Monday, May 1, 2017

Three Films About Women

A Quiet Passion

I must confess at the onset that I have never been fond of Emily Dickinson's poetry. I'll tell you why: she uses too many abstract nouns. A poet should avoid using the word "eternity," for example. Also, Dickinson's lines tend to be very short, and they usually rhyme, and this has the effect of making many of  her poems sound like epigrams, mystical theories, or mere ditties rather than genuine acts of expression. This combination of objectives—bring out the rhyme while saying something staggeringly profound—tends to be deadly.

Yet I realize that many people do like Dickinson's poems. There must be a reason. I went to A Quiet Passion hoping to gain further insight into her appeal. That didn't happen, though I now have a better sense of the environment in which she lived and worked.

Director Terrence Davies has gone to great lengths to establish the period within which Dickinson's talent developed, the obstacles she faced, the atmosphere of patriarchal love she thrived in and the concomitant hypocritical striving for moral rectitude she abhorred. She was a complex soul who thought about everything too much. She couldn't help it. She was devoted to her family, and she also had a few trusted female friends. She was concerned about the fate of her poems—about her own immortality--but she had a great deal of trouble opening up to the wider world. It didn't interest her much, obsessed as she was by the inevitable disappearance of her loved ones and the nothingness beyond.

As she grew older, Dickinson found it increasingly difficult to conduct a normal conversation, and tended to speak in riddles and contradictions. This habit irritated her siblings no end, though they were almost as good at such metaphysical raillery as she was. Evidently it was the argot of her class and times. 

The film explores a succession of themes--greatness, immortality, poetry, romance, integrity, melancholy, disillusionment, death. But by the time we reach the end of it, the overriding tone is one of bitter anguish. It's a portrait of one unusual woman's life, and though I don't know if all the details are accurate, it seems clear that Davies, to his credit, has been guided far more by biographical fact than by screenwriting conventions.

Sami Blood

Countless films have been made about the destruction of native cultures by the spread of industrialized society. Tale of individuals who find that they like tribal life and "go native" are also popular. Less often, I think,  do we hear stories about the roadblocks that are put in the way of "native" individuals who would like nothing better than to participate in the ongoing life of their more “civilized” neighbors.

Such is the theme of Sami Blood, a moody, well-structured film that follows the life of Elle-Marja, a fifteen-year-old Sami girl. She and her sister have been sent by their mother, recently widowed, to a boarding school. Elle-Marja is bright, picks up Swedish easily, and soon feels the urge to leave both the nomadic life in the midst of which she was raised and the simple-minded and sometimes brutal life of the boarding school behind and get a real Swedish education. Trouble is, Sami kids, even the brightest, aren’t allowed to continue on. The powers that be are convinced that they would all be better off staying on their rocky and largely treeless turf in the far north, tending their animals.

Swedish-Sami writer-director Amanda Kernell follows Elle-Marja’s desperate and ingenious path to Uppsala, the risks she takes, and the obstacles she overcomes. It’s all beautifully rendered though often painful to watch. The film effectively highlights the contrast between urban Swedish culture of the 1930s and the nomadic lives of the Sami people without weighing in on the relative value of the two or the wisdom of abandoning one for the other. It’s just a story of someone who aspired to lead a different kind of life. It’s just an unforgettable work of art.

Little Wing also focuses on the life of a young woman. In this case it’s a Finnish girl named Varpu, just turning thirteen. Her mother, Siri, is having a hard time managing some of the simpler things in life, like getting up in the morning and passing a driving test. Yet she’s trying hard and is determined to raise her daughter well. All the same, when things really start to crumble, Varpu decides to go see her father, whom she’s never met. Trouble is, she’s far too young to have a driver’s license, she’s driving a stolen car, and the man she’s going to visit isn’t really her father.

Siri is shocked by this turn of events, and decides reluctantly that the time has come to introduce her daughter to her real father. But now a new and perhaps even more troubling set of issues arise, just as Siri no doubt feared they would: the man talks constantly, he hears voices, he has a paranoic aversion to cell phones and cameras, and he has agreed to leave his home town for the first time in years to watch his newly-found daughter compete at a horse show.

The two introverted protagonists don't exactly sear the screen with their performances, and the plot moves ahead one slow step at a time, but the end result is an indelible portrait of how mental illness can derail people's lives, and reassemble them.

No comments: