The New World
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"For all its sophistication the American mind retains the essential quality of the savage mind: it is vulnerable, capturable, manipulable. Perhaps there is something about the American continent itself, with its vast, still virgin stretch, which makes this quality appropriate." Max Lerner
Why am I seeing The New World so late in the Golden Globe, Oscar seasons? Having already sworn my allegiance to Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain for best picture, I now find Terrence Malick's New World is a better film in most categories except acting.
**If you believe that cinema's superiority over other art forms rests in its visual literacy, then New World is a classic. Actually it may eclipse for sheer poetic intensity Malick's other cinemagraphic tour de force, Days of Heaven.
**If you believe no other medium can capture so perfectly an era and ethos, the early 17th century Jamestown seems as crude, inchoate, and lawless as it must have been. Costume and set design are convincing.
In addition to these standard touchstones, add the presence of big themes such as lost love, loyalty, imperial power, and the birth of a new nation and you have The New World. Tristan and Isolde may be millennia old, but Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Rebecca (as Pocahontas, played by Q'Orianka Kilcher, is called in New World) carry their blighted love with greater cultural division and much fewer words. In effect, Malick trumps everyone else by letting looks and symbols (a bird leitmotif is prominent) tell his story and relay his emotion, just about as poetically as possible.
The recurring voice-overs revealing the innermost feelings of principals achieve the poetic effect as well. Malick flirts with the overwrought image throughout, yet the result is still understated poetry.
It is difficult to overstate the poetic power of Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The opening sequence of new world discovery with "naturals" on the shore benignly watching the big ships anchor as they prepare to change the Indians and the continent forever, is beautiful as the director and cinematographer explore angle and light that can incorporate the lush and the menacing. The artistry the two use in capturing Kilcher in every flattering, naturalistic pose possible testifies to their mission of creating visual transcendence. No actress has been as lovingly photographed recently as Kilcher.
In the end, while the settlers never come off well against the noble savages, Melick has optimism in his title and his imagery. When Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) says, "Eden lies about us still," Melick makes the artistic statement of hope for a conquering nation that will eventually affect the world for good.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com