Monday, September 12, 2011

Days of Heaven - Poetry in Motion

Terrence Malick's 'Days of Heaven' has to be one of the most beautiful films to have graced the world of cinema. A collage of luminous shots of twilight hues and vast prairies. A story of love, jealousy and loss seamlessly merged with the breathtaking beauty of nature, the soundtrack indelibly flooding our senses with the emotions unfolding in visuals. Where a perfect marriage of cinematography, storytelling and soundtrack creates magic. Widely hailed as a landmark film of the '70s, conventional storytelling takes a backseat here to visual symbolism and in muted biblical tones, human tragedy morphs with the perish of nature.

In 1916's America, Chicago steel mill worker Bill (a devastatingly handsome Richard Gere) accidentally kills a foreman and escapes with his young sister Linda (Linda Manz) and lover Abby (Brooke Adams) to the Texas panhandle looking for work. Bill passes Abby as his sister to control wagging tongues. Harvest is in progress and they get work as farm hands in the wheat fields of a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard in his debut). Amidst acres of farmland, stands the farmer's majestic house, alone in the face of nature, telling of its inhabitant's isolation. The farmer (we never know his name) is mesmerized by Abby. Bill, having overheard that the farmer is unwell with only a year to live, pushes Abby into marriage with him. His reason, live this farce for a year and we will finally be done with poverty. However, marriage seems to agree with the farmer and death does not knock on his door. On the contrary the painfully shy farmer blooms in the companionship of his charming wife.

The plan goes awry and Abby, slowly falling in love with the farmer, is caught in a web of deceit, jealousy and ultimately tragedy. Nature bears testament to the end of harmony and happiness when the land is plagued with swarms of locusts and fire even as human emotions reach its destructive peak. The saga is observed and narrated almost impersonally, in one of the most amazingly rendered voiceovers in cinema, by the little sister Linda. She narrates colloquially with her filtered understanding of complex emotions. The tale draws from many sources including biblical as well as Henry James's 'The Wings of the Dove'. It is singled out for the sheer beauty achieved in its visual narration mingled with overpowering emotions evoked by the brilliant score of Ennio Morricone. The visual masterpiece, created by cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, was shot mostly in natural light during the 'magical hour'....the small glorious window between sunset and night when the sky is bathed in a soft orange-yellow glow. It went on to win an Oscar in that category.

The performances are perfect. A lot is implied in very little. The dialogues are sparse and drowns in the sounds of nature and machines so that we are left holding half sentences. Linda's quietly detached, world weary voice over guides us through. The emotions run deep beneath the facade of a calm almost impersonal exterior. Terrence Malick is a visionary auteur with a strongly philosophical voice, pitting  human against nature's grandiose, thus putting man's self involvement into place in the grand scheme of things. He has made five films in a career spanning four decades. This movie was his second, coming after his debut masterpiece 'Badlands' with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I highly recommend that as well.  Malick spent two years in the editing room piecing 'Days of Heaven' into an awe inspiring visual feast. Reams of dialogues were cut here in favor of his vision. Nature and its biblical scope has played an important character in every Malick film be it 'Badlands','The Thin Red Line', 'A new World'. In the sweeping shots of the quacking of ducks, bisons grazing, horses roaming the expanse of land lies a symbol of co-existance among all nature's creations.

Between the flawed beauty of the characters of Bill, Abby and the farmer and the melancholy of a child who knows that the days of heaven are numbered, the interplay of nature's violence with man, an idyllic world's abortion, comes alive a masterpiece that deserves multiple viewings just to savor the perfection that cinema can achieve.

Originally released in 1978
Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection
My Rating: 5/5


  1. Hi Sudipta,

    You have a wonderful blog :-)

    I am the creator of I noticed that you had submitted your blog there (I just approved it).

    Where did you hear about ?

  2. Thanks and Thanks for approving my blog...will continue to put up more reviews as I write them:) I heard of zeole from a friend of mine, Aditi who met you at one of the entrepreneur meetups. Do keep reading my blog!