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Review: "Liverpool" (Alonso, Argentina)

It is difficult for me to qualify what it is about Liverpool I find so overwhelming, one of the great films of our times.  Some time ago, Andy Rector, in reference to Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, made a remark about how viewing that film must give some sense of what it was like—unimaginable as it may seem—for audience-goers to see Last Year in Marienbad for the first time.  Liverpool is like that for me—something I am deeply thankful to be able to see one, twice, more, in theaters—but also not; Lisandro Alonso’s film is not of the monumental quality those startling works entail, films with force as one of their primary attributes, force of cinema.  This Argentine film, by contrast, is not such a force as it is a weight and a presence.  Going back again, to reference other grand and accurate statements about recent masterpiece cinema, lines were written about José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia, about it harkening back and reinventing the moving image.  I see this in Liverpool too, I who know little about silent cinema, or someone like D.W. Griffith, or even who knows little about the floors and ceilings of John Ford movies; I feel something in Liverpool that is so special and so rare in cinema these days, something that aligns it not to those first risk-takers, but more accurately to those, like Guerín or Luc Moullet, who don’t need to take those forceful risks because they are refreshers, re-inventers, re-mixers, rememberers.

“Feel” is the operative word for Liverpool’s profound beauty, which is not a pictorial beauty, nor psychological or thematic.  A story, that of a sailor taking leave of his ship in a wintry Tierra del Fuego to visit the rural sawmill where what family he has remaining resides, proceeds as it follows Farrel (Juan Fernández) as one may expect a story suggesting the frustration, repression, and solitude of a traveler returning would proceed.  The fact of the journey is a simple one, and as such the film seems simple; but it is not the journey but the journey's reality which makes the film great.  I won’t sing about realism, but instead of the feel of the thing: tactility of spaces, the weight of clothing, the mechanism of a bag’s zipper, the land and the sea outside of windows, the grasp around a bottle’s neck, pushing stew onto a spoon with a piece of bread, heavy doors, musty light dulling blood reds and earthy browns.  Some of these are objects, but the objects only have weight within a space, and the spaces exist like Alonso is building a house: four walls and a roof.  You remember these spaces; people live in them, and by that I mean the characters.  These are lived, used spaces, and you feel it in every inch of the screen’s space.  Again, this is not about realism, about the verisimilitude of how people like this or people who live there or people who do that actually exist, which would be a foolhardy film story.  This is about that sense in silent movies that you are seeing a rich totality, a true three-dimensional moment, in every shot.  The world in a box, and people in that box, and how sad that is.  Liverpool is the glory of a box, of box cinema, and of the world.

Danny – This reminded my of how much I miss your weekly reviews. Excellent as usual, especially how you focus on the idea of feeling/texture/movement within the film’s time and space. Can’t wait to see this.
Always glad to see you advocate for a film. reading this, and having seen Liverpool twice, I’m less moved by the film than you are, but I see those comparisons (Griffith, Costa, Ford, Guerín, Moullet) as valuable starting points for determining where this film’s magic lies. I’ve yet to figure out what it is that the film does as a whole, but the film’s last few minutes are as powerful as the most moving of Breughel’s scenes. I think this ‘epilogue’ holds the key the the earlier moments, but I’m still theorizing the ‘how.’
Thanks for the comments all! Dave: been thinking more about our conversation about this (where I brought up that this was probably one of the best films of the decade). I think my angle is that this isn’t a “canonical” masterpiece the way one of the Costa films or In Praise of Love or something is, epic testaments to the art of cinema. This is more a “regular” film that achieves greatness, a “studio” film to use an analogy that never gets applies to art cinema; imagine it as a Hawks or Walsh or Borzage film, one of many similar works done in a similar vein but this particular one exhibiting something very subtle, very powerful, very special.
Yes! Because it’s a strange thing to literally feel the weight of a film. All that steel and wood and bread, all those docks and decks and trucks and doors and the spaces they summon and the quiet they enforce. And on top of all this heaviness, the camera stands firm. And even such a capricious, unpredictable thing as language is either grounded by fact or denied altogether, so that even the most impertinent word of them all is at last rendered cold hard metal. Quite a weight, quite a world.
Absolutely! When I saw this at PIFF last year, I was completely blown away and excited about being alive by having seen such a work of cinema. Then I turned around to see who else was with me and saw that most of the theater had walked out or fallen asleep during the screening. Personally I don’t care about realism, but what destroyed me most was Alonso’s patience. I have seen many of the so called contemplative cinema films (and loved them, don’t misread my “so-called”) But Liverpool struck me as perhaps the most patienly directed film I have ever seen. And I through this article, I now realize that what you’re saying about spaces and tactility of it is also what resonated with me so strongly. There is a strange power there which cannot fully be described but which is perhaps best (although still inadequetly, to no fault of your own) put as you have just done. This was certainly one of the best films of the decade for me and possible one of the best films I have ever seen. It definetly deserves more press.
Nothing better than reading a review that puts into words what I couldn’t fully.
Thanks Matthew, glad you enjoyed it and the film!
Joks
nothing new in this movie imo, although it’s quite good. Not comparable to C.Youth at all. that was innovative, and so was I.V.R.

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