January 16, 2019

Israeli director Ari Folman’s new film ‘The Congress’ is visually stunning

Israeli director Ari Folman’s “The Congress” is “a visual masterpiece that will be studied and revered for generations,” one critic writes.

Another critic took a quite different view of the film, declaring, “Ambition outstrips achievement … [it is] a visionary piece of speculative fiction that drops the ball after a fine set-up.”

Folman himself has described the film as “a trip.” 

“We want to take you on this rollercoaster with Robin Wright. We’re going to break your mind. You’re going to enjoy it.”

Folman rose to international attention with his 2008 animated film, “Waltz With Bashir,” in which he chronicles his experiences as an Israeli soldier during the First Lebanon War, during the early 1980s.

The freshness and creativity of “Waltz” heralded the arrival of a major new talent, and this new film certainly validates that judgment.

“Congress” does not deal with the denizens of Capitol Hill, fortunately. While an examination of that august body might lend itself to some rollicking satire, this movie probes more deeply, more imaginatively and more fantastically.

Wright stars as herself, getting her start as an A-rated celebrity after playing Buttercup in “The Princess Bride.” But since her early triumph, she has gone downhill, slamming doors on promising projects with her often erratic and spiteful behavior.

She lives with her two children in a converted warehouse on the edge of an airfield. The youngest is the wildly imaginative Aaron, whose rare disease dooms him to an ultimate fate of total blindness and deafness.

Robin’s longtime agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her that the only way she can prolong her career and pay her son’s medical bills is to sell “this thing called Robin Wright” to Miramount Studios (Miramax and Paramount, right?). Her entire person will be inserted into a light-festooned geodesic dome and scanned into a computer.

Then, as a never-aging commodity, she will appear in innumerable future films, but first she must sign a contract that she will never act again and never refuse a project conceived by the Miramount boss. Robin’s only holdout stipulation is that no film with her can depict Nazis or the Holocaust.

In the second half of “Congress,” Robin has aged 20 years and is sent to attend The Futurological Congress (the title of the book by late Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem on which this film is based). At this point, “Congress” switches from live actors to animated digital images.

Folman wasn’t kidding about blowing the viewer’s mind. For one, the film envisions technology advanced to the point where Robin can be turned into a chemical compound, which, when mixed with a liquid, can be purchased and imbibed by any customer who wants the thrill of living the emotional life of a genuine celebrity.

This miracle chemical has been developed by the Miramount Nagasaki Laboratories, and, merely by sniffing it, any John Doe can turn himself, in his own mind, into Clint Eastwood or anyone else he wants to be.

Along the way, cartoon characters stage a bloody revolution, demanding to be real humans again. We encounter Jesus, Michael Jackson as a waiter, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Picasso.

One of the risks in the film is that it will trigger sensory and mental overload, and “Congress” really needs to be seen at least two or three times to catch all its undertones and allusions.

The Journal had hoped Folman himself would explain some of the nuances in a scheduled face-to-face interview in Los Angeles, but he canceled this trip and any other contact after the Gaza fighting began.

For her part, Wright turns in a stellar performance, both live and animated, and supporting actors Keitel, Danny Huston as the studio boss, and Paul Giamatti as a psychiatrist add impressive turns.

“The Congress” opens Aug. 29 at the Sundance Sunset Theatre in West Hollywood.