I watched The New World in halves on two consecutive nights - I didn't do this intentionally, but in a way it worked because the film itself tells a story that takes place in two acts. And I am so very glad for the second act; the first act - while still classic Malick: amazing cinematography and music, beautifully edited, a truly visceral experience - really began grating on me in a few ways. While Badlands and Days of Heaven give us rather naive, simple narrations/narrators that provide often odd and interesting contrasts to the visuals, the narration of The New World's first act was so gushing, was so "profound," that I almost couldn't bear it. While the visuals of Badlands and Days of Heaven are not so much explained, or noticed by the narrators (for the most part), and the wrenching stories offer a compelling contrast to the beauties of the natural world, with The New World, it's almost as if Malick gave into the desire to tell us what to feel about the natural world through the vehicle of the Native American culture and its connection to the natural world, through Pocahontas's dancing, worshipping movement. (Yes, it and she were stunningly gorgeous, but her movements were telling me what to feel too much, too often.) The love story, too, between Smith and Pocahontas felt like something I would have revelled in as junior high or high school girl - so gushingly romantic: "O to be given to you, you to me. Two no more. One. One. I am. I am." Aaaaaack. It was telling me too much, and it was much more consciously poetic whereas the narrators of Badlands and Days of Heaven were so matter of fact, simple, understated, odd.
And again, I am bothered by what seems to me to be the romanticization of the Native American tribe. Echoing Witt in The Thin Red Line, Smith narrates: "They are gentle, loving, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness, no sense of possession. Real, what I thought a dream." Are we really supposed to believe this is only Smith's vision as sdedalus said the romanticized narration Wit gave was only his, not Malick's? Surely, this is Malick's voice? Isn't he saying that a culture that is so close to and so in harmony with the natural world, is all of the above things Smith describes? Doesn't their culture reflect a kind of Eden paradise? If he isn't saying that, where in the film does he undermine Smith's statement about them? I have no problem with anyone saying that the indigenous cultures were more responsible with the environment or more in harmony with nature, but to say that made them more perfect human beings is grating. And it feels didactic to me.
Also, I'l buy that the colonists of Jamestown were miserable and did miserable things, but Malick paints such a horribly degraded portrait of them - unashamedly cannibalistic, irrational, chaotic, spouting religious vitriol (contrast the beauty of the Native American spirituality), foul - I was again irritated. Surely, there were some remnants of nobility left in them.
So much for the first half of the film. I went to bed exceedingly annoyed (even while I was affected by the stunning visuals).
On to the second act - Smith goes away. (Yay! no more gushing romance.) Rolfe arrives. I loved, loved the quietness and solidity of his character. And the slow growth of the relationship between Rolfe and Pocahontas was beautifully done. Some of the narration here I could have done without, but it certainly wasn't as gushing as it was earlier. I suppose one could argue that the Romance to the more quiet love is a portrayal of Pocahontas's growth into womanhood. I might be able to stomach the Smith portion if that's the case.
Because I do think if the film could be said to center on a human character, it centers on Pocahontas, on her journey - and I do like that. The title The New World becomes really interesting then - the new world is less about the colonists' idea of the new world but more about how the world changes, becomes new from the perspective of the Native Americans, and the new world is also Pochontas's introduction to England, a new world for her. I like that Malick de-centers our perspective - undoes the white, European ethnocentrism - it's not now about what the European explorers perceived as the new world. And while that element of the film could feel political and didactic, in fact, it doesn't. It's beautifully realized as I as a viewer slowly realize through which characters' eyes I am viewing the world.
So while I've spent a lot of time here complaining about the film's sentimentilzation and idealization in the first act, ultimately, I do like this film a lot - the performances were all so good (even Farrell's), I loved the pacing, and of course, I was rewarded once again by the amazing sensuality and beauty of the cinematography.