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Review Roundup: HARD TO BE A GOD and NEAR DEATH

The following reviews, the two I had the most difficulty writing in 2015, originally appeared at Cine-File back in June:

hard to be a god2

Aleksey German’s HARD TO BE A GOD (New Russian)

The “silence of God” has been a popular theme of serious artists working in different mediums for centuries but Russian filmmaker Aleksey German, adapting a sci-fi novel by the Strugatskiy Brothers, apparently found a completely original way to explore this concept in his final film (he died in post-production and HARD TO BE A GOD was completed by his wife and son): many years in the future, a scientist from Earth named Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is sent to observe life on the distant planet Arkanar, a place that happens to bear a strong resemblance to Europe during the Middle Ages (i.e., it’s a pre-industrial society where everyone is living in filth and misery, intellectuals are persecuted and human cruelty and stupidity are generally on display everywhere). The Arkanarians regard Rumata as a “God” but the more enlightened man is, for obscure reasons, not allowed to help the members of this alien race transcend the venality and backwardness in which their lives are mired. Some of this narrative information is explained via a sparse voice-over but most of it has to be inferred from a barrage of ugly, non-narrative images that are so rich in putrid detail that they attain a kind of mesmerizing, hallucinatory beauty. Indeed it is practically impossible to capture German’s painterly mise-en-scene using words; suffice it to say that the immersive HARD TO BE A GOD feels like some kind of scatological remix of ANDREI RUBLEV where the plentiful blood, piss, shit, and vomit of the characters commingles with the endless rain and fog of the locations they inhabit, which, when captured by the low-contrast black-and-white cinematography, creates images that resemble moving charcoal drawings in their thick, gray, tactile textures. While the use of an endlessly mobile camera and the sense of lives constantly bustling beyond the edges of the frame will be familiar to those who have seen German’s previous film–the equally formidable but more absurdist KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR!–the overall tone here is closer to something like SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM in its unbearable bleakness. It is unlikely that either Pasolini or German knew these movies would be their last but the extremism with which they approached form and content lends each film the feeling of a final testament in hindsight; when creating a work of art entails jumping into an abyss, sometimes no encore is imaginable. (2013, 170 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Frederick Wiseman’s NEAR DEATH (Documentary Revival)

Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman is famous for his thoroughness and objectivity even if he’s not quite as unimpeachable in these areas as some of his partisans claim; 2013’s AT BERKELEY, for instance, gave surprisingly short shrift to the title university’s professors while letting its administrators ramble on forever. 1989’s NEAR DEATH, however, has both of these qualities in spades and is a monumental achievement of the documentary form. The rare opportunity of seeing it projected on 16mm in its six-hour entirety should make for one of the most important local film events of the year (it has never, in fact, been projected on celluloid in Chicago at all). This screening, which will occur at Chicago Filmmakers, is an encore to the ambitious, recently-concluded Doc Films series “Frederick Wiseman: An Institution” programmed by Beguiled Cinema (aka the Chicago Reader’s Ben Sachs and Cine-File’s own Kat Sachs). NEAR DEATH takes as its subject the medical intensive care unit of Boston’s Beth Israel hospital but, unlike many of Wiseman’s most well-known films, does not focus on the organizational/bureaucratic aspects of the hospital as “institution” (Wiseman already made that film with 1970’s HOSPITAL). Instead, the narrow and immersive focus here is, as the title implies, on the human dynamics between terminally ill patients and their loved ones and the doctors and nurses who care for them. While the epic length might seem daunting to those unfamiliar with Wiseman’s work, the running time is not only justified but ends up feeling practically required by the subject matter, and the experience of watching the film is as easy as breathing (Errol Morris has even said that he thinks it is too short). Wiseman presents the ICU as a kind of self-enclosed world and structures the film around lengthy passages devoted primarily to three different intubated patients, all of whom are experiencing various degrees of internal-organ failure. These interior scenes are occasionally punctuated by shots of the mundane world outside—cars in traffic, a Citgo gas station sign—that only serve to heighten the hermetic, sealed-off quality of the ICU. Wiseman’s distanced, observational camera is aided by the Academy aspect ratio and grainy, black-and-white film stock, both of which reduce the amount of visual information available to the viewer—purifying the images and allowing one to focus on what’s most important: Wiseman’s profound exploration of ethical questions (chiefly, to what extent is it worth keeping someone alive who has no quality of life left?) as well as the emotions swirling around the circumstances of the dying patients, an approach that ends up feeling exhaustive. Seemingly every perspective on the sometimes-harrowing subject is covered and the middle third of the film is taken up by a particularly gripping series of scenes where two doctors have differing interpretations of whether an elderly female stroke victim who has difficulty communicating is telling them that she does or does not want to be resuscitated. The most emotional scenes, however, are saved for last, as the grieving wife of a man suffering from lung disease has a couple of long conversations with one Dr. Taylor, a man so compassionate and patient that he will singlehandedly increase your respect for the medical profession. (1989, 358 min, 16mm) MGS

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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