Emotional Arithmetic, based on a novel by Matt Cohen (I guess, a Jew), begins with an astounding remark "If you ask me if I believe in God, I am forced to answer does God believe in us?" The film is not about atheism. But it is a startling opening statement that makes you re-evaluate the film even after the movie is over. It reflects on the terrible scars left by war on orphans, on individuals who stand up and protest when wrong is done, on relationships forged in times of stress, pain and loss. It probes the secondary effect the scarred individuals have on their close family, who were not directly affected by World War II. Thus, a beautiful Canadian landscape seems to hide the horrors that inhabit the minds of some of its inhabitants.
The charm of Paolo Barzman's second film rests considerably in the hands of the capable actors—-Susan Sarandon, Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer and Gabriel Byrne—-all who have a maturity to carry off their parts in the film with grace. Ms Sarandon has matured into a formidable actress in recent films and this one definitely showcases her talent. Ms Sarandon plays a comfortably married middle aged grandmother who cannot forget the trauma of having experienced life in a Nazi concentration camp called Drancy as a young American-born girl. Plummer plays her husband who is constantly worried about her health (“Did you take your pills?”).
Elementary arithmetic adds these facts to tell us that her character is not very stable. Add on the sudden arrival of her benefactor at the camp a Polish dissident played by the enigmatic Max von Sydow, the first meeting after a gap of some 40 years. Another addition to the equation is the arrival of concentration campmate played by Gabriel Byrne, another character indebted for life to the Polish dissident. Old memories, old flames of love are rekindled. Possible emotional multiplication is suggested in the emotional equation. The husband seems to be threatened with an eminent subtraction from the emotional equation. What follows is not as important as the equation itself. The film offers some answers—you can get run over a speeding train at an unmanned crossing, or just be able to survive and move on with your determination.
If you are familiar with cinema of Bergman, the film offers tantalizing parallels with Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. Both films have Max von Sydow. Both have a pivotal wooden dining table in the open air as an important prop for the story. In both films, you have rain that is likely to fall on the table. In both films, a woman is in a fragile mental state, with men hovering around her watching her with concern.
Screened at the 12th International Film Festival of Kerala, India, the film forced this viewer to compare the contents of Emotional Arithmetic also with those of a Swiss documentary A Song for Argyris, also shown at the festival. Both films underlined the difficulties in forgetting tragic events in our lives and moving on. Both films indirectly discuss the bonding of survivors of tragic events. As I watched the film I could not help but note the growing interest filmmakers in family bonds—in Emotional Arithmetic it is merely a subplot balancing a "virtual" family that suffered during the Nazi rule with that of a real family comprising three generations living in idyllic conditions in a most beautiful part of Canada.This film would offer considerable material to reflect on for the viewer, beyond the actual events shown on the screen.Though there is no mention of a divine presence, the use of the vertical crane shots of the dining table and the car at interesting junctures in the film seem to suggest this debatable interpretation. This Canadian film provides eye-candy locations that grab your attention from the opening shot. Mesmerizing crane shots provide an unusual charm to the high technical quality of the film, which becomes all the more apparent on the large cinemascope/Panavision screen. So is the competent editing of the sequences that make the viewing process delectable.
Emotional Arithmetic could fetch acting honors for Susan Sarandon, Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer (his best performance to date after his formidable lead performance in Phillip Saville’s Oedipus the King made in 1967), when the film is officially released.
Like another Canadian film Away from Her (which shares the same gifted cinematographer Luc Montpellier with Emotional Arithmetic and shown at the 11th edition of the Kerala festival more than a year ago), Canadian cinema has proved capable of dealing with serious subjects with the help of international actors, without resorting to the commercial gimmicks of mainstream American cinema, and employing high standards of craftsmanship in the true tradition of the famous Canadian filmmaker Claude Jutra!
P.S. The films Away from Her, A Song for Argyris and Through a Glass Darkly have been reviewed earlier on this blog.