more rapid) occurs after an onscreen incident that removes his mask and undermines his image before the people. They can never see him the same way. The saboteur, as it were, is Marcia for she cannot bear to see the people taken in.

So the final trajectory is obvious — the ascension and the dethronement — but that can hardly neutralize what we have already witnessed. A Face in the Crowd lingers with fair warning, relevant to any analogous situation in the modern landscape, only magnified to the nth degree.

Earl Hagen’s down-home waterhole tunes fit The Andy Griffith Show just as this arrangement from Tom Glazer gels with A Face in the Crowd. Speaking of, I must insert a thought on what I know more about, as I grew up watching countless hours of The Andy Griffith Show.

The character of Andy Taylor obscures the fact of what a fine actor Andy Griffith was. To some extent, the same can be said of No Time for Sergeants because like the early seasons of his show, he’s just playing a bubble-headed hick. Later on, he became more of a straight man and after Barney Fife left, he settled into a more irascible role so there was an evolution.

Regardless, Lonesome Rhodes turns the overarching stereotypes of the man on their head. You can still see him as the benevolent Sheriff of Mayberry but this certainly lingers in the back of your mind. Take away the moral integrity and others-centric mentality of Andy and you wind up with Lonesome.

Given its themes about media and television, which seem like a cutting-edge indictment in their contemporary age, it seems logical to lump A Face in The Crowd with Network. Similarly, though technology and advertising continue to become more advanced and invasive, the themes explored feel, not less relevant, but more so.

We simply have to magnify them. Instead of television, we have Twitter and smartphones. Instead of people who willfully hide their intent, we have people in power who seem to blatantly disregard moral uprightness.

I want Lonesome Rhodes to be outdated and immaterial but to make such a claim would be an immense act of folly. It would cater to the same sense of ignorance and sway in all sectors of society, which led to the rise of such a person in the first place. Then and now…

4.5/5 Stars

Note: An earlier version of this review erroneously said Rip Torn instead of Anthony Franciosa (He was featured in an uncredited role).

The Farmer’s Daughter (1947)

The_Farmer's_Daughter_(1947_film).jpgWhatever our criticisms of the previous generations, there’s still something within me that sees something uniquely compelling about films of old. Hollywood in the 30s and 40s could sugar coat, they could oversell the drama, but there was also a general decency that pervaded many of those films.

The cynical edge of dirty politics and corruption was given credence but more often than not, all that was good would win out in the end. Is it realism? Certainly not. Is is dated? Probably so. But there’s something overwhelmingly pleasant about a film like The Farmer’s Daughter for the very reasons mentioned above.

Our heroine is intelligent, plucky, and sincere. She’s from good Scandinavian stock which not only explains her vitality but informs a bit of her work ethic and her constant handle on what is right and true. That’s something we could always use more of today. A bit more of those core values sprinkled into our upbringings. It’s not informed by pride, or entitlement, selfishness or greed. It cares about what is good for all people and looks to be honest in all circumstances. To her credit, Loretta Young embodies all those qualities with a profound earnestness.

Katrin (Young) makes her way into the spotlight after acquiring a position as a maid for a local political dynasty after losing her hard-won funds for nursing school to a local swindler.  Still, in the home of Agatha Morley (Ethel Barrymore) and her son the promising young senator Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), Katrin soon makes a strong first impression.

She proves to be a gifted woman not only in doing housework but also in ice skating, with Swedish massages, making glogg, and much more. She’s also politically astute and though she lacks education her practical upbringing allows her to see every individual in practical terms. She bases none of her opinions on hearsay, ad campaigns, or newspaper spreads. Her thoughts come from what she’s heard first hand and what officials have done in the past. She’s also an impeccable judge of character.

The most obvious tension running through the film is the fact that Glenn is slowly growing attached to Katrin for the very reasons mentioned previously. Although he already has a bit of a fling with a local reporter who is smitten with him. But the real problems come into being when a seat opens up in the house and the incumbent’s choose to back an unscrupulous career politician.

Katrin sees right through him and openly grills him at a town hall meeting. Now the opposition is calling on this young woman to be their candidate and she agrees to run against her employers. She’s crossing political lines because she constantly exercises her freedom to do as she sees fit. That is her prerogative after all. Glenn in one sense is incensed by her decision but he’s also madly in love with her and he has to make a choice.

A raucous screwball finale turns out to be surprisingly gratifying given the sentimentality and political drama that provide most of the film’s makeup. The comedy is also bolstered by the generally open-minded and wryly amused Ethel Barrymore who looks at all the unfoldings in front of her with a bit of a glint in her eye. Meanwhile, Charles Bickford’s gruff charm as the valet Mr. Clancy serves as the perfect foil for Katrin’s affability. Because he’s really a good man as well.

The Farmer’s Daughter might turn some modern viewers off for a purported simplistic view–a film of overt goodness where the woman ends up with the man who in turn allows her to succeed. But what is wrong with a good Joseph Cotten and an effervescent Loretta Young? A dose now and then can hardly be considered harmful.

What struck me was a timeless statement that Mrs. Morley teases out of the crooked Mr. Finley. He’s opposed to things that don’t meet his definition of “100% Americanism” and it’s a very narrow view. Namely whites, no foreign-born, and the right kind of religion. Ironically, 70 years later we are still guarding against such poisoned intentions. Because if anything, Katrin represents in a small way a great deal of what makes America great. Let us not forget that.

3.5/5 Stars


A Short Film About Love (1988)

a short film about love 1Why do you watch me? -Magda

Because I love you – Tomek

Early on it becomes evident that Tomek is a very lonely young man. He lives in Warsaw in a room belonging to the elderly mother of his best friend, who is off deployed by the U.N. There is also some brief suggestion that Tomek’s parents left him when he was very young. Look at him now and this taciturn lad of 19 is all alone. He has no true friends.

Every evening his routine involves waiting for his alarm clock to go off at precisely 8:30. He pulls out his telescope from under its covering and readies himself for another evening of people watching.  Except he is interested in one person, in particular, his strikingly beautiful neighbor across the way. So, yes, he’s a peeping tom and his voyeurism is a bit reminiscent of Rear Window without the pretenses of a murder mystery.

a short film about love 2And despite the clandestine nature of his activities he still somehow remains innocent in the eyes of the beholder. Daily he works at the post office behind the glass and in the evening he studies languages. But he’s continually drawn to this lady across the way. He feels like he knows her. He wants any pretense to meet her and so he creates a bit of fate anytime he can.

It means sending her fake money orders just so she enters the post office and he can interact with her. It means calling her home at night and hearing her voice over the telephone or taking on a job as an early morning milkman just so he can get another chance encounter with her. It even strays into the territory of purloining her mail and calling the gas company just to disrupt her life a little bit.

All these facets easily push Tomek over the line and his bit of obsession could easily be seen as creepy, in fact, it is creepy. However, when he runs after a distraught Magdelena leaving the post office and discloses his activities, everything changes.

He is ashamed. She is repulsed by his admissions. And that looks to be the end of it. But she ultimately realizes the innocence in his eyes, the sincerity in his voice. He says in the most genuine way possible that he loves her.

Intrigued she pries more. What is it he wants? To kiss her, to make love, to run away together? His answer? Tomek wants nothing, nothing. This surprisingly tender conversation leads to several more encounters. First, she willingly masquerades in front of his telescope and then they meet for ice cream in a cafe.

a short film about love 3However, often times sex and love become synonymous terms and that is the underlying tension between Tomek and Maria Magdelena’s relationship. Though innocent, he wants true love, a love that transcends a simple physical act and is summed up with affection, intimacy, and an inherent closeness. He is taken with her beauty certainly but even more so he is invariably alone. Meanwhile, she is so enraptured with sex and denigrating such a grand (and admittedly messy) thing as love, to a simple physical act. She can’t understand this wide-eyed boy and his delusions. She’s ready to open him up to the way the world actually turns. And her callousness ultimately crushes Tomek’s tender heart. She broke it not by simply rejecting him, because this is a ludicrous love story, but truly obliterating any of the naive aspirations he had for love.

The final act is executed with pristine restraint because Kieslowski does not sink into melodrama but the twinges of emotion begin to overcome Magda as she comes to realize how much she devastated her young admirer. Now she looks out her window every night for any sign of his return. She tries calling him up to acknowledge her mistakes and even goes to see his Godmother.

In the final contemplative moments, Magda is finally given a view into Tomek’s perspective — seeing exactly as he had seen — envisioning the scene from across the way.  As is his nature, Kieslowski’s film is insightful and thought-provoking, a fuller examination of his work in the Decalogue. It’s a rather perturbing parable in some respects, but that is only due to the perversity and desires that dwell within the human heart. It’s a telling Biblical allusion that the main female heroine is named after Mary Magdelena, a woman who was historically known for her dubious reputation and promiscuous ways. But it was the exact same woman who went to a redemptive transformation in the Biblical narrative.

Kieslowski leaves his film essentially open-ended but the character’s name is a powerful one because it somehow suggests even to the tiniest degree that these characters too can be redeemed. There is still hope. It’s certainly a tall order to make a short film about love that still manages to leave its mark and yet Kieslowski does it with immense grace. He employs brevity while still succeeding in delivering a thoughtful study on one of the world’s most perplexing mysteries: Love.

4/5 Stars

Knife in the Water (1962)

knifeinthewater4Inspired directors oftentimes do not make themselves known in grandiose flourishes but in the smallest of touches, and in his debut, Polish newcomer Roman Polanski does something interesting with the opening of Knife in the Water. Perhaps it’s not that unusual, but it’s also hard to remember the last film where the camera was on the outside of a driving car, looking in. We see shadows of faces overlaid with credits and then finally the faces are revealed only to be shrouded by the reflections of overhanging trees glancing off the windshield.

Only minutes later do we hear their first words and actually get inside the car. From that point on it’s a jaunt to remember, but Polanski seems to be toying with us a bit. Getting us a little on edge for the inevitable that awaits us. And the beauty is that the film continues to be a story of intricacies rather than overbearing bits of drama and action. It works in the minutiae.

Our narrative is incited by the fact that the couple picks up a young hitchhiker, or rather the husband almost runs him over, getting out to berate the man’s stupidity, before relenting and allowing him to join their escapade. Soon enough, they are about to board their boat for a day out on the water and in this premise, it feels a little like Purple Noon. People in close confines inevitably leads to conflict, all it takes is time. Knife in the Water’s silver shades of black and white serve as a contrast to the other film, and while Alain Delon eventually leaves his sea legs behind, for all intent and purposes this is a chamber piece.

knifeinthewater3Thus, it becomes an exercise of technical skill, much like Hitchcock in Lifeboat or any other film that limits itself to a single plane of existence. Polanski’s framing of his shots with one figure right on the edge of the frame and others arranged behind is invariably interesting. Because although space is limited, it challenges him to think outside the box, and he gives us some beautiful overhead images as well which make for a generally dynamic composition. That is overlaid by a jazzy score of accompaniment courtesy of Krzysztof Komeda, a future collaborator on many of Polanski’s subsequent works during the ’60s.

Although this was Polanski’s first film, as viewers we have the luxury of hindsight, knowing at least a little about his filmography from Repulsion to Rosemary’s Baby to Chinatown to The Pianist proves enlightening. Thus, he automatically conjures up elements relating to psychological duress and personal misery. The tragic murder of his beloved wife Sharon Tate and his turbulent life following that act are obvious touchstones.

knifeinthewater2However, at this point, as a young director, he is simply sharpening his teeth and getting acclimated to the genre a little bit. Knife in the Water builds around the three sides of a love triangle, creating a dynamic of sexual tension because that’s what tight quarters and jealousy do to people. This is less of a spoiler and more of a general observation, but the film does not have a major dramatic twist. Instead, there are heightened tensions, a bit of underwater deception, and finally a fork in the road.

A husband must decide what his conscious would have him do. Call the police or ride away with his toying wife, who he thinks is playing mind games with him. It’s less of a biting melodrama and more of a slow stew, which is admittedly far more interesting in this case. Because, again, Polanski shows his prowess in working in the minutiae. A game of pick-up sticks even becomes entertaining, and the eponymous knife does not play the type of role we expect.  It’s a testament to a director not giving way to convention, but finding inspiration to subvert the established order and do something with a new level of ingenuity.

4.5/5 Stars

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

ashesanddiamonds1We’re used to getting our hands dirty in the thick of World War II, whether it is in the European theater or the Pacific, but very rarely do we consider the consequences that come in the wake of such an earth-shattering event. Things do not end just like that. There must be periods of rebuilding and rehabilitation. There is unrest and upheaval as the world continues to groan in response.

Ashes and Diamonds is one of these stories. It’s a film that rumbles from its core depicting a post-war wasteland in Poland that has been trampled by the Germans and overrun by the Soviets. People want peace and there’s seemingly none to be found. At least not at the present.

The film’s main attraction, Zbigniew Cybulski, plays the nationalistic soldier Maciek, who along with his superior Andrzej are charged with assassinating an incoming Communist commissar named Szczuka. Cybulski’s exhibits the hesitant, insecure movements of James Dean similarly hiding behind a persona overflowing with palpable coolness. In one sense we want to be this guy, but we also feel sorry for him.

From its opening notes, Ashes and Diamonds proves to be a dynamic piece of realism as our two protagonists start off with guns blazing before inconspicuously leaving the scene of the crime. But their work is not done, in fact, their mission has been bungled, and so they must wait around tensely for another chance. They take up refuge in a local hotel which also happens to be awaiting the arrival of the most esteemed guest, comrade Szczuka.

This is not solely some political drama either. Andrzej  Wajda’s final film in his WWII trilogy certainly has roots in Poland’s historical past like the Warsaw Uprising and the changing of the guard as the Germans surrender and the Soviets move in. However, Ashes and Diamonds is woven together by a human component — a romance that is at odds with all things political. Because while he plays the waiting game at the hotel, smoking cigarettes and lounging, Maciek begins to fall for the woman on the other side of the bar named Krystyna. You assume from their initial flirting and Maciek’s come-ons that this will only be something superficial, but such moments of tension seem to heighten passion and the need for intimacy. These two individuals so recently introduced become so close in a matter of hours.

ashesanddiamonds2There are love scenes that are quiet, subdued, and truly intimate. In fact, it feels rather like Hiroshima Mon Amour where the camera lingers so closely on two figures in such close proximity. There does not have to be great movement or dramatic interludes because having two people next to each other should be enough. The historical context in itself seems to be enough. For that film, it meant Japan post-1945. For this one, it’s Poland after the clouds of war have lifted.

Certainly, the film is bookended by two high-octane bangs of fiery drama, but even in the moments in between Ashes and Diamonds is ceaselessly interesting. It might be a meandering horse on a quiet road or a fire extinguisher at a gay party or even the late night impromptu improvisation by an orchestra that is slightly off key. They make for wonderfully delightful additions to the narrative being told. It feels organic and rich with the tidbits that make up everyday life. It’s just that this slice of life happens to be in post-war Poland with high stakes hanging in the balance.

As Maciek battles his own inner turmoil to match the turmoil outside, the words of a poem inscribed on the wall of a bombed-out church spring to mind:

So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.

4.5/5 Stars

Three Colors: White (1994)

threecolorswhite1The Three Colors Trilogy is made up of the three colors of the French flag. Thus, the second installment, between Blue and Red is of course White. It is considered by some to be the weakest of the three films, but that is rather unfair because it is still wonderful in its own right.

The other films are pensive, thoughtful pieces of drama, but White is actually quite funny in a dismal sort of way. You see, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is a Polish hairdresser, who is going through divorce proceedings because his beautiful French wife says she doesn’t love him anymore. He has to sit through the court hearing being delivered in a foreign tongue, and he has to go through public embarrassment in front of everyone. It’s a humiliating situation and the worst of it is that he still loves Dominique (Julie Delpy). He loses all his money, his credit is invalidated, and she takes about everything else. At least Karol has his giant suitcase, but that’s about it.

threecolorswhite2That’s where a fellow named Pole Mikolaj finds him slumped up against a wall in the subway station. He’s pitiful, but they strike up a conversation in their native language, and he agrees to help Karol stowaway to get back to Poland. There’s nothing left for him in France after all, so he hides in his suitcase and his new friend takes it through customs. It’s utterly ridiculous, but they play it straight. Then picture this. You’re stowing away inside a suitcase and then some thieves steal it to get the payoff inside. Imagine their surprise when they find not valuables, but a human being. And the jokes on them because that human has absolutely nothing to steal. All that’s left to do is give him a firm kick in the rear and leave him for dead. If it wasn’t so depressing, this would be absolutely hilarious, and it still is pretty funny.

Next Karol tries to make some quick money, because hairdressing may be in demand, but it’s not a great moneymaking proposition. He ends up being hired as a bodyguard, and he’s a very awkward sort to be packing a firearm. His next scheme is to double-cross his boss by buying up plots of land before his bosses can. They looked to sell if for profit to big corporations, but Karol beats them and they cannot touch him. They’ve no way to get the money from him, and all of the sudden, it seems like he’s doing very well.

threecolorswhite3The time has come for one last vengeful trick and the joke’s on Dominque this time. He still loves her, but Karol enlists the help of Mikolaj and a few others, to help him get back at his wife. It works better than he was expecting, in fact, maybe too well. Dominque still has feelings for him, but now he may never be able to see her again.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films usually have a sensuous and mysterious woman in the lead, whether it’s Irene Jacob or Juliette Binoche. Julie Delpy is a similar type of beauty, and yet she is less the focal point compared to Karol Karol. In a sense, you give up some of that enigmatic aura of the aloof goddess, but Karol is an extremely funny character, even visually. Thus, White is not quite like Blue or Red, but they are interconnected and it’s still thoroughly worthwhile. Different is often a strength, not a weakness, and in this case, it is a good thing.

4/5 Stars

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

thedoublelife4Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique fills an ethereal world full of dancing light, soft hues, and faint reflections. It’s beautifully muted visuals complement a wonderfully mysterious story. Its title suggests the potential of a story about one woman living two varying lifestyles, one respectable, the other not. Instead, the film revolves around two women living parallel lives. Neither is shameful or noticeably corrupt. They are both sweet individuals with aspirations that drive their lives. They desire love and commendation like many of us.

The first is named Weronika, a Polish beauty, who is an up and coming operatic performer. While her star is on the rise, she meets a new boyfriend and goes a trip to visit her aunt. But everything goes back to the music. In fact, music often takes center stage totally enrapturing us in song. There are sublimely haunting melodies that pierce right through our core. The angelic voices are gracefully wafting through the chambers of cathedrals and music halls. And just like that the breathe is gone out of one of the angels for good. We get a hint at it from Weronika’s aunt, suggesting that all their family members died unexpectedly, but there’s no more explanation.
The majority of the narrative follows French music teacher Veronique, who is the spitting image of her Polish counterpart. Except they have no relationship whatsoever, only some odd intuition that there is someone else out there who they do not fully know. As we observe the daily rhythms of this young woman’s life, it feels almost otherworldly with an unearthly golden glow that illuminates the streets she walks. It’s a film where marionettes are made graceful and bouncy balls are little orbs of wonder. Along the way, Veronique finds a love of her own that she doesn’t even know. But she’s enchanted by him and the magic that surrounds him, much as we are bewitched by her. Her lover is constructing two identical marionettes in order to tell a new story about two women with a connection that cannot be described. In other words, the mythos around his narratives, tread closely to Veronique’s own life. A girl in one of her photos makes it clear. Everything comes to a fitting full circle, and yet we get little in the realm of a fully gratifying ending.

thedoublelife2More often than not Kieslowski’s film has a mesmerizing effect on me and a  great deal of that power of entrancement is due to Irene Jacob. She is like a cinematic goddess with a face made to be scrutinized. A charming classical beauty, she exudes a range of emotions, while still managing to hold onto a semblance of mystique. Jacob is a wonderful muse for the director’s purposes and she would prove so again in Three Colors: Red. But that’s another conversation entirely.

I consciously ask myself, “Is this a film even to be understood?” Because the plot points and the pieces don’t always seem to fit together especially well when you actually consider them. And somehow I remain content in that reality. Whereas someone like Michelangelo Antonioni throws away a few pieces of the puzzle for good measure, for Kieslowski these final pieces never existed. They are not paramount to what he is trying to accomplish. The Double Life of Veronique maintains such a transcendental almost spiritual quality because we can only watch and listen. Ours is not to reason why ours is to simply look on in awe at what we are witnessing. The beauty, the enigma, and the feelings. Because Kieslowski is more interested in the essence of the film than the particulars.

4.5/5 Stars

Ida (2013)

28ceb-ida1At hardly an hour and 20 minutes, you would think Ida has very little to offer, but that just is not the truth whatsoever. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski blessed us with a nuanced film full of power and strangely pleasing visuals. It’s stark, yet crisp, black and white cinematography did not have to be that way, but it looks absolutely beautiful.

In the opening sequence, we see a young nun carving a statue and then carrying it to the grounds outside. We realize it depicts Christ and it feels rather reminiscent of La Dolce Vita and yet this film has a note of reverence.

We have been transposed to Poland during the 1960s where novice nun Ida lives a simple and disciplined lifestyle within a convent. The meager plot follows her pilgrimage to meet her only relative before taking her vows. It’s the aunt who refused to take her in after Ida’s parents passed. They have never met before now.

There doesn’t seem to be much to say. In fact, what can you say? Ida has taken up a religious calling and her aunt, a former judge named Wanda Gruz, lives life the way she pleases. Men, alcohol, and smoking are all a part of that lifestyle.

Thus, they have little in common until the moment when Gruz discloses the truth to Ida. Her real name is Ida Lebenstein. She is Jewish. Her parents were killed during the War, but the details are not too clear. They can probably guess how it happened.

Ida’s whole identity is rocked because she is now a Jew within a convent which seems like a gross incongruity. Ida’s resolve is to find her parents’ resting place and so the unlikely pair set off looking for answers.

That’s about all the film’s plot right there, and though it does not sound like much, it is far more engrossing than a lot of the other fair we come across. There are moments when it feels like we are watching something from Robert Bresson. It’s simple. There are not frills but it is chock full of humanity and seemingly real characters with real emotions.

Ida is very rarely in the center of the frame, more often than not her eyes are averted, looking away from the camera. Pawlikowski also has a curious habit of focusing on one character during a scene of dialogue. It seems to denote how isolated and confused many of these characters are. It’s one of those films that leaves us with more questions than answers and that lends itself to a truly insightful viewing experience.

4.5/5 Stars

This Jesus of yours adored people like me” ~ Wanda Gruz

Three Colors: Red (1994)

 3a286-threecolorsred3Kieslowski’s films are mostly character driven and yet he often uses high drama to create a far more complex lens to observe his subjects. In Blue, the inciting incident was a deadly car accident. It seems only fitting that he would end this story with the catastrophic sinking of a ferry. He takes the same bleak, no-nonsense approach with little fanfare that he used before. It’s his way.

In fact Three Colors: Red as a whole is another simplistic film in plot, and yet the irony is that the film is chock full of complexity because its major point of interest is interpersonal relationships (as suggested by the intertwining phone lines shown early on). There is nothing more tangled and intricate about humanity than our relationships.

As such, this final installment is in many ways a story about love, romance, and friendship, and yet Kieslowski does not find it necessary to preach to us. He is better and more thoughtful than that, laying out the story for us to ponder and mull over. This is the story or better yet the parable he created.

Valentine (Irene Jacob) is a young student and model who is constantly an innocent and sympathetic figure with a pair of doe eyes. She is often shown in profile which continually reveals her youthful and even sullen beauty. She is even the somber poster girl of a gum campaign plastered around town. There’s a boyfriend in her life who she desires the affection of, and then there’s a brother who is hooked on drugs. In other words, life is far from rosy and secure.

One day she accidentally runs over a dog that she takes to the owner (Jean-Louis Trintignant,) who seems surprisingly unconcerned by the event. She does the only thing she can do with a clear conscious which is taking the dog to the vet and then taking care of it herself. Soon after, Valentine finds herself walking the dog by the old man’s house once more and she discovers what he does all day. It turns out he is a retired judge, and he spends his solitary existence eavesdropping on the conversations of others (including Valentine’s neighbor Auguste).

Later, through the grapevine, she finds out that a retired judge had a suit filed against him, and she rushes to his house to assure him she had no part. He already knows because he was the one who turned himself in.

Over the next days, Valentine begins to empathize more and more with Mr. Kern’s existence. As a former judge, he was forced to make decisions far more difficult than most. In fact, why do people follow laws? Is it out of goodness or purely self-serving? Is morality all relative? What really is good and bad, because how would we act in the other man’s shoes? By this point, we see Kern’s struggle a little better.

Finally, Valentine invites her new found friend to her last fashion show before she heads to England for a few weeks. It’s a touching moment when he pays her a visit after the show, but it also reveals the pain in the old man’s past. It may be a lucky guess but all we know is that Valentine figures him out. It just shows that you cannot judge others by first impressions.

So as it goes, Auguste’s life practically mirrors that of a younger Kern, and thus, so many parallels become evident. Aside from the obvious, I only figured it out after the film was done, but they are both judges, struggle in love and the like. At the end of the film when Kern sees the news about the ferry with Valentine and Auguste aboard, the only thing we know for sure is that there were seven survivors (guess who!). In a somewhat subtle way, the trilogy is connected and Kieslowski ends his tale on a fitting note. It freezes and just like that the career of one man was done for good. A couple years later he would already be gone. But he went out on top and Three Colors cemented his legacy. I always loved the color red the best. Here’s yet another reason why.

4.5/5 Stars

Three Colors: Blue (1993)

b0ad4-threecolorsblue“Now I only have one thing left to do: Nothing. I don’t want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. Those are all traps.”

I once thought that Before Sunrise was the type of movie that I would want to make. Three Colors: Blue is another concept that I have often envisioned without even knowing it. In fact, I had seen The Descendants, a film with a somewhat similar story arc told from a different perspective. Except whereas Clooney’s film is full of blatant drama and intense familial moments in Hawaii, Blue is far more nuanced.

The Descendants might be a more gripping drama, but Blue has the sort of complex depiction that seems to more closely mirror reality. The grieving process involves isolation, solemness, and at times few words. The easiest way to grieve is not to feel, not to fully embrace the pain. Sometimes that is the simplest if not the healthiest way to deal with it for Julie. It’s a real world approach to the scenario, and it’s no less painful to watch — perhaps even more so.

Julie’s husband Patrice de Courcy was a famous composer who was commissioned to arrange a grand piece to be performed at concerts for the Unification of Europe. It is a great honor and we quickly learn that Patrice is quite a big deal. However, after a car accident, Patrice and his 5-year-old daughter perish in the crash and only Julie gets away alive. It is a stark, unsentimental picture, and it succeeds in changing Julie’s life forever.

After being released from the hospital she soon sells all her possessions and moves out of her family apartment to take up residence somewhere far removed from any acquaintances, including a man named Olivier who is in love with her. She has a new home and begins to sever ties to her old life. The unfinished work of her husband (and her) is trashed and that’s the end of that. In her new Parisian home, she has a rodent problem and becomes the hesitant confidant of a local exotic dancer. Furthermore, she rejects the necklace that a young man pulled out of the wreckage. Her times of solitude are spent swimming laps alone in the local pool, submerged and half-covered in shadow. Grandiose symphonies reverberate through her mind haunting her. In such moments, Kieslowski will often black out the screen in the middle of the scene, effectively interrupting the action for a few seconds before bringing us back.

Words are few and far between for Julie and when she does speak it is often brief and reserved. We are, therefore, forced to observe her without the aid of dialogue. She is certainly detached but there is a provocative side to her. Something is mystifying about her soft features, dark eyes, and short hair. She is a wonderful woman of mystery and beauty because the reality of it is, we do not know a whole lot about her. We must discover more bit by bit and she does not readily disclose information.

It is when pictures of her life literally flash before her eyes on a TV screen that the story takes its next turn. Julie learns soon enough that her husband had a mistress that he was with for a few years. In the hands of Hollywood, this would be high drama. In the hands of Kieslowski, it is far from it. Julie is still the same aloof individual she always was and even a confrontation with the mistress does not change that. She is civil and generous through it all.

Finally, she returns to her husband’s composition which she learns Olivier has started to rewrite. They agree that he will make his own work and Julie must accept it for what it is. Faces from the film float across the screen and a still solemn Julie lets out a few silent tears. The anti-tragedy is complete, a subdued, intriguing piece of cinema. Not for those with short attention spans but, I am interested to see Red and White. Kieslowski intrigues me with his thought provoking films somehow reminiscent of the likes of Bergman or Bunuel.

4.5/5 Stars