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Rotterdam @ BAM: Autumn Adagio

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Rotterdam @ BAM: <em>Autumn Adagio</em>

Autumn Adagio is Tsuki Inoue’s first feature, and except for some awkward dissolves and an overuse of fades-to-black, she has a strong directorial hand and a perceptive eye for character and mood. Autumn Adagio, along with La vie au Ranch, felt like the most blatantly personal of the films in the festival. Inoue writes in her Director’s Statement: “After I turned thirty years old, I have started to hear internal voices little by little. Because I will be middle-thirties soon, these voices have been crying, mourning, and trying to take over the voices of my brain…” Inoue describes having seen a nun cross a busy street: “She looked different from anyone there with her monochrome dress in the chaotic place. I saw something special in her face—wearing no makeup and showing no hesitation—I thought it had something to do with the film.” And indeed it does.

Autumn Adagio tells the story of Sister Maria, a Japanese nun played by pop singer Rei Shibakusa, who, as menopause approaches, begins to grieve the loss of youth and vitality, a vitality she had never expressed in her life in any case, being a nun who has given herself to God. Told in a dreamy emotional manner (with perhaps one too many lingering shots of yellow autumn leaves), Autumn Adagio is actually a yowl of pain, the natural pain that some women feel when that part of their lives begins to come to a close. Shibakusa is extraordinary in the lead role. It is a beautiful performance.

Sister Maria plays the organ in church, and every Sunday overhears the gossipy older women in the front pew after the service as they swap pictures of grandkids and make casual references to “the change of life.” Sister Maria strains to hear more. She has no one to talk to. The film is right to show that Sister Maria’s life is the life that she has chosen. She is not unhappy as a nun. Her days are full of small tasks of service and this is what she has been called to do. But the opening chords of the “autumn adagio” of her life cracks open a core of pain and loss in her that she didn’t even know was there. She peers closely at a blooming orchid in the church, and plucks out the red buds on the stamens, one by one, as though she is enjoying the amputation. If she wasn’t allowed to blossom, then neither should the orchid.

Although all of this may sound rather maudlin, and yes, there are maudlin moments (enough with the yellow floating autumn leaves, we get it!), Autumn Adagio is really about life and the strange pangs of joy that continue with us, even as we age, and the knowledge that all of life is made up of these small deaths. We have to grieve things along the way. Just because Sister Maria is a middle-aged nun who has never had sex, or children, doesn’t mean that her “womanhood” is meaningless to her. It cuts to the core of who she is, who we all are.

One of the older church ladies tells Sister Maria that her granddaughter’s ballet class needs a temporary pianist while they search for a replacement. Sister Maria hesitates at first. It has nothing to do with church. Could she get permission? Her rhythm is all off. She is losing the plot of her own life. Women’s lives, punctuated with regularity by menstruation, can be thrown out of wack when that time-maker is taken away. I have never before seen a film take on this sensitive topic. It is a serious issue, affecting all women, and therefore is a valid subject. Inoue shows her sensitivity (without being precious or careful) and has poured her heart into the film.

Sister Maria does take the ballet class job. After her first day playing for the class, the male teacher comes over to her and thanks her for filling in. He tells her she did a great job, but that next time maybe she should try looking up at the dancers from time to time, to try to add her music to what they are doing, to essentially create a relationship. “Put more of yourself into it,” he suggests. Sister Maria is baffled by the request, but it sticks with her. She can’t let it go. Next, you see her walking down the street, the camera following her from behind, lugging a huge just-purchased electric keyboard in her arms. She sits in her simple room in the rectory, keyboard in front of her, headphones over her ears, and starts to practice. The music, lush and orchestral, swells. Things start to expand. The movie itself expands. Sister Maria is seen pirouetting through her room in her habit. She is seen playing the keyboard as though her life depends on it. Inoue’s eye moves from microscopic (the orchid stamens, the close-ups of piano keys) to macroscopic. Sister Maria who, up until this turning point, has walked everywhere on her various errands, her step fragile and preoccupied, is now seen hurtling out of the church gates on a bicycle, pedaling furiously on her way to ballet class. Black habit whipping behind her, she careens at breakneck speed through the city, symphonies blaring through her headphones, and I suddenly found myself in tears watching her go. She sits at the piano in the dusty ballet studio, and her playing is now passionate and full, and she stares up at the dancers, being swept away as their bodies leap and twirl through the air. Is this God? Is this part of her service?

Obviously there is an awakening going on, but Inoue never betrays her main character by making her, oh, fall in love, or stray from the sisterhood, or betray her calling. The secular world of the ballet class is not seen as threatening or lascivious. These people work hard, their bodies are lean and perfect, their faces still with concentration as they stand at the barre. Sister Maria, perhaps, sees in them a similar devotion that she feels. She relates. There is a release. Things begin to release.

Autumn Adagio has the distilled intensity of a Lorrie Moore short story, that comic master of grief and loneliness. At one point, I started to get afraid of what was going to happen when the ballet class found a permanent pianist and wouldn’t need Sister Maria anymore. I actually felt dread. That’s when I first realized how well Autumn Adagio works, in all its particulars, and how effectively Isoue (and Shibakusa) have brought the main character to life. I look forward to seeing more from this promising young filmmaker.

Autumn Adagio screens Tuesday, March 9th at 9:15pm. Click here for more information.

Sheila O’Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.