The Daughters of Fire (Las hijas del fuego, Argentina, 2018)

Polyamorous and Queer

This is a startling film for a number of reasons. Most obvious is the nature of the representations of sexual intercourse, which are the most explicit I’ve seen. Compared to In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korîda, Japan, 1976) and The Idiots (Idioterne, Denmark-Spain-Sweden-France-Netherlands-Italy, 1998), for example, both of which feature hardcore sex, this film raises the bar for arthouse explicitness. The film even trumps Gaspar Noé’s provocations (at least the ones I’ve seen such as Love) as this is indisputably a pornographic film. Director Albertina Carri (she also co-wrote with Analía Couceyro) does use the narrative as a frame for moving on to the next sex scene. I can’t remember where I read that pornography is like the musical: in the latter the narrative moves us on to the next ‘song and dance’ number; in the former it is for the ‘moan and grope’ sequences. However the film is also more than porn.

Carri, whose short film Barbie Can also Be Sad (Barbie también puede estar triste, Argentina, 2002) is reputably also worth a watch, has made an meta-porn movie using arthouse techniques to on comment and question what we are seeing. This is primarily through the voiceover of one of the characters who embark on a road trip (to stop one of their mothers selling a car!) where they pick up women along the way. Inés Duacastella’s cinematography beautifully captures the austere landscapes of Patagonia; I’m not sure but I think they are headed south toward Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world (continent) which is named after fire. Road movies usually lead characters to learn about themselves, but this bunch are already full of knowledge about their sexuality and apparently need little more. In this sense, the spaces they move through are utopian; there are no psychological impediments to their lasciviousness. They are challenging patriarchy and have little problem dispensing with the two homophobic misogynists they come across: a utopian space indeed!

Carri’s crew was apparently virtually all female and although I found the film intensely erotic I (heterosexual male) am not the target audience. I suspect many will find the graphic sex scenes too much to view but the film is clearly more than porn (listen to the interesting discussion between academics José Arroyo and Deborah Shaw). (I’m trying to avoid ‘protesting too much’ so it seems I’m justifying watching porn).

There are moments of great beauty in the film. The hallucinogenic sequence when the characters take mushrooms, where imagery of sea life is superimposed on the image, is particularly stunning. Whilst not going the whole Godardian hog of alienating the spectator from the film with the voiceover, Carri does enough to get us thinking about what we are seeing. The final, long take, of a woman masturbating reminded of the scene in Godard’s British Sounds (UK, 1970) where a naked woman stands on a stairway with a Marxist-Leninist tract on the soundtrack (as I remember it at least). The content of the shot is such that the viewer is interrogated as much as the image.

The film’s showing on MUBI for a while and is available on at least one pornographic website, an interesting platform for an arthouse movie.

Neighbouring Sounds (O Som ao Redor, Brazil, 2012)

Trapped by wealth and history

It was good to catch up with Kleber Mendonça Filho’s debut film after being wowed by Aquarius and Bacurau. Its narrative is like the latter’s in terms of lacking a clear protagonist and both share a political dimension. However, it lacks the thrust of his latest movie as it offers a mosaic of life in an upmarket housing complex in Recife, Filho’s home town. Like the roaming Steadicam of the opening shot, we spend our time with different neighbours: Maeve Jinkings’ Bia, a bored housewife tormented by next door’s howling dog; Joao (Gustavo Jahn) who works, unhappily, as his grandfather’s estate agent; Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) who at first appears to be a hustler offering street security. Minor problems, a broken into car, a receptionist asleep on the job, seem to all the conflict available to drive the narrative forward.

The film actually begins with a montage of photographs that seem to be from colonial era sugar plantations; the patriarchal grandfather (WJ Solha) bemoans the fact his family no longer visit the sugar mill. The purpose of these images is not clear until the very end. I say ‘not clear’, I mean not to me whose knowledge of Brazilian history is extremely limited. While indigenous audiences are always likely to get more from a film, in this case I suspect it is substantially more.

Filho, an ex-film critic, came to directing in his 40s (he also wrote the script) and has clearly absorbed all the ‘lessons’ of making films. The sense of space could easily have been confusing as we buzz about different apartments, but the film is skilfully constructed to ensure we know where we are. There are a couple of odd moments: a couple steal into a apparently empty apartment to have sex and, in a horror movie moment, a person suddenly runs past the bedroom doorway! And when Joao is standing underneath a waterfall, whilst on a visit to the countryside, the torrent of water suddenly turns red. Whilst the former moment is not explained, the expressionist purpose of the latter is made clear at the end.

If I sound somewhat disengaged from the film then that was my experience. It clocks in at over two hours and Filho makes few concessions to entertainment, though there is some humour (the gag with the boy and his football should have run longer) and some sex scenes. That said, the cumulative effect of experiencing a slice of affluent Brazilian life, contextualised by the ending, is more than worth the effort.

It is certainly an antidote to the ‘poverty porn’ of City of God (, Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) and has some similarities to the Mexican La Zona, though that was much more genre based.

The Awakening of the Ants (El despertar de las hormigas, Costa Rica-Spain, 2019)

Preparing for patriarchy

This is a superb debut from writer-director Antonella Sudasassi featuring an astonishing central performance from Daniela Valenciano in only her second film appearance, 10 years after her first. She plays Isabel, mother of two daughters and wife to Alicdes (Leynar Gomez) who’s, along with his family, petitioning for a third child. When we meet Isa she is decorating a birthday cake whilst the mayhem of a children’s party whirls around her. The men talk football and ask for coffee and beers. The camera lingers on her and Sudasassi’s facial expressions tell us all we need to know of what she is feeling; it is bravura filmmaking and performance. And then she plunges her hands into the cake, in frustration, taking us into Isa’s interior world.

The film portrays the everyday life of a poor Costa Rican family which Latin American machismo, and the Catholic Church, makes worse by consigning women to the role of homemaker; Isa dreams of having a sewing business and knows having a third child would make that even more unlikely. Sudasassi daringly has Isa discover her own sexuality from her young, and innocent, daughter. In a brilliant scene she experiments with masturbation while her husband sleeps oblivious next to her.

I mentioned the destruction of the cake, which was all in Isa’s mind, and we are ‘treated’ to other expressionist moments, such as when insects plague her in the shower. Isa is having a mental breakdown with no one to support her. As strong female characters go, she is with the best as she strives to overcome her oppression.

Alicides is no monster. As no doubt most men in patriarchal societies are, he is blithely ignorant of his privilege. In one scene she insists he help lay the table for dinner and he has to be told where the cutlery is and reminded to include glasses. He’s uncomplaining and bemused and certainly has no understanding that really he should know where all this stuff is!

The performances are excellent throughout and Sudasassi shoots family scenes with the authenticity of ‘direct cinema’. In particular the two daughters are marvellously natural; as a portrayal of a ‘slice of life’ goes this one oozes authority.

The film was screened in Berlin and on MUBI worldwide (just available for three more days) and, as Sudasassi explains:

‘The story of Isabel of Hormigas is part of a transmedia project which seeks to explore sexuality in the vital stages of women. The project is interdisciplinary and collaborative and invited artists* from all over the world to create a collective mosaic of honest experiences about femininity and sexuality in order to demystify it and provoke a rupture with the violence inherent in traditional gender roles.’

She is a talent to watch.

Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano, Colombia-Denmark-Mexico-Germany-Switzerland-France, 2018)

Proto-gangsters

I didn’t get on with Ciro Guerra’s last film, the well-received Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente, Columbia-Venezuela-Argentina, 2015), for reasons I don’t remember. However, I loved this one, co-directed with Cristina Gallego who produced the earlier film; it’s scripted by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde based on the directors’ idea. It tells us the ‘true story’ of how the drug trade, and particularly the Medellin cartel, came to decimate indigenous traditions in Columbia. Apparently there’s much dispute about the accuracy of the film, however I took the film, which suggests the start of the drug trade began with the Peace Corps in the late 1960s, as a metaphor for the malign influence of capitalist North America rather than as a form of documentary.

The film starts with a riveting Wayuu ritual of a young woman, Zaida (Natalia Reyes, who appeared in the most recent Terminator film), coming out of confinement (one year!) as part of her rite of passage and immediately being courted, in a bird-like dance, by Rapayet (newcomer José Acosta). A large dowry is set which he proceeds to get by opportunistically supplying marijuana to the Americans. Such a patriarchal ceremony mustn’t be forgotten in the light of what follows. Most of the film dramatises the changes necessitated by the growing drug trade as at the expense of tradition; however, just because something has been done for years doesn’t mean it’s good or right. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the destruction meted out in pursuit of wealth is devastating.

‘Bird’ courtship

I was more interesting in the representation of the indigenous community than the drug gang narrative. Another (virtual) newcomer is Carmiña Martínez, who plays Zaida’s mother, Úrsula, and is a strong antidote to the patriarchal treatment of young women as she is in charge. Martínez superbly portrays the matriarch’s formidable character whose indulgence of her wayward son is also the family’s undoing. She is a seer of sort; her visions of birds portend the future. There are some fabulous dream sequences that seem to come directly from the imagination of Salvador Dalí.

Daliesque dreams

The surrealism extends to reality: the family accrues luxuries in the desert and the contrast between their affluent villa and its surroundings are a brilliant metaphor for the spiritual emptiness of the wealth. The conflagration of the finale, like Bacurau, owes something to spaghetti westerns and is as much a catharsis as a tragedy.

Luxury in the desert

I shall have to go back to Embrace of the Serpent to see if I can see what I missed.

Initials SG (Argentina-Lebanon-US, 2019) – GFF6

Wilting in the heat of failure

Writer-directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia have produced an interesting portrait of a self-centred, self-absorbed male, not unlike the character in Cowboy who dreams of Hollywood success. Sergio’s (Diego Peretti) dreams are less ambitious: he wants to move out of porn and into ‘straight’ acting. So far he’s never gone beyond being an extra and although he hustles effectively his volatile temperament is a problem. As is his male ego: in between his hustling for roles he cruises for women, particularly ones much younger than he.

Unsurprisingly there is undoubtedly a Latino bent to the character but the film doesn’t offer him sympathy. He is a man not acting his age and whilst there are times when age should be ignored, so as not to become a burden upon life by restricting opportunity, imagining a fiftysomething can continue to act as if 20 years younger is likely to end badly. American film distributor Jane (Julianne Nicholson, also seen in Monos) is on the rebound from a failing marriage and fancies some ‘Latin lust’ and although she gets some she also is on the receiving end of events everyone would rather avoid. The latter refers to a narrative turn in the last third of the film which isn’t entirely convincing although Sergio’s attempts to seduce the girlfriend of a missing young man are truly excruciating.

The title refers to an album Sergio made trading on the similarity of his looks to Serge Gainsbourg; a poster for the album is prominent in his flat and at first seems to be referring to the film we are watching. Such disorientation would have been interesting if it had been developed because it is hard to make an engaging film where the protagonist is an arsehole. To an extent, and Peretti’s performance is remorseless in its misoygny, it succeeds in being watchable but, unlike Cowboy, I didn’t feel there was much point in seeing an idiot behaving like an idiot.

The backdrop of the film is the World Cup of 2014 when Argentina lost to Germany in the final; the losers element reflects Sergio’s trajectory balefully anchored by the occasional omnipotent narrator (whose tone sounds like that of the one in Y tu mama tambien). Thus there is an attempt to give the film a wider social resonance: is fanatic fandom symptomatic of people who have lost, if not their moral compass, their sense of proportion about what is important? Given the current crisis about Coronavirus, which in the UK seemed only to be taken seriously by the government after league football was postponed, they may have a point.

Bacurau (Brazil-France, 2019) – GFF5

The people united…

This blazing contemporary take on the mess Brazil has gotten itself into by electing an extreme right-wing President is an eye-peeling throwback to the hallucinogenic ’60s films of Cinema Novo great Glauber Rocha. It’s just been released in the UK and is must-see for cinephiles (well, probably now a ‘can’t see’) as Juliano Dornelles’ and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s (they wrote and directed) film is a post-genre mash-up of the Western channelled through the sensibility of John Carpenter. That’s to say it takes generic influences, the beseiged town in the middle of (literally) nowhere, threatened by establishment killers and transforms them with unexpected inflexions. The production of the film started before Bolsonaro’s ascent to power so while it’s not specifically about his brand of lunacy its release is timed well to comment upon it; Brazilian politics, in common with many country’s, has been in a mess for the last few years.

Filho’s last film was the superb Aquarius and both are graced by Brazilian star Sonia Braga (in the blood spattered coat above), though she isn’t the lead character here; in fact there are no clear protagonists as the film emphasises the collectivism of village, Bacurau. A character tells us the name refers to a nocturnal bird that hunts at night hence, although the village seems vulnerable to heavily armed vigilantes, its power is unseen.

We are led into the village with Teresa (Bárbara Colen – also in Aquarius) who travels in with a water tanker, needed because the water supply has been cut off. The driver has to swerve around empty coffins that have fallen off a truck and suggest the hallucinogenic atmosphere of some of what follows. The coffins remind us of ‘spaghetti westerns’, the undertaker enthusiastically making them as Clint Eastwood prepares carnage, and Teresa is given a psychotropic drug as she arrives in the village for the funeral of her grandmother. We meet Domingas (Braga) who drunkenly excoriates the dead woman; we never learn why and it is part of the strength of the film that there’s no need to explain everything. We don’t know why the water supply has been stopped, why the local mayor is derided and, most importantly, the motivation of the vigilantes; or even if they are vigilantes. The lack of clarity emphasises the ridiculousness of the circumstances ordinary people find themselves in.

The ‘vigilantes’ are headed up by the ‘wonderfully’ deranged Udo Kier. They’re a mishmash of characters who seem united in their love of guns and killing. They also receive their orders from elsewhere and the use of a drone, fantastically ‘done up’ as if it was a UFO out of an Ed Wood movie, suggests the CIA might be involved. But the lack of specificity matters not at all, we get the idea of ordinary folk being tyrannised by those in power.

It’s set in the the impoverished land the sertão, the ‘backlands’ of north eastern Brazil. The location is shown via shot at the very beginning that starts with a satellite and we ‘zoom’ down as if observing via Google Earth. However, unlike the sertão of Rocha’s Black God, White Devil and Antonio das Mortes, the landscape is green (maybe Rocha and Dornelles/Filho have filmed in different seasons). Like Rocha’s films, however, as was Aquarius, this is a cry for justice against oppressors.

The John Carpenter reference above, by the way, comes from the use of music from his Assault on Precinct 13 (US, 1976) which reloaded the Western genre in a modern setting. The pounding score is both apposite to the rest of the music, which has a local flavour, and vital in suggesting alien intrusion on the land. In one scene I thought, ‘he’s going to get is head blown off’, metaphorically that is, until that was exactly what happened. Likely to be in my ‘top ten’ for the year.

Zama, (Argentina-Brazil-Spain-Dominican Republic-France-Netherlands-Mexico-Switzerland-USA-Portugal-Lebanon, 2017)

Wishing he weren’t there

Coincidentally just after Monos I’ve found myself landed with another Latin American-set ‘hallucinatory’ film. Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a corregidor (colonial administrator), is desperate to get back to his family; I assumed they were in Spain but reviews suggest they are in Buenos Aires. I think I can’t be blamed for my uncertainty because the film presents its narrative information tangentially; details aren’t clearly explained. Although he appears to be of European stock (he could be mixed race), he was born in the Americas and doesn’t feel he belongs in the outpost he’s duty-bound to look after. He petitions the Governor to write a letter to the King (of Spain) on his behalf but as the latter points out, the King always ignores the first and a second will be required… in two years time. Writer-director Lucretia Martel (based on Antonio di Benedetto’s novel), in her first fiction film since The Headless Womandoesn’t spell out detail; like Zama we have to negotiate our way through the world of the film. In one scene, when Zama is pleading with the Governor, a lama appears, unnoticed by him, at his side; it’s a surreal touch suggesting it is a place that neither he nor we can comprehend. As Lola Dueñas’ character tells Cacho, ‘Europe is best remembered by people who have never been there’; place is as much myth as reality.

Surreal reality

Martel used a similar technique in The Headless Woman, where the uncertainty was narratively motivated by the bang on the head the protagonist receives at the start. In Zama the incomprehension is stimulated by the setting: whilst colonists can subjugate peoples and land, they cannot control the place that they don’t really know. The natives are barely characters in the film, they go about their work in the background, tolerating the  invaders. At the start, Zama is caught spying on naked native women covering themselves with mud; one protests and he beats her for her troubles. In a nutshell, the colonial power relationship is portrayed. This marginalisation, which in, say, the colonial set films of classical Hollywood was racist, here is a portrayal of the realpolitik.

The pursuit of the legendary-mythical bandit that fills the final third of the film reminded me of Antonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha’s similarly hallucinatory film set in Brazil’s sertão. When the bandit, Vicuña Porto, is found there’s no certainty that he is actually who he says he is. As Porto says, ‘it is only a name’. It’s striking that the actor I thought was playing the character who might be Porto is different to the one, Brazilian Matheus Nachtergaele, who’s listed in the imdb credits as possibly being him. The gang’s desperation to find the jewel-filled coconuts reminded me of The Treasure of Sierra Madre… maybe there is something about Latin America…

Martel gets great performances from the cast; Cacho and Lola Dueñas, as the flirt he longs for, are particularly good. And Martel is one of the most interesting directors around; there’s nothing wrong with being made to work for your pleasure.