Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Outdated Sacrilege

Benedetta (2021) - Verhoeven Screen Shot 2021-11-17 at 2.01.19 PM There were Catholics demonstrating outside Film at Lincoln Center during the screenings of Benedetta, calling it a sacrilege. They really should focus more on pedophile priests. Please Catholics, picket at the churches and the residence of pedophile priests and bishops and grow some thick skin. You are way too sensitive, because Verhoeven's new nunsploitation is not half as outrageous or sacrilegious as you claim it to be. However, Benedetta shows the church's hypocrisy as it existed in the Middle Ages and begs the question - who is to say that there is only one way to serve god?

Benedetta, a daughter of a wealthy merchant, enters the convent in the town of Pescia in Tuscany. The convent is like an expensive private school for rich girls back then, paying top dowry to be married to a church/Jesus. As a child, Benedetta has a very active imagination and thinks Jesus speaks to her.

Eighteen years has passed and Benedetta is fully grown woman, played by Virginie Efira, the Abbess Felicia (Charlotte Rampling) and her daughter Christina (Louise Chevillotte), a nun in the same convent, see Benedetta as a growing threat to their grip on power. After a commoner Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) was spared and welcomed into the convent at the mercy of Benedetta and her rich parents, the two women develop a sexual relationship. This is the time when Benedetta shows the signs of stigmata and having vivid visions of hot, sword wielding Jesus protecting her. The local high priest declares Benedetta the new abbess after Benedetta shows the signs of stigmata and speaking of prophesies in a different voice, despite Felicia and Christina's doubts. Now Benedetta and Bartolomea can freely enjoy their sexual escapades with a hand carved dildo, made out of the Virgin Mary statuette. But what about the peephole you say? Oh, did I mention this is the time of the plague?

Benedetta is neither as scandalous nor provocative as one might think. Whether she faked her Stigmata or her resurrection, who is to judge her devotion to god? Escaping punishment for her sacrilege - burning at the stake, Benedetta goes back to her convent and stays there until her death, the prologue tells us.

As a film, Benedetta is not subliminal enough to be taken seriously, nor scintillating or flirty enough even for Verehoven standards. Sure there are plenty of nudity but the subject seems tame and dated for 21st century standards. Verhoeven is more often than not, only a few directors who can have the cake and eat it too. But he is no Ken Russell.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Boys Don't Cry

Procession (2021) - Greene 


Robert Greene, no stranger to the participatory, process oriented cinematic experiments (Actress, Kate Plays Christine, Bisbee 17'), presents a powerful documentary about a highly controversial subject - a rampant child sexual abuse by catholic priests. Procession, the filmmaker's collaboration with the abuse victims and a drama therapist, is perhaps the most powerful and impactful documentary I've ever seen since Act of Killing.

Greene, who moved to Missouri in 2015, to become Filmmaker-in-Chief for the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri, saw a news clip in 2018: a news conference of an attorney Rebecca Randle, who's been overseeing hundreds of abuse cases involving catholic priests in Kansas City and surrounding area over decades, accompanied by three victims, accusing many still practicing catholic priests of sexual abuses, when the victims were altar boys in grade school. This explosive and emotional news clip was a springboard for Procession, a project three years in the making, which premiered at this year’s Telluride Film Festival.

There's Tom, Michael, Mike, Joe, Ed and Dan. These participants are there to reenact the most painful memories of the abuses, to confront and crush their fears that haunted them most of their adult lives. What's striking from the very beginning of the film is their immediate strong bonds - awareness, love and understanding of each other among 6 men who never knew one another before the project began. For me, it is their kinship, borne out of collective trauma that is the main takeaway of this immensely moving film. 

There are the green glowing eyes of a priest and mass attending public‘s accusing glances which make the victims feel powerless. There’s the power of coercion in the confessional and the church appointed ‘independent review board’ rejecting claims of abuse from the victim for lacking merits. By reenacting these scenes and playing the roles of each other's abusers, there is a real danger it might backfire and harm the participants, and everyone involved in the project is acutely aware of this. But it’s their commitment toward the project, to honor the victims who lost their lives to suicide, alcohol and drugs after the abuse and to hold those responsible accountable by exposing them in these scenes and to help each other that outweighs the risk.

For many of them, just being inside of a church is hard. It's in the small things that trigger the suppressed, painful memories to come to the surface. For some, it's the smell of incense, the wood varnish on the pews or the chlorine of the swimming pool, or the color of stained glasses or the dark wood furnishings that bring up those memories. Gestures, hands in the religious ritual take on the significance in their suppressed memories too. And they are all put on the screen. The settings and items that should bring the feelings of security and comfort, instead, they've become things of nightmares for the participants.

There's a lot to be said about the hypocrisy of being 'men of god' and those in power in these pedophile priest cases. It was the sense of powerlessness as a young boy many victims felt that led to much undeserved self-blame and shame. By writing their own scenario and directing their own reenactments, Greene recognizes the power shift that can be beneficial and even cathartic for those who are participating. And a lot of catharses and breakthroughs happen  before your eyes in Procession.

You can't help but being teary eyed watching these grown men who's been trying to suppress those memories and they manifested terribly into their lives- recurring nightmares, insomnia, feeling of guilt, shame, relationship, trust issues and anger.  There is also an added context to the film taking place in Missouri and Wyoming, that this is the epitome of the American Midwest, where men were taught to be tough.

In Bisbee ’17, Greene involved entire community to participate in reenacting a centenary historical event for understanding and healing. In Procession, tending to only those 6 participants, the emotional impact is much greater with them telling their own intimate experiences. If historical context and taking artistic liberty in portraying the event was necessary in Bisbee, the filmmaker rightfully chooses not to delve too much into participants’ personal lives, but rather zero in on the abuses and its effects in Procession.

Procession also tells the power of popular narratives. Ed Gavagan, a contractor from New York, likens the participants including himself as the Avengers, uniting to fight for justice using the hammer of Thor, in the beginning of the film. A member of the film crew hands him a sledgehammer to destroy the set after finishing shooting his reenactment, as he gratefully accepts it to finish the job- having a breakthrough, in the most literal sense.

Netflix is doing the world a favor for picking the film up for its distribution and streaming. Procession needs to be seen broadly and widely discussed and the pedophile priests need to be exposed out in the open.  The personal stories of Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano need to be widely seen and their kinship celebrated. Procession is one of the most powerful and important documentaries ever made.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Fairytale and Power of Cinema

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky (2021) - Koberidze What do we see It seems Georgian cinema is having a renaissance of sorts past few years; there was Beginning, a stunning debut film, indicting religious patriarchy, by Dea Kulumvegashibli and Comets, a complex lesbian love story, by Tamar Shavgulidze just last year, now we are blessed with What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, a modern day fairytale that is patiently observant and whimsical as well as politically astute and cinematically daring, by a relative newcomer Alexandre Koberidze (Let the Summer Never Come Again).

With other former Soviet block countries which became Independent States - Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia have been experiencing a rocky relationship with Putin's Russia, which flexes its political muscle with military might in the region with number of incursions and invasions over the years. For Georgia, not only dealing with Russia but also two pro-Russian separatist states within its borders, Abkhazia in the west and South Ossetia, north of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. The not so distant civil wars and incursions are not far from the collective psyche of its citizens and make them look over the shoulder with any sort of disturbances. Enter the magic of cinema to offer a momentary reprieve. For the next 150 minutes, you are introduced to a peaceful, unhurried life in the ancient Georgian city of Kutaisi.

In What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? we are introduced to two attractive young people, Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze), a pharmacist and Giogi (Giogi Ambroladze), a soccer player, as they bump into each other twice, and falling in love at first sight. Without exchanging numbers, they promise each other to meet the next day in the park. But alas, the ancient spirits have different ideas. And they put a curse on the couple. As they go to sleep at night, Koberidze warns the audiences to close their eyes momentarily, because when they wake up, they will be completely different people.

Now Lisa and Giogi are played by Ani Karseladze and Giogi Bochorislivili. They lose the power of their profession (part of the curse) and have to take menial jobs at a same cafe near the Rivoli river without knowing that they are cursed lovers. 

For next two leisurely hours, we are introduced to the daily rhythm of the idyllic small town in the summer where we get to focus on every person, element and even each stray dog, told by an omniscient narrator. It's the World Cup season and everyone is glued to the big TV screen, and as the ritual goes, there are two spots where townspeople and dogs choose to go to watch. We unhurriedly move from kids playing soccer in slow motion, to a vibraphone practice at the music school across town, to outdoor parties where young people hang out, to the bridge over Rivoli river where Giogi has set up a pull bar, as a silly marketing gimmick by an old man who owns the cafe. The film is full of charm, wonder and the pleasure of watching everyday miracles. Faraz Fesharaki's sun kissed cinematography and immersive sound design accentuate the peace and tranquility. 

But let's not lose the sight of our cursed lovers to be - Lisa and Giogi. There is an old documentary filmmaker team going around town selecting couples to be filmed. Lisa and Giogi catch their eyes and even though they are not a couple (yet!), both are too polite to say no. So they decide to pose for the documentarians. And the power of cinema does its magic.

The film is about training our gaze on ordinary things. There are so much violence and hate in the world, why don't we focus on the beauty and wonder of our daily lives, the omniscient narrator seems to suggest. Gentle, joyous, and beguiling, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? floats like a calm river over you and makes you forget about the ugliness of the outside world for a short while and embrace the power of cinema in revealing the beauty of everyday life.

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? has a preview screening as a part of What We See: New Georgian Cinema at Museum of Moving Image on November 6 and in theaters November 12 at Film at Lincoln Center and Metrograph in NYC. National expansion to follow. A Mubi release.

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Little Things

Spencer (2021) - Larrain spencer Pablo Larrain is no stranger in creating unusual, yet incisive film versions of lives of famous historical figures (Neruda, Jackie). In Spencer, he approaches Diana, Princess of Wales, smartly and intimately with the help of Kristen Stewart. The result is a fleeting portrait of the inner life of a much exposed and examined tragic figure.

Unlike conventional biopics with long stretches of a subject's lifespan, Larrain frames Spencer within a period of 3 days (during a Christmas retreat) of Diana's life, in the midst of her failing marriage with Prince Charles in her 30s with two growing young boys. The opening title states "A fable from a true tragedy", effectively swatting away any possible criticisms of historical inaccuracies it might contain.

It's a fable indeed. Spencer is about a trapped young woman, forcibly bound by stifling tradition of the highest order and subjected to nearly hysterical media attention. The film takes a gentler look at her trying to find any momentary escape with the help of kind onlookers.

Even decades after her untimely, violent death, Princess Di still has a hold on public's fascination: the fairytale story of a young woman, a commoner, swept off her feet by a literal prince who is next in line to the British throne. There were countless portrayals of her on big and small screens over the years, most recently seen in the successful TV show The Crown, played by young ingénue, Emma Corrin, who captured the bewilderment and naiveté in the early stages of the royal matrimony.

So how does Larrain, one of the most exciting talent in modern cinema who is skilled at tinkering with the film medium both in form and in content, interpret the life of the princess? And what does the great Kristen Stewart offer in this well-worn subject?

Diana is first seen driving in her sports car in designer clothes and tinted glasses. She is lost on her way to The Sandringham House, the Queen Elizabeth II's retreat home in Norfolk, even though Di was born and raised near there. Things have changed around here quite a bit, she muses later on. Arriving last, Diana's confronted by Major Alistair (Tim Spall), a stern army man specially recruited to keep an eye on her, serving as a headmaster of the house for the duration. He keeps reminding her that it's the tradition and the oath to the betterment of the country that are the most important aspects for a public figure to keep.

The large house with grand hallways and opulent decors is figuratively and literally cold and unwelcoming. The British Royal Family is a tight pack that Di and her little cubs don't belong to. Suffering from bulimia, she is constantly late to dinners, forgets what clothes to wear on what occasions, can't open the curtains because of paparazzi and can't visit her childhood home, which is just a stone's throw away.

Someone left a book on Queen Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded for allegedly having an affair by Henry VIII, on Di's bed. Is this a warning of some kind- to make her behave or to leave before it's too late? Anne herself appears from time to time to warn her the same fate that is waiting for her.

Along with her trusty children, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), a childhood friend of Di, now her dresser and Darren (Sean Harris), the head of the cooks, are the only few friendly faces in that house. Like every British public at the time, they fell in love with a sweet, young princess. They can't bear the thought of their beloved Di to crumble in front of their eyes. They want very much to see her survive those three days. It turns out, Alistair also has a soft spot for her too and wants to grant her moments of freedom, like letting a canary out of its cage for a while.

Di finds her escape in small things. She rebels in changing her clothes while curtains open, sneaking out at night for a walk, intentionally getting lost, wearing the wrong dress in the morning mass, eating pastries in the middle of the night in the kitchen, etc.

Spencer paints the picture of Diana when she has given up to be happy - a trapped woman and a mother of two. There is no future and past is present.

French cinematographer Claire Marthon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantics, Stranger by the Lake) keeps tight focus on Di (Kristen Stewart) the whole time. We don't get to see anyone in focus for a long time. Only later on we get to glimpse Charles (Jack Farthing) and the Queen (Stella Gonet) and the like. The power is in close-ups. Stewart's gaunt anguished face and fluttering eyelashes sell the film.

Jonny Greenwood's score adds another layer for the film. I find his work distracting in some other films, but in Spencer it works seamlessly. His mix of classic strings and jazzy bass, keeps the film flowing forward.

Stewart, who continues to choose interesting and diverse roles, digs deep into her role of a very famous tragic figure. Her physical vulnerability and beauty coupled with her youthful defiance and a sliver of smile she flashes while breaking the rules embodies the princess and her humanity in her darkest hours.

Hawkins, an actress who brings warmth in any role she plays with her smile is perfect for role of Maggie, Di's few confidants who sympathizes with her old friend. Maggie's declaration of love on the beach is perhaps the most joyous, heartwarming part of the film.

But the showstopper of Spencer belongs to a sequence where Di runs on the grounds of the Sandringham House, decked in countless designer clothes, running from screen left to right: Larrain captures the essence of Diana Spencer in that instance, a commoner princess, trying to outrun all the rigid traditions, failing loveless marriage and be free, all the while being a fashion icon in a fitting 80s music video aesthetic.

The 80s hit song All I Need is a Miracle blasting in the car stereo, Di and her cubs’ escapes the 3 days of hell, however short the reprieve that must've been in real life.

Larrain, a good tactician he is, knows how to go about tackling the subject who is so well known and overly exposed. Like in Jackie, it's all about contrasts and in all the small things. A trapped woman, like Jackie O in the room full of dark suited men after the assassination of her husband, her bruised leg, trying on various clothes. Casting has to be right. Portman was perfect for that measured, educated woman from a well to do upbringing. In Spencer, thanks to Stewart, there's a sense of abandon - sweet yet scarred with the hint of rebellion still left in her. Larrain understands exactly what more can be said about in these world famous tragic women. It's their humanity.

On the heels of his great, energetic dance film, Ema which was release last year, Spencer is yet another major film from Larrain, a modern master in cinema. And his illustrious, diverse cinematic expansion continues. Do not miss seeing the film on the big screen.

Spencer opens in theaters nationwide on 11/5.