Thursday, April 19, 2018

1945: Stirring Our Collective Memory

1945 is a Hungarian film that uses the personal to focus on the highly charged topic of the holocaust. Just after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the Soviets declared war on Japan, two orthodox Jews arrive in a small Hungarian town. They bring two boxes with them, which supposedly contain fragrances. Their arrival sparks panic and confusion amongst many of the locals who fear that they have come to reclaim their property.

The Jewish father (Miklós B. Székely) and son (György Somhegyi) say almost nothing, yet their silence says everything as they honor their dead family members.

During a Q&A session Director Ferenc Török has described the film as “a powerful, basic story”. Its black and white format carries the audience into the brief time between the holocaust and the communist decades. Our collective memory is jabbed by haunting images evoking photos and film from the immediate post war period.

The impact of the visual imagery strongly reinforces the key themes.

Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive via train to a small 
village in Hungary full of secrets - Photo courtesy  Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

Two brief images of a photo album touch on a history of friendship and betrayal. Moreover, the use of smoke during the film connects poignantly to the holocaust’s crematoria.

The local authorities, in particular the town clerk, the police officer and the priest, seem to have been the leading collaborators with the Nazis. However, many others were complicit and benefitted by the removal and extermination of the Jewish community.

However, the villagers are divided, with families torn apart by the events of 1944. Some sympathised with and even helped their neighbours. Others are wracked by guilt for their part in the final solution. There are also those determined not to give up what is, for some, newly acquired prosperity.

1945 has an exceptional cast. Péter Rudolf as the powerful town clerk István and Eszter Nagy-Kálózy as his tormented wife Anna are outstanding. Apparently the pair has been married in real life since 1990. Another veteran actor, József Szarvas, gives a faultless performance as the tortured alcoholic Kustár.

Neither the cathartic climax nor the departing steam train, with all its distressing symbolism, brings real resolution. The coming clouds of communism hang over the community, with the “new world” promised by local Soviet sympathizer Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) not far over the horizon. But that’s another story.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica): Validating Love

Francisco Reyes & Daniela Vega at the Berlinale 2017
Image courtesy Martin Kraft (Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) set two firsts at this year’s academy awards. The highly acclaimed winner of the 2018 Oscar for best foreign language film is the first such award for a Chilean film. In addition its star Daniela Vega was there as the first openly transgender presenter.

When I saw the film I was unaware of any of this, in fact only knew the title and that it's a Spanish language film. What a delightful surprise! The extravagant praise for its director/co-writer Sebastián Lelio and Daniela has been more than well deserved.

[Please excuse any spoilers.] When the partner of transgender woman Marina dies suddenly, her world implodes. She is brutally ostrichised by Orlando’s family as she struggles to cope with the loss.

It is difficult not to reach for the cliché kitbag. The confrontation is disturbing and painful. At the same time, her personal journey is also joyous and uplifting, love and life affirming.

Daniela’s powerful, passionate performance as Marina is one of the best of the academy year. Her talent as an aspiring opera singer brings added depth to her character. Co-star Francisco Reyes gives a strong, professional performance as Orlando.

Lelio displays the filmmaker's craft at its very best. The tight direction and script grip the viewer from the start. The backdrop of 21st Century Santiago underlines the complexity of this very modern drama. The Chilean Spanish is surprisingly easy to follow for novices. This official trailer should whet your appetite:

The film has certainly brought out not-unexpected arguments online. This exchange is just part of the reactions to distributor Curzon Artifical Eye’s preview post on their Facebook page:
Xabier Santesteban: Science says that this guy has still XY chromosomes.
Kaisa Mäenpää: Wow, another transphobe misgendering a trans woman, how original haha. Modern science literally says gender and sex are not the same thing (check it out yourself, because you clearly haven't), and that even though sex can be determined by looking at chromosomes, gender can't.
Daniela raised some of the issues in a recent interview for the Guardian:
“The film wants you to question where you stand in society. Are you with Orlando’s family or with Marina? Instead of answering questions, the film’s trying to ask questions about everything. What bodies can or can’t we inhabit? Which love stories are valid and which aren’t? Why is it that certain groups oppress other groups because they’re not within what they consider normal boundaries?”
Valeska Freire, founder of Magic Haus Films, has been one of many to promote this discussion:

It's a topic that is trending across the globe. Recent instances include:

Sport: Hannah Mouncey Becomes First Transgender Player in Australian Women’s State League Football

Journalism: Marvia Malik, Pakistan's First Transgender Newscaster, Wants to Change Societal Attitudes Toward Her Community

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Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Other Side of Hope - Toivon tuolla puolen

The Other Side of Hope is another gem from Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki. It picks up some of the themes concerning refugees of his 2011 French language film Le Havre.

Set in another port city, Finland’s capital Helsinki, it tells of the developing friendship between a Syrian asylum seeker, Khaled (Sherwan Haji) and a former shirt salesperson turned restaurateur, Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen).

It has Kaurismäki’s signature mix of offbeat humour and serious social issues. He makes the audience uncomfortable as we laugh at a topic which should not be a joke.

The restaurant, and its staff in particular, seems to be have time-travelled from the 1950s. The Golden Pint’s no frills décor and menu match the expectations of its working-class customers. Waldemar’s stumbling attempts to embrace 21st century hospitality bring some comic relief from the grim obstacles facing the refugees.

Nevertheless they have a common thread in their battles with authority. Even the lacklustre restaurant staff shine in comparison with Finnish bureaucracy. However, immigration security is not the only foe, as neo-nazis are lurking with intent.

Khaled’s stay at the open-door but depressing detention centre has its upside. During his journey from his home in Aleppo, he has become separated from his sister. His Iraqi friend helps with his attempts to find her.

One of the bright sides of this movie is the music, led by singer/songwriter Tuomari Nurmio. He appears in musical vignettes as a busker and lead singer for a band. There are several videos of the soundtrack online, including this glorious performance:

The cast includes several other veterans of Finnish entertainment, who help to energise the oddball collection of local characters. If their world seems quite daft, it triumphs over the unhinged reality that the refugees have fled and what they now face in exile.

Anyway, you’d have to cry if you didn’t laugh. Perhaps, that’s the other side of hope.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

The Ornithologist: Bizarre Flights of Fantasy

The Ornithologist is an intriguing Portuguese contribution to the latin magical realism genre. Its opening's stunning scenes of birdlife along a river near the Portugal/Spain border have the quality of a David Attenborough nature classic.

João Pedro Rodrigues pulls off a hat trick: director, screenwriter and actor. Auteur with attitude. This film has echoes of some of the work of Federico Fellini.

Unfortunately, the film loses much of its meaning and impact if you don't know the religious backstory. It is difficult not to slip into spoilers. Our birdman Fernando, played convincingly by Paul Hamy, has a tortuous journey along the river after a mishap. It draws on a bizarre mixture of elements: pilgrimage; Greek epic; and even the John Boorman classic Deliverance.

He faces a series of trials that ultimately produce a phantasmagorical transformation. The range of languages used gives an indication of the strange characters we encounter: Portuguese, English, Mandarin, Mirandese, Latin. We are taken somewhat seductively somewhere between a spirit world and a spiritual one.

Rodrigues has called his intentions blasphemous and irreligious. There is little doubt he meant to offend some and delight others. If you're looking for something a bit different, then join his flight of fantasy.

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Monday, November 6, 2017

Darkest Hour: "Here's to not buggering it up!"

Darkest Hour joins Dunkirk and Churchill, as the third major film this year to tackle World War II from a British perspective. [At this stage your reviewer has foregone the pleasure of the other two war sagas but couldn't resist the free preview seats from NBCUniversal.]

Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have skilfully recreated the world of Westminster in May 1940, as Winston Churchill achieved arguably his finest hour. Not only did he have to grapple with Germany's seeming military invincibility. He was determined to torpedo negotiations with Hitler, without losing his newly won and long coveted prime-ministership. Both his predecessor Neville Chamberlain and his main rival Viscount Halifax favoured peace talks with the Nazis.

It is a familiar story for many baby boomers. The wartime Prime Minister had mythological status in our formative years. The filmmakers faced the difficult task of appealing to a wide audience with very different levels of knowledge and understanding of either the man or the moment. [Film reviewers face the same challenge.] How many millennials would know about Churchill's role in the Gallipoli debacle, for instance.

A tight script and coherent direction weave considerable personal and political detail into the 125 minutes. His iconic speeches are handled economically and we spend a minimum in the map room or following Winston's relentless pacing with cigar and cane at the ready.

The film covers much of his legend: the heavy drinking and depression; his aristocratic eccentricities and remoteness from ordinary Britons; his stubbornness and recklessness; his iron will and temper; and his theatrical self-promotion.

Overall it is visually engaging: his private lift rises through a black screen, taking the solitary PM up to 10 Downing street; Churchill is driven to Westminster through busy London streets, cocooned from the frenetic life outside. The atmosphere is often claustrophobic, underlining both the pressures and his political isolation.

Inevitably, the movie is trite and clichéd at times. The trailer shares an almost identical opening scene with the movie Churchill, as his Rolls Royce/Bentley arrives at the arched entrance to parliament. Gary Oldman's mimicry of the old man is quite effective, though he is sometimes put in situations that can only be described as caricature at best. The meet-the-people scene on the London underground is hyper-melodramatic, going way beyond disbelief. It sets the record for the longest journey between two adjoining tube stations. The stale joke about babies is unforgivable, as is the overacting.

His interactions with wife Clementine (played with her usual flair by Kristin Scott Thomas) and personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) help to humanise his titanic personality. So do the glimpses of his humour, toilet jokes and all. It is disappointing that there are no exchanges with Winston's ally of the time, Anthony Eden, who grins or frowns silently throughout the cabinet room battles.

Australian Ben Mendelsohn does a very serviceable job as King George VI. His strong frame and presence more than fill the role, seemingly at odds with king's character. Nevertheless, his relationship with Winnie is one of the more endearing aspects of the film.

The blurred line between apocrypha and actual events is inevitable in historical fiction. The first tense encounter between Winston and Elizabeth is apparently based on fact. It's a pity that she did not join his staff until the following year. Stephen Dillane (Halifax) gets to deliver journalist Ed Murrow's famous line that Churchill had "mobilised the English language and sent it into battle".

Nevertheless, most of the story seems an accurate representation of the actual machinations within cabinet and the parliament. Wikipedia has a thorough article on the May 1940 War Cabinet crisis.

Finally, the safe, somewhat conservative approach to this crucial episode in twentieth century history may be explained by the Churchill family toast on his accession: "Here's to not buggering it up!"

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