A young man goes to a school for servants run by a brother and sister. In the dreamlike and surreal world that he enters, how will his presence impact the people there and possibly even the school itself?
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Jakob arrives at the Institute Benjamenta (run by brother and sister Johannes and Lisa Benjamenta) to learn to become a servant. With seven other men, he studies under Lisa: absurd lessons of movement, drawing circles, and servility. He asks for a better room. No other students arrive and none leave for employment. Johannes is unhappy, imperious, and detached from the school's operation. Lisa is beautiful, at first tightly controlled, then on the verge of breakdown. There's a whiff of incest. Jakob is drawn to Lisa, and perhaps she to him. As winter sets in, she becomes catatonic. Things get worse; Johannes notes that all this has happened since Jakob came. Is there any cause and effect?Written by
Institute Benjamenta is an oddity. Let me say that first, get it out of the way. Part of me hesitates from revealing here that it is one of my favourite films of all time because I know I'll make some people reading this mini-review approach it from the wrong angle. A film like this should never become required viewing. You should stumble across it at a repertory cinema somewhere or be beguiled by the video-box art showing the striking visage of Alice Krige as she paces before her blackboard, deerfoot staff in hand. You should find one evening that its the only thing that sounds interesting on TV, or peer at a still alongside a mention in your TV guide and wonder what on earth the picture is supposed to depict. Contained between main and end credits here is a world so visually ravishing and technically abstruse that you are only in the film while you are watching; the rules of the outside do not apply. You peer into the dreamy, foggy black-and-white and what you can't identify for certain your imagination fills out. These are the most special special effects because you wonder 'what' and 'why' by never 'how.' The Institute of the title is a school for servants, the lessons they are taught bizarre and repetitive to the point of making 'deja-vu' a permanent state of being. Is the repetition the point of it all or has the teacher lost the plot? If she has, how come we care? None of this is vaguely like real life. None of it, that is, bar the characters emotions. Or is the whole thing like real life, like Life with a capital 'L?' In the end does this sort of pondering make for a good movie? I won't answer that because I'm terribly biased. Remember the title and look it up sometime. It's the cinematic equivalent of a stunning old-fashioned magician's trick. A monochrome bouquet, a sad smile. There are images, scenes that may make the hairs on the back of your neck think they're a cornfield with a twister on the way. I tried to warn you as quietly as I could.
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