This is Asghar Farhadi’s new smash hit film (English title: ‘The Past’), which premiered at Cannes last Friday and opened in France the same day. French reviews have been dithyrambic, as has the buzz. A long line at my neighborhood theater last Sunday afternoon. All to be expected in view of Farhadi’s chez d’œuvre, ‘A Separation‘, of two years ago—not to mention his earlier films: ‘About Elly’ (2009), ‘Fireworks Wednesday’ (2006), and ‘Beautiful City’ (2004), all excellent. This one is set in Paris and environs—in the 19th arr. and Sevran (where tourists do not venture)—and is entirely in French—a language Farhadi does not speak, as it happens—, except for a smattering of Persian here and there. Like ‘A Separation’ it’s a complex psychological (melo)drama involving two families. As for what happens in the film, see the reviews (stellar) in the Hollywood press here, here, here, and here; trailer w/English subtitles is here. I was thoroughly engrossed in the film and from the opening scene. The dialogue is intense and extremely well written, with great attention to little details and gestures. And the acting is amazing and from the entire cast, particularly the sublime Bérénice Bejo, and down to the children (as for the beautiful 16 year-old Lucie, played by Pauline Burlet, a star is born…). All this said, I rated the film a notch below ‘A Separation’ on leaving the theater, as I was just a little unsatisfied with the ending, a sentiment that was shared by the others with whom I saw it. But a sharp, cinephile colleague later gave me a convincing interpretation of the end that caused me to revise my view of it and upward. So is the film a chef d’œuvre? Maybe. I’ll have to think about it, maybe see it again. But whether it is or not, it will most certainly make my Top 10 list of best movies of the year.
Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category
This is a new Israeli film, set in Gaza during the first Intifada (precisely in 1989) and depicting the interface between a fireteam of four IDF soldiers and the local population in a densely populated neighborhood. On the odd title (as there is no casbah in Gaza), it indeed comes from The Clash’s hit song, which the soldiers hear on the radio and adopt as their motto. I did not have high expectations for the pic, in view of some of the reviews: Le Monde panned it and the Hollywood press was hardly less tender, saying that we’ve seen it all before—of Israeli soldiers amidst hostile Palestinians, that the soldiers were stock characters seen in countless war movies, etc etc. All true. But… I thought that it was not a bad film for what it was and that its reenacting of the dynamics of occupation on the ground at the time (and after)—and of the utter futility of the occupation more generally—was dead on accurate (what a masterstroke Oslo was for the Israels, allowing them to continue the occupation but leaving the policing of the urban population to the PA). On films on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I am particularly vigilant in detecting goofs, clichés, implausibilities, factual errors, and other distortions. But there weren’t problems in this one (the pic was shot in Arab locales in Israel, mainly in coastal Jisr al-Zarqa). And I was sufficiently involved in the story. So it gets the thumbs up. And it did win an award at the Berlin Film Festival in February, so I’m not alone in my positive assessment.
The pic’s director, Yariv Horowitz, got caught up in an incident in France a couple of months ago that set Israeli and right-wing Jewish websites on fire for 48 hours, and that I reported on. The incident was labeled as “anti-Semitic” but turned out to be nothing of the sort. Such has happened on numerous occasions in France over the past decade. There’s been a lot of wolf crying over anti-Semitism in regards to this country. And do the wolf criers ever apologize or acknowledge their error when it is revealed that the incident they cried about had nothing to do with anti-Semitism? Hah!
I’ve seen a couple of other films of late on the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One was the ‘Inch’Allah’ (French spelling of inshallah)—again, odd title—, by the Canadian (Quebec) director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, about a young Québécoise medical doctor, played by Evelyne Brochu, who works in a clinic in Ramallah but lives in West Jerusalem, thus finding herself figuratively caught in the middle between the two conflicting parties. This one also won a prize at the Berlinale in February, though I thought it wasn’t too original a film. My reaction at the end of it was bof (French for ‘meh’). This review gets it about right. The lead blogger at the PAC (Palestinian Amen Corner) website Mondoweiss, however, had a post on the pic with the banner headline “Wrenching drama about the occupation, ‘Inch’Allah,’ has been consigned to ‘film festival purgatory’,” in which he linked to a piece by Scott McConnell of Patrick Buchanan’s TAC, who, calling it “a gripping movie”, asserted that
More than any movie I’ve seen, “Inch’Allah” conveys the something of the feel of Palestinian life, sarcastic and bitter in the younger generations, old-fashioned in the older ones, trying cope under a system of domination and control far more sophisticated than anything South Africans could dream up.
Oh please. All I can say is that neither of these guys has seen many films on the I-P conflict.
One film that may be avoided is Eran Riklis’s ‘Zaytoun’ (the Hebrew title translates as “to stay alive”). One would have normally had high hopes for this in view of Riklis’s absolutely excellent 2004 ‘The Syrian Bride’ and 2008 ‘Lemon Tree’. Now Riklis has been on a downward slide since these two but one would still not expect a navet from him. But that is precisely what this one is. The story: set in May 1982 an IDF pilot overflying Beirut in his F-16 or whatever is shot down by a small firearm from a Palestinian fighter in the Shatila refugee camp, parachutes out and lands precisely in the camp, where he is taken prisoner. While in his cell—where he is guarded by teenagers and even children (no joke)—the pilot, oddly played by the not-too-good American actor Stephen Dorff, manages to coax his 13 year-old guardian—played by Israeli Palestinian actor Abdallah El Akal (who’s also in ‘Rock the Casbah’)—, to release him from the cell, so he can make his way back to Israel. The boy—whose parents are dead—does so, as he wants to accompany him, to return to Palestine and his family home from 1948, whose every square inch he knows from family lore. So the two make their way together through south Lebanon—on taxi, truck, and foot—, running the gauntlet of Syrian and PLO checkpoints and while being hotly pursued, but miraculously making it to the safety of the UN base on the border, and just as the June ’82 invasion is beginning. Along the way they naturally forge a bond, with the pilot developing paternal sentiments for the boy. Once in Israel, the pilot decides to take the boy to his ancestral home in the upper Galilee. Arriving in the general area of now the extinct village the pilot doesn’t know where to go but the boy, who knows it like the back of his hand—even though he’s never been there—, directs him. And they off course find it, with the empty home intact, the key in its hiding place—the boy naturally knows where to look—, and all. The Palestinian narrative.
I won’t say what happens after (no spoilers) except that the whole thing was just so preposterous and ridiculous, unlikely and not credible, poorly acted, and drenched in bons sentiments. In other words, the film was a dud, from the opening scene—of Sabra-Shatila kids strolling back and forth across the Beirut Green Line (yeah, sure)—to the tear-jerking end. French reviews were mixed, with Le Monde panning it. On this one, Le Monde got it right.
This has received top reviews in France (by critics as well as spectators on Allociné; US reviews are here). It’s a perfectly serviceable thriller set in a trou perdu on the Mississippi River in Arkansas and among a strata of American society few readers of this blog likely socialize with in their daily lives (I was dubious that the Sam Shepard character had really gone to Yale). The pic is engaging and well-acted, particularly the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer-like 14-year olds (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland). Matthew McConaughey wasn’t bad, though in view of his roots in small town Texas it wasn’t a complicated role for him to play. A couple of French friends thought the story was “unlikely” and “not credible.” Peut-être, but it’s just a movie. I wouldn’t call it a chef d’œuvre by any stretch—and do not rate it as high as director Jeff Nichols’s last film, ‘Take Shelter‘—but it may definitely be seen.
Another film set in l’Amérique profonde that I’ve seen of late is Gus Van Sant’s ‘Promised Land’, this in rural Pennsylvania, about a malevolent energy conglomerate trying to sell a bill of goods to the good people of idyllic small-town America. This one received mixed reviews in the US—plus this critique in the progressive American Prospect—, generally good ones in France. It’s a well-done propaganda film against fracking (gaz de schiste), an issue that I feel sufficiently informed about to pronounce myself against. It’s probably okay in North Dakota, where nobody lives, but not in bucolic rural PA (and definitely not in rural France). So even though the pic was just slightly manichaean, I agreed with it. It’s a good story and with very good acting, notably the always very good Matt Damon and Frances McDormand. The twist in the plot around John Krasinski’s character—the environmental activist—was a stretch, if not outright contrived, and contributed to the film’s manichaeism, but I’ll let it slide. So thumbs up to this one.
The movie. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta. It should not be labeled a biopic, as it focuses on only two episodes of Hannah Arendt’s life: of her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial—and the controversy that followed the publication of her articles in The New Yorker—and her youthful relationship with Martin Heidegger (though this part, treated in flashbacks, receives lesser attention). It’s a well done film, impeccably depicts the German émigré academic-intellectual milieu in New York in the early 1960s, and with a first-rate performance by Barbara Sukowa. I wasn’t aware of the extent of the firestorm Arendt’s articles on the Eichmann trail provoked in the American Jewish community. The film clearly takes Arendt’s side (her speech at Bard College, where she defended her intellectual integrity against her detractors, is the high point of the film). French reviews have been good. For reviews in English, see the ones by New School sociologist Jeffrey Goldfarb, feminist blogger Mary Creighton, and Spiegel Online. The film opens in the US at the end of the month.
I’ve seen two other films lately on Germany and Nazis. One was ‘Lore’, by Australian director Cate Shortland (the film is in German, though she doesn’t speak it). The film follows the children of a Nazi family—father in the SS, mother a Nazi ideologue—at the end of the war, who are left by their parents to fend for themselves, to make their way on foot to their grandmother’s home near Hamburg, which is a few hundred km to the north from where they set out. The whole movie is of their journey through the countryside—of the children of the Nazi elite reduced to penury and in the sauve qui peut atmosphere of 1945 Germany—, and of their encounter with a young man who passes himself off for a Jew. It’s a good film, particularly for the performance of the remarkable teenage actress Saskia Rosendahl. The pic opened in the US in February and reviews were good.
The other film was ‘Combat Girls’ (in France: ‘Guerrière’; the German title, ‘Kriegerin’, means ‘warrior’), which is about contemporary neo-Nazi skinheads in the former East Germany and with the protag a 20 year-old neo-Nazi woman named Marisa (actress Alina Levshin). The film opens with the neo-Nazi gang marauding through a train physically assaulting anyone of non-European origin. During the scene I asked myself why I was subjecting myself to this, that coming to see the film was maybe a mistake. There is no lower specimen of humanity than neo-Nazis, and having to watch them for an hour and a half on the screen is not pleasant. But it turned out not to be a bad film, as it shows Marisa—who is full of rage and hate—to be a complex character and who is carrying baggage from her difficult family history. And in the link she forms with a teenage refugee from Afghanistan—which at first seemed contrived but finally wasn’t—, she shows herself to have at least an ounce of humanity—and unlike the lowlife reptiles of her neo-Nazi gang, who have none whatever. Reviews of the pic are here and here.
A few days after seeing the film I read this article in Le Monde about a trial of five neo-Nazis that is presently underway in Germany, which is the biggest trial of its kind there since that of the Baader-Meinhof gang in 1977. One learns that 152 murders have been committed by neo-Nazis in Germany, mainly in the east, since reunification in 1990. That’s a lot. Neo-Nazis are marginal in Germany but not as marginal as they should be.
Voilà some publicity for Harvard University Press’s recent publication of Albert Camus’s Algerian Chronicles—a compilation of Camus’s essays and letters on Algeria from the 1930s through the ’50s—, translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer—of French Politics blogging fame (and who has been translating French social science and humanities since my college days)—and edited and introduced by Alice Kaplan (reviews here and here). On the subject of Camus—whose birth centennial is this November 7th—I recently saw the cinematic adaptation of his unfinished autobiographical novel Le Premier Homme (in English, The First Man), by Italian director Gianni Amelio. I liked the novel—and more than any other I’ve read by Camus, including L’Étranger and La Peste—, in particular for its vivid imagery of lower-class pied-noir life in Algiers in the 1910s and ’20s. The film closely follows Camus’s childhood such as depicted in the novel via the character of Jacques Cormery and with flash-forwards to the 1950s—of Cormery’s return to Algiers during the war—, scenes that weren’t in the novel. Technically the film—which was entirely shot in Algeria (mainly in Algiers and Mostaganem) and employed Benjamin Stora as historical adviser—is impeccable. Nice to watch. But it doesn’t work. This is one of those novels that cannot be adapted to the screen. And if one has not read it—and is not aware that Jacques Cormery is Albert Camus (and does not know too much about Camus or Algérie française)—, the film will make no sense at all. So if you haven’t read the book—and are not familiar with France’s history in Algeria—, do not see the movie; you will be wasting your time. Gianni Amelio directed two very good films in the ’90s, ‘Il ladro di bambini‘ and ‘Lamerica‘, so I had somewhat high expectations for this one. Oh well. US reviews are here and here, French reviews here, and the NYT review of the book here.
Needless to say, the film was not a box office hit in France. I saw it on the first Saturday night after its opening and in a big Paris multiplex. The salle was well over half empty. Un échec annoncé. As I’ve said before, the French movie-going public is simply not interested in Algeria, post- or pre-1962.
À propos, another movie about Algérie française—and likewise based on a novel by a major author—opened in France last fall: ‘Ce que le jour doit à la nuit’, from Yasmina Khadra’s eponymous 2008 novel (in English: What the Day Owes the Night), which I have not read. This director of this one was the middle to lowbrow Alexandre Arcady, juif d’Algérie who is not precisely known for making films d’auteur. I hesitated on seeing it and despite the compelling subject matter, in view of its 2 hour 40 minute length and the fact that Arcady has never done anything that could remotely be called a chef d’œuvre, but decided to take the plunge (Saturday AM matinee) before it disappeared from the salles. I’ll let Le Monde’s Noémie Luciani—who liked the pic more than did other French critics—describe it
Dans l’Algérie des années 1930, Younes, 9 ans, est recueilli par son oncle et sa tante et rebaptisé Jonas. Elevé par ce couple peu ordinaire (Mohamed est musulman, Madeleine chrétienne), Jonas grandit à Oran puis à Rio Salado, véritable jardin d’Eden où la vie est douce et lente, jusqu’à ce qu’Emilie n’amène les premières violences de l’amour, et l’Histoire les premiers feux de la guerre.
Adapté du roman à succès de Yasmina Khadra, Ce que le jour doit à la nuit est une fresque monumentale dans tous les sens du terme. Reconstitution détaillée à l’extrême, musique grandiose, mise en scène toute dans l’ampleur, jusqu’aux orages, qui répondent avec un mimétisme verlainien aux émotions : que Jonas perde un instant le goût de vivre, et “il pleure dans son coeur comme il pleut sur la ville”.
Ce totalitarisme de moyens, s’il est indéniablement l’expression vibrante d’un amour fou du réalisateur pour le livre auquel il offre un monde visible, a ses charmes et ses limites. D’un côté l’élégance du décor, la belle musique d’Armand Amar, une intelligence remarquable du rythme, tenant de bout en bout l’histoire sur presque trois heures de film.
De l’autre, l’explicite imposant, le poids des fatalités trop visibles, la place ténue de l’humour. Surtout, le jeu d’acteurs enivrés de se voir devenus Rhett et Scarlett, Juliette et Roméo : exalté, plus rarement exaltant, tout en grands gestes, grands mots, grands yeux noyés de larmes. Fu’ad Aït Aattou (Younes/Jonas) : la gravité un peu appuyé de la voix, le port de tête. Nora Arnezeder (Emilie) : le sourire lentement construit pour illuminer, un peu trop lent à venir. Anne Parillaud (madame Cazenave, la mère d’Emilie) : la démarche alanguie, la diction lourdement sensuelle, les tics de séductrice aguerrie.
On hésite à leur autoriser tant de fards : peut-être faut-il autant pour que l’histoire ait moins à voir avec le commun amour qu’avec le mythe. Peut-être avons-nous perdu l’habitude. Dans le doute, être un peu plus crédule, glisser sur certains traits. Tout travaillé qu’il soit, tout alourdi d’art qu’il peut être, Ce que le jour doit à la nuit garde au coeur un souffle romantique volé à l’Hollywood des heures anciennes : naïf et flamboyant à son image, emportant furieusement tout ce que l’on consentira à lui laisser prendre – l’amour, le feu, la guerre…
A ‘Gone With the Wind’ in the waning days of Algérie française (for a synopsis of the pic in English—there are as yet no reviews from the US or UK—, go here). One gets the general idea. The film is melodramatic and maudlin, i.e. it’s schlock. But… I was thoroughly entertained (as were others who saw it, to judge by Allociné’s audience ratings; though, as befitting films in France with an Algeria theme, it was a box office failure). It’s a grand spectacle and in which the director pulls out all the stops (trailer here). So for this one I suspended critical judgment and decided to just take it in (it’s also hard for me to give the total thumbs down to a film on Algeria whose historical adviser was the incontournable, inévitable Benjamin Stora). As it will likely not be making it outre-Atlantique or outre-Manche anytime soon, the only way to see it will be via streaming (if one requires English subtitles, that might be a problem).
There was a special projection of the film in Algiers last October, which was the subject of an amusing reportage by El Watan’s Chawki Amari, “Le film d’Arcady n’a pas réconcilié les Algériens.” The lede
«Ce que le jour doit à la nuit», le film d’Alexandre Arcady, tiré du chef-d’œuvre de Yasmina Khadra, a été projeté à Alger sur fond de rivalités entre des ministres et de rumeurs sur la mort du président Bouteflika. Récit cinématographique.
Among other things, one learns that Arcady’s film, despite the sponsorship of the Algerian Ministry of Culture, failed to receive the necessary authorizations in time, so had to be shot in Tunisia. Une histoire algérienne. Amari’s article, which is quite funny—I was cracking up while reading it—, will be appreciated by those who know Algeria well.
I just saw this terrific film by Merzak Allouache (English title: ‘The Repentant’; in Arabic: التائب). It is Allouache’s best film ever IMO and one of the best ever to come out of Algeria (and is certainly the best ever Algerian-directed film with a political theme). The “repentant” is a young Islamist fighter who, benefiting from the 1999 law conferring amnesty on members of armed Islamist groups (and updated in 2005), flees the maquis, turns himself into the authorities—who press him into being an informer—, and tries to reintegrate into civilian life, while seeking to settle an affair from his years as a guerrilla/terrorist, the details of which are only revealed toward the end. It’s a riveting film and with an excellent screenplay that bears out the complexity of the Algerian sale guerre—of armed Islamists vs. the Algerian state—of the past two decades. There are no caricatures, either with the characters or the politics. And the acting is first-rate, as is the cinematography (it’s set in the western High Plateau, mainly in El Bayadh).
I normally pay no attention to reviews of Algerian films, as the critics (French, American, etc) lack the requisite knowledge of Algeria to properly assess what they’ve seen. And this one presents additional challenges, as any description of the plot will almost inevitably contain spoilers (as did, e.g., Le Monde’s review, which basically gave the whole thing away). The pic has been reviewed by two American critics, who saw it at Cannes last year; one, from The Hollywood Reporter, was off-the-wall; the other review, by Jay Weissberg in Variety, absolutely, totally nailed it. It’s an excellent review and tells the reader precisely what s/he needs to know about the film, and without spoilers. I couldn’t have written it better myself. Here it is
A beautifully made, deeply emotional drama that catches auds up in its troubled protags’ lives, all the way to a staggering finale.
After several misfires, Merzak Allouache delivers not just his best film of the past decade, but arguably his best in 36 years in the helmer’s seat. Tracking a former jihadist and a separated couple whose lives were destroyed five years earlier, “The Repentant” is a beautifully made, deeply emotional drama that catches auds up in its troubled protags’ lives, all the way to a staggering finale. Though cinema is awash in Islamic fundamentalist themes, Allouache goes beyond mere issues with his intimate approach and narrowed focus. This is one Algerian movie that could finally see worldwide exposure, including Stateside.
Allouache not only strips the story down to basics but reduces the exposition: Background details are spare, and what’s not said is more powerful than what is. This suppression is tied to the helmer’s message of a country paralyzed by a self-imposed gag order, in which the past remains an unbearable weight that cannot be discussed. But as “The Repentant” demonstrates, the past is very much alive, and a refusal to confront it head-on allows fear, corruption, and fanaticism to thrive.
In the late 1990s, the Algerian government attempted to end years of terrorism by offering jihadists amnesty. Islamic fighters came down from their hideouts, registered with the authorities as “repentants,” and were integrated into society. Rachid (Nabil Asli) runs away from his fundamentalist compatriots in the mountain and reports to the cops; the police chief, Redouane (Mohamed Takiret), gets him a job with embittered cafe owner Salah (Hacene Benzerari), and Rachid appears to be fitting into normal life.
Then, he meets pharmacist Lakhdar (Khaled Benaissa). What actually transpires between these two isn’t seen or heard: first a one-sided phone call that visibly upsets Lakhdar, then a meeting that isn’t shown. What’s clear is Lakhdar’s intense isolation: He lives in a bare apartment, drinking copious amounts of wine and watching Chinese television at night, though presumably he doesn’t understand the language. Like everything else in his life, the boob tube merely fills the hours, since Lakhdar’s only engagement is with his inner demons.
After meeting Rachid, he calls his ex-wife, Djamila (Adila Bendimerad), who angrily makes the long drive to see him. They exude tension when together, uncertain how to behave and unsure if the chasm between them can be bridged. When she snaps that she can’t go back to the same hell as five years earlier, he replies, “Go back? I’m still in it.” They tensely wait for Rachid to call again, yet Allouache withholds explanation of how these three fit together until late in the film. Before the wrenching finale (bring hankies), all that’s clear is that Djamila and Lakhdar had a daughter who died five years earlier.
Many of Allouache’s films express disheartened concern over the rise of fundamentalism (“Bab el Oued City,” “The Other World”), but in “The Repentant,” possibly for the first time, he’s fully engaged with a jihadist’s psyche. Rachid’s escape from his Islamist life is real, and his desire for re-entry into society feels genuine. He has a childlike appreciation of the world around him, yet there’s something else that prevents him from fully assimilating; his denial of past atrocities isn’t convincing, and a skirmish with a revenge-seeker reveals an animal-like violence that’s never far from the surface. On one level, Rachid really may be sorry for what he did, but his personality shift following inculcation into the cult of terrorism can’t be completely buried.
All three leads deliver perfs of stunning emotional depth and complexity, quietly embodying the conflicts raging within. Only Djamila explodes, and when she does, Bendimerad’s expression of rage and grief is devastating. Young d.p. Mohamed Tayeb Laggoune displays a firm control of his handheld camera, appropriately responding to emotions onscreen. Visuals reflect the story’s intimacy while capturing the region’s empty landscape, whose vastness can feel crushing.
The film has unfortunately—thought not unexpectedly—not been a box office hit in France. It opened in Paris 2½ weeks ago and is fading fast. The French highbrow movie-going public—the kind that goes to see non-French and non-Hollywood films—is not interested in Algeria (pre- or post-1962), no matter how well-reviewed the film may be. But Algerian-origin audiences in France aren’t interested either. With the exception of Rachid Bouchareb’s ‘Indigènes‘—which was as much about France as it was Algeria—every last movie with an Algerian theme has either been a box office failure in France or simply not found its public, including in the immigrant population. E.g. one not too bad Algerian film I saw back in 2006, ‘Barakat!’, I was the only person in the theater (and which was in the Latin Quarter no less). Algerians are just not a cinema-going people, and certainly not serious cinema (I know I’ll get into trouble with some for saying this but I don’t care, because it’s true). There are hardly any cinemas in Algeria and most that exist are for young males only—adults and women do not set foot in them—and show trash. And that culture carries over into the immigrant community in France. And when Algerians do go to the movies, they show little to no interest in movies by Algerian directors. C’est dommage.
But if French and Algerians are not going to see ‘Le Repenti’, Americans and others should. So if you have a chance to see it, do so. You won’t regret it. Et si vous êtes à Paris, voici les séances actuellement.
My previous post being on a recently seen film on Islamist extremist fanatics in Morocco, I should mention this film seen even more recently on Jewish religious extremist fanatics in Israel (titre en français: ‘Les Voisins de Dieu’; in Hebrew: ‘The Supervisors’). Meni Yaesh’s directorial debut is set in Bat Yam, a southern banlieue populaire of Tel Aviv on the sea—just below Jaffa—, and with a focus on three twentysomething, cannabis smoking layabout tough guys who like to brawl—only one of whom, the protag Avi (actor Roy Assaf), is clearly gainfully employed, albeit in a petit boulot—, who follow Breslov Hasidism but take its teachings much more literally and fundamentally than does their rabbi. So they become self-appointed enforcers of a Jewish fundamentalist order in their housing project—Jewish salafaists, as it were—and with particular attention to women who, in their estimation, are too immodestly dressed. They also take action against local men who don’t respect the Sabbath—e.g. who close their shops a half hour after sundown on Friday—and get particularly worked up over Arabs from Jaffa who cruise through their ‘hood with Arab music blaring from their cars. But Avi gets a crush on the young woman, Miri (actress Rotem Ziesman-Cohen, who is rather attractive IMHO), whom he and his buddies have been harassing to dress more modestly, i.e. not to wear shorts, which causes him to waver in his religiously extremist convictions and undermines the cohesion of his small group solidarity.
I’ve been intending to write about this very good Moroccan film I saw last month, which has as its subject jihadist terrorism and the socio-political terrain that spawns it. It’s set in the sprawling Sidi Moumen shantytown on the periphery of Casablanca—the pic wasn’t shot there but sure looks like it was—and follows a gang of boys from mid childhood to their early 20s, in particular two brothers, Yacine and Hamid, who are the film’s protags. The early scenes, set precisely in 1994, are straight out of ‘Los Olvidados’ or ‘Pixote’, of the world of slum boys and its destitution and violence, and with Hamid the exceptionally wild, violent one. Jump to 1999 and Hamid, now in his teens, has become a drugged-out, alcohol-drinking voyou, who turns over the proceeds of his thievery and thuggishness to his mother, who doesn’t ask questions as to where the money comes from (the father is a catatonic invalid, sitting in front of the television all day). Morocco’s bas-fonds. This is not Anfa (Casa’s Beverly Hills) or the social stratum of ‘Marock‘. Hamid eventually gets arrested and is sentenced to two years in prison, during which time Yacine, who is more sage, gets an honest job in a shantytown repair shop. When Hamid returns to Sidi Moumen he is inevitably sporting a beard and has become calm and soft-spoken, as he found religion in prison, i.e. became a salafist. Of course. He then sets about converting older brother Yacine—initially reluctant—and boyhood friends into takfirist salafism, of which there is a cell in Sidi Moumen.
What happens in the film is fairly predictable and I’d pretty much seen it all before, notably in Philippe Faucon’s first-rate ‘La Désintégration‘, which is set in a cité in France and among the offspring of mainly Moroccan immigrants. ‘Les Chevaux de Dieu’ is essentially ‘La Désintégration’ set in the bidonvilles of Morocco’s cities (though the mother in the former pic is a rather less sympathetic character than in the latter). But this is not to diminish or denigrate the film. Director Nabil Ayouch did a very good job across the board, in the casting (all amateurs) and depicting the world of Morocco’s shantytowns, whose inhabitants are entirely excluded from society—the boys had never ventured into the center of Casablanca until their recruitment into the jihadist cell—and where the state is almost entirely absent, save for the occasional police raid (and carried out with the usual brutality). There are no public services, no schools in sight, no anything that comes from the state except for repression. Above all, Ayouch nailed it in portraying the mechanisms by which young men from the slums are indoctrinated into radical Islamism, through material incentives, peer pressure, offers one can’t refuse, and doses of brainwashing, and where the jihadist cell ringleaders are violent criminals for whom the young recruits are nothing more than cannon fodder for their suicide terror attacks and other acts of iniquity. Once inside a jihadist cell—which is a religious cult cum criminal enterprise—there is no exit, and one does not decline invitations to participate in a “martyrdom” operation. The film climaxes with the May 16 2003 terrorist bombings in Casablanca (and with the Sidi Moumen boys sent to the Casa de España restaurant in the city center). Hamid has états d’âme and tries to find a way out (and to persuade brother Yacine) but there’s no way. One way or the other, it’s near certain death.
This is one of those films with which I was increasingly impressed as it moved along, and particularly in thinking about it afterward. French reviews are good (with spectators on Allociné rating it even higher than the critics). Variety’s Jay Weissberg and The Hollywood Reporter also gave it the thumbs up. It is recommended to anyone interested in the question of jihadist terrorism and particularly for courses taught on the general subject. Pedagogically it’s very good, indeed one of the best on the subject. And on the subject—on reading to accompany the film—, I recommend academic specialist Selma Belaala’s pertinent 2004 article “Morocco: slums breed jihad.”
For the record, I will briefly mention another film, ‘Goodbye Morocco’, that I saw just after ‘Les Chevaux de Dieu’. As the title suggests it’s set in Morocco (Tangier), though the director, Nadir Moknèche, is Algerian. I’ll let Hollywood Reporter‘s critic introduce it
Writer-director Nadir Moknèche’s superior multicultural drama weaves together a dark tangle of subplots about art theft, infidelity, kidnapping, murder and immigration. Inspired by real events, this multi-layered suspense thriller is part murder mystery, part film noir and part dysfunctional love triangle.
Screen Daily‘s critic is on the same page
An impressively steamy and complex mystery thriller, apparently inspired by real events, writer/director Nadir Moknèche’s nicely shot film, which had its world premiere at the Doha Tribeca International Film Festival is a classily made film…
Variety’s critic, who also gave it thumbs up, aptly called it “[a]n eminently watchable curiosity.” Yes, definitely watchable. French reviews, though a notch below the aforediscussed pic, are good. It may not be worth venturing across town to see but one may definitely do so chez soi on DVD or streaming.
Chicago writer Joe Konrath has an amusing post on his blog on how writers should deal with bad reviews of their work. Though tongue-in-cheek and for laughs he concludes on a serious note
Also remember that the pendulum swings both ways. You’re a writer, so you know how difficult it is to write a story. Trashing your peers, or their work, shows a staggering lack of empathy. Be above that.
Good point and well-taken, though which begs the question as to what to do when confronted with a
piece of shit seriously flawed book on a subject of which one possesses specialist knowledge—or, in the case of cinema, when a film critic has to review an objectively bad movie. I have had numerous propositions over the years to review books that I thought were crap but passed them up, as I did not want to make eternal enemies with the author—particularly if s/he were someone I risked crossing paths with professionally (and all the more so if the author were someone with whom I was friendly)—, though on one occasion felt professionally duty-bound to rubbish a book that simply needed to be rubbished. In this case the author was/is a very high-profile specialist of his subject—a subject of which I know two or three things as well—and was accustomed to getting a free ride—and particularly in France—when it came to reviews of his work, so it took a fearless, relative outsider like myself to mettre le holà. I knew the august author would never forgive me—and he hasn’t (and no doubt contemplated employing against me one of the tricks Konrath enumerated in his post)—but I figured it would be no great loss—and the hypothetical loss was, in fact, more than compensated by the praise I received from numerous (French) academicians who would have never dared publicly write ill of the author’s work, however much they did so orally in private.
Something else Konrath does not consider: negative reviews are fun, both to write and read. And they are often deliciously fun, when the reviewed author manifestly deserves to be rubbished for his/her calamitous book. My all-time model of the genre is film critic David Denby’s annihilation of Michael Medved’s Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, which Denby called “the stupidest book about popular culture that I have read to the end” (the review, published in the November 2 1992 New Republic, is unfortunately not online). William Dalrymple’s demolition of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Who Killed Daniel Pearl? also comes to mind (as does Garrison Keillor’s drubbing of BHL’s American Vertigo). We’re not talking here about anonymous wankers posting one-star reviews on Amazon but recognized specialists taking apart
pieces of shit seriously flawed books in their domains of specialization.
À propos, Konrath dedicates his post to Roger Ebert, as Konrath was no doubt a fan of his fellow Chicagoan. But Ebert was a master of the scathing movie review, a number of which were gems. Among those that come to mind are his massacres of ‘Battlefield Earth‘ (based on Scientologist Ron Hubbard’s novel) and the hit comedy (in France) ‘Un Indien dans la ville‘. And then there was Ebert’s famous panning of the first cut of Vincent Gallo’s ‘The Brown Bunny’ and which led to an equally famous polemic between the two. Ebert’s negative reviews were so noteworthy that the top 50 have been aggregated into a single post on Complex.com. A great read.
The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of
idiots people out there who need to be put in their place when they say, write, or make stupid stuff, as, e.g., Ebert did to this petit con (watch and savor).
There have been many tributes to Ebert over the past two days and postings of articles on him. I will link to just one here, a 2011 video (h/t Victoria Ferauge) of Ebert talking movingly of losing and re-finding his voice. R.I.P.
UPDATE: Asawin Suebsaeng at Mother Jones writes on “One more reason to miss Roger Ebert: his love of trash,” where he says that
…what I will remember Ebert for is this: It is rare for a man of his influence and fame to so gleefully and unabashedly embrace (and I write this with the greatest enthusiasm) cinematic trash. No snobbery, no pretentiousness, and absolutely no shame in indulging in guilty pleasure—that’s what impressed me the most about his criticism. His favorite films of all time were critically acclaimed gold mines like Werner Herzog’s beautiful and notorious Aguirre, the Wrath of God or the 2011 Oscar-winning Iranian film A Separation. But he had a soft spot for popular garbage: Remember that ridiculous and disposable Vin Diesel action flick from 2002—the one so groggily titled XXX? If you don’t remember, it’s the Vin Diesel movie where Vin Diesel goes snowboarding in an avalanche [and that received from Ebert a] loving, nearly four-star review…
It was indeed the case that Ebert gave the thumbs up to a lot of schlocky-looking movies that I would not consider even seeing on DVD at home, let alone go to the cinema for. But in Ebert’s defense he was the film critic at a daily newspaper of America’s third largest city, so had to see just about everything, and particularly Hollywood movies for the masses (and the Chicagoland masses were indeed the readers of the Sun-Times, which, as it happens, was a great American newspaper—and that I much preferred to its more upmarket competitor, the Tribune—until Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1984). He couldn’t pick and choose, or privilege films d’auteur. He had to sit through so much dreck that when an action pic or mass market comedy with a halfway original screenplay and/or decent acting came along, he would take note and give it the thumbs up it may well have deserved for its genre.
He was a great film critic, one of America’s best ever, and the one I followed the most closely over the decades. This was only normal coming from Chicago, where he was followed by just about everyone who paid attention to movie reviews. During my years in Chicago I looked forward to his reviews every Friday in the Sun-Times, not to mention his TV show with Gene Siskel (who died in 1999, also of cancer). And after settling in Paris and getting the Internet (in 1995, to be exact), I subscribed to his email list. I didn’t always agree with his reviews—which was only normal (do people ever agree 100% of the time on movies?)—but was on the same page with him more than any other film critic I can think of. And when it came to foreign films, including French, anything he gave the thumbs up to I would put on my list to see (his reports from the Cannes Film Festival were great). As for his liberal political views—which he expressed on occasion—I can’t think of a time when I didn’t give the thumbs way up to whatever he had to say. He will be missed.
In the preceding post I linked to a TV reportage of the rapists preying on Syrian women in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. As it happens, I saw this Israeli film a couple of nights ago, which also has rape as its theme, specifically the psychological trauma suffered by rape victims and decades after the fact. The film is based on actual events, of a rapist—nicknamed “the polite rapist”—who terrorized the Tel Aviv area in 1977-78, raping 16 women before he was arrested. The story is of two victims of the rapist whose paths cross 20 years later (30 years later in fact, for the chronology of the film to make sense). One of the women, Lily (Ronit Elkabetz), is an anti-occupation political activist in her spare time, the other, Nira (Evgenia Dodina), a TV camerawoman who captures Lily in action defending olive-harvesting Palestinians from fanatical army-backed settlers—who are, figuratively speaking, rapists themselves—and recognizes her from 20 (or 30) years earlier. She makes contact, they forge a relationship (difficult at first), and relive the event and its traumatic sequels.
It’s not a bad film and certainly holds one’s attention, though what gave it an additional dimension for me was the discussion-debate in the cinema after it was over—which I had not known was scheduled—, led by the directrice-générale of the CNIDFF, a para-public feminist association that promotes gender equality and women’s issues in general, who called the film one of the most important and accurate that has been made on the psychological trauma suffered by rape victims. She said that she had worked with up to a thousand victims of rape in her career and could attest that the manner in which the Lily and Nira characters dealt with the experience decades after the fact—psychologically, in terms of their relationships with men (problematic in both cases), how they discussed it (or didn’t discuss), etc—was entirely accurate, that she had counseled such women countless times. On this level I learned something from the film—and which also depicted situations I am more familiar with (e.g. of how the police, judicial authorities, and even family members suggest that maybe the women bore some responsibility for what happened to them, if they didn’t outright provoke it). The CNIDFF D-G also revealed that the film’s director, Michal Aviad, had been herself a victim of the “polite rapist,” thus explaining her choice of subject and sticking closely to the historical record of the event. Here’s one review of the film. French reviews, mostly good, are here.
While I’m at it, I should mention an Israeli film I saw early in the winter, ‘Yossi’ by Eytan Fox, which has homosexuality as the theme (as did Fox’s excellent 2007 film ‘The Bubble’). The protag, Yossi, is a taciturn, pudgy, mid 30s medical doctor in Tel Aviv and gay, though has not revealed it to his colleagues or most anyone else, and has difficultly assuming his gayness even to himself. In the course of the film one learns that he had had a lover, Jagger, ten years earlier during his military service, but who was killed in Lebanon (dying in Yossi’s arms), and from which Yossi never psychologically recovered. He ends up at the home of Jagger’s parents—whom he hadn’t met—and reveals the love he had had for their son (they didn’t take the revelation of Jagger’s sexuality too well), after which he goes on a road trip to Eilat for some R&R, picks up four soldiers on weekend leave on the way, one of whom is gay—and more exuberantly so than Yossi—, and with whom, once in Eilat, things happen. One learns that homosexuality is more accepted in the IDF nowadays than it was a decade ago. It’s a small film, not essential, though may be seen, particularly if one has an interest in the gay theme. It would also help, I suppose, to see Fox’s 2002 ‘Yossi and Jagger’, which is a prequel to this one—and which I didn’t know about (and have yet to see). A review of ‘Yossi’ is here. French reviews are here.
Saw this terrific film from Chile the other day, about the 1988 plebiscite to allow General Pinochet to serve a second eight-year term—Pinochet’s own constitution, proclaimed eight years earlier, allowing the president only a single term in office. Normally the outcome of a plebiscite in an authoritarian regime is a foregone conclusion but the Chilean junta, succumbing to international pressure—including from the Reagan administration—to conduct the plebiscite freely and fairly, decided to allow the forces for a “No” vote 15 minutes of free, in principle uncensored TV time a night in the month preceding the vote. The opposition to Pinochet—most of which was banned, repressed, and/or in exile—was disorganized and at an obvious disadvantage vis-à-vis the junta in terms of resources (institutional, financial, and otherwise). When the campaign began it looked like the “Sí” would coast to an easy victory, all the more so as the opposition was divided over strategy—over whether to even participate in the plebiscite (which many on the left saw as a farce that could only legitimize the junta)—and didn’t have a good idea as to how to effectively use the free TV time. The latter is the story the film recounts, of a hotshot young executive (René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal), at what looked to be Santiago’s leading advertising agency, who essentially takes over the No’s ad campaign and imposes on the campaign’s skeptical leftist militants modern marketing techniques to win over floating and soft Sí voters to the No—and which of course won a big victory (and laid waste to the Sí’s ad campaign, which was headed by René’s reactionary boss at the agency).
That’s as much as I’ll say about the film, which is one of the best cinematic treatments I’ve seen of the role of communications and advertising in political campaigns—and is quite simply one of the best political films I’ve seen in a long time, period. It is also a fascinating depiction of the slow motion collapse of an authoritarian regime once political space was willy nilly opened up for the opposition to organize (and under international pressure, which was of central importance). The film was an Oscar nominee for best foreign pic, won an award at Cannes, plus several others, all well-deserved. Reviews in the US have been tops (Metacritic’s score was pulled down a bit by the nitwit critic from the New York Post), as they’ve been in France (in addition to the reviews one may read the article in Salon “When Don Draper toppled a dictator“). The reaction to the film in Chile has apparently been mixed. I’ll let those more expert on that country than I explain why (I used to be more or less knowledgeable about South America but it’s been a long time since I’ve read extensively about any country on that continent).
The director, Pablo Larraín, did one other film I’ve seen, ‘Tony Manero‘ (2008), which is set in Santiago in the late 1970s, during the junta’s années de plomb. The film was so relentlessly bleak that I didn’t how I felt about it.
Another political film from that corner of the world I’ve seen in the past week is the Argentinean ‘El Estudiante’, by first-time director Santiago Mitre, about a student at the University of Buenos Aires (Roque, played by Esteban Lamothe) who hails from the provinces and is more interested in hanging out and racking up sexual conquests than focusing on his studies. But thanks to a young leftist professor—and one of his conquests, but whom he falls for—he gets involved in student politics at the university and becomes a political operative, and which he is clearly a natural. The pic is all about the world of university politics in Argentina, which is pretty intense—public universities are autonomous and university officials (rectors, etc) are elected—and where the student parties (which go by fictive names in the film) are linked to national political parties and movements (here, left-wing Peronists, the extreme left, and Radicals). Reviews of the pic in the Hollywood press are very good (here, here, and here), as are most in France (though the spectator reviews on Allociné are somewhat less enthusiastic). I found the film interesting enough, though also less interesting at points. As one of the reviews I link to mentioned, “it’s easy to get the feeling of becoming lost in the details,” and which is what happened to me (and I wasn’t helped here by nodding off a couple of times, on account of fatigue, not the film). Though the politicking, infighting, and backstabbing one sees in the film are universal, the political context is specific to Argentina; student politics and the organization of universities in the US are completely different, of course, as they are in France (though there are some similarities in the French case, notably with activism in student politics paving the way to a later career in politics, and which is no doubt the case in Argentina). The theme of ‘No’, on the other hand—of political communication in electoral campaigns—, can be understood everywhere. I’ll see ‘El Estudiante’ again at some point but ‘No’ is definitely the more interesting film for those not expert on Chilean or Argentinean politics.
UPDATE: In a private communication Robert Barros, who knows Chilean politics better than anyone one is likely to meet, informs me that
there are a couple of factual errors [in the post]. The important ones have to do with the 1980 constitution contemplating the possibility of a second presidential term for a candidate selected by the military junta (didn’t have to be Pinochet, though he probably always saw himself in that role) and that the franja (the provision for free air time) had more to do with the internal development and implementation of the constitution than with international pressure. These variables in turn had to do with the internal dynamics within the military junta and with Pinochet.
Bob is the probably the leading political science specialist in the world—and certainly in the non-Spanish speaking world—on Chilean constitutionalism. His book on the 1980 constitution looks most interesting.
2nd UPDATE: An AWAV admirer outre-Atlantique informs me that he asked a Chilean-born and educated higher-up of a major international NGO what he thought of ‘No’. The response
He liked it both as an entertainment and as a depiction of history. He was not concerned by critics who complained it was historically inaccurate or that the director comes from a right-wing family. Like Argo, he said, it’s a good movie. As for the history, he said it captured the confusion and contradictions within the anti-Pinochet intelligentsia at the time and their realization that they had to move from a negative message to a positive one in order to win the vote.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
This is the film that won the Oscar for best documentary last month, beating out ‘The Gatekeepers‘. Having just seen it, I’m hardly surprised. ‘The Gatekeepers’ is a first-rate documentary, as I wrote last week, but there was no way this one was not going to get the Oscar. It is a wonderful, exhilarating film and that tells an absolutely amazing story, about Sixto Rodriguez, a great American singer who is practically unknown in America (including by me until now). Rodriguez, who is 70 years old, has lived his entire life in Detroit and been a manual laborer for most of it, became a musician on the side, and cut two albums in the early ’70s. His music is Bob Dylan-esqe and is every bit as good as Dylan’s. Even better. But his records did not sell, he got practically no publicity, and hardly played outside bars in Detroit. His career as a musician went nowhere and was soon abandoned. But his albums made it to Cape Town, South Africa, at the time, where his music became huge among progressive whites chafing under the chape de plomb of apartheid—and what was a repressive regime even for whites—, and inspired anti-apartheid Afrikaner singers. From the early ’70s to the mid ’90s Rodriguez’s albums sold maybe half a million copies in South Africa, where he was “bigger than Elvis,” except that no one in South Africa knew a thing about who he was. The country was subject to sanctions and boycotts, isolated from the rest of the world, and in the pre-Internet era there was no way for anyone there to get information on him. And Rodriguez knew nothing of his popularity in South Africa (and saw no royalties from his record sales). His fans in South Africa thought he was dead, having killed himself on stage in the US, so rumor had it. The documentary recounts how Rodriguez and his South African fans serendipitously found each other in 1997 and of his trip there the following year, where he was received as a big time rock star. It’s a great story and very moving. Here are the reviews by Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis. French reviews are stellar, as is the word-of-mouth in Paris, where the film is still playing three months after it opened.
The film’s director is Malik Bendjelloul, who is Algerian-Swedish, and it’s a Swedish production (filmed in Detroit and Cape Town).
As for Rodriguez’s music, it’s great. My wife bought his CDs after seeing the movie and we’ve been listening to them.
This is an excellent, wonderful, marvelous film from Saudi Arabia we saw last night. That’s right, from Saudi Arabia. It’s the first-ever film by a Saudi director and that was entirely shot in the country—in Riyadh—, where cinemas are all but non-existent. And moreover, the director, Haifaa al-Mansour, is a woman and the film is almost entirely about women—and not princesses but the middle-class. The main character, Wadjda, a spunky tween with attitude—and who declines to cover her face in public—, will melt every heart and be a front-runner to win every best actress award of the year. Here’s the review of the pic from Indie Wire’s critic, Oliver Lyttleton, who called it “a phenomenal debut from an exciting new talent,” “one of the best films of the year,” and gave it a grade of A
The title of “Wadjda” refers to its central character, played by 12-year-old actress Waad Mohammed. Wadjda is more rebellious than most around her; she makes mixtapes of forbidden music, wears battered Converse to her school, and, a born hustler, sells home-made football bracelets to classmates, all incurring the wrath of headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd). More than anything else, she wants a bike to race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) on, but the 800 riyal price of the bike she covets seems out of reach, until it’s announced that her school’s Koran-recitation competition carries a 1000 riyal prize. As she ekes closer to it, however, things start to fall apart at home, as her mother (Reem Abdullah), who’s unable to have more children, begins to fear that her mostly absentee husband (Sultan Al Assaf) is on the lookout for a second bride.
The word ‘bicycle’ instantly summons up images of a certain Italian neo-realist classic, and that’s certainly the kind of neighborhood that Al-Mansour is in here, with a simple pristine style that mostly gets out of the way of the story, and a touching humanism that’s reluctant to paint any of her characters as pure hero or villain (even the strict, humorless Ms. Hussa is given more texture than you’d expect).
There is one major hero, of course: Wadjda herself, who in the hands of Mohammed is one of the most memorable on-screen protagonists in some time. Essentially fearless, smarter than everyone else around her, and conning her way around Riyadh, it’s the showcase of a terrific performance by Mohammed (whose parents will apparently only let her act until she’s 16); the young actress owns every second she’s on screen. She’s not alone, though; while some performances are raw and a little rough around the edges, there are a few other standouts, not least from Abdullah. The two carve out a rare and complex mother/daughter relationship that feels entirely authentic, in both the conflicts and the moments of bonding.
It’s appropriate that the two are the film’s standouts, because it’s so much a film that’s about the role of women in a man’s world. Wadjda is constantly told what she can’t do — ride a bike, uncover her face, follow her own path. Her mother, focused almost entirely on pleasing her husband yet unable to bear sons, is forced to consider buying a dress she can’t afford to keep her husband’s attention. And at school, Ms. Hussa (who might have her own secrets) expels one girl for being caught with a boy, and reads too much into the friendship of two others. Al-Mansour never overeggs this stuff, but it’s omnipresent, constantly brewing away in the background, and in a world where an independent-minded 14-year-old girl can be shot by the Taliban, it’s a vital thing to be putting on the agenda.
This makes the film sound rather dry, and it’s not at all; there’s enormous warmth and comedy, and a fine observational eye of a world that’s pretty alien to Western audiences, which makes it consistently fascinating. Al-Mansour knows she has to play the audience like a fiddle (the Koran competition near the end is nail-bitingly tense), and yet it feels honest, rather than manipulative. As with last year’s “A Separation,” which it shares some surface similarities with, much of it is down to a watertight, hugely satisfying screenplay, written by the director.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat the situation in Saudi Arabia — far from it — but by the end, it makes clear in that in the likes of Wadjda, there are real hopes for progress and change in years to come. That it manages to do so in such a technically adept way (much of the production team are German), with such clarity of storytelling, and is able to do with humor, emotion and smarts, is something close to a miracle.
I entirely agree with this review (see this one too), though am not sure about the optimism for progress in the years to come. We loved this movie (and with my wife and our friend—both of part Algerian origin—saying that Wadjda reminded them so much of themselves at that age). A couple of observations. First, the film gives real insights into Saudi society and family life—which is opaque even to longtime foreign residents of the country—, as well as images of life in a residential neighborhood of Riyadh. On this level alone, the film is worth seeing. Secondly, the film is about the thirst for freedom among a few free spirits in a patriarchal culture in which the notion of the autonomous individual is non-existent. Everyone wears a cultural straightjacket, women above all but men as well. And there’s no escaping from it, even though a certain number wish to at least somewhat, particularly when they’re young. But it’s impossible, so they capitulate and then become patriarchy’s enforcers. As one critic observed in regard to Ms. Hissa, the school headmistress
Hissa is absorbed into a social system that over the years has developed into a second nature fed by assumptions. Even her lines are delivered in an emotionless manner, like a robot with an automated response system. Hissa and Wadjda are similar; one is a free-spirited young lady, and the other, a reflection of her future persona if boundaries are not challenged.
Wadjda pushes at the boundaries and then some, and has a few allies in her effort (and who, as it happens, are more male than female). And the bike becomes a (rather obvious) symbol of freedom. One of the nice things about the film is that it shows women unveiled when not in public. This unlike Iranian films, where women cover their hair at all times, including inside the home, even though women do not veil in private space. It is so because the films would not get past the Iranian censor otherwise (whereas in Saudi Arabia there is likely no censorship board, as there are no theaters to show the movies in). Director al-Mansour also clearly had backing in high places in Riyadh, as one notes in the credits at the end a special thanks to Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who’s kind of a big shot there, plus elsewhere—and is the subject of a lengthy profile in the latest issue of Forbes (he’s apparently unhappy that his net worth has been reported to be $20 billion, when he insists it’s more like 30 bil…).
The film has received stellar reviews in France and been a big success among the more highbrow movie-going public. We saw it in our neighborhood cinéma municipal, which likely programmed it on account of the buzz. Here’s the trailer of the film (French s/t) and a filmed interview with Haifaa al-Mansour.
One wonders what will happen to Waad Mohammed when she hits 16, if her parents keep to their pledge. A damned shame it would be for her to vanish from the silver screen.
UPDATE: The RFI website has an interesting article on the film and how it was made. Haifaa al-Mansour—who, we learn, is age 39 and married to an American diplomat—had this to say (my translation)
“Why the bicycle? I wanted to reconstitute my conservative universe, my school, my life… I wanted to show the tension between modernity and tradition. The bike represents modernity, speed, freedom of movement, the control of one’s destiny. Where I come from, this tension between the modern world and tradition is particularly acute. People are not conscious of it, as, at the same time, our country is rich. We have flat screen TVs, nice cars, beautiful buildings, but when you talk to a Saudi, you realize that he is very conservative, that his way of thinking is tribal. I wanted to show that this modernity is possible.”
Shooting the film on the streets of Riyadh took some doing, as not being able to mix with men in public, she had to direct the film from inside a van and by telephone.
I watched this extraordinary documentary on ARTE two nights ago. For anyone with the slightest interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is a must see—and may indeed be seen on ARTE’s website (French voiceover) until next Tuesday (it is presently in the theaters in the US). In lieu of my own commentary here’s an article by Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor, reporting on the film’s screening at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque in December, where all six of the former Shit Bet heads were present. Sounded intense. And here’s an interview with director Dror Moreh in The Times of Israel, in which he reveals “How [he] persuaded six intelligence chiefs to pour out their hearts.” En français, voici des articles de Télérama, du Monde, et de Rue89.
There are many noteworthy passages and lines in the film, and that I wish I had noted down. I liked this one in particular, by Yaacov Peri (Shin Bet head 1988-94): “Leaving the Shit Bet, one becomes just a bit leftist.”
There was some disappointment in lefty circles that the film did not win the Oscar for best documentary. Not having seen most of the other nominees, I can’t express a view on the matter. As for the one that did get the Oscar, ‘Searching for Sugar Man’, my wife saw it last week and absolutely loved it. So it was quite certainly a worthy winner.
UPDATE: Ami Ayalon, one of the film’s Shit Bet protagonists—and who I thought was particularly good—, has an op-ed in the LA Times on Obama’s upcoming Israel trip. Can’t disagree with a word he says. (March 8)
Saw it the day before yesterday, in my first outing to the cinema in seven weeks. Voilà my quick take.
There are two broad issues in regard to the film. The first—and less important one—is its length and pacing. Several friends and family members—including my wife (with whom I saw it), my daughter, two tenured professors in the social sciences, and a top honcho at a major NGO—found the movie interminably long and soporific. In short, they thought it was boring. At least one of the aforementioned friends suffers from CADD (Cinematic Attention Deficit Disorder), though I can see why one may feel this way. At 2½ hours the pic is long and it is not a high-octane, pulse-quickening, edge-of-your-seat nail biter (critics and others who have written that it is must be confusing it with ‘Argo’). Some of the scenes do drag on and the pacing is languid for stretches. The film could have been cut by at least twenty minutes to half an hour without sacrificing anything essential. But this said, the length and pacing did not bother me. At no point did I get impatient or start checking my watch. I was absorbed in the film from beginning to end. Maybe it’s a question of temperament. Or of interest in the subject. Or of CADD (the absence of). That’s as much as I can say about this aspect of it.
The second—and more important—issue with the film is, of course, its treatment of torture and whether or not it justified its use (Kathryn Bigelow made it clear that she did not believe torture was the key to finding UBL but that it was still part of the big picture; that it is an indisputable fact that torture was employed in the UBL hunt, even if certain scenes in the movie were fictionalized). I was well aware of the polemics over this but made it a point to read none of them until I had seen the film. Now that it’s been seen I’ve gone back and done the reading. The argument that ZD30 does justify torture—in part by suggesting that it was key to finding UBL—has been made by writers whom I respect, e.g. Jane Mayer, Steve Coll, and Peter Bergen (who is less categorial in his affirmation). Also CUNY law prof Ramzi Kassem and Amy Zegart from Stanford. Jane Mayer, whose review has been the most widely cited, takes Kathryn Bigelow to task on a number of points, such as this
In reality, when the C.I.A. first subjected a detainee to incarceration in a coffin-size “confinement box,” as is shown in the movie, an F.B.I. agent present at the scene threw a fit, warned the C.I.A. contractor proposing the plan that it was illegal, counterproductive, and reprehensible. The fight went all the way to the top of the Bush Administration. Bigelow airbrushes out this showdown, as she does virtually the entire debate during the Bush years about the treatment of detainees.
She was not the only critic to assert this. Glenn Greenwald, in his typically understated, nuanced manner, went further
This film presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America. There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists. No matter how you slice it, no matter how upset it makes progressive commentators to watch people being waterboarded, that – whether intended or not – is the film’s glorification of torture.
As it turns out, the most pernicious propagandistic aspect of this film is not its pro-torture message. It is its overarching, suffocating jingoism. This film has only one perspective of the world – the CIA’s – and it uncritically presents it for its entire 2 1/2 hour duration.
All agents of the US government – especially in its intelligence and military agencies – are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network (the sole exception being a high-level Muslim CIA official, who takes a break from praying to authorize the use of funds to bribe a Kuwaiti official for information; the only good Muslim is found at the CIA)…
Blah blah blah. Glenn Greenwald is, to put it colloquially, full of shit. Not to impugn his intellectual integrity or anything but I am willing to bet whatever amount one puts on the table that Greenwald had made up his mind on this—had written these very lines in his head—before seeing the movie.
In fact—and as one may sense by now—, I did not detect any defense of torture in the film, let alone the suggestion that it played a role in breaking the UBL case. On this, I entirely share Andrew Sullivan’s interpretation
The first thing I’d say on the political issue is that the film shows without any hesitation that the United States brutally tortured countless suspects – innocent and guilty – in ways that shock the conscience. To my mind, that is, in fact, a huge plus for those of us who have been trying to break through the collective denial and the disgusting euphemism of “enhanced interrogation.” No one can look at those scenes and believe for a second that torture is not being committed. You could put the American in a Nazi uniform and the movie would be indistinguishable from any mainstream World War II movie. Yes, that’s what we became in our treatment of prisoners.
In that way, it exposes the Biggest Lie of the Bush-Cheney administration: that Abu Ghraib was an exception, and not the rule. What was done to suspects in Abu Ghraib was actually less grotesque, less horrifying, and less shocking than what Bush and Cheney ordered the CIA to do to human beings directly.
Absolutely. Sullivan drives the point home with this
The acts that Lynndie England was convicted for are here displayed – correctly – as official policy, ordered from the very top. In that way, the movie is not an apology for torture, as so many have said, and as I have worried about. It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years and remain at large, while they scapegoated the grunts at Abu Ghraib who were, yes, merely following their superior’s own orders.
Spencer Ackerman has much the same view as Sullivan
“It’s a movie, not a documentary,” screenwriter Mark Boal told The New Yorker. “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program.” That quote has electrified the internet as a statement of intent to gussy up the importance of torture. But the fact is torture was part of the CIA’s post-9/11 agenda: dispassionate journalists like Mark Bowden presents it as such in his excellent recent book.
Zero Dark Thirty does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet. Were a documentarian making the film, there would surely be less torture in the movie…
At the same time, the film makes viewers come to grips with what Dick Cheney euphemistically called the “dark side” of post-9/11 counterterrorism. Meanwhile, former Bush administration aide Philip Zelikow, who termed the torture a “war crime” in a recent Danger Room interview, will probably find the movie more amenable than Cheney will. What endures on the screen are scenes that can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American.
Blogger Devin Faraci (previously unknown to me) also gets it right in a review asserting that ZD30 does not endorse torture, concluding with this
A big part of the problem so many seem to have with Zero Dark Thirty is an old fashioned inability to understand the difference between showing an action and endorsing it. I’m surprised that so many smart people writing for the smartest publications out there needed to have the film step up and, holding their hand, explain that torture isn’t good. Just showing torture as horrible wasn’t enough. Just having torture be unable to stop multiple terrorist attacks didn’t do it. They needed to have a character, maybe right at the end, looking off into the sunset say “We thought we were torturing them… but maybe we were just torturing ourselves.”
One of the refrains of ZD30′s critics is that regardless of the intentions of Bigelow and Boal, audiences will inevitably interpret the film as an endorsement of torture. But this is an assertion based on nothing. In the absence of audience surveys no one can possibly have any idea of how people are going to react to a film or interpret particular scenes. E.g. who is to say in advance how movie goers are going to view the opening scenes of CIA agent Dan humiliating and torturing Al-Qaida prisoner Ammar? Speaking for myself, I wanted to kick Dan in the balls, punch him in the face, and then some. He was an odious, immoral, sadistic SOB meriting not the slightest sympathy. But Ammar, despite being an Al-Qaida operative, was not depicted as an evil-doer or as someone viscerally arousing antipathy. He was a prisoner being subjected to a war crime. By the end of that long sequence—with Ammar being put in the box—I was thoroughly revolted at the actions of the CIA. And I felt that Bigelow and Boal were making a strong statement against what was happening to Ammar, not to mention of the utter ineffectiveness of torture, moral considerations aside (it’s amazing that Americans in the 21st century have been arguing over this point). Okay, so that was my reaction. But who is to say that others sitting in the theater felt otherwise? In the absence of survey data, no one can make any kind of assertion on this.
In point of fact, people react in all sorts of (often unexpected) ways to films. E.g. for the past ten-plus years I have had the students (American undergrads) in one of my classes watch ‘The Battle of Algiers’—a film that, among other things, confronts head on the issue of torture, but also the terrorism that led to it—, discuss it in class, and then write on it. I am continually struck by the range of reactions: some come away sympathizing with the FLN and condemning the French, others condemning the FLN above all, and then some condemning both sides equally or seeing the conflict from both sides. Likewise with another film I have the students in the same class see, the excellent two-hour PBS docudrama ‘Allies at War‘, on the wartime relationship between Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle, and particularly the difficult, acrimonious one between FDR and de Gaulle. I happen to think the film portrays one more sympathetically than the other; students sometimes see it my way and sometimes the polar opposite. Opinions on how the film treats the protagonists run the gamut. It stands to reason that it has been likewise with ZD30.
There are exceptions, of course. If you have an audience of 17-year old American boys in a multiplex in some mall , they will most certainly cheer on the American torturing the Ayrab or Muzlim bad guy (or Chinese, or Russian, or whatever kind of foreigner he may be), and regardless of the context, intention of the director, or how despicably the American is actually portrayed. Back when ‘Apocalypse Now’ came out, a friend recounted to me how the youthful audience in his suburban New Jersey theater whooped and cheered when Lt.Col. Kilgore’s men mowed down Vietnamese civilians, which one may doubt was the effect Francis Coppola wanted to provoke (I saw the film on the Champs-Elysées, where there was no such whooping or cheering). Teenage boys in groups are idiots, qu’est-ce que tu veux ?…
As for ZD30′s qualities as a film, political controversies aside, I thought it was okay. On Roger Ebert’s star scale (zero to four), I give it a three. Overall good. No more, no less. It is not the chef d’œuvre so many critics have made it out to be (and in France as well as the US). It hardly merits the 95 score on Metacritic or 4.1 on Allociné. The acting was fine but not Oscar level. Juan Cole, who liked the film less than I, had this to say
I did not like “Zero Dark Thirty” as a film. I found it emotionally thin, grim and relentless. It failed to establish an emotional connection to any of the characters, or to flesh them out as characters. The violence is deployed for the purposes of surprise rather than suspense, so that its dramatic effect is limited. It is episodic (we know that the Islamabad Marriott was blown up; shouldn’t the film present a theory as to why?) Any suspense is further blunted by our lack of connection to the protagonist. Whereas in “Argo,” my heart was in my mouth when the embassy employees were in danger, I just couldn’t summon that kind of interest in Jessica Chastain’s “Maya.” The characters remain undeveloped because this film is plot driven, but also because it is primarily didactic, intended to send a message. Unfortunately, instead of glorifying the genuine heroes who have mostly rolled up al-Qaeda (an evil organization that wants to kill your children), it covers many of them with the shame of war crimes.
One thing I have not done—and have no intention of—is look for right-wing reviews of the film. I did stumble across the reaction of Joe Scarborough, who saw ZD30 as defending torture and considered this to be a good thing, as it proved that torture is effective and necessary in America’s wars against its enemies. That’s as much as I need to read from that side of the political spectrum. Those who defend torture—anywhere and in any context—are moral midgets and ignoramuses. I have no interest in what they think and will not engage them in debate. Their views are not welcome on this blog.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I really liked this movie. It is highly entertaining and with great acting, is funny, offbeat, zany, you name it. It made my top 10 list of 2012 and was my pick for Oscar best picture (though having yet to see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’). But I have just now finished reading a biting critique of the film by political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, which, while not causing the film to fall out of my top 10, is, I will readily admit, very good, indeed excellent. In addition to skewering Quentin Tarantino’s film Reed also does a number on ‘The Help’—a film I appreciated rather less—and delivers a few body blows to ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’—which I did not unreservedly like—and other race-themed Hollywood pics while he’s it. His dense, learned, wide-ranging essay—title: “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why“—is very long—clocking in at almost 14,000 words, plus substantive endnotes—but is well worth the time and effort.
In a nutshell, Reed argues that
Django Unchained trivializes slavery by reducing it to its most barbaric and lurid excesses…[and that] perpetrating such brutality was neither the point of slavery nor its essential injustice. The master-slave relationship could, and did, exist without brutality, and certainly without sadism and sexual degradation. In Tarantino’s depiction, however, it is not clear that slavery shorn of its extremes of brutality would be objectionable. It does not diminish the historical injustice and horror of slavery to note that it was not the product of sui generis, transcendent Evil but a terminus on a continuum of bound labor that was more norm than exception in the Anglo-American world until well into the eighteenth century, if not later.
Central to Reed’s argument is the linking of the films in question to the increasing ideological predominance of neoliberalism over the past three decades. His analysis here is very interesting. I liked this passage in particular
Libertarianism is a shuck, more an aesthetics than a politics. Libertarians don’t want the state to do anything other than what they want the state to do. And, as its founding icons understood, it is fundamentally about property rights über alles. Mises and Hayek made clear in theory, and Thatcher and Friedman as Pinochet’s muse in Chile did in practice, that a libertarian society requires an anti-popular, authoritarian government to make sure that property rights are kept sacrosanct. That’s why it’s so common that a few bad days, some sweet nothings, and a couple of snazzy epaulets will turn a libertarian into an open fascist.
Absolutely on target. À propos, I had a post in Sep. ’11 on libertarianism and fascism, in which I (and Michael Lind, to whom I linked) said much the same thing.
Reed is really very smart. I remember well his book The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, which I read during the 1988 Democratic primary campaign. Most of my lefty friends enthusiastically supported Jesse’s candidacy that year but I most decidedly did not (I backed Dukakis after Hart pulled out of the race, though did, as a symbolic gesture, vote for Jesse in the 1984 IL primary), and found Reed’s critical stance toward Jesse a breath of fresh air.
Back to Tarantino’s film, TDB had a piece last week on “Django Unchained’s bloody real history in Mississippi.” The lede
Critics have carped that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is outlandish history, but two new books show that, in fact, Mississippi was even more violent and bizarre in that period. Historian Adam Rothman on a bloody incident of mob justice and slavery.
The new books are Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Belknap Press) and Joshua D. Rothman’s Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (University of Georgia Press).
The upshot: the South sucked. And it still does. It was—and remains—the most reactionary, retrograde, and all around depraved region of the Western world. The continuum of the slave owners and their petits blancs enforcers—such as depicted in ‘Django Unchained’—and today’s southern GOP base is manifest. Ça ne se discute même pas.
In his essay Reed takes issue with the positive assessments of Tarantino’s film by some of his academic associates, including this one by Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. IMHO, Bobo’s review isn’t bad.
UPDATE: Hussein Ibish, in a rather critical review, asks “Who’s really exploited in ‘Django Unchained’?” Answer: you, the spectator. (March 5)
This is an Indian film I saw last year and that I’m going to talk about in a minute, but first my picks for tonight’s Oscars. Or, rather, my non-picks, as I have not seen one or more of the films in each on the top categories, so lack the requisite basis to express definitive preferences. I would have normally seen most of the Oscar nominated films but in view of my present medical condition, I have not been able to go to the cinema since mid-January so have yet to see several of those that have opened in Paris since then. But as I have seen most of the nominees for best picture, here’s my assessment of each:
AMOUR – Very good film. Of course. But as it’s French (and by an Austrian director) and has nothing American about it, it doesn’t belong in this category. Let it win best foreign film.
ARGO – Top notch geopolitical thriller. Enjoyed it from beginning to end. But it is not without flaws and cannot be called a chef d’œuvre by any stretch. So it does not get my vote here.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD – I recognize its merits but it did not bowl me over. And I had a small issue with its implicit celebration of the simple bayou people living in filth and squalor. Modernity does have its downsides but I’ll take it any day over the lifestyle of the film’s protags. Also, the young Quvenzhané Wallis may be impossibly cute and adorable—and no doubt melted many hearts during her live interview sur le plateau on the France 2 evening news when the film opened here—but it would be most premature for her to win the best actress award.
DJANGO UNCHAINED – Thumbs way up on this. Great entertainment, great acting, funny, offbeat, zany… in short, Tarantino at his best. Not having seen ZD30 (see below), this is my pick for best pic. And it’s too bad Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t nominated for best supporting actor, as he’s the man…
LES MISÉRABLES – I have not seen this and likely will not. I toyed with going while in the US over Xmas but couldn’t bring myself to. And the across-the-board panning by critics—and on both sides of the Atlantic—plus the fact that I don’t like musicals to begin with heavily outweighed the gushing, dithyrambic reactions of 20-something female FB friends. But I am 99% certain that even if I were to see it, I would not vote it best pic.
LIFE OF PI – Wonderful movie. It loses out to Django only by a hair.
LINCOLN – Is it possible not to praise to this one to the heavens? It would be most un-PC not to, that’s for sure. I did like the film, no doubt about it, but voting it the best would be an intellectual, cerebral decision, not an emotional, visceral one. And at the risk of sounding the contrarian, Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, while very good, did not light a fire under me. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand…
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK – Entertainment for the Bachelor’s degree and higher cohort. I generally liked it—and it did lend itself to discussion afterward (on the subjects of schizophrenia and bipolarity)—but would hardly rate it the best film of the year. (Pour les lecteurs Français, je trouve bizarre et plutôt idiot le titre qu’on a donné ce film en France, ‘Happiness Therapy’, qui ne veut rien dire, ni en français ni en anglais).
ZERO DARK THIRTY – Haven’t seen it yet, as it opened in Paris after I had my accident (and which has kept me housebound for the past five weeks now). Hope I’ll be able to before it disappears from the salles.
Back to the Indian movie at hand, ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, I’ve been intending to give the head’s up on it since seeing the second part after it opened here in December. In my ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2012′ list, I labeled it the ”Best epic two-part movie from India about the interstices of organized crime, politics, corruption, communalism, and weak state institutions in the state of Jharkand.” Wasseypur is indeed a real city in what used to be southern Bihar, which is one of the poorer, wilder, and more lawless parts of India. Instead of describing the pic myself, I’ll let US critics do so. Here’s the intro to the review in Variety
The love child of Bollywood and Hollywood, “Gangs of Wasseypur” is a brilliant collage of genres, by turns pulverizing and poetic in its depiction of violence. A saga of three generations of mobsters cursed and driven by a blood feud, it’s epic in every sense, not least due to its five-hour-plus duration. Helmer Anurag Kashyap puts auds on disturbingly intimate terms with this psychopathic family and its hardscrabble North Indian mining town, while encompassing nothing less than India’s postwar history and deep-rooted problems in microcosm. Riveting…
And Hollywood Reporter last May
An extraordinary ride through Bollywood’s spectacular, over-the-top filmmaking, Gangs of Wasseypur puts Tarantino in a corner with its cool command of cinematically-inspired and referenced violence, ironic characters and breathless pace. All of this bodes well for cross-over audiences in the West. Split into two parts, as it will be released in India, this epic gangster story spanning 70 years of history clocks in at more than five hours of smartly shot and edited footage, making it extremely difficult to release outside cult and midnight venues. Its bow in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight met with rousing consensus…
Though it runs at over five hours, there’s never a dull moment in this Indian gangland epic by one of India’s hottest indie directors, Anurag Kashyap. Oozing visual style, laced with tight and often blackly comic dialogue, bolstered by tasty performances and a driving neo-Bollywood soundtrack, this Tarantino-tinged Bihari take on The Godfather has what it takes to cross over from the Indian domestic and Diaspora markets to reach out to action-loving, gore-tolerant theatrical and auxiliary genre audiences worldwide.
Those with a particular interest in India and/or who are of a social scientific bent will want to see the film, for the way it deals with communal and caste issues, and of Indian political culture. A couple of things. The film is in two parts, which opened six months apart here, so when I finally saw the second I had forgotten some of the details from the first, e.g. who was who and how they were related to one another. So the two parts should be seen in rapid succession. Also, the first part is superior to the second, which descends into an orgy of violence of bloodletting. This part could have been substantially cut. Mais peu importe. If you can stomach the violence, do see it.
This is director-actress Noémie Lvovsky’s hit dramedy of last fall, which has received thirteen César award nominations (French Oscars), tying the César record. The ceremony is this evening, so we’ll see how many it actually wins. The pic is a French version of Francis Coppola’s ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, where the 40-year old protag, Camille (Lvovksy’s character), is being dumped by her husband—whom she met in high school, so the only man she’s ever been with—for a younger woman and whose life is falling apart as a result, so gets transported back in time to right matters and make it so she never got involved with the jerk to begin with. The movie is thus Camille back in the 11th grade and at home with her parents, though in her 40-year old body. For those who were teens in France in the mid 1980s, the pic is a trip down memory lane. I thought it was pleasant and entertaining enough, though wasn’t as bowled over as were local critics, who positively loved the pic (spectator reviews on Allociné, while grosso modo positive, were somewhat more tepid). US critics who saw it at Cannes last year were also generally, though not unreservedly, positive (here and here), though I do agree with Variety’s Justin Chang, who called it “an amiable comedy that ultimately goes on too long without taking its back-to-the-past premise in an emotionally satisfying direction.” US foreign film aficionados will be able to decide for themselves whenever it opens outre-Atlantique (I predict they’ll like it).
BTW, the film’s English title, ‘Camille Rewinds’, in an inaccurate rendering of the original. “Redouble” is the third person present tense of the verb redoubler, which means to repeat a grade (in school). Thus, Camille repeats the grade (here, the 11th)…
Two films have received ten César nominations each for tonight’s ceremony, ‘Amour’ and ‘Les Adieux à la reine’ (‘Farewell, My Queen’), both of which I’ve posted on. The first I liked, bien évidemment (did anyone not? I do know one actually, but he’s an outlier, on this as on cinema in general); the second I did not like at all. Or, rather, it bored me to tears. ‘Holy Motors’, which I have not seen, received nine nominations. I avoided this when it hit the salles and despite the dithyrambic reviews, as it looked a little too much like David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis, which I absolutely HATED. But a couple of friends whose taste I trust have praised it to the heavens—including the one with whom I saw ‘Cosmopolis’, and who entirely shared my sentiments on it—, so I’ll catch it on DVD at some point.
One film that has received two César acting nominations is Pascal Bonitzer’s ‘Cherchez Hortenese’, with the always good Jean-Pierre Bacri and Kristin Scott Thomas. A “loquacious Gallic dramedy” as one US critic called it, “a pleasant, lightweight piece of entertainment, very French in spirit,” in the words of another. Yes, very French, including the title itself, that refers to a Rimbaud poem, which not a soul outside France (academic specialists of 19th century French literature excepted) will know a thing about. The film was perfectly acceptable, though also entirely forgettable. One little problem I had with it was that the Bacri and Claude Rich characters—who were son and father (and are the film’s two César nominees)—were both fifteen years older—in appearance and real life—than their characters in the film (e.g. Claude Rich looks to be in his 80s in the film, but the maximum retirement age of state functionaries, of which his character is, is 67). It’s a detail but a distracting one.
Two well-received films from the fall got no César nominations whatever. One was Olivier Assayas’s ‘Après Mai’ (English title: ‘Something in the Air’), which is a somewhat biographical reenactment of the director’s political activism as a high school student in the early 1970s. I was really looking forward to this film, as I thought Assayas’s epic biopic on Carlos (the terrorist) was excellent and ‘Après mai’ was billed by critics as a faithful reconstitution of the milieu of the post-May ’68 extreme left (thus the title) and the time period in general. And on this level, the film did succeed (entre autres, if one needs any reminding of the odiousness and loathsomeness of the French police, see the opening scene). But while French critics loved it—and with most US critics also enthusiastic (here, here, and here)—I noted that spectators on Allociné did somewhat less so. And as I’ve said more than once, when there’s a noticeable discrepancy between the appreciation of critics and spectators, go with the spectators. I indeed left the cinema somewhat dissatisfied, though couldn’t quite say why. This US review put its finger on it:
The major problem however, is that most of the characters aren’t terribly interesting. Of the young leads, only one, Armand, is older than 20, and most are in their first acting roles. Assayas seems to have cast as much for look, and for an evocation of the period, as anything else, but sadly most of the actors (bar Métayer and the more experienced Créton) struggle to make much of an impression, falling into a kind of bland prettiness.
This said, I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing it. Il faut le voir et juger pour soi-même.
The other well-reviewed film was Elie Wajeman’s ‘Alyah’, about a Parisian Jewish layabout drug dealer—I guess they do exist—who decides to get his act together, get away from his family, and do aliyah to Israel, a country he has never visited and has no particular interest in. Interesting theme, enough to get me to see it. US critics, like their French counterparts, gave the film the thumbs up (here, here, and here) but it left me indifferent. Ça arrive.
Back to tonight’s Césars, here are my preferences (not predictions, as most of my choices have little to no chance of winning). (N.B. I have seen all the films in the categories in question except for ‘Holy Motors’, ‘Les Saveurs du palais’, and ‘Quelques heures du printemps’.)
Best film: Dans la maison
Best director: François Ozon (Dans la maison)
Best actor: Jérémie Renier (Cloclo)
Best actress: Corinne Masiero (Louise Wimmer)
Best actor in a supporting role: Guillaume de Tonquédec (Le Prénom)
Best actress in a supporting role: Valérie Benguigui (Le Prénom)
UPDATE: I got it right for best supporting actor and actress but for the rest, it was ‘Amour‘ all the way. How could it be otherwise? ‘Camille redouble’ won nothing. I was pleased to see that Cyril Mennegun’s ‘Louise Wimmer’ won the award for best first film.
Two nights ago I watched a documentary reportage on LCP (French C-SPAN) on the Lord’s Resistance Army and its psychopath cult leader, Joseph Kony, which focused specifically on the accounts of soldier-slave children who had been abducted into the LRA, managed to escape, and regain their villages. The documentary was filmed in the southern Central African Republic, where the LRA has been operating (plus the DRC) since it was driven out of Uganda several years ago. A remote region of one of the most remote countries in the world (and with one of the most deliquescent states on a continent replete with such states). One can’t get much more off the beaten track than the CAR. One almost felt the dread of the film crew moving about the area with the LRA lurking in the bush—and despite the escort of CAR soldiers—, not to mention that of the villagers and the children. Unspeakable what happened to the latter at the hands of the LRA, and of the atrocities visited upon the former. Small wonder that Kony is at the top of the list of war criminals actively sought by the ICC in The Hague. US Army Special Forces, despite years of effort, have not been able to get their hands on him. Dismaying.
The subject of child soldiers is a heart-wrenching one. The children interviewed in the LCP reportage—aged 12 to 16—were nice, innocent kids when they were abducted into the LRA—when they were as young as 8 or 9—, where, by their own accounts, they killed innumerable villagers and participated in massacres. They had no choice. How does one deal with children who have been through this? Most of them seemed normal while interviewed but they’ve pretty clearly been psychologically damaged to varying degrees. The child soldier phenomenon has, of course, been present in many conflicts in the world—e.g. Khmer Rouge, Sri Lankan LTTE, Colombian FARC—but it’s mainly an African one. As it happens, I saw a feature-length film on the phenomenon a couple of months ago, ‘War Witch’ (French title: ‘Rebelle’), by Canadian director Kim Nguyen, and that is one of the nominees for best foreign film in the upcoming Oscars. The film is set in an unnamed African country, that I determined could only be the DRC, and, sure enough, that’s where it was shot (in the area around Kinshasa). It opens with the assault on a riverside village by an armed gang, who pillage, massacre, and abduct children, including the 12-year old girl and protagonist, Komona—played by the nonprofessional Rachel Mwanza, who won the best actress award at the 2012 Berlinale—, who is forced to murder her parents. If there were ever evil people in the world, the adult leaders of these armed gangs—who call themselves rebels, or revolutionaries, or whatever—are it. The film follows Komona—who is declared by the gang’s leader to be endowed with supernatural powers—as a child soldier, her budding romantic relationship with a veteran (age 14), an albino boy named Magician, and ultimately what happens to them. It’s a disturbing but powerful film, and important to see, as it deals with a tragically real phenomenon, of killer children but who didn’t choose to be that way. I’ve seen two other films in recent years on child soldiers in Africa—’Johnny Mad Dog‘ (shot in Liberia) and ‘Ezra‘ (set in Sierra Leone)—and would rate this one the best, or at least the one to see (if one wishes to see just one film on the subject). Reviews in the Hollywood press—which are positive—are here, here, and here. French reviews are here.
While I’m at it, I should mention another film I saw late last fall, ‘Tabu’, by Portuguese director-auteur Miguel Gomes, that was partly set in Africa (though which has nothing to do with child soldiers). The pic is divided into two parts. The first part is in contemporary Lisbon and focuses on an elderly woman into her dotage and who has a long-buried secret from her past. The second part is a flashback to the 1960s, of the estate in an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa—the segment was shot in Mozambique—in which she lived and the revelation of the secret, which involved romance. I found the first part of the film confusing and not particularly interesting, to the point where I thought the pic was going to be yet another insufferable film d’auteur that critics love but causes walk outs in the audience. But it really came together during the second half in Africa. One’s attention was riveted to the recounting of the buried memory—and which was narrated, as this part of the film was silent (and, as with the first part, was in black-and-white). The second part made the film. And my sentiments on this were echoed by a friend, as well as by several critics. As Variety’s critic put it, the film “starts off merely perplexing and winds up insinuating its charms.” Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have, not surprisingly, been gushing over the pic, e.g. here, here, here and here, and French reviews here. Variety’s critic again: ”‘Tabu’ is nearly uncategorizable and strictly for patient arthouse crowds, yet those who wait are likely to come away still puzzled but deeply moved.” I agree. Highly recommended.