'About Endlessness' ('Om Det Oandliga'): Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
More existential, less funny.

Swedish director Roy Andersson’s examination of ordinary human existence includes a reflection on whether the infinite exists.

If A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence was billed as the final part of Roy Andersson’s trilogy on being human, along with Songs From the Second Floor and You, the Living, what might one call About Endlessness (Om Det Oandliga)? Arriving five years later, this episodic black comedy is very much in the vein of the Swedish director’s earlier work: light, glancing, absurdist, sometimes pungent and sometimes brooding. The famous dreamlike lighting and mise-en-scene are always perfect in capturing human foibles. But the offbeat sense of humor that characterized the trilogy is less evident than ever.

Coming to the fore, instead, is a new thread questioning what lies beyond ordinary appearances and daily suffering: What, in short, is the infinite all about? In fact, the recurrent character in About Endlessness is a married priest who is going through an anguishing crisis of faith, for which no one seems able to help him. His regular nightmare is a darkly comic vision of himself as a modern-dress Christ carrying a heavy wooden cross while people flog and beat him on the street. In despair, he asks a doctor, "What have I done to them?"

The film is narrated by a woman (Jessica Louthander) who may or may not be associated with a Chagall-like pair of lovers floating above the clouds and, in one of the pic’s most somber scenes, over a bombed-out city with a cathedral. The narrator begins each of the film’s short episodes with “I saw…” and her elegiac, otherworldly tone sets a mood of looking at life from a great distance, a place even beyond death.

One theme that emerges is the way people allow silly banalities to hide the essence of eternity from them. A man whose car breaks down on a lonely road, for instance, fails to see the extraordinary sight of a flock of migrating birds wheeling overhead — much less the majestic plain that surrounds him under a canopy of sky.

Another example: A dentist who has become too fond of the bottle stares glumly into his glass at the bar, unwilling to turn around and look at the sight of snow falling while ethereal voices sing "Silent Night." "Everything is fantastic!" another man prompts him, but the dentist doesn’t even try to understand what he means.

Andersson illustrates the concept of the infinite with an endless procession of ragged soldiers marching through a blizzard, on their way to a prison camp in Siberia. The damned souls seem never to end. Compare to that an earlier vignette of three drunken Nazi officers listening dully to the bombs exploding over their bunker, when a pale Hitler staggers into the room: "I saw a man who wanted to conquer the world and knew he’d fail."

In one tableau, we see two high school students, a boy and a girl. The boy reads from his physics book the first law of thermodynamics, that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be converted into new forms. So maybe in a million years, the two will meet again as potatoes or tomatoes.

Although there are a great number of sketches covering a wide variety of human behavior, the gist here is that humans can go beyond the repetitive, stereotyped reactions that come automatically. The film searches for a deeper response to the afterlife than the middle-aged parents who tidy the grave of their dead son and talk to him loudly so he can hear. But this is followed by the unhappy priest again, who has lost his faith and realizes what a tragedy it is.

Giving the whole movie its dreamlike atmosphere of great pictorial beauty is the distinctive white-suffused lighting by cinematographer Gergely Palos, who also shot A Pigeon Sat on a Branch. Timeless music by Billie Holiday and other period songs are used for mood.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Roy Andersson Filmproduktion, Essential Films, 4½ Fiksjon

Cast: Jane-Eje Ferling, Martin Serner, Bengt Bergius, Tatiana Delauney, Anders Hellstrom, Thore Flygel, Jessica Louthander
Director-screenwriter: Roy Andersson
Producers: Pernilla Sandstrom, Johan Carlsson, Philippe Bober, Hakon Overas
Director of photography: Gergely Palos
Production designer: Studio 24
Costume designers: Julia Tegstrom, Isabel Sjostrand, Sandra Parment
Editors: Johan Carlsson, Kalle Boman, Roy Andersson
World sales: Coproduction Office

74 minutes