When the British arrive in Virginia, they expect to find a new land teeming with gold and people who are outclassed in weaponry, religion, and culture. What they find instead is a young woman who discovers that not all new worlds are physical places.
The only other time I had seen this film was in the theater when I was way too young to appreciate it. I don’t think I even new who Terrence Malick was at the time so I was quickly lost in the meditative sections of the film and ended up leaving the theater disappointed and bored.
Realizing that I was simply out of my depth all those years ago, I was pretty excited to sit down and watch it again, this time with my brother who is interested in and knows a lot about indigenous peoples. I figured he might have an interesting perspective to offer.
I love Terrence Mallec. I don’t think I’ve seen a single film of his I didn’t love. His slow unraveling and reweaving then unraveling again of a subject shoots straight to the heart of me. I feel at a loss for words to describe his films because his films are often cinematic poetry, grasping at thoughts and ideas for which words seem too small.
The film begins with Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell, “In Bruges”) being hung for insubordination and only just being spared. From his perspective the exploration of the New World is also a rebirth for him. He has all but died and been given a chance to have a life again.
Colin Farrell is brilliant as John Smith. His good looks make the native attraction to him understandable as well as the English’s jealousy and mistrust of him. He is tender and almost childlike at times but also a man of desperation, scrapping for his existence and sanity which seem to be on a razor’s edge.
In this new life he finds Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) who saves him yet again and he is given a rebirth into the native culture. He learns their language and eventually returns to the Jamestown colony only to find that it is in despair, most of its men going crazy, sick, or gone lazy in the absence of food and leadership.
Eventually Pocahontas, disowned by her own people and looked down upon by the English, must adapt to the English way of life, taking a husband and even being baptised. Of course John, whom she might have married has been sent to look for a passage to the Indies but is rumored dead. Her one lifeline to this New World cut. She even goes to England and meets the king and queen. All the while we wonder if she has really found rest.
Pocahontas is as much if not more of the main character as John Smith. Thankfully she is equally well portrayed by Q'orianka Kilcher who seems to begin her role as an almost fairy spirit of the New World who is brought low and “civilized” by those who have claimed her land as well as herself. This innocence giving way to strength within hardship and resolve of spirit is a complex labyrinth of emotion which she navigates marvelously, stealing the show from acting powerhouses like Farrell, Christian Bale (“Vice,”) Christopher Plummer(“The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,”) and Ben Mendelsohn (“Ready Player One.”)
There aren’t a whole lot of twists in this film if you know the broad outline of the Pocahontas story. The movie isn’t about the plot. It’s about the characters and their hearts as they contemplate their place in the world. It is an exploration of what humanity is and whether it has purpose, place, or meaning.
It contemplates the myriad ways we die and are reborn, learn and forget, love and betray, and control or are controlled. It is the sort of film I know I will return to often because of its beauty but also because I don’t know how else to think about this film except to watch it again. Writing about it makes me feel like I barely understood it at all, though I have a profound sense of having seen something important which spoke to a part of me not spoken to often except in such existential films as “Andrei Rublev” and “Persona.”
To say I understand it would be silly of me but I know I will rewatch this one over and over just as I feel I live out the spirit of this film in my life daily. Discovering, forgetting, and rediscovering all over again.
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