Saturday, August 21, 2010

Manderlay (2005)

Liberation. Whether They Want It Or Not.

Excellent thought-provoking film...
review by Dooby

This is an excellent film. In the second installment of his proposed American trilogy, Lars von Trier, touches on the subjects of racism, cultural blindness, hypocrisy and self-righteous superiority. In its way, it points at why America is simultaneously admired and despised the world over. Famously, Lars von Trier has never set foot in America (afraid of flying). So his views are the views of a foreigner, specifically a northern European steeped in the liberal tradition. Some will see that as a negative. I think it is refreshing for Americans to see how America is viewed from abroard, from someone unencumbered by its cultural baggage. What he shows is the ugly side of America. But von Trier's comment is by extension a critique on all humanity; for what Americans are here accused of, is equally applicable to other nations, races and creeds.

The story is simple. It carries on chronologically from Dogville. After destroying the godforsaken town in the bloody climax of the previous film, Grace (previously played by Nicole Kidman, and now by Bryce Dallas Howard) drives homeward with her father and his convoy of gangsters. They chance upon a plantation in Alabama where slavery is still practised, some 70 years after abolition (this is 1933). Grace gets it into her mind to free the slaves and to teach everyone, former slaves and Masters alike, about the new creed of equality and democracy. With the aid of her gun-toting gangsters, she preaches and enforces her new religion on the "benighted" people of the plantation. Of course, out of the seeds of her good intent, come no good at all.

The film can be viewed on many levels. The simplest is to take it as a commentary on racism. Passing a decree does not abolish racism. Nothing changes as long as hearts and minds don't change. Preaching empty words will not alter generations of abuse and hatred. On the flipside, it also poses the question: why do certain groups of people remain so backward and unsuccessful? Is it because of their past or themselves? It's a question that reaches beyond the black/white divide in America, to vast swathes of the world, from Africa to the Middle-East, where societies and nations have floundered and where they all invariably blame their past and their "victimhood" at the hands of white colonisers. Do they bear no responsibilty for their own fates? Is it simply easier to blame someone else than to take responsibility for one's own actions? The abdication of responsibility is sadly an all too American trait, but it is by no means confined solely to America.

We are also called to ponder on Grace's self-righteous attempt to free the slaves and more importantly, her attempt to force them into seeing things her way. Apart from its obvious ridiculing of the "do-gooder" abolitionists, and by extension, the superior white man with his constant chant of equal rights and democracy, it is also a comment on present day politics. America's actions across the world instantly spring to mind. Its endless, simple-minded attempts at interfering with and changing others to fit its own image, is today mirrored by other world actors; newly rising powers, increasingly resurgent religions, all of which similarly want to remake others into their own image - their prime justification being: "I'm better than you, so you'd best do as I say." It is a sad comment on humanity as a whole.

Like Dogville, this is a very dark film. It is not light entertainment. It is also not cinéma vérité. Do not expect realism. It does not aspire to historical accuracy. It should be taken more as a parable than a history lesson. It is wide open to interpretation. I especially liked Brandon Medford's analysis (further down) which I thought was spot-on. And I agree with him that to look at this solely as a film about slavery or racism is to impoverish the work.

Manderlay follows in the Dogme 95 tradition of Dogville. It is Dogme brought to its extreme conclusion - a filmed stage-play with minimalist sets, with actors acting and pantomiming on stage. If you don't think you can sit through a 2-hour-plus stage play, this film is not for you. Acting is fine overall. I wasn't affected by the change of cast. Lars von Trier's films are not centered around stars, although Nicole Kidman was the ideal choice for Grace.

Customer Reviews

Excellent thought-provoking film... Barebones DVD from IFC5 
Political allegory at its barebones finest!4
global interpretation5


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