The Fabelmans (2022) Directed by Steven Spielberg
Movies can have a transcendent impact on people’s lives, they can turn the popular act of entertainment into a life-changing experience. The sole activity of watching a movie can mean a profound action of reflection, it can shape your ideals, challenge them and even help you understand them. The cultural relationship that has emerged between cinema and society is so great and influential that it is virtually impossible to dissociate it from sciences and disciplines such as psychology, politics and sociology, such is the intellectual nexus that cinema shares with the latter that it could theoretically pass as a branch of philosophy. Films affect us in different ways, whether they are bad or good works of cinema, masterpieces or opprobrious failures, the quasi-religious event of experiencing cinema transforms the perspectives we have of the world and who we are. More than a moving and uplifting semi-autobiography, Steven Spielberg’s new, highly personal film, The Fabelmans, is a cultural dissertation. Simply put, the theoretical version of the transformative properties of the medium and the imperishable effects that movies have on us.
The magic of celluloid is present in every fragment of this nostalgic observation of a filmmaker’s autodidact training process. Traditionally speaking, that is the plot of this introspection that everyone’s favorite American director makes about his past and how it still echoes in his artistic life. The first thing one senses as one enters the initial affectionate minutes of The Fabelmans is that of the atmospheric mystery of the cinema; in which we meet the curious little Sammy, an innocent child afraid to step into the comfortable darkness of a movie theater for the first time. After being cleverly persuaded by his loving parents, Sammy puts aside his natural fear of the unknown and ventures into his first theater experience. As expected, Sammy, with his candid and wide-eyed amazement, marvels at what he is seeing on the big screen. That moment is not only pure satisfaction for little Sammy, it is the precise moment where we see the birth of a filmmaker.
This beginning opens the door to the most intimate drama Spielberg has made in his career. The descriptive fact that The Fabelmans is a film with extensive autobiographical details automatically makes it a work of individual meditation. However, it should not be forgotten that this is a Steven Spielberg film, while lacking the coaxing demagoguery of his more iconic creations, it is still the film of a filmmaker seeking to satisfy the immediate emotions of his audience. Thus, that autonomous and expressively personal musing is made explicit in identification, so that we can partake in his individual examination and reflection along with our memories. It is a film for everyone and made for everyone, whether you believe in what you see or not; what Spielberg formulates here is a universal sensibility that only films can conjure.
We already know the dynamics, it’s an American drama with the typical coming-of-age vibes, it’s a family drama and a story of resilience and identity. Almost everything you think is going to happen, happens. Nevertheless that’s not the point, it’s just the counterpoint that less enthusiastic audiences will use to detract from the film’s merits. The Fabelmans follows the postulate of American cinema with a traditionalism that is perhaps outmoded or too rhetorical; the central idea technically is to make a drama verbatim as a tribute to those classic frameworks. Perhaps Spielberg, and his unflagging wonder, is filmically gesturing a gratitude to those Hollywood formulas of filmmaking that gave him so many triumphs. What is powerful about this structure is that it functions more as an investigation than as a narrative; one can clearly detect that Spielberg seeks in the poignant interaction of his characters a therapeutic relationship between film and them. In the same way that one can be manipulated by a touchy-feely narrative, one can equally be transformed ideologically; this influential and perilous potential that a film can have on a person’s emotions is the same that it can have in the opposite case, in a positive direction and have an outcome that changes you for the better.
The film revolves around the life of the Fabelman family during the post-war period, a family of Orthodox Jews composed as follows: Burt Fabelman, played with a balance between the humorously exaggerated and the sternly paternal by Paul Dano and Mitzi Fabelman, played with simultaneous elation and depressive strength by a magnificent Michelle Williams, the parents, three daughters and a son, the latter previously introduced in this writing, Sammy, delightfully played by Gabriel LaBelle.
The story navigates Sammy’s life and family interrelationships from childhood to late adolescence, where in that confusing and didactic journey through the early stages of life he learns to love film unconditionally, and in the process, he also learns about the unavoidable complexities of life such as the vicissitudes of marriage, trust and identity; each of these issues he explores through the lens of his camera, with which he uncovers the limitless configurations for viewing reality, and its functions of altering, denying and accepting it. What Sammy wants most in this world is to exploit his talent behind the cameras to the fullest and dedicate himself to the art of film directing, but his square father sees his passion for cinema as only an ephemeral hobby, unlike his fragile and patient mother who believes with all her heart that her son should dedicate himself to making movies. Against all odds, the wildly talented Sammy keeps his deep love for film intact, despite certain periods of adolescent doubt and anger that distance him from his identity as an artist, Sammy instinctively knows that when his life is falling apart psychologically, film is his singular instrument to stabilize himself emotionally and appease his nihilistic anger, with his camera he channels his frustrations at 24 frames per second.
What more can be said about the endearing vision that The Fabelmans offers? It’s simplistic, it’s gracious, it’s sad, it’s unexpectedly funny, and it’s actively inspiring like its protagonist. When the memorable events in Sammy’s life penetrate the spaces of the art of moving picture projection, the minimalist, domestic nature of the drama becomes intensely complex. Primarily because of the defiant quality of the film medium, a special place in which Sammy slowly apprehends that the cinematic apparatus can be as harmful as it is helpful when it comes to analyzing reality. This discovery Sammy makes through film has a severe and decisive impact on how he sees his surroundings and the people who love him; for the first time, thanks to photographic ontology, Sammy questions reality and unveils heartbreaking truths that have indelible repercussions on his family. In one way or another, what Spielberg depicts in those sequences where the raw truth is exposed is one of the most discussed theoretical constructions over time since cinema was “born” in 1895.
The power of film to capture objective reality has been constantly and arduously debated, and how this original and unaltered image proves that the lens of a camera makes us perceive reality with different eyes and with much better discernment. As an example of this, there is a crucial and quite heart-wrenching scene during the film when Sammy makes his mother watch a film he shot when they went camping. Sammy’s mother, in awe, with throbbing fear and overwhelming sadness watches the film inside the closet in Sammy’s room in a mini projection, where one of her deepest secrets is dismantled. The camera deliberately enunciates the sorrow and uncomfortable revelation with a framing that locks us in that closet next to her to observe something that dramatically reshapes the emotional direction of the plot. This is a self-reflection of your reality, one that only cinema can reflect to you as if you were looking in a mirror.
There is not one, but many screenings of films made by Sammy that end up stirring many people, characters who for the first time also suffer from a kind of emotional shock. The Fabelmans wants to illustrate the introspective force that watching a film can exert on us. Falling in love with film for Sammy was not an individual thing, neither was it for Spielberg, the transcendent effects in the analogous lives of Spielberg and Sammy were collective; the job of a filmmaker is to convey something that has a particular effect on each person who watches his films. I really think this is the film that Spielberg decides for the first time in his career to focus on self-analyzing his filmography, why he made the films he did, and why he does what he does, what his films meant to people, and what they meant to him. I believe that his ultimate, synthesized answer is verified in the final passages of this film, which specify for you the role that films play in our lives. These closing acts are among the most mature and poetic statements Spielberg has done in his career.
The camera glides in lateral tracking shots, mesmerizing crane shots and beautiful symbolic compositions, this film announces itself as the most stylistically diverse film in Spielberg’s oeuvre, there are even subtle parts that don’t even feel like they belong in a film made by Steven Spielberg. This is a significant point in his career that shouldn’t be ignored, I get the impression that this departure from his blockbuster roots and sentimentality that made him famous has a purpose beyond the stylistic, it may sound cliché, but to find yourself again sometimes you have to lose yourself, and well, The Fabelmans is Spielberg operating in extremely delicate territory, where he touches not only his past but also the conflicts of his beloved parents, to whom he shows enviable respect and profuse love, without prejudice, in this lovely, misunderstood story about cinema and those of us who surround cinema: society…culture.
The Fabelmans has been one of the biggest financial flops in the career of one of the most lucrative filmmakers of all time. The not so applauded reaction from a mainstream audience is totally understandable, mainly because I suspect they were expecting a purely Spielbergian film with a mushy and immediately iconic score by the great John Williams, but no, even with respect to the music, this time Williams creates what could be called his most understated musical piece, it’s more of a nuanced accompaniment than a sonic spectacle of endless tears. But on the other hand, I’m pretty sure this is one of those films that cinephiles will rediscover in the not too distant future as Spielberg’s neglected masterpiece. On the personal side, I can say that The Fabelmans completely captivated me and left me in a perpetual state of thought that until now that I am writing this review does not fade away. For the first time, Spielberg leaves aside the “family being protagonists of extraordinary events” dynamic and focuses on family dynamics but in front of the phenomenology of cinema. And that for me is enough to define it as great cinema.