When the Going Gets Tough, I Turn to Cinema

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On the heels of the disastrous presidential election, three current films vitally illuminate the human experience.

This wasn’t supposed to be a time of despair. I have anticipated writing celebratory passages of joy post-election, and continuing to look to the future with hope and optimism, with our first female President-Elect having won a historic nomination. Now, the dark Election Day is exactly one-week-old, and even darker times are ahead. I am, like many, still trying to figure out how to live with my anger and sadness, and beginning to research ways of making meaningful contributions towards the causes I believe in; causes that will be hurt and set back in the next four years. Amid all of this, I am trying to remind myself that movies will always be there and serve as a safe haven. But perhaps more importantly (and now more than ever), they will serve as vehicles that facilitate a deeper understanding of the world and the human experience within it. Presently, there are at least three films in theaters – all examples of distinctly different genres and styles – that actively prescribe empathy, inquisitiveness and acceptance to our kind. These are the very pillars our lives should be built on. These are the very ingredients that can jointly, directly make us better human beings.

In writer/director Jeff Nichols exquisite Loving, we watch an interracial couple in Caroline Country, VA face bigotry and racism in 1958, as they eventually lead the way to a monumental Supreme Court ruling that changed the course of history in the United States. Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga with understated power and poignancy), two hardworking, kind and peaceful people madly in love with each other, get arrested one summer night of that year for breaking the law of “racial integrity”, despite being legally married. They plead guilty in order to avoid serving time in prison and accept banishment from the state to be together with the condition of not re-entering Virginia for 25 years. Their lives change when Ruth decides to write to Robert Kennedy who was the Attorney General at the time, and who immediately gets the ACLU involved in their case. And the rest is history, as they say. What’s exceptional about Loving, which Nichols wrote based on the 2011 HBO documentary The Loving Story (Nancy Buirski), is its quietness. This isn’t a film with explosive, self-aware, “history is made” moments. Instead, Loving moves with elegance, grace and humanity, underscoring the couple’s desperate love for one another, their longing to unapologetically exist in the open and their birthright to just be. This eloquent film knows and delicately conveys what this couple craves (and is entitled to) is acceptance. In that regard, Loving beautifully manages to set acceptance apart from tolerance, as it seems to know in its DNA that the latter is a patronizing word with substantial shortcomings in the fight towards any kind of equal rights.

Gianfranco Rosi’s multi-prize winning unconventional documentary Fire at Sea (Italy’s entry to this year’s Academy Awards) is a resolute blend of styles that amounts to a singular example of nonfiction storytelling. One of the best films of any kind you will get to see this year, Fire at Sea is partly a journalistic investigation, and partly a you-are-there type, fly-on-the-wall peek into the lives of everymen on Lampedusa Island, which is geographically (and politically) located at a vital spot between Africa and Sicily. With his slow-building, cumulatively devastating film, Rosi constructs a unique narrative by focusing on small details of the uneventful island life through a loving lens, and by frequently switching his gaze to the vast human tragedy unfolding in and around it. A central point of transit for volumes of immigrants from Asia, Africa and Middle East for nearly two decades, Lampedusa Island is known to be one of the “deadliest migrant routes in the world,” on which “about 1600 people have reportedly died between January and April 2015.” This devastating tragedy, one of the biggest challenges and human rights issues of our times, is depicted with a rare kind of humanistic vigor in Rosi’s film. He juxtaposes the heartbreaking catastrophes against the everyday misdeeds of a local child names Samuele, a disarming slingshot enthusiast and pasta lover. With this unlikely approach, Rosi in a way accentuates a painful microcosm of the entire world, highlighting the good that exists amid all the evil and subtly critiquing our desensitization to the wrongdoings that develop around us.

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival arrives at a time of political instability and uncertainty, where communication is more important than ever before, as our William Dass also argues in his latest column. This even-keeled, brainy sci-fi calmly favors hope and understanding over combat, in the tradition of Robert Zemeckis’ Contact and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Arrival follows Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a top linguist, as she studies the language of aliens that land across twelve different locales across our planet. Written by Eric Heisserer based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” Villeneuve’s film (his best to date) makes a stunningly timely argument that both the words and the way we use them to formulate and articulate our ideas inform how we think and engage with the world around us. Furthermore, it celebrates the human experience by deeming every single human life and moment on earth as grand and significant as the universe that embodies it. This is a film that commemorates the power of peace, and the patience we show to one another. The sophisticated Arrival –gorgeously shot by Bradford Young and flawlessly scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson– sports an elliptical storyline (resembling the UFOs that grace the earth with their presence), and thus, is ultimately bound to frustrate some with its seemingly slight conclusion. But to get hung up on the film’s deceptively small resolution (that zeroes in on one family) would be to entirely miss its greater philosophical ambitions. Arrival defiantly argues words can change the world and each human life, however short its time on earth might be, can make an immense difference and contribution.

The Leonardo DiCaprio Election

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.