Saturday 29 February 2020

The Treasure [2015]

Corneliu Porumboiu has a sly genius for mixing droll hyperrealism with dry-to-bones irony, matter of factness with meandering conversations, and banality with a touch of the absurd. He’d memorably exhibited these facets in the bristlingly brilliant 12:08 East of Bucharest and the deadpan Police, Adjective, and these were in fine display in his dour, rigorous and exquisitely low-key The Treasure. This impish antithesis to the adventure genre despite its deliberately unsubtle title and seemingly thrilling premise, viz. two middle-aged men going on a mini-odyssey to unearth precious valuables, made for a potent commentary on post-Communist Romania, with its neoliberal economy, financial woes cloaking the allure of being better off, and institutional corruption. Costi (Cuzin Toma), in a drab job and struggling to manage his loans, lives a rather humdrum life with his family. Hence, when Adrian (Adrian Purcărescu), a broke neighbor in the same apartment block, approaches him for financial support to hire the services of a professional metal detector to help find the titular treasure – which his grandfather had apparently buried to prevent them from being seized during the anti-aristocracy purge – in exchange for a share in the pie, he hesitantly decides to help despite his doubts. The routine preparation and the dreary endeavor over a weekend – especially the brewing hostility between between an increasingly testy Adrian and the weary Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), who decided to help bypassing his boss – made for a darkly hilarious watch, leading to a rather unexpected payout. Interestingly, the real-life Purcărescu had actually told Porumboiu about a potential buried treasure from his ancestral past, and therein lay, initially, the idea for a documentary, and that eventually became the genesis for this deadpan gem.

Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Black Comedy
Language: Romanian
Country: Romania

Tuesday 25 February 2020

This is Not a Film [2011]

While Jafar Panahi’s works have usually always been a reflection of his defiance, it surely reached gargantuan proportions with This is Not a Film. As a way to tamper his political outspokenness, he was sentenced to 6 years in prison, and a banned for 20 years from writing and directing movies, giving interviews and travelling internationally; therefore, in an act of fearless dissent, he illegally made this non-film with the help of Mojtaba Mirtahmasb – shot entirely inside his lovely Tehran apartment where he was under house arrest pending further appeals, and using a mix of a hand-held movie camera and an iPhone – and had this smuggled out of the country in a flash drive for a surprise screening at the Cannes. Yet interestingly, this pocket-sized provocation – right from its ironic title to its seemingly faux tone – was also surprisingly cheeky and rarely took itself too seriously despite the shadows of potential doom. Less a film and more a spontaneous video essay, it captured a day in his life stuck in his house, as he speaks to his lawyer, reminisces about his earlier works, discusses his latest screenplay which is banned by the government censors, recreates a sequence from his forbidden script, plays with his pet iguana, engages in satirical conversations with Mirtahmasb, briefly enjoys the Fireworks Wednesday celebrations, and builds a fleeting connect with the guy who collects their wastes while pursuing a university career in the arts. The wry conversations and musings on the absurd punishment and its potential loopholes, masking the seriousness and fatalism underneath, made this an exemplary work of political bravery – that too, without really comprising of any overtly political discourse or protestations within it.

Director: Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Genre: Documentary/Diary Film/Essay Film
Language: Persian
Country: Iran

Saturday 22 February 2020

Arabian Nights [2015]

Miguel Gomes’ eccentric and ambitious magnum opus Arabian Nights – spread over 6 hours and split into three volumes (The Restless One, The Desolate One, The Enchanted One) is a work of contradictory brilliance, borne out of anger, dispair and bitterness, and packed with absurdity, melancholy, magic realism and acrid humour; or, as another reviewer marvelously put it, it’s “the blind men’s elephant: miniseries and short story cycle, documentary and fantasy, proletarian and prohibitive.” It begins with reportage of two parallel events – the heartwrenching closure of an enormous shipyard, and a wasp plague. With these, along with the simmering rage at how a government bereft of social justice held a beleaguered Portugal hostage to economic austerity – which led to slashing of jobs, wages and pensions – begins a series of curiously fascinating tableaux curated by a team of journalists Gomes had tasked with finding stories from across the country from that devastating period, using One Thousand and One Nights as a framing device. The best of the nine episodes, along with the vérité style opening chapter, comprised of – the nasty account of a group of bankers willing to ease up on austerity in exchange for cure to their impotence; the powerfully bleak tale of individuals left unemployed by the crisis, invited for a rare moment of fun; a satirical public trial which starts with a trifle offence, becomes increasingly elaborate and crazy, until no one’s innocent; a deeply affecting tale of a dog in a huge apartment block whose owners keep changing; an intimate monologue of a Chinese immigrant girl set against videos of massive public protest; and, a dream-like, quietly enthralling and nearly dialogue-free montage on a disappearing group of birdtrappers.

Director: Miguel Gomes
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Black Comedy/Political Satire/Fantasy
Language: Portuguese
Country: Portugal

Thursday 20 February 2020

Jojo Rabbit [2019]

Comedy (or humour), as the adage goes, equals tragedy plus time; and this does open up artistic and political possibilities in terms of deploying ironic, absurdist, darkly humorous portrayals of subjects that demand seriousness in the “present”. Furthermore, movies have also, over the years, chronicled horrors and devastations through the eyes of kids – from Germany Year Zero, Ivan’s Childhood and Cria Cuervos to Life is Beautiful, Pan’s Labyrinth and Turtles Can Fly. However, if this combination borders on flippant, shallow and simplistic, sacrificing complexity for cuteness and easy guffaws, and is filled with easy sentimentality and pat humanism, for a subject as dark and monstrous as the Holocaust, things can get squeaky and problematic, even if there’re loads of whimsy and playful ingenuity. That, in short, defines Taiki Watiti’s “anti-hate satire” Jojo Rabbit. That it was moderately engaging, had funny moments and was based on an interesting premise with a lot of potential, is beside the point. The film’s protagonist is 10-year old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a Nazi fanatic and member of the Hitler Youth living with her mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) during the last days of WWII. His mother is part of the Resistance and hence is mostly out; his father’s at the Italian front; he’s often bullied for his lack of ability to inflict cruelty; and he has an imaginary friend in the form of a goofy Hitler (Watiti). His rabid love for anything Nazi, however, hits a strange roadblock when he finds Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a 16-year old Jewish girl, hidden in their home; and, despite his preconceived notion about Jews courtesy the propaganda all around him, he starts developing a crush for her.

Director: Taika Waititi
Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Political Satire
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday 15 February 2020

Tabu [2012]

Miguel Gomes’ offbeat, poetic and ravishingly beautiful Tabu is a delightfully lavish exercise in melodrama – a genre rarely associated with arthouse rigour and minimalism. And, it’s also a meditation on old age, an infectious love story, an ingenious exercise in formal audacity and, crucially, a striking commentary on the dark heart of colonialism – including, the shallow romanticization of it in cinema. And these, in turn, made this delightfully old-fashioned and yet impishly modernist. The movie started with a dreamlike non-sequitar sequence of a Portuguese explorer in Africa surrounded by the suffering continent’s slave natives and haunted by his dead wife. At this point the main narrative kicked off, structured into two dramatically different halves (stylistically, spatially and temporarily). Part 1 (“Paradise Lost”) was centered on three Lisbon-based women –soft-spoken Human Rights activist Pilar (Teresa Madruga), her neurotic and aged neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral) and the latter’s African immigrant housemaid (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso) who regularly faces racist insinuations from her senile employer; Part 2 (“Paradise”), told in a long flashback, and set somewhere in Lusophone Aftica just before the Portuguese Colonial War began, chronicled the scorching, illicit affair between a younger Pilar (Ana Moreira), married to a wealthy colonial settler, and a rakish young musician (Carloto Cotta) fleeing from his debobair past. The restrained chamber drama of the first half made for a fascinating contrast to the gloriously sweeping and swashbuckling second which, interestingly, almost played out like an old film with a voice-over narration replacing onscreen dialogues. The elegiac piano score that the film began and is interspersed with, peppy pop songs and rich, grainy B/W photography marvelously complemented its quirky, impressionistic and emotionally enthralling tone and texture.

Director: Miguel Gomes
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Adventure
Language: Portuguese
Country: Portugal