Three Monkeys (Üç maymun, Turkey-France-Italy, 2008)

Strife is in the air

Strife is in the air

Nuri Blige Ceylan is one of the most interesting directors around; this is no secret, of course, as his latest film Winter Sleep won this year’s Palme d’Or. It’s taken me a while to warm to him; I eventually ‘twigged’ with Once Upon a Time in AnatoliaWhich is great as it means I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with what is, in essence, an ‘old school’ art house film director. Three Monkeys concerns the fall out of a politician bribing his driver to take the ‘rap’ for car accident. As the image above suggests, there’s trouble in the air.

Ceylan, who also scripted with Ercan Kesal, is a master of ellipsis and pregnant pauses allowing the spectator to fill in the gaps. It isn’t ‘obscure’, as the narrative unfolds, all is revealed but there are moments when you’re not sure what the conclusion of the last scene was. Such ambiguity, of course, is rife in life.

He’s also a master of composition and is very patient in waiting for the right weather conditions to illustrate the melodramatic emotions of his characters (or he also controls the elements). He favours the long take and, unusually, action in extreme long shot even for intimate scenes. This loses something on the small screen but then he is making films to be seen in the cinema.

The cast are excellent, especially Hatice Aslan as the driver’s wife.

The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1997)

Making strange the 'strange'

Making strange the ‘strange’

Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.

For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.

Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.

It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.

Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?, France-Lebanon-Egypt-Italy)

Dance of grief

Dance of grief

This is a cracker dealing with contemporary issues, the role of women and sectarian strife, in a way that’s both light-hearted and tragic. If that sounds a contradiction in terms it gives some idea of the film’s brilliance that the writer-director-star, Nadine Labaki, pulls it off. Her first film as director, Caramel (Sukkar banat, France-Lebanon, 2007), didn’t grab me, though it was well regarded; this is a big step up.

It focuses upon an isolated village, possibly in Lebanon, where tensions between Christians and Muslims ferment close to the surface. At least they do with the men, the women simply get on with living with each other, warts and all. There’s plenty of humour to be had with communal television watching, where the  (slightly) risqué images cause excitement and disgust in equal measure.  There are a few musical interludes, though not enough to call it a musical, that both give a sense of community and portray Layale’s (Labaki) fantasy romance with the attractive Jamale (they are across the religious divide).

From the startling ‘dance of grief’ (above) that opens to the film to its truly radical, I think, finale this is gripping movie. I’ll say no more as they would be spoilers.

Son of Babylon (Iraq-UK-Fra-NL-Palestine-UAE-Egypt, 2009)

On the road to nowhere

This is a devastating film following the search, by grandmother and grandson, for the boy’s father who’s been missing for over 10 years in Iraq. It’s set in the weeks after the fall of Saddam, in 2003, when the country was recovering from war but before the sectarian violence flared. It’s a major achievement, by director Mohamed Al-Daradji, to actually get this film made; that it’s a heartrending and dramatically satisfying film as well, is a testament to his skill.

It may be ironic to state that Iraq is shown to be ‘god-forsaken’, in a country where religion is so obviously important, but that’s the impression I got. The protagonists travel hundreds of miles in their search and we see a country littered with burnt out cars and bombed out buildings. Bewilderment competes with desperation as the default mood of the populace, with American troops shown only as a disruptive backdrop; less liberators than an impediment.

Al-Daradji uses non actors, in the tradition of neo realism, but whereas in the original films an insignificant event drives the action (the theft of a bike for instance) here it’s a missing relative. However, it’s soon clear that missing relatives are ‘ten-a-penny’ and this traumatic situation is commonplace in Iraq. A postscript states over a million of people have gone missing over the past 40 years; since Saddam Hussein took power.

As a slice of life of Iraq just after the war this is unbeatable. See here for details on the films making.

Lebanon (Israel-France-Germany, 2009)

Pressure tank

It’s a big challenge to set the whole of a film inside a tank but when you’re trying to convey what it was like invading Lebanon, in 1982, in an Israeli tank then it’s a good starting point. Writer-director, Samuel Moaz, makes the constraint a strength through the humanity of his (autobiographical, at least, to some extent) story, the performances and the brilliance of the set and sound design.

The grinding of the gears and metallic reverberation of the engine encases the audience in an authentic sounding soundscape and the often juddering camera, shooting the inhabitants in close up, adds to the feeling of ‘being in there’. ‘In there’ was a convincing vision of hell as it rapidly becomes decrepit as it’s ill-used by the conscripts and the walls appear to moldering as if in a Tarkovsky movie. We can see the outside, though the soldiers’ viewfinders, and the events shown are worthy of several circles of Dante’s hell.

Israel’s ‘Defence’ Force often splits opinion but there’s no doubt in my mind that its aggression contributes massively to world instability; only last week 11 where killed approaching Gaza in international waters. Moaz’s film is realist and takes no overt political position, but it’s ‘war as hell’ message – whilst commonplace – is powerfully portrayed. I think the destruction of a guy transporting chickens, and the fate of a Lebanese family, place the film firmly on the anti-Israel side (however, the opposite reading is possible).

The four soldiers in the tank are all out of their depth; one of them desperately wants his mum. And the terrible effects of war on these young man is painfully shown but so are the acts of humanity that can occur amongst degradation; one helps a prisoner to piss in a pot.

The best new film, along with A Single Man, I’ve seen so far this year so experience it in the immersive environment of the cinema while you can.

The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret, Israel-France-US, 2007)

A fisherman's tale

A fisherman's tale

This is a beautifully observed ‘culture clash’ comedy, and when those cultures are Arabic and Israeli the resonances are large. Politics is largely absent but the Middle East conflict is so profound that it remains a loud subtext throughout. The film never becomes sentimental as the Egyptian band, marooned in Nowheresville, Israel, are befriended – more or less – by the locals, as it never loses sight of the deep loneliness experienced by many of the characters. Tears, therefore, spring from both happiness, at the humanist approach of the film, and sadness,

The direction is terrific as it allows space for the performers, particulary Sasson Gabai‘s often impassive demeanour, and offers some wonderful shots of the concrete hewn spaces in which the action takes place. The scene where the likeable rake, Halid, coaches his inexperienced ‘friend’ in the art of seduction – all in one shot – is a comic classic.