There is group of directors that defy the labeling of genres. Their films are often meditative, observational, minimalistic, and favors the mood or the atmosphere of the story. Most uninitiated filmgoers label them as boring, but the importance of their subjects and their socio-economic or psychological themes elevate them from most filmmakers of yesterday and today.
This is Slow Cinema, films that demand your patience. They are not there because they are there to bore you, but to encourage you to experience the emotions of the characters, to put yourselves in their shoes, to live their life and see what they are seeing with your own eyes.
These are films that often go beyond 300 minutes. And when it doesn’t, it feels as if it is. Their long ASLs (Average shot length) are often what separates them from others, but these are not done arbitrarily. They are purposeful and oftentimes trance-inducing.
1. Andrei Tarkovsky
Longest Film: Andrei Rublev (205 minutes)
Images of nature and decay arise in Tarkovsky’s films. They are bound with metaphysical themes where human spirituality and life is presented through long takes. His symbolisms are personal and self-reflexive; autobiographical in nature. His slow moving cameras are meditative and on focus.
And for each scene, whether filled with strong dialogue or just wordless, careful composition heightens the brooding reflections of the character. Even the locations are character themselves. The seven films he has created are poems that are read carefully and slowly. Each word whispered in reverie as they approach the end of the poem.
There is one particular scene which shows all the things that defines what a Tarkovsky philosophy is. This is the “Inextinguishable Candle” scene in his film, Nostalghia, where the actor Oleg Yankovsky carries a candle, trying hard to protect the flame, onto the other side of the dry pool.
Filled with mud, moss, and fog, the pool embodies the dreariness of life as human beings go through them while someone else always try to keep them lit. The scene as Tarkovsky explains, shows an entire human life from birth to death. He shows this in one long take.
2. Alexandr Sokurov
Longest Film: Faust (134 minutes)
Sokurov is often acknowledged as the duplicate image of his late friend Andrei Tarkovsky. His films are meditative, spiritual, metaphysical, and favors the long shot. His most famous film, Russian Ark, is a majestic 90-minute journey of Russian history, politics, art, and culture filmed in one long take. Yes, the film is one long take.
While being compared mostly with Tarkovsky, his films are about the struggles of life that cannot be liberated. They are oppressive. Highly influenced by literary figures such as Chekhov and Tolstoy, his films are grounded deeply in Russian roots.
Silence is also a feature in Sokurov’s films. His masterpiece, Mother and Son, puts the camera in place and sparely cuts his shots. One particular scene is when The Son, carrying his Mother, gets off the road and into tall grass, where the shot is cut. In the grass, we hold this frame of gaze as he settles down, looks at his motionless mother for a long time then slowly turns.
Suddenly her eyelids move and she stirs. The son begins to recount one memory about her mother. The silence increases this slowness, only hearing nature and his breathing, and for a while think that she is dead.
3. Apichatpong WeerasethakulLongest Film: Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady (Both 125 minutes)
The Thai, Cannes Palme D’Or winner for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are structurally unconventional. His films are personal and often tackle dreams, sexuality, nature, and the outside perspective of Westerners of Asia. Often, they are described as slow and weird.
The effect of his film’s win (despite its slow progression) of the prestigious Palme D’Or ushered the trend of the next winners (Note: The Tree of Life, Amour, Blue is the Warmest Color, Winter Sleep).
Joe, as he is called because of his long name, is also interested in time. In one interview he states:
“Time is very interesting to me. Because I’m really trying to capture time, mostly in the past, and work it out in the present. For example, when you have the scene in Blissfully Yours where they go to the picnic and it takes so long—the film was made in 2002, and when I watched it in 2005 or 2006, I thought, “Wow, my time back then, I was really patient.” Because I take the long duration for each gesture. And I realized my time has changed. The rhythm inside has changed. Because when I was younger, I didn’t feel that those shots were long, that’s why I put them in. But then recently, in 2012, I watched Blissfully Yours again and the cut is just right. It’s not long at all. So that means that our timings, it’s always changing.”
4. Bela Tarr
Longest Film: Satantango (450 minutes)
The critically acclaimed and cult favorite, Bela Tarr is one of the most famous figures of Slow Cinema. Notorious for his Anti-Hollywood, Anti-establishment demeanor, his strength lies in his minimalistic, no-nonsense approach in filmmaking captures the raw reality of everyday life.
With hyperrealistic shots and expertly choreographed movement, his films often show life in a small town or a rural town. In defense of his simple storied but long films, especially The Turin Horse, he says that he does not want to show the story, he wanted to show the man’s life.
The 450 minute Satantango, his longest film, consists of only 150 shots, with an average shot length of 10-11 minutes. This gives the audience time to experience the whole setting, immersing them to what the characters are doing, and what background they have. In his last film, The Turin Horse, the camera slowly follows the character and the horse in long shots, moving like a pendulum, going back and forth.
Sometimes Tarr would put his camera in front of the character and the horse, and it captures their struggle. Tarr is proof that minimalistic but purposeful directorial decisions can effectively evoke the right emotion shown in the action.
5. Cristian Mungiu
Longest Film: Beyond the Hills (155 minutes)
The Romanian award-winning director is a filmmaker of realism. Taking cue from past directors like neo-realist Vittorio de Sica, he takes very important and timely themes and disciplines himself to show real emotions. His slow burner abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is often comes up on lists of 21st Century film masterpieces.
The dynamic element of mood shows experiences in its bare emotion. His films’ pace are slow and lingering. Routines are shown as it is, never taking them as unimportant.
In the dinner scene of 4 Months, the camera is fixed putting Otilia dead center of the frame. Around her are her boyfriend’s family, she looks as if they are crowding at her. The scene is taken in a single long shot.
There is look in Otilia that looks as if she is hiding something. Around her, everyone is happy. Putting her in the center feels as if she is trapped in the middle, waiting for something to burst. That long take suggest that this experience is a terrifying her. As if she is longing to get out of there but can’t still.
6. Corneliu Porumboiu
Longest Film: Police Adjective (115 minutes)
Another Romanian director is Corneliu Porumboiu, known for his 2006 feature, 12:08 East of Bucharest and his follow-up, Police Adjective. His films tackle on crises, whether it be the moral questionings of Cristi in Police, or crisis of faith in his film, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism. The slowness of his films’ pacing is also highlighted by long takes, but he counters this with humor.
For example, in 12:08, he treats the historical and revolutionary theme with humor. In it, the characters act like children rather than what they call themselves – heroes of the modern time. The slow pace becomes humor itself, as the silence gives of an uncomfortable awkwardness between his characters.
7. Yasujiro OzuLongest Film: Early Spring (144 minutes)
The most Japanese of all Japanese filmmakers is Ozu. His films carry a Zen like grace and quality that the slowness is itself a character in his films. His films are about ordinary routines in life that they are like nature itself. But these ordinary routines are so detailed and precise that they are almost real to touch. His camera compositions give a three dimensional appearance that they are often used by other filmmakers. His characters, the props, the surroundings are balanced that they look so organized.
The critic, Paul Schrader, described Ozu’s films as transcendental, where we can see the beauty, full of happiness and tragedy, of the ordinary human life. In Tokyo Monogatari, he shows the story of two old people who visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo.
In their hometown, they quietly proceed with everyday work, the slowness emphasize the simplicity and the austerity of their work. In Tokyo, the business of the city affects their own children that they oftentimes are forgotten or left alone. The contrasting and balanced power of the things Ozu puts on frame are stories themselves.