All A’s in ‘Science’ 

'Jesus Camp' at Market Street.

DREAMY: Bernal in "Sleep."
  • DREAMY: Bernal in "Sleep."

Though they have a long history of contributing to the advancement of cinema, I have most often found French movies to be — how do you say? — pretentious, bland and mostly pointless. That said, French films can also have a sense of inventiveness and real human interaction — traits that I wish more American films could work in between explosions.

Take, for example, the new film “The Science of Sleep,” by French director Michel Gondry. With more of a kind of extended riff on dreams and the creative mind than an actual plot, “Sleep” turns out to be a sweet morsel of a film. While it’s not for everyone, those willing to let down the guard and be taken by it are in for a awe-inspiring ride.

Gael Garcia Bernal (whose performance single-handedly saved “The Motorcycle Diaries,” the 2004 bio-pic of a young Che Guevara) stars as Stephane, a manic and childlike young Mexican who comes to live with his mother in her apartment in Paris. Promised a job that will stir his creative juices, Stephane instead finds himself living in his childhood bedroom (unchanged from when he was a boy, including a crib-sized bed with cartoon sheets) and employed in the most boring work imaginable: doing layout for a calendar company in a dank, windowless basement. This work gives Stephane time to daydream, however, and we are often thrust without warning through the wall of his subconscious, into the fantastic world of his mind. After a moving accident in which his hand is nearly crushed by a falling piano, Stephane strikes up a friendship with his shy, across-the-hall neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). While his ball-of-fire antics and bizarre outlook on life thrill her at first, she is eventually weirded out by Stephane, who gradually sinks so far into his dream world that he can no longer tell the difference between it and the world outside his head.

While director Gondry returns here to many of the concepts he used in his previous film “Endless Sunshine of the Spotless mind,” “The Science of Sleep” is not nearly as plotted as that film, and doesn’t try to be. For the most part, it’s simply an excuse for Gondry to introduce us to Stephane’s peculiar take on the world both inside and outside his mind. That’s a dazzling place to be, with all the effects there strictly pre-kindergarten: vast cities made of paper, “water” that comes out of the tap as rumpled blue cellophane; a television studio created completely from cardboard and egg cartons, and a patchwork pony that comes alive thanks to stop-motion animation.

Bernal shows his range by playing the manic Stephane, a role that could have tipped decidedly in a creepy, Michael Jackson/manboy direction in the hands of a lesser actor. However, Bernal — as did Tom Hanks in “Big” — sets just the right balance between innocence and adulthood. The result (again like “Big”) is a film that uses a childlike narrator to explore some of the deepest emotional problems of being adult: love, passion and leaving.

“Sleep” is a beautiful and even artful piece of film. If you’re into the surreal and can roll with its quirkiness, it’s is a film you’re sure to enjoy.

— David Koon

Feeding the fire
“Warlocks are an enemy of God. And had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death. You don’t make heroes out of warlocks.” These are the words of Becky Fischer, a children’s pastor who runs “Kids on Fire,” a religious camp in North Dakota and the subject of the powerful and chilling documentary “Jesus Camp” by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

The film follows Fischer and three children, Levi, Tori and Rachel, each of whom convene annually at Fisher’s camp. It is no secret that the evangelical Christian movement is alive in America. This film intends to tell us how people like Becky Fisher plan on keeping the movement alive.

In order to do that, Fischer must not only destroy Mr. Potter and his band of witchcraft brothers, but she must also indoctrinate 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds with beliefs that cover the political spectrum: anti-abortion, pro-prayer in schools, pro-George Bush, pro-Samuel Alito. Are these children mature enough to understand these issues? That’s not the point, Fischer argues. The point is for the church to tell them before they become mature enough to understand them. Oh, yeah, right, sure. What?

But you cannot dwell on the politics behind this film because to do so would be an exercise in aggravation. Rather, you must think about the mission of this camp and others like it. With rhetoric like “building God’s army,” and “let the battle begin,” it’s difficult to understand where the religious line ends and the religious fanaticism line begins. This is no clearer than watching young Levi, Rachel and Tori talking about their training as “warriors” and how it would be cool to be a martyr. You can only hope they won’t act on what they’re saying someday.

The 84-minute film, opening Friday at Market Street Cinema, is an inside look at the children of this movement. It’s also a look at the movement’s relationship to the Republican Party, which is at its clearest when Fischer hauls out a cardboard cutout of President Bush and instructs the kids to pray.

Ewing and Grady have taken a hands-off approach in this film. They let Fischer and the kids do all the talking. It turns out they have a lot to say. And so does this film.

— Blake Rutherford


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