Venice 2020: Chloe Zhao's Soulful, Gorgeous 'Nomadland' Journey
by Alex Billington
September 13, 2020
Home is where the heart is. And as they say in this film: a house is not the same as a home. Being house-less is not the same as being homeless. That's a lesson we can all learn. Nomadland is the third feature film made by acclaimed filmmaker Chloe Zhao, following her massive success with the indie film The Rider in 2017/2018. This time she follows a lonely drifter named Fern as she travels around various places in the United States of America in a van she calls home. She lives and sleeps in the van, and finds cheap places to park and stay in order to live off-grid, inexpensively, and without any other baggage to carry around. But it's not an easy life, and Fern still must find some work to pay for food and other expenses. Nomadland is the most soulful film of the year. It's utterly gorgeous, a poetic journey into the van-life of modern nomads.
Much like her past two films, Nomadland and is an authentic and entirely believable look at real life on the road. Frances McDormand stars in the film as Fern, and while she is an actor playing a role and giving a performance, it definitely feels like she's real person being observed in a documentary film. And it looks like she seriously lived like this. But Chloe Zhao has had time to hone her craft over the past few films, bringing back her DP Joshua James Richards to shoot this film again. And with their powers combined, they're able to capture the breathtaking, stunning look of the Americana landscape and sunsets galore as she makes her way around the Badlands in the Dakotas and other desolate, humble locations. It starts out by telling the story of a town that, after a mine closed, the town just disappeared, and many of the residents were forced to pack up and leave. They were scattered into the wind, some now drifting around with no "home" anymore.
There's plenty of obvious commentary in this film about the way America has changed drastically recently, and how impoverished people still seem to suffer and struggle the most. Their life has not improved much, despite other people's lives elsewhere getting better. On the surface, the film is about a woman who learns to appreciate and enjoy the van-life living out of her vehicle and freely traveling wherever she wants, whenever she wants. Not tied down to anything, or any home or any place, anymore. But behind the curtain, I think this film is actually truly about freedom. A freedom many think they have, but they really don't. And that's both poignant and refreshing to see addressed in such a poetic, cinematic way. It's not to say that owning a home implies that one doesn't have "freedom". But it is a reminder there is a kind of freedom in stepping away from that structured, fortified life that American capitalism blatantly encourages of so many people.
It's such an exquisite film. It's so revitalizing and moving and inspiring despite its somber mood. There is an enveloping melancholy and sadness that is an important part of the film. But it's heartfelt, a reminder to truly live our lives with fervor not just remember what we were before. Maybe some people would rather watch every sunset from a new place every day, and maybe that can be just as fulfilling as owning a home. The music by Ludovico Einaudi in this is spine-tingling exceptional and fits right in with the imagery in the most magical of ways. I believe that the magic in Zhao's filmmaking might just convince more people to be free. To pack it up, leave it all behind, and go out to join Fern and everyone else. Even if that doesn't happen, watching Nomadland is an enlivening experience - as memorable and as inspiring as any roadtrip.
Alex's Venice 2020 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
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