December 24, 2008

Black Narcissus


Directors: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger

100 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

The Himalayas, during the final years of the British Empire. A group of Anglican nuns, led by the young Sister Clodagh, travel to a remote village in the Himalayas to establish a religious community under the patronage of a local General. The youngest Sister Superior, Clodagh’s seniors have doubts about her, whilst Clodagh doubts some of her own fellow nuns, including Sister Ruth, seen as a ‘problem’. Dean, the local agent, warns that this is no place for a nunnery. Dean has an emotional effect on Sisters Clodagh and Ruth. Clodagh begins to recall her romantic rejection in Ireland, which led her to become a nun, whilst Ruth falls in love with Dean and becomes more emotionally unstable.

The General’s son studies at the school but becomes attracted to, and then involved with a local Indian girl, Kanchi, of a lesser caste. As Ruth becomes more ill and irrational, she believes Clodagh is trying to force her out of the order so that she can have Dean to herself. Other sisters are losing faith and want to be transferred. When a sick boy is unable to be saved, the locals blame the nuns and abandon them. Ruth then attempts to kill Clodagh but dies in the process. The nuns finally leave this location.


One of the finest examples of the Powell/Pressburger canon, ‘Black Narcissus’ could have a credible claim as one of the greatest films to ever emerge from these shores. Produced during an intensively creative peak (1946-1948), which also included ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Black Narcissus’ is a melodrama of the highest order, complete with dazzling use of colour and cinematography, utilises studio resources to recreate the Himalayas from Pinewood, and bursts with passion and emotional torment.

From the start, there is no pretence that the religious community that is being established will succeed. There is overt suspicion immediately, from a current Sister Superior who does not feel Clodagh is ready or experienced enough for this role to Dean’s warnings about the environment, that there is something here that makes everything exaggerated. The ‘palace’ used for the nunnery was the General’s house for his numerous women, which suggests a place that arouses strong emotions. The nuns all have turbulent emotional backgrounds, including Clodagh, reeling from an affair that turned sour. Ruth has been a problem to the Church for some time, and her instability turns into full-blown erotomania in the dizzying Himalayas. It probably is not just something in the air, but the effect of Dean himself. These women have suppressed their emotions in the name of religion, but interaction with a sensuous man who is responsible for them awakens these passions; even Clodagh’s judgement is called into question. Powell merges these passions and the environment to exaggerated levels to demonstrate the downfall of the religious order.

Part of the success of creating such a dizzying environment where people lose their senses is paradoxically because Powell and Pressburger create such an obviously artificial world. This was no doubt partly because of the difficulties and costs involved in location shooting. Melodramas arguably work finest when not immersed in reality, but by using imagination and innovation to reflect the mindsets of their protagonists and the worlds they inhabit. ‘Black Narcissus’ features extensive use of painted backdrops for the Himalayan settings and scale models for the exteriors of the convent. There seems little effort to disguise the lack of reality of these settings, but then this is a world where people are acting out of the ordinary.

Although nominally Clodagh is the film’s central character and the film’s central theme is her improbable attempts to establish a religious order in the Himalayas, Powell and Pressburger shift their emphasis around midway through the film to focus on Ruth and her growing instability. Her situation then begins to drive the film’s narrative. ‘Black Narcissus’ then becomes even more stylistically imaginative than previously as the directors explore Ruth’s inner emotions, which rise to the surface. During her hysteria, there is a greater emphasis on close ups than ever before, capturing the sweat on her forehead with such microscopic detail; her fever is not just caused by the climate but by repressed sexual passions. One of the iconic moments of the film reflect her final rejection of her vows; a scene between her and Clodagh. Ruth is wearing secular clothing but applies make up rather deliberately and slowly in front of Clodagh and is shot with an exceptionally intense close up on her mouth. Now she is no longer part of the religious order, her sexual passions explode, as shown in the subsequent scene with Dean where she tells him she loves him. As her jealousy and hysteria escalates, she faints, superbly demonstrated as the screen is filled red (which is also used in Hitchcock’s ‘Marnie’, whether consciously or otherwise) before fading to black.

‘Black Narcissus’ was adapted from a novel by Rumer Godden, who also wrote the ‘The River’, from which the Jean Renoir film was adapted. Both have much in common; both are set in the dying days of the British Empire, both focus on the passions aroused by the arrival of a sensual man and both feature adjusting to a foreign land. Both are also amongst the finest examples of films shot in Technicolor, though crucially whereas ‘The River’ was shot on location, ‘Black Narcissus’ was almost entirely shot in the studio. The effect is so wondrous that Jack Cardiff justifiably secured the Academy Award from Best Cinematography. ‘Black Narcissus’ is a film where the collaborative talents involved were at the top of their game; from the aforementioned directors and cinematographer, but also in the acting stakes. Deborah Kerr and David Farrar impress as Clodagh and Dean respectively but the real star on show is Kathleen Byron as Ruth. One of the treasures of British cinema, this is as good as filmmaking gets.


December 17, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:22 am
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Director: Danny Boyle

120 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Mumbai, the present day (and the recent past). Jamal Malik is one question away from winning India’s version of the quiz show ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’. During a break in filming, Jamal is arrested on grounds of fraud and is interrogated. Jamal claims he has not cheated and that he knew the answer to every question. Jamal explains how he knew these answers by recalling moments of his life. Jamal remembers trawling through a pool of faeces to meet the actor, Amitabh Bachchan, his idol (the first question relates to a film featuring the actor) and the death of his mother in a religious conflict. After this, Jamal, his brother Salim, and their friend Latika are taken in by an orphanage run by Maman, which is a shield for organised child labour and begging. Salim is expected to assist the blinding of Jamal to increase his value, but the three children escape although Latika is left behind, apparently deliberately at Salim’s hands.

The brothers work as unofficial tour guides at the Taj Mahal, but they return to Mumbai to search for Latika, where she works as a dancer in the red-light district. They are discovered by Maman, who is shot by Salim. Salim then falls in with local gangsters; after which the boys drift apart. Working in a call centre, he discovers where Salim now lives and contacts him. Latika is now married to the gangster Salim works for. Salim tries to convince Latika to leave with him, but she resists. When she finally agrees, she is followed by Salim and other thugs, who slash her cheek. Jamal enters the quiz show because he knows she will be watching. Back to the present, the police find Jamal’s story “bizarrely plausible” and allow him to return to the show, where he successfully answers the final question. Salim kills Latika’s husband before being shot himself, allowing Jamal and Latika to be reunited.


‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has become one of the most anticipated and acclaimed films of the year. Nominated for four Golden Globes and countless other critics’ prizes already, it is being talked of as one of the main serious contenders for Oscar recognition in 2009. Much like Jamal himself, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has arrived seemingly from nowhere; a small British film that looks set to take the international box office by storm. The film also confirms the prodigious talents and appeal of its director Danny Boyle, who of course has a number of previous successes under his belt, for instance ‘Trainspotting’ and ’28 Days Later’. This project is a change of pace after his recent excursions into the sci-fi and horror genres but ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ might actually be Boyle’s most satisfying film to date.

The film has been described accordingly as ‘heartwarming’, ‘cheery’, ‘a modern fairy-tale’ and various other clichés that immediately mark ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ down as emotionally manipulative Oscar-bait.  The denouément, of the film’s destined lovers reuniting at a Mumbai train station and then breaking out into a Bollywood style dance routine might be considered sentimental and formulaic but within the context of the film it seems right and never exploitative. Such a negative conclusion would be doing the film a great disservice. Despite the uplifting climax, Boyle never shies away from showing the numerous disappointments and tragedies Jamal experiences. The death of Jamal’s mother and the entire slaughter of a small Muslim community at the hands of a Hindu mob is shown in vivid detail and the cruel and exploitative child labour operations run by Maman are also depicted with intense honesty, which includes the deliberate blinding of a child, which Boyle refuses to conceal. Jamal is also brutally interrogated by police, suffering attempting drowning and electric shocks in an attempt to force a confession for fraud.

Therefore do not be fooled by the marketing and publicity that is trying to depict ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as a feel-good underdog story – there is more depth to the film than this, and Boyle also shows the two sides of modern India. As years pass, Mumbai has the impression of growing prosperity; an increase in the number of plush apartments and office blocks, but much poverty remains. This poverty is difficult to escape, and even when one does, one is still tainted by it. Just witness the degree to which the quiz show patronises and the police brutalises Jamal because of his background. What could this “slumdog” possibly know? He must be cheating! Boyle reiterates the socio-economic divide that India retains and is potentially increasing as the country becomes more prosperous, but with this prosperity achieved by a narrow percentage of the population.

Boyle uses his trademark kinetic camera to great effect in the Mumbai slums, capturing its urgency and energy. Salim and Jamal’s escape from airport security through these slums reminds one of Renton and Spud’s frantic fleeing after robbing a shop in the opening scene of ‘Trainspotting’. This is further proof of Boyle’s versatility as a director, able to utilise his talents and natural instincts across a series of genres. Much like another Oscar contender, ‘Frost/Nixon’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ shows an interest in the artificial nature of television. Boyle regularly alternates between the filming of ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ as the audience at home would see it and breaks in the filming/behind the scenes details. As in ‘Frost/Nixon’, television reveals not ‘the truth’ but a version of the truth which is staged and manipulated, and in one interesting scene, interfered with by the quiz show host himself.

The creative input of Simon Beaufoy, sceenwriter of ‘The Full Monty’ and A.R. Rahman, who provides a pulsating score that merges both traditional and modern India (assisted by British/Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A) is vital to the success of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, showing the film is not just a directorial tour-de-force. The young cast equip themselves well, from the youngest actors in the three main roles and Dev Patel (the adult Jamal), known thus far for his role in the Channel Four teenage drama series ‘Skins’. A film that unites both critics and audiences, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is gaining critical momentum prior to the major awards ceremonies of the season and is one of the finest films of 2008, offering insight, wit, romance and drama; the full package.

December 12, 2008

Eyes Without a Face

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:28 am
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Director: Georges Franju

88 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Paris, the 1950s. Louise drives in the rain, then safely disposes of the corpse in the backseat of her car. At the same time, Dr Genessier gives a lecture about skin grafting and transplantation. The corpse is discovered, then Dr Genessier informs the police that it is his missing daughter, Christiane, who was disfigured in a car accident. Dr Genessier oversees Christiane’s ‘funeral’ but returns home where she is still alive, but disfigured. The corpse was a woman whose face Dr Genessier used for skin grafts. Dr Genessier promises to restore Christiane to her former beauty.

Louise then lures Edna, a young student to Dr Genessier’s home by promising a room, but she is given chloroform and then used for another experiment. This seems to work but the awakened Edna then falls to her death upon discovering what has happened. The graft soon deteriorates and becomes infected. Jacques, Christiane’s fiancé, discovers that the police are looking for a woman with a pearl choker as their sole lead, which reminds him of Louise. The police ask a young thief, Paulette, to entrap Dr Genessier and Louise, though the police lose track of her at the clinic and Louise abducts her. On the verge of undergoing surgery, Dr Genessier is interrupted. At this point, Christiane murders Louise and Paulette escapes. Christiane releases Dr Genessier’s dogs, which maul him to death. Christiane then escapes into the night.


Franju had spent approximately a decade making shorts and documentaries before embarking on a feature film directorial career. ‘Eyes Without a Face’ was only his second film, but is a remarkable dip into the horror genre, combining both the macabre and the poetic to stunning effect. The film initially received a muted response both in France and abroad, where the film was edited and audiences reacted negatively. It is only in recent decades that the film has been critically rehabilitated, perhaps because of the benefit of hindsight and that modern audiences are more comfortable with the more extreme elements of Franju’s film. It is now justifiably considered one of the most important and influential horrors of all time.

Franju sets the film up perfectly with the opening scene, packed with mystery and suspicion. Who is this mysterious woman with what seems to be a corpse in her backseat? This scene is meticulously constructed. Disposal is not easy for Louise and Franju ensures that he shows the audience just how difficult it is. Other scenes of a controversial nature are methodically shown, most notably the grafting scenes. Anyone who has seen Franju’s early documentary ‘Blood of the Beasts’, set in an abattoir, will be aware that Franju is not interested in holding back scenes of a visceral nature to mute the reaction of his audience. Franju shows Dr Genessier at work in vast detail; to show how painstaking his work is. The copious sweat dripping from his forehead during these operations show his desperation and determination. Franju also semi-humanises the doctor; he is aware of the pain and suffering he causes but he justifies his cause, although passing off a man’s dead daughter as his own, whose death he was responsible for, reminds us of his innate cruelty.

Franju’s documentary roots are also demonstrated in an intriguing scene during the mid-point of the film after the ultimately unsuccessful graft of Edna’s face into Christiane. To demonstrate this failure, Franju uses a montage of photographs, complete with voiceover, showing the rapid deterioration of the graft. This is a more successful means of doing this than through normal shooting and editing methods. Franju is more able to capture the day-by-day decline. Also of interest is how Franju initially shoots Christiane, keeping us in the dark about her current condition. We discover that she is not really dead but that Dr Genessier has testified that the corpse is his daughter. When we first meet Christiane, Franju shoots her from behind or subjectively, from her own point of view. Speaking to Louise, Franju moves his camera according to Louise’s movements. Only when Christiane puts on her mask does Franju then shoot her directly. He only reveals her true condition through Edna’s eyes when she is about to undergo her operation.

Music has an important role in the film, with Louise and Christiane appearing to have their own signature themes, courtesy of the famous composer Maurice Jarre. Louise’s night-time prowls for victims are accompanied by a jaunty tune but with an air of menace, which recalls the theme of ‘The Third Man’, which of course Alida Valli played a significant role. Christiane is soundtracked by a more optimistic theme. The first instance we hear the theme is immediately after Dr Genessier’s ominous return to the family home, which featured the barking of dogs and a slow and menacing ascent of the stairs. Its use is never more significant than in the breathtaking closing scene, when Christiane emerges from her ‘imprisonment’, leaving into the night with a dove in her hand, perhaps suggesting peace and an end to the drama and violence that accompanied her father’s attempts to restore her looks. This use of music drives the narrative and increases our understanding of both characters and their motivations.

1960 was also the year of two other controversial horror films; ‘Psycho’ and ‘Peeping Tom’. ‘Eyes Without a Face’ is just as innovative and intriguing as its contemporaries, and contributed equally to the development of the horror genre, most notably in terms of modern slasher films (John Carpenter noted the influence upon ‘Halloween’). More so than these films though, ‘Eyes Without a Face’ is a schizophrenic horror film, combining moments of lyrical beauty with moments of cruelty and fear. Thoughtful and subtle in its examination of Christiane’s condition and psychological state, capturing her frustration and desire to see an end to her father’s mission, Franju expertly uses Jarre’s score and his own creative methods of filming to produce a groundbreaking and near-perfect example of the genre.

December 10, 2008

The Story of Sin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:53 am
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Director: Walerian Borowczyk

130 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Poland, the nineteenth century. Eva, a teenage girl, takes confession. The priest warns of impure thoughts and giving into lust and sin. Her family take in a young man, Lukash, as a lodger and soon they fall in love. Lukash is married, and since he is unable to acquire a divorce, he and Eva live in sin and Eva is disowned by her family. When Lukash leaves for Rome, Eva falls pregnant. She drowns her newborn child. Count Szczerbic, who wounded Lukash in a duel, tells Eva that Lukash is in prison in Rome, but when she tracks him down, he has been released and deported. Lukash remarries, believing that Eva has began a relationship with Szczerbic. Eva then conspires with two conmen to take revenge on Szczerbic, who Eva believes is responsible for Lukash’s absence in her life. She poisons him as they make love. Eva then becomes a prostitute back in Poland, but is rescued by a kindly gentleman who offers her work. However, the two conmen return, using her to lure Lukash. As she warns Lukash that the conmen intend to kill him, she is shot dead.


The late Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk has two very different reputations. First, he is considered one of the most influential and acclaimed animators of the post-war era, spoken of in similarly reverential tones to the likes of Jan Svankmajer. Second, and most notable, he is considered a director of softcore pornographic films with artistic ambitions. Borowczyk’s career perhaps changed forever in 1975, the year he directed ‘The Story of Sin’ but also his most notorious film ‘The Beast’. These two films could not be any more different. ‘The Story of Sin’ has adult themes and features nudity, but with reason and justification. ‘The Beast’ on the other hand aspires to be a Bunuelian satire on class vanity and ambition, but this is a pretty specious definition at best. Its crude simulation of bestiality is more comic than erotic but nevertheless the censors took action. Borowczyk’s career sharply declined, culminating in the indignity of making the fifth instalment of the Emmanuelle franchise. Reassessing earlier films such as ‘The Story of Sin’ would rehabilitate Borowczyk’s reputation; despite being made in the same year as ‘The Beast’, it is a significantly more interesting film.

‘The Story of Sin’, based on a novel that was banned by the Catholic church (and filmed twice previously) is a tale of a woman who suffers for love much like ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘Anna Karenina’. Eva is, in her own words, ‘a victim of circumstance’, whose love for Lukash, constantly thwarted by both fate and society is the cause of her downfall. Borowczyk’s fidelity to the literary tradition is one of the film’s strengths; making Eva’s rise and fall the central feature of the film rather than the more salacious subject matter. The adult content, involving two lovemaking scenes are never over-elaborated, completely the opposite from the path Borowczyk would later take. His earlier films had the reputation of being filmed through a fetishist’s eye and the early scenes in ‘The Story of Sin’ between Eva and Lukash positively crackle with sexual tension. Conversations occur with the focus purely on the eyes though the talk is flirting in nature. Memories blur with real life. Just look at how Borowczyk directs the seemingly casual tossing of items of clothing; hats, gloves, coats with the camera following with great interest. Busts and vases are placed in the centre of the frame. It is a unique and sensual approach to filmmaking, done with great subtlety.

‘The Story of Sin’ also contains a number of satirical barbs, not something that the film is renowned for. Eva’s initial piety, dedicated to avoiding sin and impure thoughts, does not seem to be shared by the other members of her family or local society. Whilst she covers ‘sinful’ works of art and books, others cheerfully avoid attending confession. When Eva falls in love with Lukash, she is cast out by her family as a slut and a whore, despite their own lack of piety. Borowczyk hints at the moral corruption at the heart of this society. Eva is exploited and taken advantage of by everyone she meets; no matter how much she searches for Lukash or attempts to create a life for them both together, society moves to prevent it. Conmen use her body as a means of committing murder; her motives to kill Szczerbic are noble of sorts but the conmen seem purely motivated by greed. Exploited and rejected by all, Eva’s fate is sealed. The satirical elements of Borowczyk’s work, when subtle and not over the top, remains underrated, obscured by the more sexually frank reputation he has.

Nominated for the Palme D’Or and the only film of his shot in his native Poland, ‘The Story of Sin’ is an impressive contrast to ‘The Beast’, the other Borowczyk film of 1975. Unfortunately, not much of his earlier work (or later work for this matter) remains currently available. Certainly one considers that the director has a career of two halves; one half mature and subtle, the other sensationalist and wilfully provocative. Whatever the reasons behind Borowczyk’s decline, which mirrors the heroine of this film (both victims of a sexually prudish society?), there is enough here to warrant rediscovery and rehabilitation.

December 6, 2008

The Headless Woman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 3:10 pm
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Director: Lucrecia Martel

87 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Salta, Argentina, the present day. A group of boys play on a road. Veronica, a middle aged woman, drives and becomes distracted by her mobile phone. She hits something. In the rear view mirror, she sees a wounded dog, but she does not check whether it was anything more than this. Veronica then checks herself into a hospital but seems distracted after her accident. Veronica then confesses to her husband, Marcos, and her brother-in-law, Juan Manuel, that she thinks she killed someone in this accident, but when no reports of an accident emerge, life returns to normal. Visiting a garden nursery, the proprietor informs Veronica that one of his boys has gone missing – his other boys are those from the opening scene. Driving past the exact place where it took place days later, she sees something being fished out of the canal, though she does not know what exactly. Newspapers report that a boy drowned at the exact scene, but there is no record of a hit-and-run accident. Veronica retraces her steps; including the hospital and hotel she checked into, but neither seem to have any record of her ever being there.


One of the leading film makers in the rising New Argentine Cinema movement, Lucrecia Martel secured her second Palme D’Or nomination in 2008 with ‘The Headless Woman’, following ‘The Holy Girl’, which was nominated in 2004. ‘The Headless Woman’ received a moderately lukewarm reaction from some critics at Cannes, and it is likely that this film will divide audiences. Indeed, the film half-enthrals and half-frustrates. Those familiar with the work and themes of Martel are more likely to warm to ‘The Headless Woman’, which is certainly one of the most intriguing films released this year, even if the overall effect is a little uneven.

The main strength of Martel’s film is her handling of the central conceit of the film; whether there was or was not an accident? If there was, then was it a boy Veronica killed, or the dog she saw from the rear-view mirror. Or whether it was merely imagined, and then in which case, why? There are numerous questions that Martel asks from this set-up and never provides easy answers. There are clues and hints of course, but by the film’s conclusion, we are none the wiser. For instance, the opening scene with the boys playing and then the scene in which the nursery owner mentions one of his boys is ‘missing’ hints at something sinister, but then reports of a drowning might counteract that. Yet what of the hotel and hospital having no recollection of Veronica’s existence? There is a crucial scene in which Veronica, startled and disorientated ‘forgets’ to sign her admission papers at the hospital, and even her brother, a surgeon, ominously says he has ‘taken care of it’. This narrative exists rather precariously and could fall apart in lesser hands, stretching credulity, but Martel handles it well, raising questions about the motivations of its protagonists and our own perception of the events we think we have seen.

It is possible however that the entire ‘accident’ is a MacGuffin; merely a ruse or incident that allows Martel to pursue wider, more important issues; namely an examination of the Argentine middle class. Under the military dictatorship, which ended in 1982, the notion of class boundaries would have been suppressed because of a more important notion of national unity. So a discernable middle class, with its own preoccupations and interests, has only emerged in the last two decades and continues to grow. Martel is more interested in casting a critical eye over this social class, rather than genuinely creating a film about an accident, which is possibly just a catalyst. When Veronica has her “accident”, she does not inform the police. This is not because she doubts it happened; it seems real enough. When she becomes convinced she killed someone, she still does not. Her husband and brother-in-law discourage her from doing so. Martel realises that because of the potential consequences, this family would have too much to lose, thus they conspire to forget and ignore. A consensual policy of self-protection and self-preservation to maintain this bourgeois idyll begins, though because of Veronica’s increasingly fragile emotional and psychological state, this becomes increasingly precarious.

Perhaps the most important feature of ‘The Headless Woman’ is Martel’s ability to graphically demonstrate Veronica’s moral confusion and interior psychology. This is achieved by overlapping dialogue, which much of the time Veronica does not seem to hear or pay attention to, but captures her disorientation and trauma exceptionally well. Martel methods of shooting also achieve the same. She refuses to use subjective shots, thus showing Veronica’s own point of view and perspective. The camera remains neutral, observing rather than reflecting a state of mind. Veronica features in almost every shot, almost always in the foreground with a shallow focus of the camera. It is Veronica who is constantly emphasised in each shot, even though Martel’s busy mise-en-scene reveals other characters and events taking place in the background. Of course Veronica is too startled and disorientated to notice what else is going on, hence the equally blurred and confused cinematography.

The critical bewilderment to ‘The Headless Woman’ is semi-understandable. It is not straight-forward, it rejects simple resolutions and explanations, and its themes might often be too oblique. However there should be no doubt that this is progressive and thought-provoking film making from one of the rising talents in world cinema. Where Martel impresses most is her remarkable ability to capture Veronica’s guilt and confusion and represent this both visually and aurally. The absence of genuine characterisation can be excused because essentially the film is more important than the mere fates of a handful of people. It is an observation and reflection of an entire social class; its insularity, its relationship with other social classes, and its self-preservation when threatened. By this yardstick, Martel’s film succeeds.

December 4, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:43 am
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Director: Ousmane Sembene

123 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Senegal, the 1970s. The country has secured independence after overthrowing its French colonial rulers. An economic elite has seized control of the Chamber of Commerce. One such member is El Hadji Aboucedar Beye, a businessman who is also about to marry his third wife, much younger than he is. His daughter by his first wife disapproves and asks her mother to divorce her father, but she refuses. The daughter also speaks her mind to her father, who rebukes her. After a lavish ceremony, Beye attempts to consummate his marriage, but is unable to. He is impotent. The president sends Beye to a witchdoctor, who seems to cure Beye of his impotence. Beye pays the witchdoctor with a cheque that bounces.  The witchdoctor then restores Beye’s impotence. Beye’s growing economic problems then deepen, resulting in his explusion from the Chamber of Commerce for discrediting them. His possessions and businesses are then seized by the government and his wives leave him. Beye is then approached by a man who claims to be able to cure his impotence. The man reveals himself as Beye’s half-brother, whom Beye cheated out of his inheritance many years ago. The man tells Beye he will be cured if he strips naked and allows him and his friends to spit at him. Beye complies.


One of the first and most significant of Africa’s post-colonial film makers, Sembene had already made internationally recognised films, such as ‘Black Girl’ (1966), which explored issues arising from decolonisation and its legacy. ‘Xala’ is considered Sembene’s most acclaimed film, a biting satire on colonialism and the self-destructiveness and corruption that followed independence; namely the way in which one set of rulers are overthrown and replaced by an elite which maintains the status quo, despite its promises to create a new society for its people.

Sembene begins ‘Xala’ at the exact point at which independence was won, but not on the streets or with political negotiations, but with the peaceful transition that occured within the Chamber of Commerce, where economic power and influence resided. It is a strange and curious scene, in which three French politicians depart without a word, seamlessly replaced by a number of boisterous Senegalese businessmen. Their victory speeches, proclaiming the start of African socialism with a human face and government in the interests of the people are brief, very quickly making way for stasis. Sembene’s purpose is to demonstrate how with independence, nothing actually changed. Power corrupted those with honourable intentions, who then acted in their own self-interest, maximising their own economic gains, rather than governing for a country suffering from much poverty, as Sembene constantly reminds us with his cuts to exterior scenes, including long takes of Dakar city.

The recurring motif of a silent French businessman, with access to the President is a constant reminder of Senegal’s colonial past. His purpose demonstrates the continuing French influence upon the destiny of the country; how it has been unable to completely loosen itself of history and embark on its own independent future. The first instance the businessman appears, he is handing briefcases full of money to the new economic elite. Perhaps this is an indication of French financial interests in Senegal. Whilst it may have politically severed its ties, it still wields influence. His omnipresence, always overseeing events, encourages the corruption of these new rulers, but he never needs to get his hands dirty. This is an especially subtle satirical point by Sembene, possibly made to be overlooked by the present administration, who presumably would have rejected claims there was any French influence in Senegal still. But then what of Beye’s insistence on speaking French at all times, despite his daughter speaking to him in Wolof, a local dialect which is also spoken by the non-politicians? Is language not one of the finest examples of cultural imperialism? Surely any country boasting of independence would abandon the language imposed upon it?

Whilst independence might have made promises never kept, Sembene recognises that there were never attempts to redress gender inequalities, which sit at the heart of ‘Xala’. Beye might be marrying for the third time to a much younger woman, but he has two wives already resentful of the situation (the elder wife is more pragmatic, but still frustrated). Beye takes pride in his polygamy, barely interested in the potential consequences. Only his daughter, with her more modern ideas, expresses her disgust audibly, but her father tells her “you can take your revolution elsewhere”. Independence did not necessarily being progressive ideas with it; many ancient Senegalese customs were maintained despite promises of a modern future. The partiarchical society was maintained, reflecting a sense of “as you were” in how Senegal was to be governed.

It is interesting how Beye’s impotence, which could easily be the subject of ridicule, is understated. Presumably Sembene wanted this physical impotence to be a metaphorical device; to reflect the political impotence of Senegal to move on from its colonial past. Beye’s physical impotence is also a reflection of his economic corruption. The humour that is attached to his impotence comes not from his inability to be aroused on his wedding night, but the fact that he attempts to fool a witchdoctor with a bouncing cheque in the way that he has managed to fool others in the past, which naturally comes back to haunt him.

A subtle satire with bite, ‘Xala’ is a denunciation of post-independence African democracies which say one thing and do another, emulating Western ideals at the expense of pursuing an agenda in the interests of the people. The greed and narcissism of the new elites which governed is truly punctured; witness the amusing and surreal touches, such as Beye’s Mercedes being washed by imported mineral water, but there is a sense of regret and disillusionment with how the worst aspects of colonialism have been continued. For a film made on a shoestring, there are of course shortcomings, especially the stilted and amateurish acting, but that is easy to overlook because ‘Xala’ is a film brimming with ideas and fuelled by a real sense of indignation, and rightly considered one of the finest films to emerge from the African continent.

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