Monday, August 18, 2014
MIFF Session 17: HARD TO BE A GOD
Hard to Be a God is a strong film that can list among its virtues one of my favourites in unconventional cinema: it doesn't care how strange it is, it just is. And it's not a film uncaring of its audience either as there are very few seconds of its epic screen time which don't feature someone in the cast looking straight out at us. Whether we stick it out or leave after the 17th faecal reference we are on its terms.
The very spare plot is more of developments within a setting than an action heavy arc. In the future among the inhabited planets discovered this one, Arkanar, has been medieval for a tad too long. Rennaisance style has been detected but the life and politics are still mired in the dark. That's because they keep hanging their nerds. An Earth team is sent to give it a gentle push. There are limits to this and chief among them is that they are not allowed to kill. We follow one of them, Rumata, whose knowledge and confidence have given him a godlike status among the locals. While he fails to save the intellectuals and cannot persuade any of the major warring sides (called Blacks and Whites) to conciliate. He must take drastic action that might be disastrous whether it succeeds or not.
Most of what you get is Rumata moving around the villages and towns having exchanges with the locals that range from brief unreferenced lines to longer dialogues. None of these do much to suggest the necessary hazards that conventional narrative needs but this doesn't claim to be that. Everyone at least seems to be speaking in earnest. We are not listening for exposition (that comes in infrequent slices of narration and is clear) but picking up moods and sources of conflict. After a very short time the viewer understands that the camera following Rumata around in its string of long takes is in the scene itself. Characters are looking into it, addressing it, offering it goblets of alcohol: and whether it is a floating sphere or one of Rumata's teammates it is part of the world we are in.
The world we are in is one of claustrophobically close quarters, mud and any other form of biological waste that the great age of the Churches gave us here on earth. The sense that these creatures have been living like this for hundreds of years longer is at no time in the slightest dispute. If Pieter Breughel had been a photographer influenced by Diane Arbus this is what his work would look like. Make that Hieronymous Bosch, actually, as the constantly crowed screen of the interiors creaks with inscrutable devices and thuds with people. There must be more shoving and face hitting in this film than in the entire Three Stooges back catalogue. Rumata is often seen to throw something like a white handkerchief into the slime at his feet as though he's had little trouble going native and is only barely holding on to the tenets of his mission.
And so we go, walking around this world, trying not to slip or have our faces sliced open for no apparent reason. But it works. The aesthetic repetition from scene to scene can deaden the senses and offer fatigue but if we groan a little past the second hour at a fade into yet another scene there is usually something compelling waiting around that corner. And in a way, this makes a film like this a lot easier that a blockbust of a comparable length.
If we were to be presented with a series of tightly plotted scenes containing only relevant dialogue for two hours and fifty minutes it would feel like an avalanche: so much snow and so little to know. We would forget details, grow impatient with uneven or too even character development, be wearied by what would always, however frenetic the scenes, end up feeling like bland repetition. The near four hours of Lawrence of Arabia, for all its wit and great setpieces, feels like torture by comparison with this one that allows its depth to develop, granting relief through dialogue so abstruse we cannot even pretend to get it. Instead we walk around an unfamiliar world and begin to feel the fear that that engenders through our survivalism alone..