Days of Heaven

In repertory at Film Forum through April 27. Also on DVD.

I always felt sorry for Abimelech, the king in the book of Genesis who takes Abraham’s wife, Sarah, into his harem. He doesn’t realize he’s doing anything wrong because Abraham and Sarah both insist they are brother and sister before Abimelech even shows any interest in her. But God still curses him, making all the women in his household barren until the poor guy realizes he’s been fooled.

Judging from Days of Heaven, I think writer-director Terrence Malick might share my sympathy for Abimelech. The beautiful film, released in 1978, echoes that biblical story in its tale of two Depression-era laborers and the owner of a farm where they find work during the harvest. Days of Heaven easily could have been a heavy handed metaphor of class war — I admit I expected something like that: the bourgeois screwing the proletariat literally and figuratively — but Malick’s work, as I should have realized, is far more nuanced than that.

Sam Shepard plays the farmer as a good, honest man who truly loves Abby (Brooke Adams), the young drifter at work in his wheat field, and believes her when she tells him that Bill (Richard Gere) is her brother. Feeling trapped in poverty, Bill sees the lonely farmer’s affection for Abby as their ladder to a better life, particularly as the farmer is chronically ill and expected to die within the year. He urges Abby to accept the farmer’s offer of marriage, and she does, reluctantly. The farmer invites Bill and his younger sister, Linda (Linda Manz), to move into the farm house along with Abby, and for a time, the foursome share a blissful existence, based though it is on the farmer’s ignorance of whom he has invited into his life.

Ascribing a plot to Days of Heaven does it something of a disservice, though. Malick doesn’t seem interested in a this-happened- and-then-that-happened sort of story. The story he’s telling is more amorphous, a collection of moments and moods. His storytelling partner is the late cinematographer Néstor Almendros, who deservedly won an Academy Award for his work here. (Cinematographer Haskell Wexler also contributed significantly to the film.) Together they capture the grandeur of the landscape, from the sublime horizon to the evocative details at close range.

Famously, Malick filmed Days of Heaven almost exclusively during the so-called “magic hour,” the fleeting moments at dawn and dusk when the light is golden and the sun cannot be seen. As a result, the movie has an almost mystical quality that matches the gently told, fable-like story of Abby, Bill and the farmer. The story is narrated by Linda, looking back at a painfully brief period of happiness in her difficult childhood. The movie follows her example in taking a somewhat detached look at the passions at work in the cursed love triangle, but paradoxically, that detachment heightens rather than diminishes the film’s mythic quality, the sense that this is a story we have always known.

If Bill comes across less sympathetically than the farmer, this is partly due to the fact that Gere, while serviceable, cannot compete with the way Shepard completely embodies his character. The film has little dialogue, so much of Shepard’s performance is silent, simply the expressions of love and confusion and hurt and betrayal that cross his face.

But the standout performance comes from the land itself; in a way, it is the principal character in the movie. Malick might glamorize the natural world to some extent, but he does not shy away from the hardship of working on the land. His camera follows the laborers as they bend over the sheaves and operate the threshers, which recall images of the Chicago factory that Bill flees in the first scenes of the film. And when locusts descend on the farm, ultimately leading to its being engulfed in flames, Malick shows us the landscape as a stunning but apocalyptic panorama. Hell itself has swallowed up Linda’s heaven.