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This remarkable film dramatizes the story of the Hungarian merchant sailor and serial killer Aro Tolbukhin, and extensively uses documentary footage of its subject, shot in Guatemala during the time he spent in a Catholic mission in the country side, and when he was captured, interviewed in the jail of Pavón and finally executed by a firing squad. A work directed by a team of three filmmakers led by Agustí Villaronga (who won the Goya award for «Black Bread») the film combines footage in many formats (video, Super 8, 16 and 35mm), echoing the many levels that conform its cinematic discourse: besides from the Tolbukhin case, it covers the moving story of Carme Curt, an ex nun who had a strong emotional relationship with Tolbukhin; and the efforts of French filmmakers Lise August and Yves Keetman to bring his story to the screen in the 1980s: the impact of the material they shot of the real Tolbukhin and the people who knew him in Guatemala (a priest, his lawyer, a peasant), incredibly grows, as the dramatic sections told the viewer of the story behind the crimes. As it unfolds, the film reveals as a rich visual experience that never tries to hide its debt to imagination: it is illustrated by a black & white film-within-the-(color)film, called «The Uninhabited Dress», that elaborates a fictional and lyrical past to Aro's life as a child and adolescent, based on true facts, given in an interview by his old Hungarian nanny, Slamár Yulané. It is more an evocation than a reconstruction, for it is not a psychological reasoning about the actions of the killer, but an illustration of coincidences in his dramatic, tragic life. As it turns out, «Aro Tolbukhin» is like a Pandora's Box in reserve, that deserves to be seen without any prejudice.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Contains spoilers) I believe it is an error to assert that «Summer Night with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil» is almost a remake of «Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August». If it is true that this is one of the «diatribes» that Lina Wertmüller filmed during the best years of her career, the backgrounds are diverse and the elements are different. I have no idea when the lucrative companies that try to repair the ecological damage made by other profitable corporations began to surge, but back in 1986 I do not remember hearing conversations about the subject. By that time those businesses surely must have already existed, but it was more frequent to hear accusations about presidents, prime ministers and «iron ladies» who were stockholders of companies that -for example, in the case of Latin America- extracted riches from the ecosystem using the most savage, harmful and lethal methods (and they're still doing it). Among films that dealt with these issues, I remember the Venezuelan production «Oro diablo» (2000), the American documentary «The Cove» (2009) or the Belgian drama «Altiplano» (2009), and surely you must remember more titles. But in 1986 I do not think anybody made a film about those who profit from ecological disasters caused by their colleagues in commerce capital, and surely not one with the sardonic humor that characterizes Lina Wertmüller. Those who disdain her work after «Pasqualino Settebellezze» (Seven Beauties) should revisit this motion picture if they saw it before, but if they have not discover it yet, this is an attractive movie that could well be the last of her celebrated "diatribes", before turning to less aggressive and more family oriented films (often with Sophia Loren as a grandmother). «Summer Night » puts in a way that indeed evokes «Swept Away », which Guy Ritchie ill-advisedly remade with Madonna- a woman against a man in open battle. Here the duel is between a nouveau-riche parrot, a self-made woman who, according to her own words, started as a messenger and turned into a very, very rich businesswoman; and a Sicilian mafioso who makes a living kidnapping people with enough money to pay millionaire ransoms. Forget the Communist sailor against the indolent bourgeois lady of «Swept Away », and meet two sharks in confrontation, one as vulgar as the other, one as ravenous as the other, (maybe) made for each other (and «maybe», because the film ends and we do not know what next steps they will take). Fulvia Bolk (Mariangela Melato, excellent as usual) has a profitable company of «pelicans», modern sea machinery that collect waste, whose slogan is «Be rich saving Nature». Sick of how the ruling class has been extorted by bandit Giuseppe Catania, aka Beppe (Michele Placido, playing the lout at his sexiest), she decides to kidnap him, take him to her little Sardinian island and keep him prisoner in her palace, until the man decides to pay his own ransom: one hundred millions that in the last ten years he has extracted from the ruling class, of which La Bolk has designed herself its savior and spokeswoman. To execute the plan she hires the services of Salvatore Cantalamessa, aka Turi (Roberto Herlitzka, who remembers the spies from «National Lampoon» magazine), a retired one-eyed secret agent, who worked for the CIA, Interpol and FBI, in Teheran, Vietnam and Nicaragua, among other many places, and who arrives to the little island with his ineffectual assistant, Miki (Massimo Wertmüller, a kind of less weird Groucho Marx). La Bolk, who risks being sent to jail for 30 years with her indiscreet actions, boycotts Turi's plan every minute, changes orders and take decisions without his advice, as the determination of having sex with her prisoner. This time there are no reversal of roles, as in «Swept Away », in which the Communist sailor and the bourgeois lady, when marooned in an island, change their parts of oppressed and oppressor, turning the story into a peculiar gender reflection, in the Wertmüller style. Not here: in «Summer Night » the two characters are almost equals, two rats who, even if they rob for different bands, are typical middle class with extra cash, servicing «haute bourgeoisie», and trying to preserve their small privileges. The sexual attraction is immediate: unlike the messy, mumbling sailor brilliantly created by Giancarlo Giannini, Placido's Beppe Catania is a sensual Mediterranean rogue who advertises his good love-making, and La Bolk does not let opportunity pass, tired of her boring Swiss lover Frederick (a rather seedy cross between Richard Clayderman and Sean Connery, played by John Steiner). She knows better than Turi what is the best method to get her way, and becomes the most expensive prostitute ever to grace the screen. So put aside your prejudice for the cinema of ideas and enjoy this 1986 comedy, made by the most important woman filmmaker that world cinema had by the end of the 20th century, with several excellent films, and a few less effective works that, in spite of their limitations, are by far more nurturing for the mind than other pseudo-reflective productions made by her male colleagues.
Those who prefer dramas as "Germany: Year Zero" may find "Fräulein" a bit too glamorized depiction of the drama of German people during and after World War II. Made during Cold War years, and every now and then spoilt by American propaganda, it is though an interesting story, dealing with a young woman from Köln who fights her way through war and armistice in Berlin, preserving her virginity every time she is forced into prostitution or quick sex with German clients or Russian soldiers. Dana Wynter gives a restrained one-note performance, but keeps the view interested with all the dramatic turns in her life, even if the denouement is typical Hollywood formula.
A very good drama from Trinidad & Tobago, which won the Best Short Film award in the Belize Film Festival, Shaun Escayg's "Fish" benefits from a very direct story and above average "mise-en-caméra" that instead of preaching includes a single telling shot that suggests the rationale behind the marginality of the main character Fish (handsome Marc Escayg) and his cousin Sticky in modern day Port-of-Spain. While trying to survive stealing in a market, they get caught in a violent situation with drug dealers. A tight script with fast resolution, fine technical aspects and good performances, make "Fish" a winning step for the development of Caribbean commercial cinema.
Young Cuban filmmakers of the early 21st century sometimes carry a too heavy load on their shoulders: they are expected to rekindle the prestige Cuban cinema had for almost 20 years, even if the social, cultural and political conditions are quite diverse from those of 1968, the year when "Memories of Underdevelopment" was created, or 1988, when "Demasiado miedo a la vida o Plaff" was released. The economic platform of the film industry has been drastically reduced, as to guarantee a constant dynamics of test and trial, from which two or three good films could surge every year. In a scenario where filmmakers opt for the zombie franchise, or for an "aspirational" view of La Habana out of a commercial spot, that is sadder than the real deteriorated urban landscape, director Carlos Quintela chose minimalism and a contemplative attitude, and abstained from heavy dramatics, for his first feature, "La piscina". In my opinion, Quintela, among his peers, delivered the most sincere, coherent, well-thought and compact film. Maybe the loud and outspoken way the Cubans talk and act seems too foreign to the parsimonious aesthetics Quintela adheres too, a strategy so much in vogue in the four corners of the world, from Théo Court to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, passing by Aki Kaurismäki and back to Paz Encina. This deliberately slow moving, living and doing seems more akin to Chilean, Thai, Finnish or Paraguayan referents, than to this irreverent corner of the Caribbean: or maybe not so, as it is suggested, in an adjusted and recycled way, in the lunch scene, in which words become unnecessary and the rite becomes a simple duel of mouths, to see who can eat faster. However, after this consideration, I must add that my experience watching "La piscina" was very pleasant. Although I had heard reserved commentaries and I knew that the Cuban film festival had refused to accept it in its competitive section, I found it a title that merited one or two prizes, as first work, or for its screenplay (by Abel Arcos) and cinematography (by Raúl Rodríguez), but more than anything for its direction. Quintela opted (consciously or not) for a proposal of "mise-en-caméra" that remits us to the scope of the human eye, with its two options: from the capacity to see the "absolute density of things", the whole panorama; to focus on details, on our "objects of desire", in our voyeuristic close-ups. As he emulates the human gaze, Quintela accustoms us to long, wide shots, and then he forces us to see the faces. There are no medium shots in this film, with more than one character in the frame. As human eyes, we see the "long shot" and then our gaze is directed to focus on a specific face, just as we do in real life, when we see two or three persons in the same field of vision, but we can only watch each of them by turn. This tactic is used to tell a very simple story: during holidays, in a swimming pool where almost nobody goes, four adolescents (three young men and one young woman, each with a hard physical condition) take swimming lessons with a trainer who maybe once was a promising athlete (Raúl Capote, the only professional actor in a leading role). In a partially clouded summer day, very small secrets are revealed and little dramas emerge The very low profile conflicts favor silence, laconism, and trivial actions that calmly unfold, but which surprisingly have an inner rhythm of almost imperceptible agility. With the exception of the moment when the girl attacks one of the boys, everything takes place with histrionics in pause: to this effect the fact that Quintela works with four young natural actors is a big plus. In this kind of film, in which spectators infer more by observation than through declarations or discourses, the anthropological details matter more, and for this reason "La piscina" grows in those brief moments when the Cuban cultural reference becomes evident. With this work Carlos Quintela has diversified the offer of Cuban cinema, placing it in a different dimension in relation to everything that was done before, and if it were only for this, "La piscina" merits a well deserved applause.
Gordon Scott's debut film and his first time playing Tarzan, is not as bad as I had read. The story is quite simple (and repeated in his next two movies, with tension between an African witch doctor and a white physician), the pacing is OK, the running time is thankfully short, and the budget as low as in most of Tarzan's films of all colors and casts. Vera Miles is an attractive leading lady, although her attention mostly goes to her doctor boss, dully played by German Peter van Eyck. I believe that the best asset of this Tarzan motion picture is Scott's freshness and spontaneity. In the following entry (the first Tarzan film in color, "Tarzan and the Lost Safari") the budget made the hair gel and the pancake make-up too evident.
"Portrait in Black" is one of the worst and most laughable melodramas that I have seen in years. One should not expect too much from a motion picture in which the name of gown designer Jean Louis appears bigger than cinematographer Russell Metty's. But that's the way it is, and to make sure there is absolutely no doubt about it in a production from Ross Hunter (the man behind "Imitation of Life", "All That Heaven Allows", and "Pillow Talk"), when Lana Turner has to go out incognito to get rid of a dead body, she chooses a sequined coat that matches the glittering black dress that Jean Louis designed for the occasion. Based on a stage play by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts that combines James M. Cain's material with Alfred Hitchcock's strategies, I would not know how to classify this melodrama without seeming rude, but this "portrait in black" is more a "Portrait in Heat", because there is not much beyond sexual obsession. A married woman (Turner) and the family doctor (Anthony Quinn) who want to have sex and little else, have never managed to be intimate as old as they are (thanks to the Hays code and prudish dramaturgy). The only way out they imagine is to kill her husband, so they can fulfill their most basic objective. As Turner and Quinn look the age they had when making the film (40 and 45), and there is not a trace of love but plain fixation, the whole mess becomes extremely ridicule, getting no help from Richard Basehart, Sandra Dee, John Saxon, Lloyd Nolan or Ray Walston. Only Anna May Wong and Virginia Grey bring a bit of distinction and dignity, "in the Hunter style".
Under the firm hand of Henry King, known in his time as one of the best translators of literature into film, F.Scott Fitzerald's "Tender Is the Night" reaches its conclusion as a solid but rather cold drama. Produced with the usual ornaments of any Fox motion picture of those years, the shooting in real and colorful European locations and the vast CinemaScope compositions seem to go in opposite direction to the intimate drama with four key characters: a psychiatrist (Jason Robards), his patient and wife (Jennifer Jones), his old and wise mentor (Paul Lukas) and his rich sister-in-law (Joan Fontaine). Around them there are a frustrated composer (a very obnoxious character played by Tom Ewell, that guarantees that the title song is played endlessly), a starlet (Jill St. John), a wealthy Roman with nothing to do (Cesare Danova), and other characters that advance or retard the plot. There is not a single close-up in the film to get us close to those faces, not as a voyeuristic act to see their pores, wrinkles or grimaces, but as a most useful syntactic resource of cinema language. Everything is seen from a distance, with extreme prudence, aggravated by the fact that the film extends to 2 hours and 22 minutes that screenwriter Ivan Moffat should have prevented, or editor William Reynolds could have reduced. Maybe in a film house with a huge screen it worked better. After "Tender Is the Night" and 50 years in the film industry, Henry King retired from cinema.
Perhaps unfairly to Steve McQueen's "Shame", I watched it last night after I saw Laurent Hasse's documentary "Le bonheur Terre promise" (2011), a much simpler and satisfying film that deals with true feelings. Compared to prefabricated and mannered artifacts as "Shame", "Le bonheur Terre promise" (as well as Théo Court's "Ocaso", Alejandro Fernández Almendras' "Huacho", or Lucrecia Martel's "La niña santa", among others) seems like a pure and magical journey as the camera enters the simpler spaces of gentle souls. Made by Hasse, after he suffered an accident, was in coma for days, returned to life without his sense of smell, and entered a new phase that affected his personal relationship, the documentary is the record of the trip he made on foot during winter, from the Spanish-French border to Dunkerque, in search of answers to his inquiries, in search of a sense to his recovered life. It may sound pretentious or even twee to a few, but in these times of cynicism, everything does! For me the way Hasse exposed himself and his travel was fascinating, an antidote to industrial cinema, even if I should admit that for personal reasons the film got to me emotionally and made me enjoy it more than if I were watching one of those admired action films loaded with special effects. Hasse disconnects us viewers from that, leads us to the basics, to rural spaces ignored by commercial cinema, and shows us voices and faces that have none or little space in the media: farmers, young soldiers, working class couples, French of African ascent, stockbreeders, lonely elders, an ornithologist, a war refugee I think that Hasse never intended to "impact" with his film, he did not seek after "selling points" for his documentary, and he did not care if his material would not be enjoyed by film lovers and critics, for the main audience he had in mind was (I believe) the people he filmed. The dichotomy country-city, happiness, loneliness, the acceptance of old age, the enthusiasm of a young couple, the simple act of lighting a fire first thing in the morning, even before having a first bite, every intimate moment, every collective action, reveal humanity, without sensationalism. With "Le bonheur Terre promise" I am once again convinced that films are better perceived and enjoyed when watched alone.
Perhaps unfairly to Steve McQueen's "Shame", I watched it last night a few hours after I saw Laurent Hasse's documentary "Le bonheur: terre promise" (2011), a much simpler and satisfying film that deals with true feelings. Compared to films as Hasse's documentary (and Théo Court's "Ocaso", Alejandro Fernández Almendras' "Huacho", Lucrecia Martel's "La niña santa", among others) that enter the spaces of noble spirits, showing their fragility, artifacts as "Shame" seem too prefabricated and mannered. As it is well stated in a scene where Brandon, the protagonist, attends a meeting in which someone talks about the social effects of internet (including Brandon's avid consumption of every virtual pornographic offer), cynicism has become a cause of awe among people, including film audiences who take this as great art. The film does not lack a brilliant initial spark, which needs to be exposed, discussed and analyzed frankly on films: sex addiction. But it gets lost in old formulas, clichéd discourses and jaded images that make it lose impact. It is true that what screenwriters McQueen and Abi Morgan came up with as "solutions" is evidently based on things we human beings usually do, desire or imagine. But in the final act there is such an overwhelming accumulation of negative events, from the moment on when Brandon asks his sister Sissy to get out of his apartment, that "Shame" reaches a melodramatic surfeit that weakens the possibility of a high-leveled dramatic final effect. In the end it says nothing, neither to the sex addict nor to the common folk. The film is as exhibitionist as it is voyeuristic, but at the same time it is not explicit enough (if there is one film that needs a bit of explicitness, this is a good contender), also applying the suggestive tactic to the incestuous subtext. In the end "Shame" seems a foolish display of gross impersonal sex that sheds no light on its main subject, that may excite a few, and works as a futile effort on the limits of soft pornography.
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