The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger is, unavoidably, an anthology film. It is made up of four shorts, each of which was directed by a different person and shot in a different season. They all feature the eminent English artist and writer, John Berger. Anthology films often recall the old proverb about the blind men and the elephant. The involved filmmakers technically work with the same material but the resulting films are woefully disconnected with regard to both theme and quality. This project is a wonderful exception. It possesses a remarkable unity, built from a shared understanding of Berger’s personality and values.
Much of this success, of course, can be attributed to the bookending of the two films most directly influenced by Tilda Swinton. She wrote the first segment and directed the last. They have a relaxed and familial tone, recalling the beautiful portrait of Derek Jarman that she made with director Isaac Julien in 2008. Similarly, Swinton and Berger have been great friends for years. Their conversations are both soothing and riveting, blessed by their spiritual bond and shared intellectual curiosity. They even share a birthday, which they interpret as if their past selves had planned to meet in a future life.
In the first segment, a winter visit to Berger’s farm directed by Colin MacCabe, they discuss this connection while preparing an apple crisp. Berger tells of his father’s silence, a World War One veteran who let this violent history hover silently in the family home. The soldier also had a unique way of chopping apples for his son, which Swinton learns to copy during the conversation. This leisurely edited discussion suddenly becomes a Proustian memory exercise, comfortably fitting the grooves of the mind and lulling the viewer into a connection with the British national memory. It is, without doubt, the best interview of any documentary this year.
The middle two films, directed by Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz, are much more frenetic. The “spring” segment is a look into the world of Swiss agriculture and the lives of animals, as well as what attracted Berger to the countryside. The “autumn” segment is centered around politics, in particular a panel discussion that featured Berger alongside an international trio of experts. Both are edited with a very quick hand, emphasizing eye-catching footage of wildlife and a punchy parade of old left-wing political songs. Yet in this flurry, Berger’s calming presence is still felt. His faith in the logic of agricultural life and his infectious political optimism are the anchors of two shorts that reel amid the environmental and social turmoil of the 21st century.
This is, after all, not a biography. It is closer to a family album. It ends, not with any sort of final summation of his work, but with a charming home movie of Berger taking Swinton’s teen daughter out for a motorcycle ride. The whole vibe of the final segment is one of quiet positivity, in which the loss of Berger’s longtime wife is met with loving continuity. Swinton’s teenage twins pick raspberries, her favorite, and enjoy them outside under the auspices of her framed portrait. This bucolic gesture ties everything together, recalling the generational glances of the first segment and projecting them into the future.
Another film might have focused on the continued legacy of Berger’s groundbreaking Ways of Seeing, both a significant moment in British television history and a book that continues to be read by art history students around the world. The Seventh Man, a work on refugees that he himself considers his best book, is as relevant as ever. But this is a different sort of film, a collection of moments that memorialize the personal legacy of this smiling, hopeful genius. Its success reminds us that nonfiction cinema is often just as suited to emotional knowledge as it is to the imparting of biographical information.
The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger is now playing at Film Forum in New York City.