Let me begin this review by saying that I loved Lars Von Trier's Dogville. How much? Well, I think it's safe to say that it's among my Top 20 films of all time. I came out of the theatre convinced that Von Trier is a genius. My viewings of Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves only reinforced that view. So when I learned that Manderlay, the sequel to Dogville, was going to be shown at the Cinemanila Film Festival, I awaited it fervently.
The first half or so of the second film in his trilogy on the USA, Manderlay, had me thinking (unfairly, as I would later realize), "What went wrong?!" The casting changes, primary of which was Bryce Dallas Howard replacing Nicole Kidman as Grace, were not a problem. In fact, Howard did a very decent job throughout the film (as she did in The Village: a severely underrated performance). The plot seemed to plough on at first, though there were amusing interjections in certain places, like Grace's story about her canary. It was difficult to be drawn into the plight of the people of Manderlay for some reason.
I would later realize that it was the same with Dogville. Both films reached a high point in the third or fourth chapter (I'll see it again, just to make sure) and never let go from there. Suddenly, the town and its people became compelling figures on Von Trier's almost bare chalk-marked set, and each one was beginning to have a distinct character (much like the categorization of the blacks in Mam's Law). Howard shone as Grace with a charm both delicate and strong, and with one of the most beautiful faces to appear on screen (and get such good close-up shots) in recent times. That's saying a lot, since neither her nor her costars (particularly Danny Glover, with a subtle performance) was ever flashy. With such understated acting, it's sometimes difficult to get involved. But here, it worked.
So did the familiarity. Key elements in Dogville were still there: the set, the music, the general mood of a calm before the storm (or, as Gandalf says it, the deep breath before the plunge). If you ignore the fact that Kidman becomes Howard (and it was unexpectedly very easy to do so, without taking away from Kidman, whose role in Dogville was, in my opinion, her best), there's a continuity that makes you feel that you didn't go too far away from Dogville (though it's in another state from Manderlay). In fact, that's what the film ends up trying to say, and the way the story develops near the end makes you agree.
Was Manderlay as powerful a film as Dogville was? Maybe not; I didn't leave the theatre with a satisfied grin on my face thinking, "Serves you right" and with my heart pounding, as I did with the first film. But the starkness of the film's end, as intensified by the shot of the United States map, white and blank and misleadingly pristine, as it zooms farther away and shows Grace growing ever smaller across it, consumed as it were by the enormity of it all, is stirring, to say the least. If only for that, and for the hope that in the third film Grace finds whatever it is she must find, I'm not inclined to change my opinion of Von Trier as a cinematic genius, a gem among today's directors.