Those looking to expand their horizons on art and narrative should make the time for Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy, a very (nearly three hours) long but equally rewarding debut from director Michael Maglaras, who also stars in the film.
By Adrienne LaFrance
Cleophas and His Own is the recitation of a narrative by American expressionist Marsden Hartley (who knew he had such a way with words?), interspersed with glimpses of Hartley’s correlating art and scenes depicting the story he describes. It presents Hartley in a way never before seen, meshing his personal life and his artistic expression.
Hartley likely never intended to have Cleophas and His Own published, but Maglaras felt compelled to share it with the world after stumbling across a copy for which he paid just three dollars on eBay.
Maglaras portrays Hartley, donning a prosthetic nose and chin, and wearing nearly 50 pounds of padding to mimic the painter/writer’s robust figure. His performance is powerfully authentic and captivating throughout the film. The movie itself is concerned with Hartley’s relationship with the Mason family in the 1930s, a group of people who welcomed him into their Lunenberg, Nova Scotia home and changed his life and his body of work thenceforth.
One of the most significant characters in Hartley’s narrative is based on Alty Mason, with whom Hartley was deeply in love. The drowning deaths of three members of the Mason family—including Alty– during stormy weather, left Hartley grief-stricken for nearly a decade until his own death. The emotional depth of Cleophas and His Own opens a new dimension of appreciation for Hartley’s work. For example, he never painted human portraits until after meeting the Mason family. Seeing these portraits in the context of the story of Hartley’s life with the Masons invigorates his already-impressive expressionist painting.
Some actors’ performances fringe on unbelievable at times—like the man who portrayed Hartley’s love, whose expressions sometimes came off as smug when they should have seemed sincere. All in all, the beauty of the narrative prevails, highlighted by Maglaras’ mastery of the text, and carries this impressive work. Maglaras’ decision to use the text in its entirety was bold, but it ultimately works. Cleophas and His Own pays hommage to Hartley by presenting his words as they were recorded.
It needs to be said again: The film is long. But the director promises those who stick it out will be rewarded, and he is right. This film is a celebration of the arts, and above all, the scope of human emotion. Those who are passionate about either, will take joy in giving this film the time it needs to blossom.
Cleophas and His Own is running one night only at the Kendall Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass., on November 9, 2006. Maglaras will attend the screening and address questions following the show.