On paper, Of Time and the City looks to be a bad way to begin one's exploration of the films of Terence Davies, a notoriously anti-prolific Brit who has now directed a grand total of five feature films and a trilogy of shorts in a career which began in 1976. But I didn't know anything about it on paper; I saw Davies's name in the festival guide, and thought "hell, I have to see one of his films sometime", and didn't even bother to read the blurb.

Lucky for me. If I had done my homework, and been scared off, I would have missed one of the most beautiful pseudo-documentaries that I've ever seen, the kind of film good enough to make you stand up and declare that if this is one of the director's "minor" films, his masterpieces must be just about the best movies in history.

The city in the title is Liverpool, where Davies was born and grew up. Using a combination of newly-shot footage of the city in 2007 and '08, along with a great deal more found footage stretching back to before his birth in 1945, combined with quotations from poetry and marvelously poetic narration written and delivered by the director himself, along with a wide-ranging soundtrack containing everything from '40s pop music to Baroque organ music, Of Time and the City creates something that isn't really a historical documentary of the city's development in the decades since WWII ended, but more of a cinematic essay on the same topic, largely based on how Liverpool's development has effected Davies in all his stages from guileless child to angry old man. The closest thing I can think of is the film's mirror-image, Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg; in both cases, the film is only allegedly a "documentary" when it's really an extended meditation on what the director feels about his hometown, though where Davies's film starts off with an extremely realistic vision of Liverpool built upon reel after reel of historical imagery, Maddin's is a flight straight into the director's characteristic lunacy.

Of Time and the City flies about from subject to subject with an abandon that would render it impotent as rhetoric, were it not for the seeming fact that everything within the film is related by how one topic reminds Davies of another, and so what we're being exposed to is something like a record of the director's internal monologue. The degree to which a viewer is able to get anything from the film but intense annoyance is certainly based on how quickly she can align her viewpoint to match Davies's precisely; not necessarily agreeing with everything the man says, but agreeing that for 72 minutes, we are prepared to let his perspectives replace our own. I found that the movie's early melding of words, music and images were hypnotic enough that it was easy to become lost in the flow, enough so that when Davies says something patently absurd, like declaiming the Beatles as one of the worst blights to ever strike the face of music, it's honestly quite easy to agree with him, and with his contention that the one good point of rock and roll was that it drove him to classical music at a formative age, though unfortunately when he was still young enough to be taken in by Mahler's unchecked Romanticism.

That kind of musing, from the bitter to the sublime to the embarrassed, is the tone that the film adopts throughout; for the most part his arguments seem conservative, in that "damn kids, ruining everything that used to be halfway decent!" sense, although he also spends a great deal of time reminiscing about how crappy things were in his childhood. So really, he's just an angry person, though the kind of angry person who isn't quite as cynical as he'd like to appear.

Most of the film is concerned with his rage at what was apparently a strict Catholic upbringing; Of Time and the City opens with a modern-day shot of Liverpool's primary cathedral, beautiful and grandiose if also a bit worn out, and as the film progresses that cathedral will be paired with a great many hideous structures and rundown slums, making it clear that the filmmaker regards the cathedral is something obscene and out-of-place. His anger at the Church is unbending, as he proudly declares himself a born-again pagan and blames his family's religion for much of the joyless suffering he's known throughout his life: in one scene that I think was more revealing than Davies meant for it to be, he comes right up close to blaming the Church for his lifetime of shame about his homosexuality, born in his childhood knowledge that carnal desire was a sin, and that kind of desire... best not to even talk about how filthy that was.

I can safely disagree with that assessment "on paper" that I mentioned at the top: this is quite possibly the perfect film to be introduced to the work of Terence Davies, because after watching it, one has the clearest possible picture of who this man is. Not just because of the words he says, but because of the poetry he quotes and the music he chooses to accompany the images, and even which images he thinks best elucidate the topic he's discussing at that moment. Hardly a documentary about Liverpool - which however good, would have been pedestrian - this is instead a passionate experiment in revealing how that city grew up in the 20th Century and how a little boy grew up in that city, and how the two paths became inextricably linked. I cannot think of another film, documentary or fiction, that pursues with such single-minded success the question of how place affects the mind of a person living in that place. It is, simply put, one of the most compelling and unique character studies that I have ever been privileged to watch.