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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ciro Guerra | El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent)

by Douglas Messerli

Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal (writers), Ciro Guerra (director) El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent) / 2015

Image result for Embrace of the SerpentAlthough it may sound ridiculously contradictory, Columbian director Ciro Guerra’s absolutely beautiful black-and-white feature, Embrace of the Serpent, is both a highly complex tale that covers a period of 31 years in the Columbian Amazon, with a rather simple plot that basically repeats the first half in its geographical territory and goal, if not character, although even there, both voyages are overseen by Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar, as the elder, and Nilbio Torres as his younger self), an Amazonian shaman who has left his tribe after seeing many of them die in a takeover of their land by rubber barons.
      Karamakate lives alone in the jungle, and is evidently the last of his tribe to know where to find the rare (fictional) plant, yakruna. The first of the white-men who seek him out, the German scientist Théo van Martius (Jan Bijvoet), has come, with his servant-friend Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos), to find a way to save himself from dying, having been told that only Karmakate can cure him.
      Furious at all whites, believing that they have completely destroyed his tribe, Karmakate refuses, only temporarily prolonging the German’s life by blasting a hallucinogenic white powder up his nose.
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      Finally, convinced by the bond between the native Manduca and Théo, he agrees to go on the voyage in search of yakruna, in part, to see if, as Théo claims, members of his tribe still survive. It may seem odd to describe this hallucinatory film as a “road movie,” but that’s what it is, as the trio encounter the terrors of the river and the wonders of the jungle, including a visit to a horrifying Spanish Catholic Mission, where the native boys are regularly beaten and abused by the priest, Gaspar (Luigi Sciamanna), for their “pagan” behavior. The travelers destroy the priest’s reign, freeing the tortured boys. Yet, they never quite discover their goal, and Théo dies in the “hell-hole” he has been trying to escape, although not before uncovering many of its wonders and sending his diaries back to Germany for eventual publication.
     The second visitor, in 1940, to Karmakate is an American botanist, Evan, a far more selfish and venal being, who, having read Théo’s book, is seeking out the same drug for himself, since he claims that he cannot dream (my dear friend David Antin is the only human I know who has made this claim). We also discover later in the film that he is seeking out the drug in possible connection of securing a drug that might keep the rubber trees from disease, since US supplies from Asia has dwindled because of the Japanese occupation of World War II.
      In short, his motives are far more questionable than Théo’s, and by this time Karmakate believes himself to be a chullachaqui, a hollow spirit who is losing his memory and is merely passing through without knowledge of the world in which he lives. He only agrees to take the voyage this time because of Evan’s love of plants and because he recognizes in the book Evan has (Théo’s work), the same rock markings that he has, himself, made for many years. But this time, it is Evan who must lead, and the trip is made for Karmakate’s spiritual revival, not for Evan’s—although the botanist has no conception of that fact.
Image result for Embrace of the Serpent     Again, they encounter what is left of his tribe, and revisit what is left of the Spanish mission, in which the previously beaten boys have now grown up to become self-flagellating acolytes to a man who claims he is the messiah, who only accepts the two strangers into his company when they appear to be the Biblical Magi and when Karmakate temporarily cures the messiah’s wife. By the time they escape the madness of this religious commune, the messiah is demanding that his equally mad followers “eat of his flesh”—a demand that we can’t tell whether he means “literally,” as in a call for cannibalistic behavior, or is a call for sexual intercourse. The visitors have no choice but to seek a quick escape. Yet even here Karmakate demands that Evan given up all of his earthly possessions, which the American does, except his record player, in a kind of Herzogian desire to hear the cultural joys he will probably never encounter again. And music is essential in this film.
     When the tree from which the drug is made is finally found, Karmakate determines to destroy it; however, not before allowing Evan one dose of its hallucinogenic powers, which briefly transforms this black-and-white masterpiece into color.
     We never know what happens to either of the central characters, but it doesn’t truly matter, because as in all such transformative works, it is the voyage that is the true focus, not the characters who undergo that voyage. Ulysses is only fascinating for his adventures, and upon his return to Penelope is simply a boring old man.
     Embrace of the Serpent won the Art Cinema Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and best picture at the 2017 Riviera International Film Festival, as well as being nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.

Los Angeles, December 31, 2017

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Martin McDonagh | Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

by Douglas Messerli

      The well-liked local police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has almost let the search for her daughter’s killer become a cold case. It’s not that he hasn’t tried, but simply that no one locally has been a DNA match, and Mildred has been left alone to nurse her pain with utterly no one to help except her kind-hearted son, Robbie (the always charming Lucas Hedges).
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      From the very start of McDonagh’s new film, he makes it clear that in the intense period since the murder was first reported, Mildred has become a kind of local volcano, ready to blow the entire community away in order to bring some necessary changes to her lovely rural village.
     But the fact is that Mildred is not only explosive, but beneath her hard stare, her rough-hewn eyes and nose, is a fiercely intelligent being who can fight it out with the best of them. She has given up her soul so that in this small bigoted and patriarchally controlled village she might survive. What she perhaps really needs is an ally or soulmate like Marge Gunderson of the Coens’ Fargo (a character also played by McDormand) But she surely won’t find one in Ebbing, particularly after she hits upon the idea of renting three billboards just out side of town upon which she places three proactive messages, dark black upon blood-red: “Raped While Dying”; “And Still No Arrests?”; “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
     Yes, as The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis observes, this is her way of reawakening the search and, simultaneously, relieving some of her deeply felt sorrow. But it’s not a popular action in a small town that knows nearly everything about everyone, including the fact that the well-meaning Willoughby is not only a loving husband and father, a man who also, incidentally, is attempting to reign-in his equally angry assistant, Dixon, but also is dying of cancer. The townies take out their anger at Mildred by bullying behavior of her son at school, and various other modes of intimidation, including a Sadomasochist dentist, a slightly mad former soldier evidently living in Idaho, and Dixon himself, who nearly kills the young man who has rented the billboards, and who also attempts, spurned on by his evil mother, to burn down the billboards.
Everyone in this small town seems to be just at the edge of sanity, with all of them so deeply hurt that one might even imagine this is the story of so many small American communities being destroyed by the opioid crisis and lack of jobs. Well, Midwest America has always been a paradisal world in which innocent people are tortured and destroyed. Even the urbane Truman Capote knew that; after all, he had grown up in the deeply dark American South. I spent much of my early life drawing those very connections, and they’re still there today. Small town American simply ain’t always nice.
     If McDonagh’s script is all a little pat, with even the police chief coming to her rescue to pay for the billboard’s second month, and a friendly black boy showing up at her door with a duplicate pair of the billboard messages after Dixon has burned them down. And, as Dargis makes clear, the writer-director does not always know what to cut from his own all-to-clever and convenient plot, mixing comedy and horror with equal blends, as if he were simply brewing up a new cup of coffee.
Mildred is a horror, surely, particularly in the mind-throttling society in which she lives, but McDonagh almost turns her into a monster, allowing his character to hurtle Molotov cocktails into the police station and almost killing Dixon, who, although fired, has returned late at night to pick up a letter Willoughby has left him after killing himself.

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     Fortunately, McDormand saves the day. One scene, in particular, reveals her ability to suck in all her hate and come through as an almost charming and, at instants, as a quite visually beautiful woman. Sitting at a local steak house with a dwarf, Peter Dinklage (McDonagh seems to have a “thing” about little people, featuring a scene in his In Bruges as well), she observes her ex-husband (John Hawkes) arriving with his current 19-year old girlfriend. When her dinner, interrupted by  her former husband, turns sour, she picks up a bottle of wine and walks steadily to the banquette in the back of the restaurant; she has already showed herself as a truly violent being, and we half-expect that she is about to break the contents of that bottle over her ex’s head. His clueless and nearly brainless girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving) suddenly admits that her comment, “Hate only begets hate,” was something she had stolen from an article in an essay on “Polio,” which turns out to have been an article about “Polo.” Slowly, as the camera pulls away from this ditz of a being, McDormand carefully puts down the bottle of wine next to her insufferable ex-husband, and commands him to be nice to her, as if relinquishing any rights to her former anger about their relationship. He is now the one in hell, tied to a mindless girl that will surely allow him no satisfaction except in bed.
      Whether or not such hate as both she and Dixon share can be redeemed, McDonagh fails to answer, as the two speed off to perhaps kill a man who they believe guilty of rape, even if he has not been the one to have killed and raped Mildred’s daughter. Both have second thoughts, and we can only hope that the voyage they are taking is a kind of short road trip that will salve their mutual angers, allowing them to return home with a new acceptance of life as it is, a kind of aborted Odyssey. In the end, despite McDonagh’s constant insertion of comic elements into his work, I believe that Three Billboards is a kind of redemptive blood tragedy.

Los Angeles, December  26, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2017).

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Luca Guadagino | Call Me by Your Name

by Douglas Messerli

James Ivory (screenplay, based on a fiction by André Aciman), Luca Guadagino (director) Call Me by Your Name / 2017

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Certainly the most romantic film in the least romantic year of my memory, 2017, was Luca Guadagnino’s gay love story, Call Me By Your Name. Yet this gay-centered film was not quite like any other coming of age films. Unlike many a “coming-out” tale, the young 17-year-old figure upon which this work centers, Elio Perlman (the absolutely stunning young actor Timothée Chalamet), is not only already “seeing” girls near the Lombardy villa in which he lives with his intellectual-inclined family, but having sex with the local Marzia (Esther Garrel). Yet in the summer of 1983, something clicks that sends him into a kind of spin—and we never quite know whether it is a permanent or only temporary shift.
     His sudden transition into sexual change and a kind of early sexual maturity has to do with the sudden introduction into his quiet family life of one of his father’s brilliant students, Oliver (the always handsome Armie Hammer). Oliver suddenly appears, usurping for six weeks the boy’s own bedroom, like one of the bronzed gods out of his father’s anthropological studies. The moment the two lock eyes on one another, fireworks nearly go off.
Image result for Call Me by Your Name      Yet the attraction between the two is slow in developing in this overly languid film, scripted by the long important writer-director James Ivory (based on a fiction by André Aciman (who also plays a minor figure in the film). Despite their immediate lust for one another, both are more than precocious figures, Oliver seemingly knowing, besides his Greek and Roman history, the etymology of the languages, and even daring to contradict his professor’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) observations about root words. For his part, Elio is a bookish genius, who not only skillfully plays the piano (in real life as well as on screen), and spouts facts about the local monuments that one could hardly imagine a 17-year old could have ever been aware—in 1983, one must remember, there were no computers and cell-phones to distract young intelligence—and who, moreover, speaks fluent Italian, English, and French (which the real-life actor does as well). In many ways the two were destined to come together intellectually if not physically.
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     Understandably, the 30-some Oliver is cautious around this genius boy, not wanting to introduce him into a sexual event which might harm him or simply confuse his own sexuality. And then, as we discover at film’s end, Oliver, has had a long relationship with a woman back home in the good ole USA, and perhaps he is not quite sure of his sexual identification. Oddly, and quite wonderfully, the film recognizes the sexual fluidity of most of the human race, and doesn’t judge their sudden attraction. But Oliver’s clear moral resistance also demonstrates his caring, and perhaps already his love and admiration for the younger boy.
      Much of the film, accordingly spends its energy on the flirtatious encounters between the two, subtle messages to one other, such as Oliver’s hand placed just perhaps a few too many moments on Elio’s arm, gentle looks of furtive attraction, which remind one very much of Ivory’s Forester recreation, Maurice, and, most importantly long bicycle trips with one another into the countryside, along with painful attempts by Oliver to make clear that he might also be available to local women.
Image result for Call Me by Your Name      If all of this, at first, frustrates Elio, particularly Oliver’s Americanized phrase suggesting his stand-offish position, “Later,” a signature of moving on while postponing any action. And the young boy cannot seemingly abide the new intruder. But both the elder and the audience know better, as the kid begins to develop a near fetishistic relationship with the man with whom he must share a bathroom, sneaking into his room to smell his shirt and swimming suit. And, gradually, as the two continually circle around one another, and with the help of a tale his mother reads him from the German about a prince who could bring himself to speak of his love for a princess, Elio elliptically expresses his feelings to Oliver, who briefly responds with a kiss or two, but suggests that since they have done nothing to consummate their desires, they should go no further, particularly to protect his young friend.
     Fortunately, for both, the standoff finally comes to an end when Oliver invites the boy into his bedroom late at night, where the two consummate their absolute passion for one another with an emotional release with which anyone who has ever fallen in love can only sympathize.
     The previous tensions might have almost been unbearable, and still, in part, are, were it not for set designer Violante Visconti di Modrone’s total attention to details, the books, kitchen, dining room, and hearth-lit scenes that give this world it’s sensuality, along with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s ability to capture the lazy sunlit world of Crema and other villages in Lombardy. The scenery and internal spaces are even more romantic perhaps that the plot of the film, and give Guadagnino’s work a kind of solidity which the furtive characters cannot. It almost asks, “How can people not fall in love in such a loveable world?”
     Not that, once these two have finally been able to come together, there isn’t plenty of hot romance as both boy and man literally jump out of their pants to express the ecstasy they feel about one another’s bodies and emotional expressions. Why couldn’t we have come together earlier, Elio implores, knowing that soon his lover will have to return to the US. It’s the plea of every lover in every sensitive portrayal of love. Fortunately, Elio’s parents, who both are clearly aware of their son’s new infatuation and are totally accepting of it, suggest that the two of them go together for a couple of weeks to a northern town where Oliver plans to do research.
     We suspect that Oliver finds little time for his research, given their near-idyllic and, frankly, soap-opera add-like rush through the villages and local mountains, where they kiss and hug, and dance through the hills and streets with complete abandonment. We forgive them and even the director for their sentimentality, for they will never again have the opportunity of that rush of love again.
      And that is the true tragic lesson of this beautiful film. As Oliver stoically takes the train to go off from his very special summer, the young Elio attempting the best he possibly can to keep from utterly breaking-down we are reminded of all those films that sent lovers off in different directions—or, at least, proposed to do so: Casablanca, Love in the Afternoon (even though, at the very last moment, Hepburn is swept up into her lover’s arms), or even Deborah Kerr and Carey Grant in An Affair to Remember (does it matter that she might have left their magic voyage in a taxi or subway instead?). The seemingly balanced and wiser-than-his-years Elio, tearfully phones up his mother to come take him home. After my first love revealed he had made a choice to begin a relationship with another, I did the very same thing, standing in a no-longer existent phone booth on a New York street to call my parents for a plane ticket to take me home.
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     The most profound moment of this sad romance is when Elio’s father invites him to sit beside him and attempts to explain that instead of trying to forget his first-love experience, tamping it down to something regrettable, that he should celebrate the special love that each had shared with one another, that life itself would slowly offer choices that would steal away those very joys that his son had so wonderfully experienced. Keep those memories close, he suggests, as he hints that he too might have gone through such a transitional love, but chose instead to keep it at a distance, to move away from it, without ever re-discovering the joys it might have provided him. Such openness of heart and perception is worth every somewhat silly movie of this sort of April-August romance, which could be described of my potential relationship as well.
     A telephone call from Oliver, apparently months later, reveals to Elio that his lover will be married by the next Spring. If today that might have seemed a bit equivocal (married to whom, a man or a woman?), we know that in 1983 it was a woman to whom Oliver was now committing himself. But as painful as that news has been, Elio has already come to perceive that their relationship was over. Those few halcyon days would never exist again, no matter if he will find another woman or man to love. The long take at the end of this quite lovely film, with the camera directly placed facing the quite brilliant Timothée Chalamet, embraces his beautiful face as tears gradually well-up in his eyes and fall gradually over his chiseled cheeks, a fire crackling before him like an inferno of new possibilities or perhaps intense pains of suffering. We cannot know which. First loves merely introduce us to the rest of our sexual lives.

Los Angeles, December 10, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2017).