Friday, May 9, 2014

Suddenly Nothing Happened

And that’s not a bad thing. In the Argentinian-Brazilian film, Found Memories, seemingly little action takes place. If your taste in movies runs toward a strong narrative with fast-paced plot twists do not see this movie. However if you want to sink into a life/death, meditative visual experience of a few people in a rural Brazilian town it is one not to miss. Glacial pacing and repetitive scenes transport the viewer into the spatial and temporal life of the town folks. The indoor scenes, in particular, have the feel of stepping inside a Rembrandt painting. One wants to hit the pause button to hold the image. Many could stand alone as museum pieces; in context they are even stronger.

The setting is a ghost town occupied by near-ghosts, elderly folks, who have forgotten how to die. The gate to the cemetery is locked. The village café owner says he is not unhappy enough to be dead. Their existence is simple, reverent and communal. Madalena, well on in years, is shown kneading the dough for bread each morning and carrying it in a basket along railroad track almost grown over from disuse. Part of the daily ritual is her insistence to arrange the loaves on the shelf of Antonio, the shop owner, followed by his immediate removal of the bread. The playful jockeying between the two closely resembles affection. He then makes coffee which they take outside with a roll. It has the feel of a secular communion, wine and wafer.

The town folk are clearly living in the past, holding fast to memories of their loves and regrets as if time has been halted. Madalena writes nightly letters saving her emotions for her dead husband. When a young photographer arrives routines are hardly ruffled, so quietly is her presence registered. Almost imperceptibly she insinuates herself into Madalena’s household. She is observant of her ways and gradually gains her full trust. At one point she remarks, I’ve never heard so much silence. The girl with the camera might be seen as a stand-in for the director of the movie. The aged Magdalena’s old photos seem to merge with the recent ones developed by the character of the young woman. Out of this linkage a conflation of the two worlds emerges as well as a bond between them. When the time comes, Rita, the young woman is asked to assume the baking of bread which has taken on a spiritual dimension. 

The original Portuguese title translates to, Stories That Exist Only When Remembered, which give the film a faintly surrealistic tone. More impactful than the memories is the rhythm of quotidian lives captured by the filmmaker. She reminds us of the humanity beneath the surface of what first seems like withered lives.

Another art film recently watched is the French movie, The Artist and His Model. It is set in occupied France, 1943, outside a small town near the Spanish border. Art transcends the historical moment in this finely nuanced story. As in the aforementioned South American movie a young woman enters the life of the protagonist and is a catalyst for quietly profound change. We witness the slow process of the sculptor finding his grand subject in the particular form of his model. The camera pans reverently over the contours of her body exploring the light and shadows as only black and white film can do.

I can think of no other film which traces, as a felt experience, the interior movement of an artist as he exceeds his own constraints and breaks into new consciousness. It is the act of discovery; the painstaking extrusion through his material as it comes to life. The grand form is realized not from any classic pose but comes directly out of the raw emotion from the life situation of the model.

The nothing that happens to ordinary people is teeming with life.

Both these films have become available for an American audience thanks to Netflix streaming. It calls attention to the dearth of U.S. art films and the vibrant life of cinema around the world.

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