What makes a film memorable is not just the direction, the script and the brilliance of the actors, it also the lighting that reinforces the impact of the images on the viewer, frame after frame. This year is the 92nd edition of the Oscars and we have chosen four nominations from the Best Film category in which the use of light plays an important role either in a specific scene or in the film’s narrative development. (We have already talked about the lighting in Joker and Dolor y Gloria here
Warning, this article contains spoilers.
1. The death of Beth March in Little Women by Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig has chosen to structure the story of her film Little Women by moving backwards and forwards between two different time frames. The childhood of the March sisters (taken from L. M. Alcott’s first book, Little Women), therefore alternates with their early adulthood (taken from her second book Little Women Part Two or Good Wives). There is an important moment (that has doubtless caused many a teardrop to fall) where two scenes belonging to the two different time frames alternate. In the first, Beth is in bed with scarlet fever and Jo sits up all night by her side. In the morning, when Jo wakes up, she sees that the bed is empty and immediately rushes downstairs, where she finds her younger sister, restored to health, sitting happily at the kitchen table with her mother. It is a bright, sunny day unlike its twin scene, some years later, when Jo once again comes downstairs in the morning. In this scene, that is shot in a much darker light, it emerges that Beth has had a relapse and when Jo appears, she is told by her mother that her sister is dead.
Also the lighting that reinforces the impact of the images on the viewer,
frame after frame.
2. The final scene in The Irishman by Martin Scorsese
After a long career working for his friend, Russell Bufalino, in organised crime, Frank Sheeran has reached the end of his life. The camera shows him sitting in a wheelchair in an old people’s home. In the very last minutes of the film, Sheeran is visited by his nurse. Immediately afterwards the camera follows her out of the room into the corridor. Then the camera turns around and retraces its steps down the corridor and back into the room. There is a complete change of light, however, from day to night. Frank Sheeran is now sitting in the dark, that is lit by a standard lamp and he is making his confession to a priest. In this shift from light to darkness, Martin Scorsese succinctly captures the passing of life and makes it very clear to the viewer that Sheeran is nearing death.
The final scene of the film
3. Wealth and poverty in Parasite by Bong Joon-ho
In Parasite light and shadow are clearly symbolic. The battle between classes is the main theme of this film and it takes place in the basement-cum-bunker of the Park family mansion. Initially, this is where Geun-sae, the husband of Moon-gwang, the Parks’ housekeeper lives in secret. Like most basements it is dark and dilapidated. The mansion, on the other hand, built by the famous architect Namgoong Hyeonja (neither the architect or the house actually exist) has large partition windows that overlook a lush and beautifully-kept garden. This seems to suggest that even light belongs to the wealthy and all that is left to the poor is a gloom that excludes any form of beauty or well-being.
The house that belongs to the Kim family, who are attempting to climb the social ladder via subterfuge and trickery, is the exact opposite of the Park mansion. The latter dominates the city from a hill in a rich and tidy suburb, whereas the Kims live in a working-class district located in a crowded, chaotic and filthy downtown area of the city that is a kind of urban basement. Their home is situated below street level and the only light is from a high window, if it can be called a window, that opens onto a shabby alley that drunkards habitually relieve themselves in. Here, too, the poor are denied all access to the beauty and well-being offered by light.
4. The furious argument in Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach
Marriage Story tells the story of a divorce. During the film, the tension between Nicole and Charlie grows slowly, but constantly, until it explodes in a scene that is likely to go down in cinema history. After his (almost) ex-wife has decided to move from New York, back to her hometown, Los Angeles, Charlie rents a flat there, in which the two meet and end up having a furious argument. Their house in Brooklyn is the exact opposite of the flat. It is cosy, comfortable and full of furniture, books and objects, all bathed in an intimate and reassuring light. The small flat, on the other hand, is impersonal, has next to no furniture and the walls are white, bare and bathed in bright light. Californian sunlight is usually associated with warmth and happiness, but here it becomes aseptic and cold, as it pitilessly lays bare the misery and little-big tragedies of human life. This helps create an alienating effect. So, as we hold our breath while watching the argument, we also feel oppressed by the claustrophobic ambience of the room. The dramatic tension of the moment is also accentuated by alternating wide shots of the environment with close-ups of the faces of the main characters, transfigured by rage and sorrow. Baumbach describes how he directed the scene in this video for Variety.
The final scene of the film