El Cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia – José Luis Torres Leiva (2008)

I think (although I could be wrong) that this post is a premiere, as it is probably the first post about a slow film from Chile on this blog. It does make me proud a bit, I have to say, because it means that the site keeps branching out. More discoveries from more countries – this is exactly what I’m aiming for. El cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia by José Luis Torres Leiva was a good guess after I had read the synopsis, and it turned out to be a wonderful, beautifully shot film that was a pleasure to watch.

What impressed me most about the film where the photographic frames that, at times, took my breath away. And the utter and complete defiance of a three-part narrative arc, with up and downs which would normally keep the viewer going and engaged. The narrative progression is flat, like a flatline on an ECG. Perhaps this describes Leiva’s film best. This isn’t a bad thing at all. In the end, the narrative, the story of depressed characters at the margin of society, fits this flatline rather well. Their lives are mostly uneventful. There is not much happening, except for the usual routine that weighs them down. Ana, one of the main protagonists (whose name we only learn more than one hour into the film), is a good example for this cinematic flatline. We don’t know much about her. The director doesn’t provide us with a background story, nor anything else that would be useful to follow her as a character. She is in the here and now. Neither her past, nor her future really exists. Her life seems to be an eternal present, a present which is dragging on, and drags her with it.

Leiva’s mise-en-scène adds to the idea of a flatline, of being dragged through an endless now, through everlasting difficulties that never seem to end. The film frames are drained of colours. They’re dull, uninviting, a perfect mirror of people’s lives. Some frames are cramped, others empty. Both represent the characters’ minds, full of concerns and worries, empty of hope and a future. There is an interaction between the two extremes that manifests itself in the film’s visuals and character development. Ana works in a shop, uncomfortable with her role. She makes mistakes that lead to her being sacked, dragging her deeper into an economic crisis that defines her life. But this is not all. She looks after her mother, who seems to be paralysed and in need of round-the-clock care. Ana pays an elderly woman to be with her mother for the time she is at the shop. At other times, she administers injections to her, tries to feed her. One can feel that death is coming, and one cannot be sure whether it would lighten the burden for Ana, or whether it would, instead, increase her suffering even more.

Ana and the other characters are floaters. They are caught up in a torrent of problems that life confronts them with. But while floating, they also get drowned here and there. It feels as though life is dragging them to the bottom of the sea while they try to keep their heads above water; economically and mentally. The quietness of the film, the lack of dialogue, reinforces this weight, invisible at times, and yet present. We see mental images, mind images, translated into pictures on a screen. There is longing, there is a desire to break out of this circle. In one scene, Ana stands in front of a window. She has just changed and cleaned her mother’s bed sheets. The bed sheets are hanging outside, in the pouring rain. Ana is inside looking out. We can see her in a mirror image of the glass with the camera’s focus remaining on the bedsheets outdoors. One can sense that Ana wants to break out, but she seems trapped. What can she do?

Even more trapped is another important character, who, to me, actually takes the main role in the film, because she embodies everything that is burdensome, everything that functions as a trap. The young Marta is mute. The director doesn’t even make clear whether she is deaf-mute, or mute. Or why she is mute in the first place. Is it physical or a psychological reaction to a traumatic event? We can only assume. Like Ana, Marta is a character without a history. She simply is. This is the defining characteristic of the film; we see what is, not what has been. We cannot be clear about Ana’s relationship to Marta, nor about anything else. At one point, Ana finds Marta at the seaside, crying. She takes her to her brother, not knowing what went wrong. At another point, Marta attempts to kill herself. She walks into the sea and hopes that the waves sweep her away. She is saved. Drenched to the bones, Ana and her friend drive her home, silent. What happened, is not spoken about. Silence is deafening, silence is muting.

Marta appears to be the one character who takes action to break out. She does so in a violent way, but she no longer seems to be capable of bearing the weight of life. She takes action, no longer accepts being passive. Towards the end of the film, she disappears. Whether she has finally succeeded in killing herself – the director leaves it open. Ana and her friend search for Marta, but without success. Has Marta succeeded in breaking out? Is she now at a better place? Ana’s mother is. While Ana stays at Toro’s, where she has been working as a housemaid since she got fired at the shop, her mother, alone at night, dies. The director doesn’t comment on this death. Like Marta, Ana’s mother simply disappears. Is her death Ana’s fault? Is her absence the cause of her mother’s death? What did the mother go through while alone? No answer is given. The director records. He doesn’t answer. He triggers questions, but doesn’t help us finding an answer.

It is only then that Ana, whose facial expressions hardly change throughout the film, breaks down. The weight is too much. She can no longer bear it and seemingly falls apart in Toro’s arms. The camera, in smooth movements, then follows her walking along a wooden path. But rather than following her right up to the end, the camera abandons her, like everything else around her in life. The camera pans further and further, getting embalmed by trees, repeating in some ways the second scene at the beginning of the film. There is a degree of smoothness, a certain degree of peace in this long-take which wants to bring closure to what we have seen. But it cannot hide the fact that there is no closure. This would mean that the film’s characters have access to a past, to a future, but they don’t. They continue to hoover in the present, in the now, drowning in their unsolved daily problems all the while trying to keep their heads above water. Life continues for them, in a flat line.

The Sacrifice – Andrei Tarkovsky (1986)

“Humanity is on the wrong road.”

Andrei Tarkovsky’s ultimate film, The Sacrifice, released in the year of the director’s death, is perhaps one of his bleakest films. Once more, I see a steady development towards an end; the end of a filmmaking career, a sophisticated development of ideas about the world and Man, a progress towards putting finishing touches on one’s oeuvre. I have seen this before with the final films of Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011) and Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs, 2013). Sacrifice fits very much into this line as a sort of film that makes a final statement, a film that is, in parts, a recollection, a reminder, but also an outlook to the extent that there will be other filmmakers who will pick up on this and continue the story.

It was the second time I have attempted to watch Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. I didn’t finish it the first time. It’s funny to say this now, but the film felt incredibly slow. More difficult to watch than longer slow films. I tried it again yesterday, years later, now with a good number of slow films of all sorts under my belt, and it still remains one of the slowest films I have seen! And indeed, my husband agrees that The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s slowest film. The running time of just over two hours is nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, and, above all, nothing that I haven’t sat through before. Yet, this feeling of slowness was heavier than in other films I have seen. There is a real weight to The Sacrifice, which slows down the film, a weight that goes beyond the running time, beyond the usual aesthetics for slow films. It is a weight, which (slowly) creeps up on the viewer through the various, countless, daring monologues and dialogues.

This is one aspect, which made The Sacrifice a challenging film; the often highly sophisticated monologues that ask you to ponder, to reflect, perhaps even to respond, cannot be taken lightly. You cannot not react to them. You cannot not think about them. Tarkosvky forces you to be engaged in discussing humanity’s failure, Man’s shortcomings, our desire for destruction. “Savages are more spiritual than us. As soon as we have a scientific breakthrough, we put it into the service of evil”, says Alexander, the main protagonist, who has, according to himself, a non-existing relationship to God, but who pleads with God to save his family from the coming nuclear war. In return, he offers to destroy his house, to give up on his family, on Little Man (his son), and he promises to never say a word again: “if only God takes away this animal fear.”

Silence – another important factor in The Sacrifice. Despite the number of thought-provoking monologues throughout the film, Tarkovsky has created a very quiet film. We can hear suspected war planes flying above the beautiful house, built right at the coast. At some point we can hear a television set. And yet, The Sacrifice is, very much like The Mirror and Nostalghia, a quiet film, almost silent, which, I know, sounds contradictory, but I believe this is precisely what the director was going for: to create a discrepancy, a contradiction that confuses the viewer, confused like the characters are once the imminent nuclear war is announced on television. The end is near… Otto, the postman, a good friend of Alexander, says early on in the film: “One shouldn’t be waiting for something.” Waiting – this is perhaps the essence of The Sacrifice.

Waiting for something that you know is going to come without knowing when it’s going to hit you. This is very much the point Lav Diaz makes in several of his films, perhaps most evidently in Melancholia (2008). Three rebel fighters are stuck in the jungle. They’re the remaining fighters of a larger group, the rest of which has been killed already. The island they’re on has been surrounded. They know what’s coming for them, but they don’t know when. It’s psychological warfare, a very effective type that, as Diaz shows, can drive people to insanity. What is the origin of this insanity? Fear. But fear of what? Alexander says, “There is no death. There is fear of death, and it’s a terrible feeling. If only we could stop fearing death.” The Sacrifice is a film about fear. It is a film about the unseen, about the feared; about a nothing that is full of something, namely danger; about the question of what it means to fear death, to mourn your life in advance.

Waiting, silence, heaviness – these are the three main elements that contribute to the exceptional experienced slowness. But there is something else that struck me when I saw the film, already when I saw it for the first time. The Sacrifice could also well be filmed theatre. Fittingly, it is pointed out pretty early on that Alexander used to be a theatre actor. He received a birthday card from former colleagues. All interior scenes, set in Alexander’s family home, feel like a filmed stage, a theatre stage. The set-up as well as the movement and the behaviour of the actors and actresses contributes to the feeling of seeing a stage play in front of you. Often, the speaking person walks towards the camera as do theatre actors/actresses often do, too. There is a theatricality to the film that, to me, supports the idea of a major psychological breakdown going on in the film.

Yet, after all, after the passing of the imminent danger, after the breakdown of Alexander’s wife out of sheer fear, after the ominous remark of postman Otto that only Maria (the servant) could help prevent the apocalypse, after all of this, there is one thing that remains: the circularity of life. Nothing ever stops. Everything continues, in one way or another. Alexander pleads with God and promises never to speak again. His son, Little Man, as he lovingly calls him, is mute throughout the film. It isn’t revealed why. There is vague talk of an operation, but Tarkovsky never fully clarifies this. What matters is that when Alexander falls silent, Little Man begins to speak. “At the beginning was the word. Why is that, papa?”

Continuity, circularity – everything continues, everything circulates, nothing ever stops, despite sacrifices by one man. Life goes on. If you leave something, someone else will pick it up and continue the work. It is as though Tarkovsky, dying of cancer at the time, sent us a message with this film: when he is gone, someone else will continue the work he has been doing. Perhaps not in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, his work will continue, and so it did with the likes of Béla Tarr, in particular. But also Lav Diaz continues the work Tarkovsky had started in the 1960s. And it will be continued by many more filmmakers from around the world.

The weight of time

If you study Slow Cinema, or time in film in more general terms, you cannot avoid reading Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time (2004). It is a kind of bible for those who are interested in how cinema came about, although I do find it, in fact, too little concerned with cinema itself, and more with everything that came before. I haven’t managed to read the whole book yet, though, but I’m definitely missing something there.

In any case, Doane made reference to something that I had come about when I started reading about Futurism and Futurist art. She writes,

“One could argue more generally that at the turn of the century time became palpable in a different way – one specific to modernity and intimately allied with its new technologies of representation (photographs, film, phonography). Time was indeed felt – as a weight, as a source of anxiety, and as an acutely pressing problem of representation” (2004: 4, original emphasis).

Writing this, Doane had an increased speed in the arts in mind. Again, Futurist art is for me the point when speed became so evident that you could not avoid it anymore. It was everywhere. Speed, or rather the passing of time and therefore the seemingly increased pace of walking towards one’s own death caused anxiety, and made people move even faster, because they thought that they could accomplish more if they just did things faster. Indeed, many people – me included – have problems to be in bustling shopping centres or high streets, where everyone is walking swiftly from one shop to another, always on the phone.

What I find interesting is that Doane links this anxiety to speed. I do not argue against her statement. It is more than appropriate. But how about anxiety felt in Slow Cinema? Slow time as triggering anxiety? When I read this passage in Doane’s book, I returned to my paper on the concentrationary universe in the films of Lav Diaz, in which I argued that Diaz created ‘time terror’ for both the characters and the viewer. In his focus on trauma and history, Diaz is surely an extreme example of using slowness as a means to create anxiety. But there are more directors, who use slow time to show the actual ‘weight of time’ as Doane put it.

How much time do we spend waiting when we watch a slow film? How much time do we spend wondering what is going to happen? And with that, how much time do we spend seeing characters suffering?

This anxiety is also visible in Pedro Costa’s films, a fact that makes for an interesting point. The weight of time, infused by slowness, is the weight of the past. It’s the opposite of what we saw with Futurist art, where time was more infused by the weight of the future. Slow films (not all of them) look back to the colonial history of the countries they are made in, and it is not only a traumatic history, which still wears heavy on local populations. It is also a degree of standstill. Can these people – the former colonised subjects, the people depicted in those films – move forward? Can they move at all, or does the weight of time, of the past, prevents them from doing so?

There is certainly an interesting point to study in a bit more detail here, but for some reason it would take me a bit too far astray at the moment, so this will have to wait a little while before I return to it. But I wanted to mention it at least 🙂