McCarthy's extraordinary abilities as a writer and director, displayed so marvelously in his first film (the subtle and charmingly quirky Station Agent), are certainly put to the test here. A story that revolves so essentially about the topic of illegal immigration brings some significant built-in difficulties, and one might well wonder if his quiet storytelling-style would survive such a politically charged topic. Thankfully, those doubts are largely ill-founded here; whereas most directors build their political films around the message (see "Stone, Oliver"), McCarthy is more focused on his characters than on their ideologies.
Interestingly, Vargas never again allows himself to dwell on the brutality underlying the film's message of resistance in the face of unjust oppression, scrupulously avoiding nearly every opportunity for violence the story presents him. The penultimate scene in the film, in particular, would seem to call out for a resolution consistent in tone with the opening sequence, but Vargas refuses to take that route, choosing instead a more ambiguous (and finally, more thought-provoking) ending.
Unlike Edward Zwick's strangely inconsistent Last Samurai – a film that deals with a similar time period in Japanese samurai history, yet cannot resist the temptation to portray the "enlightened Westerners" as the ones possessing the final answers – this work demonstrates not only a nuanced understanding of the eroding samurai code, but a far subtler solution to the "problem of progress" that faced Japan in the mid-1800s; a solution whose heart lies in Twilight himself, and in his selfless devotion to his family.
Unlike Nolan's first effort, which seemed to bog down as it neared the finish line – gradually descending into a confusing, clichéd, action-heavy finale – this one will keep you riveted until the final bitter-sweet moment. The film is just short of two and a half hours, but don't bother to bring a watch. You won't be needing it.
The way in which Sabine's disease is so intimately linked to her perception of relationships provides us with an unparalleled opportunity for recognizing the inexplicable, essential role of human dignity in our emotional and spiritual well-being. When Sabine and her struggles are reduced to a problem that needs to be addressed and eliminated, or as a collection of symptoms that need to be treated, she withdraws into the protective shell of her disease. But when her humanity is recognized – when her sister or her caretakers deal with her as an individual, with a full measure of the strengths, weaknesses, talents, and foibles that accompany each one of us individual human beings – she flourishes.
Despite the fairly predictable fashion in which the story unfolds, the film is filled with charming and unexpectedly insightful details. The extraordinary chemistry between Moshe and Malli – praying, arguing, complaining, sorrowing, and coming to love one another more through it all – is the real backbone of the piece, and the nuances explored in their relationship make the film eminently re-watchable. Plus, its finale features a "Come to Hashem" moment that is as satisfying and cathartic as one could possibly hope for.
The fact that philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and Anders Thomas Jensen are both of Danish descent is a particularly interesting prism through which to view the film. Perhaps the Danes are more acutely aware of the apparent contradiction between knowing and believing than we Americans, as Jensen is clearly grappling with many of the same issues that consumed Kierkegaard. His resolution – a leap of faith similar to those present in Kierkegaard's philosophical writings – is ultimately as unsatisfying as that of his predecessor, yet Jensen seems determined to trace Kierkegaard's footsteps down the path of irreconcilable conflict.
The movie's original (and ultimately unused) title, The Eighth Day, is a clear reference to the notion that man's pursuit of genetic perfection is simply an effort to improve on God's seven days of Creation, as well as an equally clear indication of Niccol's own views on the matter. It is a warning for that time when humans will control their own "evolution," and a suggestion that we should be cautious – even fearful – of the consequences of such power. The expectation of flawlessness is a very different thing from the pursuit of perfection.
Tarkovsky's Rublev is primarily concerned with the role of (possibly Divine) inspiration in the life of the artist, and with the turmoil and self-doubt brought about when one loses that inspiration. But in Ostrov, Father Anatoli's story revolves around the struggle for forgiveness and sanctification in the life of an ordinary man, highlighting wonderfully the fact that while sanctity is for ordinary people, it is never ordinary itself.