Filmfest DC — day 3 capsules
THE SECRET OF KELLS (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, Ireland) — 8
Or “why I take notes, part 1.” The last words in my viewing notes for this film, about a hero boy’s quest to keep a book safe, were actually taken after the lights were up: “wow, kids totally silent.” I had just looked around the crowded-but-not-packed-to-the-gills auditorium and seen that virtually the entire audience was made up of families with children. (KELLS is already in limited release nationwide, but the Festival showed it as a reduced-price children’s weekend matinee.) And yet during the film’s entire 75-minute running time, I was never conscious of being in an auditorium full of rugrats, who tend to run up and down the aisles or cry or demand to be taken outside or otherwise indicate when they’re not enjoying themselves. I know that “reviewing the audience” is dicey, but with children’s movies, because they haven’t learned to sit in silent boredom when a film sucks, it’s easy to determine whether a film is working or isn’t.
The kids’ reaction also happened to confirm an idea I had about KELLS — that it had a gentleness of tone, a real sense of wonder and fantasy that is too often absent from kids entertainment (there’s even an actual fairy in this fairy tale). I recently saw HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (a film I liked much less), which covered a lot of the same subject matter and theme and setting (see Steve Greydanus here for the comparisons). But DRAGON did it in a more “contemporary” style, trying to take advantage of 3D, chopped-up action editing like Bay and Bruckheimer, and a much more “knowing” sensibility. And I felt, and I think I would done the same as a boy, pushed away by all the freneticness of DRAGON. Something as gentle and relaxed as KELLS is literally a breath of fresh air.
Not that KELLS has nothing for adults or more-sophisticated audiences. Among other things, I think adults will have a better sense of how detailed the nearly all hand-drawn animation is and how much effort goes into making all the film’s curlicues and decorated curves and whatnot, as if the film is trying for an animated equivalent of the illumined manuscripts that “Dark Ages” monks sweated their lives for. They also will (or should) have more of a sense of how the imagery, with its flat two-dimensionality and stylized shapes, fits a pre-Renaissance world whose self-representations were without realistic-looking perspective. There are even some shots in KELLS (though I couldn’t find one online) of floors rising up the frame, like in Byzantine icons.
My one reservation about the film is religious (though, pace Michael Sicinski, it isn’t exactly about the crystal). Rather, it is the secularizing or at least de-Christianizing of the book and the abbey. If you go into this film knowing that the Book of Iona/Kells was the four Gospels, then the film actually is the “Christian propaganda” that Michael feared (c’mon … the last line is that the book “can give hope to the people in these dark days of the Northmen” and there’s even an explicit reference to the serpent being trapped into eating itself by “drawing lines”). But the film never (that I recall) mentions either that this book, though there’s much of that vague “this book can bring light into the darkness,” is a copy of the Gospels or that these monks are, you know, Christians, rather than just an all-male commune of unspecified character.
I AM LOVE (Luca Guadagnino, Italy) — 9
Or “why I take notes, part 2.” Here are some of the names and films and artworks that I AM LOVE put me in mind of and jotted down while watching — Antonioni, KING LEAR, the Recchi Co. as neorealism and Italian film itself, MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, Max Ophuls, THE LEOPARD, BABETTE’S FEAST, Garbo, Impressionism, the 19th-century novel and Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Scorsese, SUNSET BOULEVARD. Between this film and VINCERE (which I saw again recently and admired even more), Italy is definitely back as the country that offers the antidote to the Cinema of Lack. I AM LOVE, whatever else may be said of it, is bursting with ideas and conceits and style and flourishes. Nor is this mere name-dropping. Guadagnino doesn’t suffer from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, instead saying that he’s deliberately acknowledging the towering antecedents that an Italian film-maker must face (though few have done so successfully recently) and trying to make something new with them. From an article in the current Sight and Sound:
I Am Love’s dazzling title sequence – cut, designed and scored to brashly recall some great Italian art film from 1960 – defines this new confidence. “We were trying to connect the chromosomic code of great movies that we love, from Visconti to Antonioni, with a vision of Milano today,” Guadagnino says. “You can’t start in a humble, hypocritical way, saying, ‘Those were masters and we are not.’ We have to say, ‘Let’s aim for the stars and see where we go’.”
To some everything up in a single bite — an updated Impressionistic version of a Visconti film based on a 19th-century novel, though changed to reflect current social and economic realities. However, again, it’s always love and sex that break up the social order. Like THE LEOPARD, I AM LOVE looks at the generational passing-on of a class through the eyes of (in this case) someone imported into the family from outside (Tilda Swinton, playing a Russian who married into the family of Italy’s largest textile firm) via immigration rather than Garibaldi’s bourgeois revolution. I AM LOVE also introduces us to the dramatis personae with a bravura overture scene of the family gathering, though instead of Visconti’s family rosary, we get a secular meal where a major announcement is made. The directness of Guadagnino’s acknowledgement of the shadow of Italy’s cinematic past is clear in one detail: the scene features Gabriele Ferzetti as the patriarch signing over his empire, and, as Swinton’s husband, an actor who looks like he did in the 1960s.
In that scene and others I AM LOVE and its constantly prowling camera channels Visconti’s sensual adoration of the surfaces and appearances of a rich decadent civilization, only here it’s the late 20th-century bourgeois dinner, not a 19th-century aristocratic ball. I already mentioned VINCERE, but the one sense in which I AM LOVE does differ radically is that where Bellocchio’s film is boldly and grandly operatic, Guadagnino’s movie (until the end) instead goes for a more-subjective style that might be better called Impressionism — shots out of time, colorful surfaces, hazy focus, contrast with sun-kissed nature. In one food-porn scene, Swinton eats a shrimp dish that you can practically taste yourself and fall in the love with the chef (which is the cause of much of the film’s conflict). There’s even a shot of a colorful table of food drifting in out of focus and image-smear like a Cezanne might have produced. There are scenes where Swinton walks through a room and touches the objects in it like talismanic reminders, and others where the sound mix drifts in and out as the world comes clanging down on your ears. And the final betrayal is shown, not in a handful of peas, but a fish-soup recipe that causes everything to click together. It’s all stylistically overheated, no doubt, but the film centers on Swinton and her subjective experience as a Russian for whom Italy IS a garden of delights. And one that eventually …
25 KARATS (Patxi Amezcua, Spain) — 5 (downgraded from 6)
Or “why I take notes, part 3.” I downgraded this one because it was clear looking at my notes my dominant reaction was “this isn’t as good as Tarantino.” I kept noticing the similarities: braided plot threads among a group of criminal lowlifes, scams and scheming involving debts and sacks of money, betrayals and trust issues, sudden bursts of violence, details of the underside like the differing rates for various prostitution services, etc. This film should have been titled JACOBA MARRONA. But more importantly I also kept noticing where 25 KARATS failed to match its American master. And (unlike I AM LOVE) Amezcua’s film is too derivative of a single source to judge on any terms other than its original.
25 KARATS entirely lacks Tarantino’s wit, instead being played pretty straight with little or none of his type of colorful dialog. I don’t speak Spanish perfectly and I miss stuff and details; but I can hear Spanish well enough to tell what a film is trying to do — and this is functional dialogue just about entirely (I can tell definitively that the subtitles are witless and straight). Tarantino also would never have the kind of tender-hearted sex scene that plays straight out of what Roger Ebert called in the 60s and 70s the semi-OLI (Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude with soft and would-be romantic music; call it the semi-OFI). The ending also doesn’t come off, for all score of reasons: there’s two people killed that just seems gratuitous and two switches — one of loyalty, the other of costume — occur that are flat unbelievable). 25 KARATS held my attention and sometimes was interesting and fun in a way that crime movies always have suspense and intrigue built into them. But never was it more than that.