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THE WAVE – a celebration of Italian Women Filmmakers

Cine Lumiere, 15-19 June

Italian film lovers in London are in for a treat next weekend when Cinecittà will be presenting a short season of films made by women, at Cine Lumiere in South Kensington, already the home of the annual Cinema Made in Italy festival each spring.

Audiences will be able to sample a rich and diverse programme where they can revisit or discover the early works from some of the greatest female Italian filmmakers working today, plus some classics. Italy has seen a surge in female filmmakers over the past decade and prior to this, the only notable female directors were Liliana Cavani, Lina Wertmuller, and very few others. This stellar selection of films has been curated by Head of Programming and Exhibition at Ciné Lumière, Diane Gabrysiak who will be hosting the filmmakers from Italy in filmmaker Q&A sessions.

Opening the season is Chiara Bellosi’s SWING RIDE (Calcinculo, 2022), premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. The film follows Benedetta, an obese fifteen-year-old yearning for attention, who falls in love with a young transvestite, Amanda, detailing a story of intoxication and family rebellion as Benedetta completes her rite of passage into adulthood.

Additional festival highlights include Alice Rohrwacher’s feature directorial debut HEAVENLY BODY (Corpo celeste, 2011) which observes 13-year-old Marta, who is struggling to adjust to life after relocating from Switzerland to the deep south of Italy and beginning to question her faith. The film cemented Rohrwacher as a distinctive young voice in Italian cinema and she has gone on to direct festival favourites HAPPY AS LAZZARO and THE WONDERS.

Laura Bispuri’s (The Peacock’s Paradise) directorial debut feature SWORN VIRGIN (Vergine giurata, 2015) stars the great Alba Rohrwacher as Hana, a woman who escapes her future as a subservient housewife to live a celibate life as a male in an isolated Albanian community. She begins to resist her current lifestyle and decides to undergo a journey of rediscovery.

Other titles include:

Maura Delpero’s heart breaking MATERNAL (2019) which details the story of three women living in a Catholic refuge in a sensitively realised portrait of motherhood.

Adele Tulli’s NORMAL (2019) a genre-bending documentary, reflects on how female and male identities are performed in everyday interactions by capturing some of the most intimate moments in people’s lives.

Michela Occhipinti’s FLESH OUT (Il Corpo della sposa, 2019) tells the story of a modern woman challenging the Mauritanian tradition of arranged marriage. (See review here)

Emma Dante’s A STREET IN PALERMO (Via Castellana Bandiera, 2013) observes the lengths that two women will go after their cars come face to face in a narrow street in Italy. What ensues is a cutting tale of stubbornness, with neither woman willing to back down.

Susanna Nicchiarelli’s COSMONAUT (Cosmonauta, 2009) explores the fractured relationship of two die-hard communist siblings as they follow the progress of the space race in the early sixties.

The programme also includes two classic titles from female filmmakers that paved the way for the filmmakers in our contemporary selection which include:

Lina Wertmüller’s directorial debut THE BASILISKS (I Basilischi, 1963) which follows the uneventful lives of three men living in an impoverished town in Southern Italy, and Elvira Notari’s A SANTANOTTE (1922) explores the relationship between an oppressed young girl and her abusive father.

Finally, as a tribute to actress Monica Vitti, who died last February, the programme will include DUCK IN ORANGE SAUCE (L’anatra all’arancia, 1975) by Luciano Salce, the story of the fallout of a wife asking to leave her husband.

The season will also present a selection of short animation films which includes: SUGARLOVE, Laura Luchetti (2018) TOILETS, Laura Luchetti (Bagni, 2016), LIVE BAIT, Susanna Nicchiarelli (Esca viva, 2012), THIN DUST, Alessandra Boatto, Gloria Cianci, Sofia Zanonato (Polvere sottile, 2018), NEW NEIGHBOURS, Sara Burgio, Andrea Mannino, Giacomo Rinaldi (2018), MERLOT, Marta Gennari, Giulia Martinelli, (2015), COSMOETICO, Martina Scarpelli (2015), WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO DARWIN?, Leonardo Altieri, Sara Crippa, Giulia Manna, Maria Nocerino (2019)

The Wave is organized by Cinecittà with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

For full details and tickets see here

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Compartment No 6

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen

Kuosmanen’s lovely The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki actually won me over to the boxing movie, its gentle observations and celebration of ordinariness blotting out that macho sentiment that so often sweatily exudes from this genre. Now he’s taken on a road movie, sub-genre trains. But this is no Orient Express. The Moscow-Murmansk train takes days, has sleeping compartments, but there the resemblance ends. Like Kuomanen’s earlier film, it’s a complete one off, where you are never quite sure which way things might go, or moods change.

Laura (Seidi Kuosmanen), a quiet Finnish art student, lives with her older bohemian lover Irina in a Moscow flat, which we see during a party somewhat  oppressively filled with voluble arty types. There’s a feeling that, happy though she is in her relationship, she doesn’t quite fit. Irina has planned for the two of them to visit the petroglyphs of Murmansk (no, me neither. They’re neolithic rock carvings depicting the life of wandering hunters, more like cartoons than our more static Western European cave art), but at the last minute she’s unable to go, leaving Laura to take the journey into the northern cold alone. This means she has a new companion in her two-person sleeping compartment – and it’s bad news. He’s exactly the kind of travel companion a young woman  does not want to spend several days of confinement with – slobbish, drunken, rude, at times sexually menacing, the cramped area already marked out as his territory with his detritus ,smoke, unpalatable food and bottles of liquor. A plea for relocation to the boot-faced attendant, who takes a malicious pleasure in her situation, gets Laura nowhere. In any case the train is crammed, and an attempt to bed down in the corridor brings her to accept that she has to find some way of coexisting with Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) for the duration of the journey.  In exasperation she takes him along to the dining car where an unlikely relationship begins to take root.

It isn’t a sexual romance, but strangely almost comes to be a union of like minds of a pair who have nothing in common but their youth and humanity. Ljoha is an habitué of the train, a travelling worker currently off to a stint in the frozen mining area near Murmansk, and there’s a lovely moment when, both lightened up with illegal liquor, he takes her off the train at an overnight stop, driving in a ‘borrowed’ car along snowy roads to an old lady acquaintance’s house where no questions are asked and Laura is welcomed as a friend and given a comfy bed, while Ljoha does jobs around the place. Meanwhile increasingly dismissive phone calls with Irina signal that maybe Laura will have little reason to return to the Moscow flat.

Arrival at a frozen Murmansk brings problems for Laura’s quest when the museum is closed for the season and all conducted trips across the wintry wastes to visit the petroglyphs are off. But Ljoha and his workmates come to the rescue, and a trip in a small boat across icy seas brings Laura to the stones. What do we think of them – what does she think of them? Hard to say – they’re almost obscured by the ice, and the camera doesn’t investigate either them or Laura’s reaction. This is what she has come for, but maybe at this moment they aren’t so significant after all, and it’s been the journey that counts.

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Cinema Made in Italy 2022: The Peacock’s Paradise (Il Paradiso del pavone)

Directed by Laura Bispuri

I have to confess I was sceptical about this film ‘… at a family gathering Paco the pet peacock falls in love with a dove in a painting…’ It could have been the kind of magical realism to which I am most resistant. But I’m pleased to report that, on the contrary, this portrait of a hopeful and messy family gathering was one of the best films screened at Cinema Made in Italy, a study in the complexity of family relationships and how the most unlikely incident can bring truth to the fore. Written, cast and made in a few weeks after Covid put paid to Bispuri’s grander plans, it’s a little gem of a film offering a great ensemble performance that really deserves to be seen.

We might think we know family, but do we really know them as individuals as we might know our friends? What dark thoughts, weaknesses, embarrassments, passions, lurk beneath? Dominique Sanda is a mighty presence as the matriarch Nena whose birthday they are coming together for, reminiscent of Vanessa Redgrave in her stillness and unreadable gravity. How wonderful to see her again!

She has her secrets, and she is not alone.  Eldest daughter Caterina ( Maya Sansa) is well into a divorce she has not divulged to the family, and the fact that she has had to have a lift to the flat – or has she? – from Manfredi, her bumptious soon-to-be-ex, who inevitable gets invited into the party too, reveals that her relations are not the only ones she is deceiving. Gentle mannered son Vito (Leonardo Lidi), totally in love with his rather fragile fiancée Adelina (Alba Rohrwacher), isn’t able to protect her from the apparent lack of interest and empathy from other family members, notably his dominating mother. Rohrwacher’s portrayal of this shy, anxious woman trying so hard to fit in is one of the best things she’s done.

The younger people present are maybe less mysterious – suggesting perhaps that  concealment and ambiguity come, maybe, with age, but  Joana (Tihana Lazovic), Manfredi’s freewheeling new squeeze, shows unexpected capabilities as the family dynamic changes, and Grazia, the housekeeper’s expressive but mute daughter (Ludovica  Alvazzi del Frate), makes a most surprising intervention which encapsulates a truth they are all feeling. Carolina Michelangeli is delightful as Alma the little daughter of Adelina and Vito, totally believable but maturing suddenly into perhaps the wisest of the lot.

The movement of the film is towards a truth about each character emerging following the central incident, as they gather in the unlikely location of a beach café and become ordinary, a family that has shaken off the weight of its facades. Not a shred of sentiment, and I found this a more convincing resolution to accept than that of Moretti’s Tre piani flat dwellers.

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Cinema Made in Italy 2022: Three Floors (Tre piani)

Directed by Nanni Moretti

How I wish I’d liked this film more. It’s the first film by arch-auteur Nanni Moretti to be based on a story by another writer – and it shows, and not to good effect. The intensity and ambiguities and occasional bracing unexpectedness of his earlier films (specially his masterpiece The Son’s Room) are sadly missing in this tale adapted from Eshkol Nevo’s Tel Aviv-set novel about four families in a city apartment block.

Transference to Rome is credibly done, and the opening sequence, outside the apartment block  where the protagonists live, is a dashing and  shocking one that promises much. A heavily pregnant Monica (Alba Rohrwacher)  dashes in disarray to find a taxi to take her to the maternity hospital, just as Andrea, the drunken son of two lawyers, Vittorio and Dora runs a woman over and crashes his car into the ground floor studio of Lucio, a graphic designer.  Unfortunately little that follows matches either the drama or the style.

Rohrwacher excels (when does she not?) as the lonely wife of a mostly absent oil rig worker, for long periods caring for her child alone. Her solitude along with maybe an inherited mental frailty bring melancholy and delusions that have an authentic feel often missing in other situations and characters. When she’s alone onscreen we see the world through her eyes, never quite sure what is really happening and what are imaginings.

The busy professional couple on the ground floor depend on the kindness of elderly neighbours to look after their daughter at awkward times, consciously turning a blind eye to the increasing frailty of the old man (Paolo Graziosi) for their own convenience. Riccardo Scamarcio  is a powerful presence but his actions never quite convince and he isn’t helped by his rather simplistically ironic storyline that verges on the shocking in these Me Too days. It’s also problematic that his wife (Elena Letti) seems to have no part in his ‘journey’ to understanding.

 Another stand-out performance is by Margherita Buy as Dora who manages to make the mother of Andrea and wife of Vittorio (played by Moretti himself) believable and sympathetic. The problem with this family is that it’s hard to believe in the love between Moretti’s hardline moralistic father and this kind and warm woman. The portrait of Andrea is disappointingly shallow, and his final reconciliation with his mother verging on the sentimental. As is, sadly, the heavily allegorical passing show of the street tango watched by all our protagonists which concludes the film.

There are good and bad, convincing and hollow, story lines and some considerable drama and narrative force in this film, and it’s worth seeing for its many fine performances, but it won’t rank as one of Moretti’s masterpieces.

Three Floors is on general release  in the UK from March 18.

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Cinema Made in Italy 2022: Californie

Directed by Alessandro Cassigoli and Casey Kauffman

‘Californie’. From a spelling mistake it evolves into a happy accident that brings even more glamour to the name when it appears on the new facade of Jasmine’s hairdressing salon.  That’s Naples for you, making the best of shortcomings, creative with what it has. And Jamila (Khadija Jaafari ) is the spirit of Naples with all its charm and creativity and perilous survival, as, corkscrew curls flying, she sails through Torre Annunziata close by the city on the vespa she isn’t really old enough to drive.

 Jaafari first came to the attention of the directors during the making of their 2018 documentary Butterfly about young boxer Irma Testa, who subsequently won a Bronze Olympic medal at Tokyo. She was a 9-year-old member of the boxing club Irma attended in Torre Annunziata, and her vivid presence on screen stood out as something special. So the directors were inspired to make Californie, filmed over the following 5 years, where she plays the Moroccan girl Jamila, not specifically herself but a kind of alter ego, the events and circumstances based mainly on her own life but including aspects of others’ lives in the area.  Think of the films of English director Shane Meadows, and you’ll know the kind of gritty, documentary-like feel, with young people, sensitive and vulnerable yet ostensibly toughened up and thoughtful beyond their years, playing roles that if not themselves, come straight out of their own experiences.

 Jamila’s family are Moroccan immigrants, so hard working that they are rarely around, and we see her growing up independent, always a bright girl eager for life, despite, early on, the prejudice that’s shown against her – what a sad little vignette when she empties the ‘Moroccan’ drink her mother packs her for school to confect a fizzy look-alike from tap water in an old soda bottle to conform with her classmates. She still sits alone to drink it.

But Jamila is strong, a vibrant force in a poor and run-down but lively world, and as the years pass and she grows she gives up the boxing, too busy earning to buy herself the entrées to the world she finds herself in, makes friends, learns to ride a vespa, and begins to help at the local hairdressing salon. Becoming a favourite with the clientele, she, amazingly, gains the confidence of the owner, Jasmine, enough to take over when she goes away for a week.  All by the age of 14. All seems well, but when a sympathetic social worker comes calling to see why she isn’t attending school, a sadness is revealed in her and she becomes much more than the bold streetwise girl she appears but one whose background still bears down hard on her. We finally see Jamila as she leaves home on a coach to take up a full-time carer job abroad, planning to earn money to send back home. A hard, hard life for a 14-year-old. Yet you come away from the film feeling buoyed up with her energy, and the confidence that she is clear-eyed and strong enough to get herself a good life.

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Cinema Made in Italy 2022: A Chiara

Directed by Jonas Carpignano

A long weekend that began with an all-out tube strike and took place with Covid on the wane but still lurking, when many are still shaky about travel and public gatherings, was never going to be as well-attended as previous years, but a very respectably-sized audience turned out to enjoy the varied collection of new films at this year’s short festival.

For me two of the standout films were two very different stories of young girls under pressure, each played by a total newcomer to acting – Californie and A Chiara.

(Contains spoilers)  A Chiara stars not just debuting teenager Swamy Rotolo as Chiara but many members of her family, big sister, little sister and parents, even using  their actual house, as well as lots of mates and neighbours, all showing a real, confident screen presence with never a weak move. It’s amazing that this works so well, a method already used to effect in the director’s previous film.

Both Carpignano’s previous films, Mediterranea, on African migrant experience and A Ciambra about a Roma community, won awards at Cannes, and have looked at life on the margins of Italian society. A Chiara completes this ‘Calabrian Trilogy’, and in contrast seems set squarely in its natural neighbourhood, a cheerful, noisy family life.

Remember the beginning of The Godfather, where a happy family wedding gets us alongside the Corleone clan? Well, something similar is at work here. It’s Chiara’s sister’s eighteenth birthday, food, laughter, music, loving father clowning around, too shy to give his speech. Maybe too long is spent in the set-up, but it certainly embeds us in the family, and we fall a little bit in love with them, expecting maybe a coming of age drama of some kind. I’m glad I didn’t know what was to come, the truth about this family, as it’s the more powerful for being a shock, that so read no further if you want to come to the film open to its strongest effects.

When her father’s car is torched on the night of the party, and Chiara catches a glimpse of him leaving the house clandestinely, it’s the beginning of a long revelation to her of what the rest of the family know and live with – that he’s a mid-level member of the local Camorrah. What follows is her journey to find him and understand what he does. He’s almost comically offended when she thinks he might kill people, so realising she is determined to know the truth, he takes her on one of his missions to pick up, mix, and pass on drugs. It seems unlikely and dangerous that he would take her along, but the tension is effectively done and in the process shows us what we too need to know – fed as many of us are on gangster tales of intimidation and spectacular  corruption, it’s uncomfortable to see how easy and humdrum this life is, the normality of it all. These seem decent men – the driver even delivers a little homily about Raphael always painting the truth, even as he blags his way through a police road block. But angry with her family for not sharing the truth with her and troubled by where her loyalties should lie Chiara starts skipping school and gets into trouble for a minor assault on a Roma girl.

Impressively, though to some it’s controversial, the Italian government has a scheme whereby children of mafia families who are showing signs of being disturbed  or influenced by that background are taken away and adopted by families in the north of Italy until the age of 18, when they are free to choose their own paths, to return or to make a new life away from their families. This is to be  Chiara’s fate – will she go along with it, how will it affect her if she does?

A Chiara will be on general release in the UK later this year. 

Other reviews from Cinema Made in Italy 2022:

Californie

Three Floors

The Peacock’s Paradise

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Preview: Cinema Made in Italy, March 3-7 2022, Cine Lumiere, London

What a long haul it has been since Cinema Made in Italy made its last appearance at the Cine Lumiere in Kensington, when we were nervously learning how to disinfect hands, buying up masks, and fearfully eyeing any coughing neighbours on public transport. Yet though it might have seemed that world would never be quite the same again, some things are reassuringly returning, and after last year’s decamping to life online via Mubi during April, ironically screening some of its strongest films for years, the festival is back, alive and physical, in its customary early March slot.

The programme as ever features a range of new Italian films along with a couple of special tributes from the archives. The 5th of March will be the 100th anniversary of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s birth, and there are 2 screenings of his enigmatic 1968 film TEOREMA, his first to use primarily professional actors, notably Terence stamp as the Christ-like ‘Visitor’ whose unexplained visit to a bourgeois family  unleashes passions worldly and sacred. And a late addition is Michelangelo’s 1962 study of a doomed love affair L’ECLISSE, starring Monica Vitti, who died at 90 earlier this month after a 38-year career in film. Always a mesmerising presence on screen, a rich and varied career saw her working with among others directors Antonioni, Bunuel, Scola and Losey alongside such actors as Alain Delon, Marcel Mastroianni, and Richard Harris, from austere art house to more lightweight English language films such as Modesty Blaise.

It’s part of the special value of Cinema Made in Italy that few of its films will make it to general release in the UK, but the opening film is an exception. Nanni Moretti’s THREE FLOORS (Tre piani ) has a UK release date of 18 March. Adapted from Eshkol Nevo’s best-selling novel ‘Three Floors Up’ it marks Moretti’s first adaptation of the work of another artist, looking at the complex lives of residents of a Roman apartment building.

A CHIARA by Jonas Carpignano (released by Mubi later this year) marks the end his trilogy of films (Mediterranea and A Ciambra being the first two) that follow the stories of African refugees in a Calabrian town where the Romani community and the local mafia exist side by side.

Meanwhile, for more fast and furious action, KING CRAB (Re Granchio) is a lively story of a Tuscan ne’er-do-well in the nineteenth century whose passions lead to exile and a quest for mythical treasure. And FREAKS OUT (Gabriele Mainetti) promises fast-moving, weird and wonderful action, when a group of circus performers use their special powers to fantastic ends during World War II, starring Franz Rogowski, Best Actor at the fantastic Fest last year.

The D’Innocenzo brothers, Damiano and Fabio, twice winners at Berlin (Best New Director 2018 and Best Screenplay 2020) are here with AMERICA LATINA, the tale of a pleasantly ordinary dentist, whose life changes one day when he goes down into the cellar… And more oddness arrives with THE PEACOCK’S PARADISE (Il paradiso del pavone) by Laura Bispuri when a pet peacock throws an already uneasy family gathering into turmoil. Dominique Sanda and  Alba Rohrwacher star.

The highly talented Rohrwacher family is in evidence again with FUTURA, directed by Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro), Pietro Marcello (Martin Eden) and Francesco Munzi (Black Souls), three directors whose work leads one to expect a documentary of more than usual nuance and complexity – a collective work exploring thoughts and aspirations of Italian teenagers from across the country.  A verité style portrayal of a Moroccan girl over 5 years from age nine to fourteen living in a small town near Naples comes from Alessandro Cassigoli and Casey Kauffman in CALIFORNIE, where their documentary roots and the excellence of debuting Khadija Jaafari in the central role gives a real taste of actuality. Another film looking at the future of ordinary lives is Andre Segre’s WELCOME VENICE, a drama focussing on two brothers with their differing views on the drastic changes in their native city.

Gabriele Salvatores, Director of Non ho paura, a 2003 arthouse hit in the UK, and Foreign Language Oscar winner for Mediterraneo in 1991, brought his Volare to the last ‘live’ Cinema Made in Italy, and he’s here this year with COMEDIANS, based on Trevor Griffiths’ play, transposed to Italy and made as if a piece of theatre and, due to Covid restrictions, in 4 weeks.

Cinema Made in Italy is organised by Cinecittà’s promotional department in Rome (Filmitalia), with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute in London, the official agency for the promotion of Italian language and culture in England and Wales (www.icilondon.esteri.it). The films were selected by Adrian Wootton OBE, CEO of Film London and programme advisor for the BFI London Film Festival.

Co- director of Fright Fest and international film critic Alan Jones will be hosting the filmmaker Q&A sessions on Saturday 5 March.

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Boiling Point

Directed by Philip Barantini

Oh the thrill of a single-take film. Somehow the heartbeat can’t help but travel along as irregularly as the pace of the camera movement, dizzy with movement one minute, thuddingly claustrophobic in a tight physical space the next, slightly apprehensive as it turns an unknown corner.  Philip Barantini was brave to try this for his first feature,  and it’s certainly paid off.

We enter the fray alongside head chef Andy, (Stephen Graham) taking a tricky phonecall that intimates escalating  domestic troubles as he arrives at his restaurant two hours late. It looks like it’s going to be a bad night. The food inspector’s in there, politely finding fault with hand-washing procedures and only-just acceptable fridge temperatures. As Andy takes over, he’s already incurred the anger of his sous chef, smarting at being left alone to deal with all this as well as getting the place up and running.  The night’s bookings list is full and also reveals that another high-ranking chef is to be dining tonight, one whose presence is not welcome for reasons we later understand. And he’s bringing a famously caustic food critic along. Trouble in all directions. The fiery plongeuse is furious that her assistant is late, Andy’s new timorous French recruit (the one who washed her hands in the wrong basin) hardly understands his thick scouse accent or colloquialisms – she’s later baffled by his request to ‘prep some spuds’ – and the beef order hasn’t arrived. Add to this the usual awkward customers out front – and then the Bad Thing Waiting to Happen, signalled in Hitchcock fashion, well in advance, to crank up our unease.

The restaurant is a place of two very different parts, the raw physical engagement with processes and materials in the kitchen, over-brimming with stuff and bodies, where distress and anger and pain must be kept quiet, and the smooth, ever-smiling front of house, where everything is a fairytale of pleasure for the  customers.

Acting is top notch throughout, every role totally recognisable, from insouciant youngsters to camp Scottish waiter, calm and motherly pastrycook, whose small area is an oasis of peace, and steak and chips-demanding, full of themselves young influencers.  Jason Flemying is super as the visiting chef, Andy’s smooth-talking former boss, over-oiled as a split mayonnaise, until his real nasty side comes out. Stephen Graham is as affecting and believable as ever as the sympathetic, flawed, combustible  man. (‘Just wind him up’, says director Barantini, a former fellow drama student, ‘and let him go…’)  But maybe the stand-out is Vinette Robinson as Carly, the put-upon, highly competent sous chef, holding everything together as the night collapses around them, her moment of greatness a blistering, heartless monologue of an attack on the front of house manager. All the cast spent time in a kitchen shadowing workers there, and it shows. It’s unexpectedly funny in parts too, while never taking off the pressure. Cinematographer Matthew Lewis has mastered the technique so well you forget it’s one-take, in fact at times you forget you’re not actually there.  

The film this kept bringing to mind for me was Locke, where a man’s personal and professional life is unravelled in the course of one evening. In Locke it’s a single location – the driving seat of a car, and here it’s one single helter-skelter take, and  the concentration imposed on the audience by each method elevates a normal life into tragedy.

Seen January 2022, Tyneside Cinema Newcastle

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London Film Festival 2021: Azor

Azor (Andreas Fontana), for all its green lawns and sunny, indulgent gatherings, is a claustrophobic, suffocating film whose feeling of moral blight is hard to shake off. Yvan (Fabrizio Rongione), a Swiss banker, has come to Argentina at the time of the Junta after the unexplained disappearance  of the bank’s representative there, René Keys. Reportedly a clubbable, affable guy, Keys disappeared suddenly, like so many in Argentina in the 80s.

Newly arrived, on their taxi ride into night-time Buenos Aires Yvan and his wife witness a disturbing street incident which sets the mood of disquiet. Two young men (dressed, in pathetic fashion, in the floppy style of the would-be stylish young in that period) are being lined up against a wall, searched and interrogated. Only one returns to his car.

Yvan’s task is to meet all the clients and keep them onside, a task at which he is extremely good, bright, suave and pleasant, eager to be at their service. His is a venerable old bank, he tells them, and he’s there to uphold its traditions He’s helped very much by his languid yet smart-as-a-whip wife Ines (a brilliant performance by Stéphanie Cléau), happy, kind of, to sit with the wives and daughters, chic and diplomatic, yet as watchful and purposeful as he, in one scene, indeed, approaching a Lady Macbeth steeliness. They move through a society of wealth and entitlement that is superficially at ease with itself yet actually terrified and insecure in their big houses and spacious estates and racecourses. Never mentioned  is the political situation, except in whispered words half heard from bejewelled old women, and one man, a racehorse owner who speaks of his beloved daughter, also ‘disappeared’ some years ago, who ‘joined a political group’.

Yvan finds a list in Keys’ flat, with the names of clients he is checking out, all high ranking in society, there’s even a chillingly ruthless bishop. There’s just one unknown name on Keys’ list – Lazarus – and it’s tracking down this character that brings Yvan into the heart of darkness, away from the glamour of high society, such a dirty business that it takes him away from the manicured lawns and smart interiors into the real, unkempt countryside, to a real, dirty confrontation that confirms what the money Yvan is protecting is really all about.  The banality of evil. An amazingly assured and promising first feature by this Swiss director, who knows exactly how much to tell and how much to leave unsaid.

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London Film Festival 2021: Munich – the Edge of War

As I’m afraid I anticipated, this is another in the canon of worthy films devoted to our obsession with World War II. Strangely the director is German, Christian Schwochow, but a German it seems with a deep interest in UK nostalgia, as director of episodes of The Crown.  It wasn’t a bad film, but overlong, and most of what it might have had in the way of a real sense of jeopardy was frittered away by its lethargic pace. Based on Robert Harris’s novel, it covers mainly the last ditch visit to Germany in 1938 as Hitler was poised to invade Czechoslovakia, an attempt to re-evaluate Chamberlain’s actions as means of delaying an inevitable war in order to buy time for rearmament rather than to short-sightedly appease Nazi intentions. As is the way of ‘historical facts brought to life’ films, however, much of the plot, too much, is based on the human friendship angle, with former Oxford pals English Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and German Paul Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) getting together to bring out the truth about Hitler’s real intentions. It didn’t convince. For one thing, George MacKay, elsewhere a brilliant actor, is sadly miscast as a key junior official in the government, looking like a sixth-former on work experience. Poor Jessica Brown Finlay is given little chance to gain our sympathy as his whingey wife, not helped by the fact that she looks very much like Hartmann’s fiancée from the prelude in old Oxford days, which led to some confusion in my feeble brain. None of this adds anything. Yet the potentially more relevant and interesting transition in Hartmann from New Germany flag-waver to committed anti-Nazi is merely recounted, not shown. In general the German actors are more convincing, and it’s nice to see the excellent Sandra Hüller again.  Dowdy London and an upbeat Munich practically en fete superficially with Nazi enthusiasm are finely photographed, but with its slow movement the film gets little benefit from this. Jeremy Irons, though, as Neville Chamberlain looks and sounds great, and plays the doddery yet astute old man in a way that will surely earn him a nomination or two.

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Yorkshire Silent Film Festival 2021, Abbeydale Picture House

October 17 2021

The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, now in its fifth year, takes place at venues around Yorkshire. On 17 October it came again to the magnificent Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield, where I managed to catch two sessions. Having been lucky enough to visit it in 2017, it’s good to see the place is flourishing. Unshowy refurbishment – it even has a little bar – has brought out its splendour even more while maintaining its charm, but there are still the odd cobwebs on high and shady corners to give shock and awe. On a cold autumnal morning the programme opened with Funny Business, a trio of two-reeler comedies all accompanied by the peerless Neil Brand.

The first, There It Is, was a real eye-opener. I hadn’t heard of Charley Bowers before, but here he was, acting and directing with a proto-Pythonesque feel that didn’t just employ visual slapstick and special effects, but an absurdist humour reminiscent not just of Gilliam but of Spike Milligan and Ivor Cutler.

 A living, feathery chicken grows out of a broken egg in a bourgeois American kitchen, closely followed by dancing trousers and the manifestation of a dotty professor straight out of The Beano who darts around where you least expect him, knocking folk on the head and disappearing into furniture and fireplaces… ‘Cable Scotland Yard’, cry the householders. And immediately we see a small Yard – in wildest Scotland – manned by eager kilted chaps, one of whom is seconded to go and solve the mystery. It’s Charley himself, a whey-faced youth somewhat reminiscent of Buster Keaton with girly legs emerging from beneath his extremely short kilt, and, pausing only to pick up his assistant, a tiny Morph-like insect who fits into a matchbox, he’s off across the Atlantic. What follows is extremely accomplished, top-speed animation imposed into live action,  and an ever-surprising originality. It all resolves in a silly, happy way. But – Wow!

Second on the Funny Business bill is Mighty Like a Moose, maybe a bit of a come-down after the stimulating mayhem that went before, but it grows on you. It all hinges on the absurd premise that a married couple don’t recognise each other after each has had cosmetic surgery. Charley Chase, its director and star, began as a comedian in vaudeville, and the film’s humour depends less on its slapstick routines than his persona of a vain but likeable loser husband,  Mr Moose, whose huge teeth cause humour in the street as he passes. Mrs Moose (Vivien Oakland, a former Zeigfield Girl) has a huge nose. Both decide simultaneously to have plastic surgery, and afterwards meet and, not recognising each other, commence on an affair, which they proceed to try to hide from each other. Yes, it gets complicated. Chase, a prolific film actor who worked for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, including a role in Sons of the Desert, never really hit the big time, but went on to direct too, including early Three Stooges films.

The last of the comedy trio was an early Laurel and Hardy, From Soup to Nuts. Young and silent (as we so we seldom see them), they play the familiar role of incompetent waiters – they were waiters, after all,  before they progressed to undergraduate status in Chumps at Oxford. It’s fairly run of the mill stuff, but no one can fall face forward into a huge cream cake three times and still make it funny quite like Ollie. Uncontrollable laughter from children behind, magnified in the vasty hall of Abbeydale Picture House, felt like the benevolent ghosts of all the people who’ve forgotten their troubles here over the 101 years since this place was opened (by the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, no less).

Out for a brief interlude before the main feature and over the road to the splendid Greek Village restaurant found us feasting on wraps of tzatziki and robust Greek sausage washed down with a glass of ayran, and we’re off, well-sustained,  back to the early afternoon session.

Back to God’s Country is a remarkable Canadian film from 1919, starring and adapted by the redoubtable Nell Shipman. Writer, screenwriter, actor, director, producer and animal rights activist, and with a turbulent personal life, she was already writing and acting in films in her early twenties, and was one of the first directors to film almost exclusively on location. She plays Dolores, a nature-loving, innocent girl living with her father in a remote cabin in the mountains.  Nell kept a zoo of animals, which she featured in her films, particularly this one, where a tame and apparently happy bear and other forest creatures frolic with her. She has a vivacious modern look, and  her ‘stunts’ were genuine, we even have a nude scene (chastely filmed from the back). When upright scientist Peter (Wheeler Oakman), passes through and lodges with them, they fall in love, but the is idyll is broken with the arrival of escaped convict Captain Rydal.

Villains on the run in silent movies are generally boo-ably evil, but Wellington R Playter (originally from Rawmarsh, Yorkshire, as it happens) really has the rapacious eyes and the flaring nostrils for the job, a touch of the Lee Marvins  about him, and the threat he presents is genuinely chilling. He’s no match for toughie Dolores though, and she finds happiness with her Peter, until… the later section of the film involves some amazing scenes as goodies flee from baddies, pounding on sledges  across the snowbound wastes,  Nell herself as Dolores gamely helping propel the sledge along to save the injured Peter. What the conditions of filming were, in so obviously remote and weather-swept terrain within the Arctic Circle, is beyond belief. It was the most successful silent Canadian film ever.

The Festival has a last hurrah this year when it presents the Douglas Fairbanks version of Robin Hood on December 9 at Hull Truck Theatre. What a winter treat!

For 2017 review click here

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The Green Sea

Directed by Randal Plunkett

The beginning of this film, with the figure of a young girl drifting in a monochrome countryside through trees beside a long pool, all menace and sorrowfulness, put me immediately in mind of the opening moments of Don’t Look Now. Intentional? Whatever, it immediately set a mood of terrified melancholy and loss which hung around throughout, coming very much into focus far later when I had almost forgotten about it.

 Diivided into chapters like a book, the story comes slowly and piecemeal. We begin by meeting  protagonist Simone (Katharine Isabelle), a dislikeable, graceless, foul-mouthed drunk, off shopping for more vodka. Her car is falling to pieces, her house is scruffy and chaotic, contents half packed up, half spewed around the once elegant rooms. Gradually we discover more about her. That she was formerly a successful transatlantic rock musician known as Sim Chaos. That she is writing a book – her second, as it later turns out – but struggling badly with writer’s block and with considerable demons that are hinted at in dreams or memories.  Images of vicious arguments, bloodied hands, anguish, intermingle with softly lit excerpts of the book as she struggles to write it, where ill-intentioned men hunt an old factory for a girl. Something terrible has once happened to Simone, but whatever our suspicions we must wait a while to see quite what.

Soon into her life comes the enigmatic young woman (Hazel Doupe), seen earlier, whom she knocks down when returning at night from another drunken foray. Getting her home, she patches up her injuries and reluctantly allows her to stay for a while. What to make of this girl? At first she seems a possible alien, gingerly testing Simone’s proffered instant noodles (who can blame her?) and coffee, as if for the first time, and her wounds healing unnaturally swiftly. Yet she too is suffering dreams, where a group of young people stand immobile on sand dunes looking out to sea, and a sinister man with lined face and dark glasses fixes his eyes on her. But soon she becomes a normalizing presence, tidying and cleaning, acting like a sister to Simone, and taming the chaotic home. And as Simone warms to the girl, so we warm to Simone.

The two central performances are stunning. Katharine Isabelle excels as the troubled Simone, whether hiding or letting rip her emotions and vulnerabilities. But it’s Hazel Doupe as the girl who really impresses, that face made for the screen, so often impassive but flickering with the tiniest indications of thoughts and feelings, and, when it comes, one of the most warming smiles I’ve seen for a long time.  Uncertainty as to the genre we’re in here, supernatural, horror, thriller, psychodrama, adds to the feeling of trepidation engendered by the slow-moving exposition, which is perfectly judged so as never to quite lose or puzzle us too much. Is the girl there at all (does anyone else ever see her?).  Is she an alien wanderer, a  ghost, a spirit, a healing angel? Is Simone a murderer? What is the meaning of the dream on the dunes?

Randal Plunkett has taken many staples of standard film themes – the need for mothering, and to mother, disintegrating rock star, enigmatic beings, unopened boxes, mysterious chaps with dark glasses, and made something new out of them. Meditations on loss, renewal, even the creative process,  interconnect.

It’s a weakness of mine to always feel ever so slightly let down when a resolution comes, and I did have my usual teeter towards this at times towards the end, but the two performances, a strong script, and perhaps most of all Philipp Morozov’s disquieting, enthralling cinematography, make this a film to linger in the imagination.

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Cinema Made in Italy 2021 Part 3: Una Promessa (Spaccapietre)

Directed by Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio

Salvatore Esposito makes an effective leap from the hateful and ruthless Gennaro of Sky’s Gomorrah to tender, powerless father in this striking feature film from the De Serio brothers. The twins have been making documentaries for many years, mostly centring on the poor, dispossessed, uprooted people of Southern Italy. Their new film, inspired by events in their own family’s past, and the recent story of the death of a woman in the fields of Puglia, sees this documentary realism developing into what reaches in its finale a tragedy of almost operatic proportions.

Esposito plays Giuseppe, father of a small boy Anto (Samuele Carrino), whose wife has been singlehandedly supporting the family by working long hours as cheap labour in the fields beyond the town, after Giuseppe lost his job as quarryman. A work accident there cost him an eye. Their modest, precariously happy life, full of love, comes to a thudding halt when she dies, overworked,  in the fields, and Giuseppe, apparently receiving no help from the state,  is forced to take on the work  himself, taking his little son along to live in the plastic shanty town that houses the poorest of the workers. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to those immigrants who make it in their leaky boats over the Mediterranean, well, here lots of them are. The brothers filmed in such a place, with many migrant workers as extras, as we are plunged into the dusty hard labour of low paid fruit and vegetable growing for the mere basics of life. Think of this next time you open a tin of Italian tomatoes.  

But it’s more than an almost unbearable look at a side of life in Europe today that we’d rather not think about. The farm owner is not merely a cruel master, employing heavies to keep control when tempers and despair among the workers boil over (the dead are shuffled away into unmarked holes in the ground), he’s a voyeur sadist who uses his workers as entertainment. Yet, collecting artifacts dug up from his farm in his ‘chapel’, and with his house full of costly artefacts and good taste, he’s a cultivated man. So much for western civilisation.

A bruising finale that is almost impossible, emotionally, to watch, sees a kind of resolution for Giuseppe, and an end, one way or another, to his nightmare. The original Italian title, Spaccapietre  (Stonebreaker) has for some reason become for international audiences Una Promessa (a promise), homing in on the promise Giuseppe makes to his son that he will see his mother again. We know it’s impossible. But the final moments of the film attempt to make it happen in a metaphysical way, which rather than providing comfort makes the darkness of the film and its bleak truth-telling hang more unshakeably on.

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Cinema Made in Italy 2021 Part 2: The Ties (Lacci); Thou Shalt Not Hate(Non odiare)

Two films in this selection could stand as powerful testimony to Larkin’s famous line ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad…’ Daniele Luchetti has made family tensions his speciality – My Brother is an Only Child; Those Happy Years; Our Life –  all in their different ways showing that domestic happiness doesn’t come easy, and home may not always be the best place to be.  In The Ties (Lacci) we at first seem to be in  the bosom of a perfect middle class family – handsome parents Aldo (Luigi lo Cascio) and Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher), small son and daughter, a trip to the carnival in fancy dress, a mellow walk home through evening streets, Dad’s bedtime story – but after a loaded spat in the kitchen,  we’re immediately plunged  into a positive feast of recrimination and damage, when Aldo, who works all week in Rome as a TV presenter to return home each weekend, confesses he’s having an affair with a colleague. You wouldn’t want to be married to either of them, and in the fight and reactions that follow our sympathy may sashay between the pair, but it’s mainly the kids we feel for.  The film drifts from present to past and back as we witness these two – he passive and full of weakness, she flamboyantly vindictive and self-pitying – at various stages of the relationship, the beginning, separating and coming together again. Alba Rohrwacher in particular makes the melodrama of Vanda a genuine passion, still real and painful in all its nastiness, and so beautiful throughout, for all her frowsy hair and grim expressions.   It culminates in the couple in more mellow old age, together, as we always expected, but still bickering, he still susceptible to young female charms, she pouncing as sharply as ever on his weaknesses. But the surprising conclusion brings into play something more raw, more physical than the elegiac ending we might be expecting, as we see things from another angle and the pair get a belated comeuppance.

Mauro Mancini’s Non odiare (Thou Shalt Not Hate) is a far more sombre, more painful portrait of damaged people. We meet Samuele first as a child in what seems an idyllic riverside setting, being forced to do something outlandishly cruel for a child, by his rational, unyielding father – ‘We all have to make decisions sometimes we don’t want to make’.  Next he’s a middle-aged man (Alessandro Gassman), rowing down that same river, when he hears the sound of a car crash on the road alongside. He finds a man severely injured and begins emergency assistance (he’s a doctor), but spots fascist tattoos on the man’s body, and freezes. Samuele is Jewish. He stops the treatment, and by the time help arrives, the man is dead.

Hereafter his life is governed by his guilt. He learns that the man, a prominent Fascist, left three children, of whom we soon learn that the teenage son is an ardent fascist too. Full of guilt, Samuele tries to help by employing the daughter, who’s left a good job in another city to look after her younger siblings, as a cleaner.

We also have a glimpse into Samuele’s relationship with his now dead father, whom he ceased contact with years ago and seems to have become some kind of fierce recluse, himself nursing guilt about his own deeds in the past. But  involvement in this family’s life, becoming close to the daughter, brings the enmity of the teenager, and their increasing money problems cause a situation where Samuele is able to make amends for his guilt at their father’s death. If the resolution is beginning to seem reassuring and maybe even too pat, a final scene at the father’s grave shocks us into seeing that a parent’s influence is never done, and the cycle may begin again. Shot in a gloomy palette of mostly indoor and night-time scenes, where faces are rarely happy and even the impressive countryside is a cold, shaded, place, it’s an admirably austere and thoughtful take on the burden of upbringing.

 Alessandro Gassman won a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival last year for his intense portrayal of Samuele.

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Cinema Made in Italy 2021 Part 1: Padrenostro (Our Father)

Directed by Claudio Noce

In Italy from the late 60s to the 80s, a time referred to  as the ‘Years of Lead’, extremist groups from both Right and Left carried out attacks on communities and public figures. One of the victims was the father of director Claudio Noce. Noce was in fact only a toddler at the time, but to portray a child’s trauma from those years he uses as his proxy the figure of Valerio (Mattia Garaci), a sensitive 10- year-old, with the ethereal looks of a self-doubting Tadzio. Valerio’s father Alfonso (Pierfrancesco Favino) is a kindly paterfamilias with an Important Job, the kind who, though loving, arrives late from work each night and is always going to take his son to the football next week. When early on Valerio picks up a camera his uncle has and unsteadily films the family, it’s a touching nod to his current intent, a portrait of his family and above all his beloved father.

But one night Valerio wakes to the sound of gunfire and from his apartment window witnesses an attempt on his father’s life –  mayhem , a dying man, pools of blood, and his father being hurriedly carried away. We don’t understand  much more than he does at this point – it’s not even clear at the outset whether Alfonso is  a member of the establishment or of the mafia, and it only when we watch the TV news along with Valerio that we learn he is in fact a high ranking policeman, and has been badly, though not fatally, wounded.  The terror for Valerio is doubled by the fact that, as was the way of those days, nothing is explained to him. Papa eventually comes home, recovered, but life has no security for Valerio, already a nervy boy who has an imaginary friend in the attic.

So when Christian (Francesco Gheghi), a floppy-haired  ragamuffin of a lad resembling a quattrocento angel, appears outside his apartment block garden wanting to join Valerio at football, and then leads him on a thrilling run around the city ( including pinching an offertory box from a church), we really don’t know if he’s real or not, but things are lightening up for Valerio. The tensions of the family lead Alfonso to decide to take an extended trip to Calabria where his family live and Valerio becomes more relaxed by the sea making little unaccompanied outings on his bike (shades of Non ho paura). Though there’s still the derelict house on the way to keep the tension up.  We’re already feeling nervous at these apparently foolhardy, unprotected activities, considering Alfonso is a target, and things move further into unreality when who should turn up but Christian , without explanation why or how. So, he’s imaginary? Well, no, because the family meet him too, and without question he’s accepted as ‘a friend’ (did Valerio seem the type of boy to have friends unknow to his family?).  So does he have sinister ulterior motives? More dreamlike things happen  – when it looks as if Alfonso is expecting to be ambushed he stops the car and wanders off into a beautiful wood that brings scarily to mind the assassination site in The Conformist. But it’s just a path to join a family  party on the beach.

Anyone looking for a political take on the events and the period will be disappointed, but Noce clearly has no intention of that, and to appreciate the film – as I did, to quite an extent, despite my rational side whispering and occasionally squawking in disbelief – one needs to be satisfied with going with the flow, and it is a beautiful flow, of being inside the fears and unsteady happinesses of a damaged child’s mind.

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Cinema Made in Italy is back!

Last year Cinema Made in Italy, a feature of London cinematic life that I tried not to miss every year, reached its conclusion in early March just at the time when the capital’s pzazz was dissolving into a soup of anxiety about the Corona virus, the subject of every overheard conversation, and lockdown was a cloud on the horizon about to take real shape two weeks later. Tube journeys already felt fraught, and the sweaty, fidgety man with the cough who jumped on at Notting Hill Gate brought an instant melodramatic flashback of  Visconti’s cholera-wracked man at Venice railway station in Death in Venice. But this year – glory be! – it’s with us again, virtual this time, available on Mubi from last weekend until April 29. What’s more you can watch it for free on a trial subscription. Perhaps we really are getting back to normality.

Ones to look out for include The Ties  (Lacci), by Daniele Luchetti, Italy’s chronicler of family drama, which opened the 2020 Venice Film Festival, a decades-long look at the slow unpicking and realigning within a middle class Neapolitan family, starring the splendid Alba Rohrwacher. More from Venice, also with a focus on family, are the comedy The Predators (I predatori), by Pietro Castellitto; Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serie’s stark Una promessa (Spaccapietre), set in the world of illegal farm workers; and in the Critics Week selection Mauro Mancini’s Thou Shalt Not Hate (Non odiare), for which Alessandro Gassmann won the Francesco Pasinetti Prize for Best Actor. Also at Venice, Claudio Noce’s Our Father (Padrenostro), shows a teenager comes to terms with the attempted killing of his father,  which draws on the director’s own experiences, while in contrast Life as a B Movie is a jokey look at real life Eurotrash maestro Pietro Vivarelli, directed by Vivarelli himself and Fabrizio Laurenti.  One definitely not to miss is Giorgio Diritti’s Hidden Away (Volevo nascondermi), the story of naïve artist Antonio Ligabue, whose life is as arresting as his art. Elio Germano’s portrayal of Ligabue won him a Silver Bear at the Berlinale.

Promising first time director Nicolangelo Gelormini’s  Fortuna is an unnerving horror film seen through child’s eyes, and there’s more family drama in Everything’s Gonna Be Alright (Cosa sara) by Francesco Bruni, where the search for a stem cell transplant stirs many emotions and leads to a formerly lost family member.

The real value of Cinema Made in Italy in the past has been that most of the films shown are not likely to be available in UK cinemas. Now, though  regular attenders may miss the cool interior and international audiences of its customary home, Cine Lumiere at the French Institute, they’re here for everyone, anywhere in the UK.  Don’t miss the opportunity!

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Happy Birthday Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart

Happy Birthday Jeff! Here’s a review from 2010 of the film that brought him his first, long-deserved Oscar .

Crazy Heart

Directed by Scott Cooper

Is Jeff Bridges the best actor in Hollywood? The apparent ease with which he inhabits the bones of every role he plays has earned him, at last, an Oscar, and it’s about time. After 4 nominations over nearly 40 years (for the Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Starman, and The Contender) it’s finally come, for this entertaining, gently moving film, transmuted by his performance from what on paper looks a pretty average tale, of a self-destructive man finding redemption in the love of a good woman, with country music as a sound track. 

He plays, or rather is, Bad Blake (‘call me Bad’), ageing, amiable, rootless country musician, drunk, serially divorced, absent father, and writer of sorrowful songs. We meet Bad, now coming to the end of the line, performing on the edge of things, in bowling halls and small bars in dusty towns across the country, where his name still means a lot to some of the old faithful. His days are spent in dingy motel rooms, half-heartedly watching porn movies, eating fast food and drinking. A horrible parody, you might say, of the carefree slacker life of The Dude, and with echoes , though it is nowhere near so great a film, of last year’s The Wrestler.

He’s so seldom more than an arm’s length away from  a glass of bourbon (except when the money runs out) that one’s liver shudders at the sight of all that brown liquid disappearing inside him. Yet he’s still, for the most part, a gentleman, courteous, amiable and with a sense of humour at his own failings. And great with kids, when he strikes up an unlikely relationship with the ‘good woman’, Maggie Gyllenhaal, bright single mother journalist.  But in the shape these movies always take, his happiness isn’t so easy to nail down. Great, unflashy performances from all around him – Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell as his once young disciple, now a star who eclipses his mentor but still has time and respect for him, and a lovely cameo from Robert Duvall (looking, thank goodness, a deal better than when last seen in The Road) as an old buddy. The surprise is, or maybe not, what a great performer Bridges is, and what poetry he makes out of those so nearly sentimental songs. 

The best songs, says Bad, are those you feel like you’ve heard before, and maybe that’s part of his secret: always with a Bridges character you feel like you recognise as familiar something inside him, a common humanity, a lust for life. Here’s to you, Dude!

Seen at Empire Cinema Newcastle, March 9 2010, originally reviewed in floatationsuite.com

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Mariam

Directed by Sharipa Urazbayeva

Mariam lives on a tiny farm on the Kazakh steppe, many miles away from a town, some distance down a path from a dirt road. There are few rooms, little heating, and the only electricity, sufficient for a couple of hours a day, comes from a rudimentary solar generator. When her husband rides off and doesn’t return, she’s left with only her young son to help with the farm business, looking after cattle for the landowner. When a smaller girl and a baby emerge from the bedroom and we learn there is also an older brother in boarding school in the town, we realise the enormity of her situation, especially when the landowners take away their cattle, her only source of income.

This stunning debut feature from young Kazakh director Urazbayeva is all the more impressive when you know the background. Meruert Sabbusinova, who plays Mariam, inspired the whole thing after Urazbayeva came across her during the making of a TV documentary, and the basis of the plot is her own predicament when her husband disappeared and she was left without help to rear her children alone. Urazbayeva made the film with her own money, using non-professional actors.

For Mariam a trip to the police station in town brings the shattering news that she is not entitled to any help unless her husband is proved to be dead. Officialdom is not unfriendly but the already evident patriarchal nature of Kazakh society makes an ugly appearance in the policeman’s jokey supposition that her husband’s left her for another woman.

Sabbusinova’s situation, shockingly displayed like the documentary it actually is, is then developed into a plot which throws up moral dilemmas when an old school friend attempts to help, and Mariam, cheating the rotten system, gains something of a life for herself. For the first time we see her smile, and confidence and signs of a rather more liberated lifestyle follow. But the husband returns…

Shot in realist documentary fashion, we feel every physical effort of mother and son – even the sheep-killing scene is real (the meat subsequently providing a meal for the film cast and crew). The wind blows comfortlessly over the grassland, the cold is palpable, and there are many moments of sheer poetry, bleak though it is, by superb cinematographer Samat Sharipov. Opening shots smack you in the face with wind-lashed yellow grass across a monochrome landscape and the disturbing sound of Mariam’s despairing cries for her husband. And in the final shot the whiteness of snowflakes has joined the palette. It’s winter, even more bleak than before.

Mariam was among a week-long series of films streamed free in late October by The Calvert 22 Foundation, which via the online Calvert Journal showcases contemporary culture in the ‘New East’, the area of Eastern Europe, Balkans and Central Asia.

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Saint Maud

Directed by Rose Glass

The absence of a functioning Arts Cinema in my vicinity has meant that I hadn’t managed to get to a live screening of a film I actually wanted to see until a few days before Lockdown No.2 began. And this highly impressive, unnerving debut was as fitting as I could have hoped. If ever the engulfment in the action and moods of a film added another dimension, it does here, maybe enhanced by the new unfamiliarity of going out to a cinema. An adventure in itself after so long. The luscious dark, the unaccustomed quiet, the smells… And overriding the usual aroma of popcorn were the whiffs of cleaning materials and a curiously strong hand cleanser which immediately brought a potent nasal flashback to the homemade poteen which I once enthusiastically necked in Hull over 40 years ago, in a flat not far from Larkin’s High Windows. Senses well-primed, I entered Screen 7 of The Empire, Sunderland…

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative care nurse, whose latest patient is famous avant garde American choreographer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) now immobilised and dying in the kind of large, dimly lit and mysterious old house we know well from the horror genre. Maud is revealed as a troubling mixture of modern efficiency and old-fashioned piety, decking her cheap bedsit with all manner of religious items and holding conversations with her god as if he’s a valued and admired friend.

Maud is in fact not her real name, as we learn when she runs into an acquaintance from her former life, where she was Kate, to whom, we gather via murky flashbacks, something VERY BAD happened at her previous job in a care home. We never find out what exactly, or even whether she was responsible or just a horrified witness. She’s adopted the new name, presumably after the Saint (aka Mathilda), a C10th queen of Germany known for her work among the poor and sick.  It gradually becomes clear that the ecstatic St Teresa would have been a more appropriate choice, considering the increasingly queasy and quasi orgasmic effects of her joy in God. We’re inside her perceptions, as she seems to undergo many of the reputed experiences of the holy – the levitating, the visions, the ecstasy.

Her approach to Amanda is at first kindly-professional but increasingly more intimately friendly, as she begins to share her belief and her delight in her god’s manifestations with her. Amanda is sympathetic, and rather fascinated.  But the relationship unravels when a load of bohemian friends arrive at Amanda’s house, including her lover, who is not just female, but black, and scornful of Maud and her attachment to Amanda. This prompts Maud’s embittered fervour to go into overdrive, turning to increasingly manic self-damaging ‘saint-like’ actions, mortifications of the flesh, which again, like the more joyful manifestations, we are sufficiently in Maud’s sensibilities to shudder at. This all culminates in a more shocking conversation with a god who this time responds, in an extremely creepy and malignly slo-mo version of … Welsh? Culminating in horror.

Scarborough is an uncannily good backdrop to all this. It’s terrifically photogenic, as seen in last year’s SCARBOROUGH by Barnaby Southcombe. Cheek by jowl with the bright, loud sleaziness of its amusement-arcaded front, the  grubby alleyways and seamy pubs, is the pureness of its wide beaches and views over the sea, and on that nicer side of the bay that still harks back to the resort’s days of being a superior holiday and retirement area for the wealthier of Yorkshire’s people, the mystery and subliminal threat of the path up among shadowy trees that Maud takes to Amanda’s creepy, ill-lit old house.  

While rife with tropes of the horror genre, this film has many other things going on. The complex relations between nurse and nursed is opened up – the  interface between emotionally detached intimate physical caring and intimacy of a deeper kind, which is one of the triggers to Maud’s cracking up;  sensual desire and a religion which purportedly frowns on it; loneliness – Maud’s grimy bedsit is one of the most depressing I’ve seen for a while, and her foray back into the world of ‘Kate’, when in charmless pubs she attempts to latch on to other’s friendships, is desperate. Intimacy of all kinds is under the microscope here, and friendship’s limits – Maud’s fervour is fascinating to Amanda, who on one level seems to be taken up by it, but as soon as the cosmopolitan pals arrive and she’s back in her real world again we see it for what it was – nothing but fascination and curiosity in another kind of life. The nurse, close to her employer as she may need to be, is still ultimately an under-stairs character, like the governess in Victorian fiction. To Amanda’s friends, Maud is a nobody. No wonder her damaged psyche seeks out a god.

Seen at Empire Cinema, Sunderland, October 28 2020

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The Levelling

Directed by Hope Dickson Leach

In her very impressive feature debut Hope Dickson Leach uses the background of the devastating floods which hit the fertile pastoral area known as the Somerset Levels 3 years ago, to weave a story of unease that leaves a feeling as cold and claggy as the mud which is a constant feature.

After a beginning that contains just about the only brightness and warmth in the film – menacing too, though, the manic dancing to the flickering light of a bonfire – the screen is perpetually suffused with the dull light of an early winter afternoon or extreme darkness in a house that has no feeling of home.  We see Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returning to her family farm, feeling no relish to make contact with her estranged father Aubrey (David Troughton, a world away from his kindly BBC radio farmer Tony Archer – or is he?) for the funeral of her brother Harry who has killed himself.

Aubrey is living in a chaotic caravan in the farmyard, the house having been devastated by the floods and still uninhabitable. Despite his cheery fatherly greeting (‘You came!’), it’s soon obvious that the strife between them, from which Clover has escaped to train as a vet, is still very much alive. Her wellies stand ready by the door for her to immediately help with the cows, and sure enough she’s sucked, helplessly, into her old life just as the boots are into the ubiquitous mud.

Over all this hangs the mystery of Harry’s death. Suicide or accident? Aubrey is in denial about what all the signs point to, and shows a fierce grief that is in the most part anger at his son, a heady brew when combined with his continued resentment at his daughter’s disloyalty in choosing not to stay and eventually take over responsibility for the family farm, and his unacknowledged realisation that it cannot in any case survive.

Despite Aubrey’s posh tones, this is not a pretty, prosperous farm, but one of dampness, leaks,  cowshit, and tumbledown buildings, chipped formica and stained concrete, in a palette of grey, dull greens and browns. Like God’s Own Country, it portrays an undesirable, unspectacular livelihood, under the control of an old order that is damaged and hopeless, contaminating  its offspring unless they can find liberation outside. This is the reality of early twenty-first century England. It also put me in mind of Radiator (2015), where a similarly damaged patriarch  (the last screen performance of Richard Johnson) in similarly unkempt surroundings,  holds sway over his brow-beaten wife. Clover has tried to physically escape, as in a way did her brother, but we suspect she will never be able to emotionally get out from under the deadweight of  unsympathetic family obligation that this farm represents.

Seen on BBC iPlayer