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Berlin Film Review: ‘In the Intense Now’

Variety logo Variety 2/21/2017 Owen Gleiberman
© Provided by Variety

Almost every contemporary movie, from Hollywood superhero blockbusters to the most arduous Romanian art film, is shot in some variation of “widescreen.” So it was a shock to sit down in the Kino International, the exotically stodgy yet palatial Cold War movie palace built in East Berlin in 1963, to encounter a film projected in the ancient shape of a square. (The shape matched the theater: so out of time it seemed new again.) It’s clear why the Brazilian director João Moreira Salles chose that aspect ratio. His movie, “In the Intense Now” — one of the rare glories of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival — consists entirely of home movies and TV and documentary newsreel clips shot during the mid-to-late ’60s, and since the vast majority of the footage is shaped like that, why not stay true to it?

“In the Intense Now” is reminiscent of the films of Chris Marker, in that it’s a documentary that’s really a meditation — history made poetic. It’s an immersive and highly personal film that interweaves three political cataclysms from half a century ago: the uprisings in Paris that are still referred to, in France, with the simple objective signifier of “May ’68”; the takeover of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets that crushed the Prague Spring; and the rise of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.

“In the Intense Now” brings you closer to each of these upheavals than all but a handful of films before it. Yet one of the central things to say about the movie is that the grouping together of this trio of national convulsions is counterintuitive to the point of seeming, at times, a little naïve. May ’68 was an organic uprising of French citizens who were striving for something better; the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovokia is one of the darkest moments in 20th-century totalitarianism; and the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966, was Mao’s plunge into madness, his Great Leap Forward into transforming the world’s most populous nation into the world’s largest cult. (By the time Mao was done executing his grand plan, more people had died in China — by oppression and starvation — than were killed by Hitler and Stalin combined.)

Yet Salles’ insistence on stitching these diverse events into a triptych is hypnotic in its provocation. He’s posing a karmic question: What was in the air in 1968? Was there a spirit of “revolution” that wafted across borders, a spirit that could be both light and dark, liberating and tyrannical? Salles adds the events together, but what he really wants is for everything he depicts to fuse in the heads of the audience.

The China sections are, ironically, the most personal, because they’re based on a trip that Salles’ mother took to Beijing in 1966. She shot hours of silent super-8 footage, and what she records looks like the home-movie version of a propaganda film. Girls dance in a daisy chain of solemn delight, and citizens, under the gaze of Mao’s image, wander and smile. On the soundtrack, Salles reads passages by the Italian author Alberto Moravia, who visited China in 1967 and describes being stunned by the people’s beatific serenity, their skin tone, their glow of happiness. Moravia ignores, or misses, what was going on behind the scenes — the coercion and violence. Yet the footage we see is fascinating. The blissed-out quality of the Chinese citizens is a little creepy, but it does come off as a species of well-being. It represents the dissolving of individuality, an ideal so far removed from our own that “In the Intense Now” forces us to confront the existence of a value system that’s like an alien alternative.

The clips of what took place in Czechoslovakia, culled from grainy back-and-white home movies, unfold on more familiar ground — and, indeed, the terrain looks even more chilling now, when the crackdown on freedom is something we can no longer write off as what went on “over there.” Not when our own freedom of speech is being explicitly threatened by our leaders. (Anyone who scoffs at the threat, like Bob Woodward — who claimed that President Trump was not to be taken seriously when he called the media “the enemy of the American people” — is putting on blinders.) “In the Intense Now” shows us the spectre of the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, along with the nation’s “new leaders” (i.e., autocrat-bureaucrats from Russia) strolling in to replace the revered Alexander Dubcek, as well as the indelibly spooky image of religious statues with tape over their mouths. But the cameras also capture the woe of the citizens, who fall into a despair of impotence, feeling that they can do nothing.

One of their only acts of defiance is to show up, en masse, for the funeral of Jan Palach, the student who on January 16, 1969, a little less than six months after the occupation, soaked himself in gasoline and set himself aflame in protest. What’s most hauntingly relevant about this act of self-sacrifice is that at the hospital, where he died three days later, Palach told a burn specialist that he did what he did to protest not just the Soviet occupation but what he saw as the resignation of the Czech people. The footage that Salles assembles reveals that resignation among the crowds — the depression and loss in their eyes, and the fear, that was all too understandable yet not, perhaps, inevitable. It’s a lesson that Americans should now heed.

There have been a handful of documentaries made about May ’68, like William Klein’s “Grand soirs et petit matins” (excerpts of which appear in “In the Intense Now”), but Salles may be the first filmmaker to portray the events of the Paris upheaval in the full grandeur of hindsight. He shows us the student uprisings that, at first, look rather familiar, because they echo the ones that took place at Columbia University starting just a month before. But in France, the student protests were like an itch that spread throughout the country, bringing it to a standstill.

“In the Intense Now” covers multiple aspects of that civilized insurrection: the ebullience of the students and their leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a clean-cut Abbie Hoffman who proudly goes on TV to declare that they have no plan for the future, no idea of what’s coming next; the interface between the students and the workers at a Citroën plant, who strike in tandem with them yet are wary enough to see that these children of privilege will probably be their future bosses; Cohn-Bendit on a trip to Berlin paid for by Paris Match magazine, a transaction the student leader already recognized as the commodification of everything he stood for; the rise of agitprop-meets-Godard slogans like “Workers of the world, have fun”; the surges in the streets, when six million workers went on strike and it looked, for a moment, like the uprising could turn into a full-fledged revolution; the four-and-a-half-minute Charles de Gaulle radio address that calmed the nation; and the analysis of what changed — not the class system but the tenor of French society, which would now be a more fluid and open organism. The ’60s, of course, changed America, too, but in France it happened in one month. A month that brought the future crashing into the now.

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