I had my reservations before purchasing a ticket for Manifesto, a film that seeks to manifest the great thinkers and philosophers of the modern age through the mouths of 13 archetypal characters. I mean, how can you go wrong with a 90-minute Learning Annex lecture?
Honestly, the selling point for me was Cate Blanchett playing all 13 roles.
As we waited for the film to begin, the Nashville Film Festival host (emcee?) gushed about his chills on seeing the film at Sundance. My first clue that I had bitten off more than I could chew.
He then laid his bet that Cate was a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. Put your money down now and plan that dream vacation.
Then the lights went down, the film illuminated the screen, and 13 Shakespearean soliloquys rolled out. Except, these thinkers were not Shakespeare and even Shakespeare put his soliloquys within the context of a narrative; something completely lacking here.
There was so little context for any of these scenes that I have no idea, no memory of any of the speeches less than 24 hours later.
Although the Great Cate did manage to inhabit her many and varied characters—vapid news host, drunk punk rocker, deranged homeless man, etc.—dissolved in my brain as quickly as she spoke the words.
There was humour. We laughed at the odd comment—mostly non-sequiturs—and tittered like children when the gentile sacred mouth of Ms. Blanchett uttered words like “shit” and “fuck”, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than a philosophy major could name 10 of the 13 thinkers reflected.
This was less Art Film than Performance Art, and ironically, it may have suffered from the transformations by Blanchett, whose visual distraction allowed my ear to remain confused. Perhaps with a lesser performer, the words would have had a fighting chance.
Was Blanchett’s transformation enough for that Oscar nod? Unlikely, as the complete lack of over-arching narrative will keep it off most Academy lists.
This is truly a festival film, where manifestos and pointlessness not only thrive but are lauded for their unintelligibility by audiences afraid to not “get it.”
[How’s that for inverse snobbery?]
In some ways, Manifesto is reminiscent of Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was also a series of pointed commentaries on modern society, all performed by the same artist.
Where Tomlin went right was in presenting each commentary within a powerful story of a nuanced character with a unique perspective. Manifesto, sadly, chose a verbal sledgehammer over story, eliminating any opportunity for nuance no matter how well Blanchett performed the characters.
A damned shame, really, as she lived up to her billing. If only Academy voters could see it through all the rest.