Fanning the Flames of Romance


Asserting our right to openly proclaim who we love seems like a birthright we should all possess without hindrance. But, under some circumstances, doing so may be difficult, especially when we’re pressured to conform to the dictates of others. That’s unfortunately true even today, but it was far worse in the past, when social sanctions and familial obligations were much more restricting and pervasive, as illustrated in the French period piece drama, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (“Portrait de la jeune fille en feu”) (web site, trailer).

In 1760 France, Parisian artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is consigned to paint a wedding portrait under unusual circumstances. She journeys to an estate on the French seacoast, where she meets her client, a lonely middle-aged countess (Valeria Golino), who has asked the artist to paint a likeness of her daughter, Héloise (Adèle Haenel), whose hand has been promised in marriage to a Milanese gentleman she has never met. As straightforward as this might sound, however, the agreement comes with a number of strings attached. The most notable of these is that Marianne must paint the portrait from memory and observation, because Héloise refuses to pose for a project of this kind, a frustration that Marianne’s predecessor discovered and that eventually brought an end to his efforts at creating a finished work.

Héloise’s unwillingness to cooperate stems from the fact that she doesn’t want to get married in the first place, especially under arranged circumstances like these. In fact, she was not to be married off in the first place, a dubious distinction accorded to her sister, who died mysteriously and unexpectedly. With her sister’s untimely demise, Héloise was tapped to fulfill the family marital obligation, a commitment she loathed to honor, mainly because, prior to her unforeseen recent return home, she had been living a contented life in a convent, a place where she enjoyed the “equality” of being entirely among women. And now, by being forced into an undesirable arrangement, she’s not about to make matters easy for those coercing her into it.

Furthermore, the countess explains to Marianne that she’s not to reveal herself as a painter to her subject. Instead, she’s to pass herself off as a “companion” for Héloise, someone to spend time with her, accompanying her on walks and engaging in other genteel activities. It’s during these times together that Marianne is to gather her impressions of her subject, sketching them from memory when by herself or discreetly without Héloise’s knowledge when they’re together. Additional details about Héloise’s character, manner and qualities are to be quietly supplied by the estate’s maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who clandestinely helps Marianne “fill in the blanks.” And, from these memories and observations, Marianne is expected to paint the portrait, all without her melancholy subject’s awareness.

As an unwilling subject for a consigned wedding portrait, bride-to-be Héloise (Adèle Haenel) seeks ways to get out of posing for the painting in the French period piece drama, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (“Portrait de la jeune fille en feu”), available in various home viewing formats. Photo courtesy of Neon.

At first, Héloise is reluctant to spend time in Marianne’s company, unsure of why this mysterious, newly arrived stranger has come to the estate. She acts as if she’s constantly on guard, suspicious that her mother have planted a spy in her midst. She often responds brusquely when conversing with Marianne, seemingly ever on the defensive. She even seems to share some of the same self-sabotage qualities of her late sister. Yet, as time passes, Héloise discovers that Marianne shares many of the independent-minded ideas that she holds dearly. She even envies her new companion, particularly with regard to the fact that she appears to have choices in her life that she herself lacks. And, as time passes, they appear to be on the verge of becoming friends.

When the time comes for Marianne’s big reveal approaches, she has misgivings about having deceived Héloise. She dreads the reaction she’ll get. Yet, much to her surprise, Marianne finds Héloise unexpectedly receptive, even when Marianne intentionally defaces the portrait as a ruse to paint a new one – and to get to spend more time with her new friend.

Needless to say, the countess is initially outraged by what has happened, calling Marianne a complete incompetent. But, when Héloise agrees to pose for the replacement painting, a startling decision that shocks the countess, she relents and allows Marianne to start over, convinced that a posed portrait could turn out even better than the one envisaged in her original plan. The artist thus gets a second chance to create the painting, to be finished by the time the countess returns from a trip.

Parisian portrait artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant, left) and her initially reluctant subject, Héloise (Adèle Haenel, right), grow unexpectedly close the more they work together in director Céline Sciamma’s latest offering, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (“Portrait de la jeune fille en feu”). Photo courtesy of Neon.

In the countess’s absence, Marianne and Héloise begin work on the new portrait. Héloise feels a sense of liberation by posing for someone whom she considers an independent kindred spirit. They grow ever closer, developing a new level of intimacy that transcends friendship. They spend a glorious time together, their feelings of romance surfacing without hindrance or restriction.

But what’s to happen upon the return of the countess? Soon it will be time for Héloise to be joined in marriage. Will she go through with it? And what will happen to the torrid relationship that has been blossoming in recent weeks? With a woman on fire, it may be difficult if not impossible to extinguish the flames.

At a time when women were genuinely treated as little more than chattel property, the frustrations they experienced were unbearable. The pervasive restrictions and limitations placed upon them kept them locked into incessant states of submission and subservience, with virtually no choices and almost no hope of escape from their circumstances save for the drastic measures apparently chosen by women like Héloise’s sister. And, as for Héloise, she was callously thrust into becoming a substitute for her sibling when the possibility of an obligation going unfulfilled arose, treated as little more than a commodity in a predetermined transaction. How demeaning.

Options for overcoming these confining conditions were almost nonexistent. Even beliefs in the possibility were scarce, though they were not inconceivable, even if difficult to achieve. But, to get the process moving, one at least had to be able to envision such a possibility.

Parisian artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant, right), assigned to paint a wedding portrait exclusively from memory and observation, seeks input from her reluctant subject’s maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami, left), to help “fill in the blanks” about the bride-to-be in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (“Portrait de la jeune fille en feu”), available in various home viewing formats. Photo courtesy of Neon.

In many regards, Héloise feels trapped, unable to extricate herself from these circumstances. She’s oppressed by seemingly everyone around her as they thoughtlessly and thoroughly dictate the conditions of her existence, a life that makes her time in the convent seem like an emancipated experience by comparison. She’s so disgusted by the prospect of what now awaits her that she seeks perpetual seclusion. She seems so despondent that her mother worries that she might befall a fate not unlike that of her sister, a concern that makes the countess grateful for Marianne’s presence to keep an eye on her daughter (especially for their walks along the jagged seacoast where her sibling’s lifeless body was found). She’s so convinced that there’s no escape that the only way she might be able to flee from her plight is to take matters into her own hands, an explanation for her self-sabotage tendencies.

But, much to her own surprise, Héloise finds that there may be hope for her when she becomes inspired by the example set by Marianne. Her comparatively unshackled friend provides her with a model for living life differently, a way of being more in line with what she craves. And, as this scenario unfolds, Héloise’s beliefs begin to change. Suddenly she finds herself facing the possibility that life could indeed be better than what she has typically been experiencing.

Several significant qualities accompany this unexpected change. For perhaps the first time in her life, Héloise experiences – and enjoys – the ecstasy that comes with feelings of personal liberation and independence, a rarity not only for her, but also for women in general of her time. And, as her feelings for Marianne emerge, Héloise’s passion for acting on these heartfelt instincts surfaces, a bold and impressive accomplishment given the forbidden nature of the relationship in which she engages. She no longer feels the need to deny herself what she believes makes her feel whole; the days of seeking self-imposed seclusion and solitude to cope with her circumstances become a thing of the past.

An unexpected romance blossoms between portrait painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant, right) and her once-reluctant subject, Héloise (Adèle Haenel, left), in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (“Portrait de la jeune fille en feu”). Photo courtesy of Neon.

Taken together, Héloise’s embrace of the new beliefs behind these feelings and attributes represents the emergence of something even greater – her recognition, acceptance and nurturing of her authentic self, something she’s been restricted in expressing prior to this point. In fact, she’s so enthusiastic about the manifestation of her newfound self that she even inspires her inspiration – Marianne – enabling her to let her authentic self flower more profusely. At this point, Héloise is not the only lady on fire.

As Héloise becomes more aware of her authentic self, so, too, does Marianne, and in unexpected ways. For instance, it’s obvious Marianne has quite an ethical streak that runs through her being, and that’s why she feels so guilty about initially deceiving her new friend about her true self. Such behavior goes against her nature, and she’s pained by the fraud she’s perpetrated on Héloise. When she at last has an opportunity to allow her authentic self to come through, she’s thoroughly relieved. It enables her to be genuine, something that strengthens her bond with Héloise and allows their relationship to grow and prosper.

What’s perhaps most important about all this is that these circumstances allow Marianne and Héloise to serve as an inspiration to others similarly situated, a development that had to have been important at a time when such sources of support and encouragement were hard to come by. This is not to suggest that Marianne and Héloise were ready to lead 18th Century versions of a women’s march or Pride parade, but they quietly added their consciousness and energetic input to movements that were quietly being birthed for future emergence. Initiatives like this have to get their start somewhere, even if their materialization doesn’t occur until sometime down the road, and we have individuals like Marianne and Héloise to thank for that.

While this film has a great deal to offer – gorgeous cinematography, exquisite staging and superb performances – this French period piece drama about forbidden romance simultaneously gets weighed down by such issues as sluggish pacing, an anticlimactic and often-predictable script, extraneous story threads, and an occasional lacking in gut-level believability. Director Céline Sciamma’s latest is indeed a joy to look at, and its content certainly constitutes an earnest, heartfelt attempt at a liberated lesbian manifesto. But, despite such apparent sincerity, the film sometimes comes across as somewhat tentative and restrained in going all-out for what it really wants to say (something of an irony for a picture with a title that includes the words “on fire” in it). To be sure, this is a fine piece of filmmaking in many regards, but rising to the level of “masterpiece” – a term that has been freely bandied about in describing this film – requires more than what’s served up here. The film is available for screening in various home media formats.

Once-secluded bride-to-be Héloise (Adèle Haenel) becomes a lady on fire, literally and figuratively, after the onset of a torrid romance in director Céline Sciamma’s latest, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (“Portrait de la jeune fille en feu”), available in various home viewing formats. Photo courtesy of Neon.

The foregoing criticisms aside, this 2019 release was widely recognized in a number of competitions and at film festivals. The picture was a nominee for best foreign language film in the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Critics Choice and Independent Spirit Award contests. In addition, the National Board of Review named the picture one of 2019’s top 5 foreign films. But the film’s greatest success came at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took top honors for best screenplay and won the Queer Palm Award for best gay cinema offering, along with a nomination for the Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor.

It seems only natural that we should be free to be who we truly are, especially in matters of the heart. Yet there are so many instances, in romance and otherwise, where others try to control us (and we, regrettably, often allow them to). But, by being willing to live our lives as our authentic selves, we have an opportunity to fulfill that burning desire to be ourselves. And, if we’re able to make that happen, we truly have an opportunity to set our lives and our world ablaze with a glory unimaginable.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Wrestling with the Nature of Truth and Beliefs


We all know the truth when we see it, don’t we? After all, it’s a fixed, finite concept that’s applicable to all of us, isn’t it? Or is it something more nebulous, a moving target that shifts over time? Moreover, is it something that compliantly falls in line with our observations and beliefs, or is it subject to manipulation as a result of the influence of outside sources? Indeed, it would seem that something many of us think of as infallibly reliable could be considerably murkier and less defined than we thought, either as a result of the shifting beliefs we hold about it or because of the controlling influences of others. And, in light of that, it would seem that the truth is something that’s subject to adjustment and alteration in any number of contexts, making our certainty about the nature of our existence and its components even more open to debate. These are among the rhetorical questions raised about the nature of “the truth” with regard to one particular milieu as depicted in the new speculative sci-fi offering, “The 11th Green” (web site, trailer).

Since the end of World War II, the incidence of UFO sightings has increased significantly. These enigmatic lights in the sky – whatever they may be – have captivated, mystified and frightened witnesses around the globe in that time. And, even though instances of their apparent presence predate this period, the frequency with which they have occurred has ballooned since 1945. Yet, despite all of the anecdotal and circumstantial evidence of their existence reported by their observers, the officially stated policy of authorities regarding UFOs has been one of denial, that the so-called sightings of these aerial craft are nothing more than naturally occurring or manmade phenomena. So why the discrepancy? What is really going on here?

“The 11th Green” is a piece of speculative fiction that attempts to address these questions. Even though the film acknowledges that its story is not based on undisputed fact, the opening credits nevertheless state that it draws from what is believed to be the solid investigatory work of ufologists and researchers who have looked into the subject. The story, set in the recent past, seeks to go beyond the smoking gun about UFOs and present a narrative that explains their history from 1945 onward, including both the nature of this phenomenon, as well as the reasons behind the official cover-up to keep their existence secret.

The story is told from the standpoint of independent investigative journalist Jeremy Rudd (Campbell Scott), who provides science reports for an internet TV broadcast hosted by his colleague, Lila Parnell (April Grace). Jeremy presents reports on cutting-edge science topics, but he scrupulously sticks to dealing only in concrete evidence. And, even though he’s a closet believer in the UFO phenomenon, he never touches the subject for fear of the longstanding stigma about it in the journalism community. He believes that, if he were to broach the topic in his reporting, it would ruin the credibility of his broadcast and be the end of his career.

However, Jeremy’s hand is somewhat forced when he learns of the death of his father, Nelson (Monte Markham), a shadowy figure who has a long history of being involved in clandestine military projects dating back seven decades. The two have been estranged for some time, based largely on divergent political views, so Jeremy is not particularly familiar with what his dad has been up to for quite some time. In fact, given the secrecy under which his father operated, Jeremy’s not even sure what his old man did during much of his career. But, considering the vacuous gap between Jeremy’s progressive bent and Nelson’s conservative establishment views, the intrepid reporter never took the time to look into his father’s activities, partly out of disinterest and partly out of sheer loathing.

With Nelson’s passing, though, Jeremy is left to settle his father’s estate, most notably selling his dad’s home, a sprawling mid 20th Century ranch house that was once the residence of President Dwight Eisenhower (George Gerdes), with whom Nelson once worked in a covert capacity. Jeremy travels from his home in Washington to the California desert to wind up his father’s affairs with the aid of Nelson’s personal assistant, Laurie Larkspur (Agnes Bruckner). But what starts out as a seemingly straightforward estate settlement process soon takes a variety of unexpected twists and turns that are certain to drastically transform Jeremy’s career – and could help him break one of the biggest stories of all time.

To honor his father’s memory, Jeremy hosts an informal reception for Nelson’s friends, associates and cronies from a guest list drawn up by Laurie. The gathering includes a mix of former military, security and corporate types, as well as a professor and author well acquainted with the UFO community, Larry Jacobsen (Currie Graham). Larry, a longtime associate of Nelson, seems to be an insider with deep connections in government and the military-industrial complex who skillfully manages to play both sides of the fence, depending on which way the wind is blowing. That makes his credibility questionable, yet he somehow manages to come up with some remarkably stunning – and valid – revelations that keep him from being summarily dismissed. And, given his affinity for members of the Rudd family, Larry picks up with Jeremy where he left off with Nelson.

In short order, Larry introduces Jeremy to groundbreaking evidence about the official history of UFO secrecy, including apparently authentic film footage of a meeting between Eisenhower and an alien ambassador named Lars (Tom Stokes), a representative from a technologically advanced race that managed to overcome its social and political confrontations and thereby avoid its own self-destruction. In a covert summit, Lars delivered a message to Ike reminiscent of that shared by Klaatu (Michael Rennie), the enigmatic alien visitor in the 1951 screen classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The meeting between Lars and Eisenhower thus led to an ongoing dialogue between aliens and humans that continued from the 1950s to the present, one in which each side maneuvered their way through a carefully coordinated arrangement involving matters of technology sharing, geopolitical evolution and meticulously managed social engineering regarding official disclosure of the extraterrestrial presence.

The leads Jeremy receives from Larry are helped along by additional contributions from Laurie. As they spend more time together, Jeremy and Laurie begin to draw closer to one another, transforming what starts out as an arm’s-length relationship into something more personal. But, despite this growing romantic attraction, there are also undeniable trust issues between them, concerns that Jeremy is wise to take seriously.

Besides the condolences offered by Nelson’s old pals, Jeremy also receives a letter of sympathy from one of his childhood friends, a character simply identified as “the President” (Leith M. Burke). While the name of this character is never revealed, the President bears a striking resemblance to a public official who grew up in Hawaii, where his younger self (Imani McNorton) attended an exclusive prep school with a younger Jeremy (Eli Cusick). The two classmates developed a close bond and remained friends, despite the distancing that occurred once the President ascended to the heights of his political power.

The rekindling of the connection between the President and Jeremy reinvigorates the former’s memories of his youth, including some involving peripheral interactions with a younger Nelson (Peter Tingstrom) and some paranormal experiences of his own. Recollections of these events from the President’s formative years helped prompt his interest in practices like meditation, a pursuit he engages in with the aid of guided visualization tapes. And those sessions enable various visionary experiences, including dialogues with past political figures, most notably Dwight Eisenhower. These meditative discussions reveal additional details about the incredible history of UFOs, the reasoning behind the policies of secrecy and denial, the hesitancy to proceed with disclosure, and the nature of relations with aliens like Lars. These sessions also include Ike’s accounts of the roles played by various high-profile officials through the years, including President Harry S. Truman, freshman Congressman John F. Kennedy (Tom Connolly) and inaugural Secretary of Defense James Forrestall (Ian Hart), whose mysterious suicide may have been even more unbelievable than most people think.

As Jeremy gradually (and independently) uncovers evidence of the events depicted in the meditative dialogues between the two Commanders in Chief, he begins to piece together a story more incredible than he ever imagined. But what can he do with this information? How is he to move forward? With a fitting musical backdrop featuring the overture from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, an opera about the search for the Holy Grail, Jeremy, Lila and Larry struggle to figure out what to do with the much-sought-after iconic materials they’ve uncovered – provided they even get the opportunity to proceed with their plans.

Were Jeremy able to succeed in his efforts to tell this story, it would certainly change things drastically. In fact, that’s allegedly one of the reasons why the secret-keepers have kept matters so tightly under wraps – that the changes to society, culture and technology would be so great that it would significantly disrupt the status quo. As he comes to realize, those in power, those who would stand to lose so much, are capable of doing virtually anything to prevent that from happening. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the effects of exposing the decades-old lie that has been used to preserve the secret. Perhaps most importantly, however, it would change the views of the world’s population at large, and those new beliefs could carry dramatic implications.

Should these secrets be officially revealed, an entirely new worldview – one that would be difficult to manipulate and control – would likely emerge. At present, given the wide spectrum of beliefs that different individuals hold due to a lack of a consistent definitive confirmation of the UFO phenomenon, it’s easy for those who stand to lose from disclosure to maintain the fractured public consensus, forestalling those new beliefs from taking hold and reshaping our existence. That, in turn, would thwart collective efforts to shift the nature of our existence, one that could loosen the shackles of the control mongers and potentially employ the marvels of the alien visitors to re-create a vastly improved world, perhaps even an earthly paradise, one in which the clandestinely powerful no longer hold sway over the rest of humanity.

In light of that, it’s important to those who wish to stay in charge to control the message, to convince the rest of us to believe what they want us to believe, as a means of bringing about the reality that serves their needs (i.e., those in government, the military and the corporate world, the ones most likely to benefit from, and to cash in on, this secret knowledge). If we ever hope for circumstances to change, however, we must realize this and subsequently take charge over our beliefs. In short, we must thus assume control over the core of our inner being, our authentic selves. In essence, to that end, to paraphrase an old adage about a common form of water fowl, if we have an experience in which we witness something that looks like a UFO and flies like a UFO, then it’s probably a UFO. Case closed.

Such measures are inherently crucial in the push for official disclosure. Through a successful mutual undertaking on our part, that outcome could well result. But, in the process of doing this, we must carefully consider what “the truth” gets us in the end and whether we’re ready for it. We must be cautious about blindly seeking our desired outcome at any cost without consideration for the consequences. For example, if we were to achieve success in securing an official confirmation of the alien presence, we must be prepared for everything that accompanies such a revelation. So what if we subsequently learn that officialdom has been keeping a lid on this secret to prevent the unleashing of detrimental forces, like extraterrestrials who have come here to harvest us as their next meal, an outcome they have been keeping at bay by keeping their efforts to combat the voracious visitors under cover? Would we really be ready for that just to have our curiosity satisfied?

Thus, in collectively seeking “the truth,” we must not only look to attain the answers we seek, but also the attendant consequences that come with it. It won’t do us any good to uncover the secret if it leads to our ultimate demise; the concept of Pandora’s Box clearly comes to mind here. Given that, then, we should proceed cautiously and methodically, as Jeremy does, in seeking to discover the truth. We would be wise, for instance, to devise a scenario in which the revelation of the truth results in a friendship with Lars rather than a confrontation with the visitors from “War of the Worlds” (1953, 2005), “Independence Day” (1996) or the movies in the “Alien” franchise.

In the end, however, this enigmatic sci-fi tale, which fuses elements of “The X-Files” and a variety of other movies and television shows, is a bona fide cinematic conundrum, one that probably requires viewing with an enormous grain of salt. To be honest, director Christopher Munch’s latest has more than its share of shortcomings, including pacing issues, excessive talkiness, considerable (and I do mean considerable) extraneous and easily edited material, a needlessly convoluted screenplay, and yet another uninspired monotone performance by Campbell Scott. Nevertheless, to its credit, the film also presents one of the best, most thorough and most comprehensive treatments of the dark history of UFOs, the cover-up to conceal the many secrets associated with this phenomenon, and how all this has affected both the movement for disclosure and many aspects of everyday life and culture. The speculative yet insightful and enlightening approach used in addressing this subject helps to make up for the picture’s other failings, though it’s unfortunate that the other aspects of the film don’t match up with this admirable and informative strength. Those who readily dismiss “conspiracy theories” are likely to easily laugh this one off, but those who sincerely take a broader, more open-minded view of things will find this an inspiring take on a subject that could hold tremendous promise and potential for our future. The film is currently available for first-run online streaming.

Because truth and beliefs would appear to be more relative than most of us tend to think, it’s important that we recognize that as such, for that kind of variability can have far-reaching ramifications, even affecting the very nature of the existence we experience, both overall and in its myriad facets. Given that, it’s incumbent upon us, then, to make sure we’re clear about their nature, especially in jointly created ventures, to come up with the desired results. Indeed, as avid golfers (like President Eisenhower) well know, ending up on the green is what every linksman hopes for, especially in light of the alternative – getting stuck in the rough.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Beauty, and Difficulty, of Choice

We all value having choices in our lives, especially when they offer us a variety of pleasant outcomes. But what happens when we’re presented with options that seemingly hold no appeal, regardless of what we choose? We may feel like we have our backs up against the wall, unable to decide what to do. However, through it all, we must never lose sight of the fact that our power of choice is always with us, a paradox examined in the new Chinese cinematic fable, “Balloon” (“Qi Qui”) (web site, trailer).

In 1979, the People’s Republic of China adopted a stringent one-child policy to help control its exploding population, a social experiment that remained in place for the next 35 years (a program detailed in the excellent documentary “One Child Nation” (2019)). When the policy was implemented, families that had more than one child were allowed to stay intact, but, with very few exceptions, they were not permitted to have any more offspring. Unintended pregnancies were generally terminated through abortions followed by sterilizations. So, to help avoid such incidents, the government launched an aggressive birth control campaign through the distribution of free condoms. Unfortunately, those prophylactic items were sometimes in short supply, especially in remote areas, where they came to be treated as valuable commodities not to be squandered. And, for the Tibetan family depicted in this film, the availability of those precious contraceptives goes a long way in determining their fate.

At a time when family size is being curtailed by government mandate, Dargye (Jinpa) and his wife, Drolkar (Sonan Wangmo), are blessed to be the parents of three sons, one an adolescent away at school and two youngsters (Druklha Darja, Palden Nyima) still living at home. The children were born prior to the policy going into effect, so the family was allowed to stay together although prohibited from any more new arrivals. But mom, dad and the kids are not the only ones at home. Sharing the house with them is Dargye’s elderly father (Konchok), who helps take care of his grandsons. Their life as sheep herders in a desolate territory isn’t always easy, but this family of devout Buddhists pulls together when needed, reverently placing trust in their faith to endure whatever challenges befall them.

However, with Grandpa getting on in years, his attentiveness in caring for the little ones sometimes comes up short, and their mischievous ways land them in trouble. While rummaging through the house, the youngsters come across the last of their parents’ condoms, and they proceed to inflate them, thinking they’re balloons. Needless to say, Dargye is furious when he finds out, upset that his boys would invade their parents’ privacy as they did and then subsequently ruin what remained of mom and dad’s stash of sacred treasure. And, to make matters worse, when Drolkar visits the local health clinic to obtain more condoms, she learns that its supply is depleted. That makes things difficult for her when she returns home, where she must contend with a perpetually oversexed husband, one whose libido is about as strong as that of the rams in his flock.

Drolkar’s circumstances become further complicated when her sister, Shangchu Drolma (Yangshik Tso), comes for a visit. Shangchu, a woman with a murky past that’s never fully explained, apparently sought sanctuary for whatever “indiscretions” she may have committed by becoming a Buddhist nun. But what should be a happy reunion is disrupted when Shangchu has a chance encounter with the young man (Kunda) who apparently was the source of her disgrace, reminding her of her past and making her visit to her sister a trying time, adding to the tension that already exists at home.

Tibetan sheep herder Dargye (Jinpa, right) and his elderly father (Konchok, second from tight) look upon disapprovingly when Dargye’s two mischievous young sons (Druklha Darja, Palden Nyima, left) inflate condoms, thinking they’re balloons, in director Pema Tseden’s new cinematic fable, “Balloon” (“Qi Qui”). Photo courtesy of Rediance.

As time passes, Dargye grows ever more “anxious” that his needs aren’t being met. Drolkar wants to have her tubes tied to solve the contraceptive issue for good, but her husband can’t wait for that, coaxing her into reluctantly having sex without protection. One can only imagine what the result of that is.

Not long thereafter, tragedy strikes with Grandpa’s passing. The family dutifully follows the Buddhist death rituals, giving the patriarch a proper send-off into the afterlife. But no sooner does this happen when the family learns from religious leaders that Grandpa’s spirit is already prepared to reincarnate, making his return in the newborn growing and developing in Drolkar’s womb.

Dargye insists that the spirit of his deceased father be allowed to be reborn, but Drolkar fears what consequences await her if she carries a fourth child to term. Suddenly husband and wife are caught between the dictates of the state and the tenets of faith, a dilemma that not only pits powerful principles against one another, but that also strains the relations of a longtime loving couple. Who and what will win out? That’s what remains to be seen as this mystical and political morality play runs its course.

The story in “Balloon” is, in many ways, something straight out of Aesop, a fable riddled with irony and myriad questions in need of being answered. Principal among them, of course, is, what is one to believe about all this? That may seem simple and straightforward enough, but the answer to that question is important, for those beliefs will play a crucial role in what transpires, as we tend to get what we concentrate upon. So, if we have multiple materializations are capable of coming into being, the ones to which we give priority are those that are most likely to appear. However, for that to happen, we must first sort out which manifestations we deem most important and focus our efforts accordingly. And, when it comes to determining the precedence of the issues facing this family, there is much to be considered, especially the order of importance.

Decisions in this regard draw heavily from our innate power of choice. It’s something that’s always with us, even when it may not seem that way, such as when we need to decide about seemingly no-win situations. And, as this story plays out, there are numerous choice points along the way that determine our beliefs and what subsequently occurs. For example, the boys’ decision to inflate the last-remaining condoms creates the circumstances affecting their parents’ strained sex life. In turn, Dargye and Drolkar’s choice to have unprotected sex leads to the unwanted pregnancy. And that, of course, raises the matter about whether to have or abort a baby that likely contains the reincarnated spirit of Dargye’s deceased father.

At each of the junctures along the way, deliberate choices are made that lead to the resulting circumstances that follow, and, in each case, the stakes are upped when it comes to the decisions about what follows next. The seemingly mischievous acts of two little boys ultimately prove to have tremendous consequences, all of which illustrates the inherent power in our choices, our beliefs and what stems from them. The manifestations that materialize in our world are indeed formidable matters, regardless of how trivial or inconsequential they might initially appear.

Tibetan sheep herder Dargye (Jinpa) makes a purchase at a local market to show his two young sons the difference between condoms and balloons in the new cinematic fable, “Balloon” (“Qi Qui”). Photo courtesy of Rediance.

As noted above, the ante in this scenario is continually raised at each choice point. Which is why it is so critical for the participants in this story to choose wisely, doing whatever they can to consider what might result. Envisioning possibilities plays an important role in this, for it can provide us with a glimpse of what could lie ahead. And we can enhance our ability to do this by carefully examining the input that goes into our decisions. Most notably, this involves giving due regard to the primary sources of that input, our intellect and intuition. They can help to guide us in what we decide and what results.

For Dargye and Drolkar, they face difficult choices about how to proceed. They must look to both their consciousness and their conscience, for what they choose will have tremendous impact with staggering ramifications. Many of us probably wouldn’t envy them for what they’re up against, but, then, most of us have likely been in comparable tight spots of our own where we were pressed with difficult choices. If so, let us hope we made the right decisions. And, if not, then we should pay attention to the experience of this couple in their ruminations about how to proceed.

The principal choice in this story – whether to adhere to the will of the state or the power of our hearts – is about as difficult a decision as any that any of us would ever have to make. Many of us might see this as a case where either choice would ultimately be unacceptable: Terminating a pregnancy to comply with the law but killing a reincarnated spirit in the process or carrying the child to term to fulfill a spiritual purpose while risking criminal sanctions and the likely murder of the baby upon birth. There may be no good outcome from either decision, but, if nothing else, such a scenario reminds us of an important truth – that we all have the power of choice at our disposal at all times and that it’s something we always need to cherish, no matter what circumstances we’re up against.

Not to be confused with the German film of the same name, “Balloon” is a paradoxical fable about what happens when spiritual beliefs collide with sociopolitical public policy. Poetically told by director Pema Tseden, with inventive and often-breathtaking cinematography, an ethereal score, and a sensitive storytelling approach, this simple but stirring tale moves viewers in heartfelt ways at both ends of the emotional scale. While the pacing is a tad sluggish in the middle (especially where Shangchu’s story is concerned), that shortcoming is easily overlooked in light of everything else this excellent film has to offer. This winner of the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival award for best screenplay has primarily been playing the festival circuit thus far, but it appears to be getting ready for general release, at least in some overseas markets. Its future for a domestic release is unclear, but, should it become available, it is well worth a look, the kind of genuinely touching tale that doesn’t make it into distribution nearly often enough.

When faced with hard choices, we may feel like there’s no way out of such difficult circumstances. However, when we make a decision to proceed, we also often find that a great weight is lifted, providing us with a tremendous sense of liberation, one that leaves us feeling renewed and perhaps even touched in an unexpectedly profound way. When that happens, we may forget all about the turmoil we went through in reaching that point – and be forever thankful that we had our power of choice to help us get there.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

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