It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that an 83-minute film qualifies as a work of Slow Cinema, but to classify the beautifully meditative “Here” as anything else would be disingenuous. Unfolding like a series of loosely connected memories, Bas Devos’ fourth feature is a portrait of a fleeting connection between two lost souls that unfolds with the voyeurism of a nature documentary and the comforting precision of a crisp ASMR recording. With a plot so sparse that even a one-sentence summary threatens to spoil an hour of the movie, “Here” manages to present some of the most striking moving images in recent memory by leaning into the same minute details that its protagonist struggles to recognize in his own daily life. Devos’ soft directorial touch elevates what could have been a simple short film into a reflection on the small joys we choose to miss that packs a punch far greater than its runtime. After all, there’s a reason we don’t call it Long Cinema.
While “Here” tells a universal human story whose appeal should transcend languages and culture, the film begins with an inciting incident that might give American audiences culture shock: a worker gets to take a four-week summer vacation. Stefan (Stefan Gota), a Romanian construction worker living in Brussels, finds himself unfulfilled and longing for human connection in a way that he can’t fully articulate. With little to keep him in Belgium, he decides to use his summer holiday to visit his mother. His plans to return are unclear even to him, as he’s not sure if he’ll leave town forever, come back to his job, or forge a new path entirely. Unsure whether he’s actually saying goodbye to his life in the city, Stefan decides to play it safe and make a pot of soup as a parting gift to his friends and acquaintances. He proceeds to wander through Brussels dolling out soup to the individuals he interacts with in his daily life, receiving reactions that range from puzzled bemusement to genuine gratitude.
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He eventually finds himself crossing paths with ShuXiu (Liyo Gong) a Chinese botany student who is preparing a PhD thesis on the mosses that grow in the forests surrounding Brussels. The film devotes a considerable percentage of its brief runtime to her musings on the topic, showing us microscopic slides and lush green nature footage as she explains the ways that non-flowering bryophytes serve as foundational pieces of ecosystems that both predate and outlast everything around them. It’s far from an ambiguous metaphor, illustrating the ways that the mundane details of Brussels serve as foundational pieces of Stefan’s life, even if he doesn’t always care to notice them.
The two acquaintances soon take a trip into the local wilderness, and the film briefly transforms into a “Planet Earth”-style look at the minutia of the ecosystems we take for granted. Stefan is enchanted by ShuXiu’s willingness to savor every detail of forest life, and their silent investigation of local mosses allows him the perspective to slow down and savor details that don’t require him to make difficult decisions, if only for an ephemeral moment.
Devos’ decision to shoot in the unconventional 4:3 aspect ratio, which presents each frame as a square with vertical black bars on either side, creates the effect of flipping through old Polaroids from a forgotten summer. His understanding of the way that a single static image can advance a film is remarkable, as some elegantly composed shots of simmering soups and forest floor plant life contain as much humanity as his sequences with actors. The film’s richly melancholic colors turn even the most mundane shots of factories into pieces of art with enough depth to merit further study.
Much like Devos’ 2019 Cannes hit “Ghost Tropic,” “Here” is a portrait of Brussels that seeks to shine light on the corners of the city that we’d otherwise be tempted to ignore. But by painting such a rich visual world on the seemingly insignificant canvas of Stefan’s life, Devos offers an implicit challenge to everyone watching around the world. If we can just find ways to be here, wherever that is, we might stumble onto something just as cinematic in our own lives.
“Here” is now playing at Film at Lincoln Center in New York City.
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