Wednesday 31 May 2023

Argentina, 1985 [2022]

 Argentina was no different vis-à-vis most other South/Central American countries when it came to experiencing repressive right-wing dictatorships during the 20th century (usually helmed by military junta, oftentimes sponsored/aided by the US, and always supported by the upper/middle classes and social/political conservatives) – though, the one it faced from 1976 to 1983, was especially ghastly –; however, in what made it a relative rarity, it tried the perpetrators in a civilian court of law, and that too very soon after the armed forces relinquished its illegitimate powers, which meant that the scorching memories of the state-sponsored violence were still fresh. Argentina, 1985 – reminiscent of Larraín’s No, in how both films vividly evoked momentous events through straight-up storytelling laced with thematic seriousness and stylistic levity, and Guzmán’s The Pinochet Case in highlighting dogged lawyers who dared to bring criminal state heads to account – chronicled the ‘Trial of the Juntas’. The film’s two primary protagonists were the middle-aged public prosecutor Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín), and his fiercely committed deputy Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), who – along with a group of idealistic assistants and defying threats to their personal well-being – led the high-profile trial against Jorge Videla and his top-level cohorts, in defiance of collaborators, apologists, careerists and fanatics. But its protagonists, in equal measures, were also those who courageously took the stands and recounted their gut-wrenching stories of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, custodial rapes and torture, including the human rights activist Adriana Calvo (Laura Paredes), among many others. While the film’s glossy treatment and attempts at wry humour felt distracting at times, the solemnity of its matter which was addressed head-on, aided by committed performances, made it an undeniably necessary work.

Director: Santiago Mitre

Genre: Drama/Legal Drama/Historical Drama

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina

Sunday 28 May 2023

Joyland [2022]

 Biba – the vivacious transwoman in Joyland who refuses to be stripped off her agency despite an existence marked by scorn and marginalization, and played with stunning élan by Alina Khan – immediately reminded me of similarly unforgettable transwomen characters in Lemebel’s My Tender Matador, Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and Shree’s Tomb of Sand, who too possessed unbridled verve, gall and gumption. She was one of several people here who let loose a riot of desires in reckless abandon. The way gender boundaries, sexual stereotypes, patriarchal structures and heteronormative identities were subverted in this magnificent feature debut by Saim Sadiq, therefore, was exhilarating! That it was also laced with such tenderness, profound intimacy, existential malaise and bursts of rebellious joy, was as indicative of its narrative aplomb as its radical humanism. The film’s tapestry was weaved around the middle-class Rana family residing amidst the bustle of Lahore – the wheelchair-bound patriarch (Salmaan Peerzada) who’s unabashedly conservative, yet has developed an attachment with a widowed woman; his elder daughter-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) who manages all domestic duties and keeps giving birth in the hopes of begetting a male heir, while surreptitiously smoking on the roof and lashing out when offended; Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), the younger daughter-in-law, who’s fiercely protective of her financial independence, hates conventional gender roles, and succumbs to furtive impulses; and Mumtaz’s unassuming husband Haider (Ali Junejo), who happily helps with household chores and becomes hopelessly enamoured with Biba upon secretly joining a risqué dance theatre. The latter affair was memorably counterpointed with the rapturous friendship that develops between Nucchi and Mumtaz. All three were magnificently enacted in this gorgeously cinematographed work filled with impudence, vitality, melancholy and desolation.

Director: Saim Sadiq

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Family Drama/Existential Drama

Language: Urdu/Punjabi

Country: Pakistan

Friday 26 May 2023

Alcarràs [2022]

 Alcarràs was a decidedly political film, even when it wasn’t ostensibly so. Its embodiment of this curious dichotomy – between its themes vis-à-vis form – made it a particularly interesting work. It focussed on a closely-knit agricultural family’s last harvest before eviction from the peach orchard in rural Catalonia that they’ve tilled for generations – and the repercussions thereof, as it isn’t just their only livelihood, but raison d'être as well – because their landlord, refusing to honour the handshake agreement made by his deceased father, wants to raze it down and setup a lucrative solar farm in its place. Carla Simón, in an admirable artistic choice, gave space to every member of the Solé clan in the first film in Catalan language to win the Golden Bear – Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet), the increasingly grumpy middle-aged patriarch who leads the backbreaking harvest; his strong-willed wife who helps him on the farm while also managing domestic chores; their gangly, impulsive adolescent son (Albert Bosch), emotionally confused pre-teen daughter, and carefree, lovable little Iris (Iris (Ainet Jounou); the reserved, downcast grandpa (Josep Abad), and adorable grandma who loves reminiscing; and Quimet’s proud sister, frivolous brother-in-law and their chirpy twin kids who they’re all very close to – through their tribulations and joys, conflicts and camaraderie, falling-out and solidarity. The film, on one hand, was organically interwoven with such topics as fading memories of the Spanish Civil where Catalonia had played a revolutionary role, the advent of green capitalism, the exploitation of farmers by market forces, and use of low-cost migrant labour; while, on the other, it was awash in lyrical naturalism, bittersweet tones, luminous landscapes, quirky moments and the melancholic passage of a way of life.

Director: Carla Simon

Genre: Drama/Rural Drama/Family Drama

Language: Catalan

Country: Spain

Wednesday 24 May 2023

Dry Ground Burning [2022]

 Dry Ground Burning, as the title indicated, was scorched, grimy and incendiary, and – as a ferociously feminist, bleakly dystopian and boldly political film; cinema of resistance; an exercise in agitprop; grungy, revisionist Western; speculative thriller; “ethnographic sci-fi”; and a work of docufiction – operated, with formal suppleness, in the shifting intersection of multiple genres. It simultaneously captured Bolsenaro’s toxic, right-wing politics, and evoked a nightmarish “what-if” scenario wherein the country has devolved into a post-apocalyptic police state and carceral society, leading to underground dissidents defiantly seizing pockets of control. And what a brash defiance it was! An all-female collective of outlaws and residents of the impoverished Sol Nascente favela in the outskirts of Brasilia – comprising of Chitarra (Joana Darc Furtado), a single mother and the voluptuous leader of the gasolinheiras; her nonchalant half-sister Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), who’s recently been released from jail; and Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who’s founded the Prison People Party with the aim to provide voice and empowerment to people, especially women, who continue to face terrible discrimination and impediments on account of past incarcerations – have taken control of an underground pipeline from which they extract crude gasoline, refine it into oil and sell that to a motorcycle gang for distribution. The film’s three gangsta protagonists – whose lives, in a blurring of boundaries, mirrored that of the respective actors –, therefore, formed a fearless vanguard and represented a proud future that “isn’t just female: it is Black, lesbian, profoundly matriarchal.” Its most scintillating moments included Andreia’s rap-canvassing of her political manifesto, and a hypnotic pan within a Bolsenaro rally where the crowd of smug conservatives was the very antithesis of this film and its three heroines.

Director: Joana Pimenta & Adirley Queiros

Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi/Revisionist Western/Crime Drama

Language: Portuguese

Country: Brazil

Saturday 20 May 2023

Everything Everywhere All at Once [2022]

 Everything Everywhere All at Once, the unlikely smash hit by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a.k.a. ‘The Daniels’, was clearly a film of two halves. The first half, which transitioned from a grimy, grubby, and immediately identifiable immigrant story – filled with anxieties, stresses, feelings of otherization, futile attempts at assimilation and generational fault-lines that deftly articulated the lost dreams, and was complemented by low-fi, grainy realism that had “indie” written all over it – into a wacky, gonzo, stylistically dazzling, absurdist, gleefully farcical and unapologetically over-the-top sci-fi action comedy – that subverted genre trappings while freely jumping across alternate realities, parallel universes, and the lines between deadpan realism and unrestrained fantasies – was like a breath of fresh air. The way it meta-referenced kung-fu movies, red pill / blue pill duality, wuxia fight choreography, etc., while retaining an underlying layer of melancholy, was captivating. “Poignant maximalism”, as one reviewer coined it, was apt in this context. The second half, unfortunately, undid some of its goofy brilliance, as it became increasingly maudlin, resorted to literal philosophizing, took up one concept too many in its attempt at irreverence, and, at some point, overlong. The film’s storyline was centred on Evelyn (a truly terrific and inspired Michelle Yoeh) – a harried, embittered, middle-aged Chinese-American woman whose marriage to her meek husband (Ke Huy Quan in an endearing turn) is falling apart, relationship with their daughter (Stephanie Hsu) has estranged, the struggling laundromat that she runs is struggling with tax complications thanks to an exacting IRS inspector (Jamie Lee Curtis) and stuck in escapable existential rut – who must tap into spectacular alternate selves – action star, cook and whatnot – in order to save the world, err, the universe(s).

Director: Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert

Genre: Comedy Drama/Action/Sci-Fi/Martial Arts Film/Adventure

Language: English, Cantonese

Country: US

Thursday 18 May 2023

One Fine Morning (Un Beau Matin) [2022]

 Mia Hansen-Løve is that rare filmmaker who can effortlessly portray a volley of emotions, existential crises & lived experiences using precise and tender brushstrokes, with shades that're vivid yet understated, and on a canvas that's as fragile as an old notebook, thus capturing poetry within a raindrop that’s both delicate and mundane. One Fine Morning elucidated these sublime attributes of hers as a filmmaker. That, like Father of My Children, this too was based on actual people – her own parents – informed it with profoundly personal meanings. It centred on Sandra, a fiercely real character, played with astounding depth and stunning restraint by the magnetic Léa Seydoux. She’s a widowed single mother who stays with her little daughter; she’s committed to her vocation as an interpreter and translator; she deeply cares for her aged father Georg (an emphatically brilliant Pascal Greggory), former philosophy professor, who’s suffering from a debilitating neurodegenerative disease that’s left him utterly helpless; she embarks on a passionate affair with an old married friend (Melvil Poupaud); she’s also well-connected with her quirky mom Nicole (Nicole Garcia) – a left-wing activist who still attends to Georg despite being his ex-wife – and her sister, as they fervently explore ways to admit Georg to an agreeable nursing home while also taking care of his rich collection of eclectic books in a manner that befits their memories of his now-fading identity. Lush, vibrant photography of Parisian streets and the constant narrative motion complemented the film’s nuanced interiority, while Jan Johansson’s magnificent Liksom en Herdinna and Schubert’s sonatas amplified its wistful, melancholic tones. Coping with loss – both past and imminent – while carrying on with a gloriously messy life, therefore, formed its simmering motif.

Director: Mia Hansen-Love

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Romantic Drama/Urban Drama

Language: French

Country: France

Sunday 14 May 2023

My Imaginary Country [2022]

 Who could’ve imagined that an increase in Santiago’s metro fare by 30 pesos in October 2019 would spark such a massive social outburst that it’d eventually lead to the drafting of a new constitution and election of an avowedly leftist leader for the first time since Allende. That fare increase was essentially the final straw that brought millions to the streets to protest against societal malaise and neo-liberal policies of post-Pinochet governments – under-funded education, housing and healthcare; lack of employment and fair wages; perpetuation of patriarchy and sexual violence; under-representation of women and indigenous people in the government; disproportionate power of the police and military – which they did despite lack of a centralized leadership, and in stunning defiance of the violence unleashed by the authorities. This transformative event – captured by Guzmán in his pulsating, politically urgent, eloquently persuasive and powerful reportage My Imaginary Country – therefore, signified the coming of full circle for Chile, and its most impassioned and outstanding documentarian for around 50 years. Two fascinating choices made this, respectively, an essential work and a scintillating watch – viz. its stirring feminist voice, as all its talking heads – activists, journalists, photographers, filmmakers, medics, cultural collectives, etc. – were avowedly progressive women; and, alongside riveting B/W images and “live” street footage, Guzmán made thrilling use of drones wherein two sequences especially stood out – an armoured vehicle spraying teargas on demonstrators while coasting through an avenue, and throbbing crowds packing Santiago’s Plaza Italia. In an ironic touch, Estadio Nacional, which’d once served as a detention, torture and execution centre upon the 1973 military coup – the filmmaker had himself been imprisoned in it – was the venue for the 2020 plebiscite for a new constitution.

Director: Patricio Guzman

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Political History

Language: Spanish

Country: Chile

Thursday 11 May 2023

All That Breathes [2022]

 Shaunak Sen, while speaking of the driving force behind his terrific documentary All That Breathes, articulated his eagerness to “touch upon the whole through the particular”, and this parallel embracing of seemingly dichotomous facets made it an especially powerful work. It was both an example of transcendental art and electrifying reportage; an unsettling portrayal of urban dystopia, while also a quietly uplifting piece; as much an expression of profound humanism as of political dissent and defiance; universal and timeless in its broader philosophies, while also extraordinarily “in the moment” in its geographic and contextual specificities; simultaneously muted in its tone, eloquent in its fierce social commentary, and pulsating in its tremendous sense of vitality and urgency. Its primary subjects were two soft-spoken Muslim brothers – Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad – residing in a desolate section of Delhi, who rescue and treat birds – predominantly the majestic black kites – at their cramped home turned makeshift clinic, despite financially and procedural hurdles. Its subject was also the city of Delhi, with its smog-filled skies and grim ecological footprint, alongside its stunning culture of resistance and troubling social fault-lines that’re demonstrated, respectively, by the massive protests that the draconian citizenship laws sparked and the venomous riots that those in positions of power engineered. And, not least, its subject was a nation-state’s irrevocable turn towards muscular majoritarianism and smug xenophobia, wherein the kites – which’re treated as outcasts by veterinary facilities for being a “non-vegetarian” species – become representative of the broader political canvas, thus paving way for touching “the whole through the particular”. While speaking of the film’s haunting portrayals, complex themes and contrapuntal manifestations, one is also transfixed by its hypnotic and rapturous audio-visual compositions.

Director: Shaunak Sen

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: Hindi

Country: India

Saturday 6 May 2023

The Headless Woman [2008]

 Lucrecia Martel’s magnificent ‘Salta Trilogy’, over the course of the films that it comprised of, transitioned from the broad to the particular in their narrative focus – starting with the rapturously dizzying La Ciénaga which encompassed an array of extended relatives, followed by the wickedly provocative The Holy Girl which covered a smaller family, and finally the psychologically chilling, haunting and deeply unnerving The Headless Woman which largely centred on one character. Formal audacity – avoidance of establishing shots that compels viewers to situate characters and discern relationships themselves, complex audio-visual compositions, deliciously elliptical narratives, etc. –, feminist gaze, and caustic political critiques that’ve informed her works, were fiercely exhibited in this oblique hit-and-run tale and its discomfiting aftermaths. The said incident happens when Verónica (María Onetto, in a superb, nuanced performance) – a wealthy, middle-aged dentist whose class privilege is discernible through her coiffured blond hair, chic sunglasses, assured body language, and politely distanced and condescending interactions with native servants and workers – inadvertently hits something… or someone, while driving along a country road. She gets into an incredibly dazed and disoriented state, and, thereafter, starts thinking that she may have killed an Indian boy – the dog in the rear-view mirror potentially indicative of her subjective perspective – which her husband, lover and friends are keen to convince her otherwise, forget and bury. The way she ultimately shook herself out of her stupor – and guilt – was especially shattering. The film, therefore, served as a stunning – albeit, allegorical – indictment of the Argentine bourgeoisie’s clinical self-preservation and all-too-eager disavowal of the estimated 30,000 who were disappeared during the military dictatorship, and how they so easily expunged themselves of guilt and moral culpability through wilful denial.

p.s. My earlier review of the film can be found here.

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina

Wednesday 3 May 2023

The Holy Girl (La Niña Santa) [2004]

 If Lucrecia Martel’s stunning debut feature La Ciénaga – with its intoxicating cocktail of chaos, malaise, torpor, vacuousness, fault-lines and undercurrents – was a dazzling piece of diamond, her sophomore feature The Holy Girl – the middle instalment in her masterful ‘Salta Trilogy’, and followed by the magnificent The Headless Woman – was like a cold, metallic razor that clinically sliced through the skin. This brilliant, cutting, provocative, unsettling, sensuous and languid work – which’re Martel’s authorial signatures – focused with wry detachment on how religious frenzy and sexual curiosity can feed into each other for a young, naïve and intensely conflicted teenager. The film’s lurid and devilish subject bore Almodóvar’s influence – he was, incidentally, the film’s executive producer – but this was Martel’s film through and through, with its ambivalent gestures, tonal ambiguities, narrative restraint, unhurried style, flirtatious compositions, and leaving things open to extrapolations. It kickstarted when a middle-aged man takes advantage of a crowd to casually press his groin against a teenage girl, in what is clearly a secret sexual perversion for him. The man happens to be Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a respected and married physician, who’s attending a medical congress at an impressive hotel, and during which time he finds himself getting drawn to Helena (Mercedes Morán), the hotel’s striking owner and a divorcee in a state of emotional dilemmas. And the girl is Amalia (María Alché), a paradoxical, mischievous and pubescent teenager who’s become enamoured by Catholic faith, experiments on her burgeoning sexuality with her friend (Julieta Zylberberg) and starts stalking Jano to cure him of his sins. She, coincidentally, also happens to be Amalia’s daughter, and the ensuing ménage à trois is therefore bound to end badly for all.

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Religious Drama

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina