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 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.