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.