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Yawar Mallku (1969)
Classical example of politically charged filmmaking
In an Amerindian community in Bolivia, the peasants realize that their women have more and more problems in getting pregnant, and many seem unfertile. Soon they realize that the blame lies on a Western humanitarian organization (obviously modeled after the Peace Corps) who under the guise of family planning had been sterilizing Indian women against their will, and decides to take revenge (the idea that the West is actively involved in sterilizing third world women against their will is a very common conspiracy theory and paranoia in the developing world, but as far as I know there has never been real proof that this has been the case, in Bolivia or elsewhere).
Director Jorge Sanjines is one of the few directors in the world that has concentrated on what you might call "Indigenist Cinema", that is cinema that deals with the lives of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas (though Sanjines is not visibly Amerindian himself). This low budget film from 1969, spoken in Quechua and Spanish, is perhaps his better known film in a long career with not that many movies (he probably had many political and financial difficulties in raising funds for his movies throughout the years).
The movie extensively uses flashbacks, moving frequently from past to future and back. Though the movie's plot is not difficult at all to follow, apparently when Sanjinés showed the movie to Indian audiences they criticize this sort of non lineal narrative. Sanjines took their criticism into account and in his following movies used a simpler narrative structure.
At times amateurish, but nonetheless compelling, this is a good example of charged political filmmaking. Remarkably, this movie is one of the few films ever to have a real political impact: just a few years after its release, the Peace Corps were expelled from Bolivia.
Rosa Chumbe (2015)
Despite some good scenes, a disappointing film
Despite some good individual scenes, I wasn't terribly impressed with this film from Peru. Is about Rosa Chumbe, a forty something policewoman working the streets of Lima. She is a mediocre police officer, often dozing in her office. Her superior warns her several time that this is her last chance, and if she continues like that she will be fired, yet one minute later he asks her to escort his trophy wife to a shopping trip. Rosa lives in a tiny apartment with her young daughter, who has a baby and has become pregnant again. Rosa can't get along with her daughter and they often fight, and has often to take care of her baby when her daughter is out of the house. No man, either for her of her daughter, is around in the house. The inarticulate Rosa only laughs when watching an awful live show on TV in which a comedian tells horribly unfunny jokes. The ending, suggesting a religious miracle to get her out of her predicament is the worst thing in the film. There is nothing wrong in making films about poor, downtrodden people, but one has to avoid wallowing in miserabilism.
As Bodas de Deus (1999)
Not for every taste, but Monteiro's vision cannot be denied
Portuguese director Joao Cesar Monteiro (deceased in 2003) was one of the most original and controversial directors working in European art cinema during the late 20th century. In his subversion of traditional culture (especially right wing politics and the Catholic Church) which he sees as extremely hypocritical, through nonsensical scenes, he can be compared with Luis Buñuel (but unlike the Spaniard, Monteiro was willing to put himself in front of the camera with the persona of an old, perverted lecher that was repugnant but also strangely affecting). Another fruitful comparison can be made with some of the later films of Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, though Monteiro's wit is far more subversive.
To retell the plot of this movie doesn't make much sense, since the situations are deliberately absurd. Monteiro plays the same character of his previous films, the lecherous Joao de Deus, and we see him getting a suitcase full of cash from a heavenly messenger, rescuing a drowning young lady and putting her into a nearby convent, and meeting a dubious couple that claims to be members of the nobility. The central gimmick of the movie is a very long, extended sex scene, in which old Monteiro himself (showing his nude, emaciated, cadaveric body) makes love to a luscious young nymphet. I found the whole scene unpleasing, and thought the movie would be better without it, but there is not denying its shock value.
Even if you find Monteiro's vision repugnant, there is no question that his absurdist scenes can be very funny. His preference for slow moving action and a static camera though is more of an acquired taste.
Maha samut lae susaan (2015)
Art film from Thailand doesn't make much sense but is watchable
In this Thai art film, we have three young people, a woman and two men, going on a car trip from Bangkok to Pattani, in the south of Thailand. They are Laila (played by the beautiful Heen Sasithorn), her brother and a friend, and their plan is to visit her long-lost aunt. However, strange things start happening in their trip, while in the background we listen through the news about some violent incidents in the country.
I don't know much about ethnic politics in Thailand, I do know the south of Thailand has an important Muslim population, and that there are ethnic tension between them and the country's Buddhist majority. Here the Muslims are seen as strange and ominous, and that is a bit unsettling (but it is implied that Laila herself is Muslim, though she has Western clothes and outlook).
Nothing much happens in the movie, except at the end, when the friends reach their destination. Not much is explained. Still the movie is watchable, it did hold my interest, even if it was not clear what was going on. The beautiful photography and the locales help.
Romanian film holds some interest despite scenario that strains credibility
Warning: there are some spoilers in this review.
This supposedly shocking Romanian film starts with a long, extended verbal fight during a family reunion, at which point I thought I was really going to hate this movie. The film, though, gets a bit better as it goes along. Victor is a widower with six grown children, three men and three women in their twenties and thirties. His offspring includes a set of twins, Romeo a boy and Sasha a girl. The fight gets started when, at the reunion, Sasha learns indignantly that her father, who is an obstetrician, during the Ceasescu regime, a period in which abortion was banned, denounced to the authorities women who were seeking to end their pregnancies. Victor replies to his daughter that his opposition to abortion allowed her to live, since her mother wanted an abortion at the time. Anyway, the fight ends, and as we learn more about the different characters, we get the central gimmick of the film: the two twins are lovers, and eventually she gets pregnant by his brother. This situation is seen as only slightly out of the normal. During the film, we see several scenes where one of the family members gets indignant on learning that the twins are lovers, but five minutes later, seems ready to accept them.
Despite all the talk we listen to, the film doesn't have a lot of interesting things to say about either abortion on incest. Still, the movie holds some interest even if the scenario strains credibility. A great performance by Alina Grigore is Sasha, the twin who gets pregnant, is a plus for this so so movie.
Sri Lanka, is a country that does not appear a lot in the international news, but it had a brutal civil war in the last two decades between its two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese (who dominate the central Government) and the rebel Tamils. There was a peace settlement in 2009, and this is where this French movie begins. The protagonist is a Tamil guerrilla and we see him destroying his weapons along with his comrades and preparing to migrate to another country. In a refugee camp, she meets a woman and a young girl (they are not mother and daughter), and they decide they have better chance to get to Europe if they pretend to be a family. Eventually they get into France landing in a dilapidated housing project (in the so called banlieus) where immigrants (mostly Arabs) lives. He finds a job as the janitor in the building where they live, she makes some money by caring over an old person. If the protagonist was looking for peace in Europe, he finds himself now in a crime infested neighborhood where gangs fight each other. On the other hand, this is a place where his skills as a warrior might find value.
I find the milieu believable and the story sometimes interesting, despite its unpleasantness, but I find hard to believe the central conceit of the story in which three unrelated people keep living together pretending to be a family long after this seems necessary to get into France. And I find the film at times ponderous and pretentious. The ending, full of gratuitous violence, is a major letdown. All these flaws are no fault of the mostly amateur actors, who do well considering the circumstances (I like the woman playing the false wife, Kalieaswari Srinivasan). A surprising winner of the 2015 Cannes film festival.
Well made adventure film
This film is set during World War I in what is now the country of Jordan. Theeb is a young boy living with his Bedouin family. Their traditional nomadic lifestyle has probably been the same for the past several centuries, but the world around is rapidly being changed by the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule. One night an English military officer (obviously modeled after Lawrence of Arabia) arrives at the Bedouin camp and asks for help in getting to a certain well. The presence of bandits makes such a trip dangerous, but the Bedouins felt compelled by traditional hospitality rules to give him an escort to get there, and Theeb goes along others (including his elder brother) for the ride. When things soon get sour in their trip, Theeb has to rely on only himself to survive several adventures.
Arab films don't get much exposure in the rest of the world, even in the festival circuit, but this movie, along with the previous Wadjda, suggests a new wave of Arab art cinema, that is intelligent, professionally made and accessible. Nicely shot in the beautiful Jordanian desert. Most of the cast are Bedouins themselves who have never acted. One of the few exceptions is British actor Jack Fox who plays the English officer.
Slow paced but Rewarding
This Romanian movie has a plot that might sounds ridiculous at first sight, but with time becomes more and more engaging. The movie starts with one of the two protagonists, Costi (Toma Cuzin) telling his young child the story of Robin Hood. Suddenly, there is a knock in the door. It's his neighbor, Adrian (the other protagonist of the movie, played by Adrian Purcarescu). He tells Costi he is risking losing his apartment as he is late on his mortgage payments, so could he please lend him 800 Euros. Costi tells Adrian he sympathizes with him, but can't lend him anything as he is under heavy money problems himself. Eventually, after a long talk, Adrian tells Costi what he needs the 800 Euros for: he wants to hire a metal detector operator so as to see if in the garden of an old property of his family there might be a treasure buried by his grandfather when the communists took over Romania. At least that is what the family legend says, but no one is really sure there is really a treasure buried in his property. After some hesitation, Costi agrees to help Adrian on that search in exchange of a half of the prize.
So the rest of the movie is basically Costi and Adrian pursuing this treasure, with the help at times of an old, slightly corrupt metal detector operator (played by a real professional in that job). This being a Romanian movie, the film is slow, deadpan, and deals quite a lot in bureaucratic detail (Romanian law states that any treasure holding historical value should go to the state, and the discoverers should only get a 30% of it, and Costi and Adrian try during the movie several times to see how to get around that law). Considering Romanian movies have some reputation for dourness, I thought this was going to end in tears, but it happily has (without obviously revealing too much about it) a very satisfying ending.
Intriguing Estonian film starts well but it loses momentum in the second part.
Based on a true story, this Estonian film (directed by a Finn) the film is set on 1952, when that country was under Soviet occupation. A man named Endel (Mart Avandi) arrives to a small Estonian town from Leningrad. He is obviously on the run from Soviet authorities, though we never get to know much of the back story. He presents himself to a school asking for a teaching job. He is given the physical education class, only problem is the school has no sporting equipment for the children. One day he finds in a drawer at the school a fencing sword and he starts playing with it. A girl sees him and asks him to train her in fencing. At first he refuses, but eventually announces in the school board there will be a fencing class on Saturday. To his surprise, a lot of students appear on Saturday, wanting to learn fencing. Despite his lack of charisma, the fencing classes are successful, even though they are disliked by the school director who see the sport as a remnant of a feudal past, but is outvoted by the school's parents. Eventually, Endel is so successful in training the children that he is invited to a tournament in Leningrad. The problem is that going there could blow his cover.
This is not a perfect film, it starts well, but it loses momentum in the second part. The Russians and their collaborators in Estonia (like the school director) are caricatures. And in parts of the movie, the story seems undeveloped, as when Endel starts a relationship with a woman teacher in the school.
There is a cameo as a politically persecuted grandfather of one of the boys in the school of Lembit Ufsak, who starred in the more interesting Oscar nominated Estonian film Tangerines.
Very fine courtroom drama from Israel
This Israeli film is the final part of a trilogy dealing with the life of a middle aged Orthodox Jewish couple, Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz, who also co directed with her brother Shlomi) and her husband Elisha. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the two previous movies, so is possible that I missed some of the background story, though we do get a lot of information about the characters in this long (almost two hour) film.
In this third part, Viviane has already left her husband Elisha for some years and is now asking for a divorce. In Israel, though, there is no civil marriage or divorce, and all this matters are handled by a rabbinical court. In the movie, the three judges handling the case are generally unsympathetic with Viviane's arguments (all the action in this movie, that takes place during several years, happens in a small courtroom, except for a few scenes that take place in the adjacent waiting room).
Viviane no longer loves Elisha, but in the view of the court, this is not enough justification to grant a divorce. Especially, since Elisha is a devout Jew, has never hit her, never cheated on her with another woman, and has always provided for her. She can only get a divorce if Elisha agrees to one, something he is unrelentingly opposed to give.
Though the movie sides with Viviane, it gets points for not making Elisha (nicely played by Simon Abkarian) an obvious villain. He is silent and taciturn. His reasons to reject a divorce are not obviously clear in the movie. He could be doing out of spite, or it could be just male pride, or perhaps, as a pious believer, he simply believes he cannot grant her a divorce if he hasn't broken any traditional marital commandment.
I did like this movie a lot, but in my opinion there are a few scenes which strikes false notes. One scene has a neighbor of the couple, a middle aged housewife testifying in favor of the husband. Viviane's lawyer, in the cross examination, makes clear she did so because she is afraid of her husband, a rude shopkeeper. Another false scene (in my opinion) has Elisha''s brother (who is also his lawyer) accusing Viviane's lawyer of having an affair with her client.
At times, Viviane argues with Elisha in French. Though this is not explained in the movie, I think this is because both are Sephardic Jews from Morocco, and French, and not Hebrew, is their native language.