Initially, the film is awkward. The set is a set, and the movie takes place on a stage that never once tries to look like anything but a stage. There is writing on the floor to tell the viewer where the characters are on the plantation and invisible walls define buildings. Doors creak when opened and thump when knocked on, but there are no real doors. The scenes are carried out fully, as though everything is really there when visually it is not. It’s almost like watching a play, but even a theater set would have more in it to bring the audience into the world of its characters. With Manderlay the setting is visually bland and yet stimulating because of the lack of knickknacks and pictures, lights, etc, that usually clutter the backgrounds of other films.
9 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed rating
Initially, the film is awkward. The set is a set, and the movie takes place on a stage that never once tries to look like anything but a stage. There is writing on the floor to tell the viewer where the characters are on the plantation and invisible walls define buildings. Doors creak when opened and thump when knocked on, but there are no real doors. The scenes are carried out fully, as though everything is really there when visually it is not. It’s almost like watching a play, but even a theater set would have more in it to bring the audience into the world of its characters. With Manderlay the setting is visually bland and yet stimulating because of the lack of knickknacks and pictures, lights, etc, that usually clutter the backgrounds of other films.

It is because the set is so devoid of clutter that the actors must be seen. And the actors being seen means that they must be better than good. They must be extraordinary, emotional, and real. Every movement they make must be in character because there are no props to hide behind. Manderlay is not only emotionally powerful, but also physically powerful. In a field scene on any other film an actor can crouch down behind a bush and pretend to pick cotton. In this movie there may be no real cotton to pick, no real bush, and no real sun shining on their back making them sweat, but all of these things must be seen through their physical performance.

In one scene the community has come together to create irrigation channels for the crops and as they open the channels water comes pouring out and kids jump back so they don’t get their feet wet. The adults follow the water through all the ditches watching and celebrating their success, but there is no real water. There is only great acting and sound effects. Things like that only come from natural talent and a director (Lars von Trier) who knows full well what they are doing; a director that can spend a few seconds of film on following a stark white floor, dirty boots jumping back, and people rejoicing.

Another credit to the film is that it doesn’t look away from its subject. The film knows it’s about slavery, cruelty to your fellow man, and the difference perspective can make on any situation. While it is addressed somewhat formally, almost stiff at times, Manderlay never once tries to protect the audience. It shows everything without flinching. There is even a fully nude Bryce Dallas Howard with no attempt to conceal her. The only thing it doesn’t show is the real slaughter of an animal, which did take place in filming (you can kill animals for the sake of movies in Sweden), but was edited out for the American audience.

While may sometimes seems slow paced, or odd to have narrator, or strange to have the film run through eight noted chapters, Manderlay is socially pertinent and powerful when considering American history and the world we find ourselves in today. It leaves itself wide open for interpretation and certainly opens a dialogue to find where our culture went wrong. This social commentary continues even into the end credits where, after having watched emotional and visual brutality and cruelty, we are shown photos from the civil rights movements of the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s all while listening to David Bowie’s “Young American.” It’s a contrast that shocks you back into real life to realize nothing has really changed even 100 years after the abolition.

Manderlay is a strong film, deserving of credit for its effort to open the eyes of its audience and say “this is not over.” We have turned our back on our past out of shame, but it hasn’t disappeared. With any other cast, or any other set, or any other director, this couldn't have worked. The commanding impact of von Triers' story would have been lost in anyone else’s hands. Lars von Trier trusts himself and that confidence is written all over Manderlay.
Unfortunately, the disc for Manderlay is bland because it contains absolutely no extras. I’ve said in the past that with independent films I’m okay with not seeing a lot because I know the budget is tight and they need all their money just for filming. In spite of that, most independent films try to push the format anyway. Because Manderlay is brave en ough to be “out there” topically and visually, with this disc I crave special features.

It would have been wonderful to see interviews with Lars von Trier, Bryce Dallas Howard, Danny Glover, and the rest of the cast and crew.. Lars knows he’s making a unique story, he knows he is not trying to compete with the Hollywood filmmakers when it comes to movies. He knows he is making a statement. Talk about that statement. It’s possible that he does want to leave it open for interpretation, to let the film stand alone, let people compare it to Iraq if they want, but something this monumental should be discussed and not just by the viewers but by the makers. Shame, shame on them for not telling the whats and whys of their film.

An audio commentary at least would have made a world of difference, or even a documentary about how in some Deep South circles slavery continued on after the Civil War. With all that Manderlay is, the DVD could have come in a two-disc set full of extras, documentaries, discussions. Instead the film is left to stand on its own, sadly without special features, but thankfully strong enough to stand alone.

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