The Oscar-winning Nomadland from director Chloé Zhao can finally be streamed in India on Disney+ Hotstar. I had been waiting for it since its big win at the Venice Film Festival (it was awarded the Golden Lion). Based on Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, Zhao's film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow and a van-dwelling nomad, as she travels around the United States. She likes to refer to herself as "houseless". The vast, open land is her home now. New families are introduced, goodbyes are made, and reunions happen again because the world is round and a nomad keeps circling on it.
For Fern, the dynamic environment constitutes the other half of her existence. In a carefully calibrated shot, Fern (driving her van) is adjusted to the left while the changing landscape is positioned to the right. It looks like yin and yang. The nomad and the wild terrains are interconnected and inseparable. Unsurprisingly, she refuses to stay at her sister's place and rejects another offer to live in a guest house. Zhao adopts long, unbroken camera movements to survey the crowd around Fern to give an impression of the chaotic and peripatetic lifestyle of the itinerants. The lens turns static when they depart, leaving the ground empty, to evoke the pathos and stillness of the moment. She does something similar at the dining table in Dave's (David Strathairn) house.
Zhao entrancingly captures the dusty roads, lofty mountains, sandy lands and radiant skies. When you see the ripples of the water in a closeup, you believe you can touch its surface by simply extending the fingers of your hands. The compliments, however, come with complaints. You admire the beauty of Nomadland so much so that it puts you in a pickle. While it's undeniable that the film looks magnificent, these eye-candy frames stop you from having any emotional or personal attachments with the characters. Fern smiles and goes through some photos, including of her husband. Just when you begin to dwell on her pain, the film cuts to a wide shot of her giving a haircut. When she informs her sister that she cannot live with her, you appreciate the lighting in the room and the composition rather than swelling with sentiment. There so many breathtaking wide-angle shots in Nomadland that you find it easier to attach yourself to the scenery than the turmoil of the characters. Near turbulent waves, when Fern stands spreading her arms as if in a state of acceptance, what supposedly had to be a cathartic or liberating moment turns into a dance of gorgeous vistas coupled with the orchestra of melancholic music. Grandeur overshadows the soul.
Nomadland's splendour serves more as a distraction than a gateway into the mood of its setting or characters. The film is undermined by its spectacle.