It really looks like Steven Soderbergh can do anything he puts his mind to these days. Here he follows up a failed homage to a bygone filmic era (the French-New-Wave-inspired debacle of Ocean's Twelve
) with another, far more successful homage. This film, a microbudget feature with no professional actors, is about as close to Italian neorealism as anyone's getting these days. It's also far more stylized than any neorealist feature ever was, though it's still miles away from the restless shenanigans of Twelve
. Soderbergh appears to have been watching a lot of Tsai Ming-Liang lately; for this film, he chooses compositions that emphasize stillness and stasis. The camera moves maybe twice in the film's entirety. Most every cut, then serves as a way to get the camera into a different place, except that the cuts are so abrupt (there's a scene that cuts off in the middle of a sentence!) that I was kept off my balance. This, of course, is the exact effect intended -- it's about the calm everyday boredom of small-town life and what happens when that gets interrupted (bursting the bubble, in other words). So stylistically, I'm very much on this film's wavelength. (The way this film is shot is pretty much how I envision any film I would ever make.) More important than that, though, is the story being told -- it's a solid, carefully considered character piece with some of the best non-professional acting you've ever seen, especially from Debbie Doebereiner. The performances feel naturalistic and awkward without sliding into studiousness or incompetence, and the story has a surprising emotional arc to it. (I admit to shedding a few tears on first viewing.) The religious angle, too, is effective if underdeveloped, hinting towards a state of grace that proves elusive to the characters, and it lends an eerie quality to the closing credit sequence (we're all just flesh, etc.). There's a couple minor things that don't work (notably the painting of one character as a thief, which feels like standard Hollywood moralism, though a second viewing impressed upon me how subtly it was actually introduced into the storyline), but overall this is probably Soderbergh's best film. He even had the good sense to cut the alternate ending.