A Reasonable Man (1999)

South Africa

Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriter: Gavin Hood
Director of Photography:
Buster Reynolds

Running time: 101 minutes

The South African A Reasonable Man is a carefully executed investigation into the importance of tribal or traditional beliefs in a country that sees itself as Western-oriented. The screenplay takes great care to handle the material sensibly, demonstrating the significance of the past in the present, and highlighting the fact that non-Western beliefs should not be dismissed out of hand, for they too have a role to play, however “unreasonable” their basis might be in the eyes of the law.

The film opens in Angola in 1988, during the final years of the South African Border War. South African soldiers arrive in a tiny village where they find nothing but abandoned houses. The squad separates and a young Sean Raine goes to hide in one of these houses. When a closet door creaks, the tense Raine unloads his gun on the flimsy plywood door. What tumbles out of the closet will haunt him for a long time.

Ten years later, having recently returned to South Africa after spending a decade abroad with his wife, Raine meets a young cowherd named Sipho in a village in the Eastern part of the country known as Kwazulu-Natal. Sipho is found with a bloody hatchet in his hands, while a woman clutches a one-year-old baby in her arms, its head split open. Sipho swears that he was only trying to kill the “Tikoloshe” (or “Tokoloshe”, as I know it), an evil spirit, and not the baby. Luckily, Raine is a lawyer, and because of his experience in Angola he decides to give the boy a chance and chooses to represent him in court.

But “Tikoloshe” is not a word that anybody takes kindly to – except Sipho and a witch doctor (or “sangoma”) who would help rid Sean Raine of his demons from the past – and it seems unlikely that the boy, who admits to having swung the hatchet, would be judged innocent. Hearing this case is Judge Wendon, whose initial surprise at Raine’s refusal to let his client plead insanity defence slowly morphs into a more accommodating view of the young lawyer. Starring as Judge Wendon is Nigel Hawthorne, who brings a very welcome combination of compassion, wit and judicial solemnity to the role.

At the centre of the film, however, is director Gavin Hood himself, who is cast as Sean Raine, a man whose big clean-shaven face is innocent yet shimmers with conviction and perseverance. The film is as much about Raine’s personal story as the criminal proceeding, for he feels that he would finally be freed from this “snake deep inside” if he manages to assure Sipho’s acquittal.

Now, it is made clear that Sipho took a hatchet and struck a baby in such a way that the baby was killed. Sipho believed that it was the Tikoloshe, but the steadfastness of one’s beliefs has nothing to do with the law, as Judge Wendon makes very clear in his comparison of Sipho’s beliefs with those of mass murderers and historical figures such as Hitler and Stalin.

Hood’s screenplay flows very well, although its desire not only to meet the audience more than halfway but to spell everything out in overly informative sentences sometimes seems quite contrived. Sipho’s character has to be a bit of an enigma in order for the film to exist, but the lack of interaction between him and Raine, as well as the complete absence of the mother of the murdered baby, left me wondering whether Hood was not too interested in his own character.

The film makes an interesting analogy between Christian and tribal beliefs, including the ever-popular metaphor of Christ’s blood and body, and in this regard Hood is successful in introducing his audience to customs that might be foreign to them. Hood’s choice to make the state prosecutor a black advocate and himself, a white man, the representative for the defence of tribal beliefs, is very interesting and provides this film with a much richer texture than it would have had otherwise.

The implications of an imbalance, in the eyes of the law, between Western and non-Western morality is hammered home a bit too forcefully, but in the end the film survives its examination of social and religious customs and certainly provides ample material for discussion afterwards. The courthouse is in Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa, a town whose licence plate designation is NP. Perhaps this is a coincidence. But, considering the film’s attention to detail, perhaps it isn’t.

The Thin Red Line (1998)


Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

Director of Photography:
John Toll

Running time: 163 minutes

The most distracting thing about Terrence Malick’s longest film is not the length, nor is it the extremely slow pace of the narrative or the reflective, fragmentary voice-overs we are treated to by many different characters. No, it is the number of celebrities, almost all of whom unfortunately draw our attention away from the film’s desire to approach the characters of its soldiers as intimately as possible. Forget Grand Hotel; this film features Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Tim Blake Nelson, Adrien Brody, Jared Leto, John C. Reilly, Ben Chaplin, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, Nick Stahl, John Cusack, George Clooney and a few more. It is ludicrous to pack a film as sensitive as this one with names like these, and while the celebrities almost certainly secured Malick the budget he needed, the effect on the appreciation of the film is devastating.

If you’ve ever heard of Terrence Malick, then you shouldn’t be surprised that The Thin Red Line is not your average war epic. Malick’s voice-overs fill the soundtrack as much as actual dialogue, and despite the battle waged between the Americans and the Japanese, nature is the real character of the film. Set almost entirely on the island of Guadalcanal, part of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, it focuses on the experiences of a group of soldiers who are fighting the Japanese and coming to terms with formerly abstract terms such as “death” and “danger”.

One of these soldiers is Private Witt, who went AWOL and is living on an island with native Melanesians when his country tracks him down at the beginning of the film and makes him join Charlie Company, an outfit whose mission it is to take out the Japanese on Guadalcanal. His idyllic life on the island had been beautiful and carefree, but he is about to be confronted up close with the loss of life and the loss of natural innocence, as a streak of blood on a blade of grass subtly informs us early on.

Nature, interior reflection – in the form of voice-overs – and reactions to death are what this film mostly concerns itself with. As Private Witt, Jim Caviezel delivers a performance that draws the viewer like a magnet. He is cool, calm, and wise, with a spirit much older than his youthful face could ever reveal. Witt is one of the few characters that we can hold on to while others slide in and out of view, without reason. Admittedly, Malick does make an explicit point that it is possible for all men to somehow share a big spirit, and that we, like nature, are all connected by a spiritual thread we fail to recognise. But very little is done to develop this insight, which quickly disappears.

There are many voice-overs, always delivered dispassionately, but since the story is not tied to a particular individual, it is often very difficult to establish whose voice we are hearing; sometimes, the speaker doesn’t even appear in the scene. In this way, we hear the disembodied voices of (at least) Privates Witt, Bell (Ben Chaplin), Private First Class Doll (Dash Mihok), First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) and Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte).

Some actors deliver stellar performances, most notably Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin, who absorb the chaos around them without being overly shaken by it and yet portray absolute humanity and a dignity that is beautiful. I also want to acknowledge the strength of Elias Koteas’s character, Captain Staros, who seems to possess divine force when he speaks his native Greek, and Nick Nolte’s Lieutenant Colonel Tall, who is euphoric at his first taste of real war and doesn’t flinch even while grenades explode around him. Some actors are quite bad, such as Dash Mihok (an actor who has played wonderful roles in other films), who seems to be scared when he is not shocked and who never loses his slightly childlike demeanour. And then there are many actors who were not given any opportunity to develop their characters. Adrien Brody, always wide-eyed in this film, is seen but almost never heard, and George Clooney pops up in an interesting role… in the film’s final scene.

As usual for a Malick film, the audiovisual elements are simply stunning, and the director has included a romantic angle, which in this case does not serve the film well. One feels slightly embarrassed when Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) receives a letter from his wife, the context having been sketched previously with simple flashbacks that do not present us with a concrete picture, but Chaplin copes exceedingly well. For all the weaknesses of the screenplay (the entire plot can be summarised in a very short paragraph), the camera does some amazing tricks with its pitch perfectly coloured images, and the Melanesian choir music is unforgettable. Look out for an early scene, after the death of two soldiers, when sunlight turns the grass from dark-green to yellow.

Malick gets at the complexity of war and there are many interesting moments scattered throughout the film, including a captain’s desire to see his men protected, no matter what the effect on the battle, the awkwardness of battle depicted by soldiers running into each other while fleeing gunfire, and the universality of suffering, when a Japanese prisoner cries for the dead friends around him. But these moments, while rich and insightful, do not cohere into a strong narrative and ultimately we get the sense that Malick is meticulous but unable to move beyond the abstract and give us a physical experience of his world. The film has an abundance of water and greenery, and a sharp eye for human emotion, with some strong performances, but these are lonely elements in a film that gets caught up in its own rhetoric.

IP5 (1992)


Jean-Jacques Beineix

Jacques Forgeas
Jean-Jacques Beineix

Director of Photography:
Jean-François Robin

Running time: 119 minutes

Original title: IP5: L’île aux pachydermes

Poor Jean-Jacques Beineix. Perhaps he thought that this would be his , and that is why he indicated in the title that it would be his fifth film. Supposedly, the letters represent the initials of his girlfriend at the time, supporting the romantic element of the narrative. But ultimately such self-indulgence does little to enhance the experience of watching the film, except to make us shake our head. The film has three wonderfully entertaining central characters, but the director doesn’t quite know whose story he wants to tell, and he ends up failing us on all counts.

The three characters are Jockey, barely in his teens; Tony, in his mid-twenties; and the sage old Mr Marcel, who might just be a tree hugger who escaped from an insane asylum. Tony, played by Olivier Martinez looking like a young Elvis, is a professional “tagger”, a graffiti artist who is constantly on the run from the law but merely wishes to create his art on the walls of his city. Jockey, the son of an always drunken immigrant, lives in the same block of council flats as Tony and wants to have a good time, even if this involves a bit of petty theft now and then.

And then there is Mr Marcel, played by Yves Montand, who died shortly after the shoot. One night, Jockey and Tony steal a car only to discover in the backseat Mr Marcel, a man who very politely but insistently refuses to leave them alone. Mr Marcel is mysterious and presents signs of clairvoyance that might be construed as traces of something divine, but as the film proceeds, this initial hypothesis falls apart rather quickly; unfortunately, the film itself does not provide any useful information to explain his behaviour and especially his insight.

The full French title translates as “IP5: The Island of Pachyderms” and “pachyderm” is a term I know from Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play, Rhinocéros; it means “thick-skinned mammal”, but alas, we don’t get to see any of them. And it isn’t a certainty that we’ll get to see the island either. The film is about memory and desire, but such a statement makes Beineix’s film sound much more clearly defined than it actually is. While Mr Marcel and Tony are both on a journey to reclaim the loves they lost, their journeys are quite different, and so are the women, and the reasons they haven’t seen each other for 40 years (Mr Marcel and Monique), or, well, barely 40 hours (Tony and Gloria).

The film’s only relationship that we care about, though to a very limited degree, is the one between Mr Marcel and Monique, and once that part of the story has been resolved, we suddenly find ourselves remembering that the film started out being about Tony’s journey, from Paris to Toulouse, to find Gloria. At this point, at the end of the second act, the film starts to drag, because there is no real desire to see Tony’s “love”, based on two or three very brief encounters, when it was made very clear to Tony that Gloria couldn’t care less about his feelings towards her.

As is to be expected from the director of Diva and Betty Blue (37°2 le matin), the colour palette is strikingly beautiful, and there are particularly attractive shots scattered throughout the film, including a moment when Mr Marcel stands, preacher-like, in the middle of the forest during a rainstorm and lets the “lustral rain” purify him while he is lit up like a Christmas tree. This is, however, one time where his crew let him down and one can spot very odd changes in lighting on Montand’s face.

IP5 contains too many coincidence for the story development to be credible, and while Mr Marcel could have had a mysterious air about him that might make us believe in a supernatural force at work, the questions generated by the film are never answered but rather lead to a very banal conclusion that – considering the film’s energetic opening – is not at all satisfactory.

Death and the Maiden (1994)


Roman Polanski
Rafael Yglesias
Ariel Dorfman
Director of Photography:
Tonino Delli Colli

Running time: 102 minutes

Roman Polanski will always be best remembered for Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, but his underrated Death and the Maiden is a stunning film, in large part thanks to the work of Ariel Dorfman, on whose play it is based.

The film is set in an unnamed country in South America “after the fall of the dictatorship”. This could be any number of countries, and since Dorfman has Chilean origins one would expect the country to be Chile and the dictator to be Pinochet, but even if this were true, it has no real bearing on our interpretation of the film. Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) and her husband Gerardo (Stuart Wilson) are living in near isolation, and she becomes tense every time a strange car pulls up to their house. On the radio, Paulina hears that Gerardo has been appointed the new head of the government’s tribunal that will look into human rights abuses during under the former military junta. However, she remains unconvinced that the guilty individuals will be made to pay sufficiently for what they did.

It is a stormy night, and the power goes out. So, too, do the phone lines. Gerardo is brought back home by a friendly stranger after his car had got a flat tyre. Later in the evening, the friendly stranger appears again: Gerardo had forgotten to take his spare tyre. The friendly stranger makes some very flattering comments about Gerardo and his role in the upcoming investigations, and Gerardo asks the man in to have a drink with him. Hearing the two of them, Paulina flees from the house. In the man’s car, she finds a cassette of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet and decides to push the car down a cliff into the rough seas.

All of this might sound rather odd, but the thrust of Paulina’s mental processes is soon revealed when she goes back to her and Gerardo’s house, ties up the stranger, who is called Dr Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), and accuses him of having raped her several times, while the Schubert Quartet was playing in the background, during her time as a political prisoner. She was always blindfolded, but she claims to recognise Miranda’s voice, his smell, the expressions he uses, his quotations from Nietzsche and, most importantly, his love of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”.

These three characters – Paulina, Gerardo and Dr Miranda – are the only people we ever see in the film, except for a prologue and an epilogue in a concert hall, where the title piece is performed. The actors’ performances are all very strong and make the film a wholly dramatic experience.

Viewers will vacillate between trust and distrust in Paulina’s assessment of Miranda’s guilt. Is Paulina, who has clearly been emotionally and mentally affected by her ordeal more than a decade ago, someone whom we can trust? Or is she just out for revenge? Even in the film’s climactic scene (an amazing piece of acting: nearly three minutes in close-up), things are not as clear-cut as they seem to be, making this journey towards the truth so much darker, because we have to decide for ourselves whether we have not been deceived one last time.

The strength of Death and the Maiden lies in the screenwriters’ ability to keep us guessing throughout, while still maintaining absolute control over the credibility of the admittedly theatrical world we see before us. Almost the entire film is set in the Escobars’ house (clearly in a studio), but the camera work by Tonino Delli Colli and the editing by Hervé de Luze create the necessary tension in concert with the actors’ performances. One minor weakness is the house’s lighting: Although the power is supposed to be out, every inch of the house’s interior is lit, and when characters throw five shadows, you know things are a bit fake.

Ulysses’ Gaze (1995)


Theo Angelopoulos
Theo Angelopoulos
Tonino Guerra
Petros Markaris
Giorgio Silvagni 
Kain Tsitseli
Directors of Photography:
Giorgos Arvanitis
Andreas Sinanos

Running time: 176 minutes

Original Title:
Το βλέμμα του Οδυσσέα
Transliterated title:

To Vlemma tou Odyssea

Theo Angelopoulos has a very seductive visual style that often consists of long scenes and little dialogue, not unlike the work of Béla Tarr. But whereas Tarr uses mud, rain and small episodes presented as very long takes, Angelopoulos’s films are visually very clean, less episodic, and the long takes are fewer and farther between.

When a film isn’t episodic, in other words, when there is a macroplot rather than many microplots, then the overarching narrative better be worth the viewer’s time. In the case of Ulysses’ Gaze, an unnamed director (no, he does have a name: “A”) travels across the Balkan countries to locate three film reels of the first directors in the area, the Manakis brothers. The Manakis brothers worked there at the beginning of the 20th century, and their very first works, according to this film that rewrites history for the sake of drama, as many good films have done, are somewhere in the Balkans, waiting to be discovered. Why have they not been the object of more interest by the different film archives in the Balkans? The film doesn’t say.

A, played by Harvey Keitel, is a director who had grown up in the Balkans and does speak Greek, but he has spent most of his life in the United States producing films that many Greeks, for whatever reason, deem extreme and even “evil”. He learns of the missing film reels and decides to undertake the journey to find these elusive traces of the origins of the Balkan cinema.

In the process, he travels across Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The film’s title hints at an Odyssean dimension to the journey, but this is wishful thinking. At one point, he ferries a woman wearing a black cloak across the river, where they find the first signs of destruction in the former Yugoslavia, and of course this scene is meant to evoke the episode in Hades, either of them being Charon, but the metaphor is tenuous, if not altogether confusing.

He meets various women, all played by the same actress (Maia Morgenstern), but the roles and the acting are below standard as the actress frequently has to portray a woman who is drawn to A without knowing why, and more often than not breaks down in tears for no apparent reason.

No reason for A’s stubborn desire to find these missing reels is provided either, and yet he risks life and limb to track them down, all the way into a war zone. The film was made in the Balkans in 1994, so it’s not very difficult to guess which war I’m talking about. But even though we know that A is on his way to Sarajevo, upon his arrival in a big city that is completely devastated, building shots down to their skeletal remains, armoured UN vehicles, and people running down the streets to avoid sniper fire, A stops to ask these people, “Is this Sarajevo?” It is, of course, a question of identity, a theme that is relevant to the film, but the question seems ludicrous in the context and makes A seem rather thick-headed.

A is a very alienating figure, especially when he recites some of his lines like a grave incantation of some sort. The only moment where his character really seems human is around the halfway mark, when he meets an old friend on the banks of the Danube in Belgrade, who piggy-backs him for a few paces. For the rest of the film, A is a very serious character who almost never smiles.

The film is interested in identity across the Balkans, and there are many scenes where the past slides in and out of the present, as characters change and seem to channel figures from the past. Angelopoulos is going for a kind of magical realism, I suppose, but he doesn’t tell the story very well, and we are left with many questions and never get a firm grasp on A’s heritage.

Ulysses’ Gaze does contain remarkable scenes staged so that they may be noticed as such, including a shot at the beginning of the film in which an audience watches A’s latest film, captivated, standing in the rain as if frozen, everyone in black clothes with identical black umbrellas over them. In another scene, in which A is transported back to the end of the Second World War in Bucharest, Romania, a single shot in the foyer of the family home suggests the passage of five years by means of different small events in the background.

Angelopoulos could have been a great filmmaker if he had spent as much time cultivating his story as the staging of his images. At one point, an enormous statue of Lenin is transported in various pieces on a barge that goes upstream. We don’t know where the statue is headed, and for some strange reason Angelopoulos’s camera seems to worship the colossal monstrosity – even allowing it to face in the same direction as the barge, a strange choice indeed. Overall, the film is thin, plodding along through its more than two and a half hours, but the images are gorgeous. However, compared with his other important film, Eternity and a Day, I prefer the latter.

And one final note: For those who suspect me or the filmmakers of making a mistake: the possessive form of Ulysses is indeed Ulysses’ – without another possessive s, because it is a mythological/classical name. For all other names that end in an ‘s’, spelling depends on your chosen style (i.e. an apostrophe only, or an apostrophe and another ‘s’, are both valid).

Lolita (1997)


Adrian Lyne
Stephen Schiff
Director of Photography:
Howard Atherton

Running time: 137 minutes

Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel plays as a farce, with Jeremy Irons headlining as Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged gentleman infatuated with his teenage daughter-in-law, Dolores, aka Lolita. While the problem of paedophilia – or more accurately, hebephilia, the love of children in early puberty – is certainly serious and consequential, the film deliberately undermines its own seriousness. This self-subversion is sometimes funny, but often it is rather pointless fun. No review of Lyne’s film would be complete without reference to the Kubrick adaptation in 1962, and I shall come back to such a comparison later in this review.

We all know the story of Lolita. Humbert Humbert arrives in New England and prepares to teach French at the university. He moves in with Charlotte Haze, a widow, and her teenage daughter Lolita (a sexually assertive Dominique Swain), with whom he proceeds to fall head over heels in lust.

But the story, as presented by Lyne, is both more complicated and also less interesting. Lolita, who is supposed to be around 14 years old, looks much older. She has a sexual confidence that is lacking in any other female character in the film, save perhaps her mother, and enjoys manipulating Humbert to the point of locking lips with him barely 30 minutes in the film. At the same time, Humbert, who is quite indecisive and weak, allows himself to be dominated by the little nymphomaniac dominatrix whom he first sees in the garden, lying under the sprinklers on the grass, flipping through a magazine, her loose-fitting dress stuck to her wet skin.

Humbert is presented as a much more feeble character than the one in Kubrick’s film. In a scene at the hospital, late in the film, when Humbert finds that Lolita has left him, his behaviour is as erratic as it is pitiful, and one can’t help but laugh at the events onscreen.

According to numerous sources, Lyne’s adaptation is closer to Nabokov’s original novel than Kubrick’s version. Of course, that shouldn’t matter to anybody, since films are judged on their own terms and do not become better because they are closer to a different medium. In terms of character development, the most significant difference from Kubrick’s film is found in the character of Clare Quilty, who, here, cuts a much sillier figure and prances around his mansion in his night robe (which doesn’t always cover him as much as one would have liked).

I would argue that Humbert is taken advantage of by Lolita, who knowingly sexually harasses him for her own entertainment. This fact is the reason why I find one of the film’s final scenes, when Humbert tracks her down, so phony, because Lolita somehow seems to think that she had been wronged by her stepfather and had had no part in her own loss of innocence. Ennio Morricone’s sweeping music also seems completely out-of-place at this point.

The film is comedy, not drama. Sex is as absent as it was in Kubrick’s film, but as far as nudity goes, we get a full frontal of Frank Langella as Clare Quilty – not a pretty sight, trust me. The story has its twists and turns that almost make the whole thing bearable, but the quiet desperation of Humbert in Kubrick’s film has disappeared (because they have sex…off-screen) and, with it, the tension that kept the viewer’s attention.

Cabaret Balkan (1998)


Goran Paskaljević
Dejan Dukovski
Goran Paskaljević
Filip David
Zoran Andrić
Director of Photography:
Milan Spasić

Running time: 99 minutes

Original title: Bure baruta

I’ve seen a few movies from the Balkans that deal with the violent, volatile period of the 1990s: among others, Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, Emir Kusturica’s Underground and Danis Tanović’s majestic No Man’s Land.

However, while Tanović’s film focused on a singular atrocity committed in the midst of (media, political and social) madness, Cabaret Balkan strives to present Belgrade as hell and the Danube as a river of brimstone.

The film consists of many seemingly unrelated vignettes, all containing some kind of suffering: People are beaten up, killed or humiliated, and the one common thread that does run through the film is fear, on the part of the viewer and very often on the part of at least one character in every scene. The scenes are not solidly connected, and while some of the gaps were exasperating, one must not expect every film of this sort to be presented as a neatly packaged product of hyperlink cinema (in the same vein as Magnolia, Syriana and Short Cuts). This film is more like Nashville, but without the celebrities and with much greater suffering.

One character calls Belgrade the hemorrhoids of the world’s ass, and the film makes it easy to see why. All the scenes take place during one night in the capital, but unexpectedly (and as a result, depressingly), there is nothing special about this night: It is just another night in Belgrade, and these are the kinds of things that happen; these are the kinds of things that people do to each other. It is a city fraught with tension, always already on the verge of combustion.

The characters are not well introduced, and I struggled to remember even three names of characters in the film, but separately, the scenes themselves work very well – especially when the director takes his time to really delve into the dementia of the city. My favourite scene takes place inside a bus: A young man, frustrated by the system and the fact that people have to wait while the bus driver drinks coffee, takes the passengers hostage with a mixture of threats and playful rebellion. Another impressive scene features a confrontation between a retired, handicapped policeman and the young man, a taxi driver, who had beaten him up to a pulp a few months earlier. The fact that this taxi driver is one of the most likable characters in the film demonstrates what kind of a city this is.

Not being East European myself, I couldn’t distinguish between the languages and, therefore, the different ethnicities, which would be pivotal to an understanding of the social dynamics in this part of the world. There were brief mentions of Bosnian and Macedonian culture or sense humour, but I never knew which was which, or when such individuals were in scenes with the local Serbs.

The film works because we know it is Belgrade, but even if we didn’t, the film would still pack a punch with its collection of hellish episodes (always brutal but never alienating) set in an unstable environment where the concepts of law and order are no longer part of the city’s make-up. It is sometimes painful to watch, but it will stay with you.