Sunday, October 27, 2019

243. Brazilian directors Juliano Dornelles’ and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film “Bacurau” (2019): Structurally similar to Hollywood films but refreshingly different in presenting a realistic canvas of Brazilian characters and contemporary problems of that wonderful, diverse country

The first impression of a viewer of Bacurau would be that it is structured in many ways similar to any recent Tarantino film or the way a traditional Hollywood Western is assembled: the bad guys making the life of the good people a living hell until the good people get external help to rid the bad guys while the audience experiences a cathartic orgy of violence and gore towards the end of the film, when the good people emerge victorious over the evil characters. 

Is Bacurau a film that offers much more than that? The Cannes film festival jury thought it was the second best film in competition, sharing the honour with Les Miserables (2019), a film that had little to do with Victor Hugo. Was Bacurau less impressive than the Korean film Parasite, a film that won the top honour at the Cannes festival in the same category, which also had a similar orgy of violence at its end? Debatable, indeed, because Parasite deals with economic disparity in urban life while Bacurau deals with much more: economics, politics, sociology, ecology, and even human hunting as a depraved sport for the rich.

Funeral procession for a dead matriarch.
(Coffins are constant reference points in the film.)

While Parasite is a clever reworking of Michael Haneke’s two film versions of Funny Games (1997, 2007) and Claude Chabrol’s  La ceremonie (1995), Bacurau presents a deeper sociological and economic canvas that is arguably more realistic and fascinating than the slick and glib Korean film, despite Bacurau’s ridiculous drone without helicopter blades or other conventional propulsion aids to make it fly.  The desolate town of Bacurau in Bacurau does not exist in reality. Yet Bacurau presents a very realistic future scenario where the rich and powerful can remove entire towns and villages from satellite images that can be accessed on the internet for a short time without the rest of the world noticing the difference.

Teresa (Barbara Colen) returns to Bacurau,
when her grandmother dies

Why did  the screenplay-writers call this fictional place Bacurau, which one learns is the Portuguese name of a bird—the night jar—found in southeast Brazil?  The nightjar is unique because of two rare factors—it can easily go into torpor, with reduced body temperature and metabolic rate, enabling it to survive periods of low food availability and it can naturally camouflage itself with tree branches and leaves for survival.  The allegory of the bird and the simple world of the fictional Bacurau’s population will be more apparent to those who have visited Brazil. In the film Bacurau, the town’s population battle the manmade decrease in water availability—in a country where some parts are blessed with the abundance of water from the mighty Amazon River.

Bacurau begins with visuals of a modest water truck that navigates ill maintained roads to a town that survives with a church, a school, a museum (where it records past denizens who revolted against injustice) , a whorehouse, a small hospital, a farm with horses and a diverse population that represents the varied races of human beings all living in harmony--a microcosm of Brazilian social reality today. Is the ecology sustainable without adequate drinking water? Can a remote town survive without adequate supply of food and medicines?

"Doctor" Domingas (Sonia Braga) with blood-splattered coat

The Brazilian co-directors (Filho had made the acclaimed recent film Aquarius with actress Sonia Braga, who also has a significant role in Bacurau) underscore the bias of Brazilian politicians who neglect fringe populations living in remote areas in preference to wealthier populations living in better endowed areas of the country to get re-elected.  They add to this scenario  the profile of the inconsiderate politicians who supply medicines that are either banned or beyond their expiry date and dump second hand books for the library transported in dumpsters all in the name of aid. Then there are politicians that divert canal water, protected by armed guards, which could have served the town of Bacurau that needed the water, to other projects that serve the politicians’ own narrow interests. When the local politician arrives with his gifts, the population of the town hide behind closed doors just as the nightjar bird is prone to hide by camouflaging itself.

Into this bleak scenario, co-directors Dornelles and Filho add another and more deadly and sinister element—the sport of rich individuals from Europe and USA to kill human beings in Bucarau and its surrounding areas targeting  those are not white (just as hunters used to kill wild animals) with the assent of local Brazilian politicians. Dornelles and Filho even add rich Brazilians (referred to in the credits as “Foresteiras”) who are in this group of bizarre, racist individuals who kill humans without remorse.  This group is led by a character named Michael (played by Udo Kier, who has worked with Lars von Trier in Breaking the Waves and Europa and has a cult following for his appearances in gory,  horror films). One would have expected actor Kier to have been stony faced at the Cannes premiere of Bacurau but according to IMdB trivia Kier cried for the first time in his 50 year career “because of the whole experience of filming (Bacurau)”

Domingas (Braga) offers Michael (Udo Kier)  soup

There are many details in Bacurau, which will ring a chord with Brazilian audiences as there are references to real life people in Brazilian history, people who fought against injustice n the past.  Bacurau brings back memories of great Brazilian filmmakers of the past who made films that are unforgettable such as Ruy Guerra (The Guns, 1964, winner of the Silver Bear at Berlin festival) and Glauber Rocha (Entranced Earth, 1967, winner of the Grand Prize at Locarno festival and FIPRESCI prize at Cannes festival). Bacurau might not boast of the high production qualities of Parasite, but it is a film that reminds you of the Brazilian films of Guerra and Rocha.

Michael (Kier),  the lead remorseless human hunter

Like the nightjar, the people of Bacurau prove that can “eat” human insects. And it offers more food for thought than a Tarantino film or a regular Western. 

(The film is showcased at the 2019 Denver Film Festival, USA, opening shortly, which has a major focus on Brazilian cinema.)

P.S.  Bacurau won the Best Film and the Best Director awards at the Lima Latin America Film Festival., the ARRI /OSRAM Award for the Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival, and the Best Director Award, the Carnet Cove Jury Award, and the Critics’ award  at the Sitges Catalonian International  Film Festival.  Lars  von Triers’s Breaking the Waves (with Udo Kier and mentioned in the above review) has been reviewed earlier on this blog (click on the name of the film in this postscript to access the review)  and is one of the author’s best 100 filmsThe author has visited Brazil and interacted with its senior government officials who were planning and managing national agricultural projects in the late Nineties. Bacurau is one of the author's best 20 films of 2019.

Monday, October 21, 2019

242. Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s French/Israeli film “Synonymes” (Synonyms) (2019): A disturbing tale of extreme alienation and nihilism, contrasting the social realities of Israel with that of France

Synonyms’ protagonist Yoav (Tom Mercier) is an Israeli Jew who grew up with his parents in Israel and has been through the mandatory military training and perfected his skills to the extent he can shoot with his sophisticated automatic machine gun to rhyme with musical pieces just for the fun of it and even claims to have perforated Arab terrorists with his shooting skills. That was Yoav’s past, glimpses of which are briefly shown in the film. The Yoav you see for most of the 2 hour-long  Synonyms is a young man so disillusioned with his native land, his parents, his native tongues (Yiddish and Hebrew), and  the Israeli armed forces that he has chosen flee his country and start a new life in France by mastering the French language with the aid of a dictionary.

Yoav robbed of all his belongings
almost freezes to death in an empty apartment

While the original script, co-written by director Nadav Lapid and another individual named Haim Lapid (who might or might not be related), stresses Yoav’s alienation from Israel, Israelis expatriates in Paris seem to be able contact him and help him get a job to survive, after he is robbed of all his possessions. In spite of his professed hatred of anything Israeli, the job offered is ironically as a security guard at the Israel embassy in Paris, where Yoav responds in French, when spoken to in Yiddish by his colleagues. Yoav’s alienation is extended to his family as well. He tells his new French benefactors that his father is dead (when he is actually alive) and that his mother laughed loudly during his military service graduation ceremony. When his father travels to Paris to meet him and help him with monetary assistance, Yoav is rude towards him and refuses to speak with him.

Yoav (Tom Mercier) in a yellow coat with his French benefactors,
Emile and Caroline

Yoav clearly wants to be assimilated into the French society while he rejects his own Israeli roots, even though he thinks singer Celine Dion is French, when she is Canadian.  The clever script presents a French unmarried couple, Emile and Caroline,  who revive him when he is nearly frozen in his bath tub having been robbed of all his clothes and money. The French duo extends money, clothes, and friendship without asking anything in return. They do not exhibit any racism, in contrast to what Yoav experienced and was indoctrinated in Israel. Yoav is clearly not a religious Jew either.

The script moves gradually to existential nihilism with Yoav who once loved music to rebuke orchestra members, revoke friendship with an extraordinary and selfless French friend by asking him to return Yoav’s writings that Yoav had himself generously gifted earlier, and insult Yoav’s French wife who too had been his admirer (she even referred to him as ‘the monk’) and lover.

The silver lining of the bleak original screenplay is perhaps the symbolic references to the Greek epic poem by Homer called Illiad, specifically the final encounter between Hector and Achilles outside the ramparts of Troy besieged by the Greek army.  Yoav tells his French benefactors that his parents used to read to him the story of Hector when he was four years old, making Yoav to become increasingly fond of the Trojan hero who challenged Achilles to a single mortal combat. But Yoav’s parents refused to reveal the outcome of that encounter. It is well known that Achilles defeated Hector and killed him and then dragged his body around the ramparts of Troy. In the disturbing film Synonyms, we are shown a vehicle dragging a man in the empty streets of a modern city at night, much like Hector’s body was dragged to prove some bizarre point.

Emile arranges the marriage of Yoav and Caroline,
so that Yoav can become a French citizen

Perhaps director Nadav Lapid wants to project Yoav who leaves Israel as being somewhat similar to Hector who went out of the secure fortress of Troy, much against the wishes of his wife, only to be killed and humiliated in death.

The film Synonyms reminds you of the 2018 Chinese film An Elephant Sitting Still.  Both the films won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin film festival in successive years, and Synonyms went on to win the Golden Bear for the Best Film in competition at Berlin. Both films are nihilistic. Both films indirectly criticize the country of the respective director’s birth. Synonyms won the best cinematography award in Israel and understandably was not bestowed any major award. Synonyms is being screened at the Denver Film Festival kicking off soon.

The film Synonyms is not a film that extends universal appeal; yet it has won the hearts of the jury members at Berlin and members of Israel's film academy. What the film does indeed present positively is the French spirit of equality, liberty and fraternity.

P.S.  An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Note the inverted Eiffel Tower in Synonyms' poster above!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

241. Japanese filmmaker and screenplay writer Hirokazu Kore-eda’s French/English feature film “Le vérité” (The Truth) (2019): Impressive, yet not as fascinating as a few of his earlier feature films

Hirokazu Kore-eda is undoubtedly one of the most interesting film-directors alive and making films today.  His talent to write an original script is just awesome. His scripts are so diverse in subject matter and yet linked by two common threads:  family ties and importance of ethics in life. Only a few of his films have original scripts written by someone else. He is remarkably close in his treatments of varied chosen subjects to the works of Naomi Kawase, another contemporary Japanese filmmaker, who also prefers to write her own original scripts. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that French actress Juliette Binoche is the star of both their latest films: Kore-eda’s The Truth and Kawase’s Vision (2018).

 Fabienne (Deneuve, left) is the mother and Lumir (Binoche, right)
is her daughter

The Truth presents a tale of an aging and reputed French actress Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) who is rich enough to spend decades in outer space to counteract natural aging and return to Earth to continue her acting career looking younger than her age. This obviously means her relationship with her biological daughter Lumir (Binoche), who is now a film scriptwriter, is punctuated by 10 year gaps for the sake of her own vanity. The preposterous 10 year “sojourn” in “outer space” idea is a typical fantasy of Kore-eda that one encounters in his films occasionally. The Truth is another original screenplay of Kore-eda making his first non-Japanese language feature film with Lea Le Dimna, providing him with the French and English translation of his written script. The Truth is showcased at the Denver International Film Festival, USA, that kicks off later this month.  American audiences at the festival will be delighted to find Ethan Hawke in The Truth playing the role of Lumir’s American husband Hank, a TV actor getting good reviews in a recently completed TV series back home.

Three generations of the family:
Lumir (Binoche) and Fabienne (Deneuve, foreground) as daughter and mother;
Hank the son-in-law (Ethan Hawke) and granddaughter
Charlotte (Clementine Greniere) seated behind

In the film, The Truth, Kore-eda focuses once again on family ties, predominantly on the mother-daughter relationship taking centre stage. Ethics are also discussed in passing (Fabienne’s destruction of a rival actress’ career using unethical means) but those small details discussed in passing could easily be missed out by casual viewers.  

What is disturbing in this film is not its content but the parallels from other major works of cinema which make you scratch you head to recall whether you had seen it all before. The tale of a daughter returning with her new husband after a long hiatus to her house where she grew up, only to unravel bits and pieces of past and present in her family are remarkably close to Luchino Visconti’s Venice Golden Lion winning film Sandra (1965). The apprehensions of an aging famous actress not being able to impress in front of the camera and being increasingly forgetful of her lines while shooting is remarkably close to the story of John Cassavetes’  Berlin’s Silver Bear winner  Opening Night  (1977) with his wife Gena  Rowlands  impressing us just as much as Ms Deneuve  does in The Truth.  On the other hand, Ms Deneuve gives us a magnificent performance in The Truth, to the extent we are constantly hypnotized by the two wonderful lead actresses, Deneuve and Binoche facing off their turbulent mother-daughter relationships.  Kore-eda also introduces within the film the filming of Fabienne’s recently published autobiography as added fodder to make the screenplay richer and provide yet another dimension for Deneuve to project herself with subtle differences in the film within the film.

A rare scene of the city of Paris in the film
detailing the relationship between the second and third generations
(left to right: Binoche, Greniere and Hawke)

The hairdo of Fabienne,
a likely homage to Tarkovsky's Mirror

In the middle of The Truth the viewer’s attention is led by the clever script to Fabienne’s hair and how it’s combed differently by daughter and granddaughter.  Then the camera captures Fabienne’s hairdo taken from behind her head that will remind any cineaste of Andrei Tarkovsky's mother’s hairdo while sitting on a fence in Mirror (1975), a sequence which was recreated in homage much later by Turkish director Semih  Kaplanoglu in his film Milk (2008). In both the Russian and the Turkish films the subject is the son’s (director’s) view of their mothers.  In The Truth, too, it is a perspective of the relationship between mother and daughter and granddaughter, using hair as a visual focal point.

If we discount the similarities to the two earlier films, The Truth offers awesome performances (Deneuve, Binoche, and  Hawke, in particular) and a very intelligent script that dissects relationships within families. As in most Kore-eda feature films, the subject of The Truth is not limited to a single generation but presents interactions between three generations—which is why the film offers much fodder for thought than is obvious. Even as this writer is a Kore-eda fan who has watched 13 of his 14 feature films, The Truth is not his most rewarding film—three other films The Third Murder (2017), Shoplifters (2018) and Maborosi (1995), are far superior.  But The Truth is well worth your time, if you like Kore-eda, Visconti or Cassavetes.

P.S. Kore-eda’s The Third Murder and Kawase’s Vision (2018) have earlier been reviewed on this blog. The reviews of Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975) and Kaplanoglu’s Milk (2008.) can also be accessed on this blog by clicking on the names of the films on this post-script. The author’s list of the best 15 active filmmakers includes Kore-eda. The author's ranking of the 13 Kore-eda films can be viewed hereThe Truth is among the author's top 20 films of 2019.

Monday, October 14, 2019

240. French filmmaker and screenplay writer Stéphane Brizé’s French feature film “En Guerre” (At War) (2018): France’s equivalent of Ken Loach never fails to impress

Those who fight might lose but those who don’t fight have already lost. 
                                       -- Bertolt Brecht (opening quote of the film)

At War will pale in comparison to Stéphane Brizé’s 2015 film The Measure of a Man, another film on sudden layoffs and its effect on individuals and families of workers.  Both films have the team of Brizé and Oliver Gorce as co-scriptwriters.  Both films have the same the same lead actor Vincent Lindon who can be subtle at times and be realistically bursting with raw emotions at others. However, the knockout punch at the end of the 2018 film makes the entire later film worth your time.

Strike or war at a miniscule level?

Stéphane Brizé’s 2018 film At War creates an incredible documentary feel for much of the early part of the film—a tale of angry factory workers facing unemployment for the rest of their lives, in spite of an assurance from the multinational company made several years before to the workers that their jobs would be protected. Compounding the jolt to the workers is the fact that there are no comparable jobs available in that region that the laid off workers can opt for.  The stand-off leads to a lock-out at the factory with striking workers demanding a face-off with the German Chief Executive Officer of the multi-national company who had earlier assured the workers in writing that this would not happen and who initially refuses to personally confront the striking workers. The strikers at the factory are led by Laurent (Vincent Lindon).

While the management is armed with data to show that they went back on the agreed arrangement of no job cuts before they had realized the factory was no longer competitive in the rapidly changing economic global scenario, the striking employees note the contrasting  higher dividends paid to shareholders and increased salaries to senior employees in the same time period when the factory was supposedly  becoming non-competitive. Brizé’s film comes alive with credible arguments from a very informed workforce. With the help of the French government, the workers are confident of the factory returning to profit, if they are allowed to run it rather than by the overpaid senior staff. But do corporates handover their so-called loss-making factories to smart workers? The subject of the film may appear to be French but the subject is universal and contemporary in reality, in an  increasingly global economy.

Laurent (Vincent Lindon) the enigmatic strike leader

While The Measure of a Man dealt with the fallout of economic stress of joblessness on an upright individual, At War is an interesting study of various types of individuals reacting differently in the shadow of an upright leader in those conditions. British director Ken Loach explored similar social themes in his Cannes Golden Palm winning film I, Daniel Blake (2016) and the talented Belgian directorial team of the Dardennes brothers in their film Two Days, One Night (2014). Of course, the best work on the subject will remain Sergei Eisenstein’s first full length Russian silent feature film Strike (1925) made nearly a century ago. All these films are fascinating films on the same subject--an evergreen subject over decades. Yet each of these films are so different and thought provoking.

The remarkable difference of At War with these films is that the co-scriptwriters and the director put the actions of the heroic and upright strike leader in parallel perspective of Laurent turning a grandparent.  The socialistic symbolism of the childbirth within the script will not be lost on perceptive viewers. The screenplay and direction of film are creditable as is the range of emotions displayed by actor Vincent Lindon. One of the best scenes in the film is of a staid faced and silent Laurent (Lindon) driving his car alone, visually captured by a profile shot, with a tear running down his face, at a critical point in the film's narrative.

Different faces, different attitudes

The most appropriate description of the film is provided by the citation of the Silver Hugo bestowed on the film’s co-scriptwriters.  The citation reads that the award is for 

articulating and bringing light to an important political issue which reflects the anxiety of our contemporary society and the precariousness of our livelihood."

P.S. At War won the Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival for the Best Screenplay for the co-scriptwriters Stéphane Brizé and Olivier Gorce. The film also won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Palic Film Festival, Serbia and Montenegro. Director Brizés The Measure of a Man (2015) has been reviewed earlier on this blog as also Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake (2016) and the Dardennes brothers’ film Two Days, One Night (2014).