Join the Search for Sylvia!

Well, Anne and I just had one of the most glorious movie dates of our 16 years together.

I am exhausted with happiness. What a knockout of a film! Excuse me while I unleash my unedited, disorganized first impressions…

If In the City of Sylvia had come out this year, it would have given Certified Copy serious competition for the top spot. I was smitten within a few minutes.

In short, it’s a film about a young man who goes searching for a young woman he’s met before. And he has little or nothing to go on. So he goes to familiar places and watches people. What he sees becomes a rapturous experience in observation, searching, disappointments, discoveries, and epiphanies.

The movie makes me lean forward. It gives me the strange sensation of waking up, and waking up further, shot by shot, scene by scene. Watching it for the first time, I got to a point where I was suspicious of everything – every detail, every reflection, every shadow, every person standing 3/4 out of the frame. It’s a search for a woman, for a mystery, for the heart of a city, for the secret of cinema…

And the sound in this film. It’s a master class in diegetic sound, and in sketching the world beyond the frame through sound. Eventually, you know the geography of the story so well that you can recognize places by the sound of them before you recognize the scenery.

And the motion… the people and bicycles and cars and rolling suitcases and trains and busses come from all directions. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that immersed me in a particular place the way this one does. I swear I could smell those cafes, those alleys.

Oh, and the two shots about 2/3rds of the way through when we see him and her through the flickering windows of the passing train (train? bus?) What a fantastic way of reminding us that this movie is all about our obsession with movies and what we’re all searching for when sit down in a darkened theatre.

And the wonderful humor waiting to be noticed in the advertisements, the signs, the graffiti.

The opening 20 minutes are just packed with visual cleverness. It plays with our expectations just wickedly, and shows us just how our first impression of a scene can be entirely changed if the frame shifts to the right or left slightly. (I loved the guessing game of figuring out the relationships between people at the cafe, figuring out the meanings of their quizzical expressions.)

I could go on and on and on. But I just want to let my head spin for a while.

If there was anything that bothered me – the only thing I can think of is this: It’s the lead actor. He just seemed… I don’t know, a little too prepared, like he’d spent an hour in front of the mirror before going out to sit and very, very noticeably watch people… very, very noticeably perform “keeping a low profile.” If that makes any sense. He looked like he wanted to look like a quiet observant artist on the edge of the cafe crowd, which of course makes him a poser. But as the movie rolled on, I realized that no, he’s not a poser, he really is that guy. He just looked too much like a model who stepped out of an ad in Vogue. But this is a tiny quibble.

This is one I want to show discussion groups and workshops so we can talk about editing rhythms, visual storytelling, sound, subtlety….

I only have this kind of fun at the movies once a year, if I’m lucky.

Hmmmmm. Looking back at my Top 10 of 2007… that was already a great year for movies. I may have to revise things to look like this:

  1. In the City of Sylvia
  2. There Will Be Blood
  3. Shotgun Stories
  4. Munyurangabo
  5. Flight of the Red Balloon
  6. My Kid Could Paint That
  7. Ratatouille
  8. Lars and the Real Girl
  9. Times and Winds
  10. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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