What greater irony than reviewing Terence Malick's The New World, the best film of 2005, barely a week after wrapping my top-10 list? Not that irony has any place in Malick's guileless universe -- while the Scorsese-Coppola-De Palma '70s gang was marveling at Godard and Fellini, he was groping further into the past, towards Murnau and Dovzhenko. Purity, but a purity inaccessible in modern times, so Malick mounts symphonic elegies for its loss -- Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, three mammoth films in about as many decades of work, for the filmmaker won't be rushed. A track to make Kubrick look like Fassbinder, yet who's to complain when each new vision signals a deepening of the director's art, thus a shift in the medium? Simply put, a Malick film is worth waiting for, and The New World validates the anticipation as the most splendiferous profusion of cinematic expressiveness to emerge out of an American studio in many a year. The view is of Malick's earliest despoiled Eden yet, specifically America's pre-colonized infancy -- "Don't let America go wrong in its first hour" resonates with political baggage, though Malick's poetry remains foremost a global one, meditatively attuned to humankind's place in nature and time. I'm still digesting it, looking forward to one more viewing (or five or six), already convinced of having experienced (experienced is the key word) a masterwork.
Faith in the senses is the linchpin of Malick's vision, and the opener anchors it -- the sky reflected in the water, followed by members of the indigenous Powhatan tribe glimpsing the incoming English ships while Wagner swells inspiringly-ominously in the soundtrack. The setting is Virginia, 1607, and one of the intruding sails carries a shackled John Smith (Colin Farrell), raising his bound hands to the sky beyond the wooden bars of the hull; since he's the only one among the settlers with soldierly skills, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) delays Smith's hanging for mutiny. Axes splinter the trees for the embryonic Jamestown, and a native's head, painted and mohawked, enters the frame from below, filling it; meetings between the British and the "naturals" are uneasy, nervous pistols go off and prisoners are taken. Smith's armor is no match for the Powhatan's nimbleness around the marsh, and he's captured and presented to the chief (August Schellenberg); a club is seen rushing his way, then a cut to black and sudden mercy, courtesy of Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), the chief's daughter, who has the white man's life spared. "He is not one of us," the chief warns, but for now there's idyll between Smith and Pocahontas, enjoying a tender paradise and each other's feelings. Mozart tinkles over the couple's love, but the music is not the shampoo-commercial jingle of Bo Widerberg's Elvira Madigan, far closer instead to Bresson and Schubert in Au Hassard Balthazar, another acknowledgement of the grave beauties and horrors of the world.
Horrors are to follow, then, from lush greens to the dilapidated grays of Jamestown, where squalor, hunger and madness simmer for the clash of cultures, its ensuing slaughter staged, like the battle passages in The Thin Red Line, as a sequence cosmic unbalance, bloodthirsty humans battling as nature quietly weeps around them. "Lord, turn away Thy face," goes a pensée during the bloodshed, one of many voiceover bits floating throughout the film; ever since Sissy Spacek narrated the couple's killing spree in how-I-spent-my-summer format in Badlands, narration has been central to Malick's films, and The New World furthers the stream-of-consciousness aural gliding by shuffling narrators contrapuntally. The contrasts between sound and image form Malick's ravishing radicalism, where the connective tissue usually employed for the narrative is dismantled for a procession of visual-aural-tonal shifts, abrupt and graceful, intimate and distanced. Voices flow like melodic strands in a symphony, but the center belongs to Pocahontas, not the ludicrous cartoon babe of 1995's Disney degradation but the heroine caught in shifting tableaus of history, experiencing the values and miseries of civilization. Banished from her tribe for helping the invaders, she finds herself in the new colony, fed into a pilgrim's frock, taught to read, write, and to forget about Smith, sent off on another voyage. Gentle widower John Rolfe (Christian Bale) marries Pocahontas, offers her shelter and love, but her beloved lies still in her mind, along with memories of her own vanishing world.
What other living filmmaker can display so much flabbergasted awe for the elements? Flying birds, the flow of rivers, snow, rain, the seasons, all not just seen but felt -- a forward track through the woods is enough to sum up the expanses of nature, a cut from fierce sunlight to charred crops illustrates its mauling at human hands. Another tracking shot for Pocahontas' audience with British regency, shrewdly playing the exotic for the court; Wes Studi, meanwhile, wanders the meticulous greenery on the outside for the most devastating view of the tamed garden since Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ending. A reunion between her and Smith is arranged, and the flood of feeling, overwhelming yet rigorously kept in check, reminds viewers that Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff is Malick's favorite picture. Their time together has come and gone, however, and the tree must continue to grow, even after one of its branches has broken off, towards a sublime finale of spiritual regeneration. The New World mourns the loss of purity and the passage of time, the overtaking of a continent and the dispersion of a people, just as it resurrects all of them through the beauty of its art. The tragedy here is not merely the soiling of innocence, but the conflicting impulses of the universe, and, corseted as she may be, Pocahontas' spirit remains free, drifting past death and into wholeness. Anyone can shoot an empty bed, a grave, and a stream that keeps flowing, but to evoke transcendence and eternity through the filter of the camera is the privilege of a master. Malick makes you view the world with virgin eyes again.
The clash of cultures has also been a staple of the Merchant-Ivory industry of ashen Masterpiece Theater entertainment, although where Malick furnishes full-bodied sensory epiphanies, M&I hand out circumscribed tastefulness, cribbed straight out of their favorite novels. Ismael Merchant produces, James Ivory directs, and middlebrow viewers, timidly frequenting the art-house, could show up for Howards End or Remains of the Day as regularly as for Woody Allen's annual repackaging. But what is such a long, successful collaboration to cinema, when the filmmaking can only photograph period furniture and mimic the oppression of its characters? The White Countess is the team's final work together, for Merchant has passed away last year; still, even in the rarified confines of their movies, it's more of a whimper than a bang. The novel this time is Kazuo Ishiguro's, set in 1930s Shanghai, stranding a blind American diplomat (Ralph Fiennes, doing that stretched-vowel thing that Brits do when playing Yanks) and an exiled Russian countess (Natasha Richardson) in a nightclub, as isolated a society as the circumscribed estates of the Victorian aristocrats of Forster, James, etc. The presence of the wizardly cinematographer Christopher Doyle notwithstanding, every "cinematic" sequence (i.e., the frantic evacuation to Hong Kong as Japanese forces approach) remains calcified by the illustrating-the-classics approach. But hold on, their ship is ultimately set adrift into the unknown, and behold, I felt moved by the end of a type of cinema I never really cared for, like a boring class you get used to and can't help missing when it's over.
Reviewed January 26, 2006.