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God's Country

Suns Cinema
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In 1979, Louis Malle traveled into the heart of Minnesota to capture the everyday lives of the men and women in a prosperous farming community. Six years later, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, he returned to find drastic economic decline. Free of stereotypes about America’s “heartland,” God’s Country, commissioned for American public television, is a stunning work of emotional and political clarity.


After the cathartic experience of Phantom India (1969), Louis Malle vowed to devote more time to documentary work, which he felt could more purely evoke the present. Thus in between the fictional past of Murmur of the Heart (1972) and the fantasy world of Black Moon (1975) he undertook two contemporary French documentary features, Humain, trop humain (1973) and Place de la République (1974). And he continued to alternate between nonfiction and narrative when he relocated to the United States, in 1975, to direct Pretty Baby. In the spring of 1979, he was approached by PBS to make a documentary about America, on a subject of his choosing. Malle agreed and eagerly trekked out to Minneapolis, with the intention of investigating his latest fascination: the indoor shopping mall. When that idea fell through (partly because of the echoing of the malls’ incessant Muzak, which Malle detested), he ended up searching for a bit of “America’s heartland.”

About sixty miles west of Minneapolis, Malle came upon Glencoe, Minnesota, a friendly little farming community with a population of five thousand, 80 percent of German origin. The heavily accented Frenchman is greeted with curiosity but general warmth by the townspeople, even as they show a slight distrust of this stranger—especially when he asks them why there are no black or visible gay communities in Glencoe. Yet Malle burrows beneath the fairs and bingo nights to get past the stereotypes of the narrow Midwesterner and, in interviewing a wide array of locals, discovers some hidden cultural vibrancy (there’s even a progressive theater group, staging a play titled Much Ado About Corn) and openness of thought, as well as the lingering pain and divisiveness of Vietnam’s legacy, illustrated both by disillusioned war veterans and parents of former protestors.

The great challenge of a documentary like God’s Country is that it’s set in a town where, ostensibly, “nothing happens.” Yet through his camera, Malle becomes something of a late-twentieth-century Alexis de Tocqueville, looking with admiration and fascination at a way of life almost as foreign to him as India’s. In August 1985, after PBS had taken years to raise the funding to edit the film, Malle returned, camera in tow, to see what had become of Glencoe. And six years on, he finds much more than a drastic change in hairdos: the economic recession and farming crisis of the Reagan era have taken their toll on this once prosperous community.

Thus God’s Country comes to follow from Malle’s earlier documentaries in its evocation of working-class desperation. And in its use of the camera as a confessional tool, it goes even further than Place de la République—most vividly in Malle’s interview, during his first visit, with the twentysomething office worker who says she feels trapped by her town’s bigotry and provincialism. “There was something about her, because she was looking at the camera, which made it a lot more intimate and disturbing,” Malle later said of this woman, whose darting eyes are reminiscent of the girl caught in Humain, trop humain’s final freeze-frame. Upon returning in 1985, Malle discovered that this “Madame Bovary of Glencoe” had left for Florida, perhaps to find greener pastures. - Michael Koresky, Criterion Collection ---

“Malle paints a portrait of the nostalgic “old way” – the muted expectations, the contentment in gentle community and piety, all the humble concession to life’s waves – and laments the way it faded, replaced by our contemporary obsession with greed. This is the sad and quiet beginning of the perversion of the American Dream, reaching into even the sleepiest and friendliest corners of the country. A very beautiful film.” Malkin, MUBI.com


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