Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Hauntingly Beautiful Immigrant Song

Vitalina Varela (2019) - Costa
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In a barely lit alley created by towering concrete slap walls, we see a funeral procession of a day laborer in the urban slums of Lisbon. So starts Vitalina Varela, another stunning masterpiece by Pedro Costa, one of the greatest living directors.

Ever since Casa de Lava (1994), Costa has been tracing the flight of Cape Verdean immigrants, specifically concentrating on the inhabitants of Fontainhas, the concrete urban slum in the outskirts of Lisbon with series of films since 1997. The last couple of films, Colossal Youth and Horse Money, it was Ventura who was the focus of interest with Vitalina playing a supporting role. Now it is Vitalina who is getting the spotlight.

Just where Costa draws the line between fiction and reality, memories and present is difficult to decipher. His highly formalist approach doesn't help the matter either. But boy, it nevertheless creates a glorious cinematic experience.

Vitalina arrives from Cape Verde, a Portuguese colonial island off the cost of Africa, to attend her bricklayer husband's funeral. But she is three days too late. In a highly artificial, even invoking a Kaurismaki comedy, she emerges from the airplane, soaking wet and barefooted. She is greeted not by family, but a group of immigrant workers working as a airport crew. They tell her, “Go back to Cape Verde, Vitalina there is nothing for you here.”

Vitalina situate herself in her husband's concrete shack, getting used to the low doorframes, meeting both hostile and friendly interlopers. We get use to the space too, trying to navigate our way in what seems to be forever nights, poorly lit interiors where we can barely make out the contours of a face or slumping bodies.

Vitalina finds solace in an empty church, presided by a frail preacher (played by Ventura). No one ever comes here anymore, the preacher tells her. She questions why would her husband leaving her, promising her a better life some 20 years ago, only to endure harsh life in a foreign land just to die? The shack is not the palace he promised her. And why is she there in Portugal?

A torrential downpour hits the leaky corrugated roof and makes terrible and frightening noises. Neighbors promised to help to fix it when her husband was alive but the promise was never kept. Even though her husband is gone and unseen, it's as if all the dark corners of the slum is permeated with the ghosts of the past, ready to emerge any minute like some jump scares in a horror movie.

Vitalina hosts a younger homeless couple and feed them, only to find out the girl has died since. People appear and disappear, slowly moving across the frame like zombies in Costa universe, existing and not existing at the same time.

Like Ventura's, Vitalina's weathered and angular face tells thousand stories. Her huge eyes reflect the darkness of the exteriors as well as sorrows inside. She becomes an iconic living statue in Costa's observations of the netherworld.

As usual, Vitalina Varela is stunning to look at. Every frame is a work of art. Greatly aided by Leonardo Simões, Costa's cinematographer since Colossal Youth, and João Gazua and Hugo Leitão's sound work, the film gives the lives of its inhabitants the poeticism they deserve.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Grief and Human Folly

I Was at Home, But... (2019) - Schanelec
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Angela Schanelec's take on the effects of grief in I Was at Home, But... might be less inscrutable than her last film The Dreamed Path, but that doesn't make it any less challenging. It mostly concerns Astrid (Schanelec regular Maren Eggert) a widowed mother of two - young daughter Flo and troubled teenage son Philip. As typical in Schanelec universe, in series of image fragments without much dialogue through out the film, we gather that the father who was in theater had been ill and died about two years ago. Philip (Jacob Lasalle) had been missing but emerges from the forest, with his yellow jacket all muddied up and an injury to his foot. Astrid is elated, as seen in a silent scene where shehugs Philip and motionless for a while until the camera cuts. One could guess that the death of the father contributed Philip's behavior.

Astrid is in a vulnerable state emotionally and acts out her frustrations outward to any human contact. There is a lengthy segment where she buys a second-hand bicycle from an old man who uses an electro-voice box to communicate. After finding out the bicycle is a junk, she tries to confront the old man and get the money back. Even though the old man offers to fix the bike, Astrid is belligerent. She assumes Philip's teachers are considering expelling him for his off screen unseen behaviors and lashes out on them. She also scolds a filmmaker friend rather harshly, on his use of a terminally ill in his film that she just saw. She says that there is no truth in acting and it was irresponsible for him to have the terminally ill person being in the scene with actors 'pretending'. She explodes at her children when they make too much noise or make mess in the kitchen (even if it was well intentioned). However the small and insignificant these interactions are, they poke at her raw emotions yet healed.

The silent pastoral scene involving a rabbit, a donkey and a dog bookends the film. Schanelec's affinity with Bresson is a known fact. But the appearance of donkey really tickles the senses here. As the dog takes apart the rabbit because it's his nature to do so, we see it laying to sleep under the watch of the donkey. In Au Hussard Balthazar, donkey is seen as an allegory for Jesus who forgives all our sins. Does Schanelec equates grief as one our natural tendencies that lashing out against death is forgivable? Then there is motive of crown keeps popping up and I can't help reverting back to the crown of thorns/flowers in the Bresson film. Then what about Hamlet high school recital where Philip plays the ill fated Danish prince?

There is a slight subplot involving Lars (Transit's Franz Rogowski), one of the teachers in Philip's school who is going through a break up. There is a heart breaking scene at night in an empty parking lot. Lars wants a child, because he is afraid of vanishing. There is nothing to show for their love ever existed. But she doesn't want to. She can't be anyone's wife, because she is on a mission. A mission to be alone and lonely. For what, exasperated Lars asks. She doesn't know.

Just like other Schanelec's work, I Was at Home, But... is a puzzle piece that is never solvable. We have opaque characters with Bresson style delivery. We instead concentrate on gestures, details inside the frame in compensation for the lack of dialogue. It's that fragmentary images and colors that we play around our heads long after we leave the theater to make sense of it. Even more so than Godard's, Schanelec's cinema concentrates on 'visual' part of the medium. It is the best kind of cinema I can think of.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Ghost Story with Female Solidarity Twist

Atlantics (2019) - Diop
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Mati Diop, better known as an actress for such films as 35 Shots of Rum, Simon Killer and Hermia & Helena, makes her feature directorial debut with dazzling Atlantics, based on her 2009 short of the same name. In her short, young Senegalese boys were shown discussing the pros and cons of leaving the country for Europe on the beach at night. The feature narrative version expands the premise with a whole narrative that shifts from the male to female perspective, as women are usually the ones left behind with the emotional trauma and economical hardships to deal with.

Atlantics starts with a young day laborer Souleiman (Traore) along with hundreds of others working on a futuristic glass tower in outskirts of Dakar. They eat and sleep together in a cramped bunk bed housing. Against the hypnotic, undulating ocean in the background, they go on about their back breaking work. The whole sequence has a documentary feel to it.

The workers haven't gotten paid for months and things are heating up at the payroll office. Souleiman is in love with Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young woman who's still living with her parents. Her conservative friend in hijab, Mariama (Mariama Gassama), chastise her for leading him on even though she is set to marry a local hotshot businessman Omar - arranged by their parents. Defiantly, she goes off to see Souleiman. Even though clearly something is eating at him, Ada urges him to wait until they meet again at the local beach bar run by her friend. She sneaks out through the window at night to the bar, only to find out that Souleiman, along with many of his friends set sail to make a dangerous trip across the Atlantic to Spain. Then the news arrive of a capsized refugee boat. Ada is crestfallen.

Someone torches Ada's bridal bed on her wedding night. It prompts a police investigation. The main suspect is Souleiman since there are some witnesses who saw him at the wedding. Police detective Issa (Amadu Mbou), who is suffering from dizzy spell at night, is determined to solve this mystery. Convinced that Ada is protecting Souleiman, he interrogates her harshly and starts trailing her.

Then local girls, including Ada's friends start appearing at night with milky eyes at the house of shady construction manager Mr. N'Diaye, demanding the wages he owes to the workers. It's the spirits of the drowned boys taking over the bodies of girls temporarily every night, haunting the greedy man. The girls, found in various places in the morning, has no recollection of the events. Sometimes the possessed girls show up at the bar, asking for food since they are starving.

Expertly weaving the current headlines of marine disasters, which countless African refugees searching for better life meet their watery grave at the bottom Atlantic ocean, and the ghost story with the female solidarity twist, Atlantics has all the right ingredient to be a success story of a small art film breakthrough recalling Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It's a melancholic romance film set in bustling Dakar, featuring the lives and hopes of young Senegalese we seldom get to see. It's also hopeful and lyrical yet pointy. And without a doubt, it is my choice for the best film of the year.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Justified Mayhem

Bacurau (2019) - Filho, Dornelles
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Let's consider what's been happening in Brazil before we talk about bat shit crazy movie that is Bacurau (from the makers of Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius - Director Kleber Mendonça Filho and co-director/production designer Juliano Dornelles). In early 2018, Luiz Ignacio Lula de Silva, commonly known as Lula, a much loved labor leader and former two-term Brazilian president, was barred to run for president again because of trumped up corruption charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison in all likelihood by opposing conservative Social Liberal Party, led by foul mouthed, all out bigoted racist who ran on his presidential campaign of fear and hate (sounds familiar?). It was widely expected that Lula was going to win. But him being jailed, his Worker's party's nominee Fernando Haddard ended up losing to Bolsonaro in the runoff. So now Brazil has the social conservative and known racist Bolsonaro for president. His pro-corporate, pro-logging, anti-regulation agenda is creating perhaps the most serious eco-disaster in the Amazon Rainforest right now, as the rest of the world helplessly watch it burn in the sidelines.

Brazilian film scene was having its renaissance in the last decade under the Lula's Worker's Party leadership. The money was flowing in to arts and to the once neglected regions of Brazil. Pernambuco, a north east state with its multi-culti capital Recife became an economical, cultural hub, producing many emerging film directors like Filho, Adirley Queirós and Gabriel Mascaro. Bolsonaro's austerity measures will undoubtedly, put a damp on this growing Brazilian film movement perhaps the most significant since the days of Cinema Novo.

So Bacurau is an angry film and deservedly so. It takes place in the near future. A dusty small town called Bacurau in the north east region of Brazil, is inhabited by a fiercely independent, self sustaining, proud people largely cut off from the outside world. The glimpse of satellite TV and radio tell grim stories of lawless in urban areas. Teresa (Barbara Colen) is returning to attend the funeral of the town's matriach. Evading the law and roadblocks guarded by heavily armed government troops, she is bringing medical supplies to the residents of Bacurau. There's shortage of everything - food, water, medicine, household items, tampons, etc. Everything is brought in from outside world and distributed among the townsfolk for their needs. Bacurauans seems to be a well organized social collective, living relatively well despite the rest of the world seems falling apart. The town, like any other small towns, people know one another and there are some frictions among them. But generally they get along.

Then we see a sign of trouble brewing. First, a farmer spots a UFO shaped drone in the sky. And two city folks in fancy motorbikes in neon colored spandex show up in town, confusing everyone. Their cockiness and otherworldliness is noted. They turn out to be a sort of a local guide for a heavily armed mostly American mercenaries, led by Michael (Udo Kier). They are there to literally wipe Bacurau off the map. Most of these gungho people-hunters are ex-military officers trying to blow off some steam by going to third-world countries and killing its inhabitants. They are armed with various antique weaponry of their choice and follow rules only they seem to understand. It's a game to them and has no interest even in where they are.

After few horrible massacres outskirts of the city, Bacurauans realize what's happening to them. But what the hunting party doesn't realize is that these Brazilian country hicks are weather worn, experienced and deeply proud people who are not going to go down easily. One by one, the hunters become the hunted.

It's kind of a departure for Filho since his previous films are, for better or worse, a lot more subtle in presenting the gentrification and monied people in fastly developing urban areas. Perhaps it's Dornelles' contribution to make Bacurau a little more obvious and bloody. Its cartoonish violence that Bacurauan inflicts on the hunting party is so over the top, you can't help but chuckling along. The acting also is very over the top. Udo Kier delivers some hilarious lines which only he could deliver. Great Sonia Braga (last seen in Filho's fantastic Aquarius) who plays the jealous sister of the dead matriach/the local doctor in the movie, grounds the film with her presence and charisma.

As the Bacurauans get rid of foreigners and local traitors, at a glance, without the context of what's happening in Brazil, the film is a silly, tacky man-hunting-man akin to The Most Dangerous Game or Naked Prey. But it isn't. Bacurau highlights the resilience and resolve of Brazilian people against mounting assault of multi-national corporations backed by Government military to devastate their beautiful, once burgeoning country. One of the year's best.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Warning White Colonialists: Don't Mess with Voodoo

Zombi Child (2019) - Bonello
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Bertrand Bonello, a director of such sensual films as House of Pleasures, Saint Laurent and pointy, up to date social critique Nocturama, dabbles here in Zombie movie genre and turns it into cautionary tale in the post-colonial, multi-ethnic France.

It's an interesting investigation that is more in line with Jacques Tourneur's I Walk with a Zombie and Serpent and the Rainbow of Haitian voodoo than the current crop of zombie themed films and TV shows where chemical, nuclear or disease has been the cause of making the dead come alive and gorging human flesh.

The film cuts back and forth between 1962 and present day. The past portion of the film takes place in Haiti. A man named Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) is fallen into a voodoo spell by his brother and declared dead. A huge, elaborate funeral is performed where he is buried alive. Then he is dug up by zombie traders who put him in the field with other zombie-fied men to work in a sugar cane plantation as a sort of slave labor force. You see, zombies are just normal people, who has fallen into a spell (brought on by psychotropic powder that causes neuro-paralysis) who appears dead for a while, with their memories erased.

Fanny (Louis Labeque), is a student in an all-girl prep school in an idyllic woodsy setting. It's a very liberal school for only chosen few whose parents are deemed as important in French meritocracy. She is deeply in love with her boyfriend and writes letters to him everyday. Her reading those letters accompany the daily school activities as the girls take classes, play sports in a gym, and gossip. There is a new black girl Méllisa (Wislanda Louimat) and Fanny and her small, all white sorority want to have her as a member. Méllisa obliges to go through a test at night in the school's library. She is asked to reveal her most important secret. She says her aunt is a mambo, a voodoo priestess. Wow, that's cool. She is in.

Things take a drastic turn when Fanny receives devastating news from Pablo. He is breaking up with her. Suffering from a broken heart, she appears at the doorstep of Méllisa's aunt's house, asking to perform a voodoo magic. She wants to become Pablo or something like that. She will pay for the ritual.

Bonello, forever sensualist, presents some beautiful, lyrical shots of Narcisse the zombie standing erect motionlessly, looking afar in the fields, in ancient ruins. It is pretty evident that he takes much of the lyricism from I Walk with a Zombie.

Fanny's silly school girl story aside, Zombi Child digs deeper into hasty western appropriation of everything non-european, non-anglo American culture. It disregards the cultural, historical, ethnographical significance of the origins of a zombie in exchange for sensationalism. Narcisse’s journey back home is more interesting than Fanny’s story here.