(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2009)
Agora (Alejandro Amenabar)
Amenabar, whose last movie was the Oscar-winning The Sea Inside, delivers here a tailor-made gala presentation – an old-fashioned decline of the Roman empire epic bursting with eye-popping sets, beautiful destruction, grand-scale human mayhem and an adequate dose of intimate tragedy. And, of course, as much contemporary resonance as you want to find in there. It’s set in 4th century Alexandria, a formerly peaceful, non-doctrinal centre of learning and reflection, as militant Christianity – embodied here largely by violent, boorish agents of mass destruction - tightens its grip on the centers of power. The key protagonist, played by Rachel Weisz, is a pioneering science geek obsessed with understanding the earth’s relationship to the stars, her position increasingly perilous because of her gender and clarity of thought. The various main male characters are all studies in weakness and capitulation of one kind or another, which you might think sounds pretty prophetic too; it would likely be more conventionally satisfying as drama if there were a Russell Crowe type in there somewhere, but maybe that absence is part of the point.
The film doesn’t really advance much on the genre; in particular, the use of English dialogue and a fairly modern vernacular (“perhaps I’m completely raving,” concedes Weisz at the moment of her key breakthrough) seems increasingly distancing now (especially after Tarantino’s highly effective critique of genre language conventions in Inglourious Basterds). Amenabar uses digital technology’s enhanced visualization possibilities very well when he’s anchored in physicality, but also bakes in too many questionable, clichéd flourishes (God-like shots that zoom directly from outer space to an interior close-up, that kind of thing). It works just fine though as an unashamed button-pusher, especially if like me you see virtually everything nowadays as a representation of how mankind long ago became a condemned property but just keeps slapping on the paint.
Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira)
De Oliveira is 100 years old, and still making just about a movie a year (he really hit his stride in his 70’s), although they’re seldom easy to see outside film festivals (the Cinematheque has a season of his work this fall however). His latest is just over an hour long, and it’s not really a major work: a slight anecdote of an accountant’s love for a woman he spots standing in the window across from his office, and his difficulties in winning her hand. I use that turn of phrase because it’s that kind of film, possessing a highly engaging old-fashioned courtliness. One never knows how much flows from the translation, but how many pictures set in the present incorporate phrases such as “Can I call you Miss?,” “What a beautiful fan,” and my favourite: “Commerce shuns a sentimental accountant”?(!)
The story isn’t overtly surreal, but the spirit of Luis Bunuel seems to haunt the movie (one of de Oliveira’s most recent films, Belle toujours, was a sequel of sorts to the master’s Belle de Jour). The framing device, of the protagonist spilling out his story to the woman beside him, recalls Bunuel’s last work That Obscure Object of Desire; so does the broader trajectory of thwarted desire, and the prevailing air of stripped-down, cultured (if slightly lost-in-time) elegance. The film’s ending is somewhat abrupt, like a sudden harsh waking from a dream, but how many filmmakers in their second century could leave you wanting (and, since he’s reportedly already embarked on another picture) fully expecting more?
Vengeance (Johnnie To)
I’m not very familiar with the Hong Kong action genre and can’t get far for instance on debating the relative achievements of John Woo vs. Tsui Hark vs. Johnnie To. Certainly I can see the artistry there, but it’s just not that high on the list of what personally excites me about cinema (much like how Cirque de Soleil isn’t my preferred night at the theater). To’s latest has the significant differentiator of Johnny Hallyday as a Paris restaurateur with a shady past, in search of who wiped out his expat daughter’s family; he also has an increasingly faulty memory, eventually placing the movie into quasi-Memento territory. Under the circumstances, he gets to the heart of things very quickly (it helps that all the local hit-men ultimately seem to work for the same guy), and it’s mostly pretty conventional, although always entertaining, and with a few let’s-shoot-for-the-fences compositions (for example a shoot-out making memorably choreographed use of compacted trash bundles). Hallday’s character, named Frank Costello, seems designed to evoke Alain Delon in Melville’s classic Le Samourai, but it doesn’t come off (I guess there’s more to it than wearing a trench coat and not saying much). I’m sure it could have been better, but I guess I would have preferred the de Oliveira movie no matter how good it was, so why carp.
Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont)
Dumont’s films are modern pilgrimages, fascinated both by squalor and by the possibility of transcendence, resisting normal notions of cinematic beauty and identification. His people, seldom embodied by traditionally great actors, are equally likely to expose their genitalia or to levitate off the ground. There’s no doubt about his seriousness, but since L’humanite ten years ago (which caused a minor scandal when it won some top prizes at Cannes) he’s become a marginal figure, often perceived as rather comically self-important. Hadewijch should remedy that a little, if only because it consciously seems like a partial gesture at reconciliation. A young girl, played by Julie Sokolowski in perhaps the best performance in all Dumont’s films, is in love with God, but she’s rejected from a convent when the others perceive her self-punishing behavior as a form of egotism. She drifts unhappily through the world outside before meeting an equally devout Muslim man; although she doesn’t share his faith, he gradually persuades her that God can only embraced by acting in the world, which - within the framework he holds out for her - leads her towards terrorism.
The film is engrossing and persuasive, primarily because the character makes such blinding sense: she’s from a privileged background, with seemingly well-meaning but absent parents, and an underdeveloped sense of her own sexuality; her love for God is beyond doubt, but it doesn’t appear to be theologically complex, which of course makes her (like hundreds of thousands before her) potential fodder for earthly ambitions. But Dumont is careful not to stereotype the Muslim perspective either, and the lack of easily identifiable “evil” or cynicism makes Hadewijch much more disquieting. The ending too is surprisingly gentle by his standards, quietly reestablishing the more mundane vessels and events in which the devout might sense and draw strength from divine presence and purpose. All of that said, and for all its qualities, I could easily imagine sterner critics than myself once again dismissing the whole thing as a somewhat gauche cartoon.