Sunday 26 May 2024

A Brighter Tomorrow [2023]

 Nanni Moretti’s funny, whimsical and delectably messy A Brighter Tomorrow is as much a return to the wry, verbose and self-reflexive films of his past – it’s filled with infectious references to his greatest hits like Dear Diary, April, etc. – as a self-deprecating expression of his being out of sync with the world around him and his inability to fit in anymore, leading to both professional and existential crises. Furthermore, aside from its metatextual elements, ironic self-critiques, impish personal absorptions and unabashed self-indulgences, it’s also a loving evocation of his left-wing political ideals. Giovanni (Moretti’s quintessentially neurotic, cantankerous and chatterbox filmmaker alter-ego, played by himself) is shooting a film around the tremendous moral crisis faced by a L'Unità’s editor (Silvio Orlando) upon being urged by his defiant secretary/fiancée (Barbora Bobulova) to show solidarity with a traveling circus troupe in response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, which ultimately leads to the Italian Communist Party’s forging a new path. He’s constantly distracted, however, because of multiple reasons – his luminous wife (Margherita Buy), who’s produced all his films so far, is planning to divorce him, as he sucks the oxygen out of the room; his lead actress keeps improvising to his chagrin; he’s heavily tempted to make a rom-com and an adaptation of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”; and the arrest of his dubious French producer (Mathieu Amalric) has left him in a lurch. The film is filled with hilarious digressions, including Giovanni halting the shooting of an action-thriller movie for an all-night diatribe on its problematic display of violence, and his riotous tryst with Netflix. The elegiac finale, one hopes, isn’t indicative of Moretti’s plans to walk into the sunset.

Director: Nanni Moretti

Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Film a Clef

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Friday 24 May 2024

The Delinquents [2023]

 Argentine filmmaker Rodrigo Moreno’s beguiling and enthralling anti-heist film The Delinquents seemed like a piquant blend of Godard’s radical and subversive flourishes, Rohmer’s freewheeling and enchanting levity, and Jarmusch’s seriocomic existentialist fables. This playful, languorous and intoxicating inversion of the classic crime caper – overturning genre conventions and sidestepping viewer expectations over its leisurely 3-hour runtime – also threw ironic jabs at corporate drudgery, work-life balance, midlife crisis, stifling urban monotony, the futility of meticulous planning and how the desire for escape doesn’t always exactly translate into one. Morán (Daniel Elías), who’s stuck in a dull and tedious clerical job in a bank in Buenos Aires, hatches a ludicrous plan in his defiant pursuit for freedom. He exploits a fortuitous scenario to steal $650,000 – just enough to compensate earnings until retirement for two persons – and slyly convinces his colleague Román (Esteban Bigliardi) to hold the loot, in lieu of 50% share for effectively doing nothing, while he serves what he expects to be a reduced prison sentence. Life, however, never follows a linear path, as Morán encounters the brutish prison boss Garrincha (Germán de Silva), while Román faces an equally torrid in office thanks to their vindictive boss (de Silva, in a dual role), a tough insurance investigator (Laura Paredes), crumbling domestic life and anxiety. To complicate things further, both are in love with the vivacious and carefree Norma (Margarita Molfino). The film’s many delightful attributes include Morán finding solace through Ricard Zelarayán’s hypnotic longform poem “The Great Salt Flats”; absorbing use of jazz, blues and tango scores; quirky conversations and digressions; elaborate fades and dissolves separating its gorgeously photographed sequences; and anagrammatic names, doppelgängers and such eccentric gestures from Moreno.

Director: Rodrigo Moreno

Genre: Crime Comedy/Existential Drama

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Kidnapped (Rapito) [2023]

 Marco Bellocchio’s baroque and magnetic film Kidnapped – made in the grand tradition of operatic and opulent historical melodramas – is a ferocious retelling of an unsettling true story from mid-19th century papal history. Through this recounting of a very specific event – that of the abduction of a Jewish kid by the Vatican, under the direct order of Pope Pius IX, to raise him as a Christian – the Octogenarian Italian filmmaker captured as much that historic Italian milieu which was about to be radically transformed by the forthcoming Risorgimento, an event that’d received its most unforgettable cinematic representations in Visconti’s Senso and The Leopard, as a portrayal of theocratic tyranny, discrimination against those deemed subhuman and their ghettoization by those with political might, which remain even more violently topical and relevant today. The story begins in 1858 when Edgardo Mortara (played by Enea Sala as kid and Leonardo Maltese as young adult), the sixth child of a well-off Jewish family from Bologna, is forcibly taken away by the church and relocated to Rome as, seven years back, a maid had ostensibly baptised him in secrecy. The “Mortara Case” mobilized the Jewish community and gained international attention thanks to the relentless efforts of the devastated parents (magnificently played by Fausto Russo Alesi and Barbara Ronchi). The baleful Pius IX (enacted with slimy and feral brilliance by Paolo Pierobon), however, is unmoved, and ruthlessly ensures Edgardo’s continued indoctrination, which leads his growing up as a heartbreakingly conflicted young man who’s doomed to be neither here nor there. Filmed with stunning audiovisual and aesthetic flourishes, this rich and complex tapestry reached a feverish crescendo in Bellochhio’s hands before ending on a deeply poignant note.

Director: Marco Bellocchio

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Sunday 19 May 2024

El Juicio (The Trial) [2023]

 1985 was a momentous year for Argentina – and a beacon of hope for her Latin American comrades – since just 2 years out of an exceptionally repressive right-wing military dictatorship, its judiciary put the junta’s top brass, including Jorge Rafael Videla, on trial for their ghastly crimes – one that’s drawn comparisons with the Nuremberg Trials for its significance and breadth – and that too in civil court. Though televised for posterity, the recordings unfortunately remained largely unseen. Ulises de la Orden took help of the human rights group Memória Abierta and the Norwegian Parliament to access the magnetic tapes, and then spent a decade sifting through 530 hours of footage and rendering them into 3 hours of immensely powerful and profoundly sobering memorialization that attests to collective resistance through remembrance. Structured into 18 chapters – each touching upon specific aspects of the state-sponsored violations that occurred during the “Dirty War”, from the grotesque to the baroque, including such events as “Night of the Pencils” and “Night of the Ties” – this collage of analogue videos, its historical vitality and political immediacy aside, made for a surprisingly engrossing work purely through an archival assemblage. While maximum screen-time is accorded to victims, survivors and relatives recounting their horrific sufferings and loss, it also regularly peeked into all the present stakeholders, viz. the heroic prosecuting duo of Strassera and Ocampo; the obnoxious and indifferent defendants; the morally bankrupt defence attorneys; the weary judges; and the emotionally invested attendees. The eruption that breaks upon Strassera’s stirring closing argument, where he turned “¡Nunca Más!” (“Never Again”) into a rallying cry of protest and defiance, leaves a lasting impression. Mitre’s engaging film Argentina, 1985, incidentally, chronicled the same subject.

Director: Ulises de la Orden

Genre: Documentary/Political History

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Menus-Plaisirs - Les Troisgros [2023]

 The 50th directorial effort of legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman – and his fourth exploration of French cultural institutes, having delved into the fabled theatre Comédie Française, the famous Paris Opera and the risqué Parisian cabaret Crazy Horse – is a pleasantly immersive and painstakingly detailed observational study into the Troisgros family’s acclaimed restaurant “Le Bois sans Feuilles”, which has held onto its Michelin 3-Star certification for over 50 years. This rigorous examination of the myriad aspects that go into its running – from locally sourcing its diverse ingredients, planning its eclectic menu and ensuring readiness to cooking at its massive kitchen, exquisite plating and serving blockbuster dishes to its patrons – made for a complete contrast to the frenetic and hyper-competitive shows that dominate reality television. With a mammoth runtime of 4 hours, culled from around 130 hours of footage shot by stationing himself here for 3 months, it didn’t just peek into this exclusive establishment of gourmet cuisines located amidst tranquil surroundings in Roanne, it also wandered into associated establishments that feed into it like beef cattle farms, cheese ageing units, vineyards, etc. Its central protagonist is the genial and ageing paterfamilias Michel, a well-known chef and third-generation proprietor who’s transitioning this culinary legacy to his stolid eldest son César. We’re also introduced to his wife Marie-Pierre who manages a boutique hotel and his younger son Léo who leads a sister joint. The film’s most captivating sections silently observed the unflagging upholding of their creative standards, be it the three Troisgros men engaged in restrained brainstorming on ingredients, preparations and flavours – thus elucidating their distinctive styles and preferences – or collaborative involvements behind the scenes or regaling the guests with anecdotes and recommendations.

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Genre: Documentary

Language: French

Country: France

Monday 13 May 2024

Occupied City [2023]

 Steve McQueen’s shattering “city symphony” Occupied City is a powerful act of remembering, and rigorous preservation of cultural memory of Amsterdam during Nazi occupation. Based on “Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945” – the encyclopaedic tome by Dutch historian Bianca Stigter, who’s also McQueen’s wife and creative partner – the British filmmaker shot a staggering 36 hours of footage capturing all the 2000-plus addresses recorded in it, which he then edited into this mammoth 4-hour documentary covering 130 of those sites. This extraordinary memorialization of that grotesque period was made particularly haunting by its juxtaposition of ghosts of the past – catalogued by Melanie Hyams’s eerily neutral narration – with images of present-day Amsterdam that he shot in 35mm through the pandemic and beyond. The voiceover chronicled anecdotes of execution and deportation, collusion and betrayal, desperation and survival, and even defiance and resistance; the visuals, conversely, ranged from freewheeling depictions of people engaged in activities unsettlingly incongruous to what had transpired at those locations, albeit separated by time, to present-day demonstrations, including dissenting against lockdowns, acknowledging Dutch slave-trades, climate justice rallies, and solidarity  with immigrant and Palestinian rights. These, in turn, were interspersed with couple of hypnotic tracking shots of night and daytime streets. While McQueen’s avoidance of archival footage has drawn comparisons with Lanzamann’s monumental Holocaust treatise Shoah, I found it formally closer to Perel’s scalding docu Corporate Accountability – a cutting exposé on how corporations enabled repression and enforced disappearances during the military dictatorship in Argentina – in their smashing of past and present. The director, incidentally, came to know during the filming that the schools that his daughter and son attend were once the SS headquarters and a Nazi-run prison, respectively.

Director: Steve McQueen

Genre: Documentary/Political History

Language: English/Dutch

Country: Netherlands

Saturday 11 May 2024

Our Body (Notre Corps) [2023]

 Claire Simon’s courageously conceived and audaciously mounted documentary Our Body is bound to draw parallels with Wiseman’s works for its deeply observant and quietly kaleidoscopic recording of a multi-hued institution, fly-on-the-wall approach, and expansive length. The aesthetic and formal resemblances notwithstanding, it was vastly different in its profoundly intimate and defiantly feminist foregrounding on women’s body – the personal, the collective and the political – and the associated aspects of health, agency, vulnerabilities and unavoidable bodily changes portrayed with the radical empathy of female gaze, and therefore shorn of both sexualization and stigmatization, as opposed to a Wiseman-esque exploration of the medical institution in which it unfolded. And, in what carved an especially singular space for it, Simon even trained the camera on herself like she did on others upon being diagnosed with breast cancer during the course of its filming, and both physically and emotionally bared herself in a manner that unequivocally established her extraordinary dare and moral strength. Set in the gynaecology ward of a public hospital in Paris, it covered – over the course of its nearly three-hour runtime, and by progressing from the very young to the heavily aged – a staggering breath of intensely personal medical consultations, diagnoses, procedures and caregiving. The topics included unplanned teenage pregnancies and abortions, trans-men and trans-women both planning for and having undergone gender changes, coital difficulties, natural and C-section childbirths, fertility and postpartum treatments, detections of and surgical interventions for cancer and other maladies, prognoses that’re both hopeful and dire, and illnesses that’re curable as well as terminal. Admittedly, though, it’s difficult to ascertain to what extent the interactions were influenced – consciously or otherwise – by their unravelling in front of Simon’s camera.

Director: Claire Simon

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Feminist Film

Language: French

Country: France

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Coup de Chance [2023]

 Woody Allen, who’s long pared down his craft to a stupefying obsession that’s quite rare in the history of this medium, undeterred by even the cancel culture that’s relentlessly hounding him, has reached the phenomenal milestone of 50 films as writer-director with Coup de Chance. His 1st film that’s wholly made in a non-English language is an enchanting revisit of two themes that the 88-year-old filmmaker has previously explored – masterfully in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, and compellingly in Cassandra’s Dream and Irrational Man – albeit made almost in a self-mocking vein, viz. getting away with murder and the arbitrariness of existence. Harbouring the quintessential Woody touch of a jazzy, free-spirited air overlayed on a tightly scripted base, it begins on a captivating note when, while walking along the Parisian streets to the art auction house where she works, the stunning Fanny (Lou de Laâge) runs into Alain (Niels Schneider), an aspiring writer and an old acquaintance carrying a torch for her since long. This chance encounter awakens a repressed freewheeling side in her, and the two begin a passionate love affair. She, however, is married to Jean (Melvil Poupaud), a debonair and super-wealthy man. He, unfortunately, has a shady past, a sinister side and is insanely possessive of his wife. Murder, inevitably, is on the cards. Though far from being among Woody’s best efforts – his finest hour, for us who’ve so deeply loved his works, is indisputably in the past – it was still a delectably wry, self-aware and luminously photographed film. If this turns out to be the swansong for this great artist who’s fast losing his desire to continue, it’s definitely a commendable way to go out.

Director: Woody Allen

Genre: Crime Thriller/Romantic Comedy/Marital Comedy

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 4 May 2024

American Fiction [2023]

 Rarely have I postponed the viewing of a film to read the book that it’s based on; rarer still is “discovering” an accomplished author in the process and then going on to admire the film as well. In his excellent 2001 novel Erasure, which I read last month, Percival Everett had served a wickedly funny satire on commodified representation of subaltern experiences by the cultural landscape in order to pander to white/liberal guilt, along with an elegiac portrayal of a man traversing through personal, professional, familial and existential crises. American Fiction, Cord Jefferson’s incisive and crackling directorial debut, mirrored the book’s themes, tones, wit, irony and underlying sense of being lost, while also carving its identity. Its richness was displayed through both its conscious convergences and playful departures. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is an African-American writer and literature professor whose life’s in a precarious state – his editor is unable to have his erudite books sold as they’re lacking in “Black Experience”; he’s forced into sabbatical for alienating his students; his mom is slipping into Alzheimer’s that necessitates expensive care; his sister has unexpectedly died; his brother has just come out as gay; and he’s getting to know his late father’s extra-marital secrets. When an African-American woman achieves significant fame for a book that, Monk feels, is exploitative and stereotypical, he too decides – as an expression of his anger and disgust – to pseudonymously speed-write one; contrary to his wildest imaginations, however, it becomes a smash hit. Led by Wright’s stunningly layered performance and commendable support turns, and accompanied by a captivating jazz-based soundtrack, the film was especially striking in its impishly brilliant and metatextual reworking/extension of the book’s finale.

Director: Cord Jefferson

Genre: Comedy/Drama/Social Satire/Family Drama

Language: English

Country: US

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World [2023]

 Radu Jude reaffirmed his position as a defiantly radical and daring filmmaker with this dazzling and damning work that combined cutting satire, outrageous humour, dizzying metatextual references, scalding political commentaries, and subversive neo-Marxian dialectics. These, along with its multi-segmental structure and anarchic experimentations, made this a striking follow-up to his fabulous previous film Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. Angela (Ilinca Manolache) is an underpaid, overworked production assistant who drives around Bucharest auditioning victims of workplace accidents, for a dubious corporate documentary sponsored by an Austrian organization. Filmed in low-fi B/W capturing her gig employment, this strand is frequently intercut with two seemingly dissonant threads – parodic and inflammatory TikTok videos, shot in saturated colours, that Angela makes as a side hustle, using a sleazy, trash talking, misogynistic, neo-Nazi alter-ego called Bobiță; and snippets from the feminist Ceaușescu-era film Angela Moves On, shot in glorious retro colours, featuring a lonely woman taxi driver (Dorina Lazar). They ultimately coalesced into the bleakly funny final segment – a bravura 40-minute single-take static sequence – showing how a wheelchair-bound man is craftily coerced into presenting a false narrative in the said promotional movie, wherein the blame is conveniently shifted from the employer to him, and his agency too is stripped in the process. With references ranging from Goethe and Lumière to Godard and Dylan, this 3-hour epic comprised of deadpan detours – as in a rambling conversation with a corporate exec (Nina Hoss) that segues into a silent tracking shot memorializing vehicular casualties – and dealt with neoliberalism, exploitation, discrimination, media manipulation, cultural toxicity, war, fascism, etc. The film, interestingly, featured self-reflexive cameos by hack director Uwe Boll and Lazar reprising her role from the referenced film.

Director: Radu Jude

Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire

Language: Romanian/English

Country: Romania