Their Eyes Were Watching God

R. Alverson's underheraleded "New Jerusalem" is one of four films confronting issues of faith.

2011 has seen its share of the strange and awful, the usual CGI blockbusters, twee indie hits, and animated kids’ movies, not to mention sequels. But this year has also had a surprising number of intriguing pictures whose stories examine our complex relationship with faith, or with God, if that’s your cup of coffee.

I’m lucky to live in a city that screens these movies–well, has screened three of them. One, R. Alverson’s New Jerusalem, has been absent from just about every movie theater in America. This small film, which I would rank with my favorite of all time, much less my pick thus far for best movie of the year, has been oddly maligned, leaving me wondering what the hell the other critics (and friends) were watching.

Another, Tree of Life, is one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, and its supporters–and I’m not one of them, not at all–have taken the arrogant tack of assuming a deficiency of intellect in people who dislike Terrence Malick’s magnum opus.

In between are a pair of foreign films that have won near unanimous acclaim overseas… only to find a general indifference here in America. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a startling, truly original movie, winner of the top prize at Cannes in 2010 (it took a half year to land on our shores), but has received mixed reviews from U. S. critics.

Then there’s Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men, which won a slew of French Cesar’s (their highest prize), but seemed to bore most American critics.

None of these movies have fared well in this country, at least financially.

New Jerusalem is the smallest of the lot, a moving and thoughtful film about the nature of friendship and faith. It is the story of Sean (the great Colm O’Leary, an actor of great intensity, and someone who needs to be in more movies) an Irishman and Afghan War vet who is lost in this world. He works at a tire store with Ike (Will Oldham, who I’ll follow to any movie, any time), an evangelical Christian who wants to save Sean’s soul.

Director R. Alverson could patronize Ike, making him a loony evangelical–which, frankly, is how I think of them. But instead he seems to understand, and reveal in moving scenes of prayer and worship, just what it is that attracts people to church–the community, the singing, hell even just simply touching another person.

One might think that nothing much happens in New Jerusalem, and yet everything happens in New Jerusalem. Mr. Alverson seems to have a profound understanding of the loneliness of a man like Sean, who befriends a man so utterly different in every way–if you’ve worked those blue collar jobs, as I have, and been spending too much time on your mattress on the floor with your books, even a doughnut shared with a man like Ike can be revelatory, even as it might make you a bit uncomfortable.

For Alverson, God is clearly in the details–the rough hands of his protagonists, Ike holding Sean’s hand while he prays over coffee (a scene as charged as anything I’ve seen in movies in a long time), the tires, the churces, an tense conversation about Jesus in a car as two tentative friends part ways.

New Jerusalem is that rare movie that reminds you that God or spirit or… whatever it is you believe–is everywhere, in everybody, from the grime on the floor of a tire shop to the notes that ring through the church on the voices of a choir. If you can see New Jerusalem, please do. It is truly an amazement.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is more problematic. For starters, I’ll admit right away that I don’t understand this movie. But I don’t understand quantum physics either…well, I don’t really understand Newtonian physics for that matter. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the wonders of science, marvel at the Big Bang Theory, or try to wrap my brain around the speed of light and what it does to Carl Sagan on a scooter. Uncle Boonmee is a beautiful mystery, a magnificent work of art from an artist whose Thai Buddhist beliefs inform everything he does.

Uncle Boonmee is from director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai director of considerable note (do not miss what I consider his masterpiece, Syndromes and a Century.) The plot is fairly simple: the eponymous Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) has a tamarind farm and raises bees. He is dying of kidney failure. His sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) is there to help him in his last days. Over dinner, they are visited by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), who appears as a spirit, and then is seemingly a tactile human being who can be touched and held. Boonmee’s son (Geerasak Kulhong), who disappeared ages ago, appears as a now-famous Ghost Monkey, in which the actor is donning an ape suit that doesn’t look all that real, with glowing red eyes.

It is very difficult to summarize this movie, except to say that it touches on a certain Buddhist belief in reincarnation, and seems to comfortable with this notion of the afterlife that ghosts and death are completely free of terror–in fact, I have never witnessed a film, or any work of art for that matter, that so relaxed me on this often terrifying subject. Life and death seem to ebb and flow in Uncle Boonmee, just as the tides come in and out without alarm. The movie is strange and perplexing. I know I could watch it a dozen times and still never grasp its multiple meanings. Scene after scene after scene continues to amaze, with the result being you emerge rapturous.

Or bored. Apparently tons of critics–and people I know–found the movie dreadful. See it for yourself when it emerges on DVD.

Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men is probably the most straightforward of these films. It is the story of a monastery in Tibhirine in Algeria, where nine Trappist monks lived and worked amongst their Muslim brothers and sisters. The monks, young and old, cheerful and grouchy, help administer medical help to the village, work alongside local leaders, and give advice to the young.

This was in the mid-90s, when Algeria descended into a chaotic civil war. Unwilling to abandon their post, the monks remained despite threats to their safety, until they were kidnapped and executed in 1996.

What makes Of Gods and Men work so well is its attention to detail, as well as avoiding the path of least resistance–namely, to make these holy men into saints. They are flawed men, who fight and argue, and in fact most of them want to leave at the first threats. Some are brave, some are cowards. But like 12 Angry Men, one by one they are convinced to stay, either by entreaties from the lead monk Christian (Lambert Wilson), or by the simple act of opening their eyes and seeing the community in which they had lived for many years–how can they live anywhere else, knowing they abandoned such a place?

Apparently, the entire cast trained for months in Cisterian chanting, and in the rituals and daily habits of these men. The result is a nothing short of a masterpiece.

Finally we come to the most troubling of these movies, Terrence Malick’s hugely anticipated Tree of Life. Honestly, I hadn’t had a worse time at the movies until I saw Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and at least that was fun to hate. Like Malick’s Thin Red Line before it, this one is gorgeous to look at, but unbelievably patronizing (to the natives in the latter, women in the former), and seemingly made by an alien who has read about this planet’s human beings but doesn’t quite understand them.

To make matters worse (for me, anyway), the film’s defenders, like Inception’s last year, seem to believe that if you don’t absolutely think that this is the greatest movie of the year and should be worshipped and admired, well, then you’re an idiot who has a closed mind. Perhaps I’m an idiot. Because to me, Tree of Life is a deep motion picture if all you know about life is from motion pictures.

Yes, Tree of Life is non-linear, and is supposedly a movie about God. Watching it I can only imagine Malick as one of those sad philosophers in a brown room stacked with books, his shades drawn, talking to no one, scribbling a dialogue with a higher being that he has found in the pages of Heidegger, seeing no one.

The reason I feel this way is that the movie hasn’t got many real people in it. Tree is the story of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their family growing up in Waco, Texas in, I think, the 1950s, but really just any town that alleys and a river and stoic people. The O’Brien’s receive a telegram that informs them that their son is dead. How, we don’t know, and it’s not important, apparently.

Sean Penn plays one of the sons, Jack, whom we see in present day. He is an architect who stares forlornly out of his window. He will do little else. Jack’s wife wanders around their beautiful home. She has no name. Like most the women in this picture, she is of no importance.

Soon Malick takes us on a tour through the creation of the universe. I have no doubt that was a difficult segment to edit, to create, but like the battle scenes in Thin Red Line, which were neither beautiful nor fraught with tension, these are no more engaging than your typical NASA IMAX movie about the formation of the universe.

There are few details in this movie, and I like details. I like to know my characters. The mother has no likes and dislikes, outside of loving her children, which is shown by very staged shots in which she holds them, or walks, heel to toe, like a J. Crew model. What does she like to eat, to read, to listen to, her favorite bird, dress, drink? What makes her laugh?

No, she is a mother who shows us a mother’s love, which involves holding your children and staring deep into space.

Mr. O’Brien is a nearly brutal man, who is quick to lose his temper. He is forever searching for great wealth and admiration, has patents which are constantly stolen, and he loves classical music. His three boys play in the alleys of Waco, but they are indistinguishable from one another for the most part–one is more introverted, one a bit more rebellious. But again, where are the details? The period details? A boy rebelling against his father’s love of classical music might turn to Elvis, might read Mad Magazines. Again, as was the case with the homosexual sex in the novel The Thin Red Line, Malick’s prudishness comes through: one of the boys steals a slip from a woman’s dresser (in a home he broke into), only to allow it to float beautifully downstream. Sex is pretty, just as grief is stylish in Tree of Life.

I guess I am ignorant–I don’t honestly understand what people get from this movie. A sense of God? A sense of the complexity of grief? Again, this is an intellect’s God, a family and a city (Waco) from a man who seems to have barely paid attention to either, or who edits memory into something that while visually gorgeous, is viscerally empty.

I’ll give Tree of Life some begrudging credit for being made–it’s not often a picture like this gets funded, but it’s also not the astounding miracle its supporters have us believe. For my money and time, I’ll take Boonmee, Gods, and especially New Jerusalem, with their deep love and respect for their people and their people’s faith, over Malick’s ice-cold view of life.

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