Monday, April 30, 2018

Delicate, Micro Melodrama

L'Amant d'un jour/Lover for a Day (2017) - Garrel
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The film starts with Jeanne (Esther Garrel) in emotional and physical shambles. She just left her live-in boyfriend. She can't believe it is over. With a luggage bag in tow, she rings at the door of her professor father (Éric Caravaca), Gilles. Somewhat awkwardly, she is introduced to his girlfriend Adriane (Louise Chevillotte) who is about the same age as she. As Jeanne slogs through post-breakup phase, the two girls bonds over their love for Gilles (one romantic the other as a daughter). Unlike Jeanne, who is going through experiencing the first big love of her life and its aftermath, Adriane seems to be in control of the situations at first - unlike Jeanne who was pursued by her beau and finally relented then fell hard, Adriane was the aggressive one on Gilles who finally gave in. Even though their relationship in campus is hush-hush.

Adriane also turns out to be a big flirt. But Gilles tells his daughter that their relationship won't be affected by one's infidelity and that they will stay together even though they might cheat on each other. But in reality, it doesn't turn out the way we tell each other, even though one thinks oneself as wiser, mature one.

As usual, shot on B & W 16mm without any bells and whistles, Garrel continues his own delicate, micro melodrama of man-woman in varying degrees and it's lovely. You gotta give him credit for his consistency. At 70, without wordy dialog or help of cigarette and alcohol in portraying young love and heartache, he gets it right emotionally. He makes Hong Sangsoo's films feel like Avengers movie.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Estonian Folklore Stunner

November (2017) - Sarnet
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Weaving several Estonian folklore into the narrative, Rainer Sarnet's black and white shot, darkly comic November is a stunner. It's all mud and shit and grit in a feudal village. People barely survive by eating tree barks and dependent on kratt - a servant made out of inanimate objects from discarded farm equipment which is given a soul by the devil in the forest in exchange for 3 drops of blood. Two young childhood friends Liina (Rea Lest) and Hans (Jörgen Liik) are of marrying age but Hans is enchanted by a German baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis) whose father owns the land and a big manor on the top of the hill. Even though the village witch tells Liina to kill the sleep walking baroness, she can't, because it will break Hans's heart.

November features some stunning visuals - All Souls Day procession where the deads in white are emerging from the forest, marching in unison, story within a story (told by kratt, which happens to be a snowman created by Hans) about Venetian lovers on a gondola, underwater scenes, etc, etc. But really, every frame in the film is gorgeous to look at.

Just like any folklore, the bittersweet unrequited love ends more bitter note than sweet. But November is a real visual feast and certainly worth a look.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Art of the Real 2018 Preview

Art of the Real, FSLC's annual celebration of non-fiction cinema is back and remains my most anticipated cinema event even in the city that is not in short supply of great film series all year round. An amazing array of genre-defining, ever expanding cinematic experiments are presented to satiate your inquisitive cinematic minds! This year's lineup includes Infinite Football by Corneliu Porumboiu, Sergei Loznitsa’s Victory Day, Kazuhiro Soda's Inland Factory, and many more.

Again, Art of the Real is an immensely rewarding cinematic experience both in form and content. Don't miss it!

Art of the Real runs from April 26 through May 6, 2018 at Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Please visit FGSC for more info.

Here is preview of six notable films for your pleasure:

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection *Opening Night Film
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This terrific, archival footage documentary starts with a Godard quote - "Cinema Lies, Sport Doesn't." A French archivist Julien Faraut stumbled upon hours and hours of 16mm shot French Open matches at Roland Garros, initiated by Gil de Kermadec, the first director of French Tennis Federation, to study and make instruction films for aspiring athletes. But what Faraut saw was a compelling, verité style portraits of each players, and especially of McEnroe, who was at the time, the number one player in the world.

It happens that McEnroe wasn't a good model as an athlete who had atypical style for these often rigid, dry instructional films. His form was unusual and his methods were unpredictable, which gave his opponents a hard time. As a perfectionist of the game, he hated incompetency of people in the court and as a result, we've got to know him as who shouted and argued with umpires endlessly. He also hated being filmed or photographed. There are several moments where he stops the game to complain that the rolling cameras were bothering him while looking straight into camera.

Like last year's Dawson City: Frozen Time which uncovered the intersection of Gold Rush and cinema, In the Realm of Perfection finds the intersection of sport and cinema. Drolly narrated by Mathieu Amalric, Faraut creates Chris Marker style film that is both entertaining (thanks largely to McEnroe being himself) and thoughtful. The epic match between McEnroe and his long time nemesis Ivan Lendl in 1984 captured in grainy 16mm is literally, epic.

Casanova Gene
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German filmmaker Louise Donschen examines desire of all forms in Casanova Gene and it's a fascinating one. In evolutionary biology studying finches in a science lab in the woods, an ornithologist tells us why female finches cheat on their partners - they inherited the Casanova gene from their fathers, as male finches are polygamous. "Is it beneficial to female finches?" the filmmaker asks off the frame and the ornithologist doesn't have an answer. John Malkovich plays Casanova or Malkovich the actor playing one, as he is interviewed by the filmmaker. He simply describes himself as a slave to his senses and explains the difference between character and temperament.

Carnival in Venice is juxtaposed with a church and the clergymen. Kids play in the forest, lights change, illuminating the rooms through the window, a dominatrix in SM studio holds a session, a hypnosis takes a place where a woman experiences intense orgasm. Then there is staged bar scene where transman complains that he misses uterus.

The colors - the red of the roses, orange beak of the finches, grey and red of the clothes- everything surreptitiously intermingles in this seemingly fragmented, yet arresting film that reminds me of the work of Alexander Kluge. A real gem.

Infinite Football
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Romanian helmer Corneliu Porumboiu (Police Adjective, 12:08 East of Bucharest) makes a wacky yet poignant documentary about his childhood friend Laurentiu Ginghina, a middle aged bureaucrat who is obsessed with changing the rules of soccer to make the sport safer. At 19, he fractured his right fibula as many players in the opposite team ganged up on him in the corner when he had the ball. Because of the injury, he had to give up hope of going professional. Now he is hell-bent on changing the game - he wants to implement octagonal shaped soccer field with sectioned groups where 5 offensive and 5 defensive players can't cross each other's lines and no offsides. He says this improvement will speed up the game and make it smoother and safer.

He wanted to go to Forestry university but it required physical where you had to run which he couldn't do with his leg. His dream of coming to the US twice - first to run the ranch out in the West, then in Florida, gets thwarted by 9/11 and its aftermath with tighter restrictions. He ended up where he is, some desk job which is not that exciting. Ginghina's sad sap story, told in his office where he keeps getting interrupted with his daily tasks- an old lady with her inheritance questions, paperwork, meetings and appearances, brings out chuckles rather than sympathy.

Porumboiu prods his friend's obsession about 'the ball being free' in a sport where beauty is in player's skills and the ball is just an object. Our bureaucrat obviously is self aware, that deep down he equates himself with the ball and trying to escape from tight corners. That he sees himself as a superhero from comic books, like Superman or Spiderman who has a normal boring dayjob. Is his situation a stand-in for the general disillusionment with European Union, felt by majority of its members? Maybe.

After seeing his plan implemented on the indoor soccer field to not so enthusiastic results, he keeps changing his rules and therefore his creation being tagged as Infinite Football by Porumboiu. The film ends with Ginghina's poignant and touching monologue about the world where there is less violence which the director equates for political utopia. There is no fast zoom in/freeze frame or zany music for cheap laughs. Nor the film intentionally demeans our silly bureaucrat. Just like other Romanian new wave compatriots, Porumboiu knows how to justly reflect the lives of ordinary Romanians finding themselves riding along in a rapidly changing world and facing mildly amusing situations.

A French visual artist and film director, Clément Cogitore whose supernatural tinged Afgan war thriller, Neither Heaven Nor Earth, made waves at the film scene few years back, travels to remote Eastern Siberia to document the Braguinos, a family living off the environment. The head of the family tells us that they wanted to get away from it all, so they just packed up and left on their boat. Their 6 children were all born in the taiga. It is clear that the Braguino clan is not only dealing with family rivalry with the neighboring Kilins just other side of the river, but dangerous animals - especially bears and also ever expanding human presence in the region.

Cogitore and his cinematographer Sylvain Verdet is there to capture what can only be described as Tarkovsky-an beauty in rather dream-like Siberian taiga. The natural beauty is only accentuated by fair-haired Braguino children in their colorful dresses and clothes. As the helicopters full of heavily equipped newcomers landing on their territory, we all know that the happy days of the Braguinos are numbered. It's a striking non-fiction filmmaking featuring otherworldly beauty.

Milford Graves Full Mantis
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Milford Graves, a free-jazz percussionist, records his heartbeat with a self-made EKG machine hooked up to the computer and makes electronic melodies out of it. He is also a martial art enthusiast and practitioner- he learned his moves through studying preying mantis instead of going to a local dojo. His style is Yara, a yerba word for 'Nimble', a mixture of West African dance moves and martial arts. In the labyrinth of books, machines, instruments, artifacts of his house/studio in sunny South Jamaica in Queens, Graves reminds you of your eccentric uncle- a smart person with full of self-taught knowledge who forms a philosophy of life with first-hand experience. And when he plays, it's electrifying.

Relying completely on Graves' words, Jake Meginsky and Neil Young creates a compelling portrait of a modern day sage and a fantastic storyteller who is approachable and very down to earth. As he talks about his music being the conduit of vibrations of cosmos, you listen. He might be the remnants of 60s mind-body-spirit mumbo jumbo, but the way he is so in tune with nature, as he does gardening in his back yard, as he in tune with his body- his world view makes sense, especially now, when the whole world seems to have gone crazy.

All That Passes Through a Window That Doesn't Open
Martin DiCicco's film charts transcaucasian trail on two side of tracks - Azerbaijan and Armenia. Once a vibrant railway system linking Turkey - Georgia - Armenia and Azerbaijan which served as the crossroads of Eastern Europe and West Asia left in ruins by decades of neglect and regional conflict. Without saying much of its very complicated geo-political history, DiCicco elegantly concocts tale of two countries, one with full of hope and looking forward, the other reeling from the ghost of the past.

In the first 2/3rd, it concentrates on Azerbaijani side, where mostly young migrant workers living on the train cars while they travel to upgrade the railways. Voices of some of its workers narrates their days on the rails, how it's lulling affects their bodies own senses and memories. One says he likes railway works because it's measurable against time. That there's sense of accomplishment as he and his co-workers go closer to their destination. There's dancing, drinking and sense of camaraderie and dangers of accidents too.

After the war between two countries and neighboring Turkey supporting the muslim Azerbaijan and closing off its borders in 1993, Armenian side of the tracks which was a lifeline for trade to the west and east, left to rot. The last 1/3rd of the film features an Armenian station agent guarding the one such neglected station, waiting for it to be open again. His words and accompanying visuals are poignantly drawn out.

All That Passes Through... invokes the poignancy of Kiarostami's road films in contemplating on the time passing. DiCicco and his editor Iva Radivojevic draw a evocative picture of the region full of history, longing and hope.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Amazing Grace

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017) - Fiennes
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How do you demystify someone without sacrificing all the enigma and mystery around the subject? Sophie Fiennes, documentarian extraordinaire behind two highly entertaining Zizek docs and one on artist Alselm Kiefer just does that with one of the most iconic figure in fashion and music, Grace Jones. Instead of doing typical chronological biography highlighting her hits and movie appearances over the years with bunch of boring sit-down interviews, Fiennes just follows Jones around on stage, behind-stage and hotel rooms as she treads in her stilettos. Bloodlight and Bami shows the cultural icon dealing with musicians and others on the phone herself to make the record. Her phone manners in her booming bariton are sometimes aggressive, sometimes cloying, other times aggressively cloying.

Then we follow her to Jamaica, where her family is. She goes to church where her brother is a pastor and her mother sings, eats jerk chicken, slurp oysters and takes care of her grown up son. At age 69, Jones is still electrifying on stage and still stunning as a bronze statuette. Fiennes just let her be her magnificent self. The result is one of the best documentaries in recent years.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Devotion in Free Form

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017) - Dumont
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It does makes sense that Bruno Dumont's latest is about Joan of Arc. She personifies the religious devotion and spirituality, so it comfortably fits in his filmography - alongside Hedewijch, Outside Satan and Camille Claudel 1915. It also seems like a logical progression that Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is a musical comedy: as he brazenly makes it clear since his first foray into comedy with Li'l Quinquin that comedy is just a flip side of a coin - that his austere films (dotted with bizarre surrealist moments) can easily be rip-roaringly funny when they go two millimeter off center. So why not venture into a musical genre?

Based on Charles Péguy’s The Mysteries of the Charity of Joan of Arc and heavily borrowing his simple but direct ‘musical verses’, Dumont creates a Bressonian musical that is as emotionally resonant and cinematically daring as his other films.

Young Jeanne(tte) (Lise Leplat Prudhomme, and later played by Jeanne Voisin) is a precocious girl living in Domrémy, North-east France (Dumont's beloved home region). She has been praying to god to save France from English invaders to no avail. She converses (in songs of course) with her best friend Hauviette (Lucile Gautier and later Victoria Lefebvre) who counters sharply to her beliefs. Jeannette seeks wisdom of Madame(s) Gervaise – two identical twin dancing nuns and has a religious epiphany of Ste. Marguerite & Catherine (played by the same twin). They sing to her to lead the French army. They conclude their meeting with a choreographed headbanging with heavy metal music.

Then there is Jeannette’s rapping young uncle, Durand Lassois (played by fresh faced Nicolas Leclaire) who serves as a comic relief character. And he’s uproarious.

You have to keep in mind that this is a Dumont film. Everyone involved are non-actors and not trained singers or dancers. When they sing, their abilities are earnest at best. The choreographed dance numbers come across as completely out of place and therefore often hilarious.

Dumont’s full-framed beautiful composition is there, so as the windswept, soft lit sand hills of Brittany, lensed by Guillaume Deffontaines who worked all of Dumont’s comedies since Li'l Quinquin.

No doubt, Jeannette will draw sharply divisive reactions from audiences. For some, the film would come across as a grade school level musical. For others, deeply moving contemplation on devotion- In Péguy’s words, young Jeannette wanted to be a better savior than the savior.

When you think of Joan of Arc, it's usually the haunting close ups of Renée Falconetti's face in Dreyer's poetic masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc that come up to mind. It might rub some the wrong way to have a b-boy moves and falling off a horse in Joan of Arc movie.

Jeannette is a real gamble of a film. In theory, with everything Dumont is striving for, spiritually and artistically, it should satisfy fans of his work. But intellectually understanding what he is up to and enjoying the actual piece are two different things. As a big fan of Dumont, and was taken aback by his ‘comedies’ and repulsed by Slack Bay (I have to say that I’m not a big fan of seasoned actors playing over-the-top characters or acting like retards), I had a lot of reservations going in. But considering Dumont’s intensions with the project, Jeannette gets a lot better in second viewing. You just have to work a little harder to dig through its genre trappings to see its austere beauty: the beauty in a young girl’s unwavering, sacred devotion to god in free form.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc opens 4/13.

With Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont Charts Yet Another Cinematic Territory

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Full disclosure: I've regarded Bruno Dumont as one of the most exciting figures in current cinema ever since I saw his debut Humanité (1999). His Bressonian approach to human conditions and faith in somber, beautifully tragic stories spoke to me and touched me like no other contemporary filmmaker's work ever have. Then it was his foray into comedies, starting with his TV mini series Li'l Quinquin (2014) that my enthusiasm started to wain a little. I just couldn't buy into his new world filled with odd looking characters and their slapstick antics. Then last year's star studded Slackbay really rubbed me the wrong way. I really had problems with the film's grotesque over-the-topness of its characters.

So when I heard his new project was a musical comedy about Joan of Arc, I was more than skeptical. It was hard for me to bridge the gap between intellectually understanding what the director was doing and actually enjoying his comedies.

I watched Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc early this year and was still on the fence about how I felt about it. I thought talking to Dumont would help me to accept the direction he was going. And it did. Borrowing the texts from Charles Péguy's The Mysteries of the Charity of Joan of Arc, Jeannette is a singular cinematic experience, completely in tune with his rather serious, somber masterpieces. I'd recommend seeing it in theaters to get the full experience of his unique, direct approach to cinema.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc opens 4/13.

I have to tell you that I am a big fan.

He makes a cross with his fingers.

No seriously.

Help! (laughs)

It does make sense that you would tackle Joan of arc story since you have made films about pure faith before. But I never would’ve thought it would be a musical comedy. Did you conceive the film as musical to begin with?

Yes of course. I would never have conceived doing Péguy without music because Péguy without music is inconceivable. I like musical comedies very much. I was looking for a subject that needed that balance, that needed the music. I was looking for a text that would be pertinent to use music.

Some texts don’t need music because they are very clear as they are. Péguy is a complicated, complex writer and my hope was that music would give access to him. That we don’t have to give up on Péguy because he is too hard to get into. It’s like we don’t throw away a rose because it has thorns- the idea is to keep the thorns but somehow pacify things with music.

So in most musical plays, they mostly turn to poets to complete their work so there is nice relationship, one could even call it, a friendship between poetry and music. A companionship.

There is a repetitive rhythmic quality almost like Philip Glass in the text when they sing.

Absolutely you are right.

Why portray the childhood of Joan?

Once I had the music and the rhythm, I needed the subject. Joan of Arc is major French myth. But the fact is the subject is secondary, since we have the music. So the subject should be not too complicated. Joan of Arc is very well known. I needed to combine that with this new kind of experience in cinema. It happens that her childhood is not very well known that Péguy brings us luckily for us. So we have a known element Joan of Arc and not too well known – her childhood. So combining all these things together, I wanted to make something interesting. It’s more like a composer looking for a book for his next opera. But for me the subject herself was not that important.

One could not think of Joan of Arc story without the close ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Is there any correlation between your Jeannette and Dreyer’s Jeanne?

Not immediately. The fact that I was dealing with the childhood, it created sharp break. So I didn’t have to deal with this major figure of Dreyer, who is always lurking around. The fact I am dealing with the nine year-old, means that I am, perhaps naively, cutting that influence.

Tell me about the work you’ve done for this movie with the choreographer Philippe Decouflé.

Dance is a way of expressing Péguy’s mysticism- it’s the way of embodying it. So for example, the little girl would say to me, “I don’t understand this part.” Then, I would say, “ Well, then dance.” Dance becomes another way of expressing the inexpressible. There are a lot we don’t understand in Péguy's texts. What we have in there is the rhythm, and that’s where the correspondence is.

Like the headbanging. There is not explanation for that. It’s a form of expressing grace. In a Heavy Metal concert, there is that absolute grace in that energy. So when we came to the part we didn’t understand, we’d go, “Girls, go ahead. Headbang!”

What we are looking for is harmony. It’s the dance, the shots, in the editing… it’s the effigy of harmony, whether it’s in the words, in the movements. It’s the formal thing that is an absolute quest and the meaning doesn’t matter. We are looking for beauty, we are looking for the shots to be happy between themselves.

So it doesn’t really matter to you whether they are real singers or not. Or they sing well.

They shouldn’t be real singers. It mustn’t be sung well. There is something inhuman, something false about perfection. We need the flaws in the little girl. You know she has to go down so she can go up. She has to sing badly, so that when she sings well, it’s something special. It’s not interesting to hear someone sing well all the time.

It’s like listening to the record and listening to the concert. It’s powerful to hear a singer in concert because you hear the flaws in their voices. It has to be a live spectacle, live sound. Records in perfect dolby sound, I don’t listen to them anymore. It’s boring. My cinema is live.

How did you cast the young actresses? What quality were you looking for?

I was looking for the heart of Joan of arc. The part was an effigy of all little girls. I was looking for the process from sowing to blossoming of all the hearts of little girls. It’s an extraordinary thing. If you put a little girl in Péguy’s texts, you just watch her grow. You water her a little bit and she blossoms.

She is intelligent, gracious and peculiar – she was herself. She had her own ways and when you put some Péguy, then you really hear Joan of arc.

It’s the contrary to idealization. It’s not believing in the idea of Joan of Arc but making a regular little girl and it’s the regularity that will take us to the thing I am looking for.

So you didn’t have to convince them about what Joan of Arc has decide to do? That she wanted to save the damned? that she wanted to be more savoir than jesus?

Yes. She did learn the texts. She had questions and we accompanied her. But the real questions were them as a musical interpreter- how they are going to sing. She was more interested in how to sing than what the text means.

Nicolas Leclaire, who plays Jeannette’s uncle, how did you find him? He is hilarious.

One of the main criteria for our casting was looking for someone who could sing, obviously. So I met this young man who’s a rapper. The music composer didn’t want him. He said, “What do I do with him? He’s a rapper.”

We took in what’s beautiful and marvelous about him. He was a bit off. But we accepted that and took that quality in him in. He was touching and also funny which is rare. He is never ridiculous. He has his own poetry and musicality. He couldn’t sing and only rapped. But we took that in and he was extraordinary. There was something very audacious about us taking Nicolas in, who didn’t fit at all in what we were trying to do. He had his own dance practices and our choreographer found a way to integrate him.

He was a counterweight to Peguy’s over seriousness and that’s where we found the balance.

Speaking of overseriousness, I am a big fan of your serious dramas. I haven’t gotten accustomed to your comedies yet. (Dumont laughs)

I think I understand what you are doing with these comedic films since P’tit Quinquin, that these are just a flipside of a coin to your more austere dramas that they are always on the verge of becoming comedies. Would you plan to do more comedies or are you going back to serious dramas?

I find balance in tragicomedies but not in outright comedies. I needed to go off from tragedy. I wanted to find balance. And I find it in tragicomedy. It’s like the presence of the uncle in Jeannette. Because Jeannette is too heavy. It becomes too pontificating. It’s just like what you find in the paintings of Bosch and Brueghel – you have these grotesque images but inside them there are humorous bits.

I think you can really express deep thoughts and feelings in comedies. You can go really profound in ways you can’t do in dramas. Funny is deep, rich and surprising. What counts is to surprise the viewer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Lucrecia Martel Retrospective at FSLC 4/10 - 4/15

In conjunction with the theatrical release of Martel's new film Zama, Film Society of Lincoln Center is hosting the retrospective of one of the most important, daring filmmaker working today. My first encounter was with her much celebrated third feature, Headless Woman/La mujer sin cabeza. It didn't make much impact on me then. I thought the satire on upperclass Argentinian society was, if not cinematically daring, maybe too little on-the-nose. I had no point of reference since I've never seen her previous two films.

It was a German director, Christoph Höchhausler (I am Guilty, The City Below, considered as one of the key members of what critics termed as the Berlin School), who told me that Martel is the filmmaker he admires most when I interviewed him while he was in town three years ago. He pointed at the poster of La ciénaga on the wall of Silversalt PR office in midtown Manhattan, when asked what his favorite film was. Indeed, watching La ciénaga changed everything. Its visual/aural examination of dark and complex underbelly of Argentine bourgeoisie was an eye opener. As an adventurous cinema lover, La ciénaga offered everything I was looking for in cinema. Then Holy Girl, holy moly! I can stress enough the greatness of Martel who is quite possibly the greatest living filmmaker of our time.

I can't find what I wrote about Headless Woman, but here are the my reviews of her other three films for your reading pleasure. Watch Zama on the big screen if you can. It will change what you think of cinema once and for all.

La ciénaga (2001) - Martel
Compared to bombastic, unsubtle satires and social commentaries that we are used to, Lucrecia Martel puts some perspectives on how they should be done, masterfully in La Ciénaga (The Swamp). Taking place in the decaying manor in the jungle in one unbearably hot and sticky Summer in Argentina, the film illustrates the murky underbelly of bourgeoisie without delving into surrealism or making caricatures out of characters. Mecha (Graciela Borges) is seen sunbathing while drunk along with the rest of the inebriated grownups of the house by the pool side. After demanding ice cubes for her wine, she slowly rises in her stupor, tries to collect filthy wine glasses, drops them, falls on top of the shards. The rest of the family are not much better. The emasculated, husband keeps dying his hair and staining the sheets, the 15 year old Momi (Sofia Bertoloto) is obsessed with the pretty native housemaid Isabel (Andrea Lopez), the older daughter Vero (Leonora Balcarce) flirts with her ne're-do-well grown up brother José, who's living with a much older family friend, Mercedes in Buenos Aires, visiting after Mecha's fall and doesn't seem to have problem jumping in mother's bed for a cuddle. Young Joaquin lost one of his eyes while horsing around in the jungle with other boys.

Tali (Mecedes Moran), concerned cousin of Mecha shows up with her family (a grumbling husband, 3 girls and one boy who figure largely into the story later on), not only to check on her cousin but also use the pool for kids who are bored out of their minds. The said pool, neglected and not cleaned for years, is filthy, murky grey disease breeding ground. Isabel warns Momi not to go in there- she might catch something terrible. The contempt for native population is totally out in the open from Mecha down to Joaquin, casually calling them savages and accuse Isabel of constantly stealing towels. With TV always in the background, everyone, across the social strata, is drawn in by the news of appearance of Virgin Mary on top of a cement tower.

With amazing array of characters and richly contrasting social stratification not only in a familial but geographical and cultural, La Ciénaga is a complex examination of a society still steeped in colonial legacy and religion.

La niña santa/The Holy Girl (2004) - Martel
Amalia (María Alche), a sullen teen girl, lives with her divorced mom Helena (Mercedes Morán) in an old hotel with a thermal pool where mom works as a representative. She attends bible study group with her catholic school girl friends and recite prayers under her breath obsessively. Lately, she is obsessed with 'vocation'. A ear-nose-throat doctors convention is taking place in the hotel. Amalia finds herself being an interest of Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a married man with kids, when he rubs against her bottom in the crowd gathered for a theremin player just outside the hotel. On the verge of sexual awakening with the help of a promiscuous, gossipy best friend Jose(fina), the experience leaves her not repulsed but curious.

She soon becomes obsessed with Jano, sneaking into his shared room, smelling his shaving cream, following him and spying on him at the poolside. Whatever this man means to her, her obsession becomes her 'vocation'. Jano's guilty conscience is not helping Amalia's cause. To make matters worse, Helena finds him attractive as well.

Martel proves to be the master of close-ups and shallow focuses. The details of the senses and small moments she captures on screen - touch, smell, whispers make up the film's superbly orchestrated, organic feel. All the connective tissues of the film are all spread out- the fact doctors are ear-nose-throat specialists - whispers and misheard information, smell, singing, but her approach is so subtle and fluid, you can't help but admire her skills. The Holy Girl is about Amalia as much as it isn't. The film's sordid details of the lives of middle class bourgeoisie can be seen as Almodovar-esque melodrama. But as in all Martel's films there is always a it's-barely-there-but-there satire. I can't really think of any director working today who works on Martel's level. The Holy Girl is a true cinematic feat!

Zama (2017) - Martel
Lucrecia Martel suggested in her introduction to her sold-out screening of the much anticipated follow-up to Headless Woman that we audience might want to take in Zama like a whiskey. Indeed, it's a heady, at times bitter, at times sweet hallucinatory trip to the heart of darkness, showing the white man's identity crisis and misguided manifest destiny in the colonial era Latin America.

The film is a historical period piece, based on the much praised Latin American classic literature by Antonio di Benedeto. It's a hugely ambitious undertaking for Martel with just 3 films under her belt. But if anything, Zama confirms Martel one of the greatest directors of our time. Her mastery over the medium both in complex narrative storytelling and technical ingenuity has grown to exceptional height with Zama.

Don Diego de Zama (Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho with an impressive Romanesque nose), a magistrate stuck in some unnamed South American colonial town deep inland in the 18th century, is anxiously awaiting to hear from the Crown (of Spain), his new assignment to the city. Even though he is a man of certain position and been stationed there for a while, he can't ever seem to get ahead or get what he wants - the letter of transfer never materializes, his rival Ventura (Juan Minujín) is much better at kissing asses and the local society lady de Luenga (Lola Dueñas) flirts with him but wouldn't give in.

Zama doesn't fair well with the natives either- seen in the beginning peeping at nude women taking mud bath and getting caught. He also has a nagging native woman he had an invalid child with. And the thought of the existence of this child weighs in his conscience like a brick. His misplaced valor to protect three virginal sisters is always overshadowed by the overhanging threat of a mythical bandit named Vicuña Porto who is notorious for raping and pillaging.

After physically threatening Ventura over de Luenga, Zama is demoted and moved out of his semi-opulent living quarters to a squalor with rotting walls, just outskirts of a city. At the governor's insistence and a promise of recommendation letter to the Crown, he delivers a scathing review of a book written by a well-meaning, trusting young civil servant (the governor can't stand the thought of the young man wrote the book while on the job). But no matter how many favors, how many people he fucks over, Zama realizes that he won't be leaving the backwater town any time soon.

Fallen out of favor and aging, Zama reinvents himself as a guide to the band of soldiers in the late stages of colonization. As they advance inland, they are terrorized by the red body paint natives who populate the land. Fighting with the elements and among themselves (one of the soldiers claims to be the elusive Vicuña- is he really? Does it even matter?), Zama and the men get completely lost in the strange land.

There have been countless other films about the white men's delusion of grandeur- Aguirre, Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now! easily come to mind. With Zama, along with lyrical Jauja few years back, directed by fellow Argentine Lisandro Alonso, Martel captures the existentialist angst in the age of colonialism/ad infinitum in Latin America with astonishing efficiency and grace. Shooting digital for the first time, Martel and her Portuguese DP Rui Poças (Tabu, The Ornithologist, To Die Like a Man), create lush, bright palates that are intoxicating and hallucinatory.

Martel's mastery of the cinema medium as sensory medium first and foremost is nothing short of brilliant. She subjects us to painterly framing and exceptional sound design in every scene. Those of you who followed her trajectory closely through La Cienaga, Holy Girl and Headless Woman and have been admiring her artistry will be richly rewarded here - a carefully measured framing where people's faces are just off the frame, shallow depth of field, soft focus, the full use of background/foreground and the use of dialog fading in and out with internal monologue thrown in, just to name a few.

She also uses the Shepard Tone whenever there is a dramatic moment for Zama. The tone is an illusory aural phenomenon that creates continuously swelling sound which builds tension and suspense. All these are very simple methods and not radical experiments at all, but it's Martel's simple approach that makes everything so fresh and radical. As you watch Zama, you can't help but feeling that you are watching a true cinematic masterpiece.

Finding the Latin American identity, as European settlers and their offspring, has been the continuous source for great literature over 300 years. Throw in the idea of class, masculinity, racism, sense of belonging, you get a very complex picture of what makes up the theme of Zama.

As usual, in Martel's hands, what seems to be an extremely messy affair at first, the sense of cohesiveness emerges from the chaos, then the sense of warm comfort wraps around the whole experience. Even though Zama is a lost character who goes through traumatic experiences, there is sense of catharsis that is reached in the last moments of the film. That he finally found home, that he reached his el dorado, imagined or otherwise. Zama is a utterly brilliant film. See it on the big screen if you can.