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Mario Ferraro making his mark with UMass -

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December 11, 2017

Rebecca Hall gives a career-best performance in the insightful ‘Christine’

(The Orchard)

(The Orchard)

The life of Christine Chubbuck is shrouded in myth. The news reporter, who worked for a local network in Sarasota, Florida committed suicide in 1974 during a live television broadcast. Unfortunately, the sensationalistic headlines responding to her act would become the definitive statement on her and her life, while the deeper reasons behind her suicide were never delved into.

Screenwriter Craig Shilowich, who had battled through years of depression himself, immediately noticed the nuances and depth in Chubbuck’s life. What could have caused her to take her own life, and why go so far as to do so on live television? Shilowich realized that there was far more to Chubbuck than her death, and he attempts to shed light on her complexities in his script.

Earlier in the year, a different film about Chubbuck was released, titled “Kate Plays Christine.” It explored the process of an actress who was preparing to play the role of Chubbuck in an upcoming production. Its final message: like the permanently missing footage of Chubbuck’s suicide, the story of her life is best left alone.

Shilowich and director Antonio Campos have proved that premise wrong with “Christine.” Their film offers insights and poses questions about relevant topics such as mental health, media news spectacle and what it means to be a woman in the workplace.

Chubbuck’s life should therefore be of interest to everyone, as long as it’s analyzed in the correct revelatory way. Most people know what it feels like to be unloved or isolated, and many are familiar with momentary phases of depression or hopelessness. Christine Chubbuck was a person who could no longer fight these feelings of hopelessness and impending dread. “Christine” does her justice in providing context for why that was.

A romantic at heart, yet a reclusive virgin at the age of 29, Chubbuck’s non-existent love life left her with a deep insecurity that she was unfit to be loved or cared for. In many ways, Chubbuck was a creative genius within her journalistic environment, but her status as a unique woman within a male dominated workplace only left her with a small window of career opportunities. And the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra from her ratings-obsessed boss left her passion for detailed reporting unappreciated.

Chubbuck was essentially a perfectionist in a world that she was losing complete control over, so much so that it no longer provided her the means of wanting to live in it anymore. Her persona, talents and aspirations were stifled in the face of a variety of harmful factors, and Campos and Shilowich refuse to distill her story down to something simpler. Instead, “Christine” honors the messiness, embracing unanswerable questions and avoiding the assertion of any one narrative.

The attributes of a woman on the verge of suicide are undoubtedly too complex to be definitively shown, however, Rebecca Hall’s performance as Chubbuck is a bold attempt at doing so. One of the main assertions of the earlier mentioned “Kate Plays Christine” was how troubling it could be on an actor to delve into such a tortured mindset. However, Hall performs the challenging part with finesse and strength.

Hall captures the many nuances of the title character and these subtleties make her impending fate all the more tragic toward the film’s end. What she does particularly well is convey Chubbuck’s kind heart, her unyielding work ethic, her passion for great journalism and her attempts to grapple with depression and succeed. These characteristics are what allow the audience to connect to her character.

“Christine” begins as a film that feels easy to watch, but left me troubled and reflective. Hall’s performance alone makes this film worth seeing, but “Christine” also sheds light on issues still facing intelligent professional women in our time. Careful work from the star, director and screenwriter makes Chubbuck’s arc more than just a slow march toward death. The story here feels inevitable and devastating – and not just because it’s based in truth.

The film’s major success lies in the deeply empathetic attention it pays to Christine Chubbuck, respectfully dramatizing the complicated, fascinating and even funny elements of her personality and short life without ever trying to scrub them clean.

William Plotnick can be reached at wplotnick@umass.edu.

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