Sunday, April 27, 2008

Film Review #158: Moolaadé
2004/DVD 2008
Director: Ousmane Sembene
Cast: Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maimouna Hélène Diarra, Théophile Sowié

Many thundering, indignant tirades have rained upon another’s head already by the time Ciré Bathily’s first wife Kharjatou (Maimouna Hélène Diarra) finally loses her temper with his middle wife Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), whom she cherishes, lies for sometimes and secretly agrees with. Stopping the second wife dead in her tracks with an icy glare and pointed finger, Kharjatou commands Collé never to raise her voice again and banishes the younger woman to her quarters. And Collé meekly goes.

When this startling exchange occurs, Collé has the entire contemporary West African village of Djerisso in an uproar. In their husband’s absence, she’s allowed four runaway girls to seek refuge in the Bathily family compound, avoiding the purification rite of female circumcision that their local custom requires. (Two other little girls who also ran away threw themselves down the village well rather than submit to cutting.) Oumy, Diatou, Awa and Nafi – who look to be somewhere between the ages of five and maybe eight – tell Collé they sought her out because they’d heard that seven years ago Collé refused her own daughter’s purification. Then, Ciré (Rasmane Ouedraogo) and Kharjatou both let that defiance pass.

Now, with the simple act of tying a rope across the outer gate to their compound – so low that toddlers, chickens and baby goats routinely step right over it – Collé invokes the indigenous, ancient protection of “moolaadé” that only she can lift by uttering a single word aloud. Moolaadé alone trumps the relative new-comer Islam and leaves the red-robed Salindana – dour women who perform the circumcisions – thwarted, fuming, cooling their heels beyond the rope.

Worse, this all coincides with the triumphant return from Paris of Ibrahima Doucouré (Théophile Sowié), who passes out currency, pays his prominent father’s debts to the peddler Mercenaire (Dominique Zeïda) and expects to marry Collé’s daughter Amsatou (Salimata Traoré). He is undeterred that she is “bilakora” (uncut). His father initially let that pass too, despite several brief, wry scenes in which the older men vigorously reassure one another that they would never consider intimacy with such a woman.

More dramatic events follow – a public flogging, Ibrahima’s disinheritance, the forced and fatal cutting of little asylum-seeker Diatou (lured from safety by her mother), the peddler’s murder for interference, the furious confiscation and burning of the women’s radios. Guttenberg’s printing press sparked Europe’s Protestant Reformation by making Holy Scripture available to whoever could read. In remote Djerisso, this analogue of subversive blend of literacy with forbidden knowledge boils over when Collé tells the assembled village that – on the radio – she has heard the Grand Imam himself say that Islam does not require cutting. For good measure, she reports that a million uncut women make the pilgrimage to Mecca themselves every year, to which one elder responds, “You are Satan!”

Set in the West African nation of Burkina Faso and made in 2003, Senegalese writer and director Ousmane Sembene’s final film, honored first at Cannes and many times since, actually came to Syracuse last April, when Jean Jonassaint, liaison for French-language films to the Syracuse International Film Festival, screened it late one afternoon at Syracuse University’s Hall of Languages. Long available on DVD in Canada because of Quebec’s robust French-language cinema – indeed, films made in French hail from several continents and the Caribbean – Moolaadé only recently made it to US DVD.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between this film and current headlines on the basis of surface similarities – the seizure of children in Texas from the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints over possible sexual abuse and on-going custody hearings – but that lens can be distorting. Last June we lost Sembene, an old lion’s death overshadowed here by the twin losses in July of Bergman and Antonioni, both – shades of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – on the same day. Moolaadé is a good place to start if you don’t know Sembene’s work, with its finely calibrated performances and characters torn by the real dilemmas of personal affection competing with rigorous custom. With all the larger furor in their village, Collé earns Kharjatou’s rebuke because she embarrasses the older woman before her adult son with a moment of demanding, insistent inquiries, much as Ciré’s harsh older brother goads him into bullying Collé – his favorite wife – and so on. It’s a lovely and important film, likely to bust your categories.

Find Moolaadé as well as Sembene’s Black Girl, Xala, &Mandabi at Jean Jonassaint reports that SIFF plans a Sembene retrospective as part of its 2009 program. This review appeared in the 4/24/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.
Film Review #157: Madame Rosa
1977/DVD forthcoming
Director: Moshe Mizrahi
Cast: Simone Signoret, Samy Ben-Youb, Michal Bat-Adam

When the jittery, shifty-eyed Kadir Youssef shows up, banging at Madame Rosa’s door eleven years after leaving his toddler son in her care, Madame Rosa (the incomparable Simone Signoret) improvises a demonstration for the boy so he can choose whether he wishes this man to be his father. Kadir Youssef is just released from the psychiatric hospital that held him all those years after he shot his wife, who turned fifteen tricks a day for him in the Paris streets. Now 65, in badly failing health and destitute, Madame Rosa has just two boys left from her international brood, children of younger, still working prostitutes left with her for a monthly fee. Roughly the same age, one is a Jewish boy in a skull cap, the other a Muslim boy named Momo (Samy Ben-Youb’s only film role), who has lately taken to introducing himself as “Algerian” to satisfy his own questions.

As a make-shift foster mother, Madame Rosa has conscientiously attached each of her charges to someone from their own background – a Vietnamese boy to a Vietnamese grocer, an African child to the jovial Senegalese pimp Amèdée (musician Ibrahim Seek), and Momo to Mr. Hamil (Gabriel Jabbour), an elderly Arab rug dealer fond of Victor Hugo whose admonitions include the idea that one cannot live without love. Madame Rosa herself survived Auschwitz to return to Paris after World War II. (In one harrowing scene, her mind fragile, she imagines she’s again ordered to take just one bag and report for the train trip east.) She boasts she now keeps identity papers that go back many generations and prove she’s not Jewish, just in case. Madame Rosa also has a secret, locked cellar room with a Menorah that she calls her “Jewish hide-away.” She retreats there when plagued by nightmares or, with Momo’s help, when the aged Dr. Katz (Claude Dauphin) tries to put her in the hospital, where she fears she’d be kept alive for experiments.

So Madame Rosa has not mixed up these boys. But she tells Kadir Youssef, shrugging after she checks her records – here we see the contents of that battered suitcase – and nodding toward Moïse, who’s clearly accustomed to going along with her tales to strangers, “I made a mistake. I mixed up the religions. I brought up Mohamed as a good little Jew. He’s a little bit Jewish, he’s still your son.”

An apoplectic Kadir Youssef screams, “I want my son back in an Arab state!”

Serenely, Madame Rosa answers, “In this household we have no Jewish states or Arab states.”

In this moment, the luminous Madame Rosa – she who retired from prostituting after age 50 “for aesthetic reasons” – also alters each boy from his past enough that he becomes free to choose it, to change his own beginning and hence his own ending. Israeli filmmaker Moshe Mizrahi makes such self-invention a means of transcendence, a species of art itself. Thus for example Momo’s concocted alibi about Madame Rosa’s long-lost Israeli relatives sending for her. Or his grieving, distracted exchange with the statuesque black hooker Madame Lola (Stella Annicette), whom he tells he's stopped eating. When Lola, an ex-boxer who “took injections,” scoffs that hunger is a law of nature, Momo retorts, “I could care less about nature’s laws!” After a beat, Lola laughs, “Well, neither could I!” And when Momo follows the young film editor Nadine, who becomes his life-line (Michal Bat-Adam, herself a noted filmmaker, Mizrahi’s wife and later his frequent lead), he’s mesmerized precisely by cinema’s capacity to “make the world go backwards.”

Winner of 1978’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Madame Rosa is hard to find in the US unless you’re willing to pay big bucks on-line. Only a handful of Mizrahi’s films are currently available in the US, some on netflix and several more on-line. Lately Netflix has promised a new DVD of Madame Rosa that you can reserve, maybe because Mizrahi has a new film entitled Weekend in Galilee. See both on the big screen right here in Syracuse later this month, with Mizrahi himself making the trip too, thanks to the Syracuse International Film Festival.

Madame Rosa is part of SIFF 2008’s retrospective honoring Moshe Mizrahi. Screenings include I Love You Rosa, Madame Rosa, Every Time We Say Good-bye & the USA premier of Mizrahi’s new film, Weekend in Galilee. USA premier of Michal Bat-Adam’s new film, Rita Working Title also at SIFF. Complete SIFF schedule at
Film Review #156: The Night of the Shooting Stars
1982/DVD 2008
Directors: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani
Cast: Omero Antonutti, Margarita Lozano, Mauro Monni

As of last week, a colleague in Italy advises by email, the latest film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, filmmaker brothers from Tuscany, had not yet been sold to a US distributor. Set in 1915 during the historic Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks, Skylark’s Farm premiered in February 2007 at the Berlin Film Festival, albeit outside the main line-up and greeted with “stony silence.” This was shortly after the sensational assassination of outspoken Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, during threats and even criminal charges in Turkey against Turkish novelists Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak and others. The growing movement there among artists, journalists and writers to speak openly about “the Armenian question” – something Turkey’s government has long officially denied – has been fanned by the issue of whether Turkey would join the European Union.

So making a film about the Armenian genocide – a project of artistic solidarity – would be right up the Taviani brothers’ alley. A year-plus after Berlin, Skylark’s Farm has opened in seven other countries and opens in Russia in late April. So the time is about right for Skylark’s Farm to show up state-side. Perhaps anticipating this, on April 1st Koch Lorber released a three-disc DVD set of three major Taviani films. Their signature film and certainly the best-known here, The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) has screened for years in Italian cinema courses on US college campuses. Kaos (1984) and Fiorile (1993) took more hunting to find, the first a three-hour adaptation of four Pirandello stories tied by the flight of the ill-omened raven, the second following a family curse over several generations and starring Michael Vartan (well before his spy in TV’s Alias) as a Napoleonic soldier and two of his spitting-image descendants, a role reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ similar turn in the Hungarian Itzvan Szabo’s wonderful Sunshine.

It’s a good sign that Emerald City Video immediately got this set on their racks. Releasing these three films together – watching them in a row is a fine way to spend three evenings – refreshes familiarity with one of the most fruitful and enduring partnerships in movie-making, highlights the resonance of shared locales and actors over a body of work, and prepares us for what may be an important cinematic response to the long-festering political and ethnic impasse in Turkey.

Beginning in 1954 – a yeasty time for Italian cinema – Paolo and Vittorio Taviani made the first of over 20 films, most set in Italy. Like so much of Italy's art since World War II, the Taviani’s work has wrestled deeply and expansively with the process of Fascism’s growth and its echoing consequences across families and communities. Their own home village of San Miniato and a neighboring village, Sant’Angelo, in the northwest region of Tuscany, figure prominently in both Night of the Shooting Stars and Fiorile, while the three-hour-long Kaos is set in 19th century Sicily. In the DVD interview on this set, Vittorio Taviani relates that their parents took them to Florence to see a Pirandello play when they were barely ten or eleven. This would have been the early 1940s. Intriguingly, the crystallizing experience of performed drama, he says – as Fascism roiled on every side – “was the end of our childhood – discovering the world is not as it seems.”

Taviani films are always good yarns, many narrated by a storytelling character. In Night of the Shooting Stars, a grown-up character named Cecilia recalls to her own sleeping infant how San Miniato split during a crucial moment in 1944, when she was a child and one man decided he should not believe the assurances of authority, even delivered from his bishop’s mouth. At that time, US troops were fighting their way up Italy's boot and San Miniato tensely awaited liberation. Ordered by the Germans to gather inside the cathedral, the plain, poor, elderly Galvano (Omero Antonutti) instead proposes they flee and takes half the village with him by night. When the few injured survivors of those who remained stagger from the dynamited cathedral, the bishop and a townswoman briefly struggle in the square, their eyes locked in grief and anger, over the body of a young pregnant bride whose modest wedding opened the film. The rigors of the road allow Galvano and childhood sweetheart Concetta (Margarita Lozano), now far above him in means and status, a brief and lovely moment out of time when their hosts in another town mistake them for a married couple and offer them their own room for the night. And Night of the Shooting Stars offers one of cinema's most memorable and mythically charged battles, when partisans and Fascists clash over one bloody afternoon in a golden wheat field, as neighbors and brothers and friends battle one another, conjuring the very heroes of Troy. With moviemaking this good, you don't mind knowing the end.

This review appeared in the 4/10/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Film Review #155: Time of the Wolf
2003/DVD 2006
Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Hakim Taleb, Lucas Biscombe
In early January 2006, I saw my first Michael Haneke film at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York City one cold, slushy night. There’s a moment in Caché – in English, it means Hidden – where, utterly without warning, a man slits his own throat, loosing a jet of blood across a kitchen. Even now, I feel my own head jerk back, how my hands clenched the seat arms, hear our – the rest of the audience’s – noisy collective gasp. The success of Caché – with its meditation on how camera surveillance has penetrated our lives and its riff on the costs of colonialism at a time when North African migrant workers were rioting in French suburbs – introduced the Austrian’s work to a wider US audience. DVD release of earlier Haneke films quickly followed that spring. Tellingly, Caché’s own DVD cover features a white background rent with a single jagged red slash.

Such moments of disorienting recoil are Haneke’s calling cards. In The Piano Teacher (2001), a film with certainly more than one such moment, my candidate for most viscerally gasp-inducing is that in which Isabelle Huppert’s teacher leaves the auditorium during her nervous star pupil’s dazzling recital and booby-traps the girl’s coat pocket with shards of broken glass. Somehow this moment is more unsettling than successive ones - it's as though Haneke has broken the act itself into shards - in which we first hear her scream, then see the blood-drenched hand held mid-air.

Haneke’s most violent moments sometimes occur just off-screen – we see the resulting bloodspray, after which his women, literally unable to stomach events, vomit – or the violence is other than merely physical. That gash on Caché’s DVD cover as much represents another boundary violated: the breaking of the “fourth wall” convention of live drama – from which Haneke comes to cinema – in which action spills off the stage, characters speak directly to audiences or some provocation occurs that transforms one’s safe spectator experience to participatory immediacy. Haneke opens the cage door. And from The Seventh Continent (1989) on, in most of his scripts – except for adapting novels twice – this occurs over and over with characters named some variant of Anne and Georges Laurent; their children, when present, often named Ben and Eva. As if, as a culture, we keep not getting the lesson right.

In Haneke’s new Funny Games, set on Long Island and pretty much a shot-for-shot re-make of his 1997 film of the same title, the moment of most recoil for me arrives near the end. As Ann (Naomi Watts) – bound, gagged, her husband and son dead – crosses a small lake in her sailboat, perched on the edge of the deck, one of her captors, Paul (Michael Pitt), with a cheery “Ciao, bella!” and not so much as a glance in her direction, shoves her overboard. (She drops from sight as quickly, as disposably, as that first kid shot in the library dropped from the frame in Gus Van Sant’s 2003 Columbine-inspired Elephant). But much of what repulses people about this film, with its veneer of opera scores and lovely God’s-eye cinematography, occurs earlier – during the three times Paul or Peter turn to the camera to taunt the audience about torture-as-entertainment and then during a truly disorienting sequence in which Ann shoots one kidnapper, we may momentarily exult and Paul uses a TV remote to re-wind – erase – that possible outcome. Funny Games is assaultive, masterful and left Carousel quickly. In the shorthand parlance of my group of regular movie buddies, it’s “not for Laurinda.”

Despite making Funny Games anew – and he’s working on a film now about how ritual punishment in a rural northern German school in 1913 contributed to Fascism’s rise, the working title of which is The Teacher’s Tale – Haneke did make one film – his first after 9/11 – that’s gentler, comparatively easier on his women, and full of grief for us all. Well, it’s not exactly without its violence. But one appreciates Time of the Wolf (2003) more, understanding Haneke’s usual bent.

Here, affluent city-dweller Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) – a panicked looter shoots husband Georges very early - crosses the French countryside with teen-aged daughter Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and young son Ben (Lucas Biscombe) after some convulsive catastrophe turns Europe to wasteland. Because she has “behaved correctly” in the past to a local woman we assume was a shopkeeper or maid, Anne receives a bag of biscuits through a narrowly cracked door. A violent feral boy (Hakim Taleb) hesitantly joins them and soon pulls an overcoat from a corpse which he offers to Eva. Initially she’s repulsed, but in the next scene she’s wearing it, and Eva remains this boy’s single tenuous thread to any make-shift community. An unstopping refugee train zooms by but he guides them to a country train station. Several incidents of frail generosity occur, flickering before the tide of chaos – an old man shares a cup of milk with his wife, one woman calms another down, in a fitful night there’s a faint, scratchy Beethoven sonata on a tape recorder.

Fragile, traumatized, increasingly given to wandering off, Ben hears garbled talk from some travelers of the Jewish legend of “the Just” – those 36 humans whose presence offsets all humanity’s evil-doing – and decides to sacrifice himself. Beside a signal fire on the tracks in a vast night, a sentry stops him, cradles him, says his willingness is enough. Then someone watches from an open box-car door, rumbling monotonously across an empty land. Haneke’s endings are aggressively ambiguous. Of course we might prefer it meant the next train stopped for Anne and her children. But it’s hard not think that “Never again” is the simple lesson that we’re still missing, all of us fellow travelers.

This review appeared in the 4/3/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Film Review #154: Taste of Cherry
1997/DVD 1999
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari

Years ago one of my sisters sent me a postcard from a Boston museum of a John Singer Sargent painting of a simple, square, sun-washed stucco house, I think in Capri, across whose clean, rectangular lines fell the shadow of a tree, sinuous and lacey. I’ve never seen that painting again and I can no longer locate the postcard. But I remember staring at the painting and the sudden blossoming pleasure I had in seeing it was as much a painting of the tree as the house.

It’s no surprise, really, that Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami – also a landscape photographer of considerable renown who leans toward stark, nearly abstract groupings of trees against fields of snow – should come up with a similar image late in Taste of Cherry, his 1997 tale of a lonely, modern city-dweller who spends his last day alive seeking, with singular tunnel vision, someone to cover his grave. By the time Kiarostami trains his camera on Mr. Badii’s living room window, we’ve spent the day with this man and we know his plan.

Beginning in downtown Tehran at a street-corner labor pool whose beseeching swarms of supplicants he passes by, the finicky Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) drives on, out of the city’s center to the outskirts. There he offers money to a construction foreman at a deserted site who’s been talking in a phone booth that's incongruously planted in the middle of a muddy field. This man, apparently with his own money problems, mistakes Badii’s offer for a sexual advance and angrily turns him away. It’s a huge sum Badii offers – 200,000 tomans, nearly six months wages for the average Iranian worker.

Mr. Badii drives on, picks up a young soldier (Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari) who’s walked all night from his Kurdish village to get back to his post on time for his duty. Badii fondly remembers his own military service, but he makes the slender boy increasingly nervous. Dropping his not-quite-jelled military reserve, the boy sprints down the hill in panic once he sees the open grave. Badii stops a while with a construction site guard, an Afghani refugee who offers to make him tea in his rickety shack on stilts at the foot of towering slope from which a bull-dozer’s constant din and dust rains down. The guard’s fellow refugee, a seminarian, turns Badii down and fails to dissuade him. But even here, in this construction site as vast and desolate as any on-screen since those of Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang in his 1994 Vive L’Amour, simple hospitality abides. And when Badii’s wheel goes off the edge of the road, muddy laborers cheerfully haul him back.

At last, Mr. Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri), an old Turk who’s been out on foot hunting quail for his taxidermy students at the national natural history museum – a place of ornate, scrolled gates and deep, serene lawns, the only site of man-made order and beauty in this city – agrees to the deal, after relating his own close call with suicide decades ago and the sick child whose care Badii’s money will secure.

It’s Bagheri – after all, he’s also found some famously nervous birds in a most unlikely spot too – who supplies the film’s title, the culmination of his inventory of nature’s bounty. “The world isn’t the way you see it,” he asserts. “Do you want to refuse all that? Do you want to give up the taste of cherries?”

Now, after dark, Mr. Badii paces in that living room, straightens up some items, picks up some papers from a desk and then puts them away, perhaps in a drawer, before he shuts off the light and leaves the building to descend his front steps and drive in his tan American Range Rover through a black night to that fresh hillside grave overlooking a glittering Tehran.

This living room scene is a layered, triply remarkable image. First, Kiarostami shoots it through sheer curtains, so we watch Mr. Badii in silhouette. Like many aspects of this film – the long shots, the vast, raw construction sites on the city’s expanding outskirts where much of the story occurs, or the fact that Badii is almost never in the same frame with the person he’s talking with – this heightens his isolation. But there’s more than that. It’s hard not to think later – this is a film that stays with you, unfolding in the next days – of the image of the ancient cave with its fire-thrown, flickering shadows – illusions that we mistake for what’s real. Perhaps no matter how modern our architecture becomes, we are still in that cave.

Second, there’s that old saying about the eyes being the windows to the soul. That strikes you suddenly near the end of this scene, when Mr. Badii turns the lights off and his living room window goes dark and blank – just as he intends to do in short order. It’s a moment startling in finality – he means to do this – and unexpectedly, because now you see how much you’ve hoped he’ll change his mind, sad.

Finally, throughout this scene, across the front of Mr. Badii’s house falls the graceful shadow of a young tree trunk and branches, swaying faintly in a rising wind that signals rain. Like the golden sunset that Mr. Badii watched earlier – shimmering above a really deeply ugly cluster of squat, new cement boxes – this tree illuminates both the effortlessness of the natural world and how she casts her shadow across all the progress that we make and do.

Taste of Cherry was the first Iranian film to take top honors at Cannes, and even then critics argued about its ending, a brilliant extension of the thread that all is not as it seems. That ending – with its hillside lushly green, its cherry trees in bloom, its young soldiers lounging, its film crew chatting and Louis Armstrong’s “Saint James Infirmary Blues” exulting – so moved Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum that he insisted defiantly that for once he would too write about the ending.

Martin Hogue, who teaches architecture, screens this film on Monday, April 7th at the Warehouse Auditorium downtown at 7:00 PM, part of his course, The City in Film, an extended exploration of how the city has functioned in movies as a character of shifting identities rather than a mere backdrop - appropriate work, it seems to me, for a school of architecture that has moved itself off its lofty hilltop and into the city's urban core, and some of whose students are still grumbling about that inconvenience. He’s wouldn’t mind if you dropped in to watch either.

This review appeared in the 3/27/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.