‘The Fabelmans’: Spielberg in the factory of dreams

I know what you’re thinking. Another movie about how great and fantastic “the movies” are? We get it, we know directors think they’re amazing. But trust me, “The Fabelmans,” despite playing on this overused trope, manages to combine innovative and moving elements with grace and ease. It is Steven Spielberg’s most personal movie, and maybe one of his best. It is a collage of its director’s memories that becomes a beautiful celebration of the playful spirit and power of cinema in our imagination.

While none of the characters actually exist, Spielberg has already made it pretty clear that “The Fabelmans” is about his relationship with cinema. But more than just showing how a young Jewish boy was enchanted by the big screen and its power to make us dream, he demonstrates this power by also examining the fragility of his own family. For this very reason, more than Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) himself, the Fabelman family is the main protagonist of the film.

Art is fundamental in the relationship between Bart (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), the heads of the Fabelman family. Despite the almost devotional love they have for each other, father and mother see the world in diametrically opposed ways. Bart is that pragmatic figure, the man of science who believes that everything should be taken literally and rationally, which makes any and all explanations he gives seem like an endless lecture. On the other hand, Mitzi is a pianist who has given up music to become a housewife, but never abandoned her magical and fantastic lens for looking at life. This opposition between the parents’ worldviews is fundamental for Sam as he find his own path. And this starts from his first trip to the cinema, when he learns, in one of the most beautiful scenes of the film, that cinema is nothing more than the ability to put dreams in the palm of your hand.

Producing dreams is an outlet for creatives and an exercise in control. That second aspect is what Sam has in common with his father, whose hope of a happy family makes him want to control it. Sam is the sole ruler of his dream world, and his mother recognizes how art becomes his psychological crutch early on in his childhood.

One of the greatest feats of “The Fabelmans” is that it uses the memories of its screenwriter and director without feeling corny or overbearing. Although it is a film made entirely about Spielberg himself, it is not an egocentric work by an artist who sees himself as bigger than it. On the contrary, the feature is made from pure heart. Still, there’s no bigger star in “The Fabelmans” than Spielberg. For decades, he has been a master artist in Hollywood, demonstrating perfect control of form in the service of mainstream narrative. His dreams are precisely produced, which is what makes them wonderful, and that craft is very much present here, in everything from the composition of the frames to the immaculate sound.

“The Fabelmans” highlights the essential role of art in human life. It is a treatise on what cinema does, what it is for and what it requires from those who create it. There is poetry, of course, but there is also technique that is considered beautiful for its obvious perfection. There is mystery, that transcendence that occurs when a film ceases to belong to its creator and becomes the public’s, the images unfolding at 24 frames per second coming to life by themselves. 

Above all, it is a film about the search for control as a guideline of the human experience and the maximum expression of the work to which the director dedicates himself. Drawing inspiration from the truth of his past, Spielberg celebrates the “lie in 35mm film,” turns memory into a myth and shares his most intimate reflections with all of us. Inspiring from start to finish, “The Fabelmans” is a beautiful reminder of why we love this factory of dreams so dearly.

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