CHLOÉ ZHAO’S DRAMA ABOUT FERN, A WOMAN TRAVELLING THROUGH THE AMERICAN WEST AFTER LOSING EVERYTHING DURING THE GREAT RECESSION TOOK HOME 3 AWARDS, INCLUDING BEST PICTURE, AT THIS YEAR’S ACADEMY AWARDS.
Andrea Pironi, laureando in Film Studies al King’s College di Londra (dove si sta specializzando in Storia del Cinema), collabora per Agenda Viaggi scrivendo in inglese. Assiduo viaggiatore e in attesa di diventare regista… ci accompagnerà in un mondo speciale.
A Sign of the Times
Film Critic Gianni Canova has described the latest Academy Awards as “the year cinema has ceased to be a factory of dreams to become an autopsy of the world’s discomfort.” Such a statement rings true when we look at some of the other nominees in the Best Picture category: Judas and the Black Messiah, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman deal with timely yet current issues like racism and rape culture. In a year where not too many films came out and the few that did were for the most part heavily reliant on current political and social discourses, one may indeed argue that cinema (in particular American cinema) has delved into a neorealist current, deciding to erase the ‘magic’ that has permeated films throughout the decades.
While such a theory is agreeable to an extent, a film like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland does, however, permeate the ‘magic’ of cinema while still ‘seizing the Zeitgeist’ of this generation. We should not forget, in fact, filmmakers’ long-standing tradition of creating timeless yet relevant art after times of great struggle: Italian Neorealism after World War II, American Cinema in the 70s during the Vietnam War, the Iranian New Wave and, more recently, the Korean New Wave. On such bases, Nomadland could not have come out at a better time. A film about a woman travelling through the American West may not seem too relevant at a time where no one can travel, yet Zhao’s film is not about travelling as much as it is about isolation.
Fern, marvelously played by Frances McDormand, represents the countless people who have lost everything due to the 2008 Recession and, more recently, to the ongoing pandemic. Portrayed as a nomad, which more and more people have been becoming as of recently, she struggles her way through different jobs and locations, yet always stating that she is “houseless, not homeless.” Hers is not a self-isolation but a metaphoric exile from a capitalist society from which she does not want to be controlled anymore.
Finding delicacy in desolation
Despite all the melancholy and sense of loss that pervades the story, which is loosely based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film actually manages not only to be sublimely balanced but also quite warm. As film critic Mark Kermode has recently stated, this movie “does a brilliant job at portraying people making the best out of a bad situation,” and in doing so it achieves its goal to find nobility in a life that is not necessarily noble, and it is mostly thanks to Frances McDormand’s tender performance and Chloé Zhao’s elegant direction; smooth steady-camera movements, staggering cinematography, long close-ups and gut-wrenching silences fill the film with a realist outlook into what life as a 21st Century nomad looks like. There’s a documentary-style quality to it, further emphasized by the presence of real-life nomads like Bob Wells, which only draws the spectator even more into the story.
Sure, it might be argued that Nomadland draws a portrait of the desperate and the forgotten of American society that we have already seen years ago, like in Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas (1984), Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) or more recently in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy & Lucy (2008), yet Zhao’s film does something new, it shows us something our society desperately needs nowadays: the need for warmness, which, interestingly enough, is something another of this year’s Best Picture nominees, Minari (2020), also explores.
“I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I travelled in the world,” says Chloé Zhao in her acceptance speech after becoming the second woman ever to win an Academy Award for Best Director, and I think she could not have described her film any better. In Nomadland, Zhao finds delicacy in the desolation of the American West, warmness in desperation, ultimately possibly making the most relevant film of our time.
Not a masterpiece by any means, but if someone asked me in 30 years to show them a film that best encapsulates Western society in the years of the pandemic, I would show them Nomadland, despite not even mentioning the pandemic at all. Lockdown all’Italiana (2020) is another possible candidate, but I hope all copies of that film will have been destroyed by then.
Nomadland is now available on Disney Plus and in theatres.
Photo courtesy by, 20th Century Studios e Searchlight Pictures