Wednesday, June 23, 2021

264. Japanese film director Naomi Kawase’s fourteenth feature film “Asa ga kuru” (True Mothers) (2020), based on a novel by Mizuki Tsujimura: A contemplative cinematic essay on mothers of various hues and ages


Director and co-scriptwriter Naomi Kawase, co-scriptwriter Izumi Takahashi and novelist Mizuki Tsujimura present a diversity of candidates in the film True Mothers who could fit the title of the film.

Confrontation between the biological mother
 (left) and the foster parents (right)

First, there is a biological mother, Hikari, a young teen in school, who accidentally becomes 24-weeks pregnant following a tryst with a teenager.

Second, Hikari’s own mother is another type of elderly mother, who is embarrassed by her teenage school-going daughter’s motherhood and wants to hide those facts from friends, neighbors and Hikari’s school. She obviously wants to protect her daughter’s and her family’s image in society for the future.

Asami (Miyoki Asada) (center) runs the Baby Baton,
showering happiness to so many

Third, there is Shizue Asami, who runs an adoption organization called “Baby Baton,” located in a secluded resort helping young mothers-to-be prepare for the birth of their children and arranging for their adoption by couples yearning to be parents. The elderly and kind Asami (Miyoki Asada who played the role of the shopkeeper’s wife in Kawase’s An/Sweet Bean) is another kind of “mother”-figure for the young mothers-in-distress awaiting the birth of their unwanted offspring and process the eventual adoption of the newborns. It is interesting to note that Hikari, much after the birth of her son, seeks help from (and refuge with) the elderly Asami rather than her own biological mother. 

Fourth, much later, in the film young Hikari herself, exhibits motherly love for another girl, close to her own age, she had met at Baby Baton extending limited financial, moral and emotional support in her time of need. 

The foster-mother Satoko and her husband
take the child Asato to school

Fifth and a strong candidate for  the “true mother” title in the foster-mother (Satoko) who adopts the child Asato (through Baby Baton) with her husband showering love and care, because they are unable to have a biological child of their own due to sterility issues, long after their marriage.

Finally, there is another kind of mother, whose son suffers a fall in the school and holds Satoko’s son Asato  responsible for the mishap and aggressively demands financial compensation from Satoko, who is relatively affluent and can afford to pay the medical expenses.

If King Solomon of the Bible were to sit in judgement over who among the above six exhibits values of a “true” mother in this Japanese film, it doubtful if he would have found a clear and satisfactory clue to make a non-controversial judgement. In the Biblical tale, after hearing the pleas of two ladies each claiming to be the mother of the child, Solomon said he would cut the child in half and give an equal part to each claimant. The true mother in the tale gives up her claim so that the child would live and Solomon realized she indeed was the true mother among the two claimants. That is the rhetorical question Ms Kawase is posing at the viewer of the film to figure out like King Solomon: who among the six “mothers” has the best attributes to be called a true mother.

There is a reason for Naomi Kawase to be interested in making the film on mothers and their offspring. Ms Kawase was brought up by her grandmother, not her mother. Her father, too, was absent as she grew up under the care of her grandmother.

The decision to adopt a child can be painful
before enjoying the rewards

The film is indeed sentimental. Childless couples do dream of a child of their own. In Japan, however, same-sex couples are not allowed to adopt. In Japan, as in most countries, a pregnant school girl would inevitably face social trauma and boycott, not support. The film’s fictional Baby Baton enterprise serves an important social function but, in the film, it ultimately closes shop, for reasons never stated.

Water and trees in a concrete jungle, provide 
natural succor for the troubled mind

Kawase film offers sophistication beyond the presentation of interesting human characters; True Mothers is no exception. Trees are silent characters as in The Mourning Forest and Still the Water. The sea and waterfronts provide solace to the troubled characters. The birds do bring messages of the stork. Kawase, like Terence Malick, brings to the fore connections between humans and nature in each of their works and it is for the perceptive viewer to pick up those threads. Kawase’s films try to connect normal human beings with those living on the margins of society and try to construct bridges of connection between generations. In The Mourning Forest there is reversal of the roles of the nurse and the nursed, both grieving for personal losses, one of a dead wife, another of a dead child with a forest supporting the two characters, “sometimes gently, sometimes strictly” in Kawase’s own words. In Sweet Bean, a trio of social misfits without a family meld into a virtual family. In Hanezu, Kawase presents the unfulfilled love triangle of grandparents of lovers, mirrored in the present day love triangle, with spiders and arachnids as nature’s metaphors to the tale. In Still the Water, the mother of the lead character dies and her boyfriend’s father is physically absent. Yet the connections between generations are made visually with banyan trees and the waters of the sea. A Kawase film always offers more than the obvious and True Mothers is no exception, with contemplative sequences, without spoken words, accentuated by birds, trees and waterfronts.

All types of "mothers" in True Mothers are very credibly presented and all the actors are a treat to watch. True Mothers is a rare Kawase film that is not based on an original script written by the director. Kawase and her co-scriptwriter  Izumi Takahashi adapted the Japanese “mystery” novel by Mizuki Tsujimura. However, there is an additional  personal touch here, Kawase herself was brought up by her grandparents in the Nara region of Japan, which is where the biological mother in True Mothers is originally from. In Kawase’s films, the little details add more value than the obvious tale.

P.S.  True Mothers won the 2021 Best Director award for Ms Kawase at the Mainichi Film Concours, Tokyo, Japan. Ms Kawase’s earlier feature films Shara (2003), The Mourning Forest (2007), Hanezu (2011), Still the Water (2014), Sweet Bean (2015), and Vision (2018) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. True Mothers is one of the author's best films of 2020 Ms Kawase is one of the author's favorite 15 active film directors from all over the world.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

263. Mexican film director Carlos Reygadas’ debut film “Japón” (Japan) (2002), based on his original screenplay: Fascinating debut of the talented duo of film director Reygadas and his Argentine cinematographer Diego Martinez Vignatti



My goal is to observe life and not to mystify it. What I film is simply matter that exists in the world. A person or object may have a particular meaning within the context of the film but I don’t see them as having an inherent conceptual identity. If I say the word ‘tree’, you don’t necessarily need to see the tree because you have learned since you were a child how to conceptualize the tree. In most narrative films, things—whether it’s a bird, a human body, a cloud, a car or a sound—exist as devices that only serve to tell a story. This is true for the actors as well. These types of films do not allow the viewer to see the actors as people existing in the world. Instead, the viewer sees a mask moving around in a costume and wearing lots of make-up. My goal is to bring out the individuality of each person or object and to capture something of their essence. I’m not interested in filming the mask. This is why you see the particular bodies in the films. If they are not ‘conventional’ —if they are considered old, ugly or fat—I couldn’t care less; they are all people and they are all equally beautiful. Filming people as they are is my way of showing them respect.
—Carlos Reygadas, interviewed by Paul Dallas, in Extra Extra Magazine (

As the above quote reveals, Carlos Reygadas’ film Japón is different from the films of his contemporary Mexican directors such as Guillermo del Toro (who made The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth), Alfonso Cuaron (who made Roma and Gravity), and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (who made Birdman and The Revenant), who have won Oscars and wide public acceptance globally. They are as different as chalk and cheese. Not just Japón but all the feature films of Reygadas, have ultra-real characters, some with physical characteristics or appearances that one would not normally associate with the typical actors and actresses in commercial films. Reygadas’ choice of actors resembles the casting choices of the famous Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini (who made The Gospel According to Saint Mathew with non-actors, in contrast to the Hollywood Biblicals). Again unlike his Mexican counterparts, Reygadas’ films are minimalistic in terms of dialogues, accentuating instead on sounds and visuals to communicate with the viewer, fusing the internal thoughts of characters with external visuals of nature, animals and the innocence of children.  The entire film used first time actors and it is unlikely that a viewer will easily forget their faces. It was shot on 16 mm anamorphic film stock using 2.88:1 screen aspect ratio and blown up. The outcome is amazing for such a modest technical investment.

The lame painter takes in the rural Mexico's
beauty: cacti, trees, hills and river

Japón is different from all the films mentioned above for other reasons as well. One, the name of the principal character of Japón is never revealed. The viewers of the film only get to know visually that he is lame and needs a walking stick at all times. They get to learn gradually that he is a painter, that his backpack contains painting material, that he intends to commit suicide with a gun that he carries with him and that he loves music of Shostakovich (particularly the composer’s 15th symphony) because you can hear it and that he is not religious, at least in the conventional sense, because he states as much. He has evidently travelled from an urban part of Mexico (first sequence of the film) to a carefully chosen distant rural spot of the country, where he is a stranger and has no relations. How and why he chose that village is never revealed in the film. The viewer soon realizes that the painter is a man of few words, observing more than speaking, even when spoken to. Reygadas’ use of Shostakovich’s 15th symphony, which the painter in his film shares with his benefactor widow, using earplugs, suggesting to her that he could explain the music to her but eventually does not, made this critic to delve into what was left unexplained. 

The history of this piece of music is a story by itself. The composer Shostakovich (film director Grigory Kozintsev’s close friend and his collaborator on his King Lear and Hamlet) wrote the music—his last symphony--keeping in mind the Russian intellectual and film director Yevgeny Yuvtuschenko’s poem on the suicide of another Russian intellectual Marina Tsvetaeva. Suicide and tragedy serve as the background of this Shostakovich composition, the painter listens to in JapónThe painter himself is contemplating suicide while listening to this music. 

Shostakovich's music is not the only music that adorns this beautiful film that finds beauty in what most people would consider ugly (wrinkled faces), mundane (the poor and the dirty, smelly, unhygienic persons travelling in a vehicle together in Japón), or even profane (the extreme lack of comprehension and respect for anything another person considers worth worshipping), Reygadas uses two other composers and specific works of theirs to drive home his point of view. One is Johann Sebastian Bach's Passion of St. Mathew and the other is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's two works Miserere and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. (The second composition of Pärt is used for the final sequences with the camera of cinematographer Vignatti circling the rail tracks capturing urban Mexico in the far distance and the flowing river to one side, with dead bodies and stones from the barn strewn around blending in a bizarre and sad way into the landscape.) Reygadas thanks Pärt in the end credits. Pärt's music is often incorporated in the films of Andrei Zvyagintsev, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Paolo Sorrentino, Pablo Larrain, and Leos Carax, among others.

The painter, skeptical of religion..

...and Ascen the intensely religious widow,
who believes in caring for others and loving all

Finally, why title the film as “Japan,” most viewers would ask when there is no apparent connection to that country. Would it be hara-kiri? Or is it that the landscape of this far away non-descript Mexican village offers a transcendental beauty with all its stones, trees and cacti connects with Japan in some obscure manner for one to commit suicide? When the painter does attempt suicide, it is on a cliff where a horse lies dead. Is the painter a famous one? Is the book of paintings that he carries in his backpack related to him? There is no clue offered in the film except that he is excited that his benefactor widow found one painting in the book to be very nice and he wanted her to reveal that particular painting to him.

Assimilating the stones and the trees,
the inanimate and the animate

The painter and a child--children are important
in Reygadas' films 

The suicide attempt triggers off a latent sexual urge and a possible desire to continue living. His benefactor, Ascen, is  a much older widow than the painter and she offers him food and shelter in her stone barn where her dead husband used to sleep. Ascen is a devout Catholic and explains to the painter that her name is related to the ascension of St Mary as distinct from ascension of Jesus Christ and even offers to pray for the painter, when he indicates that he is not religious. But a bond grows and a particular scene shows her physical trust in the painter as she extends her hand to him and offers to wash his clothes. That gesture of relationship gradually grows into a physical one with the painter.

Post suicide attempt, the painter lies next to 
a dead horse

The dead Ascen wearing the painter's jacket,
a "suicide" with a cosmic, religious tinge

A subplot of a devious nephew of Ascen to deprive her ownership of the stone barn so that he could sell the stones, leads to the painter pointing out that that the barn legally belongs to her. Ascen does not resist the nephew’s wiles. Her visit to the village church service/mass and her body language would appear as distant parallels to Jesus’ final days on earth. 

Japón starts as a man wanting to end his life.  Japón ends with amazing actions of love and a heavenly design of ascension of the pure in heart. Ascen, in the film, is developed as an individual with characteristics close to the Martha of the Gospels, for viewers familiar with the scriptures, providing food with love to workers who are demolishing her barn and food for a stranger staying under her roof, without being asked. Reygadas might not be religious, overtly. Yet his films show a depth of religious comprehension (biblical names of his films' characters and the term "post tenebras lux" used as a film's title are examples) that few other film directors exude. 

Reygadas can and will unsettle the purist, with his unorthodox content. Reygadas does it for a reason. When crockery falls off a table suddenly, a viewer will recall Tarkovsky's Stalker where a glass of water falls off a table--but here Reygadas relates it to the demolition of the barn, drawing the viewer's attention to the evil designs of those who only think of themselves while amassing lucre. Reygadas infuses philosophy, politics, racial harmony and uplifting innocence of children in his films, recalling the works of Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Kozintsev, Kiesolwski, Olmi, Ruiz, Malick, and Kawase. 


P.S.  Japón only won a Cannes film festival special mention but won significant awards elsewhere: Grand Prize at the Bratislava international film festival, the Best Director awards at the Thessaloniki and the Edinburgh international film festivals, and the Best First Work award at the Havana international film festival and the Audience award at the Stockholm film festival. Reygadas’ later feature films Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux have been reviewed earlier on my blog. The film Japón replaces Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux on the author’s top 100 films list. Reygadas, for this author, is one of the 15 best living-and-active film directors today.


Tuesday, April 06, 2021

262. Spanish film director Oliver Laxe’s film “O Que Arde” (Fire Will Come) (2019), based on the original co-scripted screenplay of Santiago Fillol and the film’s director Laxe: Unusual film with very few spoken lines preferring instead to communicate with visuals of nature and a cocktail of sounds (diegetic, composed music and exceptionally alluring sound mixing)




“If they hurt others, it’s because they hurt, too.”-- Benedicta, mother of Amador, responding to Amador’s comment on the root formation of the Eucalyptus tree, a tree that can cause explosive burning during forest fires, a metaphor of trees used in the film to describe human behavior


“They told you about me?” Amador to Elena

“Yes, but..well, you know how people are.” Elena’s response


In a 2021 interview for American Cinematheque, Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky stated “Sometimes silence is better than action.” That is a comment applicable to Oliver Laxe’s film Fire Will Come. The lead character Amador rarely speaks but his body language and the soundtrack do the talking, not words. Laxe’s film urges the viewer to explore the soundtrack that is expressive and offers much food for thought for an attentive viewer.

The film opens with a night sequence of a bulldozer with headlights switched on relentlessly mowing down eucalyptus trees until it comes up against a massive oak tree in its path. The bulldozer stops as if the majestic tree had commanded it to stop. The viewer never sees the driver of the bulldozer. The reason for the bulldozer mowing down the eucalyptus trees in a straight line is not spoonfed to the viewer. One has to figure out the puzzle from the clues that the script leaves for the attentive viewer to pick up.

Amador (son), Benedicta (mother) and dog--
discussing trees of the forest

The film has three major characters: Amador (actor Amador Arias), Amador’s mother Benedicta (actress Benedicta Sanchez) and the veterinarian doctor Elena (actress Elena Mar Fernandez). Amador, early in the film is introduced being released from prison after serving a sentence for apparently causing a forest-fire. As he is a man of few words, the viewer has to depend on the villager’s point of view that he is actually an arsonist. Amador does not have a wife; he lives with his old mother, who is possibly a widow. They have a few milch-cows and a dog. An accident to one cow leads to Dr Elena visiting their home to treat their cow’s injured leg. Elena indicates her interest in Amador, but the taciturn man is guarded in his response to her overture of playing Leonard Cohen’s song Suzanne while driving in Elena’s vehicle.

Benedicta enjoying the tranquility of
living on the edge of the forest

More details about Amador are progressively revealed in the film. He is aware of various scientific details of the eucalyptus tree in his somewhat cryptic conversation with his mother. He is well aware that the eucalyptus tree is Australian in origin, and was accidentally introduced into the forest near his Spanish village, possibly by travelling earthmoving equipment. He is even aware of the structure of roots of the eucalyptus, in his brief comments to his mother. One can only surmise that he would also know that species only increases the threat to a forest prone to forest fires. Was mowing down of eucalyptus trees, at the beginning of the film, a pro-active action to protect the forest from fire? The viewer has to complete the jigsaw puzzle in the Laxe film.

Firefighters trying to control fire with fire

It is indeed unusual when the film’s script has actors making their film debut playing roles that have their own names—an unusual decision taken by the director and his co-scriptwriter. Amazingly and deservedly, both Amador and Benedicta have received acting awards for their debut performances in this film. But it is not Amador and Benedicta alone that make the film interesting.

Laxe’s film is a wonderful example to study the importance of the soundtrack in a film, an aspect that is often overlooked. Most viewers would easily pick up the importance of the Leonard Cohen song, essentially a song recalling a lover called Suzanne, spiked with Christian theology. Some viewers attuned to Western classical music would identify Vivaldi’s “Cum Dederit” from the larger composition Nisi Dominus play on the film’s soundtrack. Fewer would know that both Handel and Vivaldi composed their versions of Nisi Dominus in the context of Psalms 127 in the Bible. Now Psalms 127 relate to God’s plan. The Psalms 127 discuss the anxiety in persons affected by reliance on their work experience and contrasts it with God’s gift of sleep to his loved ones who leave it all to Him to configure. The possible evidence of Laxe’s choice of this specific piece of Vivaldi is mirrored in the film when the mother Benedicta goes looking for her son Amador one morning because he had looked worried the previous night, and finds him in deep slumber in the driver’s seat of his van instead of sleeping in the house.

Amador driving his vehicle and reflecting
on the forest reflected on the windshield

Amador gets set to meet the vet Elena,
only to realize that the villagers have influenced her
with their opinions that he is a pyromaniac

However, it is not Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and the choice of Vivaldi’s composition alone that makes the soundtrack of Fire Will Come rewarding. The control of the forest fire sequences play out Georg Friedrich Haas’ avant garde composition Konzert fur Posuane und Orchestra  with top-notch sound mixing by composer and sound mixer Xavi Font. For those readers who are interested, the Haas composition in a concert hall is appended to this review to contrast it with Xavi Font’s contribution of the same piece in the film.

The mother Benedicta takes cover from the rain
under the shade of an oak tree, possibly the one
shown at the start of the film 

Apart from the soundtrack, it is the long reflective silences in the film that add to the effect. Was Amador driving the bulldozer in the night? Was the oak tree that stopped the bulldozer the same tree that gives Benedicta cover from the pouring rain? Could Amador who helps clear a blocked canal for the entire village selflessly be attacked a few days later by the same villagers for the final forest fire for which he was clearly (at least for the viewers of the film) not responsible? Perhaps the eucalyptus tree does hurt other trees for a reason, as Benedicta figured. The award-winning screenplay, the film’s direction and cinematography, sound mixing and the debut performances of the lead actors make the film outstanding for any serious cinephile. Laxe, Fillol and Font make a coherent and complete team.  One can only wish for more exciting films from this talented team.


P.S.  Fire Will Come won the Cannes film festival’s Un Certain Regard Jury Prize, the well-deserved Chicago international film festival’s Silver Hugo for Best Sound Design, the Best Film and the Best Actor awards at the Thessaloniki international film festival and the Best Film and the Best Screenplay awards at the Mar Del Plata international film festival.   

Monday, March 29, 2021

261. US film directors Cathy Allyn’s and Nick Loeb’s film “Roe v. Wade” (2021), based on their original co-scripted screenplay with co-scriptwriter Ken Kushner: A “right-to-life” view of the US Supreme Court decision made in 1973


Roe v. Wade is a 2021 feature film that provides considerable insight from a pro-life point of view into a very important US Supreme Court judgement given in 1973 that the Constitution of the United States “protects a pregnant lady’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction” (Wikipedia). Nearly five decades after that landmark ruling, the decision continues to be fervently debated within USA, between the two main political parties of the country, between church groups and women’s rights groups, and between the National Abortion Rights Action League and the National Right to Life Committee, to mention just a few.

US Supreme Court Justices listening
to arguments...

and discussing the case among themselves
outside the courtroom
(actors Forsythe, Portnow and Davi)

US Supreme Court Chief Justice (Jon Voight)
in his chambers reflecting on the case

Cathy Allyn’s and Nick Loeb’s film takes the right to life argument armed with lots of details from the genesis of the case when Jane Roe (real name revealed much later as Norma McCorvey) became pregnant in 1969 with her third child in Texas, where abortion was illegal, unless it was to save the mother’s life. “Wade” refers to Henry Wade, the Texas district attorney, who opposed the initial lawsuit of Roe.  Roe’s child was born because the legal machinery took its time to come to a decision. The Texas laws were challenged in the US Federal Supreme Court, argued in December 1971, reargued in October 1972, and decided in January 1973. The key players in the controversial case appear in Roe v. Wade, the film, portrayed by actors Jon Voight (Runaway Train; Deliverance) and Robert Davi (Die Hard) as key Supreme Court Justices who contributed to the final 7-2 verdict in favor of abortion. Nick Loeb, the co-director of the film, acts in the role of the real Dr Bernard Nathanson, who made considerable money from conducting some 6000 abortions and was an abortion rights activist initially but eventually converts to a pro-life activist, authoring a book The Silent Scream.

Dr Nathanson (Nick Loeb) conducting legal
abortions in New York 

The film Roe v. Wade is useful viewing for those who are not aware of the background of the famous Supreme Court judgement. Where the film treads on disputable territory are the conversations between the Justices amongst themselves and within their families, which are conjectured by the scriptwriters (on the basis of various writings, they claim) but are not real, leading up to their final judgement. For viewers, their ability to sift facts from fiction, will be key to their assessment of the film for themselves.

While viewing the film, a perceptive viewer will note Dr Nathanson walking up to the altar of an empty church orally and rhetorically questioning God followed by a scene of his eventual adult baptism, which are scenes that underscore the Church support for this pro-life film. It is also a film that will recall for the viewer the importance of the recent controversy of political appointments to the US Supreme Court.

Dr Nathanson getting baptized 
following a U-turn in his beliefs on abortion

To evaluate the true merits of the film Roe v. Wade one could compare and contrast the implicit arguments in a recent US film Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) directed by Eliza Hittman—a film that won the Berlin International Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize, and two honors from the US National Board of Review. Ms Hittman’s independent film is not just artistically superior to Roe v. Wade but puts forward the travails of a young pregnant woman, who wishes to abort her foetus in the US State of Pennsylvania, without parental consent, but cannot do so and subsequently travels to New York for the abortion with limited financial resources. The problems of a young mother who wishes to abort her foetus in a geographical territory that considers it totally illegal is probably best conveyed in the 2007 Romanian film 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days depicting abortions conducted under covert conditions increasing the danger to the mother’s life—a film that won the Golden Palm at the Cannes International Film Festival and 41 other awards worldwide, including one from the US National Board of Review.

If one cares to look closely at Allyn’s and Loeb’s cleverly crafted film, the pro-abortionist advocates (Dr Nathanson in his early phase, Larry Lader, Betty Friedan) are developed as prospectors for money and personal acclaim, with Dr Nathanson taking a U-turn on his perspective on abortions towards the end. In spite of the salted script, the actress Lucy Davenport playing the feisty Ms Betty Friedan stood out among the rest. The changes in Dr Nathanson’s views are subtly accompanied by physical changes for the better as the film progresses as though the film was nudging the viewer to like the person as he evolves within the film. (Of course, the version this critic viewed was a rough cut and may differ from the final released version.)

All in all, the filmmakers behind Roe v. Wade, the film, have displayed some talent and have done a good deed in trying to inform a wider public of how the Supreme Court arguments are made and the process of its Justices arriving at a decision. Whether the filmmakers who made Roe v. Wade can make films in future that transcend their personal agenda and avoid making incredible statements such as major US newspapers and magazines can be manipulated to rely on unverified sources of information, or include images suggesting Margaret Sanger, a birth control activist, as a Ku Klux Klan supporter (which innocent viewers might believe to be a fact) only the future can tell.


P.S.  Roe v Wade has won several minor awards including a “Cannes world festival” award for best historical film from IMDB (not to be confused with the prestigious awards of the Cannes International Film Festival of France).

Thursday, January 28, 2021

260. Côte d’Ivoire’s (Ivory Coast’s) film director Philippe Lacôte’s second feature film “La Nuit des Rois” (Night of the Kings) (2020), based on his original script: A significant prison film underscoring the power of storytelling and magic realism from the African Continent



“I don’t make a lot of films...I can only shoot what is essential to me” 

--Director Philippe Lacôte in an interview to CNN titled "Machetes and Microbes: Why Philippe Lacôte's Prison Drama Cuts Close to the Bone" (September 8, 2020) 


French-Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte has made two feature films Run (2014) and Night of the Kings (2020), both officially submitted to the Oscar’s foreign language category by Côte d’Ivoire (former name: Ivory Coast), in respective years. Both films provide a marriage of documentary and narrative fiction styles, and both have international actors of repute playing major roles. Run has Côte d’Ivoire-born Isaach de Bankole (Jim Jarmusch’s actor in The Limits of Control/Coffee and Cigarettes/Ghost Dog-The Way of the Samurai; Claire Denis’ actor in White Material/ Chocolat) and Night of the Kings has Denis Lavant (Leos Carax’s actor in Holy Motors/The Lovers on the Bridge); Claire Denis’ actor in Beau Travail) working alongside local non-professionals with elan.

The Roman viewing the MACA prison's
exteriors on arrival

Night of the Kings is a film about the first day and night of a new prisoner, whose real name is never revealed/mentioned in the entire film, in Côte d’Ivoire’s infamous prison called La MACA (Maison d'Arrêt et de Correction d'Abidjan). It is an unusual prison—it functions as an open prison, within a closed well-guarded perimeter walls. The prisoners are governed, not by the armed police stationed outside but by a prison inmate who is given the title of Dangoro by other prisoners. The Dangoro (Steve Tientcheu, who had a meaty role in 2019 film directed by Ladj Ly called Les Miserables, an Oscar nominated and Cannes Jury award-winning film) rules over other inmates in accordance with  internal rules, laws, and beliefs that one guesses evolved over time by the prisoners. The official prison warden/officials, armed with guns, merely keep watch through small slits in the wall at a vantage point. As the new prisoner is brought to the prison in an open truck with an armed guard seated next to him, the Dangoro assesses the young man who might be 20-years old or even less and announces the new prisoner is the “Roman.” The viewer gradually learns the import of the strange baptized name Roman. A Roman, in the prison, has to wear an impressive gown and narrate tales the entire night to all the Roman’s prison cohabitants just as Scheherazade did to survive in A Thousand and One Nights. In Roman’s case, he learns he has to keep his listeners transfixed overnight to see the sunrise the next day.

The ailing Blackbeard is the Dongoro, facing 
challenge to his leadership in the MACA

While many viewers will be enraptured by the Roman’s innovative ability to narrate interesting tales woven from his knowledge of Ivorian contemporary street conflicts and his ability to recall Ivorian oral history and tales narrated by his elders as he grew up, the original script of director Lacôte, mirrors more than its face value. What the Roman narrates is a close examination of the violence in Côte d’Ivoire after and between the two civil wars (2002-2007 and 2010-2011), the reasons for that violence, the historical seeds sown over centuries in the minds of Ivorian inhabitants that contribute to the recurring waves of violence, and the internal contemporary politics of the country stated with skill and some camouflage through the Roman’s seemingly innocent storytelling and the parallel events in the prison relating to politics to dethrone the ailing Dongoro and Dongoro’s own plans for his final end-game in line with the internal codes of MACA evolved over time by the prisoners. All this is observed by the warden and his officials and they act as traditional neo-colonial rulers do with knee-jerk reactions, seemingly unable to comprehend the ground complexities.

The Roman narrates his stories, wearing the
Roman's fine attire as other prisoners listen

To comprehend the full import of the film, an unusual external event preceding the release of the film, publicized by CNN news channel referred above, needs to be kept in perspective. In December 2019, the film’s director Philippe Lacôte was attacked in the night on the streets of Abidjan (capital of Côte d’Ivoire, by a youth gang armed with machetes referred to in the film as the “microbes,” one of which the Roman in Night of the Kings was purported to have been a member) leaving director Lacôte with injuries on head, hand, and leg that requiring three medical operations to recover somewhat and release the film. Mr Lacôte is an admirable filmmaker crafting his own screenplays. His screenplay for Night of the Kings is entrenched with Ivorian truths, history and folklore that could be allegorical as well.

Silence (Denis Lavant)
comes to Roman's rescue

Silence helps Roman with ideas to extend his tales

n order to survive, the Roman begins by narrating somewhat real events of Zama King, a contemporary leader of microbes, who he is supposed to have killed, when his real crime was mere pick-pocketing. In order to lengthen the story telling, the Roman goes back several years describing Zama King and his blind father in rural Côte d’Ivoire, attacked by armed groups. At the behest of a well wisher called Silence (Denis Lavant) walking with a hen on his shoulder in the MACA jail, the Roman adds new characters in Ivorian folklore, Barbe Noire, a queen with magical prowess, accompanied by soldiers set in a time zone several centuries prior to the present day. And while Roman is keeping the prisoners distracted with the stories, there are murders, suicides and power games among the prisoners to replace the ailing Dangoro on a full moon night with a new one. Perhaps the goings-on within MACA reflect the turmoil of Côte d’Ivoire’s socio-political scenario in recent years that forced the African Development Bank to move its headquarters from Abidjan to Tunisia in 2003 until its eventual return to Abidjan in 2014.

An Ivorian queen with an unusual head dress,
accompanied by her armed soldiers,
is one of the riveting tales of the Roman

irector Lacôte has written the script with intimate personal knowledge of the MACA prison. When he was a child, Lacôte’s mother was a political prisoner in MACA and he would travel in public vehicles to meet with her inside the “open prison” depicted in Night of the Kings. According to Lacôte, the ritual of a “Roman” telling stories is real but in reality the “Roman” is never killed. A quarter of the cast of Night of the Kings was made up of former MACA inmates to lend authenticity to the film. Lacôte’s screenplay and the film’s French title further suggests similarities with the Shakespearean play The Twelfth Night, where the servants play the masters in a flow of licensed disorder, just as the Roman holds court while narrating the tales in the MACA. Young Lacôte apparently noticed some of elements of power play within MACA on his visits to meet his imprisoned mother. The screenplay also uses the ancient Greek theatre elements of the chorus as groups of prisoners sing and chant elements of Roman’s tale in an impromptu fashion.   

The survivor

While director Lacôte’s film harks back to Middle Eastern roots of One Thousand and One Nights, another African film Sleepwalking Land made in 2007 in Mozambique, directed by Teresa Prata, adapted novelist Mia Couto’s novel of the same name adding Ms Prata’s personal nods to Melville’s Moby Dick and a distant alluded equivalent of Captain Ahab. So too did French director Claire Denis while cleverly adapting  Melville’s Billy Budd in her remarkable film Beau Travail (1999), set in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. All the three films, by three different directors, deal with Africa and the colonial influences in that wonderful, diverse continent. Cinema is able to link them all together like beads in a necklace. Recent films from Africa that include This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019) from Lesotho and Night of the Kings from Côte d’Ivoire signify that the continent is proudly exhibiting a resurgence in quality films from unexpected countries not often associated as sources of impressive indigenous cinema.



P.S.  Night of The Kings has won two Silver Hugo awards at the Chicago international festival, one for its cinematography and one for its sound, the Amplify Voices award at the Toronto international festival,  and the Artistic Achievement award at Thessaloniki (Greece) film festival. The films This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019) and Sleepwalking Land (2007) have been reviewed on this blog earlier. (Click on the names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews.) This film is one of the author's top 15 films of 2020. The author is one of the contributors of The Directory of World Cinema: Africa (Intellect Books), The author has had the privilege of having visited Côte d’Ivoire in the Nineties, several times on official work to interact with African Development Bank officials.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

259. Lesotho’s film director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s second feature film “This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection”(2019), based on his original script: One of the most remarkable films from the African Continent


“Let the dead bury the dead, you shall leave no trace. Bury your existence, lest they say there lived a sufferer. The soul-less march of time has surrounded you, like an old cloth turned into a dry beetle. The (church) bells speak when people can’t. Little children cheer up. The dead buried their own dead. You will do so in future. You can hear the church bells under the water”

---words of a song sung in the opening sequence, where the time stamp is revealed by the electricity that lights up the room (the rest of the film is lit by candles). The song is sung, aided by a Lesiba, “an unbraced mouth resonated bow,” by the film’s actor Jerry Mofokeng


Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese is one of the best directors from the African continent today, if not a wider geographical area, and his 2019 film This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection testifies that fact. How original is the tale of the film depends on whether he had seen a remarkable US film Northfork (2003) directed by Mark Polish with an original script written by the brothers Mark and Michael Polish. The essential similarity between the two are limited to the impending acquisition of land to make way for a man-made lake, the shadow of forcible relocation of the inhabitants of a town/village, a Christian priest (Nick Nolte, in the Polish film; Makhaola Ndebele in Mosese’s film) who provides spiritual succor, and relocation of buried remains of the dead before the waters are released. Both are remarkable films. In both films, we have inhabitants resisting change. In both films, the villagers/townsfolk battle powerful wealthy capitalist groups who promise a better life if the inhabitants agree to move out.  Unlike Polish’s film that focused on diverse characters in a town, in Mosese’s film, the focus is on a single inhabitant--an 80-year-old  widow named Mantoa (Mary Twala Mlongo, who is stunning in this film) mourning currently her son’s death and his burial. Similar to the work of the Polish brothers, there is a priest in Mosese’s film to comfort her spiritually but Mosese goes a step beyond the American film, he brings in sheep as non-human mourners in a twist of magic realism to comfort a widow whose house was once burnt in a fire that consumed all her possessions and, possibly, her bedridden husband. To capture the movement of the animals from an overhead shot was a masterstroke, reminding one of Terrence Malick’s shot of grazing wild bison surrounding the lead actors in To The Wonder (2012).

Mantoa played by Mary Twala Mlongo, who won
5 Best Actress Awards at various international
film festivals for this role

The opening song sung with a Lesiba
(the room has electrical lights)

Death and burial are important elements of spiritual and social discussion in This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection. The film begins with Mantoa mourning the death of her son who had been working in a mine in neighboring South Africa, that landlocks Lesotho. The script of Mosese reveals in fits and starts that Mantoa has lost her bedridden husband, her daughter and her granddaughter. Her cumulative grief is relieved for a while by the consoling words of the Christian priest quoting the Bible passages. Yet this only leads to a crisis of faith in the strong Mantoa, who merely impassively listens to the hymn “Abide with me” sung in the local language by members of another burial procession passing by her hut. Mantoa is preparing for her own death and burial in the background of the imminent “death and burial” of her “weeping” village called Nasarethe (a variant of Nazareth, the town Jesus grew up in the Bible) under the waters of the proposed lake.  Mantoa calls all the womenfolk of the village and gives guidelines on her own burial reminding one of Abbas Kiarostami’s quest for a suitable person to bury his fictional character Badil in the 1997 Golden Palm winner at Cannes, The Taste of Cherry. For Mantoa, her death is certain and around the corner and her burial wishes will be complied with; for Badil, his plan is dependent on future intangibles. Mosese presents Mantoa, a woman of strong will and character, a ‘Mother Courage,’ who pays a villager in advance to dig her grave next to her husband’s and son’s graves.

Mantoa grieves her losses to a fire sitting on
a charred bed while sheep magically
surround her as co-mourners

After the fire, the rebuilt elegant hut of Mantoa
(note the art direction/production design)

Mosese’s film presents an unforgettable mix of script, visuals and sounds that are rarely captured so effectively and evocatively in a film. Almost every shot in the film, often wordless, express the affinity of Mantoa to her immediate surroundings that goes beyond the cemetery, the church with its well-described historic bell, and the dead bodies buried in the graves. The colorful attires of Mantoa indoors are regal and yet simple. The exterior shots silently describes the single individual swallowed up by the vast well-endowed land that produce useful flora for the humans and feed for the sheep, not to mention the rainwater that blesses the country.

Mantoa in mourning attire
(note the candles.)

Mantoa, in better times, (note the rich colors.)

 (In reality, not stated in the film, the multi-million dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which commenced in 1986 with the help of the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the European Investment Bank, captures stores and transfers water and generated electricity to South Africa, earning Lesotho hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually.)   

The typical cinematography of the film, accentuating
Mantoa's stature against larger forces,
of rainwater from the clouds that can bring
prosperity and the cemeteries that will go under water 

Director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, as the director, screenplay writer and editor has made Lesotho and Africa proud with his second feature film winning plaudits all over the globe.  African cinema is on the march while showing indirectly the effect of development in the region.

P.S.  This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection has won 20 awards worldwide at film festivals including Athens, Durban, Hong Kong, Kerala, Montreal, Reykjavik, Sundance, and Taipei international festivals. At the Kerala festival (IFFK) it was chosen the Best Film in competition. Five of these awards were for Mary Twala Mlongo as the Best Actress at the respective events. At IFFK, too, the late Mary Twala Mlongo earned a Special Mention. The film participated at the Denver film festival,  This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection is one of the author's best films of 2020. Mark Polish’s film Northfork (2003) and Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder (2012), mentioned above, have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews.)

Saturday, November 07, 2020

258. US director Henry Butash’s debut feature film “The Atlantic City Story”(2020), based on an original script by the director: Charming and different, crystallizing the potential and power of independent, low-budget cinema


There are films that begin to mesmerize a viewer when you watch the initial sequence closely. This is often the case when you view a debut film that is also built on an original script written by its director. The quiet sophisticated strength of the opening sequence of Henry Butash’s debut film The Atlantic City Story will grab the attention of any mature, attentive viewer and the viewer is likely to be hooked until the film ends. This critic recalls the same feeling while viewing the opening sequence of the British director Sir Ridley Scott’s debut film The Duellists which went on to win the Cannes film festival Best Debut Film award in 1977, Scott’s sole honor at Cannes to date.  Similar to The Duellists, Henry Butash’s film, too, has an opening sequence where the spoken conversation is minimal, and even the lead actress Jessica Hecht playing a middle-aged married woman called Jane (an appropriate name for the character) hardly moves from a table where she is sitting and drinking her morning hot beverage, as her husband greets her fleetingly and rushes off to work. Her posture, the lighting and the camera almost mimics a static shot providing some introductory information for what is to follow. A regular Hollywood studio film would never allow for such a minimalist opening sequence as in Butash’s The Atlantic City Story. These are aspects that regular filmgoers used to loud music and fast action sequences would perhaps discount.  This is probably why The Duellists is rarely discussed even today among Ridley Scott’s works even though Cannes spotted its value ignoring his blockbuster films that he made in his later career.

Taking a break from her cheating husband:
Jane (Jessica Hecht) at Atlantic City on 
the shores of the Atlantic Ocean

Those who have visited Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, in recent decades could anticipate a socio-historic story of the gambling hub on the Atlantic coast especially in winter months when the numbers of visitors dwindle. The wooden boardwalk parallel to the ocean shore would be empty in winter and but crowded in summer. Butash’s film captures the winter scenario with the boardwalks almost empty though the casinos work quite in contrast without a break with sufficient numbers of customers gambling away night and day just as they do in Las Vegas. The only difference: Atlantic City, seems to be on the decline while Las Vegas appears to be unaffected with time.

However, Butash’s film is not about the City as it prefers to focus on the story of two lonely individuals, Jane and Arthur (Mike Faist), who accidently converge on the city for different reasons at almost the same time. Jane is a married woman with sufficient money to spend and wants to spend time anonymously away from her husband, who she suspects is having an affair with another woman. Arthur, the other individual, is a young bachelor, considerably younger than Jane, who has stolen money and an engagement ring from his family members and is possessed by an urge to compulsively gamble. Atlantic City offers the anonymity and escape that Jane briefly desires, and for Arthur the false hopes of becoming rich and hopefully returning the stolen money to the family he so loves. Jane and Arthur, total strangers, meet in that somewhat less-crowded-than-usual Atlantic City.

Arthur (Mike Faist) gambling with money
stolen from his family

Jane is initially attracted to Arthur by merely watching his hands on the roulette table. Jane notices that Arthur is losing money and is gradually becoming penniless. Jane follows and discovers him alone one night all wet on the seashore and suspects that he has no place to go and as a kind soul brings him to her room. A bond forges between the two as they spend time in the empty exteriors of Atlantic City over the next few days.  Director Butash had worked on three recent films of Terrence Malick (as post-production assistant in Knight of Cups and Song to Song and as an additional editor for his Voyage of Time). It is therefore not surprising that certain exterior sequences of Jane and Arthur in Atlantic City remind the viewer of Malick’s style of the ballet-like camera movements capturing the almost silent duo (bereft of Malick’s usual voice overs and religious philosophy) conversing only briefly. Butash invests considerable screen time focusing on their body language and that results in better dividends than films that rely on lengthy spoken dialogues.  That’s what makes Butash’s film stand out from most other films.

Butash and cinematographer Derry creating images 
akin to works of Malick and cinematographer Lubezki

If the viewer is familiar with a particular work of the Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekov, The Atlantic City Story would recall elements of Chekov’s short story The Lady with a Dog. That short story dealt with an unhappily married woman, on a vacation (alone with a dog and without her husband) walking up and down a walkway on the shores of the Black Sea meeting up with a lonely married banker for the first time, while passing each other. The Chekov story was adapted into a wonderful 1960 Russian film directed by Iosif Kheifits with the same title as the story and had officially participated in the Cannes Film Festival that year. Cineastes who have watched the Kheifits film will note the common strains with Butash’s film. The boardwalk of Atlantic City parallel to the Atlantic Ocean shore is similar to the walkway in Kheifits film next to the Black Sea shore. The main characters of both films include married persons who indulge in a brief extra-marital tryst before departing to their respective homes. But the common elements of the two films end there.

Butash’s script does not adapt Chekov’s story any further but instead looks at the brief tryst of Jane and Arthur as a medicine to heal their personal psychological wounds. The ending of Butash’s tale is considerably different from Chekov’s tale. Jane being elder to Arthur notices Arthur’s dangerous gambling addiction and proactively comes up with a solution to help him on the right path and return to his family. Jane is able to reflect on her own life and marriage and resolve that fracture too in an interesting way.

Jane: Escaping a fractured marriage,
or repairing it with a short absence?

The admirable aspect of Butash’s original script is in contrasting Atlantic City as a haven for tourists and compulsive gamblers, against those rare well-meaning visitors who could go out of the way to help a compulsive gambler to seek a new productive life and even encourage that person to consider joining Gamblers Anonymous. The script is also admirable because the director/scriptwriter positively focused on saving crumbling marriages and broken family ties set against a bleak backdrop of empty stores and almost empty sandwich outlets that had attracted Arthur’s parents in the past when they visited Atlantic City decades ago enabling Arthur to recall the sumptuous sandwiches of the outlet from memory. The images of Butash's film are starkly in contrast with the well-populated boardwalks of the City during high-tourist periods of the year captured in Louis Malle's film Atlantic City (1980).

Arthur's life is changed by
a well-intentioned stranger

Pivotal to The Atlantic City Story is actress Jessica Hecht, who has very few lines to speak and yet dominates the screen fleshing out the character that Butash had created. Butash cleverly zeroed in on Ms Hecht possibly to extract a credible low-key but mature performance required of the character. Similarly, cinematographer Justin Derry’s outdoor cinematography is magical at times and quite possibly influenced by the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in several of Terrence Malick’s later films.

Henry Butash has made a commendable debut film that offers restrained entertainment and thoughtful and positive outcomes with a difference that independent cinema can offer in USA. One hopes the debut film of Mr Butash will sow the seeds for a similar growth trajectory as the debut film of Sir Ridley Scott did for Sir Ridley.  

P.S.  The Atlantic City Story is making its debut at the 2020 Denver Film Festival, USA, and is nominated for the Best American Independent Film Award. This critic had visited Atlantic City in November 1996 and experienced first hand the lack of crowds on the famous boardwalk at that time of the year depicted in the film.  Ridley Scott’s debut film The Duellists and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups mentioned above have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews.) The Atlantic City Story is one of the author's best films of 2020.