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‘Last Words’ Film Review: Nick Nolte Finds Cinema at the End of the World in Clueless Apocalyptic Fable

Jonathan Nossiter creates an African protagonist to celebrate movie that are almost exclusively Western and white

For implausibility, perversity, cluelessness, and sheer silliness, it’s hard to imagine another movie this year that will top “Last Words,” a post-apocalyptic ode to the magic of cinema in which veteran actors Nick Nolte, Stellan Skarsgård, and Charlotte Rampling play survivors of an ecological catastrophe and gamely look as if they haven’t bathed in a long while for the camera.

Writer-director Jonathan Nossiter begins his movie with narration from young African Kal (first-timer Kalipha Touray), who lets us know we are in the year 2086 and that he is a last survivor on the planet Earth. In a flashback to two years prior, we see Kal and his sister discover food and water and detritus of cinema gone by, and they look with wonder at bits of celluloid while he gradually picks up English phrases from books; the camera takes in a poster for Dziga Vertov’s silent Russian classic “Man with a Movie Camera” as Kal touches it reverently.

Kal loses his sister, and he eventually encounters a former film director named Shakespeare (Nolte), and they speak to each other in English, though Nolte’s rasping voice has become so rock-bottom muddy that he makes Jason Robards sound like some dewy British ingenue by contrast. The cave of Nolte’s Shakespeare is littered with twentieth-century film memorabilia: posters of Robert Mitchum, Marcello Mastroianni, Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin, and of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.”

Hand-held camerawork predictably alternates with static shots as Nolte’s Shakespeare expounds on the myth of the movies and gets Kal to help him create celluloid and fix up cameras. This all goes on for quite some time, and Nolte does his best to give the daft material some of his natural gravitas. He has let his hair grow all over the place here, and though Nolte has reached the age of 80, there is still something touchingly childlike and hopeful in his sparkling, ultra-blue eyes. Nolte has always had a liking for offbeat-to-arbitrary endeavors, and so he does his best to keep “Last Words” going in its first half.

Shakespeare and Kal hit the road and come upon a group headed by Skarsgård’s Zyberski, a burly fellow who presides over a bunch of very unconvincing extras who all have the same “woebegone” expression on their faces. Kal is soon beset by the aggressive and horny Batlk (Rampling), and there is an extremely distasteful scene where she sits on top of him and starts to ride him against his will. Somehow this perverted elderly lady gets pregnant from her exertions, and all the survivors cheer up as they watch movies out in the open on sheets.

The usual problem with extended clips from great movies occurs almost immediately in “Last Words”: Why not watch or re-watch Buster Keaton in “The Cameraman” or Luis Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou” or Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” rather than this scatterbrained picture that settles for long stretches into the characters just watching these movies and marveling at them?

This leads to other questions. Why is there an orchestral score playing when they watch Keaton in “Sherlock Jr.,” a silent film that has no recorded soundtrack? And why are they all happy to watch Anna Magnani in “The Passionate Thief” with no subtitles for the Italian soundtrack? Do they all speak Italian? Or does Nossiter think that cinema can transcend such language barriers?

The large problem with “Last Words” is that Kal is seen to be enchanted by the cinema that Nossiter himself deems worthy of saving. Of course an African man can be enchanted by Buster Keaton just like everyone else on earth, but Nossiter has clearly not considered the implications of his narrative — such as it is — when it comes to Kal, who is ordered around and even raped by the older white characters and just keeps smiling through it all, ready to make films with them and watch films about them. The early Nolte section of “Last Words” is sometimes enjoyably absurd, but the essential premise of this movie leaves a very sour aftertaste.

“Last Words” opens in US theaters and on demand Dec. 17.