Tag Archives: world cinema

Pretty, Poor

Shepherdess and the Seven Songs

by Cat McAlpine

“Beauty is a curse when you’re born into a poor family,” muses Laila’s new husband. This is her curse. Laila (a fantastic Navjot Randhawa) is beautiful and poor, and there’s nothing she can do about either ailment.

When Tanvir sets eyes on Laila and decides to marry her, all he has to do to win her hand is complete a feat of strength and gain her brother’s approval. Laila has no say in the matter, and soon she is migrating to a new county. In the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Laila is targeted by the men of local law enforcement for her beauty and minority status.

Writer/Director Pushpendra Singh paints his fable beautifully, with long atmospheric shots in moody forests. Paired with a gorgeous score The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs is a cinematic triumph in style. As Laila goes out into the world to fight her own battles against the men that dog every step, the traditional songs of her culture, the bleating of goats, and even sometimes the thunderous silence of the forest all become a haunting soundtrack to her own introspection.

Singh doesn’t shy away from dissonance though. One of the chief conflicts of his tale is that “Times have changed.” The Bakarwal herders can no longer freely migrate without proper paperwork, and they are constantly under the eye of government officials. We watch Laila herd her flock along a paved road with cars in the distance. Rich campfire scenes are brightly punctuated with flashlights. Contemplative moments are underscored with quiet radio broadcasts that remind you this is a land of tension and conflict.

Laila’s true trial doesn’t begin until she catches the eyes of local officer Mustaq (Shahnawaz Bhat, effortlessly charming and suspicious). The power struggle between the tribe and the local police becomes hyperfocused on who will possess Laila. Local officers ceaselessly pursue her, even though she is already married, a testament to how little the Bakarwal are respected or given autonomy.

Singh empowers Laila with her repeated manipulations of the men in her life, desperately trying to show them her boundaries and needs. But the story begins to lose steam as Laila’s circumstances fail to improve. Finally, she asks herself “Perhaps it is my skin that is the problem” while admiring a shed snakeskin.

It is the circumstances she was born into that she cannot escape. She is a woman, she is poor, she is a minority. What was a story of a fiery woman in difficult circumstances becomes an exhausted lament. And while women’s stories don’t need to be fierce or triumphant to hold value, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs disappoints some with its meandering end and lack of resolution.

An Unbroken Wheel

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

by Cat McAlpine

In the small village of Nazareth, in the tiny Kingdom of Lesotho, a man recounts the wisdom his father once gave to him. “My son, what they call progress…It is when men point their damning finger at nature and proclaim conquest over it.” It is that poisonous progress that the people of Nazareth are fighting against in This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, and it is a losing battle.

The film follows 80-year-old widow Mantoa. After the death of her last surviving child, she finds herself utterly alone and mired in grief. The story unfolds like a mythic, dark fairytale with beautiful vignettes and discordant music. Director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese carries us from moment to moment as Mantoa repeatedly has to contemplate her grief. Though she resigns herself to simply wait to be buried alongside her family, a new challenge arrives with a blazer and a megaphone. The village will be relocated, a dam will be built, their fields will be flooded.

What of the dead? What of Mantoa? The elderly woman convinces the village to resist the spinning wheels of progress. Together they seek to find what is left for their community in the land where their dead are buried. Twice we are reminded that Nazareth is the name that new settlers gave the land. Before that, it was always known as the Plains of Weeping.

Jerry Mofokeng delivers a reverent and deeply sad narration of Mantoa’s struggles. Using the framework of a narrator, with a different voice and perspective than Mantoa, further perpetuates the storybook feel. But this is not a happy children’s tale. This is a story about capitalism’s infinite reach. This is a story about grief, culture, and perseverance. This is a story about the dead.

Mary Twala is phenomenal in her final role as Mantoa. Her emotion is palpable even when she sits in silence. Her rage and her pain don’t slow the narrative or taint it with bitterness. Instead, Twala propels Mantoa with the depths of her grief. She is an absolute powerhouse, and the film would not succeed as well as it does without her.

And the film does succeed. It is incredibly beautiful, rich with color, light, and shadow. Every scene is a haunting painting. The cast, mixed with actors and non-actors alike, brings you to witness the erasure of a real place and real people, and you mourn with them. When Mofokeng intones that the dead buried the dead, he reflects on a village that will soon be hidden under water.

Though the people of Nazareth still live, something about them will be lost forever. They are some of the last of their kind as new roads, and new buildings, and new dams continue to creep into the quiet places of the world. Progress fills up little villages with the walking dead as ways of life are washed away.

Voice of Rage and Ruin


by Hope Madden

Liberation isn’t always the good time it’s cracked up to be. In his strangely hopeful tale Werewolf, writer/director Adrian Panek offers a different image of social rebuilding.

His film follows a handful of orphans of the Nazi occupation. Eight children liberated from a concentration camp are dropped off at a makeshift orphanage—really a deserted mansion, long bereft of food, no running water, no electricity. The possibility of aid comes by way of rare visits from Russian guards who may or may not bring rations, may or may not bring their own danger.

Still, little by little the children begin to shake off the horrors of the camp. They explore the woods around them, find berries, even play. But Nazi danger is everywhere—maybe in the bunkers dug deep into the surrounding mountains. Definitely in the woods.

Lurking figures and echoing growls haunt the film from the children’s first steps outside the ruined mansion. Then there’s a body, then more bodies. When Panek reveals the source of the terror, Werewolf could easily turn to pulpy horror. It does not.

At times the film conjures the same magic and dread of Monos, but Panek may see more resilience than Lord of the Flies in children. The filmmaker shows restraint and a forgiving nature when it comes to the barbarity of childhood. He reveals strong instincts with his young cast, understating sentiment and avoiding either the maudlin or the saccharine.

Werewolf is beautifully shot, inside the crumbling castle, out in the woods, even in the early, jarring nonchalance of the concentration camp’s brutality. Panek hints at supernatural elements afoot, but the magic in his film is less metaphorical than that. 

The film is creepy and tense. It speaks of the unspeakable – the level of evil that can only really be understood through images of Nazi horror—but it sees a path back to something unspoiled.

Do Clones Dream of Fluffy Puppies?


by Matt Weiner

Is Diamantino going for hard-hitting social commentary? Eurozone political satire? B-movie send-up? I spent the first half of the film (written and directed by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt) eyeing the title hero with as much skepticism as those who surround him in the movie. By the end, though, I found it impossible not to root for the surreal star and his message of love, acceptance—and fluffy puppies. (Make that very surreal.)

Diamantino (Carloto Cotta, whose captivating presence keeps the film’s high-concept oddities aloft) is Portugal’s star soccer player. His skills on the field are rivaled only by his childlike naivete, at least until the superstar’s insular bubble gets popped by a succession of professional and personal tragedies.

As the world beyond soccer infiltrates Diamantino’s Zen-like existence, he becomes enmeshed with—in no particular order—the refugee crisis, evil twins, the Portuguese Secret Service, a shadowy genetics conspiracy, Portugal’s place in the European Union and the rising tide of right-wing nationalism. Also giant puppies.

Abrantes and Schmidt clearly have a lot going on in the tight script, but it’s a testament to the film’s good nature and convincing leads (including Cleo Tavares as Diamantino’s adopted “refugee”) that the humor lands more often than not, at least before the satire gives way to mysticism with a detour through B-movie body humor. (Again, a lot going on.)

Not only is Diamantino funny, it’s also beautiful… at least in its own fleeting way, before the film is just as likely to veer back to deliberately cheesy sci-fi effects. But Cotta finds a way to redirect the celebrity satire of Diamantino into tenderness, even when it’s something as achingly funny as the soccer star putting his head down on his own branded bedsheets.

For a film that hinges on so many hot-button current events, the unifying message that coalesces in the final act comes close to feeling like a cop-out. But even when it stumbles, Diamantino earns its cult status just for being so committed, so sincere, so weirdly joyous. And so unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.

Evening in Budapest


by Rachel Willis

When Írisz Leiter (an intense and captivating Juli Jakab) returns to Budapest after a long absence, she seeks employment as a milliner in a hat store bearing her name. We learn quickly the store was her parents’, who died when she was two. The current owner, Oszkár Brill, refuses to give her a job and is evasive as to his reasons why. He tells her she can stay in town the night but then must leave.

From there, the tension quickly builds. Family secrets are revealed, and determined to learn more, Írisz refuses to depart as commanded.

With a combination of fearlessness and stupidity, Írisz throws herself into more and more dangerous situations seeking answers to questions we’re never quite sure of. Everyone Írisz meets evades her inquiries. She’s met with increasing resistance and resentment as she digs into her family’s history. As she follows sketchy leads, we’re taken deeper and deeper into the tumultuous world of Budapest in 1913.

There is much happening in director László Nemes historical drama, an ambitious follow up to his Oscar-winning debut, Son of Saul. There is a great deal to absorb as we follow Írisz. She’s our eyes in this world, and much of the time, she’s as off balance as the audience. Keeping the focus tightly bound to one character isn’t a bad way to orient an audience, but it can be problematic when we’re given too much information. It forces you to keep up, but not everyone will be up to the challenge of unraveling the mystery while puzzling over the surrounding details.

Visually, the audience is treated to a stunning film. The cinematography keeps us close to Írisz. Chaotic scenes lose focus, genuine terror is fed through her character’s reactions and facial expressions, crowded streets become oppressive. Darkness envelops much of the most horrific action, and it feeds the growing unease as Írisz’s journey follows unpredictable paths.    

We’re never quite sure where the film will take us, but it’s a compelling journey. We’re kept on our toes, answers aren’t easily found, and it’s not always clear what we’re learning as each new answer appears. When we think we’ve unraveled the mystery, new information comes to unmoor us.

It’s an absorbing, unnerving film.

Of a Feather

Birds of Passage

by Hope Madden

It’s difficult to imagine a fresh cartel story, a novel approach to the rise-and-fall arc of a self-made kingpin. And though scene after scene of Birds of Passage recalls that familiar structure, reminding you of what’s to come, you have never seen a film quite like this.

To begin with, directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra set this narco-thriller and its tale of the corrupting lure of luxury deep inside Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu culture. And though anyone who’s seen Scarface can guess how tides may turn for Rapayet (Jose Acosta), the entrepreneur at the heart of this saga, the tragic difference in this film is the way the same insidious rot destined to eat Rapayet alive also seeps into and destroys the Wayuu culture itself.

Spanning twenty years, Birds of Passage opens with Rapayet participating in a ritual, beautiful and peculiar. He proposes, but his gift is inappropriate – it’s a luxury, a thing. He’s already begun to lose touch with his roots, and yet he is determined to earn the dowry and his bride, Zaida (Natalia Reyes).

Rapayet straddles two existences, never truly fitting into either. He’s the bridge for the two ecosystems to meet, but Acosta’s performance is intriguing. Hardly the ambitious firebrand who builds an empire, he’s quiet and perhaps even weak, bringing an end to his culture accidentally, like an infected animal who doesn’t know what he’s brought home with him.

David Gallego’s cinematography renders an absurdly beautiful desolation, colors splashing and popping against bleached sandy neutrals. Naturalistic performances from the entire cast aid in the film’s authentic feeling, but the poetry of the directors’ use of long shots and the singing voiceover give Birds of Passage the tone of folklore.

It’s a fitting balance —the story itself being both intimate and epic. Like Guerra’s Oscar-nominated Embrace the Serpent, this film again examines the moment when an indigenous people watch the death of their culture in favor of something more globally acknowledged and yet clearly inferior.

Another Man with No Name

Five Fingers for Marseilles

by Rachel Willis

How does one make a film that’s uniquely South African yet still feels like an American western? Director Michael Matthews and writer Sean Drummond answer that question with the stunning Five Fingers for Marseilles.

From the beginning, Matthews evokes Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars trilogy. Four boys stand facing each other, hands at the ready, waiting for a sign to fire their slingshots. When it comes, Tau, The Lion, stands victorious. It’s a scene that sets the tone for a film that not only calls up classics like Leone’s, but also Yojimbo.

Tau is described as ruthless and mean, but he’s also filled with an anger that makes him reckless. In apartheid-era South Africa, small enclaves such as Railway – a district within the city of Marseilles – are at the mercy of their oppressors. As Tau and his friends argue about how to resist the police that fleece them, he insists on using more than sticks. His brother, Zulu, demands he exercise caution.

However, when a friend is threatened with brutality, Tau’s anger leads to a careless decision. When he flees the scene of his crime, he not only leaves behind his friends but his responsibility. Those left behind suffer because of “The Lion”‘s heedless anger.

Decades pass before Tau returns to Railway. The town seems the same though apartheid has ended. Police still shake down the citizens, but another sinister element has also descended on the town, a gang led by a fearsome man known as The Ghost. Though Tau seeks to return untroubled, he is inevitably called to his former role as protector.

It’s a familiar story, and the political backdrop of a South Africa trying to find its way after apartheid lends itself well to the retelling. As Tau, Vuyo Dabula is a perfect representation of the man with no name. Though he is The Lion, a man with a past full of brutality, he seeks to start anew as Nobody. It’s the sinister nature of the world around him that draws him back into a world of ferocity and lawlessness.

There are few villains as perfect as Sepoko, also known as The Ghost. Every moment Hamilton Dhlamini is on screen, the tension escalates. The masterful score only magnifies this malevolent figure.

With desolate landscapes, brutal violence and characters with questionable moral compasses, Five Fingers for Marseilles is not only a magnificent Western, but an exquisite film.

It’s (Not) a Fair Court

I Am Not a Witch

by Christie Robb

Zambian-born Welsh writer/director Rungano Nyoni’s first feature film is like Monty Python’s witch trial scene shot through lenses of patriarchy and economic exploitation.

It centers on a displaced young girl named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), accused of witchcraft by members of her community.

Found guilty, she’s turned over to a government-run witch zoo filled with old women tied by ribbons to enormous spools who are by turns photographed by tourists and rented out as agricultural laborers. Thrilled to have a “young and fresh” witch in town, the Boss (Henry B.J. Phiri) selects her for choice assignments. Shula functions as a judge of sorts in a small claims court and takes a stab at predicting the weather before Boss brings her on national television as a mascot for an egg-selling scheme.

At first, Shula seems to try to make the best of it. After she successfully outs a thief, the Boss takes her home for a taste of the good life. Shula sees bougie furniture, nice clothes, an electric chandelier, and the Boss’s Wife—a former witch. Wife tells Shula that if she does everything she’s told, Shula might end up just like her and achieve “respectability.”

But, as it turns out, a wedding ring and a veneer of dignity aren’t all they are cracked up to be.

Satirical and quietly devastating, I Am Not a Witch is a fairy tale rooted in the dust.