French director David Oelhoffen’s adaptation of a short story, “The Guest,” by French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, is an intelligent, slow-burning Western featuring an atmospheric score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis with an outstanding performance by Viggo Mortensen. Tough in a Clint Eastwood mold but metrosexually in touch with his emotions, Mortensen plays Daru, a saintly teacher working in Algeria in 1954 at the start of its struggle for independence from the French.
Daru teaches kids in a tiny schoolhouse high in the Atlas Mountains, but clearly there’s more to this man. His weathered face looks carved out of the jutting rock behind the school, and he knows how to handle a gun when French soldiers bring him a local Algerian man, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), who has confessed to killing his cousin in an argument over stolen wheat. Stretched thin fighting the Algerian freedom fighters, the soldiers ask Daru to deliver Mohamed to court a day’s journey away. Daru refuses on the grounds that he would be walking the arrested man to his death. But when the soldiers leave and Mohamed refuses to run away, he doesn’t have much choice.
There are tense scenes set against stunning landscapes, as the two men stumble first into a vengeful pack of Mohamed’s family on horseback, then a band of guerrillas and finally the French army. Philosophically it’s a thoughtful version, finishing with the ultimate existentialist conundrum: a man on a dusty crossroads deciding between life and death. But really, Far from Men is a character study—a two-hander expertly acted by Mortensen and Kateb (best known for the terrific French cop show Spiral). At first Mohamed appears to be a passive, pathetic wreck, but as he begins to open up to Daru, his complex predicament emerges. Mortensen’s post–Lord of the Rings choices have been an idiosyncratic mix: His my-way-or-the-highway approach doesn’t always pay off, but it does here with engrossing results.
The existential questions Albert Camus raises in his short story “The Guest” translate exceptionally well to the Western genre in “Far From Men,” which stars Viggo Mortensen as a colonial schoolteacher tasked with transporting an Arab farmer accused of killing his cousin to trial. While the film isn’t as tense as “3:10 to Yuma,” nor energetic enough to overcome its niche status, writer-director David Oelhoffen’s idea of approaching this potent two-hander as an Algeria-set horse opera proves as inspired as it is unexpected. By treating the story’s epic High Plateau vistas the way John Ford did Monument Valley, Oelhoffen amplifies the moral concerns facing characters living just beyond the reach of civilization and law.
Whereas some actors have yet to master their native tongue, in this touchingly humane performance, Mortensen convincingly adds French to the already impressive list of languages he can speak onscreen — a list that includes English, Elvish (“The Lord of the Rings”), Danish (“Jauja”), Spanish (“Alatriste”) and Lakota (“Hidalgo”), for those keeping track. Coming from anyone else, such verbal versatility might amount to showing off. But despite his movie-star reputation and looks, Mortensen remains a remarkably humble screen presence, a trait that’s perfect for a part that demands considerable empathy from whoever’s playing it.
What slight trace of an accent Mortensen brings actually suits the role of Daru, who is described as the Algerian-born son of Spanish parents — nicknamed “caracoles,” or snails, because these settlers carried their possessions on their backs, viewed as outsiders to both the native Arabs and conquering French. But the character initially comes across more mysterious, defined by his decisions long before we learn his background.
Oelhoffen first shows Daru at the blackboard of his rural classroom — the lone building as far as the eye can see — where he teaches French geography to Algerian kids who will almost certainly never visit the land of their colonizers, but whose parents have already begun to demand their independence. Things have become dangerous for Daru here on the frontier, and though the film takes place in 1954, the year the country’s National Liberation Front began its bloody uprising, the world looks primitive enough that it could be set nearly a century earlier on the Wild West frontier.
Just as Daru is debating whether to stay, understanding full well that he does so at his own peril, a lawman arrives dragging a bound man (Reda Kateb) behind his horse. This is Mohamed, who could just as easily be a captive Native American: He is accused of murder and must be delivered to Tinguit, where a court will decide his fate — not that there can be any mystery how the case would go, since he has already confessed to the crime.
For Camus, tough choices reveal one’s true character, and here, Daru refuses to be responsible for dragging a man to his death. What he doesn’t realize is that Mohamed has a strategic reason for wanting to stand trial, since has unwittingly started a feud that requires the dead cousin’s surviving relatives to avenge his murder, which would in turn provoke Mohamed’s siblings to retaliate and so on in a vicious cycle. “Getting killed by the French is the solution,” he says.
And so Daru agrees to accompany Mohamed, insisting on treating him like an equal (or “guest,” per the story’s original title). Oelhoffen has no reason to rush their trek, inventing a few key run-ins with parties on both sides of the emerging civil war not only for dramatic interest, but to further explore the code of honor at play here: Daru, who fought as a reserve officer during the war, has tried to put violence behind him, and now he is called upon to kill if necessary in order to protect an admitted murderer. The pic doesn’t limit its penetrating character questions to the white man either, giving Mohamed a chance to prove that he’s not without courage or honor — a gradual, subtly acted redemption that takes Kateb from cowering animal-like at Daru’s mercy to standing tall and equal beside him by the pic’s end.
The short story concludes with Daru giving Mohamed a choice whether to turn himself in or to escape to the desert and live among the nomads, and despite this act of kindness (which Mohamed declines, continuing on to Tinguit), his relatives threaten to take their revenge on Daru. Oelhoffen opts to take things in a different direction, which could also be said of his overall approach to the region. Rather than implying danger at every turn, cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines’ stunning anamorphic lensing (so much more expansive than the boxed-in square framing of “Jauja,” which also follows Mortensen through desolate landscapes) shows a steady hand and innate respect for the country itself.
Equally original, the score forgoes the tacky exotification of other African pics, as composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis emphasize the characters’ moral tension through a mix of woodwinds and other unconventional sounds, including blowing across champagne bottles. And yet, in both its tropes and themes (including a detour through a frontier brothel), the pic remains a Western, with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails. It may seem too slow, too dusty, too far removed from the contempo world of men to interest large swaths of the audience, but those same qualities are what make it so effective for fans of the genre.
FAR FROM MEN (Loin des hommes), a film directed by David Oelhoffen, is more of an elaboration on Albert Camus’ “The Guest” than it is an adaptation. In Camus’ short story a French man is tasked with escorting an Arab prisoner to a murder trial in a far off town. Making good on his existential approach to fiction, Camus has his protagonist offer his prisoner the option of either going to the town on his own or try his luck with the tribe of nomads wandering in the opposite direction. The French man refuses to be a participant in determining the Arab’s fate only to be implicated by those seeking vengeance regardless. In the film, Camus’ protagonist Daru decides to go with the prisoner after all and what results is sort of a Gallic 3:10 TO YUMA, where both the man and his prisoner have to get to their destination while eluding a posse out for revenge. But instead of the rolling plains of the American West, our characters must traverse the rocky terrain of an Algerian desert. And instead of a pre-20th century setting, the film’s period is 1954 – the beginning of the decade-long Algerian War for independence.
FAR FROM MEN is a unique kind of western. And yet, it does contain the trappings normally associated with the genre. Daru is the good man who formally led a more violent life than he lets on. The prisoner, Mohamed, is gentler and more sympathetic than his crime would otherwise indicate. Rifles and pistols are the weapons of choice. And the natives travel by horse instead of car. But keeping one step ahead of their pursuers is the least of their problems as they have the Algerian rebel forces (as well as the French military) to contend with as well. If this were a fourth part of a Man With No Name tetralogy, Daru would be the Clint Eastwood character risking life and limb while having to deal with both the Yankees and the Confederates of the American Civil War.
FAR FROM MEN starts faithfully enough. Just as in Camus’ story, Daru is ordered to escort Mohamed – a man accused of murdering his cousin for stealing a portion of grain – but refuses to do so. He will not take part in another man’s execution. But Daru is a displaced character with no real country. Born of Spanish parents, he was raised in Algeria among the French expats. He now resides in the hills, teaching French to the local Arab children and is content with his life. And having been an accomplished veteran of World War II, he wants to leave the violence behind. But a new war is looming, one that Daru might find impossible to avoid. Once the murdered victim’s family demands restitution, Daru finds he has no choice but to protect his prisoner by getting him safely to Tinguit where he will await trial. This is where FAR FROM MEN diverges from “The Guest” although Daru struggles to convince Mohammed to take a different path throughout the film. But Mohammed feels obligated to meet his fate in Tinguit. He feels he has no choice. To run away could put the rest of his family in danger. He wants to satiate his victim’s family through legal means.
As Mohamed, Reda Kateb brings a sad but knowing countenance to his role. His character is not so much a helpless person but one resigned to his situation. Viggo Mortensen, however, really impresses as Daru. FAR FROM MEN is a French language film starring Mortensen as a French speaking character and it’s not like Daru is a man-of-few-words type. Viggo Mortensen has gone the multi-lingual route before, having played Dutch in JAUJA and Argentinian in EVERYBODY HAS A PLAN (you might also want to count his use of Elvish in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy). And here he is just as comfortable playing a fluently foreign character as he did an American cowboy in HILDAGO. What’s more, Mortensen imbues a lot of compassion into what otherwise could have been another stoic, laconic hero. His Daru has not only experienced a lot of violence in his prior life, he apparently was quite skilled at it. And it turns out that Daru is probably the best protector Mohammad could have at this moment.
Oelhoffen approaches his direction in an almost classic way. There are no fancy editing tricks, ramped up set pieces or anachronistic CGI effects. It’s fairly old fashioned. Not quite in the way of something like David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but more akin to the British produced period “epics” of the 1980s that were directed by Roland Joffé and Hugh Hudson. This is an adventure grounded in reality with the political backdrop to match. Although Oelhoffen stages a sequence that is both suspenseful and horrifying in how it depicts a confrontation between two opposing factions, action is kept to a minimum of evasion attempts and stand offs. Although Oelhoffen chooses to end FAR FROM MEN differently from Albert Camus’ story, the film’s conclusion evokes the spirit of “The Guest” even if it doesn’t follow its text faithfully. For, while FAR FROM MEN presents two characters as they attempt to take a righteous path, their good intentions might be met with uncertain reward… if none at all.
Not far from the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, proud cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), their twelve-year-old shepherd. In town, the people suffer, powerless, from the regime of terror imposed by the Jihadists determined to control their faith. Music, laughter, cigarettes, even soccer have been banned. The women have become shadows but resist with dignity. Every day, the new improvised courts issue tragic and absurd sentences. Kidane and his family are being spared the chaos that prevails in Timbuktu. But their destiny changes abruptly.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s passionate and visually beautiful film Timbuktu is a cry from the heart – with all the more moral authority for being expressed with such grace and such care. It is a portrait of the country of his childhood, the west African state of Mali, and in particular the city of Timbuktu, whose rich and humane traditions are being trampled, as Sissako sees it, by fanatical jihadis, often from outside the country. The story revolves around the death of a cow, affectionately named “GPS” – an appropriate symbol for a country that has lost its way.
These Islamist zealots are banning innocent pleasures such as music and football, and throwing themselves with cold relish into lashings and stonings for adultery. The new puritans appal the local imam, who has long upheld the existing traditions of a benevolent and tolerant Islam; they march into the mosque carrying arms. Besides being addicted to cruelty and bullying, these men are enslaved to their modern devices – mobile phones, cars, video-cameras (for uploading jihadi videos to the internet) and, of course, weapons. Timbuktu is no longer tombouctou la mysterieuse, the magical place of legend, but a harsh, grim, unforgiving place of bigotry and fear.
Sissako creates an interrelated series of characters and tableaux giving us scenes from the life of a traumatised nation, historically torn apart and prone to failures in communication between its three languages: Touareg, Arabic and French. At the centre of this is the tragic story of one family: a herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their 12-year-old daughter. Kidane angrily confronts a fisherman who has killed his cow, with tragic results. Mali’s new theocratic state must now rule on something that has nothing to do with infringements of its own proliferating religious laws – and its crass insensitivity and immaturity as a system of government is horribly exposed.
There are some brilliant visual moments: the panoramic vision of the river in which Kidane and the fisherman stagger apart, at different ends of the screen, is superb, composed with a panache that David Lean might have admired. When a jihadi comes close to admitting he is infatuated with Satima, Sissako shows us the undulating dunes with a strategically placed patch of scrub. It is a sudden, Freudian vision of a woman’s naked body, which is then made the subject of a bizarre, misogynist attack.
Elsewhere, young men carry on playing football after football has been banned by miming the game. They rush around the field with an invisible football, earnestly playing a match by imagining where the ball should be. It is a funny, sly, heartbreaking scene, reminiscent of anti-Soviet satire. In another scene, a young man is being coached on how to describe his religious conversion for a video (for an awful moment, it looks as if it might be a suicide-bomber “martyrdom” video). The boy talks about how he used to love rap music, but no longer. Yet in the face of the hectoring and maladroit direction, the boy lowers his head: he finds he cannot mouth these dogmatic platitudes.
In many ways, Sissako’s portrait of Mali is comparable to Ibrahim El-Batout’s portrait of Egypt and the Tahrir Square protests in his film Winter of Discontent. It is built up with enormous emotion, teetering between hope and despair.
Timbuktu, by the Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako, is a wrenching tragic fable, Aesop-like in its moral clarity, about all the injustices Sharia law can wreak. It’s also gorgeous. Few tracts about religious intolerance have ever been this alive to the beauty in their world – the play of late-evening sunlight across a lake, the nimble joy of a football game the authorities want banned.
In the dunes outside Timbuktu, a cattle farmer called Kidane, played with sad nobility by Ibrahim Ahmed, has built a life with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), their 12-year-old daughter, and a young shepherd boy. Kidane plucks a guitar at night, and their tent feels like a sacred haven under the stars.
Sissako’s vision is so offhandedly seductive, it’s a while before you realise what a threat is gathering, and from where. It comes from the armed jihadis prowling the streets on motorbikes, issuing edicts about the forbidden pleasures of cigarette smoking, music, football. They enter a mosque, fully armed, and expect the very term jihad to act as some kind of holy password.
Sissako keeps melodrama at bay using the skittish, fragmentary rhythms he’s chosen. Minor characters drift in and out without announcing themselves as minor. There’s a town witch, trailing a wild multi-coloured ensemble behind her, and cackling as if the hen she’s carrying were capable of ventriloquism. Jihadi recruits debate the relative merits of Zidane and Messi. There are driving lessons in the desert, and a camcorder monologue where one young guy, his eyes darting and awkward, talks about turning his back on rap music and a life of sin.
Then something irreversible happens. One of Kidane’s cows stumbles into the nets of Amadou, a temperamental fisherman, and the latter spears it to death. If this sequence is faked, it’s faked astonishingly. The two men face off on the lake, and Sissako treats us to a long, breathtaking widescreen vista, from way back, of Kidane stumbling his way to the other side after a gun has gone off.
Sissako says he was inspired, if that’s the word, by the horrifying public stoning in 2012 of an unmarried couple in the town of Aguelhok. His film shows merely a glimpse of a stoning, for a fraction of a second, but it’s enough – the point is made earlier and more figuratively, with pot-shots at a group of fragile tribal statues, standing in the sand, their faces and limbs splintered into shards.
This is in no way the remorselessly grim film its subject matter might lead you to expect – it’s full of life, irony, poetry and bitter unfairness. It demands respect, but it also earns it.
This month, Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” an official selection in Cannes last year and a current nominee for the best foreign-language film Oscar, was caught up in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, when the mayor of a Paris suburb briefly succeeded in banning it from a local cinema. Coming amid an outpouring of public and official support for freedom of speech, this act of censorship was both dismaying and ridiculous.
The authority of the jihadists in “Timbuktu” is cruel, but it is also absurd. Mr. Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and whose films have mainly been set, like this one, in Mali, examines the varieties of this absurdity with an eye that is calm, compassionate and remorseless. The most obvious vice exhibited by members of the militia controlling the desert city of Timbuktu in the name of Allah is hypocrisy.
Their failures to live up to their own rigid notions of Shariah law are evidence of their humanity. Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), one of the leaders, sneaks off behind a dune to smoke a cigarette, an activity he has forbidden in the city. “Everyone knows you smoke,” says his young driver, who has been trying to teach his boss to drive a stick shift. In the midst of flirting with the wife of a herdsman, Abdelkrim scolds her for immodestly leaving her hair uncovered. He also experiences a frustration common to many filmmakers when he tries to direct a video featuring a young fighter whose diffident, hip-hop-inflected performance style doesn’t quite strike the right tone. “We’re not doing, ‘Yo, man,’ ” says the would-be auteur, “we’re doing religion.”
But the way he and his comrades do it is hardly a laughing matter. In the course of the film, a couple accused of adultery are stoned to death. Members of the Islamic Police storm a house where music is being played, and one of the musicians (a woman, of course) is publicly whipped for the crime. When a jihadist’s offer of marriage is refused, he vows to take his would-be bride by force. When he does, the commanders inform the local imam that their interpretation of Muslim law is, by definition, the correct one. Might makes right, and the righteousness of the strong is an excuse for all kinds of indulgence.
Collectively, these warriors in the name of Allah are a bunch of bullies. They are indifferent to local customs and ignorant of many of the languages spoken by residents of Timbuktu, an ancient trading hub known for its cosmopolitanism. Individually, the fighters are sometimes sadistic, sometimes weak, sometimes kind and frequently confused.
Showing them this way is not a matter of “humanizing” fanaticism, which is the kind of accusation that is often unthinkingly leveled at stories that veer away from presenting political conflict as a simple fight between good and evil. How could the bad guys be anything other than human? Their folly lies in the belief that they can transcend that condition and terrorize their fellow Muslims into holiness. They may be sincere in their devotion to their God and his prophet, but they are still jerks. “Timbuktu” is an act of resistance and revenge because it asserts the power of secularism not as an ideology but rather as a stubborn fact of life.
In that way, it is un peu Charlie Hebdo, though Mr. Sissako’s sensibility is gentler, his satirical impulse less scabrous and his imagination more expansive than that shared by most of the magazine’s cartoonists. There is a strong current of anger and disgust running through his film, which was inspired by the Islamist takeover of Timbuktu and other parts of northern Mali in 2012. With some adjustments, it could have been set in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria or Pakistan. But the glory of “Timbuktu” lies in its devotion to local knowledge, in the way it allows its gaze to wander away from violence toward images of beauty and grace.
Mr. Sissako’s previous feature, “Bamako” (named for Mali’s capital city), similarly embedded a political argument in a rich evocation of daily life. In that film, the main action is a surreal (but entirely earnest) trial of the institutions of neo-liberalism for crimes against Africa. But the story keeps wondering off into the streets of the city, taking refuge from abstraction in the pleasures and travails of everyday life.
The narrative of “Timbuktu” is a weave of anecdotes and subplots, but it returns frequently to the tent in the dusty hills outside the city where Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) lives with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and their daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), tending cows and drinking tea. The presence of the heavily armed fanatics running Timbuktu sends a dispute involving Kidane and one of his neighbors spinning toward tragedy and horror, but Kidane is more than just an innocent victim, in just the way that Mr. Sissako’s film is more than a simple polemic. He is a symbol of decency and tolerance, of everything the extremists want to destroy, precisely because he is an intriguing, fully rendered individual. And “Timbuktu” is a political film in the way that “The Bicycle Thief” or “Modern Times” is a political film: It feels at once timely and permanent, immediate and essential.
Abderrahmane Sissako may not be the most prolific of filmmakers – funding can’t be easy for a determinedly poetic and political writer-director born in Mauretania who has subsequently led a somewhat nomadic life – but he is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and ambitious writer-directors working in film today, and quite possibly one of the best.
It’s eight years since he made Bamako (2006), 12 since Waiting for Happiness (2002) and 16 since Life on Earth (1998): all very different movies, but all discernibly his, distinguished by their elliptical, oblique approach to narrative and theme, by their subtle, imaginative but finally very direct take on political, economic and ethical issues and by their quietly meticulous, detailed deployment of image and sound. Each looks at contemporary African life with a deceptively dispassionate eye: Sissako is rightly wary of apportioning blame in a unambiguous fashion, and makes quite clear that questions of cause and effect are complex and should never be answered simplistically.
His latest film Timbuktu, inspired by the horror he felt at the real-life stoning to death, in July 2012, of an unmarried couple living in Aguelhok in northern Mali, is a case in point, and it made for an unusually rewarding start to this year’s Cannes Competition. Most critics I spoke to agreed that it was probably the finest first-night press screening since Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007); I’d go back even further, to Edward Yang’s A Confucian Confusion (1994). Whatever, it’s obviously ludicrously early to be talking prizes, but unless this year’s line-up is especially strong, Sissako’s film must surely be in with a chance of winning something.
It succeeds – and is characteristic of his work – on many levels. Though it sort of centres on the experiences of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), Salima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya and their young cowherd Issan – whose sudden, accidental loss of control of a pregnant cow results, tragically, in several deaths – the film takes in a far wider range of characters and narrative strands.
Gradually it moves from an almost discursive account of the oppressive zeal of gun-wielding jihadists to a more focussed, only slightly more conventional portrait of their deadly actions. A female fishmonger resists the imposition of gloves, a mother asks why she should allow her teenage daughter to be married off to a total stranger, friends sing together at home: all end up in makeshift courts overseen by sharia extremists who don’t even originate from the Timbuktu area or speak the local language. Resistance is logical, widespread, courageous and – too often – futile. The film, fragmented, elegant, uninsistent but utterly persuasive, embraces all this and much more.
Though confronting extremist intolerance and sometimes murderous injustice, Sissako consistently and deftly avoids clumsily simplistic characterisation. Even the jihadists are depicted as intelligent – and prepared, to some degree, to listen; it’s ideology, and a lack of awareness of human suffering, that gets in the way.
Sissako respects the faith of others, but even more allows for the right to choose one’s way of living or dying. The opening sequence, of a gazelle fleeing hunters and of statues being destroyed by gunfire, shows how nature, tradition and art are at risk from a violent belief in one’s own superiority. Dreamlike sequences of kids playing soccer without a ball, or of a crazed, shaman-like woman stopping an armed, fundamentalists’ 4×4 simply by spreading her arms, likewise reveal how Sissako can turn everyday actions into telling and affecting metaphor.
Sofian El Fani’s superb ’Scope camerawork and Amine Bouhafa’s lyrical score (a treat for fans of Anouar Brahem) help to hold the somewhat fragmented narrative together, as does Sissako’s familiar tonal boldness. Even if his purpose here is deeply serious in social, philosophical, political and humanist terms, he’s not at all afraid to leaven the brew with moments of humour: for example, a discussion of defeats and victories that turns out to be about football, not battle.
Likewise, a brutal if mercifully brief scene of death by stoning is followed by a mysterious, lovely sequence of a man performing a silent ballet, perhaps redemptive or purificatory. This coup de cinema is as impressive and compelling as Kidane’s flight from a killing, shown in distant long shot but far more eloquent than any close-up in the Cannes openerGrace of Monaco. Sissako understands both the world he’s lived in and cinema itself. His films have always been both memorably magical and supremely honest; this is no exception.
In 1931, in Franklin County, Virginia, Forrest Bondurant is a legend as immortal after surviving the war. Together with his brothers Howard and the coward Jack, the Bondurant family has a distillery and bootlegging business. When the corrupt District Attorney Mason Wardell arrives in Franklin with the unscrupulous Special Deputy Charles Rakes, the Bondurant family refuses to pay the required bribe to the authorities. Rakes pursues the brothers and unsuccessfully tries to find their distillery. Meanwhile Forrest hires the waitress Maggie, a woman with a hidden past in Chicago, and they fall in love with each other. Jack courts the preacher’s daughter Bertha Minnix and deals a great load of alcoholic liquor with the powerful gangster Floyd Banner. Jack shows off in Franklin attracting the attention of Rakes that finds the location of their distillery. When he kills the crippled Cricket Pete, the locals join forces to face the corrupt authorities.Written by Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
John Hillcoat’s new film is closer in spirit to his outback western, The Proposition, than the more recent post-apocalyptic drama The Road. Lawless is based on the avowedly true story of the badass Bondurant brothers in prohibition-era Virginia, running illicit liquor and fighting battles with corrupt cops. It is a handsome-looking period picture with a reasonably winning lead performance from Shia LaBeouf. But it’s basically an empty exercise in macho-sentimental violence in which we are expected to root for the good ol’ boys, as they mumble, shoot, punch and stab. The final flurry of self-adoring nostalgia is borderline-nauseating.
Tom Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, violent, impassive – though with a weakness for knitwear. Jason Clarke is Howard, the more obviously crazy hillbilly brother. Then there is nervy, quick-witted young Jack Bondurant, nicely played by LaBeouf, eager to prove himself. Their new riches inflame crooked federal agent Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce – a pantomime baddie who wears swishy cologne. Meanwhile, Forrest and Jack somehow manage to attract the admiration of two beautiful women, played by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, who shimmer onto the screen turned out as if for a Vogue fashion shoot. The violence is gruesome, and perpetual, but the whole thing leaves nothing behind but a moonshine hangover.
John Hillcoat’s new movie, “Lawless” — written by Nick Cave — is based on a true-story novel called “The Wettest County in the World,” by Matt Bondurant. The area in question is Franklin County, Va., and in 1931, when most of the action in the film takes place, it was a bloody paradise of bootleggers. This picturesque corner of Appalachia has now provided a bonanza for dialect coaches and their charges, who set the hills alive with a symphony of dropped consonants and attenuated vowels almost as violent as the gunfire that periodically erupts.
Not that the movie, a carnival of mayhem and period detail — visually suggesting Walker Evans, “Bonnie and Clyde,”“Miller’s Crossing” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” — exactly insists on realism. Nor, in spite of gruesome killings and boisterous car chases, does it hew to the conventions of the period gangster genre. It is, instead, a sprawling evocation of a vaguely rendered time and place, as crowded as an episode of “Hee Haw” and occasionally as much fun.
Life in Franklin County is brutal and complicated, especially when a Chicago lawman named Rakes (Guy Pearce), a sadist with slicked-down hair, chalk-striped suits and remarkable diction, starts to muscle in on the local moonshine action. When the Bondurants refuse to play by his rules — preferring to deal directly with a mob boss (Gary Oldman) — a nasty little war breaks out. Faces are pummeled; throats are cut; and shotguns, hunting knives and brass knuckles are put to grisly use.
To soften the mood a bit, there are inklings of romance (and flashes of bared skin) between Forrest and Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a redhead who shows up one day, in flight from the corruptions of the big city, to take a job pouring coffee in the cafe that serves as the Bondurants’ headquarters.
Jack, meanwhile, courts Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a local preacher. As he and his brothers expand their business — with the help of their frail young neighbor, Cricket (Dane DeHaan) — Jack develops a taste for flashy clothes and cars, affecting Cagneyesque mannerisms, even though he is not nearly as tough as Forrest or Howard.
And “Lawless” seems unsure of just how tough it wants to be, bouncing between rollicking backwoods humor and graphic violence, with a dollop of good-old-boys sentimentality thrown in for good measure. It has neither the stripped-down intensity of “The Proposition,” Mr. Hillcoat and Mr. Cave’s 2006 outback western, nor the lyrical austerity of “The Road,” Mr. Hillcoat’s not bad 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic parable.
There are too many action-movie clichés without enough dramatic purpose, and interesting themes and anecdotes are scattered around without being fully explored. This is weak and cloudy moonshine: it doesn’t burn or intoxicate.
Nelly Lenz, a Jewish singer, has survived the Nazi concentration camps but at what cost? She is disfigured and has had to undergo facial surgery. Back in what is left of Berlin, accompanied by her faithful friend Lene, she has only one thing in mind, finding Johnny, her musician husband in the ruins of the city. She wants to know if he still loves her and if he has betrayed her, as Lene claims he has. She does meet him but Johnny does not recognize her. Worse, he asks her to impersonate… Nelly, with a view to grabbing her inheritance Written by Guy Bellinger
A smoky duet between double-bass and piano at the start of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix promises a dose of film noir. That promise is complicated, if not exactly broken, by what follows. But then, this is a movie all about disguises, reinventions and deceptive appearances.
It begins with a monstrously tantalising scenario. In mid-1940s Germany, a vehicle is halted at night by US soldiers. A figure is whimpering in the passenger seat, their face concealed by blood-soaked bandages. Perhaps we are in for someEyes Without a Face-style horror, then, rather than noir? Half-wrong again.
This is the former chanteuse Nelly (Nina Hoss), a disfigured concentration camp survivor en route to a surgeon in Berlin. Reconstructing her original face now is out of the question. A loose re-creation can be provided instead. It’s like the doctor says: a new face can be an advantage.
When Nelly later tracks down Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband who may or may not have shopped her to the Nazis, he fails to recognise her. He does, though, notice that she bears a passing resemblance to his late wife. That gives him an idea: if she were to pose as Nelly, they could split the “dead” woman’s fortune. Enchanted by his attention, and feeling this may be the only way to reclaim her identity, Nelly plays along. Like a master film-maker, Johnny provides her with a back-story, tells her what colour to dye her hair, which clothes to wear. He even choreographs their eventual public reunion. It’s enough to give a girl Vertigo.
This is Petzold’s sixth collaboration with Hoss (who recently made her English-language debut in A Most Wanted Man). Echoes abound of their previous work together. Like Yella (2007), Phoenix takes place in a kind of purgatory; the infernal scarlet glow spilling from the nightclub which gives the film its title suggests it might even be hell. And in common with the duo’s last picture, the Oscar-nominated Barbara (2012), set during the cold war, it offers accessible commentary on recent German history.
But Phoenix is their most complex work to date, as shown by Hoss’s fine-grained performance. Called upon to play a character playing a character playing a character, her dexterity is astonishing. She is part-actor, part-Russian doll.
It’s a testament to Petzold’s sane head, steady hand and effortless storytelling skill that implausible plot-points are smuggled past us in their own blood-soaked bandages. Would Johnny really fail to spot the truth after spending so long in close proximity to this conveniently placed stranger? Would Nelly honestly persist in finding ways to excuse each of her husband’s crimes against her?
In another film, maybe none of this would wash. Here, the warped narrative functions as an allegory for the stories that people and nations recount to themselves in order to go on surviving. The clincher is the use of music, in particular a performance by Hoss of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s Speak Low(“Love is a spark, lost in the dark too soon…”). It ties together the film’s themes eloquently but with no comforting sense of resolution.
Christian Petzold’s stunning “Phoenix” has been buzzed about this year as the best film of the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. While more high profile, mostly American (or British) works get the headlines, it’s often a foreign film that gets critics talking, and this year’s arguable masterpiece is the latest from the director of “Jerichow” and “Barbara,” a film that, in my eyes, earns every bit of its TIFF adoration, and more. This is an amazing piece of work that transcends historical document to become art. Using the filmic language of noir, Petzold crafts a story of a culture caught in the aftermath of horror. Moving through the rubble of Berlin just after the end of World War II, the characters of “Phoenix” are ghosts, denying past betrayals and putting up a façade to keep the pain repressed. They have done strong work together in the past, but “Phoenix” is the kind of film that should propel Petzold and regular star Nina Hoss to the forefront of international cinema. It’s unforgettable.
Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a woman who has escaped from a concentration camp, but suffered severe facial injuries in the process. Her whole face will have to be rebuilt, leaving a shadow of her old self, a version of Nelly but not exactly the same one that existed before the war. Despite protestations from the one woman who knows the truth about her, Nelly decides to seek out her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who also appeared in “Barbara”), even though there’s evidence to suggest that it was he who turned Nelly into the SS. Johnny was arrested on October 4th and released on October 6th, the same day Nelly was arrested. He sold her out for his own safety.
When Nelly crosses paths with Johannes (don’t call him Johnny any more), he notices the resemblance, but has completely convinced himself that his wife must be dead. “She’s dead. I know she’s dead.” It’s a trick of denial, pushing such a horrendous act to history instead of realizing that it may be still there in the present. However, his wife has an unclaimed fortune, and Johannes convinces Nelly to pretend to be who she actually is to claim it. He trains her to be Nelly again, dressing her in the right clothes, working on her handwriting, and coordinating “Nelly’s return” to civilization. She goes along with it, frightened to reveal the truth, and hopeful that this will allow her some semblance of the life she once she had, even as she refuses to believe that it is her husband’s betrayal that destroyed her in the first place.
The plot of “Phoenix” is its first masterstroke: a brilliant encapsulation of how people cope (or refuse to cope) with tragedy, especially when it’s at least partially of their own making. Nelly is a ghost, a physical representation of horror. Hoss does a complete 180 from the confident characters she’s played in the past, portraying Nelly’s wide-eyed fear at losing everything that she holds dear to her identity—her husband, her life, her very face. Like so many people after World War II, she is a survivor who doesn’t know how to move on from what she’s lost forever. It is Nelly and Johnny’s denial that makes their relationship so riveting. He refuses to realize this woman is the person he betrayed while she refuses to realize she can never really go back again.
Petzold’s visualization of this emotionally daring story is so finely tuned and executed that it can be taken for granted. Look at the art direction in the rubble-strewn streets of Berlin. Watch the physicality of Johnny and Nelly change as they work on their plan together in his shabby apartment. The blocking, the tight quarters, the sense of espionage almost give the film the air of noir. It feels like a Hitchcock work at times in its interplay of shadow and light, which Petzold uses thematically as well. Nelly is slumped, and regularly in shadows early in the film, and is seen more completely as her character climbs out of its darkness.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Hoss is mesmerizing here in every single beat. It’s a performance from which you can’t turn away. Watch Nelly shrivel in the first-act suggestions that she get a new face or simply move away from Berlin. If she’s not “Nelly Lenz of Berlin,” who is she? Hoss sells the need we all have for identity, for place, for home, with palpable intensity. And watch the way she slowly unfolds as Johnny transforms her, becoming both more confident and more aware of the horror of her situation as she rises like the titular creature of the film. The final scene, without spoiling anything, is a movie moment for the ages. In a film festival of five-to-six movie days, it’s hard sometimes to remember key moments. I will never forget the end of “Phoenix.” Ever. Here’s hoping this incredible film gets to an audience so it can sear itself into your memory as well.
As many of you know, my biggest cinematic pet peeve is that a lot of American filmmakers ignore the rule of “show, don’t tell.” Leave it to the Russians to follow that rule to a T with their intense drama, THE TRIBE. With only sign language – no spoken dialogue or subtitles – and a cast of non-professional actors, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s experimental Ukrainian drama is shocking, provocative, envelope-pushing, unflinching and wildly daring.
Mild-mannered deaf-mute teen Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) is a new student at a boarding school for deaf students, and he’s not off to a very good start. Not only is he late on his first day of class, which earns him the ire of his principal, he also gets in a fight with the school’s blonde bully (the Ukrainian William Zabka), who runs with a gang of suits (business and jogging) into bribery, prostitution and robbery. However, just when it looks like Sergey will be spending the rest of the year eating lunch with the special needs kid (who’s also quite cruel to him), one of the suits (Alexander Dsiadevich) introduces him their leader (Ivan Tishko). As Sergey begins assimilating into the tribe’s violent ways, he falls for their leader’s girlfriend, who’s also a prostitute (Yana Novikova). Things grow more complicated and complex from there.
I wish I had seen this with someone who knew Ukrainian sign language (that’s next level translation for all of you playing at home), as it would open up a whole new conversation. THE TRIBE is intense and violent at times. It’s probably deliciously sick of me to say, but it almost works best when it’s at its most shocking. Maybe it’s the way the writer-director builds to that point of explosion. The combination of his camera technique (which primarily utilizes establishing and medium shots to let the actors have room for their expressive gestures), foreboding atmosphere, and the narrative climax work in tandem to create brilliance. Slaboshpytskiy, along with his DP Valentyn Vasanovych, utilize an intense black and blue color palette echoing the film’s bruising nature.
The abortion scene, while gratuitous, is unflinching. It doubles down on anything the Romanian film 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS showed us – and in far less time. Themes are illustrated brilliantly: Setting the film at a decaying dorm reflects how morals and values can rot when left unattended. As shown through the school’s cliques vs. outsiders dynamic, the hive mind can be a far more powerful force than independent thought. Plus we see how Frankenstein-like monsters can eclipse their creators’ intentions in the most unsettling of manners. Best of all, it doesn’t shy away from showcasing consequences.
That said, the film unfortunately suffers from a few lulls in energy. From the visit to the immigration office, to filling out paperwork for passports, to the scene where a sex-crazed Sergey monstrously ransacks his shop teacher’s living quarters looking for money, several scenes are a little too long in the tooth. They put the brakes on the narrative’s forward momentum. Nevertheless, the film haunts viewers far after the film ends. It shines a spotlight on a harsh, cruel brutality some may find hard to tolerate.
Jaime Rosales has long been one of Europe’s most serious, valuable and innovative film-makers. Now he returns to Cannes with another deeply felt and deeply considered drama in a compassionate, realist style.
It is a film about the silent anguish of Spain’s young people, a generation junked by the economic slump. Rosales traces the tragedy and the scandal of their energy and idealism going to waste. He also boldly mixes conventional film with footage caught on smartphones and gaming consoles to show how lives are being lived on social media – and to show twentysomethings’ digital existence. These are brilliant, challenging sequences and in fact his whole film is an audacious leap into real lives and real experiences: it is a seizing of normality. Beautiful Youth isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure about its final moments – but Rosales’s sheer intelligence is bracing.
At the film’s centre is the relationship of Natalia (Ingrid García Johnson) and Carlos (Carlos Rodriguez). Both live with their respective mothers – the fathers being no longer on the scene. There is no work for them, no matter how many CVs they send out – and they are depressed and infuriated by low-paying casual work. This good-looking couple even do a porn film, which pays well but not enough to solve their problems – unless they want to make a career of it.
When Natalia becomes pregnant, their problems escalate to a crisis level. Carlos gambles on a hoped-for compensation payout after he gets mugged; Natalia struggles with the beginnings of depression dealing with a baby that cries all night. There is something very moving in her confession to her mother Dolores (Inma Nieto) that she loves her baby daughter more than anything and also “hates her with all her heart”. Meanwhile, Natalia’s stroppy, unhappy younger brother Pedro (Juanma Calderón) isn’t doing his chores or his homework and both Natalia and Dolores find they don’t have the arguments to persuade him to knuckle down. Work hard, or slack off – who cares when unemployment is the only thing waiting for you?
And all the time, there is suppressed panic. What if things never get better? Or get better too late, when it is too late for them to enjoy their young lives? Many have parents who are unemployed too, fiftysomethings who might under other circumstances look forward to years of rewarding work.
Eventually, Natalia considers leaving to find work in Germany – a plan which brings new heartache. Will Spain’s young people be Generation Skype – reduced to talking to their parents and children on their laptops? Beautiful Youth is a powerful and heartfelt film.
The worrying lengths that some young people will go to earn quick and easy cash is investigated with bitter precision in the Spanish drama Beautiful Youth.
Good looking couple Natalia and Carlos are young and in love but lacking in employment prospects and money in modern Spain. Desperate to simply earn a bit of decent currency, the lovers decide to engage in an amateur porn film for the sum of €600. When Natalia falls pregnant, life is about to become even more difficult for the pair as they struggle to provide for their baby while continuing their respective searches for work.
In a world where opportunity is scarce, Natalia and Carlos have low ambitions and a simple desire to scrape a half decent living. The added stress of being parents provides further challenges as both have to live separately with their own mothers and neither can find work that pays as well as their brief stint as amateur porn performers. The trials of being parents begin to form cracks in what was previously a relationship enlivened by the purity of young love.
Shot through with an ugly, grainy realist aesthetic, Beautiful Youth is anything but a beautiful film. While its young stars are aesthetically very easy on the eyes, the locations and the situations are far from pretty. Realism seeps from the screen, aided by a wholly convincing script that details every minor triumph but mostly the difficulties of contemporary youth in Spain. Director Jaime Rosales’ camera peeks around corners and peers at his subjects, giving a strong sense of eavesdropping on the couple’s conversations. While the couple are filmed for their porn audition, the camera captures their every awkward response to highly personal questions and is candid when showing them engaging in intercourse.
But Beautiful Youth is far from being all about the current state of the online sex industry. It is a slow burn character study and in depth examination of the challenges of parenthood. Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson and Carlos Rodriguez convince as the almost carefree lovers whose lives get far more complicated after having a baby. The passing of time is niftily dealt with through having the contents of their phone screens fill the cinema screen. Scrolling through the messages, pictures and videos that are captured on their phones gives a sense of seeing a visual diary of the pair as Natalia goes through pregnancy and Carlos recovers from a unexpected injury. Rosales chooses to use no music throughout the film, and while it often goes unmissed, the moments where we skip through the couple’s phone pictures are strangely silent.
Perhaps director Rosales is commenting on our increasingly mediated world by having large amounts of time taking place only as messages and phone captured pictures. Carlos and Natalia’s decision to experiment in porn comes completely out of the blue and as it is only really one single humorous scene, it sits uneasily with the rest of the film. Though this could be a part of Rosales’ plan to draw comparisons between displaying oneself on social media and going the whole hog and having sex on camera, the tone of their porn audition is at odds with the remaining scenes, particularly the depressing final shot of the film.
There are some wonderfully scripted moments, particularly between Natalia and her mother but overall, Beautiful Youth offers little in the way of insight or originality. Its characters are flawed and perfectly believable with the script and camerawork helping to craft them into completely convincing human beings. However, it is a film that seems to want to say something about the modern online sex industry without giving this concern anywhere near enough attention.
Despite strong performances and a cold, hard wakeup call of an ending, Beautiful Youth sadly meanders and never quite manages to have the impact that it should have.
Kornél Mundruczó’s bizarre new film at Cannes is dedicated to the late Miklós Jancsó. Jancsó might well have enjoyed this startling and elusive parable. He surely would have savoured its uniqueness.
What kind of a film is this? It is a fantasia of canine madness that looks sometimes like a horror-thriller based on something by James Herbert or Stephen King – and sometimes like a tribute to Hitchcock’s The Birds. Except that this time it’s TheDogs.
It could be that Mundruczó has taken profoundly to heart Morrissey’s maxim that Meat is Murder, and wished to put it at the centre of his film. There are other moments when it looks like a blend of Gladiator and Spartacus only with dogs instead of humans. I could even occasionally see hints of innocent takes like The Incredible Journey and Hue and Cry.
The movie begins with an extraordinary sequence of a young girl on a bike being chased through Budapest’s deserted streets by a pack of feral dogs. The audience might well ask themselves if this intensely disturbing spectacle is a dream – and if the director has achieved it digitally, or with real dogs?
We are at any rate then introduced to a rather more normal situation. Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is upset by the tense relations between her separated parents; when her mother has to go away to Australia for three months on business, Lili has to stay with her grumpy dad who works in a gruesome meat-processing plant, where standards of hygiene may conceivably hold the key to what follows.
The most objectionable thing about Lili’s dad is that he hates her dog, a Labrador crossbreed called Hagen. Poor Hagen gets chucked out of the flat and is found on the street by some lowlife and trained up to be a fighting dog. All his gentle instincts drummed out of him.
But Hagen’s scary aggressive new persona seems to be shared by all the dogs in the police pound – and maybe all the dogs in the city. Soon they are staging a mass canine uprising, which is all the more scary because it is not part of a conventional horror film. Hagen’s angry face – snarling with teeth which have been filed back by his “fight” trainer – really is very intimidating.
Who are these dogs, and what do they want? What is their beef? Have they been eating the wrong kind of beef? Or wait – is it us, the swaggering humans, who have been eating the wrong kind? White God works as an ambiguous satire of power relations generally: eventually the lower orders will rise up. The film has a flair and a bite which I have found lacking in Mundruczó’s earlier films. It is a distant cousin to Planet of the Apes: all ruined Budapest needed was a big Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the asphalt.