New Jerusalem: the best picture of 2011?

R. Alverson's "New Jerusalem" is a movie that has haunted me for weeks.

The Night of the Hunter. Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Chaplin’s Modern Times. Heady titles, brilliant films, tremendous entertainments. But if there’s only one movie you can see at this year’s James River Film Festival, I say that it should be R. Alverson’s New Jerusalem.

This is not going to be a review, since I don’t feel the least bit qualified to review this film. See, I’ve only witnessed this movie once. Like some of the best novels I’ve read, from Gilead to The Brothers Karamazov (and yes, I believe those comparisons are apt), I need to revisit it, in an attempt to understand deeper mysteries.

You can click on the link above to see a summary of New Jerusalem’s plot. I will tell you that this is a beautiful, moving film that will reward attention and multiple viewings. The spiritual conversations between Sean (Colm O’Leary, a magnificient, subtle actor–where did he come from?) and Ike (Will Oldham, also brilliant) are moving, thought provoking. I’ve been there, in the midst of malaise, not to the extent that O’Leary’s Sean, an Afghan vet, has, but I’ve sat in rooms without art on their walls, piles of books accumulating by my bed, the remnants of late night attempts to get at the bottom of things.

Sean knows, however, that he will never get at the bottom of things, never achieve that faith that Ike waves proudly. But we see that he appreciates the attempts at salvation, that it intrigues him, that its benefits–holding a callused hand in prayer, singing in church–are indeed holy, and would be celebrated by his secular saint, Walt Whitman. But he cannot commit.

I guess I can relate to that. I wrote at the top that I think New Jerusalem is the best picture of 2011, and you know I certainly do not mean that in the Academy Award sense. But I know myself, and when certain movies stick in my intellectual craw, they usually do not dislodge themselves. I’ve seen some great movies this year, from Uncle Boonmee to Of Gods and Men, both incredibly moving, but New Jerusalem is my favorite so far, and it will be up there for the rest of my life, I’m sure.  It’s as special as a memory of a vulnerable time in life, those times we question ourselves and our faith, and that we look back on with wonder. You’re alive, and those late night, probing questions, the pain of silence in lieu of answers, reminds you that this life is difficult. Which is beautiful, isn’t it?

New Jerusalem captures that beauty, and, simply put, I love it. This opportunity to see such a visually arresting film comes rarely, so I encourage you to check it out on Wednesday evening at the VCU Grace Street Theater. R. Alverson will be on hand to take questions–and it’s a good thing I’m not going to be there, since I’d probably hog the proceedings for hours.

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