Cinema is a very broad church. In recent decades it has become an increasingly infantile church and leaves you ashamed to be counted among its believers. But there are also times when it gives us works of the rarest beauty and depth, restoring our faith in its power to open our minds to truths – soetimes reassuring, sometimes disturbing – about our personal existence and about the realities of our communal lives.
The year gone by was one of the most dire on record as the misguided moguls of Hollywood led us further into the world of comic book characters we thought we had left behind in early adolescence. As ever, they thought they had a formula for a fast buck but were disappointed when the fast buck never showed. It was their worst year in over a decade.
But let us not waste time moaning about the 99% of drivel Hollywood shovels our way and look for the jewels which sometimes manage to make it through the system.
Two films stand out this year, each unique and each utterly untypical of nearly everything else around it. You will not go to see them for an adrenaline rush – or any other kind of rush – but if your human soul is alive at all you will come away from them wiser than you were.
First came Ida, which actually dates from 2013 but only made it to the Anglophone cinema in 2014. The second was Boyhood, which actually began its shooting life over twelve years ago and has just garnered the first of the many major awards it is likely to take home this year – winner in the best drama category at this week’s Golden Globes event.
Of the two Ida is the purer and richer specimen of the great art form that cinema is, showing us how the medium can rise to the task of touching the transcendent at a level which can leave us breathless – to the point where its resonances might even provoke a life-changing experience.
Ellar Coltrane who plays Mason through the years
Boyhood is different. Its capability is more negative. It is firstly a triumphant experiment in film-making, using, as it does, the same actors to play its central characters from year one to year twelve in the story which it unfolds before us. But while this certainly adds to the fasciation of the film it is not at the heart of its power. What is at the heart of its power is its searing truthfulness. It is a portrait of a family as our sorry society has now determined so many families are. It is a “document” of ordinary people muddling along through life, hurting each other, harming each other and breaking each others hearts and trying to make the best of it. For the most part they are good people but they are also flawed people, living in a society which has generated mores for them where hurts increase and multiply and no one can do much about it other than try to get on with it.
Ida (Directed by Pawilikowski) looks bleaker than Boyhood – but it is not. Boyhood’s lovable flawed protagonists muddle along and basically stay muddled, neither happy nor miserably unhappy. Boyhood asks questions – without even appearing to – but it gives no real answers, partly one suspects, because there are no answers in the world they have constructed. Two young people mull over the received wisdom that we should “seize the moment” – carpe diem the original. They conclude – and that is even too strong a word – that rather, it is the moment that seizes us.
All we can hope for is that Richard Linklater – the genius who conceived, wrote and directed this little masterpiece for a mere four million dollars – might continue for another twelve years to tell this story of young Mason whose boyhood is the central subject. Perhaps then the fatalistic note on which Boyhood ends might resolve itself in a more redemptive way. But something tells us that is not going to happen, and that this would not ring true in a story where truth is at its very heart. This is a story of a muddled world bequeathed to children by muddled adults who try to do their best but their best is not good enough to save their children from making the same mistakes which they made. This is a universal story about the ordinary, sad and somewhat perplexed human beings who populate western culture in our age. That makes it a treasure.
Ida’s setting is much grimmer than the suburban middle class Texas setting of Boyhood.
It takes us back to the Spartan environment of a Poland which seemed to be settling into its harsh communist utopia. The counterfoil to the grim reality generated by communist ideology is a convent of nuns where some novices are preparing to take their vows and accept the ascetic terms and conditions of a life in this world dedicated to the God so vehemently denied by everyone around them. On the surface it appears no less grim, but the intimations of immortality which it engenders sets it an eternity apart from the other.
We follow the path of one of these, Ida, whom we discover is the orphaned daughter of Jewish parents she never knew and who were murdered while trying to escape the holocaust. Before taking her vows she is given leave to visit her mother’s sister – and it is only then that she discovers that she is Jewish. Her aunt survived the holocaust and became a hardened communist magistrate, with not a few death sentences to her credit. The portrayal of the family bond juxtaposed with the contrast between the life of faith of one and the clearly disillusioned ideology of the other is one of the master-strokes of the film.
The two go in search of the truth about the fate of Ida’s parents – and find it. In doing so a thrid protagonist enters the story in the person of a young man both fascinated by the mystery of Ida’s dedication and attracted to her. Their relationship develops and finally comes to a point where, in the most extraordinary circumstances imaginable, the denouement unfolds.
The final scene, reminiscent in some ways of Truffaut’s iconic freeze-frame finale in les quatre cent coups – but without the ambiguity of that scene – is long and paced in such a way to give us, the viewers, time to unravel something of the miracle which has unfolded before our eyes as we absorb the landscape and the serene and determined expression on the face of Ida.
Both these films ask the fundamental eschatalogical question – the one directly, the other implicitly – probably without even knowing it is asking it. Ida asks it in the final two words spoken in the film and the question is answered for us in the 10 or so silent minutes which follow that scene – at least for those who have eyes to see it.
Boyhood does not formally ask it – unless you consider young Mason asking his father, as they discuss attending the Christening of his baby half-brother, if he had baptised him when he was a child. His father’s skeptical answer puts an end to that conversation. There is also, of corse, the implication of the soundtrack which features George Harrison’s “What is Life?”.
But while the question is not asked the answer is still there. Towards the end of Boyhood, as Mason is about to leave his mother’s nest and she somewhat ruefully reflects on her half-happy life, she says to him “I thought there would have been more”. He has no words of consolation or reassurance – for he himself is not even sure of where he is going or what is in store for him.
The New Yorker review of Boyhood had the following observation
So many of the men in “Boyhood” seem like losers, or bullies, or both, minds and mouths locked tight with disapproval and denial, and the challenge for Mason—and, you feel, for any kid—is not just to survive the squalls of youth but somehow to grow from boy to man without suffering a death of the spirit.
We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process; that is why the Mason with the earring from whom we take our leave, on his first, blissed-out day of college, both is and is not the affable imp of seven, or the mumbler who bumped his way through puberty, and that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone. Just like the final fade.
The semi-desert setting of the final scene in the film parallels with the grey bleak landscape through which we see the young novice walking in the last minutes of Ida. The contrast between the two is in the souls of the protagonists. They are in entirely different places. In the one we can say, “There is a vision of Life.” In the other the desert in the soul is sucking life away and all we can say is that where there is still some life, well, there is some hope.
Neither of these films is ‘an entertainment’, nor comprehensible without a certain level of maturity. Boyhood features some very strong language within very unrestrained but wholly authentic conversational banter between adolescent boys.
What we have in Ida and in Boyhood are two parables, each telling us a truth about our condition and our time. The one shows us the soul’s capacity to perceive the transcendent meaning of our lives and our capacity to act on that perception. The other shows us – irrespective of what may or may not be the particular perception of the teller of the tale – the dreadful consequences of a degenerate culture which blinds us to our nature and inhibits us from acting according to our true identity as rational, sentient and free beings.
The combined power of these two films, true and honest reflections on our human condition from very different perspectives, redeem cinema and do a great deal to restore our faith in this great art form.