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"Look, Stranger" immediately hits us with an air of mystery. It begins with a long scene of a woman and a child in the back seat of a car being driven by a man in silence. Outside we see apocalyptic landscapes of smoke, wrecked vehicles and no people. Hats off to the director for giving the audience enough credit to be able to figure out what's happening without a lot of unrealistic chatter. The entire scene, all the way to its jarring conclusion is shot without words.
This film is the first and only feature film foray for dancer-turned-filmmaker Arielle Javitch, and wow, what a debut it is. I'll warn you up front by saying this is a very abstract film, so don't expect a traditional dialogue-driven story that can be described in 100 words or less. Instead we get almost a silent film where the images and excellent acting tell a story on a much deeper level than words ever could.
Apparently she calls her first few short film experiments "unsuccessful" because without a narrative they were too abstract and hard to grasp. So this is the culmination of her efforts, a (slightly) more traditional film with a quantifiable story yet retaining the same intense, expressionistic delivery which at once makes it challenging as well as powerful on a human level. Scarce on words, she allows the actors' expressions, the beauty of natural landscapes, and the bleakness of man-made (and man-destroyed) landscapes to tell the mysterious and suspenseful story of how refugees might feel fleeing a nameless war.
There is dialogue (each line very memorable, such as when she asks her guide what he did before the war, and he replies nonchalantly, "I forget"), but not a word more than necessary. If you're like me, you might be annoyed at melodramatic scenes where characters blurt out their emotions with contrived speeches ("They killed'ed my brotha! He was my onnnly brotha! I loved'ed him, dat dude!!" from the hilarious spoof Hollywood Shuffle). Well, here we see emotions and tense situations played the way they actually play in real life: usually without unnecessary explanations.
Throughout the entire film we are trying to piece together the story of the woman and the child while simultaneously watching the future unfold. We are given just enough clues to keep moving forward, perhaps like the people in the story itself: scavenging and rooting through abandoned towns and countrysides one step at a time toward their destination.
Through its wordless presentation and mysterious air (as well as a few strange & inexplicable events bordering on supernatural), "Look, Stranger" becomes like a dream or a fantasy but set in the very real world of war. Like in dreams, characters seem to have no connection with the world other than the moment. Faces come & go. Some reappear. And like in a dream, if we pay attention to the allegory we can find deep & profound meaning.
Writer/director director Arielle Javitch says this is an anti-war film, and may I say this might be the first anti-war film that stays true to its point, without inadvertently glorifying war with action scenes and heart-pumping violence to thrill audiences. While there is violence and brutality every bit as disturbing as the stories we see on CNN, these events are all handled off-camera. We hear the shots while the camera remains tightly on the woman's reaction. And that makes the horror of war very personal. One particular act of brutality happens completely out of the scene, leaving us scrambling to figure out what just happened, but when we do 5 minutes later we are absolutely sickened.
In that sense, this is very much a thinking person's war film. Make sure your brain is ready, because if you aren't on your game you might just end up confused, annoyed or bored at the lack of narrative. Trust me, there is a narrative. It's just not narrated in wordy explanations.
Similar films (there aren't many) include the Argentinian classic "A Shadow You Soon Will Be" (1995), a surreal vision of a man wandering in circles through the countryside and meeting other lost souls with bizarre histories, "48 Angels" (2007) about a boy trekking across Ireland in search of Jesus Christ but finding only criminals & vagabonds, and the Wim Wenders classic "Paris, Texas" (1984) about a man who wanders into town from the desert after a 4 year absence.
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