In the past when I have received invitations to review books or films of up and coming artists, I have had to make choices to ignore or reply, and usually the choice is easy, as almost all solicitations are for palpably bad books and films. The very emails, attached submissions, or film trailers, are so laughably bad I should not feel remorse, although I sometimes do, even though, because of these submissions, I have likely read more poetry and original poetry (however horrid) than any other five humans in history combined. On the film side, especially, I don’t even usually have to watch the trailer, as the very written film summary is that of a child’s fart. I simply have no interest in slasher nor horror films along the lines of The Human Centipede, especially those on a shoestring budget, and so I stay silent, as I do with 99.9% of solicitations or comments or trolling sent me. But, occasionally I get a solicitation for a film and director that shows promise, like The Coldest Kiss, directed by Michael Jason Allen; or, even better- promise and some real filmic accomplishment, as seen in Phantom, directed by Jonathan Soler.
But, of the thousands of film review solicitations I’ve gotten, and the very few films I’ve looked at to review, the best thus far is a film called Metáfora, directed by a musician turned film director, Sebastian Wesman. Wesman is originally from Argentina, but works out of Estonia, and the film is shot in that language. It is not dubbed into English, but, as it is shot in a widescreen format (at least 2.35:1 aspect ratio), I suspect, there are black bars on top and bottom, and most of the white subtitles are seen on black. Rare is a word lost on a black and white background. However, gold subtitles always obviate that concern. Of course, I would have preferred an English language dubbing, as I have long championed the use of dubbing as far preferable to subtitling, as the change in voice actors often heightens characterization (see the many 1960s films of Ingmar Bergman), but likely it is a more expensive option. However, since this film features no diegetic dialogue, it would have been very simple to dub it into multiple languages, sans the eternal fear of asynchronous lips and sounds. Also, on a technical and linguistic note, there are some English language spelling errors that having an English first speaker look at could have corrected. The film veers from black and white to color and back and forth again, in its 82 or so minute running time, and, frankly, I’ve never seen a film more fully and perfectly integrate the two sorts of filmic coloring better, more seamlessly, and effectively, to enhance both visual options, than in this film. Likewise, the film’s musical score, by Wesman, never leads a viewer into a scene that is expected, due to its nature, but it blends synchronously with the visuals so that both aspects form a synaesthetic effect in the filmic experience, one where metaphors are not constructed just out of the images, one dimensionally, but in the play between the music and visuals. A good example comes from the pre-credits sequence wherein the music seems somber yet evocative, and we see a man lying under a tree, filmed in black and white, as the camera plunges lower, down a hill. We this get a musical cue of decent, with an aural accompaniment, played off against a deeply resonant Western image of sleep that evokes characters from Gilgamesh to Rip Van Winkle, yet all these are used as taking off points for a journey inside the mind of someone.
However, the film is not really narrative, but a series of scenes, in three parts, or stages, in which several voice over narratives vaguely describe what is being seen. In a sense, it a very Terence Malick like format, save that Wesman has already gone beyond Malick’s patented technique, and pushed further into just imagery and scoring as the prime movers of the film. Emotion topples plot and character is displaced by image. Malick’s last few overwrought and underwritten films should have done this, but relied too heavily on voiceovers that were poorly written and trite. Wesman’s film’s don’t use the narration to push the film along, merely act as interstitial or mythic markers of emotion. They are caesura that can aid or deceive, but seem best as deceptive allusions.
The film is beautifully shot, and by that I don’t just mean beautiful images are shown. Plain objects like books or grass or peeling paint on a porch are seen as things of wonderment and beauty. Even ugly things are framed or lighted to highlight a fragmentary or momentary beauty, or even just the hint of. One does not know where most scenes are headed (save for the ending, unfortunately), and the voiceovers mostly do nothing to allay nor delay this. The voiceovers also recall Soler’s Phantom, but, while that film feels almost faux documentarial, this film seems like Brothers Grimm fairy tales come to life in the modern. Hence, the film immerses the viewer, it does not lead by a nose ring. And this imagery evokes much of the effect that Magical Realistic novels hope to have, yet rarely do, as their imagery is often too trite, blatant, and predictably political. This film is apolitical and even asocial, but having has no political agenda it is pushing is a welcome relief from what many an art film tries (and art film would have to be the genre that Metáfora falls under.
Now, before I chronologically delve into the film. I want to delve into a trap many critics fall into, especially when confronted with a work of art outside their native language, and outside their usual film experience, and that is the error of relying on promotional materials for a film to tell them what the film is about and what it actually shows. I have long termed this a part of critical cribbing, wherein critics don’t engage the art they are claiming to, and merely skim it or wholly rip off the claims of others, unknowing of errors others make because they’ve no firsthand experience of the thing they are critiquing. I have mentioned why this fails when I have reviewed classic films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, or Alain Resnais’s Last Year In Marienbad. In both cases, the films gave no names to their lead characters within the diegetic reality of the film, yet critics perpetuated the naming of these characters from PR materials alone. That is not the case with Metáfora. There are no real characters that emote, nor have names. The characters are more or less flesh and blood marionettes that enact the allusive and imagistic moments within the film.
But, the PR material does try to conform the critical mindset it seeks to engage, and, as I am likely going to be the first or one of the first film critics in the world to opine on this, I might as well put the issue forth. Here is the promotional release for the film, as I received it:
“Metáfora” is the first feature film of the filmmaker and composer Sebastian Wesman. It is a symbolic voyage inside the dream of an old woman. With an innovative cinematographic language, “Metáfora” takes us to a state of meditation where we experience different characters looking for the same answer.
Right there in the first paragraph, comes the twist. Now, I watched the film and rewatched some specific scenes, and, unless there are voicevers that are untranslated from Estonian, I found no visual nor subtitled evidence that the main character of this film is an old woman. There are female voices, and females within, but there are male characters, and while they could be the dream of an ‘Übermensch’- male or female, I simply have found no evidence of such in the visuals nor English translation. Of course, this is not a flaw, as I don’t consider the PR material actually relevant to the film. Artists, by their nature, lie, and, in fact, must lie to create art. But, I want the reader and viewer to BE AWARE of this while watching the film, because I suspect many a review of the film will take the easy way out and plunk this extra-diegetic information smack dab into a review, as a way to save some time for the critic.
Secondly, while the characters may be looking for the same answer to an unopined query, the reality is that they are in radically differing environments, and mostly gazing, as if philosophical zombies, lit by the breaths of unseen narrators, in the varied segments, which will repeat, in some cases, and in others not. That they don’t always fall into these Whitmanian ‘repetons,’ to borrow a term from poetry- an art Wesman claims filial relation with, is a good thing, because that would mean the film was less metaphorical and lyrical and more a form of visual epopee, or at least its attempt. Epopee is not what Metáfora is, however. To stick with the poetic metaphors, this film is not an epic poem, but a series of loosely linked lyric poems that provide a visual answer to modern poetry rather than a harkening back to the skalds and bards of yore. Think less of Homer’s The Iliad and think more of Hart Crane’s The Bridge, or John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. Even Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems have some kinship. Olson’s seeming poem fragments, alone, are meager, verging on the banal, and only add power as you read on and their slight metaphoric brushstrokes layer upon each other, as if layering tissue papered strokes of a pen on top of each other to form an intricate picture, and Metáfora follows a similar technique, albeit with the emotional ‘resonances,’ for lack of a better term (the film is good at forcing the viewer to render its own new vocabulary to describe images and techniques), of the imagery instead of words or phrases that subliminally cue and connect poems in a sequence. Berryman is invoked in the formal use of repetons that structure each of the scenes as he does each Dream Song, and each of the ‘gazers’ in Wesman’s film act as a Henry (the lead character of The Dream Songs) somnambulating though scenes and events that, while prosiac but new to the viewer, seem to be numbingly familiar to the particular Henry. But, easily, the published poem having the most truck with this film is Crane’s superlative The Bridge, wherein soaring lyric poems can stand on their own yet also complex when placed in a sequence with each other. Yet, in this comparison, Metáfora falls short of its poetic counterpart, for, however sporadically, Crane’s book length poem features intense moments of dialogue and moment that the film and director simply cannot match, and I don’t believe this is as much of a choice as the PR material suggests, but more the fact that Wesman is, as a novice, still honing his craft (however considerable), whereas Crane was at the peak of his poetic powers.
Nonetheless, while unanswered questions may have been what Wesman intended to evoke, I suspect he has gotten at something possibly deeper than he even intended- i.e.- he accidentally struck gold while mining for mere silver, even if diamond mining is not quite feasible yet.
The promotional letter continues:
“Metáfora” was filmed in Estonia during the four seasons of the year and it is in the Estonian language.
The film is divided into three stages each of which represents a stage of sleep, the depth of the dream of the old woman. The film unites elements of sculpture, music, theatre and photography – arts through which the director has transited before.
Again, we are told something that may or may not be so, and, certainly, in the English language subtitles, this dream of an old woman does not seem to be the case. And a critic’s job is to appraise what is presented, not what is intended.
Subtly modified natural spaces create a scenography that is both real and unreal at the same time. An equilibrium from which rises a new aesthetic. The film encounters us with compositions for soprano, string quartet, orchestra, solo violin and intervened ambiental sounds. All of which are original pieces composed for the film by its director.
This paragraph contains two important points: 1) the film starts off in its own aesthetic. Yes, there are many allusions to the works of Bela Tarr, Theo Angelopoulos, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and especially Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, in its weave of dream and reality, but Tarr’s seven plus hour masterpiece, Satantango, and its stark black and white imagistic repetons can be felt, albeit radically compressed by Wesman, to the point that, at their best, they reach the heights Tarr did in Werckmeister Harmonies. The ideas of Chris Marker are also all over this film, except that Wesman is already WAY beyond anything Marker ever did, or even imagined.
“Metáfora” includes the presence of professional actors and people who had never acted before. These opposite forms give an interesting dimension to the film. In other moments it is the landscape that becomes the main character.
The film is written in a reflective and intimate narrative tempo. Represented in the film by the voice-over of the old woman. This voice blends with the different elements of the film, creating something similar to a cinematographic mantra.
With a cinematographic language that is hypnotic, meditative and innovative in its aesthetic form, “Metáfora” is a film, an experience, a new encounter with the senses.
A final comment on the letter, and that is that the use of professional actors seems obviated by the film’s structure, although it is a sort of shout out to the past, especially to Italian Neo-Realism, to use real people, and not actors, especially when no real acting is required for the philosophical zombie roles.
Now, on to the film itself. It opens with a three minute long pre-credits sequence, shot in black and white, and we see a very fantastical scene that invokes the grand European fairy tale motivs, as we see an old woman reading a book, after a dissolve from a shot of the moon. She seems to be reading text, and then we see an old man snoozing under a tree, the tree of oblivion, which recurs throughout the film.
Presumably, according to the film’s PR, we are to believe this opening character, the female reader, is the film’s lead, but as the film moves into the 20 or so minute long Stage I, in black and white, we see books on the floor, and a sort of mantra go up about the books. Wind blows, and the forest floor the books lay on rustles. Claims like the world multiplies every time a book opens pervades this stage. This is the first of several repetons in the film, most of which slightly alter with each iteration. None of this seems connected to the narrator, and even if one believes it so, it’s not particularly relevant, nor deep as the images and ideas a viewer can cull for themselves, hence making the PR claims almost an intrusion, if not a hindrance to the film’s diegetic reality. The film then shifts to color and we see a young man in a grand old room, bathed in green, something akin to the post-psychedelic journey sequence hotel room in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He moves about the room in different ways, parallaxed by the camera, in different moments, and the greenness in the room gives way to water imagery. Much of this sequence seems to evoke the ambiguities in the opening scenes of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, admixed, again, with the repetons of a Bela Tarr film, albeit much shorter in length. The water scenes (at a stream) bring the return of black and white cinematography. And the penetration into the seemingly banal also evokes the –Quatsi films of Godfrey Reggio, although, at a much more naturalistic pace.
Here there needs to again be mention made of the superb film scoring by Wesman. The music is seemingly atavistic yet modern, Classical yet seemingly ambient, as well, and, as mentioned, it never leads, and it never follows the visuals; it really progresses in a lockstep and organically natural a fashion. We then follow the young man into a theater, where it seems that the rest of the film will unfold. This character, the young man, seems to be the pivotal character of the film because all the rest of the film’s imagery and metaphor flows from the scenes and set up that occurs in Stage I. The old woman narrator may be a presence, but no more a part of the film’s diegesis than the old man who reads the story that makes up The Princess Bride is the lead character of that film.
Stage II runs about 35 minutes in length, and opens in black and white. It is a series of title vignettes. The first one, Someone Is Watching Us, shows an old man, a cat in a window, then quickly gives way to the next vignette, Son Of The Forest. This is shot in color and is the most obviously Grimmian of the film’s scenes. A young woman of East Asian bearing, heads out into a snowy forest, driven to look for her son, following footsteps, until they end at a frozen lake. She then recalls (via the omnipotent voiceover) that she never bore a son, and gazes. It’s a nice little scene, but of itself, meaningless sans the context of what is about it. Her color scenes give way to more black and white scenes of human hands lifting sun stippled water from a stream. The clear thematic drive is that the one come from the many, and this seems to be one of the overarching themes in the film entire. There are sundry other minor digressions, but then the girl returns, in the next segment, The Return, which is in color, and heads home, hearing the birds tell her they know the secret of waking up.
The next vignette is The House, is in vivid color, and we see an old woman in spring, on her porch, ironing clothes. This is the most blatantly Tarkovskian scene in the whole film. We get a slice of domesticity, wind and tree declarations, and then a fade from that time. The whole scene is, at once, arguably the simplest in the film, yet the most emotionally powerful, because it is a scene that almost every human being who has lived has had. It is brief beauty, tranquility, personal memory, and the simultaneous desire to get on with life yet retain the moment. It is the distillation of the query: is a memory a thing you have or a thing you have lost? Wesman gets this, with avatars of memory and warmth that infest the scene from cats to flowers to plants to sunlit fingers of light. This segment is a great example of a younger artist (Wesman) blatantly stealing from an older artist (in this case Tarkovsky) but perfectly doing so in a non-plagiaristic fashion. Nothing in the segment is Tarkovsky, but it’s all Tarkovskian. It is evocation without re-creation.
Five Stones is another color vignette. Black and white intersperses within it. It is very recollective, as we see boys swim in a river, we see bees on flowers, horses’ eyes. By this time, and especially in this scene, with the use of voiceover and music, and the return of the gal with the unborn sun, the evocation and feel is a contrapuntal one to that from the fabular ‘island beach’ scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert. We then get a precognitive meld of the woman with the unborn son and a volcanic desert cliff that later appears in Stage III. This leads into the next vignette, Before The White, which is in black and white, as we see a teen girl (possibly a younger version of the old woman from film’s start?) at a stove in a cabin. Many voiceovers, in the film but especially in this segment, go untranslated, so some of the claims of the narrative arc of this film, by its creators, may be so, but much of the untranslated material seems like filler anyway- or the redundancies a mind naturally cycles through n any given moment- redundancies which human physiology seems to require sleep to sort through. She leaves the house, and color pervades the winter forest, until the snow on the ground is all. Horizon lines and all perspective are lost. She encounters the birds of metaphor, books spinning in the air by the tree of oblivion, and the vignette and stage end with her gazing out at a previously unseen lake or seaside in what seems to be spring. The thing, whatever it is, is ‘out there.’
Stage III runs a little over 20 minutes, and opens with another black and white vignette, From Ashes. We are back at the volcano, according to the voiceover, and we see a man who at first appears to be black, then possibly Berber, and finally more Central Asian/Caucasian. He is dubbed ‘the wise man’ by the voiceover. Ashes give way to a return to the hands in a stream imagery. By this point, the film could easily veer into twee imagery and metaphor, but then it cuts back to the wise man, and we get more book and tree images in color. The film seems to be returning to its start, and this is confirmed by the final vignette, The Last Journey. This vignette opens in black and white, with the wise man in a courtyard. It melds to color, and older images reappear, like the spinning books, the woman with the unborn son, the teen girl, winter, the river, and then we end back with the man from Stage I, in the theater, as if he has observed all this. Yes, one could argue that he is just a dream of the old woman narrator, as the film’s PR suggests, but the final images deny this and suggest that he, not the narrator, is the one with a universe inside of him; and this is a weak spot, the weakest in the film. After the first several repetons in the film, and the dominance of the young man in the theater in Stage 1, I knew the film would end on him- it had to, and this is why this is the biggest flaw in the film. Instead of ending with the film opening up, looking outward to greater horizons, it narratively folds back on itself (odd that a film so void of narrative throughout, has its one narrative cord come back to, if not strangle it, certainly leave some scars on its neck), metaphorically, and does not take wing. Furthermore, as this is a film, the image trumps the word, and, as a Wesman film, it has to. This also makes the man in the theater the de facto main character of the film, and likely the cinematic stand in for director Wesman. And it is on Wesman’s shoulders that this film’s credits and plaudits should fall, as he wrote, directed, edited, and scored the film.
In summary, the film plays out in this manner:
Stage 1 = primordial and atavistic metaphors
Stage 2 = formative and forward looking metaphors
Stage 3 = cyclical and primordial metaphors
This cycle back to the start, while expected, is both a boon and curse, for while it perfectly reflects dream logic, because we all have experienced such illogical dream logic, it is no surprise, and, given this is a film and not an actual dream, the lack of a bridge from the dream into the film vocabulary of metaphor makes the film sag at its very end.
Nonetheless, Metáfora is the best filmic debut I’ve seen since Steve McQueen’s Hunger, and only McQueen’s film, and Victor Erice’s 1973 film, The Spirit Of The Beehive, are clearly superior overall first films. This is because, for all its visual sumptuousness and poesy, Metáfora is great in a one dimensional way, thus making it a genre great film, as an art film, rather than a flat out great work of cinema (it ranks as excellent to near great on that scale), the way McQueen’s and Erice’s debuts are, or the way Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is, or the way Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is. This is not to say that Wesman’s initial style needs work. No, it is great and unique, but his overall repertoire is merely incomplete if he wants to rise in the ranks of filmmakers and be compared to some of the directors and films already mentioned herein- although just the use of these as comparisons stresses how much Wesman has accomplished in this one film. Of course, Wesman does not need to craft a great prosaic film drama, like Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, but he does need to add to his repertoire and artistic arsenal, to expand the 3-4 great visual and metaphoric layers of this film into something that relates more easily to more people. As a genre great film Metáfora grows its own branch of cinema to be stuck out on, and for what it is it is great, and this review acknowledges that, as I review what a work is, not what I, nor anyone else, wishes it to be; but, as a tip for the future, and to get more people to appreciate this film, and later ones, Wesman will have to grow and embrace more and bring the mainstream out to his branch.
In a sense, his film is almost perfect in what it does (compare it to the tripe of a Lars Von Trier, and this becomes clear), but perfection is simply not the same as greatness. A couple decades ago I wrote probably the most perfect poem to evoke the dream state that I, and a few others, have ever read- Congoleum Footfalls. Technically, imagistically, aurally, and metaphorically, it was damned near perfect, but it was not a great poem overall because, at bottom, it was just a dream poem, and evoking such. There was nothing more to it, and Wesman’s film is the cinematic equivalent to my poem.
Many a bad critic will likely damn the film as New Agey, likening it to some of the Eurotrash films of the 1970s, or the art films that were knockoffs of the post-Quatsi films at the end of last century, but this film has a nice niche between pure avant garde filmmaking, such as that of the likes of the masturbatory Stan Brakhage, and more standard storytelling films, of the likes mentioned. Nonetheless, if Wesman hopes to grow and improve as a filmmaker, and reach the levels of directors like McQueen and Ceylan, his later films will need to include screenplays that have well developed characters, speaking real yet deep dialogue, that is as good as the film’s score and cinematography, for, as it is, while Metáfora has bits of other masters of cinema, yet is uniquely Wesmanian, it is nonetheless a great but one dimensional film, limited in scope, if not ambition. But it is a great start to a hopefully long career. Let it serve as an invitation to more and for more.
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