“I try and think about how the storm and all of these people dyin’ was part of God’s plan. But mostly I just stare up to the water hopin’ I can have one last look at them.”
Writer-director Benh Zeitlin’s 2008 short film “Glory at Sea” opens with an underwater view of a rain-dimpled ocean surface, an eerily beautiful image that sets the tone for the movie. Zeitlin and New Orleans art collective Court 13 have created something grounded, moving, and utterly unique.
The ragged figures in “Glory at Sea” seem to merge with the post-apocalyptic wasteland of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They clamber through the debris, cobbling together survivalist lives, scrabbling for joy and comprehension in the wake of such extreme loss. They struggle with the words of their preacher, Reverend Carlton, who tells them that the storm was part of God’s plan. Unable to accept this reassurance, they long to sail across the sea to reunite with their loved ones. When a seaweed-caked survivor named Jake washes ashore, they have their guide. The village bands together with moving spirituality to build a raft out of wreckage and “things with luck on ‘em” like rusted cars, beds, and even a bathtub. They cast off jubilantly, but not before Carlton pleads “Don’t you let them sail this!” to an unresponsive sky.
The narrator is a little girl at the bottom of the ocean, drifting in a forest of lost souls. In the villagers’ voyage to the underworld Zeitlin masterfully draws from myths like the story of Orpheus and Euridyce. The film is full of beautiful paradoxes: it is at once gritty and whimsical, real and fantastic, mythical and original, lighthearted and cathartic.
Zeitlin, the indie film up-and-comer who directed the 2012 success “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is renowned for his mastery of the Southern Gothic. “Glory at Sea” –in many ways the prologue and genesis of “Beasts”– explores themes of loss, unconditional love, apostasy, recklessness, and redemption. Its jagged, hodge- podge feel and deftly-controlled scenes give “Glory” human credibility while retaining its dreamlike nature, allowing it to effectively examine weighty subjects in a fantastic environment.
The villagers, burst with spirituality but struggle with religion. The storm washed away the rational and modern; all that remains is illogical love and a broken landscape. The church burns down during a party the night before they cast off, embodying the village’s religious confusion. The fragile stoicism in the preacher’s face as he watches his church burn speaks louder than any soliloquy. While the villagers pile liquor into the raft, he defiantly affixes a driftwood cross to the stern. Zeitlin questions religion’s role in such miserable living conditions, but does so with Apollonian grace. The film suggests but does not preach, and this delicate orchestration builds an emotional crescendo remarkable for such a short project.
At 25 minutes, the film surges forward at a frenzied pace that matches the fever-pitch love and craziness of the villagers. The brevity of the film is a result of its production—Zeitlin and his team spent five months and a thinly stretched $100,000 building rafts, sinking bathtubs, burning buildings, and rooting through New Orleans rubble to reveal the haunting beauty of the post-storm Louisiana coast.
Like so much else in “Glory,” the script is sparse but lyrical. The lines are distilled and forceful, the most obvious example of the film’s poeticism. Most of the emotional cues come from the earthy score composed by Zeitlin himself. It swells, ripples, and crashes like the sea. The instrumentation is distinctly Cajun; the brass, fiddles, and steel guitars playing in raw, fractured harmony. Though he is not from New Orleans, Zeitlin does a remarkable job of creating a nuanced sense of place and culture. The script, direction, and score compliment each other to form a well-textured film.
The characters and landscapes converge: a man sleeps easily in a bed wedged in the arms of a live oak; kelp and human hair wave in unison beneath the surf. The cinematography makes such unlikely visions seem natural.
Ultimately, the short film owes its appeal to compelling characters and the narrative momentum of a fairy tale. It has an inexorable drive; the odd events are what must happen, are fated to occur. A moral lesson must be imparted.
The film suffers from a few moments of ambiguity and occasionally shaky camerawork, but overall Benh Zeitlin’s art succeeds. The images –a man pining for his drowned lover, a despairing priest watching his congregation sail to their doom– are difficult to forget. When the film ends, one feels one has witnessed a genuinely special story of eerie beauty and catharsis. Forester McClatchey is a Freshman studying the liberal arts, sometimes.