Neruda (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9


Neruda & some of his supporters who hide him from the police.              (c) The Orchard

Chili’s best known film director Pablo Larraín and scriptwriter Guillermo Calderón  must have enjoyed making this somewhat whimsical, semi-biographical film inspired by the life of Nobel prize winner Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), considered by some as “the greatest poet of the 20th century.” To do so they create a fictional policeman for whom The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau could have been the role model, so full of himself is he, and yet so incompetent. Set in the late 1940s when the Chilean President Gonzalez Videla (Alberto Castro) has banned Communism, police prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is ordered to hunt down “the most famous Communist in the country” and humiliate him.

Although the consequences could have been deadly, the pursuit of the poet by his ego-inflated nemesis is treated in a way that might bring to mind a toned-down version of those zany Looney Tunes cartoon pursuits, such as Wiley Coyote chasing after Roadrunner. Hidden from sight by various Communist friends, the poet and his Argentinian wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) always manage to stay one step ahead of their pursuer. Neruda enjoys leaving behind one of the pulp detective novels he is reading. Meant to taunt the policeman, when he reads the novels, they create a bond between the Inspector and the fugitive, at least in the policeman’s mind. As the film develops, we see that the story is as almost as much about the policeman as the poet, with the cop imagining himself as the chief character and Neruda as a supporting one in an epic  story.

The film’s Neruda is a very mixed person indeed, like so many European leftists of the time, loving the pleasures of the flesh—women, food, and drink—as much as “the people.” He enjoys parties and orgies, and hangs out at brothels where he recites his love poems. The term used to describe members of the leftist intelligentsia of the time aptly fits the poet, “Champaign Communists.”

Originally sought because in the Senate he spoke against the government’s brutal suppression of miners, Neruda becomes a beloved figure by the people—in one scene a large group of factory workers listen intently to one of his poems. As in the Soviet Union, poets were looked up to by workers as well as by the literati. By the end of the film we see that the life or personality of the poet is of less significance than his works, and the fact that the latter inspires and brings hope to the powerless. Thus, even a person of dubious moral character can have a positive effect upon people, producing words of beauty that are similar in their effect to those of the Hebrew prophets who spoke out “for those who cannot speak.”

Director Pablo Larraín’s 2012 film No has a similar theme: the story of how the people of Chili put an end to dictator Augusto Pinochet’s 15-year reign of terror, it credits a young advertiser, creator of a cheesy beer commercial, with producing a campaign that inspired people to dare to say “No” to the powerful dictator. In the director’s  new film it is very ironical in Neruda’s case that, though opposing tyranny in his own country, he was an admirer for much of his life of the ruthless Joseph Stalin, one more example of the bizarre mixture of conflicting values and behavior that made the poet such a compelling character in the mid-20th Century.

For me, this is one more example of a God with a sense of humor, choosing an unlikely person as his instrument for denouncing injustice. If he crazily selected a geriatric couple to begin a new people (See Genesis 12-15) to be his advocates, why not in the 20th century a poet with morals that would have gotten him kicked out of most any church? Such are the thoughts that a group discussing this amusing film might come up with. I invite you to join in the fun with Pablo Larraín, and then go on to his more sober film No and see how the morally dubious methods of advertising can be used for good ends. What a world we live in!

This review with a set of questions will be in the 2017 issue of VP.

Bitter Harvest (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

A ruler who oppresses the poor is a beating rain that leaves no food.

Proverbs 28:3

Thus says the Lord God: Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression,

and do what is just and right. Cease your evictions of my people, says the Lord God.

Ezekiel 45:9


Two Ukrainians fall in love amidst the brutal oppression of their Ukraine by Stalin.                       (c) Roadside Attractions

Although I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about history, including dictator Joseph Stalin’s starving the peasants who resisted collectivization, I was not familiar with the term “Holodomor” until I saw director/writer George Mendeluk’s film. It is a term that we all should know as well as “The Holocaust,” because from three to seven million ethnic Ukrainians in the early 1930s were deliberately starved to death, the term meaning “death by hunger.” Although I feel indebted to the filmmaker for bringing this to light, especially today with the Ukraine so much in the news, I wish he had made a better film. As it is, it is a second rate Dr. Zhivago love story, set amidst sweeping social change and violent brutality that sometimes is difficult to follow.

The story begins near the end of World War One when news of the execution of the Czar and his family reaches a small Ukrainian village. Young Yuri (played as an adult by Max Irons) is a young boy aspiring to become an artist and, even at that early age deeply in love with his playmate Natalka (Samantha Barks). The lad is the grandson of the Cossack warrior Ivan (Terence Stamp) and son of Yaraslov (Barry Pepper), who are not fond of his goal of becoming an artist in Kiev. Their legacy to him is the resolve, “No one can ever take away your freedom. Remember that.” This, of course, is exactly what the EVIL Stalin (Gary Oliver) plans to do. In the scenes cutting away to him and his advisers in Moscow he all but twirls his bushy mustache. The Ukraine, regarded as the Breadbasket of the U.S.S.R, must be brought in line, so when Yuri’s family and their neighbors resist the dictator, Stalin’s orders are to collectivize, ship out grain, livestock, fruit and vegetables to Moscow, or else starve. When a shocked adviser observes, “This will mean the death of millions,” Stalin callously replies, “Who will know?”

Just as ruthless is the local Commisar Sergei (Tamer Hassen) who shows up, beats and bullies the landowners, the local priest, and anyone else who resists. The up and down love affair between Yuri and Natalka is over shadowed by the violence when the Ukrainians offer armed resistance to Sergie and his uniformed thugs.

One intriguing thread running through the story is a sacred icon of St. George slaying the dragon. This is an appropriate symbol of good versus evil. Whereas during this same period it is Hitler rising to power in Germany that has captured the attention of most of us, this film shows that a twin evil power was operating to the east, guilty of murdering just as many, if not more victims who stood in his way. Stalin is a good example of what some have warned is the danger of the uncompromising idealist, that in the name of an alleged good end, the idealist will sacrifice the lives of all who oppose his plans.

Despite its shortcomings as a film, much can be learned from it about still another dark period in history. Given what he did to Chechenya, who knows what President Putin might do to the present Ukraine were he to regain absolute power over its people!

This review with a set of questions will be in the 2017 issue of VP.

The White Helmets (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 41  min.

Our content ratings  (1-10): Violence 5; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 5


Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Psalm 82:3-4


So many of the targets of the bombings are children! (c) Netflix

We are indebted to Netflix for making documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel’s short film so widely available to the public. This Academy Award-winning film witnesses to the bright and the dark side of what humans are capable of—the brutal savagery of the Syrian leader and his Russian supporters as they relentlessly target civilians and rebel fighters alike with their ruthless bombing, and the bravery and compassion of the men who wear the white helmets that give the film its name. These men are not soldiers, but men who have volunteered to rush to the scene of a bombing and pull out of the rubble the victims. We see that some once were rebel soldiers, but sickened by the violence, laid down their weapons and joined those who were saving lives rather than taking them. Indeed, it is White Helmet Mohammed Farah who states, “Better to rescue a soul than to take one.”

It was cinematographer Khaled Khatib, press officer for the Syrian White Helmets, whose work drew the attention of Mr. von Einsiedel, so that the latter equipped him with better cameras, technical training, and financial backing so that a film could be put together. Mr. Khatid has said, “I took a camera and started volunteering for (them) because I wanted the world to know what the White Helmets are doing and what is happening in Syria.” He follows numerous White Helmets as they rush to bombing sights, and as they spend time in safety at a training school in southern Turkey learning rescue techniques and how to use the tools provided them. Here are just a few of them who tell their stories in the interviews:

-Mohammad Danawer, 24. Was in his third year studying math at university. “The regime bombed a refugee camp. We saved so many people, but I mostly remember an old lady, who had an injured leg. It bothered me, because you should be safe at a refugee camp.”

-Abdulrahman Humaidi, 20. Carpenter. “I was in a village near Salqeen. A missile hit the upper floor of a building and it collapsed. We pulled a 40-year-old man out and his family was thanking us and hugging and kissing, until they realized that his wife and two children died in the attack.” Abdulrahman has 4 brothers, all of whom have also joined the White Helmets.
-Mohammad Faisal Hammade, 41. Ministry of Agriculture. “They dropped a thermobaric bomb in the village of Sinkar. It hit a house and divided into two parts, one destroyed and one not. I can’t describe the feeling that came over me when we found a mother and two children alive, especially since we had such a hard time getting to them.”

-Yamen Yoused, 27. Construction. “Two days before I came to this course, I rescued a 2-year-old baby. His dad told me where he was trapped and buried. We went and found him alive, but his 14-year-old sister had died.”

-Mohammad Ata Rashwani, 44. Hospital administration. “We were in a village called Kastim and rescued a man whose entire lower half was buried. A missile hit a car outside the shop he was in. We took him to the hospital and he lived.” Mohammad joined the White Helmets five days after his son was killed working the very same job.

-Abdulkareem Qaddour, 20. Was in high school. “A barrel bomb dropped near my best friend. He had shrapnel in his head, neck and chest. I took him by ambulance to the hospital, but he died on his way to the operating room.”

-Hussain Alassi, 25. Was about to start college. “We rescued a family of three in the village of Mazra, a little 6-year-old girl, plus her father and mother. It was a huge building, and the whole second floor had collapsed on the first. We finally found them, cut a hole in the wall and took them to the hospital.”

This memorable film alone would make your investment in a Netflix subscription worthwhile! The volunteers constantly risking their lives for the sake of others may be Muslims, but they share the same ethical values found in the Psalms or Matthew 25!

This review with a set of questions will be in the. 2017 issue of VP.

Table 19 (2017)


Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 27 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 2


The Siberia-like Table 19 & its exiles.                       (c) Fox Searchlight Films

This slight but entertaining comedy stars Anna Kendrick as Eloise, once the maid-of-honor for the bride, but now at the wedding reception relegated to the table of fringe friends known as Table 19, sort of a social Siberia. She is the only one at this table of losers who realizes the bridal couple had expected them to RSPV “With Regrets” because she had helped plan the wedding. This is because her fiance Teddy (Wyatt Russell), the bride’s brother, had dumped her (by text!) for another woman.

The other five are a strange, assorted lot, even including the brother and sister’s nanny, who proves the most interesting of the lot—and indeed, the key to the possibility of Louise and Teddy getting back together—though the latter art of the plot is not very convincing.

Some of the occurrences in the ballroom are expected—namely that which happens to the wedding cake—and others seem merely to fill up the screen time, which mercifully is kept to less than an hour and a half.

No discussion questions for this poof of a movie, though if you insist on seeing it because of the likability of its star, you could discuss the film and its characters as outsiders, and what the Scriptures has to say about such.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity -1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:6-8

Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.

Romans 12:2a (J.B. Phillips)


T he Beast & Belle slowly develop a positive relationship.               (c) Walt Disney Studios

Any doubts or qualms concerning Disney’s releasing a new version of the French fairytale were quickly overcome for myself and the large audience at the advance screening in Cincinnati. Once you hear the two new songs added to the film’s original score, “Ever More” and “How Does a Moment Last Forever”—I think you also will agree that these alone make the new version worthwhile. This remake also is even more directed at adults, and not just little girls in need of an injection of feminism so beautifully embedded in Belle, in that it is both longer (c. 40 minutes!) and darker than the 1991 animated version.

Before the film title comes on the screen, we are given the backstory of a young prince (Dan Stevens) hosting a ball. He refuses to give a beggar woman shelter from the cold in exchange for a rose because he does not like her unkempt appearance. She warns him not to judge by appearances, but he pays no heed. Amidst a blinding light, she is transformed into a beautiful sorceress who changes the prince into the Beast and his servants into household items, telling him that unless he can learn to love and win the love of another, he will remain a beast forever when the last petal of the rose falls off.

Years later in a village outside the forest, young Belle (Emily Watson), a book in hand, somewhat dejectedly goes through her daily routine as the various villagers she encounters sing about her. They admit she is the most beautiful woman in town, but far too different to be acceptable: “Her looks have got no parallel. But behind that fair façade, Very diff’rent from the rest of us. She’s nothing like the rest of us. I’m afraid she’s rather odd.” Belle knows well that she does not fit into the small village as she sings, “I want adventure in the great-wide somewhere, I wanted more than I can tell… For once it might be grand to have someone understand, I want so much more than they’ve got planned!”

Belle’s most unpleasant encounter is with Gaston (Luke Evans), a vain hunter whom the local maidens love almost as much as he loves himself. Belle again rebuffs his attempt to gain her hand, as does her father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Gaston is always shadowed by his companion/servant LeFou (Josh Gad), who would like to be more than the man’s friend and lackey (something which has aroused a lot of discussion).

Maurice, a skilled maker of mechanical toys and clocks, sets out in his horse-drawn cart on an overnight trip to deliver some of his ingenious toys to customers on the other side of the forest. He becomes lost during a storm when a lightning-struck tree blocks the road, and he discovers another path. Following it while avoiding a pack of ravenous wolves, he winds up at the old castle, is admitted, but finds no host in any of the rooms. Scared by a talking mantel clock, a tea pot, and candelabra (voiced respectively by Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Ewan McGregor), he rushes out into the storm again. He plucks one of the roses growing out front, whereupon a huge shadowy figure accuses him of stealing and drags him into a barred room.

The next day, Belle, rejecting another of Gaston’s attempt to marry her, sees their horse, and rides into the snow-laden forest in search of her father. She enters the castle, discovers her father, and volunteers to take his place. Back at the village Gaston and the villagers think the old man crazy, with his tale of the Beast and talking artifacts.

At the castle the talking artifacts befriend Belle and try to get their gruff master to deal gently with his captive. Easier said than done, but they do finally succeed after the Beast saves the runaway Belle from a pack of vicious wolves, and she in turn saves her badly wounded rescuer from freezing to death by placing him on his horse and returning with him to the castle. Both of them, guided by the household artifacts who hope that Belle might be “the one” who lifts the curse, gain a new perspective on one another as the days past. When she comes across him reading a book that she takes to be a romance, she asks, “What are you reading?” Quickly hiding its cover, he replies, “Nothing.” She says, “Guinevere and Lancelot.” He insists on its more adventuresome title, “King Arthur and the Round Table.” Belle replies, “Still a romance.” Beast lamely replies, “Mmm. Felt like a change.”

Bell is almost ecstatic when the Beast shows her his huge library, the walls lined with books clear up to its high ceiling. Back in her village she had access just to the half dozen or so leant to her by the priest, so the sight of so many volumes fills her with awe. “Have you really read every one of these books?” she asks admiringly. He replies, “No, some of them are in Greek.”

They enjoy hours of taking down books to be read at their leisure. During dinner, the Beast moves from the opposite end of the long table to sit next to Belle. Then comes the day when the Beast shows Belle his precious hand mirror and tells her that it will show her what she most desires. She sees her father, and he clearly is in bad trouble with the villagers. It is the Beast himself who says that Belle must go to his aid.

There is much more to their story, including a fight between the villagers, aroused against the Beast by Gaston, and a deadly rooftop duel between the latter and the Beast that should excite those who love action films—and for musical spectacle fans, the dinner song “Be Our Guest” is a show stopper. But more important is the winning of the hearts of the two main characters. By encouraging Belle to go to the aid of her father, the Beast shows that he understands that love is not possessing, but letting the loved one go, something that the grasping Gaston can never understand. And Belle is now aware of this too. I am not sure just when she says this, but she shows that she can now look beneath surface appearances, the real beast turning out to be, not her captor, but Gaston, the lustful rabble-rouser, when she sings the song “Something There” with its words, “New and a bit alarming. Who’d have ever thought this could be? True that he’s no Prince Charming but there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see.”

The music by Allen Menken and song lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice make this film soar, despite what the grouches on IMDB’s page claim (they must have ingested some bad popcorn before they wrote their condemnations). The backstory about why Maurice took baby Belle from Paris and settled in their present small village adds to the poignancy of their story. The new song “Evermore,” sung by the Beast when Belle returns to her village strikingly reveals his internal anguish. He has learned at last to love, only to have to let her go, and now he laments, “And as the long, long nights begin I’ll think of all that might have been, Waiting here for evermore.”

This is a good film for inter-generational discussion because of the lesson that both the Prince and Belle learn the hard way, a lesson that the prophet Samuel also was taught while examining the sons of Jesse in search of a king to replace King Saul. In a culture obsessed with appearances, it is important that our sons and daughters learn what is true beauty. There are those who reap huge profits from those seeking beauty (and youth), from the makers of skin creams and fragrances, designers of fashionable but expensive clothing, publishers of glossy magazines that extol the wares of the beauty industry, to plastic surgeons promising that “a new you” will become more attractive and successful. Add in the weight-loss industry and the reporters specializing in celebrity stories, “the beautiful people,” for cable and magazines, and you have a powerful force constantly trying to seduce our children to buy into the” you are not going to be successful and happy unless you are physically beautiful” value system.

The message of the apostle Paul to the Romans about resisting the world’s making us toe the line is important—I’m sure some of you have noted how often I have quoted this in my reviews. Therefore, Belle is such a great role model for our children, daughters in particular. Her father says that she is ahead of her times, and so she is when we consider the subservient role assigned women in the 18th century. But, we should point out to our children, she still is “ahead of” our time as well, a person preferring books to a hollow romantic relationship or acquiring fancy dresses, refusing to cave in to the criticisms of her neighbors. Her one blind spot, that is eventually corrected, is like that of the heroine in another film currently showing in our cinemas, Samantha in Before I Fall. Samantha and her mean girl pack constantly torment the disheveled Juliet at school and at a party, with Samantha arriving at a new perspective on the unattractive target of their bullying only late in that film. Both films testify to our ability to change for the better.

The Disney people in a way are going against their own values in that their products usually tout the virtues of youth and beauty—have any of the pack of Disney heroines ever been plain looking or ugly? But then their film is based on an almost 300-year-old French fairy tale, so they have to go along with its subversive message since this is the core of the story. Good. I can only hope that the individual artists, especially composer Allen Menken and his partners who wrote the meaningful lyrics, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, are sincere in their sentiments. Disney has been helpful in that they have set up the  beautiful webpage Lyrics for Beauty & the Beast where you can both read the lyrics and listen to the songs. I especially urge you to click onto it if you discuss the film with others, whether they be children or adults. This new film might not replace the beloved animated version for you, but you definitely should be seeing and discussing it.

This review with a set of questions will be in the 2017 issue of VP. If you have found this or other reviews helpful, please visit the store & purchase an issue or a year’s subscription.



Before I Fall (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence ; Language ; Sex/Nudity

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Therefore walk in the way of the good,
and keep to the paths of the just.

Proverbs 2:20

Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
and do not reject your mother’s teaching;
for they are a fair garland for your head,
and pendants for your neck.
My child, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.

Proverbs 1:8-10

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.

Romans 12:2a (The Message)


The “mean girls” at a keg party. (c) Open Road Films

Ry Russo-Young’s adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s YA novel will is a dramatic version of Ground Hog Day, involving teenagers rather than adults. In a sumptuous home in Oregon Samantha (Zoey Deutch) wakes up and brushes off her little sister Izzy (Erica Tremblay) eager to connect with her; reacts sullenly to her parents in the kitchen; rides to school with her fellow mean girls Lindsay (Halston Sage), really into enhancing her beauty, Ally (Cynthy Wu), gifted with a quick mind, and Elody (Medalion Rahimi), who loves partying.

It is Feb. 12., designated “Cupid’s Day” at school, and so students are selling and buying roses, the result of which will be a popularity contest. Nice guy Kent (Logan Miller), who has a long-time crush on her, gives Sam a rose and a card, but she brushes him off because she intends to lose her virginity to her steady, popular but self-centered hunk Rob (Kian Lawley). And this will happen at the keg party that Kent himself is hosting that night at his home while his parents are away.

All four of the “mean girls” are pleased with their number of roses, but not the class lesbian Anna (Liv Hewson) who, close enough for Sam to hear, says, “I’m in heteronormative hell.” Worse off is the class freak Juliet (Elena Kampouris), with her unkempt hair and clothes that not even the Salvation Army Store would accept as a donation. Although not enjoying their taunts, Samantha joins in with her friends, first at school, and then at the party that night, when the students totally strip her of any trace of dignity by hurling drinks at her. She rushes out of the house, pursued through the woods by Samantha, and then there is a car crash.

The next day Samantha wakes up at the same time to the same music and Izzy again jumping on her bed eager to embrace her sister. Samantha seems to be the only one throughout the day who remembers anything of previous days. Each one starts out the same, but through different choices enabled by her memory of what wrong before, there are differences. The fantasy film makes no attempt to explain that it is God or Fate, or whatever, that has trapped the girl in time. Her literature class teacher is dealing with the Myth of Sisyphus,” underlining the name so that we will not miss the point.

The differences in Samantha’s days that make them new are important. At the beginning of one the days Samantha welcomes Izzy, who during their rare conversations asks her why she is so mean to their mother (Jennifer Beals). This comes as a revelation, Samantha responding, “Am I?” On another go-around, Sam, deciding to speak her mind, dresses in slut-garb, rudely brushing aside her mother’s objections, and when her friends pick her up, calling out Lindsay on her bullying of Juliet so harshly that she is ordered out of the car. On another day, having seen boyfriend too drunk at the party to engage in sex, and another night promiscuously relating to another girl, accepts Kent’s affections. When she asks why he has felt so about her, he reminds her of her kindness toward him during a critical moment in grade school, revealing that she is not the same as her mean girlfriends.

For the first time in her life Samantha examines herself and her actions, saying, “If I was going to live the same day over and over, I wanted it to mean something… and not just to me.” It is those last five words that reveal the change in her basic outlook, those plus her mom’s advice during a car ride when Samantha had said something positive and supportive of her, “One good thing, just follow one good thing and see where it leads you.”

What Samantha does, and where it leads her that last night at the party makes for a very interesting and rewarding tale similar to that old saying that we should live every day as if it were the last day of our lives—because for some of us it will be. Those working with a youth group will find this a good film to discuss about friends and their influence for good or ill; bullying; accepting those who are different; and relating to siblings and parents. The Samantha whom we first meet is the perfect example of what Socrates said about the unexamined life being not worth living. Her little life as a mean girl was indeed useless, making no difference in her world. But at the end of the film, the Samantha who dashes out of the party in an attempt to catch up with the humiliated Juliet is a very different person because her concern now is not for herself, but for Juliet.

This review with a set of questions will be in the April 2017 issue of VP.

The Red Turtle (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 20 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

Genesis 2:18


When his raft is destroyed a 3rd time, the man discovers what has been preventing his escape from the island. (c) Sony Picture Classics

British-Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s first feature length animated film takes up the shipwreck starting point of Robinson Caruso and Castaway, but then forges its own path to a conclusion about survival and making a home. Based on their admiration of his widely admired two short films, Japan’s Studio Ghibli invited him to make a feature-length film, however he wanted to. They provided such excellent supporters as the studio’s Isao Takahata* and Hayao Miyazaki. (It would be fascinating to have been present during their interchanges.) This French-Belgian-Japanese production probably will appeal more to adults than children, due to its slow pace and almost total lack of dialogue, but there are enough elements, especially a gang of amusing crabs, that make this a good choice for a family outing.

We plunge into the middle of the action with an un-named mariner tossed about by huge waves, his ship apparently having sunk. He manages to swim to an island on which a forest of bamboo and fruit trees surround a bald mountain gently sloping upwards. Just about everywhere he goes, he is followed by the group of crabs. Indeed, it was one of these crawling up his trouser leg that had awakened him on the beach. They are not anthropomorphized, but they add a touch of whimsy to the proceedings.

Obviously longing for home, he dreams one night of a bridge leading away from the island. Then of a costumed string quartet playing on the beach at low tide. We knew he is Caucasian; now that he must be a European. He discovers edible fruit in the forest, and potable water in a pool located in the center of the island. The man builds a raft from the abundant supply of bamboo, using a small tree with thick foliage as his sail. Setting forth toward the open sea, he feels something from below bumping the vessel, but he is unable to discover what it is. Then with louder thumps, the unseen creature demolishes the raft. He starts over again. Same thing happens. The third time is no charm, but the man does learn what his nemesis is—a large red turtle. Back to shore again.

The mystery as to why the turtle opposes his leaving unfolds slowly. When the creature is washed ashore, the man vengefully flips it on its back, leaving it to slowly die of dehydration. But then it shapeshifts into a lovely red-headed maiden. The man no longer attempts to flee, the pair making do with the resources of the island to make a comfortable life for themselves, and the son they eventually produce. Not that their life is entirely an Eden: the boy falls into the same deep crevice with water at the bottom that the father had years earlier, but also manages to swim through a subterranean tunnel to rejoin his parents. And years later, a tsunami sweeps across the island, leaving us to wonder for a while if all the family members have survived. Many decades after the man had swum ashore the story ends in a bittersweet way, foreign to any Disney film.

The hand-drawn figures are simple, the animators spending more effort on the details of the jungle and sea. Those who delight in walking along a beach, or sitting while the sun rises or sets, will love the colors. The night scenes, of which there are many, are in black and white. In addition to the resplendent visual beauty, composer Laurent Perez Del Mar’s musical score enhances the action and makes one feel the beauty of woods, sky and sea. The effect of the music perhaps is heightened by the lack of any dialogue, the only discernable word being a “Hey,” uttered by the man early on when he is frustrated by his failure to leave the island. One might consider this Oscar-nominated film as a visual meditation of life and loss, ameliorated by unexpected companionship.

*Mr. Takahata directed my favorite anime’ film, the haunting Grave of the Fireflies, about an orphaned Japanese brother and little sister, bombed out and living on the streets of Kobe near the end of WW 2. I see that my review, published in another magazine many years ago has been lost, so I’ll have to rewrite it, this being a wonderful film that should be widely known.

This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.