Lowdown: Woody Allen searches for a meaning through relationships.
The first thing that strikes you when you have a go at Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters is the cast. It's an ensemble cast that could sustain ten films, but with Hannah they're all in one and they all give away some performances. I won't even bother listing the names; just look at imdb.
Eventually you cool down and get into the film. Hannah is a mix of stories all revolving around characters from one New York family, where for one reason or another the pivotal character seems to be Hannah (Mia Farrow): one of three sisters, currently married to Michael Caine but used to be married to Allen. As the film rolls along you're exposed to more and more of the various characters' stories: Caine is married to Hannah but actually has a crash on a younger sister of hers; that sister is living with an older artist, Max von Sydow, who is so disenchanted with society he uses her as his conduit to the world outside; there's another sister who tries to establish a catering business of her own, having lived in the shadows of others all of her life; there's Allen, whose marriage with Hannah started breaking up when they discovered he's infertile, and who is now a paranoid producer looking to find meaning for his life; and there is much more.
The film commences with a Thanks Giving dinner locking all the characters at a common starting point. It's interesting to note how often the American institution of the Thanks Giving dinner has been utilized for this particular purpose by movie makers; I admit I don't know how original Allen has been with this, given that Hannah and Her Sisters was released in 1986, but it definitely works as a pivot for the plot. The stories go on their separate ways, intersecting from time to time (including through subsequent Thanks Giving dinners), and culminating in the Thanks Giving dinner three years after the original where some satisfying conclusion transpires.
Overall, Hannah and Her Sisters is a touching tapestry of human stories, carefully balanced by Allen at a seemingly impossible to maintain balance between a comedy, a drama, a nonsensical comedy, and a sincere philosophical quest to find meaning in life. But it works and works very well, thanks mostly to the touching stories and the superb acting.
Of the different stories, Allen's one is the one I like the most. He starts as a busy workaholic who is disenchanted with what work rewards him with. Then he goes through a made up medical emergency which makes him appreciate the tangible qualities of life, and which in their turn make him look for some meaning to this ordeal called life. He goes through a madly funny cycle of examining religions, only to conclude that there's not much meaning to life and that we should just make our own meaning to this experience - and to the film entire. And everyone who knows me will immediately see the similarities with my own way of thinking and the reason why I really like Hannah and Her Sisters.
Best scene: Allen and one of Hanna's sisters meet in a record store and have themselves a conversation while browsing records, as in vinyl. Now I know this is not the right reason to nominate a scene for being a best scene, but I just couldn't stop thinking how less than 20 years ago shops were full of vinyl and you would go about browsing through records, and then compare it to the way music is acquire today. So much can change so quickly!
Overall: 4 stars.