26 February, 2009

La graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain) (2007)

Radically different visions

Gerald Loftus returns with his take on an EFA winner...

The Germans have entitled it Warten auf Couscous, the original title is La graine et le mulet and it is known as The Secret of the Grain to the anglophone world. Yes, couscous does feature prominently in the film, but that is like saying that Gone With the Wind (1938) should have been called She Grows Cotton.

La Graine et le Mulet
(2007) (the couscous in question is the mullet variety, as those who know Tunisia's fish couscous have come to appreciate) is a French film by a Tunisian-born director, Abdelatif Kechiche. French, because it's almost all in French, takes place in Sete, a Mediterranean fishing port, and with a cast almost exclusively composed of hyphenated French, mostly of North African origin.

Kechiche has explored this world before, in La Faute à Voltaire (2000) and L'esquive (2003), both of which garnered awards in European film festivals, as has La graine et le mulet. But here's the thing: in his latest film, there's not a Muslim fundamentalist to be seen. You would be hard-pressed to guess that the Maghrebi families depicted practice any religion - it's just not shown to be a part of their lives.

What we do see are lots of family: extended family, immigrant family, second generation family, mixed marriages, divorces, infidelity, and love. The only skin you'll see is during an extended belly dance at the family restaurant (that's the converted fishing boat you see in the poster). But I would say that certain fundamentalist elements in European Muslim communities will rail against the film, simply for its naturalistic depiction of secular Muslims going about the business of adapting to life in Europe.

For someone who has spent a chunk of his life in North Africa, the film is a joy. The acting is natural, understated at most times, volcanic when the situation calls for emotion. There is humor, pathos, and an uncanny feel for relations among and across France's communities. The film's acting revelation is Hafsia Herzi, under twenty when the film was made in 2005 (it was only released in 2007). If Marion Cotillard recently won a very deserved Golden Globe and Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf, then Hafsia Herzi deserves honours for this, her first film role (she did win the Marcello Mastoianni Prize at the Venice Film Festival).

As the Hollywood Reporter said of Kechiche at Venice, "the director's lack of discipline in failing to yell cut while he's ahead" is really the only serious criticism that can be rendered against this two-and-a-half hour film. In every other respect, it's thumbs up.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus

151 mins. In French, Arabic and Russian.

13 February, 2009

Breakfast on Pluto (2006)

Adieu, space cadet...

European Film Awards Reviews would take this opportunity to pay tribute to Hélène Noël, late of Brussels - a good friend of Colin’s and the love of James’s life, who was taken from us way too soon, at the age of 42, on 16 June 2008. Hélène was a woman of much love and many gifts and talents, not least of which was her ability to light up a room with her smile. A frequent contributor to key Brussels leisure magazine Together, she also loved film (and Ireland), as her following review ably demonstrates. Thank you for your attention.

A few years ago, I used to spend numerous weekends in the small town of Balbriggan, Co Dublin, Ireland. I used to catch an inevitable ‘Irish cold’ as soon as I landed. Weekend time was spent in mad nights in Dublin, followed by Irish sea walks to recover, and, above all, because I wanted to see this liquid dark silver beauty once again.

On our way, each time my (then) boyfriend and I passed in front of his primary school, my companion told me that when he was a boy, one of the school’s teachers, wrote his first novel: it was a story about a mouse, The Adventures of Shay Mouse: The Mouse from Longford. The teacher was Patrick McCabe.

A few days ago, this ex-boyfriend asked me if I wanted to go to the cinema. I rarely refuse this kind of proposal, except of course when made by another ex-boyfriend (I am a fanatic collector), renowned for his huge appetite for dubious gore fantasies.

The film in question, by Neil Jordan, was an adaptation of a novel by the former mouse-storyteller Balbriggan teacher.

As soon as the images came alive, I was sent back several seas West from my seat. I mean, when you speak of Ireland, most of the time people think about hordes of redheads celebrating St Paddy’s Day all year long when they’re not bombing everything around them. What I imagined in my private inner cinema resembles very closely the images on the (not-so big) screen at the Actor’s Studio - even if the story actually begins on a street in London, where we follow a young woman and a baby.

Just after, we are on the front steps of a presbytery, where another breezy blonde abandons her baby boy. The story of Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden (Cillian Murphy, who is incredible) has begun and it promises to be a (mis)adventure. It takes place in the 1970s, and details Patrick’s tribulations and subsequent ’showbiz’ careers, not to mention the provos and, of course, a London bombing. But that’s just details. What Kitten really wants is to find his, no, her, mother.

It’s a world of despair we live in, as you know for sure. But still, angels exist, even when contemplated in 36 chapters. At least, so I believe. In angelhood, you can even find fatherhood.

You never know, you know…

Awards: Click here for details.

Hélène Noël

135 mins.

11 February, 2009

Waltz With Bashir (2008)

Dancing with death

Will Waltz With Bashir (2008), Israeli director Ari Folman’s animated memoir of his coming to grips with suppressed memories of his role in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, become a subversive new model for war films? Soldiers – prevented from blogging or YouTube-ing their unit’s adventures, which may later be classed as war crimes – surreptitiously drawing haunting images in the fashion of Folman and his ‘gang’?

What will Waltz… do for the languishing international effort to bring the massacre’s perpetrators and enablers to justice? Last year, the 25th anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila Massacre came and went, with even less attention paid than in 2002, when – twenty years after the massacre of Palestinian innocents – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was badgered by Belgium’s Universal Jurisdiction law for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the case foundered. The website of the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra & Shatila appears to be frozen in 2003. Memory loss on a global scale for a September 11-sized massacre.

My questions parallel those of Ari Folman, who is shown in his current bearded forty-something state of confusion, asking friends to recall the events of 1982 so he can reconstruct his own faulty memory. The flashback technique, like his choice of hallucinatory animation to recount his and his comrades’ stories, is more effective than any attempt at live action or documentary would have been. For animation aficionados, check out his excellent website for production details. For Middle East watchers, his site offers a creditable summary of the 1982 invasion and the context of the massacre.

If I say that the Bashir of the title is Bashir Gemayel, the assassinated Phalangist president-elect of Lebanon, I am not giving anything away. Posters of Gemayel’s handsome head adorn the bullet-riddled facades of Folman’s Beirut, and Folman’s website notes that Ariel Sharon developed a fantastical and ultra-imaginative plan - to occupy Lebanon as far as Beirut and to appoint his Christian ally, Bashir Gemayel, President of Lebanon. Sharon and senior military leaders were actually the only ones who knew about the plan. While the Israeli government approved a 40km-range operation only, the IDF thrust full speed ahead all the way to Beirut.

Within one week the IDF inundated Lebanon and reached the outskirts of Beirut. However, just then, before entering the city, questions were raised. What business does the army have being in a foreign capital, so far from home? Why are Israeli soldiers being killed on a daily basis when their actions have no real link to the protection of Israel’s northern border? Suddenly, the correlation to the Vietnam war was inevitable.

Folman spares the audience much of this historical context, which is fine. The film works best as a fog-of-war picture of young, confused Israeli draftees shooting at everything in sight – including the howling dogs who might give away their nighttime infiltration from ‘love boats’ off Lebanon’s coast. An impressive soundtrack of raucous 1980s hits strikes the right wartime notes. All for the phenomenal budget of…$2 million.

It has taken Ari Folman a quarter century to give us this unforgettable picture of a pointless war, where Israel’s invasion was indeed mired down by a Vietnam-type occupation and years of terrorist reprisals. But like other war crimes perpetrated against nameless Arabs - in wars at least as “fantastical and ultra-imaginative” as Sharon’s - don’t count on Victors’ Justice to deal with impunity (I saw Waltz With Bashir in France, just as indicted Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic was being flown to the International Criminal Court in The Hague).

At least Folman’s film shows that memory can be revived.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
90 mins. In Hebrew, German and English.

09 February, 2009

[Rec] (2007)

Dead scary

The horror cinéma-vérité sub-genre is enjoying a whole new lease of life. A concept that was originally set in motion by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and which, after an absence of nearly ten years, has already been well-served recently by fake documentary flicks such as George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007) and Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007), and in 2008 by Matt Reeves’ and J.J. Abram’s Cloverfield (2008).

Spanish director Jaume Balagueró (along with co-director Paco Plazo and writer Luis Berdejo) steps into the fray with [Rec], and praise be for that – Balagueró’s earlier films, such as The Nameless (1999), Darkness (2002) and Fragile (2005) pushed back the fear factory’s boundaries, expertly blending traditional ghost story elements with far, far worse concepts.

And the concept here couldn’t be simpler: Ángela (Manuela Velasco) is a TV reporter shooting a documentary series on firemen’s night work. Answering a routine rescue call to an apartment building, the crew find themselves in hell when the alleged rescue-ee starts chowing down on one of the rescuers. With cameras rolling (and thus the audience’s perspective assured), the crew and residents must find a way to survive the zombie outbreak when they find themselves quarantined inside the building by the trigger-happy military.

While the monsters may be almost perceived as traditional, a horror ethos suitably informed by the brilliant work of George A. Romero, the approach is anything but - the experience is akin to spending a night in a haunted maze, with stuff-of-nightmares images and a veritable flood of chaos, claustrophobia, and ‘Oh-my-dear-God-NO!’ moments, culminating in what is perhaps the most terrifying ‘resolution’ ever filmed.

In an astounding development, a poor Hollywood remake, Quarantine (2008) has recently been unleashed – do the world a favour and see this, not that, capisce?

Awards: Click here for details.

85 mins. In Spanish.