A dejected, hopeless soul, Jakob (Mark Rylance, Angels and Insects) walks through the door of a dilapidated mansion and into a shadowy world pitched somewhere between the 19th century and the imagination. It's a school for servants, where Jakob is prepared to sacrifice his individuality for a life of servitude and subservience. "There's but one lesson repeated endlessly," he observes. "None of us will amount to much. Later in life we will be something small and subordinate." Jakob throws himself into his repetitive, meaningless exercises, learning the fine art of humiliation at the hands of his lovely but haunted teacher, Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Krige), who runs the slowly collapsing school with her demanding, lonely brother, Johann (Fassbinder regular Gottfried John). The live-action feature debut of surrealist animators the Brothers Quay, Institute Benjamenta is a dreamy, self-contained world rich in physical detail (obscure signs, the bric-a-brac and detritus of yesteryear), which cinematographer Nic Knowland captures with a foggy, gauzy black-and-white softness, like a turn-of-the-century film. Full of fantasies and dream sequences and laced with brief snippets of animation, it's a film of strange and wondrous imagery, but an elusive story that loses itself in long, meditative sequences of monotonous action and droning narration. Many will find the deliberate pacing slow going, but this deliriously strange and fragile world lost in its own timelessness offers a mesmerizing dream alternative to traditional narrative cinema. --Sean Axmaker
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