Friday, January 22, 2016

First Look ’16: Maesta

Several panels of Duccio’s masterful Sienna altarpiece Maestà have been lost, but at least experimental filmmaker Andy Guérif had the pieces he needed. Panel by panel, he stages scenes from the Passion of Christ, but in a way that is radically different than the traditional cinematic conceptions of Mel Gibson or Franco Zeffirelli. Artistic disciplines blur together in Guérif’s Maestà (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 edition of First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.

Whether it works or not it, Maestà demands a wide-screen. There is a lot to see, but Guérif starts by bringing to life the hardest panel to tackle on any level: the crucifixion. “Bringing to life” is a relative term in this case. There are indeed flesh-and-blood actors acting out the Greatest Story. However, Maestà is a much different animal than the obvious comparative film: Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross. While the latter is truly immersive, Maestà is deliberately flat and static. Majewski brings us into the painting, Guérif keeps us on the outside looking in.

Even though it only runs a hair under an hour, Maestà is still likely to make reasonably patient viewers a little fidgety. More problematically, there is an intentional artificiality to Guérif’s aesthetic that compares rather badly with Majewski’s lush, exquisitely detailed production. Maestà’s incidental dialogue also has a ring of contemporary casualness that sounds like it was intended to undercut the sacredness of the subject matter, but comes across as rather “cheap” instead.

The execution of Maestà is impressive, but the strategies employed are not always well thought out. It is likely to be a divisive film, but First Look is an appropriate venue for it. It is interesting, but too distancing and removed to make a lasting impression. For those intrigued by the hybridization of film and Old Masters, The Mill and the Cross is still the film to see. For patrons of experimental cinema, it screens this Sunday (1/24) with the short films The Visit and Lou Beth Xayma: What Eyes Are Pretending to See, as part of this year’s First Look at MoMI.