Days of heaven (1978)


Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven'' has been praised for its painterly images and evocative score, but criticized for its muted emotions: Although passions erupt in a deadly love triangle, all the feelings are somehow held at arm's length. This observation is true enough, if you think only about the actions of the adults in the story. But watching this 1978 film again recently, I was struck more than ever with the conviction that this is the story of a teenage girl, told by her.

The film takes place during the years before World War I. Outside Chicago, Bill (Richard Gere) gets in a fight with a steel mill foreman and kills him. With his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister Linda (Linda Manz), he hops a train to Texas, where the harvest is in progress, and all three get jobs as laborers on the vast wheat field of a farmer (Sam Shepard). Bill tells everyone Abby is his sister, and gets in a fight with a field hand who suggests otherwise.

The farmer falls in love with Abby and asks her to stay after the harvest is over. Bill overhears a conversation between the farmer and a doctor, and learns that the farmer has perhaps a year to live. In a strategy familiar from "Wings Of The Dove," he suggests that Abby marry the farmer--and then, when he dies, he and Abby will at last have money enough to live happily. "He was tired of livin' like the rest of 'em, nosing around like a pig in a gutter,'' Linda confides on the soundtrack. But later she observes of the farmer: "Instead of getting sicker, he just stayed the same; the doctor must of give him some pills or something.''

"Days of Heaven'' is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made. Malick's purpose is not to tell a story of melodrama, but one of loss. His tone is elegiac. He evokes the loneliness and beauty of the limitless Texas prairie. In the first hour of the film there is scarcely a scene set indoors. The farm workers camp under the stars and work in the fields, and even the farmer is so besotted by the weather that he tinkers with wind instruments on the roof of his Gothic mansion.

The film places its humans in a large frame filled with natural details: the sky, rivers, fields, horses, pheasants, rabbits. Malick set many of its shots at the "golden hours'' near dawn and dusk, when shadows are muted and the sky is all the same tone. These images are underlined by the famous score of Ennio Morricone, who quotes Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals.'' The music is wistful, filled with loss and regret: in mood, like "The Godfather" theme but not so lush and more remembered than experienced. Voices are often distant, and there is far-off thunder.
Against this backdrop, the story is told in a curious way. We do see key emotional moments between the three adult characters.
 But all of their words together, if summed up, do not equal the total of the words in the voiceover spoken so hauntingly by Linda Manz.

"Days of Heaven's'' great photography has also generated a mystery. The credit for cinematography goes to the Cuban Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for the film; "Days of Heaven'' established him in America, where he went on to great success. Then there is a small credit at the end: "Additional photography by Haskell Wexler.'' Wexler, too, is one of the greatest of all cinematographers. That credit has always rankled him, and he once sent me a letter in which he described sitting in a theater with a stopwatch to prove that more than half of the footage was shot by him. The reason he didn't get top billing is a story of personal and studio politics, but the fact remains that between them these two great cinematographers created a film whose look remains unmistakably in the memory.

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