Angela Schanelec’s loose modern retelling of the Oedipus myth distills epic tragedy into an ethereal tone poem. Along the rocky, dusty Greek coast, swollen-footed foundling Ion (Aliocha Schneider) is caught up in a moment of frightened, uncharacteristic violence, for which he is imprisoned. He and his prison guard Iro (Agathe Bonitzer) bond over music—Ion has a lovely countertenor voice—but their union, which follows his release, is fated to be wrenched apart.
Though no great attempt is made to age the characters, and the schlubby neutrals wardrobes give the film a vague contemporaneity, Music (2023) does unfold over the course of several decades leading up to the present, with Ion’s migration from rural Greece to urban Germany suggesting a parallel between the divinely ordained swings in fortune of Classical characters, and the wildly divergent economic outcomes embedded within the modern-day EU. Adapted from a character in a Greek tragedy, Ion is also his own chorus; as he finds his voice as a performer, the music in Music—ethereal arrangements of works by the likes of Handel, Vivaldi, and the Canadian folk singer Doug Tielli—comments on his story and demonstrates his capacity for grace.
Schanelec’s stripped-down approach, often compared to Bresson’s, is perhaps even more extreme in its embrace of inexpressive performances, minimal dialogue, slowed-down actions and narrative ellipses—every individual gesture, in its deliberateness, makes you conscious of the enormity of the forces it signifies. Her radically condensed images are tender, tactile, and symbolic, often isolating moments of contact between humans and the world. There are lots of close-ups of vulnerable feet, picking their way across the surface of the earth, and of searching hands, reaching out for contact with fruit and vegetables, with small animals, with another person.
The slow pace of the film allows even inexplicable, Deus ex machina–type events to unfold with an oneiric inevitability—to borrow the title of a previous film of the director’s, Music follows “the dreamed path.” Schanelec holds every shot for exactly as long as it takes for you to realize that it’s beautiful.
Music screens tonight and tomorrow, October 4 and 5, at the New York Film Festival, its U.S. premiere. Both screenings will be followed by a conversation with director Angela Schanelec.