A great actor, it has been said, can create drama just by reading the phone book.
In “Manifesto,” the feature directorial debut of German artist and filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt, Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett delivers a master class in acting by taking similarly unpromising material and transforming it into a surprisingly entertaining performance.
Make that 13 performances.
The episodic film presents Blanchett in a variety of disguises, beginning as a homeless man wandering through the ruins of a huge factory as we hear the actress, in voice-over, reading from “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In the series of vignettes that follow, we watch Blanchett adopt several more characters, shifting from accent to accent.
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One such character is a well-dressed funeral attendee delivering a eulogy consisting of bits and pieces of avant-garde manifestos from the Dada movement. Sure, it may be a bit on the nose to stage this particular segment — dedicated to a nihilist art movement — at a funeral.
What makes it work, however, is Blanchett’s delivery, which modulates from a tone of restrained mourning to a vividly profane (and hilarious) rant.
If “Manifesto” is essentially a lecture on modern art (and it is), there has never been a lecture so entertaining. It’s both a primer on — and a dry satire of — manifestos.
When Blanchett, in the guise of a Russian choreographer, tells her dancers that “Fluxus makes no sense,” she’s absolutely right about that movement, which arose in the 1960s. But this nonsensical spectacle — which features what look like dancing sperm cells — is also a funny and audacious metaphor: In the gene pool of ideas, some may well prove fertile.
Most remarkably, nearly all of the vignettes in the film bear fruit. Although Rosefeldt doesn’t engage in hand-holding — you’re expected to bring a certain understanding to the proceedings — Blanchett’s performance is so deliriously hammy that she carries the film by sheer force of personality.
This may well be her own manifesto.
Whether depicting a punk singer at a seedy nightclub or a TV news anchor checking in with a reporter caught in a storm — Blanchett plays both of the latter roles, in dialogue with herself — the actress’s versatile instrument is capable of finding meaning in material that seems to have little potential. You’ll never be bored.
“Manifesto” isn’t for everybody. But even if you’re unfamiliar with Dada and couldn’t care less about Fluxus, it’s a treat to watch an actress at the top of her game, flexing her interpretive muscles in a showcase that is inventive and thought-provoking.
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☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Julian Rosefeldt
Cast: Cate Blanchett
Rated: Unrated (strong language)
Running time: 95 min.