Este post foi escrito para a série Hit Me With Your Best Shot do blogue The Film Experience de NathanielR, sendo que é aqui apresentado em inglês, ao invés do que é usual neste blogue.
Like Zardoz before it, Witness was a film I’d never seen before Nathaniel assigned it for an episode of Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Unlike that tortuous experience though, Peter Weir’s Witness was a film I was immensely glad I got to experience. Before I watched it last weekend, I knew very little about this movie from 1985. I knew it starred Harrison Ford as a man that was forced to hide amongst the Amish, that it was the only film for which he had been nominated for an Academy Award, and that the film had actually managed to win 2 Oscars, one of them being Best Original Screenplay.
Despite my great enjoyment of this lean thriller, I must confess that, after I watched it twice, I was immensely baffled by that last win. I can understand some admiration for the film’s sinewy, even elegant, structure, but, aside from that, I think the screenplay is clearly Witness’s greatest problem. For one, it’s full of strangely undeveloped characterizations, which becomes especially troubling when it applies to the protagonists, not to mention an undeniable incapacity to emphatically portray anyone that’s not a white, urban male. That the film’s screenplay was originally much more focused on its female lead’s perspective seems unbelievable, for example.
The peak of the script’s fragilities is its portrayal of the Amish communities, which, both in text and execution, never seem to be anything but an exotic other, to be gawked at, in wonderment, superiority or confusion. This particular aspect isn’t the sole responsibility of the screenplay, since it wouldn’t be nearly as conspicuous were the film directed by another person, other than Peter Weir. In his hands, the Amish communities seem quite distant from any sort of understandable humanity, rather they seem to be more of a beautiful living painting, a purely aesthetic phenomenon that Weir, with the considerable help of the masterful John Seale, captures in all its visual glory.
This is where I start to have issues with my own argumentation, because, while Weir’s direction only contributes to the inherent representational problem as of the screenplay, it’s also the film’s most obvious saving grace. Simply put, independently of any ideological and conceptual fragilities, Weir is a great director of cinema, and it shows. He gives Witness an elegance that it otherwise wouldn’t possess, as well as a formal magnificence that completely took me by delighted surprise.
I was completely hypnotized by the images Weir conjured, taking full advantage of having a film mostly focused on a group of people dressed in dark, similar simple costumes, in the middle of pastoral landscapes and underlit interiors. He apparently took plenty of inspiration from Flemish and Dutch painters of the 17th century, and that is quite obvious from the film’s first scenes, where an Amish funeral is presented as a Rembrandt come to life. And I may be overreaching and even projecting (art history student alert!), but a few of the most beautiful nocturnal scenes brought to mind some of George de la Tour’s work, and it was quite impossible not to think of Millet during the outside sequences spent tending to the fields, or building a barn.
With all this art history geekiness in mind, I present my best shot:
This is one of many moments where our protagonist, John Book, silently observes Rachel, the woman whose son witnessed the murder that propels the entire plot. There are scenes where this simple act of observation is presented as something of deep erotic danger, but in this particular instance, there’s a beautiful serene quality to the image, even if, because of the narrative, we know danger is fast approaching.
Through John and Weir’s eyes, Rachel is presented as a painterly image of saintly purity. She has a shaft of angelic light, illuminating her figure, and distinguishing her form the darkness that surround her. She’s a painting, something beautiful, distant, and executed with the utmost mastery over the capture and use of light and color.
In a way, the inspiration that Weir took from the great Dutch masters of the 1600s is incredibly apt. More than almost any other painters in history, their works are mostly appreciated, not for their themes, symbolisms, compositions or innovations, but for their technical mastery, especially when it came to present, reproduce and manipulate light and color. There’s coldness, aloofness, and distance in their works, that elegantly reflect the approach that Weir employed in Witness, whose human drama can, as I previously pointed out, seem little else than a beautiful, but distant, aesthetical phenomenon.
This pictorial distance is only exacerbated by the composition itself, where Rachel is framed by the chicken coop’s door as if she was a canvas. Also. her image is filtered by the chicken wire, as if it presents another layer of separation between us and her existence, between Weir and her reality, and between John and her heart and body.
With all that said, I’d like to thank Nathaniel for having selected such a gorgeously shot film for this week’s edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot, one that I’d never seen before and had no plans to watch in the future. Just to prove how staggeringly beautiful the whole thing is, I leave you with some more screencaps, any of them a good choice for Best Shot, in my oppinion.