Archive for VIFF

Of Gods And Men

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film, Reviews - Film with tags , on March 10, 2011 by Nathan Douglas

The following was originally written in October 2010. I have revised it slightly for publication here. Of Gods And Men opened in limited US/Canada release on Feb. 25.

Prior to seeing Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men at the VIFF last year, I had read a few positive reviews from its screenings at Cannes.  The reception in Toronto and New York was no less encouraging thanks to positive pieces penned by Michael Sicinski and Glenn Kenny, both of whom are well-known for their insight, scrupulousness, and grounded opinions of any film, whether prestigious or not.  These are not fellows who will offer knee-jerk praise to any Palm-baiting arthouse flick that makes it over here.  The advance word was very good, to say the least.

I mention this in order to talk about a couple more reviews that were filed from Cannes, both somewhat negative and similar in one specific way.  Both Michael D’Angelo and Matt Noller criticized the film for being, in Noller’s words “somber and respectful to a fault: the Cannes equivalent of Oscar bait.” D’Angelo unenthusiastically described it as “mass hagiography.” Watching the film, I couldn’t help but reflect on these words and the assumptions behind them — especially the hint of an attitude that seems to automatically roll its eyes at works that approach subjects of intrinsic gravity with reverence.  As a film about men who gave up lives of comfort, romance, and eventually their blood for the spiritual path to which they felt called, a certain amount of seriousness should be expected.  Faith, religion, doubt, and death are all “heavy topics,” and a film that tackles them, as this one does, is bound to be “somber” in places.  Why all the fuss?

I’m frustrated by this seemingly detached way of viewing and dismissing a film that deals with difficult subjects as “too reverent.”  The implication of this complaint is that Beauvois’ respect for his subject somehow morphs into a technical flaw in the film’s storytelling. “Beauvois is less interested in humanizing the monks than in sanctifying them” writes Noller, while “Of Gods & Men never sets a foot wrong, but neither does it challenge the viewer to feel anything but passive admiration,” says D’Angelo.  “Good” people doing good things. Ho-hum.  Compounding the situation is the fact that Beauvois has made an intensely detailed film, materially and intellectually, about religious devotion (which may or may not make either critic uncomfortable, though wondering about that reads too much into brief comments) that does nothing to coerce the viewer to take one side or the other (Christian or Muslim), but also doesn’t leave plenty of room for the atheist to make moral claims about the problems of religion. It takes great pains to portray its characters’ faith in action while avoiding adopting any religious opinion (including atheism) as a worldview for the apparatus.  Its reverence is almost anthropological in nature; full of deep respect for the way a long-held tradition inspires courage in its adherents.

Of Gods and Men is an inherently “spiritual film,” in the sense that most of its scenes seem haunted by a spiritual presence.  I do not invoke these terms to describe something vaguely intuited during the film, but to give weight to a presence, even a character, that is rooted in the religious identity of the subjects.  What’s intriguing is how this presence is evoked not necessarily through obvious formal choices, but through performance and character.  One monk tells a young woman of how he used to be in love with a woman, until he encountered “a greater love,” which he followed into the monastery.  Later we see this man’s loving care of the villagers around him, whom he heals and binds, acting in the manner of Christ.  The words of the monks tell us how God is moving in their lives, but this sort of interaction is never physicalized in a supernatural way.  Everything that happens is internal, both on the screen and off.

Keeping that in mind, a certain scene late in the picture inspired a curious effect in me as I watched.  Somewhere during one of the monks’ communal prayer times, I felt compelled to close my eyes as they prayed.  What’s fascinating to me about this compulsion was not that I felt like I too needed to pray along with the characters, but that I had an inexplicable sense that closing my eyes would actually allow me to “see” the scene in front of me “better”, or perhaps, more clearly.  I did close my eyes, briefly, and certainly felt like I didn’t miss anything by doing so.  Indeed, I think I had a brief moment of perception where I felt in tune with the monks on screen, with the rhythm of their lives and their worship, such that this late scene of religious devotion invited me to participate.  I sensed that I what I was seeing and hearing was not the whole picture, that something else on another level entirely was going on, and that closing my eyes might bring me closer to seeing it.

The whole film is conventionally narrative, but punctuated by regular interludes showing the monks at chapel together, chanting and praying.  These moments become a ritual within the editing, allowing Beauvois to shape the film into something approaching a liturgy.  This cycle of prayer and praise sinks in over time, easing the viewer into the film and pointing them towards the Holy.

I believe that Beavois’ evocation of a sense of the Holy is also result of a phenomenology closely attuned to the monks’ faces and bodies, both individually and collectively.  Or to put it another way, if Beavois is deploying a spiritual or transcendental aesthetic, it’s one that hews closer to Rossellini than to Bresson.  The film’s formal asceticism only extends as far as the sparseness of its subjects’ lives.  If Beauvois’ frames seem bare, it is because of the settings he’s capturing: outside, it’s uncomplicated mountains, deserts, and fields; inside it’s sparsely furnished rooms of people with few possessions.  The images seem devoid of distraction because that is precisely the world these monks have created for themselves — Beauvois is ultimately operating in a tradition of historical realism that recalls Rossellini’s own picture about monks, The Flowers of St. Francis.  Beauvois’ monks, like Rossellini’s, are miles removed from Bresson’s inexpressive “models;” and like Rossellini, Beauvois spends most of his time meditating on the human face in flux, not set in stone.  There is a rich humanism humming under the surface of both films, a deep respect for each man as he struggles with doubts.

The film is intriguing in its refusal to follow Bressonian models of transcendental filmmaking, or to dabble in Bergman-style expressionism.  Except for one shot — a praying monk backlit by dusty rays — Beauvois avoids the sort of austere flamboyance that spiritual and existential dramas have typically indulged. And except for a climax of flat close-ups of each monk listening to a cue from Swan Lake, Beauvois also eschews the visual purity favoured by Bresson (and even this, Beauvois’ most Bressonian moment, is dominated by cathartic music; a choice that, diagetic source or not, is a direct affront to Bresson’s values).

If the film speaks to our time, it does so by addressing the gap between Christians and Muslims, particularly in taking steps to care for and humanize Muslim believers from the perspective of its protagonists – that is, from a peaceful, loving worldview rooted in the specific traditions of these Christian monks.  Beauvois avoids trying to reconcile Islam and Christianity as equally viable paths within a fundamentally secular world – indeed, the issue is never raised — but instead focuses on how the two might respect each other while gently affirming their own exclusive creeds.  A deep respect is preserved between the monks and the villagers, with neither side feeling compelled to shuck their beliefs and convert.

The final shot is a masterful summary of faithfulness in general, for both sides involved.  It’s a wide shot of the monks and their kidnappers, Muslim extremists, marching up a mountain into a snowstorm.  The monks walk gracefully to their fate; the would-be killers go matter-of-factly.  There is no judgment to be found in the framing; it is just a simple statement of the faith dynamics that drive these two groups.  One will love and keep dying for that love, regardless of who’s pulling the trigger; the other will keep killing, as they believe they must.  The viewer may pick sides but Beauvois’ staging doesn’t force it.  It’s a fitting end to a film that coolly examines faith tested by doubt and decision-making.  It’s a moment of facts, not opinions.  It is a moment of natural reverence, of understanding the gravity of what’s about to take place.  It needs that breath of anticipation, of waiting, in order to register an effect.  If there is no holiness to be found in that moment, then it’s all a waste of time.

Maybe that’s what the naysayers were looking for. And they can keep on looking. This is one of those rare films that observes the religious experience and does not blink. It does not preach.  It simply records. If one can’t help but feel reverent, then so be it. This is about as unobtrusive as a film about this subject gets.

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Housekeeping, VIFF, Wild Things, Amazing Grace, & Counting Down to a Hurricane

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Miscellaneous, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

Blogging has been light, and will likely continue in such a manner for the next few weeks as my classmates and I keep up with the preproduction freight train, leading into our shoot in less than two weeks time.  I’ve got lots to write on, but little time to write.  For now, some quick things:

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1. I managed to catch three films at this year’s VIFF.  KAMUI was scattershot, wildly silly, and frequently entertaining despite plot holes you could drive a shark-hunting pirate ship through (and yes, that vessel does factor into the proceedings).  If anything, it’s refreshing to see a swordplay-heavy action film that doesn’t cut every 1.2 seconds.  Or even every 2.5 seconds.

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THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD milks everything you would expect, and then some, out of a tightly focused one-day story arc.  In hindsight, I’m not sure if it was as funny as the audience seemed to think at the time, and perhaps found a crowd willing to meet it part way.  Either way, it’s a fine little film.

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My last film of the festival was a late choice made out of curiosity, not buzz (not that the film necessarily had that), and now having let it settle for a couple weeks, I remain as convinced as ever that it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a theatre this year.  Remember this title: LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB.  I’m not finished with this one.  Keep an eye out for it.  The trailer’s at the bottom of this post.

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2. I saw WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE exactly 24 hours after I saw LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB, and I can’t ever remember experiencing a one-two cinema punch quite like that.  Both films are deeply emotionally resonant, and effected similarly strong reactions from my jaded critical self.  Being immersed in film academia, you spend so much time looking at how things are put together (which, I believe, only enhances appreciation) than sitting back and letting it wash over you as a total experience.  JACOB and WILD THINGS are gifts in that regard.  The dissection may, and should, come later, but when they’re up there, unfolding before tired eyes and tired minds, the overall sweep of their stories and characters proves to be cleansing.  I’m not sure I realize yet how much I needed those two films, at that point in my life.

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3. Also worth mentioning is the concert U2 just played here in Vancouver.  It was my first U2 show, having only become a fan over the last couple of years.  I was not disappointed.  All I will say is that their one-two-three combination of “One,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Where The Streets Have No Name,” may have been the greatest live-music moment I have ever experienced .  Especially the segue from “Grace” into “Streets”.  The feeling running through that changeover, from reflecting on the gift of grace to the hope of heaven, and the mounting joy as that famous riff builds and builds…truly electrifying.  And a masterful use of their most beloved songs to point the audience’s eyes upwards, towards the Magnificent One.

And through it all, these four guys on stage seemed immune to the crowd’s adoration.  I’d read accounts of concerts, how U2 concerts almost become worship services at times, but I really was surprised at how humble they come off on stage.

switchfoot_hello hurricane

4. Last but not least, Switchfoot, my favourite band, is releasing a new album on November 10.  It’s called Hello Hurricane.  I cannot wait.  And to sweeten the anticipation, the band is previewing every one of the new songs on their website for the next two weeks.  From what I’ve heard so far, this may be their best work since The Beautiful Letdown, and what a summit that album was.  Eleven days to go.

Ok, that’s all for now.  Watch FATHER JACOB, and answer a quick unrelated question: When you think “Edward Zwick,” what springs to mind?

Birthdays, VIFF, Canadian puppets, Kimchi Western. And Woody Allen.

Posted in Miscellaneous with tags , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

Cinema Truth turns one year old today.  And except for the name change partway through, this is the same blog that began September 24, 2008.  This is the first blog (of three or so) that I’ve managed to actually make it to one year of sustained use, so today is a bit of a mild personal milestone.  To the loyal readers, thanks for your insightful comments, and to the Google picture visitors, thanks for the hit counts.  While you’re clicking through to that image, have a look around.  I promise I’ll do the same when I come looking for that Aguirre-and-pipe-player screenshot that surely someone out there has online.

In terms of festivities, there isn’t much planned.  I watched Woody Allen’s excellent MANHATTAN (1979) yesterday, and since I have Diane Keaton: Art Snob on the brain, I think a few chuckles are in order:

I will note, as a sad counterpoint to my very first post, that I’ll be seeing less films at VIFF this year; indeed I may not get out to the festival at all amid the demands of schoolwork, pre-production, work, and other obligations and interests.

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Speaking of VIFF, this may be a good time to talk quickly about EDISON & LEO, a film I saw at last year’s festival.  Directed by Neil Burns, it bears the honor of being the first Canadian stop-motion feature.  It’s the kind of story that seems hellbent on owning the term “quirky,” – it’s about a mad scientist with an electricity-powered son, vengeful mystical First Nations women, and Manitoba – but it doesn’t trip up in its own little excesses to the point where it’s just an exercise in obscure silliness.  The film has plenty of charm, both visual and verbal, to power through the uneven sections.

The film has apparently been released to DVD by TVA Films; as far as I’m aware, it didn’t receive theatrical distribution.  For a genuine milestone in Canadian cinema, this is a shame.  Seek out the DVD.  Support this film.  Hopefully Neil Burns is working on something new; it’s early yet, but based on EDISON, I think Canada may have found its Tim Burton.  Burns pulls off genuinely effective and beautifully rendered storytelling, warts and all.  A trailer may be found here, though it does a fairly appalling job at showing the film’s strengths.

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And while we’re hopping between streams here, I still can’t believe that the THE GOOD THE BAD THE WEIRD, that Korean love letter to Sergio Leone, has yet to receive North American distribution.  It has (or had, if the window of opportunity has closed) huge crossover appeal as an action-comedy, and yet nobody sprang for it.  If you have  a chance of seeing it, grab it tightly.  It’s the closest thing we’ve had to Indiana Jones-style adventure in twenty years, and with 100% less CG aliens.

I’m looking forward to another year here at Cinema Truth.  There are some exciting things planned for this fall and winter, and I hope you’ll join me on the journey.  Onwards and upwards…

To Live and Die in Naples: VIFF #2 – Gommorah

Posted in Reviews - Film with tags , , on October 16, 2008 by Nathan Douglas

 

 

GOMMORAH

Directed by Matteo Garrone
With: Italo Renda, Salvatore Abruzzese, Salvatore Ruocco, Simone Sacchettino, Toni Servillo, Vincenzo Altamura, Vincenzo Fabricino

A review by Nathan Douglas

Rating: **1/2 (out of 4)

            Gomorrah is based on a best selling book of the same title that exposes the workings of a brutal crime organization based in Naples, Italy.  The film’s end titles inform us that 4000 people have been murdered over the last 30 years by this particular mob, that their illegal drug dealing market is the largest in the world, and that they are involved in large scale toxic dumping that poisons surrounding neighbourhoods.  The point of these titles, as is the point of the film, is to tell us that these people do Very Bad Things.

            It is a film of many plot threads, all of them fairly interesting, and few of them resolved with any satisfaction.  I think it would qualify as a “hyperlink” film, as explained by Roger Ebert to describe films — such as Syriana and Babel — that focus on several separate characters and situations who turn out to be linked in some unseen and often contrived way.  However, Gommorah’s focus is local, not global, and even then it seems mostly relegated to one gigantic apartment complex.

            We follow the story of Toto, a drifting adolescent who joins one of the crime families in his neighbourhood.  They are, unsurprisingly, brutally violent folk, and not to be played with: the initiation of new recruits involves shooting the flak vest-laden boys in the chest.  We step into the life of Pasquales, a hard-working tailor who wants more out of life and makes a secret business deal with the Chinese seamstresses down the way.  Time is spent watching a shady businessman set up a landfill site for toxic waste; he is shadowed everywhere by a meek, child like man who’s looking to learn this business.  A bookie has dangerous dealings with an angry family.  And, in the thread that the film spends the most time on, we watch two aimless young men careen recklessly from crime to crime, thrill to thrill, hurting lives and stirring up the wrath of the neighbourhood’s overlords.

             Comparisons to other works are inevitable in this kind of film, and Gomorrah wears its influences obviously.  It plays like an Italian version of Fernando Mereille’s City of God, but lacks the tight focus of that masterpiece.  The separate stories take an inordinate amount of time setting up and lurching into motion.  The volume of characters and names are a handful to juggle, and it took me a good hour to know who was who and who was doing what.  Names and faces blur and blend; at one point I thought I was watching the tailor become involved in a plot completely separate from his own.

            As a narrative, Gommorah would work better as a collection of short films, along the lines of Sin City.  The way the story lines are inter-cut leads to an expectation of connection between the disparate threads.  It plays like a “hyperlink movie” without the links.  This is in keeping with the film’s realistic nature; of course in real life people aren’t so perfectly connected by an event or person.  But this is a film that is telling a story, and that carries certain requirements.  This is a basket of stories that are mostly bereft of any satisfaction, closure, or even slight indication of conclusion.  That works fine as realism; as a dramatic film, it falls flat.

            What Gomorrah does, and it does effectively, is record the brutal and harsh reality of life underneath the thumb of these criminal dictators and the wars they wage against each other.  Gomorrah’s portrayal of the crime wars is completely deglamourized by the realistic presentation; there is no intent to entertain as City of God implied with its frenetic styling.  Where Gomorrah stumbles, however, is in its failure to move beyond the violence and drug deals and bloodshed to a hopeful or revealing conclusion.  For all of its manipulative elements and questionable morality, City of God told the story of a young man who escapes the moral and physical nightmares of Rio’s slums; Gomorrah ends on an opposite note, as if sealing the fates of all involved.  There is no call for action, no sense of hope, no impetus to see the situation improved.  Perhaps the real Camorra’s death threats intimidated the filmmakers from going too far.

            Gomorrah does feature one of the more disturbing and powerful portrayals of reckless youth that I’ve seen in a while.  The characters of Marco and Piselli are time bombs waiting to happen.  Garrone does some incredibly nuanced work in his refusal to make the audience sympathize with these characters, but allow it to trickle out of basic God-given compassion.  Make no mistake; these boys are crude brutes in training, well on their way to a life of self-serving cruelty and crime.  Their actions are reprehensible and difficult to watch, and yet it is that same behaviour that screams of their moral vacuum, their utter lack of direction and purpose.  One cannot help but sympathize with their inner state; we have all experienced it at some point even if it doesn’t inspire us to steal and murder.

            But hope is utterly absent from this film.  It has a nihilistic undercurrent subtly expressed through the complete ignorance of religion; characters do not mention the topic, and symbols and objects like crucifixes are hard to find (and in Catholic Italy, no less).  These characters seem to live in the same world as Anton Chighur, living and dying by their own enclosed codes developed over decades of bloodshed.  One of the film’s pivotal scenes involves the moral dilemma of Toto: will he betray his friend’s mother to his gang, or will he hold true to her and die himself?  His decision has tremendous consequences, but the film robs us of the full impact by letting Toto’s story end right there.  It is perhaps the film’s most frustrating quality.

            Right up to the end credits, the focus is muddled and scattered.  The end titles blast a variety of information at the viewer, running down a list of heinous crimes and activities before concluding with the fact that the Camorra have invested in the reconstruction of the World Trade Center.  What is the point of including this?  Is the reconstruction of the WTC tainted by this realization?  Did the Camorra carry out 9/11 to allow for increased investment opportunities?  While some of the facts leave an impression, their intention to close the movie with a Lord of War style punch is undermined by the fact that the last two hours have only shown fragments and glimpses of the behemoth that is the Napolitean underworld.  I received the revelations with a raised eyebrow and questions like “Why didn’t you give us more of a sense of the reality of the Camorra in the actual film?  Why are the big points relegated to the rushed info cards?”

            I digress.  There is value besides to be found here.  The acting is remarkable; many of the characters are from the film’s setting itself and bring a raw authenticity into their performances.  Every actor is well cast and makes an impression of some kind through belligerence (the reckless boys), searching for belonging (Toto), and the sad gaze of a man risking all to cross his overlords (Pasquales).  In addition, the cinematography is excellent; the hand held portions are painless and skillfully filmed.

            Gomorrah has enough of a shell to be a film worth watching.  It captures the feel of its setting immediately and never loses it; its world is brought to life effectively by a well chosen ensemble.  At the heart of it, however, this is a confused and confusing work in search of something meaningful to say, and as such, fails to engage the audience on both a thoughtful and satisfyingly dramatic level.  There are stories in there that need to be told.  I hope that, some day, they get their just and thorough telling.

Content guide: Gomorrah contains strong brutal violence.  We see people being shot with bloody and realistic results, as well as dead bodies in pools of blood.  An extended scene at a strip club has graphic female nudity, including brief full-frontal.  Profanity is kept low, with a couple subtitled f-words and s-words, and some sex-related crudities.  This would undoubtedly be a hard R in the U.S. and an 18A in Canada.