Satan’s Dance

Satan’s Dance

Trauma: what’s the best way of capturing it  without the use of words? Shaky cameras, a shell shock ringing and black and white flashbacks don’t work anymore. What Saving Private Ryan achieved for the very first time is now being rehashed in almost every single Hollywood blockbuster that is out there not to make a point but to cash in the revenues. That is why I was left feeling extremely overwhelmed once the credits to Waltz with Bashir started to roll over a black screen.
Waltz with Bashir, an Oscar nominated animated movie directed by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, is without a doubt one of the most innovative and interesting visual displays of trauma I’ve ever seen. It plays on so many different, unseen, original notes and touches upon some crucial cinematic themes that aren’t brought up enough in today’s world of cinema, that it creates a surreal aura around itself and enters perhaps my top 10 of the 2000s. Let’s have a look at why its approach to such a difficult phenomenon such as human trauma is so unique.

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Ali Folman, the aging protagonist, desperate for answers.

We’re talking about an animated film that tackles the filmmaker’s personal experience as a 19-year-old infantry soldier in the 1982 war with Lebanon who witnesses a ruthless massacre (Sabra and Shatila massacre – the killing of almost 3500 Palestinians and Lebanese civilians) unfold right before his eyes. As an adult he has a hard time remembering what he saw and can’t bring himself to find the right answers so he decides to seek out others who were in Beirut at the time to discuss their memories, including a psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorders and the first journalist to cover the massacre.
The film follows the filmmaker as he interviews his old friends and strangers, and shifts from the present to the past using the power of animation. This is where the secret lies – the animation. 

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Landscape of death and destruction.


Waltz with Bashir uses traditional hand-drawn animation that translates incredibly well onto the screen due to the fact that most of the original interviews were used as a template by artist Yoni Goodman. The film as a whole was first shot on a sound studio and then transferred to a storyboard. This allowed the illustrations to gain a certain feeling of movement and energy. The dark hues enabled the filmmaker to present his vision of an almost surreal, dream-like (as well as nightmarish) world where very little is certain and where people don’t act according to any set of rules. Don’t let this fool you.
Waltz with Bashir is very realistic. Some of its scenes reminded me of the great war movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket especially with its juxtaposed use of upbeat 80s Israeli pop music playing over images of explosions and destruction. But this isn’t the point. The point is that this film manages to create something refreshing out of something so nostalgic and “outdated” as classic animation in order to bring up the issue of trauma.

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Recalling the past.

The loss of memory and especially the loss of a memory as harsh as the witnessing of a massacre can be easily interpreted as an example of trauma. One does not forget the sight of dead bodies nor the sound of shots being fired at a mass of women and children. However, that is what happens to the protagonist. His personal trauma is the pain that comes from the realization that his mind has completely canceled out such a brutal memory, as if he was responsible for it, as if he was the man who pulled the trigger. Perhaps it is the weight of guilt and desperation brought on him by trauma that make him seek out the truth.
Perhaps it’s only for personal reasons. In fact, the filmmaker never raises his voice, he never manages to get as emotional as we would wish him to be. Ari Folman’s voice is monotonous, predictable and yet it transmits the feeling that this man has been through a lot. The same goes for the people he interviews. Six out of eight interviews present in the movie are authentic interviews conducted by the filmmaker himself prior to the making of this movie.
Some of the interviewees talk about war the way they talk about going for a beer in the evening. Their voices are flat and their descriptions become repetitive and oversimplified but it’s precisely that, that makes these interviews and the way they are displayed visually so powerful and gut-wrenching. The unscripted voices of these interviewees deepen the film’s message and turn simple animation into a document, a film essay where an invisible thesis is made and arguments are brought up by the people at the microphone.

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Animation has no limits.

The film opens like some kind of thunderous nightmare. A pack of dogs with shining teeth takes an entire city by surprise and creates chaos. The camera tracks the dogs as these strong, growling beasts make their way across streets, parks and squares, spreading panic and fear in the eyes of bystanders. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know why these dogs are relevant, but we know one thing: it’s disturbing and unsettling.
This opening sequence turns out to be a nightmare dreamt by one of Folman’s old pals from the war and succeeds in transmitting to the audience the overall feel of the movie in a matter of two minutes. Dogs from hell and soldiers with machine guns – there is no palpable difference, says Folman. The soldiers with machine guns have no motivation to do what they do best but they still do it, just like those blood thirsty dogs that storm the city for no reason other than to cause chaos and destruction.

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Humanity unleashed.

In terms of visuals the movie is capable of conveying to the viewer where the present is and where the past takes over. Contemporary action unfolds with a much darker color palette, mainly using a contrast of black and orange  in order to create this neon-light effect that pulsates with a sense of nostalgia and regret. Most frames are occupied by one or two characters, reminiscent of documentary style filmmaking. Sometimes it’s just desolate landscapes, a silent night, filled with Max Richter’s moving classical score.

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When reality ends and dreams take over.

It is only when the movie shifts back to the past that the film assumes a different kind of spirit – a much more conventional one. The colors become  brighter and easier on the eye. There is a prominent use of light green and yellow; shadows are also used to present a very realistic depth of field. The storytelling is visual, helped by an omnipresent voice-over narration that shift from various perspectives depending on the interviewee.
If carefully analyzed, one can  come to the conclusion that this method of storytelling is the epitome of experiencing a traumatic event. In a sense, these shifting perspectives represent the human mind playing tricks on us. The story spins around on it itself but it never manages to find a firm safe point; every account that is being told is doubtful, ambiguous and unreliable. As I sat down and watched this movie I never felt sure of the next step – it always felt as if I was watching a number of different unrelated stories put together as a whole in order to fool me, in order to feed me something that at the end turns out to be something else. Folman’s trauma is unraveled step by step like a play constructed of different acts. His memory loss reflects an attitude of a man who fears himself, fears what he is capable of and what the people around him are capable of.

The world of Waltz with Bashir is populated by normal, everyday people who at times, depending on the situation, can turn into blood thirsty hounds, willing to kill an entire city just for the simple taste of blood. And I think that that is one of the most accurate depictions of trauma you’ll ever find on the silver screen.

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Nothing comes easy.

Brother and Sister

Brother and Sister

Some of the greatest heartbreakers and tearjerkers in film history belong to the animation genre. Animation, a genre that was always meant to be targeted at younger audiences, has now become another way of delivering very emotional and thematically powerful subject matters to the big screen. Once upon a time, Walt Disney developed the idea of telling certain stories such as fairy tales by drawing them on paper and editing them out in order for them to be more accessible to children. Soon enough, animation turned into this massive genre that is now one of the most successful ones at the box office. Movies like UpFinding NemoInside Out were all major hits critically acclaimed by audiences, critics and award shows. However, these movies wouldn’t have the same character and body if not for a genre like anime, the Japanese animation. And one of the best examples to demonstrate this is Grave of Fireflies.

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Believe me, I’ve never been a fan of anime. I appreciate the imagination, the effort and true professionalism that go with it but usually its themes are way too distant for me. Hayao Miyazaki, for example, is in my opinion one of the very best directors and artists of the late 20th century, early 21st. His movies, such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are grand accomplishments but I’ve never been fond of the supernatural and the way it is used to tell a certain story. It just doesn’t hit me where it should. However, I found Isao Tahakata’s Grave of Fireflies (1988) to be exactly what I wanted to see in order to become a fan of the genre. Don’t think it’s kids’ stuff. It’s not, and it was never meant to be made for children. It is the story of a fourteen year old Japanese boy and his younger baby sister who try to survive on their own in the war torn Japan of 1945. In the very first scene Seita, the brother, speaks to us in a sombre tone: “I died on September 21st, 1945.” That’s not the way to start off a kids’ movie, huh? It’s a warning. It’s a warning for the viewer not to dismiss the movie’s emotional quality just because of the way it is depicted. It is more of a challenge. And indeed, this film is just as powerful as any live action feature, be it Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice or even Platoon. It is extremely relentless in the way it keeps sending punches towards us and showing no mercy for its characters. Seita and Setsuko are on their own. And they have to fight to get through each day.

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There is something in anime that you can’t find in other animation features such as those that are nowadays produced by Pixar or Disney. Anime lives and breathes because of symbolism, imagery and texture. An object like a glass bottle or a cough drops tin can aren’t just simple objects. There is always something standing right behind them, offering a much more emotional message than most of those typical Hollywood ending speeches where all the characters find inner peace, harmony and comfort. In anime everything is meaningful. A simple gust of wind can symbolize loneliness, yearning or sadness. A house on fire can express a character’s anger, frustration or troubled past (similarly to most Kurosawa movies). Tahakata, the director, wanted to make his characters look and feel miserable in order for audiences to understand them better. This objective could only be achieved  with the use of animation and animation had to posses soft colors and a delicate palette so  that the contrast between childhood and war would be more visible. Fire is soft red, almost orange. Water is light blue, almost transparent. Every storyboard is so expertly crafted that there is a contrast in almost every frame, be it a contrast of perspective, of size or character. It’s always there and it proves exactly my point: that this kind of animation has the ability of expressing itself much better than most movies nowadays. Today we go watch a movie in the theater and most of the time we have no idea what is going on until the very end of it and not because of its complex message or twist ending but because of how it is presented to us. Most directors nowadays cut their movies up in such fashion that a frame lasts a maximum of 2-3 seconds whether as Alfred Hitchcock’s frames lasted  a good 6-9 seconds. In Grave of Fireflies the message is chaotic, wrapped in a cloud of fire and riddled with bullets by the omnipresent war but there is still something very calm and peaceful about it. About the way it feels when we look at it and the way it expresses its warmth in a terrifying manner. There is no rush. No alarm bell ringing in the distance. It’s quiet. A relationship between a loving older brother and a younger sister never felt more real.

By the end of it, you’ll be drowning in tears asking yourself how is it possible to make something this tough with the simple use of a pen and paper.

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Everything is a matter of…
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… perspective

The Sad Story

The Sad Story

After World War II, cinema changed forever. Audiences developed a different kind of sensibility, and suddenly the stories that were being told, usually touched upon very depressive themes rather than  melodramatic ones. European cinema, particularly Italian cinema, managed to completely change the way we react and perceive film as an art form. Italian Neorealism was meant to tell stories that no one dared to tell before. It followed characters who came from poverty and struggle. The camera acted as a reporter, it zoomed in and shined a light on the unseen and the unwanted. There was Roberto Rossellini with his War Trilogy (Rome Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then there was Luchino Visconti with Obsession and La Terra Trema. These were movies that came straight up from the ground, from the dirt, the ashes. The protagonists of these movies were the common folk, the poor and lonely. And yet, for me Vittorio De Sica was the one who did it best. Bicycle Thieves, his most famous work and one that is often considered to be the best movie of all time, because of its influence and incredibly audacious vision, opened up a world of post war depression. A world of ruined buildings and unemployed workers. It was honest. His other masterpiece, perhaps his most depressive and heartbreaking one, Umberto D. manages to explore what De Sica left out of Bicycle Thieves.

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An entire nation protesting.

Umberto D. is a hard watch. We witness as the ground crumbles under an old man’s feet. The world, the city of Rome, the universe, are all quickly changing, and not for the better. Umberto is struggling to survive, eating off the rests of food, sleeping in a tiny room, selling anything of value that he possesses, begging his so called friends for just a dime. His only companion? A sweet, intelligent dog. As we witness a few days in Umberto’s life we start to realize that Umberto’s story is the story of a whole nation, a whole underground world that is still there. We don’t see it. But it’s there. Poverty, starvation, loneliness and death. Umberto wanders around the crowded streets of post war Rome, in search of something, someone.

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Honest men are hard to find.

De Sica, like a true reporter with the eye of an eagle, shines a light on the Italian nation. A nation of poor men and women, of rich and privileged selfish people, of homeless dogs and pregnant young girls. Who would have dared to make a movie like this at that time? Umberto is not just an individual. He’s only used as an example by the filmmaker to paint a tragic, depressive, grim image. The camera tortures us with the old man’s presence. It squeezes him, it works him over and doesn’t let go. Sometimes it almost feels like we’re supposed to be on the side of those who take advantage of Umberto and his beloved dog. We’re forced to watch. We’re forced to breathe and struggle alongside the poor old man. You don’t have to like it, says De Sica, but you must think about it. Because yes, the cinematic screen can be a prison sometimes. You feel compelled to watch the moving image, and yet you also want to get away, go for it and run. De Sica’s movie is like a prison cell. You can’t find the keys to unlock it. You become his prisoner.

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The dog, a vagabond creature, is Umberto’s only love. A dying breed.

Umberto, played as usual (in De Sica’s movies) by a non professional actor, is our unwanted hero. Carlo Battisti, the actor and protagonist, brings the raw credibility, the touch of dirt a movies like this desperately needs to deliver its heavy message. We get a taste of a real poor sob walking the streets of Rome in the late 1940s. He’s our hero. He’s our leader. Battisti with his looks, his powerlessness, his innocence and desperation in his eyes, delivers one of the great performances in the history of motion picture. When he begs for money, we sense the humiliation in his gestures. A man, who maybe once upon a time was some kind of an important figure, a hard worker and bread winner, now stands on the street with his hand stretched out and begs for money. He becomes one of the many bricks in a huge brick wall.

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Humiliation.

 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you deliver a punch to the gut. By directing and staging what people struggle to see on a daily basis. By delivering what most of us refuse to believe.

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The Boy and the Man

The Boy and the Man

I suddenly feel compelled to ignore any other movie I’ve watched lately and do a little write-up on a movie that at first failed to have an impact on me, emotionally. Two days after my first viewing of it, I feel like this movie has become a part of me, a part of my knowledge, a part of my beliefs, a part of my existence. It is a movie that does not throw itself at a viewer, it does not force any tears or rage, it does not drag the viewer into its lurid world, it just is. I am talking about the fantastic Hungarian Oscar winner for best foreign film of 2015, Son of Saul.

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Welcome to Saul’s world.

It took a lot of time for me to dive into Saul of Saul, the film directed by Hungarian director  László Nemes, starring first time actor Géza Röhrig. For those who don’t know what the film is about, it’s the story of a Hungarian prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando unit in Auschwitz concentration camp, who tries to give proper burial to the body of who he believes is his little boy, his lost son. Yes, this is another Holocaust movie. Yes, it shows mass murder in the world’s biggest concentration camp. Yes, you all think you have seen it before. Don’t worry. You haven’t. This is no Schindler’s List, no Boy in the Striped Pajamas, no Pianist. This is a claustrophobic, harrowing experience shot in 40mm lens that focuses on one character, and one character only. This character’s name is Saul. He is no saint. His job is to push Jewish families, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled into the gas chambers. His job is to drag the lifeless bodies out of the gas chambers. His job is to burn the bodies. His job is to burn all the evidence: clothes, documents, hair. His job is to make it look like it never happened. His job is to die after a few months of bloody hard work.

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A man lost in a world where every man is a bad man.

This movie does not spare any punches. It keeps you glued to the main character, Saul. Everything else is out of focus because of the very limited range a 40mm lens can offer. You hear sounds. You heard people screaming in pain. Children laughing. You hear gunshots. You hear bodies being dumped into mass graves. The camera stays with Saul and follows him anywhere he goes. Saul, in fact, may seem like a heartless man. Lacking any character depth, any real grit, emotion. He looks like a walking dead person. That’s because he is. If you think about it, after witnessing all the horrors portrayed in this movie, how can someone call it a life when your daily routine consists of burning innocent people? In Schindler’s List Spielberg presented us with characters that cared about each other, in Life is Beautiful Benigni played a loving father that looked after his family. These were characters that even during the hardest of times were always there for each other. In Son of Saul the rule is each man for himself. There is no unity, no brotherhood. If you help someone, you die. That’s why we only see what Saul does. The director wants the camera to be his only companion, his only true friend that stays quiet throughout the whole movie. We observe. We keep silent. We witness Saul trying to find a reason to survive. We witness Saul do all kinds of sacrifices in order to save the dead body of a boy that may not even be his son. We witness Saul trying to save himself from all this madness.

It is an excruciating but beautiful thing to witness. This movie is a lot to take.

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and we wait…
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for something…
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beautiful…
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to…
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happen…

 

Light and its Enemy

Light and its Enemy

Today’s topic: Tarkovsky and his representation of life. We often watch movies and TV shows for the heck of it. We do it because we like to, we like action, we like plot, we like to have fun. It’s obvious. But rarely do we watch something just to really “watch it”. Analyzing films can be difficult, analyzing TV shows can be even more difficult, but sometimes it hits us. We find something in a certain image, a particular allegory that to some of us is unmissable. I mean to write about Andrei Tarkovsky’s influence on modern cinema, and when I’m finished I’d wish someone would watch an episode of True Detective, or any movie by Alejandro G. Iñárritu or Lars Von Trier and find out what I’m talking about because some discoveries can be quite illuminating.

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Innocent curiosity.

Tarkovsky, for those who don’t quite know who he was, is regarded as per Ingmar Bergman “the most important director of all time”. He was a man with a revolutionary mind and an eagle’s eye for detail. For every movie he wanted to do, he battled with USSR’s authorities over the production and distribution costs, often coming out on the losing side. His movies would often be released three to four years after the filming was completed, sometimes that would never happen. He was a man who found light in darkness. His first feature debut, Ivan’s Childhood, from 1962, will be subject of today’s post. The story of a young Russian boy going behind enemy lines during the Nazi invasion of Russia, is still considered as one of the best if not the best directing debut anyone has ever put out. But what’s so special about it? The use of light. That’s it. In his later films Tarkovsky would use light as a symbol for religion (Andrei Rublev), courage ( The Sacrifice) and art (Nostalghia), but here, Tarkovsky uses light as a symbol for life and the danger that comes with it. The setting? Snowy Russia, a bunker, a deep marsh, wilderness. Ivan has lost his whole family and he’s come a long way to fight for his motherland. He makes his way to a small bunker where he finds a warm bed and a hot bath. The bunker is dark except for where Ivan’s sitting. He’s a boy and a boy means life. Youth is life and in times of war, youth is the only reminder of a better past and maybe, just maybe, a better future.

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The light of a child.

Tarkovsky’s way of blocking his actors and staging a scene is a form of art itself – in the middle of the main room is a wooden table, on the table is a lit candle that gives light and warmth to anybody who comes close to it. In fact if we look close enough, the few soldiers who stand distant from the table, in the dark corners of the dark bunker are those who later on lose their life with a bullet to the heart. Ivan is hope. And so is the candle that burns. The scalding wax dripping down to the floor. Ivan’s blond hair shines, the only part of his body that is never dirty, a reminder of a child’s innocence. When Ivan turns around to find some comfort in a long needed sleep, the bunker goes dark. Silence. We open up on a forest made out of birch trees. It’s daytime. An officer roams around, putting together his thoughts and ideas. Suddenly a girl appears out of nowhere. She’s an officer as well. They circle around, trying to catch one another’s look. They find it. And in one of the greatest kiss scenes of all time, they, well– they kiss. But what does Tarkovsky do to make this scene stand out? He puts light up against its enemy. He pans the camera down to a trench hole, achieving a low angle, and showing us this way two different realities, that of blind love in a peaceful world, and that of blind love in a world shaken by war. It’s powerful imagery and the more one thinks about it, the more it becomes revolutionary in its approach to the subject matter.

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Tarkovsky’s artistry.

When bombs are dropped, everything goes silent. Everything dies. No one walks away. The only thing that stays is a cross. A cross that is penetrated by a ray of sunlight, that blows life into this quiet scene. It lifts our morale, it feeds us with hope. Is everyone dead? That could be our first question. But Tarkovsky aims higher. Is it worth being alive? That’s his question. We are constantly reminded that life is beautiful but living it comes always with a price. Only a small boy like Ivan could smile at times of war and bloodshed, and yet he doesn’t. That’s Tarkovsky’s reality. That’s his poetry and message. Whenever in doubt, look for a source of light, but watch out, you don’t want to burn yourself.

 

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Look closer.

 

 

Wide Eyes, Wild Places

Wide Eyes, Wild Places

Today’s topic: Nature. Nope, it’s not a biology lesson, I’m well aware of it. What I mean by the word ‘nature’ is the key role that nature, in this case the tall Elephant grass and the impenetrable jungle, play in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

A lot of you, when you hear the words “war movie”, might immediately think of Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket or in some cases even Apocalypse Now. And of course, you have the right to. Those are iconic movies not only in their genres but well beyond that. They marked a certain kind of filmmaking and a very specific way of looking at the horror of the battlefield. A realistic perception of what used to be a movie genre that spread pro military propaganda (re: The Green Berets). However, when I must make a statement on what I consider the most monumental and in a twisted sense, beautiful film, I say The Thin Red Line (1998).

The story of the American battle against the Japanese forces on the island of Guadalcanal, a small piece of rock in the middle of the Pacific, grabs you by the legs and doesn’t let go. The men, portrayed by a wonderful cast of,  during that time,  relatively unknown actors like Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, John Cusack, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson and many others (including veterans Nick Nolte and John Travolta), they are the main plot. Because, well, there actually isn’t one. We follow young soldiers into the unknown, where they discover, on foreign soil, who they really are or who they used to be before their lives took an abrupt turn.

The state of mind of these poor bastards is represented by the wild, dark nature that surrounds them day and night. Why? Well, isn’t the mystery of what’s about to happen our greatest fear? The fear of catching a bullet or the fear of falling into a booby trap? The fear of getting killed on an island far away from home and our beloved ones?

The Elephant grass is tall and green; its leaves are razor blades that cut deep into every soldier’s exposed body part. Its ground is made out of dirt, hiding snakes and other wild beasts awaiting the chance to kill. That’s right. Everything moves. Everything is deadly out there. The soldiers can crawl, squat, even lie down and pray and they won’t be safe. That’s Terrence Malick’s, the director’s, point. We are guests; we are vulnerable; we mean nothing; mother nature decides whether we get to live or die. Malick’s direction, the camera following every soldier from behind and from the side, is meant to hit the viewer straight to the gut with its message: you don’t get to decide. You’re not in a position to. In fact, the soldiers know it. They await, for the first 50 minutes the sound of a speeding bullet. For them it was months, since the Japanese army first of all focused on destroying the US Navy and its supplies. Only after a long, infernal span of time, did the Japanese decide to act. And with what force. What was supposed to be taken in three days, was won over in six months of bloody battles.

Malick, a well known oilman and biologist, has the eye for little details. Even the first shot of the film is a crocodile moving through the muddy water like a trained assassin. In fact, that’s it. That tells you what it’s all about. Explosions? Huge action set pieces (in some scenes up to 3000 extras)? Breathtaking POV sequences? Yes, of course, but that’s not half of it. Peace and quiet. That’s when the jungle is at its most ominous. When the birds stop their singing, when the waters calm down, and when the sound of flies vanishes. That’s when you’re ought to worry. It’s that kind of deadly silence that the soldiers have in their hearts while fighting for survival. The silence in their hearts. The memories of a lover in California, the mental pictures of mom’s apple pie, the sweet sound of children laughing. That’s all in their minds. That’s all they can think about because of the silence. Because of the sun that can’t get through the twisted branches. Because of the thick air that becomes more and more tiring. Because of the mud that keeps slowing them down. The jungle is what they live, what they breathe, what they walk, what they talk and most importantly, what they fear. It’s all their emotions packed into a big, heavy bag. Now, they have to carry it. And that’s no easy task.

Not even for a soldier.

Not even the toughest bombing can destroy mother nature.
Not even the toughest bombing can destroy mother nature.