[This review was published in the Portland Observer here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2013/sep/17/lesson-mindfulness/?page=1. You can see it in Portland at the Living Room Theaters through Thursday, and it deserves to be seen on the big screen. ]
I despair of conveying just how rich and profound an experience watching "Museum Hours" can be.
The film will sound slow -- and it is -- and tedious -- which it most certainly isn't. It doesn't have much in the way of a plot, and portions of the film are spent listening in on conversations between a man and a woman in late middle age, or wandering in the dead of winter through Vienna streets that are off the beaten tourist track. The rest is spent inside an art museum, lingering over the works of Rembrandt and Bruegel and various works of antiquity.
But if you are open to it, this film -- like a Bruegel painting -- may quietly unsettle you, and move you, and open you up.
Early on we are introduced to two characters. Johann works in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna as a security guard. He muses about what it is like to spend hours in the quiet of the museum, observing the patrons and surrounded by masterworks that nearly always reward each visit with some new treasure. He is a gentle, watchful soul.
A woman catches his eye. She returns to the museum several times, appearing a bit lost. It occurs to Johann to wonder "[w]hat [it is] about some people that makes you curious, while with others one would be just as happy not to know anything about them." He strikes up a conversation with the woman, Anne, and learns that she is visiting from Montreal in order to see a cousin who is in a coma. Johann kindly but warily assists Anne with directions to the hospital and offers help in communicating with the doctors.
The two strike up a friendship. It will not be a romance (Johann is gay), but they share a love for heavy metal music and an enthusiasm for acute observation. He visits the hospital with her. They wander the museum, and the streets of Vienna. He opens the city to her, thereby reminding himself of corners he has forgotten to savor.
Eventually the film settles into a kind of reverie. It moves back and forth between the streets and the paintings. It is as if the walls between the worlds inside and outside become porous, and we begin to move freely between the two. The camera lingers over a stark landscape, or skin illuminated by light, and then moves to a street or a weathered face outside, as if to suggest that one of the masters well might choose this for his subject. In one scene, the camera moves back and forth between painted nudes and a few ordinary-looking patrons -- and suddenly the patrons are nude too, and similarly unashamed.
It occurred to me to wonder where this was all going. I love art, and museums, and enjoy watching people, but am unused to such stillness in films. Even as I was frequently moved by the careful framing of each shot and by the director's attentiveness to the humanity of his subjects, I wondered where he was taking me.
An extended sequence in the Bruegel room helped me to sink deeper into the film's reverie. A docent guides a group of patrons to notice Bruegel's canvasses filled with humble, working people engaged in ordinary or odd activities.
The eye is not drawn to one central activity or scene in these paintings, even though among them might be something deemed important, like the conversion of the apostle Paul or Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary. Those scenes take place in the midst of scores of ordinary scenes, and are accorded no more than ordinary significance. Something about this sequence helped me to let go of wondering about the film's destination and meaning.
The film itself is like a Bruegel painting, not telling you where to look or what to think in the way most films do. It ushered me into a sort of mindfulness. I felt a willingness arise in me to simply be present with the beauty, and the dinginess, and the cold, to listen to the quiet of the museum, to the sounds of the street, to the aching loveliness of Anne singing to her comatose cousin, to Johann remarking in German to a colleague.
I was happy to linger over junk and treasures in a street flea market, to wonder about a discarded doll or knick-knack, or a photo of a man carefully posed but now anonymous.
Johann and Anne treat their friendship with care. His existence had grown a bit lonely before she arrived, yet they do not cling to or name their connection. When she prepares to leave the city at the film's end, they know it is time.
I sat watching the credits, as is my habit -- and suddenly I began to weep (not my habit during the credits). I felt as though emerging from an extended time of contemplative prayer. As with my richest meditation experiences, I emerged feeling open and deeply connected.
In the end, for me, writer-director Jem Cohen's brilliant, poetic film works as a kind of guided meditation, a lesson in mindfulness.