The heavy gray shies of Vienna in the dead of winter form an impressionistic backdrop to Museum Hours, now showing on NFLX WI. This dreamy, zen-like film concerns a Canadian woman (Mary Margaret O'Hara) who has come to Austria to attend a gravely ill relative. In between hospital visits, she hangs out at the Kunsthistorisches, Vienna’s premier art museum. There she meets a kindly, middle aged museum guard (Bobby Sommer) who at one time was a sort of minor league rock star, but has now resigned himself to quiet days of watching over Rembrandts and Bruegals. The pair slowly form a sweet and genial friendship, with Sommer acting as a combination tour guide and personal confessor.
Museum Hours is the antithesis of a popcorn movie, offering instead an introspective buffet of nourishment for the soul. The film broadly captures - indeed celebrates - the otherworldly silence that permeates so many public spaces in Europe. While Americans often find it unnerving, this reverent hush is key to the Northern European sensibility. as ancient, historical streets and alleys form a museum without walls. On the surface, not much really happens in Museum Hours and large swaths of the film seem unrelated to the main story. Eventually viewers will realize that director Jem Cohen - whose background is in documentaries - really isn’t interested in advancing a narrative. His goal is to capture the existential; the fleeting moments, perceptions and interactions that define what it means to be human. A significant amount of the film is devoted to reaction shots of tourists as they mill about the museum and regard the grandeur before them; reactions that run the gamut from awestruck, to bored, to utterly dumbfounded.
Cohen’s expedition into this blissful state of gentility is not without liabilities - one gets the feeling a good ten minutes could have been excised with no ill effects - but that’s picking at nits; kind of like going to a great restaurant and complaining that the portions are too big. Through its tender revelry of art, compassion and basic decency Museum Hours shows us the very best of humanity, washed clean of all the things our politicians, religious leaders and media tell us to fear and dread. Is it possible for jaded, weary mankind to return to a state of innocence? Museum Hours makes a strong case for the affirmative, at least to those open to its harmonious and tranquil tableau. You may even derive a glimmer of genuine hope for this crazy world.