When the limits of our capacity to handle the troughs of life are reached, space needs to be made for the healing to begin. What leaves a hole in us can often be filled by the beautiful, potent and subtle power of cinema. If a film cannot exactly change your life, it can make a profound impact on how you see the world around you and even how you contextualise yourself within it. There are many films that can reach beyond the popcorn towards your heart and soul, probing at the downturn in your life and asking how it may be redressed. The following four films dare to ask the difficult questions yet invigorate the creative spirit and make us feel the fire within. These are films that care about us, in sharing the human experience:
8 ½ (1963, Federico Fellini)
The resounding film about film, Federico Fellini’s orchestral manoeuvre of a masterpiece, 1963’s 8 1/2, carries many urgent messages about the shape of human lives and how we arrive at our varying destinations. Its empathetic qualities stretch beyond the industry of cinema. Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, a troubled film director who is experiencing a drought within his usually brilliant creative well and trawls his bucket in its depths to catch the one inspiring idea that will give life to his latest opus, which is turning into a bloated and unwieldy production.
But Guido is pursued, not just by his own doubts and questions about his authenticity as an artist, but by real life in the form of a troubled marriage, emotionally needy lover, concerned production team and withering critics. Take the film set away and you have a series of problems that relate to many people across society. We all have our relationships to attend to, doubts to overcome and criticism to face. Guido is in a privileged position but he is human: vulnerable and desperate to make his next step the right one.
The comfort and pleasure found in 8 ½ speaks to the bemusement at life in all of us, not just to the blocked creative. It succeeds in not only removing the self from reality through the surreal escapism Fellini provides but in helping us confront our troubles and even to smile at them, if a little wryly. When too many things are demanding your attention, stop for a couple of hours and share your frustration with Guido. When you emerge from the magic of Fellini’s carnival-like spell, it will be with a lightness and a relief from your inner world being recognised in another’s high spirits and appreciative sense of irony.
Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
The irony of 1979’s meditative sci fi film Stalker, created by the great Andrei Tarkovsky from the book ‘Roadside Picnic’, is that it is a film about searching for the meaning of life while possibly being the film that took the life of its director’s. Despite its ambiguity and bleakness, Stalker remains an enigmatic surprise that proves more restorative than the Jagala river: the stretch of Estonian water that ran from a toxic chemical plant to one of the film’s locations. If rumour holds true and Tarkovsky’s life was claimed by the chemicals, along with those of actor Anatoli Solonitsyn and Tarkovsky’s wife and assistant, Larissa Tarkovskaya, it deepens the meaning of the film’s search for life’s ultimate answers.
Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy plays The Stalker: a guide able to navigate the perilous pathways through The Zone: a mysterious area cordoned off by authorities from the public, after a possible alien landing on Earth. A Writer and a Professor enlist The Stalker’s help to locate The Room, which is a place in The Zone rumoured to bestow upon a person their greatest desires. The quest is only part-physical: with its long takes, restrained exposition and contemplation of time and existence, Stalker is more about the spiritual journey we all take; deep inside where our desires and wishes yearn to be unburdened through realisation. It’s a film about the moment. This was a journey Tarkovsky experienced himself during the making of Stalker: he spent a whole year shooting exteriors only to return to Moscow and discover the film stock had been improperly developed, therefore rendering it useless. To realise his desires and wishes, Tarkovsky had to return to the location to realise his ambitions: he had to find his way back to his own Room.
Tarkovsky remains one of cinema’s greatest luminaries, perhaps its greatest, by way of his commitment to the movement of the human body and how it reveals the metaphysical space that binds it to the soul. Like a poem shuddering with eloquent, quiet anger, Stalker expresses our frustration that we are failing to see some of our dreams realised and, indeed, our frustration that we may never do. It’s a stunning call to the tides that roll over our beaches of being: it’s one of the few films that teaches us how to be human. Stalker appreciates the journey we are all on and understands that it is this journey, and not the destination, that gives our lives purpose.
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Bela Tarr)
Few films are as emotionally raw, in a strangely refreshing way, as Bela Tarr’s lyrical musing on small-town life and the souls that inhabit it. For those of us who feel as though we’ve experienced a malevolent circus rampaging through our psyches, Werckmeister Harmonies leaves a deep impression of people being haunted by ghosts past and ferociously present. Taking László Krasznahorkai’s 1989 novel, ‘The Melancholy of Resistance’, adapted into screenplay form by the author himself, Tarr captures our timeless conundrum of a burden of feeling, acknowledging that human beings still cannot intellectually express what lies in their hearts and so resort to outbursts, violence and disintegration.
Filmed in long takes, resulting in a total of just 39 complete shots in 145 minutes of run-time, Werckmeister Harmonies’ melancholy is pervasive but not unbroken. The haunting score carries a beauty within the sadness that is most palpably stirred when Lars Rudolph’s naïve and fearful Janos gazes into the eye of a dead whale. The whale itself, a reminder of nature exhausted by humankind’s inexorable appetites, possesses a wisdom of ages that connects the viewer to an immersive and humbling world-view. If this sounds like too much existential angst and spiritual emptiness for your liking, no one could blame you.
But Tarr’s insight into our condition is surprisingly restorative, for all that. The quirks of the townspeople amuse and captivate, while moments such as the opening drunken dance, a sway towards a collective hug against the unforgiving nature of a cruel and unpredictable world, provide a sense of belonging and, even as the nightmare spills out onto the streets with the ferocity of the riots, the film ends with a decisive act of rejecting spiritual death and heads for the white mists of a new beginning. Like Tarr, we know the appeal of discarding a dark day for the prospect of a brighter new one.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003, Kim Ki-duk)
That brighter day might belong to the isolated temple in the middle of a Korean river, where Kim Ki-duk crafts a meditation on being, belief, true love and the self in all its forms; all its possibilities. A lake surrounds the temple where a monk and his apprentice live and study. The apprentice learns, under the watchful and enduringly patient eye of his mentor, about nature, about the importance of caring for every living thing. In turn, the monk recognises his own youth in his protégé and, when love affects their symbiosis, he understands how his own faith and life might have worked out differently.
The apprentice is, quite possibly, the younger version of the monk and perhaps the deeper meaning of Kim’s film is that we are constantly trying to teach ourselves better; on how to live well within the world. The monk may well have made the mistakes his apprentice has and, though he tries to dissuade the boy from giving in to his passion, the resignation in his manner suggests he knows which way things are going to go. He may have previously tried and failed to sustain love himself and history is destined to repeat itself. For the girl, she bears the weight of a society that she will inevitably return to, settling for a practical relationship that mutes her passions. Romance, for all of them, is fleeting and ephemeral.
Or is it? The ultimate form of love, that of a parent for a child, rescues the apprentice, grown a man, and he embarks on the final stage of his life’s journey tougher from experience and ready to heal the wounds in his soul. Could it be the girl who brought the child as a last romantic act of their union– perhaps it was theirs to begin with? When the monk self-immolates, does the old person become young again, fulfilling an endless cycle of re-birth, in an effort to improve on what has gone before? Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring believes in the spirit’s power of recovery; our endurance. The film’s empathy with our lives makes us feel listened to, respected and included. We are part of this obscure dilemma, this unpredictable arena, where we try and fail, learn and expiate.
These are just four examples from a staggering library of cinematic works but each one offers thoughtfulness and insight into how we’ve arrived at difficult places in our lives. Film can be healing when it informs us that it knows our destinations. Everybody should have a selection of films that provide sustenance and encouragement, even if those films might appear bleak on the outside. Consider why we pick the doomed romance, the blood-curdling horror or terrifying alternate realities for our escapism. It is our interiors that often require attention, stimulated by a light being shined into the areas where we are most obscure. In finding a film that breaks the shadows with this strange kind of light, we feel the emotion of cinema as a shared conversation.
Words: David Woods