Film: Liberal Arts (or the graceful art of contentment)

What drives me here after a prolonged absence? And what drove me to go to the cinema alone for the first time in life, at the age of 37? A very delicate, intelligent and touching film: Liberal Arts by and with Josh Radnor.

Curiosity around this film started building up on me when I captured the face of Richard Jenkins (who I’ve loved since he played Nate Fisher senior in the insuperable Six Feet Under) in an ad-poster at an underground station. Then, the title: for a graduate in Humanities, enamoured with art and obsessed with books, sounded like a safe bet. Mix these two reasons with a sudden craving for a rom-com and with a certain sympathy for Josh Radnor and there I was, this afternoon, sitting in the smallest cinema room ever on my own.

To sum up the plot: Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), an admission counselor in his mid-thirties in New York, is invited by his favourite ex professor (Richard Jenkins) to go back in his college campus in Ohio. There he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore student. Zibby’s enthusiastic aliveness and unusual maturity intrigue and attract Jesse, who finds himself at an existential croassroad between allowing for a 16-years-of-difference relationship to start or not. If the plot sounds very basic (and at risk to be banal), I can just say that this film is extremely good, original and surprising. I won’t give away any other detail of the story. I prefer to say about the so many precious resonances it opened up for me. First of all, an invitation to question the existential dichotomy according to which we are either young or old.  You know that very popular say according to which the important is not your age but to feel young inside? Well, I am not buying it anymore. What does it mean to feel young? We attribute to youth so many positive qualities: innocence, freshness and, even more, a powerful enthusiasm. And then we grow older, we face delusions and that enthusiasm may be hopelessly eroded. True. But, and this is what really makes the film a delicate mediation on life as a natural flowing of existential stages and mutations, does this necessarily makes us bitter, less sparkling, less beautifully human? At the end of the day, if you’re too old (not enough romantic and enthusiastic anymore) for someone, you’re also too young (and still too enthusiastic and romantic) for someone else.

Josh Radnor manages to conjure up loaded questions and doubts with an apparently effortless filmic grace, like those delicious simple recipes made of a pinch of this and a pinch of that. The story develops with a great rhythm. Every character is functional for the successful consistency of the overall feeling. Nothing is gratuitous and nothing is left unsolved. Humour and depth play together in perfect balance. The cast is brilliant and brilliantly assorted.

Liberal Arts is a gentle invitation not to get stuck into the delusional regret for a lost youth nor into the traps of a bitter renounce to all forms of enthusiasm. It rather suggests to attune oneself to who he/she is, to accept the naturalness of the passing of time and its consequential changes in emotional and existential needs.

I proposed this film to some friends before going. Reactions were: to one the title sounded too intellectual and she wanted something light, to the other the idea of a romantic comedy sounded too light for his cultured palate. Too bad for them that Liberal Arts is light, fresh, amusing and also intellectually engaging.

Without giving too much away, when Jesse listens to the CD that Zibby made for him, he starts looking at New York in a different way and he finds himself able to taste things he wasn’t able to taste before. I think Josh Radnor’s film did the same to me, whispering at my mid-thirties ears something about the graceful art of contentment…

Check Liberal Arts facebook page here.

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