Film Of The Week
Bruce Lee and the Outlaw review — an immersive coming-of-age tale from the Romanian underworld
In the tunnels beneath the streets of Bucharest, part of Ceaușescu’s plans to centrally heat the city, lives a punk Pied Piper called Bruce Lee, self-proclaimed “King of the Underworld”. His followers, a band of junkies and street kids, and his magic pipe, bottles and bottles of the metallic paint “Aurolac”, doled out to his hungry children and huffed from black bags. Amongst these children lives Nicu, Bruce Lee’s favourite child and the central subject of Joost Vandebrug’s immersive deep-dive into this community of the forgotten and shunned. Over six years with Nicu, Vandebrug follows his journey as he begs, solicits and huffs his way through adolescence and ill health in Bruce Lee’s tunnel kingdom.
The central concern of Vandebrug’s film is this relationship between father and son. Who really is Bruce Lee? Is he carer or kingpin, messiah or mountebank, angel or devil? His desire to bring a sense of home to the homeless can hardly be questioned. But coated head to toe in the same silver paint that the children desperately inhale, he resembles something of an icon of his own devious allure, a shining embodiment of the temptations which inevitably flood into the space left by opportunity. Raluca, the NGO-working friend of the tunnel people and Nicu’s personal guardian angel, takes this charge to Bruce Lee directly. “The problem,” she tells the silver-clad king, “is your acceptance of it”. For Bruce however, he is not the source of the problem, but just another victim – “we are living in this filth”. Evidently, we are to understand that though this is a film about a particular group of people, it is one that’s gaze extends outwards to seats of power across the world.
What presents itself as a journey from childhood into adulthood is by its close shown to have been something quite different. Despite his perpetually childlike appearance – the result of years of malnourishment, ill-health and drug abuse – Nicu, dubbed “Haiduc” or “Outlaw” by Bruce Lee, is old beyond his years, coarsened by many lifetimes of hardship compressed into one short life. The irony is not lost here, as a tearful Nicu, now eighteen but looking no older than twelve, explains to Raluca, “I did not have a childhood”. Where was God in all this? Ever the optimist, Nicu resolves that he must have been “busy with other kids”.
Failed by the system, Nicu and his fellow street kids get by through the power of human relationships, however complex and fraught. And whilst the bond between Nicu and his surrogate parents, first Bruce Lee and later Raluca comprise much of Vandebrug’s focus, the film also necessarily bears witness to another, equally poignant relationship – that between the filmmaker and his subject. Without anything being said, there are moments where it feels that Vandebrug’s responsibilities as both fly on the wall and human being, must surely have been at conflict. At what point, we are forced to consider, does documentation become voyeurism, and where does the call of humanity surpass the decorum of documentary distance? For Vandebrug, the balance is carefully maintained. His presence is non-invasive, but when Nicu becomes ill, it is Vandebrug who rushes him to hospital, attending his bedside for months as he comes to terms with diagnoses of HIV and TB.
The results of Vandebrug’s six years embedded in the literal underworld of Bucharest are harrowing – at times almost unbearably so – but it is a testament to the skill of its composition, to the strange, unsentimental elegance of its form, that the feelings his film evoked in this viewer were ones of hope. Now out of hospital and under the care of Raluca, Nicu faces a choice – to return to tunnel life or to forge a new one for himself. By the film’s close, his mind is by no means made up – but in real life it rarely is. As we, like Nicu, turn our gaze tentatively towards the future, we are met with no false assurances of a rosy dawn, but rather hope in its purest form. The future is not made of happily-ever-afters, but there is joy in that.
Words Harry Langham
Mustang review – an achingly beautiful portrait of teen life in traditional Anatolia
Mustang is a movie of first times. It is writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Oscar-nominated, first feature film. For four of its five central figures, it is a screen debut of unimaginable sincerity. And for the five teenage sisters they depict, it is a tale of tentative first steps, of dawning womanhood amidst the craggy hills of notoriously conservative rural Anatolia.
Mustang begins with an ending, as the sisters – Lale (Güneş Şensoy), Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) and Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) – and a group of boys rush to the beach to celebrate the end of the school year. Together they splash in the shallows, unaware that prying eyes and disapproving tongues abound. Soon, the girls find themselves under house arrest, as their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and abusive uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) do all they can to preserve their marriageability. Telephones are locked away, t-shirts are replaced with shapeless, “shit-coloured” dresses, and the girls are forced to learn the secrets of soup-making and sheet-folding. As the youngest sister and narrator Lale puts it, “the house became a wife factory”.
It is Lale’s eyes that provide our primary lens. She watches as one by one her sisters are married off in desperately impersonal arrangements to boys they have never met or hardly know, as gun-touting, moustachioed patriarchs on either side of the deal fire pistols into the skies like thugs. Lale longs for womanhood. She dreams of wearing a bra like her sisters and watches with wide-eyed adoration as they enjoy their first exhilarating moments of sexual awakening. But as the realities of womanhood in rural Anatolia come into focus, we sense that Lale’s dreams of growing up are wildly misplaced. Soon it will be her that’s asked to sit silently whilst others negotiate her future, her that’s whisked off to hospitals for purity tests, and her forced by the rule of custom to consummate the contract. What hope there is, if any at all, lie in the glittering lights of Istanbul – of freedom far in the distance.
It is hard to express in words the effect this film has had on me. It would perhaps be easier to write coherently about a film I liked less. But that in itself is revealing. Suffice to say, Mustang does something to me that I cannot describe or understand. For all its depictions of heart-rending injustice, the most painful of which happen just out of focus and are all the more painful for it, there is beauty everywhere. In the ever-shifting natural light, in the tangled limbs of children at play, in Warren Ellis’s score, which seems to groan under its own exquisite weight. Mustang hits me right where it hurts, but I can’t stop coming back for more.
Victoria Review – one-take heist thriller on the streets of Berlin
It’s 4am in Berlin when we meet Victoria (Laia Costa), dancing carefree and alone, amidst the hazy strobes and saturated bass of one of the city’s famous techno clubs. She is a stranger in the city – a pianist recently dropped out from conservatoire in Madrid, now taking some time away from things with a café job in the German capital. We follow her to the exit, where she runs into Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his pals Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuß (Max Mauff), who clown around and offer to show her the real Berlin. Friendless and desperate, Victoria follows them into the night.
What starts as an exuberant ode to youthful freedom however, soon takes a turn for the terrible. It quickly becomes apparent that Boxer has spent time in prison, where his protector (André Hennicke), now requires him and his friends to carry out a “job” for him as recompense. They are short a driver and Victoria, intoxicated by this rare taste of comradery in a lonely city, agrees to help them.
The drama plays out in real time in one continuous, 138-minute camera shot – a staggering feat of choreography and camera work dreamed up by director Sebastian Schipper and DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. The continuous tracking shot is, without doubt, amongst the most ostentatious tools in the filmmaker’s arsenal; a technique that cannot help but draw attention to its own cute tricks. There is, however, no sense of directorial self-congratulation here, no sleight-of-hand cheat cuts à la Hitchcock’s Rope, or Sam Mendes’s 1917. Rather, the painstakingly constructed logistical backbone of the film serves to realize an otherwise inaccessible mode of storytelling. Form, in other words, is always in the service of content.
Schipper’s use of the continuous tracking shot produces the same mingled sense of apprehension and excitement that you get when the restraints are pulled down over your head at the start of a rollercoaster. We know there is no getting off now – we are locked in for the ride. What is perhaps most successful about the technique
however, is its construction of continuity, allowing us to trace our way back from the close of the film to its opening, and wonder in awe at how far we’ve come.
Each frame evokes that which went before it, in an endless chain extending backwards from the eye of the storm to the calm which preceded it. Not only does this allow the viewer a unique perspective on their journey from a place of unknowing to one of dreadful knowledge, but also and most significantly, it places certain conditions of performance on the actors, who are required to perform the piece from beginning to end without falter or pause. As such, it forces them into a mode of performance generally neglected within the cinematic medium, as they live the experiences of their characters in real time. Whether it is this sense of unbroken immersion in the drama, or the productive anxiety of knowing that a single mistake would mean the entire cast and crew having to restart from the beginning – with potentially disastrous financial consequences – the continuity of Schipper’s film brings something unique out of his cast, pushing them to the edge of their craft.
Unsurprisingly, the realism of this approach privileges action over any deep, excavating characterisation. But one quiet interlude between Victoria and Sonne in her café tells us just enough about her character to give meaning to the action, to turn heist flick into tragedy. I won’t say more, other than imploring you to see it for yourselves.
In a misty cornfield in the southern reaches of South Korea, an elderly woman stumbles towards us through the mist. She checks over her shoulder, almost falling backwards as she does; her face expressionless, but not emotionless – reading more as an impossible surplus than a psychopathic dearth. Something has taken place – that much we know. The woman stops, casting a discerning look at the world around her – is it dismay? terror? a wry admission of defeat? Through the heavy air, we hear the sound of drums, muffled at first, then clear, accompanied by a wandering melody from a Spanish guitar. To our surprise, the woman begins to dance. It is to my mind, about as quietly captivating an opening to a film as one could imagine – a testament to the imaginative powers of writer-director, Bong Joon-Ho, whose most recent creation, Parasite, met with universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Unless there is a small flamenco band just off-screen, we are forced to assume that it is not just us, the audience, that are privy to the film's soundtrack, but the characters too, a shift which would bear considerable consequences for the stability of its illusion. But this is more than just a cinematic joke, a tongue-in-cheek discombobulation of our expectations. Rather, it is an evocation of Bong's broader concern with the deceptiveness of appearances, which finds its most crystallised visual statement in the innocent face of the eponymous Mother (Kim Hye-ja), whose gentle eyes mask a world of pain.
What follows is a playful inversion of the classic forensic crime drama. Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin), a child-like adult with learning difficulties is accused of the grisly murder of a schoolgirl called Moon Ah-Jung (Moon Hee-ra). With the case closed, his doting mother takes it upon herself to prove his innocence, even if it means removing anyone with evidence to the contrary. Driven on by a steely determination to protect her kin, the unnamed Mother slips deeper and deeper into the mire, as her quest for absolution ultimately ends in her own criminal implication. Bong thus stages a competition between two competing modes of justice, as the normative prescriptions of common law are held up against the primeval code of blood. The concepts of innocence and guilt are thus rendered dialogic and contingent, and the porousness of the division between man and beast exposed.
Bong demonstrates his characteristic affinity with spontaneity and randomness, as the plot twists and turns like a tangled umbilical cord. At times turnings are revealed to be dead ends, spurious pit-stops which pose an affront to the fallacy of overwrought, A-B-C narratology. In all its turns, Kim Hye-ja is a tour de force. Her small stature seems only to emphasise her elemental power –she is not just Mother, but Mother Nature – a reminder of our overriding animality, what Jean-François Lyotard describes as the oikos, or 'ignored guest', which dwells within us all.
This is without doubt, a serious work at its core. But it is also one that palpably oozes with the joy of its making. From its playful engagement with genres, which are picked up, deconstructed, rebuilt and discarded as required, to its artful punctuation with moments of black-as-pitch comedy, to its pervasive tip of the hat to the original mother-son partners in crime, Norman and Mrs Bates, this a film that could only have been made by a man fully enchanted with cinema's potential.
Mother review – no love like a mother's in this genre-bending gem
Killer of Sheep review – vignettes of austerity in the Los Angeles ghetto
Not much happens in Killer of Sheep. Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), the eponymous sheep-killer, has found himself in an existential funk. The monotonous, desensitising violence of his job at an abattoir in South Central LA has started to take its toll on his life at home, where his wife (Kaycee Moore) tries in vain to coax him back to life. We follow Stan, and the lives of those around him in the ghetto, through a series of loosely connected episodes, a mosaic of human vignettes – some friends seek to involve Stan in a criminal plot, Stan and his friend Bracy attempt to buy a car engine, the local kids throw rocks at passing trains. There are no acts, no real character developments, and no driving plot movements. But it is in this disruption of our expectations that writer-director-editor-producer Charles Burnett is at his most politically poignant. In the languorous non-movements of Killer of Sheep, Burnett exposes the conventions of mainstream cinema – forged as they are around notions of social mobility and justice – as the products of a medium dominated by the experience of whiteness.
Originally submitted to the UCLA School of Film in 1977 as Burnett’s MFA thesis, Killer of Sheep was denied a general release due to his inability to procure the rights to cover his liberal use of popular music. This musical design is however, a crucial element of the film’s power. With tracks by artists like Elmore James, Earth, Wind and Fire, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and Little Walter, Burnett is said to have envisioned the project as an aural history of African American popular music. In reality it is much more than this. Burnett, like Kubrick, employs his musical choices artfully, striking productive juxtapositions between ear and eye, often to comic effect. One particularly memorable example comes when a scene showing a group of local boys with nothing better to do throwing rocks at the wall of a derelict house, is closely followed by the mellifluous bass tones of Paul Robeson, singing the soupy patriotic anthem, “The House I Live In”.
Its relative obscurity did not prevent acclaim however. Killer of Sheep was one of the first 50 culturally significant films selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, a testament to its landmark status within the history of cinema. His use of non-professional actors and a documentary aesthetic harks back to the pioneers of Italian neorealism, his breath-taking eye to the poetic vision of Jean Renoir (a self-professed influence), whilst his own influence has been felt in works like David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), where Buddy’s dinosaur mask appears to reference the grotesque dog mask worn by Stan’s daughter in Killer of Sheep.
Whilst recent events have provided the long overdue impetus for white people like myself, to start actively interrogating the nature of our privilege, it is important to remember that this is not a temporary state of mind. The fight against racism does not stop next week, or next month, or whenever our friends have stopped posting black squares on social media. As Killer of Sheep reveals, racism isn’t just the problem of racist people and racist policies, rather, its structures are embedded right up to the bone in everything we consume. What affronts us about Killer of Sheep’s alternative logic – its refusal to present us with a purposive protagonist who guarantees the propulsion of plot through the pursuit of his desires – is that it enacts on its viewer an experience with which many of us are, as a result of our privilege, unfamiliar. This is an experience of denial and immobility, a minute, figurative glimpse into the disadvantages and deprivations which others call daily life. This is by no means in itself a remedial practice, but one which, must lead to a renewed and persistent attention to the ways in which race encodes itself in places we never thought to look.
Da 5 Bloods review – Vietnam vets reunited in this iconoclastic jungle heist
There’s not much that Spike Lee doesn’t do in Da 5 Bloods. As deeply engaged with the history of Hollywood as it is with that of the nation as a whole, this new Netflix release is a menagerie of moods, a potpourri of media and methods, all held together by the most human of stories. It is a story of friendship, of fatherhood, of guilt, greed and trauma; it is a journey back in time, but with eyes firmly trained on the future. When we first meet the protagonists – four wizened Vietnam vets – tropical drinks in hand, in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel, we think we know what we are in for: reunion of old friends + tepid gags + emotional jeopardy due to unresolved interpersonal issues = microwave movie. What follows however is no Paint-By-Numbers comedy, but rather, something altogether more serious – an ambitious re-writing of history as received through the cultural lens of cinema.
Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Paul (Delroy Lindo), the four surviving “bloods”, are back in country for the first time since the war, with the stated mission of retrieving the remains of their squad leader, the fifth “blood”, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) (as well as a cache of US gold bars that the group found and buried during their tour). Complications unsurprisingly arise, as interested parties emerge out of the jungle, drawn by the lure of gold, and suddenly the veterans are thrown back into the war. As Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), their Vietnamese guide reminds them, you never really leave a war behind.
Da 5 Bloods is intensely, sometimes crudely referential – as when the gang jive their way through a nightclub where a graphic of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam classic, Apocalypse Now, hangs behind the DJ, or pootle downstream in a river boat in Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses to the tune of the “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s Die Walküre. At one point the group even discuss distorted cinematic depictions of the war and the trope of the Vietnam rescue mission, à la Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Chuck Norris’s Missing in Action series (1984-88). Lee riffs off this motif, centring his plot on the rescue of a dead soldier and a stash of gold, and in doing so, pits Hollywood’s halcyon vision of war against its complex and bitter reality. This quarrel with the narrative of the cinematic medium is, of course, part of a broader dispute with the annals of American history, in which the staggeringly disproportionate numbers of black soldiers who fought and died for a country that refused to acknowledge their equality (black men comprised 33% of American troops but just 11% of the population) have been conveniently erased.
In a particularly striking turn, Lee does not call upon younger actors for the flashback scenes, choosing instead to place the aged faces of Whitlock, Lewis, Peters and Lindo alongside the youthful Boseman. This decision speaks to the mechanics of memory and that immortal adage of wartime commemoration – they shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
For all its genre-bending iconoclasm and its undeniable political immediacy, it is Delroy Lindo’s colossal performance as MAGA-hat wearing, PTSD-suffering Paul, that ultimately brands itself on the heart and mind of the viewer. At one point, overcome by the ghosts that haunt his memory and teetering over the edge of madness, Paul, whose estranged son gate-crashes the mission for a share of the gold, leaves the rest of the group to fend for himself in the jungle. Suddenly it is pure Shakespeare. Stumbling through the forest, spewing a jumble of paranoid ramblings and wild curses in a captivating straight to camera address, Paul begins to resemble a GI King Lear, wandering mad and alone, through the wilderness of his own mind. That it should be possible, amongst this panoply of meta playfulness and political commentary, to achieve something of such fundamental and utterly human poignancy, is a true testament to Spike Lee’s already indubitable ability as a filmmaker.
Leon Morin, Priest – provocative meditation on religion and the politics of desire
For audiences today, Jean-Pierre Melville is best remembered as the mind behind some of the most iconic noir flicks of the French New Wave. With Bob le flambeur in 1956, Le Doulos in 1962, and later Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970) amongst others, Melville established a highly recognisable style; painfully cool, laconic, and laden with underworld iconography. Leon Morin, Priest (Leon Morin, prêtre) is something altogether quite different however. A far cry from the world of trench-coats, snap-brim hats and tough guys, (a shameless homage to the Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930s,) Leon Morin, Priest is an altogether more pensive work; a sensitive meditation on power, religion, and the politics of desire, featuring two of French cinema’s most blazing stars, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva, in the wake of their respective breakout performances in Breathless (1960) and Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959).
In a call-back to his debut picture, Le silence de la mer (1949), Leon Morin, Priest returns us to the world of occupied France. Here we meet Barny (Riva), a young widowed communist living in a small town in the process of transition. Where before the town had been occupied by a genial troop of feather-capped Italians, now that the German tanks are rolling in, all begins to change, especially for Barny and her half-Jewish daughter. A lapsed Catholic, she one day enters a church seeking confession, though her idea of confession turns out to be something closer to a debate. She picks a priest at random and begins by declaring religion to be the opiate of the masses. To her surprise, the priest is not affronted, but rather takes her up on this debate, even professing his own disdain for the rigmarole and extravagance of the Roman Catholic Church. This priest is Leon (Belmondo). Handsome, young, and with a seemingly impervious repose, Leon quickly becomes the object of sexual fantasies for much of the small town’s female population – not least Barny, whose intellectual sparring with the priest is infused with a scintillating bolt of sexual energy.
Having found a wit to match her own, Barny begins to meet the priest regularly. There is something magnetic about him, though what this magnetism consists of she does not know, or perhaps will not admit. But the way in which the camera (masterfully directed by the inimitable Henri Decaë) follows Barny’s gaze up Leon’s torso and across his austere cassock, seems to confirm our suspicions. The chemistry is palpable from their very first meeting, where we find the pair in the confessional, breathlessly close and separated only by a thin wire grid. But this chemistry is not without difficulties. As confessor and thus keeper of secrets, Leon possesses a hold over Barny which renders any eroticism uneasy, forcing us to consider the problematic intersection between power and desire. What’s more, Leon often appears very much aware of this sexual power, as when he forces Barny to confess that she attempted to seduce him. As uncomfortable as this might be, it is also what makes this film so compelling. Leon is not, as he at first seems, a dispassionate sage, eyes trained solely on the heavens and invulnerable to earthly thoughts. Rather he is man; fleshly, earthy man, and beneath the veneer of godly serenity lies an entirely human drama; a constantly raging battle between desires and precepts. What is so thrilling about this secret subtext is how tantalisingly little we see of it. It rears its head most memorably in a scene at Barny’s house, where the priest insists upon taking over from her as she chops wood with a hatchet. As he goes about this work, Barny asks him whether he would take her for his wife if he were a Protestant minister. In a rare flash of indignation, Leon thrusts the hatchet down into the woodblock and storms out of the house, slamming the door behind him. It is a short and silent act of melodrama, but in this moment, we know everything we need to know about Leon Morin.
Both Riva and Belmondo are transfixing as the central pair, making much of little through a masterful economy of gesture. Their philosophising does not come at the expense of credible characterisation, but rather constitutes a seamless weaving together of the personal and the universal; a tribute in no small part to Melville’s skill as writer of dialogue. Though it may not be Melville in his classic pomp (there are no cigarette-sucking gangsters), this is something altogether more complex and provocative.
Short Cuts review – epic mosaic of life in Los Angeles
When I think about Short Cuts – Robert Altman’s sprawling adaptation of the short stories of Raymond Carver – I think about lines; a broad plane with dozens of lines, no two the same – all with different gradients, different start and end points. Some intersect sharply, crossing paths just for a moment on their journeys in different directions, others run near parallel, sauntering on together for a while, before bidding adieu and marching steadily on their solitary ways. Such is the case with Short Cuts, an epic mosaic of life in Los Angeles. Here, the 22 principal characters, interwoven from nine different Carver short stories and one narrative poem, cross paths sometimes with as little as a brush of the shoulder, though at times even the most incidental of meeting can be life-altering.
The characters we follow through these disparate strands are a cast of lost souls; bound only by the rule of chance, and a common inability to wrestle their lives under control. There is the news anchor Howard Finnigan (Bruce Davison) and his wife Ann (Andie MacDowell). The depiction of their classically dissatisfying marriage is right in Altman’s sweet spot, communicated through subtle details and tested to breaking point when their kid, Casey (Zane Cassidy) gets hit by a car driven by Doreen (Lily Tomlin). Doreen slings coffee in a local diner to a leering clientele, including her husband Earl, a chauffeur played brilliantly by a croaking Tom Waits. They blaze through the ups and downs in a haze of alcoholic fumes. When we first meet Lois Kaiser (Jennifer Jason Leigh), she is selling phone sex while changing her baby’s nappy – it is an uncomfortably funny juxtaposition, and typical Altman. Her pool cleaner husband Jerry (Chris Penn) watches on mutely, a simmering pressure cooker of sexual frustration and rage. This is just a portion of Altman’s all-star ensemble, which also includes Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Jack Lemmon, a brilliant Frances McDormand, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, and Buck Henry.
Any plot summary is however, ultimately reductive. For the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Though there are individual moments within many of these loosely-bound narratives that burn themselves indelibly into the mind, the true effect of Altman’s composition is cumulative. Together they constitute a pessimistic vision of humankind, striving blinkered from job to job, fuck to fuck, blind to the greater picture of which they are a part. But Altman isn’t there to moralise. Rather, the sleaze is aestheticized, made comic, endearing even.
Helped on by Geraldine Peroni’s razor-sharp editing, Altman’s adaptation of Carver is a masterstroke, a section of life rendered as real as real can be. But for all its intimate verisimilitude, Short Cuts is bookended by two quasi-apocalyptic events, beginning with a fleet of helicopters dousing the city with a toxic chemical designed to rid its inhabitants of a plague of medfly, and ending with an earthquake. These macro events offer a sense of perspective, as well as a stark reminder of fate’s inexorability, and the folly of human will. Life keeps moving, Altman tells us, all we can do is keep moving with it.
Son of Saul review – transfixing Holocaust drama
This week, during the conviction of the 93-year-old former concentration camp guard Bruno Dey on 5,232 counts of accessory to murder, presiding Judge Anne Meier-Goering accompanied her sentencing with a question: “How could you get used to the horror?” The question is an important one, for it is only in the desensitisation of horror, the transformation of violence into work and humans into something less than, that atrocities like the Holocaust can take shape. Beyond its immediate direction towards this former SS guard, Judge Meier-Goering’s question also speaks more broadly to all of us, and in particular, to our collective cultural attempts to process these horrors. Have we become used to the horrors of the Holocaust? Or is such a thing even possible? Have we instead become used to something quite different: a reified notion of “The Holocaust” – a notion which allows us to think through an otherwise unthinkable assortment of terrors; a cultural byword for the very worst of which humanity is capable, but one which keeps the reality of this depravity at arms length? If true, how then do we undo this work? How do we begin to think about the unthinkable? It was this chain of thought that led me back to László Nemes’ 2015 debut feature, Son of Saul.
Set in the Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp in 1944, Son of Saul follows the fate of one prisoner over the course of roughly 48 hours. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando – a special unit of prisoners forced, in return for the smallest of privileges, to become accessories to their own extermination; herding new arrivals off the trains and cleaning up their lifeless bodies from the floors of the gas chambers. And it is in the gas chambers – the true heart of darkness, the spatial epitome of unfathomable horror – that we first meet Saul. Whilst going about his usual duties, Saul comes across the body of a young boy whom he believes to be his son. Determined that the boy must not become just another incinerated body, Saul sets out through a series of furtive, whispered encounters, to find a to find a rabbi amongst his fellow prisoners who will help him give his son a proper burial. It is a curious plotline, one which seems to emphasise its own meagreness. By singling out one body amidst a sea of corpses, Saul sets himself against the dehumanising project of genocide, insisting instead upon the restoration of human dignity. He is a flickering lantern in the shadow of a looming typhoon, his humanity is the David to the Goliath of Nazi depravity.
Nemes counteracts the problem of depicting the Holocaust’s undepictability
through an artful cinematographic technique. Throughout the vast majority of the action, the camera remains trained in tight close-up, with a shallow focus on Saul’s hardened face. When seen directly, the horrors that take place around him are viewed only in peripheral, blurred glimpses. For the most part however, we do not meet these horrors head on, but rather, see them reflected in the face of Saul, which shifts between various shades of expressionlessness; desensitised through prolonged exposure to a sensory overload of human violence, or as Judge Meier-Goering puts it, “used to the horrors”.
In setting his debut film amidst these horrors, Nemes takes on a task which many have refused. The fictionalisation of a reality as truly horrific as the Holocaust is of course a highly fraught endeavour, and one which Claude Lanzmann’s eyewitness epic Shoah – a documentary generally accepted as being the most successful cinematic attempt to treat the Holocaust – seeks to avoid, drawing instead on the direct testimony of survivors. We sense Nemes’ awareness of this debate over the ethicality of art and its engagement with atrocity when Saul becomes entangled with a group of Sonderkommando conspirators who are planning an uprising against the SS-guards. In return for their help in connecting him with a rabbi, Saul agrees to provide them aid in executing the first step of their plan: to photograph the horrors of the camp with a camera taken from the body of a gassed prisoner. This reference to a real set of photographs, known as the Sonderkommando photographs, and taken at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in 1944, raises the issue of art’s potential as a force for good. Art, Nemes
suggests, is a part of the uprising, a force for revolution, and a means of ensuring that the realities of human barbarism are not buried beneath the shifting sands of time.
Based on a series of autobiographical bande dessinés by Franco-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis tells the tale of a life begun under the shadow of revolution. It is a compelling story – one which weaves together the personal and the political, the intimacies of internal life and the grand tectonic shifts of history. But more than this, it is a story told in a compelling way. The original graphics of Satrapi’s comic-book source are reproduced in moving form to great effect; her characters hewn in bold, black strokes against the washed grey streets. It is an austere representational mode; two-dimensional planes are layered over each other in muted monochrome with only the most occasional injection of colour. But all this sparse economy of gesture is not without feeling. Rather, Satrapi (who co-writes and co-directs the movie adaptation) appears as something of a master conjuror, who with the most innocuous flick of her pen, the subtlest of impressions, is capable of tilting us over into fits of joy and despair.
We first meet Marjane as a young girl, growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran in the 1970s. The daughter of cigarette-smoking, wine-drinking left-wing intellectual parents, Marjane is a square peg in a round social hole – a poor fit for the conservative mores of Iranian society. A naturally adventurous child, she idolises western culture – posing like Bruce Lee and moshing alone in her bedroom to Iron Maiden. Adored by her parents, and even more so by her sharp-witted grandmother, life at home is the stuff of halcyon dreams. But the story is quite different on the streets, where a moustachioed hoard of dim-witted morality police patrol the city. Marjane and her mother are regularly ordered to “fix” their head scarfs, lest their uncovered hairs were to provoke the apparently uncontrollable, and yet inexplicably excusable carnal appetite of Tehran’s male population. The irony of this is not lost on Marjane who, in front of an assembly of her university peers and superiors, asks why it is that the clothing of female students must be so carefully prescribed when the male students may wear whatever they want. If the passions of men might be inflamed by a woman in too short a cowl, then what about the passions of women? It is a world of hypocrisy to which she cannot make herself blind.
Later, Marjane is sent abroad to finish her education in Europe. She lives for some time in Vienna, where she stays first at a boarding house run by a quartet of nuns, before eventually taking up lodgings at the home of an eccentric philosopher. In Vienna she falls in with a crowd of local misfits, but soon finds their comfortable complacency too much to stomach. Theirs is a nihilism born not out of hopelessness, but privilege; a world of ideals without consequence, in which they can be heard to complain in the same breath about the corruptness of the system and the unfairness of having to holiday with their parents in Monte Carlo. Marjane on the other hand is not able to traffic in ideals, the circumstances of her birth dictate as much. And soon she is faced with an imperfect decision: to continue a life of alienation in “liberal” Europe, or to return home to a society that disdains the free-thinking woman. Ultimately, it is the magnetic pull of the homeland which wins out, a powerful but tragic symbol of the unrecognised privilege of western liberalism.
But for all this, Persepolis is a truly uplifting movie – an invigorating combination of righteous political anger and whimsical nostalgic recollection. Satrapi is a visionary; one who possesses a genuinely unique and deeply personal way of seeing the world, and even more impressively, who is capable of showing us how to see it too.
Persepolis review – bracing graphic novel-cum-memoir in a time of revolution
The Personal History of David Copperfield review – cockle-warming return to the past brings hope of a brighter future
If some movies are “feel-good”, then Armando Iannucci’s kaleidoscopic adaptation of Dickens’s career-defining bildungsroman is a veritable shot in the arm with the happy stuff, an IV dopamine booster that would warm even the icy cockles of Scrooge himself. It is a triumph of comic imagination, a mazy journey of self-discovery centred around the attempts of its narrator – played by a charmingly blundering Dev Patel – to discover whether or not he is the hero of his own story. Patel is accompanied by a glorious ensemble of actorly talent, cast according to a principle of colour-blind inclusivity which succeeds in warding off the seductive allure of unthinking nostalgia.
What comes through particularly strongly from Iannucci’s adaptation is an emphasis on the power of storytelling. When we first meet our self-effacing hero he is beginning a recitation of his personal history in front of an audience, and the action that follows is thus shown to be the product of memory and authorial representation – a fact to which Iannucci alludes throughout with his use of punctuating chapter-like headings and self-consciously artificial scene transitions. Iannucci wants us to be clear that this is not just a story, but rather a story about story, a story about reflection, recollection and recreation (in the most ludic sense of the word).
Dickens’s never knowingly understated characters are realised in all their extravagant absurdity. They revolve around David like satellites, appearing, disappearing and reappearing over and over again as if aboard some dreamy carousel. Peter Capaldi is Houdini-like as the wiry, debt-ridden Mr Micawber, Tilda Swinton delightfully sharp as donkey-swatting Betsey Trotwood, Brian Wong well-placed as the bibulous Wickfield, whilst Hugh Laurie dithers his way into your heart as distracted Mr Dick. Shining above the rest however, is Ben Whishaw’s brilliantly hateable performance as the cloying sycophant Uriah Heep, whose oppressive presence lingers in the air like a stale fart, long after he has vacated a room.
The production design and set decoration of Cristina Casali and Charlotte Dirickx work together with Suzie Harman’s costume work to form a carnival of colour, whilst the cinematography of Zac Nicholson is infused with a sense of playful possibility – a refreshing move away from the dreary palettes and prosaic techniques of remakes past. For as much as Iannucci looks backwards, finding light in the often murky reality of Victorian life, his is a vision from the future, a paean to progressiveness. What becomes clear, when watching this joyous adaptation, is that it is not colour nor creed that binds humanity, but the all-embracing power of story.