Archives For September 14, 2011

Divorce is a difficult subject to tackle honestly on film. There is an experiential element to it that makes it highly personal, and when done incorrectly it can be alienating rather than universal. A Separation is a film that gets divorce. It understands divorce through and through. But, more importantly, A Separation also uses divorce as a means to explore much grander issues of honesty, death, social class structure, religion and institutions. It also happens to be one of the best films I’ve seen all year.

Set in Iran, Asghar Farhadi’s film tells a somewhat complex story. Nader and Sirin are a married couple who have decided to separate due to differences over whether to leave the country. Nader cannot leave because he must take care of his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Their daughter decides to stay with Nader in an attempt to get Sirin to stay in Iran and get back together with Nader. That’s not even the main plot, though. Nader ends up hiring a woman to take care of his father during the day. The woman, Razieh, is pregnant, and one day Nader comes home early to find that she has gone out for a couple of hours and left his father alone, locked in his room, his arm tied to the bed, nearly suffocating. Nader pushes Razieh out the front door of his apartment, seemingly causing her to fall down the stairs, causing her to miscarriage.

From there, the film follows the fight between Nader and Razieh and their respective families. Nader is being charged with murder, and much of that hinges on whether he did or did not know about Razieh pregnancy. It is often difficult in the film to figure out who is telling the truth at what time, but more important is when we actually see these characters choose to lie, and the motivations for and effect of those lies.

You see, A Separation is not just about one family being torn apart, it’s about the whole of society being torn apart by the selfish and often fearful motivations of individuals. Farhadi brings us right into the world of these characters. Many of the things they do are awful and devastating, but we always understand why, and in some cases we actually sympathize. These are all real, flawed people who make poor decisions in the face of grave consequences.

The issues that A Separation examines are of great social importance, but they are also personal and universal. By letting us get to know the characters so well, we get to feel their pains and struggles. It all adds up to a film that raises many questions that are difficult or impossible to answer, and that’s where the magic lies. It shines a light on the difficulties of trying to share your life with the people around you, and for that it’s a film that’s very difficult to shake.

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Without a doubt, Andrea Arnold is one of the most talented directors working today. Her previous film, Fish Tank, was a stunning portrayal of coming of age in the bleak for of the British projects. This year, she comes to TIFF with a bold take on a classic novel about unrequited love, Wuthering Heights. To say that Arnold’s adaptation is heavy would be an understatement. The film is downright dark and disturbing at many points. And while I loved the style of the film, and acting, and the myriad observations Arnold makes with her camera, the beautiful moments from scene to scene did not fully overcome the extremely pared down narrative.

The film is not at all a write-off. For fans of Arnold’s work, Wuthering Heights is definitely in keeping with her style. The film definitely manages to be effective within individual scenes, and is especially good during the first hour, which features Catherine and Heathcliff as younger children. That first hour or so is almost completely devoid of dialogue. The narrative is shown completely through the lens of the camera, and Arnold does this brilliantly. We feel the raw, handheld, grainy, 1.33:1 image observing every little detail of these kids’ lives and their blossoming romance. In the darker moments we can feel the dirt and the pain coming right off the screen. Arnold gets so close to everything, and gives us an amazingly natural soundscape that features no musical scoring, with the result being that we can sense everything we see. At some points it’s almost as if Arnold is having us actually smell the air these characters are breathing.

It’s really the second half, in which Catherine and Heathcliff have grown older, that the problems with the film make themselves more clear. First of all, the tone becomes, in places, far more dour and often disturbing. The narrative also begins to pick up, with more drama and more dialogue. But when this happens it becomes clear that the super-spare narrative Arnold has derived from the novel is also the film’s biggest flaw. Whereas the rich character moments of the first half worked beautifully, the narrative of the second half is to slight to properly re-engage with these characters as adults. The result is a film with an ending that lacks a significant emotional punch, even if it delivers in terms of pure cruelty.

Wuthering Heights is an example of pure cinema, but it is pure cinema that doesn’t quite reach the levels of Arnold’s ambition. She brings the extremely modern style of Fish Tank to the period setting of old rural Britain, but in keeping her focus constantly on the thematic development of the characters rather than the plot, she lessens the impact of those themes. It’s a beautifully made film, but it’s flaws hold it back from proper greatness.

TIFF’11 Review: Le Havre

September 14, 2011 — 1 Comment

The film I thought of most while watching Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre was another film about illegal immigration, Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor. But where The Visitor managed to tell an extremely enlightening, powerful tale, Le Havre stays more on the absurd comedic side of things. While the comedy makes the film completely enjoyable, it actually undermines the inherent power of the story, causing it to feel fairly slight.

Le Havre is about an elderly man in France who is on his own while his wife is secretly dying of cancer in a hospital. At the same time, a shipping container full of illegal immigrants from Africa is found and a young boy manages to run away. The older man finds the boy and decides to shelter him until he can get him smuggled out of France to his mother in England.

A few of the townsfolk also come to the boy’s aid, and there is a police detective one the boy’s trail. The characters are all fun and make the movie a light ride. Helping that tone is Kaurismaki’s visual style for the film, which is very clearly inspired by classic French New Wave. and Melville in particular. The movie looks like it easily could have been shot in the late 60s/early 70s. It’s quite a striking style, and it’s wonderful to look at.

In the end, though, Le Havre doesn’t manage to get past that lighter tone. While the more serious and emotional moments are reasonably effective within the film, they become obscured by the whole. After leaving the film for a while it easily escapes memory, except the broad memory of it being quite enjoyable and sweet.

Werner Herzog’s latest foray into the documentary space came from his work on a TV documentary series he is still working on featuring interviews with inmates on death row. Into the Abyss takes one of the interviews and expands on it by getting into the details of the case and adding several interviews with other people somewhat related to the case and the Texas capital punishment system. What results is a film about terrible crime, death and, strangely, the beauty of life.

In one scene from the film, Herzog tells the young man, Michael Perry, soon to be executed that while he strongly opposes the death penalty, it doesn’t mean he has to like him. The heinous crime is not made any less disturbing or disgusting just because the man who committed it is going to be killed, and Herzog doesn’t have to feel bad for the man being executed either. That is the line towed by Into the Abyss. The film explores these attempts to come to terms with the harshest of punishment in the light of the harshest of crimes.

The real power of the film comes from the many other interviews Herzog conducted. Throughout the film he speaks to another man who was convicted as part of the same crime, but who only has a life sentence. He speaks with family members of the victims. He speaks with acquaintances of the convicts, a minister who consoles men at the death house, a man who ran the death house for many years and executed upwards of 125 people, and even a woman who met and has married the second convict while still in prison. In speaking to all these characters, Herzog paints a portrait of the effects of horrific crime and the implications of the death penalty.

Herzog also manages to extract little nuggets of comedic gold. The people he talks to truly are interesting, and it’s always fun to see Herzog prodding people into talking about random things like squirrels, monkeys and tattoos. In those lighter moments we witness the humanity at the core of everyone, even the people we might consider monstrous.

It’s those moments of humanity that actually makes the film surprisingly life affirming. Now, I don’t mean that in the sense of being anti-capital punishment. The affirmation of life comes from the realization that all of us are given a certain amount of time to live on this planet, and how we choose to live it is far more meaningful than even the circumstances or date. As one character in the film says, the important thing is not the date of birth or date of death on your tombstone; it’s the dash we should be concerned with. That little dash is your entire life, and it’s up to you how to live it.