The VIFF may have ended two weeks ago but that won’t stop me from writing reviews of what I saw. Especially since most will be released more widely in the future.
With the VIFF, I have a good chance of seeing a wide variety of film from around the world. Earlier on, I had the good fortune to see the Iranian film 3 Faces. It appears slow, but says a lot.
The film opens with a young woman, Marziyeh, shooting a selfie-style video with her smartphone. She is in tears. She says her family will not accept her desire to become an actress and they demand she marries a man she does not love. She then appears to hang herself as the phone drops to the ground.
Later we see two people in a car. They are director Jafar Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafari. Panahi was the first one to receive the disturbing video which he was told came from a friend and then forwarded it to Jafari. Jafari doesn’t know whether to feel guilt over her death or believe that this whole video is a fake. Both drive over to her home village, a Turkish-Azeri speaking village, to find out the truth. They first want to search the village and then search the nearby cave where they believe the suicide would most likely happen.
As they drive, they get a good sense of the traditional mindset of the people that live there. There are some younger people who recognize the two and are in love with their movies. The more traditional people tell a bigger story. In one case, they see an old woman settling herself in her pre-dug grave with a lamp to keep snakes away from her for the ‘bad’ she believes she did. Another older villager insists Behnaz take tea with her and he gives her his eldest son’s circumcised foreskin as a talisman. Along the way, they come across a bull on the road lying there because his leg is broken. The owner says the bull cannot be killed because he is a ‘stud bull’ who once impregnated 10 cows in one night.
Then it happens. They come to the house of Marziyeh and her family. A lot of younger people are excited to meet the actor-director pair, but they know nothing of what happened to Marziyeh. She has been missing for three days. Then out of nowhere comes Marziyeh. She’s alive, but Behnaz is infuriated for her sending that ‘lie of a video.’ Marziyeh insisted that the video was a plea for help. If her family found out the truth, her brother would kill her. Behnaz reluctantly accepts Marziyeh and allows her to come into the car. During the ride back to the highway, Behnaz gets a phone call. It’s from Shahrazade: an actress and dancer Jafar worked with years ago. Shahrazade says she’s bitter about the way the directors treated her and now lives as a recluse writing poetry and painting landscapes. The film ends with the car stopped halfway down the road and the two women– Behnaz and Marziyeh — walking together.
The film may be slow and not too heavy on the drama, but it tells a lot. As many would know, Iran is going through a very restrictive regime. Even though it’s a democracy, religious law is still hard-lined. One can get a sense on how limited the roles of women are in a country like Iran. However Panahi takes it one step further as he focuses on a village in Northern Iran which is close to the borders of either Turkey or Azerbaijan. In fact Panahi comes from the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan. He gives a good sense of the traditional, even superstitious, mindsets of the people. The village people appear good hearty people who have good souls despite their superstitions appearing strange. However it’s Marziyeh who best can demonstrate the ugly side of it all. Marziyeh, a young woman with ambitions, does not fit in well. Especially since her village has desires for how a woman should live.
Mind you the film isn’t just about women in small remote villages in Iran. There’s also that phone call from Shahrazade. She was infuriated how male directors have treated her on the set so she decides to go her own direction, even if it means becoming a recluse. I think that film says a lot of how women are treated all over Iran. That scene where Panahi walks off with Marziyeh is possibly intended to speak a message about women choosing their own direction. Maybe Jafari is admitting his own mistreatment of women too.
Jafar Panahi is taking a big risk with this film. Actually his whole career as a filmmaker has been a big risk. Panahi’s films have upset the government of Iran because it either defies the strict Islamic conventions the Iranian government expects him to follow or they feel the films depict Iran in a negative manner. Whatever the reason, Panahi has been arrested and sentenced in 2010 to six years in prison for ‘propaganda against his country.’ On top of that, he was given a twenty-year ban on filmmaking from the Iranian government. The six-year prison sentence was reduced to three months due to international pressure spawned from a wide ‘freedom of speech’ campaign. His filmmaking ban is still in effect and 3 Faces is the fourth film he’s made under the ban. According to IMDB, this film was filmed in Tehran. No doubt if the Iranian government saw this, they would be infuriated. Especially since it makes the country’s treatment of women look bad. When I saw the film during the VIFF, I saw a lot of Iranian immigrants in the audience. I’m sure there were a lot of people, especially women, who share the same sentiments in the film.
The film Panahi acts, directs and co-writes with Nader Saeivar is a slow story that speaks volumes with what is shown scene after scene. Having a female co-write the story– another radical move in a country like Iran — really sends the message out there about what it’s like in Iran for women. Note that the film’s script won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival and was a nominee for the Palme d’Or. As an actor, Panahi acts like the silent observer as the story unfolds between Jafari and Marziyeh. The acting of Jafari and Marziyeh doesn’t really stand out in terms of grandiose performance, but their performances fit the story perfectly. The acting from the people playing the villagers added to the story and their characters were very believable.
3 Faces is a unique film that speaks volumes in its slow manner. 3 Faces is also a very radical film by a film maker who is already facing political persecution. It’s not just simply a film, but a courageous act.
One of the biggest attractions at this year’s Vancouver Film Festival is the French film Blue Is The Warmest Color. The win at the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film festival will make it an attraction, no doubt. There are some that already know what it’s about and others that don’t. The question is will the crowds be satisfied?
The story starts with Adèle, a young high school student from Paris nearing adulthood and trying to decide what she wants to do with her life especially in times when Europe is going through economic troubles. She’s very involved with her job at day care, but lost in thought during school and unhappy in her relationship with Thomas. She soon leans of her lesbian attractions and starts trying to get as better understanding of it. She even breaks up with Thomas in the process.
Her gay friends from high school introduce her to Paris’ gay scene. She’s exposed to gay culture at one gay bar then visits a lesbian bar for the first time where she meet a tomboy woman with blue hair named Emma. Emma not only introduces Adèle to the lesbian scene but also to her work as an artist. Adèle’s high school friends are surprised with her relationship with Emma but over time the relationship goes from being simply Adèle being the subject of Emma’s art to a full intimate relationship. They share everything. Both are also good with each other’s parents. Both are also supportive as Emma helps with Adèle’s 18th birthday and Adèle cooks for Emma’s art party.
Things mark a turning point at Emma’s art party as Adèle senses something between Emma and Lise, her artistic colleague. Adèle also senses the advances of her boss from the daycare she works at. Eventually she does engage with her boss only for Emma to find out. Emma breaks up with Adèle in a rage leaving Adele frustrated and heartbroken. Months pass and Adèle is now a first grade schoolteacher. Emma is soon to have her first art exhibit opening. They meet again in a café to try and resolve what they can only for Adèle to learn a hard new truth. Adèle goes to the exhibit opening only to leave heartbroken but older and wiser.
The surprising thing about this is how this film tries to portray a relationship between two young girls. Its biggest quality was its truthfulness. It showed a girl-meets-girl scenario that’s often the common way two meet. It shows the relationship and how the two share so much with each other that almost mirrors other relationships. It also shows the friction in relationships with being attracted to another person, infidelity, break-up and aftermath that you will notice in other relationships. I believe that’s the biggest thing about this film. This is not a film that aims for heavy intense dramatic story but rather a film of a lesbian relationship between two young girls that mirrors most relationships people have or have had, possibly even one of your own.
It’s not only about the relationship in the film but also as much about the two main characters too. Adèle is turning 18 and in the midst of deciding what she wants to do with the rest of her life, eventually setting on teaching elementary school. Emma is an older art student and she’s disinterested in conforming to the expectations of the world nor to the art business. Adèle has just recently learned of her same-sex attraction. She slowly tries to learn about it and welcomes it when Emma comes into her life, but questions if she still has attractions and feeling to men. Emma on the other hand knew of her lesbian attraction at 14 and became very comfortable with it. The personality traits of both adds to the story of the relationship as it shows that opposites can attract. It also shows how the two personalities cause friction as Adèle has the common immaturities with an 18 year-old and Emma is a free person but with a fierce attitude.
One of the things of the movie is that it also brings up certain forms of thought. It should not be surprising because Adèle is a student just learning and it’s the student years where one tries to expand their mind. Emma makes mention of Sartre and him creating a intellectual revolution in saying we are ‘condemned to be free.’ Another time we’re in one of Adèle’s science classes seeing a lesson in gravity and one student talks of unavoidable vices and how the Catholic Church tells us that vices should be avoided. There’s also the division of the arts world and the business world that’s also present in the film. Adèle embraces the arts greatly in her own way but wants a career that’s stable especially since the future of the young of France looks uncertain and chooses teaching. Emma on the other hand wants to do what she wants to do and paint what she wants to paint and resists offers to ‘market’ her talent. That pressure of the dilemma of doing what one is born to do vs. doing what pays the rent is a common pressure in the minds of a lot of young people during those years. I remember it was even a pressure for me when I was a college student.
Without a doubt, the biggest thing that got me thinking were the graphic lesbian sex scenes. I know that sex scenes are choreographed but I was still surprised in seeing it’s explicitness. Even though I learned just now that fake genitalia were used, there’s no question that there will be many who will label it ‘pornography.’ In fact the producers refused to edit the film for release in the US and that got it an NC-17 rating.
In all frankness, I did find this a very revealing and intimate look at a lesbian couple but nevertheless I found this film to be too long. I believe if a film is going to be 3 hours long, it should justify its purpose. I really question whether 179 minutes is really necessary for that film because it didn’t appear to justify its length of time. I’m sure the film could’ve done as good a job of telling the story of the relationship if it was even two hours. There are even times when I question if that heavy-duty sexual activity, especially the impulsive activity in the café near the end, really added to the story or was included for shock value. That’s the problem with over-the-top sex scenes in movies: it may be intended for the story but could be taken the wrong way with the public. In fact there were times my ‘inner teenager’ felt like saying: “Owww! Get down!”
The best quality was the acting. Adèle Exarchopoulos did a very good job not just of portraying a young lesbian but also of a young teenage girl on the verge of womanhood. Her mix of a character who’s on the verge of adulthood trying to be more responsible but also dealing with her own immaturities, both behavioral and sexual, made Adèle very believable as a young woman. Lea Seydoux did a great job of playing Emma, the older freer one who’s in control. For those who didn’t notice, Lea is the one who won Owen Wilson’s heart in Midnight In Paris. It’s surprising how she’s completely unrecognizable here. She did a very good job of character transformation. Director/writer Abdelatif Kechiche was really daring in his subject matter and his adaptation of the story. I checked his Wikipedia profile and there’s no mention of himself being gay. Nevertheless He did an excellent job of taking the relationship and making it look so relatable.
The question will remain will Blue Is The Warmest Color go well with the movie-going public? Marketing gay-themes movies to the general public is not an easy task especially with the predominantly heterosexual crowd. Yes there have been films of gay characters and gay relationships that have scored well like Philadelphia, The Hours, Brokeback Mountain and Milk, but it’s still a chancy thing that’s still hit-and-miss with no proven consistent results. Even this being a French-language film may cause some difficulties. I even question if a film like this will score well with the LGBT populations in North America. We should also take in mind that living as a gay man or lesbian in Europe is a lot different that living as a gay man or lesbian in North America. Two different continents with two different social attitudes. Something I question.
Blue Is The Warmest Color is a unique film in its portrayal of a lesbian couple. It has a lot of good qualities that make it worth watching for some but not for others. It all boils down to the individual audient and their tastes and tolerances to decide if this is the right film for them or not.
The Tree Of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The film isn’t the typical drama you’d come to expect. Instead it’s more introspective and delivers a message of a common theme of the human existence.
The movie’s story starts upon Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Mrs. O’Brien had always been taught everyone must choose between the path of grace or the path of nature. The son’s death would throw the family in turmoil. The movie then focuses on present-day Jack O’Brien, now an architect. When a tree is planted in front of his building, he reminisces about his life as a young boy during the 1950’s.
A pre-teen Jack is living with his family in suburban Waco, Texas and is now forced to choose the path for himself. His parents have equal bout opposite influences on him. His mother represents grace as she is gentle and nurturing but authoritative, presenting the world as a place of wonder. His father represents nature as he is loving but strict and authoritarian as he tries to make his boys tough for a world here perceives as corrupt and exploitative. He often questions giving up his passion of becoming a musician and instead became an engineer and hopes to achieve wealth through filing patents of his inventions.
Before Mr. O’Brien goes on a trip to market his inventions, a drowning death of a child at the town pool happens. Mr. O’Brien suddenly turns violent and unleashes an abusive rage on his boys and Mrs. O’Brien. While he’s away, Jack and the boys are raised exclusively by their mother and his feelings of rebelliousness start happening. Jack follows along with the other boys in his town and commits acts of vandalism and animal abuse, even theft of women’s underclothing from a neighbor’s house. It’s after that where Jack gets the first natural sense of his consequences and throws the stolen underwear in the river. Mr. O’Brien returns home having failed to sell his inventions. His plant closes and is given the option of staying with the company with an unpromising job or be terminated. He chooses the unpromising job which means the O’Brien family would have to move away from Waco. Upon leaving he asks Jack to forgive him for the harsh treatment of him.
What I just stated in the above synopsis was of the events that happened in the drama. That’s only half of it. The other half is what happens in the more sublime parts. The opening image of the movie is the mysterious flame that flickers in the darkness. We see it at the beginning of the film as it leads to the opening scene of Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Just as soon as an older Jack O’Brien reminisces of his childhood in the 50’s, the movie doesn’t shift back to Jack in the 50’s but of the very beginning of the universe. Galaxies are formed, planets are formed, volcanic activity and the existence of life begin on Earth, dinosaurs fight to survive and fight to conquer, an asteroid hits the Earth, and then the O’Briens marry and have Jack and his two brothers. This leads into the main drama of the story.
After Jack reconciles with his father the sublime returns as it fast forwards to an Earth five billion years later incinerated and shrunken by the sun and left completely devoid of any life. The movie returns to the present as Jack leaves work and encounters a vision of walking on rocks. As he walks through a lone wooden door frame, which is probably the door from the house in Waco which doesn’t exist, and is reunited with his family and all those who were in his life. Even those that died including his brother have been resurrected. The movie ends with the mysterious flame seen at the beginning continuing to flicker in the darkness.
For those who’ve seen the movie, there’s no question that the movie is very much thematic and gets you thinking. The biggest theme of the movie has to be the constant dilemma of the way of grace vs. the way of nature. It’s a constant choice everyone has to face in their life. It’s also made present in the movie that this dilemma has existed ever since there was life on Earth even before the human race. It’s a dilemma Jack is forced to confront as a child and witness his parents representing the two opposites. The way of grace is given additional support by the messages given by the priest. The way of nature is given additional support by all the rough, even destructive games the boys play. That theme and the various part of the film, both in terms of the plot and the sublime, focus on the theme of grace vs. nature being the universal pulse.
If there’s one weakness of the film that stands out, it’s that it tries too hard to be artistic and creative. I actually admire films that try to be original and take artistry to new levels. The only problem is all too often, many artistically inclined films look like they forget they are to be shown in front of an audience. When I critique movies, my attitude towards the more artsy films is: “Okay, I know you are trying to be artistic and creative but don’t forget you’ll be seen in front of an audience.” I also have a tough attitude towards commercial movies: “Okay, I know you want to make big money but give the audience their money’s worth.” Overall I feel a film doesn’t have to be entertainment but it should do something with the audience, like connect with them or get them thinking.
Enough about my critiquing guidelines. The problem with the Tree Of Life is that firstly it takes a subject matter that is common. It also tries to connect the dealings of loss and lost innocence with the existence of earth and the universe itself and even the spiritual world. Yes, it makes for some creative film crafting and original themes but it doesn’t succeed in grabbing the crowd or make them involved in the story line. Often the story tries too hard to let its sublime side get inside the audience that the story comes across as humorless and even unwatchable or confusing at times. That has to be the biggest glitch and that’s why I feel it doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture. Terrence Malick does his best to write and direct a watchable movie about lost innocence and reconciling with the past that tries to get inside the audience, but it misses in a lot of ways.
The best acting performance overall had to come from then-newcomer Jessica Chastain. It was her performance as Mrs. O’Brien, the struggling housewife, that was the most complex as she plays a character who struggles to keep the calm of the family despite the many fierce adversaries that come their way. Even though Chastain earned an Oscar nomination in The Help, I felt her supporting performance here was much scronger and deeper. Brad Pitt also did well but it was not his best acting performance. Actually his performance was more of a supporting performance as was that of Sean Penn. The leading performance of the movie actually comes from young Hunter McCracken. As young Jack O’Brien, he embodies the loss of innocence unraveling through its joy, anger and its heartbreak. Through young Jack, we see the embodiment of what being a young boy is all about in both a boy’s toughness and tenderness. Young Jack sees all that is happening and what would lead to the decline in relationship with his father that would pave the way for the reconciliation. The film’s best qualities are the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the musical score by Alexandre Desplat.
The Tree of Life tackles familiar themes of coming of age, loss of innocence and reconciling with the past. The problem with it is it tries too hard to connect it with the existence of the universe, all life on earth, the end times and even the spiritual world. Although it didn’t really appeal to me, I’ll just sum it up by saying it’s a love-it-or-hate-it film.
The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.
This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.
The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men.
The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.
As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.
Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.
There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.
This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.
For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington:
I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.
She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.
If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.