Saturday, September 15, 2018

Nate Hood goes into THE ANCIENT WOOD (2018) Camden International Film Festival 2018

Mindaugas Survilla’s The Ancient Woods might be the first time I’ve ever seen a movie and thought that a theater would be the wrong venue for it. It’s not because the images don’t demand the gigantic dimensions and clarity of a theatrical space—they do—but because a large, empty room cannot do justice to the film’s use of sound. Perhaps more than any other film I’ve seen so far this year, The Ancient Woods demands to be HEARD, not just seen, as its portrait of one of the last remaining old growth forests in Lithuania is as much aural spectacle as visual feast.

My suggestion? Laptop, darkened room, and headphones. Consider the first minute and a half where Survilla presents us with a Kubrickian black screen à la 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But instead of a wailing choir, we hear the rumblings of the forest: the swaying of trees, the snapping of twigs, the low rumble of unseen thumpings and thuddings. Soon the black fades into the night sky and little moths dance among the stars. Then comes the sound of gurgling water as schools of tiny fish slowly appear on screen shimmering among submerged tree roots. And in the distance, unseen, wolves and birds. The effect is hypnotic and key for acclimating oneself into Survilla’s method of sculpting time which is so highly reminiscent of Tarkovsky there are moments when you could imagine the cast of Stalker (1979) wandering into the frame. I shudder to think how a theater, even one with superb acoustics, might butcher the highly nuanced sound design.

Survilla presents a truly untamed wilderness in which one can see/hear echoes of an ecosystem still unmolested by humanity—there is only one human shown, a wizened farmer who appears in exactly two scenes, first to chop firewood, then to watch an incoming thunderstorm.

However, with the exceptions of the brilliant opening sequence and a chilling scene where he repeats footage of a family of cranes devouring an army of frogs, first in normal speed and then in slow-motion, he does precious little with what he finds other than present it to us in a deadening succession. The effect can sometimes come off like a nature documentary sans David Attenborough’s narration. Survilla clearly wants to evoke the otherworldly mood and timelessness of an antediluvian nature, but it comes off too frequently as frustratingly repetitive.

Rating: 6/10

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