Film Reviews

Review: ‘In the Intense Now’

Esoteric and exhausting


In the Intense Now (No Intenso Agora)
(Brazil, 127 min.)
Dir. João Moreira Salles

When it comes to writing, wordsmiths rely on the advice of William Faulkner, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” There are turns of phrase, lengthy passages of carefully crafted verbiage, or clever allusions that might give a writer pride, but will cause his or her editor to gag. Less is more, and shooting a few prized puppies can yield cleaner and stronger prose. Nobody will ever love your words as much as you do.

Filmmakers might also want to heed Mr. Faulkner’s advice and João Moreira Salles’ dense might have been a great film had the director played a round of And Then There Were None and dropped his darlings one by one. This dense archival film examines the summers of the late 1960s (mostly 1968) as currents of revolution stirred the air in Brazil, France, China, and Czechoslovakia. There are many great nuggets of footage in the home movies and unearthed reels shot by anonymous users, but Salles, the billionaire brother of master filmmaker Walter (The Motorcycle Diaries), presents so much of it that the power of the doc fizzles in his own esoteric navel-gazing. The film is simply exhausting.

In the Intense Now features a collage of images from a military coup in Brazil, the student protests of May 1968 in Paris, and the final days of Prague Spring. These reels come courtesy of some intensive combs through discarded records and reels, along with news footage and snippets of documentaries. Little of the images are particularly new and the ideas proffered by Salles’ ruminative voiceover yield few fresh observations. The stretches of the student protests in Paris are particularly protracted with lengthy bits of French youths talking and debating their ideals—all fine and well, but Salles doesn’t need to present them in full.

Other archival choices are bizarre, such as the inclusion of a song and dance number by Czech pop star Marta Kubišová. Salles notes that her music helped inspire the masses in their resistance to Soviet forces, particularly with her song “A Prayer for Marta,” but when a sequence of Kubišová singing to a donkey arises around the 90-minute mark, Salles’ long-hammered point about the commodification and bastardization of revolutionary spirit loses itself in the sheer volume of material.

This sense arises strongest in the footage of the fourth revolution: that of the Cultural Revolution in China and the rise of Chairman Mao. For this cultural movement, Salles presents snippets of Super 8 footage his mother shot while on vacation in China at the time of revolution. These touristy images gaze fondly at all the kinds in their iconic uniforms waving red flags. Awkwardly shot pans let one take in the sense of possibility afforded by surveying the land from atop the Great Wall. Salles reflects on his mother’s ignorance to the situation, particularly in her inability to understand the protest signs and slogans adorning the very buildings she documents. Film and history have a way of seeing the past to which present observers are oblivious.

Salles give a nod of appreciation to the late Chris Marker with the meditative and philosophical essayistic style with which he interrogates the material in flat soft-spoken voiceover. The director offers a two-part doc split into chapters loosely themed on a departure from “the factory” and a return to it. The factories in question include the ironically named Wonder Factory where a young woman cries about things simply reverting to how they were after so much effort and struggle. Everything changes and nothing changes, Salles suggests. The other factory is that of the Lumière Brothers—the famous reel in which workers leave the factory after the end of the workday. Salles ends the film with images from the earliest of documentaries and signals how motion pictures chronicle the past and inform the present. In the Intense Now is inspired more by dusty novels and Godard films than it is by the revolutionary spirit of the working class.

“These home videos exist because freedom of expression didn’t end from one day to the next,” muses Salles in voiceover while considering some anonymous home movies from the Prague movement. “It slipped away bit by bit.” Salles concerns himself less with sociology and more with cinephilia as he gives more weight to elements of indexical character of film and to elements of happenstance that permeate the frame, which he interprets freely to wax poetic on social order. A forgiving audience might be stirred to draw connections to the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring, which mirrored the protests of 1968 with their worldwide stand for democracy, but Salles doesn’t make much effort to link his images to the present. He simply reconsiders the past, which one can simply get on Wikipedia.

In the Intense Now opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on April 6.