A few years ago I thought it would an interesting challenge to think of films that reflected the heart of the season of Advent. You can see that list of “10 Films for Advent” here. But what about Lent? What makes a film “Lenten”? As I thought about it, I first thought of images: films of desert, spartan landscapes; faces of lament and suffering; gray and drab color palettes. Then I thought of tone: somber, contemplative, quiet, yet with a glimmer of hope or a moment of catharsis. Finally I thought of themes: suffering, isolation, hunger, penance, hope. I came up with the list below (in alphabetical order).
One of the most common complaints I hear from others when they watch the “art” films I recommend is that they are “too slow.” Indeed, it seems that our increasingly hyperactive, fast-paced culture considers any film paced slower than a John Grisham novel to be impossibly languorous.
Thus, it’s an uphill battle to win over converts to such films as Flight of the Red Balloon, or anything from directors like Terrence Malick or Gus Van Sant. Still, I think that if people try to sit through and attend to the beauties of these films, they will find them ultimately rewarding. Film as art (as in any art form) requires active attention and openness on the part of the audience. There are a lot of wonderful films out there that require some patience to sit through, but that reward the viewer immensely. Here are just a few (ordered by year):
Diary of a Country Priest (1954) – Robert Bresson Bresson is one of the most widely acclaimed French auteurs, but his films are among the hardest to watch. They are about as far from the conventional Hollywood narrative as you can get. Still, there is a striking authenticity and meditative realism to the mundane worlds he portrays—especially in this beautiful film about the everyday struggles of a young priest in rural France.
Scenes From a Marriage (1973) – Ingmar Bergman Though it is broken up into segments, this 167 minute domestic drama seems to go on and on, and in true Bergman fashion, it is an arduous, methodical descent into nihilistic flagellation. Nevertheless, the performances and themes here are utterly compelling and strikingly rendered by one of cinema’s greatest artists.
Paris, Texas (1984) – Wim Wenders Like Gerry (see below…), this classic Wim Wenders film provides a captivating “wandering through the dessert” experience. It’s a dry, dusty, subdued sort of existential western. Harry Dean Stanton plays a broken down man, wandering the Texas landscape in search of himself. There are few words in the film, and even fewer conventions of Hollywood storytelling. But it is a memorable experience nonetheless.
Down by Law (1986) – Jim Jarmusch This is a challenging film. More a mood piece than anything else (set in the Louisiana bayou), Down by Law eschews traditional plot and character development in favor of visual and sonic oddity. Quirkiness rarely makes for a compelling two hour experience, but this film is an exception: it’s a joy to watch. The unexpected trio of John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni are unforgettable in this film—one of Jarmusch’s best.
The Thin Red Line (1998) – Terrence Malick The challenging thing for audiences who watch The Thin Red Line is that they’ve watched too many war movies, and the understanding is that a war movie should be exciting, action-packed, and emotionally-wrenching. Personally I think Terrence Malick’s film is as emotionally-wrenching as any film I’ve ever seen, just not in the traditional ways. Give this complicated film a chance. It’s one of the most beautiful ever made.
Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant This film pushes the limits of even the most patient filmgoer. The whole thing is essentially a silent observation of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the unforgiving desserts of the American Southwest. There are scant more than a couple dozen lines of dialogue to be found in its 103 minutes, nothing like a “plot” to speak of, and yet—and yet—something about Gerry is utterly spellbinding.
The Son (2002) – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne “Slow” could be a designation given most all Dardenne Bros films, but they are all worth sitting through. The Belgian filmmakers have a way of withholding any catharsis for the audience until the final moments of their films, and never is this more clearly exhibited than in The Son, a beautiful relationship portrait of fathers and sons.
The Five Obstructions (2003) – Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier There were a number of Lars von Trier films I considered for this list (Dogville, The Element of Crime, etc), but I settled on this film—a documentary jointly made with Jorgen Leth—because, well, I think it needs to be seen. I’m actually not sure how anyone could call this film “boring,” but the sheer conceptual headiness of it is certainly unpalatable to many. Still, Obstructions is totally unique and features a stunning “twist” ending—if you make it that far.
Into Great Silence (Two-Disc Set) (2007) - Philip Gröning This film is the exact opposite of “commercial” cinema. It is nearly three hours long, pretty much silent, actionless, and repetitive. But it is a documentary about the ascetic life of monks, and as such, it should be a challenge to watch. But if you let yourself be still, silent, and contemplate just what it is you are watching, then Into Great Silence can become more than cinema. It can be a truly worshipful experience.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Andrew Dominik The most recent addition to this list goes to last fall’s Jesse James “biopic,” which turns out to be more a phenomenological contemplation than a narrative of the famous bandit’s life. Indeed, the 160 minute film leaves many wondering “when are the great shootouts and action sequences going to come?” Answer: never. But instead, you get an immersive, mood-driven photo essay; and again, a wonderful coda sequence at the end.