Archive for the ‘San Sebastian Film Festival’ Category

Playground (2021)

Die: Laura Wandel | Drama, Belgium, 62′

Bullying and the casual cruelty of children is the focus of this schoolground psychological thriller – Belgian’s Oscar hopeful in next year’s academy award.

Everyone remembers a school bully or being at the receiving end of acts of nastiness that caused emotional if not physical pain. The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” was regularly trotted out by parents attempting to rationalise the situation but offered scant comfort as the next day at school loomed with trepidation.     

Playground launches us straight into the tearful time seven year old Nora is having when her father (Karim Leklou) drops her off at the school gates. And we feel for her, and it’s a touching and impassioned and astonishingly subtle performance from Maya Vanderbegue. She will gradually toughen up during the course of Laura Wandel’s debut feature but you get the impression there is a steely, not altogether, healthy resolve behind her wilful behaviour in the finale stretch, the camera lingering at the kids’ eye level, as the adult world seems far away, irrelevant, any grown up authority unable to intervene or limit the taunts and vicious outbursts of a playground transformed into a gladiatorial arena from the scared children’s’ perspective .

Nora clings to her elder brother Abel (Günter Duret) who soon becomes an unreliable ally: he’s got his own adversaries to deal with in the schoolyard pecking order, and resents Nora’s babyish demands for sibling allegiance when he has to protect his own interests and not appear weak, or involve her by association. Seen through the naturalistic gaze of Frederic Noirhomme’s camera kids are just as complex as fully grown adults but not yet capable of guile and disingenuousness in their facial expressions, making them fascinating subjects to watch.

Eventually Abel will turn the tables on his child tormentors in this impressive first feature which explores how kids separate from the parental comfort zone and learn to fight their own battles – quite literally. MT

PLAYGROUND wins the Grand Prix in Tallinn’s Just Film | FIPRESCI prize for Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and the Sutherland Prize for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival.

 

 

 

Prayers for the Stolen (2021)

 

 

Dir/Wri: Tatiana Huezo | Cast: Ana Cristina Ordonez Gonzalez, Marya Membreno, Norma Pablo, Mayra Batalla, Eileen Yanez, Emeo Villegas Olivia Lagunas | Drama 100′

A lush and haunting tale of friendship and survival draws us into the vortex of oppression and fear felt by three girls growing up during wartime in rural Mexico. Recent figures from Amnesty suggest that around ten women and girls are killed in Mexico alone, every day.

Based on the 2014 novel by Jennifer Clement this is the latest human drama from Tatiana Huezo who has been quietly raising the profile of social and personal abuse for woman all over Latin America – from Civil War in El Salvador (in El Lugar mas pequeno in 2011) to human trafficking in Mexico (Tempestad (2016)). This is her third and most accomplished feature to date.

In a tight-knit community nestled in the Mexican mountains, we first meet eight year old Ana (Ordonez Gonzalez), digging a hole in the ground with her mother Rita (Batalla). Ana will ‘bury’ herself here when the guerrilla soldiers come to kidnap the local girls who will be turned into captives and slaves. In the bosky remote hillside violence is an everyday part of growing up for young Mexican girls. So Ana and her two friends create their own impenetrable parallel universe where they play at being women, comforting each other with an affectionate bond of friendship, singing and painting their lips with beetroot. Soon Ana’s long hair will be cut into a boyish crop to avoid detection. On lonely days she hides out in the empty houses of villagers who have long disappeared or fled, such as Juana and Don Pancho, whose abandoned flock of cows now roams free in the village.

Strong on atmosphere the film is cinematic study of what it means to grow up as a girl in a hostile environment where men are almost constantly the enemy. Ana’s father is supposedly working on the other side of the valley, but he has not sent money back for several years, and so Ana and her mother are forced to fend for themselves on the brink of poverty. One surreal scene pictures Rita desperately trying to get a mobile signal on the top of a mountain, along the other abandoned women whose ‘phones light up the darkness like mini torches glowing in the gloom.

Five years later, at thirteen, the girls become teenagers as they face the harsh reality of what being a woman really entails in this toxic climate of war and macho culture. Abstract danger becomes an inescapable threat, as a Russian roulette plays out one day when soldiers arrive to take Ana, forcing her into the dugout as her mother is threatened with death.

Some films are moving but this rich character drama is actually harrowing too, as we become emotionally invested in the girls’ story fleshed out in Huezo’s richly textured script, joining them in their descent into traumatised hell as a daily experience. The casual involuntary abuse from Ana’s mother is echoed by the disorientating fear she feels from the outside male threat. Ana – both as a child and a teenager – is impressively performed by two newcomers (Ordonez Gonzalez and Membreno), and is matched by Huezo’s assured direction and luminous camerawork by Dariela Ludlow.

IN CINEMAS FROM 8 April 2022, and exclusively on MUBI from 29 April 2022 | San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL | Latin American Prix HORIZONTES WINNER

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | UN CERTAIN REGARD SPECIAL MENTION AWARD

 

Azor (2021) San Sebastián 2021

Dir: Andreas Fontana | Cast: Fabrizio Rongione, Stephanie Cleau, Gilles Privat, Elli Medeiros, Carmen Iriondo, Pablo Torre Nilson, Ignazio Vila, Juan Trench, Juan Pablo Geretto| Argentina, Switzerland, 99′

Another sophisticated Argentine thriller along the lines of Rojo set during the ‘Dirty Wars’ and this time seen through the eyes of a Swiss banker who arrives in Buenos Aires to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his partner only to discovers intrigue and subterfuge amongst the elite.

In 1976 a military junta seized power from Eva Peron’s government resulting in the deaths of over 30,000 people. Swiss born filmmaker Andreas Fontana transports us back to these uncertain times with high society characters who feel real in their glamorous settings, manicured poolsides, lush estancias, exclusive polo parties where Fabrizio Rongione strikes just the right tone of cool circumspection and biddability in his role as the trustworthy banker with a listening ear (a million miles away from the shoddy service we’ve come to expect from our own banks).

Cleau adds allure as Ines, his chain-smoking wife and confidente, oiling the wheels of their social encounters – where smoking is ‘de rigueur’ -with her unthreatening, savvy charm. Other characters who stand out here are Carmen Iriondo, a society hostess, and the Monsignor, who strikes fear into the proceedings with his chilly glare. These are people you may not trust to post a letter but as the gatekeepers of Argentina’s shady upper echelons of power, they must be respected.

In their car from the airport Yvan and Ines witness two men being held up at gunpoint, Yvan suavely fails to bat an eyelid, and once in their comfort of their exclusive hotel, Buenos Aires stretches before them just like any other international capital city, although the tinkling harpsichord score warns of trouble ahead, in the style of those Claude Chabrol thrillers. The couple get a rude awakening from the rather glib thickly-accented lawyer Dekerman (Geretto), who welcomes them to BA on behalf of ‘the client’, before rudely ordering his own whiskey before offering Ines a drink (and failing to light her cigarette), preparing her for the macho set up that will follow.

Business here is not just about talent but also moving in the right circles and keeping quiet at the right time (the code word ‘Azor’ means to ‘keep shtum’, rather like the Sicilian ‘omertà’). As a private banker from a monied background Yvan De Wiel settles graciously into the hushed scenes of high society in this enjoyably taught first feature from Swiss director Fontana who writes and directs with considerable flair, capturing the zeitgeist of these dangerous times with a florid eye for local detail.

A De Wiel sashays discretely in soigné villas, lush lounges and amongst the polo ponies, he swiftly gains the trust of the movers and shakers repositioning his bank’s interests with the junta when it dawns on him that his partner Rene Keys had possibly pulled the wool over his eyes bringing his firm into question. But he has another string to his bow, that of deal-making (aka laundering blood money) using his utmost caution. it’s a restrained performance and one of subtlety.

From the outset Fontana creates a real sense of danger here, a feeling that anything could go wrong as De Wiel’s investigation leads him deeper and deeper into the exotic hinterland of Argentina’s pampas where the Junta’s sinister types hang out in the film’s seething finale.

There is more that a whiff of colonialism to Azor. Silence and an evocative ambient soundscape prove to be Fontana’s best weapon in ramping up tension in the final stages of his restrained thriller, a slick seventies score of musak playing out during discrete cocktail parties where these smooth operators mingle under swaying palms, waiters plying them with drinks as they plot and plan how to deal with the trappings of colonialism. MT

San Sebastian Film Festival 2021

The Employer and the Employee (2021) San Sebastian 2021

Dir.: Manolo Nieto; Cast: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Christian Borges, Justina Bustos, Fatima Quintanilla, Carlos Lacuesta, Virgine Mendez, Manuel Guedes; Uruguay 2021, 105 min.

Another big screen treat from South America in this year’s Quinzaine selection, this time from Uruguay stars trailblazing Argentine actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart who has been the toast of the international festival circuit for Persian Lessons, Beats Per Minute, and See You Up There.

Elegantly paced and thoughtful despite its rather cumbersome title this ‘upstairs downstairs’ parable unfolds in a rural community in the north Eastern part of Uruguay near the Brazilian border where the magnificent widescreen landscape is very much the star of the show.

Uruguayan writer/director Manolo Nieto’s family affair has strong magic realist undertones: his titular boss and employee are not conventional by any means – and neither are their other halves. DoP Arauco Hernandez Holz conjures up lush, languid images in a richly textured slow burn tragedy in the style of Bunuel and Nuri Bilge Ceylan Greek where servant and master are forever bound together in a paternalistic system.

The way we meet Rodrigo (Biscayart), the titular boss, is symptomatic of all the main characters: caught at the border with some weed, he looks like your typical university dropout, and not a clever one at that. A  family doctor swings by to get his baby boy Bautista to sleep in the most unorthodox way possible. Wife Federica (Bustos), a blue eyed blonde, is concerned about Bautista’s health, and later they will take him to hospital for tests, in a nice little tense undercurrent that burbles on til the film’s finale.

Uruguay’s agricultural production had to change from traditional animal farming to soya planting, and only a few labourers can manage the sophisticated machinery for the harvest. Rodrigo sets out to meet the old retainer and farm hand Lacuesta (Lacuesta) who puts forward his teenage son Carlos (Borgoes) for the job. The young man also has a baby daughter with Estafania (Quintanilla) but lacks experience or any real commitment, preferring the more glamorous job of looking after the horses, and one in particular is Hidalgo, a race horse destined to be sold to the Arabs, if it does well in a 115 km marathon race. Carlos hopes to be selected as his jockey. But clearly he’s not up to the job of driving a tractor and a serious accident reveals his shortcomings as an employee.

Surprisingly, Rodrigo gives him another chance, even taking him to a brothel, where Carlos blacks out. The situation becomes even more bizarre when Rodrigo invites Estafanie to work on the hacienda as a maid. Federica and the young woman nearly come to blows over baby Bautista’s care. But Rodrigo is in a bind: the Farmworkers’ Union has filed a lawsuit against him as the boss with overall responsibility for the tractor accident, and so he promises Carlos can ride on Hidalgo at the famous race in Santa Fe where loyalties explode in a racy finale. Manolo Nieto delivers a calmly-paced and contemplative modern thriller that ponders on the past and the present in his native Uruguay. AS

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL 2021 |

 

Buñuel: A Surrealist Filmmaker (2021) San Sebastian

Dir; Javier Espada | Spain, Doc 90′

Spanish filmmaker Javier Espada shares his birthplace of Calanda (Aragon) with the legendary Spanish surrealist and Palme d’Or winner Luis Buñuel Portolés (1900-83) whose story forms the subject of his engaging new documentary that premiered in the Cannes Film Festival Classics section.

As a teen during the Easter Semana Santa processions Espada escaped the loud drums of the ceremony for the relative calm of his local fleapit and was instantly bewitched by Luis  Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969), the image of Christ fusing with the character of the Marquis de Sade in his subconscious, creating subversive undertones.

Although far from a full-bloodied biopic of Buñuel’s films, this plays out as nostalgic tribute to the legendary director from one of his most ardent admirers. Espada’s obsession would also provide the springboard to a lifelong friendship with Buñuel’s regular screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière whose script for Diary Of A Chambermaid would continue with cult classics such as Belle De Jour and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, and would also pave the way for Buñuel’s memoirs ‘My Last Breath.’

A recently restored archive from stereoscopic glass plates, clips and personal photos – provided by his sons Juan Luis and Rafael – and the Luis Bunuel Film Institute is enlivened by Espada’s own thoughts and those of the director providing insight into a charismatic career that started with his traditional upbringing in a well to do influential family in Calanda. But a tragic incident involving a donkey would put a subversive spin on the director’s output and much of his work would be banned banned by Franco’s regime due to its controversial subject matter. DoP Ignacio Ferrando Margeli provides a pristine black and white aesthetic in this dive into cinema history. MT

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | CANNES CLASSICS

 

 

I Want to Talk About Duras (2021) San Sebastián Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Claire Simon; Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Swann Arlaud; France 2021, Drama 95 min.

US born, French director Claire Simon explores one of the most obsessive love affairs in literary history: between Marguerite Duras (1914-96) and her much young partner Yann Andréa (1952-2014) that continued for sixteen years despite the age difference and his being gay.

Simon draws her material from the 1982 interviews made by Duras’ close friend, the writer Michèle Manceaux, who became Yann’s confidante in Neauphie-le-Chateau. The intimate two-handed drama sees a chain-smoking Yann (Arlaud) talking to Marie Claire columnist Manceaux (Devos) while the tape recorder is running. All this is intercut with archive footage and wordless dramatised sequences where the two lovers are pictured in romantic rendezvous. After Manceaux’ death, Yann entrusted the tapes to a friend who later handed them over to Andréa’s sister Pascale Lemée in 2015.

Marguerite Duras is possibly best remembered for her script of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.  But it was in Caen during a 1975 screening of her film India Song, starring Delphine Seyrig, that she met postgraduate student Yann Andréa. He was an avid fan of her novels and initiated a – mostly one-sided – correspondence with Duras for the remainder of that decade. Then, in 1980, Duras invited Yann, who was gay, to live with her in a hotel in Trouville. Thus began an extraordinary relationship which lasted until Duras’ death sixteen years later.

Covering more or less the same ground as Josee Dayan’s Cet Amour Là, starring Jeanne Moreau as Duras and Aymeric Demarigny as Andréa, based on Andréa’s memoire, the interview is a sharp reminder of the closeness of love and death. Manceaux insistently but gently probes him with personal questions, Yann confessing “total love for Duras and her work. It was eternity that completely belonged to me. Passion yes, but passion struck by death”. He would leave his job, apartment and friends to be with Duras and was soon eclipsed and dominated by her. He tried to pull back, ending the relationship several times and even attempting suicide. Duras challenged his sexual orientation: “I am not just a writer, I am also a woman. You are not gay, I am all your desire”. Yann was soon convinced that his homosexuality was a form of solidarity that allowed him to escape his true feelings. But it went much deeper than that: “She was the master. She re-created me. And un-created my old self, to create me.” Passion and fiction overlapped. “I existed but at the same time I felt projected into her imagination.”

Duras emerges a bit of a control freak, reformulating her lover, changing the way he dressed and even his perfume, discouraging his personal friendships and forbidding him to read any  novels but her own. Even his rapport with Manceaux “felt like a betrayal of her”. His entire existence was subsumed by Duras, who opined “You only exist through me”. Yann felt like the main character in her book ‘The Malady of Death’. Andréa also played a part in Duras’ film L’Homme Atlantique (1981), “but I realised later, that she made me die by filming me; always in a chair, never moving. And finally, Yann actually felt inadequate and unable to satisfy his lover: “Maybe I love her less than she loves me, I am always a step behind, she wants to raise me to her intensity. She sees that I can not do it. That hurts her a lot.” But whatever went on between them Duras set him a monument in words: ‘Yann Andrea Steiner’, her final book.

DoP Céline Bozon uses a gap in the interview (which went on for two days) to focus on the countryside settings where Yann is pursued by alluring men. Enlivened by paintings of the couple’s sexual relationship and excerpts from India Song and L’Homme Atlantique this is a captivating piece of filmmaking that avoids sensationalism in portraying a remarkable, real-life relationship between a man and a woman. AS

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | COMPETITION

Haruhara-San’s Recorder (2021) San Sebastian Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Kyoshi Sugita; Cast: Chica Araki, Takenori Kaneko, Saha Ito; Japan 2021, 120 min.

HARUHARA-SAN’S RECORDER won this year’s main award in the International Competition at FIDMarseille. Jury president Lav Diaz certainly related well to the leisurely tempo. The Japanese director describes his style as “probably different from the general method. I think most people start their different preparations after having originally completed the script, but in my case, I write the script in the end, after having settled the casting, location scouting and shooting schedule”. The result is an uncompromising cinematographic poem where windows, doors, balconies, staircases and thresholds have the same significance as protagonists’ emotions.

Based on a tanka (31-syllable one-line poem) by Naoko Higashi, Sugita creates a narrative-free universe fraught with feelings. Lockdown brought the production to a halt after the first day of filming, and the subsequent loss of a close friend had a significant impact on Sugita, and is reflected in his melancholy central character Sachi (Araki) who has now works in a cafe, dreaming of a partner who will never be at her side.

Essentially a series of graceful reflective vignettes that never fully play out, loss and recuperation are central themes throughout this subtle drama. In the opening scene Sachi (Araki) is saying goodbye to her flatmate who leaves no forwarding address. Family and friends arrive to share tea and sympathy. We see Sachi leaving on a friend’s scooter on the way to an amusement park dwarfed by a huge rollercoaster, but a cut propels us hours forward, with Sachi and her friend drenched by the rain.

Sachi then plays muse to a young filmmaker, her performance projected onto a high window, for an audience full of friends. The plot-free structure allows ordinary life to take centre stage, giving full rein to Sachi’s artistic endeavours: she creates a banner with calligraphic symbols of Wind, Forest, Fire and Mountain, which floats off in the breeze from her balcony. There is one amusing vaudeville scene when her uncle Takeshi comes to visit, and Sachi’s friend Taeko hides in an overhead cupboard, freaking the old man out.

DoP Yukiko Iioka creates delicate images, mostly tracking shots, giving this a very intimate, chilled out atmosphere. Chica Araki, in her acting debut, is a contemporary dancer and calligrapher whose ‘unbearable lightness’ is a captivating presence in this meditative oasis of calm. AS

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL | 17 – 25 SEPTEMBER 2021

 

 

 

Michelin Stars II – Nordic by Nature (2021) San Sebastian Film Festival

Dir.: Rasmus Dinesen; Documentary with Poul Andrias Ziska, Karin Visth, Rebecca Mead, Johannes Jensen, Sverri Steinhólm; Denmark/Spain 2021, 62 min.

In this foodie documentary Rasmus Dinesen (Michelin Stars – Tales from the Kitchen) travels to the Faro Islands to find out how the top starring Michelin restaurant KOKS thrives on its predominantly international clientele.

The pandemic brought out the best in Johannes Jensen’s entrepreneurial skills: despite enforced close his restaurant is back doing a roaring trade attracting diners from far and wide to sample the Nordic delights of chef in charge Poul Andrias Ziska who has to rely on local produce sourced exclusively from 500 square miles of rugged terrain under sub-polar weather conditions. KOKS is housed in a grass-roofed low ceiling farm homestead surrounded by fields and hills in one of the isolated Faroe archipelagos in the North Sea. It may look right out of ‘Hobbit’ country, but the Faroe Islands are made of mythological stuff: Nordic fairy tales, 37 different words for fog, sheep outnumbering humans, waterfalls, deadly cliffs and the native language spoken by just 50 000 locals.

And then there is KOKS. Poul Andrias Ziska, the spiritual leader of the establishment, has a young daughter and his partner is pregnant again. Karin Visth is one of the few women featuring in this male dominated set-up. The guests sit only a few inches away from the predominant kitchen staff. Journalist Rebecca Mead fetches up from the ‘New Yorker’ to sample the culinary delights and we also meet Marco Invernizi, a soi-disant ‘International Diner’.

But the food is the star here, a veritable work of art: Steamed Horse Mussel, Smoked Whale’s Heart, Breast of Fulmar and fresh Sea Urchins, to name but a few. Ziska is also an active hunter: we watch him on a boat going after whales, and killing a sheep, before dismembering them. The mass slaughter of whales is another gruesome addition, but the film makers have employed Pastor Sverri Steinhólm to parry any accusations: “We are using animals as food, but we are no Big Game hunters like in Canada and North Norway.” And Ziska also defends the killing of animals in the name of survival. He collects Fulmar eggs on a precipitous rockface, and exchanges some of them later with fishermen who have just come back with their catch; demonstrating an ancient custom of collaboration.

Nobody can deny the KOKS team’s achievements. But there are contradictions, and Pastor Steinhólm’s praise of the strength of the Faroe people and their ‘Nordic superiority’ are wishful-thinking in the light of the recent pandemic. AS

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2021

The Noise of Engines | Le Bruit des Moteurs (2021) San Sebastian Film Festival

Dir.: Philippe Grégoire; Cast: Robert Naylor, Tanja Björk, Marie-Therese Forline, Naila Robel, Alexandrine Agostini; Canada 2021, 90 min.

The bizarre debut feature of Canadian writer/director Philippe Grégoire is too clever by half, hurtling into cul-de-sacs, before petering out with a limp. There are some interesting moments, but overall The Noise is simply too pretentious and immature.

Gregoire kicks off in semi-documentary style with a group of Canadian customs officers being introduced by Alexandre Mastrogiuseppe (Naylor) to the use of firearms. Later Alex has sex with Laura (Rabel), one of the the trainees – all rather awkward as her efforts to wear a mask bring on an asthma attack, Alexandre coming to the rescue. He is nevertheless suspended from work by the strange unit chief (Agostini) who admits she is in an open marriage while she claws the underside her desk in frustration, enviously alluding to his multiple sexual escapades. Alexandre is then sent home to his mother (Forline), who owns a race course in a small town.

On the race course Alexandre is accosted by two police officers who accuse him of sticking an obscene drawing on the church door. Next he embarks on a treasure hunt instigated by Icelandic racing driver  Adalbjörg (Björg) a big fan of filmmaker Andre Forcier, the two eventually fetching up in a deserted backwater. The two policemen appear again, burning Alexandre’s hands on the hot plates of an oven, and other unspeakable parts of his body. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse for Alexandre who embarks on a journey to discover the holy grail of drag racing

Essentially The Noise is a series of disconnected episodes where everything feels unnatural, performed by an unexceptional cast, Shawn Pavlin’s images are as anaemic as the whole undertaking. So not a strong  debut for Gregoire despite some interesting ideas. AS

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | 17 – 27 SEPTEMBER 2021

San Sebastian Film Festival – Tribute to Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp, one of contemporary cinema’s most talented and versatile actors, will receive a Donostia Award on Wednesday, September 22 during San Sebastian Festival’s 69th edition.      

Depp is a 3-time Academy Award nominee, a Golden Globe winner and 10- time nominee, a Screen Actors Guild Award Winner for Best Actor and 6- time nominee, and the winner of 14 People’s Choice Awards. With more than 90 audiovisual productions to his name, Depp has also produced some ten films, including the most recent, Minamata, by Andrew Levitas (2020), Hugo (2011), directed by Martin Scorsese, and Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan (2020), helmed by Julien Temple, winner of the Special Jury Prize at the last San Sebastian Festival. He has also directed shorts and the feature film The Brave(1997), which he also wrote, featuring Marlon Brando on the cast.

He made his movie debut at the age of 21 as one of Freddy Krueger’s victims in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and over the years, a relationship with the audience crystallised in the early 90s with his lead roles in the cult movie Cry Baby (Zabaltegi 1990), written and directed by John Waters, and his first collaboration with Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands (1990).

 

Over the following years he starred in films directed by prestigious filmmakers including Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream, 1992), Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, 1993, and Chocolat, 2000), Tim Burton (Ed Wood, 1994, and Sleepy Hollow, 1999), Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, 1995), Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, 1997) and Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998) –screened at the Festival as part of the retrospective Terry Gilliam–.

In the 21st century, his part as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga (2003, 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2017) also earned him the admiration of the new generations. During this period, he received three Oscar nominations for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Finding Neverland (2004) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). The latter earned him a Golden Globe, the awards for which he has amassed another nine nominations. His long inventory of acknowledgements also includes the Honorary Cesar (1999), a list now joined by the Donostia Award.

In recent years he has worked with Gore Verbinski (The Lone Ranger, 2013), Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, 2014), Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Perlak 2015), Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express, 2017) and Andrew Levitas (Minamata, 2020).

Depp has played writers, undercover cops or outlaws, almost always misfits, in casts placing him alongside Marlon Brando, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis, Penélope Cruz, Helena Bonham Carter, Javier Bardem, Kate Winslet, Mark Rylance, Dustin Hoffman, Judi Dench, Antonio Banderas, John Malkovich, Marion Cotillard, Forrest Whitaker, Al Pacino, Benedict Cumberbatch, Morgan Freeman, Benicio del Toro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leonardo Di Caprio and Christopher Plummer, among many others.

This will be Johnny Depp’s third visit to the Festival following his fleeting appearance in 1998 with Terry Gilliam, and his visit in 2020 for the participation of Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan.

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2021 |

 

The Mole Agent (2020)

Dir|Wri: Maite Alberdi | Chile, 89′

An 83 year old widower goes undercover in a Chilean nursing home in Maite Alberdi’s topical documentary that looks into neglect in the care system. But what he discovers is something quite different.

Rather like Distant Constellation  another recent doc set in a nursing home, the tone here is upbeat and tongue is cheek, primped by a rather suggestive score, but the message is real and very familiar. Alberdi’s quietly observed study gradually develops into a cumulatively moving and important statement about the infantilisation, abuse and loss of dignity suffered by the elderly in nursing homes.

Reports of care home abuse are well-documented all over Europe. But in Chile, the daughter of one resident decides to takes suspicions of her mother’s maltreatment and theft into her own hands hiring a private detective agency to look into the matter. Recently widowed Sergio, 83, gets the job to spend three months in the home as an undercover mole reporting back to the client, via his employer, the suavely dapper Romulo. Apart from mastering the new technology involved: using FaceTime and recording videos – the poor man is still grieving the recent loss of his own wife, and finds the romantic onslaught – even an offer of marriage – from several lonely widows quite difficult to deal with. Meanwhile he struggles with an investigation into ‘suspicious’ residents who are suffering memory loss, loneliness and abandonment by their own families. To make matters worse, his ‘target’ – the resident he has to monitor – is an unsociable woman who has no interest in talking to him at all.

Alberdi also has a difficult task on her hands and one that she manages with great sensitively, skill and imagination in a film that widens its concerns from the outset turning from an enquiry into an illuminating expose that asks more questions than originally intended. Clearly the question uppermost in our minds is the one Sergio has come to investigate. But it’s unlikely that anything untoward would happen in the presence of a film crew. Instead the film turns into a thoughtful observation of institutional life inside a close knit community. The majority of the residents are women who cling to their Christian faith and mourn the loss of their homes, their independence and their families, who rarely visit. Surrounded by people they don’t necessarily want to be with, all they have left are photos and memories.

Sergio is under pressure to report back to Romulo on the results of his snooping which is more or less inconclusive, and don’t reflect back well on Romulo’s client. What Sergio eventually tells him iwon’t come as a big surprise to anyone. MT

WINNER – BEST EUROPEAN FILM – SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | THE MOLE AGENT is Chile’s submission in the International Oscars category.

NOW ON BBC 2 | ON DEMAND

 

Corn Island (2014) Simindis kundzuli | Georgian Retro | DocLisboa 2020

Director: George Ovashvili   Writers: Roelof Jan Minneboo, Nugzar Shataidze, George Ovashvili

Cast: Ilyas Salman, Tamer Levent, Mariam Buturishvili, Ylias Salman |  Drama, Georgia 100′

Corn Island could take place anywhere. The brooding fable is set in remote islands that surface annually from the bed of the river Enguri in Eastern Georgia, enriching them with nutrients and making them ideal farmland for seasonal crop-rearing by nomads. In the silence of a serene summer an old man and a young girl  settle in this mist-clothed island paradise where they fish and cultivate the earth as isolated gunfire mingles with birdsong in the distance. Few words are exchanged but a sinister undertone persists and a watchful vigilance that seems to presage doom.

Georgian auteur Ovashvili’s multi-award winning second feature was nominated for an Oscar in the Academy Award Foreign Language section the following year, echoes the recent conflicts that have taken place in the Caucasian States. His debut drama, Gagma napiri (2009), was also inspired by these events. Corn Island is a quiet, sensory affair that succeeds in building a considerable dramatic punch through subtle performances, clever camerawork that makes good use of the changing natural light and rich tones of yellow, blue and gold and well-paced storytelling with an atmospheric occasional score. This simple but profound tale is elevated by the events taking place at its margins and yet never does its narrative succumb to the outside world making the human story all the more powerful and profound.

This season Georgian farmer (Ylias Salman) and his granddaughter (Mariam Buturishvili), are here to spend the summer, the age-old topic of school work their only desultory conversation. Army officers pass by on the distant riverbank. The girl swims in the crystalline water in a dreamlike midnight sequence auguring her sexual awakening and, as if by chance, the next day a wounded soldier is washed ashore sparking friction between the threesome and a passing boat of Russian guards patrolling the river for signs of trouble. In these heavenly surroundings a palpable tension gently smoulders between the girl, the farmer and the soldiers sparked by fear, sexual frisson and danger. When the girl flirtatiously throws water on the soldier the pair chase into the fully grown corn. This small kingdom and wains when finally tragedy strikes from an unexpected source leaving us with to ponder our existence and our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. MT

CORN ISLAND | DOCLISBOA 2020 | GEORGIAN RETROSPECTIVE

Summer of 85 (2020) ****

Dir|Wri: Francois Ozon. France, Romcom, 100′

This upbeat breezy retro teenage love story is set in seaside Normandy over six weeks in the summer of Summer Of 85. As usual Ozon doesn’t take things too seriously but the romance feels real and the lively score of ’80s hits and memories of holidays in Normandy make this a sunny treat for everyone.

Aiden Chamber’s paperback original ‘Dance on My Grave’ took place in Southend-on-Sea but Ozon choses the Normandy coastal town of Le Tréport for his version of the tale with its strong emotional undercurrent stemming for the elation and them pain of first love showing how the central character discovers writing as a therapy for his broken heart.

Summer of 85 is more tragic than comic but Francois Ozon has a clever way spicing his dramas with subtle and subversive humour always leaving it open to individual interpretation. And there are random moments that may raise a smile, or may not. The balance is always delicately poised.

Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) is a cherubic blond 16 year-old, who hints in the opening scenes that see him in police custody, that the film will end in tears but we are not told why. And this is the enigma that hooks us into the plot driven forward by his literature teacher Mr Lefèvre (a moustachioed Melvil Poupaud)  disguise) who tries to persuade Alexis to write about his experience even if he can’t talk about it.

Gradually the story spills out in flashback narrated by Alexis who takes us back to the start of summer when he decided to take his friend’s boat for an afternoon’s sailing. Storm clouds soon gather and he is thrown into the water only to be rescued by another sailer in the shape of David Gorman,  (Benjamin Voisin) a dark-haired 18-year-old adonis who certainly knows the ropes.

Soon the two are back at David’s where a voluptuous Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi plays a welcoming Jewish mum Mrs Gorman who also runs a business specialising in sailing tackle. Admiring Alex’s own tackle she runs him a hot bath. Realising her son needs a close friend, but does realising yet just how close, the boy’s budding relationship blossoms, and he is offered a role in the business. But there’s good fun to be had — riding David’s  motorbike and sailing – not to mention between the sheets in this hedonistic affair that positively froths with youthful exuberance especially when a Kate (Philippine Velge) a frisky young au pair from England joins the party. Meanwhile Alex’s mother (Isabelle Nanty) and father are a more down to earth couple anchoring him in the reality of their working class set-up.

Summer in Normandy in always going to be a winner visually, whether down on the beach or in the verdant hinterland the setting is strikingly beautiful and DoP Hichame Alaouie conveys a retro feel with his Super-16 camerawork. And one of the best things about Summer of 85 is its rousing soundtrack of ’80s hits from The Cure’s ’In Between Days’ to Rod Stewart’s ’Sailing’. As David, Benjamin Voisin’s striking charisma carries the film: his confident intensity and effervescent charm set him out to be a star in the making. MT.

IN CINEMAS | CURZON HOME CINEMA from 23 OCTOBER

 

Memory House (2020) ** San Sebastian Film Festival 2020

Dir.: João Paulo Miranda Maria | Cast: Antonio Pitanga, Ana Flavia Cavalcanti, Aline Marta Maia, Sam Lowyck, Soren Hellerup; Brazil/France 2020, 87 min.

Miranda Maria’s debut feature is not a welcome calling card with its protracted sequences of gratuitous violence against animals. A more muted version would have certainly benefited the overall evaluation of a film which never quite reaches its potential in exploring the key issues the Brazilian newcomer seeks to address in his first feature, namely social injustice in Brazil.

Essentially a reflexion on modern colonialism Memory House opens with an absurdist scene that takes place in a European style 1950s office, involving the central character, a black indigenous worker Cristovam (Antonio Pitanga, once the star of the ‘Cinema Nuevo’ in the 1960s). He is listening to a tirade from his boss Kainz, speaking in German, his female assistant translating. The message is clear: Cristovam has to take a pay-cut to save his pension plan.

Things get even more bizarre when his fellow workers are forced to wear T-shirts bearing a separatist message and to sign a petition demanding independence for the South. A speaker spews out a message: “we came from Europe to bring innovation, a new perspective to the new country, but we can no longer continue to be the region which pays the most tax and receives the least in return, taking orders from the lazy folks in the North”. Cristovam, having been a “member of the Kainz family for over twenty years”, is one of many workers who re-located with the company from up North.

Cristovam’s reaction to this bad news is passive resistance: he steals a pair of security gloves which he later throws away on his way home from the factory in a village dominated by white, German speakers. The kids taunt him, not surprisingly, given his habit for carrying a bull-horn which he blows everywhere, even in the pub. There he has a desultory relationship with a much younger woman (Cavalcanti), highlighting his loneliness. But everything changes when he stumbles over an abandoned house which allows him to escape the alienation of the village. Here he makes into a new home for himself, gradually adding new things and developing a parallel, hallucinatory universe together with ferocious wild cats, jaguars, bulls with blazing eyes and objects that come alive.

Christovam takes up the life of a vengeful cowboy, driving the two worlds he inhabits into violent confrontation: The old way of living in harmony with nature collides with the exploitative colonial style capitalism, which has no place for him here.

The director’s intentions are clear but his didactic and schematic approach often undercuts the aesthetics of the feature. The inevitable climax is somehow telegraphed, losing some of its impact. But the main point of critique is the unbearable violence against animals, who Miranda Maria singles out for suffering much more than Christovam, who seems more of a Christian martyr than anything else. There is much to admire with the use of mysticism, but the director has to find a different ways to express himself if his work is to be acceptable to international audiences. AS

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL 2020

                                          

Beginning (2020) MUBI

Dir: Dea Kulumbegashvili | Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili | Drama, Georgia/France 125′

Dea Kulumbegashvili won the top prize at San Sebastian 2020 for her serenely self-assured yet sorrowful portrait of dispossession that ripples out into wider concerns for her native Georgia and the world in general.

Seen through the eyes of a disenchanted woman living in provincial Georgia this debut feature is a sensual and stunningly cinematic exploration of all that is wrong with society from religious intolerance to misogyny and the erosion of rural life pictured in the film’s devastating scorched earth finale.

On the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Georgia is an independent country and of the most ancient Christian nations dating back to the 4th century. The film opens in a small town in the Caucasus Mountains bordering on Azerbaijan where, as the wife of a Jehovah’s Witness leader, Jana (Sukhitashvili) must play a rather subservient role to her husband David (Oneli). This film opens during a chapel service which is firebombed by an explosion, causing the frightened congregation to flee into nearby countryside. The incandescent blaze glows on silently for a while afterwards igniting Yaha’s own inner turmoil that will smoulder through this slow-burn Tarkovskian drama, delicately touching on its thematic concerns in a way that nevertheless speaks volumes for the audience.

 

Light plays a vital role in Beginning. Playing out as a series of vivid tableaux vivants, the jewel-like frames are often glow with a viridescent pool of light, Arseni Khachaturan’s fixed camera scrutinises the main character in each frame who is often bathed in a shaft of light, or closely observed while the speaking character is out of sight. One sublime take sees Yana lying in a bed of autumn leaves, the ambient bird song slowly dying out as she is transformed into a bliss-like state. Captivating for some viewers (it lasts for around 7 minutes), it may however test other’s powers of endurance. What Dea achieves here is a meditative intimacy with her character. And as we are drawn more closely into Yana’s orbit, we feel a deep affinity with her state of mind; the affect is quite astonishing and deeply calming.

Yana emerges tolerant and forbearing, inspiring our sympathy despite her inner discontent; she is never angry or histrionic even when the children she is preparing for their first religious communion collapse in a fit of giggles. She exudes an almost saint-like endurance except when talking to her self-absorbed husband who professes his deep neediness of her despite his inattentiveness. Shutting down her feelings of futility, he responds patronisingly during a conversation early on in the film: “Let’s find you a job”. Yet as she toils away in the kitchen, Sukhitashvili’s Yana is a luminously compelling heroine, resembling a latter day Jeanne Dielman, a woman who carries on calmly amidst gruelling domestic trivia, a loving mother bewildered by the lurid sexual abuse meted out on her by a visiting police detective come to investigate the chapel fire.

There is one scene where David and Yana appear to be on the same page in their tender pillow talk although David’s chief concern is rebuilding the chapel so his career path is not derailed despite his wife’s calmly-voiced inertia, her own work as an actor having been on the back-burner since their son’s birth.

The film’s painterly views of nature evoke Dea’s appreciation of her homeland and concerns for a rural existence threatened by the future. In a scene towards the end of the film a uniformed hunter looks menacingly into the camera possibly hinting at Georgia’s ongoing tricky relationship with Russia. One more puzzling scene contrasts a violent rape attack (Yana and the detective?) with the wild beauty of its rocky riverside setting where two figures tussle violently at the extreme right of the frame where they are almost indistinguishable from the flow-strewn purple and white undergrowth.

A visit to her mother reinforces Yana’s feelings of subjugation and disempowerment as a woman. Recalling her own difficult marriage, her mother warns Yana not to mention the incident for fear of rocking the boat. Yana is clearly alone in the world with two males who depend on her but never consider her own emotional well-being.

Finally, on a drive home one night David discusses their future in small-town Georgia. A move to Tbilisi is on the cards but David sees it from his own perspective as the camera looks out onto a dark and rainy road ahead. Yana remains locked in silence, a receptacle for everyone’s needs but her own. MT

NOW ON MUBI | San Sebastian | WINNER OF THE GOLDEN SHELL AWARD 2020

 

Courtroom 3H (2020) **** San Sebastian Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Antonio Méndez Esparza; Documentary; Spain 2020, 115 min.

Madrid born writer/director Antonio Méndes Esparza has been living in Tallahassee (Florida) for eight years, combining teaching film at university with directing.

His first two features were fiction, Here and Now won the Cannes Critics Award in 2012. The titular court is the Tallahassee United Family Court, where families must appear when charged with negligence or even abuse against their minors. Although most court hearings in the US are open to the public, juvenile court hearings are usually held in camera – but the judge gave special permission to the filmmaker and his crew (mainly students) to be the flies on the wall for this astounding piece of filmmaking.

Shot in 30 days and consisting of Hearings and two trials, the emotional assault is huge. After all, parents are threatened with losing their children, jeopardising their most visceral human bond. While the children’s faces are blurred, the close-ups of the adults are often too painful to watch. Whatever might have happened before, mothers and fathers become fierce tigers when the chips are down, fighting to keep their young ones onside.

Speaking of the victims, the little ones are often desperate to be re-united with their abusers. The compassionate judge does his best to keep the families together, if at all possible. But there are exceptions if the child’s safety is threatened; the tears and sobbing of those parents who had hoped for a different outcome will stay with viewers for a long time. All this to the background of incessant noises: transcription keyboards and mobile phones tapping away.

A James Baldwin quote reminds us: “If one really wants to know how justice is administered in a country, one goes to the unprotected and listens to their testimony.” The director himself was at a critical point of his own life, which was also falling apart. “I was going through a divorce and a custody battle. Part of my survival was to make this movie and reflect on my own relationship with my children and responsibilities. You start to understand your faults and poor judgement – in the defendants I saw myself.” Even though filming meant catharsis, Esparza was still “afraid of documentaries, because I thought docs could hurt people to a certain extent. You deal with real people who can be offended by a movie.”

DoPs Barbu Balasooiu and Santiago Oviedo create a intense personal atmosphere with their close-ups, never falling into the trap of the Hollywood court drama. Far from being a set piece of dramatic arcs, this is cinema verite,  challenging the perceptions of its director and the audience. What could be a higher form of storytelling? AS

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL | 18-26 SEPTEMBER 2020

The Truffle Hunters (2020)

Dir. Michael Dweck/Gregory Kershaw | Doc, Italy/Greece/USA, 84′

When it comes to the ancient art of truffle hunting dogs are worth their weight in gold according to a new documentary that shows how man’s best friend is also his canny breadwinner.

Truffles are prized delicacies throughout the world of gastronomy. These ugly-looking tubers are part of the mushroom family but grow underground, and only dogs have the delicate skills to root them out. A single truffle can sell for thousands of euros. Grated over an omelette or in a pasta dish they transform the most meagre meal into an aromatic banquet for the senses and a luxurious treat. Recovering this culinary treasure is a dying art that takes place each autumn in the remote wooded areas of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region.

The Truffle Hunters plays out as devotional tribute to these knobbly delicacies elevating the earthy foodstuff into a food for the Gods with sumptuous camerawork and appreciation for those who painstakingly dedicate their lives to tracking it down and cherishing its storied gastronomic potential. The film unfolds in a series of sumptuous tableaux vivants each each one glowing with wonder and delight in vibrantly vignetting the various stages of the hunt that starts with the dog and his handler, and ends in the serious business of relishing the wafer thin slivers that transform any simple dish into a fragrant delicacy.

Rather like their aged counterparts in Il Solengo the truffle hunters or tartufoli are the stars of the film, along with their treasured dogs: Birba, Bibi, Charlie and Titina, who often receive a blessing in the local church. Theirs is an ancient and revered metier – instinct, dedication and experience are the tools of the trade and Carlo, Aurelio, Egidio and Gianfranco guard their arcane methods fiercely, newcomers fearing the masters will take their atavistic secrets to the grave.

The thrill of the chase is captured in the jerky POV of the dogs as they descend into the bosky wilderness wearing webcams round their necks. For some bizarre reason some locals have taken to planting poison in the bushes so each day could in end in these dedicated dogs’ demise. This element of danger brings a tragic twist a story that celebrates the lifelong bond between the hunter and his canine colleague, the heart and soul of this foodie film that shows how dogs can also bring home the bacon – or truffle in this case. MT

IN CINEMAS 9 JULY 2021

Simple Passion (2020) San Sebastián

Dir/Wri Danielle Arbid | Drama, France 100′

Lebanese director Danielle Arbid has made some impressive films but this flawed affair is vapid and rather impotent. Unsure whether it wants to be a soft porno movie or a reflective chick-flick about female empowerment, it fails on both counts. The timid narrative is not raunchy enough for the former or satisfying enough for the latter, and has the same Seventies look and setting as a Claude Chabrol thriller, without the dramatic bite or originality (come back Stephane Audran!).

Single mother Helene (a rather ditzy Dosch) lives with her young son in a  large country house financed by alimony from her ex-husband (played in a sneering cameo by Gregoire Colin). We then see her in one of those large university literature theatres her quoting Baudelaire to her students, although Dosch’s Helene doesn’t make for a convincing blue-stocking, wafting around half-naked with a pouting expression verging on tears. We soon discover the reason why. She has fallen for a charmless Russian security guard (played by Sergei Polunin) who is keen on Putin, covered in tattoos – and married, into the bargain. After scenes of rather saucy sex – but somehow devoid of real passion – the two confess their obsession with one another, after which the Russian leaves without so much as a smile.

Helene mopes around in a daze unable to focus on anything. At one point she has an ‘existential’ conversation about female ’empowerment’ with her friend over coffee, but that’s about as meaningful as this story gets. When the Russian suddenly announces his departure back to Moscow, Helene is bereft and consults a shrink (Slimane Dazi) who listens rather too lasciviously to her love confession. She admits to have visited Moscow “for a few hours” hoping to bump into her lover in the snowbound streets “just to breathe the air he breathes”.

Fast forward eights months, and the tone is considerably more positive, and Helene has a spring in her step for reasons that are unclear. When Sergei calls out of the blue one day they agree to meet up again in a finale that is both underwhelming and  inconclusive. The only question that remains: Why was Passion Simple selected for the main competition in a major film festival such as San Sebastian. MTAs

WORLD PREMIERE AT San Sebastian 2020 | 19 SEPTEMBER 2020

La Mu Yu Ga Bei | Lhamo and Skalbe (2019) San Sebastian Film Festival 2019

Dir/: Sonther Gyal | Drama Tibet/China | 80’

Best known for his standout feature The Sun-beaten Path, Sonther Gyal  is part of the first generation of Tibetian/Chinese filmmakers. His epic style and long takes go well with the majestic Tibetian landscape. While the spiritual aspect always plays a big part, the small details of day-to-day conflicts are never far away.

The film centres on the actress Lhamo who wants to marry race horse owner Skalbe, who, it turns out, already married Cuoyehe four years earlier, although the two are no longer together. The registrar insists that Skalbe brings the old marriage certificate and his ex-bride, so that a new marriage can take place. And so Skalbe sets off to try and find Cuoyehe. It emerges through discussions with his sick father and mother that his marriage to Cuoyehe was one of convenience: Skalbe and his parents hoped for financial help from the bride’s family.

Meanwhile, Llamo is pressured by her mother to take the well paid role of Atak Lhamo in the epic play King of Gesar. Lhamo is very much against portraying a sinful woman, because it reminds her of her own error – as a young girl she got pregnant, and her child is being raised by relatives. She would like to take over her daughter’s upbringing but  her mother is hell bent on keeping things as they are. Eventually Skalbe does eventually find his ex-wife but the path to true love is, as usual, never straightforward., and in this case, particularly tortuous.

Book-ended by a mournful song about Lhamo, this is a passionate feature, with brilliant images by DoP Meng Wang. Particularly memorable and poetic are the long takes of Sklabe’s ride on a motorbike. Sonther Gyal avoids sentimentality working with his convincing ensemble cast to create a real gem. AS

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2019

 

 

Patrick (2019) *** San Sebastian Film Festival 2019

Dir/Wri: Goncalo Waddington | Cast: Hugo Fernandez, Teresa Sobral, Carla Maciel, Alba Bapista | Drama, Portugal 103′

Who would have thought the name ‘Patrick’ would be the title of two features this summer? The first was Belgian director Tim Mielants’ offbeat comedy that premiered in competition at Karlovy Vary. The second is this enigmatic post abduction story that fails to catch fire despite its visual allure and edgy atmosphere. Waddington’s enigmatic approach leads to a drama that drifts around uncomfortably but is easy on the eye.

Patrick works on a similar premise to The Imposter without the same gripping storyline. Waddington establishes young Patrick’s hedonistic lifestyle in the fleeting opening scenes: sullen and rather keen on himself, the 20-year old Belgian native (played by a terrifying Hugo Fernandez) is living in Paris where he takes good care of his body, despite suffering disfiguring acne. He is a violent and abusive misogynist – we see him in a nightclub asking a woman her age before moving swiftly on. Although he appears to be emotionally in control, a telephone call reveals the reverse. He shares a swanky apartment with another man who is not his boyfriend despite their physical closeness.

These frenetic opening scenes soon give way to a calmly observational second act where Patrick is being interviewed by police after a drug-fuelled incident at a party where he has apparently supplied the narcotics. It emerges that he is also running a porn site, abusing underage girls, and is in fact called Mario: Twelve years earlier he was the victim of an abduction from his home in the Portuguese countryside. The shock seems to have affected his ability to speak the language. And when Mario goes home to his mother, the film takes on an enervating stillness that seems to suit the narrative torpor, but fails to clarify the past.

His earthy mother Laura (Teresa Sobral) makes no real attempt to confront his about his crime; his kindly aunt Helena (Carla Maciel) and 17 year-old cousin Marta (Alba Bapista) just treat him as part of the woodwork – or the tile-work – it’s Portugal, after all. His violent past now seems forgotten in this placid rural idyll, as the women gently surround him with their feminine energy and peacefulness, hoping that Mario can heal if things go back to normal. He is left to go off into the  countryside with his cousin, who talks about her life in Brazil, amid a beguiling ambient score. They swim in a limpid lake and Mario cuddles an endearing baby fawn, with the haunting words “this is our dinner”. He later lashes out at Marta, while talking about a man who used to hang around during sports training, and insisted on calling him ‘Patrick’. But there is no explanation as to why his anger is exclusively directed towards women His father eventually makes an appearance (a fabulously moody Adriano Carvahlo) mumbling about having to go away again. His parents seem decent and loving, despite his father’s frequent absence.

So was ‘nature or nurture’ Waddington’s angle on Mario/Patrick’s violent condition? Seemingly the former, but we have to wait until the final scenes, by which time we really cease to care about this hostile narcissist. His abduction clearly unleashed a vicious anger that could have been a bi-product of depression due to his being abused. The finale sees him driving off into the city again where he finally gets his revenge. MT

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL | 18-28 SEPTEMBER 2019

 

The Prince | El Principe (2019) ***

Dir: Sebastián Muñoz | Cast: Juan Carlos Maldonado, Alfredo Castro, Gaston Pauls, Sebastian Ayala, Lucas Balmaceda, Cesare Serra, José Antonio Raffo |Drama,  96′, 2019)

Based on a novel by Mario Cruz, this Chilean prison drama won the Queer Lion at Venice in competition with the far superior Moffie by Oliver Hermanus.

The Prince is Chilean set designer Sebastián Muñoz’s feature debut, and as you would expect it all looks rather stylish, if that’s possible for a jail-based film. It’s 1970, just before President Allende brought his particular brand of Marxism to a liberal democracy backed by the CIA. At the time this must have seemed quite a controversial story with its scantily-clad gay men cavorting behind bars, but now it all feels rather quaint.

The story revolves around a 20 year-old called (Jaime Juan Carlos Maldonado) serving time for stabbing his best friend (Cesare Serra), possibly in flagrante delicto, in the opening scene. In flashback, we see Jaime unable to express his sexual feelings in the Chilean town of San Bernardo, but these episodes don’t successfully inform what he has now become and play out rather like stand-alone vignettes. Sharing a cell with four other guys he soon becomes close to Stallion (Castro) a sort of prison gang leader who will open him up sexually and teach him the ways of world, jail-wise. The prison is a violent place but there’s also lots of full on sex, and Jaime soon starts to enjoy himself in this permissive set-up that would be undreamed of in the outside world, back in the day, but one that provides endless playmates for Jaime’s amusement, until it all ends in tears. Quite why Munoz has decided on this rather dated minor work- given today’s permissiveness – will be beyond most people. But it will go down well with the LGBTQ crowd despite its rather threadbare narrative.

The best thing about The Prince is Alfredo Castro (Blanco en Blanco) who puts a world weary complexity into his role as the oldest male prisoner in Jaime’s four bunk cell. He has a younger lover (Sebastian Ayala) but throws him over in preference to Jaime, hence his nickname “the prince”.

Munoz wrote the screenplay with Luis Barrales but it fails to convey Mario Cruz’ tribute to his central character as a victim of his times. Jaime is certainly an antihero but not a victim here as he seems to drift along in this sweaty paradise more or less ambivalent to his position in the pecking order. Weirdly, it appears that all the other prisoners in this clink are gay, which feels rather utopian, if you’re looking at it from Jaime’s perspective. MT

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | 18-28 SEPTEMBER 2019 | HORIZONTES LATINOS Strand

 

 

 

 

 

The Chambermaid (2018) ****

Dir: Lila Alviles | Cartol | Drama | Mexico | 90′

The Chambermaid plays the same thematic tune as two other festival winners this Summer: Golden Lion winner Roma and In A Distant Land which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno. They highlight the isolated and lonely lives of ordinary working people, often migrants – in this case, a Mexican national whose job in the capital detaches her from her loved ones. There is a distinct chilly humour to this acutely observed feature debut from Mexican actress, filmmaker and opera director Lila Alviles. It follows the daily grind of a hotel worker in one of the Mexico City’s 5 star hotels. Cartol (La Tirisia) plays Eve with infinite grace and good humour – in one astonishing scene she stands for seemingly ages outside a lift during one of those awkward silences – catching a hotel guest’s eye several times with an expression that speaks volumes.

Pristinely executed in the zen-like interiors of this palace of interior design, the film pictures an upmarket public as they often are behind the closed door of their luxury suites: ill-mannered, demanding and crude. Bereft of their clothes they also take leave of their humanity – never mind their courtesy. This is social politics laid bare. The Chambermaid also examines the crafty interactions between the low-level workers themselves: the cunning soft sales techniques of her colleague in the laundry who is trying to supplement her low-paid job by selling hand cream and Tupperware. Or just trying to con her into sharing the latest fad – in this case, a gadget that delivers a shock to stimulate a feel-good rush of endorphin. Like a some ghastly face to face equivalent of FarmVille.

The Chambermaid is set in Mexico City’s Presidente Intercontinental. Eve is hard-working and diligent, but if she tries harder she’ll be allocated the stratospheric, newly refurbished 42nd floor with views to die for and even infinity pools. Pinning her hopes on the promotion, she improves her efficiency but to no avail. The only bonus here is in the lost property cupboard. In one of her rooms Eve has found a red dress and hopes to take it home, if the owner doesn’t claim it. But her gruelling schedule leaves no time to be with her child, let alone meet a partner. Outwardly timid, Eve shows her true colours in one scene involving a window cleaner who has taken a shine to her – along with his windows. Eve acknowledges him at a distance. Her reaction is plausible – a little light relief in a sea of sameness. But Alviles restrains herself and keeps this convincing.

Stunningly captured by Carlos Rossini’s creative camerawork, this sealed and sanitised world has a strange beauty. Loosely based on the book Hotel, by Sophie Calle, The Chambermaid is a contemplative but well-paced cinema verité piece that resonates with a powerful message from both sides of the equation. Eve’s humdrum existence is piqued by moments of insight that show her in a different light as she endure the indignities of her role with calm forbearance and subdued silence. The magnificent skyscapes are hers to see but never to enjoy in her closeted existence, locked in an eternal bubble with no respite, until the final scene where the ambient sounds of exotic birdsong replace the refrigerated buzz of musak and air-conditioning.  MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Tribute to Richard Lormand (1962-2018)

It is with great sadness that we pay tribute to one of our greatest supporters, film consultants and readers Richard Lormand who has died aged 56.

During a long and distinguished career Richard was a leading light in international communication, film publicity and marketing, specialising in launches at the Berlin, Cannes, Locarno and Venice festivals, and just recently, Marrakech 2018 where he was preparing the 17th edition, when he died.

LOCARNO credit

Richard was a true professional and always a pleasure to work with. He handled world premieres for numerous award-winning films, including Maren Ade’s TONI ERDMANN, Ildiko Enyedi’s ON BODY AND SOUL, Fatih Akin’s IN THE FADE and SOUL KITCHEN, Alice Rohrwacher’s THE WONDERS and HAPPY AS LAZZARO, Christian Petzold’s BARBARA and PHOENIX, Samuel Maoz’s LEBANON and FOXTROT, Lav Diaz’s THE WOMAN WHO LEFT, Ritesh Batra’s THE LUNCHBOX, Takashi Miike’s 13 ASSASSINS and BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, the Taviani Brothers’ CAESAR MUST DIE, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s UNCLE BOONMEE, Jerzy Skolimowski’s ESSENTIAL KILLING, Amos Gitai’s RABIN, Lucrecia Martel’s ZAMA and LA CIENAGA, Alexander Sokurov’s RUSSIAN ARK and FAUST, Jafar Panahi’s THREE FACES and THE CIRCLE, and Takeshi Kitano’s ZATOICHI and HANA-BI.

Richard was part of the press consultancy team of Locarno Festival and the producing teams of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s cult favourite TEETH, HAPPY TEARS (starring Demi Moore, Parker Posey, Ellen Barkin and Rip Torn) and ANGELICA (starring Jena Malone and Janet McTeer). He was also a producer on Amos Gitai’s DISENGAGEMENT, starring Academy Award-winning actress Juliette Binoche.

Born and raised outside Lafayette, Louisiana, Richard was the son of a Japanese mother and a native French-speaking Cajun American father. He began his career as a reporter/journalist for Reuters in New York City, then went on to work for the Cannes Film Festival (France), Taormina Film Festival (Italy), Torino Film Festival (Italy) and the Viennale/Vienna Film Festival (Austria). Richard also wrote and directed the 1994 award-winning short TI-BOY’S WIFE/LA FEMME DE TI-BOY (Clermont-Ferrand, Locarno, Torino).

His charisma, warmth and professionalism are rare in these days of increasingly faceless public relations, focussing on ‘hits’ and ‘likes’ on social media. Passionately driven by genuine talent and strong stories, Richard often took chances with small independent films and invested his time and talent to make sure they were noticed. His was a personal approach, genuine and always with heart. We shall miss him so much. MT

RICHARD LORMAND

Le Cahier Noir | The Black Book of Father Dinis (2018) *** San Sebastian 2018

Dir: Valeria Sarmiento | Chile | Drama | 113′

Valeria Sarmiento follows her Locarno curio La Telenovela Errante (2017) with a classically-styled lavishly-mounted 18th century drama that follows the petripatetic exploits of an (unknowingly) aristocratic Italian nursemaid Laura (Lou de Laâge) after her employer dies in mysterious circumstances leaving her in sole charge of an infant son Sebastian.

Based on a literary work by Chilean novelist Camile Castelo Branco, and adapted for the screen by Carlos Saboga, this sedate and ambitious affair establishes an air of intrigue and uncertainty with an sinister orchestral score as Laura is hotly pursued by the saturnine  Marquis Lusault (Niels Schneider), who quickly ravages her before rakishly marrying someone of better birth – or so it initially appears – until Laura’s real heritage is revealed by  Stanislas Merhar’s priest with an ill-fitting wig. The drama then takes off across Europe visiting a series of sumptuously decorated stately palaces with little to distinguish whether they’re in France, Italy and England. No expense is spared in the costume department although everyone shares the same sepia-tinted lipstick (including the men).

Gracefully performed by its accomplished ensemble cast, The Black Book is an elegantly rendered potboiler that pays homage to Sarmiento’s late husband Raúl Ruiz, sharing the same sombre pacing as his masterpiece Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) while also referencing Sarmiento’s 2012 Lines of Wellington (prepared by Ruiz) although not its breadth of subject matter. A solid and engaging drama. MT

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 21 – 29 SEPTEMBER 2018

 

The Third Wife (2018) ****

Dir.: Ash Mayfair; Cast: Ngyuyen Phuong Tra My, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Thu Huong Maya, Le Vu Long, Nguyen Tranh Tam; Vietnam 2018, 83 min.

Ash Mayfair (aka Nguyen Phuongh Anh) left Vietnam at the age of thirteen to study film at RADA in London and New York. Her debut is a surprisingly mature and meticulous drama that focuses on the many-layered exploitation of the women in a feudal household in late 19th century Vietnam.

May (12 year-old Ngyuen Phuong, no relation to the the filmmaker), is married at the age of fourteen to feudal lord Hung (Long), and has to share their home with his first two wives Ha (Yen Khe) and Xuan (Huong Maya). May soon becomes pregnant and competes with Ha and Xuan to bear a son to the master. Sadly she fails and gives birth to a daughter, Ha saving her life with an impromptu caesarean carried out with a kitchen knife. Gradually May is drawn to Xuan while Hung’s son (Tanh Tam) rebels against his father and his dominating regime: he refuses to touch his child bride Tuyet during their wedding night – dishonouring her in the eyes of her family. The young girl hangs herself on a tree, overlooking the river. Gradually, May becomes accustomed to the male dominated household and closes ranks with Ha and Xuan. In spite of her youth, she is already resigned to a life with no real choices. Lien, one of Ha daughter’s, cuts off her long hair in protest – but her gesture is only symbolic.

DoP Chananun Chotrumgroj’s camerawork is sublime, impressionism dominates, particularly Monet’s paintings spring to mind in a soft haze of pink, yellow and blue; every frame a jewel box, a new adventure. The mournful piano music scored by Ton That An heightens the melancholic narrative; the souls of the women are slowly drowning in beauty. But even though The Third Wife won prizes all over the globe (Toronto, San Sebastian, Minsk, Chicago and Cairo), there is something missing. Compared with most other newcomers, Mayfair seems already to be the finished article: the main message of her feature is resignation and suffering, there is no rebellion. Somehow one does expect a little wildness from a first film – but The Third Wife, has very little spirit in its perfection. It is comfortably executed, like a minor etude, playing out without sharp edges let alone barbed wire. AS

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2018

   

San Sebastian Film Festival 2018

The San Sebastian Film Festival is Spain’s only A-list event running from 21 September until 29th in the North West Spanish town, often known by its Basque name of Donostia. This year celebrating its 66th edition, a selection of Spanish titles and international fare competes for the Golden Shell Award in venues such as the Kursaal and the Victoria Eugenia theatre. 

Joining the main competition will be the latest from Alfonso Cuaron, Jacques Audiard and Jia Zhangke also join the lineup of features already announced: Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, in which he portrays a musical who falls for a struggling artist (Lady Gaga), Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Damien Chazelle’s First Man starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon, and Claire Foy. The film premieres at Venice where it open the festival running from 28 August 2018 on the Lido

This is the first time that Spike Lee will compete for an award in San Sebastian. His film BlacKkKlansman, the story of an African-American policeman who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, won the jury grand prix honor at Cannes and the audience award at the Locarno Film Festival. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, also premieres at Venice, it is the story of a maid working in a middle-class district of Mexico City in the early 1970s.

THIS YEAR’S COMPETITION LINE-UP

EL AMOR MENOS PENSADO

JUAN VERA | ARGENTINA 

After 25 years of marriage, Marcos and Ana question themselves deeply on the subject of love, the nature of desire and faithfulness, making a decision that will change their lives forever.

 

ANGELO

MARKUS SCHLEINZER | AUSTRIA – LUXEMBOURG 

The story of Angelo, an African born in the 18th century, who is brought to Europe at the age of 10. Now a servant in the court of enlightened nobility, he skilfully employs his otherness to become an appreciated guest and attraction for the members of high society. Being close to the emperor, he decides to marry Magdalena, a young maidservant with whom he falls in love.

DER UNSCHULDIGE / THE INNOCENT

SIMON JAQUEMET | SWITZERLAND – GERMANY 

Ruth works in a neuroscience research lab, despite coming from an extremely traditionalist and conservative Christian family. She suddenly finds herself facing her past when her former lover reemerges after twenty years in jail, prompting her to question her feelings, her life and eventually even her faith.

EL REINO

RODRIGO SOROGOYEN | SPAIN – FRANCE 

Manuel, an influential deputy secretary of a regional government who has everything going his way for making the leap into national politics, sees how his perfect life falls to pieces after news leaks of his involvement in a corruption ring with Paco, one of his best friends. While the media starts reporting the extent of the scandal, the party closes ranks and only Paco comes …

ENTRE DOS AGUAS | ISAKI LACUESTA | SPAIN 

Isra and Cheíto are two Roma brothers: Isra was sent to prison for drug dealing and Cheíto signed up for the Marines. When Isra is released from prison and Cheíto returns from a long mission, they return to San Fernando. The reunion between the siblings brings memories of their father’s violent death when they were only boys. Twelve years have passed since La Leyenda del tiempo…

HIGH LIFE.

CLAIRE DENIS

FRANCE – GERMANY – UK – POLAND – USA 

Deep space. Beyond our solar system. Monte and his daughter Willow live together on board a spacecraft, in complete isolation. A solitary man, who uses his strict self-discipline as protection against desire (his own and that of others), Monte fathered the girl against his will. His sperm was used to inseminate Boyse, the young woman who gave birth to the girl.

ILLANG: THE WOLF BRIGADE

KIM JEE-WOON

SOUTH KOREA 

In 2029, after the governments of North and South Korea announce a 5-year plan to reunify the country, strong sanctions by the world’s most powerful nations cripple the economy and lead to a hellish period of chaos. With the appearance of an armed anti-government terrorist group called The Sect which opposes reunification, the President creates a new police division called …

LE CAHIER NOIR / THE BLACK BOOK

VALERIA SARMIENTO

FRANCE – PORTUGAL 

This is the story of the late eighteenth-century adventures of a singular couple formed by a little orphan with mysterious origins and his young Italian nurse of similarly uncertain birth. They lead us in their wake, from Rome to Paris, from Lisbon to London, from Parma to Venice. Always followed in the shadows, for reasons we don’t know, by a suspicious-looking Calabrian

QUIÉN TE CANTARÁ

CARLOS VERMUT

SPAIN – FRANCE 

Lila Cassen was the most successful Spanish singer of the nineties until she mysteriously vanished from one day to the next. Ten years later Lila is preparing her triumphant stage comeback; however, shortly before the long-awaited date she is involved in an accident and loses her memory. Violeta’s life is dominated by her conflictive daughter Marta. Every night she finds escape..

ROJO

BENJAMÍN NAISHTAT

ARGENTINA – BRAZIL – FRANCE – NETHERLANDS – GERMANY 

In the mid-70s, a stranger arrives in a quiet provincial town. In a restaurant, for no apparent reason, he sets about attacking Claudio, a well-known lawyer. The community supports the lawyer and humiliates the stranger, who is thrown out. Later, on the way home, the man intercepts Claudio and his wife Susana once again, determined to wreak his terrible revenge on Claudio.

VISION

NAOMI KAWASE

JAPAN – FRANCE 

Jeanne leaves for Japan in search of a rare medicinal plant. During the trip, she meets Tomo, a forest ranger, who accompanies her on her quest and guides her through the traces of her past. 20 years ago, in the forests of Yoshino, Jeanne lived her first love.

YULI

ICÍAR BOLLAÍN

SPAIN – CUBA – UK – GERMANY 

Yuli is the nickname given to Carlos Acosta by his father, Pedro, who considers him the son of Ogun, an African god and a fighter. As a child Yuli avoids discipline and education, learning from the streets of an impoverished and abandoned Havana. His father, however, has other ideas, and knowing that his son has a natural talent for dance, sends him to the National Ballet Schoo…

GIGANTES

ENRIQUE URBIZU, JORGE DORADO

SPAIN 

OUT OF competition

For decades the Guerrero brothers have controlled the flow of drugs from the peninsula to the rest of Europe. Now they’re faced with one of the most crucial moments in their history. The eldest brother, Daniel, is released from jail after fifteen years, eager to recover his place in the family. The world Daniel left behind no longer exists. His father Abraham is sick, ..

DANTZA

TELMO ESNAL

SPAIN 

Special Screenings

The storm breaks after a hard day’s work in the fields. When the rain eases off life springs up from the previously barren land. Fruit grows and ripens, survives disease and becomes the apples which give life to cider. Then comes the time to harvest, offer toasts and celebrate love. A story about the cycle of life and death, the fight for survival. Where the passage of time…

TIEMPO DESPUÉS

JOSÉ LUIS CUERDA

SPAIN – PORTUGAL 

Special Screenings

In 9177, give or take a thousand years (there’s no point in being finicky about these details) the whole world, and, according to some authors, the universe too, has been reduced to a single Representative Building and squalid suburbs inhabited by all of the out-of-work and hungry in the cosmos. One of the down and outs, José María, decides that by facing up to the difficul…

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL

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SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL | 21 – 29 SEPTEMBER 2018

 

So Help Me God (2017) Netflix

Dirs: Jean Libon, Yves Hinant | Doc | Belgium/France | 100′

This shocking trawl through the daily casebooks of a plucky Belgian judge reveals a catalogue of sexual depravity, murder and domestic violence on the part of her male – mostly Muslim – suspects, proves compelling viewing. But what makes it so entertaining, apart from the usual stories of men disciplining their wives; dominatrixes pleasuring their clients and murderers pleading to be let off so they don’t lose their council properties – is Judge Gruwez’ laconic and no-nonsense approach, taking everything in her stride, but not always taking prisoners, from her bureau in the heart of Brussels.

There is humour here too in a film that is often downright ludicrous. Many of the characters freely admit to their crimes but angrily accuse the judge herself of ‘ruining their lives’ with her legal sentencing enforced to keep them from reoffending. There are macabre moments too: Attending a DNA exhumation in the blazing heat under a pink umbrella, she claims: “it smelt bad, but there was a nice little breeze!” We also witness a woman’s account of how she killed her son, whom she suspected him of being possessed by The Devil.

Driving around in her 2CV, Maitresse Gruwez listens to opera, keeps a snow white pet rat and types her owns correspondence, despite her reduced manual dexterity.  The directors maintain a strictly detached observational approach to the bizarre subject matter, often filming at close quarters. This remarkable and uncensored film certainly lives up to its name, and proves that truth is invariably stranger than fiction. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

Smoke and Mirrors (2016) Silver Shell Winner | San Sebastian 2016

Dir: Alberto Rodriguez | Cast: Eduard Fernandez, Carlos Santos, Jose Coronado, Marta Etura | 135min | Thriller | Spain

After his atmospheric thriller Marshland, SMOKE AND MIRRORS (El Hombre de las mil Caras) is an ambitious but soulless affair enlivened by San Sebastian Silver Shell winner Eduard Fernandez who plays Spanish government spy Francisco Paesa in this true story, based on a book by Manuel Cerdan.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS often feels like a parody of classic international spy thrillers with its constant wanderings from world capital to capital taking in the sights of Paris, Madrid, London, Singapore and Geneva to mention a few. But despite Alex Catalan’s impressive visual wizardry and intense performances from leads Jose Coronado and Eduard Fernandez, the film leaves us feeling increasingly detached from its often complex narrative which fails on characterisation in an attempt to concertina the detailed meanderings that play out before our eyes in a slick docudrama format that smoulders enticingly but never really catches fire and eventually outstays its welcome,

The thriller explores the intriguing adventures of Paesa who was interviewed by Cerdan after faking his own death in 1998 after fleeing Spain and his loveless marriage to Gloria (Mireia Portas) during the 1980s . Paesa was never paid for his efforts to secure government defence against the Basque terror faction ETA and wreaked revenge on the authorities by helping arch criminal Police Head Luis Roldan (Carlos Santos) to launder his ill-gotten gains squirrelled from the public purse. But Roldan fails to pull off his plan, ending up in hiding in a squalid Parisian mansard – the ones with the tiny oval windows. Reports of his disappearance throng international news channels and impressively Rodriquez has garnered footage of BBC 80s News Reports to give these scenes added authenticity. Where he falls down is in making the story feel too episodic and eventually rather tedious as it flits around trying to cover the whole truth in an exhausting saga that goes on for 135 minutes and ultimately feels repetitive.

That said, Fernandez makes for a sleazy and convincing antihero who manages to be all things to all men, and women, for that matter, with his reptilian gaze and glib excuses. As Roldan, Santos is less successful, rocking an ill-advised bald pate that makes him look weirdly inhuman, it’s difficult for us to take his character seriously and detracts from his performance. His wife Nieves (Marta Etura) remains largely a cypher in an underwritten role. The most compelling performance comes from Paesa’s sidekick Jesus Camoes (Jose Coronado), who is both devilish and appealing in this watchable but unsatisfactory Spanish spy caper. MT

SAN SEBASTIAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 25 SEPTEMBER 2016

The Lesson (2015) Urok | LUX FILM AWARDS

Dir.: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov

Cast: Margita Gosheva, Ivan Savov, Ivan Barnev, Stefan Denolyubov;

Bulgaria/Greece/Germany 2014, 105 min.

First time directors/writers Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov have created a film about newfound poverty in post-communist countries, very much on the lines of the impressive Kreditis Limiti (Credit Limits) by the Georgian director Salome Alexi. In both cases the central protagonist is a woman, fighting for the survival of her family, caught in the clutches of scrupulous moneylenders.

Set in small town Bulgaria, Nadezhda (Gosheva), a middle-aged teacher at a secondary school, finds out about the theft of a purse in her class. She gives the thief amble time to come forward, but in vain. We find out, that Nadeszhda (Nade) is a fanatical believer in righteousness, a belief that will be tested continually during the film. Her troubles start when she finds out that her husband Mladen (Barnev), an alcoholic, has bought a gearbox for a decrepit camper van he wants the sell for profit – with the money which was meant for the mortgage. The bank initiates a foreclosure, and Nadezhda has three days to save her family home. She goes to her wealthy, estranged father (Savov) who, having been widowed only three years ago, lives with a new partner, the skimpily dressed Galya, nearly 20 years younger than herself. Nade cannot conceal her dislike of her father’s partner, insulting the young woman on several occasions. So as a last resort, Nade goes to a moneylender to borrow the funds to save her home, but it emerges that he is a crooked letch and Nade but get her own back somehow.

Ideology-wise, THE LESSON is very much in the style of Lorna’s Silence by the Dardenne Brothers, demonstrating that poverty and homelessness is always just round the corner and always closer than we think – or hope. Nade is a very prim person, a dutiful teacher and good mother to her daughter Andrea. But her husband’s greed and incompetence lands her in a in a situation beyond help. At one point, she is racing against time to pay in the money from the lender to the bank. On the way to the bank, her car brakes down, she has to run, catch a bus, only to find out that the thief in her class has stolen her last penny and the piece is heads for a Kafkaesque denouement as we identify with her desperate predicament.

Gosheva is brilliant as the hassled woman, and DOP’s Krum Rodriguez’s images are very close to Pasqualino de Santis’ images in Bresson’s L’Argent. THE LESSON, which won the “New Director’s Award” in San Sebastian, is an outstanding portrait of a conscientious woman, who, without any fault of her own, suddenly has the rug pulled from beneath her feet. AS

REVIEWED DURING THE CAMBRIDGE FILM FESTIVAL 3 – 13 SEPTEMBER 2015

Marshland (2014) La Isla Minima | VOD | DVD release

Director: Alberto Rodriguez

Writer: Alberto Rodriguez, Rafael Cobos

Cast: Javier Gutierrez, Raul Arevalo, Antonio de la Torre, Maria Varod, Perico Cervantes, Jesus Ortiz, Jesus Carroza,

105min  Noir Thriller    Spanish with subtitles

Alberto Rodriguez’s Noir thriller is a stylish affair steeped in the traditions of its remote Andalucian location of hostile wetlands that provides a fitting background to the social confusion and mistrust permeating this post-Franco Spain on the cusp of democracy. Captivating aerial images of the sinuous wetlands provide an unsettling tone to a tale whose murky plotlines wade around in the marshes from where they emerged with a predicably macho stance. But dynamite performances and atmospheric cinematography makes this an intriguing ride even though the ending leaves some questions unanswered.

When teenage sisters, Estrella and Carmen, disappear mysteriously in Villafranco de Guadalquivir, the arrival of two experienced detectives is greeted with savage mistrust rather than relief in a community where everyone seems at loggerheads. Pedro (Raul Arevalo) and Juan (Javier Gutierrez) surface during the ‘feria’, but parents, Rocio and Rodrigo, are not celebrating and their marriage is clearly under strain. The cops two have their differences too – Pedro is young and hungry for justice to be served while Juan is hardbitten and prone to violent outbursts. The new case could be linked to some other unsolved crimes in the area and evidence of blackmail – a burned negative showing porno images of the girls found in their bedroom – is handed over to the cops by their downtrodden mother, Rocio (Nerea Barros). Later, the girls bodies are found, strangely mutilated, in a ditch.

A sexy local seducer Quini (Jesus Castro, “El Nino”) with a predilection for teenagers, seems to be linked to the case and he is seen picking up his latest fling on a motorbike but when tested, his DNA fails to match that found on Carmen and Estrella and soon an older girl, Marina (Ana Tomeno), seems suspiciously involved.

MARSHLAND is a deeply unsettling film that works brilliantly as a mood piece: its breathtaking images, rich textural quality and brooding ambience almost hijack the film’s narrative with its broadly-written characterisation and predictable reliance on macho violence towards its entirely submissive female protagonists. Everything and everyone seems to garner suspicion: the classic sleazy hack (Manolo Solo); the playboy Quini, the strict father (a superb Antonio de la Torre), the local factory boss; even a strange psychic fisherwoman with more red herrings in her basket than grey mullet: all are reek of suspicion but none are particularly engaging. A drug-smuggling subplot also gurgles beneath the surface, but never really takes hold. The gripping finale and its dazzling car chase is almost an anticlimax that still leaves us guessing.

The Andalusians are a proud and serious bunch who rarely smile easily, and nowhere less than in MARSHLAND. Pedro and Juan glower menacingly at each other and everyone else, and you come away feeling little empathy or interest in either of them, which makes MARSHLAND a difficult film to love, despite its fabulous sense of place and luscious look of Alex Catalan’s expert lensing. The troubled Franco years are deeply embedded in this staunch and unyielding territory, baked by the sun and drenched by the elements: even at the end MARSHLAND feels impenetrable. MT

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 7 AUGUST 2015 | Altitude Film Distribution release Alberto Rodriguez Marshland (15) on DVD and digital platforms from 14 September 2015

20,000 Days on Earth (2014) | DVD release

Directors: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard

With Nick Cave; Warren Ellis, Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone

Documentary UK

Far from being a vanity project for musician Nick Cave, this is very much a tribute to the visually inventive talents of British filmmakers, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Brighton is also a prominent character seen through lowering skies as angry clouds drift by giving the piece a tormented and even impressionistic feel. Quite rightly so: it’s what you might expect from the life of an prodigiously creative (song)writer who has seen years of drug abuse and soul-searching finally to have come to rest in this prosaic Sussex coastal town with his wife and twin boys.

Thankfully, this is not a talking heads documentary. Most of the time the camera follows Cave: waking up in bed (fully clothed); venturing out in his comfy Jaguar; driving to his recording studios in a windswept seascape; performing and writing in the company of his fellow band members. Through confessions to his analyst a great deal is learnt about his formative years in Australia, his relationship with his father, who appears to have been a strong influence in his idyllic sunny childhood. One of the most memorable episodes is a magical sequence of dreamy prose where Cave describes his ‘love at first sight’ meeting with his wife, who remains an enigmatic presence.

20,000 Days of Earth feels like an intimate stream of consciousness from the musician himself: a biopic film noir with Cave as the charismatic villain. With his Goth hair and ghoulish persona, Cave emerges as both intellectual and rakish; outlandish yet extremely down to earth. But even if you haven’t heard of him or fail to appreciate his music: this is a film to watch and to enjoy. By the end we really enter his world and feel a understanding: and that’s the success of this watchable rockumentary. MT

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 19 – 27 SEPTEMBER 2014

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 19 SEPTEMBER 2014 and from 20 October on DVD

 

 

The Casanova Variations (2014) | San Sebastian Film Festival

Director/Writer: Michael Sturminger

Cast: John Malkovich, Fanny Ardant, Veronica Ferres

Professional Singers: Sophie Klussmann, Daniel Schmutzhard

150min   Biopic/opera

John Malkovich is well-suited to the role of maverick 18th century serial seducer Giacomo Casanova (apparently he had a modest 120 lovers). Long-term collaborater Michael Sturminger has cast him in this strangely weird but rather enjoyable ‘chamber-opera in a musical biopic’ where he reminisces over his misspent youth, to a rousing Mozart score. His accent has echoes of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s in the recent Nymphomaniac (maybe they shared the voice coach) but his presence is more irascible than coaxing: admittedly he’s reached the end of his life and is angrily desperate and ailing rather than sensual and playful about the game of love here. He flails around desperate for satisfaction: but nowadays he ‘can’t get none’, so he writes his memoirs looking back in unrequited lust to his previous dalliances with paramours, played with talent and vivaciousness by Veronica Ferres (Elisa) and a beguiling Fanny Ardant (Lucrecia) and remembered in flashback with well-known operatic vignettes and arias sung and played by professional singers overseen by Martin Haselbock.

Sturminger’s script is adapted from Casanova’s ‘Histoire de Ma Vie’ with some embellishments but gives more of an impression than a well-formed narrative. The Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte score plays rather like a selection of Classic FM snippets. The elegant costumes and sets by Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin (Paradise: Love) and DoP André Szankowski’s (The Mysteries of Lisbon) luscious visuals are what ultimately makes this a ravishing and mildly entertaining, if slightly bizarre, piece of filmmaking. MT reviewed at Cannes 2014

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 19-27 SEPTEMBER 2014

Loving (2012) Milosc | San Sebastian Film Festival 2014

Director: Slawomir Fabicki

Julia Kijowska, Marcin Dorocinski, Adam Woronowicz

Truth is often stranger than fiction and although the premise of this intimate Polish drama based on real life events in the city of Olszytn appears bizarre, when you think of a certain Mayor’s track record, it could easily happen.

Slowomir Fabicki’s drama is saved by moving and convincing performances from leads Julia Kijowska and Marcin Dorocinski who play Maria and Tomek, a successful working couple expecting their first child.  Maria works in the local council, Tomek is an architect with a practice specialising in Civic work and reliant on Government building contracts. Maria’s boss, the Mayor (Adam Woronowicz) is driving her mad with inappropriate emails and texts messages and when the couple attend an evening function at the Town Hall, the Mayor asks her for the last dance and it doesn’t end there.  Although our working laws and easy access to industrial tribunals make this drama feel implausible to UK audiences, Poland is not so advanced in these matters and women are still very much dominated by men in the workplace. Maria is also mindful of the ongoing building contracts that her husband’s practice is tendering for. All this could be jeopardised if she makes a complaint although she is clearly irritated by her Boss’s advances. But Tomek laughs the whole thing off appearing flattered that his heavily pregnant wife could be attractive to another man.  Soon it becomes clear that this is no laughing matter.

What happens next could easily descend into farce but the clever pacing and elegant cinematography elevate this potentially sordid story into something much for meaningful.  Loving is a simple tale, well-told and touchingly performed. MT

REVIEWED DURING KINOTEKA LONDON 2014

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 19 – 27 SEPTEMBER 2014

 

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