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Film Review

Museum Hours

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Flemish Renaissance painter whose scenes of peasant life, allegories, and biblical subjects are still riveting, nearly five centuries after their creation, looked carefully at ordinary peasant life and painted his visions. Only 45 of his paintings have survived, and many are icons of Northern European Renaissance art. One third of his surviving paintings are now in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, housed in a magnificent Baroque building. His paintings continue to fascinate and have been the subject of much scholarly debate about his intent but they tell us much about peasant life in the Renaissance. They are so distinctive in style that they can be recognized at a distance. In a word, they are wonderful, and as we may hear, are a vital artistic link between the medieval and the modern.

Jem Cohen, a New York filmmaker known for his experimental films, has just released "Museum Hours", a compelling full length (107 minutes) film that tells the story of Johann, a guard in the Kunsthistoriches, and Anne, a Montreal woman in Vienna to see her cousin, who is in a coma in the local hospital. Improbably, Johann used to be the manager of a local band, arranging their tours, but now savors the art and the quiet of the museum. Anne doesn't travel much, has never been to Vienna before, but visits the museum, and strikes up a conversation with Johann. He offers to take her around the city, and a friendship develops between the two. He shows her the real Vienna, the ordinary, non tourist sections of the city including working men's bars. Johann is gay, yet the two find much satisfaction in each other's company. Each seems lonely and ultimately each helps the other break that sense of isolation. Their isolation is emphasized by brief scenes of Anne in her tiny hotel room, looking out. It is late fall in Vienna, and the skies are overcast and gray. In fact much of the city is lacking in color, and the bars and cafes that they frequent seem vibrant by comparison.

Nearly half the film is shot in the museum, with beautiful lingering closeups of mutilated but still arresting Egyptian and Roman sculpture. It will inevitably remind you of "The Mill and the Cross" (2011) and "Russian Ark" (2002). Johann loves and understands old master paintings, and narrates his observations about the paintings and the museum visitors. But the heart of the "Museum Hours" is an art history lecture about Bruegel, by a very informed docent. She uses his paintings in the Bruegel room to illustrate her points. Her insights are fascinating, and I could have listened to her for another hour. Paintings are central to other wonderful scenes in this film such as Johann talking to Anne about a wonderful Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranach. Anne herself seems much less interesting than Johann yet receptive and appreciative of the art and architecture.

Much of Cohen's film has a Frederick Wiseman documentary quality, where ordinary life is seen, with little or no narrative, and no soundtrack. Some footage is shot with handheld 16 mm cameras but everything is very closely observed. In a sense, it is a cinematographer doing for Vienna today what Bruegel did for Belgium five centuries ago. Cohen shows us the beauty in ordinary things, in the details. Although far from ordinary, the architectural details of the museum are wonderful. "Museum Hours" is very visual, which seem a redundancy but is not. The only actors are those that play Johann, Anne, and the docent, all nonprofessionals according to Cohen, and seem not to be scripted. All the other characters were simply filmed in the museum and on the streets of Vienna. This is an art film in every sense, and ranks with one the best films I have seen this year. It is a quiet film, perhaps too slow in parts, but moving and its images stay with you. A gem, and surely will be the Austrian submission to the Academy Awards if an American director doesn't disqualify it. Due to the renovation of the Embarcadero theaters, "Museum Hours" is playing at Opera Plaza, and it is uncertain if it will be extended another week.

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