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Toronto Film Review: ‘Visitors’

Patience and an openness to contemplation will be essential for audiences to appreciate Godfrey Reggio's black-and-white reverie.

Thirty years after blowing minds with his first feature, “Koyaanisqatsi,” helmer Godfrey Reggio supplies yet another dialogue-free juxtaposition of visceral imagery, time-lapse photography and mesmerizing Philip Glass music with “Visitors.” But with two other “Qatsi” films having emerged in the interim, Reggio’s m.o. is by now practically a cliche, having long since been appropriated by advertising execs and musicvideo directors, as well as his former cameraman Ron Fricke. Distribs will need to be ultra-creative to attract a niche audience prepared to engage with this velvety black-and-white reverie on the bigscreen, where it will be seen to its best advantage. Cinedigm plans a 2014 release.

The world premiere of ” Visitors” at Toronto — where 71 members of the Toronto Symphony performed the score under the baton of Michael Riesman — offered a model, albeit a pricey one, for how to “eventize” the film. (The music on the release version is performed by the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, led by conductor Dennis Russell Davies.) In another savvy marketing move, the producers approached a younger-generation maverick, Steven Soderbergh, to put his weight behind the film’s release, in much the same way that Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese used to lend their name to support the distribution of difficult foreign films.

Reggio continues to insist that his work offers an experience rather than an idea. Certainly, the demanding “Visitors,” which in some ways resembles a video installation, seems less open to analysis or a reductive summing-up than do his previous films. It consists of only 74 exquisitely framed, highly processed shots that the helmer dubs “moving stills,” most of which are held for about a minute; none of the people or locations shown are identified.

More than ever with Reggio’s oeuvre, the viewing experience here requires patience as well as an openness to contemplation. The swelling, repetitive structure of the music works hand-in-hand with the visuals to facilitate this shift to a different level of consciousness, but what it’s all about will remain a matter of individual associations and connections. Walkouts and snores are to be expected, although those on the film’s meditative wavelength will be held rapt.

Perhaps the most memorable images here are the faces, captured in extreme closeup, their eyes returning the viewers’ gaze. We have the chance to study the depredations of age as well as the smooth skin of youth. While most of the older faces stare stoically at the camera, a range of expressions pass over the features of the younger ones, who, per press notes, were filmed watching television or playing videogames. In contrast with the portraits of human faces, Reggio returns several times to a shot of a dignified-looking lowland gorilla, its fur appearing multidimensional and dazzlingly beautiful in the lustrous monochrome lensing.

Almost all the shots involve special effects. Some may be as simple as removing from the frame the keyboards and touch screens that the subjects’ hands are interacting with. On another level entirely are the moon shots, modeled after stock footage and created very precisely using Google Maps.

Far ahead of the curve technically, the pic requires 4K digital projection, which will provide 4,000 pixels of visual resolution as opposed to the 1,000 pixels of standard HD. The prosaic title is drawn from the stone sign on a large building that Reggio shoots from different angles.

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Toronto Film Review: 'Visitors'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 8, 2013. Running time: 87 MIN.

Production:

A Cinedigm release of a Steven Soderbergh presentation of a Vivid Unknown production in association with Opticnerve USA and Phi Films. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Godfrey Reggio, Jon Kane, Lawrence Taub, Phoebe Greenberg, Penny Mancuso, Mara Campione. Executive producers, Dan Noyes, Dean Chenoy.

Crew:

Directed, written by Godfrey Reggio. Associate director, Jon Kane. Camera (B&W, 4K, widescreen), Trish Govoni, Graham Berry, Tom Lowe; editors, Chris Besecker, Jon Kane; music, Philip Glass; executive music producer, Jim Keller; music and soundtrack producer, Kurt Munkacsi; musical director, Michael Riesman; score performed by Bruckner Orchestra Linz; conductor, Dennis Russell Davies; visual effects supervisor, Max Blecker; visual effects, Manu Gaulot, Grier Dill; sound (Dolby Digital 5.1), Martin Czembor; associate producers, Federico Negri, Craig Aspen, Trevor Potts, Tom Lowe, Ray Hemenez.

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