Filmfest DC — Day 6 capsules
AUTUMN ADAGIO (Tsuki Inoue, Japan) — 8
I’m more likely to complain if a film spoon-feeds you everything and doesn’t trust you enough not to explain and spell out every last thing. But here is a case of a film that had a few too many ellipses, particularly in the last reel (I had to piece together what I think happened and I’m still not certain I got it right). And there’s one or two things about nuns that AUTUMN ADAGIO gets wrong that I think may have grown out of cultural innocence. Sister Maria, the certain character, doesn’t really seem to have any attachment at all to any order or community — we never see her Mother Superior or hear references therein, etc.
But still, this is a quietly excellent (and quite excellent) 75 minutes and, possible missteps on details aside, we might be grateful that it’s a Japanese (and a woman) to make a film about a nun experiencing midlife regrets, including the midlife change and what that defines about women’s sexuality. (To be honest, as a Western Catholic boy, the very notion of nuns menstruating at all seems “off” to me.) And in too many current Western hands, such material would become an excuse to have Sister Maria get in touch with her inner lesbian or march for a pro-abortion health-care bill as signs of a feminist “awakening.” Instead, as the Ozu-like seasonal title suggests, this is a film centered on music, meant to played and savored slowly. It makes even the moments that might come off as precious or affected in other contexts — e.g., the several involving flowers and leaves — seem absolutely right. Menopause makes never being a mother stark and irreversible, a matter Sister Maria works through without losing her vocation and without lasciviousness on the director’s part (one very unfortunate choice involving bathing soap aside). By the end, she’s able to explain the facts of life to a little girl whose reply then tells her something profound about her own periods.
In the course of the film, Sister Maria (played by J-Pop star Rei Shibakusa in one of those performances, like Maria Callas in Pasolini’s MEDEA, where you marvel that a singer has such interiority without using her voice) comes across three men — a stalker who attends the church where she plays the organ, a man whose mother is dying and to whom she must deliver a letter, and the star dancer at the ballet school where she also plays piano. At various times, ADAGIO reminded me of Bresson’s DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST — living out a religious vocation that mostly consists of daily repetition and apparent failure in the midst of an indifferent, where not hostile, community. Sister’s tentative steps in the direction of secular goods come mostly through her music and a connection with the dancer. There is a scene of him dancing to her playing that is extraordinary — one of the most magical scenes in any movie you’ll ever see. The connection between the two is breathtaking, charged — I want to say “erotic” but that seems inadequate, reductive and an invitation to the wrong sorts of thoughts. It is as close to a communio of persons as cinema can provide, but in the name of art not sex. And what happens — which Inoue by using ostentatious fades to black — afterward makes it clear that this is the kind of eros Plato wrote about in the Symposium, one made possible only by repression and destroyed by bumping-and-grinding.
WHITE WEDDING (Jann Turner, South Africa) — 4
Remember what I wrote the other day about WILL YOU MARRY US? Here is the flip side — another sitcom film about a wedding and whether it will or won’t happen and every bit as much of an “Our Country for Export” movie (it even helpfully starts with a map of the country, setting up the several locations where all the action is taking place). But WHITE WEDDING has more of an ensemble, so it’s hard to fall in love with a character as much and there’s a couple of stabs at profundity or at least seriousness that really feel off-key in this featherweight context.
Except for the use of Xhosa in most of the inter-black conversations (and Afrikaans in some of the inter-white), WHITE WEDDING could have been a Tyler Perry movie — well-off young Mercedes-driving blacks genially clashing with traditional less-well-off but more loving parents, the rich outsider ex-boyfriend who threatens to usurp the hero groom (Elvis) in the bride-to-be’s affections as he makes his cross-country journey (several times and ways interrupted) to be at the wedding. Turner also uses such hoary tropes as the flamboyantly effeminate wedding planner and the repressed spinster who works at the gown shop, but doesn’t actually do anything with them once established. You know there will be at least one inter-racial romance to represent the New South Africa (people who dismissed INVICTUS as mere homily are invited with deep sarcasm to this movie as the alternative).
Speaking of New and Old South Africa, there are also scenes, and this still is from the aftermath, where Elvis, another black man and a white Englishwoman stumble into a bar where rugby is on the TV, the apartheid-era flag is on the wall, there are signs (unenforceable of course) of whites-only bathrooms and the militarily-decked-out men make their discomfort clear. And it’s in the middle of a whites-only town where they have to stay the night. This scene REALLY made me itch. It realize it seems priggish of me, a foreigner, to object to South Africans, blacks among them, making jokes themselves about their apartheid past (being able to do that is a sign of a healthy polity — I get that). And moments in the bar scene (the way a drunken Elvis, oblivious to where he is, sings what I’m guessing to be a Boer folk song about a military hero) indicate the potential comedy gold. But there is no universe in which gun-toting Afrikaner nostalgists driving up to a home because there’s some kaffirs threatening our women, like the Klan riding out to protect Lillian Gish at the end of BIRTH OF NATION, will seem like a good choice in a light entertainment.
I now realize this review is far more negative than I intended. So let me reiterate that, horrific caveats aside, WHITE WEDDING is a genial good-souled sitcom and thus sometimes entertaining and might serve as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. But it’s not anything special or unmissable, though a smart distributor would make a killing by releasing it generally worldwide during or immediately after this summer’s World Cup.
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