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Arabian Nights

As Mil e Uma Noites Vol1 O Inquieto

Volume 1, The Restless One. This is the first part of a trilogy, or triptych, by Portuguese director/auteur Miguel Gomes, which opened in Paris last month to dithyrambic reviews. As I have been more or less riveted to Greece and the EU over the past three or so weeks, it seems logical to have a post on this film and at this moment, as its subject is precisely the deleterious effects that the European Union’s austerian policies have had on Portugal with the crisis that began in 2008-09.

The film is an original—if not idiosyncratic—presentation of the manner in which the crisis has affected that country. Quoting from this pre-projection dispatch in Screen Daily

Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, a contemporary re-telling of One Thousand and One Nights, is set to premiere in Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel section of the Cannes Film Festival (May 13-24).

Arabian Nights, the film – or, even better, the three miraculous films – by Miguel Gomes, will be premiering at the Directors’ Fortnight,” said Directors’ Fortnight artistic director Edouard Waintrop.

“The breathtaking triptych is inspired by the tales told by Scheherazade and by some events that occurred in Portugal between 2013 and 2014, while the country was subjected to a political power denying all forms of social justice. It will set the pace of our program. Each film, directed with a wild fantasy and a great freedom, will have its day.”

Set against the background of the economic crisis in Portugal, a contemporary Scheherazade paints a picture of the country’s woes, across three episodes: Volume 1, The Restless One; Volume 2, The Desolate One; and Volume 3, The Enchanted One.

The Portuguese economic and social crisis, recounted via The Arabian Nights‘s Scheherazade, updated for our present era and with stories that have actually happened in Portugal these past few years. What an original idea for a film. And Hollywood press critics, who saw “Volume 1″ at Cannes, indeed piled on the praise. Variety’s Jay Weissberg, whose reviews are always reliable, thus began his

The first installment of Miguel Gomes’ trio of pics acts as a melancholy paean to a broken Portugal and a denunciation of European financial control.

The number of films dealing head-on with the global economic crisis have been shockingly few, leaving the field wide open for someone with the creative complexity and storytelling verve of Miguel Gomes, whose three-part “Arabian Nights” tackles the subject with characteristic imagination and, unsurprisingly, righteous anger. While too early to tell how the trio of pics hang together, it’s possible to say from “Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One,” that audiences are in for a meaty opus that weaves actuality and allegorical fantasy into an outraged portrait of European austerity, witch doctors, the Portuguese politicos at their beck and call, and, most importantly, the unemployed masses. (…)

And this from The Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd van Hoeij’s review’s “Bottom Line”: “People in crisis and flights of fancy come together in this frequently fascinating collage of stories.” And then there’s Indie Wire’s Oliver Lyttelton, who simply said that Miguel Gomes’s triptych was “astonishing.” No less.

As the last film I saw by Miguel Gomes, the 2012 ‘Tabu’, was quite good and original, and in view of the US reviews (always more reliable than the French), I assumed this one would be a guaranteed thumbs up.

The verdict: I found it incomprehensible. I didn’t understand what was happening in the film (made up as it is of several vignettes, all allegories; trailer here). I ceased trying to follow it after some twenty minutes, as I couldn’t make sense of the story (as there didn’t appear to be one). I could have walked out of the theater (sparsely attended, and on opening day) at any moment but stuck it out to the end, though for no good reason, as I was bored to tears for the two long hours. So for the first time in my recent movie-going history, I am obliged to part company with Jay Weissberg. Gomes’s film is one for critics, not audiences. And I am manifestly not alone, as after four weeks in the salles, barely 29,000 have seen it in all of France (cf. ‘Tabu’, which attracted 144K spectateurs during its run; for this latest one, Allociné spectateurs are decidedly less enthusiastic than the critics). In France that is called an échec, i.e. the pic has bombed, and among its natural audience of highbrow cinephiles.

The second “volume” of the triptych opens next week. I think I’ll skip it. And I certainly won’t be the only one.

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Dylann Roof (Photo via lastrhodesian.com)

Dylann Roof (Photo via lastrhodesian.com)

[update below]

Did you, dear reader, see Jon Stewart’s monologue—sans jokes—last Thursday on the Charleston massacre? If you didn’t, watch and/or read it here now. It’s brilliant, possibly Stewart’s best ever.

Along with many others, Stewart emphasizes that it was a terrorist attack. Obviously. Now I happen to agree with the sensible proposal of this conservative pundit—a well-known commentator, and with specialized knowledge, on matters having to do with Islam and Muslims—who argues that the “terrorism” label has become so imprecise that it best be dropped altogether. In other words, let’s eliminate the term from our vocabulary. Right, but still. If Dylann Roof had been named Mohammed Sath and shot up a synagogue—or a Burger King, or anything—the entire media and every last politician of both the major parties would be calling him a terrorist. There would be no disagreement on this whatever. So all those who are loudly insisting that the Charleston massacre was an act of terrorism are correct to do so.

On the subject, the NYT’s Charles Blow had a column yesterday on Dylann Roof as “a millennial race terrorist.” And in the current NYT Magazine is a reflection by writer Brit Bennett, who, looking back in history, observes that “White terrorism is as old as America.” Her conclusion

In America’s contemporary imagination, terrorism is foreign and brown. Those terrorists do not have complex motivations. We do not urge one another to reserve judgment until we search through their Facebook histories or interview their friends. We do not trot out psychologists to analyze their mental states. We know immediately why they kill. But a white terrorist is an enigma. A white terrorist has no history, no context, no origin. He is forever unknowable. His very existence is unspeakable. We see him, but we pretend we cannot. He is a ghost floating in the night.

Very good commentary, though Bennett is not totally correct on the “not trot[ting] out [of] psychologists to analyze [the] mental states [of foreign or brown terrorists],” at least not in France. In reading about Dylann Roof I am reminded of Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old Franco-Algerian terrorist who murdered seven people—Jewish children and off-duty soldiers—in Toulouse and Montauban in March 2012. In committing his acts Merah was driven by a jihadist ideology but was clearly a psychopath in addition. As the Paris-based Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama thus wrote at the time

La courte trajectoire de sa vie montre qu’il s‘agit de ce qu’on appelait auparavant «un psychopathe», c’est-à-dire une personne qui a de puissantes pulsions anti-sociales, dont il va recycler le penchant criminel dans des idéologies salvatrices folles, idéologies qui servent de niche à ce genre de personnes, afin de les capter et de les utiliser.

For my posts on Mohamed Merah, go here, here, and here.

Dylann Roof is, as was Mohamed Merah, clearly a psychopath but is also, rather clearly, driven by an ideology and to the same degree as was Merah. On Roof’s ideology of white supremacy, the “Reflections on the murders in Charleston, South Carolina” by U Mass-Amherst emeritus professor Julius Lester, posted on his Facebook page, are worth the read.

Among other things, Lester asks Republican politicians and others seeking to change the subject to stop talking about this being a “time for healing.” No, this is no time for “healing” but rather for a national reckoning—and particularly on the American right—of America’s history and present reality of racism, and of the consequences of this. And one of the consequences of America’s persistent racial question is the strength of the increasingly far right-wing Republican party, which, as Paul Krugman reminded us in his column yesterday, is largely due to the defection of white Southerners from the Democrats, with the civil rights movement and enfranchisement of the South’s black population.

À propos, we have learned over the past few days (e.g. here and here) that Dylann Roof drew particular inspiration from the Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC; founded in the 1950s as the White Citizens’ Council). Now the CofCC may be considered a fringe hate group in Washington and by the national media but it is not seen as such by the Republican party in the South, as I learned in my brief encounter with the CofCC delegation at the French Front National’s annual festival some seventeen years ago (see here; scroll down after the photo of Jean-Marie Le Pen shaking hands with Ronald Reagan). It is a secret de Polichinelle that the GOP in the deep South maintains an informal relationship with the white supremacist, Jim Crow-nostalgic group with which Dylann Roof identified.

The CofCC’s presence at the FN’s festival was noteworthy, reminding one that far right groups—ultra-nationalist by definition—do have relationships with kindred groups in other countries. On this, Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, have an op-ed in the NYT on “White supremacists without borders.”

On white supremacists, a film opened here in France two weeks ago, Un Français (English title: French Blood), whose subject is neo-Nazi skinheads. It’s the first-ever cinematic treatment of this species of humanity in France, indeed of the extreme right (see Raphaëlle Bacqué’s full-page article on the film in the June 10th Le Monde). I hesitated on seeing it—the trailer put me off—but, with the Charleston massacre, decided that it was sufficiently topical, so checked it out this past weekend at a local theater. The opening scene was akin to that of the 2011 German film ‘Combat Girls’, which was about neo-Nazi skinheads in that country (go here and scroll down): graphically depicting gratuitous violence inflicted by these dregs of society on dark-skinned or leftist-looking people minding their own business. The violence of the opening scenes in the two films was such that I couldn’t even watch, wondering why I had even come to see the film in the first place—like, who needs this?—but then both settled into a more serious story. I’ll let Screen Daily’s fine critic Lisa Nesselson, whose review was just posted (and is the only one I’ve seen in English), describe the pic

It’s hard staying true to your youthful convictions when they would have fit well in Nazi Germany but it’s the mid-1980s-and-after in France where Marco Lopez (the excellent Alban Lenoir) is a ferocious young skinhead from the lower class Paris suburbs who carries a meat cleaver and is happy to wield it if anybody objects to him and his buddies stomping on the ‘faggots’, ‘Arab scum’ and ‘filthy Negroes’ they see as polluting the pure and proud meant-to-be-white landscape of their beloved France.

As a rare attempt to address an enduring strain of xenophobic thought in French society (and that, as hate-crime headlines sadly show, is by no means limited to France) this compact, unsettling tale deserves to be seen beyond local borders. Drawing respectable admissions on 11 screens in Paris proper and 50 additional screens throughout France since its June 10th release, French Blood managed to land the second spot in terms of ticket buyers per print for new releases on opening day — with Jurassic World in first place.

In his second feature, writer-director Diastème (who, as a film critic, director, screenwriter and playwright uses only one name) follows Marco — a fictional character drawn from the director’s own birthplace and youthful environment — from 1985-2013. It’s a convincing portrait of blind ignorance and lethal anger as Marco gradually evolves toward a more reasonable approach to living among others in a multi-cultural society. The melancholy truth that gives the film its power is that initially reprehensible Marco manages to become an infinitely better person but, in real life, the Extreme Right thinking he embraced in his twenties hasn’t dimmed and may have grown stronger for many of its French followers.

The trio of male friends at the heart of Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate (La Haine) circa 1995 were an Arab, a Jew and a black guy. They wouldn’t have wanted to cross paths with Marco and his three brawling buddies as portrayed in the opening reels here. Fights are convincing and miles removed from Fast and Furious-style silliness in that punches hurt, knives slice and bullets cripple. Diastème captures a restless, angry, violent vibe.

The film’s most shocking episode — a black street sweeper being forced to drink drain cleaner — was inspired by an authentic crime against a man from the formerly French island of Mauritius. Although the film is a work of fiction, it follows a timeline inspired by real events particularly within Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme right wing party the Front National. Diastème knows his subject — he hails from the same suburb where the first skinheads in France were born and he sang in a choir whose benefactors included fundamentalist Catholics. He first reported on the Front National as a young journalist in 1990.

Although he has certainly been hit on the head more than once, as Marco ages, he starts to question his own actions. In a series of ellipses marked by changing facial hair and authentic TV news snippets, Marco grows into leading an increasingly honest life of meagre satisfactions. Marco doesn’t have one shining moment of realisation that his behaviour is horrific but, rather, gradually comes to feel that it is neither right nor good to beat up — let alone kill — people because they’re “different.” When a panic attack leads him to a pharmacy where the pharmacist (Patrick Pineau) goes beyond the call of duty, Marco starts to think for himself in tiny but lasting increments.

Come 1998, Marco is living in Guadeloupe. He used to beat up dark-skinned people for sport but now has no problem serving them alcohol in the beachfront bar where he works. But his wife, who can pass for sleekly refined when she’s sober, scoffs at the about-to-triumph soccer World Cup team whose talented players are mostly of African and North African heritage and therefore unworthy to represent France whatever their athletic excellence.

Following another ellipse it seems unlikely Marco will be able to pass on what he has learned about acceptance and tolerance to his daughter since he isn’t permitted to see her. Ironically, that’s because he no longer shares his ex-wife’s hard core racist views. Adding to his loneliness, Marco’s former skinhead buddies don’t fare very well with passing time.

The film garnered attention before its release with media reports that certain exhibitors, spooked that hooligans might trash their theatres, cancelled sneak previews. If there’s any truth to this, now that the film is out it’s hard to fathom what today’s neo-Nazis might object to. If they’re misguided enough to think the Le Pen family has the right idea, those ideas are presented in an accurate context.

Nesselson’s review is comprehensive and gets it right, though she appears to rate the film higher than I do. Not that I didn’t like it—it’s pretty good overall—but I had a couple of issues. E.g. protag Marco’s transition from violent, hate-filled thug to nice, better person—and who abandons extreme right-wingism altogether as he grows older and wiser—which is depicted via body language but is not convincingly explained (cf. the neo-Nazi skinhead protag in ‘Combat Girls’, whose transition is more fully developed). Also the scène de ménage on the beach in Guadeloupe with Marco and his bleached-blond bourgeois chick, named Corinne (actress Lucie Debay), the latter’s words and general rhetoric ringing false IMO.

Mais peu importe. The film’s treatment of politics is on the mark, of the relationship of the skinheads to the Front National (not specifically named in the film—except in the televised footage—but more than obvious). The FN engaged the skins—notably in recruiting them into its security service (DPS), Marco in the film being part of it in the early phase of his better person transition—but sought to keep them at a distance at its public events (e.g. they were not in evidence at the FN festivals and rallies I attended in the late ’90s, likely having been asked to stay away). The FN’s relationship to the neo-Nazi skins is indeed akin to the southern GOP’s with the CofCC: the latter being a little extreme and not publicly fréquentable but still part of the family, to be engaged with discreetly.

Also notable in the film are the scenes toward the end, where Marco watches from a distance as Corinne—now his ex, whose personal convictions were as extremist and racist as his in his youth, but, in her case, did not change—, leaves Sunday mass in bourgeois banlieue, with bourgeois husband and Marco’s now teen daughter—whom he has not been allowed visitation rights in view of his police record—and then sees them on television marching in one of the big 2013 hard-right demos against the government’s bill legalizing gay marriage. Subtext: there are plenty of upstanding, respectable members of society not from the lower classes who share the world-view of the neo-Nazi skinheads—or, in America, of white supremacists—but, as they are upstanding and bourgeois, are not considered infréquentable on that side of the political spectrum.

As for Dylann Roof, he looks too physically wimpish to be a marauding skinhead. He wouldn’t have been allowed. Skinheads need to be physically strong. But who needs physical strength when you can go out and legally purchase a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol? Thank God—and the Republic—one cannot do that in France.

In case one missed it, Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, of UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, respectively, had an op-ed in the NYT the day before the Charleston massacre on “The growing right-wing terror threat” in America, which, they say, is of greater preoccupation to law enforcement than that from Muslim extremists.

And TNR’s Brian Beutler has a commentary on South Carolina GOP governor Nikki Haley’s announcement yesterday that she will seek to have the Confederate flag at the SC State Capitol removed, which, Beutler says, does not make her a hero; she’s just doing damage control for Republican presidential candidates too terrified to take a position on the issue themselves.

UPDATE: Watch here Jon Stewart go after Fox News for its coverage of Charleston. Excellent.

un français

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movies-233913-2

That’s the literal translation of director Stéphane Brizé’s La Loi du Marché, the market here being the neoliberal market economy (the film’s actual English title is ‘The Measure of a Man’). It was in competition at the Cannes film festival, which ended yesterday and with Vincent Lindon—the only professional actor in the film—winning the best actor award. The film opened in France last week and, as it happens, I saw it yesterday evening, learning about Lindon’s prize in a newsflash some ten minutes after leaving the theater. I can’t say if it was well-deserved, as this is the only one of the nineteen films in competition at the festival I’ve seen—which is logical, as none of the others have opened yet—though he did put in a very good performance, as he always does. Lindon is a fine actor, though his persona, for me at least, tends to overwhelm whatever role he’s playing. He does have range, though is always Vincent Lindon, if that makes sense.

In this, he plays a 51-year-old member of the skilled working class named Thierry, who has been laid off from an enterprise that, as the viewer is informed, was making a profit but with the company home office, for reasons not having to do with its bottom line, deciding to close the plant and send the personnel to Pôle Emploi. Collecting unemployment compensation for close to two years, Thierry is taking a mandatory retraining course but which is a waste of time—and he and everyone he has to deal with know it—as, at his age and given the way the system works—and with the unemployment rate in France being what it is—there is almost no chance it will yield anything for him. With a wife in a low salary job, a handicapped teenage son, and unemployment checks down to €500/month—and refusing to consider selling their modest condo, which would compromise their (barely) middle-class status and all that they had worked for—he takes a job as a security guard in a hypermarket in a shopping center (which looks to be in the Paris banlieue, though it could be anywhere), though which mainly involves monitoring the video surveillance cameras, to spot not only shoplifters but also employees—principally cashiers—who may be cutting corners or doing things they shouldn’t. And it is made clear to him that the company is looking to shed staff, so his fellow employees are particular targets of the surveillance and nabbed for transgressions that are, objectively speaking, not a big deal but nonetheless a pretext for getting fired. And in France these days, one knows what it means to suddenly lose one’s job, particularly under such circumstances and if one does not have in-demand skills to begin with. So Thierry, who lost his previous job in a company that was looking to increase its profits—and no doubt executive compensation too—at the expense of its personnel, now finds himself as a peon on the side of le patron, not only getting colleagues fired but nailing shoplifters who, in fact, don’t have the means to pay for the food they’re concealing in their coats or purses, i.e. who are in much the same financial situation he was facing before, out of desperation, he took his minimum wage job.

The pic is an obvious sociopolitical commentary from the opening scene, on the nature of capitalism in our era and the precarious state in which an ever larger portion of the workforce finds itself. Lindon and Brizé—the two collaborating closely in the film’s making—have made this clear in interviews, with Lindon—who does not conceal his gauchiste views—telling the JDD, in regard to film’s story, that “delation makes me want to vomit” and “I am a man angry [at finance capitalism] and, above all, furious at injustice,” and Brizé denouncing to Le Monde the fact that, these days, “people are eliminated for the most minor of infractions.” I thought the film handled its subject with sufficient subtlety—more so than Ken Loach or Robert Guédiguian would—notably the way Lindon’s character dealt with each situation he was confronted with. The film depicts the reality of the working lives for the lower half of French (and American, British, etc.) society more accurately than any other I’ve seen in a while. On this, it’s almost documentary-like. But some—e.g. those whose views on economic questions are akin to the line of The Economist magazine and Wall Street Journal editorial page—may find the pic’s engagé side to be heavy-handed, if not downright agitprop. On this score, there are indeed a couple of sequences, including the ending—no spoilers—, that are borderline. Mais peu importe. It’s a good film. If you are, however, the kind who sees hedge fund managers as wealth creators and “makers”—and who considers the Thierrys of this world to be “moochers” and “takers”—then the movie is definitely not for you. But if your world-view is the opposite of this, then you’ll likely appreciate it. Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes gave it the unreserved thumbs up—here, here, and here—as did those in France, whose reviews are particularly gushing. And people in the media here were positively thrilled at Vincent Lindon winning his prize. He is clearly well-liked by those who’ve met him (I’ve seen him a couple of times in public in the 6th arrondissement; he seems like a cool guy). Trailer is here.

French cinema was a big winner at Cannes, with the Palme d’Or going to Jacques Audiard’s ‘Deephan’ (which opens in August) and Emmanuelle Bercot winning the best actress award ex-æquo for her role in Maïwenn’s ‘Mon roi’ (opens in October). Bercot, it so happens, was also the director of the film ‘La Tête haute’ (Standing Tall), that opened the festival (out of competition) two weeks ago, and which immediately hit the salles here. I’ve seen it. It’s good. Will have a post on it soon. Many good films coming out in France these days. Whoever said French cinema was in decline?

One French film that came out recently, and with a very similar theme to the above discussed one, is director Pierre Jolivet’s Jamais de la vie (English title: The Night Watchman). This one is also about a man in his early 50s, here named Franck and played by the Belgian actor—and Dardenne brothers’ favorite—Olivier Gourmet—the similarities with Vincent Lindon are striking—, who, one understands, had a decent working class job—and was a union delegate—but lost it ten years ago, now works the graveyard shift as a security guard at a hypermarket in a shopping center in a soulless Paris banlieue (sound familiar?), and spends his off hours drinking en suisse in his flat in his cité high rise—he lives in la zone—where he knows and gets along with everyone, including les jeunes. He was clearly a leader during his factory/union days but has had a tough time since, and is looking at a bleak future financially, with the necessity of working till he’s 70—all but impossible in France—to collect a livable pension. The social commentary is pretty obvious, though Franck’s attention is directed not at his employer or finance capitalists but rather criminal elements among his watchmen colleagues. It’s not a bad film—it certainly held my attention—and is carried by Gourmet, who’s in almost every frame. It’s quite a performance on his part. He’s a real screen presence. THR’s review is here. Trailer is here.

jamais de la vie

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Titli

titli une chronique indienne

This is a first-rate film from India I saw the other day, about a lowlife crime family in greater Delhi and their lowlife antics. I’ll let Variety’s Jay Weissberg—who probably knows non-Western cinema better than any other US film critic—describe the pic

The rising profile of Indian indies on the international scene receives another boost with Kanu Behl’s grittily impressive noir debut, “Titli.” Set within the claustrophobic confines of a criminal family in a downtrodden section of Delhi, the film plunges into this pitiless milieu with headstrong assurance, presenting a paternalistic world where corruption seeps into people’s pores and women need backbones of steel to survive. Behl coaxes standout perfs from the largely non-pro cast and captures the volatility of a society where violence lies uneasily just below the surface…

If the recent horrific rapes reported from India have taken much of the globe by surprise, “Titli” seems to be saying, “Look, let me show you where this comes from.” Behl and co-scripter Sharat Katariya make no apologies; nor do they create one-dimensional monsters: They depict a dog-eat-dog culture where feelings of powerlessness engender acts of terrible cruelty. Part of this stewing anger comes from the increasingly independent power of women, creating a backlash and crushing wives unable to maintain their precarious control.

The name Titli translates as “butterfly,” an apt moniker for a character (Shashank Arora) who undergoes a troubling transformation. He’s the youngest of three brothers, living together with their father (Lalit Behl, the helmer’s dad) in a cramped, dingy home off one of Delhi’s countless unpaved streets. Titli dreams of escaping and buying the concession for a newly constructed parking garage, but he’s about $500 short. Once his family is introduced, it’s apparent why Titli is so anxious to get out: Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) is a belligerent tyrant who’s driven his wife to file for divorce, and middle brother Baawla (Amit Sial), through his calm demeanor, enables Vikram’s expansive ruthlessness and their father’s silent control. (…)

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here.

The film paints a bleak portrait of contemporary India in this era of globalization—urban India’s globalized logo consumer culture is declaimed in the opening scene—, neoliberalism, and—how else to put it—modernization and the attendant anomie, with the violence that suffuses social relations, not to mention relations within the family, and the general breakdown of social mores. My grandfather (1903-80) would die a second time if he saw what India has become, where money is all that matters, people have extramarital affairs and get divorced, and you name it. Indian culture is famously family centered, which the film depicts well, except that the families are distinctly Mafia-like—no sentiments, just pecuniary interest—but with the women neither passive nor taking shit from their menfolk. At least some things have changed for the better. The Lunchbox—a most heartwarming film—this is not. And this one no doubt nails a certain reality in India these days more than did Gangs of Wasseypur, which was over-the-top and borderline cartoonish toward the end.

In addition to the backhanded social commentary, the pic is gripping—I didn’t check my watch once, which, for a 2+ hour film, is not bad—and very well acted all around, in particular the comely Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), the protag Titli’s wife (or “wife”). As for Titli’s name, I thought it odd, as that’s normally a girl’s name (or nickname), but it’s mentioned halfway through that his mother (deceased) so wanted her third (and last) child to be a girl—as her first two sons were destined to be sleazebags from birth, who could blame her?—that she gave him a girl’s name anyway. The film—which has so far opened only in France (it has yet to in India)—contains a warning that some spectateurs may find certain scenes shocking (for the violence), so be ready to avert your eyes (as I did). Reviewers from THR and Screen Daily who saw the pic at Cannes last year give it the thumbs up, as have French critics. Trailer is here.

Titli

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idi_i_smotri-1985

Continuing from my last post, on WWII films, this one merits special mention. It’s a Soviet film from 1985 (titre en France: Requiem pour un massacre) and that won the top prize at the Moscow film festival that year, but that I knew nothing about—nor of the director, Elem Klimov—until last fall, when I received an email about it from my friend Adam Shatz, who wrote that “[i]t’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the horror of war.” The film was released in 1987 in France and the US, but if it came to Chicago, which is where I was that year, I completely, totally missed it. But as it’s available via Netflix, I managed to see it on my last US trip.

Adam was right. I won’t summarize the story; for that, one may read the 2010 review by Roger Ebert, who, putting ‘Come and See’ in his “Great Movies” category, called it “one of the most devastating films ever about anything.” In short, the film is set in Byelorussia in 1943 or ’44, when the Germans were retreating under the Red Army onslaught but fighting furiously. In something I read recently—or maybe it was a documentary—a historian said that the June 10th 1944 massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, which was the worst German atrocity of the war in France—committed by the Waffen-SS Das Reich Panzer Division—happened every two days in the villages of Byelorussia and the Ukraine in 1943 and ’44. And in ‘Come and See’, such a massacre is reenacted precisely as it must have occurred and down to the last detail: in short, of all the men rounded up and shot, with the women and children herded into the village church, which, the doors sealed shut, was then set on fire. And with the German soldiers laughing and cheering as the crying and screaming hundreds inside burned to death. This is what happened at Oradour and was the almost daily reality of the German occupation of the Soviet Union, which was, as Timothy Snyder put it, “the bloodiest occupation in the history of the world.” To repeat what Adam and Roger Ebert said, if you want to see a movie about the horrors of war—and, in particular, of the eastern front in World War II and the evil of the Nazi Germans—this is it. Trailer is here.

come and see

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SUITE-FRANCAISE

Last Friday was the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe—V-E Day—so this seems like a good occasion to mention a few WWII-themed films I’ve seen over the past several months. The most recent one is Suite Française, by English director Saul Dibb, which is, as one may expect, the cinematic adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s best-selling, unfinished novel, whose rediscovery and 2004 publication in France caused a minor literary sensation. The story begins with the German advance on Paris in June 1940 and the flight of its population, here to the fictive town of Bussy, with the rest of the movie about the protags—the mid 20ish Lucile (Michelle Williams), whose husband is in the army, her widow mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the (cultivated) German lieutenant (Belgian actor Mathias Schoenaerts) who is billeted in their bourgeois home—and what happens between them and in Bussy more generally. Reviews of the film in the Paris press were good to terrible—averaging out to mediocre—but Allociné spectateurs overall appreciated it far more, as it’s definitely a movie for the masses. As Variety’s critic put it, the pic is a “handsomely crafted, sincerely performed wartime weeper.” And in this vein, Screen Daily’s critic wrote that it “ticks all the right boxes as a classy literary adaptation, favouring a heightened sense of soap opera romance over gritty drama.” A tad schlocky? Maybe, but I side with the masses, as I found it generally well-done and entertaining—if one doesn’t mind seeing a Wehrmacht officer portrayed sympathetically—and with some positive facets, e.g. the decor of the period and depiction of the behavior of the population under occupation—toward the Germans and among themselves—which ran the gamut, from collaboration, anonymous délation, and egotistical chacun pour soi to resistance, passive and active, though with just about everyone hating the Germans for the mere fact that they were there, occupying their country, and because French people, for comprehensible historical reasons, were hard-wired Germanophobes. The German soldiers in the town are shown behaving more or less civilly toward the population, which was indeed the case in the early phase of the occupation, though was short-lived. As for negative aspects of the film, the main one, for me at least, is that it’s in English. I would have preferred to see it in V.F. I haven’t read the novel but know that the film generally adheres to the story, except for the ending, where director and co-screenwriter Dibb took liberties. Cinesnobs will turn their collective nose up at the pic but for everyone else, it may be seen. Trailer is here.

Briefly, on the other films:

Fury, directed by David Ayer, who normally does cop flicks (among them, the very good End of Watch). A Hollywood grand spectacle set in the furious final month of the war in the European theater—of the US Army’s push into Germany’s heartland, where it met fierce resistance—the pic’s story is of a fireteam led by the intrepid, tough-as-nails Sergeant Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), which takes on whole Wehrmacht companies from the top of a Sherman tank. The kill ratio of Sgt Wardaddy and his men looks to be on the order of 80 to 1. It’s a classic war movie and with the whole range of characters: e.g. the Bible-reading nerd (Shia LaBeouf), hillbilly whack-job (Jon Bernthal), and heavy-drinking Chicano (Michael Pena). Not totally original but, as far as war movies go, is pretty good, or so I thought. It may definitely be seen. The reviews by the LAT’s Kenneth Turan and THR’s Todd McCarthy get it right, IMO. Trailer is here.

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Phoenix, by German director Christian Petzold, whose previous film was the excellent 2012 Barbara. I saw this one at Paris’s Festival du Cinéma Allemand last October, where it won the audience coup de cœur award (I voted for another). It’s set in devastated Berlin just after the end of the war, with the protag, Nelly (played by Petzhold’s fetish actress Nina Hoss), a German Jewish survivor of Auschwitz—the only one in her family—whose face was seriously disfigured at the end of her captivity, so underwent plastic surgery, which did not entirely restore her previous looks. Everyone—including her German Aryan husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld)—thinks she’s dead, except for Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) from the Jewish Agency, who is pressing her to emigrate to Palestine. But Nelly, who was a cabaret singer in Berlin until her arrest and deportation, wants her Johnny—a piano player, whom she finds in the Berlin nightclub, called Phoenix, where they had worked together—not only because she still loves him but needs to find out the truth of what he may have known about her denunciation to the Gestapo, which Lene insists to her (as to what happens: no spoilers). But as her face has been altered, he doesn’t recognize her, so she begins a charade with him. It’s film noir-ish and Hitchcockian, as more than one critic has opined. Reviews in the Hollywood press were dithyrambic (here, here, and here), as they were in France, though a few (e.g. here) found the story overly implausible and could not suspend disbelief. Chacun son appréciation. I’m somewhere in between. Trailer is here.

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Wolfskinder, by Rick Ostermann. I also saw this at last October’s German film festival. It’s set in summer 1946 in Soviet-occupied East Prussia, with its subject the little-known tragedy there of the “wolf children”: German children, some 25,000 in number, who were orphaned or separated from their parents at the end of the war, left to fend for themselves in the forests, where they foraged for food (and stole from farms) and lived in permanent fear of Red Army soldiers, who shot them on sight. Many of the children died—of hunger, illness, or exposure—or were killed. Some were taken in and clandestinely adopted by Lithuanian farm families, with the rest eventually deported to orphanages in East Germany (the Soviets entirely cleansing East Prussia of its remaining Germans after the war). The film follows the saga of several children, with the principal characters two brothers, Hans and Fritzchen, age 14 and 11. It’s a well-done film but tough to watch. How adults can be so cruel and devoid of humanity toward children is beyond my comprehension. Reviews by Hollywood critics who saw it at the Venice film festival are here and here. Trailer is here.

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Run Boy Run, by German director Pepe Danquart (en France: Cours sans te retourner). This is another film about children during the war—specifically one child, aged 8 to 10—and the cruelty, when not sadism, of adults. It reenacts the true story of Yoram Israel Friedman (here, here, here, and here)—Srulik in the film, played by the talented Polish child actor Andrzej Tkacz—who was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, where his family was killed or later exterminated in Treblinka, and spent two years hiding from the Germans in the forests, seeking food and shelter from Polish farm families—concealing his Jewish identity with his life—who alternately treated him with kindness, circumspection, or meanness. Delivered to the Gestapo by venal Polish peasants, he miraculously managed to escape back into the forest, lost his right arm along the way, but survived the war, after which he was taken by the Jewish Agency to Palestine. The story is almost unbelievable but it did indeed happen. Like ‘Wolfskinder’ it’s a tough film to watch but is gripping and well-done, though Variety’s critic, in a lukewarm review, opined that while “[a] natural for Jewish viewers and older arthouse-goers, ‘Run Boy Run’ feels too old-fashioned and by-the-numbers for a wider audience.” I guess I’m one of those older arthouse-goers. Trailer is here.

lauf Junge lauf_polnische Plakat

In Darkness, by Polish director Agnieszka Holland (en France: Sous la ville). This one, which came out in 2011, I saw last year on DVD. It’s another Holocaust true story, of two dozen Jews in the Lvov ghetto who hid from the Nazis for over a year, in 1943-44, in the sewers of the city, protected by a Polish sewer inspector, Leopold Socha (played by Robert Więckiewicz), who was no philosemite and whose initial motivations were purely monetary gain, but ended up bonding with those whose lives depended on his good will, and at great danger to his own life and that of his family. The heroism of Socha and his wife, Magdalena, earned them Yad Vashem’s status of Righteous Among Nations. It’s a good movie but, like those above—and all Holocaust movies—does not make for enjoyable watching. Again, the reviews by Kenneth Turan and Todd McCarthy are on the mark. Trailer is here.

W ciemności

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The Armenian genocide

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

To mark the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide, I’m linking to two articles—and two only—that I’ve read on the subject of late. One is the remarkable essay in the January 5th issue of The New Yorker by staff writer
Raffi Khatchadourian, “A Century of Silence,” in which he writes about the historical memory of the genocide in southeastern Turkey—and how it is being recovered—through the prism of his family’s own history. At 14,000 words the essay requires a certain time commitment but is well worth it.

The other piece, in the April 20th issue of TWS, is by Boston College political science prof Dominic Green, “A great calamity: One century since the Turkish genocide of the Armenians,” in which he reviews “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Green writes

This year is the centenary of the Armenian Genocide; the commemoration falls on April 24. On that day in 1915, the Ottoman government arrested hundreds of prominent Armenians in Istanbul. This April 24, when memorial ceremonies are held in Armenia and in the cities of the Armenian diaspora, the Turkish government will be congratulating itself with diversionary celebrations of the Gallipoli campaign. The centenary has raised the diplomatic temperature and precipitated many books. Ronald Suny’s is the best of them: Balanced, scholarly, and harrowing, it should be read by all serious students of modern history.

I’ll certainly read it à l’occasion.

I should also mention Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s new feature-length film, ‘The Cut’, which has the Armenian genocide as its focus. Akin is a fine filmmaker, having directed the excellent Head-On and the very good The Edge of Heaven, though his Soul Kitchen wasn’t too memorable IMO. This one is his biggest budget and most ambitious film. It begins in 1915 in Mardin, in southeastern Anatolia—near the present-day Syrian border—where a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian, played by the French actor Tahir Rahim, lives a happy life with his wife and daughters, ages 10-12 or thereabouts, when Ottoman soldiers storm Armenian homes in the middle of the night and send their inhabitants packing. Nazaret is separated from his wife and daughters, the latter sent on the death march to the south while he’s impressed into a work gang, all of whose members have their throats summarily slashed when the soldiers are done with them. But Nazaret’s press-ganged Kurdish executioner couldn’t bring himself to commit the deed, going through the motions and sparing Nazaret’s life, but cutting his vocal cords nonetheless, definitively depriving him of speech. This part of the film, which depicts the genocide as it must have unfolded—with the round-ups, robbing and rape of those on the death march, massacres and mass starvation—is well-done and quite powerful, though one is provided with little information as to why it’s all happening. Turks and Kurds will wince at the way they’re portrayed, even if a small handful are shown to have acted honorably and/or with humanity. Nazaret ended up in Aleppo and, with the war over, learned that his wife had died but the daughters hadn’t, that they’d been married to rich Armenian businessmen living in Cuba. So he set off on his journey to find them—and this is the rest of the film—taking a boat to Havana, where, communicating via writing and hand gestures, he learned that they had moved on to Minneapolis, Minnesota. So smuggling himself to Florida, he made his way to the Twin Cities, where he was informed that the daughters were now somewhere in North Dakota. F—cking North Dakota. So that’s where he went and where his journey ended, some seven years after he was separated from his family. As for whether or not the ending is happy, sorry but no spoilers.

This part of the film doesn’t work. What started out as an epic saga on the Armenian genocide—a subject on which there are precious few cinematic treatments—ended up as a story about a father looking for his lost family—and, with the film’s 2¼-hour running time, a long story indeed. And having the protag lose his voice was an unnecessary contrivance. Technically the film is impressive—it was shot in five countries (Jordan, Malta, Germany, Cuba, and Canada) on three continents—but otherwise it’s a disappointment. A blown opportunity. In the version shown in France the Armenian characters speak Armenian (Rahim and others being dubbed) but I read afterward that they speak English in the main version for the international market. If the one I saw had been this, I’d have given the pic the thumbs down from the get go. Hollywood press critics who saw the film at the Venice festival had the same reaction to it as did I (e.g. here, here, and here). French critics were also on the same wavelength (though Allociné spectateurs were far more positive; for once I go against the vox populi). Armenian trailer w/French s/t is here, English one is here.

UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has an op-ed in the NYT (April 23rd) on “The cost of Turkey’s genocide denial.”

2nd UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has another piece, this an excerpt in TDB (April 24th) from his new book (see above), “Yes, the slaughter of Armenians was genocide.” The lede: “The Turkish government may not want to admit it, but the murder and removal of millions of Armenians was genocide.”

3rd UPDATE: Sabancı University political science professor Ayşe Kadıoğlu has a most interesting essay in OpenDemocracy (April 24th), “Skeletons in the Turkish closet: remembering the Armenian Genocide.” The lede: “Just like the skeletons that were discovered in Diyarbakır in 2012 nearly 100 years after they were buried, Turkey’s past is haunting its future and demanding that we remember the tragic events of the Armenian Genocide.”

4th UPDATE: Le Monde dated April 23rd has an eight-page supplement on the “Génocide des Arméniens,” in which there’s a full-page interview with Boğaziçi University historian Edhem Eldem, who was one of the organizers of the groundbreaking 2005 Istanbul conference on the Armenian genocide, the first ever held in Turkey on the subject. In view of the century-long brainwashing of Turks as to what to happened to the Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and the hyper-nationalism in Turkey—which is constitutive of the Turkish national identity—he is not optimistic that the Turkish state will recognize the fact of the genocide in the foreseeable future.

5th UPDATE: The website Public Books has a review essay (May 1st) on Ronald Grigor Suny’s book by Christine Philliou, Associate Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish History at Columbia University, “The Armenian genocide and the politics of knowledge.”

THE_CUT

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