Documentary Movie Review: Into Great Silence (2005) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “I” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “I” documentaries I’ve reviewed are I Am Big BirdI Am Not Your Negro, and Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice.

Title: Into Great Silence
Release Date: 2005
Director: Philip Gröning
Production Company: Zeitgeist Films

A German film crew documents the quotidian lives of  the Carthusian monks at  the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps.  If you plan to watch this documentary, buckle up, because it is nearly three hours with limited dialogue, and most of that is chant song (I confess that I watched in pieces over three days).  Despite the title, sound is not absent from this movie, but ambient sound is accentuated.  Footsteps, creaking boards, raindrops, crackling fire, and movement of a shovel or a brush as the monks go about their daily prayers and chores make a minor cacophony.  I found myself cranking up the volume to allow these sounds to roll around me.

The visuals of the movie are also spectacular especially the views of the Alps across the seasons and the architecture of the old monastery.  The stillness of the camera during most shots is reminiscent of the films of Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds).  There is also a lot of repetition in this film, from the biblical verses shown on screen from time to time, as well as in shots (views of the valley, a door ajar, long corridors, a cloth blowing in the wind).  All this reflects the rhythms of the monk’s daily routine.

Near the end of the film there’s a scene where the monks go snowshoeing and for once have the opportunity to chat, laugh, and slide downhill in the snow. I expect this movie is not for everyone, but I found it very beautifully done and perfect for Holy Week.  And while these monks spend a lot of time in isolation, I also found myself wondering how the monks (and really people in any type of intentional community) are handling the COVID-19 pandemic right now.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) #atozchallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: It’s a Wonderful Life
Release Date: December 20, 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Liberty Films

George Bailey is in trouble and the people of Bedford Falls pray to heaven for help.  Heaven, in the form of angels who appear as blinking galaxies and stars, responds by calling on an angel who hasn’t yet received his wings, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), is called upon to be George’s guardian angel.  Together, the angels review George’s life of good deeds and self sacrifice which make up the majority of the movie.

Young George Bailey (Bobby Anderson) saves his brother when he falls into an icy pond, and prevents his distraught employer at a pharmacy from accidentally giving out medication with poison in it. As a teenager, George (played by James Stewart from here on), dreams of leaving Bedford Falls and traveling the world and going to college.  When George’s father dies, he is forced to take over the family’s Building and Loan, the only business in town that stands up to the rapacious capitalist Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).  George’s younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) goes to college in George’s place and four years later returns with a new wife and a great job opportunity, so George is stuck at the Building and Loan.

George falls in love with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and they get married.  On the day of they’re leaving for their honeymoon, there’s a run on the bank, and George and Mary have to use their honeymoon money to keep the Building and Loan open. Mary renovates an abandoned house and over the years their family grows with four children. Under George’s leadership, the Building and Loan finances quality, affordable homes for many of the working people in the town.  Mr. Potter even tries to lure George into his influence with a lucrative job offer, that George angrily refuses.

During World War II, Harry heroically defends troop transports in the South Pacific and receives the Congressional Medal of Honor.  On the day before he’s set to return home, Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George’s absent-minded partner at the Building and Loan, mistakenly hands an envelope of cash to Mr. Potter in a folded newspaper. The evil Mr. Potter keeps it knowing that the Building and Loan will collapse without this payment and he can have George arrested for embezzlement.  George lashes out in anger at his family and friends and contemplates suicide.

At this point, Clarence Oddbody arrives on earth as George’s guardian angel. In the most famous sequence of the film, Clarence gives George the opportunity to see what Bedford Falls would be like if George had never been born.  The town, now called Pottersville, is a den of vice and iniquity and all the people George knows and loves are miserable and meaner. George realizes the significance of his life and asks to live again.  Meanwhile, Mary organizes the community and everyone in the town chips in to help pay off the Building and Loan debt.  And Clarence gets his wings.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

If you watched television in the 1970s and 1980s, you will remember that each Christmas season became “It’s a Wonderful Month.” Because the copyright on the film lapsed, any television channel could show the movie and they chose to play it over and over again.  I remember tuning in and watching it in bits and pieces, reliving my favorite parts, not even sure when I finally watched the film from end to end (the very beginning where people are praying for George felt unfamiliar, so maybe I never saw that part).

What Did I Remember?:

This film is etched upon my brain and I could still recite lines of dialogue along with the characters.

What Did I Forget?:

Other than the opening sequence with the prayers, I didn’t forget much. Like many of the movies I’ve been watching, there are details I notice as an adult that I didn’t cotton on to as a child.  For example, the druggist Mr. Gower’s son dies from the Great Influenza Pandemic.  Also, George’s behavior can be really atrocious such as when he visits Mary after Harry’s wedding, or when he lashes out at his family when Uncle Billy loses the $8000.  Granted, it’s understandable why he’s so upset and we know that this is not the person he is.  As a parent, seeing the part where George holds one of his children close to him while weeping carried emotional resonance.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The acting in this film is terrific across the board.  Even the minor characters are fully realized.  There are so many little details in this movie that make it feel like a real small town where people are involved in one another’s lives.  And everything that is set up in the extended flashback pays off in the alternate universe sequence.  And this movie is just full of hope and inspiration, so it’s hard not to feel emotional by the end.

Frank Capra is criticized for sentimentality and Capra-corn, but this film surprisingly offers a negative assessment of capitalist America in the immediate aftermath of World War II, much like its contemporary The Best Years of Our Lives.  Opposed to the American dream being open to anyone who works hard its up to communities lead by people like George Bailey to fight for basic human decency. George’s angry speech to Potter defines the basic tenets of social democracy against unfettered capitalism and is something that helped me define my political identity as a child (ironically, Stewart and Capra were both lifelong Republicans).

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I think the movie holds up very well.  I’ve always wondered what the world would be like if Mr. Potter had never been born, or even got his comeuppance (outside of a Saturday Night Live sketch).   The Pottersville sequence does lay things on a bit thick.  I’m never clear how big of a town it’s supposed to be, but Pottersville seems to have a sex worker industry big enough to support all of Western New York.

Is It a Classic?:

It’s a Wonderful Classic!

Rating: *****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with I:

  1. Iceman (1984)
  2. Ikiru (1952)
  3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
  4. Intermission (2003)
  5. It Happened One Night (1934)

What is your favorite movie starting with I? What do you guess will be my movie for J? (Hint: it was filmed at my family’s favorite vacation spot when I was a kid).