Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben, Spain-France-Italy, 2018)

Not knowing

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few arthouse auteurs whose films are almost guaranteed to be distributed in the UK; possibly because he’s won two ‘best foreigner’ Oscars. Everybody Knows showcases his command of film language, his ability to bend genre and boasts a great cast including Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Ricardo Darín.

It also revisits About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran-France, 2009) that used the thriller genre trope of a missing person to unravel familial and societal mores of middle class Iranian society. Some reviewers have suggested that Everybody Knows isn’t quite as successful because Farhadi (he wrote and directed) is in a foreign landscape. I don’t know Spain well enough to comment though little of the milieux didn’t ring true and I got a clear sense of the traditional importance of ‘land’ to the locals. What didn’t quite convince me was the use of genre: readers of the blog will know I love melodrama but when a particularly ‘soapy’ narrative development occurs in the film I didn’t feel it worked. It was too generic because, whereas in About Elly we always knew we were in an ‘arthouse’ film, the development centralises melodrama as the defining discourse. That’s not to say the film isn’t gripping and interesting and that’s not simply because Cruz, Bardem and Darín are in the cast. In fact the whole ensemble, the narrative is built around a family wedding, are superb. The early scenes convey with vigour the excitement of a family get together as the camera and editing are almost a whirlwind as the numerous characters are introduced. It is bravura filmmaking.

Another reservation was the conclusion that felt rather abrupt. Sure, Farhadi makes clear the repercussions of the events of the film will continue after the last reel but the psychological trauma of ‘missing’ isn’t addressed. This could be Farhadi using genre to set up an expectation and then not delivering upon it. However, I don’t think my dissatisfaction was caused by its ‘failure’ as a genre film, but the ending didn’t ‘ring’ psychologically true.

I don’t want to end on a negative note because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Apparently it has been in gestation for some time but Farhadi was waiting for Cruz and Bardem to be available. It was worth the wait and the film is worth seeing if only for the charismatic ease with which these two stars operate. Add Ricardo Darín, the great Argentinean actor who carries the weight of a less flashy role superbly, and you have an unmissable film.

Advertisements

Capernaum (Capharnaüm , Lebanon-France-USA, 2018)

A cure for dry eye

Nadine Labaki’s (she directed and co-wrote) astonishing film was ‘inspired‘ by the number of children, many Syrian refugees, on the streets of Beirut. Using a contrived, though nonetheless effective, device of Zain (above right) suing his parents for having brought him into the world, the film unfolds in flashback explaining what had come to pass. Such social realism, the film very much exists in the grime of poverty-stricken lives, is not new, however the brilliance of this film is rare. Much of the film’s power comes from Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea), a vagabond who finds himself looking after Yonas after the latter’s mother is arrested as an illegal. Not only do we see his indefatigable character do everything in his little power to look after the little one, but it’s done in an entirely convincing way. Like most of the actors in the film, Zain is a kid off the street, which no doubt feeds the immediacy of the drama.

This authenticity is down to Labaki’s brilliance (she also directed the superb Where Do We Go Now?) as she coaxes fantastic performances from amateurs and captures the drama with her camera. There are numerous shots on the street that are slightly high angle on the children serving to minimise the background. I noticed a few times feet walking into the frame and suddenly stop short as if they’d just noticed the camera. This suggests much of the shooting was not only done on location but without shutting down the street; incredibly difficult conditions in which to work no doubt. The result shows on the screen as the chaos (which is what capernaum means) is ingrained on the screen; actually ‘Hell’ might be a better title but that’s from a coddled western perspective.

It takes a lot for me to ‘tear up’ and blubbing is just about unknown but I only just managed to choke down the latter (to do so is a reflex). Of course that’s what melodrama is intended to do, though only the framing narrative device noted above is particularly melodramatic. Occasionally Labaki goes beyond social realism and the film takes wing; for example when well-meaning Christians go to raise the spirits of prisoners. The extended montage shows both prisoners joining in and those for whom nothing can alleviate their misery. It is a stunning sequence.

No doubt that this will be one of the best films I see this year and although I probably just favour Roma, I wished Labaki’s film had been acknowledged at the Oscars because this type of filmmaking needs more support than Cuarón. Everybody needs to know what’s happening in the world to be able to break out of their insularity and unfortunately Capernaum is very much about the world and now.

 

Denial (UK-US, 2016)

Heroes

As we appear to be in a post-truth society when any old bollocks, amplified by social media and social disengagement, is believed this case from the 1990s deserves airing. Holocaust-denier, David Irving (Timothy Spall), sued historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) because she called out his lies. Despite being American she was obliged to defend herself in British courts, which lean heavily toward the accuser. The film painstakingly delineates the complexities of the case and David Hare’s script superbly shows the legal issues that made the case difficult for the truth.

Her legal team, no doubt crammed with Public School-Eton educated folk, were clearly brilliant at their job. It just goes to show that idiots like Boris Johnson aren’t entirely typical. Unsurprisingly Lipstadt wants to take the stand to defend herself; she also wants Holocaust survivors to testify. However as Tom Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton (Lipstadt’s lawyer) says, this would just play into Irving’s hands as survivors’ memories are notoriously unreliable.

Millions of pounds were spent on the case which, from Irving’s accusation to the verdict, lasted years: all to reaffirm the truth. That it was necessary shows what a mess we’re in; now, for example, anti-vaxxers are succeeding in getting parents to risk their children. The lies, or course, are usually political in nature: the less people understand the world the more likely they are to support ‘populists’ who appeal to emotion rather than intellect and shit on ‘the people’. We know how well that turned out in the 20th century and it’s important that social media is also used to ‘call out’ the lies of those who would mire us in ignorance for their own purposes. Yesterday Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith told Bloomburg opinion polls showed most people in the UK where happy to leave the EU with a ‘no deal’. Either he’s a liar or stupid (probably both) and his coughing as he spoke suggested he was choking on something.The ‘bullshit asymmetry principle; states: ‘the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it’; it is amply illustrated by Denial.

There’s a chilling moment at the summing up of the cases when the judge asked Rampton, who was busy proving that Irving was lying, ‘what if Irving believes what he’s written?’ Rampton looks rattled but recovers to explain the self-serving nature of Irving’s deception. There’s little doubt that Trump believes whatever comes out of his mouth as he seeks to mould the world to his will and it is the news media’s duty to challenge this however it fails on a daily basis. One of the reason why we’re still floundering to deal with climate change, for example, is because the ‘other side’, usually sponsored by fossil fuels, is given a platform. The BBC even gave Tommy Robinson a platform (even using his own meme of his gagged face!) and so helped normalise right wing extremism. The truth can be like, as EH Carr put it, a historical fact which is a sack with no shape until you put something (perspective) into it. However, there are no ‘alternative facts’ regarding the existence of the Holocaust that require investigating.

No Trees in the Street (UK, 1959)

Social problem noir

Willis Hall adapted his own play for J Lee Thompson to direct and it has a top of the range cast including Sylvia Sims, Herbert Lom and Stanley Holloway. Juvenile delinquency was a hot topic in the ‘fifties but this film is set, after a contemporary framing device featuring a very young David Hemmings, in the 1930s. The bird’s eye view shot of the Isle of Dogs (prefiguring the UK TV soap opera Eastenders title graphic) during the credit sequence firmly places the film in the East End slums and the film does a good job of representing the degrading environment in both the set design and the scratty clothes of the crowded streets.

Part of the difficulty ’50s cinema had to contend with was the narrow representations afforded women: basically the virgin-mother-whore types. However No Trees in the Street deals with this well for, after ensuring we understood Sims’ Hetty to be ‘sweet and virginal’, it allows Lom’s small time racketeer, WIlkie, to seduce her. I guess this was a ‘cutting-edge’ scene at the time in British cinema. Characterisation is a strength of the film as Lom fills the role with conflicted desperation; he’s a migrant who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps and the film makes clear that crime was one of the few options available out of poverty. It is his decency that wins over Hetty but his insecurity is never far away. Stanley Holloway is, as ever, his excellent self as a has-been who finds solace in a bottle.

Thompson’s direction is excellent too with many shots obviously inspired by film noir; for example the low angle as the good detective thumps Wilkie makes him loom over the hoodlum. Thompson was on a roll at the time with Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Ice Cold in Alex (1959). Melvin Hayes, in his debut, has the right scrawny build for the pathetic teenager brother of Hetty whose desperate attempts to get money drives the conflict.

The film betrays its theatrical origins with its restricted settings but this does add to the claustrophobia of the characters’ world. Ronald Howard’s portrayal of the good guy copper is a little dated now though the exchange he has with his boss, who oozes contempt for the poor, brings a dash of modernity. As the title suggests the film is falling on the side of social circumstance (rather than innate badness) as responsible for crime and at the climactic moment Hetty assures her brother no one is born evil. It’s ironic that, in the framing scenes, we are shown the street now happily renovated with… high rise flats.

Good Kill (US, 2014)

The end game

New Zealander Andrew Niccol has been responsible for some excellent films: he scripted The Truman Show (US, 1998) and both wrote and directed Gattaca and In Time (US, 2011). These science fiction films were all thought-provoking and Niccol tries to raise issues whilst entertaining us. His Lord of War (US-Germany-France, 2005) was less successful but it did show how the international arms trade works. Good Kill examines the moral quagmire (no let’s call it what it is: evil) of drone strikes that proliferated under the apparently saintly Obama. Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan a fighter pilot reduced to flying drones and blasting suspects in Afghanistan, Yemen or wherever else America perceives a threat. Whilst it’s true that the threat is real but, as the film points out, the ‘war on terror’ is counter productive. The more America indiscriminately kills the more ‘terrorists’ will be manufactured.

Some reviewers have complained the film is too preachy; each character in the drone team offers particular viewpoints on the events. It’s unclear how else Niccol is supposed to explain the mechanics and morality of this particular theatre of war without resorting to this technique. The escalating carnage, which occurs when the CIA takes over the operation, is enough drama to engage and appal. It’s true that the film loses some momentum toward the end which was inevitable as there can be no happy resolution whilst these inhumane strikes continue. Niccol, and the excellent cast, convey the dehumanising effect of killing by proxy (though of course killing in reality is similarly damaging). There’s no doubt that war as a video game, the drone technology was based on the Xbox, where reality takes place in virtual reality, has severe repercussions on what makes us human.

Helen Fry’s book Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine (2018) examines how the use of logarithms in everyday life is polluting the world and there are regular moral panics about youngsters ‘screen time’. There’s little doubt that Silicon Valley is driving fundamental changes to our way of interacting with the world and often not in a good way. The latest poisonous story about Facebook shows how dehumanising the platform can be – see here. YouTube is also full (well it actually isn’t ‘full’ the scale of the platform is such that even a relatively small number of videos amounts to a massive number) of appalling material – for example. We have slept-walked into a surveillance dystopia and most people don’t even know about it, which is a failure of education and the news media. Good Kill is a microcosm of what can happen when we lose touch with reality through the distancing effect of computer-based perception. The disembodied voice of the CIA giving orders that appal Egan is so far divorced from the consequences of his decisions that empathy, the key emotion that makes us human, is lost.

Despite Hawke’s presence (Bruce Greenwood also stars) Good Kill took little more than $1m worldwide. Maybe audiences are happier with their head in the sand.

Divines (France-Qatar, 2016)

Friends

Divines is a banlieue film and the expected ingredients of feisty youth being crushed by the forces of the state whilst living in poverty are present. However, there’s enough difference in the film to make it stand out and I preferred it to the similar Girlhood (France, 2014): they both boast female directors and highlight the female experience. Camera d’Or winning debutant, Houda Benyamina who also scripted, has directed a bravura film that welds melodrama to social realism.

Key to the film’s success is the performances of the protagonists, Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, sister of the director) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), as teenagers full of life but who are compromised by poverty. Dounia lives in a shack on a Roma camp and Maimouna’s father who is the local Imam. In a great scene the pair imagine they’re driving a Ferrari around the estate and, in a Spike Lee ‘double dolly’, they move with the camera with added sound effects. In an uncomfortable scene for an ex-teacher, Dounia demolishes her teacher who’s trying to get her to role play the a receptionist. The youngsters are seen, by society, as nothing more than low paid workers so a life in crime is a sensible option. The local drug kingpin is female, a suitably scary Jisca Kalvanda, who takes Dounia on because she’s got ‘clitoris’ (ie not balls). In another scene that feminises the genre, Dounia voyeuristically gazes at the naked body of a male dancer she fancies.

Unsurprisingly in a first feature the film loses its momentum at points, particularly toward the end. However, the incendiary finale wrenches back the drama. The vicious cycle of living in the world of the underclass is illustrated when Dounia, in a fit of youthful mischievousness, throws a bottle at a fire engine crew so later they refuse to enter the estate without a police escort. The audience is encouraged to understand why such things happen but, as a melodrama, is not offering answers (and there’s no reason why it should).

Benyamina seems to be suffering from the difficulty of getting a second film funded, not withstanding her Cannes award. According to imdb.com she’s directed the pilot of Tell Me Your Secrets, an American TV series and an episode of The Eddy (UK) – both 2019. Of course television is not the ghetto it was and these could be interesting. Divines was snapped up by Netflix, after it played the festival circuit, rather than being distributed beyond France. I guess the money on the table is irresistible to filmmakers when faced with the vagaries of international film distribution for a non-Hollywood film.

 

Aquarius (Brazil-France, 2016)

Invisible woman

Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man (1952) showed how people of colour weren’t seen for who they were; that problem has not gone away. Another invisible group are old women and writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho makes visible this group who, because they are not deemed sexy, are not viewed as women and, because they are old, are often thought of as irrelevant. Sônia Braga plays Clara a sixtysomething widow who’s the only one standing out against developers in her beachside apartment in Recife, Brazil. There’s more, however, as the film shows her social life and relationships with her family and the conflict with the developers is often sidelined. The two and a half hour running time, which never drags, gives plenty of space for character development and the performances give us believable people.

Braga is brilliant in the lead as we see a determined personality dealing with adversity, age and body deformity. A short prelude, set in 1980, shows Clara as a young woman but the key moment here is a flashback of her aunt’s as her 70th birthday is celebrated. When a youngster eulogises the aunt we see a very short sequence of a couple having sex; presumably this is her memories of when she was young. I say ‘presumably’ because Filho doesn’t signify the scene clearly as a flashback; there are other abrupt switches in the film. It seems to be suggesting what the aunt would rather be doing rather than listening to her great niece praising her. Sex intersperses the film and is explicit.

Like the unclear flashbacks, there are other arty touches. A gust of wind is shown via magazine pages suddenly fluttering, followed by a door banged shut; this heralds the arrival of the construction company. These are ‘heartless developers’ with a particularly Brazilian air of politeness that (sort of) resolves in the climactic confrontation. Before that we get to see the travails of Sonia’s family and her rather matriarchal way of dealing with them. It’s unnerving that the corruption portrayed, no doubt this happens the real world, is even before the current right-wing Bolsanaro got elected so things will get worse in Brazil.

By prioritising the family melodrama strands, as well as her battle with the builders, the film sometimes loses focus. However, that is not a criticism as there’s no reason why narratives shouldn’t sprawl and eschew the goal-driven structure of mainstream films. The film was shown at Cannes and won the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize; it was distributed internationally and it’s now arrived on Netflix.