Contemplative cinema and Honor of the Knights

“Contemplative cinema” is obviously a vague term. It could mean the kind of thought-provoking movies that essayists mine through lengthy analyses, or it could mean the exact opposite: films that resist conceptualization and push beyond words and thoughts toward silence and meditation. This second category of contemplative films is the hardest to describe. That’s not to say ideas can’t emerge, or that these films defy formal descriptions, only that engaging them is less about amassing their information and articulating their meanings than sharing their sights, sounds, and rhythms in deeply experiential ways.

I’m in my second or third day of films at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, depending on whether or not you count my Saturday screening of Ten Canoes after the unsubtitled Toronto screening last September. (The film remains as charming as I recall, even if it makes a lot more sense now.) In light of Harry Tuttle’s “contemplative cinema” blogathon (as well as having just been shut-out of Verhoeven’s Black Book due to its overwhelming pass holders line), I thought I’d recount my experience yesterday of seeing Albert Serra’s superb Honor of the Knights).

By way of introduction, I should note that despite its solid line-up of world cinema, PSIFF continues to elude many cinephiles, mainly attracting locals, tourists, and retirees looking for a good yarn to fill their afternoon. I attend several fests a year and can say without reservation that PSIFF inevitably has the largest number of walkouts for its non-traditional offerings. As one of the Festival’s staff writers, therefore, I try to make it clear in the film descriptions which movies are especially formally challenging. Out of the 250+ films in the catalogue, there are exactly three listed in the “experimental” category: The Legend of Time, the beautiful Paraguayan Hammock, and Honor of the Knights.

Despite this, countless people continue to wander into these screenings (probably having never even read the descriptions) and promptly begin filing out of them in various states of disgust and anger. It wouldn’t be so bad if they did this quietly, of course, but many of the abandoners feel the need to widely proclaim their dissatisfaction through laughter, open derision, and quips like “I can’t believe we paid for this!” and “Oh look, something’s actually happening!”, thus spoiling the experience for everyone else in the theater.

I will spare you the comments both mumbled and blurted out during the screening of Serra’s film. Serra himself introduced it, warning us that the previous screening began with 1,000 viewers and ended with 300; our numbers on both counts were far less, and although perhaps a dozen people stayed until the end, I discovered I was the only person remaining for the Q&A when the lights returned. (Though Variety and Cinema Scope critic Robert Koehler accompanied Serra, and the three of us had a wonderful conversation.)

Why had there been such an intense reaction against the film? Honor of the Knights is a contemplative, non-informational film, and by and large, the audience simply didn’t have the expectation, inclination, or patience to engage it on that level. Serra insisted he didn’t arbitrarily make an esoteric film, but truly wanted to evoke the muddled headspace and confusion of Cervantes’ idealistic old man depicted in Don Quixote de la Mancha who believes himself to be a chivalrous knight. Serra’s cinematic inspirations included Bresson’s Lancelot du lac (1974) and Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950) with its twirling monks finale (Serra’s favorite ending in all of cinema, he told me) sublimely poised between foolishness and divine revelation.

For nearly all of its 110 minutes, Honor of the Knights depicts the frail Quixote and his stout sidekick Sancho Panza as they wander through anonymous woods, watch the moon rise, wait for spiritual direction, gaze at the windy landscape, perpetually remove and redress their armor, and say very little. Sancho often seems on the verge of despair, but Quixote will have none of it, sporadically reminding him of the importance of the chivalric code and God’s providence, and chastising him for his weakness. Sancho lumbers on, trying to keep watch or saddle the horses or hack away at grass. And Quixote occasionally reaffirms his affection toward Sancho, offering compliments or personal affirmation that manages to perpetuate their ambiguous mission.

Serra frames the action in obtuse ways, often through tall grass, or in highly contrasted shadows and night scenes. At times it is too dark to see anything on screen, mimicking Quixote’s clouded interiority, yet the film’s directly recorded sound relays a constant teeming ambience that envelops the viewer with a potent sense of nature not unlike the work of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (particularly Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady). It’s a film without any exposition in which very little happens, yet the vivid setting and uncertain, pensive atmosphere suggests a dark night of the soul for its characters, and beckons the viewer to share their experience. Yesterday, few were willing, but the film’s sense of isolation, silence, and questioning purpose is all-pervading, and Serra’s Don Quixote is one of the most memorable and strangely compelling holy fools in recent cinema.

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