‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’ Review: A Cinematic Poem on Untold Hardships

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The camera acts as the viewer’s eye — a simple bystander as fate brings together two First Nations women from different tribes, different backgrounds, and different periods in their life. The story slowly unfolds into a complex and yet purposely articulated character study that is less about what these women say, than it is about how they react to each day’s challenges. Making The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open a befitting title for such lyrical filmmaking. 

Áila, portrayed by co-director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, is coming home from a doctor’s appointment when she comes across a barefoot Rosie (Violet Nelson) standing drenched in the rain. The blood and bruises on her face and neck are noticeable, as the sound of a man viciously screaming her name is heard from across the street. Áila quickly asks Rosie if she wants to come with her, and they rush away to a carefully curated apartment that looks like it jumped straight out of an Instagram post. Once inside, Áila gives Rosie something dry to wear revealing  — a pregnant belly.

The most impressive skill on display in The Body Remembers is its camerawork. The majority of the film is accentuated by long takes and a lack of editing cuts that add to its realism. For this particular narrative, realism is less about selling a tale of overdone fiction; here, it is purposefully utilized to show viewers a reality similar to that experienced by a victim of domestic abuse. This experience feels just as real for the audience as it is for the characters. It is a peek into a harsh reality, a subtle act of advocacy — and a tough story that has long been ignored.

These camera techniques are reminiscent of elements from Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, with tension arising from its 105-minute real-time length and a wandering camera that follows its subjects – commenting both on the situation on-screen and the bigger picture happening to people every day. Compared to Cléo, however, the characters in The Body Remembers are much less obsessed with fame and vanity, and more their own survival in spite of the cards that they have been dealt.

Rosie’s situation may be what brings the two together, but Áila’s own personal inner turmoil — which she was dealing with prior to this chance encounter — is worn on her sleeve like a patch stitched on a jean jacket. Her anxiety of being a mother was the reason for her doctor’s visit earlier that day to receive an IUD — an ironic counter to each shot that features Rosie’s expecting stomach. The camera understands the difference between both women and continuously approaches them as merely a bystander. It takes turns following them across the apartment, into the cab, up and down stairs — always flowing gracefully in circumstances that are anything but pretty.

That’s not to say the composition is ugly or rough. In fact, the screen is constantly painted with warm tones and muted colors: the blue dye on the end of Rosie’s hair, the green of the house plants inside Áila’s apartment, the random bits of sunlight that sneak in through the windows between the rainfall. If you weren’t to know the content of the film and just chose a five-minute clip at random to watch without sound, you might think this was a visual painting experiment — living art. This concept is echoed in a touching scene where Rosie turns on the record player and puts her headphones on; the sound of Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” drowning out Áila’s voice on the phone in the background. Rosie just sits and listens. She is so moved by the melody and the lyrics that she takes the headphones off and puts them on her belly, allowing her unborn child to hear the beauty too.

Both leads give tremendous performances, but Nelson’s transformation into Rosie is awe-inspiring. Given the fact that there are no cuts in the film — and so very little time for Nelson to recuperate off-screen — her dedication to such an emotionally demanding is exceptional. Every nuanced mannerism that Nelson displays drives the fact that her character is fragile underneath the rigorous facade. She embodies this important story, and her devotion to the project pays off in her portrayal.

In a time where nothing in theaters feels entirely original, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open can be the catalyst for a re-imagination of cinema. It’s a story that gives a voice to a variety of Indigenous groups — many of whom have been overlooked despite endlessly advocating for the end of violence in their communities, especially against women. This is the future of the industry: the hope that more marginalized stories can be given the chance of production, so they can redefine the medium over and over again.

Shea Vassar

Cherokee Nation writer and filmmaker, staff writer for Film Daze, huge Oklahoma City Thunder basketball fan, active defender of Rogue One, and lover of carrots and coffee (but not together)

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