Sunday, February 18, 2007

solitude (2001)

Jason Goode certifies this Canadian film as Genuine Soul Food. Had a life on the festival circuit but hasn't found distribution.

Here's the Telefilm blurb;

Solitude is an exploration of the fleeting interconnections that arise, one summer, between two women retreatants and a monk at a rural monastery. Michele, an awkward 19-year-old, is at the abbey as a working guest for the summer. Linda, 35 years old and in a troubled relationship, is at the abbey to sort things out. Brother Bernard, in his mid-30s, has been at the abbey for many years, but for him the questioning never stops – he believes there is no faith without doubt. All three are looking for answers – to questions of faith and purpose, love and identity. By the time the two women leave the monastery, two of the three characters have experienced an epiphany of sorts, a new way of seeing the world. Only the third remains unchanged, continuing to be stifled by the world of appearances.

Here's what Michael Crochetière had to say at Film Threat;

Robin Schlaht's first dramatic feature Solitude opens with a detail shot of Giotto's fresco Meeting at the Golden Gate. From the background of the painting, we are shown a woman concealing part of her face with a black robe. Four other figures look on, their facial expressions enigmatic and ultimately impenetrable. If their aspect reveals a subtle joy, the source of that joy remains elusive. In examining this image, we encounter several of the film's thematic concerns and formal strategies: the fragmented, ambiguous backstories and paradoxical motivations of the lead characters, the idea of emotional detachment, the motif of observation and the folly of trying to understand the heart of another. At its heart, Solitude is about personal journeys, about everyday lives filled with small victories and moments of what Henry David Thoreau called "quiet desperation".

Based on a short story by Regina writer Connie Gault, the film explores the transitory connections that develop one summer between two female retreatants and a monk at a rural monastery. Linda (Wendy Anderson) is an urbane but emotionally guarded woman in her mid-thirties who seems to be unwilling or unable to invest emotionally in her relationships. Her stay at the abbey is complicated by her encounter with Michele (Vanessa Martinez), a 19 year old with a vivid imagination. For a time, the two women fall into a comfortable mentor-protégé relationship. Michele's restless search for an identity leads her through a series of misguided infatuations and eventually culminates in her assumption of the guise of a nun. She wants to think like a nun, act like a nun and have nun-like fantasies. On an intuitive level, Michele seems to understand the dangers and rewards inherent in taking emotional risks. Her gradual movement towards a more peaceful state is witnessed and encouraged (initially from afar) by Brother Bernard (Lothaire Bluteau), a timid young monk who is having his own crisis of faith. In keeping with the Benedictine imperative - that the value of life is in engagement, in facilitating positive change in another - Brother Bernard struggles to put aside his doubts and find some practical use for his philosophical deliberations.

Solitude is a film without an inciting incident (unless one considers the arrival of Michele at the abbey, an event which occurs before the film begins). The film's structure is episodic, consisting of highly resonant privileged moments spelled by intervals of quiet reflection. Schlaht believes that these negative spaces - moments of uneasy stasis, hesitation or indecision - ultimately define his characters. The most compelling application of this concept is found in the character of Michele. Without the advantage of interior monologue - Brother Bernard regularly gives us his view of the world - Michele is most dependent upon a subdued yet charged environment which speaks eloquently for her in a language drawn from the rhythms, sounds and images of monastic life and the natural world.

Like an inquisitive Alice, she inhabits a universe where eccentric graphology students can analyze your character based upon someone else's handwriting, where a brown rabbit can lead one down the sylvan path to salvation. As a self-proclaimed novice, she engages in several incongruous (almost Buñuelian) behaviours, from buying nail-polish to stealing a miniature key-chain version of her new mentor, the Virgin Mary. Schlaht juxtaposes Michele's "nun scenes" with scenes involving her darker counterpart Brother Bernard: "You can't fight your way to God", he laments. "I find myself praying to believe. How sad is that? How ridiculous." The cross which Michele wears so lightly, without conviction, can be seen hanging on the wall of his study. Here humour and pathos exist side by side, striking the same ironic chord.

Michele's exploratory impulse eventually lead her to the bar in a nearby town, where she revives her infatuation with a local storekeeper. They exchange glances. Michele misinterprets his intent. She fixes her hair in the mirror - according to Schlaht "a place of introspection, transition and potential" for Michele - and exits. Outside, she happens upon the storekeeper again, this time in his pick-up truck. In an awkward, bold and ultimately inappropriate response to his friendly hello, she climbs in on the passenger side. Moments later, another woman from the bar (in retrospect Geraldine, his wife) approaches the truck. The storekeeper tells her that they're giving Michele a ride back to the abbey, and Michele's fantasy world crumbles.

With a confluence of elemental images (e.g. glass, water), Solitude speaks eloquently of dark metaphysical forests, personal boundaries and the invisible barriers that divide us. We observe Michele's face as she sits between the storekeeper and his wife in the front seat of the truck. It's raining. We watch through the windshield as Michele engages in small talk with Geraldine, the bursts of dialogue separated by long uncomfortable silences. In a constant rhythm, the wiper blades persist in a vain attempt to push away the relentless waves of acute humiliation. As they arrive at the abbey, Michele escapes the truck, leaving her key-chain statue (her new identity, her illusions) behind on the front seat. The scene is followed by Brother Daniel (Michele's other imaginary beau) playing a somber melody on the organ. As in Yasujiro Ozu's silent codas, these transitional sequences draw meaning and weight from the scenes that precede and follow them, speaking volumes for the characters which inhabit them.

The film's penultimate scene consists of another remarkable long take. In the forest, Michele breaks down beneath the weight of her solitary struggle. As the shot progresses, we come to understand that these are tears of redemption, that we are witnessing a deeply transformative moment. The forest ambience is, at last, broken by an off-screen voice: "I've come looking for you". Brother Bernard hesitates and then steps forward into frame. The two figures embrace. In a film dominated by tableau framings, Schlaht saves one of his few close-ups for a moment when two emotionally isolated characters finally make contact. He elects to shoot Michele's epiphany in shallow focus as a means of 'isolating the character from the outside world and directing our attention towards her internal emotional process.' The scene becomes almost impressionistic, its use of tonal gradients and iridescent light conveying her fragile emotional state. Michele's inner journey creates profound changes in both herself and Brother Bernard. The dissonance which she has injected into the status quo has grown into spiritual transcendence.

By design, Solitude is the antithesis of the tightly constructed narrative. The characters' backstories are fragmentary, the exposition gradual and ambiguous. Schlaht derives his strategy from the film's location: "It was partly due to the nature of being on retreat at the abbey. The asking of questions is not encouraged. Very few questions are asked in Solitude and even fewer are answered. The characters are so involved in the process of observing and interpreting or misinterpreting ..that it seemed appropriate to invite the audience into that same process. Not knowing keeps one engaged."

The character of Linda is the embodiment of this "strategy of doubt". At one point she is asked what she is doing at the abbey. For the first time in the film, Linda (a consummate chameleon) is caught unprepared. She hesitates, then responds: "I don't know". Throughout the film we have brief glimpses into Linda's home life (via phone calls), but the question is never fully answered. For all the pain of Michele's journey, Linda inhabits an even darker place. Soon after Michele's experience in the bar, the two women have a unexplained falling out and Linda decides to leave the abbey. In her rear-view mirror, she sees Michele emerge from the forest, waving frantically. But Linda continues to drive, pretending not to see her. She rolls up the window and shuts the world out, her last hope for meaningful change rapidly receding behind her.

Schlaht describes Linda's final gesture as a "casual, everyday act of betrayal." In Gault's short story, Michele has the chance to apologize. In the film she does not. Schlaht discusses the implications of his decision to go with a less resolved ending: "I feel it suggests something about Linda - perhaps that she is bitter about her disappointing stay at the abbey and about her own inability to break free of the life to which she is confined in the city. It also suggests that the attention she had lavished on Michele was not entirely altruistic, that Linda had wanted to try on a role as well, that of mentor. I wanted Michele's hiding in the woods to have a concrete impact on her relationship with Linda. In the final analysis, we absolve Michele. We sense that she has changed and entered a new phase in her life - one in which she will be more courageous, more aware of the consequences of her actions, and more comfortable with herself".

For Schlaht, the movie screen is a contemplative and cognitive space, a philosophy that's grounded in his background as a documentary filmmaker. Films such as Sons and Daughters (1994) and Moscow Summer (1996) are deeply affecting social documents that resonate with an intrinsic respect for his subject, the exquisite b/w imagery (often shot in slow motion) inviting the viewer to consider the importance of the gestures and inflections of everyday life. His move from documentary to narrative fiction is marked by a less formalized approach to the same humanistic values and concerns. The episodic structure remains, as do the meditative non-verbal sequences. And the film has its formal constructs, such as Brother Bernard's recurring interior monologue or the intertitles (consistently drawn from the dialogue in the subsequent scene). However, Solitude ultimately achieves a transcendence for its characters by other means, primarily through, as Andrei Tarkovsky writes, "a poetry born of pure observation...that does not signify or symbolize life, but embodies it."

December 31, 2001

A report from the SXSW Festival at
Ain't It Cool News...

The ol' Loony Toon back with more tasty helpings of SXSW. Todays little slice of wonderful is a marvelous film aptly titled Solitude.

This is where film-making is headed, ( I hope). This film is not about saving the world. It's not about making a righteous political or philisophocal statement. It's not about a damsel in distress, okay, it's kind of about a damsel in distress. This is a film about a monastery where people retreat from, well whatever it is that people retreat from. Society. Bills. Family. School. God.

And yet it seems that our characters while severed from the outside, they seem to be looking for....something. The three main characters are a philisophically driven monk who can't seem to get academia out of his head and just accept things on faith. His Lovely female couterpart the distressed Michelle, (played to absolute perfection by Vanessa Martinez), a 19 year old girl who wants to try on being a nun for a while, and the Woman who is the anchor for the girl and a great third wheel, mostly because even more so than the other two, she doesn't know what it is that shes looking for. This is not a traditional narrative. It is broken into vignettes, that are also not traditional narratives. The film is scientific in it's ambiguity. Each symbol is placed with care and preserved with breathtaking cinematography. The score is also great. There is not one. There is natural sound only. Wind in trees. Bugs humming through the summer air.

Church bells ringing. Children singing. Footsteps. Whispers. The pure ecstasy of a quiet moment. And these things are precisely what the film is about. Life is not about saving the world. It's not about making a statement.
Those things are done by groups. Life for you and me is about the little things. The small things. Cool breezes. Fresh grown tomatoes and raspberries. A conversation about handwriting. These tiny moments are among the best we have, and we miss them far too often. This movie is chock full of these precious moments. This movie makes me happy. All I need is the groud beneath my feet and the warmth of the sun on my face.

March 13, 2001

Here's more on director Robin Schlaht;

Robin Schlaht graduated in 1992 with a degree in filmmaking from the University of Regina. His student films include the dramas "The Naked and the Nude" (co-directed with Carleen Kyle) - winner of the 1991 Saskatchewan Showcase Award for best Student Film - and "Making Angels" - winner of the 1993 Saskatchewan Showcase Award for Best Drama.

Robin's first dramatic feature SOLITUDE follows three lonely, inquisitive people spending their summer in a Saskatchewan monastery. The film features Lothaire Bluteau (Jesus of Montreal) as a monk so absorbed in big questions of faith and purpose that he can't hold a normal conversation. Vanessa Martinez (LIMBO) gives a striking performance as a sullen 19-year- old not quite sure what she wants, but is sure she knows everything. And there's a 30-something woman (Wendy Anderson), who forms a bond of unresolved yearning with the teenager.

SOLITUDE is based on a short story by Connie Gault who co-wrote the screenplay with Robin Schlaht.

SOLITUDE had it's world premiere at the South-by-Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas in May. In July it screened at the Stony Brook Film Festival in New York.

Robin's first non -student production was THE PEOPLE, a lyrical documentary about the Hutterites, which has been screened at many international festivals.

His second film, SONS AND DAUGHTERS, an experimental documentary exploration of childhood in seven different countries, appeared at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival, and received awards for Best Experimental Film, Best Cinematography and Best Original Music at the 1995 Yorkton Short Film and Video Festival.

MOSCOW SUMMER Robin's third film, shot in Moscos in the summer of 1995, was named Best Foreign Film at the 1996 WorldFest International Film Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.

Robin is also known for his still photography. Check out the photos page for Robin's stills from The Heart Becomes Quiet.

Maple Lake Releasing

And an excerpt from an interview;

Solitude came about, to a degree, because I wanted to make a film in Saskatchewan ..but I couldn't find a documentary subject that excited me to the extent that I would be willing to spend three years on it. So, I started reading short stories by Saskatchewan writers, with the idea of moving into drama. I felt that The Fat Lady with the Thin Face (by Regina writer Connie Gault) could become a very simple film, with resonances that seemed very much to come from Saskatchewan. Some of these had to do with landscape. There are more landscape references in the short story than there are in the film. In the short story, the characters can think about landscape...whereas in the film, they think but we don't necessarily know what they're thinking about.

JL: In Solitude, the faces are the landscapes. I could simply gaze at your characters gazing...forever. You film them as they reflect, as they are feeling and thinking ..and you don't cut away. We see time pass on their faces. I was looking forward to this moment when I could tell you that one of the final shots in your film is this incredibly beautiful long take of Michele's face as she walks in the woods. We cannot know exactly what she's thinking or feeling...or why. But, as the shot progresses, she starts to cry. You come to understand that these are tears of redemption or transcendence. There's this epiphany, a wonderful transformative moment which you capture. And it takes its time. She comes towards the camera, the light is perfect. There is some landscape too, as she is surrounded by nature. But, to get back to my earlier thought, I think that in your film, the landscapes are the faces. I wouldn't have it any other way.

RC: That's the best scene in your film for me. I was thinking "don't cut away". Johanne, I like your comment about the faces but, coming from Saskatchewan, my comment about landscape in Solitude would be a bit different. You have characters moving through the landscape, often alone, far away and moving away from us. There's often a road, but you can't always see where the road leads. A lot of loneliness, melancholy. The landscape isn't hostile. It's safe and warm. And I was immediately aware of the wind. When I finished my sound mix, I said to the mixer: "There's too much wind in my movie. I've got wind everywhere. I've got wind underwater". He said "Well, you're from Saskatchewan. Of course there's going to be wind in your film". And then Robin's film starts up...and there's the leaves and in the trees. It became a bit surreal at times: the garden, the scene where she chases the rabbit. Like Alice in Wonderland. It wasn't a typical prairie landscape with wheat fields. But it felt very familiar to me. And it seemed like the characters felt safe, as I always do whenever I'm home in Saskatchewan. Part of it is that you can see so far. If there's any danger coming, you have lots of warning. You can see a storm coming miles away.

MC: There's a slowness in the pace of both films which, to me, is very prairie-like. The events acquire weight and become somewhat iconic, surrounded by so much empty time and space.

RS: Well, my approach in Solitude was to see what the characters reveal through hesitation, mis-steps and negative space. What is revealed by them not moving instead of moving. That's part of it. When you start to explore that, then suddenly when a character does start to move through the landscape, the impulse is to read something into it.

RC: There's a great scene in the kitchen where Bernard comes in with the tray. The line isn't moving. Its kind of claustrophobic. You move in on him. He's going to have a panic attack or freak out. Nobody really acknowledges that he's there. That was one of those moments.

JL: Yes. He's trying to think and there's all this chatter around him. He looks quite annoyed to be part of this human "jam".

RS: I think that Brother Bernard escapes into the prairie, perhaps. When he's looking for Michele towards the end of the film, he sort of comes into his own because he's on his own. In the dining hall, in that big crowd...the intention was that he would be feeling that everyone else falls so easily into conversation and he simply can't. I think that we associate the wide open spaces of the prairies with the absence of crowds. And the city would be the opposite. But Roy's city looks as empty as the prairie.

(and the interview continues: check out Michael Crochetières interview "Une Entrevue Dans Le Plateau"

Here's Robin's website:
You'll find his email on it and a list of his other films.

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