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Refuge is Jessica Goldberg's debut vehicle as a movie director. Since she also wrote the screenplay and a play from which it is derived, this is a signature work for her.
The story seems to develop unevenly, at least on first viewing. Again and again, Goldberg misses opportunities to spike up the emotional reactions of the audience. Where countless other romantic movies catch our attention by buffing the usual into the unusual, Refuge does not.
As a result, it may seem a bit flat to those accustomed to modern TV, cinema and advertising. We come to scenes where a character could demonstrate some great nobility, but a lesser act occurs. This may reduce the adrenaline/endorphin hit we might have received, but it illustrates Goldberg's key point: ordinary people can rise above circumstance and do extraordinary things. Viewers who will adjust themselves to this more natural rhythm may be reminded that no cape and spandex are required to elevate human experience.
Refuge is evocative of the better works of some foreign directors of years gone by. Eisenstein moved us with fixed-camera moving tableaux that revealed simple beauty. Goldberg accomplished the same thing with a dilapidated house, character development and storyline. Julie Delpy's rambling tours of Paris provided her lean framework for the rambling lives of her characters. Goldberg's house framed the simple, stark realities of the characters of Refuge.
Like the words to a great blues song, Refuge brings us down into the barren recesses of existence. The music of the blues gives us a way to rise above, and the storyline and details of Refuge do the same. In scene after scene, we find a neatness and pleasing balance to small items in the house that suggest a transcendence of life's challenges. A shot of a table and a few mismatched chairs encourage us to step into the scene and sit down, confident that we will find warmth and security there. It is not so much that the house itself is a refuge, but that the heart of Amy, the female lead, is creating one for us.
In a scene outside a Doctor's office, Sam, our cigarette-smoking leading man idly tries to repair a dented piece of siding. In another, he grabs up a couple of branches that have fallen in the yard. With these simple gestures, we see our tendency to improve what is around us. All four of the key characters are deeply flawed and irritating at times. Yet as the story progresses, we become attached to them. Anyone wishing to rediscover the power of the human spirit, particularly on its feminine side, would do well to seek out this movie.
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