João Moreira Salles was born in 1962. That makes him far too young to have been a participant in the global upheaval that marked the second half of the 1960s. It does mean he’s old enough to have distant memories of it.
Salles has an unusual, if attenuated, personal connection, one that’s crucial to his essayistic documentary “In the Intense Now.” His mother traveled to China as the Great Cultural Revolution began, and he has home movies of her visit. Those movies, along with newsreel footage, still photographs, audio, and excerpts from other documentaries make up Salles’s film. Holding it all together is his voice-over narration: always intelligent and thoughtful, sometimes wistful, occasionally navel-gazing annoying. Even when annoying, the narration sounds great, thanks to the murmury musicality of Salles’s Portuguese.
Alternately engaging and a bit muddled, the film looks at the years 1966-68 as seen in China; in France, with the May 1968 student uprising; and in Czechoslovakia, with the Soviet invasion, three months later, and its aftermath.
Salles begins with Czech footage from 1968 that looks to be of a wedding. Next is a child’s first steps in Brazil, in 1966. (Although Brazilian, Salles and his family lived in Paris back then.) Right away, he’s announcing that what matters throughout “In the Intense Now” is the interweaving of daily life and political life — no less than the interweaving of past action with present-day reflection.
The documentary suffers from a a built-in discrepancy. The China footage is in color and shows the Great Cultural Revolution only glancingly, at best. It seems almost like an escape from the black-and-white turmoil seen in the French and Czech footage. For that matter, the French student revolt seems morally superficial compared to the fate of the Czechs, with the Prague Spring crushed by Soviet tanks.
The theatricality of the events in Paris makes them riveting. As the chief student leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, explained, “I did a lot of theater in school. That’s all you need to understand me in 1968. Television is a theater, and I was able to play myself on a massive stage.” But it also makes the student uprising look like ideological son et lumière, part of what Salles nicely describes as “the archive of gestures of ’68.”
The most startling moment in the documentary relates to France, though youthful rioters are nowhere to be seen. Instead, it involves a 77-year-old man sitting at a desk, looking ahead to 1968. The man is Charles de Gaulle, the French president, delivering his New Year’s address to the nation. “With young people doing their part, support for our Republic will only grow broader and more vigorous,” de Gaulle declares with a truly epic wrong-headedness.
The China footage has a special hold on Salles, because of the connection to his mother. It offers the barest of hints of what was going on in Chinese society, though. The Great Cultural Revolution was the most tumultuous, and bloodiest, ’60s event. Yet there’s something fitting in our seeing none of that tumult or blood. China remained a closed-off society to the West, and Westerners were unable to witness events there as they were in France or even Czechoslovakia.
Some of the French footage comes from Chris Marker’s four-hour masterpiece about the rise and collapse of the New Left in the ’60s, “A Grin Without a Cat” (1977). Salles’s film is a much lesser thing, but by no means unworthy. Marker, bracingly partisan, was involved in the events he documented (which makes the sorrow that colors his film all the more moving). Salles looks at these years in neither sorrow nor anger but something like wonder. “Back when everything seemed possible,” he says of his mother’s visit to China. Clearly, it’s the ’60s he has in mind with those words, too.
IN THE INTENSE NOW
Written and directed by João Moreira Salles. 127 minutes. At Museum of Fine Arts, various dates, May 16-31. Unrated. In Portuguese and French, with subtitles.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.