(director/writer: Chris Marker; cinematographer: Chris Marker; editor: Chris Marker; music: Michel Krasna; cast: Alexandra Stewart (Narrator); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Anatole Dauman; Criterion Collection, The; 1983-France-in English)

“There’s little chance such a bizarre thinking man’s film will have a wide appeal, but for those it reaches this is a one of a kind masterpiece.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In the 82-year-old, at the time, veteran French filmmaker Chris Marker’s Sunless, the master essayist of nonlinear films (“La Jetee”) and practitioner of cinema verite documentaries, an unseen woman narrator (Alexandra Stewart) relates in English her friend Sandor Krasna’s (an alter ego for Marker) letters that reflect his globe-trotting journeys across the world in such diverse places as San Francisco, Iceland, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (West Africa) and Japan. It mostly covers a uniquely fascinating and intimate portrait of modern Tokyo. The amazing thing about this astounding personal arcane film, is how Marker finds connecting points in all these diverse cultural places that link them together into the modern human experience.

It’s titled after a song by Mussorgsky. The film gracefully glides along in part as a documentary (covering public rituals and street scenes), as a travelogue (reminding one of a more profound version of ”Mondo Cane”) and also as a tone poem (it even quotes from the great Japanese 17th-century haiku poet Basho “The willow sees the heron’s image upside down”). It deals with some of Marker’s subjective concerns: banality (viewed as something special and not to be avoided), memory as something that cannot be fully captured (think of it as flawed like written history), comic strips as a description of contemporary Tokyo, Japanese horror films as ethereal delights, Hitchcock’s Vertigo as a masterpiece about time and memory, the frustration over Japanese society that calls for inventing new rituals that are heartfelt, Pac-Man as the game of the day, the electronic age as a good way to experience modernity and religious censorship reevaluated (with censorship in religion viewed as performing the same service it does for the moralists by hiding what is thought of as the mysterious, or the absolute or improper).

There are many spicy commentaries that are driven by concerns over time and memory, including some of the following: history only tastes bitter to those who expected it to be sugarcoated and before there was film to record our memories, there was the Bible. There’s little chance such a bizarre thinking man’s film will have a wide appeal, but for those it reaches this is a one of a kind masterpiece. It’s best viewed in the spirit relayed by Marker’s alter ego, who reassuringly tells us that “Not understanding obviously adds to the pleasure.” After all, we can certainly love someone without completely understanding our love.