AFI Fest 2014: ‘The Absent’ finds a steady rhythm
The Absent is almost a parody of what people who don’t really watch “art films” think they’re like. It is nigh-on plotless, lacking in incident, almost wordless, highly ambiguous, and incredibly slow. It can’t consist of more than a few dozen shots, each of which are either completely still or slow pans. Those shots either contain one, none, or (very rarely) two people. There is precisely one shot with a crowd. There are two scenes that contain any dialogue. It is a tremendously boring experience. It is a little more than 70 minutes long, but feels like it’s three hours.
I quite enjoyed it!
Slow cinema is not for everyone, and I don’t even say that in any way that implies that the “not everyone” includes people who are somehow less intelligent than those on the inside. It’s a matter of taste. When a movie is not in any way trying to arrest your attention in the way that they typically do, it can paradoxically cause you to pay more attention to what’s going on in each frame, and to think on what it may be saying. That’s the case for The Absent, which is ruminating on themes of loss and change. If you’re in a ruminating mood, then it’ll be just the tonic.
The film primarily features an old man who lives alone (save for a cow) in a shack in the middle of the Mexican nowhere. It’s positioned in the midst of a forest close to a beach, and the movie continually rotates between these three locales. That is, except for a detour to a city, where some kind of local governing council decides that the man doesn’t have the right to his land. The poor guy’s evicted, and forced to lurk around in the woods. Meanwhile, a younger man squats in the house and starts going through the same routine the older one used to. They eventually meet up. The house is eventually demolished. They bond and become bros. The movie ends.
The Absent finds a steady rhythm in one steady beat of zen shot after zen shot. It’s a hypnotic experience. If what the audience sees on screen isn’t a long take of the ocean or the trees, it’s someone participating in a mundane activity. A man has trouble assembling his gun. He fights his stubborn cow as he attempts to lead it across the beach. He trudges along a muddy track in the forest. A guy wanders into a house not his own and casually changes his clothes. An excavator reduces a house to rubble in seconds with a few casual swings of its boom, like a cat swatting down a Jenga tower.
The images stick with you precisely because the movie lingers on them for so long. And this makes you think about their meaning. The result is a disquieting metaphor for life, for its fragility, and for how cycles of dispassionate progress bury human beings under their march. I dug every dull second of it.
– Dan Schindel