Sunday, January 08, 2017

onscreen now | mass is ended, silence, jackie, manchester, l'argent

It's that time of year when there's lots worth seeing in the cinemas. I think of it as the Year End Film Festival - the YEFF.  I keep track of the critics' Top Ten lists - there's a post about that over on my Soul Food Movies blog - and I try to see as many as I can of those top films that catch my interest.

But before we get to some of those that are on Vancouver screens now, let me alert you to an older film with only one screening, this evening at 8:40 at the VIFF/Vancity Theatre. THE MASS IS ENDED is a 1985 film by Italian director Nanni Moretti, whose later film THE SON'S ROOM was a stunner.

"A young priest, Don Giulio, struggles to maintain his faith. Having been a radical college student in the 1960s, Don Giulio has now rejected his long hair and liberal ideals in favor of the church. He has himself transferred to his home parish, only to discover the church empty and the town indifferent. Meanwhile, Don Giulio’s friends from his radical days begin popping up with their lives in serious disarray. Don Giulio seeks solace with his beloved family, but his family too is in chaos." VIFF

Back to the YEFF. The event movie of the year, soul food-wise, is surely SILENCE, which Martin Scorsese has been planning to make and I've been eagerly anticipating for 25 years. In CalArts days or early PT days I read Shusaku Endo's play "The Golden Country," which is something of a prequel to his novel on which the film is based. The play very much affected me, and were the cast size not so large I would have staged it long ago at Pacific Theatre. There was a mutual admiration between Graham Greene and Shusaku Endo, and much in common not only in the priest characters in Greene novels such as The Power and the Glory but also in their view of the Christian faith - which would have much to do with Robert Farrar Capon's insistence that the church consists of the last, the least, the lost, the little and the dead (Parables of the Kingdom). There's a nice summary of the Greene-Endo connection in the essay "Bad Priests and the Valor of Pity" by Christopher A. Link; although that link will only give you the first few paragraphs of his piece unless you've got academic credentials I lack, it's enough to lay out the essentials.

Anyhow, SILENCE opened at the Fifth Avenue Friday at noon, and I was there. It didn't disappoint.

As if that wasn't enough, my buddy and I fulfilled a New Year movie tradition by making it a double feature, returning for the late matinee screening of JACKIE. Which exceeded all expectations. I thought it would be just another of this tiresome procession of mid-century biopics, Hollywood's dreary product-recognition strategy for boomers, the corrollary of superhero retreads for everybody else. But it's something far more aesthetic, rigorous than the run-of-the-mill nostalgia. I should have known; it's #10 on the Metacritic Top Ten Tally for 2017. French director and production crew. And surprising elements of Christian reflection, in the person of a Catholic priest who talks with – and challenges – Jackie. Soul Food in unexpected places.

I'm going to call MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Soul Food, as well, but your mileage may vary. A couple friends found it overwhelmingly sad, or bleak, which surprised me - yes, these are broken lives, but I found great hope in it all. The two obvious Christians are the film's only flat characters, skewered for comic effect - yet even that flatness deepens by the end of their scene as some of our judgment and expectations are reversed, and the conversation that follows it broadens the idea of who and what may be "Christian." Religious faith is a thread that runs through Kenneth Lonergan's work, from the remarkable, unremarked presence of a Lutheran pastor in YOU CAN COUNT ON ME - remarkable because church life is so much a part of the lives of so many of us, and so rarely a part of the lives of movie characters - to the Jewish character in MARGARET.  Lonergan has remarked that he is not a believer, but that he almost wishes he was - that there's something good about having that kind of hope and reassurance.

I think MANCHESTER is his most fully realized film. MARGARET was his most ambitious, and with that reach came flaws I'm more than happy to overlook, but which tripped up most critics and many viewers. YOU CAN COUNT ON ME has the scope and feel of a play - Lonergan has written many - and he nails it. But MANCHESTER reaches farther, I think, and to my sensibility, pretty much perfect.

And coming up soon, another older film, by Soul Food auteur Robert Bresson.  Two screenings only, this Monday and Thursday evening. I'll let the good people at Pacific Cinematheque tell you all about it...

L’Argent (1983, France, Robert Bresson)
Pacific Cinematheque
Mon Jan 9 @ 8:15
Thu Jan 12 @ 6:30

NEW RESTORATION | The awe-inspiring farewell film of Robert Bresson, one of cinema’s immortals, freely adopts a Tolstoy novella (“The Forged Coupon”) and transposes it to contemporary France. L’Argent (“Money”) charts the circulation of a counterfeit 500-franc bill and the contagion of evil it spreads as it passes from hand to hand. When an innocent man unwittingly uses it to pay for a meal, the consequences prove disastrous. As in all Bresson’s major works, the real drama here is internal, spiritual, metaphysical; it derives not from plot or character but emanates from a rigorous austerity and intensity, from a meticulous accumulation of detail. In Bresson, objects and gestures miraculously transform into manifestations of the transcendent! L’Argent is one of Bresson’s best and most beautiful films — and one of his most harrowing indictments of modernity’s spiritual bankruptcy. It shared the Best Director prize at Cannes in 1983 with Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia.