By Roger Costa
THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY
Whether they are inspirational journeys, funny runaways or wild adventures, road movies carry a fascinating, almost impossible to resist sense of freedom and freshness. The first because it sets you free in a different perspective, and the latter because it takes you to new, unexplored places and situations. Those elements are very present in this poignant, sensitive, and remarkable directorial debut by Morissa Maltz.
Grieving for her grandmother, a mysterious and lonely Native-American woman crosses the American Midwest to meet her estranged cousins, and attend their traditional wedding cerimony.
A hybrid of journalistic documentary and fiction, the director conceives a unique, melancholic and abstract portrait of human connection in isolated places, as well as a profoundly captivating overview on the Native American experience with tradition, virtue, loss and the distractions of the contemporary world.
Demonstrating a marvelous sense of visual and sound (the cinematography is simply breathtaking, filled with natural landscapes and absorbing close-ups, the music is lively and profound), Maltz’s debut is obviously influenced by Terrence Malick and Chloe Zhao, which is an attribute, as she works beautifully her craft, the creative process and the freedom for her actors to shine.
Actually, there’s only one professional actor, who is actress and co-screenwriter Lily Gladstone, as Tana, our grieving heroine in search of healing, reconciliation with the past and self-discovery. As she travels the desert, she crosses path with real folks, who offer honest and compelling stories about their daily living.
Some of those, such as the optimistic and lonely aging waitress, a wounded cowboy, a little energetic girl, and an elderly woman who loves to dance, bring some spectacular realistic emotion and empathy to the enticingly dry narrative, placing a mirror to our inner fears and expectations. These moments, filled with memories, longings, and excitement, make some of the best parts in the film, well-elaborated, lyrical small pieces of real-life testimonies, surprisingly showing a different, tolerant yet fragile side of America.
Meditative, philosophical and genuinely poetical, it is a tribute to the process of living and the recognition of one’s origins.
(A Music Box Films Release. Opens Thursday July 27 at Quad Cinema in NYC with director and co-writer Morrisa Maltz, actress and co-writer Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, and actress and co-writer Lily Gladstone in attendance for Q&A at select screenings. Go to https://quadcinema.com/film/the-unknown-country/ for schedule.)