It truly is an odd feeling, to review a completed film that hasn’t been seen in decades. The Natchitoches and New Orleans area shot/set Cane River, last shown in 1982, has since been relegated to myth, legend, and a sort of film purgatory following the death of director Horace Jenkins. In its own way, the discovery of an original print of the movie, its restoration, and re-premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, rivals the equally long story of Orson Welles’ fabled final film, The Other Side of the Wind, coming to Netflix this Friday. Of course, one is more of a regional treasure, but truth be told, it should be more than that. Cane River isn’t just a placeholder in time; it’s a conversation and expression on cultural and race relations in tight-knit communities, all within a star-crossed lovers tale. It really has it all.
The film tells of Peter Metoyer, a young Creole man, returning home after spending time trying out life as expected of him, looking to clear his head and get right. From opening to close, the Phillip Manuel soundtrack is kicking and soulful, evoking more than the R&B of the early 80s, but a literal interpretation of the setting, the mood, and the feelings. In fact, most of Cane River is very literal, expositing much of the issues at hand through dialogue and performance, utilizing its cinematic technique for the lush farms and plantations instead. This part of Louisiana is rarely captured, so we’ll take any footage we can get. Here, the footage is spectacularly rendered and framed, making one’s heart flutter as the sun rises and sets over it all, giving the impression of a divine hand’s involvement. If that isn’t high praise…
Peter becomes affectionate with the headstrong and lofty dreaming Maria Mathis, whose family history involves rough feelings towards Peter’s more well-to-do ancestors. They care not for this pettiness, but her future collides with his present. She with her longing for going to Xavier University, he with wanting to live off the land that birthed him. Both are strong-willed, but their love and care for one another shine in spite of everything. Cane River features many awkward edits (shots out of place or repeated happen often) or too-long takes, but these are mere nitpicks when considering the whole, which is a romanticism for the setting, the people, and the lovers.
There’s much strength in the African-American community depicted here, with much reverence given to history and bloodlines. It’s amazing how careful Cane River is with displaying southern roots, raw emotional bruises, and sins of the past generations type storylines, without getting overly schmaltzy. It all feels natural if heightened ever so slightly to the melodramatics. Horace Jenkins explores the ideas of gentlemen etiquette, of pride in family and community, and of having the courage to be who you want and be with whomever you want with grace and theatricalness in equal measure. Cane River, in this way, could only have been done up as a movie, for it is vastly cinematic.
I’m uncertain on what would’ve happened had this gotten a proper theatrical release. Would it have been received well or at all? Would it be relegated to VHS only and never spoken of again? Maybe being unseen for so many years and attaining a ghosty spirit for those fortunate enough to have seen it firsthand, Cane River was able to secure a new audience and an immortality reserved for special films. Indeed, Cane River is special. Like the town photographed, the film named after it makes for a new perspective on life, love, and self. Breathing in the fresh air, feeling the grass under your feet, and finding music in the sounds of crickets – I could almost get a hint of it all while watching. I’m not from Natchitoches, but Cane River made me homesick for a place I’ve never really known. A spectacular feat is ever there was one.
How soon can I purchase a home release of this remastered classic? I want it all.
RATING: 4 / 5
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations and Occupy. You can find his other film reviews and articles here.