“Silver and gold I have none; but such as I have give I thee.”
The German poet, novelist, and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) wrote that, “Only the soul that loves is happy.” How then do we express that love? Why, in the same way that God does, by giving of ourselves. After all, what is it that we pledge to our beloved when we marry? We promise to give freely of ourselves: “All that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.” Giving of ourselves is the central expression of love. It suffuses everything from divine love to love of family and the love that calls some of us to teach, heal, minister, or give succor to those in need. The wonderful thing about expressing love by giving of ourselves is that it is not a remote, unattainable ideal. On the contrary, it can inform and enliven our daily lives, lending nobility to seemingly mundane activities. Three striking new films, recently released on DVD, make that point – and make it with an abundance of poignancy, charm, and wit.
[pullquote]For the heroine of Waitress, pie-making is a sublime form of self-expression. Sweetly played by Keri Russell, Jenna is very unhappily married – to a mean, controlling, and abusive husband. An unwanted pregnancy introduces her to the new doctor in town (Canadian Nathan Fillion). Their chemistry is instantaneous, but neither is free to make a lasting commitment to the other. Instead, Jenna sublimates her every mood into her baking, with a new creation to suit every circumstance: One pie is dubbed Kick in the Pants Pie, another, I Hate My Husband Pie. That fanciful link between emotion and food is part of a cinematic culinary tradition that has included such entrees as Babette’s Feast, Chocolat, Mostly Martha, and Like Water for Chocolate. Jenna’s pies are the epitome of self-giving, since their ingredients comprise all of their maker’s passion, imagination, and sense of whimsy. In short, they are expressions of her love, bestowed freely upon all who partake of them. The result is a deliciously charming film, which co-stars Andy Griffith (who does stand-out work), Cheryl Hines, and Adrienne Shelly. Sadly, Ms. Shelly, who also wrote and directed the film, was killed in 2006 – at the age of 40. Bittersweet, with deft characterization, her directorial debut is not to be missed.
In Once, a busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) meet on the streets of Dublin and forge a relationship that is both musical and intensely personal. From gently tentative beginnings, they join forces to make wonderfully uplifting music together – he with voice and guitar, she with piano. She frees him from bitter self-pity, so he can forego stop-gap work as a vacuum repairman in favour of composing and performing music. As the feelings grow between them, it is as though the love they feel infuses their music, giving both their relationship and their music an irresistibly joyous and transcendent quality. Their music soars because it is the transmuted expression of their love. Part musical, part romance, and part character study, it’s an intimate journey – and one of the best films of 2007.
Music is also at the heart of things in Vitus. It is told from a child’s point of view, an unusual child who happens to have the IQ of a genius and a Mozart-like prodigy’s skill with the piano. He is loved by his parents (who playfully dub him “a cheeky little monkey”), but he is also set apart by his gifts and denied the normalcy for which he longs. At first, he rejects his gift for music, in an effort to escape from a world in which he is unable to fit in. By hiding his light under a bushel, he hopes to experience a normal childhood and elude the loneliness and sadness that come with being different. But his relationship with his irreverent, free-spirited grandfather (engagingly played by Bruno Ganz), teaches Vitus that embracing his gift is an act of love.
There’s a childlike innocence to this charming film. The young actors who portray Vitus at age 6 (Fabrizio Borsani) and age 12 (Teo Gheorghiu) invest him with a combination of precociousness and vulnerability. A gentle character study, the film is accented with charm and a dash of humour: “Bat scientist, architect, chemist … Don’t you fancy any of those?” asks Vitus’s teasing grandfather. “What about banker? Taxi driver? I got it. Pilot! Maybe butcher? Vet? Surgeon? You are a hopeless case!”
An observer might have noticed that all three of these films have one-word titles. Perhaps that is because each of those words becomes, in these films, another word for love.
John Arkelian is a writer, film critic, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.
Copyright © 2008 by John Arkelian.