Anchored by its tour de force one-woman perf, Frederick Wiseman’s “The Last Letter” is the perfect conjunction of director, cast and material. In her incredibly moving recitation of the title letter, Catherine Samie — ultra-accomplished doyen of the Comedie-Francaise — stamps her dramatic DNA on a story that some may think they’ve heard before. But unless they heard it from a family member, it’s difficult to imagine a more affecting account of the Nazi extermination of the Jews than this mother’s missive to her son. Festivals, television and drama schools will welcome this self-contained gem whose 61 minutes zip past.
Ace documaker Wiseman’s first foray into fiction gets at the truth through thoughtful staging, superb black-and-white lensing and an overriding intelligence in the service of emotion.
Knowing that the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto where she’s sequestered is imminent, Anna Semionovna (Samie), a doctor in a Ukrainian village, writes one last time to her beloved son, Vitia, who is safe outside enemy lines. Wiseman and d.p. Yorgos Arvanitis concentrate on Samie’s face and gestures as she relates the insidious and irreversible sequence of events via which Jews were deprived of their rights once the Germans arrived. Giving specific examples of cruelty and kindness, her trenchant observations and occasional humor indicate how it takes all kinds of people to make a world. Although everything points to the ghetto’s annihilation in a matter of weeks or days, she continues to tend to the sick, give private French lessons and marvel at what it means to be a Jew when most of your neighbors turn out to be anti-Semitic.
Venture’s strength is that its incredible specificity gives it a universal impact; wherever people are being unfairly persecuted this very minute, pic’s personal mother-to-son monologue serves to indict the mechanism of human exclusion and hatred.
Pic is staged in a series of 48 carefully lit scenes, which make the most of a chiaroscuro palette of expressive closeups and literal shadows. There is no other sound save that of Samie’s deep resonant voice and there are no props. The cumulative effect is quietly, decisively magnificent.