The Cloud Of Unknowing

Photographer-turned-filmmaker Richard Sylvarnes' first feature is a delicate watercolor dream of a ghost story, as insubstantial and tremulously haunting as an unquiet spirit. Set in New York City and shot on digital video, the film's smudged, ethereal look is by turns limpidly beautiful and gently eerie. Dr. John Bennett (D.J. Mendel) drifts through his...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Photographer-turned-filmmaker Richard Sylvarnes' first feature is a delicate watercolor dream of a ghost story, as insubstantial and tremulously haunting as an unquiet spirit. Set in New York City and shot on digital video, the film's smudged, ethereal look is by turns limpidly beautiful and gently eerie. Dr. John Bennett (D.J. Mendel) drifts through his own life like a phantom, tormented by memories of his wife's death three years earlier, cloistering himself in his lab and ignoring the tentative advances of his colleague, Dr. Larson (Lisa Walter). Larson, meanwhile, is frustrated by a new patient, a silent woman (Miho Nikaido) pulled from the river after an apparent suicide attempt; the woman subsequently slips away from the hospital and vanishes onto the streets. She stows away in a pickup truck whose driver, Mike (Dave Simonds), is slipping into an alcoholic fog in the wake of a shattered romance, and makes her way to Brooklyn, where John lives. John finds her in the morning and is stunned by her resemblance to his late wife, Yuko (also Nikaido); while he's still pulling himself together, she darts up the stairs and into his apartment, drawn inexorably to the blue-and-white ginger jar containing Yuko's ashes. The woman disappears as mysteriously as she arrived, leaving the shattered ginger jar and Yuko's ashes in a heap on the floor, and John's fragile psyche further damaged. John's grief, rooted in guilt because Yuko drowned after a car accident and he escaped, drives him to the parlor of storefront fortune-teller Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), who suggests a ritual to contact Yuko's restless soul. But the ceremony has unexpected consequences for everyone through whose life the silent woman has passed. Sylvarnes' debut, which was produced by Hal Hartley, takes its title from an obscure, 14th-century Christian treatise that urges spiritual searchers to value personal experience of God — or ghosts — over doctrinal dictates, and stresses the power of love to calm the soul and enrich all life's experiences. The film is rich with evocative images and while never frightening, it creates a pervasive atmosphere of unease that lingers like the faint scent of unfamiliar perfume.

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Photographer-turned-filmmaker Richard Sylvarnes' first feature is a delicate watercolor dream of a ghost story, as insubstantial and tremulously haunting as an unquiet spirit. Set in New York City and shot on digital video, the film's smudged, ethereal loo… (more)

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