Thursday, 25 June 2020

Interview: Thomas Clay on Fanny Lye Deliver'd

I interviewed writer-director-composer Thomas Clay about his fantastic "Puritan Western" Fanny Lye Deliver'd, starring Maxine Peake, Charles Dance and Freddie Fox, which is available online from today. You can read the interview at Film International here

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Song Preview: "Dancing in the Dark", Barb Jungr & Simon Wallace (Kristalyn Records, 2020)

The first song I ever heard Barb Jungr sing was by Bruce Springsteen: a version of "The River" that had so much intimacy, feeling and understated dramatic power that I was immediately captivated. This was February 2015 and a few days later, on Valentine's Day, I reviewed Jungr in concert for the first time. In the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room, accompanied by Simon Wallace on piano and Davide Mantovani on bass, Jungr delivered a supreme set of love-themed songs that ranged from the Isley Brothers' "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" through Dylan's "I Want You" to Tom Rush's "No Regrets." It was a transcendent evening, and a perfect introduction to the artistry of one of the greatest, most dynamic and original performers that we have. 

I've seen Jungr in concert many times since then, with programmes dedicated to Nina Simone, Dylan and Cohen, The Beatles, and Sting, among others. The last time was at the premiere of her superb Brel/Dylan/self-penned collection Bob, Brel & Mewhich featured a spectacular appearance by The Fourth Choir on "If We Only Had Love." Jungr recently re-teamed with the Choir for a new release, the beautiful "In My Troubled Days," which you can listen to here

Now, reuniting with Simon Wallace, Jungr returns to Springsteen's work to deliver a recording of "Dancing in the Dark" that was developed and recorded in lockdown. For Jungr, the song itself now speaks to that experience and to the uncertainty of the future: "For all of us in music and live performing arts, the news is grim. It made me think about how we are all waiting to see what might happen, and how we are all, wherever we are, Dancing in the Dark." 

As with "The River," Wallace's delicate piano, bass and cello arrangement provides an intimate musical context, and Jungr's caressing, crystal-clear vocal turns an upbeat rock song into a contemplative ballad: a private expression that connects deeply with the listener. Intimations of stasis, frustration, absurdity and alienation emerge freshly illuminated, and so does their possible redemption. Jungr's voice dances over the title lyrics at the end, repeating the words, an expression of uncertainty turned into a poignant, shared affirmation.

Like "In My Troubled Days," Jungr and Wallace's "Dancing in the Dark" is exquisite: a balm that we need right now. It also prompts a hopeful anticipation of that future moment - whenever it may be - when we can join together again to hear the song in live performance, in that very special communion that a Jungr show provides. 

"Dancing in the Dark" is available from 26 June. Pre-order here.

Further reading:

What the Song Asks For: An Interview with Barb Jungr

Life of a Song: Dancing in the Dark

Saturday, 23 May 2020

A Desire to Bring Colour into Life: An Interview with Darya Zhuk

Unfolding in mid-1990s Belarus, Darya Zhuk's debut feature Crystal Swan (Khrustal) focuses on Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a DJ who intends to escape her homeland for a new life in the US. A mistake on her forged visa application throws a spanner in the works, though, forcing Velya to decamp to a village that's the location of the crystal-making factory of which she's pretended to be the manager. There Velya finds herself embroiled in a troublesome family's wedding plans, as she awaits a phone call that will determine her fate. Visually vibrant, consistently surprising, wryly funny, and more than a little melancholy, Zhuk's distinctive debut - which I reviewed for Sight & Sound - revels in '90s materiality as it examines the ambitions of its heroine, and her hopes of a life beyond Belarus. 

I enjoyed speaking to Zhuk following Crystal Swan's premiere at the London Film Festival, where we discussed her background and inspirations for the film, the importance of challenging stereotypes, the use of music, and the Belorussian "desire to bring colour into life." Crystal Swan is streaming now at Mubi.

AR: When did your interest in filmmaking begin?

DZ: I found film in a roundabout way, and it was actually through music. I was studying Economics, but not enjoying it, and I wanted to meet creative people. I took an electronic music composition class, and immediately had a feeling of "Oh my God, this is my tribe!" I find it hard to articulate how that desire to direct came about. It's just something that haunts you. I would go to see films, and sit in the dark and cry. I couldn't explain it. It was just a strong feeling of "I want to be part of this."

And this was in the US, right?

Yes, I went from Belarus to the States for school and I went to film school there too. I call going to film school "the most expensive vacation." All of my other schooling was on scholarship as a Belorussian student. But I felt that I had to go to film school, even if it meant being in debt for the rest of my life.

Darya Zhuk (Photo: KVIFF)

What films did you grow up watching in Belarus and what are some of your influences?

My Grandma would drop me off at the cinema on a Sunday morning. I saw a lot of Soviet children's films, and some Czech films, all stuff from that area. I didn't really watch American films then, but when we did see them they all looked like horrible B movies to us because they were always terrible copies! We assumed they were bad cinema. It wasn't until I came to the US that I realised that we really knew nothing about good cinema. I had to rewatch a lot and really educate myself.

When you're at film school there's this "film school language" that you get exposed to, you know, Tarkovsky, Bergman. They're great but at a certain point you realise it's not you, and that you have to find your own inspirations and voice. I realised I loved Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, and that irony and humour are very important to me. In terms of female filmmakers, I love Kira Muratova and Larisa Shepitko. It feels like gender wasn't a barrier in the Soviet system, and there were many amazing women.

To what extent was Crystal Swan inspired by your own experience of trying to get to the States?

Somewhat, but not the actual story. I've been thinking about this film, really, for the past 10 years. I had a version of the script in 2011, but then it kept getting re-written and "massaged" by Helga Landauer. She's a Russian screenwriter and poet who lives in New York, and we collaborated. One short I made in 2015, called The Real America, is a bit of a precursor; it's more autobiographical, but it has a similar kind of wild character who refuses to be victimised.

Crystal Swan was definitely inspired by some real women I knew. I had girlfriends like Velya; they fascinated me. I loved them, but I was always afraid that something would happen to them. They were so wild. And of course I loved the subculture...the music always smelled like freedom to me: the fascination with the West, a breath of fresh air. So I can relate to the character's desire to take on the world. To self-actualise. That feeling of wanting something more: some abstract America that we don't know the realities of.

That's one of the themes, in fact: the tension between the fantasy of a place you want to escape to, and the reality: that nagging sense of doubt.

Yes. These are issues that come up for anyone who doesn't live in the country they were born in. Did I do the right thing? Am I to blame for things that go wrong? There are seldom easy answers to these questions.

How did you find Alina Nasibullina to play Velya? She's a theatre actress, right?

Yes, mostly in Russia you get a theatre training, and then you go on to do both theatre and film. But this is her first leading role. It was a long process; I'd cast the whole film but I hadn't found the lead. You want to fall in love with someone, you know? I'd worked with the casting director before on a TV show in Moscow: an ensemble comedy that was very hard to cast. She knew people that I didn't know and could track them down. So that's how, at the 11th hour, she sent me Alina and said: "You must see her."

My whole crew kind of gathered around to watch the piece Alina sent in and were like: "Who is this?!" She was funny and quirky - she might have been slightly drunk when she did the piece! - and obviously amazing but we wondered if she was the kind of person who'd show up for work... Of course it turned out that she'd had this amazing education and was so skilled and professional. So I said: "I must see her now! I'm in Minsk and shooting in two weeks and I have no one to shoot!"

Another filmmaker I love is Susan Seidelman, in particular Desperately Seeking Susan. And when Alina showed up I was like "Oh my God, you look like Madonna!" But she has so much presence of her own that it wasn't about her doing a Madonna "thing." She just oozes charisma and she changes so much. I love seeing all the new Alinas.

I think that with another actress the film would have been more of a drama, but Alina naturally has this comic quality, an ironic sensibility.

I wanted to ask you about genre. Given some of the darker elements in the film, how did you feel about LFF putting the film in the "Laugh" strand?

I always intended it to be a drama with comedic elements: ironic, tragicomic. When it was put into the "Laugh" gala in London I said I would also take the "Cry" section! I guess it's easier to sell a comedy, but the mix of tones is important to me. It's an Eastern European thing in some ways.

How was the response at the LFF premiere? Did the Brits laugh?

I ducked out, but I heard there was a lot of laughter. There were many Eastern Europeans in who speak the language and get the nuances. But Belorussians are the hardest audience for me. Because it's home and they're like: "This will be sent around the world, and it represents us. Why don't you love your homeland?!"

How is the film industry in Belarus right now?

The Government-funded films are about the war and other historical subjects; they're building up a national identity narrative and they're pretty depressing. But there are some independent filmmakers, doing low budget stuff that's interesting, some of it with a mumblecore vibe.

And what was your funding process like for Crystal Swan?

Excruciating, actually. We got some from the States, some from Germany, some private equity money... It allowed me to retain creative freedom, which is the most important thing, but getting everything together was a lot of work.

How did you choose the music for the film? You use it pretty sparingly throughout.

I wanted to include music that she could realistically listen to: that would be of the time and already released by the period that the film is set. But it turned out that a lot of it had aged badly. I was like: "Wow, we used to listen to this?!" A lot of it is just unbearable! And it's house music, 4/4 repetitive, so when you put it in a scene it doesn't have development, it doesn't escalate. So it kind of ruins your dramatic structure. I eventually found only a couple of tracks that could work. The important thing is that it's a storytelling device. It reminds you of her dreams, and it symbolises freedom. When her Walkman breaks it's like she's on the moon.

LFF has been extremely (some might say excessively) proud of the fact that this year 38% of the featured films are by female directors. How does that compare to the situation in Belarus? 

I don't know the statistics of our film festival, Listopad, in Belarus, but I feel that we do have a lot of female filmmakers, not necessarily those being picked for international festivals, but in terms of the national programme, there's a decent parity. That's also true in neighbouring countries like Georgia.

On Crystal Swan, I worked hard to make sure we had a female DP and I'm very proud of my collaboration with Carolina [Costa]. I also have a female producer and AD, and that was a fantastic collaboration. The screenwriter is a woman. So I feel that it's a feminist film, not only in terms of what's up there on the screen.

It was important to tackle stereotypes in the film, too. I tried to reverse the dynamic a bit. You see a lot of women working, and men not being present or being silent. And Eastern European women do that. They do a couple of jobs and that's considered the norm.

Tell me about your collaboration with Carolina, and the look of the film, which has great vibrancy - plus a distinctive ratio.

I just realized that I love colours. I was finding references and realised that the ones I was pulling on had a lot of colour. Belarus is very clean. It's always been like that. In the downtown, everything is painted. It's beautiful. There's a government building right near my house in Minsk. It has some architectural elements that resemble a vase. The building is blue and the vase is pink. I think that really says something about us as a society. There's such a desire to bring colour into life. I go back there and find myself  observing and appreciating all those details. It's not this grey reality that some people still like to think of as defining Eastern Europe. That's such a stereotype.

The apartment that we filmed in belongs to an elderly lady and, honestly, we changed so little. The kitchen really is red and crazy, and the living room, the carpets... we just literally put in one throw! I pulled a few elements a little tighter within the frame. But really it was all there. And it became the language of the film.

As for the ratio, it's something that Carolina and I discussed, and we felt that it helped to convey the character's sense of claustrophobia. It evokes the 90s a bit, too. I felt like: Well, I have few elements. We don't have much shooting time. Every decision I make needs to serve the story.

Which recent films have you liked?

I loved Michał Marczak's All These Sleepless Nights. Happy as Lazzaro by Alice Rohrwacher was also wonderful. And Roma... Oh my God, it's a masterpiece. That elegant simplicity. It looks like he's doing do little and really he's doing so much. And it's such a feminist film. I was amazed.

And how about your own next project ?

I have some ideas. A couple of things about love in certain contexts... But then when I saw Cold War, I felt like it had all been done.

Oh, I really don't think Cold War does it all...

Maybe you're right. I thought the film was great, but perhaps he over-cut it. It needed more love story, more emotion, to get it to that end. But yes, love and geopolitics is definitely what I'm interested in exploring. It's a fascinating mix.

You can stream Crystal Swan on Mubi here.

Further reading:

Monday, 4 May 2020

Book Review: Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020)

With 2005's Piece by Piece, created in collaboration with the journalist Ann Powers, Tori Amos rewrote the rules of the rock star memoir, producing a book that went broad, intimate, playful and deep as it placed her personal and professional experiences in the context of wider patterns, ones reflecting both her Native American and Christian heritage, as well as her Jung and Joseph Campbell-schooled study of archetypes and myth. 

Via an ambitious structure, and in prose as image-rich, perceptive, surprising and witty as her best lyric-writing, Amos and Powers explored formative family influences, music biz machinations, motherhood, creative process, live performance, and much more besides, the book drawing a great deal of its power from its structure as a wide-ranging dialogue between the two writers. 

Seven diverse albums (including the conceptual tours-de-force American Doll Posse and Night of Hunters), several world tours (encompassing band, solo and orchestral set-ups) and a one-of-a-kind National Theatre musical later, the prolific Amos now follows Piece by Piece with a second book, Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage. 

As its title suggests, this new work feels very much like a companion to Amos's last album, 2017's Native Invader, which mostly took inspiration from two events: the 2016 American election result and her mother's debilitating stroke. Over two years on from the record's release, Donald Trump remains in the White House and Amos's mother, Mary, a muse for many songs and the person to whom the book is dedicated, is sadly deceased. Those two facts are pivots for the volume, inspiring Amos to investigate the artist's position and potential in what she defines as an "unprecedented moment of crisis." (And that's before the horror of the current pandemic.)  

A feature of Piece by Piece was a number of "Song Canvases" - short sections focusing on specific songs - and in Resistance the prose sections are juxtaposed with full lyrics from a range of songs drawn from across Amos's catalogue (plus some never-seen-before photos, too). The book begins, appropriately, with Scarlet's Walk's majestic finale "Gold Dust" and Amos's memories of her late '70s/early '80s piano bar days in Washington D.C. Here, from her vantage point as a teenage girl starting her career under the supervision of her father (a minister with "more than a dose of Mama Rose pulsing through his veins" [p.8]), Amos observes the Carter-Reagan shift and right wing lobbyists' rise, finding herself playing in "a hotbed of conservative thinking on its rise to power" (p.13) as she smuggles songs like "The Last Chance Texaco" into her set. 

A lengthy section focusing on the 1979-1981 American hostage situation in Iran indicates the ambitious political dimension of the volume, as Amos aims to trace American foreign policy decisions from reaction to that event through the later Afghanistan invasion and the Iraq war/s. These elements are interwoven with many other reflections, from memories of her return to the piano following her first failed record to events as current as Christine Blasey Ford's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.   

"[I]ntersecting situations can compel a future work" (p126), Amos writes, and that observation clearly compels the volume itself. Amos shows songs both reflecting and refracting personal and political events, and expanding their meanings and resonances over time. Overall, though, Resistance ends up at once less expansive and less cohesive than Piece by Piece. An associative, place-based fluidity of structure is attempted, and sometimes achieved, but there's a restlessness to the book which often doesn't let an idea settle and develop before moving on to the next. The transitions, though at times arresting, can also be jarring, giving a random, unfocused quality to some chapters.  

"Part of a songwriter's discipline is being ruthless with lazy concepts" (92), Amos notes, and originality of thought and response has defined her as an artist. Still, while the writing here is often striking and vivid - check out the great description of "Cornflake Girl"'s genesis, for one (p.91-3) - some sections resort to rhetoric you could find in a social media post on any day of the week. There are predictable shorthands ("our Handmaid's Tale-like reality"), overused fashionable buzzwords ("gaslighting", "weaponizing"), and a touch of TDS, especially in the accusations of Russian meddling in the US election. (The linked Native Invader songs "Benjamin" and "Russia", with their teasing cryptographic elements, evoked the latter much more subtly and potently.)

But Resistance gets better as it progresses. As Amos writes frankly of the time that it can take for an artist to find their style, about the lessons learned from "failure", about the vital importance of recognising your own story as unique and valuable, so the book itself belatedly finds its shape. Her account of 9/11 and its aftermath, during which she was one of very few artists not to cancel a planned US tour, is powerful - showing how interactions and conversations experienced at that fraught time inspired Scarlet's Walk

The book also broadens out from a US context to take in her experiences in Russia on the mighty 2014 Unrepentant Geraldines solo tour, which she describes as "a turning point for me as a person and as an artist" (p.171-2) and where a highly emotional Moscow concert was followed by an encounter with Putin's heavies. Touring in Turkey, meanwhile, Amos observes restrictions of liberty under President Erdoğan that contrast with her experiences of the city 9 years before, reminding "how freedoms can be taken away before you realise they are gone" (p.175). As such, the book gives a vivid sense of the value of the touring life and its ability to expand the perspective of an artist dedicated to taking the temperature of every city and creating ever-evolving set-lists reflecting current events. (Oddly, though, given Amos's status as at least a part-time UK resident, reference to recent British political strife - Brexit, for instance - is completely excluded from the volume.)

Equally powerful are the later sections dealing with bereavement: firstly, her husband Mark Hawley's grief over the death of his father (an experience that inspired the songs "1000 Oceans" and "Invisible Boy") and then Amos's pain at her mother and friend Beenie's deaths within days of each other last May. As tender and lacerating as Michael Haneke's Amour, these sections find Amos finally taking comfort in her sense of continued communication with her mother, which provides encouragement and inspiration for a new album in development. (A verse from one of these new tracks, the beautiful "Mary's Raven," is included in the book.)

While Amos's creative process - as mystical as it is intensely practical - was more deeply sketched in Piece by Piece, the new book does yield some fresh insights, especially her disavowal of the notion of "writer's block" or artistic "barrenness," which she dismisses as a "delusion" that keeps too many people from making work at all. "Artists don't have 'limited' access to the universal creative force," Amos argues (p.245).

Ending with the lyrics to "Climb", her subtle, spiritual song about abuse and transcendence, Amos presents artistic creation as an endeavour requiring discipline, commitment, risk-taking, trust in one's own story, and respectful attentiveness to the force she figures throughout as "the Muses." Resistance doesn't always bring its strands together as seamlessly as you would wish, but at its best this anti-despair book offers a provocative, intelligent perspective on the necessity of keeping open, present, perceptive and creative in our deeply challenging times.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Film Review: Sala Samobójców. Hejter (dir. Komasa, 2020)

In Sala Samobójców. Hejter (Suicide Room: Hater), his latest collaboration with screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz following their acclaimed pairing on last year's Boze Cialo (Corpus Christi), Jan Komasa pops a Highsmith-ish anti-hero into the complex context of current Polish sociopolitical reality. Drawing on concerns over nationalist sentiment, populism, anti-Islam hate speech, online culture, and computer game violence, not to mention such incidents as last year's murder of the Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz, the film could look like a calculated effort to the capture the Zeitgeist. In fact, the end result is consistently absorbing, sometimes startling, and, overall, a rich and perceptive exploration of our troubled times. 

The protagonist, Tomek (played by Łódź Film School alum Maciej Musiałowski), is a provincial boy cast out from the wealthy, arty Warsaw family who were his benefactors after a college transgression, and who both revenges himself and manipulates his way back in to the fold by playing various warring sides against each other. In particular, the scheme involves exploiting the family's support of a liberal politician (a spot on, hugely sympathetic Maciej Stuhr) who becomes the subject of a gay bar seduction/manipulation scored to Kylie Minogue's "In Your Eyes". The film is rather even-handed in the way it zeroes in on the manipulable nature of both Left and Right, thanks to online culture: a sequence showing Tomek darting between computers to create two Facebook events - one rally in support of the politician and one against him - skewers our crazy, mediated age as well as any  scene in recent cinema.

Komasa and Pacewicz's youth shows in some questionable elements - Tomek suddenly sleeping with his witchy boss (a harshly photographed Agata Kulesza), for example - but it's a mature film overall, in which the inevitable, crushing moment when video game violence turns real gives way to a good subdued final scene. Conveying insecurity, arrogance, coldness, and vulnerability Musiałowski keeps us off balance, and so does the movie. Comparisons to Joker (2019)'s orgy of self-pity are a diminishment. This is an ambitious, dynamic film that confirms Komasa (who wasn't even mentioned in Peter Bradshaw's trite recent Guardian piece on new Polish cinema) as one of the bravest of the new wave of young filmmakers currently at work in the country.

Sala Samobójców. Hejter can now be streamed at here

Sunday, 22 March 2020

20 Years On: Topsy-Turvy (dir. Mike Leigh, 1999)

"Laughter. Tears. Curtain." What seemed at the time to be the unlikeliest of Mike Leigh projects - a lavish costume drama about Gilbert and Sullivan's creation of The Mikado - resulted in one of the director's most enduring masterpieces.Topsy-Turvy was not, in fact, Leigh's first period piece (that was his 1993 play, It's A Great Big Shame!) but it remains one of his finest, anticipating the broad yet intimate canvases of Vera Drake (2004), Mr. Turner (2014) and Peterloo (2018) - detailed, vivid explorations of earlier English epochs that put the shallow, sensitivity-free likes of The Favourite (2018) to shame. Funny, moving and with fabulous musical interludes, Topsy-Turvy is an immersive, deeply textured portrait - Dickensian in its scope and spirit - that also offers something of a meta commentary on the pleasures and challenges of collaborative creative processes. 

Few films, indeed, have given such a detailed sense of the "coming together" of a theatrical production, which Leigh traces from inspiration - Gilbert attending the Japanese exhibition at Humphrey's Hall - through financial practicalities, casting and costuming to performance, all the while paying beady attention to the wider social contexts of the time. Infused with the director's unsentimental affection for English eccentricity, and benefitting from his fantastic ear for period dialogue, Topsy-Turvy boasts a glorious cast of Leigh regulars (Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall, Alison Steadman, Sam Kelly) and those who would subsequently become so (Dorothy Atkinson, Martin Savage), all of whom rise to the challenge of creating a diverse range of idiosyncratic Victorian archetypes. 

At the centre, of course, is Leigh's concern with contrasting characters and their relationships, with Allan Corduner's twinkly, charismatic Sullivan set against Broadbent's trickier, more mordant Gilbert, and the colourful, escapist world of the operetta juxtaposed with the difficulties and disappointments of life off-stage. As Manville, playing Gilbert's good-natured, perennially unappreciated wife, Lucy, muses in a superb late scene that reveals the sadness at the core of the couple's marriage: "Wouldn't it be wondrous if perfectly commonplace people gave each other a round of applause at the end of the day?" For sure, Leigh's endlessly rewatchable film merits the most effusive of ovations. 

Topsy-Turvy was released in the UK on 18 February 2000.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Preview: Cinema Made in Italy 2020, Ciné Lumière, 4-10 March 2020

A collaboration between Istituto Luce-Cinecittà and the Italian Cultural Institute in London, Cinema Made in Italy returns for its 10th Anniversary edition at Ciné Lumière from 4th to 9th March. Always carefully curated and selected by Film London CEO Adrian Wootton, the showcase offers a valuable opportunity to see Italian films that seldom get the distribution they deserve. Having covered the festival in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019, I've been surprised each year by the range of films being shown.

This year's programme is comprised of ten films (with most screenings supplemented by Q&As with cast members or filmmakers) - nine of them new and one classic in the shape of Liliana Cavani's still-notorious The Night Porter. Along with Cavani's presence, an attempt has been made to highlight more female filmmakers this time around, with work by Ginevra Elkann, Chiara Malta and Michela Occhipinti featured in the selection.

The overall impression given is that contemporary Italian cinema remains humanly scaled and focused on "ordinary" life, and preoccupied in particular by domestic contexts and family stories:  a far cry from the provocations of Cavani.

The intimate focus is sometimes presented within a wider sociopolitical framework, as in Bangla, directed by and starring Phaim Bhuiyan, in which a 22-year-old Italian-born boy of Bangladeshi descent, living in the multicultural district of Torpignattara in Rome, finds himself torn between his family’s culture and that of the country he was born into when he falls in love with an assertive Italian girl, Asia (Carlotta Antonelli). Autobiographically based, the rom com has already been described as “an Italian The Big Sick.” There are awkward elements, but the film charms in its details and wry exchanges, and in its presentation of Torpignattara, the most diverse area in the Italian capital. 

The tensions of cultural heritage are explored in a deeper way in Michela Occhipinti’s debut feature Flesh Out, which screened in the Panorama section at the 69th Berlinale. The film looks beyond Italian borders, unfolding in Mauritania where Verida (Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche), a middle-class girl, is preparing for an arranged marriage. Following her culture's traditions, Verida is forced to put on twenty pounds in order to reach her husband’s desired beauty standards. Attentive to atmosphere, Occhipinti's intelligent film is also strongly feminist in its exploration of cultural oppression and bodily autonomy. 

A social focus is also evident in Carlo Sironi's Venice-premiered and TIFF-featured debut Sole which critiques Italian surrogacy law through its focus on the experiences of Ermanno (Claudio Segaluscio) and Lena (Sandra Drzymalska), two strangers who must pretend to be a couple in order to mislead Italian authorities. The Polish Lena is pregnant and she has come to Italy to sell her baby to Ermanno’s uncle, Fabio. As Ermanno assumes the role of the father, a  bond grows between the three.

Crime drama also remains another staple of Italian film, and in the Venice-premiered 5 is the Perfect Number Igor Tuveri (aka Igort) casts the venerable Toni Servillo as a retired hitman who returns to the fray to avenge the death of his son, with help from old friend Totò the Butcher (Carlo Buccirosso) and an old flame, Rita (Valeria Golino). Based on Igort’s graphic novel with the same name, the film is a stylish noir that remains gripping throughout. 

In Guido Lombardi's Stolen Days, meanwhile, a boy Salvo (Augusto Zazzaro) and his ex con father Vincenzo (Riccardo Scarmacio) are reunited for a road trip to Puglia. This seemingly innocent journey turns out to be a criminal mission which might bring father and son closer together but at a price. An overly grim ending notwithstanding, Lombardi's film succeeds in combining sentiment and thrills. 

Indeed, relations between fathers and their - often estranged - offspring are central to a notable number of the featured films this year. Very freely adapted from Fulvio Ervas’ autobiographical novel Se ti abbraccio non aver paura, in which a father takes his autistic son on a motorcycle trip, crossing North and Central America, Gabriele Salvatores's Volare is another male-bonding road odyssey. 16 year old Vincent (Giulio Pranno) unexpectedly hitches a ride to Croatia with his father (Claudio Santamaria), a wedding singer with a drinking problem, much to the consternation of his mum (Valeria Golino, again) who, along with the boy's sympathetic stepfather, sets off in pursuit. Volare doesn't match Salvatores's best films (such as 2004's great I'm Not Scared) and its treatment of autism is superficial at best. Still, there are pleasures on the journey, especially in the Croatia-set scenes. 

More sensitive and sustained, and involving yet another road trip, is Federico Bondi's delightful FIPRESCI-awarded Dafne, which explores the renegotiation of the bond between the title character (Carolina Raspanti), an assertive young woman with Down syndrome, and her father Luigi (Antonio Piovanelli) following her mother's sudden death. 

Finally, family dynamics are also the focal point of my favourite of all the films featured in this year's edition. The Festival's opening film (which also opened the Piazza Grande section at last year's Locarno), Ginevra Elkann's If Only stars Scarmarcio again as another unconventional, mostly absent Daddy, Carlo. This time he's father to three close siblings, Alma, Jean and Sebastiano, who reside in Paris but are sent by their mother to spend the remainder of the holidays with him before the family relocates to Canada. Carlo is a creative type more preoccupied by the screenplay he's writing with his new partner, the bohemian Benedetta (Alba Rohrwacher), than by taking care of the kids. Still, like Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap, young Alma holds out hope for the reunion of her biological parents. 

Funny, touching, characterful and unpredictable, If Only out-classes Noah Baumbach's overpraised Marriage Story as a perceptive film about divorce, especially in its attention to the kids' responses, with wonderful performances from the trio of Ettore Giustiniani as Jean, Milo Roussel as Seb and, especially, Oro De Commarque as Alma, through whose perceptions - and fantasises - the film unfolds. 

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Theatre Review: Rój. Sekretne życie społeczne (Teatr CHOREA)

Named for the Ancient Greek circular dance accompanied by singing, the Łódź-based CHOREA theatre company mobilises the bodies of its performers on stage in totally distinctive, explosive, unpredictable ways, creating dynamic shows that establish a deep connection with the audience as they awaken us freshly to the human body's expressive capabilities. 

Still, to call the company a "physical theatre" troupe seems reductive: rather, an important aspect of the group's work lies in its synthesis of classical models - the unity of singing, words and movement - with contemporary concerns and techniques derived from the experimental methods of Grotowski and beyond. As the company's Artistic Director, Tomasz Rodowicz, explains: "chorea is a kind of a model, which we try to partly recreate and, in a way, overcome, thus building a new chorea."

I first discovered the company thanks to last year's exciting Retroperspektywy Festival which presented the group's work alongside that of a wide range of international artists. A highlight of the Festival was Po Ptakach (After the Birds), a collaboration with the Welsh company Earthfall, which took off from Aristophanes's comedy to develop its own idiosyncratic take on community-building.

The influence of that show can be felt in the more recent piece Rój. Sekretne życie społeczne ("The Hive: Secret Social Life") which was presented yesterday as a festive Valentine's Day treat at the company's HQ of Art_Inkubator. The show uses movement, music, song and projections to explore the interactions of a species often employed by theorists and philosophers as a model for human society - and it comes with an urgent environmental message to boot. In short, having brought us "The Birds", CHOREA now brings us "The Bees."

Directed by Janusz Adam Biedrzycki from Wiktor Moraczewski's script, the show is in keeping with CHOREA's ethos of inclusivity in its appeal to kids and adults equally and isn't in any way dumbed down. Paweł Odorowicz's music, Jolanta Królicka's set, Karolina Burakowska's costumes, Tomasz Krukowski's lighting, Marcin Dobijański's sound design and Paweł Klepacz's projections synthesise to take us inside a beekeeper's dream and, from there, into a bees' nest. Here we're introduced first to the industrious workers, then to three sedentary drones philosophising in their "congregation zone" and, finally, to the Queen herself, sumptuously played by Dorota Porowska. 

With a startling array of movements and sounds, and then a sultry torch song, the brilliant Porowska stands out, but Rój is ultimately an ensemble enterprise in which the whole company - Joanna Chmielecka, Anna Chojnacka, Barbara Cieślewicz, Ewa Otomańska, Aleksandra Szałek, Aleksandra Ziomek, Antoni Kowarski, Odorowicz and Rodowicz - participates in rendering the bees' sophisticated "dance" language through the sophisticated language of Magdalena Paszkiewicz's choreography.

The notion of collective participation is, of course, a theme in itself, one that's apparent from the show's prologue in which Moraczewski appears with a large cardboard sheet containing an "ecological manifesto" for the assembled kids in the audience to sign - creating their own "swarm" as they do so. These opening moments connect with an ending which firmly confronts human responsibility for bees' decline due to industrial agriculture and climate change.

Some may find such preachiness problematic but it provides the show with an urgent edge - a necessary sting in the tale - and prevents the proceedings from becoming too cosy (as does an earlier scene of brutal "worker policing"). Seriousness of intent doesn't diminish the show's charm, and the didacticism dissolves in a gleeful coda celebrating nature's joys. Lyrical, playful, poignant and political, this pleasing show deserves to be widely seen.

Photos: HaWa

Further information here.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Theatre Review: The Visit (National Theatre)

"I don't know how long this visit will take," says Lesley Manville as Claire Zachanassian, imperious anti-heroine of Freidrich Dürrenmatt’s  The Visit, to the posse of townspeople who've been eagerly awaiting her arrival.

Audiences at this equally anticipated show - which presents Tony Kushner's new version of Dürrenmatt’s text in a production by Jeremy Herrin - could express the same sentiment. Originally coming in at a whopping 4 hours, Herrin's production has shed 30 minutes during its preview period and might get shorter yet. (Press Night is this Thursday.) It should, for while the show zips by excitingly for most of its duration, a still-overextended final Act indulges in an excess of Kushnerian speechifying and features directorial decisions that dissipate the tension just when the drama ought to be reaching a pitch.

Dürrenmatt’s plays are seldom performed in the UK - I only dimly remember Josie Rourke's production of The Physicists at the Donmar in 2012 - and The Visit hasn't been done in London since Complicité's production in the early 1990s. It's not hard to see why: among its idiosyncrasies, the play boasts a heroine - reckoned to be the richest woman in the world - who returns to her hometown accompanied by an entourage that includes a coffin, a panther and two blind eunuchs (played here, with panache, as a sinisterly upbeat Vaudevillian duo by Paul Gladwin and Louis Martin). 

Still, the play's focus on a gender-based reckoning in Claire's revenge on the man, Alfred Ill, who wronged her by impregnating her then denying paternity chimes with a modish #MeToo-ish emphasis on "toxic masculinity," female power and retrospective retribution, and, as adapted by Kushner, the material feels fresh. 

The playwright has very much claimed the property as his own, replacing the Swiss-German's Mitteleuropa absurdism with baroque Americana. The action is now relocated to post-war, recession-afflicted Slurry, New York, where the townspeople find themselves in a moral quandary when Claire arrives bearing  a billionaire dollars in exchange for a particular deed: namely, the murder of Alfred. 

While Michael Billington has suggested that the play might be read as a specific political parable, "reflecting on Switzerland's ambiguous relationship with Nazi Germany and on the wealth it acquired during the war," the new context works well, allowing Kushner to critique his own country's corruption and consumerist turn in ways that connect to his previous work, in particular his masterpiece Caroline, or Change, which heartbreakingly laid bare the economic underpinnings of human relationships. 

Billington also reckons that The Visit "gains from being staged with a resonant simplicity." But that's not the kind of production that Herrin provides. This Visit is busy, with Vicki Mortimer's teeming set spinning the action from train station to wood to store to town hall to graveyard. At times the resources seem used in an ostentatious, not-especially-expressive way, and perhaps some cuts already made to the production have resulted in the large cast of supernumeraries seeming surplus to requirements. Still, the heart of the piece lies in Claire's confrontations with the community, especially Alfred, and these scenes are brilliantly mined for comedy and tension here. 

Emerging like a vision from a cloud of train smoke, a white-haired, luxuriously costumed (by Moritz Junge) Lesley Manville gives a performance that is everything you could wish for. Either imposingly still or moving jerkily on artificial legs, relishing bitchy quips and well-composed arias about time and love's corruption, Manville operates in a completely different register from the beautiful naturalism of her most recent film role as the cancer-afflicted wife in Ordinary Love (2019) or her last NT role in Mike Leigh's great, underrated Grief (2011). An actress who's still taking risks, her stylization here brings freshness and drive to the stage: she does bold things I've never seen her do - like sticking her rump out to Hugo Weaving's Alfred on their first encounter and meowing in pleasure as he responds.

Weaving partners her perfectly throughout, his gruffness giving way to poetic rapture as he recalls the animalistic passion of their teenage trysts, and then dissolving into fear and paranoia (or is it...?) as he senses the town turning against him.

Of the large ensemble, Sara Kestelman - whose composed, pedantic teacher degenerates hilariously into a drunken mess - Richard Durden as a Justice-turned-butler, Nicholas Woodeson as the blustering Mayor, and Joseph Mydell as the Episcopalian Reverand  stand out. (It's hard to imagine seeing better "reaction acting" this year than Kestelman and Mydell's priceless responses to Claire and Alfred's reminiscences about their sexual past.) Meanwhile, Paul Englishby's fabulous score threads sneaky, jazzy, noirish textures throughout the action. 

With so much to enjoy, the final section's slackness is especially disappointing. The production doesn't go off the rails as badly as The Welkin, but there's a sense of anticlimax as Kushner resorts to shrill media satire - over-directed here - that lessens the impact of the vote scene and its aftermath - along with repetitious, patience-testing rhetoric. The play's revelation of a romantic dimension to Claire's revenge plot is not satisfying, either. If its final section can be tightened and finessed then this will be one of the stronger productions of the year. If not, then Herrin and his collaborators have still crafted a Visit worth making, one that offers the pleasures of both a glittering star performance and great ensemble work. 

The Visit is booking until 13 May at the National Theatre. 

Photos: Johan Persson

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Theatre Review: Uncle Vanya (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Reviewing Anthony Page's Royal Court production of Uncle Vanya in 1970, Martin Esslin pointed to "the strange and marvelously productive affinity between the British and Chekhov", suggesting that "the country house civilization which Chekhov portrays, with its house guests, its boredom and its frustrations... closely resembles the country house life of the English middle classes until not so long ago, and in some ways to this day." 

Esslin might have also given special attention to the relation between the Irish and Chekhov, since my two encounters with Uncle Vanya on stage have come via translations by Irish playwrights: first, Brian Friel's version for Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002 and now Conor McPherson's new take, directed by Ian Rickson, which has just opened at the Pinter Theatre. 

The play retains its original setting here, but the production boasts a stealth Irishness too, evident not only in McPherson's dialogue rhythms but also in the casting, with Ciarán Hinds playing the pompous prof and Dearbhla Molloy as his devoted mother-in-law. 

McPherson's version has some infelicities: the drunken nighttime revels scene is funny but slightly overdone, and the use of a phrase like "wanging on" may be (just about) acceptable once, but not twice, and certainly not delivered by two different characters. But the production gets the ever-shifting Chekhovian flow of laughter to tears right, and the themes of unrequited love and disappointment emerge vividly and without ponderousness. Confrontations give way to embraces, mundanity intrudes into the philosophising, and the production preserves the compassion and humanism of Chekhov's vision, with each character given their measure of pathos, absurdity and awareness. 

There have been more poignant Vanyas than the impish Toby Jones; in an effort not to sentimentalise the character he seems to have robbed him of some of his tragic stature. But Jones certainly conveys Vanya's bitterness and resentment at the waste that he's made of his life: which he lays at the Professor's door. A commanding Richard Armitage does well with the contradictary qualities of Astrov - his obliviousness to Sonya's devotion, his cynicism, his surge of sexual passion for Yelena - and he makes the vegetarian character's ecological concerns (a prescient part of the play if ever there was one) urgent and compelling. 

As Nana, the magnificent Anna Calder-Marshall (who played Sonya in the 1970 production that Esslin reviewed) makes every look and line, however throwaway, count. "Do you remember?" she asks Vanya and the remark reverberates thanks to her beautiful voice. Some of the biggest pleasures of the production come in watching Calder-Marshall interact with Peter Wight, whose garrulous Telegin - describing how his wife left him a day after their wedding - strikes just the right notes of silliness and melancholy. 

The older actors' beautiful ease makes Aimee Lou Wood's performance as Sonya look especially effortful; Wood has some touching moments, but others that are shrill or amateurish, and a lack of rapport between her and Jones is a weak spot that makes the ending less moving than it should be. Wood seems much more secure with Calder-Marshall and Rosalind Eleazar. I wasn't sure about Eleazar as Yelena at first either, but the performance warms up as the actress powerfully reveals the character's sense of entrapment and frustration. Enhanced by a beautiful country house design by Rae Smith, and by Bruno Poet's lighting, the production is already in strong shape and looks likely only to deepen as the run progresses. Overall, it's a Chekhov to cherish. 

Uncle Vanya is booking at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2 May Further information here. 

Images: Johan Persson