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5 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
"Heneral Luna" sees through the humanity of a volcanic temper, 5 October 2015

While not entirely a groundbreaking film in the strict sense of the word, there's just a number of firsts in "Heneral Luna" (2015, Phil.), the latest work from the director of the excellent Camera trilogy ("Confessional", "Mangatyanan", "Sana Dati"), Jerrold Tarog. Chief among which, of course, is the subject-matter itself: Antonio Luna (played to perfection by John Arcilla), the valiant and volcanic Filipino general who was a major force in the Philippines' fight for freedom and independence from the American colonizers during the later part of the 19th century. Filipino historical films or biopics seem to be generally restricted to just two prominent figures: Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal. From the top of my mind, I can only recall a couple of films that featured heroes other than those two stalwarts: a Macario Sakay film by Raymond Red and one about Lapu-Lapu starring Lito Lapid. If there are other such works still, they may have already been drowned in obscurity.

Thus, a film that details the significant contribution of Gen. Antonio Luna to our history (or his life and death, if one may opt to say so) should be most welcome. After all, as our history is undeniably marked by numerous wars and battles, it would be just apt that we get to encounter as well those who helped maneuver our frontline fight against the foreign intruders and colonizers. And so, how does Tarog's "Heneral Luna" actually come about as a viewing fare?

To put it succinctly, the film is brimming with delight, irreverence, and fervent and genuine patriotism. And to top it all, the characters, most specially the key figures, are portrayed with a fresh breeze of humanism, rather than as cold textbook derivations. While watching the film, one really gets the feeling that all the proclamations of nationalism and duty to and love for country aren't merely hollow airings, but are genuinely impassioned without having to spell them out in big, bold letters. And while at it, "Heneral Luna" manages to be consistently entertaining as well, with its humor and some off-the-wall moments. Such is the accomplishment of the film.

At the film's prologue, it's pointed out that the filmmakers have taken the liberty of combining "fact" and "fiction" to be able to bring across bigger truths. Thus, the inspired artistic choices: the young journalist who "interviews" Gen. Luna;the general's clandestine love affair with a woman named Isabel;the "flashbacks" within a narrative that's already by nature a flashback by way of history;Luna's stirring guitar-tuned flamenco under the moonlight which, in effect, is also a swan-song;the poignant touch of magic realism towards the end, accompanied by Beethoven's plaintive piano sonata. The film, likewise, doesn't shy away from a brutal and graphic depiction of the battlefront and of the tragic fate of the general in the hands of his own men. This is all due to the brave and intelligent screenplay by Tarog, E.A. Rocha and Henry Hunt Francia, and the unflinching and imaginative direction by Tarog himself. (If one is keen enough to pick up the "signals", the historical saga will most definitely have a continuation with the stories of Gregorio del Pilar (to be portrayed most probably by Paolo Avelino) and Manuel Quezon (most likely to be interpreted by Benjamin Alves);Tarog is no stranger to making a trilogy.)

On point of performance, while everyone has put in invaluable work, the film is undoubtedly owned by Arcilla. As the title character, the actor is able to delineate on screen the general's reputed fierceness, hardheadedness, brashness and fearlessness with gusto and aplomb. One can really see that he relishes his character flesh and bone that the screen simply flares up every time he's in the frame. But beneath the volcanic personality, one can still sense a deeply-felt love for the country and an unassailable desire to fight for its freedom till the end being harbored by the general. It's an incomparable performance that sees through the humanity of a "monster".

While it has to be admitted that the film's irreverence, narrative- and character-wise, isn't unique to itself as one can in fact recall Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H*", Franklin J. Schaffner's "Patton", Mike Nichols' "Catch-22" and even our own Mike de Leon's "Bayaning Third World", nevertheless "Heneral Luna" is to be applauded for being able to infuse fresh vigor to the historical drama that's rarely seen nowadays. If it's to be of any note, the film starts and ends with the image of the Philippine flag - in the first, the national emblem is fresh and intact;while in the second, it's burning to ashes. It's sad to think what this coda really says to our journey as a nation so far.

Black Rain (1989)
4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
A haunting black-and-white masterpiece, 5 October 2009

In the light of the recent typhoon that hit the country hard (that is, typhoon Ondoy), I thought it upon myself to re-watch "Black Rain" (1988, Japan), Shohei Imamura's haunting black-and-white masterpiece on the destruction and after-effects of the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima in the closing period of the Second World War. The destruction and impact of both catastrophes (war and typhoon) may differ in degree and quality, but the trauma and scar (physically and psychologically) nevertheless are still there.

It is a testament to a film's power that its images remain as potent and as indelible as when they were first seen. It is only that the difference now, in my case, is that watching those images has assumed a greater sense of poignancy and potency due to a first-hand experience of a near-monumental weather calamity. There is a sense of kinship, so to speak.

Imamura has always been one of my favorite Japanese filmmakers. His films are always a pleasure to watch because of their anarchy, sensuality and earthiness:"The Pornographers:Introduction to Anthropology" (1966), "Eijanaika" (1981), "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge" (2001), his two Palme d'Or-winners "Ballad of Narayama" (1983) and "The Eel" (1997), to name some. Given the mood of his films, who would have thought that he once served as an assistant director to Yasujiro Ozu, Japanese cinema's most austere and minimalist filmmaker? But then, it is Ozu's rigorous formality and domesticity that Imamura was rebelling against.

But then again, with "Black Rain" one can unmistakably sense Ozu's imprints. The father (or the father-figure) being intent on seeing his daughter get married before time runs out on both of them, and the stillness and calmness of the scenes showing all members of the family together (notably, the dinner scenes or in Ozu's film lexicon, the tatami) are something that the revered master filmmaker would perennially explore in his works ("Tokyo Story", "Late Spring"). Essentially, the over-all subdued and deliberate quality of "Black Rain" is a remarkable contrast to the bacchanalian chaos and instinctual drive of Imamura's entire filmography.

Still, this is not to say that watching the film would not be an altogether unsettling experience. "Black Rain", as aptly described by American film reviewer Leonard Maltin, is "filled with haunting black-and-white images." In the film's first 15 minutes, Imamura pulls no punches in showing the immediate and graphic horrors of the nuclear bombing, one after another (stiffly-burnt bodies, hanging flesh, walking dead, fires and debris everywhere, madness all over). An assault to the viewers' senses, definitely it is, coupled with Takashi Kawamata's somber b/w photography (he did the lensing in Yoshitaru Nomura's crime drama "The Incident") and Toru Takemitsu's chilling score (he did the music in such classics as Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" and Masahiro Shinoda's "Double Suicide").

Even during the film's supposed "tranquil" phase (that is, five years after the atomic bombing), one can still never have a sense of contentment and order, with the uneasiness and pain still being strongly felt by the survivors, not only in terms of failing physical health, but more so in terms of psychological trauma and social stigma. The human race, it now indisputably appears, has been destined to bear the legacy of the Bomb, for as long as it lives.

I already wrote a piece about "Black Rain" some years earlier (posted in, but only in comparison to Volker Schlondorff's magnificent "Tin Drum", another film dealing with monumental human folly and global catastrophe. Moreover, it has never been my practice to write twice about a film that I already wrote something about before. It is in the light of the recent weather calamity that devastated our country that I was prompted to re-visit and write something again about this remarkable Imamura film, as there is a wealth of lessons to be learned from both the film and the recent event in regards the imperfections and dangers of scientific knowledge and action, and the long-term scars and wounds inflicted by a wide- scale destruction (whether human- or nature-induced).

There have been a number of films dealing with nuclear holocaust and destruction ("Testament", "Threads", "The War Game", each situated within their own respective countries);and "Black Rain" stands among them, if not more so, for both its unapologetic and somber portrayal of individual and communal disintegration brought about by atomic devastation and the fact that it has a historical event as its basis.

Few weeks from now, another disaster film from Hollywood, Roland Emmerich's "2012", will finally hit (no pun intended) the big screen. As we all know, this American director's bunch of "disaster/apocalypse" films--"Independence Day", "Godzilla", "The Day After Tomorrow"-- serves no other purpose than to be of mere entertainment value, with no real insight into the nature and wisdom of apocalyptic disaster and the human condition being affected. I wonder how this "gigantic" movie would exploit the trauma, disorientation and apprehensions still being experienced by our people because of the recent weather calamity. To say that this flick is a precautionary tale would probably be no more than an overstatement.

But yes, I will still watch "2012".

12 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
A food for thought, 25 September 2008

Before Austrian film director Michael Haneke got well-recognized and –appreciated in the international film circuit with such films as "Code Unknown", "Time of the Wolf" and "The Piano Teacher" (all of which were made in France and shown in Cannes), he already made his mark with a number of films made in his native Austria, one of which is this film called "71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance"(1994). This work is the third installment in the director's "glaciation trilogy" (the other two being "The Seventh Continent" and "Benny's Video"), thus called because of the central theme of the fine line between barbarism and civility in modern urban life being completely, hopelessly blurred. The "barrier" has been broken, so to speak.

As the title suggests, the film consists of 71 "fragments" or vignettes, seemingly random, unrelated and mundane, of various characters going through the motions and vagaries of daily existence in urban Austria. But one can sense that this only seems to be so, as the film's prologue suggests that this is the event that will loom over the succeeding "fragments". And that is, the 1993 Christmas Eve reckless shooting done by a 19-year-old student named only as Maximillian B. inside a bank and on the streets, before eventually shooting himself—one that is purportedly based on a real-life incident.

No explanations or back-stories are provided to the characters and their situations being shown "episodically" on the screen (a Romanian boy refugee, a bank delivery man, an old pensioner, a childless couple and, of course, the student himself). More often than not, a specific fragment is abruptly interrupted or ended by a black fade-out (an alienating technique Haneke once again utilized in the equally visceral and demanding "Code Unknown"). Some fragments happen for not more than a minute, while some last for as long as five or even eight minutes (notably the scene where the student practices ping-pong tennis facing an automated opponent and the scene where the old pensioner argues with his daughter over the phone, both of which vividly displaying a whole gamut of simmering emotions without ever resorting to histrionics). Even reinforcing the clinical, cold approach—for which Haneke is really known—is the utter lack of an accompanying soundtrack and the wordlessness of some scenes.

The sense of dread is punctuated by the ever-present television (as is the case in the two other films in the trilogy), from where a specific world news is being broadcast (like the ethnic war in Somalia and the child abuse charges against pop star Michael Jackson). This is as if to suggest that the looming event foreboded at the film's start is itself to become a subject of a TV news coverage which, albeit small in scale when compared to the news indicated above, is nevertheless not without a lasting cost to the human lives involved, physically, emotionally and psychologically. Having said this, how has the line separating civility and barbarism come to be completely violated in this thought-provoking film?

The trigger shooting perpetrated by the young student, which serves to be the film's denouement, appears to have been done for no apparent reason at all. It's senseless killing in its purest meaning (which arguably is the underlying essence of the middle-class family's suicide in "The Seventh Continent" and the teenage boy's videotaped murder of the girl in "Benny's Video"). And this is what makes the act all the more chilling. It's as if to suggest that such a self-destructive act is inherent in everyone of us, if not what makes up our essence, waiting only to be brought to the surface by a seemingly random and inconsequential spate of events (in "71 Fragments'" case, it's to be rooted in the student's lack of enough cash to pay for his car gas).

And when the "event" does finally happen, rather than to serve as an important food-for-thought, it's sadly reduced to no more than a piece of media sensation, regarded as the hot "news of the day", focusing more on "what" happened than on "why" did it happen. The alarming incident thus becomes another piece of media entertainment, to be savored by mass consumers who always crave for what is sensational and controversial, without ever thinking of its deep-rooted incitations and implications. (This is a thought which Haneke is to delve full-blown in "Funny Games", both the Austrian and American versions, though I really prefer the first one.)

If in Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski's world, chance incidents and fateful encounters are all part of a grand design to convey deep layers of human emotional truths (like in the truly majestic "Three Colors" trilogy), in Haneke's (or at least in the world of "71 Fragments"), such randomness is to be put in order by an inherent barbarism that's only barely creeping out of the human psyche.

Service (2008)
13 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
If not only for the theater, 7 July 2008

Brillante Ma. Mendoza's latest film, "Serbis" (2008), may not even come close to the comparative brilliance of recent Filipino films like Jeffrey Jeturian's "Kubrador", Emmanuel dela Cruz' "Sarong banggi" and, yes, even Chito Rono's "Sukob", but it's still a curious work. For what the film lacks in plot and character development, which are really severely wanting, can be justly compensated by its prescribed milieu, which stands out as a character in itself--the movie theater run by the filmic family (no less named as "Family Theater").

With its dirty and dank hallways, its vandalized walls, its crumpled and faded movie posters, its hideously flooded and murky toilet, its duplicitous screening and projection room, not to mention its regular throng of patrons who may or may not be "there" for the featured film itself and the always-prevalent traffic and crowd noise outside, "Serbis" could've been made--or could be watched--just for this run-down and out-of-luck movie theater. (If this were a good, old classic silent film, then I could've mistaken it as a film about the theater itself.)

Mendoza may have seen--or at least, may have been aware of--Jacques Nolot's "Porn Theater" and Tsai Ming-liang's "Goodbye, Dragon Inn", which his film quite approximates in terms of setting and concern. But even then, "Serbis" doesn't have the self-criticizing humor of the former and the existential elegy of the latter, qualities which, in fairness to Mendoza, he may not have the intention of lending to his film. It's because from the looks of it (I mean literally), "Serbis" may be one of the many far-down-the-way descendants and variations of the Neo-Realist School of Thought (Naturalism, Abjection, Spontaneity, etc). But even then, unlike many of the best works from that venerated film-making method ("La Terra Trema", "The Bicycle Thief", "Shoeshine", "Salaam, Bombay!", "A Woman Under the Influence", "Rosetta", "Riff-Raff", even our own "Insiang", etc), his film actually eludes the capability of being situated in a wider social and political context, not even in a remote manner. Perhaps again, that's something that Mendoza may not even be set on achieving.

To put it bluntly, "Serbis" escapes any explanation, logical or otherwise. To say that it threads on naturalism is to state the obvious. To say that it borders on the absurd is to overstate the matter. To say that it has a radical agenda being rallied is to make the point moot and academic. But then, to dismiss the film as pointless and inconsequential is to underappreciate Mendoza's efforts in coming up with a "different" film like this. I say different in that while it's too lightweight to be considered an "art" film, it's too deliberate to be regarded as "trash" as well. (It wouldn't be selected for competition in this year's Cannes film festival if it didn't have "something" going for it, I guess.)

Still, I don't get it why some of the Cannes press and even the MTRCB here would be so bothered as to express aghast at some of the film's "disgusting" and "explicit" scenes. I contend that a couple of nude and sex scenes are just plain gratuitous, but the "disgusting" scenes being specified by the press are not even worth mentioning as to merit controversy. In themselves, these scenes just don't add up to a film that's already not meant to cohere. "Serbis" is definitely no "Irreversible" and "Humanite".

What can be a source of comfort is the fact that even works of disappointment do have their choice moments of saving grace. In this scant film's case, it's the selected portrayals of Gina Pareno, Jaclyn Jose and, yes, Coco Martin. If these actors are even "acting" in the film, that I don't know. Whenever Gina and Jaclyn (the beleaguered mother and daughter proprietors of the seedy cinema) are in the frame, they really command such a thespic presence, without them exerting so much effort (if there's one), even having themselves willingly sailed (I mean literally) through the muck and mire of the film. The same goes for Coco (the aimless son of the older proprietor), specifically with regards to the factor of being "dirtied" by the film. His character rarely utters a word in the film;most of the time, he's just seen doing "something", quietly and intently. But it's in such activities, I hope, that we get to have a glean of his mental and emotional state--like in the slow and long scene where he cleans the hopelessly recoverable cinema toilet (a part of his being "dirtied" by the film). Even the decried scene where he successfully pops a painful buttock pus using a cola bottle gets to signify a kind of self-epiphany (which leads to his ultimate detachment from his family by the film's end)!

Sadly, such choice moments of portrayal are still undermined by the fact that Armando Lao's script doesn't allow them to become fully-rounded characters as for the viewers to really feel their plight. These characters are made to appear as nothing more than like the strangers and acquaintances who we meet fleetingly and randomly in real life and then care for no more afterwards. If the fairly dignified thespic chops of Gina, Jaclyn and Coco are still led to feel that way, then what more of the other characters? This but true--like the projectionist character of Kristoffer King who is there just to be given a rough blow job by one of the theater's gay patrons and the ticket-booth attendant character of Roxanne Jordan who is there just to brazenly pose in nude in front of the mirror at the film's start. But then, didn't I mention earlier that "Serbis" could be just about the theater itself?

In itself, "Serbis" is a graphic and natural document of a Filipino slice-of-life, but not enough as to become a true piece of cinematic provocation and radicalness as what the majority of films being shown in Cannes are meant to be.

Weekend (1967)
13 out of 23 people found the following review useful:
JLG is JLG, no matter what, 27 January 2008

Jean-Luc Godard will always be Jean-Luc Godard. Either you love his films or hate them. Either you love the guy or hate him. Now, with "Weekend" (1967, France), I just don't know what to make of him (not that this is not what I generally feel whenever I see one of his films).

At the film's opening credits, it's outrightly declared that it's "a film adrift in cosmos". Godard must've meant that seriously, for once you've entered the film's universe, you're in for one wreck of a viewing experience. This is one chaotic universe--and I meant to say it in a pleasurable way!

To attempt to state the plot of the film could only be a disservice to it--though this is not to say that the film doesn't have a "plot"! To attempt to extract the essence of the film might only be a disgrace to it--though this is not to say that the film doesn't have an "essence"! To attempt to map out Godard's agenda in making the film could just turn out to be a mockery of the filmmaker--though this is not to say that the film doesn't have an "agenda"!

The plot? A couple goes on a weekend trip to their parents' house to execute a sinister plan....The essence? The decadence of bourgeois values, the arbitrary yet natural progression of fate, and the transformative power of social awakening....The agenda? For Godard to become increasingly political and to continue on deconstructing the traditional film narrative methods, and thus "alienating" the film audience.... (Much like, theater-wise, Bertolt Brecht had increasingly become political in his succeeding plays while at the same time had continued on employing "alienating" theatrical devices.)

But all of these takes a side-step to give way to the overwhelming chaos, arbitrariness and "playful" senselessness that truly characterize "Weekend". Or, perhaps, the "means" are designed to be of service to the "end".

This chaotic cosmos is potently embedded in the viewers' sensibilities by way of that jaw-droppingly sustained 10-minute dolly shot of a horrendous countryside traffic jam (the "mother of all traffic jams", as one film reviewer ably put it) that the above-quoted couple encountered on their way to Oinville (their parents' place). After that, the quirky and amoral couple would continue to meet along the way a whole lot of "hindrances" to their destination, most of which Godard leisurely takes his time to stage (as what he did, say, in "Alphaville" and "Band of Outsiders").

On the one hand, these "hindrances" appear to be a carry-over from the previous traffic jam that the couple went through (those car wrecks and corpses). On the other hand, they are intended to be an overt display of the filmmaker's alienating techniques (like at one point where the couple gets to encounter a pair of "fictional", "literary" characters and the man starts to blurt out how "trashy" the film is for all they meet are "crazy characters"--how hilarious!). On the other still, they serve as a venue for Godard's explicit political views, the expressiveness is of such a way that this may take the form of direct camera address (like in that long scene where these two "brothers" pour out their thoughts and sentiments about the oppression in South Africa and the discrimination of the blacks).

Now that I have mentioned things political, I'm not sure if it's even necessary to mention the political "awakening" that came upon the woman after the couple was kidnapped by a band of Communist guerrillas. The scenes comprising this specific episode tread the line of being absurd, grotesque and outrageous that seeing them can't even make one believe them.

The online Premiere magazine listed "Weekend" as one of the "25 Most Dangerous Movies". "Dangerous" in the sense of these films challenge our "bedrock notions" of what it is that we normally see in the movies and how we see them (with films like "A Clockwork Orange", "Eraserhead", "Requiem for a Dream", "Freaks"). It's a question of theme and method. Well, it's not that JLG's films have not always turned our viewing experience upside down. But when compared to, let's say, the ebullient fatalism of "Breathless", "Weekend" in fact exudes an apocalyptic melange and an irresolvable recklessness that make it rather an uncomfy fare.

The irony is that even if this Godard film is labeled as "dangerous", it's still worth a repeat viewing, much like all the other films that made it to the Premiere mag's list. It's one thing to say that this film poses danger and it's another to say that this film is "painful to watch twice". It's something that's worthy of another article--and actually there's an available list for that already!

Viridiana (1961)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Bunuel says "Amen", 22 January 2008

Some films never really grow old. Decades after they have been first released, they still manage to pack a powerful punch. Perhaps, it's just a testament to the unparalleled skill of the filmmaker that his/her films manage to stand the test of time.

A few cases in point:Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange", Jean Renoir's "The Grand Illusion", Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows", Vittorio de Sica's "The Bicycle Thief", Federico Fellini's "La Strada", Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho", Hector Babenco's "Pixote"....

And now, if I may add, Luis Bunuel's "Viridiana" (1961, Spain), Grand Prize winner at the Cannes International Film Festival.

To tell the truth, I was already hearing and reading a lot about this Bunuel film (his "crowning achievement", as not a few would put it) even before I got the chance to see it. When that chance finally came, I was afraid that the film's impact would be dissipated because of my "preliminary" knowledge about it. But then, the proof of the pudding is really in the eating.

That "Viridiana" would prove to be the very stone that the Spanish government would bash its own head with on grounds of "blasphemy" and "obscenity" serves to underscore the film's transgressive power. (This was the film that Bunuel made in Spain "upon invitation" after 25 years of being in exile and thus of making films outside his native country. Seemed like biting the hands of his "benefactors", eh?)

The film opens with a medium shot of the facade of the convent where the title character is set to take her final vows before becoming a full-pledged nun, and this to the tune of the orchestral "Hallelujah". At first, I thought that this accompanying soundtrack (which I already found hilarious) was already part of Bunuel's arsenal in mocking the Catholic Church. I was half right.

For while it can be admitted that the track serves to emphasize the sacredness of the establishment and the nobility of the novice's intention to become of service to God, the track will recur later in the film only to portray the ultimate crumbling of the sacred walls surrounding Viridiana's ill-fated Catholic life. And this, during the by-now-infamous destructive orgiastic feast of the beggars, such being the thing that these ungrateful creatures have given back to the titular character for all her "charitable work".

(Needless to say, along with the event is the truly lambasting and outrageous "Last Supper" gathering of the beggars, it's only after which that an old beggar started to play on the gramophone the "Hallelujah" track. If I may be allowed to sidetrack, De Sica subtly orchestrated a scene of a similar nature in "The Bicycle Thief" which may not be that popular, but if looked at closely would make the film justly qualify as a piece of "subversive cinema".)

One really has to see the entire set-piece to believe it. Watching it gave me the creeps, and when it was over, I felt quite devastated, much like Viridiana herself.

As any great work of art is subject to various interpretations, so is "Viridiana". And my own take (not without some careful considerations, though) is that, when given the opportunity, it is our basest desires (Sigmund Freud and the School of Psycho-Analysis would say the "Id") that would ultimately over-rule our lives, no matter how we veil it with Catholic devotion and modesty (as with Viridiana) or with bourgeois finesse and propriety (as with Viridiana's uncle and cousin).

The film boasts of a good number of sly and "psycho-analytical" images that bring home this point (like the cow milking scene with Viridiana which connotes her fear of sexuality and the uncle's rubbing off the footprints left by the servant's daughter who played jumping rope which connotes his incestuous carnality). But there could be no more telling indication of this than the bunch of beggars themselves (degenerates, thieves, rascals--however you may call this filmic representation of the "Id"!), who secretly mocks and disdains Viridiana's act of charity and piety (representative of Catholicism) and who destructively overtook the widowed uncle's estate (representative of middle-class hegemony).

Bunuel was one film director who had always been tenaciously consistent with what he presented in his works, thematically and stylistically ("Un chien andalou", "L'Age d'or", "El Angel exterminador", "El", "Los Olvidados", "Belle de jour", and the list goes on;to say that he is the "Father of Surrealism" is just simply one of the points). And if we are to go by "Viridiana's" suggestive final act (decadent? corrupt? hopeless?), then the whipmaster would definitely not allow his train of thought to be bent in any way, even if it would mean going to such cruel, but ultimately humane, lengths.

4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
A tale from the "golden age", 16 January 2008

Not until the half-hour mark of "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (2007, Romania), Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or-winning sophomore full-length film, do the viewers get to know what it is that agitates and makes the two central young female characters go through all the motions at the film's initial minutes (which actually comprise a day's start). And that is, abortion. And negotiating for an abortion during the waning days of Ceaucescu's Communist rule (the year is 1987), which makes it illegal and a criminal act and is thus punishable with imprisonment.

The girl suffering from an unwanted pregnancy here is Gabita and the one helping her to get a "doctor" who will perform the forbidden act is her friend Otilia, both of whom are university students. As is shown during the film's initial 30 minutes, it's not a walk in the park for the two women before they finally get to personally negotiate with a certain Mr. Bebe (the "doctor") in a run-down hotel.

This first-time personal encounter among the three characters happened way into the film's 30-minute mark, which is executed in one long take and is framed within a medium static shot. Yet, the formal stillness belies what is actually happening on the screen. For even this encounter, where everything is supposed to proceed smoothly already, unexpectedly takes a not-that-slight detour.

Lies, deceit, complications and compromise arise from this heady three-way encounter, the irreversible outcome of which is for Otilia and Gabita to lamentably prostitute themselves for the duplicitous Mr. Bebe before he can perform the sought-after "operation".

On the surface, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" may just be put alongside many other abortion films that we know (like Claude Chabrol's "Story of Women" and Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake"), which are surefire shot for controversy given the divisive and tacky nature of the subject. However, if we are to look closely, Mungiu's film is not simply about desperate women going to all lengths to terminate the life that is just beginning to blossom within them, for whatever reason. (As for Gabita's reason, it's simply not stated in the film.) If I may daresay, it most significantly paints a picture of a society whose system's didacticness and pre-determination are the forces that propel its citizens to make life-altering (and -threatening) decisions that may well be their undoing, given the maxim that such "decisions" can threaten the fully-imposed social order and strata.

Abortion is prohibited not because life is respected and valued, but because child-bearing is what women are meant for, to rear children who'll grow up to be obedient and complacent citizens who'll faithfully (if not naively) reinforce the foundations of Communist rule. If women are to get any decent education at all, it should be the kind that'll make them fit to be "sent to the country" to work. If anyone takes the route other than what is "pre-destined" for him/her, then a sanction will be meted out accordingly.

This already-decaying state of Communist Romania is marvelously encapsulated in that family dinner party for Otilia's boyfriend's mother, wherein the beleaguered protagonist is on the verge of being quietly crushed down by the societal forces (under the guise of "conversation") at work. This is really one long, statically-framed amazing scene, treading through a whole gamut of conflicting emotions, becoming poignant and insightful at the same time. It's emotional without being hysterical. By the end of it (or similarly, by the film's day's end) we feel almost drained, but coming out to be more fortified because of it, much like Otilia herself.

At the film's closing credits (which came after a "sudden blackout", where it's just Otilia and Gabita who remain on the screen, both still and wordless), it's stated that "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is part of a series ironically called "Tales from the Golden Age". I'm looking forward to seeing more films from the series. If they'd still come from the same filmmaker, from the same country and from the same sociopolitical system (notwithstanding the kind of issue that will be delved upon), then it'd be definitely wonderful.

L'argent (1983)
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The "idea" of a film, 14 January 2008

On a strictly formalist level, Robert Bresson's swan song, "L'Argent" (1983, France;which directly translates to "Money"), can be regarded as Pure Cinema. That is to say, no emotions, no actions, no music, none of such "artificiality" that has customarily been associated with cinema. At best, the film (and for that matter, Bresson's entire filmography) can be described as a Cinema of Ideology.

What is strictly at work here is the "idea" of how money can corrupt and destroy the human spirit. Surely, this can be derived from the Biblical concept of "money being the root of all evil" (Bresson's Christian upbringing being almost always discernible in his films). But this is not to regard this essential commodity per se as the reason for all things evil. Rather, at least in the film's context, it's a particularly forged 500-franc note that set in motion a series of unpleasant and unjust events, with this quiet and unassuming gas station attendant named Yvon Targe at the (abysmal) center.

As suggested from the preceding paragraphs, what concerns Bresson here is not the characters themselves or the milieu they are in (the actuality), as let's say the Italian Neo-Realism would have it, but the idea of how an unscrupulous act can be the cause of another person's undoing. This is humanism in its abstraction. Thus, watching the implications and complications of the counterfeit 500-franc bill upon the lives of the characters--or upon the life of Yvon--is like watching statuesque figures ("15th-century Christian icons", as some would politely have it) being callously manipulated by their blind fate, perennially condemned to be dragged along by the turning of its wheels.

And it is Bresson himself who is the prime mover of this "wheel". In his hands, the "force" of this fate is of such a cold, detached, unforgivably rational quality that one can unfailingly have the feeling of not being able to bear it all. From the initial simple act of the two schoolboys having to knowingly spend the counterfeit money at a photography shop, to the final harrowing act of Yvon having to commit a terrible deed in the name of and as a vengeance against the money (in a figurative sense), one senses Bresson as having the big hand in this cause-and-effect chain of events.

If one gets such a feeling, it's because the filmmaker (already 82 at that time) intended it to be so. As "L'Argent" is a specimen of Bresson's own brand of Pure Cinema, he absolutely wants his exacting vision and conception to be seen and felt in each and every scene, unhampered and uncluttered by the "standard" cinematic manipulations of stylized dialogue, fancy emotions, accompanying soundtrack and contrived actions. In this specific cinematic world, the filmmaker is the cinematic god himself whose fuel for his performers (non-professional at that) is mainly his idea of how cinema should be.

(In reference to one of his films, a reviewer noted that it is Bresson himself who is assuming the different characters in the film. Curiously, the above-noted film elements are what define, not in a derogative way though, Bresson's introductory feature film, "The Ladies of Bois du Bologne".)

This, in effect, gives an entirely purist level to the filmic conception of what it means to be an auteur, formally introduced to movie lexicon by the French New Wave, as pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard. "Purist", in that, whereas the New Wave pioneers can still "play" upon the above-mentioned filmic artificialities, Bresson the auteur is no different from being a sculptor or a painter or even a novelist. It's his own soul that seeps through his work. The product is distinguished by the singularity of its maker's personality.

What makes this singularly cold, clinical method even more pronounced is how Bresson's characters always find themselves drawn into the vortex of some kind of moral and/or spiritual crisis. The intellectual thief in "Pickpocket", the desolate young wife in "A Gentle Woman", the abused teenage girl in "Mouchette", the self-destructive youth in "The Devil, Probably", the contemplative priest in "Diary of a Country Priest", and now the quiet simpleton-turned-morally bankrupt murderer in "L'Argent". Bresson's rigorous and steely formalist cinema should just be the perfect stage for the dark night of his characters' souls. Grace is attained not without some form of sacrifice and damnation of the soul.

It is this ideology that fills the mold of this filmmaker's astonishing pure art. Unrelentingly dark and morbid, perhaps, but a flickering light of salvation can still be seen through it all.

Pixote (1981)
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Hardened, but sad, 16 December 2007

To speak relatively, if one were only to see now Hector Babenco's "Pixote" (1981, Brazil;pronounced as "pi-shot"), after having seen quite a number of films that deal with street children, juvenile delinquents, kids in trouble (Truffaut's "The 400 Blows", Bunuel's "Los Olvidados", De Sica's "Shoeshine", Nair's "Salaam, Bombay!", Bresson's "Mouchette", Nugroho's "Leaf on a Pillow", etc.), one might be afraid that the plight of the kid portrayed in the film might not affect one anymore, having been "de-synthesized" already after going through the emotional roller-coaster ride put in motion by the previously quoted films.

Thankfully, that won't be the case. For Babenco narrates his film in such a matter-of-fact manner ("artlessly", as one film reviewer put it, in a positive light) and that his central child performer, Fernando Ramos da Silva (13 years old at that time and a street kid himself), gives such a no-frills, wounded performance, raw in its simplicity (that hardened face, those lonely and longing eyes) that one is hard put not to be pierced in any way. (Such a feeling may achieve such a heightened realism when one learns that the child had only lived but a short life, having been involved in street crimes after the film and subsequently murdered.)

In about first half of the film, Pixote and his fellow street kids and delinquents spend their time in a repressive state-run reformatory school, where brutalization and humiliation, rape and murder, are the norm and culture;where they are forced to confess to their "crimes", on the flimsy notion that under the Brazilian law, underage felons are not "punishable" for their offenses. For these kids, the dubious freedom offered by the streets is more preferable than the harsh rehabilitation provided by these supposed well-meaning authorities. Within the walls of this supposed protective establishment, these young souls are soon to discover that love and care from parental figures are likewise nowhere to be found, if not to a degree worser.

(For Pixote, the only form of escape comes from puffing grass and sniffing glue, secretly smuggled inside the reformatory.)

When the kids burst themselves into a small-scale "revolt" to finally express and then fulfill their collective desire to get back to the outside world--their "home"--the intensity and form are of such a kind that one can't avoid thinking of the schoolboys' revolt in Jean Vigo's influential "Zero for Conduct". It's only that in "Pixote", the "uprising" is made to appear on a gutter level.

Once Pixote and his small group are back on the streets (the film's second half), they engage in robbery, pimping and drug-dealing to fend for themselves, along which they get to meet Sueli, a battered but kindly prostitute. Sueli willingly accomodates the four lost souls, in such a way that she allows her customers to be robbed by them and that she provides more than motherly care (at least to one of the children).

One would have thought that the street kids have at long last found the one person who can provide them the love and warmth that have been sorely lacking in their lives. But as dubious as the freedom that these kids believe the streets are providing, this new-found "maternal figure" cannot but stay forever.

Jealousy, squabbles, differences, and murder have only set the kids apart--and for good. And during that defining scene where Pixote, prompted by the circumstance, gets to shoot not just Sueli's arrogant American customer but also his fellow street urchin Ditto (more than a son to Sueli), he thereafter literally goes back to "infancy", as he sucks from the right breast of the disoriented woman, right there and then materializing his lingering desire for parental affection, the image itself both sad and unsettling.

It is so that Sueli, in a probable coming back to her "senses", lamentably pushes back Pixote from his "nourishing" position and rejects him, for good. Thus, in a quietly wrenching moment, Pixote, with that young-old face and those sullen eyes (not entirely dissimilar, though in a different context, to the young boy's mien in Elem Klimov's harrowing "Come and See"), gets himself up, puts on his coat and takes his gun (yes, a gun!), and sets off to nowhere, walking along the train tracks and with the morning light just beginning to show up. With that scene, Babenco may just be doing an homage (amongst many other homages found in different films!) to the iconoclastic final scene in Truffaut's "The 400 Blows".

But whereas we got to know what has become of Antoine Doinel three years later in the short film "Antoine et Colette" (as well as in three other feature films in the years thereafter), we are left grappling in the dark as to what lies ahead for Pixote after he finally disappears from the last frame, that being the last time that we'll get to see this real-life street child (notwithstanding the fate that eventually befell him in actuality).

"Pixote" may not be as nearly as whimsical as "The 400 Blows" or as hallucinatory as "Los Olvidados", but it still stands out among films of similar theme and texture because of its simple, raw power.

A timeless immediacy, 27 November 2007

J. Hoberman, The Village Voice's resident film reviewer, described "The Battle of Algiers", Gillo Pontecorvo's Golden Lion-winner at the 1966 Venice International Film Festival, as the "revolutionary du jour". I have to agree. Completely.

Everything in the film could and should inspire ferocious and deeply-rooted ideologies and sentiments pertaining to one's own nation's freedom, independence and basic human rights.

The film is already four-decades old and the subject that it depicts, the Algerian people's struggle for liberation and self-determination against the French colonial government during the mid-'50s, can be rightfully considered as an integral part of modern history, but even when viewed from today's vantage point (as in my case) it still manages to unsettle and stun, to provoke and inspire. "The Battle of Algiers" possesses such staggering turmoil and realism that, as the events gradually unfold towards the nationwide street revolution, one can't help but be wide-eyed and unnerved throughout the film's 2-hour running time.

It works well to the film's advantage that it has managed to acquire through time an uncanny sense of historical immediacy. It feels as if Pontecorvo were still alive today working as a TV news reporter or documentarist recording with his own camera the incendiary real-life events right before our very own eyes. The Dziga Vertov principle of "life caught unawares" has moved onto a new level of meaning. It now becomes an almost-impossible task to draw the line between fiction and documentary, between what is staged and what is actual, if there really is such a distinction.

In my humble knowledge, no other highly-political film of World Cinema during those times and after has come close to the feral neo-realist energy of "The Battle of Algiers"--not even Costa-Gavra's "Z", "Missing" and "Amen", not even Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now", not even "L'America" (Amelio), "The Mission" (Joffe), "World Apart" (Menges), "Bloody Sunday" (Greengrass), not even our own "Orapronobis" (Brocka), just to name a handful.

What can even be more baffling--and thus put one more notch higher the film's above-mentioned quality--for today's viewers is how "The Battle of Algiers" can put in context today's headline-hogging and highly-relevant spate of "political terrorism", international and local. As "outsiders" having to become aware of the headlines mainly by means of TV or newspaper, it has become a necessary habit (justified or otherwise) to regard these bombings, assassinations, insurrections and any other forms of "terroristic" acts as a work of pure evil and inhumanity. This is for the reason that what we, the spectators, get to encounter immediately is the outcome, the damages done, of the event in question (the what and the how). More often than not, we don't get the opportunity to dig deep into the ideologies and motivations that led to the act (the why). If we ever had the chance to know the raison d'etre of the act, most likely the account is biased or blurred, thus further fuelling our "prejudices".

The numerous bombing incidents in the film (as well as the attacks on the French officials), mostly at the cost of innocent lives and in broad daylight, can be a sure cause of alarm, considering that these events essentially ring true as to what's being delivered from today's news. But as director Pontecorvo and writer Franco Solinas take pains to give an objective account of the Algerian struggle for liberation and independence--or of the Algerian insurrection, popularly known as the Front Liberation de Nationale (FLN), if one takes the liberty to use an "extreme" description--we get to come to the knowledge that these extreme measures used by the Algerian nationals could be the only possible way to attain an extreme goal, otherwise unimaginable through "simple" and "humble" acts (like the local prohibition of vices associated with the colonial government, such as alcohol, drugs and prostitution).

The unbiased account of the historical events is such that the high-ranking French colonial officers, during those tension-filled and critical moments (like the setting up for explosion of a resistance fighter's hideout), still get to exhibit some kind of humanity for their considered "enemies of the state" ("If you want to die there, then let the children out first", is one such line). Such "humaneness", though, by the very situation itself (or the description of the situation itself), gets to border on a comical awkwardness. These colonizers still manage to put a smile on our faces.

An intertitle towards the film's end says that the Algerian people finally attained freedom by 1962 (not after some nationwide turmoil, bloodshed and protest, those "unintelligible and frightening rhythmic cries"). However, if we are to take bloody seriously the film's timeless immediacy, then the battle doesn't only stop at Algiers. It continues on and on, in another form, in another place, in another era. Whether won or not, only history can tell.

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