Jonathan Nossiter's brilliant "Sunday" illuminates the mystery of life on earth.

Published October 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

AT THEIR BEST, the movies are more than a meticulous recording of drama or, for that matter, a thrilling roller coaster ride. But in the constrained world of contemporary cinema, we are too often asked to choose between these supposed opposites, between the studied earnestness of "serious" filmmaking and the exhausted, exhausting formulas of Hollywood's boom 'n' chuckle factory. In recent years a third wheel has been added to the chariot, with the widespread adoption of a self-aware, artificial style that can sometimes produce brilliantly imaginative pastiches of the two earlier modes (see Tarantino, Coen, et al.) but has nothing whatsoever to say about the world outside the movie house (see Tarantino, Coen, et al.).

Against this background, Jonathan Nossiter's resolutely unsplashy "Sunday" (co-written with James Lasdun, based on the latter's short story) appears almost like one of those amazing capital letters in a medieval illuminated manuscript, the product of obscure, ascetic craftsmanship, lit from within by mysterious holy fire. Based on this work, Nossiter seems to be one of those filmmakers -- rare in any generation -- who appreciates that drama and painting are the equal godparents to film, and understands that a movie can carry both moral import and a sense of the fundamental strangeness and otherness of life on Earth.

Nossiter's courage is clearly demonstrated in the first several minutes of "Sunday," when we literally don't know what is happening, where we are or who we are supposed to follow. It is dawn on a freezing Sunday in a decrepit dormitory institution somewhere in New York City, and a diverse group of men is waking up. They grumble, curse, tell jokes, piss and eat breakfast, all without the scene organizing itself around a coherent center or yielding much in the way of expository information. Only much later in the film can we put it all together: The house is a church-run homeless shelter, and one of the men is Oliver, a downsized IBM accountant (David Suchet, best known as TV's Hercule Poirot), whose myopic point of view the camera intermittently adopts.

This is more than an arid, experimental style; in many ways, "Sunday" is a lesson in perspective, a study of the thesis that what we pay attention to is at least as important as what we see. Nossiter's wandering but thoroughly distinctive eye has a way of isolating the strange within the ordinary: the bubbling struggles of the crabs and lobsters in a restaurant tank; a worker at White Castle spacing out and staring into the middle distance. While Oliver, a defrocked member of the middle class, is our focal point, we also witness fragments of how the other men from the shelter spend their day, delivered without a hint of judgment or commentary. One tries to pry open an old chest found in a junkyard; another sings karaoke Verdi on a Times Square subway platform; a third shivers on a highway overpass, feverishly writing in Arabic; a fourth not-so-covertly masturbates on a park bench.

As the paunchy, balding Oliver begins to lumber through his "day of nothingness" on the streets of Queens, he is approached by Madeleine (Lisa Harrow), a middle-aged English actress carrying an enormous, half-dead potted plant. Madeleine mistakes him for a film director named Matthew she met years ago, and in an uncharacteristic spasm of bravado, Oliver decides to play along and go where the day takes him. At least that's what seems to happen. Although plot, in the narrow sense, is not a central concern of "Sunday," it's best if I don't go much further. Suffice it to say that Madeleine seems increasingly interested in the shared symbolic fiction the two create together over the course of Sunday afternoon, and increasingly willing to overlook the evidence that Oliver is not in fact the filmmaker who once told her that "doubt is the protoplasm of all real art."

Suchet plays the ponderous Oliver with tremendous discretion; he seems to be a man in shock, whose emotional insides have been carved out by the calamitous collapse of his life. But it is Harrow who performs an alchemical, fearless tour de force, making Madeleine simultaneously a daffy lady with scrambled egg stuck in her teeth and a powerfully erotic presence. At one moment she'll seem to be as pathetic a figure as Oliver, protesting that the "real" Madeleine went happily home to London years ago, leaving behind an "unperson" in the "unplace" called Queens. (The Chamber of Commerce in New York's largest borough won't find much to like in this film.) At the next, she'll appear to be a voracious sexual predator, a sort of female Bluebeard wielding a lethal pair of pruning shears.

Nossiter does such an admirable job of enmeshing us and his two principals (along with Madeleine's estranged husband, played by Larry Pine) in their strange fairy-tale afternoon that his half-assed resolution of their situation, although plausible enough, comes as a grave letdown. Like so many movies, "Sunday" just sort of peters out, rather than finding an actual ending. At least we have reason to hope that this filmmaker, so clearly endowed with tremendous imaginative power and sophisticated human sympathy, will learn that art does not have to disappoint simply to emulate life, which so often does.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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