Favourite / Film / Film with Female Lead / Philosophy / Review

The Burning Plain (2008)


Even in decline, a virtuous man increases the beauty of his behaviour. A burning stick, though turned to the ground, has its flame drawn upwards” – Saskya Pandita.

This film stayed with me long after the credits rolled, and I ached to watch it again. As stated throughout this review of The Burning Plain, I am happy to admit that this is entirely due to Jennifer Lawrence’s unrivalled performance as yet another troubled, damaged and jaded young woman. How many of my favourite characters, dear readers, does that make? (The Hunger Games, Dakota Skye, Malena, Fried Green Tomatoes, White Oleander, Lost in Translation, Hanna, The Life Before Her Eyes) You see? What does the fact that I’m drawn to troubled, tortured women say about me?

It is important for me to say that whilst The Burning Plain is a stellar film, and is even criticised for being an overtly philosophical, allegorical film that “would make even an English Literature student faint”, the film was carried by the young Lawrence. Her gravity, jadedness and her general sigh-inducing character of Mariana probably will stay with me for years to come. If you don’t feel like jumping right in to movie-land and giving her a great big hug (for some may see her as somewhat of a villain), I feel that something should be explained:

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” – Kenji Miyazawa

And this is exactly what I think our heroine does. So much so, that The Burning Plain guarantees itself a second watch – Guillermo Arriaga’s (21 Grams, Babel) characteristically entwined storylines and characters should inspire another watch, if only to clarify some scenes and character choices.

It’s important again for me to reiterate that I make an effort to never divulge too many plot points and surpass a basic synopsis. The Burning Plain is no different, and rightfully so. The film opens with a burning caravan, a trailer, in the middle of the desert. Setting a sombre tone for the following scene featuring a heartbreakingly lost Sylvia (Charlize Theron) throwing out another sexual flyby. Dark in narrative tone and content (and also in terms of filmography by adding a blue colour grading in all Sylvia’s scenes) further emphasises her brooding nature. This is all we really need to know about Sylvia – she’s damaged, haunted and full of regret.

This would attract me to a film immediately, but when I learnt that Arriaga was directing his debut film and that it featured one of my favourite actresses, Jennifer Lawrence, I threw myself into the film as soon as I could.

So, as already mentioned, The Burning Plain features concurrent storylines, and Sylvia’s is the one that leads. The second of these wrenching stories is that of Gina (Kim Basinger), a housewife who adulterates with a Mexican man not far from where she lives, stirs subtle racial and class tensions which have potential to provoke and even disgust audiences.

The third of these stories follows Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), a late-teenager who already carries the weight of her family on her shoulders. What is charming and incredibly attractive about Lawrence is that she seems entirely natural in the role of the troubled young woman, which is revisited in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games.

A grounded, humble and ultimately serious nature is what I detect from the young actress, and this certainly projects onto all her characters. So, this is again all you need to know about Mariana – alongside the fact that her role as the second mother of her household is jeopardised when she discovers Gina’s affair. Gina, as it happens, is also Mariana’s mother.

Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future” – Fulton Oursler

I must admit that The Burning Plain had me somewhat lost at some points, though it was not entirely Arriaga’s doing. I somehow managed to find a version of the film that appeared sans subtitles, which proved a problem with scenes featuring Spanish dialogue; a fair amount. This was interesting because it allowed me to create my own meaning from what the characters were saying in Spanish though for me, it did create the feeling of sitting in a room with two people speaking an entirely foreign language. Quite awkward.

Burning desire to be or do something gives us staying power – a reason to get up every morning or to pick ourselves up and start in again after a disappointment” – Marsha Sinetar.

When the plot twisted, I was rather surprised at the revelation; I pride myself on being able to sense the climax or ending of a film before I reach there. I don’t like to brag or boast or worse, shout out the ending, but my instincts are usually correct. This was definitely not the case with The Burning Plain, where, most likely because of the lack of English subtitles in the Spanish scenes, I lost out on so many clues, hints and possibly even conversations between characters about the supposed twist. Maybe it just turned out to be a twist for me!

The importance of the contrast between the three women and their stories are necessary in order to explore the theme of regret and guilt. The blue tinting of Sylvia’s life, the cold environment, the lifelessness of her existence, is all juxtaposed with the warmth, love, heat and fire of Gina and Mariana’s life. Keeping yourself away from the heat won’t always stop you from being burned.

Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not that is inconsolable” – Sydney Smith

Pros

  • I can’t bestow enough praise on Jennifer Lawrence’s performance.
  • Beautiful romance (meaning no clichés and cheesiness that regular readers will know I’m pre-disposed to abhor) that echoes the seriousness, darkness and troubled lives of all involved
  • Thought-provoking, important and simple storyline of the interpersonal connections we have in life, and what it is to be in pain, feel regret and make mistakes
  • I love female characters who make mistakes – there’s more than enough of both in The Burning Plain

Cons

  • Perhaps not enough explanation into the symbolism and allegories featured (fire, burning, birds)

 

Final Verdict

8.5/10

A memorable and haunting journey into the lives and hearts of three different, conflicted women makes for an excellent drama. Admittedly, The Burning Plain may seem repetitive and even predictable for some, but this melodrama for me only heightens the angst of the characters portrayed. What’s important to remember is that Arriaga’s film teaches about the beauty of the human condition; the paradoxes of love through pain, redemption through guilt and life through death.

The pain passes, but the beauty remains” – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

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