Before Krzysztof Kieslowski became the standard-bearer for the latter-day European art film with ravishing portraits of unspeakably beautiful women living their lives under unutterably mysterious circumstances, he was a gruff but adventurous chronicler, in both documentary and narrative films, of lives lived in the rather more drab surroundings of communist Poland. Well, money changes everything. It was the arrival of funding from Western sources that bestowed the gift of abstraction: Beginning with the internationally-celebrated The Double Life of Veronique in 1991, it made Kieslowski’s expressions of ennui beautiful. But in the 1980s, Kieslowski had less time for beauty. Continue reading
Matteo Garrone does a 180 from his acclaimed crime film, Gomorrah, in this keenly observed cautionary tale about pop culture, moral scruples, and the human mind’s capacity for self-delusion. The title is ironic, yes — the film’s charismatic but hapless fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena) spends his time coming unglued, losing his perspective as a working-class family man as he sacrifices his ordinary life in a misguided bid to become a reality-TV star.
First-tier documentarian Errol Morris finds himself slumming a bit with Tabloid, a clear departure from his recent tendency toward rigorous, serious-as-a-tumor inquiry. He describes it as “sick, sad and funny.” His attention has somehow been drawn to Joyce McKinney, a former Wyoming beauty queen who fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon from Utah. Anderson’s family (and the church) disapproved of the relationship. Anderson left the states to work as a missionary in Britain, and McKinney eventually followed him there. That much, at least, is not in doubt. What happened next is open to some question.
Confession: my only previous exposure to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director who’s one of the most lauded auteurs currently working, was a DVD copy of Tropical Malady, which frankly bored my pants off. Watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on the big screen at the New York Film Festival’s Alice Tully Hall, it occurred to me almost immediately that waiting to see anything by Weerasethakul on DVD is a terrible idea. For Uncle Boonmee, the large theater screen works like a window onto a bigger world populated by larger-than-actual-size memories and myths. And the photography is not the kind of crisp, high-contrast work that translates well to home video (though Blu-ray might do OK by it) — shots taken within the Thai jungle, for instance, are unfailingly dense and moody, with different and ever-darker shades of green layered on top of each other like thick brush strokes in an oil painting. Sometimes it feels as if the whole film were shot at twilight, or using day-for-night shooting and processing trickery. When one of Weerasethakul’s rare bright daylight exteriors hits the screen, you feel it like waking up at noon.
Lars Von Trier has been ducking accusations that he holds the female sex in a rather low regard for as long as he’s been making movies about suffering women. Breaking the Waves set the stage for the next decade or more of his career in grand fashion, with an epic chronicle of female sacrifice that climaxed with the conflation of a woman’s faith and debasement receiving the approval of a watchful God. Arguing on Usenet back in the day, I briefly advanced a crackpot theory that Breaking the Waves was a kind of metaphysical horror movie, an audience’s revulsion at the sexual hoops Bess jumps through in the belief that her promiscuity will somehow help heal her husband’s paralyzing injury meant to be surpassed only by its astonishment that the universe was run by an entity that considered such behavior not only noble but exemplary. For the hell of it, I sent a quick email to an address that I believed to be Von Trier’s, asking, “Does Breaking the Waves have a happy ending?” The one-word response came back overnight: “Yes!!!!” So much for irony.
Silent Light, an unhurried, largely unmodulated story of faith and unfaithfulness in a Mexican Mennonite farming community, is fundamentally a study in opposites. Light and dark are considered in the images that bookend the film, twin tracking shots that depict, in time-lapse, gorgeous sunrise and sunset. So perfectly are these moments captured and compressed, despite the tricky decision to move the camera as they transpire, that the technical facility of director Carlos Reygadas and his crew, including cinematographer Alexis Zabé, is never in doubt. The pictures they gather, which find deep colors and a pregnancy of feeling in simple landscapes, stormy skies, and shadowy figures seen through windows and doorways, express meaning as the narrative progresses deliberately through its paces.
“Do you believe in God?” Elvis (Gael García Bernal) asks 16-year-old Malerie (Pell James), after she says his cursing bothers her. “Yes I do,” comes her certain answer. It’s that certainty that director James Marsh seems interested in challenging in The King, an accomplished but upsetting look at a demon visiting a family of true believers in Corpus Christi. Elvis is the son of a prostitute, a discharged sailor come to Texas in search of the father he never knew — David Sandow (William Hurt), a reformed philanderer who runs a cavernous church called Sanctuary. Marsh’s decision to portray Sandow as a doctrinarian who belittles his teenaged children and denies his own checkered past makes the events that transpire — as Elvis insinuates himself into the unsuspecting family in unsavory and ultimately devastating ways — feel punitive and mean-spirited. And yet there’s something fascinating in Bernal’s portrayal of a gentle monster who seems truly not to see his own evil, and in James’s depiction of the girl who submits easily to his ravishing, which is a kind of liberation. In context, the film-ending declaration “I need to get right with God” feels like the punchline to a very sick joke.
Originally published in the White Plains Times, October 20, 2006