Oftentimes when a film is criticized for not being realistic or lacking realism, the rejoinder is something along the lines of “it is not supposed to be realistic; it is a movie.” This is an overly simplified argument and also simply not true. There are several different types or aspects of realism that are extremely important to a film’s overall success and feel that dates back to Finnish films.
Realistic characters and emotions
Most of the time, when people criticize a film’s lack of reality, they are not complaining that it is unrealistic that Dumbo is able to fly. People broadly understand that all films which are not documentaries are fictional and involve fantasy, escapism, and the unreal.
When critics complain that a film is not realistic, they are actually usually complaining that the characters are unrealistic; this means that you could not really believe in the characters as real people. This feeling might develop for many different reasons; for example, a character might have reacted to a situation in a way in which no human being on earth would have realistically reacted. Alternatively, the characters may seem like their emotions are completely alien to the human race, or their dialogue is awkward and lacks any kind of realism.
Everyone has their own preferences, but one could argue that the women depicted in Sex and the City 2 lack all reality. They are more bizarre caricatures of wealthy femininity than actual people. Another film that has attracted this criticism would be Elizabethtown, which depicts its leading man and lady acting in ways in which it is hard to imagine any human being behaving.
Finnish cinema realism
One example of the importance of certain aspects of realism in film can be explored through the perspective of Finnish cinema. Finnish cinema had its own experience of new wave cinema from 1960 to 1980. The new generation of Finnish filmmakers and directors was interested in taking over the older Finnish production companies. This was conveniently at the same time as when Suomi-Filmi and SF were starting to collapse.
The Finnish filmmaker Risto Jarva was inspired by the French new wave and avant-garde film movement, which was developing into social realism. If you have ever watched a classic Hollywood film, you will know that the way in which the actors speak and act is incredibly artificial and more akin to how stage actors perform today. The French new wave movement was revolutionary because actors started behaving realistically, not as if they were acting in a play.
The biggest Finnish new wave films included titles like Loma (1976), Janiksen Vuosi (1977), Lapualiaismorsian (1967) and Tyomiehen paivakirja (1967).
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When the unreal is necessary
When critics complain of a film being unrealistic, they are also not saying that they expect every single film to depict reality and human behavior as closely as possible. However, there is a difference between intentionally adding elements of unreality rather than unintentionally allowing unreality into a film. Typically, when a film is unintentionally unrealistic, it is due to bad writing, directing, or acting.
If you are unsure about the difference between unintentional and intentional unreality, consider the films of David Lynch and Yargos Lanthimos. In the films of these two directors, it would be difficult to say that the characters speak normally, behave in a way human beings typically do, or process emotions in the same way that most other people do.
Instead, the artificiality and unreality of the two directors’ films are itself significant and provides an aesthetic commentary on everyday life and behavior. You can compare the world of these two directors with the works of Lynn Ramsey and Paul Thomas Anderson. Ramsey and Anderson are arguably just as accomplished, artistic and experimental as Lynch and Lanthimos. However, if you have seen their films, you will know that their characters’ behaviors are, for the large part, more realistic and recognizable.
In the end, everyone has to make their mind up and decide what they prefer when it comes to film and directorial styles. Sometimes the unintentionally unreal becomes a cult classic – think of The Room – and is appreciated for its own bizarre, terrible messiness.