First Reformed (2017)

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“You’re always in the Garden.  Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden, on his knees, sweating blood. He was on the Mount. He was in the marketplace. He was in the temple. But you, you’re always in the Garden.” 

Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese unknowingly formed a legendary partnership in making Taxi Driver (1976) that has left an indelible mark on cinema. Despite their diverging backgrounds, it seemed like they were very much kindred spirits. At least, they understood each other.

Scorsese of course, grew up in the Catholic Church even considering becoming a priest. Schrader likewise, had a deeply religious upbringing rooted in reformed theology even attending Calvin College. Aside from both being cinephiles, each man has battled through his share of demons and yet they have come out on the other side no doubt wiser.

Thus, with the release of Scorsese’s deeply spiritual passion project Silence (2016) a couple years ago, it seems fitting Schrader followed up with First Reformed soon after. I’m not sure if it’s mere coincidence or not but by this time in their lives, with space for retrospection, they have come to a crossroads to make daring, personal pictures about religious faith.

The opening shot is instantly recognizable. We have the stark symmetry of a church steeple. The religious space lacks the same type of iconography as the Catholic Church because the Calvinists came from a  tradition foregoing any amount of pomp & circumstance for a stripped-down aesthetic. All the focus was on the cultivation of the spiritual life.

There still is history, as this particular church is just about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad years before. The resident reverend’s tours include touting the Dutch Colonial architecture and showing wide-eyed kids the trap doors escaped slaves used to hide in.

Now it’s ironically also a spiritual museum-piece — a creaky religious relic — attended by a few stray parishioners. The real center of religious activities is at Abundant Life a well-meaning but somewhat sanitized megachurch set up across the road. Perfectly reflected by their cafeteria wall emblazoned with the words from Acts 2.

The story actually begins with an experiment of sorts. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) will keep a journal for an entire year in a notebook and then he will destroy it. There is an obvious finality to this. He’s set himself a hard timeline.

Though he mentions word documents and digital files, he might as well come out of a Bresson picture. His possessions are few and far between. A well-worn Bible sits on his bedside table accompanied by the works of Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton. His landscape and surroundings are just as stark and humble. Interiors are kept equally simple and straightforward.

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The unadorned yet meticulous composition use geography whether structures or a bit of symmetry to set up scenes. Inside the church with the lines of pews that might be plucked directly from Winter Light (1961). Then, along a row of houses in a neighborhood as a car pulls up to a house.

One house he pays a call on belongs to Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, who grew up in the church and is now worried about her husband Michael’s mental stability as of late. She worries it will affect their future child. The reverend might be able to help.

Upon their first dialogue together, it becomes obvious he is not a learned man. He had a stint in jail for his environmental activism in Canada and currently holds down a job at the local Home Depot.

But he gives a cogent account of why he does not want to bring a child into the world. By 2050 all scientific analysis seems to suggest dire straits are ahead if we do not make radical changes on an international level. Because climate, water levels, and everything else will not leave man unimpeded.

His question is simple. How do you sanction bringing a girl into the world who is full of hope and naivete? Then, she grows up and as a woman, she looks you square in the eyes and says, “You knew it all along, didn’t you?” And yet you brought her into this world of death. Most of what the reverend does is listen to his grief. The only response possible is that the blackness is not a new phenomenon. Man, woman, and child are born to trouble. It seems small comfort.

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As the themes begin to interweave there are continuous nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1961) from the snow motif to a deeply troubled husband and even a female associate who takes a deep concern in the well-being of our protagonist. You can sense Schrader acknowledging his deep abiding affections for Robert Bresson — an obvious reference point being Diary of a Country Priest (1951) — with a man of faith suffering from a mysterious ailment. It only serves to exasperate his human relationships and give a physical manifestation to his existential crisis.

In maintaining the transcendental spirituality of the film, Tarkovsky levitations and Dreyer-like “resurrections” are also evoked and the list goes on and on. In fact, it amazes me how obvious and plentiful the allusions are. Schrader barely tries to hide his affinities for certain pictures. They are most assuredly there being represented and it’s generally satisfying.

But it is a film that is also born out of the mind who brought us Taxi Driver and the ties are closer than we might expect. Because it becomes more akin to the desolate alienation of Travis Bickle as the story plods on. After experiencing a tragic death and witnessing the ways the modern world functions, Toller seems to see the need for a martyr in an unjust world. He becomes increasingly alienated.

His life involves helping out with the homeless food line, sitting in on the youth small group, and of course, his tours and Sunday duties. But it’s the old conundrum. He feels confined to the walls of his church. It doesn’t seem like he’s necessary for anything aside from spiritual comfort. He has no true impact on people lives and he himself is struggling to keep in communication with God. Solitary prayer seems empty. Hence a nightly journal.

Something happens when he gets in a spat with a local big whig over negative publicity from a funeral for Michael Masana. It was held at a toxic waste dump with a choir singing an environmentally conscious Neil Young tune. Toller gets lambasted for his “political behavior,” though he was admittedly only upholding the man’s wishes. And yet he is beginning to question how people who proclaim to follow God cannot take a greater stake in preserving his creation.

In documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015) was a call-to-action in the realm of social justice. For all those people who claim or at least strive to be good, morally upright people, it is clear this is a universal fight. Likewise, First Reformed is a call or at least a meditation on environmental justice because humans are meant to be stewards. It is not completely about extremism (though Toller begins to inch that way) but in some ways, we are meant to live radical lives. Full of radical love and a radical conception of justice for the earth and other human beings.

But one could say this is not the true punchline. For that we must revert back to some of the deep-set themes of Schrader’s career, returning once again to his first collaboration back with Martin Scorsese back in 1976.

Because First Reformed has one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. It catches us off guard on numerous fronts. We must start with the ambiguity which is nothing new. Travis Bickle entered the pantheon of cinema characters partially due to the enigma that clouds his fate in Taxi Driver.

Most people who have ever been ambushed by the film will recall the ending. Travis goes on his crusade to clean up the filth and it’s a violent rampage in the eyes of the world but for him, it’s an act of triumphant heroism.

In the final moments, he’s back in his cab again — his personal cathedral — driving the streets and there’s his untouchable girl, Cybil Sheppard, who appears in the back seat. He sees her through his rearview window and rides off. It seems almost impossible to read it in the literal sense. How could this be? Is this his own personal delusion? Could this actually be real? I know my own inclinations but I don’t know what to believe.

First Reformed is much the same. Here we have the Reverend about to take his poison — looking to end his life — in the face of such a dreadful world. Then a door opens and there stands the one person who might save him, Mary, appearing in the doorway like an angel.

They embrace and then beginning kissing and we spiral around and around them in one of the most violently uninhibited camera setups in the film. We have broken out of the harsh asceticism of the entire movie thus far.

Is it about this salvation coming through the physical union between two people? This could be the Ordet-like resurrection or maybe like Taxi Driver it’s all part of the ultimate delusion. The bottom line is we don’t know and Schrader doesn’t tip us. Much like Silence, what’s paramount is what we fall back on in response.

Can we read this as a story of despair or hope? The words of Toller echo through my mind, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” This is First Reformed at its finest, ever oscillating between the two defining poles of any life.

4/5 Stars

 

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Dutch Prime Minister and Theologian Abraham Kuyper

Summer with Monika (1953)

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If I didn’t know any better I would say what the desires of the kids at the center of this early Bergman picture, sound like the American Dream. Except maybe it’s the Swedish Dream and maybe the main tenets are all but universal to many of the wide-eyed, angsty teens out there.

The lives of Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) have undoubtedly been witnessed countless times. They’re both in unfulfilling jobs. He’s an introverted laborer at a packing house where he’s not particularly happy and his constantly sub-par work ethnic receives the repeated wrath of his superiors. Meanwhile, the spirited Monika spends her days at a grocery store with a skirt chaser. Hardly the ideal environment.

But between Harry and Monika love blooms. He buys her a small trifle. They go to the movies together and she cries over the reveries on screen. This only serves to magnify how unpleasant real life feels, a far cry from the dreams they hold as working-class youth in Stockholm.

However, on a whim, Harry commandeers his father’s boat and Monika leaves behind her two annoying brother and nagging mother for adventure on the high seas (or rather the archipelago). The sun is bright. The water glimmers with personified delight. And it’s much the same for these two as they frolick and enjoy the novelty of this romanticized getaway. Even though the film famously features brief nudity, rather than being utterly sexualized, in more ways it evokes the imagery of Genesis 2 (Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame). The shame comes later.

Right now, they’re yet another iteration of the love-on-the-run narrative that proves you only need a mode of transport and passion does the rest — carrying lovers away on its gleeful wake.

Because at that age we’re all grasping at something intangible that floats above us tantalizing us every day of our lives. There’s not enough experience in life yet to know any better and so we go out and crave these pie and the sky ideals. Until it turns out were really grasping at straws. There’s nothing there for us. Only a harsh reality check.

As they often have a habit of doing, dreams so quickly turn themselves into nightmares and all the hopes that we clung to are dragged through the brush and the briar. So by the end, they’re muddied with dirt. That doesn’t have to be the end, however. Nor do you have to give in to your dreams being trampled.

As in the case of Harry and Monika, you can try and make a go of it the normal way. Grinding out an existence, poor and trying to eke by paycheck to paycheck. There’s a child now and he’s going to school to earn a better life, nagging like a conscientious adult about saving money and making their rent payments on time. There’s the constant bickering when he comes home tired from work and she’s discontent with this very mundane, sedentary lifestyle. There’s no allowance to go to the movies or buy some new clothes.

Soon she’s going to the arms of another man. Divorce is all but inevitable. How could all this happen in rapid succession you ask? Perhaps Summer With Monika is an exercise in heightened drama but Bergman, in essence, seems to be plotting the cycles of life and what hard-edged reality does to you.

It runs you up against the rocks, often destroys all your well-meaning aspirations, and leaves you disgruntled. Especially when we’re young we run that risk but any type of love, even those relationships founded in shallow soil, are rapturous when times are good. It’s a true test of stability when the bad times hit or further still the banality of the everyday. If you are still in love with a person even in those moments, perhaps that’s when you know you have a marriage with staying power.

It didn’t occur to me until well into the picture because I can be slow-witted with a thick skull but early on in the film, we have one of the old-timers observing that it’s springtime. The film is Summer with Monika and that embodies the happy times in the sun. But of course what must follow is Fall where everything begins to fall apart and then there are the bleakest depths of winter which are trying for any relationship to attempt to weather. All Harry can do is look back and yearn for those summer months. Although by wintertime it’s already far too late.

Bergman’s ultimately portentous parable is gorgeously rendered as usual. In fact, I’m not sure if I have ever seen a film by the Swedish maestro that wasn’t so. There’s a crispness to the black and white that while unadorned and unglamorous is nevertheless pure and blatantly arresting. In the moments of free, uninhibited youth it so exquisitely captures that mood while just as quickly shifting into the frigid moments as youthful innocence is forced to die.

4/5 Stars

Mirror (1975)

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Andrei Tarkovsky has already left such an indelible impression on me even after only seeing a couple of his films. This already makes it very easy to place him atop that ever fluctuating, never quite established, constantly quarreled over, list of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He’s subsequently one of the members of the fraternity with the least recognition; the key is visibility or lack thereof. Because once you see his work, even if it doesn’t completely speak to you, something is released that’s all its own with a singular vision and the unmistakable brush strokes of an auteur.

There has never been a film more fluid and uninhibited in the distillation of memory than Mirror as it slowly slaloms between the past and the present, enigmatic dreamlike movements with unexplained conversations and encounters, spliced together with bits of wartime newsreels and spoken poetry.

In order to even attempt to ingest any of this rumination at all, there’s a near vital necessity to shed all the traditional forms and languages that you have been taught by years of Hollywood moviegoing.

Not that they are completely excised from Mirror but it’s never driven by logical narrative cause and effect. Rather it’s driven by emotion, rhythm, and feeling — what feels intuitive and looks most pleasing to the eye.

It’s precisely the film that some years ago might have been maddening to me. Because I couldn’t make sense of every delineation culminating in a perfectly cohesive, fully articulated thesis, at least in my mind’s eye. It’s far too esoteric for this to happen. But this unencumbered nature is also rather freeing. There’s no set agenda so as the audience you are given liberty to just let the director take you where he will.

To its core, Mirror gives hints of a very personal picture for Tarkovsky as it memorializes and canonizes pasts memories and shards of Soviet history. Because they are tied together more than they are separate entities. And yet, as much as it recalls reality, Mirror is just what it claims to be. It is a reflection. Where the world is shown in the way that we often perceive it.

The jumbled and perplexing threads of dreams, recollections, conversations, both past and present. Childhood and adulthood, our naivete and our current jaded cynicism, intermingled in the cauldron of the human psyche. Back and forth. Back and forth. Again and again.

Because what we watch is not simply about one individual. As with any life, it’s interconnected with others around it. A woman (Margarita Terekhova) sitting on a fence post during the war years in an interchange with a doctor. In the present, Alexei, our generally unseen protagonist, converses with his mother over the phone. We peer into the printing press where she worked as a proofreader. Rushing about searching for a mistake she purportedly made. Regardless, it hardly matters.

In the present, Alexei quarrels with his estranged wife on how to handle their son Ignat. The fact that his wife is also played by Terekhova is more of a blessing than a curse. In a passing remark, he notes how much she looks like his mother did and it’s true that she is one of the connecting points. Even as she embodies two different people, the performance ties together the two periods of the film. Visually she is the same and that undoubtedly has resonance to Tarkovsky.

As the film cycles through its various time frames so do the spectrums of the palette. The color sequences have a remarkably lovely hue where the greens seem especially soft and pleasant as if every shot is bathed in sunlight. It’s mingled with the black and white imagery as the story echoes back and forth, past and present, between different shades and coloring. But whereas these alterations often provide some kind of cinematic shorthand to denote a change in time, from everything I can gather, Tarkovsky seems to be working beyond that.

Because there are scenes set in the past that are color, ones in the so-called present that are monochrome, and vice versa. It’s yet another level of weaving serving a higher purpose than merely a narrative one. If I knew more about musical composition I might easily make the claim that Mirror is arranged thus — the cadence relying more on form than typical cinematic structure.

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That and we have Tarkovsky’s long takes (though not as long as some) married with his roving camera that nevertheless remains still when it chooses to. The falling cascades of rain are almost otherworldly in their spiraling elegance. The wind ripping through the trees a force unlike any other though we’ve no doubt seen the very same thing innumerable times. Fires blaze like eternal flames. Figures lie suspended in the air, isolated in time and space. Each new unfolding is ripe for some kind of revelation.

We also might think our subjects to be an irreligious people but maybe they still yearn for a spirituality of some kind. I’m reminded of one moment in particular when, head in her hands, the wife asks who it was who saw a burning bush and then she notes that she wishes that kind of sign would come to her. If there is a God or any type of spiritual world, the silence is unappreciated.

I recall hearing a quote from the luminary director Ingmar Bergman. He asserted the following, “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

The words are striking to me because you could easily argue Bergman’s films also had such an ethereal even refractive quality. Look no further than Through a Glass Darkly (1961) or Persona (1966) and this is overwhelmingly evident. And yet he considers Tarkovsky the greatest.

This isn’t the time or place to quibble over the validity of the statement. But it seems safe to acknowledge the effusive praise the Soviet auteur has earned for how he dares play with celluloid threads and orchestrate his shots in ingenious ways. He exhibits how malleable the medium can be as an art form while never quite losing its human core.

4.5/5 Stars

3 Women (1977)

3womenposterSupposedly Robert Altman’s inspiration for 3 Women came from a dream he had, as with many of the most original ideas out there. Admittedly, in some ways, the resulting project feels like his rendition of a European art-film. It has some roots in Bergman and Polanski while transposing the action to his usual locales that are inbred into the fabric of America — places like the California deserts and Texas.

The film revolves around two rather pathetic individuals who meet while working at a facility for the elderly.

One is passive and dependent, the newbie trying to learn the ropes as she becomes acclimated to her new position. The other believes she is independent and exists self-assured, but really she is an oblivious outcast in her own right. Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) becomes the teacher, in a sense, and savior of timid young Pinkie (Sissy Spacek). She offers her a home and makes countless recipes that are meant to be enlightened, but were probably even antiquated in their day.

Furthermore, Millie drinks, smokes, shoots guns, and likes to have a good time, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Except, the only problem is, no one seems to want to interact with her. All those in the apartment complex avoid her like the plague, talking about her quietly in their little enclave. Meanwhile, she likes to tell herself that all the boys are fawning over her. She’s one of those people.

Pinkie makes her seem important, but Millie also grows tired of the other girl’s constant presence. She’s so needy, so withdrawn and homey. That is until the film reaches its main turning point…

Pinkie ends up in the hospital and Millie stands by her faithfully, even going so far as getting in contact with her roommate’s parents. They come and they go. Eventually, Pinkie returns home a different person.

It is around this point where the film’s constant foreboding finally reaches its apex. Pinkie has nightmares following her disconcerting transformation. In this stretch, it’s akin to Persona and Repulsion as she simultaneously becomes a version of Millie and begins to enter psychological distress.

The film at times feels like an expansive lucid dream constantly steeped in symbolism and uneasy anxiety for no apparent reason. The narrative is constantly intercut with enigmatic underwater images of the human form lurking under the surface of the pool. It becomes a film swimming with psychological anxiety, estrangement, and identity disorder. However, it, unfortunately, deteriorates into an incoherent jumble at times. Although, if it is based on Altman’s subconscious, then perhaps he hit the nail on the head.

Its score also becomes overly theatrical, bringing to mind NBC movie mysteries like Columbo, but otherwise, 3 Women is a perplexing piece from one of the cinematic masters of subversion. We exit the film with the eponymous three women and no idea of how we quite got there.

4/5 Stars

The Silence (1963)

thesilence4Mention of God and spirituality, faith and healing, feel completely unrelated to a film that’s seemingly devoid of all of those things. And yet if we place this Ingmar Bergman film alongside his two previous efforts Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, The Silence has just as much to say about such topics. The irony of this film is that it says a lot by saying the inverse–nothing. As the title implies, the two sisters who are the focal point of this film speak nothing of God or any kind of faith. God too is silent. No miraculous sign takes place to salvage this storyline. It is what it is, and yet Bergman again works so powerfully once more– even if it’s not quite his intention.

Ester (Ingrid Thulin) is the practical, rational sister, who is also very sick. In fact, it is her health that interrupts their vacation so that they wind up in a hotel in a foreign land. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) is her sister, the sensuous one who is not afraid to flaunt her body. There’s also a boy, the 10-year-old Johan, who is along for this adventure as well. At first, I assumed that Ester was his mother, but it turns out he’s Anna’s son. It makes for another interesting dynamic because although she can be very touchy-feely with her boy to the point it almost feels uncomfortable, she does not show him a lot of affection. More often she’s aloof or tells him to go off and play somewhere alone.

thesilence1Things are even worse with Ester because for some reason we don’t really know, they have a strained relationship. You get the sense that they both disapprove of each other for different reasons. Ester’s too restrained. Anna’s too provocative. Their vices come in different forms as well. As Johan entertains himself throughout the hotel, shooting his pop gun, meeting some little people and a friendly old porter, his mother and aunt try and medicate themselves.

Ester combats her illness and bedridden state with cigarettes and alcohol, which probably only help in numbing her senses and blackening her lungs. Anna puts on her most tantalizing outfit and goes out on the town, ready for some quick and easy sex to gratify herself. Again, both sisters dwell on completely different ends of the spectrum, but they really seem to end up in the same place. There is no space or need for a God or spirituality in their lives because they’ve filled the void with other things.

thesilence2Meanwhile, Johan seems like a normal little boy, who is looking for affection and yet he doesn’t seem to get it, at least not typically. His mother and aunt might truly desire to connect with him at least sometimes, but more often than not it feels like he’s just left to fall through the cracks. He’s easily forgotten.

The sisters part ways after a confrontation where Ester comes in on Anna with her lover. They lay it all out with brutal honesty and the next morning Anna takes Johan with her on the train. Ester cannot bear to be left this way, and as spasms begin to overtake her, she acknowledges a great many of her fears. She’s not ready for death. Anna rides off with little interest in her sister and no doubt, little interest in thoughts of death.

When The Silence came out, it was, no doubt, risque for its frank depiction of sexuality and yet the way Bergman looks at such a  topic, suggests that it is not a superficial perspective. What any type of behavior does, really, is to provide a fuller, broader picture of the human who acts it out. Anna and Ester undoubtedly have their insecurities, fears, and desires. We see them acting out on those desires often, and we see their insecurities come out when they fight with each other. It’s yet another fascinating dissection of life, although it looks vastly different than its two predecessors. Bergman’s Persona a few years down the line also seemingly builds on the study of this film, even utilizing a similar dynamic. That’s not to say that The Silence is not worth a look in its own right. It takes on the subject of “faith,” ironically enough, by showing a complete absence of it.

4/5 Stars

Winter Light (1963)

winterlight1In the second leg of Ingmar Bergman’s Faith Trilogy, he gets right to the core of all matters of faith. He takes an up close and personal look at a man of the cloth named Tomas (Gunnar Bjorstrand), who shepherds a small congregation in a rural Swedish town. Such is the life of a clergyman, as with any life, where there are rough patches and emotional highs that rejuvenate you, but mostly rough patches. In fact, he is going through such a spell when the film begins. We survey his humble little chapel, and there are only a few scattered members of the community present. Half seem disinterested and Tomas himself speaks words of spiritual truth and yet it seems like he is only going through the motions. Does he actually believe these benedictions and words that he is proclaiming? I’m not sure he even knows for sure.

He’s been withstanding a winter period of his life personified by the icy weather engulfing his humble city on a hill. It reflects his own heart and mind which are going through a season of extraordinary indifference. On top of that, he’s fighting a bad case of the flu, and he is discontent in God’s silence. Where is God? Why is He not more present in his life?  Why does he not more clearly reveal himself? Is there any power left in prayer? They are honest questions from a man struggling with faith, and it’s the epitome of an existential crisis. Bergman seems to be churning up all the thoughts creeping up in his own mind, and it’s very human — extremely honest.

Tomas has little in the realm of advice or comfort to offer his parishioners. For instance, when the depressed fishermen Jonas (Max Von Sydow) comes to the pastor after contemplating suicide, given the state of the world in the nuclear age, Tomas has little to say, because in order to encourage others you have to be encouraged. There’s nothing that can be done if the well you’re running on goes dry. You cannot sustain yourself that way. About all he is able to offer are a few downward glances because there’s no conviction left in him.

winterlight2On a personal note, Tomas lost his beloved wife and now he deflects the affections of local teacher Marta, who herself does not believe in God, but still, she loves Tomas dearly. In a deeply heartfelt letter, she confesses her true feelings for him, and he responds with very little acknowledgment. He cannot bear the townsfolk talking about them, and he still misses his wife dearly. It doesn’t help when he gets tragic news about Jonas.

Winter Light never reaches a clear conclusion, because life is hardly ever like that. In fact, there is an underlying irony that becomes apparent in this story. After Tomas lashes out against Marta and tells her to let him be, it becomes all too clear that Marta, though she does not believe in God, is in a sense, living a better life. They are both lost in the throes of winter still, but she at least has the capacity for love and vulnerability. Tomas’s apathy seems to be a far greater plight since he feels trapped in a labyrinth of idiotic trivialities, as he puts it.

winterlight4The sexton Algot brings up an interesting point about the suffering of Christ. His physical suffering must have been immense, but how much greater must he have suffered when everyone deserted him. The disciples didn’t understand a thing he said, Peter denied him, everyone else deserted him, and he was even forsaken by God. It suggests the importance of our interactions with one another. In the days of our lives, it becomes so easy to continue constantly in the endless cycle of life. Never getting outside of it and relating to our fellow man. Falling into apathy and indifference, which is especially easy when tough times hit.

Bergman does it again, delivering a film full of philosophical depth and questions that force the viewer to ruminate over their own condition, whatever their background or beliefs might be. Sven Nykvist’s photography is beautifully austere once more, and it adds a certain visual depth to the director’s trilogy. It’s stark, pure, and piercing with gorgeous shades of black and white.

4.5/5 Stars

Viridiana (1961)

220px-Viridiana_coverLuis Bunuel like another cinematic auteur, Ingmar Bergman, seems to often fill his films with religious imagery and themes, but whereas Bergman appears to have genuine questions about his own spirituality, Bunuel is all but content to subvert all such depictions for his own purposes. He has a wicked sense of humor with the opening crescendos of Handel’s “Messiah” playing over the credits only to come back later when his film is at its most tumultuous.

The story opens, of all places, in a convent with a pretty young novice (Silvia Pinal) preparing to take her vows. But she is ordered by her superior to visit her long-estranged uncle. She is reluctant but goes anyways to his mansion in the country as a courtesy.

There she meets the lonely old man (Fernando Rey), isolated in his great home with only a few servants surrounding him. In young, vibrant Viridiana he finds joy and dare we say, love because in her face he sees the likeness of his now long deceased wife. She embodies the objects of all his passions and desires that he forgot so long ago when he was widowed. However, Viridiana is aloof and will show no affection towards him, ready to stay only as long as she has to. But he wants her to stay, needs her to be by his side forever, obsessing about her, and using all means necessary to keep her in his midst. It’s disconcerting how far he takes things, even lying to his niece that he took advantage of her in her slumber. Now if she leaves the house, she can never be the same woman she entered as, even if what Don Jaime is false. In the end, she does pack her bags in a tizzy and her hopeless uncle takes his life.

Now the life of a nun seems impossible, her life all of a sudden becoming tainted by these events. So she resigns to do the next best thing by taking her Uncle’s home and opening up its doors to the less fortunate — the beggars and the sickly. It’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t turn out especially well. She also becomes connected once more with her Uncle’s illegitimate son (Francisco Rabal), who has a more cynical view of the world. He sees her piety with an air of contempt.

In the chaotic interludes that follow, the house is torn to shreds by all the benefactors of Virdiana’s charity. While she is away, they make for themselves a rich feast, “A Last Supper,” pulling out all the stops like table clothes, fine china, and wine. What ensues is utter debauchery that Bunuel plays for laughs all the while Handel reverberates over the din.When Viridiana returns and sees the degeneracy around her she slowly dissolves into a shell of who she used to be. She’s been broken and much to her cousin’s delight, she’s lost her ardor, now jaded by all that is around her.

It’s a depressing conclusion suggesting that charity is all in vain because there is a degree depravity that courses through all people. In some sense, I find a Bunuel film more uncomfortable and disconcerting than most any, because he displays the most surreal, idiosyncratic, and even perverse things as comical. He lacks reverence and reveals the darker side of humanity all with a smile on his face. His style of filmmaking is abrasive because it rubs up against social mores and has fun with the baseness of mankind. If we note that before going forward, it still seems possible to learn from him and be a tad mystified by his work.

4/5 Stars

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

througha2There is so much that could be talked about with Through a Glass Darkly, but I feel the need to point out the more obvious, to begin with. Ingmar Bergman, in retrospect, envisioned this film as the first installment in his 1960s trilogy. As such, the film is a chamber piece that takes place entirely on a single island with only four main players. It lets go of some of the symbolism of many of Bergman’s films, but it still surges with religious content that reflects Bergman’s own background and spiritual conflict.

Through a Glass Darkly is one translation of 1 Corinthians 13, essentially suggesting that at the present time we only get a poor reflection of what is to come. In other words, we cannot fully understand the ways of the world and the ways of God. But how does this theme relate to the film you ask? That’s what I wanted to know as well.

At a basic level, this is yet another story about family and interpersonal relationships. Karin is staying on an island with her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), her father David (Gunnar Bjornstad) who is an author, and her baby brother Minus. She recently was released from a hospital for schizophrenic-like symptoms while her father has recently returned from Switzerland trying to combat a fierce case of writer’s block.

In a day’s time, these four individuals try to parse through all that is going on. Though they initially attempt to shroud it with morning swims and silly stage productions, they cannot completely disregard their reality.

througha3Minus feels he is lacking love and affection. He feels like his sister makes fun of him while his father is aloof and withdrawn from his life. Meanwhile, David is grief-stricken in private, realizing that his daughter’s condition is incurable and yet he also regrets his morbid fascination with it. David tries to cope with his wife’s condition, but although she seemed jovial and fine at first, Karin’s situation begins to decline.

She hallucinates, speaks of going through the walls, and faints. Matters are made worse when the voices in her head tell her to go through her father’s diary. There she reads about his thoughts on her and her “incurable” state. When they take a boating outing Martin asks his father-in-law about what he wrote on the request of Karin, and they get into a discussion. As Martin surmises he seems to be a man with all the right words, but no clue about life itself, and David does not try and object.

Back on the island Minus is with his sister, who confides in him about the voices, and when a storm hits she hides dejectedly in the hull of a boat. Minus follows soon after along with his father. They send for an ambulance to fetch Karin and in a penultimate moment, she speaks candidly with her father one last time before she is to be taken to the hospital. In these final moments she goes up to the attic and while being observed by her husband and father, Karin, breaks into hysterical fits. The visions she has seen are obviously too horrible to bear

througha5This is a film about brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and daughters. All revolving around four characters wrapped up and intertwined in this complex spider web of relationships. The spiritual content is great and there is also a lot of minutiae in Through a Glass Darkly. It shares some of the same mind-bending moments as Persona (1966) and yet this film felt even more personal if that is possible. As the title suggests and David even tells his son, we cannot fully understand what is happening, but we can be certain that someday we will know if only we grasp hold of love and the love that God has for his people.

Ingmar Bergman’s type of film-making seems foreign to us now and I don’t mean simply since it’s Swedish, but due to the fact that it is so connected to issues of spirituality and deep questions of faith and love. He cannot and will not allow his work to be cut and dry, because he cares about delving into the human condition. And that condition by default is chock full of ambiguity and complexity. Through a Glass Darkly. The title fits aptly indeed.

4.5/5 Stars

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl (2015)

Me_&_Earl_&_the_Dying_Girl_(film)_POSTERI can say unflinchingly, without a single waver in my voice, that this is the best new release I’ve seen this year. Truth be told, I have not seen a whole lot of new films this year, but even if I had, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl would be the best by far.

The title in itself exudes a quirkiness that continues in a steady stream throughout the film. The same quirks can be found in our main protagonist, the self-proclaimed awkward, pale, rodent-faced high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann). He’s gone through high school with the mission of ingratiating himself to all and befriending no one. At this point in his high school career, the closest thing he has to a friend is Earl, who he simply considers his “co-worker,” since they develop homage short films together (ie. A Box of ‘Lips Wow). That’s another thing. Greg is obsessed with film: He eats up anything from Werner Herzog or The Archers thanks to the influence of his father (Nick Offerman). His other “friend” is the chill history teacher Mr. McCarty with an office that is the lunchtime oasis for Greg. But that’s about it.

That is until his doting mother (Connie Britton) forces him to go visit a girl who has been diagnosed with Leukemia. It’s a very forced scenario and both Greg and Rachel know it right from the get go. They haven’t even hardly talked since kindergarten. But, despite that, the two of them hit it off and Greg begins this doomed relationship with this dying girl.

The next 209 odd days or so Greg navigates this friendship and all that goes with it, while also developing a film for Rachel on the urging of the classmate that he is infatuated with. But do not get me wrong, this film does not fall into some contrived love triangle or sordid high school drama. It has a far broader more mature scope than that.

Yes, this is a high school teen film. Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, but it boasts so much more. It’s a film about films, a film about friendship, a film about regret, and most importantly a film about what it means to be alive. And yet, all the while, it tries to sidestep the normal tropes we expect.

Greg and Rachel have two very different perspectives. Two very different lots in life, but somewhere in between all of that, amidst the fear, laughter, and even anger, they find some special connections.

There is so much to appreciate about the film and for me, it starts with the character of Greg, because in some ways he was analogous to me in high school. I too was a nomad who traveled from group to group never being fully known. I found a passion for film and slowly began to learn about Kurosawa and Bergman among others. It was not until senior year where I finally began to feel comfortable in my own shoes and that was the perfect time for a new adventure in college. Thus, I resonate with Greg, because although he is certainly not me, he’s the most relevant high school character I have seen in a long while.

As for Connie Britton and Nick Offerman, both of them have some nice scenes that add a lot to this story. One as the over-involved mom who generally cares and the other as a free spirit of a dad who likes exotic food, bohemian garb, and art-house, not to mention the family feline Cat Stevens.

With great films, it is always difficult to pin them down, and the same can be said for this one. It has an awareness of film history that is unequivocally refreshing and unheard of for a genre potentially aimed at teenagers during the summer months. It has its own heartfelt crescendo that in some respects reminded me of Cinema Paradiso. In all other facets, it works beautifully as a teen dramedy and it does a better job in that niche than most. Miraculously, it couples humor and quirks with touching notes that are relevant to the here and now, while somehow still being universal. Also, do not get me started on the music, which is absolutely fantastic.

I look forward to seeing it again sometime soon!

4.5/5 Stars

Love and Death (1975)

3e061-loveanddeath2Most every Tom, Dick and Harry has heard of the great Russian epic War and Peace. Love and Death is Woody Allen’s companion piece. It has nods to Tolstoy, Dostoevysky and channels a bit of the Marx Brothers. As one would expect, Boris aka Woody Allen comes from your typical Russian family where he is atypical in his stereotypical, bookish and misanthropic way. He was not made for 19th century Russia trading in valor and facial hair for his glasses and nihilistic philosophy. But he winds up going to war anyway watching his beloved second cousin (Diane Keaton) marry herself off to a run of the mill fishmonger.

Eventually, Boris is able to get his true love back and they are wed. It’s a union full of philosophical debates as only Woody Allen could have. But the invasion of Napoleon puts all this on hold as Sonja resolves to go and assassinate the Little Corporal. Boris hesitantly agrees to accompany her. In an ending fit for a Woody Allen film  parodying Bergman, Sonja goes through a life altering conversation while the recently executed Boris skips off with The Grim Reaper. It’s hard to beat Annie Hall but this still fairly early Allen piece has its quintessentially Woody Allen moments that are quirky and fun poke at Russian culture.

3.5/5 Stars