The Nine Muses is the kind of nonfiction film I actively hope for: a picture of intuitive, free-associational power that cuts far deeper emotionally than a dry recitation of dates and facts could ever hope to. Filmmaker John Akomfrah’s conceit is unusually ambitious and, yes, even a little baffling, as he’s structured his subject—the racism, dislocation, and isolation that arose from the primarily African and Irish emigration to Britain in the late 1940s through the 1960s—as a parallel to Homer’s The Odyssey, which also, of course, concerns a long journey rife with considerable loss and ambiguity.
Akomfrah weaves archival footage of African immigrants working in factories, crossing the street, holding their children, living their everyday lives, with intertitles describing the Muses referred to in Homer’s epic. Also mixed into this tapestry are scenes shot by Akomfrah of faceless figures in heavy snow coats either standing on large ships crossing large expanses of water or merely occupying vast landscapes of ice. The soundtrack, an equally dense affair, ups the existential ante with spoken-word readings of passages from various works—by Dante, Joyce, Milton, Neitzsche, Shakespeare, and Eliot, among many others—that have been gracefully mixed with a dreamy score (another collection of desperate references) that’s about equal parts sorrowful, joyous and terrifying.
The Nine Muses could’ve been a bravura and rigorous display of erudition and editorial showmanship that’s all structure and portent, but this film, which Akomfrah has said he’s wanted to make for 20 years, has an obsessive power. The disparity between the images and influences adds up to more than a mixtape for eggheads, as the masterful editing allows every bit and piece to achieve a unity that honors the immigrant experience while transcending that specificity to come about as close as a movie ever has to capturing the ineffability of the free-associational process of mixing and matching that we call “memory”—an accomplishment that imbues the film with an air of mystery that honors the humans on display here. Or, to put it simply, the faces in this film aren’t reduced to statistics by another unimaginative filmmaker’s earnest civics lesson, because Akomfrah has managed, with his skillful assemblage, to give these images a ghostly power that allows you to see people from the past as you’d see people you personally know: as living beings entitled to their contradiction, as well as to their joy and disappointment—and ultimately their beauty. One of the most haunting and irresolvable films I’ve seen in years, The Nine Muses might be some sort of masterpiece.