Archive for March 6th, 2016

Four years after his last work, Habemus Papam, Nanni Moretti returns to some of the themes he’d dealt with in his 2001 Palm D’Or winner, The Son’s Room. Only this time at the heart of the drama no longer lies the abrupt loss of a child, but the much slower and equally dramatic passing away of a mother.

Margherita (Margherita Buy) is a director shooting a film on Italy’s unemployment. She must come to terms with an eccentric foreign star (John Turturro), a divorce, an actor-turned-lover (Enrico Ianniello), a teenage daughter (Beatrice Mancini) and an elderly bedridden mother diagnosed with a terminal illness (Giulia Lazzarini).

The meta-filmic component is nothing new to Moretti’s films. A few works ago in Aprile (1998) he had brought to life the story of a director trying to shoot a film on the decay of Italy’s left, whilst grappling with the worries and dilemmas of his forthcoming parenthood. This time, however, film-making is no longer interwoven with the act of giving birth, but with a mother’s forthcoming passing away. Buy is not ready to accept her mother’s illness any more than she seems prepared to fully commit and engage with the movie she is meant to direct. In some fundamental sense, she cannot respond to art the same way she cannot respond to death.

Unlike most of Moretti’s oeuvre, in Mia Madre the 62-year-old Italian director plays a somewhat marginal stage role. Buy wears the outfit Moretti had worn in Aprile, a director struggling to make sense of a film he himself did not fully believe in, and at times seems to mimic Moretti’s own acting repertoire. And it is chiefly around the relationship between Buy and Lazzarini which the movie gravitates, with Moretti, Turturro and the promising Mancini acting as corollaries of the two women’s drama.

If Moretti takes up a minor stage role, however, his touch behind the camera and the script is what makes Mia Madre stand out as a remarkable work. It would have been all too easy to turn the story of a dying woman into a melodramatic and voyeuristic description of her last days, but Moretti does none of that. We know more about Lazzarini’s deteriorating health through her doctor’s reports than through the scenes where Buy and Moretti visit her, for what stands out in these encounters is not so much the old woman’s illness, but the fragility and incapacity of her daughter and son to come to grips with her passing away. We know she will die, eventually, but the camera never voyeuristically indulges in her forthcoming death with the sole purpose of documenting it, and treats it with a profound sense of delicacy and respect.

It is this polite and humane gaze which allows Moretti to establish a great empathy between the viewer and the story, and turns Mia Madre into a film whose energy lingers above the audience longer after the ending credits.

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“This film is about my late mother, about that woman who came to Belgium in 1938, fleeing the pogroms and violence of Poland. This woman who has only ever seen the inside of her apartment in Brussels. It’s a film about a changing world my mother doesn’t see”. There are some movies whose poetry and complexity can only be fully appreciated if one knows the history behind them. No Home Movie is one of them.

Chantal Akerman’s mother Natalia had a huge influence on the director’s life and work. She encouraged her daughter not to marry young and supported her passion for film-making ever since a 15-year-old Akerman fell in love with Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou and decided to devote her life to cinema.

No Home Movie is the portrait of this relationship, of the love between a mother and her daughter, which Akerman paints with a compassionate and delicate gaze. The 115 minutes show the life of her elderly mother in her Brussels apartment. It’s a minimalist painting, a still life where the flat turns into a character in its own right. Akerman documents her mother’s gestures and sees herself through her eyes. Very little is said: the conversations flow unscripted as Natalia recalls her daughter’s youth and Chantal asks about her mother’s time during World War II, her escape from Poland and search for a new home.

The camera stands still for most of the film, as if camouflaged in between the furniture, to catch glimpses of the women’s lives and their conversations. There are moments in which chats and actions take place outside the frame, and one feels somewhat constrained, as Akerman turns the viewer and the camera into a single thing and the spectator becomes a silent observer of the drama’s unfolding.

Natalia Akerman’s agoraphobia and her post-Auschwitz anxiety are themes that run through much of Akerman’s oeuvre. At times we hear the director asking her mother to leave the house and go out for a walk. But Natalia almost never does.

Yet the movie opens with the camera looking out towards an arid area, with some trees bending down for the ferocious wind that shakes them. It is not an isolated case. Akerman scatters these outside shots throughout the film: a man sitting on a bench with his back towards the camera, the sight of a desert passing through the window, water splashing against the director’s feet. If Natalia won’t leave her house then it is up to her daughter to show her the beauty and the ordinary life of the outside world. The vast immensity of a desert and the brutal cries of the wind are juxtaposed to the still, almost soundless life of the apartment.

Chantal Akerman committed suicide on October 5 2015, a year and a half after her mother passed away at 86. As Natalia’s health deteriorates the film slowly turns into a daughter’s desperate call for her mother not to leave her, and for her history to survive. No Home Movie is a daughter’s love declaration to her mother, to her memory, and to the invaluable help cinema can offer to the preservation of one’s history and past.

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After winning a special mention at Locarno’s 2014 Film Festival with Ventos de Agosto, Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro arrives at Cartagena’s 56th Film Festival with Boi Neon (Neon Bull), a little cinematic gem whose 101 minutes have been, thus far, the most applauded of this year’s official competition.

A group of cowboys drives across the rugged North-East of Brazil carrying a pack of bulls to the Vaquejadas, the traditional rodeos where two cowboys on horseback must pit the bull between the horses before pulling its tail and knocking it down. The nomadic troupe travels from one rodeo to another, featuring amongst its members preadolescent Cacá (a girl who knows just as many swearwords as her older colleagues), her young mother Galega (wife to a husband who’s been gone for years), Zé (an overweight cowboy with an addiction for porn), and finally Iremar, the drama’s protagonist, a buffed and tough-looking cowboy with an unusual passion for fashion design.

Mascaro paints his rural Brazil as a wasteland filled with abandoned industrial buildings and open-air landfills, populated with characters who dream to be someone they are not, and will probably never be. Cacá dreams of owning a horse (but must get her hands dirty with bull manure on a daily basis), Galega wants to become a dancer (but can only perform some explicit burlesque before dozens of jubilant cowboys), and Iremar spends his free time collecting broken mannequins and designing his clothes on top of Zed’s porn pictures.

Given the premises, it is easy to see how Boi Neon could have easily turned into a melodramatic portrait of rural Brazil, ridden with pity and sorrow. But it does not, because notwithstanding his young directing career, Mascaro’s skills behind the camera and as a storyteller are extraordinary.

Iremar’s tale is bound to elicit a certain sense of sadness, but Mascaro chooses to deconstruct it in a way that is, at once, mellow and ironic. He does not ask us to we feel sorry for Iremar’s condition, for Iremar is not trapped within a body he does not accept, nor does he feel particularly uncomfortable performing a role society has assigned him. There’s a memorable scene in which Iremar snatches one of Zé’s porn magazines and begins to draw over a lady’s naked body. The camera shows Iremar sketching what appears to be some sober underwear on top of the woman’s genitalia, and the viewer is led to believe he’s trying to prudishly cover them. But a few seconds later, when the lens is back on the page, Iremar’s drawing has turned into an overly promiscuous outfit that leaves very little room for imagination. Iremar’s two sides, as well as those of the other crew members, simply coexist. And this is probably the film’s ultimate message and what makes it stand out as a remarkable work: to accept one’s diversity is to ultimately appreciate the syncretism that is inherent in human nature.

There are plenty of films about people trapped within hostile surroundings from which they try (and fail) to escape; there are plenty which add to these constraints a gender dimension, but only a few which manage to do the above with the mixture of irony and tenderness with which Mascaro paints his Boi Neon. His name is a beautiful and much-welcomed discovery for Latin America and world cinema at large.

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