My final wrap-up of the Los Angeles Film Festival:
Daratt (Dry Season)
Continuing my exploration of the excellent New Crowned Hope series, I caught up with Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s entry from Chad, which won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival last year. The filmmaker builds off the themes of vengeance and forgiveness in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito by setting his story during the period following the Chadian civil war, when universal amnesty was officially declared. Rejecting that policy, an elderly man whose son was murdered during the conflict asks his grandson to avenge his father, and the teenager travels to a nearby village determined to assassinate the murderer. As the boy is devising his plan, however, the murderer–now a scarred and hardened sixty-year-old baker–offers him a job.
I don’t want to say more than that, because this is a highly nuanced story that focuses on the antagonistic, yet strangely positive relationship that forms between master and apprentice-assassin. It quietly emphasizes the physical and emotional tensions that emerge in ways that are reminiscent of the Dardennes’ superb The Son. Like the Belgian masters, Haroun has an especially strong sense of visual rhythm and knows how to frame figures in loose yet provocative counterpoint. Haroun has claimed he was also inspired by the minimalist power of Mozart’s violin concertos, and has crafted a deep meditation on justice through his highly observant camera, strong sense of place, and the film’s terrifically underplayed, simmering performances. It’s a fine, powerful achievement.
It has been said on more than one occasion that Western critics tend to especially value Iranian films that shed light on lesser known aspects of Persian society; by this standard, Asghar Farhadi’s film should set a new bar for domestic dramas in Iranian cinema. The film abandons the neorealist streets and public-private spaces of cars so prevalent in Iranian movies to present a complex–and at times emotionally harrowing–portrait of an upper-middle class couple within their home. Creatively preserving censorial codes but probing into issues of marital discord, infidelity, and even physical abuse, the film follows Rouhi, a recently and happily-engaged maid, who begins working for a distraught and anguished woman who suspects her husband of philandering with a neighbor.
The title refers to the Iranian New Year’s celebration, which involves non-stop firecracker recreation throughout the day; this not only provides the film with an evocative metaphor of what’s happening behind closed doors, but also an atmosphere Farhadi taps to great effect through his masterful use of offscreen sound. Though it’s a tense and illuminating drama, I felt like I had just seen a war film with its incessant, sizzling pops echoing in my head hours after watching it. Perceptions and inferences constantly shift and rearrange themselves as the story’s characters struggle to ascertain and interpret the truth through layers of social mores, class rules, and limited perspectives. It’s a fascinating, perfectly realized investigation of private contemporary issues.
This film, It’s Winter, and Offside round out a particularly rich high point in recent Iranian cinema, which never ceases to surprise and enlighten with its honesty and ethical considerations.
The Tube with a Hat
This Romanian entry was an unexpected joy, so I was delighted that it won the Festival’s award for Best Narrative Short Film. A compelling slice-of-life parable about a young, determined boy who persuades his sulking, cursing father to carry their broken television set to the next town in order to fix it in time for a Bruce Lee broadcast, it merges its striking Eastern European landscape (and grumbling mindscape) with touches of absurdity and poignancy. Trudging through the mud and misty fog to the crowded and surly trailer parks and pubs of a nearby town, the duo perpetuate a running dialectic of father-son bonding and aggravation. Surrounded by physical adversity, and a general disdain for their impositions, the two navigate a difficult but hopeful adventure. ìDirecting this film,” said Radu Jude, “my main concern was to tell the story as honestly as possible. I didnít make any moral judgment about the characters, their actions and the world they live in. I only wanted to understand them, and to reveal their humanity.î Happily, you can view the entire short here through August.
I thought I’d finish off the festival with a mainstream premiere I was looking forward to: Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic thriller about a dying sun and a team of scientists who attempt to re-ignite it. I’ve mentioned here before that I’m a fan of classic science fiction literature, and this film (which has been playing in Europe for some time) has been compared to Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Tarkovsky’s Solaris, all personal favorites. With the exception of AI: Artificial Intelligence, Primer, and A Scanner Darkly, I’m hard pressed to think of any great (or even good) SF films I’ve seen since Alex Proyas’ Dark City almost ten years ago, so I was excited at the prospect of a smart genre piece.
Despite scoring a press ticket to the $100 red carpet event (the festival’s closing night picture), I couldn’t have been more disappointed by the film, which I found to be tedious, empty, and a complete waste of time. Sure, it’s got elaborate digital effects, great set design, and a thundering soundtrack, but what doesn’t these days? Rather than a partly philosophical piece, the film plays like a cross between a disaster film and a slasher movie. It has a pretty ridiculous premise that is never remotely developed: we’re told Earth is in a deep freeze, but no mention of what society resembles, it’s just a plot device; the Alien references are abundant (if they’re obvious enough, it’s “homage” and not “rip-off,” remember?); none of the characters have distinct personalities; and only a quip or two such as “Man is not meant to play God” is tossed in for thematic development–not exactly trailblazing stuff, here.
The film’s ultimate function is to showcase its effects and shocks as it devises more and more elaborate ways of killing characters in visually appealing and heart-stopping ways. It has fewer ideas than Children of Men, which is saying something (or an average episode of Star Trek). And its technical accomplishment (mostly elaborations of the genre’s standard iconography, or unnecessarily obfuscated visuals), only intensifies its inanity: it’s a digital drug, pure and simple, hoping you’ll leave the theater breathless before forgetting about it completely and moving on to dinner.