The Florida Project (US, 2017)

The sunshine state

Sean Baker (he co-wrote and directed) manages to get sensational performances from the ‘little rascals’ who live in motels adjacent to Disney World; the title of the film was Disney’s original name for his theme park. The adults are excellent too even though they are mostly inexperienced; Baker apparently found Bria Vinaite on Instagram. Willem Dafoe, as the exasperated and paternalistic caretaker, integrates his performance with the rest of the cast perfectly. While the film isn’t only about performance, this ‘slice of life’ of a Florida underclass has a somewhat fragmentary narrative; not that that is necessarily a bad thing but some of slices are a bit thin. Key to its success, is the (apparent) authenticity of life on the margins. The motels are garish in appearance, they are trying to compete with the sickly sweetness of Disney World, and rundown on the inside.

Brooklynn Prince plays 6-year-old Moonee who is a ‘wild child’, like her mum (Vinaite), that wreaks havoc in the area. At one point, when giving a guided tour to a new arrival, she says, “We’re not allowed in here so let’s go in.” She then proceeds to cut the power. On one level she is appalling but, then again, she’s only six so cannot be held responsible for her upbringing. That’s Halley’s responsibility but their relationship is more like mischievous teenage girls. Halley hustles a living and relies upon Dafoe’s Bobby to help her out; not that she ever shows any gratitude. In some ways she is a monster, her treatment of an estranged friend for example, but Baker never demonises her; these are people on the edge who graft for what they can get. Vinaite captures the stubborn self-absorption of a child-woman perfectly; I remember trying to teach similar characters, it bordered on the impossible.

What’s lacking in the film, and that’s not its fault as it wasn’t its purpose, is social context. Bobby’s boss gives an inkling about the way the poor are treated when, on his occasional visits, he rules to roost with contempt. The caretaker’s deference shows he’s standing on eggshells so as not to offend the man with power. In addition, the virtuoso shot at the end makes it clear that Baker is making a social comment. However, as is the nature of ‘slices of life’, the power structures that lead to lives being restricted in poverty, are mostly ignored.

On the other hand, it is better that such lives are dramatised (as in Leave No Trace) than not at all and Baker is clearly a talent to watch. His mise en scene perfectly captures the candy floss environs of lives that could be bitter but are generally shown to be full of fun.

Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice, Italy-Switzerland-France-Germany, 2018)

Happy?

At its best the experience of film is magical. By this I don’t mean the fantastical special effects that have become so commonplace that they no longer thrill but rather the moments when the sum of a film’s parts suddenly become more as a whole. Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is an example of this. The title, in English, seems to be based on the simile ‘happy as Larry’: this works in the sense that nothing gets Lazzaro down; he’s played with engaging blankness by debutant Adriano Tardiolo. He is a ‘simple’ ‘innocent’ who only want to please. I guess the name’s more likely reference is Lazarus for reasons I won’t divulge for fear of ‘spoiling’.

The first part of the film seems to be set in early 20th century rural Italy where sharecroppers eke out a meagre existence and use Lazzaro for the jobs they don’t want to do. Although they are exploitative, they do so with affection. The marquise, however, exploits with contempt and ensures the villagers remain in her debt. About half way through there is an abrupt change of tone that requires great confidence from a filmmaker to bring off; Rohrwacher succeeds.

The film is shot on Super 16mm in 1:1.63 ratio with the corners rounded giving an old fashioned feel to the look. The warmth of the rural environment is followed by the cold urban world of the city and at one level retains a social realist aesthetic narrating the lives of those ‘down at heel’. In one shocking sequence, migrant workers are seen outbidding one another for work: the lowest bid wins. Rohrwacher’s film is about exploitation in the ‘old world’ of Italy and in the new globalised world.

Social realism can, rightly, be grim but Happy as Lazzaro is leavened with humour and the ensemble cast, including Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister, are excellent; special mention must go to Sergi López who reminded me of Bob Hoskins in his prime. That said it isn’t a realist film so you will have to go see it to understand this contradiction.

Lazzaro is in a way he is like Voltaire’s Candide but he is not disillusioned when he enters the ‘real world’. Rather he retains his faith in humanity which, as Rohrwacher shows, is difficult in the face of exploitation but crucial if we are to retain our humanity. I need to catch up on her other films.

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.