Filmfest DC — day 4 capsules
NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran) — 4
This material about the underground pop-music scene in Tehran, though certainly better than MY TEHRAN FOR SALE, probably would have worked better as a reality-TV show (which it kinda is anyway; most of the actors are musicians playing probably some version of themselves). If this were THE REAL WORLD: TEHRAN. it would then become possible to overlook this film inadequacies as a drama, most basically that nobody in the film, with one delirious exception, can act worth excrement, particularly the central couple Negar and Ashkan. I mean the reality TV comparison literally — the “acting” is of the style you’d expect on a reality-TV show (which is to say, when viewed as drama, awful). The plot is thin and mostly winds up just a picaresque excuse to move from band to band and play what ultimately become like videos of their song (ditto the “we accept such conventions in reality TV” caveat). CATS also lacks in some of the most-basic elements of film craftsmanship — I was particularly aggravated at a early scene, in an apartment being used for disc-bootlegging, that never managed to be in proper focus, and not because shooting was hurried or threatened or Ghobadi was deliberately moving objects into or out of focus for expressive purposes.
There are two things worth seeing in this film, which make it almost worth a recommendation — one is the de-facto music videos. Not because the music is especially great but because it’s at least OK (and some of it good) and such a novelty to hear at all that you can hardly really mind. And if that judgment commit the crimes of patronizing Orientalism and tourist exoticism, then let me be guilty. I mean … who knew there were Persian rappers and heavy-metal bands? The singer for the hard-rock group (I didn’t catch its name) explicitly says his act has nothing to do with politics or religion, but their song (heavy on “King of Pain” type repetitive imagery about who’s awake all night) is as apolitical as the women’s tales in SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY. And did you imagine you could ever hear rappers, however amusing it might be (is) to see them strut about representin’ like Public Enemy or House of Pain, complain about how, in their society, money is first and God is second?
The other thing worth seeing is the crazy, manic performance — the only one in the film that belong in any kind of dramatic movie — of Hamed Behdad as Nader, who dubs film and music disks, listens to Negar and Ashkan’s record and promises to make it a hit and get them abroad. He is only prominent in two or three scenes, but he is a clownish comic delight as the hyper-helpful, motor-mouthed, big-talking little guy who’ll make things happen. And then in one scene — let’s just say it involves a trial — we see the same persona in another context and the laughter sticks in the craw.
THE OTHER IRENE (Andrei Gruzsniczki, Romania) — 7
I’m at the point now where I want to see a bad Romanian movie, just to convince myself that my grades for the eight or so Romanian films I’ve seen in the past few years — every one at least a 6, most better, and one a “best of decade” favorite — aren’t simply a fanboy’s reflex. But across a wide variety of subject matters, they all have the same combination of urgent realism and existential gloom and an utter lack of snark or Generation-Whatevuh — a mix I’m just a sucker for. In the case of THE OTHER IRENE, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about and how it’s about it without spoilers, so I’ll discuss more after the jump. For the front page, let me say that it makes a nod to virtually every recent Romanian festival hit and most resembles POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Dragos Bucur even has a small role, as does Vlad Ivanov), though it’s less stylistically radical — another structural exercise in a character trying to spin a narrative for the sake of his sanity and (in this case) his memories, only to be … well, what happens here (WARNING: link to a recent French classic that obviously is a giveaway too).
THE OTHER IRENE centers on mall-security guard Aurel (apparently a more-respected post in Romania than Seth Rogen in OBSERVE & REPORT, though it’s still a working-class job) whose wife Irina dies while on a visit to Egypt while working at a lucrative overseas temporary job. Aurel is told it was a suicide, but he notices discrepancies and refuses to believe The Official Story saying his wife was happy and would never do that.
Festival blurbs around the world have called THE OTHER IRENE a thriller and compared it to THE VANISHING rather than UNDER THE SAND — both of which strike me as utterly wrong-headed. Yes, this movie has the plot-points and skeleton of a thriller — Aurel as hero uncovering the truth about his wife’s death. Yes, he runs into obstinate officialdom, both in the Egyptian Embassy and the Romanian Foreign Office. Yes, there’s unexplained details and discrepancies. But the last thing in the world you could say about THE OTHER IRENE is that it’s thrilling. While it’s not quite as “boring” as POLICE, ADJECTIVE (an undermining of the “policier” thriller), this film is an exercise in narrative and finally existential denial and an undermining of the “innocent man investigates” thriller that it seems to take the form of.
And the film is definitely goosing us, and showing how Aurel gooses himself. For example, the casting of Vlad Ivanov (THE symbol of corrupt officialdom) in the Romanian Foreign Office and his saying “we will get the autopsy documents and police reports, but be patient, the Arabs work on a different time scale than us” makes us expect something nefarious. But the documents do show up. Aurel then notices that they’re all in Arabic and so takes them to an official translator. She is as petty and truculent as every Romanian government bureaucrat, but the Romanian translations get done — and boy does Aurel not like what they say. He notices that his wife’s luggage was missing several key items, including a diary — aha!, I smell a crime afoot. But the items were removed from Irina’s room as material evidence (and so not packed as luggage) to be returned to Romania when the inquest was over. And they were. But but but … the coffin is sealed, that must not be Irina in there. It’s unsealed — and it’s NOT HER!!! (at least Aurel thinks so; his wife’s family disagrees). By the time we get to the end, it’s become clear (though some of the details, in particular the developed photos of her Egyptian sojourn, are of the “if you blink you miss it” category) that Irina was lying about a job but was conducting an affair in Egypt, was pregnant by her Egyptian lover, planned to divorce Aurel, and died as a party girl from one night’s drug-alcohol combination. And at the end, he’s alone with his drinking buddies, crushed, as the camera pulls back to the same God’s-eye view it began with.
And in the end, would it matter if Aurel’s face-saving hypotheses turned out to be true? His wife, whom he obviously loved after his fashion however much she may not have, is dead one way or another. And now he doesn’t even have his illusions and he’s alienated his in-laws.¹ But the sparkling mall is still there. In THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, the titular character spends an allegorical night spinning around Bucharest hospitals and only in the film’s last hour does he get somebody who cares enough and is dogged enough and is connected enough to do the right thing by him. But he still is a dying old man, as the title suggests. “Enjoy the snow today; tomorrow it’ll be mud” is the explicitly stated moral of 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST (a film I’m becoming more and more convinced I underrated at the time). Even the temporary victories are sullied or evaporate in the face of larger things, including human frailties, the ultimate of which is this too, too solid flesh.
¹ That’s really the point of an unjustly denounced David Brooks column about success and marriage, willfully misread by ignorami, feminist and otherwise.
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