Taxi

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(Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2015)

Back in the Driver’s Seat

If the one-two punch of modern masterpieces This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain are any indication, it seems the devastating circumstances preventing filmmaker Jafar Panahi from continuing to create have not only failed to keep him from doing so, but have also strengthened his artistry. I’ve written at length on the inherent worth of the director’s five excellent films prior to his twenty-year ban from filmmaking, but none of those early works reach the levels of profundity, poignant self-reflexivity, or daring craftsmanship of his two recent films shot in defiance of the government intent on keeping him silent. It should come as no surprise, then, that Panahi is at it again. Taxi, his third feature since the ban, is another personal diary entry of an artist unable to express himself freely, and yet it radiates a boldness absent from its direct predecessors that a more hopeful Panahi only hinted at in the final moments of Closed Curtain. Gone is the extreme secrecy surrounding the production of these illegal films, gone are the names of the strategically credited co-directors, and gone is the tiptoeing around Panahi’s actual role in all of it. This is a film by Jafar Panahi, and he’s unapologetically back in the driver’s seat.

Appropriately, then, Taxi finds Panahi quite literally in the driver’s seat of the film’s titular vehicle as he roams around Tehran picking up a variety of intriguing characters whilst once again painting a vivid portrait of the city he calls home. (Comparisons of form to Taste of Cherry and Ten are inevitable, but they stop there, for Panahi no longer works in the shadow of Kiarostami and is an artist worth being evaluated on his own merits.) A swiveling dashcam captures interior conversations as well as the action on the streets outside, thus the entirety of the film is shot from within this set on wheels. Predictably, Taxi follows no linear plot but consists of vignettes nearly resembling mini comedy sketches as Panahi’s various passengers fill the frame with their eccentricities and cross-sectioned stories – a pair bickering over conflicting ideologies, an overeager pirated video vendor, a bleeding man and his hysterical wife who decides to keep his video-recorded will after he recovers (just in case), two superstitious ladies with a couple of goldfish, and Panahi’s own niece Hana, to name a few.

References to Panahi’s previous work abound both explicitly as his subjects recall his past films and in clever visual allusions – the aforementioned goldfish harkening back to the director’s debut The White Balloon, early dialogue lifted from Crimson Gold, picking up his niece from a school resembling that of Mina’s in The Mirror, mention of a young woman imprisoned for sneaking into a public sporting event as in Offside. Both This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain entertained such references as well, but where those two mourned their creator’s inability to create what he wanted to create, Taxi plays more like a greatest hits collection; a deserved victory lap for all that’s come before.

It’s not all lighthearted reminiscing, however, and in its back half Taxi explicitly takes the Iranian government to task for the continued injustice toward filmmakers across the nation bound by the ridiculous guidelines slyly read verbatim by Panahi’s niece who’s studying film in school. Hana’s film teacher dutifully outlines what constitutes a distributable film – those featuring head-covered women, no tie-wearing men with good Islamic names, and no politics or relevant social issues to speak of. With her cheap digital camera, Hana commits to making one such distributable film that avoids the “sordid realism” that the government unreasonably fears. She begins shooting the innocuous sight of newlyweds emerging from their wedding, but inevitably, reality gets in the way. A young boy collecting trash swoops in to snatch a fallen wad of cash from the groom’s pocket, and Hana implores him to return it to provide upstanding societal moral fiber for her distributable film. When he fails to rectify his criminal deed, Hana is disappointed by her own failure to produce an acceptable piece of filmmaking.

Cleverly, Panahi posits Hana as a stand-in for himself. The trash-collecting boy is not unlike the type of subject he has been interested in throughout his socially conscious career. It’s not difficult to imagine Panahi’s defiance speaking volumes through this short sequence. He’ll never kowtow to his oppressors by producing disingenuous, government-approved garbage just to have his work distributed in his own country, but he’ll also refuse to keep quiet. Taxi is an explicitly political document as one character mutters toward the end, “they don’t want it shown, but they do it themselves” in reference to the gross injustices committed by the very government bent on shielding its people from ever witnessing such realities. In a time of seeming progress with regards to Iran and its long-standing Western enemies as prisoners are released and nuclear deals are negotiated, Panahi’s film is an apt reminder that this great nation has a long way to go in restoring peace and justice.

The film ends with some of the most stunning imagery of Panahi’s career as a rose rests on the dashboard, the windshield of the car providing a frame, as the camera takes in the bustling streets of Tehran all around them. The film’s final static shot finds Panahi and Hana emerge from the taxi and exit the frame followed by the startling sight of carjackers who break into the car, disable the dashcam, and mutter something barely decipherable about a missing memory stick. It’s a brilliantly ambiguous finale that adds fuel to the debate over the blurred duality of fiction and reality that marks much of Panahi’s impressive oeuvre. Most of Taxi is surely very carefully staged – just as This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain were before it – and yet it’s still probably too real for those who fear it. After the narrative-busting Closed Curtain that solidified its director’s reputation as one of the greats working today, Taxi may seem to some as a bit of a letdown, a minor work treading now-familiar territory. But, I hope his latest isn’t seen as merely thematic leftovers. It’s an important film and an important statement for its creator. He’s opened the curtains that threatened to extinguish his blossoming career, and he’s made a public declaration that he has no intention of giving up the driver’s seat ever again.

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A Moment of Innocence

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(Dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

Learning from the Past

The idea of categorizing film into national cinemas seems risky and more than a little controversial. Though I may be incorrect, it strikes me as a remarkably American exercise in neatly defining and generalizing non-American films (I can’t stand the pejoratives “foreign films” or “world cinema”). How do we define these national cinemas? France: avant-garde. Early Germany: expressionistic. South Korea: juggling humor and terror. Russia: challenging and glacial. Italy: neorealism. Africa (yes, you read that correctly – in America we tend to see the entirety of a continent as one nation and people): nonexistent. But, here’s where it begins to break down. How do we define an American cinema? By our westerns? Our blockbusters? Our sentimental melodramas? Our gangster sagas?

If American movies cannot be so easily categorized, shouldn’t it stand to reason that perhaps our generalizations with regards to other national cinemas are also impossibly limiting? Take for example recent French cinema. The last couple of decades have been marked by the so-called New French Extremity – a movement of soulless, chilling horror that depicts a despondent portrayal of humanity. And yet, for every vomit-inducing Irreversible or punishing Amour, there’s an overly saccharine Amélie or a ridiculously clichéd The Intouchables. All four are French films in that each of their respective filmmakers shot their projects in France with French-speaking actors and the financing of French production companies. So, are all of them indicative of a supposed French cinema?

All of this may seem like an unnecessary prelude to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s masterpiece A Moment of Innocence, yet the film is best understood within this discussion. Makhmalbaf is an Iranian filmmaker, possibly the most well known next to international titans Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. He gained recognition during the same era of Kiarostami’s most celebrated period – even working together on the epochal Close-Up – and the two of them are likely the most successful directors of the supposed Iranian New Wave. And, if we were to reduce an entire nation’s filmic output to one defining adjective, Iran’s would undoubtedly be self-reflexive. Not since early Godard have filmmakers so jarringly drawn their viewers’ attention to the fact that they are simply watching a movie.

Here, then, is where the notion of national cinemas can be somewhat helpful, providing context to understand the cultural attitudes and conditions in which individual filmmakers work rather than suggesting some all-encompassing attribute. It is true that many Iranian films draw from this self-reflexivity, and it’s also probably true that many filmmakers are influenced by each other. It’s difficult to imagine films like Panahi’s The Mirror or Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence would exist without Close-Up. Of course, Kiarostami is the master of meta (not much else compares to his nineties output that saw Close-Up, Life, and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us collectively challenge the very nature of narrative cinema itself), but that certainly doesn’t mean his distinct body of work is the only Iranian oeuvre worth exploring.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s own career has been wildly varied, both in style and quality. It’s no stretch to claim A Moment of Innocence as his greatest work – it’s also the director’s personal favorite – and it’s also remarkably easy to approach on its own terms. Makhmalbaf’s film is no sub-Kiarostami afterthought. In fact, Innocence builds on Kiarostami’s token self-referential aesthetic by adding a wholly welcome, poignant personal touch. The film depicts the fictionalized recreation of a true event in Makhmalbaf’s own life as a teenager. In the late-seventies prior to the Revolution, Makhmalbaf, then a 17-year-old revolutionary, stabbed a police officer in attempts to steal his gun as his own contribution to the anti-Shah rallies spreading across Iran. But, rather than simply recount history through narrative fiction, Makhmalbaf explores his own past, changes in Iranian society, the repercussions of his violent actions, and the inherent farce of reenactment by instead making a film about the making of a film à la William Greaves’ groundbreaking Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.

The conception of Innocence, then, is not unlike that of Close-Up. Makhmalbaf’s victim tracked him down nearly twenty years later having turned in his badge following that fateful day and now looking for a part in a movie. Little did this former police officer realize, however, that Makhmalbaf’s idea would be to turn their story into that very movie. Thus, Innocence begins with the former officer (Mirhadi Tayebi) searching for Makhmalbaf, and then transitions into an initially befuddling sequence where both men choose actors to play their younger selves for the ensuing project. The officer and the director, then, coach their former selves on what happened on that day and what both of them felt so many years ago as Makhmalbaf captures these faux behind-the-scenes moments cleverly sectioned off by clapboard intertitles.

Makhmalbaf uses this convoluted meta-structure to force viewer participation – piecing together its fascinating chronology and distinguishing which parts belong to the dramatization or the “behind-the-scenes” portion as subjects break in and out of character within the same sequence is half the fun – and offer compelling shifts in perspective depending on the angle of the camera. He brilliantly chooses film as a medium to reckon with his past by lending a voice to his former victim, giving a reason for why he did what he did without justifying it, and finally by allowing these actors who play younger versions of those involved to change the outcome of his heinous crime. This last point is crucial and elevates Makhmalbaf’s film from playful intrigue to masterpiece. After exposing old wounds and outdated ideologies as Makhmalbaf and the police officer coach their younger selves for most of the film’s duration, in its final moments the camera and crew disappear, and Makhmalbaf gives a glimpse of that fateful day as the young director (Ali Bakhsi) and the young officer (Ammar Tafti) recreate that historic moment of violence in front of the camera.

But, here, the film takes a wholly unexpected turn culminating in one of the finest freeze-frame finales this side of The 400 Blows. Instead of the scripted clash between these two young men, both impulsively offer the other an object of peace – the officer handing the young Makhmalbaf a potted flower (intended for Makhmalbaf’s cousin and accomplice) and the revolutionary handing his victim some bread originally used to conceal his knife. Makhmalbaf allows his actors to change history. Of course, the past cannot be altered, but A Moment of Innocence – in its remarkable denouement – poignantly suggests that we can use the past to affect the future. Certainly, Makhmalbaf has learned that violence is never the best solution to any conflict, and this deeply personal film of his finds him in a position of vulnerability with regards to his damaged past but offers hope for his and the next generation’s future.

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Killer of Sheep

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(Dir. Charles Burnett, United States, 1978)

Everyday People

Charles Burnett’s masterpiece Killer of Sheep belongs to that rare class of films that are today more famous for the number of people who have not seen them than from the praise of those who have. Despite opening to critical accolades on the festival circuit back in 1978, the film failed to receive distribution due to the sheer cost of licensing the many songs Burnett beautifully utilized to accompany his contemplative work. And, while these stories of unseen great films of the past – Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day and Melville’s Army of Shadows similarly come to mind – may entice us to exaggerate or elevate a film’s actual status or impact, it’s important to note just how significant Burnett’s film was and still is today. (Thankfully, too, it finally found distribution in 2007 – better late than never!)

Yes, Killer of Sheep carries the signifier of African-American cinema because of its director’s race and the near exclusive casting of black actors. And yes, it is important to view Burnett’s film through this lens because it does represent a break from the blaxploitation flicks and the stereotypical supporting roles for African-Americans in mainstream cinema that has been (and sadly still is) the norm for black representation in Hollywood since the industry’s inception. But, it no longer becomes helpful to view Killer of Sheep in this light, when we inappropriately label it the black art film, for these backhanded compliments form a type of ghettoization themselves. There are so few African-American filmmakers to begin with, and the ones who often get attention are notoriously B-movie torchbearers (perhaps most famously Tyler Perry), so critics cherry-pick Burnett’s film and Lee’s Do the Right Thing as the token black films for the canon and call it a day. But, to see Killer of Sheep as just a black film (similarly as reductive as viewing Tropical Malady as just a queer film or Jeanne Dielman as just a feminist film) is to miss the wide-reaching richness of emotional depth and artistic expression Burnett achieves here. For the film is not merely an African-American experience (though it certainly is that), but it’s also such a genuine human experience that it could resonate with any viewer.

Following in the steps of John Cassavetes – who’s typically attributed with pioneering American independent film – Burnett champions the low-budget, neorealist approach with Killer of Sheep, a film that he submitted as his Master’s thesis at UCLA’s School of Film. As such, it also represents a true auteurist work with Burnett writing, directing, producing, and even shooting the project. The filmmaker intended it to be a realistic depiction of urban African-Americans in Los Angeles’ poverty-stricken Watts district a little more than a decade after the infamous race riots of ’65 that claimed 34 lives and incurred $40 million worth of property damage in the area. But, instead of focusing on one central storyline, the film is essentially without plot, comprised of vignettes of quotidian activity. Boys roughhouse in an abandoned train yard, a little girl sings along to her radio while playing with dolls, neighbors congregate on each other’s front steps, and, in one of the film’s most iconic sequences, a group of teens jump across the roofs of local buildings – the camera capturing their mischief from underneath.

At the center of these mundane routines is Stan (Henry G. Sanders) a man who’s become disillusioned with his job at a slaughterhouse and subsequently his life at home. His seemingly meager existence weighs heavily on him, and his melancholy demeanor begins to burden his doting wife (a remarkable Kaycee Moore) who can’t seem to get him to smile anymore. Over the course of the film, Stan is invited to join a couple of friends in some presumably criminal act, is propositioned by a white storeowner, and tries to buy a car engine with another friend only to lose it off the back of the truck after lugging it all the way downstairs and into the truck bed. In between these episodes, Stan dismissively resists the advances of his concerned wife and remains defensive about his position in society. At one point he insists that he’s not poor in response to a friend’s flippant remark, but he’s clearly unsatisfied with his blue-collar job nonetheless.

Brilliantly shot in stark black and white and exquisitely accompanied by a host of pop songs from heralded African-American artists through the ages, the film invites contemplative viewing with its gentle pacing and unhurried narrative. With Killer of Sheep, Burnett crafts a poignant collage of urban life without relying on the many tropes – gang violence, savior-like white characters, white villains, climactic deaths (both tragic and redemptive) – of similarly themed studies on inner-city living. Instead, he offers an honest portrait of one man and the real feelings and situations he faces as a black man in 1970s America. Not much changes for Stan over the course of the film, but he does begin to soften toward his wife and children toward film’s end. But, again, Burnett is not primarily concerned with the character arc of his protagonist, opting instead to offer a snapshot of what the man’s life looks like on any given day. Thus, Killer of Sheep is on a short list of films that so artistically capture everyday life, simultaneously hitting close to home for viewers and captivating them with its maker’s unique and daring vision.

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Au Contraire: Pierrot le fou

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(Dir. Jean-Luc “Cinema” Godard, France, 1965)

Beautiful Mess

Jean-Luc Godard’s postmodern jaunt down the rabbit hole, as it were, is simultaneously an extension of his groundbreaking, crowd-pleasing debut Breathless as well as a thesis statement for his entire career. Ten films into his impressive ‘60s output – now both affectionately and derogatorily known as the New Wave – Godard, it seems, was ready for something new while refining the familiar. This, then, is both the appeal and the drawback of Pierrot le fou, a film that foreshadowed its maker’s future twelve-year stint as a political activist-cum-director and provided an apt summation of his rule-breaking techniques that had defined his cinema thus far. As a political document, Pierrot is relatively tame – pervasive, yet veiled critiques of the Vietnam War and the ensuing Cold War between the U.S. and Russia abound – and if anything, it’s more a parody of proto-revolutionary zeitgeist captured in the inanity of Anna Karina’s implausible babysitter/arms smuggler. In this way, Godard’s typical anarchic approach fits the material perfectly and works better here than in Breathless (its most obvious comparison from his body of work), but there’s something still markedly forced or disingenuous about this aesthetic too.

Thus, Pierrot le fou – more than any other of the filmmaker’s many films – provides a microcosm of my feelings on Godard as a whole. I find myself compelled by the man’s audacity, yet repulsed by his arrogance. Both attributes coexist in nearly every one of his works, which has subsequently kept this cinephile from every truly loving any one of them. (Contempt comes close, but that film also found Godard coming as close to crafting a regular ol’ movie without compromising his principles.) Pierrot – though probably one his most interesting films – is no exception. While viewing it, the experience is nothing short of rhapsodic. It’s a kaleidoscope of beautifully composed images and boasts a plethora of ideas bursting with potential. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s casual turn as a disgruntled Parisian bent on escaping his painfully bourgeois life is worth the price of admission alone. But, when the film ends, an unmistakable feeling of hollowness settles in. Godard’s once fresh fragmented, montage style suddenly seems stale, the incessant philosophizing becomes grating, and the token allusions to pop culture, cinematic history, and literature have all but worn out their welcome. Pierrot is Godard’s most perfect beautiful mess. And maybe he intended that way.

As far as narrative goes in Godard’s cinema, it’s never as important what he tells as how he tells it. That’s never more apparent than here. The plot that kickstarts Ferdinand’s (Belmondo) adventure with Marianne (Karina) is a flimsy, wholly unconvincing story if there ever was one. Godard barely seems convinced himself. He cushions this Hollywood-bred outlaw setup with so many narrative detours, increasingly outlandish shenanigans for his two leads, and literature quoting to stand in for his characters’ emotions, that we – as well as Ferdinand it seems – forget why he left in the first place. Karina’s unfortunately one-note faux-revolutionary driven to the edge by boredom doesn’t help. If Godard was going for skewering the growing counterculture that swept youth on both sides of the Atlantic in the late-‘60s, he should have left Karina’s gun-toting babysitter a peripheral character. And yet, her inclusion to the very end signifies another, perhaps unexpected success for Pierrot le fou.

Godard’s personality is without question infused in every one of his films from Breathless to Goodbye to Language, but what perhaps makes some of those entries more interesting is when his personal life shines through too. His marital troubles with Karina lent an extra layer of pathos to Contempt, particularly given her notable absence from that film. And so it is with Pierrot. The pair’s marriage ended shortly following the release of this film, and it makes the startling finale all the more poignant. Ferdinand, as a stand-in for Godard, follows his lover as they forge a new life together, but she also leads him dangerously close to self-destruction. Are we to read more into Marianne’s insistence that Ferdinand give up his newfound happiness consuming books and ruminating in a diary in seclusion so she can once again enjoy the thrill of life on the run? Is Marianne’s late-film betrayal a mirror for Karina herself? When Ferdinand pulls the trigger, then, it’s as if Godard has severed ties at last. That love is forever gone. And, though Karina never drove Godard to suicide as Ferdinand meets his self-inflicted violent death, Pierrot le fou marks the end of a fruitful partnership (though she appeared in one more of his films Made in U.S.A. released a year later) and the beginning of a new artistic direction without her. Oddly enough, it seems, when Godard tries his hardest to be existential, he’s all the more interesting when it winds up being intensely personal too.

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Three Colors: Red

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(Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, France/Switzerland/Poland, 1994)

The Human Connection

Having tackled liberty and equality in films Blue and White respectively, director Krzysztof Kieslowski ends his Three Colors trilogy by challenging the ideal of fraternity with Red. And, like those first two films, this last installment (also his last film) doesn’t so much simply celebrate this quality present in the rouge stripe of the French flag as it turns the notion on its head, dissects it, and offers an alternate conclusion on what human connection looks like in the modern world. In matters of form, Red continues its predecessors’ extensive use of its titular color scheme – vibrant, deep shades of red pop against the dreary hues of a cloud-covered Geneva and engulf entire frames in seas of crimson whether on a massive billboard or the interior design of a theatre – thus rendering it a dazzling work of beautiful artistry. Yet, with respect to its content, this third entry stands out as the trilogy’s heart and soul.

Given the intricate construction of these three related films, this may have been intentional on Kieslowski’s part – blue and white are often cool, distant, and even melancholy colors. Thus, Blue and White both kept viewers somewhat at a distance. Conversely, the warmth and liveliness of the color red can be felt throughout all of Red making it at once the most accessible of the three and arguably the most engaging. The bond that forms between the young model Valentine (Irène Jacob) and the retired judge Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant), however quickly it manifests over the film’s brief runtime, feels genuinely heartfelt and thoroughly humane. The film moves along with a gripping brio as each scene unfolds exposing the secrets that these two characters keep whilst maintaining a parallel story that cleverly plays out in the present yet mirrors the history of the jaded former judge.

We meet Joseph almost by accident after Valentine hits his canine companion in the road. Mortified by her reckless deed (and, we learn later, motivated by the prospect of guilt) finds the dog’s owner’s home to return the injured animal. Initially met with a cold indifference from this recluse, Valentine encounters him again when the dog runs away from her and finds its way home. She soon discovers this enigmatic figure has resorted to listening to his neighbors’ phone conversations for his sole contact with humanity. The act is deplorable and unjust to this outsider, but the ethics of this activity become muddled for Valentine as the identities and double lives of these individuals surface through the overheard conversations. The man gives her two opportunities to rectify the situation (to expose one man’s adultery and another man’s involvement in the local drug trade), but he remains surprised when she leaves just as sure of her opinion on the matter as when she arrived.

The paths of these two inevitably cross again, but in a manner unexpected by both Valentine and Kieslowski’s audience. With a setup this intriguing in its potential auditory voyeurism, Joseph’s mid-film public confession of his illicit pastime effectively severing the man’s one-sided connection with his neighbors allows Kieslowski to take his narrative in a new direction. In hopes of vindicating herself after reading of the charges in the newspaper, Valentine returns to Joseph’s home only to find that he turned himself in. What begins as a rather awkward interchange at the man’s insistence that he ceased eavesdropping at her request rapidly evolves into the beginning of a friendship as Joseph peels back the layers of Valentine’s troubled personal life and she willingly entertains his musings about his past.

Kieslowski’s film is primarily concerned with this bond that ultimately leads the aging Joseph to emerge from the hermitage of his home to attend one of Valentine’s fashion shows. The kindness shown to him by this unassuming young woman proves paramount in the change that occurs within Joseph. At the end of her show, he bestows a thoughtful gift upon her and reveals the source of the bitterness that has soured his relationships for many years. The only woman he ever loved – overtly reminiscent of the bubbly, blond telephonic meteorologist Karin (Frederique Feder) – betrayed his trust and found love in another man’s arms. Never able to experience closure, his former lover tragically died in an accident on the English Channel. Joseph’s revelation beautifully unites this primary narrative with the peripheral story of Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) and Karin’s doomed relationship.

Red, then, is all about connections. Kieslowski hints as much with the film’s thrilling opening sequence that tracks a telephone call by sending the camera on a rollercoaster ride on the electrical wires that make this telephonic connection possible. The filmmaker uses this everyday, household device as his chosen symbol for human connectivity: Joseph interacts with the world through these intimate exchanges via the phone, Valentine’s strained relationships (with her untrusting and accusatory long-distance boyfriend and her estranged brother) exist exclusively over the phone, and the two protagonists begin their friendship due to its effects. Interestingly, Red makes the case that relationships cannot survive through this medium alone (a point that feels even more prescient today with the explosion of the Internet and social media). Conversations over the phone keep the film’s characters at a distance; most obviously in Valentine’s relationship with her boyfriend, but also present in the overheard conversations that reveal an extra-marital affair, a mother’s feigned ailments to capture the attention of her distant daughter, and the dealings of a local heroin kingpin. The only relationship that survives over the course of the film is the one formed through face-to-face human contact between Joseph and Valentine.

Moreover, it seems fitting that this theme should be the focus of Red as it is also the film that ties the Three Colors trilogy together both literally in its narrative, cohesive finale and cinematically by carrying the artistic thread that ran through all three films – meditations on the traditional French values embodied in the nation’s flag and Kieslowski’s bold cinematographic style and colorful aesthetic. The film ends with a tragic ferry accident on the English Channel and the survival of the major characters from each of the three films providing a definitive, albeit somewhat ambiguous conclusion for these individuals through whom Kieslowski explores the meaning of liberty, equality, and fraternity in contemporary society. Years later, it remains one of the most poignant depictions of the notion that everyone is connected – a motif that bogged down many films in the decade that followed that unnecessarily resorted to narrative contrivances and over-generalized characterizations. Kieslowski achieves the same end but in a manner more beautiful and heartfelt. Joseph nervously watches his television until his fears are subsided by the report that Valentine is counted amongst the survivors. Relieved, he smiles delicately for the first time standing at an open window facing the world. The need for human connection does not escape him. She gives him a reason to keep breathing.

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Panahi’s Tehran

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On the Five Films of Jafar Panahi Before the Ban

Since my first viewing of the radically paradigm-shifting This Is Not a Film in 2012 (my first encounter with the artist), I have become a devout Jafar Panahi evangelist. Between then and now I’ve made it my mission to get my hands on everything he’s directed, and unsurprisingly the films that comprise his small oeuvre prior to the events detailed in his above-mentioned modern masterpiece and most easily recognized film are nothing short of astonishing. And, though I too would consider This Is Not a Film his greatest work yet (its follow-up Closed Curtain a close second; still waiting to see this past year’s similarly lauded Taxi), it’s a shame that the five films leading up to Panahi’s infamous, yet unexpectedly fruitful ban from filmmaking don’t get the attention they deserve. There are those who dismiss This Is Not a Film entirely, citing its unlikely release (smuggled out of the country on a USB drive baked into a cake) as the sole reason for its welcome critical reception and elevated status over his previous efforts. And, though I strongly disagree with this borderline pretentious dismissal, I do believe This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain are better understood and more fully appreciated in light of what came before.

From his Cannes-approved debut The White Balloon in 1995 to the boundary-pushing Offside in 2006 that ultimately pushed the Iranian government too far, Panahi’s first five films are each impressive works in their own right and together paint a compelling portrait of modern-day Tehran – at once a bustling metropolis full of life and a major urban center plagued by corruption and injustice and in need of widespread change. Whether he’s mining unexpected comedy from his subjects’ frank dialogue or depicting harsh societal realities with his neorealist-influenced style or toying with cinematic form à la Abbas Kiarostami (an inevitable comparison in any discussion of Panahi’s output), it’s clear the filmmaker is a firm believer in the power of his craft. Why else would he risk further consequences by defying his ban not once, but thrice so far? Certainly, the circumstances surrounding the director’s tragically stunted career don’t automatically create meaningful cinema, but when the art is this intelligent, challenging, and utterly captivating it’s nearly impossible to overlook Panahi’s multi-film treatise on the great city of Tehran.


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The White Balloon (1995)

After directing a few short films and serving as assistant director on Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, Jafar Panahi was ready to shoot his first feature length film. The White Balloon was destined to entertain comparisons to Kiarostami’s work, especially since the Iranian master helped his protégé secure funding and penned the script for Panahi’s debut. It also likely conjured memories of Kiarostami’s own recent Where Is the Friend’s Home? that put him on the map in the previous decade due to both works featuring a young child at the center with a seemingly minor conflict that sets both narratives in motion. (It’s well-known now that producing films about children helped Iranian filmmakers dodge censorship given the sheer number of restrictions on filming the interactions of adult men and women, especially in domestic settings.) And yet, from the film’s opening shot Panahi was poised to establish his own authorial voice distinct from that of his mentor.

For one, as the film opens the camera moves, fluidly, almost rapidly – something Kiarostami almost never allowed – as a concerned-looking woman (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy) weaves in and out of a crowd of shoppers and revelers on the eve of Nowruz (the Iranian New Year) searching for her wandering daughter. Though one may not notice upon first viewing, Panahi also introduces us to most of the supporting characters young Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) will cross paths with over the course of the film as they populate this scene-setting prelude. From the first moments of his first film, Panahi sets the stage for a body of work concerned with these chance encounters significant enough to alter our own individual paths no matter how briefly, thus painting a wholly realistic portrait of a world where every passerby has a story, and no one person’s story is more important than another’s. This is crucial in understanding how Panahi handles his characters. The shifting perspectives at the end of The White Balloon, early on in Offside, and most noticeably throughout The Circle may be jarring at first, but in the context of his greater canon, it reveals a remarkably generous attitude toward his fellow human being. Everyone has a story; and choosing to tell stories of those most often ignored – children, women, ethnic minorities – has defined Panahi’s pleasingly inclusive work ever since.

This is no more evident in his debut than in The White Balloon’s much-discussed finale that pushes his loose narrative into near-tragic territory to cap off an otherwise adorable tale of a relatively minor problem for two children. After Razieh and her brother Ali (Mohsen Kafili) finally convince someone to help them retrieve their money that’s fallen into a roadside gutter, the pair hurriedly vacates the frame abandoning their savior on the side of the road to purchase that coveted goldfish. Panahi’s camera, however, doesn’t leave with them. It rests on the unnamed Afghan boy (Aliasghar Smadi) who lent the siblings his rod bearing balloons for sale and purchased them chewing gum to pull the banknote from the gutter. Razieh and Ali walk back through the frame with the plump goldfish in hand and right past the balloon seller once more without an offer for repayment or even a “thank you.” Panahi’s film ends here on a final sustained freeze-frame of the boy as he picks himself up to leave with one last white balloon over his shoulder.

It’s a surprisingly ambiguous finale for a mostly straightforward film, and yet there’s unmistakably a reason behind Panahi’s audacious choice to title his film after a narratively unrelated object that stays with us through the end credits. Throughout The White Balloon, we’re captivated by this silly story of a little girl who loses a rather insignificant amount of money – a feat of bravura filmmaking to be sure. Panahi frames Razieh’s problem as a major conflict worthy of our time in his well-chosen camera angles from the eye-level of small children (positing the world as quite literally larger than life), capturing two tremendous performances from Mohammadkhani and Kafili, and infusing his narrative with a sense of urgency set in real time against a countdown to the New Year. And yet, what’s perhaps more impressive than convincing his audience to care this much is dramatically subverting our expectations when Razieh and Ali no longer deserve our sympathy.

In the film’s final shot, our allegiances shift to that of the balloon seller. When Razieh and Ali get what they want, they leave and head home for the New Year celebrations. As the flummoxed young vendor pauses before standing to leave, we’re left to ponder his circumstances. As a minority, more than likely a refugee, the boy may not have the luxury of taking a break from his work or even celebrating with family that may or may not be with him in Tehran. Is Panahi’s choice to linger on this boy’s situation a subtle form of politicizing? Raising awareness for the plight of a group of individuals most often cast aside in society? Given the number of openly political films that followed The White Balloon, it doesn’t seem that farfetched to imagine these as the director’s veiled intentions. It’s a powerful and bold statement in a political climate that rarely favors artistic freedom of expression, and one that sheds light on the wildly diverse city of Tehran.


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The Mirror (1997)

For his sophomore feature The Mirror, Panahi furthers both his concern for the affairs of small children and his exploration of Iranian society through the microcosm of a few bustling streets in Tehran. The setup is remarkably simple: a young girl (Mina Mohammadkhani, notably the younger sister of the protagonist in The White Balloon) grows increasingly worried when her mother fails to pick her up after school and decides to try to find her way home on her own. In the film’s first half, Panahi once again thrills with his roving camera, unearths a profoundly sympathetic performance in his convincing lead, and widens the scope established in The White Balloon to capture fleeting, minor moments between peripheral characters that populate Panahi’s Tehran. There are compelling fragments of untold stories here – a man who offers the girl a ride who may or may not get in a motorcycle accident, a love-struck couple swapping glances separated by the gender divide on public transportation, a bitter elderly woman bemoaning the way her children treat her – as Mina bumps into various individuals on her way home.

At first, The Mirror may appear to be nothing more than a variant on Panahi’s winsome debut, but a sudden mid-film outburst from the film’s subject is sure to keep viewers on their toes. After Mina finds her way onto yet another bus that might take her in the right direction, she stares seemingly innocuously at the camera only for a voice off-screen to bluntly exclaim, “Mina don’t look at the camera!” No sooner, little Mina throws her bag down, tears off her fake cast, and declares that she no longer wishes to be in the movie. The bus stops to let her off, the film stock changes, the crew comes into view, and the audience is left completely stunned. The illusion of cinema has been gloriously shattered as Panahi and his crew hurriedly decide what to do next. When Mina stubbornly demands to leave the set and walk home herself, Panahi convinces a few members of the crew to pile into a car and follow her since she accidentally left her mike on. The film, then, takes on a dramatically different visual tone as the girl is mostly shot from a distance as cars and passersby at times obscure the camera’s view of her.

And yet, as Mina soon confesses to a passing taxi driver, she does actually need some directions getting home. Gone is the façade that her mother picks her up at school and that she’s worried about finding her way home, but essentially the film’s second half picks up right where the first half ended as Mina attempts to make her way home. Thus, Panahi posits that fiction simply mirrors reality. Panahi’s film, then, is heir to Kiarostami’s groundbreaking Close-Up, the most obvious frame of reference for The Mirror. And, as with that landmark work of blurring the ever-fine line between fiction and reality, we may never know just how much of The Mirror’s cleverly cleaved halves is real and how much is staged.

So, what then does The Mirror achieve? Is it merely Kiarostami-lite, a spellbinding deconstruction of cinematic form that pales in comparison to similarly themed works that came before? Not so fast. If Kiarostami is a filmic philosopher, one whose extreme wide shots, provocative film titles, and documentary-narrative hybrids force contemplation on grand scale questions of humanity and life, then Panahi operates in smaller spheres detailing the effects of society and life on a few. Where Close-Up’s straddling the line between reality and the illusion of reality says more about cinema than people, The Mirror walks the same line to comment on the very people who fill the screen. In one such telling sequence, Mina the performer runs into the elderly lady from the bus after she’s given up acting in the film. She sits down with her on the bench and complains about the crew’s insistence on her pouting and crying too frequently, the implication being that Mina herself would not have gotten that upset about not knowing the way home. When she asks the woman how she could put up with the filmmakers’ demands, the woman startlingly admits that she wasn’t acting. The “lines” she recited during her scenes were actual scenarios from her own life. It’s an unexpectedly poignant moment that highlights the very real circumstances of Panahi’s subjects – individuals with concerns, conflicts, and hopes of their own.


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The Circle (2000)

Following the success of The White Balloon and The Mirror, Panahi treaded into deeper political waters for his third feature The Circle – arguably the greatest work of his pre-ban era. There were hints of the female perspective in his first two films – the casting of two young girls as his leads, the rather amusing yet frank discussion on the role of women in the home that takes place in the back of a cab in The Mirror, or even the character of Mina herself in The Mirror who, in the film’s second half, is fiercely independent and unafraid unlike the character she plays – but with The Circle Panahi devotes an entire film to the plight of Iranian women living in modern-day Tehran. It also marks the most substantial break from the tutelage of Kiarostami. His influence is deeply felt in both The White Balloon and The Mirror, but The Circle is the first of Panahi’s films to establish an aesthetic, tone, and subject matter firmly his own.

In fact, his bold decision to risk censorship in telling stories of the limitations that women face in Iran preempted his mentor’s similar, yet far less controversial Ten by two years. In this way, then, The Circle instead recalls the important works of Satyajit Ray and Kenji Mizoguchi who dared to tell stories of women’s hardships in India and Japan, respectively, when it was popular for neither to do so. Of course, Panahi stood to lose a lot more and did – after success on the European festival circuit, the Iranian government banned The Circle in Iran thus beginning the many issues the director would go on to face in his home country and have since defined his cinema in recent years.

The Circle, like its immediate predecessor, is aptly named after the structure of its narrative. It begins somewhat abruptly with a middle-aged woman in a hospital waiting room as her daughter gives birth inside. When a nurse appears at the window and reveals that her daughter has had a baby girl, it throws this older woman into a panic who relays to the nurse that her son-in-law’s family thought it would be a boy. What may seem like the beginning of a joke to Western viewers immediately registers as anything but when the woman verbally fears that her son-in-law may even divorce her daughter. She urges her relative to inform the rest of the family at once. As this new unnamed woman leaves the hospital and is turned down when she asks a small group of woman for change to make a phone call, she promptly exits the frame and isn’t seen again. Rather than continue the story of this “unfortunate” birth, Panahi picks up another story of the three women gathered nervously around a phone booth who we eventually learn have just escaped from prison for some unknown reason.

The rest of Panahi’s film unfolds in this way; half-told narratives of various women over the course of one evening in Tehran and the problems each of them faces. Refreshingly, there’s no contrived structure surrounding this passing off of the narrative. Panahi follows a young woman (Nargess Mamizadeh) attempting to flee the city by bus and a woman (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, one of only two professional actors in the film) seeking an urgent, secretive abortion for the longest duration of the film’s runtime. But, he also lends screen time to a troubled mother (Fatemah Naghavi) who abandons her young daughter when she can no longer care for her and a prostitute (Mojgan Faramarzi) who gets picked up by the authorities while her prospective client is released with no consequences. (In the film’s best sequence, Panahi cuts back and forth between close-ups of the prostitute and a newlywed bride in the backseat of a passing car. The woman stares at the bride, but is it a look of longing or one of understanding? It’s likely no surprise that Panahi draws parallels between these two women whose circumstances may not be that different.)

Throughout, Panahi realistically sheds light on the different forms of oppression women face on a daily basis under fundamentalist Islamic rule. Women can’t smoke in public, purchase bus tickets without a male escort, rent hotel rooms alone, or receive abortions without their husband’s or husband’s father’s consent. The characters in Panahi’s film are imprisoned easily and are often ostracized from society and their families if they break any of the many, many rules set before them. One gets the impression it’s nearly impossible to breathe for women in Panahi’s Tehran. But, is it a fair portrayal? Reportedly, the Iranian government ultimately banned Panahi’s film for its unfair and resoundingly negative treatment of the nation’s women. It’s certainly a very one-sided argument; there is no other way to interpret Panahi’s film. Yet, in light of the rest of his balanced work, it’s clear that Panahi is a champion for the underdog, telling stories for those whose voices aren’t often heard. He absolutely has an agenda here, but The Circle is no mere message movie. In its clever narrative structure that brings this jaunt through an unfavorable Tehran full circle – the prostitute is locked up, and as Panahi’s camera pans around the cell the rest of the women featured so far come into view, imprisoned again as well – Panahi’s film is also an exercise in stretching cinematic form and pushing his own aesthetic forward. In retrospect, it seems to have anticipated the onslaught of unwelcome “we’re all connected” films that polluted American cinema in the decade to come. But, the narrative contrivance that brings his characters together in the end serves no other purpose than tragic metaphor (as opposed to a forced plot device) and affirms an established penchant for telling personal stories no matter how seemingly insignificant or incomplete.


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Crimson Gold (2003)

For his second collaboration with Kiarostami as screenwriter, Panahi’s Crimson Gold continues the bleaker tone set by The Circle and recounts a few days in the life of an impoverished pizza delivery man whose socioeconomic status and circumstances drive him to commit a heinous crime. This crime – the murder of a jewelry storeowner following a failed robbery attempt – opens the film; thus Crimson Gold marks the first time Panahi utilizes a flashback narrative structure in his work. In what is clearly not an act of premeditated murder, Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin) rashly pulls the trigger on himself in front of a throng of passersby who witness the killing and hurriedly call the police. Though the filmmakers’ decision to reveal the film’s outcome at the onset threatens to lessen the impact of the story that follows, the troubled life of Hussein is riveting, if not wholly convincing enough to warrant its climactic tragedy.

More than a progressive narrative, then, Panahi’s film features a series of vignettes that highlight gross income inequality in Tehran and the resultant injustice that befalls those living in poverty. The midsection of Crimson Gold, bookended by the sequence of Hussein’s murder and suicide, is made up of four major sequences, each of them realistically documenting some form of corruption or injustice within the confines of one character’s story. Over the course of the film this widespread inequality is seen as both a personal offense – when Hussein, his future brother-in-law Ali (Kamyar Sheisi), and fiancée (Azita Rayeji) are repeatedly humiliated and turned away at a high-end jewelry store or when an old acquaintance of Hussein’s awkwardly gives him a large tip when confronted with Hussein’s current, unglamorous profession – and a societal danger – when the police use a profiling tactic to arrest young passersby who may or may not be attending a raucous party in an affluent district or when the police use extreme force when arresting a man in Hussein’s poorer neighborhood.

In the film’s final episode, Panahi also manages to comment upon the blind privilege of the wealthy elite as Hussein delivers pizza to a young rich man (Pourang Nakhael) whose greatest problem appears to be as trivial as a date gone sour. Preoccupied by his own self-absorption, the man invites Hussein in to dine with him and to provide a listening ear. But, when the offending woman calls, the man leaves Hussein to himself who explores the high-rise apartment, takes advantage of its amenities, and eventually winds up on the balcony with a staggering view of the cityscape below. Up here all of Tehran is beneath this rich man who only need give the rest of the world a thought when he desires. “A city of lunatics,” he calls Tehran at one point. He refers to a culture and society that he left behind when he emigrated to the U.S. for a time, but he might as well be describing the crippling inequality that forces someone like himself and Hussein into entirely separate corners of the city.

If Crimson Gold lacks the narrative heft of Panahi’s previous work, it makes up for it with its exhilarating camerawork courtesy of DP Hossein Jafarian working with Panahi for the first time, yet propelling the director’s aesthetic forward. The camera beautifully and fluidly weaves in and out of traffic capturing stunning shots of his characters on motorbikes or subtly zooms on the entrance to the jewelry store, the shot’s only source of light, after Hussein’s murder, then graciously pans up to shield us from his gruesome suicide. Too, Panahi’s dedication to revealing unflattering sides of Tehran despite inevitable censorship is certainly commendable. He not only serves as a beacon of hopeful resistance to other filmmakers in Iran, but also to the repressed voices worldwide who are forced to create art in secret or under oppression.


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Offside (2006)

For his unknowingly final film before the ban, Panahi returned to the more light-hearted comedic feel and focus on Tehran’s youth of The White Balloon and The Mirror. And yet, Offside is no less significant because of it. It’s as politically subversive as anything in The Circle or Crimson Gold, and it pushed the Iranian government far enough to incite the charges brought against Panahi and his supposedly defamatory art that altered the future of his career a few years later. The film follows six unnamed young women who attempt to sneak into the 2005 soccer match between Iran and Bahrain that determined which team would qualify for the 2006 World Cup. To Western viewers the setup might immediately register as something farfetched until we’re clued into the fact that women are prohibited from attending public sporting events in Iran. It’s likely that even in America we still might associate football, basketball, or baseball with primarily male spectators and fans, yet no one would think twice about admitting a woman to a game. They’re just as entitled to fandom as men.

Panahi uses this most basic, widespread trait indicative of much of the world – the love of soccer (particularly outside the U.S., though our national love for American football is probably comparable) – to instill universality in his characters’ struggle. Shot as if in real time during the actual match, Panahi returns to the thrilling urgency he established in The White Balloon – that film’s countdown to New Year replaced with a ticking game clock as Iran’s shot at qualifying for the world’s biggest sporting event hangs in the balance. Though the match sets the film’s narrative in motion, it ultimately plays a supporting role in what Panahi brilliantly achieves. We never catch more than a few glimpses of the actual game as the film’s characters are held in a humiliating sectioned pen just outside the stadium guarded by three young soldiers, but Panahi is, of course, more concerned with the conversations and interactions between his characters than regaling the outcome of a soccer match.

Perhaps more than any other film in his oeuvre, Panahi impressively provides a snapshot of a larger Tehran in this huddle of characters who’d like to be anywhere but with each other. The women, of various ages and backgrounds, swiftly bond over their unbridled love of the game, a zealous dedication that both confuses and complicates their captors’ situation. Two of the three soldiers are Tehrani imports, boys from rural areas who carry their own assumptions about the city and women in general. But, ultimately, they’re won over by the girls’ unwavering enthusiasm, and in its final moments Offside erupts into joyous pandemonium as the lines that divide women and men, urbanites and ruralists, soldiers and civilians, and law keepers and law breakers fade away as they unite as fans. The girls and soldiers alike emerge from the halted van en route to the police station with sparklers in hand to join the street’s revelers in what is easily Panahi’s most satisfying finale in his entire body of work. The injustices of the society he portrays haven’t been stripped away, but he offers an unexpected ray of hope in something as seemingly insignificant, yet universally loved as soccer.

With Offside, Panahi paints his most balanced portrait of Tehran yet. If The Circle and Crimson Gold threatened to villainize anyone belonging to a privileged class – men, those in authority, the wealthy – in their appropriately despairing tones, then Offside fittingly offers a slight corrective. Panahi presents a society more or less in collective opposition to an oppressive regime. More than once do we see men trying to help smuggle disguised women into the stadium, a group of guys assists one of the girls in escaping her captors in the stadium’s bathroom yet she willingly returns after a time so as to not get the soldiers in trouble with their superiors, and in the end fans make no distinction between sex, age, race, or profession as the city rejoices in their nation’s victory. As a chronicler of the everyday lives of his fellow city dwellers, Jafar Panahi has established himself as one of the most exciting, innovative, and politically important filmmakers working today. For better or for worse Tehran is his home, and his first five films offer a captivating (albeit admittedly incomplete) picture of one of the world’s greatest cities.

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The Tree of Life

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2011)

Glorious Wonder

How does one begin to discuss a film like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life? There hasn’t been a film quite as important, majestic, or beautifully artistic in many, many years. The cinematic master’s work stands as a deeply profound experience of existential inquiry that feels like a culmination of his efforts throughout the years. The wanderings and ruminations of his four previous films seem to all have led to this. Much could be said regarding this richly layered work of art – its religious implications, its philosophizing, its musings on the origins of life, its familial politics, etc. – but, here I am merely concerned with basking in the sheer wonder of Malick’s creation.

In The Tree of Life, Malick chronicles two generations in the lives of the O’Brien family pausing primarily in the 1950s as Mr. and Mrs. (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raise their three young boys. The film mostly follows the eldest son Jack (as a child played by Hunter McCracken) as he wrestles with the diverging ideals of his mother and father. The strength of this family is tested and their lives drastically altered when the middle son dies in the war at age nineteen. As an aging man, Jack (as an adult played by Sean Penn) reflects on his childhood marked by a damaged relationship with his father and continues to grapple with the premature death of his brother. Malick’s story is decidedly simple and familiar, but his execution in relaying this narrative through arresting visuals and a cornucopia of classical music compositions posits The Tree of Life as a thoroughly engaging piece of experiential literature.

In its construction alone, the gifted filmmaker should be applauded. He bookends his primary narrative with two rather unconventional pieces rife with symbolic imagery and sensationally disjointed editing. The first introduces our characters and sets the stage for things to come giving us brief glimpses of images that appear later. Mrs. O’Brien narrates this section, and holds that no ill will comes to those who love and espouse grace. “I will be true to whatever comes,” she asserts and affirms her place before God. Her faith is then tested when she receives the news about her son’s death. “Lord, why? Where were you? Who are we to you?” Her desperate questions echo those of our own at some point in our lives.

Before delving into the heart of his story, Malick leads us into an unexpected, yet wondrously conceived interlude that ambitiously documents the creation (or just inception depending on your beliefs) of the universe. The camera (with talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at the helm) captures the grandiosity of the cosmos down to the delicate intricacies of molecular structures in this extended sequence that eschews narration magnificently set to Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting piece “Lacrimosa.” Evoking the grandeur of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the scene boasts some of the most visually arresting imagery ever committed to film.

Returning to more conventional fare, Malick sets camp in the story of the evolution of the O’Brien family. And, as per usual, he allows breathtaking images to tell this story of first love, marriage, and children and relies very little on dialogue. The filmmaker captures the essence of the beauty of new life through minute details – a father gazing at the simple complexity of his newborn’s feet, the innate connection between mother and child, the shadows cast of boys at play. In one particularly well-executed sequence, Malick touchingly depicts the passing of time through early childhood set to Gustav Holst’s “Hymn to Dionysus” and Smetana’s “Vltava (Die Moldau).” (It goes without saying that Malick’s use of music is unparalleled in today’s film industry.)

The film’s montages come to rest when Jack is around eleven or twelve years old. Here, Malick’s primary theme emerges. Jack’s father and mother lay out before him two distinct paths: the way of nature and the way of grace. Mrs. O’Brien hints at the film’s beginning that all of us must choose which to follow. And so, Malick explores the tension between these two ways of life through the eyes of Jack faced with the paramount choice. Over the course of the film, his mother comes to teach him to always extend love and grace warning that the way of nature seeks only to please itself. The only way to live is to love. Conversely, Jack’s father presents the primal instincts of our nature chiding that the only way to get ahead in the world is through fierce will. “If you want to succeed, you can’t be too good,” Mr. O’Brien instructs his three sons.

It should be no surprise which way of life Malick deems most noble. He does, however, allow his characters to recognize their own folly and wisely does not punish them for it. Ignoring the exhortations of his angelic mother, Jack soon embraces the unforgiving brutality of his own nature. After being exposed to the cruelty of this life (witnessing the death of a peer, another friend marred by a house fire), the boy rebukes the creator declaring, “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” Uncharacteristically, Jack begins lashing out – destroying property with his friends, stealing from his neighbors, carelessly defying both his parents. The conflicted boy recognizes the tension inside of him: “I do what I hate, what I want to do I can’t do,” he ponders evoking the words of St. Paul from the book of Romans. Testing the limits of his transgressive patterns, Jack turns on his brother and in an act of betrayal shoots him in the finger with a pellet gun. Finally acknowledging the damage he has wrought, he does apologize to his brother who graciously forgives him.

While Jack’s father and mother certainly provide obvious metaphors for these two disparate paths, they are also fully realized characters, firmly grounded in the complexities of humanity. To diminish them to symbolic archetypes would be inappropriately reductive. Mrs. O’Brien, while often embodying purity itself, also must reckon with her own faith when her son passes. She is not immune to these most fundamental human doubts. Likewise, Mr. O’Brien, often aggressive and reproachful toward his children, too falls victim to unbridled emotion. He experiences guilt surrounding the harsh treatment of his sons, also mourns the death of his second oldest, and insecurely yearns for the approval and adoration of his children. He wants to be a good father, but he simply does not know how. Outstanding performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain only help to breathe life into this troubled married couple. Happiness, despair, and anger are all wonderfully captured in the faces of these talented actors. Malick, it seems, has found a perfect muse in Chastain who gives the performance of the year while barely uttering more than a few lines. Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan should similarly be praised for their impressive takes on the three sons giving new hope to the art of child acting.

Malick’s film returns to the wanderings of its beginning for its final segment. The story of the O’Brien family ends when both father and son realize the limits of their chosen path. Jack has hurt his brother and closest friend. His father faces the reality of not achieving his definition of success through increased wealth and better circumstances. He ultimately loses his job, and the family must move from their home. Transitioning from shots of an empty house, we see an adult Jack aimlessly shuffle through an arid wilderness – a symbol of his real life quandaries. A montage of surrealist imagery follows echoing the events of Jack’s somewhat tumultuous life. It ends with a sequence on a gray beach. Jack, seemingly searching for something or someone, is quickly joined by other wanderers and eventually his family as he best remembers them. This, then, stands as the troubled man’s final reckoning: he embraces his mother, reconciles with his estranged father, and reunites with his deceased brother. He too witnesses his mother relinquishing control of her son to God. “I give him to you. I give you my son,” she declares as Jack stands at the door with her as she releases him. Breathtaking and moving, the scene instills a sense of glorious wonder, one unmatched by anything else in Malick’s untouchable oeuvre.

There are other unique touches throughout that expose Malick’s supreme gift at filmmaking (a shot of Mrs. O’Brien suspended in air by her enchanting innocence, a boy emerging from a house submerged in water to symbolize the miracle of giving birth, a predatory dinosaur that chooses the way of grace, Jack’s imposing voiceover that belies his dutiful prayers), but to expound on these would call for countless pages of admiration. If last year’s greatest cinematic feat was inextricably tied to its release date, this year’s The Tree of Life exists outside of context and remains utterly timeless. It has already become an essential piece of cinema, and my favorite film – one that brings this admittedly religious writer closer to God. Its creator, however, beautifully leaves it open for interpretation. Before its credits roll, Jack returns from the dreamlike world on the beach, and we are planted again in the real world of skyscrapers and concrete. Jack peers around as if to determine whether or not it was all a dream. He smiles for the first time presumably having experienced the way of grace. As The Tree of Life ends, Malick is careful not to firmly answer any questions. Instead, we are left with this gift – a beautiful and challenging film for the ages.

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