Toni Erdmann

Directed by Maren Ade

Maybe it’s because we’re so amazed at the prospect of Germans being funny, or just at the fact that a funny film is being taken seriously for once, that it’s primarily as a comedy that Toni Erdmann is being lauded. Well, it does have many funny moments, laugh-out-loud farcical, in fact, but great though it is to be allowed to laugh at an arthouse film for once (when was a comedy last so highly regarded?), it’s the underlying themes of this intriguing piece that make it so remarkable. And, to be honest, the jokes are often too protracted.

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a man who loves a practical joke. He has the props – a dodgy wig and big false teeth, with which he even tries to prank the poor postman. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is an ambitious high-flying businesswoman whom he’s losing connection with. You sense already he’s lonely, and when his old dog dies he sets off to spend time with her and try to revive their relationship. Arriving in Bucharest where she is working, it soon becomes clear that there’s an emptiness between them, and she’s not sorry to see the back of him. But not to be put off he embarks upon a long-term strategy to win her interest and unfreeze her serious pursuit of success, by suddenly popping up back in her life decked out in his crass props as ‘Toni Erdmann’, unconventional eccentric life coach. He looks seedy and behaves in an uninhibited and often vulgar fashion, but her polite friends and colleagues, not knowing who he is, accept him as a mad but harmless eccentric. Ines is furious (wouldn’t you be?) but gradually allows him to tag along. In fact she begins to reveal that she is not without eccentricities herself – maybe she’s learning from him that people’s social facades are so potent that you can make them take anything as normal.

Some nasty business with a petit four is disturbing and an accidentally naked birthday party hilarious, but from all this emerges a more sombre tale. If Winfried with his shabby crammed house is the old Europe, Ines is the new, a world of plain, blank hotels and meeting rooms among people who have little real affection for each other. She is bloodlessly pale and slim, pared down, he is florid and large, expansive. Her job disregards national boundaries, streamlining business for profit, with all the resulting human casualties merely incidental . There’s a telling moment when Ines looks down from her smart modern flat to a messy yard in the next street where everything is grubby and desultory. Later ‘Toni’ joins Ines on a trip to a small oilfield, the grimy actuality of the data Ines deals with. Here we have a glimpse of the lives of the ordinary workers whose livelihoods Ines and her colleagues control, and see how their behaviour is gracious and kindly, as is that of the middle class Easter party they later crash. With both these groups Winfried needs no fancy label but is treated as a fellow human being.

In a masterful climax, the most knockabout and funniest and then the most moving sequence, Winfried takes on a final disguise, as if his wig has taken him over completely (incidentally, it’s a prop from old, old Europe), and Ines’s defences are at last conquered. But for me the reconciliation people have found at the end doesn’t take place. In a coda at a family funeral, they have come to terms with one another, but Ines is off again further afield in the rampant advance of globalisation, while he remains in a house of old memories looking out onto an unfathomable forest.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, February 2017

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Moonlight

Directed by Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is a light of subtlety, of beauty, of the partly understood, secret and the half-hidden. Contrast it with the brazen sunlight of an impoverished and drug-ridden suburb of Miami, and you have the heart of this film. Chiron, played as a young boy by Alex Hibbert, is a solitary, diffident child, and for good reason. We soon find out that his single mother (a terrifying Naomie Harris), is a junkie, unstable, un-motherly, physically and emotionally demanding. Most of his life is played out against the harsh glare and hard edges of his neighbourhood, with his mother’s lack of care and violent outbursts, and school, where machismo rules and his gentleness leads him to be labelled ‘gay’. When he hides from bullies he’s discovered by local dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes him home to his wife, and their house becomes an escape haven for Chiron.

Over time Juan becomes a father figure, giving him self-confidence and among other things teaching him how to swim. Blue suffuses the screen as Chiron learns to trust in someone, and the sea and the beach with its softened light becomes the centre of sweetness for the boy, a passing-on of the side of masculinity not represented elsewhere in Chiron’s environment. But, because nothing is straightforward, in this film as in life, Juan is also Chiron’s mother’s drug supplier. Welcome to the world of complexity and flawed humanity.

We next meet Chiron as a skinny teenager (Ashton Sanders), still a target of the bullies in an increasingly macho culture, his life and dreams merging together in an almost unbearable cacophony of ugliness. His friendship with easy-going Kevin develops into love, but almost immediately the hard rules of tough street life take all that away in an act of betrayal. Chiron’s third appearance is as an almost unrecognisable, taciturn, bulked-up young man (Trevante Rhodes), a new version of his father substitute in that he himself is now a dealer. But his relationship with Kevin is about to resurface. The final scenes are magic, low key, conveying the sad awkwardness of love and desire with the slightest of looks and movements, culminating in a scene of enormous tenderness .

While it’s well-known that this film is primarily, and importantly, about the difficulties of being gay in the macho working class black communities of America, it is about so much more too – trust, loyalty, betrayal, ambiguity, and how all individuals have many different aspects inside them, and change and yet do not, the young Chiron still evident in a slight inclination of the head, as well as his inner vulnerability. It’s a film of great grace, universal as well as specific to its time and place.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, February 2017

Cinema Made in Italy 2017 – Preview

UK cinemagoers get a chance to see the newest Italian productions when the 7th edition of Cinema Made in Italy returns to Ciné Lumière in South Kensington from 1–5 March with nine new films, all with Q&A sessions with the film makers, along with a 50th anniversary re-issue of the classic The Battle of Algiers. The five-day annual event is organised by Istituto Luce Cinecittà, in collaboration with Ciné Lumière and with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

Pick of the crop is The Confessions (Le confessioni), by Roberto Andò, starring the peerless Toni Servillo and Daniel Auteuil, boldly set at a G8 summit in a German hotel, where the presence of three observers, invited by the head of the IMF (Auteuil): a rock musician, a children’s author and enigmatic monk (Servillo), disturb the complacency of the participants, and a mysterious death brings a further whodunit aspect to what is at heart a philosophical questioning of the nature of power.

A personal must for me will be In Guerra per amore (At War for Love), directed by Pierfrancesco Diliberto, aka PIF, a satirical writer and film maker whose The Mafia Kills Only in Summer was a highlight here 2 years ago, and went on to an enthusiastic if limited distribution in the UK. Billed as a love story set in Sicily in the Second World War, with the Mafia as an ingredient and with such a director it cannot fail to have a degree of dark humour and ambiguity.

Opening the festival is 7 Minutes, directed by Michele Placido, an unusual take on female power, as we see into the lives of the 11 female members of a factory council as they make a vital decision about whether to sell out to a multinational. In Alessandro Aronadio’s Ears (Orecchie) a man wakes up one morning to find a ringing in his ears and a note on the fridge about the death of a ‘friend’ he has no recollection of. There follows a surreal day of half-comic half-disturbing activity across Rome, reflecting on the mad folly of life. Pericle il Nero is an American-noir style film where Pericles (Riccardo Scamarcio), an underworld enforcer, runs for his life when he finds himself the target of two powerful gangland bosses. Slam (Tutto per una ragazza) by Andrea Molaioli, is an adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel about a skateboarding teenager (Ludovico Tersigni) whose happy expectations of life do not go entirely to plan. Pawn Streets (Le ultime cose), by Irene Dionisio, hitherto a documentary filmmaker, looks at the stream of folk washed up by the harsh economic tide as they visit a pawn shop in Turin, as the stories of 3 individuals begin to intertwine.

The final day brings Vangelo, a documentary by theatre director Pippo Delbono made in a refugee centre, where slowly but surely, the refugees open up and tell their stories. In the relationship that emerges Pippo decides to create with them a Gospel stage production. And finally in I was a dreamer (Il più grande sogno) by Michele Vannucci, Mirko returns from prison hoping to make a fresh start with his family. A lively and sometimes hard-hitting story of the regaining of personal identity, the film was nominated for the Orizzonte Award in Venice last year.

And into the mix goes Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers,(La bataille d’Alger) a sensation when it arrived on screens in 1966 and a permanent presence on critics’ best film lists. An explosive, highly realistic, reconstruction of the fighting during the Algerian war in the late 50s, seen mainly from the point of view of the Algerian insurgents, while, as protested by the director, maintaining an unbiased approach, it sparked controversy and was the recipient of many awards. It’s a great opportunity to re-visit this film on its 50th anniversary.

For details see Cinema made in Italy

 

Loving

Directed by Jeff Nichols

Loving couldn’t be a more appropriate title. Not only is it the name of the couple whose story this film tells, and the emotion which is its subject, it also describes the way the film is made. It’s a very loving film, full of unsentimental feeling for the joy and preciousness of ordinary human life.

When Richard and Mildred, she pregnant with his child, decide to marry, it is unremarked in their circle that she is black, he is white, but miscegenation laws in their home state of Virginia in 1967 mean they must travel to Washington DC for the marriage to take place. Returning to their home, they are soon raided by the police – seems the miscegenation laws don’t just mean no marriage being allowed to take place, but no recognition of an existing lawful marriage either – callously thrown into cells (she’s heavily pregnant) and, treated as if their love is not just illegal but disgusting. The law prevails, and they’re given the ultimatum of living separately or leaving the state that is their home. Moving to live in urban Washington, their bright joie de vivre is dimmed. They’re country folk, and want their children to live with the freedom to roam that they had, among their own extended families. Ruth Negga (an Oscar must, surely?) is amazing- she can do the glow of happiness like no other actress I can think of, which makes her downbeat sadness more unbearable. Of the two she’s the active one, writing at last to Robert Kennedy for advice on how they can get their lives back. Joel Edgerton’s slightly grumpy, undemonstrative Richard is the perfect foil, a solid guy who everyone likes , wanting nothing but to just get on with life, whose spiritual centre is always his wife.

Love alone isn’t enough but it can marshal help, in the form of civil rights lawyer Bernie Coen (Nick Kroll), no fancy-speaking city slicker but an enthusiastic rookie, nervous but determined, and exposure to the media and public gaze is another cross to be borne by the couple. There’s a lovely cameo by Jeff Nichols regular and critics’ favourite Michael Shannon, unusually chirpy and boyish, and looking a good 25 years younger than when last gracing the screen as the hawkin’ and spittin’ sheriff of Nocturnal Animals. He plays floppy-haired photographer Grey Villet, who takes an iconic picture of the pair in a moment of happy relaxation that says everything about their marriage. The original appears with the final credits and as a portrait of unselfconscious bliss it leaves a lump in your throat.

In the course of the film a normal human instinct becomes heroic, because it’s so right, and this unfussy treatment cuts right to the heart , investing a kind of magic to humdrum working life.

Seen February 2017 at Cineworld, Boldon Colliery