The 97-minute, 2016 film Free of Thought ends with John hunched over a sink in a dimly-lit kitchen. Through a doorframe, we see our protagonist doing the dishes and hear him whistling to himself: a quiet, unassuming moment almost all can relate to. What makes this particular, ostensibly-mundane scene so striking are the circumstances that led up to it. The film starts in Melbourne, Australia, where John is in a relationship with Mel. But by the film’s closing moments, John has become a habitual stoner, messily broke up with Mel and migrated to Montreal, Canada. The significance of the what transpires in the interim is that it isn’t, in-the-moment, transparently significant. Rather, by attending specifically to the quiet moments of our lives — the quick bong rip at the computer, shooting of a random film scene or shift at work while under the weather — that we construct a more comprehensive tapestry of our memories.
Free of Thought represents a turning point in what has been called, occasionally pejoratively and more frequently sincerely, “mumblecore” filmmaking. It is the most accomplished mumblecore film to emerge from Australia, largely drawn from the efforts of director Nathan Barillaro’s earlier feature-length collaborations with here-producer Sophie Townsend and here-cinematographer Tom Swinburne as film collective Amalume Films. Following in the footsteps of the black-and-white Metaffliction from 2013, which is impressively staged and shot but lacking in narrative, Free of Thought is Barillaro’s sophomore feature-length directorial effort.
Internationally, it also has an aesthetic quality of arguably being the most polished: Swinburne’s static camera evinces significant meaning within a panoramic aspect ratio from the interplay of stillness and motion. In the film’s most sweeping set-pieces, we see vistas in the gloaming of the Victorian coast behind Mel silently contemplating the longevity of her relationship with John after a run. She approaches the frame, initially out of focus, past the camera’s depth of field. Her gradual approach and recognizability invites audiences to consider our own myopia pertaining to personal identity: it is by only becoming intimately close with the image of the Other that we may properly evaluate it. Foregrounded upon a dynamism expediting the emotional narrative progression of grand images on the coast or even the most-quiet and fleeting of scenes, Barillaro assembles moments of quiet despair in John’s transcontinental migration.
Perhaps the most affecting moment is that of John when he is asked in the park of Mont Royal, the eponymous mountain overlooking Montreal, by a smitten young couple to take their photo overlooking the paper-colored city. This being a point in the film after he and Mel have long-separated, one can’t help but feel a pity as we wonder whether John’s significant move was truly worth it. Even though the film’s second part, when he is in Montreal, feels longer than the first, it is Mel’s enduring presence as the measure against which we can’t help but compare his present circumstances. John had it all together, seemingly, at the film’s beginning. However, by the film’s end, we are left with a startling, moving reminder of how even the most wonderful of arrangements rest precariously await the unrelenting march of time.
Free of Thought earned an honorary mention on NoBudge, the online platform for low-budget independent films on which it was released in 2016. Incidentally, or more likely otherwise, it is run by Kentucker Audley, another independent director whose much-acclaimed mumblecore 2010 and 2012 featurettes, Open Five and Open Five 2, were a significant source of inspiration to Barillaro when making Free of Thought. However, what differentiates Barillaro’s sophomore outing from the films that inspired it is its distinct sense of being also an epic: transpiring over a broad period of time, while also being characteristically intimate like other mumblecore films. Such a delicate balance of the seemingly in-tension perhaps the most impressive feat of Amalume’s unique contributions to landscape of independent Australian filmmaking.
Free of Thought’s release was following a limited theatrical run throughout a few independent cinemas in Melbourne that same year. Since its release, it has garnered tens of thousands of views: upwards of 20,000 of YouTube as of the time of writing. Commanding a mature directorial restraint, one cannot help but eagerly anticipate how he may further render the transformed motivations for immigration in our century. Whereas immigration was once and continues to remain for many an economic necessity, for some, as in the case of John, it is an occasion for personal renewal and refocusing. Free of Thought may not be a Bildungsroman featuring the most youthful character, but, situated against the radical shift that comes from international migration, it asserts itself in the canon of independent films carving out epic narratives on the immigrant experience. Perhaps, being an immigrant myself, I devote extra attention to this aspect of Barillaro’s profound and moving feature.
Ultimately, as a thoughtful, patient film about the fleeting tenderness of a young relationship and the subsequent process of renewal in a foreign country, Free of Thought is a sorely underappreciated demonstration of how overlooked the Australian independent landscape has become. Stitching together from our lives’ most seemingly modest episodes a narrative guiding one along a spatiotemporality unique to cinema, Barillaro’s direction is deeply attentive to the lifestyles of its subject generation, evincing kinship and isolation with equal virtuosity.
Lorenzo Benitez is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]