Can movies be overtly therapeutic? Could they minister to our needs? Perform social work? How about filmmakers? Each in its own way, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Domestic Violence and Nanni Moretti’s psychodrama The Son’s Room are secular humanist statements that address life’s catastrophes with a curious mixture of emotional involvement, formal detachment, and the promise of personal improvement.
Domestic Violence, which clocks in at 196 minutes, is the most compelling Wiseman epic of recent years—reminiscent of his hellish 1975 masterpiece, Welfare, in its open-ended articulation of chaotic, violent, luckless lives. Domestic Violence offers up a number of shocking statistics: One-third of all women will be subject to violence, one-third of all police cases concern domestic violence, prenatal battering is the leading cause of birth defects. But much of it is simply women telling their stories to cops, social workers, and other women—fragmented narratives that suggest a chorus of Scheherazades, all working variations on the same hopeless tale of love gone very, very bad.
You needn’t wait for the Christmas release of The Two Towers to get a screenful of orcs and trolls—or rather an earful of their doings. Only once in Domestic Violence do we see the immediate aftermath of a beating, but that bloody mess, carried wheezing and shouting from the unseen interior of a decrepit hovel out into the pitiless Florida sunshine, remains fixed in the mind’s eye throughout the movie—and afterward.
At once specific and archetypal, structured as a long day’s journey into night, Domestic Violence is framed with Anywhere, U.S.A. images of the Tampa skyline and freeways. The first and last episodes show the cops intervening in family disputes—one already over, the other yet to reach critical mass. The men are typically tanked on alcohol and strutting with rage, the women variously diffident, provocative, and afraid, the cops clearly well trained. Not only do they respond by the book, the way they carefully position themselves in a semicircle around the distressed citizens seems scripted.
Wiseman has made documentaries on fashion models and military installations, small towns and theatrical events, but his great subject is social control. His last such documentary, the 1997 Public Housing, revealed the residents of a Chicago project as subject to relentless social regulation and surveillance—including, of course, his own. The eye of power turns upon itself. Most of Domestic Violence takes place inside The Spring, a Tampa institution (of indeterminate funding) where mainly female social workers maintain the hot lines, interview freshly battered women using a detailed questionnaire, and lead classes on the nature of sexual abuse. (The mantra: “It’s about power and control.”) The Spring is a nurturing alternative to the bleak man’s-world outside. In one of the movie’s few instances of metaphoric editorializing, Wiseman cuts from a feminist explication of male entitlement to a close-up of a happy baby—presumably a boy.
Like the police, the social workers represent the responsible, rational side of human nature. (How does their interrogation of the victims they shelter compare to that of the filmmaker?) The women and children reeducated at The Spring are the raw material of human interest. Staff meetings commenting on the progress made by various clients are juxtaposed with scenes in which the clients themselves volunteer their war stories—life with a crackhead, the horror of stalking. How difficult it is for these prematurely aged women to express anger or rebel: “Even now I feel it difficult to be angry at him.” The legacy of abuse is passed from generation to generation, and Wiseman’s harrowing closer leaves little doubt that the circle remains unbroken.
America’s most distinguished documentarian, Wiseman may be regarded as the ultimate exponent of cinema verité, but he is more voyeur than social documentarian, less muckraker than aesthete—there are definite points of contact with his late contemporary Andy Warhol and the world of reality TV. Enthralling as Wiseman’s documentaries can be (emphasis on the conditional), I’m never able to forget the artificial invisibility of his filmmaking—which, in this case, includes the anachronistic use of 16mm. During one interview, the camera pans back and forth between two speakers so as to maintain the continuity of real time. What lies beyond the frame? Who crouches behind or beneath the desk? Where are the cables and the microphones that produce this moment and preserve that rap? Could this be magic?
Walter Benjamin famously pointed out that the equipment-free image shown on-screen was actually “the height of artifice . . . an orchid in the land of technology.” For that reason, perhaps, Wiseman has rejected the term “cinema verité,” preferring to call his movies “reality fictions.” How then does the filmmaker cultivate these particular orchids? Interviewed by Michael Atkinson two years ago in the Voice, Wiseman strenuously denied that the presence of his crew in any way altered the nature of what he was filming, which is to say the nature of the final product: “If I think somebody is putting on for the camera, I stop shooting, or I don’t use it in the editing room.”
There’s certainly less rampant performing here than in Public Housing. Still, no one in Domestic Violence, save for a single, absentmindedly glaring cop, ever acknowledges Wiseman’s camera. Making a movie can be interesting to watch, but unlike his fellow cinemagician Jackie Chan, Wiseman would never conclude a movie with a post-credit coda of outtake “miscues.” Let’s declare the 71-year-old filmmaker a national treasure and commission someone to make a documentary on his particular institution: Welcome to the Greenhouse.
Distributor of both In the Bedroom and The Son’s Room, Miramax has cornered the parental bereavement market. More wistful and less cathartic than its stablemate, The Son’s Room similarly addresses the worst of all personal tragedies—the death of a child—albeit with a greater measure of tranquillity. It’s a movie more to be prescribed than recommended—as visually bland as a dentist’s waiting room, complete with soothing Muzak and a cushion of predictable narrative rhythms.
The Son’s Room won the Palme d’Or last May in Cannes; before it is anything else, it is a film d’auteur. Writer-director-star (and European critical darling) Nanni Moretti has been conveniently designated as the Italian equivalent of Woody Allen, but both as a director and a generational icon, he’s closer to Albert Brooks—not as funny but no less narcissistic. Here, of course, Moretti is mainly serious—for the first time and for the greater good. Like the father in In the Bedroom, his character is a doctor in a provincial seaside town: a psychoanalyst. He has a healthy practice, a comfy crib, an outstanding wardrobe, and a happy family—a chic, sexy wife with a model’s cheekbones (Laura Morante) and two splendid teenage children.
In his previous vehicles, Moretti has appeared as everything from an unhappy priest to an amnesiac Communist water-polo player to the beleaguered proprietor of a Roman movie house attempting to counter Disney with Kiarostami. In some respects, the role of shrink is perfectly suited to his bemused deadpan. Moretti uses a static two-shot to amusingly dramatize his stupefied reaction as an obsessive-compulsive patient tediously details her routine. It’s humorous in part because it’s so unfair. Moretti’s own persona verges on the ob-com; the hoarse drone of his discourse could drill a hole in your head. Moretti’s most endearing trait as a therapist is his cinephilia—this doctor sends his patients to see specific films and is curious to see the popular movies that his patients talk about (even though he already knows the plots).
Perhaps that’s the point here. As filmmaking, The Son’s Room gets off the couch and rises to its central event. A flurry of Kieslowski-like near-accidents involving other family members herald the son’s fatal excursion even as they emphasize its random nature. (One indelible frozen moment: the daughter’s smile of surprise when she unexpectedly sees her father, followed by her instant recognition that something terrible has happened.) The funeral rituals have an awful finality, not least for leaving everyone alone in grief. Organized religion offers no solace and, naturally, the tragedy has a considerable impact on Moretti’s practice. It’s a bit of a surprise that he doesn’t check in with his own shrink—although he does consult a colleague regarding his anger at the cancer-diagnosed patient he saw on the afternoon of his son’s accident.
Moretti’s smugly benign attitude toward the band of Hare Krishnas who whirl by him in the opening scene presages the movie’s ultimate note of mystical renunciation and reconciliation—not mourning but the “mourning process.” A New Age on-the-beach closer, more divine lite than light, leaves the melancholy impression that The Son’s Room may have less to do with life on earth than life in earth tones.
Related Article: “Shelter From the Storm: Frederick Wiseman Pulls the Curtain on Domestic Abuse” by Jessica Winter