This guest-review was written by Vancouver critic Josh Hamm.
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define… [and] preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”
– Simone Weil, The Need For Roots
Sophy Romvari’s debut short film is a mature, fully formed contribution to cinema; a film imbuing the trivial and mundane with the weight they deserve. The opening sequence of shots almost channel a Yangian rhythm: an extended take captures a young woman, Nora, (Noémi Fabian) in her routine and establishes the mise-en-scène with a slow pan; a cursory glance at the bookshelf conjures up images of the past and present on film, of a woman enraptured by the silver screen. The soft sounds of a bubbling kettle and the slow drip from the sink into a pile of dishes as she pours a cup of tea and settles into her chair and grabs a phone, her leg an almost abstract reflection on the front of the dishwasher– there’s fully formed minutiae and sense of a person through a mere two minutes of seemingly unimportant actions. Yet they also have the steady rhythm of ritual and home-brewed comfort.
Still, Nine Behind is not a film about ritual, or the mundane, per se. It’s propelled by the woman’s conversation with her grandfather in Budapest (the title presumably referring to the time difference between there and Vancouver), a one-sided dialogue that reveals a filial ache for connection and tradition; a yearning for a nostalgia-filled future.
The conversation begins in false-starts and mumbled apologies as Nora repeats her name and sheepishly apologizes for calling when it’s so late there. She calls with the intention of asking him questions for a school project, although it quickly crosses the boundary from that awkward sense of contacting someone you know you should know better into a groove of familiarity. Hints towards an estrangement between Nora’s parents and her grandparents slip out, but Romvari never tries to drive in a wedge between them or belabour their history for the purpose of conflict; she has an eye and ear for the emotional and philosophical underpinnings of the conversation, and chooses not to ground her film in conventional dramaturgy. Nora has an ache for connection – not only with her grandparents, but with the lost time she never shared with them. This same sensibility is reflected in the form; shot in black and white with a keen eye for medium compositions and a knack for transforming interior spaces, Romvari and cinematography Devan Scott have not only constructed a beautiful film, but one in which the form plays off the ideas as well. As Nora has a nervous bout of emotional energy as the past is dredged up, reaching for her cigarettes, she steps out into the porch, distancing herself from her surroundings, further isolated, even as she’s a step closer to the soundscape of the city below her. She returns inside after the film pauses for a moment on her last words: “I want to know my family,” and she continues to muse that she would love a big traditional family that could all get together in one room – she turns on the lights, illuminating the once shadowy apartment, and the camera is pulled back, transforming a once small, tightly shot apartment into a roomy collection of negative space that’s all the more empty given her words at that moment.
The wistful melancholy of remembering her time with her grandparents as a child is undercut as she plays mediator between generations: the anger of her grandparents and the sadness of her parents. About what, we’re never quite sure, only that it has bred regret and loneliness.
“I wish I reached out sooner”
This final line of dialogue is tender, with a soft note of unease:“Grandpa, are you there?” The question lingers in the aether, suspended in the sound waves until it sinks in; the tenuousness of our connections, our unknown pasts and histories strung together by the silver, hazy cords of memory, severed by the weight of dead air on the other end of a telephone. In a sense, Nine Behind is a film about a young woman trying to assimilate the past, grasping at scraps of time through conversation only to have them slip through her fingers.