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


I
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


D
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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

257. Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s seventh feature film “Shetan vojud nadarad” (There is No Evil) (2020), based on an original script by the director: Distinct tales of four Iranian men (three of whom were soldiers) who either chose to actively participate or conscientiously refuse to hang condemned men and the consequences of their actions on their family life

 
















The film is “about people taking responsibility” for their actions and “each story is based on my own experience”

---Director Mohammad Rasoulof, quoted from BBC News on the Wikipedia page on the film There Is No Evil

 

Most filmgoers around the world might not have heard of Mohammad Rasoulof, an Iranian film director. He is one of most courageous filmmakers in the world today making amazing, well-crafted, award-winning films on morality within Iranian society, governed by rules that wreck the lives of its conscientious citizens. The seven feature films he made have upset the Iranian government authorities who do not appreciate dissenting views while his films gathered plaudits and awards worldwide. Both he and another relatively more famous film director Jafar Panahi are facing jail terms, currently in suspension, for highlighting some of the ills within the country. While the Damocles’ sword of prison time has cowed down Mr Panahi, Mr Rasoulof has come out with his most hard-hitting film yet-- There Is No Evil--which is arguably one of the best films of 2020 worldwide, in terms of content and quality and one of the best films from Iran over the decades. That it won top honors at the Berlin Film Festival is no surprise.

Director Rasoulof's daughter Baran plays an
interesting role in the fourth segment--"Kiss her"
The actor: Mohammad Seddighimehr


What is the film about? The four segments of this portmanteau film deal with four male characters who either hanged prisoners or objected to hanging condemned prisoners, often during their forced conscription for military duty or for economic necessity of bringing “home the bacon” in one case or, in the case of a tertiary character in the film, for covering the medical bills of a family member. None of the four enjoy their activity. In some segments, their close family are well aware of the decisions they make; in some, their dark activity is never fully revealed to their loved ones. And what are the crimes of the prisoners who are executed? Some are murderers, some are drug peddlers, some are political activists or believers in other faiths than those allowed to be practiced in the country by rigid Islamists.

Apparently if a conscripted soldier refuses to hang a condemned prisoner in Iran, you are punished by being given other tough and distasteful tasks, additional time to serve in the military, refusal of a driving license and a required permit to travel abroad. Your life becomes a living hell if you abide by your conscience.

To be involved in hanging a condemned man
or not is the question


The awesome aspect of Rasoulof’s scriptwriting lies in the contrasting details of thought that gets weaved into it. Those who hang condemned prisoners, even if it is for the sake of their family’s economic survival, and after regularly collecting their salaries and their rationed rice for their apparent remorseless activity, reveal a kind heart while discussing upset school girls from broken families or saving kittens stuck in unlikely places. On the flip side, conscientious objectors to hanging convicted human beings in the film refuse to kill foxes that harm their own livestock and choose instead to feed them with food enabling them to survive. One of Rasoulof’s hangmen who is quiet about the work he does also exhibits silent remorse as he stops his car at a red light and doesn’t move on when the lights turn green, on his way to work. The camera merely captures the unmoving car which does ultimately move after a while. What an imaginative way to capture the mind of a sullen, seemingly unperturbed individual!

The car scenes like this one
can be found in all the four segments. 


There is a strange common denominator in the films of Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy; A Taste of Cherry; Ten), Jafar Panahi (Taxi; 3 Faces), Reza Mirkarimi (Castle of Dreams) and Mohammad Rasoulof (There Is No Evil) in their propensity to film actors sitting in front seats of moving cars often, if not always, in non-studio shots. It is possible that these directors look at economics of filmmaking, ability to get reactions in real time of two or more actors in a single shot, or both. Yet this method of filming has only raised the distinct stamp of creativity of these directors in some of their important and celebrated recent works.

An evocative shot beautifully composed
and balanced by the cinematographer and the director.
That shot visually encapsulates an entire segment 
The actress is Mehtab Servati

If we go by information available on the IMdB website, it is quite possible that many of the male actors in There Is No Evil are either non-professionals making their debut or they have never acted in films sufficiently famous to be included on that website. It is indeed a remarkable achievement for Rasoulof to cast them and get fascinating outcomes.  

While Rasoulof’s personal views on death penalty is obvious, the film's strength lies in his astute development of interactions of various major characters, often within their family or a family of a close friend. The infusion of unusual details in the screenplay clearly surpasses his efforts in his past films, such as Good Bye and A Man of Integrity. Here he uses cats, foxes and even honey bees to add value to the conversation of the main characters in the four segments (There is no evil; She said ”You can do it; Birthday; Kiss me) of  the film There Is No Evil. If there is an element where the viewers have to suspend their disbelief in what they are watching, it would be portions of the second segment. But to the credit of the director/screenplay writer that weak segment is also the most entertaining amongst the four. But who cares? The somber value of the other segments more than makes up for it. The film is essentially about moral strength of its four characters not one providing popular entertainment.

Rasoulof and his contemporaries among Iranian directors are blessed with a range of beautiful and talented actresses—and this film is a testament to that factor. Rasoulof considerably depends on them. While his male protagonists may appear to have lead roles, their female counterparts in each segment have equally demanding and more commanding roles in his films and in this one in particular.

This film is in many ways close to Christian, Buddhist, Jainist, and humanist tenets though it is made by an Islamic cast and crew. It is essentially a film about respect for human life and that of animals.

The strength of There Is No Evil is based on several unusual elements—the ability of Rasoulof to make yet another film that could upset many in the Iranian government and judiciary while having a suspended jail term to serve out; writing a fascinating original script based on his own experience; wonderful casting of actors that include Rasoulof’s daughter in a major role in the final segment; and the intelligent cinematography by Askhan Askhani (who also worked on Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity). While it is quite predictable that Iran will never nominate There Is No Evil to the Oscars, one hopes it gets nominated in the categories of direction and screenplay by the Oscar authorities, rules permitting.   


P.S.  There Is No Evil won the Golden Bear for the best film, the Prize of the Ecumenical film Jury, and the Guild Prize for director Rasoulof at the 2020 Berlin film festival. It has also won the Grand Prize at the Heartland international film festival, Indiana (USA), Best Narrative Feature Film award at Montclair festival, New Jersey (USA), and the Special Jury Prize of the Crested Butte Festival (USA) for “courage in filmmaking.”  The film is participating in the 2020 Denver Film Festival, USA. There Is No Evil is one of the author's best films of 2020 Rasoulof's earlier films Good Bye (2011) and A Man of Integrity (2017), Kiarostami's Certified Copy (2010), Panahi's Taxi (2015) and Mirkarimi's Castle of Dreams (2019) have been reviewed on this blog earlier as also Kieslowski's Dekalog 5 (1988), a major cinematic statement on capital punishment from Poland. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access the reviews) 

Monday, October 12, 2020

256. Italian director Mauro Mancini’s debut feature film “Non Odiare” (Thou Shalt Not Hate) (2020), based on an original script by Davide Lisino and Mauro Mancini: Fascinating tale on human contradictions, visually narrated, economizing on spoken words

 






 








 

“I wanted what the characters don’t say to each other to be more important than what they do say to each other”

---Director Mauro Mancini’s statement to interviewer Davide Abbatescianni, in Cineuropa, after the film competed in the International Critics’ Week at the 2020 Venice film festival


Debut feature films are, in most cases, interesting films because the directors invest a lot of fresh thought as in the prime examples of Welles, Melville, Chabrol, Ridley Scott, Mike Nichols, Spielberg and the Coen brothers. So too, Mauro Mancini’s first feature film Thou Shalt Not Hate makes an unusual impact where spoken words take a back seat and silent actions speak louder.


Alessandro Gassmann in the Venice award-winning
role of the reputed Jewish surgeon



The hate in the film refers to the continuing hatred over generations between the Nazis/the neo-Nazis and the survivors of the holocaust (and their progenies), surfacing in contemporary Italy. The strength of the film does not lie in the tale that unfolds but more in the way it is presented. The film stands out as a result of the combined creative abilities of the director/scriptwriter, his co-scriptwriter, and the lead actors that present a simple tale, intelligently told.

The film opens with a scene where a father asks his young son to drown several kittens of a brood but retain one. The film ends with an adult re-visiting the same spot alone. The two key sequences do not seem to have a direct connection with “hatred” depicted in the main tale of the film but it does connect up with ideas/prejudices passed on by one generation to another. While many viewers are likely to spot the obvious tensions and hatred between the neo-Nazis and the Jews in the film, viewers are less likely to note the contrasting relationships between father and son within the two groups, presented in Thou Shalt Not Hate. In one group (the neo-Nazis), the son idolizes the father and his views, in the other (the Jewish Italian) there is almost very little evidence of any close connection between father and son in spite of working in closely connected professions. Interestingly, the mother figures in both groups are almost absent in the film’s script. The tale is either intentionally or unintentionally patriarchal. The viewer is given the choice by the filmmakers to figure out where the hatred lies: whether is it between the Nazis/neo-Nazis and the Jews or between the evolving generational perspectives within each group, or perhaps both.

In terms of religion, the title of the film Thou Shalt Not Hate is not a Jewish/Christian commandment but mirrors the Commandment “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” The film extends this view not just to human beings but to man-animal relationships as well. In contrast to the drowning of the innocent kittens that open the film, a fierce dog guarding the house of the dead dentist viciously snarls at his dentist’s son who had not met his father for a long while. Later sequences with few spoken words, explain the gradual bonding of the dog for his new owner. Another detail that may not be obvious is the burial of the neo-Nazi in a Christian cemetery without a priest, a prayer, or a Bible reading.

When a neo-Nazi dies, his daughter is the only
female mourner

The remarkable abilities of the director Mancini and his co-scriptwriter Lisino are apparent in scenes where no words are spoken and music is not used as a crutch to lift the emotions of the viewer. One such scene is the decision of the doctor to visit the police station to lodge a complaint (not a knee-jerk reaction) on being attacked as he first chose to go home and attend to his wounds and mulled over what to do next. He then turns back after pressing the door bell of the police station and almost opening the door that was remotely unlocked for him to enter. Another is a scene in a supermarket, where he chances to spot his housemaid at work from a distance. He departs discretely without interacting with her. The visuals and the editing speak more eloquently than spoken words. In another scene, the subtle ingrained reaction of the maid while travelling in a crowded bus towards an innocent black immigrant sitting close to her is delicately captured by the filmmakers. So is the subtle visual comparison of the old furniture stacked up in the Jewish father’s house along with clues to identify Nazis responsible for the holocaust meticulously being researched by the dead dentist, while his Jewish son lives in a clean and modern apartment without any clutter. The film studies attitudinal changes in families over a generation with love and forgiveness replacing intense hate. Even consensual sex between two evolved adult individuals from the two groups does not take place because they do not feel it is appropriate, indicating the maturity of the screenplay writers.  

While Thou Shalt Not Hate has an early sequence exhibiting the innate hateful action for neo-Nazis from a reserved, otherwise cool-headed Jewish doctor leading to the death of an “accident” victim, the rest of the film relates to the doctor going out of the way to procure public information on the victim and his family and attempt to discretely provide succor to the family of the deceased to compensate his hate-ridden, knee-jerk action on reaching the accident site.

The doctor seeks redemption for his hate
 in an empty synagogue 

The film recalls the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s sophisticated ten part Dekalog (Decalogue) on the ten Jewish/Christian commandments and Kieslowski’s incredible continuous collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesciewicz that followed. It appears director Mancini is following in Kieslowski’s footsteps by continuing his collaboration with his co-scriptwriter Davide Lisino on his next film project.  

Sara Serraiocco, plays the housemaid
to the Jewish doctor

Apparently Mancini and Lisino developed the story after reading a news item about a surgeon who refused to surgically operate a neo-Nazi years ago and developed the film script keeping actor Alessandro Gassman in mind. Gassman appears as an Italian version of Hugh Laurie playing Dr House (minus the limp, of course) and his laconic performance won him the Venice acting award. (Alessandro is the famous Italian actor Vittorio Gassman’s son.) Mancini very aptly paired Alessandro with the equally talented actress Sara Serraiocco, who has been playing major roles in recent award winners at the Cannes and the Berlin film festivals. The casting choices added value to the film. The future collaborative works of Mancini and Lisino will indeed be worth waiting for.

 

P.S.  Thou Shalt Not Hate won the best actor (Pasinetti) award for Alessandro Gassmann and the award for the best Italian film at the 2020 Venice film festival. The film is participating in the 2020 Denver Film Festival, USA. Thou Shalt Not Hate is one of the author's best films of 2020 Four segments of Kieslowski's Decalogue (Decalogue 1, Decalogue 2, Decalogue 5, and Decalogue 7) mentioned above have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access the reviews.)