Buried Alive: The Story of Bury FC

Directed by Nick Manser and Rory Reames

This fine film in its brief 19 minutes brings a combination of visual poetry and a down-to-earth realism that powerfully conveys the hurt that comes with the death of a local football club.

What a beginning, as the camera moves majestically in a bird’s eye, almost abstract track along the roads leading to Gigg Lane, arriving at the old ground itself, its modern seating and roofs still holding the old pattern of the place that has been the home of Bury Football Club since its beginnings in 1885. What happened to that club at the beginning of this season is a nightmare well known to all football fans – a gradual decline leading to financial incompetence and mismanagement by its two last chairmen and culminating in its expulsion from the League. As fans speak of their thoughts and memories, their sadnesses, their anger, overlaid by archive footage of glory matches and happy and purposeful crowds, what emerges is something football fans know, and others may now begin to understand, of how overwhelmingly powerful the love of a team can be. Those moments of joy for the wonder goal that may be the happiest you feel all week, all year, and still remember a lifetime later.

And It wasn’t just the game, but the going to the game. The tartan rugs across knees and the flasks, the walk along the familiar pavements, the generations doing something together, the gabardine macs and the little kids wrapped up warm, the madcap trips to away matches. Football provided a chance to be daft, to make a little carnival, to dress up and forget everything else for an afternoon. And then it’s taken away by people who don’t really care – Steve Day, Bury’s last manager, boasted that he’d never even heard of Bury Football Club when he took it over and had no problem in walking away when he wrecked it . Yes, life goes on, but diminished, in a community which hasn’t much else to keep it cheerful.

In contrast to the vivid memories of fun times and the untrammelled exuberance of the crowds, haunting music combines with a spare symmetrical framing (appropriately, as Bury’s nickname is The Shakers, after the puritan religious group founded in the area, famous nowadays for their minimalist furniture) to give a tangible sense of real tragedy. And it’s mourning not just for Bury, but, if we dare admit it, for the loss of what football has so long meant for people, until it became glamorous, money-based, and its ‘fan experience’ either neglected or over-managed by men from far away with an eye to profit. Never such innocence again.

Inward Eye Film Festival, Ambleside, Part 4: Shorts

Shorts are often seen as a minor part of film festivals, and this is a great mistake. It’s here that new talent may be spotted early on, and the lack of opportunities for short films to be screened a wide audience, or indeed any audience at all, added to the fact that length is no determinant of quality, mean that festivals have a particular responsibility champion the short film. It’s sad then, but not uncommon, that audiences were sparse for the three sessions of short film screenings, particularly since the offerings here were impressively good.

The first session on Thursday afternoon happened to begin with one of the films I liked most. Ben Garfield’s WAR AND CHEESE, is a short portrayal of one man’s obsession, bizarre and yet thuddingly down-to-earth throughout. When European imports were banned from Russia following their hostile incursions into Ukraine, Oleg, a Russian cheese fanatic, working in IT in Moscow, sensed an opportunity when he saw one and opened a tiny cheese-making concern outside the city, where he and three or four others work at making equivalents to the European products he and so many other Russians love so much. Attempts at making a version of Parmesan based on a renowned Russian cheese (‘a cheese which Pushkin wrote about’) have so far failed to satisfactorily produce the goods, but it’s a work in progress. It’s a perfectly judged eight minutes of quirky humour and visual delight, shot entirely with static cameras, the glacial white of the anonymous snowy countryside a perfect match with the sparkling conditions in the little cheese factory, the curds they’re stirring, and workers’ aprons, with Oleg’s genial bearded face and enthusiasm providing an ironic view of what war can accidentally bring and the ingenuity of humankind.

War and displacement feature largely in so many of the films, with a poetic view of the tragedies of bombardment in LEMONS, a heartbreaking animation. The effects of war are shockingly imagined in the UK as a fable in THIS IS THE WINTER (Peter King), where a separatist war has brought devastation to the country, and a teenager (Liv Hill) is forced into a terrible decision. And historically, ALL THESE VOICES is an elegiac confrontation between a young frightened German soldier who takes refuge in a bombed Jewish theatre as Berlin is taken by the Allies and a group of actors returning to see the devastation of their previous home.

The plight of displaced people figures large. HIGH CHAPARRAL is a bitter-sweet documentary of a Scandinavian Westerns theme park which gives refugees a home during the off-season. In BALCONY, by Toby Fell-Holden, teenager Tina (Charlotte Beaumont) befriends and falls for her schoolmate, an Afghan refugee a constant target for racist abuse on the estate where she has been housed with her father. An unreliable narrator in the form of Tina’s imagination, heeding the gossip of her community, presents an easy cultural stereotyping of what hijab-wearing Dana’s life is like, with distressing results. There’s so much packed into this film, a vivid depiction of prejudice, but also its roots, in Tina’s own unhappiness and abuse at home, amid the bleak surroundings of a no-hope housing estate that makes her expect the worst of other people. Winner of a Crystal Bear at Berlin, it’s a sad and all too credible comment on an entrenched casual xenophobia existing in modern Britain and infecting our young people. But it’s more than that, a powerful story of personal tragedy too.

But there’s warmth and comedy too to be found in these communities too. 99 PROBLEMS is a quirky documentary about Pinkie, whom we first meet boxing in the gym, keeping himself fit. It’s a surprise when we see discover the reason why he is so eager to do so. He drives his pink ice cream van around an estate where rival vans mean he needs to show himself tough enough to scare off the opposition. Narrated with relish by Pinkie himself, it’s a quirky portrait of a poor and vibrant area. More humour comes in DUNDER PLUNDER, a neat little farce where a not too competent burglar comes up against more than he can cope with in the form of an emotional woman. There’s more fun from the smart RIGHT SWIPE (Ricky J Payne), interlinked tales of online dates that all come unstuck.

Families also come into scrutiny in a number of ways. The intriguingly titled MY DEAD DAD’S PORNO TAPES (Charles Tyrell) is a mix of animation and home video in which the director, with considerable equanimity, investigates his distant father after going through his belongings after his death, and opens up a story of uncomfortable family dynamics. Another take on father/son relations is in the delightful NEGATIVE SPACE, an Oscar nominee last year, based by directors Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter on a poem by Ron Koertge, a stop-motion animation of simple puppets and beautifully arranged tiny objects about how an often absent father bonds with his son over the art of packing a suitcase.

Parenthood is not so lovely in A PERFECT TURN (Chelsea Lupkin), where a little South Korean girl is forced by her ambitious mother to spend her energies on ballet when she’d rather be hanging out in the cafe watching the real world. Another little girl unhappy with her loving mother’s plans to dress her up and make her into a young woman finds her own way of presenting herself in the world in ANEMONE by Amrou Al-Kadhi. Also on young children being themselves there’s BLUE KENNY (Keir Alexander, at the time a teacher at the school), a lovely film from 2000 about a lairy young schoolboy, played by a lad on whose real personality much of the story was based. An old-school teacher’s determination to see the boy as irremediable compared with a nervous new teacher’s wish to build on his and his classmates’ energy makes this a lighthearted Kes for the new Millennium. But the most powerful and poignant look at parents and children comes in SPIROSAURUS (Tessa Hoffe), impossible to describe without spoiling, acted marvellously by two young children Georgia Bowran and Enzo Hoffe. Quiet, understated and perfectly naturalistic, it breaks your heart.

So that’s the most memorable of the 30 short films on offer here. A splendid array, something to be very proud of for a small festival taking its first steps into the world. And making for a very satisfying weekend, which was also enlivened by music each night in the restaurant area and a much enjoyed Conversation With the affable Tom Conti. It may not yet have the clout of the Kendal Mountaineering Film Festival next door, but then that has its captive audience in this area, while here they’re trying to do something different and more poetic, concerned, true to the promise of its title, with all the still, sad music of humanity, and seeing into the life of things. Long may it continue from strength to strength.

 

Inward Eye Film Festival, Ambleside, Part 3: Honeyland; Song of Summer; Arcadia

November 9

HONEYLAND, directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov and made over three years of living close to their subject, might just be the best film of the festival. Winner of 20 awards including three at Sundance earlier this year, as well as being North Macedonia’s entry for Best Foreign Film in next year’s Oscars, it’s absolutely stunning visually and deals with aspects of today’s malaises even though it is set in a remote community and a way of life so different from our own.

Hatidze, a woman in her 50s, is probably the last remaining female beekeeper in Europe who collects from wild bees. She lives in a very basic single-room cottage with her ailing elderly mother in an almost deserted village not far from Skopje. There is no running water in her home or any means of lighting or heating other than a basic oven, oil lamps and candles. The landscape is breathtaking but the poverty is humbling. The rhythm of her life is simple. She tends her bedridden mother, cooks food from her own garden, and collects honey and bees from a site only she knows each spring, bringing a few bees back to keep in her basket hives. We first meet her on one of these expeditions, climbing higher and higher on a narrow path rising with vertiginous views over idyllic flowery meadows, to a tree stump in a rock which she cracks open to reveal a teeming nest. Taking no more than half the bees, back home she sets them up in her basketwork hives, tending them lovingly but practically, when she harvests the honey always taking ‘half for the bees, half for me’. Her income comes from her rare trips to the city where she sells her honey to appreciative stallholders and buys whatever supplies she needs, including – and this comes as a pleasing shock in the almost medieval lifestyle of this unassuming woman – splashing out on hairdye.

In the dim light of the cottage, in conversations with her mother, we learn more about her background, how she comes to be alone and unmarried, and what a life she might have had. She seems almost satisfied with her lonely existence, but when a rowdy traveller family with an un-countable number of wild children arrive in their decrepit camper van along with a herd of cows and take up residence in one of the derelict farms beside her, she enjoys their company and makes a special friend of one of the boys. So that this incursion from outside, whatever our feeling of dread for her when it appears, seems to be working out well. But in a sequence of events that churns the stomach with sympathy for her, her simple life begins to unravel when this family’s own needs – keeping their children fed, affording school for them – along with an enormous lack of empathy for her and for their surroundings, override her own. Hard to blame them, when it’s actually what the developed world does all the time to the equivalents of Hatidze.

After the screening there was some discussion as we left as to whether this was truly a documentary, with its perfect plot trajectory that could never have been foreseen by the film-makers at the beginning. Was a deal of tweaking going on? In fact it did begin as a straightforward study of Hatidze’s remarkable way of life, but events intervened naturally in a way that film-makers could only dream of, adding so many aspects relevant to all our lives – rupture with nature, the conflicting patterns of lifestyles and needs, and how easily the old ways that sustain balance with the natural world can be thoughtlessly destroyed. I thought I felt a little optimism in the final sequence, but who knows – desperately wanting to read it that way doesn’t make it so.

Ken Russell’s SONG OF SUMMER was another revisiting of a film which I had great longings to see. I watched the original screening on BBC’s Omnibus in 1968, one of a series he’d directed for television on musicians which had included by then Bartok, Elgar and Debussy. What a miracle this film is. It takes the last six years of Delius’s life when, paralysed and blind with what is revealed towards the end as syphilis, he took on as an amenuensis a musician in his early 20s, Eric Fenby, who was living at home with his parents in Scarborough and spending his time playing with the Spa Orchestra and accompanying films at the local cinema on the organ. Christopher Gable, previously a dancer but embarking on an acting career, puts in a pitch perfect performance as Fenby, with mild Yorkshire tones that can’t help but evoke Alan Bennett’s, and the tousled hair and round-spectacles of an ardent student in heroic early Soviet cinema. We’re immediately onside. It’s not the only thing reminiscent of expressionist film – Russell’s slightly off-kilter framings, his breathless montage, his idyllic treatment of nature and cruelly extended close-up portraits – the very underrated Maureen Prior as Jelka, Mrs Delius, is particularly shown in this way – are all there.

Russell films Fenby’s arrival at Delius’s French household in the mode of a wary but enthusiastic innocent approaching a mystery house in film noir style, the lone figure meeting him at the country station, the dark house filled with somewhat alarming pictures, including a version of The Scream, mysterious closed doors, the hefty silent Germanic servant (‘The Bruder’) who feeds Delius and slings him over his shoulder to carry him without ceremony from one room to another, the pretty maid, the oddness of household arrangements. The composer proves a difficult man to work with, yelling out his music in tuneless tones without considering how Fenby might capture it in his notebook. Max Adrian as Delius is a marvel, wonderfully funny, sympathetic and monstrous at the same time. And clearly having a whale of a time in the process.

Russell has this remarkable knack of wedding music to images that I can’t think of anyone who can surpass when he’s at his best. And this is his best, a glorious visceral experience and celebration of the beauty and energy of the world, which he miraculously succeeds in mixing in with human misery and with farcical humour. And the profound mystery of human character, which the idealistic Fenby comes to understand late and painfully – that all that beauty and sensitivity can be created by a man who has lived his life as something of an egotistical monster.

Coming reeling out of this masterpiece was maybe detrimental to my appreciation of my last film of the festival, the much-praised ARCADIA by BAFTA-winning Paul Wright. Out of 100 years of archive film Wright has created a reverie on the English countryside. Yet for me, with all its intriguing material, it lacked cohesion or form, despite division into sections with titles (like ‘Folk’) which try as I might didn’t differentiate one sequence from another. It became, dare I say it, little more than a parade of folklore. Plummy-voiced, antique narrators from the past kept telling us how unique (implying ‘special’) we English are, but I didn’t catch any irony in its use.

Could be, perceptions still full of Delius, I was deaf and blind to the tone. Certainly there were amazing images, strange dances, truly menacing costumes, idyllic hay-making, the weirdness of foxhunting – I suppose I wanted more, some kind of England I could relate the present to and on reflection get some kind of meaning from, rather than this fevered but repetitive exercise in English eccentricities. Lynchian, some have said. But for me only one scene tingled the hair on the back of my neck: a small village street at night; a house with one single lit window; the voice of a small child shrieking in terror for its mother.

Inward Eye Film Festival, Ambleside Part 2: Home; Withnail & I; Border

November 8

First up this morning is a film that is both mentally and physically exhausting. HOME is Sarah Outen’s account of a journey she made to circumnavigate the world eastwards in a straight line from Tower Bridge, under her own steam. This means cycling on land, kayaking or rowing when she comes to water. She’s refreshingly honest and self-aware about her mental state, this drive towards an almost impossible goal – at first she cites depression after the death of her adored father, but the further we go the more complex and deep-seated this seems to become. Yet while on the journey she paradoxically shows a resilience and ability to laugh off the frustrations and serious peril she frequently puts herself into, be it typhoons, bears or potentially dangerous shortage of food. On a simple level, it makes for a fascinating, if slightly too long, travel adventure, the most interesting being the overland sections, where there is human interaction, border incidents taken in good humour, and scenery.

So far it’s pretty much fun. But by the third desperate months-long ocean row it all becomes too much, for her and for us too, physically exhausting in the imagination because you share with her the effort, the setbacks, the boredom. And while becoming full of admiration for her tenacity, physical strength and apparent fearlessness, and actually liking her, you find you come to the point of wanting to shout at her to get some sense, this is not doing you any good.

And it’s now that the other problematic, and admittedly fascinating, factor slips in – how , far from healing herself, she is actually damaging herself further. Two boats are written off, lost to the ocean after she has to abandon ship (both, amazingly, turn up years later), and she develops allergies, has further breakdowns and recurrences of PTSD on her necessary returns home. Falling in love and gaining a partner during one period back in England should heal her, but it still isn’t enough, and back she goes to resume the quest. More months alone on the grey sea, tied to her bunk for days at a time as her boat continually capsizes, and now with medicines running out. You may feel relief at her final triumphal return to Tower Bridge, but, like me, wonder what the actual point is of being a professional adventurer these days, and is it truly heroism, or enormous, destructive, self delusion?

WITHNAIL AND I was not only partly shot not that far from here, but also received its premiere in none other than Zeffirellis. Too many have reviewed it already, but I must say what an enormous pleasure and indulgence it was to be able to watch it, for me for only the second time on the big screen. It might not seem quite so funny as it did, though the scene in Miss Blenner-Hassett’s teashop, with both actors visibly cracking up, remains one of the funniest things in UK cinema. (I’m also very taken with the joie de vivre of ‘Scrubbers!’) The acting is a delight – stunning film debuts for Paul McGann and Richard E Grant (and how nice last year to see him reprise what is almost a version of the Withnail character grown up recently in Can You Forgive Me?), Richard Griffiths making the monstrous Monty still something more than a caricature, Ralph Brown so creepy as well as comic as Danny the drug dealer. But what I felt from it this time was the enormous melancholy I’ve always known was there, but never quite felt so strongly before. ‘They’re selling hippies wigs in Woolworths’ always struck a mournful note, but life has now changed so very much that it seems not just an elegy to the Sixties, but also to the age in which our past selves have watched the film, and for the first time I felt genuinely touched as the pathetic and monstrous Withnail walked on and on into the uncertain future in that wet and grey Regent’s Park.

But the day saved the best till last. BORDER (Gräns) shook me more than anything I’ve seen on screen for a long time. Based on a short story by Swede Jonas Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, and produced by the producer of that film, it’s a similarly chilling tale of the atavistic supernatural juxtaposed with the recognisable, dull reality of our modern world.

Tina (Eva Melander)  is a border official in a Swedish port who has the uncanny ability to catch the scent of feelings of guilt or anxiety, or even wickedness, in passing travellers. With heavy, male features, bad skin and teeth and a twitchy upper lip, the result, she’s been told, of a chromosomal irregularity, she leads a quiet rather solitary life in a cottage deep in the forest, with a male lodger whose dogs, like the other forest creatures, have a special relationship with her, making occasional visits to her father who is in a nursing home with early dementia.

One day past her desk at the ferry terminal there comes a traveller who looks somehow uncannily like her. When she sniffs him out, he turns out to have no contraband, only a surprising personal secret, and she becomes fascinated with him. They find a powerful mutual attraction, spiritual and physical, and he tells her things about herself which change all her previous conceptions about her life. It would be a shame to reveal any more of the plot, which moves forward in deeply disturbing steps, brewing up a visceral stew of disgust, fear, taboo and ecstasy which you feel has its roots in some ancient human anxiety, a fear of ‘the other’, a suspicion about the irrevocable harshness of the natural world. It’s a grown up fairy tale that continues to trouble long after the film.

Unnerved, and loving it, I walked back to my bed for the night up quiet streets under the outlines of those great jagged hills, almost silent and dark to a town-dweller like me, until, almost home, there was the quiet burble of the little beck that runs under many little bridges into the River Rothay. And you know what lives under bridges…

Inward Eye Film Festival, Ambleside, Part 1: Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War

 

November 7

After a long journey westwards across the country, I arrive in a murky and wet Ambleside, the clouds lowering over the fells, snow on the tops, the grey slatey streets shiny with rain – a perfect day for holing up in the comfort of the warm crimson plushness of the Zeffirelli cinema, whose two screens and award-winning vegetarian restaurants are hosting their first ever film festival. The passes are each decked out with an actual daffodil bulb (we got garlic a few years ago in Transilvania!), to remind us of the connection with ‘local poet’, Wordsworth, from whose most famous poem the title of the festival is taken. And from the beginning there’s no doubt that the images that cross my retina over the next three days will similarly flash across my inward eye, bringing delight, fear, anger, sorrow and enlightenment for days to come.

The theme for today is Love and War, and first screening is of a selection of shorts, which I will be looking at separately along with the two other collections still to come. My first full length film is a true revelation.

Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War is a moving journey through the prewar and wartime experiences of Harry, a young surveyor who is catapulted from the pleasures of being young in prewar Scotland and London into life as a junior officer during the second world war. Unearthed in several tin demob boxes kept in a garden shed in the family home, they have been painstakingly sorted and transmuted mainly by producers John Archer and his actor grand daughter Carina, and director Matt Pinder, into this amazing film. Harry was a keen film maker all his life, having been given a camera as a boy. But these are no ordinary home movies. Showing an amazing natural talent for film making, what’s on screen is extraordinarily professional, yet with an intimacy and an honesty of emotion rarely found in commercial cinema. Alongside the images, his diaries of those years, read by John Madden and occasionally, and poignantly, by Carina, show a fine writing style and the confidence combined with complete lack of ego of a young man moving from untrammelled happiness to taking on the responsibility and harsh experiences of war.

Harry’s film begins with a lovely prewar section, with all the joy and confidence of youth, the sudden freedom of being away from home and making one’s own way in the big city, tempered by visits back home to the Scottish countryside with quiet moments of contentment, romance, and all sorts of hi-jinks. It’s jarring, for the audience too, when this reverie has to stop, and feels like an end to the way of life that, without our hindsight, Harry sensed it to be. A lovely sequence to the song ‘Skylark’ gives an almost Terence Davies intensity to this feeling of lost content.

The bulk of the film deals with Harry’s experiences in Burma and Nepal, where he was first sent with his surveying skills to do mapping. Views of dramatic unknown territories, mundane soldierly life and fantastical landscapes, perfectly and often very imaginatively framed, are charted mostly in black and white. All the while he’s champing at the bit to get into action, finally achieved in jungle battles with Japanese soldiers, for whom he, in the end, feels nothing but pity. As often happens the variable quality of the film – mostly 16mm – adds to the atmospheric and elegiac nature of what we are looking at, and the raw footage of bodies damaged and decaying like the film is, gives a feel of the transience of all things.

With all this marvellous material it’s easy to forget that with the best cinema it’s the montage as much as the content that makes a great film. Harry’s natural instincts of framing and timing are made that much more potent by the skilful work of producers and director, and it’s this that elevates the already fine material into true art.

London Film Festival 2019 Part 2: The Two Popes; Illustrious Corpses

The Two Popes

Coming from Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, most memorable for his action-packed City of God, we know to expect a vibrancy that you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate in a film about the two most recent popes. And indeed it turns out to be a mostly warm and often funny experience. Pope Francis must easily be the most sympathetic and attractive pope to non-catholics, and even atheists, in living memory, and Jonathan Pryce doesn’t disappoint, both physically resembling the man and bringing him to life with a delightful sense of humour and wise simplicity. He’s bound to be more real for the audience because we get his back-story – a normal life: girlfriend, tango, football, cooking… The soft contours of Anthony Hopkins were never going to have the gnarly withered–up look of Benedict XVI, but his portrait of a troubled, up-tight but soft-centred man – possibly far more so than the real thing, but who knows? – presents a character more interesting and relatable-to than the non-believer might expect. There’s enormous pleasure in watching these two stellar performances sparking off each other.

The main thrust of the film, centred on an imagined meeting between the two of them while Pope Francis is still Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, is basically an ‘odd couple’ movie, often funny, though never without a steely core, as the pair discuss their opposite views on life, the church, and everything. Based on the play by Anthony McCarten, the dialogue is sharp and funny, and gives a far more engaging tone to theological discussion than one would have thought possible. Francis has the best lines, of course. Meirelles also excels in the big set pieces of conclave, the movements of the scarlet-robed cardinals within the marmoreal chambers of the Vatican, often seen from above, as well-choreographed as Busby Berkeley showgirls.

So far so good, but I felt the incursion of the real, dirty world in the form of Jorge’s reputation in some quarters as a collaborator during the darker times in Argentina’s history did not fit well. An overlong sequence which includes some actual footage of those times forms a confession for Jorge, but when Benedict begins to tell of the stains on his early life, the sound, oddly, becomes muffled and inaudible. Is it because, unlike Jorge, he has no credible excuses to offer? But then just as the film has taken this downturn into murkier waters, we’re back again with the imagined comfortable bonhomie between the two, as if having got it over we can return to the fun. That didn’t quite work for me. Better to have kept it all light, an engaging way to present a transition from an older more orthodox system to one more in tune with the  world .

The meeting, apparently arranged by Benedict to sound out Jorge as his successor, is of course so counter to all the evidence of Benedict’s character that it could never have happened. But it’s a cleverly imagined conceit to bring the two very different men with their very diverse hinterlands together, and there are many moments of real humour. We believe, even like, them both. A bit of a shock, then, to see genuine footage of the two meeting, Francis bright and uncannily like Pryce, but Benedict as crabby and archaic a figure as the one we’ve always imagined him to be. 

 

Illustrious Corpses (Cadaveri eccellenti)

The all too small ‘Treasures’ section of the festival shows restored gems from the archives, and one of its big hitters this year was Francesco Rosi’s glacially chilling masterpiece from 1976, a troubled time in Italian politics, restored at the L’immagine Ritrovata laboratory at Bologna Cineteca.

Lino Ventura plays Inspector Rogas, a policeman of utter integrity who is our entreé into a dark world of corruption in high places. Increasingly he’s the only individual recognisable from our world of normality, a solid determined force for good who’s got himself into what is almost an alternative world of death and treachery. Mortality is never far – the first images of the film are of mummified corpses of priests in a catacomb, the regular haunt of the judge who is the first victim, as the camera lingers on collapsed faces and twisted bodies, corruption of the physical prefiguring that of the moral and spiritual.

It’s set in Naples, a world away from the vibrant city as we might picture it. In Pasqualino de Santis’s cinematography there’s so much darkness. So many images of walks down long darkened passageways or roads with blinding light or darkness at the end. So many interiors patterned with shadows, faces only half-lit. The plot tells a (fictitious) tale of corruption reaching up and up through more deaths into the highest political levels. The rule of law and basic standards of society are seen as increasingly in peril, and Ventura’s Rogas begins to stand for more than an investigating policeman but as the only credible hope for decency.

As he moves through his investigation the film becomes less about Italian society than a general falling apart of the world, embodied by those first mummified corpses which you just can’t get out of your mind. The bravura final scene takes place in the cool spaces of a vast museum, clearly lit and strongly shadowed, where the idealised marble figures from classical culture look down on the sordid end. In pity, in horror, or maybe just in recognition that this is how it’s always been. The audience has come to the end of its passageway through the dark, to find, rather than the resolution we’ve been hoping for, that there’s no salvation.

 

London Film Festival 2019 Part 1: Happy Birthday; The Aeronauts

What could be a more pleasant easing into a film festival after a long train journey and a dash across darkling rush-hour London than a French film about a family reunion, complete with Catherine Deneuve, at one of the nicest cinemas in the city, the Ciné Lumière at the French Institute in South Kensington…

Happy Birthday (Fête de famille)

Directed by Cédric Kahn

All happy families are the same, according to Tolstoy, all unhappy families unhappy in their own way. So which is this? It all starts so well. Two excited grandsons race down a sunlit, tree-lined drive to a grand but seen-better-days house where grandma Deneuve in her floury blue apron is making pizzas for her birthday lunch. In the garden teenage granddaughter Emma (Luana Bajrami) and her black boyfriend Julien (Joshua Rosinet) are hanging up home-made bunting. Preparing the alfresco lunch table are the sons of the family, Vincent (director Kahn) and Romain (Vincent Macaigne), along with his new Argentine girlfriend Rosita (isabel Gonzalez-Sola) who provides a cool outsider’s view on the proceedings. The kids are rehearsing a home-made play in honour of the birthday girl. Essence of family togetherness. Well, maybe the sudden rain forcing a move indoors is a bit of a downer, but so far the only fly in the ointment is the already annoying younger brother Romain, bearded, bohemian, and full of arty superiority towards his bourgeois family who is insisting on filming the whole affair and disturbing the natural bonhomie of the meal.

Then a call comes in from the brothers’ sister Claire (Emmannuelle Bercot), Emma’s mother, arriving by surprise at the nearby airport. Her arrival, wet and disorganised, sets a note of chaos in the well-ordered set-up, and it’s not long before cracks begin to appear, filmed with glee by Romain. Claire has a deal of resentment against her mother, some for good reason, despite the grandparents looking after her daughter for the last three years. Bercot has a whale of a time as the over-emotional and ultimately unstable Claire. There’s also brotherly strife, the unlikeable Romain envious of Vincent’s worldly success and prosperity. There’s a traffic incident, a note of racism, walkings out, and bullying all round.

It’s not exactly Festen, not so grim, and there are points at which the atmosphere settles down into something more resembling the joyful occasion Andrea was expecting, for example a sweet silly dancing session while Julien plays the family piano. But nothing stays sweet for long. Deneuve is always watchable, but maybe makes Andrea a little too unshakeable, even at crisis point. Tone is sometimes a bit uncertain, and it’s also harder to laugh when it appears that Claire has real mental health issues. A coda in which we see what Romain has secretly been up to with Claire previously might be meant to be a comment on film and reality as well as a further example of his cold-hearted sneakiness, but it doesn’t really work. Yet despite all the uproar you get the feeling the family will toddle on in this way for many years.

 

The Aeronauts

Directed by Tom Harper

I always have my doubts about Brit-made historical adventures which seem to have a good-looking couple inevitably bound for romance at their centre – but I needn’t have feared. The Aeronauts, seen in the comfy pop-up Embankment Cinema next morning, wears its period charms well, apart from a certain stiffness in the language due to the odd but common idea that people of the past spoke in full sentences and mostly without elisions, and soon develops into what is in fact a thrilling action movie, with the landscape of England as its back drop and a huge canvas balloon as its territory.

Eddie Redmayne is perfect as the single-minded but vulnerable proto-meteorologist James Glaisher, whose typical Victorian hunger for understanding the world takes him up into the atmosphere to ascend higher than anyone before him, all in the pursuit of scientific research into what makes the weather, a field of study despised by his fellow scientists at the Royal Society. And his companion is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), first appearing as a kind of fairground act, the embodiment of those saucy ladies with attitude in skirts short enough to give a glimpse of leg above an ankle boot, seen in so many circus and show posters of the time. Her cavortings bring in the crowds and finance the trip, but she soon shows herself as a well-experienced balloonist with toughness and intelligence at least equal to that of Glaisher, and an equal determination to see his ambitions through.

The film is based chiefly on a flight by Glaisher in 1862, though his companion then was one Henry Coxwell, and Amelia is based mainly on French balloonist Sophie Blanchard. It hangs together extremely well, partly due to the way it keeps the strong relationship that develops between them credible but never quite straying into romance. The perils and heroics onboard the balloon are genuinely thrilling (though one wonders why Glaiser still sports a bare neck when the cold gets deadly  – didn’t people wear mufflers in the C19th?). The filming is visually stunning. Lovely little cameos, too, by Tom Courtenay and Anne Reid as Glaisher’s parents. All in all this is a super family film with a respect for scientific advancement at its heart.