We Are Who We Are (2020)

Luca Guadagnino | 8 episodes (49min – 1hr 15min)

For a setting that is so inherently political, the occupants of the American military base that We Are Who We Are takes place within are surprisingly silent on matters of worldly importance. Maybe it is the distance between its foreign location in Italy and the current affairs back home that creates this divide. Maybe it is the nature of 2016’s radicalised culture wars that make not talking about the upcoming election the easier option. Or perhaps it is the inescapable omnipresence of politics in every facet of their lives which makes it so invisible to them, especially for the children who take their privilege for granted. While Guadagnino laces excerpts of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s election campaigns all through the background of his eight-episode series, questions of sexuality and identity arise among the American teenagers in the foreground, containing them in a bubble that they would like to believe completely insulates from the pressures of the outside world.

Fraser and his two mothers are the newest additions to this small community of expat Americans, with Jack Dylan Grazer filling in the equivalent Timothée Chalamet role from Call Me By Your Name as the central teenager exploring his place in an unfamiliar world. This character is not simply a repeat of what we have already seen though – Fraser is a little thornier to wrestle with than Elio, at best coming off as a peculiar non-conformist, and at worst being outright abusive to his parents. With his baggy shorts, bleached hair, and earphones that rarely leave his ears, he comes off as an idiosyncratic figure among his peers, completely disinterested in anything besides fashion, music, and the subjects of the photos he randomly takes on his phone. As it turns out, one of those subjects is his neighbour, Caitlin, who for the first episode is little more than an enigma to him.

Fraser and Caitlin, a pair of rich, complex characters at the centre of Guadagnino’s series. Even when the series feels like it is wandering a little aimlessly, these are the two main constants pulling us through.

As Guadagnino brings in the second episode, he brilliantly switches our perspective away from Fraser, and swiftly broadens the scope of the series by replaying the events we have already seen through Caitlin’s eyes. Her family occupies a strange space in this community, being both African-American and Trump supporters, thus creating an even smaller bubble of conservatism within the military base that largely keeps politics out of polite conversation. Like Call Me By Your Name, there is no strong narrative pull here, but Guadagnino instead spends time examining the nuances of Fraser and Caitlin’s unusual relationship which sits somewhere between romantic and platonic attraction. There is a touch of Richard Linklater’s wandering dialogue present in their affectatious discussions of art and life, but Guadagnino rejects any hyper-critical judgements of these self-absorbed teenagers, and instead recognises them as intelligent yet imperfect works in progress.

While Fraser and Caitlin’s loved ones at times express frustration towards their strange, unconventional love, there is a carefree joy in seeing Fraser and Caitlin develop at their own pace throughout the series. In a set of recurring overhead shots, we often find ourselves looking down at them in a dinghy, isolating them in their own microcosm and delicately capturing the sweet bond that sees her softness and his adventurous spirit gradually bleed into each other over time. Most significantly, we see both embrace an exploration of their gender identities, with Fraser helping Caitlin develop a masculine expression of herself that she feels is more authentic.

At times, Guadagnino finds that these moments of pure elation cannot simply be contained within a moving image though, and so he often makes the choice to freeze on joyful frames of spontaneous dances and significant haircuts, calling to mind Francois Truffaut’s use of the technique in his seminal coming-of-age film, The 400 Blows. These lively experimentations are small but effective stylistic touches, etching these still pictures into the memories of its characters, and formally tying in with the slow-motion action and long takes that similarly manipulate our perception of time.

Freeze frames lifting images out of time and etching them into our minds like nostalgic memories. It’s hard not to think of The 400 Blows.
A slow-motion food fight, playing with our perception of time – this period of Fraser’s life could go on forever.

Perhaps We Are Who We Are’s finest moments though arrive as a pair of shots in episodes 4 and 7, both of which track the camera for several minutes through a Russian manor where Fraser and his friends gather to party. The first is a joyful but bittersweet farewell for Craig who is about to be deployed the next morning, evolving into an unruly, uninhibited orgy. The second acts as a direct mirror to that, as we move through the destruction this same group of teenagers are now wreaking on the mansion out of grief for their deceased friend. A grand piano is rolled through a window, the kitchen is smashed up, and rain angrily beats down outside, marking an inevitable turn in this episodic story towards the darkness that awaits these characters in adulthood.

Wonderful form in the repetition of long takes set in the Russian manor – the first an orgy pouring out lust and excitement, the second unleashing huge amounts of rage and grief.

It is no coincidence that the terrorist attack on Craig’s convoy plays out in unison with Trump’s election win either. Such complicated emotions can’t be held off forever, and even the students at school aren’t quite sure what to say in counselling sessions that turn to controversial discussions of America’s foreign interventions, torturing enemy soldiers, and ill-timed facts about body bags being filled with rocks.

Perhaps the shagginess of Guadagnino’s storytelling can be attributed a little to his dealing with difficult subject matter, as his attempts at ambiguity often come off as uncertainty instead, leaving several loose threads hanging that he never returns to. With the final episode dedicated almost entirely to paying off on Fraser and Harper’s sweet relationship, we are left to wonder about their parents and friends who have all suffered in their own ways, and never quite find the same resolution. This sort of long-form filmmaking may not lend itself well to tightly constructed narrative arcs, but for Guadanigno’s complicated characters at least, We Are Who We Are’s gentle, wandering pace allows them all the time they need to peel back their inhibitions, discovering authentic self-expressions which might have some hope of flourishing hundreds of miles away from home.

The strongest composition of the series comes towards the end of the strongest episode of the series. Episode 4 is dedicated to Craig’s farewell before his deployment, and here Guadagnino sets his camera back to view the mess of bodies lying peacefully across the living room, framing a gorgeous sunrise in the background.

We Are Who We Are is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to buy on iTunes.


Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Ingmar Bergman | 4 episodes (57min – 1hr 32min) or 3hr 8min (theatrical cut)

There is a whimsical horror threaded through Fanny and Alexander that only its ten-year-old protagonist grapples with – at least to begin with. He gazes at his toy paper theatre illuminated by nine flickering candles, before wandering around an exquisitely cluttered apartment draped in red, green, and gold fabrics, framing him like a lost child in a world of endless possibilities. He calls out to his family’s maids, but no one replies. The clock chimes three, a set of cherubs rotate on a music box, and a half-nude marble statue in the corner slowly begins to dance. Then, a soft scraping noise emerges beneath the eerie melody, and we catch a glimpse of a scythe being dragged across the carpet. The grim reaper has arrived, but not for young Alexander. Though this magical realist prologue might be the most undiluted manifestation of his vivid imagination that we witness, the heavy presence of death underlies all 5 hours of this Gothic family drama set in 1900s Sweden, marking his childhood with both merciless damnation and divine salvation.

A fantastical prologue setting up Alexander, his imagination, and the huge, magnificent apartment of his grandmother, Helena. Drapes of green and gold hang over cased openings and windows, creating immaculate frames all through the interior space.

In the haunted Christmastime setting of Fanny and Alexander’s opening, an air of Dickensian fantasy settles over the extended Ekdahl family, revelling in the warm festivities of their annual traditions. Religious celebrations and commemorations form the basis of these gatherings, and often mark key narrative beats through funerals, weddings, and christenings. Accompanying these occasions are large meals spread across expansive dining tables, though none are so magnificent as the spread on Christmas Eve night which dominates the first act of the film.

Here, Ingmar Bergman delights in splendidly designed sets of vivid crimson hues, weaved all through the patterned wallpaper, long candlesticks, velvet curtains, and holiday decorations. With such a dominant primary colour commanding the mise-en-scène, there are abundant opportunities for his regular cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, to embellish it with small flourishes of emerald-green, popping out in festive wreaths, holly, and indoor plants that frequently hang in the foreground of his compositions, snugly crowding out the space.

Simply one of Bergman’s finest achievements in production design, dotting his rooms with candles and festive decor, and filling them out with red, green, and gold hues in stunning arrangements. These shots are cluttered but cosy, immersing us into 1900s Sweden.

Matching his rich use of colour is Bergman’s impeccable staging of his large ensemble, defining the status and identity of each character by their position within immaculately staged shots of family unity, habitually framed within those elegantly draped arches between rooms or around overflowing dining tables. The camera glides gracefully through crowded rooms, each one warmly illuminated by the yellow light of chandeliers and oil lamps. At times it simply soaks in the splendid décor and delectable meats, or it will otherwise latch onto family members as they make their way through the vast yet intimate apartment of their widowed matriarch, Helena.

Warmth and unity in Bergman’s blocking during the first act over Christmas Eve, bringing the entire extended Ekdahl family together within gorgeously composed frames.
A noticeable shift in the staging following the death of Oskar – reserved distance between each family member, each relegated to their own position and pose.

Within their local community, the Ekdahl family are known for owning the local theatre and staging annual nativity plays, and for as long as they all remain out in open living areas, we continue to witness those dramatic sensibilities emerge in scenes of poetry recitations and musical performances late into the night. It is when they retreat behind closed doors that these larger-than-life characters begin to reveal personal troubles – Alexander’s uncle, Adolf Gustav, keeps a joyful, cheeky attitude right up until he finds his ego slighted, and Carl Ekdahl possesses significant contempt towards his German wife.

Rich colours and compositions loudly coming through in the Ekdahl family theatre – you can see clearly where they get their flair for dramatics.

It is a lengthy setup which Bergman conducts here, insulating us in these family celebrations like a warm, protective barrier from the freezing snow that blankets the village outside. The touch of poignancy he brings to one conversation between a maid and Alexander’s cousin, Jenny, about Christmas being a difficult time for people with bad memories especially foreshadows the poor misfortune which is about to strike. These children may not understand that concept yet, but upon the death of Oskar, Alexander’s father, Bergman slowly sinks us into a despairing grief that dwarfs any of the issues which previously existed on the fringes of this family unit. He first collapses during a rehearsal of Hamlet, quite appropriately while playing the father’s ghost in the scene in which he visits his son. The narrative that follows is heavily Shakespearean in both structure and characterisation, though in place of an evil uncle swooping in and taking the crown, here it is a bishop marrying Alexander’s mother, Emilie, and whisking her small family away to his cold, bare home.

Even outside the scope of family homes, Bergman finds a bright but chilly beauty in the frozen streets of Sweden.

As the second act commences, Fanny and Alexander becomes an act of catharsis for Bergman, who, in playing to these archetypes of corruption and innocence, reflects large portions of his own childhood. The fond memories of a flawed but welcoming family exist in stark contrast to the oppressive dynamic that pervades the bishop’s home, and caught between the two is the overly active imagination of a boy who struggles to differentiate between fantasy and reality. As such, there is also a distinctly fairy tale quality that takes hold of Fanny and Alexander, accompanying the introduction of the wicked stepfather with ghosts and demons who may very well be directly inspired by those religious tales which the children are raised on. Being deprived of a supportive father figure himself, Bergman carries great empathy for Alexander, understanding his immaturity as a natural stage in his own creative development.

Perhaps it is this lack of emotional inhibition which grants the young boy the means to deal with his grief, letting him lash out in ways which, while not entirely polite, are honest to his own thoughts and feelings. In one evocative scene after he and his sister, Fanny, hear their mother’s guttural cry erupt from somewhere in their grandmother’s apartment, they creep out of bed to peer through the crack of a door, where they see her wailing in private over her husband’s cold body. Unlike Alexander’s coping mechanisms that are freely expressed out into the world, the overwhelming feelings of adults must be repressed to those small, remote corners where no one else can see. This is a lesson that the bishop beats into him even harder, reframing the whimsical fabrications he uses to understand the world as sinister lies that will damn him to hell.

A thin frame caught in the crack of a door, as the children get out of bed to see their deceased father and their wailing mother pacing back and forth.
With a shift in location to the bishop’s house, the splendid drapes and decor of the Ekdahl home is replaced with austere, colourless walls and quiet, unwelcoming dinners. Not a trace of eye contact to be found in these family gatherings.

The move from Helena’s vibrant, festive home of expressionistic décor to the stark white halls of the bishop’s Spartan house lands with a quiet dread, and with it comes a shift in Bergman’s approach to blocking. Gone are the large family gathering of characters arranged in relaxed formations across plush couches and dining halls. These rooms are made of stone and wood, unembellished and projecting a cold hostility as the bishop exerts physical dominance over every communal space. His demand that Emilie and her children lose all their old possessions as if “newly born” is delivered with a faint chill, forcing them to conform to the image of sparse minimalism he prescribes to, though this attempt at rewriting their identities is only the start of a long line of abuses. Bergman goes on to capture the devastating isolation that is wreaked upon the young siblings with compositions that close them up inside bleak, angular frames, gazing out the windows of their depressing bedroom and, in one scene, crumpling Alexander on the grey, dusty floor of the attic beneath a fallen crucifix, as if slain by a domineering force of spiritual corruption.

Bergman shoots the bishop’s house like a prison with desolate compositions like these.
A fallen crucifix and the crumpled body of Alexander, banished to the attic for his disobedience.

Perhaps the single unifying stylistic device carried through all Bergman’s settings though is his staging of actors in still poses like subjects of a painting, particularly focusing on the thoughtful arrangements of their faces that reveal just as much as their expressions. As Oskar lays on his deathbed, his face turned to the side to face the camera, Emilie’s profile leans up against his cheek in pensive mourning, simultaneously revealing both the intimacy of their final days of marriage, and the tension that is pulling them apart. In contrast, a later shot at the bishop’s house which frames Fanny, Alexander, and Emilie lying on their sides in bed captures them all looking towards the camera, united in their melancholy. With each face slightly obscuring the one behind it, Emilie is set up at the back as the quiet protector of her children, shielding them from the bishop who stands alone and unfocused in the background.

As always, it is the way Bergman shoots arrangements of faces that uncovers the subtlest emotions. Not just the physical blocking, but the lighting and angles as well.

Jan Malmsjö brings a sadistic venom to this role, though he takes care to only reveal his villainy gradually. His first handling of Alexander’s lies is stern but relatively fair, keeping us at a distance from the bitter, angry man who lies beneath his cool veneer. It is initially hard to get a good read of him, but by the time we arrive at his next chastisement of Alexander, his malevolence is exceedingly clear. In response to the bishop’s degradation and punishment, the young boy grows more obstinate in his disobedience, and yet even he can only stand so many beatings before being forced into submission. Watching on, Fanny silently recoils from the bishop’s touch, and Emilie’s contempt for her husband grows. With all paths of escape cut off, they become a broken, trapped family, suffering in an austere hellhole.

Alexander facing the bishop’s wrath, isolated even from his own sister in this shot while the bishop sits back with his family.

Across these early adolescent years of torment, Alexander catches visions of his father’s ghost walking through hallways, bearing witness to the depression left behind in his wake. These transcendent experiences are not limited to his son though, as late in the film Oskar also appears to Helena, his bereaved mother, and simply sits with her as she delivers an eloquent soliloquy on the process of accepting her grief.

“Life, it’s all acting anyway. Some roles are nice, other not so nice. I played a mother. I played Juliet and Margareta. Then suddenly I played a widow or a grandmother. One role follows the other. The thing is not to shrink from them.”

Oskar’s ghost manifesting to both Alexander and Helena, always in his white suit and silently pacing the halls of the family home.

And yet, even as an actress with a deeper understanding of the human condition than her grandson, Alexander, the pain is no less present.

“My feelings came from deep in my body. Even though I could control them, they shattered reality, if you know what I mean. Reality has remained broken ever since… and oddly enough, it feels more real that way. So, I don’t bother to mend it.”

Bergman’s screenplay flows like poetry through these thoughtful contemplations of life-changing events, and yet as this epic drama comes to a close and releases Alexander from the bishop’s tight, suffocating grip, only four words are used to punctuate its ending with a lingering thread of trauma. Though the bishop and his family have perished in the blaze of an incidental fire that obliterated their home like a hellish condemnation, his ghost lives on in Alexander’s mind, cruelly pushing him to the ground and taunting him.

“You can’t escape me.”

Surreal visions emerging at moments when Alexander is particularly overcome with emotion. They range from being deeply wondrous as he listens to a story and is transported to a new location, to downright creepy as the bishop’s maid, Justina, lurches towards him with bleeding palms from stigmata.

The fantastical imagination of Bergman’s young protagonist is evidently as dangerous as it is enchanting, filtering the world through a lens that distorts every intense emotional experience into a memory that will never fade away. Though it manifests primarily as supernatural creatures and visions, it is also baked right into those dazzling bursts of colour that decorate his mise-en-scène, leaping out like nostalgic recollections of a youth that was only partially lived in the real world. By simply dwelling within this perspective, Fanny and Alexander becomes a deeply sentimental work, and through its profound dreams Bergman crafts a magnificent distillation of childhood wonder and terror.

A return to normalcy, though with a change in decor – the reds and greens of Christmas Eve are replaced with pastels to represent a christening, signifying a birth and renewal within the Ekdahl family.

Fanny and Alexander is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Les Vampires (1915)

Louis Feuillade | 10 chapters (15 – 59min)

The mysterious and deadly misdeeds committed by criminal gang The Vampires often defy real-world logic. This isn’t to say that Les Vampires is a supernatural film as its name might suggest, but Louis Feuillade plays up the pulpy sensationalism of their plots, weapons, and characterisations to magnificent lengths, stretching our suspension of disbelief with the kind of tensely staged sequences that Alfred Hitchcock would innovate years later through avant-garde camerawork and editing. Les Vampires is far from being cinematically bland, but in praising Feuillade’s work, it is his accomplishment of narrative construction which must take precedence above its technical aspects. Though there are frequent diversions to side characters who build out this shady world of Parisian journalists, thieves, and aristocrats, not a single one of them is wasted, as each one inhabits their own compelling archetype within this grand tale of good and evil.

Of course, it is the immortal character of Irma Vep who stands tall above the rest of this fascinating ensemble. Silent film actress Musidora puts in what might very well be the first great performance committed to a feature film as the main muse of The Vampires, remaining a consistent member while their leaders keep being killed and replaced. She adopts disguises easily, stalking those she has been sent to spy on with a sullen expression and dark shadows under her eyes, or otherwise prowling across rooftops in black head-to-toe body suits. When our leading man, Phillipe, comes across her name on a cabaret poster, Feuillade animates the letters to rearrange into an appropriate anagram – “Vampire”. She may not be the head of this crime organisation, but she is undoubtedly the greatest embodiment of its frightening malevolence.

Musidora masterfully plays the full range of Irma Vep’s wickedness, her facial expressions and physical presence leaping off the screen.
The Vampires scale buildings and prowl across rooftops in black body suits, like walking masses of negative space.

Along with Irma Vep, Feuillade maintains a steady, core ensemble of characters responsible for driving much of this story over its ten chapters. Newspaper journalist Phillipe starts as a relative unknown in the Parisian crime underworld, but as he gains fame for exposing a number of Vampires and foiling their plots, he and his loved ones become targets. His right-hand man, Mazamette, largely serves as playful comic relief, though he too carries his own plot function as a double agent, using his inside knowledge of The Vampires to assist Phillipe, and eventually becoming a wealthy philanthropist upon winning a bounty. When Moreno enters in Chapter 4, ‘The Specter’, his presence is a complication in the midst of this clear-cut fight between law and crime, effectively making enemies of both The Vampires and Phillipe as a thief, con artist, and hypnotist.

Mazamette works well as comic relief, not over-used and serving his own function within the plot.

Collectively, these characters exist in an exaggerated world of crime not unlike those found in serial novels from around the same era. With chapter titles like ‘The Severed Head’ and ‘Dead Man’s Escape’, Feuillade places The Vampires’ exploits at the centre of each episode, playing right into the delightfully macabre mysteries that just keep on provoking our intrigue. Secret passageways, cunning disguises, hypnotised servants, and cryptic ciphers make up Les Vampires’ winding plot, though the gang’s most titillating plans frequently involve some elaborate use of poison, whether it is infused into an ink that brings death within seconds, or a sleeping gas being fed into a ballroom of aristocrats.

One of Feuillade’s greatest scenes, and by far The Vampires’ greatest exploit, putting an entire room of wealthy men and women to sleep so they may rob them of their valuables.

The final man to take the title of the Grand Vampire is the mastermind behind many of these clandestine schemes, and is known simply as “Venomous” for his skill with deadly poisons. As a chemist, he evidently comes from a background of privilege and education much like the other Grand Vampires before him. Given that the organisation’s members seem to infiltrate all sections of society, its reach often seems impossible to overcome, as with the fall of one leader there is always a new one rising up to take their place.

In many ways, Feuillade sets a standard of storytelling here that later crime movie directors like Fritz Lang and David Fincher would take inspiration from in even greater movies than this. On a technical level, the silent filmmaker lags a little behind his contemporary D. W. Griffith, whose development of cinematic language exceeds Feuillade’s dominant decision to set the camera back in wides and let scenes play out naturally. Still, the epic length of Les Vampires does allow for some flourishes of style that don’t go amiss, most notably in the design of The Vampires themselves who appear as walking masses of negative space in their tight, black costumes. In a balletic dramatisation of their illegal activities, Phillipe’s fiancée, Marfa, dons a similar outfit, though with a theatrical pair of bat wings sewn in she casts a far more elegant figure than those skulking criminals she is depicting.

Sharp compositions outlining The Vampires as intimidating silhouettes.

Elsewhere, Feuillade creatively uses a blue tint to simulate a day-for-night wash across his settings, even flicking it on and off as Phillipe does the same with a bedside lamp. A three-way split screen is later used to portray a phone call, the middle column of which is taken up by a river dividing both sides of the frame, and in one scene that sees Irma Vep infiltrate Phillipe’s household as a maid, Feuillade skilfully cuts away to a small desk mirror to catch her discreetly poisoning his drink.

Inspired used of a three-way split screen during a phone call, dividing both parties down the middle with a river.
A deft cutaway to Phillipe’s point of view, catching Irma Vep poisoning his drink via a mirror on his desk.

There is little though that tops the direction of one particular sequence in Chapter 9, ‘The Poisoner’, which sees Feuillade lead an exhilarating car chase into a fight set atop a moving train, briefly turning Phillipe into an unlikely action hero with Venomous as his evil adversary. As Les Vampires progresses towards its epic conclusion, its scale increases as well, using real Parisian streets and buildings as the grounds for the final confrontation. While Phillipe takes a page out of The Vampires’ playbook and climbs the exterior of their hideout to set a trap, the police prepare a raid that sends large numbers of extras climbing over walls in a spectacular, climactic pay-off.

A brilliant, action-packed sequence, tracking the camera along with Irma Vep’s car as it makes a getaway, and then planting it on top of this moving train as Phillipe chases Venomous.

Much like their supernatural namesakes, it often seems that this crime organisation will keep rejuvenating itself for as long as its evil essence, Irma Vep, stays alive. It is somewhat fitting that she is not killed by either of our leads, but rather by Jane, Phillipe’s wife, in a rare moment that she lets her guard down, thereby bringing about the unsalvageable downfall of her gang. Such is the strength of Les Vampires’ classical archetypes that we can intuit much larger stakes and ideas from their narrative treatment, economically using just a few symbolic characters to construct an entire Parisian landscape of lawbreakers and justice seekers. With over one hundred years distance from Les Vampires, it is clear that its narrative strength has not faded, much of this being thanks to Feuillade’s thrilling direction keeping it alive as one of the most finely-crafted crime films of cinema history.

The streets and rooftops of Paris making for impressive cityscapes – absolutely revolutionary location shooting in 1915.

Les Vampires is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Dekalog (1989)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 10 episodes (53 – 58min)

Dekalog: OneDekalog: TwoDekalog: ThreeDekalog: FourDekalog: Five
Dekalog: SixDekalog: SevenDekalog; EightDekalog: NineDekalog: Ten

Inside the high-rise Warsaw apartment building of the Dekalog, there lives an entire community of strangers and sinners. They may not all know each other’s names or understand troubles beyond their own, but every day they pass by each other in the foyer, lift, and street, nodding politely and exchanging a few words before moving on. The perspective that Krzysztof Kieslowski grants us into their lives in his anthology film series is omniscient. Behind each door in this towering complex is a new morality tale with some basis in the Ten Commandments, though the didacticism is rarely so blunt as those single-line imperatives.

Theological Renaissance art is his inspiration, and with that in mind he goes about creating a cinematic equivalent to a series of paintings depicting the commandments, though with a distinctly more modern, ambiguous flavour. Just as significant as the maintenance of these commandments is the difficulty of upholding them with complicated contemporary pressures. The history, culture, law, relationships, and technology of late-Communist Poland manifest in unexpected ways, and at the centre of them all is that giant, concrete piece of architecture, making a statement of both insulated loneliness and hidden interconnectedness.

A giant, austere housing project as common location across the episodes, an apt representation of interconnected neighbours living private, sinful lives.

With this apartment building acting as a common setting for the entire series, Kieslowski goes about using an array of different cinematographers to imbue each episode with a distinct style, emphasising the individuality of each perspective they bring. The effect is powerful, if a little inconsistent – some dialogue-heavy episodes do not feature the same cinematic bravado as the more aesthetically defined instalments, but there still always remains a steady awareness of how they all fit together. Though Dekalog: One and Three are both set in the freezing winter, the latter has a distinctly more festive tone in the red lighting and mise-en-scène, and Dekalog: Five acts as a visual highlight of the series in its jaundiced, sickly colouring, turning Warsaw into a rotten wasteland.

Entirely distinct visions of Warsaw, Poland through different episodes, each one offering a separate artistic perspective to suit its commandment.

In spite of these stylistic differences, there is a formal consistency in the specific motifs and themes which emerge across their studies of moral duty, faith, and parenthood. The family unit is an especially important foundation for Kieslowski’s moral tales, as mothers and fathers constantly fumble in their attempts to raise their children. Milk acts as a symbol of nourishing life here, suggesting the ways in which motherhood and innocence might play into these situations whether as an attempt to breastfeed a baby or a carton that has gone sour. Where parents aren’t making mistakes, they are often entirely absent, leaving behind spiritual holes begging to be filled in by God the Father and the Mother Mary. Dekalog: One does well to set this up with a hopeful depiction of Our Lady of Częstochowa in its conclusion, and it is similarly tied up in the final episode where two brothers are led down the road of Cain and Abel without the guidance of their now-deceased father.

Mothers and fathers often act as a foundation of Kieslowski’s moral tales, whether they are flawed humans, venerated religious icons, or absent figures.

Perhaps the most potent recurring motif though as that of the mysterious, silent spectator played by Artur Barciś in eight of the ten episodes. He never speaks, but he is often present at key moments where major decisions must be made. Though he often goes unnoticed, every so often he catches the eye of a character who finds themselves inexplicably disturbed or haunted by his presence, whether he is appearing as a tram driver, a university student, or a homeless man. He is not a force of good or evil, but much like us, he hangs over this series as an omniscient figure, seeing into the souls of these characters but never intervening. For all its grounding in the authentic history and culture of 1980s Poland, the Dekalog remains a mystical piece of theological cinema, holding us back from accepting any individual narrative as the singular truth by instead delivering a more transcendent perspective akin to that of an all-seeing deity.

Artur Barciś as the silent witness in eight of the ten episodes. Is he an angel, demon, or simply an audience surrogate, pushing in on these stories with his omniscient, unwavering gaze?

Dekalog: One – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”

There are a series of bizarre, almost supernatural occurrences that presage the devastating blow which Dekalog: One delivers in its final act, but atheistic professor Krzysztof is not one to consider the meaning of clues or symbols beyond those which scientific studies tell him. His son, Paweł, possesses a similar curiosity about the world, though he is often only left confused when his father and his devout aunt, Irena, offer two separate paths to find the answers he seeks.

Kieslowski is heavily symbolic in his imagery, most evidently in his portrayal of Krzysztof’s computer as an ethereal, holy force. It illuminates Krzysztof and Paweł’s apartment with a dim, green glow, and although it represents the rigid rules of science, there is still a mystical sentience to its actions, seemingly turning on of its own accord and mysteriously telling them “I am ready.”

Krzysztof’s downfall comes not from using its calculations, but rather placing so much faith in them that he rejects all other signs which contradict them. When a bottle of blue ink topples over without reason and spreads across his paper like an ominous, expanding lake, he brushes it off. Neither do the sirens outside alert him to anything wrong, or the talk of a local child going missing. Gradually, anxiety sets in, and he finally reaches a reckoning with his faithlessness when his worst fears are confirmed by his own two eyes.

Running from the green glow of the computer and the icy blue lake where his nightmares have manifested, an empty church offers itself for his outpouring of anger and grief. The venerated icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa that stands up on the altar acts as somewhat of a substitute for the absence of a mother figure elsewhere in this episode, and as he topples tables and candles, she remains standing straight, bearing the brunt of his grief with only a few drops of wax trickling down her face like tears. Dekalog: One is particularly didactic in its narrative, and yet Kieslowski’s beautifully spiritual metaphors imbues it with a remarkable visual power that underscores the crisis of faith at its centre.

Dekalog: Two – “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

In a hospital room where water drips down cracked and peeling walls, a man’s life hangs in the balance. The sound design might reminisce Tarkovsky in the ever-present trickling, but the abstract cutaways are truly Kieslowski, using micro representations of humanity to bring spiritual stakes to Andrzej’s survival. Later in this episode we will watch a bee crawl up out of a glass of preserved strawberries, offering him a hopeful symbol of rebirth as he returns from the “beyond”, but until then, it is a journey of frightening uncertainty.

For Andrzej’s wife, Dorota, his survival will determine the fate of her unborn baby. Should he live, then she will choose to abort it as it belongs to another man; if he dies, then she will become the mother she always wanted to be. It is a torturous situation she finds herself in, and in small outbursts she acts out, snapping the leaves of a houseplant and pushing a glass off a table just so she can assert some kind of agency. In her mind, the major decision regarding her pregnancy is beyond her control given its dependency on Andrzej’s survival, and so as if to place it in the hands of the doctor, she demands a prognosis.

It is here that the second commandment manifests in an understated manner, in which the doctor falsely swears an oath that Andrzej is almost completely likely to die. In contrast to his first episode, Kieslowski allows a little more of an understanding into the mind of the primary ‘sinner’, and as such Dekalog: Two takes a slightly more nuanced position in understanding how the modern age continues to complicate these ancient laws.

Dekalog: Three – “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.”

At first, it does not seem like Dekalog: Three carries the same life or death stakes as the previous two episodes. Its narrative is far more subdued, involving us in two ex-lovers’ search for a missing husband on Christmas Eve, though at the same time Kieslowski steps up his visuals in this instalment, using cinematographer Piotr Sobociński to illuminate these icy Polish streets with the red glow of festive lights. Much of the time they appear as pinpoints adorning scraggly Christmas trees, piercing through beautifully austere aerial shots, though every so often Kieslowski will also bounce them off reflective surfaces or illuminate faces in close-ups, making for a beautiful reminder of the religious holiday that the episode takes place over.

It is this Christmas setting that is absolutely integral to Kieslowski’s figurative reading of the commandment his episode is based on. Here, the Sabbath represents any holy day one sets aside to reflect on their own faith and spend time with loved ones, and initially taxi driver Janusz appears to recognise the significance of this in taking time off work. It is when he attends midnight Mass and runs into Ewa, a woman from his past, that he becomes distracted, and the two embark on an Odyssey-like journey to find her husband who has mysteriously disappeared.

On their journey, they encounter a series of minor characters still working on this sacred night, unable to take time off due to the necessity of their jobs, and this pattern subtly underscores Janusz and Ewa’s own fickle distractions. A late-game revelation turns their entire quest on its head as a heavy fog of death and depression gathers over it, but much like other Dekalog episodes, there is also a counterpoint of hope and redemption to tie it off. Though directly contravening the third commandment and abandoning his spiritual duties, surely there is some salvation for Janusz in helping Ewa fulfil her own?

Dekalog: Four – “Honour thy father and thy mother.”

Even considering the moral complexities that have arisen elsewhere in the Dekalog, the fourth episode breaches thornier territory than ever in its study of a Freudian relationship between a father and daughter. Just as there is an absence felt by a deceased mother in the family dynamic of Dekalog: One, Kieslowski again leaves an empty space here with a letter from Michal’s wife, who passed away a few days after the birth of her daughter, Anka. It is only meant to be read after Michal has passed too, but impatient to hear her mother’s words, she opens it prematurely, and suddenly both parent and child find their relationship tested in the most uncomfortable manner.

As the two discuss the possibility that they may not be related, Kieslowski sends them in an elevator right to the bottom of their apartment building, where two candles burn in the darkness like a small chapel. From this point on, Kieslowski’s lighting grows darker, starkly illuminating their apartment with lamps that cast bright beams and shadows across their faces in the midst of arguments and heartfelt pleas. Elsewhere in the unit, a smashed glass door that Michal kicked earlier out of anger sits un-mended, their interior world collapsing around them.

As sinful as his characters are, Kieslowski never condemns them with righteous retribution, but rather takes the time to understand how their flaws are integral parts of their messy humanity. Perhaps our understanding of Anka early on as a drama student with a deep interest in drawing out hidden truths from lies should clue us into her own propensity for falsehoods, but even when this is revealed we don’t find ourselves mad at her. Instead, all we see is a father and daughter trying to figure themselves out, eventually choosing to preserve their own innocent relationship over any secrets that could potentially destroy it.

Dekalog: Five – “Thou shalt not murder.”

When Kieslowski created his Dekalog series with the intention of making ten one-hour episodes, he was pushed by TV Poland to expand two into full-length feature films. Dekalog: Five thus became A Short Film About Killing, as well as the strongest instalment in the series, disturbing our senses in both style and narrative while taking on the Fifth Commandment as its focus.

Read my full review for the theatrical cut of this episode here.

Dekalog: Six – “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Much like Dekalog: Five, the sixth episode of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Ten Commandments-inspired series was expanded into a feature film, giving us A Short Film About Love. The Hitchcockian setup is very familiar – a man with a telescope spying from their apartment into a neighbour’s unit, developing an unhealthy obsession with their life – and yet in place of a suspenseful mystery leading our young voyeur along, Kieslowski instead absorbs us in a compelling morality play.

Beyond the fact that both Dekalog: Five and Six were extended into full films, they also make fascinating companion pieces for the formal structuring of their narratives, both being marked by a midpoint turn that instigates a total role reversal for a main character in the final minutes.

Read my full review for the theatrical cut of this episode here.

Dekalog: Seven – “Thou shalt not steal.”

As Kieslowski’s camera descends the side of the Warsaw apartment building in the opening shot of Dekalog: Seven, the sound of a child’s screams can be heard coming from one of its units. Ania, the young girl to whom they belong, clearly has issues of her own, but considerations of what might be best for her are not the concerns of the adults in this story. Her mother, Majka, gave birth to her six years ago while at school, but to protect her from the scandal, her own mother, Ewa, put forward a lie that the two were sisters. Now 22-years-old, Majka resolves they are all old enough for the truth to come out, and goes about kidnapping her daughter to meet her real father, Wotjek.

Kieslowki’s understanding of stealing as a sin within this screenplay is fascinating in its complexity. Perhaps what Ewa did was wrong, exerting her possessiveness over something that was not rightfully hers, and yet at the same time it is evident that Majka is not yet matured to properly care for Ania either. There is a fairy tale quality to the kidnapping that seems to pull the two into a delusional, naïve mindset, as mother and daughter escape into woods where a carousel seems to spring forth from overgrown weeds, and later meet up with Wotjek, who now lives in a small house making teddy bears.

It is in his residence where Majka, desperately trying to recreate the family that should have been, begs for her daughter to call her “Mother”, and yet it is simply too much for Ania to grasp. When Ania’s night terrors emerge again, Majka goes about trying to prove that she does have the capability to quell them as well as Ewa, and yet just like her own mother, it is merely an act of selfish reassurance. Whether one can steal something that belongs to them might be a big question here, and yet Kieslowski also uses Dekalog: Seven to consider the rights of those affected beyond the binary “thief and victim” narrative.

Dekalog: Eight – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

Poland’s history feels more immediate here in Dekalog: Eight than in any other instalment of Kieslowski’s series, as the sin in question is one that took place several decades ago during Germany’s occupation of Warsaw. Zofia is a professor of ethics and may in theory be considered the most prepared of any character we have met so far to face questions of integrity, and yet when Elżbieta, a visiting translator, drops in on one of her lectures, a past between them comes to light which begins to wear away at her professional demeanour. In 1943, Elżbieta was a 6-year-old Jewish girl seeking out sanctuary with Zofia’s Catholic family who were also part of the resistance, though after hearing rumours that Elżbieta’s parents were in fact working for the Gestapo, they turned her away.

From God’s eighth commandment, Kieslowski chooses to take the emphasis off “false witness” and place it on “neighbour”, examining the duty of each Christian to not just be honest with friends and strangers, but to accept them as good, honest people as well. Visually, he weaves in shades of green into his mise-en-scène as well, lending an air of natural grace to Zofia’s exercise in the park, and underscoring the two women’s conversation with a merciful renewal in their costuming and the professor’s car. As complicated as their past is together, their efforts to communicate effectively bridge that divide keeping them apart.

In Dekalog: Eight’s understanding of communities as a network of neighbours obligated to help and understand each other, Kieslowski begins to condense broader ideas floating around this series into a cohesive conclusion. The moral dilemma of the doctor and the pregnant woman from episode 2 comes up as a topic in Zofia’s ethics class, and later she acknowledges that they live in the same building as her, where all these stories are set. “Warsaw is a small place,” she states, highlighting the closeness of each life to the others that surround it. When she visits another apartment block, the begrudging man who answers the doors claims that none of his neighbours get along with each other, and while the characters living in Zofia’s complex usually only meet each other tangentially, we still see within this woman an active interest in learning about those around her.

Dekalog: Nine – “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.”

The main character in Dekalog: Nine is not the transgressor of its primary commandment, and yet the jealousy it implies still weighs heavy in his heart. With the extra emphasis on intimate relations, Kieslowski appropriately makes the most of the apartment block’s architecture and interiors to set scenes of domesticity, shooting his characters through cracks in doorways and reflected in mirrors to both divide and unite them. It also contains some of the strongest images from the series as a whole, in one shot towards the start catching their silhouettes through the building’s glass door against a rainy, blue exterior, coldly isolating them on the border of private and public worlds.

Even in the tight, dark elevator on their way up to their unit, Kieslowski continues to visually separate them with passing lights alternating between their faces, only ever allowing us to see one at a time. A disconnected dynamic is set right away, laying the groundwork for a relationship determined to disintegrate following Roman’s diagnosis of impotence and Hanka’s duplicitous affair. That he has given her permission to cheat on him is negligible – the deception hurts all the same, threatening their marital vow that every intimate part of their lives will be shared together.

By no means is Roman innocent in this situation either. We spend a good deal of time following his sneaking and spying which he also takes some shameful, voyeuristic pleasure from, being unable to perform sexually in the same way as his wife’s lover. With a complex, distant relationship at its core, Dekalog: Nine’s narrative is ripe for superbly staged scenes of tension and conflict, studying the coveting of two men from either side of an extra-marital affair.

Dekalog: Ten – “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.”

Kieslowski ends his series of contemporary moral fables not with tragedy, but rather with what might almost be considered a dramatic comedy, using Dekalog: Ten to examine the hold of greed over the minds of a pair of brothers. The two couldn’t be more different – where strait-laced businessman Jerzy is strictly no-nonsense, Artur is introduced leading his punk band City Death at a riotous concert, shouting lyrics that are amusingly irreverent and referential to the rest of the series.

“Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill and steal! Commit adultery and covet a whole week long!”

As dissimilar as the brothers may be, having parted ways with each other and their estranged father years ago, they are affected all the same by the discovery of his valuable stamp collection, making them instant millionaires. They also quickly realise that there are men out there with their eyes set on their inheritance, and so the two go about building an intense security system around the apartment. In order to complete a collection of three rare stamps, Jerzy even goes so far as to sell his kidney for the missing piece, quite literally cutting off a piece of his humanity and replacing it with the object of his obsession.

Much like Cain and Abel before them, Jerzy and Artur begin to turn against each other in paranoia, withdrawing from the rekindled connection sparked by their father’s death. Kieslowski does not wish to end the Dekalog with the same disastrous fate that befell those Biblical brothers though. He is an optimist at heart, believing in the potential of humans to reconcile and become better people even if those around them do not. Upon realising that they have simply fallen victim to the crimes of other covetous men, all they can do is laugh at the joyous absurdity of it all – the fruitless sins of humanity, the insignificance of stamps, and the unexpected delight of finding each other again in the midst of it all.

Dekalog is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Squid Game (2021)

Hwang Dong-hyuk | 10 episodes (32 – 63min)

In the seemingly never-ending flow of Netflix content that shines brightly in the public consciousness for a good few weeks before disappearing again into obscurity (Bird Box anyone?), there are few series that carry some level of artistic bravura to back it up, or which are as in conversation with the modern cinematic landscape as Squid Game. Hwang Dong-hyuk rides the cultural excitement of the Korean New Wave that in recent years saw the elevation of such directors as Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Lee Chang-dong (Burning), and most famously Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), attacking similar notions of class inequality with a sharp and particularly bloody knife. Men and women violently fighting it out in controlled arenas to win some prize is not a wholly original concept, but in breaking it up into six separate childhood games with deadly twists, Hwang adds a modicum of innocence into each thrilling set piece, and then shatters it with the cruel barbarism of late stage capitalism, splitting its players into two camps – the wealthy and the dead.

The candy-coloured palette of the mysterious fortress within which these 456 impoverished players sleep and compete is deceptively innocuous, lulling each of them into a false sense of security as they traverse a labyrinth of pastel pink, blue, and green stairs on their way to the first game, and the classical waltz of Strauss’ ‘The Blue Danube’ plays over speakers. Dressed in teal jumpsuits and kept under control by pink-uniformed guards in black masks, they are all too happy to ignore the multiple red flags along the way, especially given the promise of money for those who remain in the competition until the end. And even when that first death hits and the stakes are revealed, that temptation of riches still continues to pull them forward, manifesting as a giant golden orb filled with growing piles of cash that hangs above their beds and lights up the room as they sleep, an ever-present reminder of a better life that awaits them on the other side.

One of the most haunting episodes in this series is a quieter one early on, in which these players are offered the opportunity to return to their difficult lives back home, though eventually decide that the likely chance of dying is a better alternative. There is no violent set piece in this episode, but the weighty drama and debate which Hwang skilfully draws out between these diverse characters even beyond the arena offers them a great deal of empathy. Having realised of their own accord the opportunity that the games may provide them, they individually stand on street kerbs waiting to be ferried back, and Hwang binds them together in a poignant montage recognising their devastating lack of options.

From this point on, the characters of Squid Game begin to develop their own alliances and strategies with renewed focus and perspective. Though the mysterious organisation behind it all are clearly responsible for this situation, this is also a perfectly designed environment for its wealthy members to remain untouched, as the competition between these players allows them to channel their anger towards each other instead. Hwang’s metaphor isn’t always subtle, but it is at least potent, with one major exception being in episode 7 where foreign VIPs arrive to watch the games up close. A combination of poor acting and glib writing lets these scenes down quite drastically, bringing little of value to the series that wasn’t already hinted at in metaphors or tantalising mysteries. Perhaps there is a leaner version of Squid Game that doesn’t need ten episodes to tell its story, but at the same time Hwang does brilliantly in building out his characters in rich enough detail that both set pieces and quieter moments of drama are able to operate on equally gripping levels of tension, melding together to form a layered microcosm of South Korea’s capitalist society.

Squid Game is currently available to stream on Netflix.

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Ingmar Bergman | 6 episodes (41 – 52min) or 2hr 47min (theatrical cut)

True to its title, Scenes From a Marriage never sways from its tight focus on six isolated episodes of Johan and Marianne’s married life, using each to piece together a collage of a fragmenting relationship. The couple often speak of other people who are important to them, including their unseen children and extramarital lovers. Yet the only ones who ever take up a substantial amount of screen time are those who act as counterpoints to them, as we watch Marianne’s mother reflect on how disconnected she felt to her late husband, and two married friends spill out a verbal stream of visceral disgust towards each other. 

“I find you utterly repulsive. In a physical sense, I mean. I could buy a lay from anyone just to wash you out of my genitals.” 

At first, Johan and Marianne might seem like the most ideal couple of them all, especially since we first meet them confidently answering a journalist’s questions about their strong, ten-year marriage. But even this early on, there are still loose threads that quietly go unaddressed, and with just a few small tugs their lives unravel in a messy, irreparable heap.

Bergman plays with the distance between his actors all throughout Scenes From a Marriage, emphasising their disconnection in these perfectly staged wide shots.
And then bringing them together in these tightly framed, intimate close-ups.

There is no denying the screenwriting achievement here, and lengthy essays could be written about the nuances in Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson’s sparring performances, but it is worth pausing first to note how Ingmar Bergman lifts what could have been a flat, stage-bound drama into a cinematic realm through his immaculate blocking of bodies and faces. Between wide shots and close-ups, he paints out the flow of isolation and connection between both actors. In moving from one to the other, he often resists the urge to let his actors play straight to the camera, tightly framing their faces in shots together so that one partially conceals the other, or otherwise slightly turning them away from our view in a display of emotional restraint.
When emotional extremes run particularly high at the climax of Marianne and Johan’s relationship breakdown, the two make love and collapse on the floor. In this shot, Bergman frames their faces resting against each other from an upside-down angle, emphasising the absurdity that allows such a profound display of affection to emerge in the middle of this bitter feud. It is in his long, lingering takes that he gives Ullman and Josephson the time to let their tiny micro-expressions emerge organically, turning their faces into landscapes upon which the narrative’s progression of emotions are mapped out. Few filmmakers are able to so effectively harness a performance and turn it into a key component of their mise-en-scene, and yet in praising these two central performances, much praise must also be given to Bergman’s direction.

It is just as much about how Bergman frames his actors in close-ups as it as about their expressions, at times partially concealing their faces through profile shots, and in this key scene, flipping them upside-down.

When Bergman’s camera pulls back from his close-ups, these intimate interactions turn into tennis matches, in which his actors are staged symmetrically on either side of a bed, table, or couch, and trade barbs across this even playing field. His production design is minimalistic, but claustrophobic nonetheless, confining these interactions inside a bubble segregated from the outside world. When Marianne begins to consider how their separation might be judged by her parents and friends, Johan impatiently shuts her down, demanding that this separation remain solely about their own personal issues. This may seem ironic at first, given that Johan’s mistress, Paula, is consistently brought up as an alternative to his wife, but it is evident that she was not the catalyst for their breakup. Instead, Johan has been trying to use her as a distraction from the inadequacy he feels from having his identity so closely intertwined with Marianne’s, only to find that this imitation of love just makes him feel worse. 

“Loneliness with Paula is worse than being alone.” 

Divisions between husband and wife, even as they share the same bed.

More than an interrogation of a relationship, Bergman dedicates much of his screenplay to examining the institution of marriage itself, and how the limitations of this contract restrict their bond, rather than nourishing it. No longer do Johan and Marianne feel comfortable being themselves, as instead the rigid roles of husband and wife are thrust upon them by a one-size-fits-all culture. Their identities have been warped beyond recognition, and Marianne even reflects on how little the two resemble their younger selves who got married all those years ago. 

“When I think of who I used to be, that person is like a stranger. When we made love earlier, it was like sleeping with a stranger.” 

Johan and Marianne quarrel, deliberate, chat, cry, and shout their way through all six episodes until words can no longer do these matters any justice. In moments such as these, all that is left for either of them is to sit in silence, whether it be out of bitterness, understanding, or both, and the distance between them feels greater than ever. For all the acerbic back-and-forth sparring that Scenes From a Marriage has rightfully been celebrated for and which has gone on to influence so many other relationship dramas over the decades, it is two specific images which continue to linger in my mind above all. 
On the verge of signing their divorce papers, Johan sits across a table from Marianne, his head in his hands, and she reaches a hand out to comfort him, only to pause and withdraw before he notices. Later in the same scene they sit on either sides of a couch, he reaches out to hold her hand, and they finally make contact. With these two mirrored images, Bergman reveals the chasm which exists between these “emotional illiterates”, turning their marriage not into a battle of husband versus wife, but rather lovers versus the space between them.

A wide gap between Johan and Marianne, yet bridged by a simple act of openness.

Scenes From a Marriage is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

The Underground Railroad (2021)

Barry Jenkins | 10 episodes (20 min – 1hr 17min)

It is a worthy conversation to have regarding where the line between movies and television sits, but when it comes to film directors bringing their unique voices to a miniseries it is hard to argue that the art they create is anything but cinema. As for The Underground Railroad, it is tough to imagine any serious discussion of Barry Jenkins’ greatest artistic accomplishments that doesn’t touch on this 10-hour epic. 
On one hand, the bleakness of the antebellum South is horrifyingly realised in the executions, massacres, and torture scenes ridden all throughout this series. But in Jenkins’ re-invention of the “underground railroad”, which was actually a network of secret routes and safe houses to help African Americans escape slavery, he injects a dose of magical realism into the setting. Rather than undercutting the authenticity of the Black struggle, the historical revisionism of the railroad manifests as a retro-futuristic gift of modern-day resources to those who worked in secret to free slaves. The curated selection of contemporary pop and hip-hop songs which close out each episode emphasise these anachronisms, further drawing the connection between the past and present of America’s Black innovators and artists.

Harsh, desolate landscapes. Jenkins has created powerful character drama before, but nothing as sprawling as this.

Where so many miniseries fall into the trap of stretching out a feature-length narrative into a multi-hour marathon, Cora’s escape from Joel Edgerton’s black-clad, drawling slave-catcher, Ridgeway, takes on appropriately epic proportions that could only ever be recounted in a project of this size. There are a couple of episodes which sag in their middle acts as they hit similar plot beats a few too many times, but these are minor given the ten hours of pure cinematic ambition and storytelling. In fact, certain episodes which divert from the main narrative and delve into the backgrounds of supporting characters often end up being among the strongest. Rather than feeling like interruptions, these allow us insight into Jenkins’ world beyond Cora’s immediate point-of-view, giving depth to the lives and experiences of several supporting players. 
One notable flashback episode strives to understand how Ridgeway became the rotten, empty man he is today, and in a remarkable subversion we come to realise that his own corruption was not born of cruel parents or a difficult childhood, but of his own inherent weakness. His father employs freedmen on his farm and preaches about the “Great Spirit”, which he believes holds the universe together. Where Ridgeway fails to understand the concept, Mack, a young African-American boy, becomes invested in keeping it alive through a small, lit match. Even when Ridgeway’s envy and cruelty sends Mack to the bottom of a well, that flame still burns strong, lighting up the darkness with its tiny, warm glow. 
Evoking images of the railroad in in its gold-and-black colour palette, this shot looking down into the well represents a mere microcosm of the underground network stretching across the southern states – a system of people who, like Mack, believe in some version of the “Great Spirit”, shining brightly even in the most smothering shadows. Jenkins has previously proven his flair for lighting in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, but his warm illumination of the trains, tunnels, and lamps in the underground settings are entirely unique in his oeuvre, seeming to exist in a fantastical alternate world separated from the brutal reality above.

The warm, golden lighting of the railroad lends a tone of magical realism to this setting, offering a reprieve from the bleak horrors of the surface.

Jenkins effectively plays right into the surrealism of this imagery, at his most direct plaguing Cora’s sleep with uneasy dreams of her deceased mother and a flourishing underground station, and in quieter, subtler moments, cutting away to portraits of supporting and minor characters standing in open plantations, houses, and stations, staring down the lens of the camera. He calls this motif the “gaze”, and in these Dreyer-like tableaux we are given the chance to look right into their open, honest eyes, the fourth wall entirely non-existent. These aren’t quite flashbacks, but rather memories of people removed from time, acknowledging the presence of an audience looking back at their stories. While they remain motionless, Jenkins’ camera is constantly tracking in, out, and around his subjects, restlessly intrigued by their silent expressions. 

The “gaze”, as Jenkins calls it. It is a haunting visual motif, inviting but also implicating, evoking a connection to those who lie just outside the periphery of this narrative’s boundary.

This dynamic camerawork doesn’t draw attention to itself in many insanely long takes, but Jenkins frequently makes the choice to move through scenes without cutting. In quiet moments, he will drift from face to face, underscoring the austere tension between characters. His framing of close-ups in intimate scenes is like so few others of his generation, at times peering right into the souls of characters with front-on angles, and at other times letting them peer right into ours. In more epic sequences the camera will rise off the ground in unbelievable crane shots, capturing the devastating scope of a village on fire, or a blooming vineyard stretching across acres of land. Wherever it moves, Jenkins’ powerful imagery is sure to be present, often sharply pinpointing a specific subject in shallow focus while everything else melds into soft, painterly backgrounds.

Few directors have been able to capture close-ups like Jenkins. A perfect combination of framing, shallow focus, lighting, and background scenery.

Despite its aesthetic beauty The Underground Railroad is far more confronting than Jenkins’ previous works, not just in its depiction of a grim era fuelled by foul beliefs, but in its sharp indictments of white folk whose “helpful” attitudes mask insidious intentions. Cora moves from town to town across southern America, each one governed by its own set of rules regarding the rights of African-American people, and each one thus posing a different, unique danger. In a South Carolinian city, freedmen are encouraged to “perform” their persecution as education for white people. In North Carolina, a cult-like village executes any person of colour who sets foot within its borders. Even an all-Black community which abides by self-determinist politics relies on the protection of a white judge living in the next town over. You can’t blame Cora for wondering whether there really is such thing as a safe space in this world. The only times we truly believe she is ever free from harm is when she is in the dark, sunken tunnels of the railroad. 

The camera moves smoothly from the ground into this overhead shot of a burning village.

It wouldn’t be right to discuss The Underground Railroad and ignore the consistently excellent work of Nicholas Brittell, whose collaborations with Barry Jenkins have always brought out his most mature, affecting scores. His melodies here are as tenderly moving as ever, but the dominant motif of the series is a descending sequence of four notes, often rendered with intense tremolos on string instruments. It is usually tied directly to the railroad, musically painting out a descent into the unknown, though its versatility allows for lighter renditions to reveal its more fantastical side, offering an escape from the horrors of the surface. 
And indeed, the railroad itself is a complex concept to fully wrap one’s head around. At times it seems to be a perfect, dreamlike utopia, existing completely separate to the white people above. At other times it is lonely and dark, and the only way through it is by a handcar that must be manually operated. Barry Jenkins’ vision of a world where a phenomenon such as this needs to exist is chilling, but even at the lowest points of Cora’s journey, there remains the hope that an opening into the underground network is near enough for her to reach safety again. This metaphor for supportive Black communities stands strong all throughout The Underground Railroad, and with this as his central tenet Jenkins crafts an immense, era-defining cinematic epic.

The Underground Railroad is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.