Sunday, November 12, 2023

282. The talented indigenous Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen’s 11th feature film “Limbo“ (2023), based on his original screenplay: More than a crime investigation, a study on the plight of the indigenous people in Australia, and gaining significance after the recent national vote rejecting additional power for the disadvantaged community



"Limbo is the continuation of themes I explored in my previous films. Those earlier films dealt with indigenous perspective through the eyes of an indigenous police officer. Limbo explores the deeper impact of a crime on an indigenous family through the eyes of a white police officer. Some of these ideas have largely come from my own personal experience, from family members and friends.” 
--director, original screenplay-writer, music composer, editor and cinematographer Ivan Sen of Limbo

“Every single negative can lead to a positive” 
---from the Evangelist broadcast station heard on the police officer  Travis’ car radio, early in the film, after discussing the travails of the Biblical Joseph who was sold off

Australian cinema’s contribution to world cinema was phenomenal in the Seventies. It produced talented directors such as Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock; The Last Wave, etc); Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant; Getting of Wisdom, ), George Miller (Mad Max), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career; Mrs Soffel), and Paul Cox (A Woman’s Tale: Vincent), indigenous actor David Gulpilil, cinematographer Russell Boyd and editor William Anderson (contributing to many of the aforementioned films). Unfortunately, for Australian cinema, many of them ‘migrated’ to Hollywood and are now associated with their work out there. After the glorious Seventies, there was a lull favoring more commercial cinema (e.g., Crocodile Dundee) save for occasional good cinema (e.g., Babe; Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale). In recent years, the very talented actors Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving and Geoffrey Rush are rarely recognized as essentially Australians.

In this bleak scenario, a 2023 Australian film Limbo could make any discerning filmgoer sit up.  It is a crime film that provides a fascinating screenplay, mesmerizing black and white cinematography, hypnotic direction and music (used mostly towards the end, recalling the effect of Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point,  with a top-notch performance by lead actor Simon Baker (another Australian making waves in recent decades in Hollywood films The Devil Wears Prada and  L. A . Confidential).
Ivan Sen is an unusual name. As an Indian, I would associate “Sen” with persons from Bengal in eastern India (e.g., Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen or filmmaker Mrinal Sen). However, I was surprised to find Ivan Sen has no Indian connection. He is an indigenous Australian and had already made 10 feature films, often in color, in Australia. Even more surprising is that director Sen writes his own original scripts. In Limbo, a 20 year-old cold case is solved by a heroin-addicted Caucasian Australian police officer in a non-orthodox manner and the outcome is equally unconventional but pleasing (connecting up with the Biblical Joseph), again recalling the end of John Sayles' lovely film of the same name Limbo (1999).

Police officer Travis (Simon Baker) in casual clothes
arrives in Limbo

The unusual aspect of Sen’s Limbo is the economy of the spoken words and the emphasis on body language and lazy action, or rather inaction, which results strangely in growing trust between the indigenous folk and the white police officer that apparently never existed in the past. One of the indigenous persons, Charlie,  who the police officer Travis (Simon Baker) encounters for the first time, candidly states “I don’t talk to cops, especially white ones.”  We learn from the few conversations in the film that in the original investigation of the missing woman, indigenous witnesses were roughed up by police officers 20 years ago if they gave any information that the white police officers did not want to hear.   

Soon after Travis' arrival in Limbo his swanky car gets vandalized
while parked outside his motel and Travis has to make do
with a Sixties Dodge replacement (above) that serves him well;
reminding one of the Japanese film Drive My Car

The camera of Sen ‘speaks’ a lot. It connects visually shoe-marks near the officer’s car that has been vandalized and resulting in damaging a critical computer chip that makes the car run, and a boy, a blood relation of the missing woman being investigated, wearing two shoes that do not match. It again connects the indigenous art work inferred to have been the product of the missing person and the presence of the artwork in Leon’s dwelling. It connects the retrieval of the registration details retrieved from a missing burnt car wreck that provides possible clues to the missing girl.  In a regular Hollywood script, the details of how a police officer accesses and reconfirms by talking to colleagues or checking old data are concepts thrown out of the window by Ivan Sen.   He expects the viewer to be smart enough to connect the images and the brief spoken words subsequently. That is mature cinema and a more realistic approach to detective work than mere spoon-feeding of details in the typical Hollywood noir fare. 

Questions from the police officer Travis elicit icy responses

Equally confounding, initially are the words spoken by Charlie to the suspect Leon’s dog (in a local indigenous language, used infrequently in the film, the rest being English). The dog understands what is said but not the viewer. I guess the director wants the viewer to turn detective and connect that the dog knows Charlie, the brother of the victim, while the initial suspect Leon, now dead, owned the dog and is now cared for by Joseph, Leon’s buddy . It is typical of the filmmaking method of Ivan Sen, evident throughout the film. Joseph’s character can be fleshed out in an unconventional manner (by an attentive viewer) by connecting the dots: his concern for the dog, the flowers regularly placed at the last known location of the missing person, Joseph in the small church speaking to the priest, Joseph’s condolences 20 years late to the missing person’s family, etc.
Travis persists and wins over the key persons
related to the cold case

Limbo is unusual because it presents a police officer who is a heroin addict and yet solves the case with persistence. We realize the man had gone undercover with a body full of tattoos to bust a drug traffic case and got addicted in the process. Yet he can still do his job—and how! His addiction could also have been because his wife has left him for another man and his son with her. He quietly steps out of that cosmos to help another family come together, even though when requested initially to help the fractured family he feels he is not qualified for that specific intervention.

Indigenous residents, including children, survive by
scrounging for opal stones in the soil near the old opal mines

 Ariel view of the unused opal mines in South Australia in twilight

Beyond the ‘outback’ noir, the film uses spirituality. First, there are the radio broadcasts that Travis listens to in the car. Then there is a seemingly unconnected visit by Travis to the Limbo church where he observes Joseph and the priest from a distance. You don’t hear the spoken words, you “see” the body language. Most importantly, the film like the Joseph story in the Bible reunites a family thanks to the police officer’s kind intervention.  The viewer is seemingly urged by the director to superimpose the Biblical tale of Joseph on Travis’ difficulty in solving the crime as much as the missing girl’s family’s defeatist feeling that they will never get justice or closure in the social and physical wasteland of Coober Pedy in South Australia, where once opal stone was mined commercially.  It is still sparsely inhabited with a few police cars, a church, a few pubs and diners, an opal trader, and an automobile technician who needs to order spare parts from a distant town to get them. 

Entry to one of the opal caves, exterior view, with Travis's car
parked outside

Metaphoric entry of Travis into the caves of Limbo,
dug to mine opal stones, to crack the cold case
he is investigating

Add all this cinematic craft of Sen to the breath-taking aerial view of the deserted man-made opal cave mines that still have some opal in the rubble with Sen’s own music. Further, the decision that Sen made to film Limbo in black-and-white was astute—a departure from his earlier work Mystery Road. It all works. Congratulations, Mr Ivan Sen, you are lifting up a sagging Australian cinema cherry picking fine cinematic concepts from world cinema and adapting those to benefit a better global understanding of the indigenous community. The funding for the film is well-conceptualized: Limbo will possibly attract tourism to the South Australian outback with opal to pick up if you have a keen eye, just as some parks near former gold-mining hotspots in USA do reward visitors with keen eyes who spot gold nuggets.       

P.S. Limbo won the Grand Prize at the 2023 Brussels International Film festival. It was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 2023 Berlin Film festival. It is one of best films of 2023 for this critic. Ivan Sen’s work in this film reminds you of the late Ermanno Olmi, whose Golden Palm winning film The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) was also directed, written, edited, and cinematographed by Olmi himself. Sen goes one step further than Olmi—he contributes the music of his own film as well! Another Australian film that took an empathetic view of the indigenous people was Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977). Reviews of the two films by this author, published on this blog, mentioned earlier in this postscript can be accessed by clicking on their colored titles here. 

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