THE CONGRESS Review: A New Philosopher in Cinema

Based on Polish novel, The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), and adapted for the screen by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, new film The Congress released in theaters on August 29, 2014. A science fiction film of sorts in which the traditional actor-studio relationship is being challenged.

Spectacularly cast and animated, The Congress invites its viewers into a fresh new world unlike anything we’ve seen in the last ten years. With the film industry on the brink of revolutionary change this feels like a fantasy version of Singing in the Rain.  Circling festivals for the better part of a year and even becoming available on Amazon Instant Video in July, it finally saw a limited theatrical release.

Starring such talents as Robin Wright (The Princess Bride) playing herself as a struggling mother trying to provide for her son, and co-starring Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs) and Jon Hamm (Mad Men).


The Congress follows Robin Wright as a washed-up actress as she is offered her last contract ever. Fictional production studio Miramount (Miramax and Paramount) wants to scan her emotions, facial expressions, body and soul into a computer so they can have their programmers insert her into any role they desire. There is only one catch: Real-life Robin can never act again.

Hating the idea but needing money to provide for her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), she is forced to sign a twenty-year contract. Aaron suffers from a disease which is rendering him deaf and blind. Twenty years later Robin returns to Miramount to re-visit her contract and decide whether or not she will renew it. Strangely, now all of Miramount property is under strict “animation zone.” After taking some new drug upon entering, one sees everything in animation. Robin loses herself in this world and must embark on a long and treacherous journey to find her way back home.

Clever and gripping, the story works for several reasons. The pacing is fantastic. We are shown story elements only as they become necessary. This is not a film that shows you some plot point in the beginning that foreshadows the films climax. It is a story that reveals itself to us rather than sees how good we are at guessing. Pauses give you time to breathe and process what you are seeing.

They also make the intense moments more meaningful. Visuals and story are finally married in a summer release. Characters’ thoughts, feelings and beliefs as well as crucial story and world elements are shown in beautiful animated visuals. Folman has a message in this film but does not make the mistake of being judgmental. This allows us to enjoy a fantastic story without feeling like we are receiving a lecture on ethics. Most importantly we are seeing characters we grow to love inhabit a world we have never seen and take us on an emotional journey which is satisfying on nearly every level a film can be.


Robin’s driving motivation throughout the film is to take care of Aaron. As she goes to great lengths to do so we see that she is interesting, strong, curious and ultimately, we give a damn about her. Her struggles feel real. Characters she meets along the way are equally interesting and have a story arc all their own. It is a thorough study of the human spirit and every person in the film reflects that. Few more than Harvey Keitel’s Al, who is revealed to truly care about Robin in a scene where he tells her his childhood story to give her the motivation she needs to move forward. Everyone is effected differently by the change to the movie system. Replacing actors with programmers changes lives and we are able to watch characters react differently.

We care so much about these characters because they feel real. This mostly animated movie is written and acted so well that the one forgets that most of the characters aren’t real people living their lives. A great achievement indeed. And getting to fall in love with Robin Wright again is a really special gift.


In Foman’s previous film Waltz With Bashir, he explored what memories are and the effect they have on us. In The Congress, Folman challenges what we as humans deem acceptable. What industry could have been used to explore this idea? None other than Hollywood. It is a magical world in which you can be anything you desire, everything is sensational. Moody and serious, this film gets your attention. Drama is not the only force at work here though. A sense of wonder which Ari Folman masterfully creates is truly extraordinary.

Reminiscent of places such as India or Tibet, everything is colorful, foreign and interesting. Folman’s film does not have a dull moment, but it gives you space to breath and process what you are seeing. On the rare occasion you feel confused, it only lasts a moment and always is over weighed by a sense of awe. Offering no answer to the issues it depicts the film remains unbiased. It’s world always inviting the audience to explore. And that is a testament to Folman’s way of advising while not shoving his ideals down your throat.


Ultimately, Ari Folman’s The Congress may leave some viewers wishing it had a more straight forward plot or faster pacing. Creating pauses in the story for reflection is more classical and less romantic, less Hollywood. But most people willing to sit up and watch attentively will be greatly rewarded for their efforts. We live in a world where nearly anything which feels good is acceptable.

Folman questions that way of thinking. It is a commentary on the current human condition and a dream of what the future may look like. With breath-taking visuals that play out as interpretations of the characters thoughts and feelings. A wonderful score by Max Richter connects the two worlds in a beautiful way.

Unique in the world of cinema, The Congress demands to be seen. Even if you have  to drive thirty minutes to see it in your local indie theater. By far, one of the best films of 2014 so far, and absolutely worth your time.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Cover image via


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Categories: Movie Reviews

Author:Oliver Gelleni

Check out more thoughts on movies new and old here: I am an Austin based filmmaker with a passion and an eye for quality cinema.

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