Manifesto is not the type of film you like or dislike.
In fact, taste has nothing to do with it. It’s a film that defies most of what normally is a part of qualitative measurements. Instead, Manifesto is a film that just is. An experience. Which is not a bad thing.
The film, written and directed by German artist Julian Rosefeldt, is a series of characters espousing various major (what else?) manifestos of the art world (sometimes verbatim from the source), all put into a sort of loose dramatic context (a funeral — ha ha — is the backdrop of the Dada monologue).
Now, if you gave me that summary and told me it was a one-woman show currently playing at La Mama, I’d probably shrug at the mundanity of the statement. But when you tell me that one-woman show is an exquisitely shot motion picture starring Cate Blanchett, well… *now* I’m listening.
You must not go into Manifesto, however, not expecting a “movie.” Nor should you go into it expecting acting, characters, and the other things you might want from a film. Manifesto, while compelling, is a thing that would be more at home in an art gallery than on a cinema screen. And that’s not a knock against the film; it’s just how it is. If you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, then you might come away confused, bored, angry, or, hopefully, pleasantly surprised.
While Manifesto is, literally, a series of manifestos, it doesn’t come off as a dry lecture. That is a feat in itself. If the camerawork weren’t so luscious, the visuals so striking, and Blanchett’s performances of these proclamations so good, then perhaps it would be an unbearable, pretentious, didactic nightmare. But Rosefeldt has a firm grasp on his audacious premise and executes it with a tremendous amount of style and dynamism.
Rosefeldt does not seem to be celebrating these manifestos. These are not presented as the author’s beliefs. Rather, it’s an examination of how our art and our filtration of it is shaped by chance and circumstance, and how our art intersects and becomes inseparable from the daily politics of living. Dada is a grieving woman at a funeral; the celebration of kitsch is a Southern housewife who loves the simple pleasures of life; Futurism is a scientist who has seen firsthand the increasing irrelevance of human history.
By the time the credits roll and you’ve been treated to the chorus of artistic ideologies, you’ll be shaken. Maybe not shaken by the contents of the manifestos themselves, but by a shocking sense of self-realization.
As the film progresses, you’ll hear statements that you disagree with; statements that make you recoil; statements that ring true. After all, whether or not we aware of it, we all have our own manifestos we live by, and the constant barrage of philosophy will challenge you. I found myself taking refuge in some of the manifestos, huddling in the affirmation of my own personal artistic truths. I began to wonder how my own manifesto came to be, and why I find it more true than that of any other thinker (great or hack) in history.
At the end of the film, there’s a literal chorus of all the manifestos presented in the film. As they all blended together, there was a tangible sense of the history of artistic thinking, of dead ideas and movements that came and went. Each of the movements that produced these manifestos wanted to radically change the human perception of art and, consequently, the human experience of living. There’s a power to that. There’s also a power to the realization that, perhaps, none of them did. That a single manifesto cannot be imposed on all of mankind. Does that make these sweeping proclamations irrelevant? Or, are they pieces of art themselves, produced for the masses but coveted by the individual?
I don’t know. But that Manifesto inspires introspection is a good thing, a bold thing, and a thing we don’t get very often.
The film hits theaters on May 10.