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Archive for September, 2013

It’s not unusual for the last line of dialogue in a movie to serve as a kind of summation statement, making explicit what’s already been implied. The line, “There’s no place like home,” in The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a clear example; less obviously significant is the final line of Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux (2012), which for some reason ends with a group of English schoolboys playing rugby. To encourage his teammates, one of the players says, “They’ve got individuals, we’ve got a team. So come on, let’s go.” A straightforward remark made by a minor character, the line is almost thrown away, but it’s nonetheless a fitting conclusion for a movie that at first glance appears to be a collection of scenes rather than a unified story. The narrative consists of a series of loosely related vignettes, and by presenting them non-sequentially, the film makes it impossible for the viewer to construct a linear chronology of events. Accordingly, it only gradually becomes apparent how the different episodes are related to one another, and even after watching the whole movie, there are still a number of things that I find mysterious about it.

The film’s early scenes are fairly linear, revealing the characters through their daily routines. As the movie opens, Juan (Aldolfo Jiménez Castro) — a wealthy landowner of European descent — is living in the Mexican countryside with his wife, Nathalia (Nathalia Avecedo), and their two children who are still in diapers. Notwithstanding the film’s second sequence, in which a radiant, toolbox carrying devil quietly enters the couple’s home while they sleep, things only get weird following an episode wherein Juan goes to an AA meeting with his indigenous doppelgänger, Seven (Willebaldo Torres), when the movie cuts to the rugby players in a locker room getting ready for a match, even though no connection has been established between them and Juan. In the next sequence, Juan and his family attend a wedding reception, but now the kids are about ten years older and Juan is going grey. Therefore, when he’s shot by a burglar late in the film, there’s no suspense about whether or not he’ll live as his hair is still black, though it’s only here that something like a linear narrative begins to emerge. A scene in which two old men play chess together initially seems totally extraneous, its purpose only becoming apparent when the conversation belatedly turns to the subject of Juan’s recovery. I was intrigued by the movie not so much because I was curious to see what would happen next, but because I wanted to know how each scene fit in with everything that came before it.

Similarly disjointed, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds (also 2012) is a network narrative in which the connections between the characters are unusually tenuous. In contrast with a movie like Babel (2006), in which several apparently unrelated stories set in different countries all turn out to be connected, here the separate narrative threads don’t depend on one another, even though the characters all live on the same street in a middle-class neighborhood in Recife. One subplot centers on a bored housewife, Bia (Maeve Jinkings), who doesn’t have any interaction with the other major characters beyond offering some coffee to the private security guards who patrol the street by night. Furthermore, the individual stories are all fairly loose, revealing the characters through their daily routines, and while the film touches on a number of big issues — inner-city crime, rapid urbanization, the legacy of Portuguese colonialism — it’s not obvious (at least to me) how these topics are related. Even at 130 minutes, the movie is never less than compelling as storytelling, but its meanings are somewhat obscure.

One important character is a real estate agent, João (Gustavo Jahn), whose new girlfriend, Sofia (Irma Brown), grew up on the same street where he now lives. Early on, after sleeping over at João’s, Sofia discovers that her car stereo was stolen during the night, and João suspects that his cousin, Dinho (Yuri Holanda), is the one who did it, though it’s not clear that he is. (When João confronts him, Dinho gives him someone else’s stereo.) It’s implied that crime is pervasive in the area, but the movie doesn’t offer any explanation for this. Likewise, it’s not clear why Bia needs to smoke weed to get through the day, or why she deliberately provokes her sister, Betañia (Mariaangela Valéa), by buying a new flat-screen TV that’s slightly larger than hers. Later, when João tells Dinho that he broke up with Sofia, it comes as a surprise as their relationship seemed to be going well. The last time we see them together, João takes Sofia to see her childhood home, which is about to be torn down to make room for a new high-rise condominium, implying a connection between the demolition of Sofia’s old house and the termination of her relationship with João, though I for one can’t figure out what it is. To paraphrase Manny Farber, no film in recent memory has so thoroughly made me feel like a stupid ass.

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This blog entry contains spoilers.

The first in a trilogy of films, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (2012) is the third movie I’ve seen this year — after Rebelle and Inch’Allah (also 2012) — that compassionately bears witness to suffering in the Third World, though it differs significantly from the other two in terms of where it goes looking for human misery. Rather than asking viewers to empathize with the plight of child soldiers in the Congo or Palestinians in the occupied territories, Seidl’s film trains its unblinking gaze on a middle-aged Austrian woman, Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), who travels to a beachside resort in Kenya where the other guests are all white chicks on the prowl for black dick. To be sure, the film is strongly critical of the women’s neocolonial attitudes (in one scene, Teresa and another tourist talk about a bartender literally as if he were a piece of meat, likening the colour and texture of his skin to a blood sausage), but over the course of the movie, one gradually comes to see Teresa as a victim of the young Kenyan men who profit from her loneliness.

Accordingly, the film portrays her in a largely sympathetic light, lest it seem that she deserves to be swindled. A single mother who works with the mentally disabled, Teresa doesn’t go to Kenya with any intention of engaging in sex tourism, and certainly it’s not difficult to empathize with her desire to feel attractive and loved. It’s therefore painful to watch her being groped by a man whore, Gabriel (Gabriel Nguma Mwarua), who takes her to a love motel and then tries to keep her from leaving when she changes her mind. The movie contrasts this episode with a later sequence in which another young man, Munga (Peter Kazunga), takes her back to his place where she patiently shows him how she wants to be touched. For a while, Teresa is able to convince herself that Munga is sincere in his affection for her, but eventually it becomes apparent that he’s only interested in her money as well, and after fleecing her, he suddenly disappears. So when Teresa hunts him down and assaults him, one feels that he’s only getting what he deserves. If the film had ended there, one might infer that Teresa had learned her lesson, but instead she gets hoodwinked again by a different man before resigning herself to paying for sex, which leaves her feeling even more unsatisfied. This isn’t exactly the feel-good movie of the year, but it does have a certain grim fascination.

Similarly, Chantal Akerman’s La Folie Almayer (2011) is a bold and singular film that I admire more than love. Based on Joseph Conrad’s 1895 novel, which I haven’t read, the movie opens with a middle-aged man, Chen (Solida Chan), walking into a bar where Daïn (Zac Andrianasolo) is lip-syncing a Dean Martin song on stage while several girls dance behind him. At the end of the song, Chen appears behind Daïn and stabs him in the chest. He then drags the body off camera as all but one of the girls flee in panic, leaving Nina (Aurora Marion) alone on stage. She continues dancing for a few moments as if in a trance before turning to the camera and singing Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.” The rest of the movie is told in flashback, showing the events that led up to this point, but it’s never explained why Chen stabs Daïn. Or more precisely, rather than explaining his actions in psychological terms, the flashback scenes contextualize the murder and Nina’s singing in terms of what the characters represent.

As in her previous literary adaptation, La Captive (2000), Akerman brings Conrad’s novel into the present without actually modernizing it. Early on, Nina’s grandfather, Lingard (Marc Barbé), shows up at her parents’ bungalow in the jungle and tells her father, Almayer (Stanislaw Merhar), that he’s taking the girl away so she can get “a white girl’s education.” (Nina is half-Malaysian, which makes her an outcast at the school she’s sent to.) Years later, when Lingard kicks the bucket, there’s no one left to pay her tuition fees, and Nina returns to the jungle. In one scene, she expresses enthusiasm for the local music but Almayer dismisses it as rubbish compared with the great European composers. He tries to hum a few bars of Chopin, but having lived in the jungle for so many years, he can no longer remember. It’s only after embarking on a scheme to make enough money to send Nina to Europe, which briefly rouses him from his decrepitude, that he can recall the tune. However, Nina soon forgets the words to “Ave Verum Corpus,” which she learned at school, and subsequently rejects her European heritage by running off with Daïn, a guerilla living in the jungle. But in the end (or rather the beginning), Daïn’s murder — committed by Lingard’s faithful manservant, Chen — brings her back to white society. In short, the movie defines the characters solely according to their race and environment.

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