The Bride (2015)

Hyperstylised adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding drowns in chichi and exhausts with meandering dialogue and too many slow-motion scenes.

the-bride-la-noviaSpain
2.5*

Director:
Paula Ortiz

Screenwriters:
Javier García

Paula Ortiz
Director of Photography:
Miguel Ángel Amoedo

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: La novia

If all the slow-motion scenes in Paula Ortiz’s The Bride, an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s popular Blood Wedding, were shown at normal speed, the film would likely be at least 30 minutes shorter. Besides these inexplicable visuals that produce a work that is so exasperating it is almost comical, the film is also doomed from the start because the hyperstylised, overly sentimental depiction of the play presents us with an incessant stream of dialogue that continuously remind us of the story’s theatrical origins.

The opening scene already spells trouble. A bride flounces about in the mud, before taking her horse to a home, dilapidated and half-ruined, in the middle of the arid Spanish countryside, where three people, including her father and newly acquired mother-in-law, are waiting for her. She (her name is never given) tells the woman she has come back because she is ready to die, and she explains why she left her equally anonymous husband during the reception and scuttled away with the mysterious, brooding one named Leonardo: While her fiancé/husband offered her safety and stability, she was attracted by the risk and uncertainty that Leonardo represented, never mind that he is married to her cousin.

But the scorchingly bright light all around these characters make it appear, at first, that this is a scene straight from heaven, or hell, but much more likely from purgatory. The landscape is arid and desolate, and the atmosphere among the group is woeful. Unfortunately, this first sequence lets the cat out of the bag by spelling out the major thrust of the story before it has even happened: This is the bride who left her husband on their wedding night to steal away with the man who makes her so lascivious.

Now, it has to be said, it would be a challenge not to sympathise with the Bride, as the hunky Leonardo is presented time and again as a silent type whose shoulder-length black hair elegantly frames the stubble on his face and his come-hither eyes.

But the fact that we know how all of this turns out makes the entire build-up to the wedding rather tedious. Granted, there are a few scenes in which we see Leonardo on horseback stalking the Bride, his presence (albeit in the background) a chronic reminder of opportunities as yet unseized. Throughout, the landscape takes the rather ludicrous form of sexual appetite, as on many occasions we see rock outcroppings looking like giant phalli that have sprung up from the barren wasteland.

Things finally start to get tense by the time the wedding rolls around, where Leonardo shows up (after all, he is married to the Bride’s cousin) and visibly sets the Bride’s heart aflutter. But every now and again, the film stalls out with extended slow-motion shots, or in the case of the anticipated sex scene, nearly an entire slow-motion scene that inspires laughter instead of either passion because of the act, or the dread because of the consequences.

At other points, including one moment during the sex scene, the film grinds to a halt to make it possible for a character to deliver a long speech that obviously originates in Lorca’s text. Such occasions are painful, as there is no movement in the frame, and the vast range of possibilities that the medium of film has to offer are not utilised to support the words.

One visual highlight, however, is a procession of roughly a dozen characters over a ridge that stretches from left to right across the screen. We see them moving along at sunset, and they appear only as silhouettes, thus calling to mind the macabre Dance of Death at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), except that here the characters are not strung together but are moving forward of their own accord.

Whenever the film focuses on the sexual tension between the Bride and Leonardo, it is absolutely enthralling, but these moments are very few and far between. The far-flung exoticism of the landscape (the film was shot in Turkey’s otherworldly Cappadocia region) is a very good choice of location, but the unnecessarily lengthy presentation of some of the scenes and the refusal to sketch some major characters, like the Groom, as anything more than mere tools for the narrative’s mechanics is disappointing. This is not just a tragic story but a tragedy of a film.

 

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Rams (2015)

Two elderly, taciturn sheep farmers who are also brothers have to work together in the face of a plague that hits their remote valley in northern Iceland.

hrutar-ramsIceland
4*

Director:
Grímur Hákonarson
Screenwriter:
Grímur Hákonarson
Director of Photography:
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Hrútar

The first scene of Rams, a film from Iceland that falls squarely within the country’s canon of beautiful and always-eccentric films of late, tells it all: In a valley called Bárðardalur, in the north Icelandic countryside, Gudmundur (“Gummi”), an old, bearded farmer, finds a ram among his sheep that is not his. It has clearly strayed across the fence that separates his flock from that of his neighbour. He calls one of them by name, strokes its face and then proceeds to take a ram into his neighbour’s house in silent protest at the transgression that occurred.

The neighbour turns out to be his brother, the similarly bearded, equally aged Kristinn (“Kiddi”). The two have not spoken for 40 years, and although the reason for this is never explicitly stated, the resentment from both sides is clear as day. Their tense silence could very well have to do with the fact that Gummi’s father did not want Kiddi to inherit the farm, but he has stayed on because their mother insisted on it.

They are also big rivals, as their respective flocks share an esteemed bloodline, and at this year’s edition of the annual competition, Kiddi’s ram prevails by half a point over Gummi’s prized tup. Gummi is naturally crestfallen, but after closer inspection, he comes to believe that Kiddi’s ram, and therefore his flock and all other flocks in the area, might be suffering from scrapie, which would be fatal to both the sheep and the entire valley’s livelihood.

It is to be expected that the two brothers, facing the worst crisis in their extensive time on this Earth, will be pushed together to tackle this problem, but their distrust and general dislike of each other certainly makes this a protacted call to collaboration, whence the film’s running but subtle comedy. Despite their differences – Gummi is the serious one, while Kiddi is prone to hit the bottle on frequent occasions and more likely to behave like a fool – they are also dedicated to their sheep, which for these two lifelong bachelors are just like their own flesh and blood. When tragedy strikes their animals, it is like they see their own bloodline vanish in front of their eyes.

Their attachment to the animals also extends into a very warm relationship with Kiddi’s sheepdog, Sómi, which steals every scene in which he appears. Gummi uses him as a carrier pigeon to deliver handwritten messages to his brother whenever the rare occasion arises for them to communicate, and Sómi is almost giddy with anticipation to oblige.

This anthropomorphism is the logical extension of the affection afforded to the ovine creatures, and screenwriter-director Grímur Hákonarson’s decision to imbue his animals with just as much humanity as his two-legged characters adds enormous warmth to the film. And warmth is certainly welcome in this desolate valley that has been hit by disease and remains exposed to the rigours of the island’s thick white winters. The final scenes, set during a blizzard unleashed on the surroundings of Gummi and Kiddi’s farm, is particularly harsh, and at a screening I attended the wailing gusts of wind ont he soundtrack literally caused the ground in the theatre to vibrate. 

As a final point, even though it does not shed much light on our interpretation of the film, it is worth pointing out that the title can equally refer to the two brothers. The men’s interaction and communication at the very end are intimate and more related to instinct than purely rational thought.

Rams is about silence and a secret shared with a combination of naughty subversion of the rules and a determined desire to uphold to the status quo, even when the course of life cannot be turned back, and life itself can barely be resurrected. The two main characters, offbeat as they are, have affection for their animals and even for each other, and their presence in the story brings out both the comedy and the drama of the unexpected situation they are confronted with.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Brooklyn (2015)

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, story of Irish immigrant to the United States in the early 1950s is filled with compassion and tenderness.

Brooklyn_1Sheet_Mech_7R1.inddIreland/UK/Canada
4*

Director:
John Crowley

Screenwriter:
Nick Hornby

Director of Photography:
Yves Bélanger

Running time: 110 minutes

For anyone who has ever moved far away from their parents and their childhood home to pursue new opportunities that did not immediately manifest themselves, Brooklyn will be an evocative, deeply felt (though for some perhaps too optimistic) depiction of the struggles of adapting in a new country, even one as accepting as the United States of the early 1950s.

The New York City neighbourhood that shares its name with the title of John Crowley’s heartwarming film about one of the hundreds of thousands of post-war immigrants represents a world and ultimately a home for Eilis (pronounced “eye-lish”) Lacey, a 20-something girl from rural Ireland. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is bright and dedicated, but she cannot achieve her full potential working at the general store in Enniscorthy, whose generally laid-back atmosphere may have escaped because of the terrible economic climate in the country following World War II.

Eilis’s father passed away a few years earlier, and she is living with her older sister, Rose, who has a job as a bookkeeper, and her mother, who has little financial independence. But Eilis is determined to make something of herself, and thus she undertakes the nauseating journey across the Atlantic, along with so many other Irish immigrants, some first-timers, others returning from a visit to their former home, to New York City.

She settles in the Irish immigrant–heavy Brooklyn, in a boarding house overseen by the strict but witty Mrs Kehoe, played with more than a smidgen of naughty relish by Julie Walters. Father Flood, a longtime immigrant who facilitated her move to the 48 states, secures a job for her at a department store, but when she starts receiving letters from back home, she quickly becomes a homesick duck out of water, turning reticent, introverted and generally down in the dumps.

The film, based on Colm Tóibín’s eponymous novel, is deliberately paced to take her higher when she meets the Italian Tony – a shy young man who looks like a young Gene Kelly (incidentally, the two watch Singin’ in the Rain together at the cinema) and worships the ground she walks on – and achieves enormous success in her accounting studies before taking her lower with an emotional trip to Ireland that makes her question her decision to move to the New World.

Throughout the entire film, the focus is almost exclusively on Eilis, and it would be difficult not to empathise with her plight as she makes her way in a world that, despite it being Anglophone, is almost completely foreign to her. Crowley also subtly hints at the communication difficulties that existed at the time, as a telephone call between Ireland and the United States was a privilege afforded to very few and had to be organised and booked via special channels.

The cinematography, like the story itself, is infused with a sense of romanticism. The images are luminous while retaining a slighty hazy quality, hinting at an almost dreamlike state of mind as Eilis tries to work through her fantasy of living in America to forging her own path. Luckily for her, New York City is almost filled to the brim with good-hearted people who welcome her into their midst – quite a contrast to the refugee-phobic rhetoric of many U.S. politicians and their supporters that is making headlines as of this writing in November 2015.

Unlike other films about Irish immigrants to the United States, such as Jim Sheridan’s brilliant but underseen In America or Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes, Brooklyn is not mired in misery or peppered with unsavoury characters and situations that show the rougher side of adapting to a new country and its people. Crowley’s view of the United States is uplifting and shimmers with compassion for the local population. In a way, the representation perfectly fits the time period perfectly and seeks to present us with a character pursuing the American Dream without losing the connection to her family and community an ocean away. The only truly odious moments take place within the confines of the grocery store in Enniscorthy, but while they have a very important function, they last mere moments before goodness overthrows their fleeting dominance.

With humor, tenderness and a beautiful love story, Brooklyn is a tale that is as optimistic as an incoming immigrant who has not yet experienced the clash of cultures or any hints of xenophobia. Its central character’s determination to start a new life, one that she chooses for herself, is very appealing, and the wisdom she picks up along the way marks her engagement with her surroundings in a way that promises a bright future, despite life moving on and bonds inevitably breaking.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

In Your Arms (2015)

A man in his mid-30s, ravaged by disease, decides to end his life while encouraging his nurse to start living her own.

in-your-armsDenmark
3*

Director:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm

Screenwriter:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm
Director of Photography:
Brian Curt Petersen

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: I dine hænder

Euthanasia is not an easy topic to wrap one’s head around, particularly because it is so often conflated with murder. When so many people are not even ready to accept suicide as a legitimate action, it is to be expected that euthanasia (the patient sanctions someone to kill him/her), or assisted suicide (the patient kills himself/herself with medication or counselling provided by a second party for this purpose) will be equally challenging notions for an audience. 

The Danish film In Your Arms, co-produced by Lars von Trier, is more of an intimate character study of a man who has decided to end his life than a critical examination of the moral or ethical issues surrounding or arising from this decision. In this respect, the film is a mostly sober representation of one man’s determination to eliminate the suffering that plagues him, instead of a dramatic contrivance that would involve our emotions. But it doesn’t make the audience’s job of empathising with the character easy at all.

One way in which the slight distance between the viewer and the film is achieved is through the use of snow. Symbolising a great number  of things (from ephemeral beauty to peace to a state of being untainted by the heartache and the natural shocks that flesh is heir to), snow accompanies a number of scenes, some of them potentially mere mental images, but at least one, which involves a brutal killing by a blubbering killer, is very real.

The film is centred on Niels, a man in his mid-30s whose body has been degenerating of late and is mostly paralysed. At the nursing home where he is experiencing a great deal of self-pity and has asked his family to stop visiting him, he tries to kill himself. “I can no longer walk. I can no longer masturbate. And soon I will no longer be able to breathe”, he says, and it is easy to understand his desire to put an end to this rapid, inexorable regression.

However, to his horror, he is saved by a young nurse, Maria. Anxious and terrible at any social interaction, she cleans herself by washing her armpits at the wash basin, and most of the time her pale face is taut as a drum. Even when she makes spontaneous decisions, there is no visible joy or passion in her expressions. Niels is not impressed, but although he always has sharp words at the ready for those around him, he needs help to get to Switzerland and end his life through an assisted dying organisation titled ASSIST. Having nothing better to do, now or ever, Maria sets off on the trip to accompany him.

This middle stretch of the film, which is a kind of road movie, is the most interesting part of the story, although it is at times very difficult to watch. The reason is right there in the producer’s credit, as the awkwardness Von Trier has long relished and made most palpable in The Idiots is also on display here. Niels gets a thrill by digging into Maria’s personal life and asking her about it, even when he knows that she finds these conversations excruciating. He also is not beneath embarrassing her in public for no good reason other than oblique self-pity.

We gradually realise that, as he approaches the hour of death, Niels is also grabbing on to his last moments of control in the midst of despair and apparent disarray. He tries to pull Maria out of her shell while he kicks up a fuss when she doesn’t do everything exactly as he orders her to, even if such orders are sometimes contradictory. He has good intentions, and Maria, who is afraid to look in the mirror, both literally and figuratively, would certainly be better off if she were socially better connected. Unfortunately, any assumption that these two characters who don’t fit into society would easily communicate all but blows up in our face, even though they rather pathetically hurtle into each other’s arms in the final act.

The big problem with the depiction of Maria is that the character is sobbing in nearly every single scene. She cries when she feels uncomfortable, she cries when she doesn’t have an answer, and she cries when life happens. She shows no sign of maturing or of dealing with her social and personal hang-ups, has very little development to speak of and is wholly incapable of being around people.

In a film that deals with euthanasia, the scene dealing with this topic in particular will illuminate the director’s talent as a storyteller, and here Samanou A. Sahlstrøm chooses to end his end his story not with lyricism but with extended discomfort. The process of dying by one’s own hand is almost never pretty, and while Sahlstrøm presents the character’s good-byes to his friends and family with great empathy, the act of suicide is filled with unpleasant hesitation, gasping, sniffling and anxious anticipation for the end to arrive sooner rather than later. While tough to watch, this final scene admirably undercuts any notion of this being a straightforward sanctioning of ending one’s own life.

Death very well spells the end to life, but even amidst the beautiful scenery of Switzerland, the transition from animate to inanimate is far from cheerful, and despite the many scenes with the snow that also signals a heavenly bright light, perhaps this example of the end of life pulls us back into the gritty realism that real death commands.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Loev (2015)

In India, where same-sex love is still a taboo (and sex is illegal), uttering the word “love” is a challenge, but “loev” signals there is light at the end of the tunnel.

loevIndia
4*

Director:
Sudhanshu Saria
Screenwriter:
Sudhanshu Saria

Director of Photography:
Sherri Kauk

Running time: 90 minutes

If there is one abiding image that is familiar to and may even represent most gay men – especially those who grew up or were ever in an environment that was less than accepting of their sexuality – it is two people awkwardly squeezed onto a single bed. Whether it is at home, where the parents assume their son is sharing a room with a friend, or at a hotel, where out of embarrassment or fear no booking was made for a double bed, the desire to hold each other easily but uncomfortably overrides the physical restrictions of the single bed.

Homosexuality is not only taboo but also illegal in India, where an infamous 2013 decision by the country’s supreme court found the Penal Code’s section on “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” did in fact include sex between two individuals of the same sex (technically, men). This fact makes the production of Loev, an Indian film about men who have sex with men, utterly remarkable. Not only does the film’s creation constitute a courageous act on the part of writer-director-producer Sudhanshu Saria, but it is also a very accomplished film in its own right that sidesteps many of the traps into which many so-called pink films from the other side of the world often fall. It also includes that beautiful, recognisable image mentioned above.

In the film’s opening scene, we find Sahil, a 20-something musician from Mumbai, all alone in his apartment. It is pitch black, and as his face is illuminated by the candle he lights, we see he is not impressed. It is nearly 40 degrees, there is no air conditioning because the power is out, and he is in a rush to pack for a weekend trip. His boyfriend Alex arrives and admits that he forgot to pay the electricity bill, but Sahil tells him he had also left the gas running. The mood would be tense if it wasn’t for Alex’s carefree attitude, which is nonetheless rooted in an understanding of his boyfriend’s emotional state. He takes Sahil to the airport, but not before we see him trying unsuccessfully to put his arm around his shoulder.

This moment in the car when Sahil pushes his boyfriend away is key to the film, as it not only underlines his anger but also hints at his feeling of shame when it comes to being intimate with his boyfriend in public. His old friend, Jai, who has become a workaholic businessman in New York City, returns to Mumbai for a short visit, and the two head off to the idyllic countryside of the misty Mahabaleshwar, a night’s drive south of the teeming metropolis.

What makes the interaction between Jai and Sahil so compelling and contributes to the film’s serious treatment of its characters is Jai’s attitude towards his friend. There is no tension or judgement. Jai talks to Sahil about Alexander the same way he would have if his friend had been in a relationship with a woman. The underlying assumption of normalcy distinguishes the film’s approach from the traditional anxiety that tends to accompany gay films, even in more accepting countries. At the same time, however, director Sudhanshu Saria does not ignore the lingering disapproval of homosexuality, especially in the countryside, although such moments are fortunately used for context, not to create some contrived moment of drama. 

Loev‘s many long takes (the camera is very mobile but lets the scenes breathe thanks to extended silences) emphasise the real-world setting of the story and are further proof of the director’s talent as a filmmaker. It bears mentioning that this is his début feature film.

The film’s title is equivalent to the U.S. expression “lurve” and allows the speaker to suggest “love” without saying the word. “Love” is a difficult word to say for those who fear the consequences of such a declaration. Men in particular tend to avoid the word, even when their feelings are clearly within the orbit of the definition, and that is certainly the case for Sahil, whose relationship with Alexander is unmistakably filled with compassion and patience even though he refuses to call it by its rightful name.

The final scenes are riveting and reveal a great deal about all three of the main characters. The film comes to a very satisfying conclusion without sugar-coating or glossing over the problems that remain or throwing open the closet door to expose all the secrets hidden inside.

Loev is a timely film that, far from seeking to understand the status of gay men in India, treats them as any other group of individuals with the same problems and desires as anyone else. This approach of normalising their identity is crucial in a country that still struggles to accept people who do not fit the perceived status quo, and in so doing, the film, focused primarily on the tension between a friendship and a relationship, marks an important milestone in the depiction of characters who also happen to be gay.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Madame Courage (2015)

Taciturn, troubled Algerian teenager steals necklace from girl to finance his drug habit, but upon seeing her face, he develops a crush that quickly escalates into unwanted devotion.  

madame-courage

Algeria/France
3.5*

Director:
Merzak Allouache
Screenwriter:
Merzak Allouache
Director of Photography:

Olivier Guerbois

Running time:
90 minutes

Original title:
مدام كوراج
Transliterated title:

Mdam Kuraj

The teenager at the heart of Madame Courage is a boy with many troubles, but it is difficult to dislike him. With high cheekbones, a gaunt face, full lips and big eyes that expressionlessly stare straight ahead, Omar lives in a squat with his mother and older sister. Despite the constant stream of religion-based indictment of debauchery broadcast on the family’s television set, his sister Sabrina is involved in prostitution, which their mother appears to sanction for the sake of having food on the table.

The thing the taciturn Omar is most focused on, however, is not food but drugs. The title refers to the name popular among Algerian youth for Artane, which helps Omar to disconnect from reality. He always carries a plastic bag in his pocket filled with these tablets and slides one of them down his throat when the going gets tough, which makes him look like a zombie most of the time, and he buys these pills with money obtained through thievery on the street.

Having established the criminal side of his life in the opening chase scene taking place late at night through deserted streets, the film’s second scene shows him grabbing a necklace from around a high-school girl’s neck before running off. She is devastated, as the piece of jewellery had belonged to her late mother, and her friends comfort her in the relative safety of a café in downtown Mostaganem. By chance, Omar walks past the café a few moments later and is about to enter when he notices her. The rush of the grab having receded by now, he watches her face more intently and is mesmerised, so he decides to follow her home.

The film never offers any real insight into this fascination that Omar has for her (her name is Selma). He doesn’t know she has lost her mother, and she doesn’t know that he has lost his father. However, because of the instability at home, Omar decides to start spending as much time as possible waiting for her next to a rubbish dump in front of the apartment she shares with her senile father and older brother, a policeman. For obvious reasons, the brother makes it clear he doesn’t want Omar around, but there is something about the boy that greatly intrigues Selma, and even though they never speak a word to each other, the teenage sexual tension between them is unmistakable and handled with great sensitivity by director Merzak Allouache.

Small digressions from the story line, which include a sub-plot with Omar’s sister, Sabrina, and her pimp (who, it appears, is always supposed to marry her) and Omar’s continued life of petty crime are always connected to the main character, who is present in almost every single scene. The hand-held camera further lingers on him to emphasise his presence as the focal point of interest, for example by framing him in the middle of the shot when he is driving his motorcycle. This latter image allows us to see him as being immobile against a mobile background, which is a perfect visual depiction of his life in general.

The relationship, or association, between Omar and Selma is mysterious and beautiful, although one cannot help but wonder whether the chances of them ending up together would ever amount to more than the fantasies Omar likely conjures up when he is high on Madame Courage. This is not exactly Pickpocket, but Selma’s arrival in Omar’s life certainly has a positive effect on him. Her brother, Redouane, is one of the film’s more complex characters, and while he obviously wants to protect his sister and can use the powers afforded to him as an officer of the law to do so, he does not abuse his authority (despite a moment of offscreen violence) but instead seeks to find out what Omar is thinking, which makes him something of a substitute for the viewer.

Although far from comprehensive, Madame Courage offers a striking glimpse of life on the streets of a lower-class teenager in Algeria who has to combat feelings of loneliness, protect himself and his family and deal with the struggles of being a teenage boy infatuated with a girl.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015