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She Unfolds by Day

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/19/08 10:41:33

"She's come undone."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 CINEVEGAS FILM FESTIVAL: “She Unfolds By Day.” The title alone carries a kind of magical sadness.

And Rolf Belgum’s film is indeed both magical and sad, reflecting on a single day in the life of a lonely man struggling to care for his elderly mother. The movie itself folds and unfolds, capturing a Möbius strip of time and emotion; dialogue, memories, entire scenes are repeated and re-repeated, perhaps to express the frustration of the moment, perhaps to illustrate the inner collapse of the older character’s mind, perhaps to simply evoke a certain sense of poetry for the relationships within.

Indeed, “Unfolds” is a cinematic poem, combining documentary, nature footage, and fiction into a rush of dramatic wonder. The film is achingly personal: only four people fill out the cast, three of whom are related; the crew is almost as small (discounting lab technicians, the credits list maybe five or six people tops), with Belgum himself credited as writer, director, actor, editor, cinematographer, and composer. Belgum’s mother Merrilyn plays the mother in the film, while Christopher Wells, as the son, allows factors in his own life (namely his fight with cystic fibrosis) to form that character.

The story reveals itself in bits and pieces. An aging woman previously “ran away” from a series of homes and hospitals, and her son, lost as to what to do with her, has hired an in-home nurse (Julia Belgum) to care for her in her apartment. The mother’s manner ranges from warm and friendly to removed and hostile - on the phone, she berates her son for not visiting enough, but also insists that he not come over, that she remain independent.

Independence is the key for the mother, who enjoys escaping the confines of her home to wander off into the nearby woods. Belgum spent five years filming and editing exquisitely detailed nature footage, and he uses this footage to build a wall of metaphor: the constraint of indoors vs. the freedom of nature (in one interview, Belgum said these walks invoke the mother’s “increasing abandonment of domesticity”); the wolves pacing patiently for their prey (again, domesticity vs. the untamed, but also, perhaps, the approaching end?); the role of maternity (one collage, in which the woman explains how she enjoys the word “mother” is juxtaposed with footage of a dog caring for newborn pups is obvious, but it works).

Alzheimer’s is never mentioned by name in this film. Nor should it be. Belgum treats the matter so matter-of-factly that he has no need for the standard conventions of melodrama. How refreshing it is to see the disease treated not as a storytelling gimmick but with somber realism - when the son gets the phone call that his mother has wandered off again, it’s not presented as the crisis for some sweeping third-act climax, but instead simply a regular part of this family’s life. These are people who have dealt with this many times before, and the moment is shown here as such. So when the son finally tracks down the mother in a parking lot far from home (a scene which, to illustrate the origami nature of the film’s timeline, comes first in the movie), it’s all the more touching because it’s played as authentic, real, without tearjerk gimmickry.

These small moments make the film sing. The elder Belgum’s performance is haunting and pure, while Wells offers a quietly lovely take on his own character. Both actors blend the right about of fiction and nonfiction into their roles, allowing for strikingly natural dialogue that pushes forward the movie’s idea of half-documentary, half-drama. And they connect - genuinely, marvelously - in knowing ways, making the film a smart portrait of family.

“Unfolds” a bold first project for Belgum, who constantly risks pushing his film into pretentious territory, yet always pulls back in favor of the authentic. His film is audacious without ever being showboat-y, challenging without being put-offish. It’s a mix of cinematic styles that creates something notable in its newness while maintaining a human warmth essential to the story and its inhabitants.

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