Review: An Approximation of their Barbarous Manners (Christian Serritiello)

“Few films have embodied the spirit of the term ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ more than this one, which is one of its most significant strengths.”

The most appropriate way to describe An Approximation of their Barbarous Manners would be if the early versions of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and John Cassavetes paired up to adapt Waiting for Godot, which may not have been exactly what director Christian Serritiello intended when crafting this film, but it certainly seems as if he was heavily inspired by his cinematic forefathers. Running at a paltry 12 minutes, the film does not have much space to fully explore every idea evoked by this peculiar dark comedy that focuses on members of a film set somewhere in Morocco. The film is struck by the sudden disappearance of its star (Bruce Glover, an obscure character actor known for his role in Chinatown and as one of the menacing villains in the James Bond classic Diamonds Are Forever), capturing the chaos that ensues amongst the rest of the cast and crew in the ambiguous moments while they search for their missing colleague, who may have never been there in the first place. Hilarious but intentionally uncomfortable and driven by a feeling of off-kilter absurdism, An Approximation of their Barbarous Manners is a film that makes as much sense as its peculiar but evocative title, which immediately informs us of the wildly strange but deeply compelling narrative we are about to witness.

Few films have embodied the spirit of the term “necessity is the mother of invention” more than this one, which is one of its most significant strengths. With An Approximation of their Barbarous Manners Serritiello proves that innovation can often come from the most unexpected sources, and that the limitations imposed on the production were not a hindrance, but rather a challenge, which Serritiello approaches directly. Armed with only a video camera, a small space and about a dozen actors, the director crafts a bizarre but fruitful narrative about the unconventional nature of creation and the pressurized environment in which it often takes place, and how it is often the most unconventional scenarios that breed the most effective ideas. It is not the first independent film that directly addresses the challenges that come with filmmaking, but it is one of the most revealing, with the director crafting the film through the lens of surrealism, engaging with his actors, whose unequivocal commitment is admirable, surrendering to a film that does not have a clear structure or coherent direction but rather seems to be propelled by this atmosphere of intentional confusion. So much so that we have to rely on fragments of information we pick up along the way to even begin to comprehend the intentions of the film – and yet, it still manages to be incredibly effective in evoking a particular mood, one of almost vibrant bewilderment that makes for a memorable experience.

If there was one obstacle in the way of An Approximation of their Barbarous Manners reaching its full potential, it would be the length – the film clocks in at only 12 minutes, and while the director does manage to compress an impressive amount of content in such a short span, it often feels like it is only a fragment of something much larger. Serritiello is clearly a very gifted filmmaker with a strong approach to both the narrative and visual sides of his film – he just warranted more space to fully unpack all of them, especially since there is a great deal that could still be explored. This leads us to ponder the magnificent results that could come out of this film should it be adapted into a longer project, where more space could be allocated to the already existing ideas that are woven into the small but impactful narrative. The film leaps between a number of different perspectives, ranging from the actors in the film-within-a-film (each one of them seeming to believe that they are now the de facto star, since Bruce has mysteriously disappeared), to the easy-going producer and the anxious director, all of whom are working to decode the mystery behind the main character’s sudden departure. There are a range of ideas simmering below the surface, and Serritiello uses the opportunity to portray a very different depiction of the filmmaking process.

An Approximation of their Barbarous Manners is bound to be polarizing – it is bookended by video recordings of Bruce Glover, whose ramblings are about as coherent as the rest of the film, essentially establishing the tone and informing us of the film’s clear nonadherence to logic, or rather the kind that we would normally expect to see in an intimate work of independent cinema. Needless to say, the film is a fascinating and provocative piece of postmodern cinema – the various soliloquies and conversations between characters may appear nonsensical, but they are clearly designed to intentionally put us at a distance. This places us close enough to these characters to get a glimpse into their artistic process but still too far away to fully comprehend exactly what it means, which seems to be an active decision on the part of the director and his cohorts, who are driven to create this disconcerting but fascinating deconstruction of the artistic process. Immersed in the dreamlike, surreal landscape of the film, and presented with a series of disquieting faces that spout an endless stream of rambling statements which vaguely resemble coherent thought, An Approximation of their Barbarous Manners is a promising work of modern-era absurdism. It feels handcrafted by someone who is evidently a masterful visual stylist and storyteller, proving that coherency, while beneficial, is not always necessary, granted it is in the hands of someone with the capacity to find creative ways to put theory into practice. Which is precisely what makes this a film with an experimental soulfulness and an immense amount of potential.