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“Days of Heaven,” dir. Terrence Malick

October 11, 2009

Days of Heaven

Absolutely beautiful. This film’s typically hailed for Almendros and Wexler’s stunning cinematography, but such praise can be misleading, defining the picture as a sequence of pretty postcards.

With Alberta, Canada filling in for the Texas Panhandle, the natural surroundings have been fused with the story’s themes and characters, creating an organic mix that breaks away from the demands of conventional narrative. This is almost a wholly visual experience, where everything floats by with an air of mystery, tantalizing in an opaque richness that’s difficult to articulate even when its strongly felt.

At times, the relationship between characters and landscapes invites comparisons to Michelangelo Antonioni, but whereas Antonioni’s backgrounds seem like direct expressions of a person’s emotions and psychology, the effect here is much more lyrical and abstract. Not since Murnau has a filmmaker crafted a picture like this (and appropriately enough, the film pays homage to Sunrise on at least two occasions).

Days of Heaven
The story focuses on three characters engaged in a love triangle, and very little’s laid out in dialogue; most of the words come through voice-overs from a peripheral figure, and even then they’re not there to guide the audience. Like Malick’s previous film, Badlands, a teenage girl supplies the narration, but unlike Holly, Linda’s words have no flowery aspirations. Her tone is remote, and her cerebral, if simplistic, observations create a striking counterpoint to the passionate emotions threatening to consume the film’s central characters.

Early on, Linda recounts apocalyptic stories she’s picked up from someone in her past; when their idyllic life begins to crumble, those fire-and-brimstone images creep into her observations. The film may glow with lush romanticism, but what makes it so extraordinarily alluring is also destructive. Infatuation and marriage is fed then ruined by the same deceit and cold calculation. And just as the landscape’s natural beauty is breathtakingly gorgeous, so is its violent devastation. What seemed so elegiac at first feels more like a ravishing obscenity that looked deceptively sacred.

A perfectly-realized work from an elusive filmmaker, this is a landmark achievement that redefines modern cinema even as it reaches back to an aesthetic nearly left behind in the silent era.

Days of Heaven

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