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Review: News from Home

At its core, all of Chantal Akerman’s most renowned work is about observation. This is true of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which eschews traditional plot structure in favor of mood; and it’s true of News from Home, her 1977 nonfiction film (the term “documentary” doesn’t quite apply), in which she points her camera at New York City, recording… well, whatever she happens to find: pedestrians, traffic, crowded subway cars, empty diners, trash-strewn alleyways, and derelict buildings, ending with a breathtaking shot of the entire Manhattan skyline (shrouded in a dramatic fog).

This stark, evocative imagery is accompanied by detached, monotone narration that features excerpts from actual letters written by the director’s mother. She covers a wide variety of topics in these correspondences, from the current state of the family’s health (usually deteriorating) to the sociopolitical climate back in Europe (usually turbulent)—but for the most part, she just implores her daughter to put more effort into keeping in touch.

What deeper emotional truth is the juxtaposition between these words and visuals intended to convey? Urban alienation? A desire for greater independence? Simple homesickness? Ultimately, Akerman leaves such matters up to the viewer’s interpretation; she’s more interested in poetic rhythm than concrete meaning—and News from Home flows ever so beautifully.

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