What do jellyfish, steelpan drums, statuary, and the fate of the Native American people have in common? That is not a riddle, it’s an honest question, and if you can supply a ready answer, or even if you can’t but find the prospect of piecing one together enticing, perhaps “Spira Mirabilis” — the non-narrative Venice competition title from directors Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti — is for you. Be forewarned, however, that they will provide few clues as to their opaque film’s intent, and come to few dramatic conclusions, so you are likely to be alternately engaged, and more often disengaged, in the project of creating all the film’s meaning for yourself. The challenge of “Spira Mirabilis” is great and the reward relatively small, so it will prove a hard task to get many people in the door and just as hard to keep them in the their seats until the final half-hour or so, which argues a little more convincingly for the film’s relevance, and is by far the most robust part of an otherwise flimsy edifice.
The elusive currency of non-narrative cinema might just be the transcendent moment, those ecstatic instances where images or concepts that are unrelated through the traditional cause-effect logic of plot-based cinema, somehow connect, and give off an electricity of meaning, like a firing synapse, with the mind of the individual viewer as the conductor. It’s why examples of this “difficult” and often abstruse format can have such passionate defenders in the cineaste community — those responses, when they come, feel personal, almost private, and are to be cherished for the small cinematic miracles they are. But it’s also what makes generalizations about how others may react so very tricky: To say that one did not experience many such moments during “Spira Mirabilis” is not to say that no one will. But it would also be disingenuous, and would do a disservice to more thrillingly and thoughtfully arranged films in the category (for example Jem Cohen’s recent “Counting” or the superlative documentary essay “The Pearl Button” by Patricio Guzmán) to post-rationalize connections where none appeared at the time.
Which is not to say the film is entirely lacking in such glimmers. The images alone, shot by D’Anolfi, are often very lovely. Accompanied by precise sound design and soft scoring that comes as a welcome, if sparingly used, melodic addition, shots of falling trees and weathered statues bump up against macros of tiny microbe-like creatures under a microscope or a steel disc being pressed by industrial machinery into the shape of a Pope’s hat. Indeed, there’s a school-trip-to-the-local-factory interest to the whole section that follows, in minute and often clangy detail, the process of making a hang drum — a spaceship-shaped percussion instrument played by hand that rings clear, soft, and slightly melancholic, and in one particularly sweet moment, is used to accompany a woman singing a song about the elements to a premature baby in a hospital incubator.
That scene occurs, like many of the film’s more compelling moments, fairly late in the game. In an earlier section, there is more humanity than stone masonry, lifesavers thrown to the floundering viewer. There’s archive footage of a protest by Native Americans at Wounded Knee; home movies of children at play; and even a talk given by the Japanese jellyfish expert, whom we’ve previously only observed in his untidy lab with a tank of fat goldfish looking on. That talk culminates in the expert singing a made-up song to a delighted audience about the jellyfish’s power to regenerate.
And it’s here, finally, that the film’s thrust does become clear (skip this bit if you don’t want the question from earlier to be “spoiled”): The stones of the earth, the jellyfish of the sea, the sonorous ringing of the hang drum through the air, the dancing of dust in a projector beam, and the storytelling campfires of the Native tribes all have something to tell us, D’Anolfi and Parenti imply, about immortality. Yet, where that places the film’s least engaging and most overtly pretentious strand, in which actress Marina Vlady intones enigmatic stories in French over shots of the workings of a projector in a (prophetically?) empty cinema is, like much of “Spira Mirabilis,” anyone’s guess.
Strange that a film that is ultimately about the idea of immortality, of permanence and deathlessness, like the never-ending geometric spiral that gives it its name, should feel so transitory and ephemeral. That’s unlike the directors’ previous, more focused films “Dark Matter” and “The Castle,” which did not sacrifice so much urgency and substance on the altar of abstraction. And maybe that is the greater point that the directors wish to make here — that immortality is a beautiful concept precisely because of its intangibility. But “Spira Mirabilis” does seem an awfully long way around to go to get to a realization that the destination will always be out of reach: a journey only the very patient should embark upon.