Immersive, involving, sometimes revelatory, sometimes curiously naive, on occasion thuddingly obvious, Joao Moreira Salles’ found-footage study of revolutionaries in the streets of Paris, Prague and other countries in 1968 would stand as an invaluable assemblage on the basis of its archival finds alone. That Salles (Santiago, Entreatos) muses in voice-over as his exhumed film clips — from amateur sources, TV broadcasts, previous documentaries — survey the streets of ’68 proves both the boon and bane of In the Intense Now. He’s hushed, whispering tensely, reaching for poetry, occasionally pausing on a key frame so that he can draw our attention to some detail that has caught his eye. He might pull you in; he might push you away — especially when his attention wanders to Chairman Mao’s China, which he regards not with a documentarian’s scrutiny but a son’s enchantment for his mother in her youth. (She shot the footage he uses, on vacation there in ’66.)
We’ll get to that. First, the material that compels. As we watch Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the other student leaders of the not-quite-leaderless social revolution of May 1968, Salles speaks with detached amusement about the short hair of the revolutionaries, a reminder of the conservative France from which they sprang. He considers the ways that the radical spirit would soon be co-opted if not quite crushed, how Cohn-Bendit understood himself to be playing something of a character and, most pressingly, how the movement, as mediated through press coverage and even the amateur footage that Salles has collected, developed a quite traditional conception of its lead actors and its own extras. Women and minorities often went unheard in ’68 France. And they also were tellingly overlooked by the people filming the scenes that Salles features, the cameras seeming to look past or over the black protesters, always marginalizing them in the frame.
Salles’ analysis sometimes makes the obvious arresting, even moving. He contrasts the camerawork of two amateur filmmakers’ Prague street scenes shot at different points of the year. In one, documenting the funeral parade for Jan Palach, an activist who committed suicide by public self-immolation, the operator of the camera seems free to film openly, in public, even to take the time to compose shots. In a moment of profound collective mourning, the authorities chose not to crack down. At another point, when tanks roll through the streets, the camerawork is furtive, the scenes caught from around corners and between buildings, the footage we’re watching a sort of samizdat. Salles’ attention, even when studying scenes of nations cracking down or cracking up, is on the people we see caught up in the events — and the people catching those events for posterity.
As a cine-essaysist, Salles is most confident — most persuasive and authoritative — when he is able to work with lots of footage. Paris’ May of ’68, of course, has been well documented, and scenes of French convolution take up most of the film's two-plus hours. Salles emphasizes events that often get left out in film histories and reminiscences of that fervent spring, most notably a massive counter-protest that swept into the streets after the broadcast of a speech by President Charles de Gaulle, in sheer numbers the largest demonstration of that May. He scrutinizes the crowd that marched for the establishment: Their clothes are nicer than the students. (The scion of a billionaire Brazilian banking family, Salles proves perceptive of class distinctions and also the treatment of servants.) He gets wistful, sometimes speaking in sweeping generational terms, and noting that, at the movement’s height, “It’s as if everything were possible except actually taking power.” But the occasional maudlin is balanced by his love of tart detail. He relishes the movement’s witty graffiti and slogans, reading his favorites aloud: “Godard, the biggest jerk of all the pro-Chinese Swiss.”
Salles also attends closely — but less fruitfully — to footage of a country where the revolution had already come: China. Again, his thoughts are tied to the film that he has available. In this case, his sourcing is extremely limited. His mother toured Mao’s republic in 1966, and Salles seems to get lost in reveries surveying her footage and reading her accounts, which tend toward glittering generalities. The film she shot is fascinating, but Salles’ conclusions about her — “my mother, open to the beauty of the world” — prove more illuminating than his thoughts on the Cultural Revolution itself. He cites her observation that the people often looked happy, and he speaks of mass celebration for Mao in terms of religious ecstasy. One welcome sequence finds him reading translations of the propaganda messages that adorned the walls of the cities and landmarks his mother visited. But his analysis is thin — at moments even a little forgiving of a regime whose “Great Leap Forward” had, just a decade before, murdered tens of millions. The China footage is not a telling counterpoint to the footage of Paris and Prague; it’s instead a confused detour, a somewhat uncritical vacation that Salles drags us on.