Pub date September 15, 2009
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

REVIEW Liverpool may belong to the slow club of cinema — long takes, downcast eyes, and monumental landscapes — but the friction between its patient formalism and wild terrain is anything but staid. As with Werner Herzog, Lisandro Alonso sites the existential condition in plainly inhospitable ecologies. But whereas Herzog paradoxically employs grandiloquence to remonstrate the folly of human pomposity, Liverpool‘s withdrawn narration moves with the stealth purpose of a folk tale. The story is unavoidably mythic — a sailor’s return home — but we’re liable to forget this as Alonso’s camera travels to the vanishing point of landscape and labor.

We begin inside a hulking container ship with features indistinguishable from its cargo. Perhaps it’s just the frequent nips of vodka Farrel (Juan Fernandez) takes once he’s left the ship to visit his ailing mother, but non-actor Fernandez imparts a human rawness the hollowed role might not otherwise suggest. After announcing his plans to the captain in a brief strip of exposition, he docks in dirty snow and sets off across mountainous Tierra del Fuego for a home which appears anything but.

Alonso establishes the everyday reality of the sawmill outpost with a few spare strokes, crystallizing a portrait of hardship and taciturnity that outmatches Carlos Reygadas’ similarly remote Silent Light (2007). If that film’s magical realism was self-consciously steeped in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), then perhaps Liverpool is under the sign of John Ford. Farrel echoes John Wayne’s famous Searchers (1956) slouch in the doorway at a crucial moment: a classic outsider pose turns in on itself as the film shifts from portraying the individual solitude to communal isolation. When Farrel disappears into the yonder, Liverpool stays behind. The remainder is both epilogue and revision, with 80 minutes of vast extrication finally condensed into a surprisingly intimate token of distance.

LIVERPOOL runs Thurs/17–Sat/19, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.