No other film has achieved (or perhaps sought) its texture. It starts like a documentary and slowly segues into drama, in which an entire time and place, its rise and fall, is mirrored in the rise and fall of one family, whose members we are carefully introduced to and whose paths we follow in tandem.
It may be possible, but mistaken, to dismiss the film as an insufficiency of drama in a surfeit of detail. This is because Welles adopts the very opposite approach to most dramatists, who pride themselves on creating human situations that ring true in any surroundings and convey themselves to us with the minimum of effort and adjustment. But the personal dramas here are indivisible from their location and their moment (and so carefully and beautifully are the latter evoked, the film seems often almost eerily like a vanished age come to life). Somehow it uses its specificity of setting and circumstance to reveal its essential truths all the more potently; it reminds us that the universe cares nothing for the complexity and intensity of our lived moments: all we are is the connections we make, and eventually we, and everything we know and see and experience, will be forgotten utterly.
Welles achieves this, paradoxically it might seem, by deliberately concentrating on the tiny details rather than the large. His opening monologue pinpoints both theme and era exactly by the seemingly irrelevant distraction of listing various changes in men’s fashion against a montage of Joseph Cotten trying on the different items in front of a mirror.