A HUMBLE LIFE (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997)

Aleksandr Sokurov is without doubt one of the half-dozen or so most brilliant and accomplished filmmakers working today—and, prolific, he gives us a great deal to applaud. I have long since accepted that this man’s politics are not close to my own. What difference does that make, given the wide variety of his concerns and mine? But there are times when Sokurov the Great strikes me as boorish, self-indulgent and, really, inhuman. How could the artist, the man with a soul who made Aleksandra (2007), have also made Smirennaya zhizn? Beats me.
     Sokurov’s camera—not cameras, and a betacam at that—cleaves to his subject, an elderly Japanese woman named Umeno Mathuyoshi, for ten years a widow, whose spare, solitary existence in the mountains attracts his documentary attention. Umeno ekes out a bare-bones livelihood by sewing funeral kimonos, which, like the dirt floors in her house, remind us of her closeness to the earth. Sokurov, who finds Umeno admirably humble and noble, leaves us no room to think otherwise; and it would be churlish of us to do so. But may I suggest that Sokurov’s detailed descriptions of Umeno’s everyday activities and rituals, punctuated by his unpleasant extreme closeups of her wrinkled hands and mouth and lips, are so grandiose that they rob this ordinary woman of the simplicity, humility and anonymity to which she is entitled? Sokurov can find nothing else to do but call attention to himself calling attention to Umeno Mathuyoshi.
     Sokurov so often transports me to another, more spiritual plane. This time, he had me screaming to get out.
     There is one good passage. Four monks won’t leave until Umeno gives them “charity” with which (we know) she cannot afford to part—but does, to rid herself of their company. How superficial of the monks, to assume that Umeno’s home certifies her comfortable existence.
     Against the accuracy of Sokurov’s irony here, however, are countless shots and sequences that are deplorable and even disgusting. In one, the camera surveys Umeno’s house while the voiceover insists that the place is metaphor for the person: “What a delicate, what a solid construction: the house is 130 years old. Walls and doors are glued over with paper, everything is breathing, in everything there is persistence, obstinacy and immutability.” Lordy!
     At the last Umeno, encouraged by Sokurov, reads her poetry—but not in closeup or thereabouts, but in long-shot that conjures visual rhetoric: a lonely soul in a vast, dark, forlorn room. This is a pity, for one haiku better than Sokurov captures the essence of its author:

Bending softly and gracefully,
To a streamlet murmur
Is the white lily.

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