Directors: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Viewed: June 18, 2010
Format: Theatrical Print (Webster University Moore Auditorium)
[Sweetgrass is being featured in a limited engagement from June 18-24, 2010 at the Webster University Film Series.]
B - Raw and curiously engrossing, Sweetgrass is unwavering in its sparing, hard-edged appraisal of a vanishing way of life. While Barbash and Castaing-Taylor are palpably fascinated by the Allestad sheep ranch, where men on horseback still graze their herds in the high country of Montana, the film aims for something far more lyrical than a mere anthropological treatise on the West. Spiritually urgent and yet possessing a bittersweet lassitude, Sweetgrass bears witness to uncommonly cruel pastoral patterns that once characterized America’s proud self-conception, but are now forgotten, withered, and nearly vanished. Nocturnal visits from hungry grizzlies and other daunting challenges lend the story a dose of drama, but the film-makers are more assured when they are simply observing the sensory character of herding life with reverent diligence. The enduring sights and sounds are sustained, pensive, and faintly abstract, whether the dirty-white blur of hundreds of sheep picking their way through a stream, or the uncanny hush of men who are comfortable sitting in silence. Sweetgrass might be an essentially American portrait, but the film’s closest kin might be Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze, as both share a quiet attentiveness borne of equal parts absorption and gentle sorrow.