Monday, October 10, 2016

Bi-continental Romance

Hermia & Helena (2016) - Piñeiros
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Matias Piñeiro's Hermia & Helena begins almost identically as his last film Princess of France, looking down at the soccer field. But they are two very different films. Even though his usual light-as-feather approach at twenty-something's bohemian lives and romantic entanglements might be the same, but the tone, the tempo, the setting of the film is noticeably different in Hermia & Helena.

Taking the cue from A MIdsummer Night's Dream, Piñeiro builds up bi-continent tales of love and friendship, in his unique way without ever heavily delving into anything resembling of a plot. Just clocking in at 70 or so breezy minutes and like his other films, it solely relies on seemingly complicated, incongruous structure and charms of his regulars (mainly María Villar and Augustina Muñoz) and some new faces Piñero acquired during his 2 years living in New York.

Divided by chapters with characters names, we loosely track the flight of two friends: first, it's Carmen (Muñoz) finishing up her writing fellowship stint at 'the institute' in New York, living in the institute provided housing in Chinatown in winter, looking over the soccer field and the Coumbus Park. Then we are back to Buenos Aires, where her friends are. It's Carmila (Villar)'s turn to go. Camila, a small time theater director, at first, seems very much in love with her boyfriend (another Piñeiro regular Julián Larquier Tellarini), but not so much as we find out later. She feels ambivalent about the trip, leaving behind all of her friends for New York, translating A Midsummer Night's Dream into Spanish for her upcoming production. She embarks on anyway, and we follow her the rest of the film.

In snowy New York, Camila meets knick-knack of characters: there is Lukas 'the tall guy' (Keith Poulson) from the institute, who is kind of cute, Carmen's secrete friend/lover Danielle (Mati Diop, a filmmaker/actress who's been popping up in many international productions), a fellow fellowship artist/writer/performer whathaveyou from France, traveling across the United States sending postcards from each state she visits to Carmen, because she doesn't know Carmen finished up her time in NY and went home, her former lover (Dustin Guy Defa) who is a filmmaker and her father (Dan Sallit) whom she never met who lives upstate.

Just like his other films, H & H is extremely talky, but the feel of the film is much slower even languid at times. It's not more contemplative, per se. Perhaps it's New York's snowy winter landscape that's bringing out certain melancholy to the film. Because of Camila's journey takes unexpected turns (in romance or otherwise) and because of the people she meets and we get to see her (sort of) motives, the film comes closer to a character study and feels more personal than any other Piñeiro films I've seen.

Shot gracefully by his long time cinematographer Fernando Lockett, but H & H showcases some other beautiful elements - long cross-fades to signify two different cities, almost Woody Allenesque, chirpy piano music, and black and white, movie-within-a-movie in the middle.

There are elements he plays with the bard's work- be that in dialog or objects that are passed around or a father figure (or an idea of one). It's not a bad choice for inspiration or starting point to be playful, intermingling his love of books, music, poetry, good friends and other personal things and project that on the screen. It seems with Hermia & Helena, Piñeiro is upping the ante a little bit and put more cinematic playfulness in his small ways. And it's lovely.

Indiscreet Charm of Bourgeoisie

Aquarius (2016) - Filho
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Just like Filho's Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius is a clear eyed observation of changing times in Brazil. It deals with the class differences, rapid gentrification, generation gap, among others. The film's aided by blistering central performance by the 70s sexpot Sonia Braga (Lady on the Bus, Kiss of the Spider Woman). Now 65, raven haired, tiny but extremely fit Braga commands the screen as Clara, a retired music critic, who is the family matriarch and moral compass of the film. Aquarius is a small condominium complex right on the beach where Clara lives in an affluent Recife neighborhood. The building's blue exterior has faded over the years, but it's well kept. But it's all but overshadowed by glitzy glass towers that surround it.

Clara remains the only resident (with her faithful elderly maid) of the building. She weathered her husband's death and all the children growing up and moving out. A Goliath real estate company's young, US educated project manager is trying to make an offer to buy out Clara, but she wouldn't budge. There are just too many memories associated with the place. Her furniture, her LP collections, everything inside that apartment has a backstory and meaning-- the film starts in 1980 in the same apartment where they are celebrating the birthday of Clara's mother. While people are congratulating her and having a good time, mom's eyes are fixed on a bureau in the middle of the room. She is reminiscing about great sex she had on the bureau long ago. And that bureau remains in Clara's apartment, imbued with the memories of people who are long gone.

Filho doesn't shy away from human sexuality. Even though Clara had a breast cancer and had a mastectomy on one of her breasts, she engages in a steamy sexual fling with a male escort whom her friends recommended. She accidentally walks in on her young nephew and his new girlfriend having sex in the morning. She quietly backs out smiling. She flirts with a young lifeguard friend. Sex and desire are portrayed in a very frank, healthy light.

It is clear that slowly but deliberately, the developers want to force Clara out. They start engaging in psychological warfare with her- one day it's loud music and thumping, the next its drug fueled orgy that's taking place in the upstairs apartment which is supposed to be empty. The general upkeep of the building becomes shoddy. It's also Clara's daughter Ana Paula (Neon Bull's Maeve Jinkings), a cash strapped single mom, who is approached by the company to put pressure on Clara to sell the apartment. But when confronted with accusations, the young project manager plays innocent, as if everything is one big misunderstanding, that it's Clara who is always being unreasonable.

Even though the film's perspective is from bourgeois class through and through, and Filho clearly sympathizes with the main character, he takes jabs at the rifts between haves and have-nots matter of factly. When Clara's family and friends are gathered and walking on the pristine beach, her friends points where the sewer feeds into the ocean: "This is where the rich part of the town ends and where the poor part of the town starts" she says without irony.

Dense and richly textured, Aquarius works as a strong anthropological study of changing society and proves the cultural center of Brazil is not in the south and Rio and Favelas anymore. Along with other filmmakers from the Northeast Pernambuco region, Filho shows sophisticated, nuanced yet still sensual side of Brazilian cinema. With Braga's commanding performance and the quite explosive ending, Aquarius goes down as one of the finest films of 2016.