Film Review: In the Intense Now

João Moreira Salles’s melancholic essay-film examines the cataclysmic potential, as well as the sobering limitations and unintended consequences, exemplified by the revolutionary movements of 1968.
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João Moreira Salles’ In the Intense Now screens for the next two weeks at Film Forum in New York City, in association with Carnegie Hall’s citywide festival “The ’60s: The Years that Changed America.” Salles’ impressionistic essay-film explores the cataclysmic potential for revolutionary change, as well as its sobering limitations and unintended consequences, as exemplified by “May ’68” in France and the concurrent “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia. The personal wellspring for the film can be found in footage shot by the filmmaker’s mother while vacationing in China in 1966, which provides an aestheticized counterpoint to the more overtly politicized events captured in newsreel footage, TV broadcasts and collaborative student films. Salles also folds in lengthy quotes from participants’ memoirs and works of thematically related fiction. From this crazy quilt of source materials, Salles crafts a dense, poetic and often melancholic film.

The first part of In the Intense Now closely examines the events of May ’68, using student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit as its primary point of focus. Rising to prominence on the strength of his performance in a series of televised debates, Cohn-Bendit comes to embody the various contradictions Salles seems to detect in the movement: He’s an electrifying, albeit affable, agent provocateur, with a lively sense of humor and a sort of nonthreatening pugnacity. But he’s equally likely to disappear in the middle of the most intense period of strike activities and police retaliation, allowing himself to be coopted by a bourgeois magazine like Paris Match into an all-expense-paid trip to Berlin in the company of a staff photographer.

Salles is quick to point out other failings of the May ’68 movement, especially the peripheral role played by women and French citizens of color, routinely shunted to the sidelines by the male leadership. Salles’ footage also reveals a fundamental disconnect between the students and the workers, when the latter derisively (and not altogether incorrectly) dismiss the former as their “future bosses.” The idea that the playing field is not—and never will be—truly level gets an ironic visual reversal in this scene: The workers stand on a rooftop, gazing down with suspicion and disapproval on the students milling around in the street, there to express their solidarity.

One extract of film in particular captures the ascendant counterrevolutionary movement with heartbreaking finality: Outside the (woefully misnamed) Wonder Factory, a female worker expresses outrage over promises she feels have been broken by the owners. But she’s quickly shouted down by a supercilious union leader, who also puts the kibosh on a student onlooker who tries to come to her assistance. She’s then ushered back to work in a queasily paternalistic manner by management, thus marking a broken-spirited return to the status quo.

The latter half of the film grows darker as the revolution sputters out entirely. To capture this mood of increasing disillusionment, Salles shifts the scene to Czechoslovakia as the Russian tanks roll in, effectively putting an end to the reform movement of the Prague Spring. Scrutinizing several anonymously shot rolls of film that depict the occupation, Salles interprets the silent footage as marking a retreat from dangerous encounters in the street to observation at a safe remove. Staying at home, Salles claims, became an act of political resistance.

As it draws to its own close, In the Intense Now becomes a disenchanted rumination on death as the seemingly irrevocable outcome of the revolutionary movement. There are numerous suicides among the young protesters, as represented in excerpts from Romain Goupil’s haunting To Die at Thirty. And Salles analyzes several funeral parades to illustrate how death became a narrative instrument, used to turn defeat into a particularly hideous form of victory. Salles’ film achieves a maximal density at its own climax: an extended rumination on a photo of Chairman Mao, drawn from a novel by the Norwegian Per Petterson, that brings us, through meditations on time and nostalgia, to the very brink of despair.

But Salles is canny enough to pull his knockout blow, ending the film with a palliative two-part montage that, first, carries us back to the empathy and humor of a female student revolutionary glimpsed early in the film. The final shot shows workers leaving the Lumière factory in 1895, footage that also (and not coincidentally) represents the birth of film. Salles’ cinema reminds us, along with one of the revolutionary slogans seen scrawled across a wall, that “life is elsewhere.”

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