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Slow-moving with ending wallop
The opening scene of "Munyurangabo" passes very quickly, yet sets up the emotional conflict among its characters and within its central protagonist, Ngabo (not until the end is the relationship between the title of the film and this name revealed). I had to return a couple of times to understand the connection. It opens with Ngabo seeing a machete in the marketplace and observing two men fighting. Next we see Ngabo, machete in his lap, seated on a cement wall. He looks at the machete its tip covered in blood, and then again, and it is clean. Did he imagine the blood? Did the men in the market use it on each other?
Ngabo and his friend, Sangwa, set off on a trip. They begin with a physical and emotional closeness that very gradually disintegrates. Sangwa has spent their money on a new shirt, so they must hitchhike. Their goal is to kill a man, but will visit Sangwa's family (whom he has not seen in three years) along the way. As this visit is prolonged, the friends drift apart. The dialog is very spare, but each word and gesture is significant in driving the friends apart. Must Hutus and Tutsis inevitably remain enemies? When Ngabo continues his journey alone, his meeting with the Rwandan poet-laureate at a roadside shop provides the film's turning point.
The Rwandan genocide has long passed from the news media, but this film does much to reveal something about its effect on the generation that have grown up in it aftermath.
A Single Man (2009)
A period piece, and a mood
I was ten years old in 1962 and, scion of an academic family, recall overhearing snatches of adult conversation in muffled tones about homosexuality ("acey-ducey"), Christopher Isherwood, Castro, Soviet spies, building bomb shelters, Aldous Huxley. The dreamlike sequences into which such references intrude in Tom Ford's film- the decors, fashions, hairdos, evoke a host of hazy memories Without explanations, I feel a connection with the adult world I observed then, the repressive roles that enveloped this generation. Colin Firth carries in his entire being the weight of his age, having lost the one person who allowed him to break into an authentic self. Julianna Moore captures the pre-liberated frustrations of a women playing unsuccessfully at the "feminine mystique.".
Besides the acting, the fact that this film is the first effort of a fashion designer is the major source of the film's appeal. It is visually "dressed" in terms of settings, costumes, conversations, visual effects. There may be no lingering "meaning" to attach to its memory, but it provides a fully satisfying visual experience.
Le métis de Dieu (2013)
The discomforts of "God's Crossbreed"
I just saw this film at a Jewish film festival, and found it very thought-provoking and emotionally disquieting-- which I mean in a GOOD sense. I am neither Catholic nor Jewish, and so when I saw that the French title, "Le Metis de Dieu" points to a more universal phenomenon than the English title "The Jewish Cardinal," my cinephile self had more reason to regret the difficulty of procuring a broader distribution.
The psychological, historical, cultural, and philosophical complexities of this make the 90- something minute running time something of a marvel, and indeed leave the viewer wanting more, while already feeling treated to an experience that goes far beyond the genre of "biopic," or "docudrama" would lead one to expect. The eccentric, often petulant man, navigating between the different cultural identities within himself while confronting the real- world challenges that history has set in his path is a full-blooded, multidimensional character and not an object of reverence.
Meanwhile, as the camera travels from Orleans to Paris to Rome to Auschwitz and returning again to scenes of childhood and family, we witness a visual feast that surpasses our "made- for-TV" expectations.
The film, "Dunia," brought back memories for me of the American 1970's, when feminism was on the rise, the first edition of "Our Bodies, Ourselves," came out, belly dancing became popular, and one of the records that circulated among the incipient belly-dancing community was entitled "How to Make Your Husband a Sultan." Amidst our own "consciousness-raising" at that time, there was very little awareness of real women's lives in Middle-Eastern communities. Today, there is far more reporting on the strictures imposed on women under "Sharia law," but still little comprehension of the lives of young women who dress like westerners, live in big cities, and are exposed to, and caught between, the contemporary secular and the traditional Islamic value systems.
This film, made in 2005 by a Lebanese-French director who owes her renown to the world of documentary filmmaking, apparently underwent a tortuous path to its public showing. The fictional heroine, Dunia, embodies the contradictions of her society. We meet her at an audition for dancers who wish to represent Egypt in an International Belly Dancing Contest. We do not see much of her dancing before the judges at her audition, but hear their interview of her. When asked to SHOW more of emotions about the Arabic poetry she wishes to study in her voice and body, Dunia slips to the floor, wrapping her arms and clothing closely around her. The young woman articulates the contradictions with which she lives: the daughter of a famous dancer, she has never seen her own naked body -- the only naked female bodies she has seen have been in foreign movies, which she watches through her window on her neighbor's television in an apartment next door. (I had heard long ago, that Egyptian belly dancers must cover their mid-section. Therefore the very image we have of belly-dancing is challenged).
Dunia, as well as the young man who is enamored of her, are voyeurs rather than participants in the realm of the erotic. SHE observes other, less inhibited older and younger women; HE stalks her at her dance classes, ascending to the roof to look down at her undulating body. When he braves general opprobrium to come visit her alone in her apartment, attempts to kiss her, and strips off his own shirt in an attempt to arouse her, she rebuffs his advances. She asks if he would marry a non-virgin, even if it was he who had been her only lover. She prefers not to put his protestations of liberalism to the test. Of course, her own concession to tradition (she marries him), do not protect her from ingrained expectations of male dominance and female submission.
Dunia is fascinated by her academic adviser, a specialist on the stories Scheherezade spins in the classic "1001 Arabian nights," whose public protestations against censorship of literature incur the wrath of the public and cause a protester to blind him (significantly, the "seer" of the erotic in poetry is blinded). On the other hand, she watches in horror as the grandmother of a friend's pubescent daughter relentlessly pursues the opportunity to make "a lady" out of the girl by performing female circumcision on her.
Thus the complex layers of this film make it worthy of close attention -- viewing and re- viewing. It is a "bildungsroman" of a young Egyptian woman. Dunia claims to have grown up in Luxor, which was the ancient capital of Thebes. Her young adult trials take place in contemporary Cairo. Thus she embodies the entire history of Egypt, and her final epiphany is accompanied by her professor's admonition, "Never wear another person's clothes. Dunia, you are the world."
Johnny Stecchino (1991)
It's the context that counts
Yes Bengini is a master of comic timing and plasticity. And the script is a fantastic use of the comedy of double-entendre. But as a Sicilian friend has pointed out, the late 1980's-early 90's was a time of unparalleled violence and legal action against the Mafia, a time when the population was enveloped in fear with reports of killings almost a daily occurrence.
In the context of this earlier film, , Begnini's portrayal of concentration camps in Mussolini's Italy in "Life is Beautiful" acquires the weight of Chaplin's "Great Dictator." Fear loses some of its grasp when evildoers become the butt of comedy.
Documentary in context
While far from perfect, this documentary is of considerable value on its own merits. The historical-political context of Eisenstein's work is readily available, but his internal take on his evolution as an artist is not. It is worth noticing the provenance of the documentary: Italian director, Swiss producer -- i.e. a European take, outside the bipolar US_USSR relations of the time (the Soviet war in Afghanistan). It purports to be a visual "Cliff Notes" to his memoirs - so the source material predates the Cold War. Written shortly before the director's death, it could scarcely include commentary on the Stalin era, and by now the mere mention of homosexuality attached to one of Russia's cultural icons is "politically incorrect," to say the least.
I teach a course on "Foreign Film" and am most concerned with getting my students to look at visual matter through the eyes of others. I can provide a historical perspective, but this is one of the best supplements I have found so far.
Creating a novel on film
This film was shown on the closing night of the Russian Film Symposium at Pittsburgh Filmmakers screening room, which was the ideal venue for such a film. This is the director's first major film and has been hailed as inaugurating a new period in Post-Soviet Russian filmmaking. As such, of course, its depths are scarcely perceptible without some knowledge of the Soviet past.
A writer presents his manuscript to a publishing house, which rejects it. One by one, however, members of the editorial board retrieve the manuscript from the waste basket, each reading a different one of the four short stories, which they endow with the physical details of their imaginations. Thus the film as a whole creates a novel in the mind of the viewer through visual details and unexpected juxtapositions. There is a good deal of humor, with a deeply ironic Russian edge.
Ischeznuvshaya imperiya (2008)
Middle-brow culture, Post-Soviet Style
Karen Shakhnazarov's films are all, in a sense, "period pieces." They find a solid place in international film festival culture without ever quite winning the prize. "Vanished Empire" had a particularly personal ring for me, since I began my long-time study in and out of Soviet/Post-Soviet Russia in the period this film depicts (circa 1974), and had an uncomfortably eerie sense of deja-vu throughout the film. Searching for an American parallel, I came up with "American Graffiti," where Richard Dreyfus's character is caught between remaining in his Middle-American hometown or heading off to an Eastern college (as he does) and returning many years later to write about it.
Shakhnazarov's film has a similarly autobiographical feel to it, although his young hero ends embracing, rather than rejecting, the culture from which he emerged: the Russian intelligentsia. The meticulous reproduction of the Soviet 1970's offers a vaguely satiric self- portrait, hinting at the educated class's role in preserving world culture and history while rejecting indoctrination into Soviet politics and values. Therefore, the young hero, Sergey's true love is not, as he believes, the "good girl," Lyuda, who prefers the ACTUAL recording of "Swan Lake" (a covert reference to the ballet's role in service to the state) contained in the black market record jacket of the Rolling Stone latest release to the Western contraband recording that Sergey has paid dearly for, expecting to win her affections. Sergey's instinctual pull towards rebellion keep him from romanic fulfillment, but bring him closer to his true self.
Instead, Sergey comes to love and honor his dying mother, and follows his grandfather's advice by making a pilgrimage to the archaeological site that represented his family's life's work.In the ancient desert sands, Sergey finds the source of his earlier hallucinatory, drug-induced vision.
Emblematic details (cars, records, ancient trinkets) speak to viewers with Shaknazarov's background. Reading them properly, however, requires something of the education Shaknazarov's hero gained in the intervening years between the "coming of age" story and the film's contemporary epilogue.
Six Blind Eyes (2011)
A fascinating dialog and brilliant as a thought piece, but virtually devoid of cinematic effects- perhaps this is a form of "blindness" in itself. A young man comes to the office of a psychiatrist asking for help, but refuses to fill out the the medical information for the receptionist, and insists that the conversation take place in the reception area, rather than move into the counselors inner office. Reminiscent of the HBO series "In Treatment," or "The Booth at the End," combined with an ancient Arab fable in which a young man consults a jinn for advice.The twist is, however that he refuses to take any "treatment," but instead insists that he be believed, and be provided a miraculous cure.
We only see TWO pairs of eyes, which see literally, but refuse to "see" in an abstract sense The third pair of eyes is presumably supplied by the viewer, although perhaps there is a hint at metaphysical blindness as well.
What we see is an office is setting that is contemporary, with few furnishings. The two men are dressed in robes, with awkwardly placed head-scarves. An abstract work of art hangs on the wall. Is appearance a form of disappearance, hiding in plain sight?
A close experience of Bosnian refugee life
This story takes place 15 years after the war. Although I was acquainted with the horrors of the war, I was NOT acquainted with the horrors of survival. The refugees 15 years after live in brick houses that from the outside look like low-cost townhouses, against a magnificent mountainous landscape. The only thing sustaining the life of these refugees is the care of those who survived, particularly the very you, and the interminable wait for the bones of their loved ones who fell victim and were interred in mass graves. As the bones are plowed up, they are bagged and trucked to the camp, where the wives and mothers await them daily.
The scenes of this life are appropriately filmed in black and white. They are interrupted by color sequences of the Serbian-run TV reality show "Big Brother," which one of the surviving young men has been accepted into, much to the disgust of his Bosnian family. This contrast is the film's major irony -- the only relief from the waiting for news of he dead is this vision of a motley crew of random strangers living on a TV set.
The impact of this film is, of course, emotionally powerful -- but the REAL reality of the situation only slowly took shape in my mind. Because of this lag, I gave it a 7 rather than an 8.