Chiron the Conqueror

I wasn’t watching The Oscars during its famous flub last week. I felt it wasn’t my place to cheer for one film over another when I hadn’t paid all of them the respect of actually watching them.

I admit, though, that I was pleased when I heard that Moonlight won Best Picture, and it made all the more sense the next day when I got up and went to a matinée of an old film I’ve loved for twenty years – strangely, a film that was everything Moonlight isn’t.


Moonlight’s screenplay, by director Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney based on McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is distinct for all the things it doesn’t tell. It’s a cross-generational father figure-redeeming son drama that, if rounded out more, could have been as epic as Gangs of New York. Instead, they kept it small.

Told in three separate time frames, one when the hero is a boy, and next a teenager, and then an adult, it skips all kind of developments, letting you the viewer do the work of figuring out what must have happened in between. Its biggest payoff, when you first meet the adult Chiron, takes a good minute to sink in: “That’s Chiron? That gangly kid? Oh, so this is the kind of story this is.”

The morning after (the Oscars, I mean), with so much essential viewing to catch up on, I opted instead to see Bille August’s 1987 epic Pelle the Conqueror.

With a restored version back in arthouses for its 30th anniversary, Pelle is in that weird period of its life, not quite a classic and yet a bit outdated. I often think Merchant-Ivory and the other great period piece machines of the 80s and 90s – and especially the foreign-language films of this era – benefited from that unique period of video stores. Time after time of traipsing through the aisles one was reminded, “You haven’t seen Manon of the Spring yet, and everybody raves about it.” It gave films of this period an artificially long shelf life, and hence when the video stores closed we were thoroughly sick of them.


Pelle the Conqueror has a script (by August, Per Olov Enquist, and Bjarne Reuter, based on Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel) that oddly shares a lot with Moonlight, but in a completely different writing world. Though it’s epic, it’s contained to just about a year in time. It’s a vulnerable coming-of-age story, and one weirdly obsessed with boys with their pants down, but the tragedy at the heart of it is Pelle’s realization that his old father is powerless to stop the injustices facing immigrants like them.

Max von Sydow makes the film, and is still a pleasure to watch, but at two and a half hours Pelle tells so many extra narratives your head spins: The rich boy who knocks up the farm girl, the class conscious peasant who suffers an accident, the balloon-headed bastard who joins the circus – and that’s for starters.

So many ways to tell a story. And so many reasons a quality film in the age of streaming will be technically available in perpetiuity and yet get buried by the overwhelming amount of content. Let’s hope that its Academy Awards save Moonlight from that, and it keeps being essential viewing for years.


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