Thirtyframesasecond

March 31, 2009

The Damned United (2009)

UK

Director: Tom Hooper

97 min

Synopsis

Derby County and Leeds United, 1967-1974. In 1974, Leeds United are the best football club in England, but their manager, Don Revie, resigns to become coach of the England national team. Brian Clough, previously manager of Derby County, Leeds United’s biggest rivals, accepts the job as manager of Leeds, but performs an interview on Yorkshire Television first. The Leeds United players watch his arrival, unimpressed. Six years previously, Derby County were bottom of Division Two and hired Brian Clough as manager and Peter Taylor as his assistant. They play Leeds United in the FA Cup and are thrashed. Don Revie doesn’t shake Clough’s hand, which inspires a ruthless ambition in Clough. Bypassing the chairman to sign new players, Derby County quickly rise the table, winning Division Two in 1969.

Back in 1974, Clough’s first address to the players is about how they must change and how they only succeeded through cheating and bad sportsmanship. Clough is deliberately fouled when participating in a practice match with his new players. In 1972, Derby County won their first Division One title under Clough, including a nailbiting 2-1 victory over Leeds United. During the 1974 Charity Shield, Leeds United’s aggressive tactics are worse than ever, with captain Billy Bremner sent off for fighting and later suspended. Clough asks former assistant Peter Taylor to join him, but he refuses. In the 1974-1974 season, Derby County lose an aggressive match against Leeds United before losing to Juventus in the European Cup. Clough threatens to resign, claiming to be unable to work with the present chairman. His resignation is accepted, much to his disbelief. Clough and Taylor are offered the managerial post at Brighton and Hove Albion, a struggling club, but before they accept, Leeds United come in. Taylor stays with Brighton. The Leeds United board sack Clough after 44 days after player protests. Clough re-establishes with relationship with Taylor.

Review

Adapting the 2006 novel by David Peace was always going to be a struggle. It was controversial because it took established facts about Clough and his tenure at both Derby County and Leeds United and fictionalised an account of what might have otherwise happened. The Clough family distanced themselves from the novel, claiming it misrepresented him, whilst Johnny Giles, who was claimed to have been one of the instigators of Clough’s dismissal, successfully sued the publishers. Although the novel has been acclaimed as one of the finest sports novels of recent years, given the criticism of various inaccuracies, the makers of ‘The Damned United’ would naturally find it impossible to adapt the novel almost to the letter. Instead, the film is a much kinder and more moving tribute to the manager many claim was the greatest the English national team never had, and focuses more on his often turbulent relationship with Peter Taylor, who both realise that they can’t work without each other, which lends the relationship a faint homoerotic charge.

Gone are the intense, bile-filled, alcohol-fuelled, internal monologues that emphasised Clough’s loathing of Leeds United and Don Revie. These work better in fiction than on screen of course, but were one of the more contentious elements of the novel. Hooper and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who has made fictionalising factual events his stock in trade, retain the deep rooted sense of Clough’s ambition to overtake Leeds United and subsequently change them, which originated during the early years of Clough’s tenure at Derby County. This scene plays almost as farce initially. Clough reveres the achievements of the club and manager and repaints the dressing rooms, lays out towels, half-time oranges and ashtrays as a means of impressing, as well as buying an expensive bottle of wine for a post-match drink. The dynamic of the scene changes completely when Revie snubs Clough, shaking Taylor’s hand instead, thinking he is the manager. It’s a narrow tightrope that the film walks sometimes. The extent of Clough’s ambition and his talents as a manager are well evident, but the film increases the comic element that aspects of the novel only hinted it. The tone of the film has been carefully amended and not unsuccessfully, although one feels that removing Clough’s internal monologues completely make us understand the man less, although we understand the reasons why.

Peace has become established as a chronicler of Yorkshire life in the 1970s, not just because of ‘The Damned United’, but also the Red Riding series of novels that were recent adapted for British television. The general aesthetic of the film reflects the sombre atmosphere at the heart of the country at the time; when the Derby County players meet at Clough’s house to discuss a player protest after his dismissal, there’s a sudden power cut. Camera filters reflect the stereotypical blue-greys of the Yorkshire skyline. There’s an observant eye for period detail and for the specific football era, but it manages not to descend into nostalgia; a love of a bygone era in comparison to today’s oversaturated game. As Clough remarks to his Derby County chairman, “football’s all about money these days”. Same as it ever was, then.

As you’d expect, Michael Sheen nails Clough’s speech patterns and mannerisms, although such is our knowledge of him playing famous figures, we’re not surprised. Instead, the most effective acting performances are arguably from Timothy Spall as Taylor, a devoted assistant, and to whom the film allows a great deal of credit for Clough’s success (just watch the slightly ludicrous but amusing grovelling that Clough has to make at the end of the film), and Colm Meaney as Don Revie, a gruff but paternal man who grew up on the same streets as Clough. Revie and Clough were like chalk and cheese, hence why Revie could succeed at Leeds United, whilst Clough couldn’t. Why Clough was unable to realise that, we’re never quite sure. Too blinded by ambition perhaps?

‘The Damned United’ is that rare thing; an interesting football film. This is because the film makers haven’t attempted too much to simulate any football action. Only Sheen, a talented player in his youth, is afforded any real time on the ball during training sessions (and was another means of antagonising the players at Leeds United). Instead, this is a football film that takes place in the board rooms and dressing rooms; it’s about politics and personalities, not what occurs on the field. It’s all clearly aimed at a certain male demographic, and one wonders whether it might appeal to audiences outside of the UK, who might not have heard of Clough. Still, Sheen and Morgan are recognised names after ‘The Deal’, ‘The Queen’ and ‘Frost/Nixon’, so who knows?

March 30, 2009

Two Lovers (2008)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:11 pm
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USA

Director: James Gray

11o min

Synopsis

Brooklyn Beach, New York, the present day. Leonard Kraditor, a young bipolar man, attempts suicide after a failed engagement. He is pulled out of the river and denies to those who rescue him that he tried to kill himself. Leonard’s parents, Reuben and Ruth, own a dry-cleaning business, which is soon to go into partnership with the business owned by Michael Cohen. The Cohens visit the Kraditors for dinner, during which the parents attempt to set Leonard up with their daughter, Sandra, but she admits she wanted to meet him. Leonard then witnesses an argument between his neighbour, Michelle and her father, and he allows Michelle to take refuge in his apartment. They strike up a friendship, but their night out is interrupted when Michelle is upset by a telephone call from her lover, Ronald, a married man.

Michelle invites Leonard to meet Ronald, to find out whether he’s serious about her. Ronald asks Leonard to look out for Michelle. Leonard photographs the bar mitzvah of David, the Cohen’s son, but leaves early because Michelle is having a miscarriage. Sandra tells Leonard that she wants to care for him and understands him. Michelle wants to end her relationship with Ronald and move to San Francisco. Leonard tells her he loves her and will go with her. Michael Cohen meets Leonard and notices he has an engagement ring, assuming it’s for Sandra. Leonard leaves his parents’ New Years party to meet Michelle, but Ronald has left his family and she has chosen him. Leonard returns and hands Sandra the ring, embracing her.

Review

‘Two Lovers’ potentially marks the end of Joaquin Phoenix’s acting career, although whether his latest venture into rap music is believable as anything other than a cynical publicity stunt or a poorly devised piece of performance art is open to question. In fact, ‘Two Lovers’ even provides an opportunity for Phoenix to showcase his rapping, ahem, talent. Phoenix has certainly done his best acting work in the films of James Gray, who sees Phoenix as a muse of sorts, and it’d certainly be a disappointment if the pair no longer made any films together. ‘Two Lovers’ is set in the Russian-Jewish community that Gray knows only too well, which has been the setting for his work ever since ‘Little Odessa’ (1994). In the Kraditor home, Gray’s camera observes with some sensitivity the traditions of the family; the wall in the hall adorned by dozens of photographs spanning several generations. Russian orthodox churches can be seen in the scenes on the roof of the apartment block. The Kraditor’s New Years party shows this specific community coming together, underlining the importance of tradition and the solidity of this community, which continues to grow.

Using the Dostoyevsky short ‘White Knights’ as his template (as did Bresson for ‘Four Nights of a Dreamer’), Gray creates an affecting and dramatic love triangle between Leonard, Sandra and Michelle. Leonard, a bipolar young man who takes a cocktail of medication daily to control his moods has a history of depression and suicide attempts; the scars on his wrists are still visible and he’s tried to drown himself on at least two instances. The sensible and level-headed Sandra knows she’s been set up with Leonard because of the intended merger between their parents’ businesses, but she has a genuine fondness and interest in him, appreciating his sensitivity. When she says she understands Leonard, does she in the same sense as Michelle, the glamorous young woman who turns Leonard’s head at the wrong time? Michelle has her own problems; her erratic emotions relating to her relationship with the married Ronald, her self-diagnosed ADHD, her own use of drugs, although for recreational use. Michelle and Sandra are clearly set up as polar opposites for the purpose of the film; perhaps Sandra is what Leonard needs most, to stabilise him, but in Michelle he sees a kindred spirit and someone he can help, rather than himself be someone who needs help. It’s a dilemma that one can almost predict the outcome to, but Gray ensures that the course of fate doesn’t run smoothly and ultimately the film’s climax is born out of complete pragmatism.

The most impressive aspect of Gray’s characterisation is how he manages to make all his protagonists human and likeable. All are torn by their emotions but attempt to do what’s best for others. The Kraditor’s might initially seem like typically interfering parents but they have a genuine concern about Leonard and hope for nothing else than for him to be happy, even at the expense of risking the business merger. Michelle is worried about what her relationship with Ronald is doing to his family, whilst Ronald seems to really love Michelle and doesn’t view her as just a fling. It’s because we can relate to these characters and appreciate their problems that we genuinely feel for these tangled relationships and hope that they can make the right choices.

These relationships almost give the impression that these people haven’t grown up or that they’re not mature enough to cope with their feelings. Leonard’s parents almost retain him in a sense of arrested development. He’s moved back into his childhood bedroom, he has a poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey on the wall; even his relationships have that awkward teenage dimension to them. Take the second rooftop scene with Michelle, when neither of them know what to do once Leonard rushes into his declaration of love, and they make love in a rather uncomfortable, embarrassing fashion. There’s a sense that these people, Leonard and Michelle in particular, are emotionally out of their depth and that settling with partners more mature than them might help them, rather than remaining with each other. However, neither relationship that becomes apparent by the climax immediately strikes one as being a pragmatic solution.

‘Two Lovers’ is a mature melodrama, a stark change from the crime-based films that Gray has made his reputation with thus far, but this change of genre has been successful. The film is well cast, although using Vinessa Shaw as the ‘safe’, less attractive Sandra compared to Gwyneth Paltrow’s more glamorous Michelle requires a slight suspension of disbelief – Shaw’s a rather good looking actress! Still, it’s Phoenix’s film, and if it remains his swansong, then it’s a real loss for the world of acting. As an actor with personal problems of his own in the past, Phoenix really gets into the heart of his character, capturing his bipolar personality and mannerisms – all tics and mumbles to perfection. Gray’s film will inevitably be overlooked by most audiences but it’s a small gem; serious, adult and always involving.

March 26, 2009

L’Atalante (1934)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:24 pm
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France

Director: Jean Vigo

89 min

Synopsis

France, the 1930s. Jean, the captain of the trading vessel, L’Atalante, marries a young provincial woman named Juliette. It is the first time she has left her village. Instead of a honeymoon, Jean takes Juliette with him, and his crew, including the eccentric Jules, on a trading trip on the river Seine, from Le Havre to Paris. Juliette immediately tries to bring a sense of domesticity to the chaotic boat and yearns for their arrival in Paris to see the bright lights of the big city.

Although their marriage starts romantically, tensions brews. First Jean makes Juliette switch off the radio that broadcasts news from Paris. When Juliette is in Jules’ quarters, looking at his collection of objects and trinkets, Jean flies into a rage, smashing plates. Jean and Juliette are supposed to go for a night out when they reach Paris but this is prevented when Jules visits a fortune teller and gets drunk. When they finally go out, Juliette is charmed by a handsome and amusing magician, which makes Jean even more jealous. When Juliette goes out one night and doesn’t return, Jean leaves without her despite Jules’ insistence that they wait. Juliette becomes lonely and is robbed. Jean becomes depressed at having lost his wife. Jules searches for Juliette and eventually finds her. Jean and Juliette are reunited.

Synopsis

‘L’Atalante’ is the only full length feature by the acclaimed French director, Jean Vigo, who died of complications from tuberculosis just after the film’s completion, at the age of just 29. Aware of his own illness and the strain the film was having on his health, Vigo ensured that ‘L’Atalante’ was a true demonstration of his copious talents, an early example of poetic realism that would influence not only his contemporaries such as Renoir and Carné but also the subsequent generation of French film makers, the Nouvelle Vague. The original print distributed to French cinemas was butchered to provide a more populist film. Fortunately, it’s been restored to as an accurate a representation of Vigo’s vision as possible and is surely all the better for it and it’s difficult to imagine what was found so worrying about the original cut.

One of the most charming aspects of ‘L’Atalante’ is that it’s a deceptively simple tale, one of love that’s lost and found, but is expressed in a visually thrilling fashion and carries a real emotional punch to it. Vigo’s narrative is nothing if not economic. We start with a wedding; one we don’t even see. All Vigo depicts are Jules and a fellow crewman fooling around outside the ceremony, and then the proud Jean and Juliette emerging from the church. There’s no hint about their courtship; how they met, how Jean proposed or what took place in the wedding. Furthermore, there’s no post-wedding celebration or honeymoon – Juliette is expected to attempt to adapt to life on the Seine. It’s this difference between her need for domesticity and Jean’s reluctance to change his way of life that threatens to unsettle the relationship – he doesn’t understand her need to frequently change bedsheets despite Jules’ cats running amok.

Juliette is a naive, inexperienced girl who’s never left her village and perhaps its her adventurous spirit that finds married life with Jean so fascinating. It’s something different to her provincial upbringing, though this soon pales when the lure of the big city takes her attention. Vigo presents a couple who are in love but are completely different, which makes one wonder how they got together, but it’s the different expectations and yearnings, as well as the claustrophobic conditions that aren’t used to a female presence that make every trivial incident more overblown and eventually part the married couple. If they’re a couple who can’t leave with each other, then they’re also a couple who can’t live without each other – their reunification, instigated by Jules, who knows plenty about love, never feels trite, but the mutual realisation of the couple of what they truly want. The couple just spend a long time trying to work out what it is they want.

Vigo was a film maker who’d worked in both silent and sound cinema, but the influence of silent cinema is evident in ‘L’Atalante’, which is to be expected perhaps since sound cinema was still in its infancy. Dialogue exists purely when necessary and there’s several scenes that pass with none. The influence of expressionist cinema is found in the ominous post-marriage trip along the Seine when watching the banks reveals dark, foreboding skies and passers by. Vigo’s technical imagination is revealed in numerous scenes; when Jules appears to wrestle himself, when Juliette is first lifted onto the vessel, the use of underwater photography when Jules dives into the Seine and in the staggering depiction of restlessness and longing, as Vigo cuts between the separated couple undressing and then he observes them toss and turn in their respective beds, yearning for the other; their anguished faces morphing onto each others.

There’s fluid camera movement, most notably when Juliette walks along the boat, with an extended tracking shot following her movement. Boris Kaufman, the director of photography (the brother of Dziga Vertov of ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ fame) had worked on all Vigo’s previous works and eventually had a long and successful career in Hollywood, working on films with Elia Kazan on films such as ‘On The Waterfront’. Kaufman uses his extensive talents to express Vigo’s vision of a film that’s superficially simple but brimming with radical ideas and techniques. What’s so intriguing is how such an inexperienced director had the confidence to create a film that was visually different to anything that had preceded it. Perhaps an increasingly ill Vigo saw ‘L’Atalante’ as the sole opportunity to set his name in stone, and he certainly achieves it with some style.

‘L’Atalante’ frequently finds itself in regular lists of the greatest films of all time and justifiably so. For all the seriousness of the separation, there’s a light touch at work. Humour is always present whenever Jules appears on screen; the great French actor Michel Simon is a perfect foil for the married couple, an eccentric ball of energy whose wisdom reunites the people he loves. It’s a lyrical, rhythmical film, much like Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’, it’s less a film than a cinematic poem about two people in love, which celebrates both love and life, and every frame of this film is more or less perfect.

March 23, 2009

Il Divo (2008)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:33 pm
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Italy/France

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

110 min

Synopsis

Italy, the early 1990s. Veteran Christian Democrat politician Giulio Andreotti is appointed Prime Minister for a seventh time. As he writes his memoirs, he recalls the deaths of colleagues, rivals and opponents including former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigade, confiding only in the priest Don Mario. The murder of MP Salvo Mira, a colleague of Andreotti’s exposes the links between the party and the Mafia, which causes the downfall of Andreotti’s government. Giovanni Falcone, the judge who prosecuted many Mafiosi, encouraged by Andreotti’s own anti-Mafia policies, is also found murdered.

Andreotti’s inner circle attempt to secure him the Presidency, although their lobbying in Parliament results in a humiliating defeat for the former Prime Minister. Numerous individuals implicated in corruption investigations commit suicide, and although Andreotti is similarly accused, he remains unscathed. It was alleged that Andreotti met one of the most prominent Mafiosi, Bontade, and greeted him in Mafiosi fashion, a charge that Andreotti denies. Andreotti is also accused of ordering the murders of journalists and policemen. It emerges that between 1969-1984, Andreotti embarked upon a tension strategy, provoking radical elements to promote the political dominance of centrist parties. This involved collusion between the Mafia, the Vatican and the political establishment to isolate extremists. Andreotti is put on trial.

Review

Paolo Sorrentino’s fourth film and his fourth collaboration with actor Toni Servillo (after ‘One Man Up’, ‘The Consequences of Love’ and ‘The Family Friend’) is his most ambitious and successful film to date and was awarded with the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008. The release of ‘Il Divo’ and Matteo Garrone’s ‘Gomorra’ hinted at a renaissance in Italian cinema, which to international eyes at least, seemed to have been propped up single-handedly by the films of Nanni Moretti. Although both directors have been on record as denying whether there’s any overt connection between their films or whether they indeed represent a bright future for Italian cinema, there’s no denying that both consider the murky underbelly of Italian politics and society; the influence of organised crime on everyday life and the disturbing connection it holds with the establishment. Both recall the grand tradition of Italian political cinema; the films of Rosi and Petri, but demonstrate a Hollywood-influenced style.

The most obvious barrier to ‘Il Divo’ succeeding outside of Italy is the fact that most audiences will be ignorant of recent Italian political history and will know almost nothing of Andreotti. The challenge for Sorrentino is to engage his audience with these events. Given that Andreotti’s political career spans six decades, it’s impossible to cover much material, hence Sorrentino’s decision to concentrate his film upon the era during which Andreotti’s final government and his party collapsed and he stood trial. Using a series of titles, on-screen captions, flashbacks, memories and monologues, Sorrentino is able to communicate with his audience, to inform them of Andreotti’s rise and the events that caused his fall (though in true Italian style, he has survived and remains prominent in public life). Thus, a series of dizzying cameos of politicians and other public figures with brief biographical details underpin the film, never more prominent than the opening scenes of numerous assassinations in true Goodfellas style. Getting to grips with the material was always going to be an issue, but Sorrentino attempts to clarify as much as possible, though perhaps its natural for non-domestic audiences to watch with a degree of breathless confusion.

At the heart of Sorrentino’s film is the exceptional performance of Servillo. On the surface, his Andreotti is completely unremarkable, seemingly lacking the kind of charm and charisma that united a wildly ambitious and competitive faction (which naturally fell apart once Andreotti was investigated as each tried to save their skin) in awe and reverence. With his prosthetic ears and permanent deadpan expression, Servillo plays Andreotti as some kind of nimble-footed Nosferatu, seemingly only alive thanks to a cocktail of medication and acupuncture. Andreotti is a man of few words, who gives n0thing away with his expressions or body language save reading his hands. As such, using Andreotti as the subject of a biopic makes for an oddly detached film. Although he expresses regret about the death of Moro, during which he questions why the Red Brigade didn’t kidnap him instead, a much stronger and useful victim for their cause, we almost learn nothing about the man himself.

It’s to Sorrentino’s credit therefore that the film retains a rich sense of drama when its subject to so tough to dissect. Nearly two decades on, Andreotti’s equivalent might he Berlusconi, another great survivor of Italian politics. But imagine using Berlusconi as the subject for a film. One might be able to capture his vanity, ego, political incorrectness and courting of controversy with some ease, almost to the point of self-parody. There’s nothing striking about Andreotti; much like the authorities failed to make anything stick to him, Sorrentino can’t make anything stick either in his representation of him.

‘Il Divo’ succeeds in observing the innate corruption and instability of Italian politics, where governments seem to be established and collapse at the drop of a hat. The scenes in Parliament, characterised by chaos, indiscipline and violence seem a world away from the conduct we associate with our own legislative bodies, where even childish name-calling is frowned upon. Although the film doesn’t allow the opportunity to consider why this is, Sorrentino reveals to devastating effect that the entire establishment had colluded to maintain order and stability by isolating dissenting voices and even threatening to undermine democracy itself if necessary. The complicated legal developments that first tried and then ultimately acquitted Andreotti demonstrates a society almost willing to absolve its politicians of any wrongdoing and protect them at all costs and it’s quite a damning outlook.

Even as a director who’s made his name for his visual flair, nothing in Sorrentino’s prior work suggested the breathtaking aesthetical excellence of ‘Il Divo’, which is more influenced by contemporary American film than the European tradition. The montage of assassinations that start the film recall Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’, whilst the slow-motion strut of Andreotti’s inner circle as they attend the establishment of his seventh government knowingly references Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (hinting again at the unholy alliance between organised crime and the political establishment). Not that Sorrentino ever surrenders substance for style; the two work hand in hand brilliantly. ‘Il Divo’ can only ever exist as a snapshot in the long and colourful political career of Andreotti but captures the essence of the man and his approach to politics perfectly, and whilst some audiences might be frustrated by their own lack of knowledge about the subject, it remains a constantly fascinating experience.

March 17, 2009

Strawberry and Chocolate (1994)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:28 pm
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Cuba/Mexico/Spain/USA

Directors: Tomas Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio

108 min

Synopsis

Havana, 1979. David, a young student takes Vivian, his girlfriend, to a shabby hotel with the intention of making love. Disgusted with where he has brought her, under the initial pretence of going to the cinema, she refuses. The following scene is at Vivian’s wedding to another man, where David is a crestfallen spectator. He visits a bar, where he catches the eye of Diego, an overtly gay student, who attempts to pick David up by inviting him back to his apartment where he has photographs of David performing in a university play. Diego deliberately spills coffee on David to force him to remove his shirt then David hastily leaves.

Miguel, David’s room-mate, suggests that David return to Diego’s apartment and befriend him in order to keep an eye on Diego’s potentially subversive activities, such as the art exhibition he is planning to put on. David and Diego debate their respective positions as staunch Communist and persecuted homosexual alike but form a genuine friendship. Diego’s neighbour Nancy, a suicidal former prostitute falls in love with David, who returns her feelings. Miguel arrives at Diego’s apartment, informing Diego that he intends to see that David is expelled from university for consorting with Nancy and asks Diego to a sign a document to assist him. Diego refuses. A defeated Diego informs David that he intends to leave Cuba and that he loves him. They embrace.

Review

Tomas Gutiérrez Alea has been the most potent chronicler of post-revolutionary events in Cuba, documenting the experience of the Castro regime upon ordinary Cubans in such films as ‘Death of a Bureaucrat’ (1966), a satire upon Communist red-tape and ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ (1968), which reflected on the social changes from revolution until the late 1960s. Although his subsequent films didn’t acquire quite the same attention as these two previous films, the final phase of his film making career was spent mentoring young and aspiring Cuban directors. The most widely known example is ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’, a collaboration with Juan Carlos Tabio, which came about due to the Alea’s ill-health. The film has been controversial because it’s the film Cuban film that deals directly, and with some honesty, about the gay experience under Castro. It was also the first film to receive significant exposure in the USA, marketed and distributed by Miramax, and it was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (it lost out to the Russian film ‘Burnt By The Sun’).

The entire set-up of ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ sounds like it could very easily descend into sentimental schmaltz; a young idealistic, pro-Castro student meets a defiantly gay student and despite their differences and polarised opinions, a friendship develops. It’s to the directors’ credit that this narrative becomes not just believable but also moving. We genuinely care about these two young men, initially drawn to the other through self-interest (Diego wishes to pick David up, David is determined to observe for any suspicious activities) but finding a common ground and shared love of their homeland.

The main difference between David and Diego is not directly political but a matter of sexuality. David might be loyal to the regime that has provided him, a labourer’s son, an education that he probably otherwise would not have received, but Diego’s politics are practically defined by his sexuality. To be homosexual automatically makes one a dissident, whether one wishes to be or not. Diego never expresses much in the way of vocal disobedience towards the regime but he’s considered worth being kept under surveillance because of his sexuality. Alea and Tabio are refreshingly honest about the shocking record of Castro’s Cuba towards gay rights. Gay Cubans had been imprisoned in UMAP labour camps without trial for “re-education” and “rehabilitation” for decades, famously documented in the experience of Reinaldo Arenas, about whom the film ‘Before Night Falls’ (2000) was based.

Homosexuality was finally decriminalised in 1979, the year the film is set, yet with this knowledge, one can easily imagine what fate might befall Diego. Such are the prospects that Diego seems willing to leave Cuba by the film’s dénouement, though it’s left sufficiently ambivalent after his fraternal embrace with David. Alea and Tabio make Diego an articulate spokesperson for homosexuals in Cuba, explaining that he understands many of the merits of the revolution but that this society automatically rejects him as a person and decides him to be “sick”. If he is unfaithful to his own sex, then surely he is unfaithful to the revolution? That Diego confronts David’s prejudices and elicits a sense of understanding and compassion from him hints at a more optimistic era for homosexuals in Cuba, further reinforced by the fact that ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ was made with 15 years of hindsight.

Where ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ arguably suffers most is regarding character development. The film’s chief protagonists are largely cardboard cut-outs, stereotypes – David, the straight, macho idealist (with Miguel even more so), Diego, the enlightened, cultured and exceptionally flamboyant homosexual, and Nancy, the ex-prostitute with a heart of gold, who pursues David, which is of course the only kind of relationship that Diego would accept for David, given that his own love for him is unrequited. That said, if David and Diego represent polarised opinions in the debate on homosexuality in Cuba, then perhaps they don’t have to become fully fleshed out characters – it renders the film a little one-dimensional however.

Nevertheless, ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ is an undeniably brave film, tackling issues that would normally be taboo in Cuban society and the directors’ humanistic vision of a Cuba where sexual, if not political, differences are accepted is both heartfelt and convincing. Whilst sex might have been the prime focus during the start of the film; David’s own lust for Vivian or Diego’s attempts to seduce the clearly heterosexual David, this quickly gives way to a wider curiosity about the things that make us different – David for instance sees contemporary Cuba through a different set of eyes, notably in a rooftop scene across Havana where Diego gives a real state of the nation address. David’s confidence in the success of the revolution is a little shaken and no doubt he would work towards something better, something different. ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ isn’t simple moralising though, but a profound look at Castro’s Cuba as shown through a moving, if unlikely friendship.

‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ was released on DVD on 16 March 2009 by Mr Bongo Films.

March 15, 2009

In The City of Sylvia (2007)

Spain/France

Director: Jose Luis Guerin

84 min

Synopsis

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

Strasbourg, the present day. An unnamed young man (‘El’) visits the city to find the woman he met in a bar six years ago and fell in love with. He spends the first morning of his visit at a café, observing the women around him, writing and sketching in his notebook. He returns the next day and notices a young woman (‘Elle’) who might just be the woman he met. He follows her around the labyrinthe streets of the city, once calling her name to no response.

He approaches her on a tram, asking whether she is Sylvia. She claims she’s not, despite his initial protestations. She then informs him that she knew she was being followed and that she felt worried and found it unpleasant; that she tried to lose him but was unable to. She bids him farewell. He then returns that evening to the bar where he originally met Sylvia and chats to a woman whom he wakes up with the next morning. The next morning he returns to the same café and spots another woman who might be his lost love. He follows her and realises it’s not her, but notices the reflection of ‘Elle’ in the window of a tram.

Review

The Catalan director Jose Luis Guerin has worked in both documentary and narrative film making, usually merging the two in unique fashion in previous features such as ‘El Construccio’, which observed the changes to a Barcelona working-class neighbourhood and the effects on its populace. Not a name familiar to most cinephiles, his profile will be raised by a current BFI programme featuring his entire oeuvre of work. His latest feature, ‘In The City of Sylvia’ appeared on the top ten lists of various American critics in 2008 and had been nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice in 2007. It’s probably best accompanied by the silent ‘Some Photos in the City of Sylvia’, although this didn’t comprise part of the BFI’s programme; not that this detracts from the experience at all.

Those unfamiliar with Guerin’s style might find aspects of the film off-putting. There’s only one short scene, lasting only a few minutes, of dialogue between two unnamed protagonists, about whom we know and learn practically nothing throughout the film. This isn’t conventional film-making; it’s very much an observational film, almost voyeuristic, where aspects of film making that most usually consider of secondary importance, such as sound design and the overall mise en scéne become far more prominent that simple narrative and characterisation. Therefore, it’s a rather abstract piece of work, albeit a highly seductive and absorbing one.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is the extent to which it might be accused by some of objectification. For most part, Guerin’s camera represents the gaze of El, the film’s romantic hero. In his quest for the woman he loved and lost, he observes with great intensity and scrutiny the women around him. The café scenes in particular are a montage of shots of beautiful women, almost fetishising necks, hair and fingers, all assembled from El’s point of view. Observing and sketching these women in his notebook is most likely not a misogynist’s exercise, but more a method for El to tap into his memory about the mysterious Sylvia. In addition there’s intelligent use of sound design, where unsubtitled conversations overlap; the speakers unknown, reflect El’s own sense of perspective during the café scenes, as his gaze moves from one direction to another.

These café scenes in particular demonstrate how mischievous Guerin is at suggesting the dynamics of a single scene only to change them when more is revealed about what is taking place. For instance, there’s one scene where two men sit either side of a woman. They all sit impassively, with no specific indication about what the relationship between these people are. Then take what we imagine to be an unrelated scene of a single woman’s face in profile, looking to her right. When these scenes are repeated with the slightest adjustment with the position of the camera and the slightest change of behaviour of one of the protagonists, everything changes. The first woman rests her head on the shoulder of the man on her right and the man on her left is involved with the second woman; their poses exactly the same but we understand the genuine context this time.

This is a technique that Guerin uses often during these scenes; with individuals in conversation but some obscured by other individuals in the foreground or background. There’s a meticulous and perfect appreciation of geometry in these shots. Might this represent the unreliability of El’s gaze, how he misinterprets and misunderstands, which becomes more apparent in his ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of the woman he believes to be Sylvia? Perhaps his memory plays tricks on him but perhaps there’s more to it than that. Maybe he’s trying to project his visualisation of the perfect Sylvia onto another; remake her in his model, a lá ‘Vertigo’? There’s possibly more proof of that when he loses Sylvia but hears her mobile phone ring – at which point he looks up at a nearby apartment where a woman dries her hair from behind. He believes this is Sylvia, yet the presumed Sylvia is in the shop next to where El stands.

This pursuit sequence is the perfect example of Guerin’s technique of using static shots but with protagonists moving in and out of shot. Guerin will fix his camera into position on a Strasbourg street and Elle with initially come into view and then leave, followed soon after by El. Seldom do they appear in the shot together, nor does Guerin track his protagonists during these sequences. The sole subjective camera movements during this sequence are the 360 degree circle around each character during the pursuit. If this reflects the sensations of being followed/following, lends credence to the fact that Elle knew she was being followed despite not confronting El about it before he approaches her on the tram.

‘In The City of Sylvia’ is a fascinating and teasing treatise on memory and loss, done extra justice by Guerin’s impressive mastery of cinematography, mise en scéne and sound design, which more than compensates for the slight narrative and impersonal characterisation. This isn’t a conventional film by any means and shouldn’t be treated as such. The beautiful Strasbourg locations and the two staggeringly attractive protagonists (Xavier Lafitte and Pilar Lopez de Ayala) make the film a visual feast but there’s significant substance beneath the surface.

March 12, 2009

Wise Blood (1979)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 3:20 pm
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USA/West Germany

Director: John Huston

108 min

Synopsis

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

The Deep South of the USA, the 1950s. Hazel Motes is discharged from the Army and returns to his family home, which he finds abandoned and in ruin. Traveling to Taulkinham, he is mistaken for a preacher. He has the first of many flashbacks about his grandfather, who was a tent preacher. Hazel meets the 18 year old Enoch, a manic and hyperactive young man who develops a strong need for Hazel’s approval. He also meets a blind preacher, Asa Hawks and his young daughter, Sabbath Lily. Hazel follows them and rents a room in their boarding house. Hazel discovers that Asa’s blindness isn’t genuine. When Asa leaves, Sabbath Lily takes up with Hazel.

Hazel starts his Church Without Christ and preaches on the street to little response. A rival preacher, Hoover Shoats, steals Hazel’s message and is able to command an audience and run a profitable church. Hazel follows the “prophet” who works with Shoats, rams his car into a ditch and then runs him over. A policeman stops Hazel for driving without a license and forces his car into a lake. Hazel responds by blinding himself, and wearing boots filled with glass and binding himself with barbed wire. Abandoned by Sabbath Lily, his landlady, Mrs Flood agrees to take care of him if he agrees marriage. He leaves and is found days later by police who return him to the boarding house, where he soon dies.

Review

The last two decades of John Huston’s directorial career were mixed to say the least. The 1940s/1950s peak, which produced ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ and ‘The African Queen’ had given way to a relatively lean period of film making. The likes of ‘Escape to Victory’ and ‘Annie’ are his best known pictures from his later years, probably for all the wrong reasons, but don’t be fooled into writing Huston off too quickly, for even in the twilight of his career, he was still capable of producing a gem. ‘Wise Blood’ is one of the most overlooked films of Huston’s career; a sensitive and faithful adaptation of the first novel by the Deep South writer Flannery O’Connor.

Hazel Motes, played with great conviction by Brad Dourif, returns home after being discharged from the Army, but lacks a purpose in the world. Huston hints with an increasing number of flashbacks, filmed in gaudy blues and reds, at Hazel’s past, which defines the man he currently is. His grandfather (played by Huston) was a tent preacher and Hazel’s only mission in life thereafter is to reject the fundamentalism of his upbringing. Mistaken as a preacher by a taxi driver, this almost inadvertently becomes Hazel’s calling. Knowing he wants to be someone, he exploits the images he’s accidentally cultivated, to establish the Church Without Jesus Christ. Hazel preaches the opposite of what the Bible teaches, that “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way” with an almost evangelical zeal.

Huston, remaining honest to the novel, subtly reinforces O’Connor’s satirical barbs about religious fundamentalism. Hazel encounters two sets of preachers on his travels, both frauds to some extents. Ava, assisted by his daughter Sabbath Lily, pretends to have blinded himself to prove his faith (a test of devotion that Hazel later himself invokes) but is used solely as a means of begging. Hoover Shoats, a charismatic preacher who uses his guitar to captivate an audience, exploits and steals Hazel’s message, using it for profit by charging those who wish to join this Church.

The most tragic (or is that tragic-comic?) victim is Enoch, an 18 year old boy, who was abandoned by his father and in need of direction and guidance. The only person who takes on board Hazel’s message, he’s persistently admonished for doing so, but such is his need to find approval by anyone in the absence of his father. Enoch might be the sole honest person in a world of religious dishonesty. He finds the “new Jesus” that Hazel requires for his Church; a miniature Mummy from the state museum. Enoch speaks of his “wise blood”, inherited from his family. His faith is strong but needs proof, and Huston displays Enoch as essentially decent, albeit naive, but with greater integrity than those around him.

Perhaps Huston’s most impressive action is maintaining a thoroughly ambiguous tone throughout. We don’t know whether what we’re seeing is meant to be comic, tragic or a genuine contemplation on religion. One suspects it’s all three at once. Even if the film initially starts near-farcically, starting with Hazel’s attempts to preach to the bewildered masses and culminating in Enoch stealing a gorilla suit, ‘Wise Blood’ later enters much darker terrain. Hazel kills his double, who’d been hired by Shoats to impersonate him; the motive being that he was “a man that ain’t true and one that mocks what is.” The film’s coda, in which Hazel genuinely blinds himself with lime (perhaps undertaking for real what Asa deceived others into believing he’d done) and then binds himself in barbed wire, wearing boots filled with glass and stones feels like an act of penance, a search for redemption, invoking the suffering of Christ. Perhaps this scene more than anything reflects the overall ambivalence.

‘Wise Blood’ is an intriguing film, which has long been considered cult viewing and is increasingly seen as one of the better additions to the Huston canon. That’s not to say it hasn’t its flaws; there’s almost no attempts to retain the novel’s setting, which makes it feel a little out of sync with the original period, which also affects the otherwise excellent score. Brad Dourif produces a remarkable performance as Hazel, capturing his conviction and contempt perfectly, and Amy Wright (Sabbath Lily) and Dan Shor (Enoch) also impress. Huston places great trust in the power of the novel, remaining truthful to sequences of events and never allows his own role as director to overshadow O’Connor’s original source.

‘Wise Blood’ was released on DVD on 2 March by Second Sight Films.

March 5, 2009

Entranced Earth (1967)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:03 pm
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Brazil

Director: Glauber Rocha

106 min

Synopsis

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

El Dorado (a thinly disguised Brazil), the 1960s. At Senator Vieira’s palace, journalists and armed forces congregate. The President has demanded his resignation. Paulo, an idealistic poet/journalist asks Vieira to defy these orders but Vieira wants no resistance because of the civil war and bloodshed that would follow. Paulo leaves with Sara, Vieira’s secretary and denounces Vieira’s weakness. Driving through a roadblock, Paulo is fatally shot. What follows is Paulo’s life flashing before his eyes, a series of memories and events.

Several years before, Paulo was an associate of Diaz, a right-wing politician who carries the support of the religious establishment. He is Paulo’s role model and attempts to set up a political career for Paulo, but he wishes to choose his own path. Paulo visits Vieira, his populist left-wing rival, who explains his own political origins and ideology. Paulo soon realises that Vieira, despite his popular slogans, is just as part of the country’s problems as Diaz, unwilling to help the rural peasantry because he’s financed by wealthy farmers. Disillusioned, Paulo sinks into a life of bourgeois decadence. He makes a television documentary designed to undermine Diaz and supports Vieria’s presidential campaign. The right, headed by Diaz is setting in motion a coup, which returns to the film’s start of Vieira refusing to resist.

Review

Glauber Rocha (‘Black God, White Devil’) is the most well known and respected director of the Cinema Novo movement, which flourished in Brazil in the 1960s. A remarkably creative and fertile period for film making, it sought to reflect the realities of life in Brazil such as the poverty and disadvantage experienced by the majority as well as modernise Brazilian national cinema. Crucial to this was the turbulent political climate in Brazil, which is at the very heart of ‘Entranced Earth’. In March 1964, the army organised a coup against the left-wing President Goulart, which resulted in two decades of military dictatorship. Although Rocha’s film is set in the fictional South American country of El Dorado, it’s quite obviously a reflection of events that were taking place in Brazil at the time. What’s surprising is that given this lack of subtlety, Rocha utilised state resources to make his film and avoided censorship in his home country.

‘Entranced Earth’ is not simply a leftist response to the right-wing coup though. Rocha isn’t even claiming that the left has the answers to solve the crisis in Brazil. Instead, his outlook is far bleaker; that Latin American politics is systematically corrupt and almost needs to be destroyed in order to start over. Within the current political system, even supposed reformers are blinded by their lust for power. Diaz is the voice of the right-wing establishment, backed by the church, army and international powers, and Paulo’s own television portrait of him is designed to undermine his political career, but his left-wing rival Vieira isn’t shown in any more of a sympathetic light. He’s considered gutless by Paulo for refusing to resist the coup and shown as all too readily betraying the rural peasants who are the backbone of his support. Vieira gives the impression of wanting to offer reform without actually backing these promises up. As Paulo suggests, at best he’s ‘paternalist’.

The El Dorado populace are also described by Paulo as idiots, so impressionable as to believe what they’re promised and too docile to ever take matters into their own hands. But what of the impetuous Paulo? A self-described anarchist who rejects both sides of the political spectrum (only choosing Vieira as the lesser of two evils but even then becoming disenchanted), perhaps he can be seen as the tortured soul of Brazil, let down by whichever candidate he associates with. Therefore it’s a never-ending scenario from which change is impossible.

Those who’ve seen ‘Black God White Devil’ will be used to Rocha’s unique cinematic style, which is 0ften complex and abstract. ‘Entranced Earth’ is deliberately alienating, to the point where it has been described by some as Brechtian. The central protagonists are almost stereotypes rather than fully-fledged human beings, representing their ideologies and political class in all their shortcomings and nothing more. The deliberately jarring editing, which often shows scenes repeated (when Sara visits Paulo at his newspaper offices) or cuts rapidly from one scene to another, sometimes with conversations taking place across different scenes, means further disorientation for the viewer. There’s a high level of artificiality running throughout the film, with realism left firmly behind. Influenced by the early Soviet masters such as Dovzhenko and Eisenstein (who influenced the Cinema Novo movement just as much as Italian neo-realism or the Nouvelle Vague), ‘Entranced Earth’ comes across as Soviet-style political propaganda, relying on poetry, symbolism and montages of iconic images rather than conventional narrative. The film ends precisely as ‘Black God White Devil’ began, with an overhead shot of the sea and then is shortly followed by the striking image taken in long shot of Paulo holding a gun to the sky; an image that recurs as the end of the film to represent Paulo’s desperate and ultimately futile individualistic mission. The overall effect is somewhat detached and difficult to follow, though one can be assured that second viewings and an understanding of the social, economic and political climate of the time certainly helps.

Rocha’s trilogy of political films about contemporary Brazil was completed with ‘Antonio Das Mortes’, which won the Best Director award at Cannes, and he shortly after left Brazil under voluntary exile. His work revived Brazilian cinema, placing it on the international map and the current generation of talented Brazilian film makers (including Walter Salles) surely owe a debt to him. Whilst ‘Entranced Earth’ can be a difficult cinematic experience at times, the ambition involved and the passion Rocha shows regarding the current state of his homeland makes it a fascinating, often dazzling landmark piece of cinema.

‘Entranced Earth’ was released on DVD on 23 February 2009 by Mr Bongo Films

March 2, 2009

A Moment of Innocence (1996)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:42 pm
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Iran/France

Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

78 min

Synopsis

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

Iran, the mid-1990s. A middle-aged man visits the home of the film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Given the wrong address, he is redirected to the correct house. Makhmalbaf’s young daughter, Hana, explains he is not home. The man reveals that he was a policeman during the reign of the Shah, and that Makhmalbaf, then a militant, stabbed the policeman. Makhmalbaf begins to make a film about the incident, which happened 20 years ago. Makhmalbaf casts an actor to play the young version of himself, but the policeman initially refuses to accept the actor chosen to play him, threatening to resign from the film.

The policeman coaches and directs his own actor, despite the actor finding it sometimes difficult to take it seriously. The policeman reveals that he had fallen in love with a women who had asked him the time every day, which turned out to be an accomplice of Makhmalbaf’s. At this moment, a woman genuinely asks the actor, dressed as the policeman for the time. Makhmalbaf coaches his own actor and tells him his own side of the incident. The actor is in love with a young woman and asks her to play the role of his accomplice. It is then revealed that she is the woman who had asked the time just before. Makhmalbaf then films the pivotal scene of the stabbing, which initially the actors find difficult, but finally ends not quite according to plan.

Review

Alongside Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the most well-known and well-respected film director in post-revolutionary Iran. In ‘Close Up’ (1990), directed by Kiarostami, an incident in the past relating to Makhmalbaf was retold – the moment a rather dejected man impersonated Makhmalbaf and acquired the trust of a Tehran family, in order to feel self-respect and self-importance – in a mixture of documentary and fiction. ‘A Moment of Innocence’ is cut from similar cloth. During the filming of ‘Salaam Cinema’ (1995), a film that began as one project and eventually turned into another (he advertised the audition for his new film in the press – the film became an account of the casting process), the policeman that Makhmalbaf stabbed during the anti-Shah protests in the late-70s had auditioned, which inspired Makhmalbaf to direct a film about this incident, which it emerges that the director had somehow forgotten but the policeman certainly hadn’t.

From the start, when the policeman meets Makhmalbaf’s daughter, Hana, we sense he has remaining psychological issues resulting from this incident. Just watch how he throws the incident into the conversation immediately to a girl who can solely ask “why do you want to be an actor?”, as if she understands. In answer to her own question, he cites private reasons, which later become more apparent. In another example of the self-reflexive nature of the film (see the reference to ‘Salaam Cinema’ above for another), and indeed post-revolutionary Iranian cinema as a whole, the policeman’s reasons almost echo those of the Makhmalbaf imposter in ‘Close Up’. For both, it’s almost a matter of life and death. As the policeman mentions to Zinal, the director’s assistant, his honour is at stake if the film doesn’t fully represent the incident. For him it’s a cathartic moment. He’s been adrift for 20 years, he resigned and no-one has since felt sorry for him. This is an opportunity to rediscover his life. In terms of preparing actors, the policeman is afforded far more screen time than Makhmalbaf, and the policeman demands accuracy with far greater conviction than the director.

This is a film about memory and how different participants involved in an incident remember it. There is no definitive truth as such. In their recounting of events to their respective young selves, both the policeman and Makhmalbaf mention a woman whose role in the incident differed according to who tells their story. For the policeman, the woman who asked him the time every day was someone he fell in love with and intended to give a flower to. Unbeknown to him though, she was Makhmalbaf’s cousin and accomplice. The woman briefly appears in the film as well. Makhmalbaf asks whether her daughter can play the younger version of her for the film. She refuses, explaining that this was a long time ago and that she like Makhmalbaf no doubt is politically deradicalised.

An incident that was caused by political volatility is now filmed again almost as a moment of rapprochement. The brilliant final sequence rewrites history in an attempt for both protagonists to come to terms with events. The policeman and the actor rehearse the scene where the girl approaches him, with the policeman as himself and the actor playing the girl. Instead of retelling events as they occurred, the policeman pulls his gun as soon as she arrives, before she says a word. It’s as if this is what he thinks he ought to have done all along and that his life would not have been cut adrift for the last two decades had he done so. When the scene is shot for “the film”, we have the girl repeatedly asking “what is the time?”, with the young Makhmalbaf not far behind, his knife concealed by a piece of bread. The young policeman immediately fumbles for his gun. The anxious dread of this scene is then cut by the freeze-frame shot of the young policeman handing the flower, not reaching for his gun, and the young Makhmalbaf handing the bread rather than the knife to the girl. This poetic symbolism can be seen as a cathartic moment not just for the two protagonists but also for this generation of young Iranians – the young policeman and Makhmalbaf both change the “script” so to speak, unprompted.

‘A Moment of Innocence’ is a sometimes complex but always involving film about memory, guilt and also cinema itself (a favourite subject of post-revolutionary Iranian directors). There’s a significant amount of artificiality involved and a deconstruction of the film making process, which begins with the opening use of the clapperboard (repeated several times during the film when “filming” occurs) and narrated titles. The use of sound is highly inventive. During an argument during casting, the policeman walks off the set and leaves down a long road, pursued by Zinal. Despite being almost out of shot, their conversation is just as audible as that between Makhmalbaf and his own actor who would be positioned “behind the camera”. There’s a rich sense of humour at work too; when the woman whom the young Makhmalbaf loves leaves after they meet, she unwittingly asks the young policeman the time – to which the real policeman exclaims it was just like the original incident! This is very impressive personal film making, constantly blurring the lines between fact and fiction, between cinema and documentary.

March 1, 2009

The Class (2008)

France

Director: Laurent Cantet

128 min

Synopsis

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

Dolto High School, inner-city Paris, the present day. The start of a new academic year. Francois, a thirtysomething teacher with three years experience at the school takes his class. Many are new, many are disruptive, including Souleymane, a boy of Malian heritage, who passes on rumours about Francoises sexuality. Francois teaches basics of grammar and is accused by two pupils of African backgrounds of only using “whitey” names. During one day, a colleague blows his fuse and threatens to resign, realising he can’t teach nor help these children.

Khoumba, a previously co-operative student suddenly refuses to read in class and later writes a note to Francois, suggesting that her insolence has been provoked by his disrespect. Asking students to write their own self-portraits, some don’t believe Francois is genuinely interested but this provides the teacher with an opportunity to encourage Souleymane, using the photographs he’s taken of himself and his family for the project. A PTA meeting discusses discipline at the school and there is disagreement about how to use it. The two class reps, Esmerelda and Louise inform of what was discussed at the meeting to their fellow students. Francois calls them “skanks” in return, not realising the word’s significance. This starts an argument, from which Souleymane violently storms out of class. Souleymane is finally expelled from school despite warnings that his family will send him back to Mali. This culminates the end of the academic year.

Review

Considered a surprise winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2008 (although the jury had reported a unanimous verdict), ‘The Class’ is based on a successful novel by Francois Begaudeau, which was a semi-autobiographical account of his teaching experience in an inner-city school in Paris. Returning to the methods that he used in ‘Human Resources’ (2001), his first full-length feature, Cantet largely combines fiction and documentary, relying on much improvisation and utilises a cast of talented non-professionals, headed by Begaudeau himself. The film’s concept is also similar to the acclaimed Nicolas Philibert documentary ‘Etre et Avoir’ (2002), which followed a primary school across the course of an academic year. ‘The Class’ is more than simple documentary-style footage though, providing much insight into the issues facing contemporary France.

Set in a deprived, multiracial and multicultural area of Paris, Dolto High School might exist as a microcosm of modern French society – the tensions that exist here exist across the country. Does Francois, for instance, represent the well-meaning but ultimately snobbish white liberal elite? His diverse set of students, mostly of African origin, articulate their frustration with their teacher during a lesson where he uses the name “Bill” rather than “Assiati” or “Rachid”. Has France’s educational system adapted to a more multicultural age? Khoumba, a student in whom Francois recognises behavioural changes since the previous academic year, suggests that Francois doesn’t respect his pupils and that their disruptive behaviour is somehow encouraged by the teachers’ own attitude.

Also striking is the tensions that exist between fellow students from different backgrounds. This is captured most eloquently during a class discussion about the African Cup of Nations. Boubacarr, a student with a background from the Ivory Coast argues with not only Souleymane, whose background is Malian (Mali hadn’t qualified) but also Rabah, whose background is Moroccan. This relates to the difficult relationship between France and its relationship with its former colonies, expressed in the likes of Boubacarr, Souleymane and Rabah firmly professing their respective African identities and refuting any notions of Frenchness. The World Cup victory on home soil in 1998 was supposed to have been a triumph for French multiculturalism, with many of the team from African backgrounds, all playing under a collective identity, but ‘The Class’ almost rejects that this has occurred within society to any extent. There is also prejudice between the pupils with African heritage and a new student, Carl, who is from one of the Caribbean overseas departments (Martinique or Guadeloupe). Taking the classroom as a national metaphor, Cantet demonstrates that much still needs to be done to integrate minorities French society.

As is natural in a film that exists more or less as a documentary, there is little in the way of subjectivity, of Cantet intervening or influencing the narrative. However what he does or does not reveal is still important. The school is the sole focus. There’s no direct intrusion into the private lives of the teachers or pupils and the only moment of privacy afforded to Francois is the opening scene, as he drinks coffee in a cafe before the first day of the school. A parents’ evening introduces the families of two diametrically opposite pupils; the quietly studious Wey, a Chinese child, whose mother, we later learn, is about to be deported, and the disruptive Souleymane, who has seemingly fooled his mother into believing that all is well at school but he’s revealed to be helpful at home. It’s not important to reveal any more than this; all we need to learn about these pupils is what we learn in the classroom.

The most refreshing aspect of ‘The Class’ is how it completely rejects the conventions and clichés of this genre. Think of Hollywood equivalents, the likes of ‘Dead Poets Society’ or ‘Dangerous Minds’, where a sincere and inspirational teacher motivates his/her students. Francois might genuinely care about his students (despite what they suggest), more so than some of his colleagues who begin the year by warning new colleagues about the most difficult students they’ll encounter or those who spend their time in the staff room criticising pupils, but he’s not promoted as being perfect by any means. In fact, for all Souleymane’s behaviour, it’s the disrespectful malice of Esmerelda and Louise that forces Francois to compromise himself by calling them “skanks” and having to literally descend to their level in a very public playground argument. The classroom might be his environment but this is very much their element.

‘The Class’ also rejects any simple resolutions and there are no lessons to be learned, if you’ll forgive the pun. Francois might have a moment of a connection with Souleymane, but when his behaviour becomes violent and beyond the realms of what’s acceptable, Francois recommends the full force of the disciplinary system. Pupils aren’t saved or changed and whilst this might sound a little despondent, the film isn’t without empathy and encouragement. It’s a realistic depiction of life in an inner-city school and is exceptionally impressive in every respect.

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