Toronto 08 — Day 4 capsules
UNSPOKEN (Fien Troch, Belgium, 2008) — 7
The clue is in the title — this is a film about things not said and about a marriage where the unspeakable has happened, and may be in the middle of happening again. I took a long time to warm up to UNSPOKEN and only mentally stayed with it because Emmanuelle Devos and Bruno Todeschini, who play the central characters, have screen presence to squander. And Troch has a bracing style — enormous closeups but very little focal depth, meaning large parts of the screen remain out of focus, until the focus puller picks up something relevant or important. It truly concentrates the film on the souls of the two protagonists — hence the overriding importance of the right actors. I’m being deliberately vague about what the film’s about because like the Dardennes, it doesn’t announce its subject matter and there’s no exposition per se — you just pick up cues and clues, and eventually figure out who’s related to whom and how, and what the movie’s about. I don’t know how this film would play if you know too much: I hesitated above even to mention that it involves a marriage, because even something that basic takes a while to figure out. The precise moment the movie “clicked for me” was an exchange on the most banal of questions to ask a married couple and the camera pans back and forth in slow motion while a pop standard plays in regular time. The scene of Devos caressing the routine stuff of her husband’s desk without seeming to puts one in mind for a second of Garbo, but less ethereal. She’s perfect in a scene in which a friend notices tear streaks on her face, but she says everything is fine, and does so convincingly enough to the other character while not convincingly to us (there’s only one scene in which she’s truthful, a late scene involving a Christian missionary). But unlike the Dardennes, UNSPOKEN never acquires either great urgency or moral fraughtness and some of the details (the leaking water in the ceiling) are too on-the-nose. The greatest films about this subject — LAST TANGO IN PARIS, UNDER THE SAND and TRULY MADLY DEEPLY — were all about articulate people. That’s both UNSPOKEN’s strength and limitation — it’s about two people who aren’t the kind for … well, drama.
YOUSSOU NDOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE (Chai Vaserelyi, USA, 2008) — 6
Depeche Mode’s “People are People” would probably be my favorite pop song of all time if I didn’t understand a word of English and so could not realize how appallingly bad the lyrics are. In the opening scene of this movie, the titular singer Ndour sings a song, the subtitling of which produced the same reaction in me. I wished I could have enjoyed Ndour’s great voice, his undeniable charisma and (later) the incredible onstage dancing without enduring the song’s banal “Up With People, Africa Tour” lyrics. Ndour is obviously a good man, an enemy of enmity and one prays for more Muslims like this. But the movie has told a story about him I simply don’t trust — partially because of my ignorance of West African music but also partially because the film tells a story that I’ve heard a hundred times before in a Western pop context and I know not to trust it.
The dominant narrative in this documentary concerns the release of an album called “Egypt” which caused charges of blasphemy and some more-specific charges that he desecrated a Muslim shrine in Senegal by shooting videos of sexy dancing women there. But other than the video (which of course we never see, hence my distrust) we never really get a specific sense of why the fuss. It’s explained quite clearly in the film that the reaction is coming from within Senegal, where the dominant form of Islam is Sufism, i.e., not Wahhabi iconoclasm. We never see a religious spokesman criticizing Ndour’s music, just himself and own flacks putting words in others’ mouths. This is vital because there are legitimate issues within religions involving sacred-space appropriateness and other “time, place and manner” issues that are not matters of absolute morality. To take a Christian example, there is nothing wrong with “Danny Boy” at a wake, but it is not Funeral Mass music; “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful” are both religious songs, but not appropriate for Catholic liturgy. This film seems blind to these distinctions, assuming they exist in Islam (and they HAVE to, unless Muslims are simply inherently stupid, for precisely a reason the film points out — imams chant prayers every Friday). We don’t get any sense from this movie of the distinction, to use a Christian example, between Aretha Franklin’s Gospel album and Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” and which side Ndour’s album falls. I don’t trust a film on that point that includes a scene where the manager tosses out buzzwords indistinguishable from Western academic cant — “he’s bringing people together with a positive message about his religious culture.” It is neither relativism nor a denial of religious duty to note that things that are permissible in themselves can be made inappropriate or even blasphemous by context.
And there are other ideas that don’t quite mesh — Ndou says he wants to “counter the distorted image of Islam” (plus his using the evasion term “events of 9/11”) while at the same time canceling a plan to make an album that supposedly would do that because of the terrorist attacks themselves. Which would seem like the ideal time for such an album, if it be a worthy project at all. Further, the poor sales in Senegal of “Egypt” are attributed to censorship or religious opposition, without realizing that virtually every American pop singer who tries a different genre sees his sales suffer. I realize this review sounds more negative than I intend. If you take this movie as merely an extended episode of VH-1 Behind the Music — Youssou Ndour for Dummies — it’s a superior example of the genre.
THE SILENCE OF LORNA (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 2008) — 9
This is NOT a mere fanboy grade, or a reaction to getting my TIFF guidebook signed before the film by the two men, the best filmmakers in the world right now. A simple fact about these gentlemen’s mastery of detail, of creating worlds so thoroughly lived in that they have created the greatest body of naturalist film art since the Italians of the late 40s, without the films ever coming across as needing to announce that fact. The first words on my viewing notes are actor Jeremie “Renier looks thin.” I had avoided as much knowledge of the details of this movie as I could and so didn’t know that longtime Dardennes actor Renier was playing a junkie. But I spotted it right away. And this fact about Renier’s character — and in later scenes a recovering Renier looks less gaunt and arm-veiny — is a key plot point that is never made the subject of a scene per se. Oh … scenes deal with this fact and center around others’ reactions. But since the characters live in this world, they have no need for a scene “establishing” that Renier is a junkie or even the need for the word “heroin” to appear in the movie. There is a later scene where the central character Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), playing junkie Renier’s wife in an immigration scam allowing her to gain Belgian citizenship, responds to his pleas for water, by pouring some in a bowl and putting it before him. Put that way, it sounds simple and obvious, or simple-minded and too obvious. But (1) it reminds us how ferile Renier’s performance has been to this point; and (2) treating her husband like a dog in this way is consistent with how Lorna treats him otherwise in a less literal ways. Like LA PROMESSE, THE SON and THE CHILD, this latest Dardennes film is best viewed rasa, though I think Mike is wrong in saying that LORNA’S SILENCE is plottier than at least THE CHILD, and it’s not quite as stylistically rigorous as THE CHILD or THE SON, though their style in unmistakeable. For example, a scene near the end involves the Dardennes first use of scored music, it’s just a few notes at a key moment, but its very unusualness underlines (I will be vague) that LORNA’S SILENCE is probably their most pessimistic and the moments leaves the rigorous naturalism that defines their work.
GOMORRAH (Matteo Garonne, Italy, 2008) — 5
Like deep-dish pizza and chop suey (invented by the respective immigrant communities), gangster films are the province of Italian-Americans more than Italians, as GOMORRAH again proves. A slight upgrade from my initial impression as it has stewed in my mind in recent days. I actually have little to add to what Mike says is the problem with this movie — that it ambles and rambles into five interconnecting webs of intrigue in a Naples slum without the necessary establishing work of the kind that episodic TV has plenty of time to do. I had trouble tracking who meant what to who or caring that I didn’t know, as indicated by a scene about 2/3 of the way in, where a character from Gang X says “we’re gonna have to take out Gang Y’s people.” I didn’t realize at that point that there were two distinct groups of gangs — imagine watching WEST SIDE STORY not even realizing that there are Sharks and Jets for a sense of how watching GOMORRAH felt. I also didn’t get either that there was either a point or a problem with the Chinese gown contract until the movie is almost over, and we never do learn about the opening tanning-salon scene. (Victor’s Rule of Cinema 2896, on which this post repeatedly hits: Narrative eccentricity works better with narrowly-focused stories.) The acting is also wildly uneven — the two teen wannabes are risibly, prosciutto-theater bad, especially when they yell or scream; the elder character actors are sensationally good (the textile contractor Pasquale convinces merely with his face and hair). Nevertheless, and this validates the “episodic TV” criticism even more, I actually upgraded the film slightly in the last couple of days because, looking over my notes, I was enjoying GOMORRAH more as it went on and some of the later scenes are actually quite effective — I had a frog in my throat as, I will be vague, Pasquale is wheeled off and is promised a raise. And, slightly earlier, the mere image-spectacle of children driving dumpster trucks (and apparently actually doing so) was riveting and harrowing, while happily putting to shame a certain Brazilian movie. I actually left the theater, to a pulse-pounding closing theme, actually hoping that somewhere Garrone has an 8-hour cut of this material, for making a season out of on HBO.
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