Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 00:36
In the opening scene of this visionary film, John Smith (Colin Farrell), the hero of American history textbooks, is spared. I should rephrase that, he is not killed. But he is left to die by his captain (Christopher Plummer) who quickly decides that he would be better served returning to England for supplies. As the only professional soldier among the men who founded this colony that just celebrated its quadricentennial, Smith is given tacit approval to poke around the local forests and see whether he can’t find some trading partners among the autochthonous peoples. There is even El Doradoan talk about a rich king up the river, a dangerous journey for which Smith is appointed. But of course Smith, played with hungover hesitation by Farrell, finds something much more precious than a city of gold. He finds love.
Love in the form of the native Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), a young daughter of a menacing Algonquian chief. This plot thread as well as the inevitable battle scene (which, to its credit, is wholly bereft of gore), are the only clichés of an amazingly refreshing interpretation of an old chestnut: the conflict between the colonists, who were not really colonists but refugees, and the natives, who didn’t regard themselves as landowners but as nomads and tribesmen. The land of America, they would have argued, belonged neither to them nor to the Jamestown settlers. It belonged to whatever animist deities guided their thoughts and provoked their cries. Theirs is a culture of vigilance and mistrust, because they could be ambushed by any other tribe or any rogue animals. There are numerous instances of the wildness of the Algonquians, and the film smartly permits conversation in misunderstood terms, exactly as it must have happened, with each side utterly flummoxed by the existence much less the words of the other. In time, the parties acknowledge that a certain degree of cooperation will be necessary. All that remains is determining who will give up more in order to secure mutual survival.
History aside for the moment, we must understand the harshness of the interaction as grueling and repugnant, with gunpowder ultimately triumphing over war hatchets. We know the outcome of this confrontation, of the absurd arrogance of the colonists who themselves were in great number victims of persecution in their birthlands. As the captain declares to a lovelorn Smith:
This is Eden. We have escaped the Old World and its bondage .... This is the place where a man may rise to his true stature.But, as we also know, there is more to this story than colonial exploitation. Director Terrence Malick, one of the most unheralded geniuses of modern cinema (owing in no small part to his sporadic activity) parallels the pointless gesturing and miscommunication of the armies with the inner thoughts of Smith and his love. They speak in voiceovers that embrace the melodrama of Elizabethan soliloquies, and their hearts dive and spin around each other in shared yearning for escape. Old Europe falling for New America, one would think. But again Malick diverts our attention from these easy equations and sets it back on the simple intercourse of different humans with different perspectives. The Captain and his cohorts have many Biblical verses to offer as justification for their actions, and Smith has little but the solace of the boundless nature of which he has just become part. He notices and begins to worship the beauty of the earth, but he returns time and again to his Pocahontas, who in the film’s final third also catches the eye of a new character, the widower John Rolfe (Christian Bale).
There is so much to commend, from the style and exquisite artistic restraint to the colors, the sounds, the freshness of every encounter and every word, translated, or, more often, left to buzz in our ear like the chirps of an unfamiliar bird. The score alternates between Wagner and Mozart, an anachronism so perfectly sewn into a film that seeks artistic authenticity that one cannot help admiring its boldness. Heavenly pieces of music do seem to drift in from another, higher plane, an Eden or a “place where man may rise to his true stature,” and they are fitting selections and repeated as leitmotivs. Gradually, Malick informs us that we are watching neither a true love story nor a historical epic, but what a transcendent memory might retain of these first steps. The way Rolfe looks at Pocahontas, whom he baptizes into his faith as Rebecca; the way she asks him simply, “Are you kind?”; the lyricism of each inner thought; the short and pensive shots of a world that seems microscopic because the colonists know so little about it; the promises exchanged and broken. Even christened, married, and a mother, Rebecca cannot shed her gods, and for her family she thanks the sun. “Give me a humble heart,” she mutters in the face of all these events. In the end, we have the finest a film that eschews conventional plot can offer: a collection of memories strung together by purpose and desire. And what memories!