Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 Capsules Part II

There's no doubting that our world can be a hostile, merciless place.  But it's made better by THIS IS NOT A FILM, one of the most imperative artistic statements of the last few years.  It could be an even better world if THIS IS NOT A FILM's creator, Jafar Panahi, were to be freed and pardoned, his 20 year ban from making films lifted in the process.  Tragically, such action isn't looking likely to happen.  For now, we have this final document of the great director to cling to, which is at once a defiant act of bravery, a dirge for artistic freedom, and a plea for action, like an S.O.S. scrolled upon the sand.  It is also, like Kiarostami's masterpiece CLOSE-UP, an ingenious act of distortion between fiction and reality, artistic subject and the artist himself.  It is a miraculously mobile document, constantly in flux even as its subject remains bounded and imprisoned.

The film (or lack thereof) follows Panahi as he remains under house arrest, awaiting the outcome of an appeal on his sentencing (6 years in prison; 20 year ban on filmmaking).  It starts as fairly straight-forward rendering of Panahi's forced domesticity, until Panahi himself turns to the camera and asks to stop, as he feels what he is creating is a lie.  From here, it follows Panahi's attempts to capture instances of truth, even as the film blurs the line between what is real and what is simulated.  In several heartbreaking sequences, Panahi tries in vain to enact a finished screenplay he will never be able to produce.  He reads the screenplay aloud, uses tape on his rug for blocking, and tries to paint with limited means what we will never see and he will never create.  He's barely able to get through it, the emotional weight of his artistic banishment striking him with devastating realization.  Yet he continues on, until the sounds of fireworks from nearby protests frighten him and he quickly loses interest.

From here, the film evolves into one of the most fascinating and profound sequences of the year as Panahi picks up his iPhone and begins filming both his documentor and a young neighbor as he collects trash around their apartment complex.  I have no idea if this sequence is staged or not and it doesn't matter.  In this moment, the director removes his chains and commits an act of defiance at the service of capturing something human.  He's doing what he might as well have been born to do.  His camera follows the neighbor with such devotion and interest, as if it were trying to mine every inch of this young person's being in the briefness of time they have together.  As the two ride in an elevator talking, collecting trash they finally reach floor level and step out into a world at once forbidden yet so palpable it literally burns.  The neighbor walks towards the flames and warns Panahi to stay back.  Panahi follows suit and the film cuts to black.  The brutal reality of the world has interrupted the documentation and hangs over everything like lead.  Yet the document remains.  This final sequence (as well as the entire film itself) serves as a testament to the unconquerable artistic spirit, and more immediately, as an incendiary if painful reminder that the artist, as all things, does not exist within a vacuum.

There are many haunting images in OSLO, AUGUST 31st that resonate well after its running time is over.  Perhaps the one that I keep returning to the most is of our deeply wounded protagonist Anders staring at a beautiful girl gliding in a pool, the untroubled coos of her voice beckoning him to join her while he sits off on the sidelines, a distant spectator like the morning light itself.  Anders looks at the girl with grave determination, his face occasionally breaking into an agonizing smile.  There is a part of him that wants so desperately to join her, to feel the cool water and her wet flesh soft against his own, but he knows with every fiber of his being that he cannot.  Or I should say, he thinks he knows, for that is the central tragedy at the heart of Anders' impasse, and Joachim Trier's quietly moving and extraordinarily humane film.  Anders feels the unbearable burden of his past mistakes and obdurately believes he cannot forgive himself for them.  He looks at the beautiful girl in the pool and he tells himself that she is an unattainable chimera of a present and future reality that he has squandered forever.  The heartbreaking truth about the way he stares at her as that he already feels himself to be a ghost.  And he gives himself only one solution to follow – the final relief of a warm arm and the slow slip into oblivion.

With OSLO, Joachim Trier has made a monumental leap forward from his first film, the promising but ultimately disappointing REPRISE.  Where REPRISE, though intermittently engaging, felt dogged by excessive editing and storytelling quirks, OSLO feels lean and incisive.  A majority of the film is characterized by these highly intimate and emotionally intensive scenes between Anders and just one other character.  Trier lets these scenes unfold with assiduous care and patience.  He trusts that all the emotion and gravity of the scenes can be conveyed through Anders' wonderfully expressive though often opaque countenance.  And they are – beautifully.  Actor Anders Danielsen Lie gives one of the best performances of the year as Anders, a recovering addict unable to see anything beyond the failures of his past.  It's a raw, heart-wrenching performance that is given ample space and time by Trier, as well as an uncommonly sincere measure of empathy.  As humans who have lived with all kinds of mistakes and regrets, we feel an avowed sympathy with Anders.  We forgive him, even though we know he rejects the notion outright and feels he is unworthy.  And we wish, increasingly fruitlessly though no less fervently, that he can eventually forgive himself.  But, like all unavailing dreams, it is not to be.

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