Cinema as sutra, “Ito – a Diary of an Urban Priest” exists in a rarefied realm of aching spirituality and thwarted religious aspiration, echoing Robert Bresson’s classic “Diary of a Country Priest” while elevating nonfiction to the level of pure art. Uncompromising, visionary work by Finland’s Pirjo Honkasalo is an elusive, challenging and cerebral study of boxer-turned-Buddhist Yoshinobu Fujioka, and as such, its commercial appeal will likely be limited. Reviews, on the other hand, might just be rapturous, and “Ito” marks a substantial addition to one of the world’s more considerable doc-ographies.
Best known outside Finland for “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia,” which followed its 2005 Sundance appearance with a limited arthouse run, Honkasalo forsakes most conventions of standard documaking in her portrait of Fujioka. The former pugilist, twice seriously injured in the ring, has been ordained a Pure Land Buddhist priest, and wrestles with his personal sense of inadequacy and the elusiveness of divine knowledge. As with Bresson’s Catholic prelate, Fujioka’s relationships with the people to whom he ministers are fraught with doubt and pain. A prisoner confesses to him of having killed her husband with “my bare hands” but says she did so to protect her daughter. Still, she’s plagued by regret: The child is in an orphanage, her father dead and her mother in prison. In Fujioka’s face, we see infinite compassion and a fierce desire to relieve the woman’s tortured mind. But we also see in his eyes — one of which was badly damaged in his boxing career — the frustration of being unable to say anything of consolation that wouldn’t also be dishonest.
Popular on Variety
Hence, “Ito” is a fiercely religious film that’s also anti-religious: How does one reconcile the idea that the suffering seek spiritual peace from a man who can’t find it himself, unless he resorts to dogma and platitudes? That Fujioka is a Pure Land priest is significant; it’s the branch of Buddhism that, historically, drew from the lower ranks of society due to its spiritual accessibility.
Fujioka also works in a bar, where his exchanges with customers turn the place into a confessional with booze. One overlong sequence features a transvestite lip-syncher, whose grotesque visage never leaves the screen and who serenades Fujioka until she wears out her welcome.
Honkasalo’s takes are epic; Fujioka’s conversations with two female bar customers or, most significantly, his reunion with his old boxing coach — one of the more disturbingly/exaltingly naked exchanges you’re likely to see in a doc — go on forever. Many auds will reject this, just as they’ll reject the gossamer narrative of Honkasalo’s entire project. But the cumulative power of the imagery and subtexts can hardly be denied. And despite the formalist rigor with which the director approaches her subject, life remains messy, offscreen and on.
Honkasalo frames her story with ancient Japanese myth, employing ornate subtitles, hallucinatory visuals, dreams and night shots of a Japan that ripples with shadows and greasy neon. But the truly hypnotic content lies in the conversations, which are lengthy but mesmerizing, accessible and intimate, and suggest that the world is inescapable and tragic, and that our salvation lies solely in our yearnings.
Tech credits are first-rate, especially the sound and the camerawork of Honkasalo and Marita Hallforss.