Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo Spain, 2018)

An intense scrutiny of parenthood

Despite it’s terrible title (as far as I can tell it’s not an idiomatic expression in Spain) the film made a splash at last year’s Berlin festival and was picked up by Netflix which only released it in cinemas in Spain. Of course, no UK distributor may have picked it up anyway but it is a film that should be seen in a theatre as Ramón Salazar’s direction is quite exceptional. His composition of shots is exemplary aided by beautiful cinematography (Ricardo de Gracia) and brilliant production design (Sylvia Steinbrecht). Salazar also scripted this tale about the nature of parents’ responsibility toward their children. I hesitate to outline the plot in any more detail because Salazar slowly reveals what’s actually happening in a superbly developed exposition.

I’m seeing the director is being compared to Almodovar however whilst the latter leans toward the hysterical, Salazar actually takes a step back from the melodrama offering a cooler take on the emotions on show. This is done through the slow pacing, scenes seem to carry on a little too long, giving the audience time to contemplate what they are seeing. The mise en scene, most of the film is shot in the stunning Spain-France borderlands in winter, adds to the coolness as well as to the beauty of the mise en scene.

There’s a scene, on what appears to be a tourist bob sleigh type contraption, that manages, in a long take, to encapsulate the film’s theme. It is brilliantly staged. The acting is exemplary, Susi Sanchez(an Almodovar regular) and Bárbara Lennie are captivating as the leads; it is a film where men are almost completely marginalised.

Nico Casal’s score is sparingly used but adds greatly to the atmosphere. I would be surprised if this isn’t in my top ten films of 2019 and wouldn’t it be great to organise a festival of films Netflix won’t let you see in cinema so we can gorge and their big screen greatness?

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A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany, 2018)

The fruits of tyranny

I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.

The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.

If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose “Pepe” Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and  Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.

All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.

Incidentally the film ends with a fantastic version of Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence by Sílvia Pérez Cruz.

The Little Match Girl (La vendedora de fósforos, Argentina, 2017)

Casting light?

This is the first film I’ve seen by writer-director Alejo Moguillansky, an Argentinean independent, whose trademark, according to Hollywood Reporter is:

perhaps the playfulness with which he works up personal, social and political concerns into pleasurably offbeat and always distinctive items that balance subtle characterization, strong storylines and plenty of sociopolitical reflection.

As is my wont I watched the film cold (I had no idea what it was about) and was certainly confused by the opening that seemed to be a documentary about the staging of Helmut Lachenmann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story. However, the voiceover by María Villar states she’s playing Marie so there’s an immediate disconnect between the form of documentary and the soundtrack. Lachenmann plays himself, as does pianist and octogenarian Margarita Fernández.

The opera’s director Walter (played by actor Walter Jakob) is clueless on how to stage the avant garde masterwork. He shares a daughter with Marie, who is taking lessons from Fernández but is forced to take the youngster along who’s entertained watching Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Baltahazar; I guess it’s the donkey that keeps the girl gripped.

‘Playful’ is the watchword; Lachenmann, who admits Ennio Morricone is his favourite composer, is clearly a ‘good sport’ as the piss is taken out of his music throughout. Of course the problem with playful, unless the film is a comedy, is that it can get in the way of actually saying something. The dread hand of postmodernism can reduce a text to facetiousness and although I think The Little Match Girl manages to avoid this (the committed performances gift the it some heft) I can’t help feeling there’s a better film struggling to get out. Lachenmann’s anti-capitalist opera, being played in a state opera house during a strike, deserves more than being an ironic backdrop to the bourgeois shenanigans of the couple; a running joke is that Walter keeps ringing Marie for suggestions of how to stage the opera.

The film, however, is entertaining, the music (whether Beethoven, Schubert, Morricone or Lachenmann) is great so it is worth seeing. MUBI.

And Breathe Normally (Andið eðlilega, Iceland-Sweden-Belguim, 2018)

Lost in translation

Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, which she also scripted, won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and highlights the importance of the screenplay in filmmaking. And Breathe Normally‘s script just doesn’t quite hold together as narrative difficulties are often elided by moving on quickly to the next scene. However, this is a minor criticism as the film is a highly involving story about a refugee (Babetida Sadjo) from Guinea-Bissau (due to her sexuality) marooned in Iceland as her passport is fake.

It’s also about Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a single mum who also happens to be gay, who’s struggling in poverty and her path crosses Adja’s (the refugee) when she takes a job as a border guard. What struck me is the way Uggadóttir, whose direction is excellent, manages to suggest that social class is the key element rather than race, sexuality or gender. Despite idiots like Tory James Cleverly dismissing I, Daniel Blake because it’s fiction, only the wilfully blind are unaware that inequality in many societies has reached unsustainable levels (inequality is never right but was sustained by the welfare state, ease of credit and expanding economies). What unites the disadvantaged is usually social class; this is not to say ‘identity politics’ are not important, but that Marx’s call for class consciousness to fight exploitation is as valid as ever.

There are few institutions in the film as it is a social realist ‘slice of life’. We see border security at work and some of the workings of the deportation process; we are also shown, briefly, Lára’s son’s school. However it is clear that she is almost as trapped by society as Adja; ‘almost’ because for Lára there is some hope, ironically, in the border guard job: by saving herself and her son she has to oppress others.

Uggadóttir shot the film in Reykjanesbær, a town that houses the international airport in Iceland. It is shown to be ugly and she explains that the film avoids the tourist clichés used to represent the country. It is a bleak film (I won’t give away whether the ending offers hope) that gives a convincing glimpse into the lives of refugees (and the poor) who are often demonised whilst they are invariably the victims. Netflix.

 

Time Share (Tiempo compartido, Mexico-Netherlands, 2018)

Happy holidays

Time Share won a Special Jury Prize (for scriptwriting, World Drama) at last year’s Sundance festival and appears to have been seen little in cinemas outside Mexico (where it won a couple of Ariels). Whether we should be grateful to Netflix for picking up the film for distribution, or berate them for preventing it being shown in cinemas, I don’t know. I do know that director Sebastián Hofmann, who edited the film and co-scripted with Julio Chavezmontes, clearly has a cinematic eye that would greatly benefit from the big screen. Matias Penachino’s cinematography brings out the candy colours of the holiday resort setting that makes it look like a Ballardian hell.

Pedro (Luis Gerardo Méndez) and Eva (Cassandra Ciangherotti) arrive late at their time share villa to find it’s been double-booked with another family. Hofmann and Chavezmontes’ script beautifully captured the apologies of corporate speak that mean nothing and the families are forced to co-habit. A parallel plot focuses on Andres (Miguel Rodarte) and his wife Gloria (Montserrat Marañon) who are taking opposite trajectories as workers for Everfields, the American owners of the resort. The corporate environment is causing Andres to lose his grip on reality whilst Gloria relishes the promotion that gives her the opportunity to sell time shares to the holiday makers.

I don’t know the location of the film’s setting, a building designed to look like a Mayan temple, but I’m guessing it is an actual resort and wonder how the filmmakers managed to finesse making such an excoriating satire at the expense of the industry. ‘Excoriating’ only to an extent: the final half hour doesn’t quite have the punch of what precedes it. I’d have preferred that they had gone full blown ‘madness’ rather than keep the narrative world in touch with reality. Grotesquerie is reserved for the credit sequence at the end.

As noted above, Hofmann creates some stunning shots (the golf buggies’ dreamy movement, for example) and uses shallow depth of field, occasionally, to give a surreal look to the setting. A pink flamingo makes its appearance a couple of times suggesting that the pharmaceuticals given are designed to do more than pacify and relieve pain.

This was Hofmann’s second feature as a director and I hope I get to see his next one in a cinema.

Netflix.

Roma (Mexico-US, 2018)

Chronicle of a life

Alfonso Cuarón’s extraordinary autobiographical (he says it’s 90%) movie is the best film of the year. He directed, photographed (in a luminous 65mm digital monochrome), co-edited and wrote; that’s an auteur for you. His way of shooting, feeding the casts lines and situations day by day, and using non-actors, is similar to Ken Loach’s and although their visual style is very different; Cuarón also uses melodrama to dramatic effect like the older filmmaker. Roma, an area of Mexico City where Cuarón was brought up, consists of slices-of-life featuring Cleo (a stunning debut performance by teacher Yalitza Aparicio), who stands in for the director’s nanny/maid, Libo, to whom the film is dedicated. Cuarón wrote the script based on Libo’s, his sister’s and his own memories.

Cuarón’s visual style (after the green palette of his early films) is most obvious in his use of long takes and often moving camera. The movement in Roma is ‘reduced’ to panning and tracking, no freeform steadicam, and the average shot length is considerable. As is usual, he reserves extremely long takes for moments of high drama. The slow pans, particularly at the start of the film, mark the film as ‘arthouse’, along with (to British audiences especially) its foreign language and ‘black and white’ cinematography. The pans usually move to the action and that action is often banal: the quotidian activities of a maid. The tracks are more dynamic, one reveals a main street where busy life goes on as Cleo chases after the children in her charge. As Cuarón says (he was paraphrased):

“Scenes shot in long takes feel “more real” not just because of the continuity of time and performance, but also because we have the time to really invest in the backgrounds…we can shift our focus from the character to the background and back again.”

Wikipedia states the budget was $15m; an extraordinarily small amount even taking into consideration the use of digital editing of images to ensure the setting looks like the early 1970s.

I regularly find myself railing against critics’ mischaracterisation of melodrama. The review of the film in Little White Lies concludes:

‘This is his magnum opus, unassuming, emotion, never melodramatic, sublime…’

The writer assumes melodrama must be ‘over-the-top’ and thereby in bad taste according to bourgeoise standards. As can be seen in the still below, the hugs of the two sets of characters are mirrored showing how both the women feel about the males they clasp. In addition, the cage like gates, and bars on windows, echoed by the caged birds inside, are emblems of restricted lives; Cleo’s in particular. And the meaning of the dog shit is obvious. All these are likely to be Cuarón’s memories but once placed into the mise en scene they take on meanings.

Melodramatic mirroring emphasises the dynamics of relationships

There’s more: during the credit sequence at the start the camera stares at a tiled floor that is being cleaned. Even after the director’s credit the camera lingers and the water that flows looks like the sea breaking on a beach; why is revealed at the end. In the same shot, an aeroplane is seen reflected in the water. This visual sign reoccurs and represents life going on elsewhere; maybe the life of the viewer. And there’s more: the earthquake in the hospital; the gun pulled on Cleo by Fermin and so on. Roma is a domestic melodrama! (I’ll shut up now).

Looking at Cuarón’s work which, Great Expectations (US, 1998) apart, has always been critically highly regarded (including Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US 2004), he is primarily a commercial filmmaker (no offence intended). Roma, thoughis arthouse because of the aforementioned visual style and the painstaking elaboration of daily routine. The second half of the film explodes into action (no spoilers) that manages to combine the personal with the political. Cleo is a Mextico-speaking indigenous woman who serves the family of European heritage; in a great line one of the children states a gringa they’re visiting makes him feel as though he stinks. Cleo’s race defines her class: in one scene she, with another maid, descend many steps to join their ‘people’ whilst the middle classes celebrate the new year upstairs.

Given the small budget I’m surprised Cuarón opted for Netflix. Having resisted any cinema distribution of its films Netflix has learned from Amazon (Moonlight) that certain awards can greatly raise the profile of films so Roma did get a very limited showing in cinemas. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Netflix’s roster of foreign language films (from an English/UK perspective) is extremely limited and I doubt that is about to change. It’s not just that such a film should be seen in its ‘natural’ environment but we shall also have no idea what impact it has, in terms of numbers, on audiences as Netflix doesn’t release the data. Would it have been a crossover hit or remained, outside Spanish-speaking audiences, an arthouse release? If you don’t wish to ‘give in’ to Netflix, join for a month’s free to see this masterpiece.

The Final Hour (La Hora Final, Peru, 2017)

Political-personal civil war

Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state (such as the recently blogged Marshland) and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.

Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.

I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.

The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. Imdb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)