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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Time Without Pity (UK, 1957)

Failing father

Ben Barzman’s adaptation of Emlyn Williams’ play is a gripping thriller directed by Joseph Losey. It was the first film Losey could actually put his name to, after being blacklisted by McCarthyite America, despite working in Britain since the early ’50s. He brings his usual visual flourishes to this slightly frenzied tale of a dad trying to redeem himself after failing his adult son. The melodrama heightens his failure by giving him 24 hours to prevent his son’s execution for murder. One of the strands of the film is an anti-capital punishment theme added to the play’s narrative.

Despite Losey, the highlight of the film is Michael Redgrave’s performance as the dad, David Graham, who plays a recovering alcoholic and there’s no doubt his own alcoholism informed his tortured performance when he’s trying to resist having a drink. The titanic struggle is writ large across his features (see above) and I don’t think I’ve seen him better. It’s a strong supporting cast though Leo McKern’s Yorkshire accent is a moveable feast. He plays Robert Stanford the ‘upstart’ northern businessman; ‘upstart’ because in marrying Ann Todd’s character he is shown to be out of his social class. Such prejudice is disappointing from a left-wing filmmaker but it does give Todd a good moment when she excoriates her husband’s social climbing. Stanford’s type of character would be better served in ’60s cinema as the working class was often portrayed as authentic as Britain’s deferent ‘national character’ evolved for the better.

In Conversations with Losey (Methuen), the director states that he may have gone over the top in a scene where Graham’s questioning an embittered old woman whose room is full of loudly ticking clocks. As Losey says, he was often criticised for being ‘baroque’, that is ‘over the top’, and thinks that maybe here it was justified. I don’t agree because it adds to the growing hysteria that’s gripping Graham as he feels he’s failing in his task to prove his son innocent. Losey also notes that he didn’t direct the racetrack scene very well and it certainly feels an unnecessary adjunct to the narrative though it does help characterise the particularly male stupidity that informs McKern’s character.

The ending is particularly effective as a demonstration how far a parent will go to save their child. A very well-made film crowned by Redgrave’s brilliant performance.

The Official Story (La historia oficial , Argentina, 1985)

Officially captivating

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.

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.

Happy Hour (Happî awâ, Japan, 2015)

Happy hours?

I’ve been laid low with a virus for a week and that seemed to be a perfect time to watch a five hour-plus film. Streamed on MUBI, I watched it in two parts and can seriously recommend it if you have five hours to spare. Director, and co-writer, Hamaguchi Ryûsuke takes his time laying out the lives and… well, not ‘loves’ because the four thirtysomething friends are all faced with stupid men.

Some reviews have compared it to television narrative which, despite watching it in two ‘episodes’, it resolutely is not. If it had been made as an episodic narrative for television the whole structure would have been changed as each episode would need to be internally coherent and finish with a cliffhanger of sorts. Without having five arbitrary endings Hamaguchi is free to let scenes run for as long as necessary; and some are very long: one, for example, a sort of New Age workshop about communication, lasts about an hour. It becomes clear that communication is a key theme, alongside friendship, of the film. Apparently the film was released in France in three parts over three weeks. ‘Vive la France’ for distributing it as there would be virtually no audience in the UK for such a long film.

Unsurprisingly the film is resolutely Japanese. The British are often ‘famed’ for their reserve but we cannot compete with the Japanese. Their ingrained politeness means voices are rarely raised even when anger is at melting point; I imagine the screen would explode in equivalent scenes in telenovelas. Although this doesn’t facilitate over-the-top melodrama, the measured discussion, because it allows frankness (there’s little danger of being belted when telling someone a ‘home truth’) the issues between people can be laid bare. For example, Akari (Tanaka Sachie), the boldest of the friends, states she can’t stand being lied to and this causes ruptures between the four. In Britain, such feelings are probably more likely to fester unsaid.

Apparently the film was developed in workshops in Kobe, and the improvisatory quality shows through giving many of the scenes a vital immediacy. Astonishingly it is the first film of all the principals; they are superb. Only occasionally did I feel a drop in quality; on a couple of occasions bright light from windows in the background makes the foreground murky. Mostly, however, the direction is exemplary.

There is plenty of humour in the film; an overbearing live-in mother-in-law suddenly changes sides and thumps her son who is cowardly delegating a sensitive task to his wife. It is only rarely boring; I found the book reading irksome (indeed some of the audience appeared to be asleep). Overall it was well worth the effort of sitting in front of a television for hours. Hamaguchi’s representation of characters (and therefore people) as being not being as simple as we assume is engaging even if most of the blokes in the film need a rocket up their arses; some of them are self aware enough to know this. The failure to communicate properly in what would be ‘middle years’ (if it lasted) of a relationship, the deadening caused by routine, is superbly portrayed. 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.

 

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.