Thursday, 17 February 2011

Cinema Strange #8. Temenos (Nina Danino, 1998)

One of the many landscapes in Temenos (1998)

There are few things in the world that I have absolutely no tolerance for, but self-important experimental art is one of them. When I read the BFI synopsis for Temenos I thought it sounded interesting: 'The film Temenos explores the phenomenon of visionary experience, taking the viewer to locations where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared, including Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje in Croat-occupied Bosnia where the visions continue. Nina Danino films the landscapes that have witnessed these transcendental appearances, imbuing them with a sense of the sacred.' It sounded like a quasi-religious tone poem, somewhere between Herzog's Fata Morgana (1971) and the recent The Nine Muses (John Akomfrah, 2010), itself an elegiac mood piece which used Homer's Odyssey to tell the story of immigration into the UK in the 1960s. If only...

The film flits between black and white and colour sequences, presumably to give the impression of time and space that the rest of the film refuses to acknowledge, but it also provides a confusing contrast. The black and white imagery gives a sense of timelessness; that these are captured moments of past encounters with the divine. But the the colour sequences (overhead shots of lived-in cities) contemporize the film for no particular reason; if a distinction is to be made between time and place would it not have been better for Danino to address the matter in one of the hair-tearing sequences of black static, which take up entire stretches of screen-time? Moreover the photography isn't even very good, with the limited frame not giving a true sense of landscape and the camera angles often distractingly off-kilter. Of course shooting the locations like they were in a Malick film would have perhaps been shallow and disingenuous - but the film has nothing to say anyway, so it might as well have looked pretty. The Nine Muses is by no means a perfect film - in fact it's a labored and unfocused one - but it did engaging things with its subject, had something to say and had immersive visuals to boot. Temenos looks like it was shot on a decades-out-of-fashion student video camera and that hinders our engagement with the theme.

But the most damning flaw of the film is simply that it has nothing to say of any substance or value, and the demented screams, tortured cries and soul-invading opera on the score may be equally disconcerting and evocative, but it's to no actual avail. Those sounds and pieces of music would have had that effect on their own. The film quite literally just consists of an other-worldly soundtrack playing over protracted and ugly images of spiritual places where the Virgin Mary is said to have been sighted - although nothing is ever spoken of this phenomena and it is never explored. If the film wishes to exist purely on the level of a tone poem or experimental piece then it at least has to provide us with questions, or use symbology or metaphor to force us to look closer and draw conclusions from the images. But this doesn't. There's absolutely no narrative to speak of in the film, no sense of pace or location - no sense of spirituality that can be found in fictional works such as Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955) or Loong boonmee raleuk chat (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010). I didn't look inside myself or feel anything when watching Temenos, except for boredom. I was really looking forward to the film but have left with very little to say that is positive. People of faith might be rewarded somehow although I can't imagine in what context. I found it insufferably pretentious.

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