2011 offered four remarkable narrative films – two still in theaters – thematically rooted in our complex relationship(s) with our natural habitat. Though documentaries have long focused on the natural world and our place in it – witness the prodigious bounty of ecoFilms at this year’s film festivals – these feature films seamlessly weave an ecological awareness into their stories.
Very different in character, plot and scope, these four films all resonate at a soulful level and illuminate where we are as a species.
The Tree of Life
We have all seen films that follow a pride of lions, a herd of elephant or colony of ants through the circle of life. Well, with a nature documentarian’s eye and a master’s cinematic skills, Director Terence Malick chronicles a family of humans, (the O’Briens), living in the American Midwest of the 1950s.
At the start, we are told in voice-over, “There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace.” We see Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) learn of the loss of their son. The mother’s heartache, her uniquely human questioning of “why?” — resounds through the universe through time, dissolving to a 16-minute sequence showing the origin of life, indeed the very beginnings of earth up to a return to the 1950s and the O’Brien family’s complex continuing story.
This early interlude, complete with dinosaurs, has turned off a lot of moviegoers, as well as thrilling many others with its beauty and ambition. In taking us through the history of the cosmos, Malick gives us context for the O’Brien family, placing them and us on the timeline – stretching long before we were born and long after.
As in all of his films, Malick’s artistry propels you to the edge of sensory overload. The breathtaking cinematography, (Emmanuel Lubezki) and sound transport us into the gurgle of lava flows, the webby footfalls of dinosaurs running in a glade of ferns, the laughter of kids romping in a cloud of insecticide sprayed from a municipal truck. (Yes, they did that in the 50s.) All accompanied by lush, elegiac music – one of humankind’s greatest achievements – composed by Alexandre Desplat and a host of classical selections by Mahler, Respighi, Berlioz and others.
The dialogue is sparse. The experience of this movie is unforgettable. From its simple opening words, The Tree of Life goes on to show that both brute nature and spiritual grace shapes not only our lives as family and as individuals, but all of life. And we are all connected in that.
Alexander Payne’s wonderful film also centers on a family and loss. Set in the Hawaiian islands, it stars George Clooney as a father trying to re-connect with his two daughters and cope with his wife’s impending death, all the while managing his extended family’s looming real estate boon.
This funny, poignant story – wrapped in Hawaiian verdant and azure blue – features a Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington moment that seems, regrettably, to only ever happen in the movies. In an ode to conservation, Clooney’s character stands up to his large clan of relatives eager to sell their heritage – pricey, pristine acreage in Kauai — to a resort developer:
“… I sign that document, it’s over. End of the line. Something that was ours to protect will be gone. Even though we’re haole as shit and go to private schools and clubs and can’t even speak pidgin, let alone Hawaiian, we still carry Hawaiian blood and we’re still tied to this land. It’s a miracle that for whatever bullshit reason 150 years ago, we own this much of paradise, but we do. And for whatever bullshit reason now, I’m the trustee. And I’m not signing.”
From the screenplay by director Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright 2010 Willow and Oak, Inc.
Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times)
Told in four chapters – translated “The Four Times” – the story records the earthly existence of an old man, a young goat, a tree and a batch of charcoal. Whether or not you believe like Pythagoras that the soul is passed from human to animal to vegetable to mineral – writer-director Michelangelo Frammartino’s transcendent film traces this cycle of life in the southern Italian region of Calabria. Frammertino focuses on each of the four with such tenderness and humor that slowly you perceive the interconnectedness of it all. It is a most entertaining discovery.
The story is simple: An old shepherd (Giuseppe Fuda) tends to his goats, roaming and romping over the hilly terrain. These goats are natural performers – often hilarious – and arguably more captivating than a lot of human film stars. When the shepherd slows down or collapses, the goats always return to check on him. As time passes, the goats start to tend the shepherd. With no dialogue but for narration, (Italian w/subtitles) the visuals speak like no words can.
It’s a safe bet that you have never seen a movie like this. You will laugh and cry and benefit from something much more – a gift of seeing the world we share like you’ve never seen it before. Put it in your DVD queue immediately.
An airborne virus threatens mankind. Director Steven Soderbergh’s riveting medical thriller features an all-star cast – many of whom don’t make it to the end credits – headed by Matt Damon – who does.
I can’t recall a more vivid illustration of the step-by-step fragility of an ecosystem than the film’s last sequence of quick cuts, building to the discovery of how this lethal pandemic took flight: A bulldozer knocks down a tree in a remote forest in China – Bats fly out of the tree – One bat, presumably infected with the virus, grabs a piece of banana and flies to a perch over a pig pen – The bat drops the banana piece – A pig eats it – The slaughtered pig is sold – A gourmet chef in an upscale Chinese hotel kitchen prepares the pig with his bare hands – The chef goes out to the dining room and poses in a picture with Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), there on a business trip – In the picture, they hold hands, transferring the virus to her, the first victim, and starting the chain of events.
Scary stuff. And, according to Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, grounded in real science and real possibilities when the sensitive balance of life tilts out of control.