The Best Films of 2013

A still from Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet1. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (dir. Alain Resnais)

I suppose it should be no surprise that the wisest, most mature film of the year should come from perhaps the wisest, most mature living filmmaker.  Now at 91, Alain Resnais has long ago earned the right to settle down and make whatever senile, esoteric film he wants, but instead he makes this remarkably perceptive film on the delicate interaction between life and art; individual dreams vs. a shared cultural heritage; and the fragility of time and memory  (an oft repeated theme in Resnais’ work).  Not only is this perhaps his best film in thirty years, it strikes this viewer as the work of an old magician showing his audience that he still has a few tricks left up his sleeve, and the hurried, impassioned work of a man trying to make a poignant final statement about life, death, love, and his art before time, that great equalizer, finally and inevitably catches up to him.

nebraska2. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)

Following in the spirit of the great American road movies of the 1970’s (Five Easy PiecesHarry & Tonto, even Paper Moon), Alexander Payne’s best film to date journey’s into the heritage, and consequently, legacy of a Midwestern family.  Bruce Dern has been working his entire career towards this role which he inhabits with aplomb.  Mistaken by some for condescension and use of Midwestern stereotypes (a sin for which Payne was regrettably guilty of in his previous, Hawaii set, The Descendants), Payne actually exhibits an almost Todd Solondz-like mastery of tone which reveals the essential compassion at the film’s core, as well as Payne’s deeply felt, personal understanding of the milieu.  Note the subtle eye for detail in the characterization of June Squibb’s very Catholic, bawdy vulgarity vs. Bruce Dern’s pained, stoical Lutheranism.

to the wonder3. To The Wonder (dir. Terrence Malick)

Seen by many as the forgettable stepchild, or B-side to Malick’s operatic and highly praised The Tree of Life, if anything this may be the superior of the two.  Both less cosmic and more disciplined than it’s predecessor, To The Wonder is nonetheless a triumph of poetic and personal filmmaking.  Rather than contrasting (or connecting) the triumphs and tribulations of a single family to the unimagined vastness of the cosmos, instead Malick equates love, the virility of nature, and the quest for spiritual identity with the search for God.  At its best, his exalted visual style bestows a sense of holiness and reverence on even the most mundane of subjects.  And, at it’s best, is the closest modern film has come to producing a cinematic act of prayer.

prisoners4. Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

If there was one film this year that caught me off guard and proved to be unexpectedly compelling, it would be Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners.  This intense, slow building, morally complex thriller turns the “revenge drama” sub-genre on its head by exploring its characters in philosophical and spiritual terms rather than using them as cynical and facile political allegories.  Like Mystic River, this film suggests the seemingly conflicting natures of justice and faith, yet Hugh Jackman’s everyman rage proves far more salient and pitiable than Sean Penn’s actory histrionics.

like someone in love5. Like Someone In Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

In his two most recent outings, Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has turned his lens from his native land to two very different, almost disparate cultures: Italy (Certified Copy) and now Japan.  Like To the Wonder, Kiarostami’s latest seems to have suffered critically by being the follow up to a highly praised predecessor.  Rather than a step back in filmmaking, if anything the critical confusion seems to rest in a sense of cultural dislocation: the warm, inviting Italian countryside of Certified Copy vs. the cold, impersonal Tokyo metropolis.  The difference between the two films is almost an East vs. West dichotomy.  And that’s the point.  It’s the sense of cultural disconnectedness (a theme often employed by Ozu) of the two principal characters, and that need for understanding, connection, and human warmth that they both seem to have lost (or possibly abandoned).  Kiarostami’s technique may be intentionally distancing at times, yet his effect is poignant, and in the film’s final moments, quite surprising.

 

the world's end6. The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)

Film by film, Edgar Wright is proving himself to be the master comic filmmaker of our era.  With The World’s End, Wright achieves what Tarantino seldom (or never) has: the ability to digest familiar genre tropes and regurgitate them as intensely personal reflection and even film art.  The film’s dramatic thrust–reconciling nostalgia and illusions of past triumph with the reality of a world that you need more than it needs you–is so well and movingly captured that it takes a mid-film twist into 1950’s sci-fi territory in order to contain it.  Despite the emotional immaturity of some of the characters, as a filmmaker, Wright proves to be both insightful and compassionate, while the film succeeds simultaneously as a buddy comedy, reunion drama, political satire, sci-fi/horror film, and parody.  No easy task, but he does it.

 

in the hosue7. In The House (dir. François Ozon)

François Ozon has developed as a filmmaker in recent years.  From the unsettling, erotic thrillers of his early career to the more humane domestic satirist he has become, Ozon has never lost his skill for balancing the beautiful with the sinister.  Ozon slyly attacks bourgeois institutions such as contemporary art, literature, smug intellectualism, and middle class home life with a film that essentially exposes how contemporary culture has come to define itself by these things rather than the other way around.  In fact, the approach of In The House is essentially surrealist and would feel at home in Luis Buñuel’s oeuvre right in between The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.  Though, in reality, it’s most closely related to Pasolini’s bizzare-o satire, Teorema.  Thankfully, however, Ozon is less alienating and more compassionate than his Italian counterpart.

 

the we and the i8. The We and the I (dir. Michel Gondry)

If nothing else, music video wunderkind Michel Gondry’s latest experiment triumphs for use of the most philosophically and politically prescient title in years.  Here Gondry utilizes the device misused by Richard Linklater in Dazed and Confused, by charting the longings and insecurities of a diverse group of inner city Bronx high school students on a bus ride home after the last day of school.  Where Linklater attempted a more cerebral, and ultimately condescending tone, Gondry’s inclusiveness and emotional honesty charts the profundity of adolescent moral development.  The resulting observation, which discovers the process of forming one’s individuality in the context of social interaction and the greater culture at large, is as vibrant and natural as any film you will see.

 

bullet to the head9. Bullet To The Head (dir. Walter Hill)

Sylvester Stallone cements his return to action film stardom in this, the best of his now several “comeback” films.  Best because at last he hitches himself to Walter Hill, a director who understands the fundamental dynamics of action films better than virtually any other living director.  Hill, in comeback mode himself, a director who studied at the schools of masters such as Howard Hawks, John Huston, and even Jean-Pierre Melville shows an emphasis on moral reckoning and codes of ethics over mindless violence and CGI bombast.  For Hill, action is character (when properly contextualized) and the line, “Sometimes you have to abandon your principals and do the right thing,” perfectly captures that professional ethos.  For Stallone and Hill, two dogged veterans of the action genre, violence proves not to be merely a contrivance to advance plot, but an illustration of human weakness.

 

the grandmaster10. The Grandmaster (dir. Wong Kar-Wai)

If Walter Hill is one of the masters of the action film as it has developed in the West, then Wong Kar-Wai (along with Zhang Yimou) is the master of the action film as it has developed in the East, even though neither Wong nor Zhang is exclusively tied to the action genre.  In The Grandmaster, action and choreography become the primary tools of emotional expression in a film that seamlessly combines national history with cultural myth.  The visage of the two leads (Wong regular, Tony Leung, and the always gorgeous, Ziyi Zhang) promotes inscrutable mystery and emotional distance, yet when in combat there is an explosion of passion, as if they can only truly express themselves in the terms of their art, even if it is a martial one.  Though this may not be Wong’s best film (that distinction belongs to the underrated 2046), it exhibits many of his most potent themes, including the tragic tenuousness of time and cultural memory (a theme which, to bring this list full circle, he learned from Alain Resnais).

 

Honorable Mention:

Caesar Must Die (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani), Passion (Brian De Palma), Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel), Pain & Gain (Michael Bay), 42 (Brian Helgeland), American Hustle (David O. Russell), Mud (Jeff Nichols), Byzantium (Neil Jordan), Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland), The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie)

 

The Forgettable and the Overrated:

Before Midnight, The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, Gravity, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Prince Avalanche, Spring Breakers, The Wolf of Wall Street

 

Terrence Malick, Theologian: The Intimidating, Exhilarating Religiosity of “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” on Notebook | MUBI

Terrence Malick, Theologian: The Intimidating, Exhilarating Religiosity of “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” on Notebook | MUBI.

I don’t generally repost articles, but I found this to be especially compelling.

The New World

The-New-World-001That Terrence Malick is an enigma need not be overstated.  Much has been made and speculated over regarding the director’s almost J.D. Saliger-like reclusiveness and the notoriously mysterious twenty year gap between his second and third films–a gap which, thankfully, appears to be quickly dropping between successive films.  Currently, with only six completed films to his credit in a forty year career, he has consistently been pointed to as the kind of filmmaker who seems to embody the adage of quality over quantity.  For the critic, however, if nothing else, the gaps between films allows for them to be categorized neatly into groups of two: there is the photographic brilliance, and the innocent, blue collar poetry of his first two films (Badlands and Days of Heaven); there is the mature, transcendent revisionism of his middle two historic epics (The Thin Red Line and The New World); and finally the cosmic-as-personal Christianity of his most recent films (Tree of Life and To the Wonder).  Above all, however, Terrence Malick is a poet working in a medium whose audience often tends to shun unfamiliar forms of expression.  And it is his poetic instincts which are simultaneously his greatest strength (and legacy to the artform) as well as potentially the very characteristics which can get him into trouble.

Pauline Kael once described Days of Heaven as an “epic pastiche” with too many ideas that don’t grow out of anything organic, and described it as “an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphor’s on it.”  While I’m not convinced she was right about the film (Days of Heaven remains a personal favorite of mine), Kael was always a challenger of prevailing notions.  I do, however, understand her inclination, which has been periodically leveled against several of his films.  Poetry, and in particular visual poetry, without discipline can far too easily become mindless ambiguity: form without substance.

Though not necessarily my very favorite of his films, in some ways, The New World represents the apotheosis of Malick’s art–both grounded to narrative just enough so as not to distance a more casual audience, while still maintaining the lyrical grandeur one has come to expect from his films, achieving the kind of organic representation that Kael felt was lacking in his earlier work.  I write here about the primary, theatrical version of film rather than 2 1/2 hour Academy cut which was released briefly in late 2005 (sadly, I didn’t get to see this version), or the nearly 3 hour director’s cut released on DVD and BluRay (which I also own, but find to be unnecessarily indulgent).  The New World might best be viewed as a creation myth.  But unlike the creation story at the center of his Tree of Lifethis creation story is less concerned with the origins of the universe than the origins of man–or, if you prefer, the origins of a nation.  Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell in perhaps his best role to date) and Pocahontas (first-timer Q’orianka Kilcher in a revelatory, under-recognized performance) are the new Adam and the new Eve of the Edenic American continent circa 1607.  And like the biblical Eden, it is sin which brings about the fall of this new Paradise.

The opening scenes of English ships arriving at the shores of Virginia set to the introduction of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold opera, are are among the most captivating scenes from any film in the last decade and immediately set the tone for things to come.  In a film filled with contrasts and juxtapositions, perhaps the most startling early on is that of the English in their bulky, metal armor and the Natives in their buckskin.  The cautious, early interactions between the two cultures breeds suspicion and unease on both sides.

At times, the film somewhat over-idealizes the way of life of the Natives–Smith’s narration suggests that they have no concept of greed, deceit, or even forgiveness, a notion contradicted by Pocahontas’ pleading with her kingly father for forgiveness, as well as the tribe’s proficiency with weapons and military strength–but thankfully, it never quite reaches the simplistic level of Indians=good, Europeans=bad.  Instead, Malick’s humanism reaches far deeper than that, uncovering the complexities of colonial contact.  As one critic pointed out, “He (Malick) creates uncanny, expressive imagery, such as a pair of hands, turned outward from a praying position so that they are cupped, to scoop a clam out of the fecund sea. It is an image of promise, yet both the pearl and the plundering are implicit.”  Indeed, for that is the double-sided story of The New World and of America herself–a land in many ways destroyed in order to make way for the promise of hope, opportunity, and new beginnings.

Nevertheless, like a story by Emerson or Thoreau, the film finds tragedy in man’s estrangement from his environment, and peculiarity in his desire to reshape nature as represented in a scene where an Indian stares perplexed at a meticulously manicured English garden late in the film.  The beauty of nature vs. the encroachment of civilization is a common theme throughout Malick’s work.  As with the clam in the sea, the sets of hands, so often seen outstretched to heaven throughout the film, suggest it might be a kind of prayer: a prayer of thanks for the beauty that surrounds us, and a prayer of repentance for the destruction we have wrought.

Simultaneously more optimistic than The Thin Red Line and more focused and disciplined than Tree of Life (the films which immediately preceded and followed this one), The New World ultimately succeeds through the character of Pocahontas whose strong will and open heart finds peace through sacrifice.  And fittingly, it is images of resurrection which dominate the film’s rapturous finalé, confirming that only through destruction can there be rejuvenation, and only through death can one find life everlasting. It is here that the ambiguous mysticism of her elliptical narration becomes solid and takes form, how the word is made flesh.  Though her chiefly father may have been just in distrusting the Europeans, it is her compassion which transcends justice and finds grace.

New LETTERBOXD account…

For those of you interested in following a running log of the films I’ve been watching, along with a star rating of each, feel free to follow my Letterboxd page at: http://letterboxd.com/ahstanleykubric/

No longer will I be maintaining a viewing log directly on this blog, so check out the letterboxd page.  Feel free to comment here, comment there, comment everywhere.  Also, I will continue to periodically essay certain films, books, ideas etc, here on the blog.

Scarface (1983)

ScarfaceTHE WORLD IS YOURS… proclaims a marquee atop the Goodyear Blimp.  The phrase clearly strikes a chord with Tony Montana since he has it inscribed on a giant, Atlas-like globe and sets it as the centerpiece of the foyer in his Miami mansion.  The world is all he wants, and for a time, all he gets, as later in the movie it reads less as a proud mission statement and more as an ironic epitaph.  Actually, both uses are a sly homage to Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster classic, of which this is ostensibly a “remake”.  While the structure of the Hawks film is vaguely evident, director Brian De Palma and writer Oliver Stone craft their own cinematic world and brand it with their own unique personalities.  And, of course, the third person in that trinitarian alliance is Al Pacino, who as Tony Montana creates perhaps the most scenery-chewing performance of his career, which probably puts it on the short list for most scenery-chewing performance in film history.  This is not a criticism.

De Palma is no stranger to controversy, particularly when it comes to the ratings board, but in the case of Scarface, not only did he engage a ratings battle (it got an “X” rating three times, before he had a narcotics officer testify to the authenticity of the film in order to reduce it to an “R”), but also ongoing accusations that the film actually glorifies drug use, the narcotics industry, and glamorizes violence.  Nothing could be more absurd.  Part of the controversy, no doubt, stems from its misunderstood reputation within the hip hop community, the appeal being Montana’s ambition, flamboyance, and braggadocio (“All I got in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for nobody!”)  Subtlety has never been De Palma’s strong suit, and with Tony Montana, he finds a character which he can fully exploit with operatic grandeur.  The story is not simply one of sex, drugs, and violence, but the tragedy of a bad man and the corruption of the American Dream.

Few filmmakers can claim to understand the mechanics and pleasures of the cinema as well as Brian De Palma, who in his own way, is one of the most “pure” filmmakers this country has ever produced.  In Scarface, like many of his other films, this is made evident in his manipulation of artifice, whether it be the painted billboard of a serene Miami sunset which fills the frame at the beginning of the film, or Robert Loggia’s office walls painted like the phony paradise of a tourism brochure.  To De Palma, cinema is not reality, but the illusion of reality, and he is constantly playing with that illusion.  But this works on more than simply a visual level, because the entire empire Montana builds–all of the money, the fame, the VIP treatment, even his trophy wife–all of this too is an artifice.  He has balls, but no courage; money, but no charity; a beautiful wife, but no love; an army, but no friends.  It is in the latter scenes where Montana begins to recognize this fact that a genuine pathos is developed, both transforming the film from merely an exercise in personality to an exploration of character as well as answering those who would reduce the film to a monument of excess.  I doubt he is ruminating on the words of Matthew 16:26 while staring besottedly at the molehill of cocaine piled atop his desk, but he might as well be.

Much has been made of the film’s extreme violence, as much was made in 1932 when Howard Hawks was equally castigated for appearing to endorse gangsterism and reckless violence.  Though the violence of Hawks’ film may seem tame by today’s standards, De Palma’s still has the capacity to shock.  Yet for all of their stylistic differences, few filmmakers can boast a superior handling of violence than either of the two directors.  Tarantino tries to, but quickly devolves into cartoonishness.  The climax of Scarface owes as much to Shakespeare as to M-16’s.  That Pacino’s howl “Say hello to my little friend!” has become something of a pop culture mantra, clearly misses the fact that the exclamation is less a declaration of fortitude and resilience than it is a genital euphemism.  And the climactic outpouring of bullets and blood adequately represents what one critic referred to as a “cinegasm”, something that De Palma might well have invented with the finalé to his 1976 film, Carrie, or perhaps even more overtly in his 1978 film, The Fury.  It is catharsis in its purist form, but whatever term you wish to use, one thing is undeniable: it is cinematic.

Mozart’s “Requiem” and Prayer’s For the Dead

Requiem – Mozart by Gardiner – YouTube.

Over the last few weeks, my girlfriend and I have found ourselves in the presence of some of the most glorious music ever written, including symphonies by Beethoven and cantata’s by Bach.  And while experiencing the fourth movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony is sublime, the work that I am most interested in addressing is Mozart’s Requiem which we saw performed at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.  I claim no musical expertise.  I play no instruments, my sense of rhythm is shoddy, and my voice is an insult to shower singers everywhere.  Unlike literature and film, in which I have a certain working knowledge, my understanding of music theory and even basic terminology is limited.  I do believe, however, that I can recognize great music when I hear it, and like everyone, I love great music.

That the Requiem was Mozart’s final work (and what a finalé to an astonishing oeuvre!) is unquestioned, but what has become a rather well known piece of music lore maintains that while writing it (at the behest of a generous benefactor) the great composer was well aware of his impending death and focused all of his passion and energies into completing what he might well have considered his own funeral music.  Whether this is true or not (I tend to think so) is up for debate, but the music speaks for itself, and like Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, it sings out with the fervor of a dying man’s final plea for mercy on the souls of dying men.  Kyrie Eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.  Lord, have mercy on us.  Christ, have mercy on us.  Lord, have mercy on us.

The Requiem’s merits as a work of art and music have been well established, probably from its very first performance, but what of its merits as a work of theology?  I find it very difficult to separate the two, because the very tone, substance, and spirit of the music is derived from its theological intent, namely an extended prayer for the dead: a Mass set to music.  The often grim texture of the music reflects the grimness of its subject matter: death and the hope of posthumous salvation.  As far as I can tell, the idea that the living can, through prayer, influence the souls of the dead–specifically, those souls in Purgatory–is exclusive to Catholic theology (and ancient Orthodox Judaism).  The Eastern mystic might claim that there is no such thing as death, only the transference of one energy into another, thus there is no sense in praying for those who have merely altered states; for the Protestant it might seem like little more than a quaint anachronism, instead claiming that one’s eternal destination is determined in life and cannot be altered afterwards; and to the atheist, the very notion of praying for the dead might seem like borderline lunacy, for death has to it a grave finality.  Yet to the Catholic, it is an essential part of the Christian life dating back to the early, primitive Church, and to St. Paul, and inherited from Orthodox Judaism from before the era of the Maccabees.  There are prayers, services, and Masses devoted to those who have passed away, and none more beautiful than the Requiem Mass.

But beyond the historical evidence which confirms that the public practice dates back a good deal further than many of its opponents would suggest, praying for the dead is inseparably linked to the doctrine known as “the communion of the saints” which holds that what St. Paul metaphorically referred to as the “body of Christ” (i.e. the Church) is composed not only of the living followers of Christ, but of the departed–the Saints in Heaven and those souls in Purgatory.  Salvation, therefore, it would seem, is not a purely individual effort, but one in which the entire body of Christ takes part and is held accountable for.  Unlike Cain who denied responsibility for his brother (in order to hide his crime), we–both the living and the dead–are in part responsible for each others well being, for the body need all of its parts in order to function fully.  Far from being either morbid or sentimental (as it has alternately been accused), the communion of saints and consequently, public prayers for the dead, is a doctrine of compassion and brotherhood in which the intercessor and those for whom he/she prays are bound together in hope and love.

I can be quite certain that the Christian doctrine of the communion of the saints is true and be equally certain that Mozart was in no way trying to prove it by writing the Requiem.  It is not an apologetic work, nor an argument, nor is it particularly cerebral (unless, I suppose, you happen to be a music theorist); it is a work of art–and a great one at that–but beyond that, or perhaps because of it, it is also a work of charity and love in which a great artist utilized his considerable talents for the benefit and spiritual enrichment of those whom he had never met, and provided for all time a voice for the voiceless and a song for those who, like myself, might otherwise never hear that eternal melody.  Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.  Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.  Amen.

Grace and Modernism in “Journey to Italy” (“Viaggio in Italia”)

Journey-to-Italy-5587_1Take it for what it’s worth, but speaking as a bachelor, if there is a greater movie about marriage than Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954) floating around out there in filmdom, then I haven’t seen it.  (If you know of a superior example, feel free to mention it in the comments section.)  Ever since having seen Martin Scorsese’s documentary My Voyage in Italy in which the famed director takes the viewer on a personal journey through his own experience of Italian film and how it has influenced his work, I have wanted to track down many of the films of Roberto Rossellini, particularly his several 1950’s collaborations with his wife at the time, Ingrid Bergman.  At the time of seeing Scorsese’s doc, I believe I had only seen Rossellini’s groundbreaking neorealist masterpiece, Rome, Open City.  Unfortunately for me, many of his other films remained unavailable on DVD and even VHS (for those of you who can remember back that far).  Gradually, however, I managed to catch several of his films, thanks to a few Criterion collection DVD releases and a couple of retrospective screenings in Los Angeles, but Journey to Italy continued to illude me.  Fortunately, TCM recently programmed a month long tribute to the director and much to my delight Journey to Italy was included.

By 1954, Rossellini had progressed beyond the neorealist stylings of his early films and was pioneering a new, richer kind of cinema.  In his review for the Cahier du cinéma, François Truffaut called it the first “modern film”, by which he meant the principles of modernism, which for decades had already influenced the world of literature, poetry, and painting, was finally beginning to seep into the world of film.  Novelists like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and William Faulkner; poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; and painters like Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso had revolutionized their particular art forms (in some ways for better and in others for worse) by making the subjective, individual experience the focus of the work rather than the objective, external event.  As a result, devices such as first-person narration, stream-of-consciousness, and Impressionism had become dominant forms of artistic representation since the late 19th century in every form of media except the cinema.  That is, until Rossellini.

Truffaut was right to describe the film as modernist, but he was not complete in saying so because it seems to me that there are elements at work in the film which transcend modernism, and those elements are what I like to call “grace”.  The film tells the story of a middle aged British couple played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders whose marriage is quickly collapsing in on itself due to bitterness, petty jealousy, and wounded ego’s.  They seemed destined for divorce, and as a viewer, one might be forgiven for thinking that after the way they treat each other, it might well be for the best.  Nevertheless, due to a recently deceased relative, the two are forced together for a furlough to Naples in order to sell a piece of inherited property.  While there, they flirt with the idea of divorce, while each in their own way toys with the idea of an extramarital affair prefiguring the self-imposed temptations presented to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (another excellent film about marriage).

Bergman’s and Sander’s personalities seem to be as different as the landscapes in which they wander; her romanticism vs. his condescending irony is as stark a contrast as the vitality of Naples (streets teeming with pregnant women) is with the desolation of Pompeii, which the couple visits accompanied by an archaeologist friend who is excavating the ruins of the destroyed island.  Rossellini’s isolated characters, as well as his mastery of empty space within the frame of his images can almost be seen as a turning point in the history of cinema.  Fellow countryman, Michelangelo Antonioni would later turn similar forms of alienation into an artform unto itself.  Jean-Luc Godard would take Rossellini’s existential inquest and deconstruct them to revolutionary effect.  And the European artfilm movements of the 1950’s and 60’s are born.  But Rossellini doesn’t stop there.

While viewing the excavations on Pompeii, they witness the plaster casting of a buried human form, killed long ago by the eruption of Vesuvius, now found buried under layers of volcanic debris, frozen in a position of everyday life–a snapshot in time caught at the unexpected moment of death.  It’s a powerful moment both as a viewer and for the Bergman character who is brought to tears forced to suddenly confront the fragility of life.  The moment is not only a profound recognition of human temporality, but also a metaphor for the relationship between Bergman and Sanders.  Even he, the anti-sentimentalist, appears to be moved by the sight.

Rossellini would later go on to boast about his atheism, but for those who have seen his films, it’s sometimes difficult to take the claim seriously.  He was fascinated with finding the miraculous within everyday life, and like Flannery O’Connor, with exploring the seemingly arbitrary workings of grace.  In films such as Rome, Open City or The Flowers of St. Francis, grace flows as naturally from the story as a prayer from the lips of a saint, but in later films such as StromboliEuropa ’51, and Journey to Italy, grace works much more mysteriously and more shockingly, because it’s almost unexpected.  In the films finale, after having returned to the mainland from Pompeii and with marital dissolution seemingly inevitable, the couple accidentally drive into the middle of a religious parade in which shouts of a miracle having happened ring out among the turbulent crowd.  The two are inadvertently swept up into the surging masses and separated.  As one critic put it, their reunion amidst the “…noisy crowd becomes an intimate epiphany, and [at once] a rigorously understated film becomes an overwhelming vision.”  It is here in which Rossellini’s film transcends the stylistic trappings of modernism and shows a deeper understanding of human nature than any artistic movement can on its own provide.  It is here in which alienation makes way for genuine connection, and in which existential angst and despair finds hope in the love of another.