Monday, August 6, 2012

Dreamtime

Film: The Last Wave
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

I frequently comment on this blog about my own lack of spirituality. That perhaps is not a true or fair assessment. I consider myself a skeptic and I don’t have any firm religious beliefs (or, really, any beliefs in that line). If it’s something that I have to believe in rather than know factually, I figure it’s bunk. Belief often seems to me to be little more than wishful thinking. So when I encounter something that is explainable only through this sort of mystical sense, well, my reaction tends to be…interesting.

This is where I end up with a film like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave. This is a film firmly rooted in a sort of spiritual other world, but even that is selling it short. This film isn’t immersed in spirituality the way a film about religion tends to be—this is not about religion. It’s far deeper than that, posing a sort of metaphysical position obtainable only in glimpses, and then only really visualized out of the corner of one’s eye. This is a film about cycles occurring on the grandest of scales, a true sort of cosmology that incorporates life, time, and the universe.

At the start of the film, we see evidence of disturbing, unexplained natural phenomena occurring in Australia. In specific, we see an outback school pelted by massive hail from a cloudless sky during a time of year when rain does not fall. While the general population seems not to understand what is going on, the Aborigines seem to sense that the world is gearing up for something big. As the film progresses, we get more of these massive storms as well as truly unexplainable phenomena—rains of frogs, black rain made of mostly petroleum. During one storm, an Aborigine at a bar dies under mysterious circumstances and five other Aboriginals are accused of his murder.

The men are appointed a lawyer named David Burton (Richard Chamberlain). This is an unusual circumstance because Burton’s law office specializes not in criminal law or in appointed cases, but in corporate tax law. Regardless, he takes the case. He continues with this in no small part because he feels a powerful (and unexplained) connection with the men, especially with Chris Lee (David Gulpilil). He begins to experience a strange series of dreams, and eventually these dreams follow him into his waking life. He seems to see a coming apocalypse, the world destroyed by water. He experiences unexplained moments of déjà vu. And the more he looks into the case he is trying, the more he believes the victim died from a curse, also connected with the coming destruction of the world and his own dream visions.

The Last Wave, by its nature, contains a sort of dream-like quality about it. Weir uses moments throughout the film where the action is not quite at real speed but not really slow motion to accentuate this surreal quality. Most importantly, through the entire film he hints at a connection with something deeper and greater than what is on the screen. The feelings he is attempting to evoke, or at least the sensations, are those that truly cannot be put into language easily or at all. This is not religion, but true spirituality, something far deeper than belief. There is a sense that what Burton is experiencing through the film is something primal, something from the dawn of humanity and the first notions of humankind emerging from its animal past. There is a sense not just of a truth that is deeper and more distant than history, but of something that predates language, of something so bedrock true that it cannot be spoken.

A great deal of the film, or at least the understanding of the film comes from the Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime. This is a difficult concept to get through, and I’m not completely sure I understand it myself. As I get it, there is the real world in which we exist and the spiritual Dreamtime world in which time is cyclical and all of us exist simultaneously—our past, present, and future. We exist there regardless of whether we are in the real world or not. Because this time stream is a cycle, it undergoes periodic death and rebirth. Throughout the film, there are more and more indications—the weather being predominant—that the current cycle is coming to an end.

The film tends to drag in places where Weir attempts to explain this in language. In many ways, these moments cheapen what is going on here, which should instead simply happen in front of us and allow us to take it in.

The performances throughout are excellent. Gulpilil is, as always, a standout in his role. Equally absorbing is Nandjiwarra Amagula as Charlie, who is a man with his feet firmly in the real world and the spiritual one. While Chamberlain is as good as he typically is, I’m far more taken with the performance of Olivia Hamnett as his wife Annie, who spends the film trying to understand what is going on around her and frequently must display a terror of the unknown that comes across as real and palpable.

I tend to like a lot of Peter Weir’s films, but he has lost this spiritual side to his work. Films like this and Picnic at Hanging Rock were imbued with this sense of another world, one that cannot be explained but that can only be felt, and can only be understood at a level below our conscious minds. While I still like watching what the man directs in general, I’d love to see him go back to this and explore these issues again, particularly when a film of this metaphysical depth is the result.

Why to watch The Last Wave: There is a spiritual power here possessed by few films.
Why not to watch: If you don’t buy into it, you won’t get it.

4 comments:

  1. I am laughing right now at how similar our reviews for this film are, right down to the comment about how language cheapens the spiritual power. (And I'm happy that you seemed to like it, because I picked it for the club.)

    I found out that Amagula only made this one film; iMDb says that he is a tribal magistrate. He has that gravitas about him.

    Gulpilil is so good.

    I wanted to talk about the wife in my review, but I had already blathered on for about 1200 words, and I didn't quite have enough to say to warrant another paragraph. She serves such an important function, though; she's almost *us*, the audience, the everyman, someone not part of the dreamworld who cannot understand what is going on. Naturally she's scared.

    Great review.

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  2. This was a difficult film to write about for me because so much of what this film is comes from a deep place for which there are no words. I had the same trouble with Picnic at Hanging Rock. Both films strike a deep chord. They hit something primal down in the lizard brain, something that hints at a connection with the cosmos and links us to everything.

    Gulpilil is a magnificent actor. And "gravitas" is the best word for Amagula. He's a presence, even when all he's doing is standing around. There's a spiritual weight to him.

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  3. You liked this more than I did. When I wrote my review I didn't even mention Hamnett because I just found her presence unnecessary.

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    1. I think she is necessary. Since she's not having this prophetic dreams, we need her as a connection to the real world. Or, at least I appreciated her in that capacity.

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