“To be again, this is the question.”
– Gesualdo Bufalino, The Plague Sower
(used as the opening quote of this film)
As I slowly returning to my regular critical capacity in a world still forced to shut in, I can’t help but notice how the platform of streaming can sometimes make it difficult to tell one work from another. With no IMAX screens or live audiences to give you applause, popular entertainment has reached something vaguely resembling a singularity – so much so that, as I’ve detailed before, century-old film studios are going all-in on streaming. So, too, have film festivals.
That struck me today, because – as a professional critic of theatre, film, television, music, and literature – streaming the opening night film of the now-online SF Indiefest was an odd return for me personally. The last time I attended the festival was for its 2018 opening night. The film selected remains one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, one so bad that it soured me on the festival itself.
To my pleasant surprise, this year’s opening is leaps and bounds above 2018’s infamous trainwreck. (Mind you, both films feature scenes of [TRIGGER WARNING] sexual assault, but this one at least avoids the horrible victim-blaming of the former.) What’s more, I couldn’t help but notice how it better handles material similarly covered in the last film I reviewed, namely the intersection of humanity and technology. As a theatre guy, I’d be remiss not to point out how it also resembles Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia with its use of alternating timelines to tell the story of an elder male “genius” and his relationship with his prized pupil.
I say none of this to suggest that the film – Carlo Hintermann’s The Book of Vision – is derivative, merely that I’ve seen this material before, in one way or another, so I can tell when it’s done right or wrong.
The contemporary side of the film focuses magna cum laude grad Eva (Lotte Verbeek), who’s turned down a promising career practicing medicine to study its history in a European museum. When asked by Dr. Morgan (Charles Dance) why she’d do such a thing when surgeons like he have moved on to cutting edge robotics, she says she intends to prove that every new medical innovation has come at the cost of the doctor-patient relationship.
Her research leads her to 1729 writings of Dr. Anmuth (also played by Dance), a Prussian physician practicing during the rule King Frederich I. Dr. Anmuth serves the house of General van Ouerbach, his wife Elizabeth (Verbeek again), their sons, Günter and Valentin. Though Anmuth is a man of science, his personal relationship with the family – and the interference of his superstitious of his assistant, Maria (Isolda Dychauk) – complicates his work regarding complications during birth. So, too, does the arrival of Dr. Nils Lindgren (Sverrir Gudnason), who sees patients as nothing more than tools for medicine.
Just as Dr. Anmuth is torn between the cold resolve of Dr. Lindgren and wild beliefs of Maria, so, too, is Eva torn between her research and her growing relationship with colleague Stellan (also Gudnason). Whether they realize it or not, the lives of these time-separated doctors will affect one another in ways neither can truly understand.
Even if Terrence Malick’s name weren’t attached as executive producer, this film’s “slow burn” tone would easily reveal his influence, if not his direct involvement. Mind you, this film has considerably more fidelity to its script, but it’s served well by its tone. Half of the film takes place in a time of corsets and empty corridors, before the world became consistently loud; the other half takes place in modern day, but limits great halls and large mansions to the capacity of only a few people at a time. Like his characters, Hintermann maintains a myopic focus on the intimacy of his characters against the backdrop of a larger, complex world.
That complexity is the one thing that doesn’t fully sell me on the film. Through Maria, we see a world of where nature literally comes to life in the form of nude figures who step out of the ground and trees. (Their initial introduction, in which the legs of a tree begin moving on their own in human ways, is one of the film’s highlights.) And the question of whether or not these visions are real or not is handled well (certainly better than in Bliss). But the suggestion that the 18th century characters may be entering our time seems there merely to muddy the waters.
What’s more, as much as I enjoyed the use of actors playing multiple characters, that sort of thing inherently makes one look for parallels in both characters. There are surface similarities here, but it’s not completely a 1:1 comparison, so I don’t think it lands as well.
Which is not to take anything away from the production of the film itself. Hintermann’s direction keeps a fine pace for a script that could have dragged, and the visuals of Jörg Widmer’s cameras are a sight to behold. Furthermore, the cast – led by Verbeek, best known for her “witch” role on Outlander – succeed in making their characters both humane and believable.
The cinematic ancestry of The Book of Vision is clear from its opening frames. It doesn’t bring much new to the table, but it distinguishes itself with competency. It’s a quiet, visually beautiful story of how one should never lose sight of humanity in the face of technological advancement.
And, as mentioned, it’s certainly a quantum leap above the last SF Indiefest opener I saw; for that, we should all be grateful.
The Book of Vision is scheduled to stream until the 21st of February as part of SF Indie Fest 2021.
The film runs 95 minutes.
For information on how to view this and other films, please visit the festival’s official site here.