Sunday, November 14, 2021

269. Canadian film director Denis Côté’s tenth feature film “Hygiène sociale” (Social Hygiene) (2021) in French, based on his original script: An unusual film that serves to entertain verbally and visually as a dark comedy, without sex or violence

he title of the film Social Hygiene will remind viewers of the Covid pandemic’s cardinal rule to avoid infection—maintain social distancing to avoid infection. In fact, no two characters make physical contact in the entire film and maintain at least a 12 feet distance between each other. There is no mention of Covid or even wearing of masks in the film. Simply put, though the film was made during the pandemic, the film has nothing to do with it. Further, the film’s original script was written by the director Denis Côté in 2015, much before the onset of the pandemic. 
Antonin (right) spars verbally with his love
Cassiopée, while her new admirer silently watches 
in the background

The film is built around the pivotal character, Antonin, married, but staying away from his wife, Eglantine. Where? In a friend’s Volkswagen! Antonin, we realize is prone to making up unreal stories, is well read, deft with language wordplay, and is a thief, vandalizing cars in the process. The director/screenplay-writer Denis Côté’s central character encounters four ladies apart from his wife Eglantine. He meets with his sister, Solveig; his secret love, Cassiopée; a lady named Rose from the Ministry of Revenue tracking him down to coerce him to cough up his unpaid tax dues; and finally, Aurore, who has been also tracking him to get back a jacket and a computer he stole from her car, and some compensation for smashing its windows to steal those items.   

Antonin talks to his wife Eglantine

Antonin talks to Rose (note she wears pink),
the tax collector who can send him to prison

All the meetings with the five ladies are staged like a Samuel Beckett play with two or three characters (always including Antonin) in open grassy fields, often on the edges of forests. There is minimal movement from the characters often rooted to the same spot; only wordplay ensues with pregnant pauses between spoken lines. The only exceptionally active scene is Aurore dancing by herself in the forest to music, the source of which is never revealed. Why and what provokes Aurore, a theology student who works in a McDonald’s outlet, to suddenly dance or decide to take an interest in criminals is an amusing conundrum. To the casual viewer, the social criticism of Facebook, internet and taxes in the script may not be obvious. All the characters have lines to speak that refer to the ills of contemporary society and lifestyles.   

Antonin interacts with Solveig, his sister,
after she states that she found a lover at a restaurant
Note: She is still holding her wine glass 

Côté’s Antonin (mostly captured by the static camera in long shots, with a rare close-up towards the end of the film) is revealed as a filmmaker struggling to complete his script, and responds to Aurore’s revelation that she is a student of theology thus: “I believe in myself. I believe I can find the keys to my enigmas in my life by myself.”  

Antonin returns the jacket he stole from
Aurore's car to her. Note: Aurore's dress differs
 from those worn by other women

When asked about when and where he met his wife, Antonin wittily replies “I met my wife in a zoo, by the cage of the hyena. The rest is a long quiet river.” 

In Côté’s interesting script, the best lines are not invested with Antonin alone. Antonin’s love Cassiopée calls him a narcissist and says “You are 100 times dead. I love you as a zombie....Men are like mushrooms. The more handsome they are the more poison they contain.” The cocky Antonin pleads and buckles under Rose’s threat “I have the key to your prison cell at the edge of my pen,” to pay his taxes. To Aurore, Antonin agrees to return the jacket and computer. His sister, Solveig, finally finds a lover over tea and long tales, uttering the words “Carpe Diem.” His wife, too, leaves him for another lover. The once confident and witty Antonin is completely “socially distanced.” 

Antonin holds a flower he wishes to present to his love
Cassiopée (center, background) while his wife (left)
notes it all and decides to leave her philandering husband

Denis Côté, the filmmaker is essentially a charming, absurdist playwright, who stages his written work in natural open surroundings with clearly demarcated stage markings for his actors in grassy patches with distant bird, animal, and traffic sounds on the soundtrack. The rare body movements of most characters are in sharp contrast to Aurore flexible body movements during her dancing spell in the film. 

Aurore dances in the forest, the only character
in the film who moves a lot physically

While Côté presents verbal sparring that will interest most viewers, there are details that some could miss. The clothes worn by all actors are period costumes a century old, with the sole exception of Aurore’s clothes that are contemporary. Thus her clothes and her dance movements are in interesting contrast to all other characters. Is Côté suggesting that Antonin’s appropriate love interest should be Aurore, not the characters wearing century-old costumes? Antonin does confess he finds Aurore attractive. 

Antonin (Maxim Gaudette) levelled by all women:
The only close-up shot in the entire film

Then there is a deliberate smudge in the static vision to the left corner of the First Act in the countryside with Antonin sparring with his sister possibly to accentuate the picture postcard shot, because Solveig retains her hands-on-the-hips pose for a long while. When the static camera moves, there seems to be a purpose to intervene in the social distancing of the actors and the camera. Denis Côté’s film provides unusual entertainment for those who can appreciate good playwrights and a totally fresh approach to the medium that is visually and verbally witty. A very interesting filmmaker setting a new style! 

 P.S.  Social Hygiene won the Best Director award at the Berlin Film Festival’s “Encounters” section and the Best Director award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. This film is one of the best films of 2021 for the author.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

268. Iranian film directors Maryam Moghadam’s and Behtash Sanaeeha’s feature film “Ghasideh Gave Sefid” (Ballad of a White Cow) (2020) (Iran) in Farsi/Persian language, based on their original script: Fallouts of the miscarriage of justice when an innocent person is executed for a murder he did not commit



And recall when Moses said to his people, “Allah commands you to slaughter a cow”

They answered, “Do you make a mockery of us?”

---“Surah of the Cow” in the Holy Quran (Opening quote in the film)

Iran continues to make interesting feature films, year after year, bereft of sex, nudity, escapist car chases and on-screen violence. Ballad of a White Cow is a tale of the bread-winner of small nuclear family found guilty of the killing of a known friend by a court, condemned to death by a three judge bench according to Iranian law and consequently executed for the crime. Later, the real killer confesses to the crime. A miscarriage of justice has unintentionally taken place.

While the wife of the hastily executed innocent man approaches the Iranian Supreme Court for justice for her and her mute daughter and retribution for the judges, one of the three judges is devastated by the revelations of the real killer and reaches out to help the wife and child of the executed prisoner, without revealing his own identity, and quits his job as a judge much to the amazement of the judiciary and officials, as he had merely applied existing laws of the land. That single judge, among the three judges who jointly  passed the hasty sentence, makes a laudable effort to make amends even before the Supreme Court surprisingly ruled that the wife and child had to be compensated and judges be held responsible in some way. The film is an implicit critique of capital punishment and of miscarriage of justice.

Mina (Maryam Moghadam) with her brother-in-law
reacting to the information that her dead husband
was innocent and the real killer has confessed

The interesting original script treads more on the indirect punishment on the blameless wife Mina (played by the screenplay-writer and co-director Moghadam) and daughter, living in a rented apartment. If a strange man, Reza (Alireza Sani Far), visits her to pay back “a loan” he took from Mina’s husband, the owner of the rented apartment also hastily assumes his tenant is involved in some immoral activity and asks Mina to speedily vacate. In Iran, a single woman with a child and without a job, cannot easily find an alternate accommodation at short notice, even if she has the money. Thus, the film is not just about capital punishment and miscarriage of justice, it is a commentary on single women/mothers in Iran. However, women in Iran do enjoy a lot of freedom and respect compared to their counterparts in some other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

Mina explains to her daughter Bita
that her father has gone far away 

Reza is a rare individual with a conscience. His life as a judge crumbles with a hasty judgement he made with two others on the basis of questionable evidence. Reza’s son, whose mother is either dead or divorced, is so alienated from his father after he learns of his father’s involvement in the miscarriage of justice that he rushes to join the army and soon commits suicide. Reza is twice broken. But the good man has no courage to inform Mina that he was one of the three judges who hastily condemned Mina’s husband to death.

The Judge Reza (Alireza Sani Far) arrives at Mina's
door without revealing his true identity, stating that
he has come to return a large sum of money
her husband had lent him

What follows has to be interpreted keeping in mind the opening quote about the cow. A white cow is shown in a mosque (the barbed wire on the walls resemble a prison) readied for slaughter early in the film to help the viewer with a visual connection to the opening quote. The script-writer Moghadam envisages Mina as a worker in a milk-packaging factory, a metaphoric connect to the innocent cow in the quotation. Mina does seem to eventually accept her husband’s execution as a submission to the will of Allah (God) as a good Muslim. When Mina realizes her husband was innocent she finds that she and her mute daughter seems to have been “mocked” by the judicial system. The “mockery” extends to Mina, already under stress from the judiciary, the owner of her initial apartment, and Mina’s father-in-law trying to grab the “blood money” or the financial compensation from the government, added up to Mina losing her job at the milk packaging factory, due to a strike. The finale of the film could confound an average viewer but if the viewer realizes Mina is intelligent, the ending is easy to decipher. The tale can be considered as a modern-day parable. The tale is a very interesting confrontation of the ethics of a remorseful judge and that of the eventual suffering victim’s ability or lack of ability to forgive. The viewer is left much to ruminate on.

Reza realizing Mina's problems of finding
a new apartment provides her an apartment he owns
that is lying unused at discounted rent

Mina and Bita prepare for an uncertain future

Ms Maryam Moghadam (spelled Moqaddam in Wikipedia) and Mr Behtash Sanaeeha are a rare husband-wife team making their first film Ballad of a White Cow as co-directors which won them the awards for the Best New Director at the 2021 Valladolid International Film Festival in Spain. The Uruguayan/Mexican couple of Rodrigo Plá and his wife Laura Santullo are another team who made their first film as co-directors. In both these husband-wife teams, the wife is the main original writer of award-winning screenplays. Unlike Ms Santullo who has never ventured to act, Ms Moghadam is an accomplished actress, having worked as actress in Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain (2013) and her husband’s debut film Risk of Acid Rain (2015) and several other feature and TV films. Ms Moghadam’s script refers to a film Bita (1972), made in Iran prior to the Ayatollah revolution, a favorite film of her daughter, Bita, named after the title character of that film. Bita, though mute, can hear and enjoy feature films and is a film addict. The film Ballad of a White Cow is dedicated to “Mina,” which some feel is the name of the screenplay-writer’s mother. If that is indeed true, young Bita’s love for films is an autobiographical trivia of the lady co-director.

P.S.  Ballad of a White Cow has won, apart from the Valladolid award mentioned above, the Best Film award at the Jerusalem Film Festival (Israel), an incredible honor in light of the fact that there is not much love lost between Israel and Iran. The film is currently competing for the Krzysztof Kieslowski award for the best film at the Denver film festival. Rodrigo Plá's and his wife Laura Santullo's first co-directed film The Other Tom was reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the film's name in this postscript to access that review) Though initially released in 2020 in some parts of the world, the film is listed among the best films of  2021 of the author.

Friday, November 05, 2021

267. Uruguayan film director Rodrigo Plá’s sixth feature film “El Otro Tom” (The Other Tom) (2021) (Mexico) in English/Mexican, co-directed with his Mexican wife Laura Santullo based on her script: The single mother as a contemporary Brechtian Mother Courage variant



Although you don't attempt to show it, one has a point of view on things and it ends up emerging, whether you like it or not. Our films (with director/husband Rodrigo Plá) often turn on the limits of the public and the private, the individual confronting the state, and what happens when that individual is defenceless... The state of helplessness is one of the motors of what we write. Regarding why we often portray female characters, I think the question is really: Why don't other people portray them more?”

---Original screenplay-writer and co-director Laura Santullo, on her script for her husband’s earlier work  A Monster with a Thousand Heads (2015), a quotation equally applicable to  The Other Tom (2021), where finally she is not merely the scriptwriter for her husband’s six films but credited as the official co-director.

Rodrigo Plá (an Uruguayan) and Laura Santullo (a Mexican) are a rare husband-wife team making remarkable low-budget films, often with non-professional actors who give top notch performances, on subjects that matter for the ordinary, hardworking persons globally.  The Other Tom is their first work where Ms Santullo is credited as a co-director, even though she has been writing the scripts of all the previous films directed by her husband.  This film is officially a Mexican film, in which the characters speak in English, with the story taking place in some southern part of USA.

Elena (Julia Chavez) and her 9-year old
son Tom (Israel Rodriguez)

The tale is essentially of a single mother, Elena (a creditable debut performance from Julia Chavez) with Mexican roots, working hard to make ends meet with her 9-year old son, Tom. Tom (or Tommy as his mother calls him) has long hair, is intelligent and hyperactive. He troubles his teachers and sometimes his mother. Once again the directorial duo extract a lovely realistic performance from young Israel Rodriguez playing the role of Tom, evidently his first film role as well. Tom’s biological father always promises to send money to Elena but keeps reneging on his promises.  The educational costs of Tom in a school and monthly expenses force Elena to part-time prostitution.

As the film progresses, Tom is diagnosed to have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). ADHD can be treated with medication. Elena is pleased to know that her son will improve with prescribed medication and is initially pleased to see the medicated Tom or the “other Tom.”  However, the medication can lead to side effects. One of the side effects is a tendency to commit suicide, which young Tom attempts. The mother Elena realizes the connection recalling that a well-meaning parent had warned her about the side-effects of ADHD medicines.

A conversation outside a hospital for a cigarette break,
with a well-meaning parent, on the side-effects
of ADHD medication. The reduced visual size of people 
compared to buildings is a favorite visual stamp
of director Plá

The intelligent script of co-director Ms Santullo braces the hard-working Elena trying to protect the original Tom from becoming the other Tom. She has to brace against teachers who disclose the medication that Tom takes to other kids and report her to Child Protection Services (CPS) when she decides to take Tom off the prescribed drugs, which as a “Catch 22” scenario, is an offence that can deprive her of Tom’s custody. At a CPS assessment hearing Elena is forced to take Tom to a distant children’s camp. While the CPS hearing progresses, Ms Santullo’s script has this evocative line spoken by Tom at a coffee-vending machine in a figurative response to an elderly lady who shows her concern as he opts for a strong coffee (for a lady friend of Elena accompanying him, who the good elderly lady did not notice): “I am getting sentenced today. I killed a Fourth Grade Teacher and didn’t mean it.” The viewer knows that Tom did not kill anyone, but merely disliked her.

Tom's art teacher at school notices Tom's talent
to paint and offers to help Tom improve
further in that area; the sole positive comment
 Elena receives from a school staff about Tom

The in-camera hearing about Tom with the over-zealous
CPS staff that the bright Tom describes as his "sentencing"

The film’s open-ended culmination helps the viewer to realize that some laws benefit big businesses (here, pharmaceutical industry). Some teachers are a treasure in the education system; an art teacher reveals to Elena that Tom is very talented as an artist. Some others may teach well but not protect the privacy of a student’s medical condition.

One of the defining statements of the film on the strong mother-son bonding is Tom’s statement to Elena towards the end of the film: “If I said I hate you, it is only because I am angry.”

Tom ends up with a bloody nose,
when one teacher reveals that one student
 is on medication, a fact that ought not be disclosed

Elena, the caring mother, looking
even at legal options to care for son 
without medication

While Ms Santullo’s contribution is obvious and commendable, her husband Rodrigo Plá is able to continue what he is good at—to tell a tale visually and dramatically by choosing non-professional actors who match the best of professional actors. In his most admirable work, The Delay shot in Uruguay, Mr Plá ends a film about elders dying with a shot of an old man struggling with the onset of dementia in the midst of tall buildings in Montevideo with one daughter with three kids and limited means trying to care for him while another married daughter does not help her sister. The Delay presents the reverse scenario of The Other Tom where a valiant mother struggles to care for her parent because old-age homes are over-populated and cannot admit her father. As in The Other Tom, the ending is open-ended but the message of the predicament of caring single mothers is loud and clear. But these mothers trudge on. This director duo are making films that matter on pertinent subjects relating to those who are not rich but work hard.


P.S.  The Other Tom has won the Best Film award at the Warsaw International Film Festival (Poland). The director’s earlier film The Delay (2012) has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  (Click on the colored names of the film in the post-script to access the review.) The Delay (2012) was included in the author's list of best films of 2012The Other Tom is participating in the ongoing Denver Film Festival and is included among the best films of 2021 for the author.