In an early scene of Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness, a couple sits on a bench in a park on a hill, overlooking the city below. We only see their backs; they, too, are looking out over the skyline. It’s a quiet moment, in line with much of this quiet film, and then, only briefly, the woman speaks:
“It’s September already,” she says.
The man “mm-hmms” in response, part acknowledgement, part agreement of what’s unsaid in her statement: where did the time go?
A series of seemingly disconnected but similar scenes follows, making up this lean yet poignant 70-minute film, Andersson’s latest since 2014’s A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence, a similarly absurd if more droll examination of the human condition. With About Endlessness, the filmmaker remains as artistic and insightful as ever, but his focus here is much more on the dreariness of life, the way struggle, confusion, and frustration shape us, creating seemingly insurmountable obstacles in our lives that, as if in some cruel joke, no one else seems to notice as they go about their everyday lives. As in the opening scene, a perplexed and slightly perturbed vibe seems quite common these days: May already? Where did the time go, and how are we supposed to just go about our lives pretending like the last year didn’t happen?
For Andersson, this tragedy of passing time, of lives changing and those most familiar to us becoming strangers is a sort of jumping off point into the experiences of a select few characters confronting their own choices and current realities. A priest has nightmares of reenacting the Passion, waking up to realize he’s lost his faith in God; but when he goes to his doctor desperate for some kind of help, all the medical professional can muster is a recommendation to come back again next week before reminding the priest that his treatment will cost him money. It’s a striking and even slightly unsettling juxtaposition to see so starkly called out on screen, that way we assume humanitarian motivations in our fellow humans only to be reminded that in fact, capitalism (or, insert your -ism here) is what’s in the driver’s seat.
Everything in About Endlessness is kept at arm’s length, the filmmaker (and cinematographer Gergely Pálos) working in a series of tableaus rather than scenes; the camera is always at a wide angle, and often ramrod still in one position for the entire, albeit brief, interaction. What’s more, Andersson has no qualms about mixing up timeliness or even departing reality all together. WWII-era soldiers sit dejected in a bombed-out conference room only to barely raise an arm in salute when Hitler (yes, Hitler) enters the room to survey the damage. The men absorb the moment as we do, looking around to take it all in, wondering what’s happened and what’s going to happen next. With each new scene, a narrator checks in, telling us just enough to set the stage for the the moment we’re about to witness. Andersson does graciously allow us to revisit some of the citizens of this strange, washed-out world again, catching up on how they’re navigating whatever very bad day they’re having. That priest breaks down before heading out to offer communion to his parishioners, and later he goes back to the doctor, begging for help. The reaction (or lack thereof) from the doctor and his secretary would be laughable if it weren’t simultaneously so damn sad.
About Endlessness might not be a first choice for many moviegoers seeking something a bit more traditional, but those who insist on films fitting into some narrow artistic lane do so to their own detriment. A film like this, in its stark, unblinking reflections on the way we move through this world, reminds us not only what the art of filmmaking is capable of as a robust means of expression but how much more there is left to do, explore and imagine within it.
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