In direct opposition to both the Hollywood norm and the edgier indie approach, Nina Danino’s Temenos investigation/meditation on visitations by the Virgin Mary possesses neither the overwrought reverence of The Song of Bernadette and The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima nor the (wonderfully) distasteful irreverence of John Waters’ Pecker. Rather, as is befitting a release under the BFI’s History of Avant-Garde umbrella, Danino’s feature is defiantly experimental; at once non-narrative yet also sharing an intriguing kinship with the detective story.
The method is deceptively simple: Temenos consists of footage Danino has shot at the sites of various visitations, assembled together with little in the way of direct context (we are never told, for example, where these places are, though the sleeve notes reveal their locations as ranging from Portugal to Bosnia), but with the aim of capturing their “essence”. As though unsure of how to penetrate this, understandably so, a number of differing techniques are used: the sparse landscapes are recorded in a variety of fashions and on a variety of film stocks, from handheld to sleek 360° pans, from high contrast black and white to bleached out, near-monochromatic colour. The result is superbly evocative, creating at once matter-of-fact and disquietingly unfamiliar. Certainly, trees, roads and the like are instantly recognisable, yet here they are imbued with genuine mystery. It’s an aspect only heightened when we witness a person straying into these alien locales - a dose of the documentary to bring us back to earth. Indeed, whether we choose to believe or not, there is an undeniable power to these images.
Being very much a film about that what is not seen as it is about that which is, Temenos also relies extensively on its soundtrack to enhance this atmosphere. A narrative of sorts is provided, with Danino and others relating a multi-lingual series of recollections (with subtitles thereby enhancing the air of the unknown) alongside a presumably diegetic recording of their various locations (dogs barking in the distance, harsh winds, etc.). Combining with this relatively benign assemblage is a truly remarkable soundscape largely made up of the talents of “experimental vocalist” Shelley Hirsch. It is her contribution which provides Temenos with its greatest - and most immediate - strength. As with the imagery, this too shifts between the familiar and the unfamiliar; at one moment she is able to produce almost lullaby-like melodies, the next the most chillingly primal guttural noises imaginable. The sheer intensity is powerful in the extreme, not to mention challenging. If the images proved forceful on their own merits, Hirsch is able to magnify this tenfold.
There is, however, a question as to whether of Temenos actually works best as a piece of cinema. Its one undeniable flaw is that it is overlong; Danino seems to have a problem reaching a conclusion, and it comes as no surprise to discover that she works largely in the short film format. Certainly, this is a film which needs time to breathe and build its atmosphere (not to mention a certain suspense, the constant toing-and-froing between the same locations hinting that we may witness one such visitation), yet it also gives the impression that it would prove more affecting as an installation piece. Indeed, whilst experimental cinema can often be the most exciting use of the medium owing to its willingness to test the boundaries, in a manner which narrative film-making rarely - if ever - does, Temenos doesn’t seem truly “at home”. Ironically, the likes of Andy Warhol’s Empire and Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho are often screened solely in gallery conditions preventing their viewers from undergoing their entire respective experiences, yet given some slight adaptations, this is exactly where Danino’s piece belongs.
For a film which derives so much power from its soundtrack, Temenos needs to sound no less than superb on disc. Fortunately, the BFI’s disc does exactly that, using only the front two channels, but this is plentiful when undergoing the experience (a DD5.1 mix may in fact have proven too much). Likewise, the picture quality is fine, though bear in mind that the grain and other defects in the image are the result of the various film stocks employed and not the fault of the disc’s manufacturers.
Extras are sadly limited to a brief biography of Danino plus sleeve notes by Helen de Witt. Both are fine as far as they go, and do provide some context for the piece, but the impression given is that the film needs more. Perhaps a commentary wouldn’t be appropriate, though a lengthy interview with Danino, discussing both the film and her career, would have been heartily welcomed.