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‘Gift’ Review: More Precious Than Money


At a time when art is relentlessly commercialized and commodified, Robin McKenna’s “Gift” provides a gentle and welcome reminder of other values. Inspired by a book by Lewis Hyde that has gathered a passionate following since it was first published in 1983, and including some of Hyde’s thoughts as on-screen texts, this essay-like documentary argues that works of the imagination are governed by a logic of human exchange independent and often opposed to economics and politics.

Traveling from New Zealand to Canada’s Pacific Northwest and from Rome to Burning Man, the film follows a selection of people whose creative pursuits aren’t driven by money or fame. Perhaps in keeping with this ethic of modesty, none of them are identified by their names. Each one explains the values, traditions and ambitions that guide them.

The most conventional — or perhaps the most professional — is an artist organizing an exhibition at a museum, where patrons are given a flower that they then pass along to strangers. It’s interesting to see how uncomfortable such random acts of generosity can make their intended recipients. In other cases, though, there is a cultural context to help the gifts on their way, like Burning Man with a blend of high-tech and hippie utopianism, or the potlatch, an ancient custom organized around the redistribution of goods and the affirmation of communal ties.

Perhaps the most radical space the filmmakers visit is Rome’s Metropoliz, described as “the world’s only inhabited museum” and a place where families, most of them undocumented migrants, live among installations and murals contributed by artists from Italy and elsewhere. Like the rest of this film, Metropoliz insists that art is worth most when it is least separate from the rest of life.

Gift

Not rated. In English and Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.


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