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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Mystery, History

The wonder of young performers; Giulio Andreotti rules.

Treeless Mountain
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Il Divo
Music Box Films

CHILDREN DEEPEN ONE of the mysteries in film’s being. It is mysterious enough that, since film’s beginning, non-professional adults have given valuable film performances. Still, one can spin social and cultural explanations for this astonishment. But what about the performances by small children, children who were not child stars and who convinced millions? The list is too long to nibble at.

How can we explain them? How can we understand the mystery?

Some technical facts apply to children as well as adults. Film acting, unlike theater acting, is done in small bits, with the director unseen but present. Those bits can be repeated until—sometimes by accident, yet often by patent understanding—they are made to fit the mosaic of the whole. This process is often helpful for adults, and surely is even more so for children. But the child cannot have an adult’s cognizance of film’s place in the world or any real concept of fame or riches. He is probably out to please—the parent who is on the sidelines, the director who is coddling him. Yet, through all these conditions, he can make beauty. How? Why? Explanations, psychological or otherwise, go only so far until they meet mystery. Something happens beyond explanation. Even in professional adults, talent is ultimately inexplicable. A child’s ability—not exactly talent—to reproduce truth is even more miraculous.

The mystery flowers again in a film from South Korea called Treeless Mountain. The two leading characters are sisters, Jin and Bin, who are six and four. They are credible from our first glimpse, but they do not give what we can sensibly call performances. The writer-director—So Yong Kim, a young South Korean woman who has made one previous feature—has provided places for the sisters to dawdle, to play, to cry, and to laugh: they, seemingly, do the rest. Just by being there. The story that Kim has written for them is full enough so that we can’t say there is none, but essentially the picture merely provides reasons for us to look at them. The girls live in three different homes in the course of the film, and Kim simply lets those girls move and speak as much as possible in those three places. What enchants in this film is not only the way they act or react in emotional scenes: the pleasure is simply to be with two captivating little girls in all kinds of moments.

Bin and Jin live in Seoul with their mother, who has been abandoned by their father. She cares for them, but her mind is mostly on her husband. Very soon she takes her daughters to their aunt, who lives in a small dingy town, and leaves them there so that she can go looking for him. She asks Bin and Jin to put any small coins they get into a piggy bank they have, and she will return when it is full.

Big Aunt, as the girls call her, is helpful at first, but soon, without ever being cruel—this is not Oliver Twist—she treats them offhandedly. And it doesn’t help that she drinks. During their stay with their aunt, the girls do the bit of make-believe from which the title derives. On a pile of rubble near where they live, they stick a dead limb of a tree. It is the one symbol in the picture, this attempt to start life in barrenness, and it looks less and less necessary as the picture goes on.

Before long, the piggy bank fills up and their mother has not returned. Big Aunt can’t deal with the girls any more and takes them to their grandparents, who live on a farm. Their grandmother embraces them and begins to teach them country ways of living. (We never see their grandfather, though we hear him once.) Nothing extraordinary happens. In time the girls get a loving letter from their mother delaying her return. Another use is found for the full piggy bank.

Kim tells us, in press material, that the girls did not know the content of each scene until they were about to do it. (They hadn’t read the script, of course!) She spoke to them while they were actually shooting the scenes, reminding them, leading them, and she says that the most challenging part of the post-production work was editing her voice out of all the sound tracks.

But this only makes the girls all the more astonishing, because they never obey. They never seem to be doing what someone asked them to do. Whatever they say, wherever they move, it always seems to be something that just occurred to them. And all their responses to others, as often seems the case with small children, seem to interrupt thoughts of their own, which have been focused on a stick or a toy. They play with the small son of a neighbor of Big Aunt, they investigate grasshoppers with some boys, but they always seem to be primarily concerned with inner worlds of which our world is an interruption.

The girls’ names are Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee Kim (not actual sisters), but we may never see them again. If so, they join the multitude of children now forgotten who have mysteriously enriched film’s past. I am not a parent, but I was jealous of their fathers for eighty-nine minutes. So Yong Kim has brought these girls to us with no trace of kiddy cuddle, with understanding and respect, and with a wonder that she enables us to share.

AT THE FURTHEST END of the film spectrum from Treeless Mountain comes Il Divo. It dazzles. It needs to, because the protagonist of this Italian biopic—not a documentary—is very reserved. He is Giulio Andreotti, who was prime minister in seven governments, who held other ministries, and who went through all of his political life and subsequent legal troubles with a deliberate unhistrionic persona. Andreotti is immediately interesting because of this contrast. (The title, which means “the god,” is a nickname he was given, which at first seems mockery but gradually seems less so.)

The director of this film, the exceptional Paolo Sorrentino, had long been fascinated by Andreotti. Still, he obviously knew there was a basic difficulty in this man as film protagonist. Andreotti is not cinematically colorful: therefore the film had to be. The result is overwhelming. Sorrentino envelops his taciturn hero in a scintillating texture, which at times even becomes witty. (Andreotti himself can be witty.) Here we have a politician who is small, round-shouldered, soft-voiced, composed, yet the film he inhabits is pyrotechnically brilliant. This dichotomy is doubled by the contrast within the man himself. He rules invisibly. We rarely see him do anything more than give quiet commands to aides: still, he has iron control. When a rival accuses him of not having imagination, he replies—quietly—that he may not have imagination, but he has archives. The response works.

The governmental dealings in the picture—Andreotti is a Christian Democrat—are not overly detailed and are not of much interest now in any case. They merely supply a context of political balletics. Two facts dominate. First, Andreotti was prime minister in 1978, when Aldo Moro was kidnapped, and his refusal to negotiate with the Red Brigades kidnappers led to Moro’s murder. Andreotti was riven but resolved. Second, toward the end of his career, he was indicted on criminal charges, including involvement in a homicide and close association with the Mafia. We never see any substantiation. Andreotti was convicted and subsequently acquitted. Even now he is on two governmental committees.

But all these issues, large though they loom, are not basic to the film. Sorrentino wanted to make a picture about typical political life, rivalries, cliques, flatteries, maneuvers, with an atypical protagonist, and he has done it superbly. We seem to enter a twentieth-century Renaissance court, crammed with egos and ambitions that are lubricated with lackey language, and at the hub is this taciturn god—all caught in a whirling fireworks of a film. The subject of political contrivance is hardly new, but I know no past example that treats it with such stylistic virtuosity.

Sorrentino’s prime rubric apparently was never to let the content or length of a scene dictate the way that he shot it. He insists on visual commentary throughout, rather than mere recording. The lighting is rarely realistic: it is almost always theatrical, like the later Fellini. The editing frequently juxtaposes oddities—for instance, a horse race and some killings. The speed within a scene is heightened by the way we look at it: press people run across a courtyard to a door that is opening, and the camera on a crane moves over them, heightening the urgency. Snatches of scenes are slipped in without explanation, simply as flashes of atmosphere. The music, by Teho Teardo, with some quotations from standard works, is not merely background: it reminds us that this film comes from the land of verismo opera.

Was Andreotti’s career good or evil? The film often raises the question and never answers it firmly. Andreotti, in his own words (I assume), is pragmatic on the subject: results are what count, he says, and in his ministries he kept Italy active and present in the world. Then comes a revealing scene, a sudden plunge into the interior, like many soliloquies in Elizabethan plays. Andreotti, usually laconic and huddled, sits facing the camera, thus acknowledging it, and confesses to us—emotionally, climactically—what the quest for power and its maintenance have secretly meant to him. Toni Servillo, whose acting up to now has made Andreotti a coiled snake, carries off this scene in full-throated bravura fashion. It is the one moment in the picture when the acting matches the cinematic style.

This dynamic juncture of form and content illuminates—stunningly heightens—the difference between them elsewhere in the film. Further, it confirms that we are dealing here with a director who has more than talent: he has keen artistic intelligence. This is the fourth feature by Sorrentino, who is little known in this country. Il Divo, we can hope, will change that.

This article was published in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.