Yesterday I went to see Army of Shadows, a movie by one of my favorite directors, Jean-Pierre Melville. The movie was about members of the French Resistance during World War II, and what was most striking about it were the physiognomies and physical presences of the actors. Every character had an almost archetypical face -- the broad forehead and small mouth of a devoted lower-class man, the sexy yet completely dependable older woman, the cleft chin of the dashing yet surprisingly committed young fighter, and the large eyes and small Gallic moustache of the main character, a middle-aged civil engineer, unassuming but powerfully competent. And the framing of the movie was such that they all had a lot of elbow room -- all of their bodies took up a respectful amount of space. Even in a prison cell with six or seven men, each man's feet were chained separately to the floor, and the camera panned between them as they tossed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter back and forth.
Melville's just really good at showing the humanity of people in nonverbal ways, through glances or action or just keeping the camera still on a body. Which is why a film about heroic Resistance fighters can be so devastatingly sad, because Melville persuades you that what they're fighting for is exactly the kind of non-invasive, respectful intimacy that he films.
The woman in front of me in the bathroom line afterwards said, "They just don't make 'em like that any more." I think I agree -- at least, I can't think of a recent movie that allows so much physical space and freedom to the actors that they become archetypical in their human-ness.