15th 10 - 2017 | no comment »

Scaffolding (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Matan Yair

2017 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The most telling moment of Matan Yair’s feature film debut comes about a third of the way through the movie, when the central protagonist, 18-year-old Asher Lax (Asher Lax), overhears his literature teacher, Rami (Ami Smolartchik), read from Karl Haendel’s Questions for My Father and ask his class to write their own questions as a homework assignment. Lax is in Rami’s remedial literature class, where the students joke that they can barely read, but this assignment for one of Rami’s other classes fires his imagination. He writes his questions and presents them to Rami with the impulsive urgency that typifies his outward personality. Lax is headed for a life as a blue-collar worker taking over the construction company his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen) founded, but there is something in him that connects with Rami and the softer concern he shows for his students.

Scaffolding extends Yair’s interest in what makes a man. The history and literature teacher, author, and documentarian whose It Is Written in Your I.D. that I Am Your Father (2008) explored Yair’s relationship with his father, wrote Scaffolding with one of his students, Asher Lax, in mind. Although Yair has described Lax as a violent individual, he was drawn to the boy’s special energy when he moved and talked. First-time actor Lax, who is in nearly every frame of the film, mesmerizes with his kinetic performance that hints at layers beneath his rough-and-ready surface.

Asher is feted on his 18th birthday on the construction site where he works by his father and his coworkers. His father gives him an Izod shirt as a gift, which he dons immediately and shows off to his friends later on. Nearby, an overweight classmate of theirs is also wearing an Izod shirt. Asher nearly rips it off his body when the boy says a shop in town was having a sale on knockoff designer shirts. Asher confronts his father about the real cost of the shirt, and earns a hard slap for his trouble.

Rami has troubles of his own getting through to Asher and his apathetic classmates as they study Euripides’ Antigone. Rami often has to read the material to them to get them to participate. Nonetheless, his patient attitude touches Asher, and the boy initiates something of a personal relationship with him. His question to the married Rami about his childlessness (“Don’t you want to meet the people you’ll love the most?”) sets off an unintended earthquake in his teacher.

High school graduation is coming up, but Milo is due to have surgery on the day of one of Asher’s matriculation exams. He insists Asher work in his place, but having found an encouraging voice in Rami, Asher continues to study. An unexpected turn of events, however, throws Asher into a monomaniacal search for answers.

Yair has crafted a very literate film that goes beyond the personal. In an increasingly authoritarian, superstitious world, he seems to be making a plea for humanity and the importance of knowledge as the scaffolding on which fully human beings and society are built. His choice to have Rami and his class study Antigone has us thinking about the power of the state as well—one that refuses to bury what is dead, but gladly walls its subjects into a living death. His unusual choice to include the language from Questions for My Father, an experimental film by a visual artist, broadens our idea of what literature might be and feeds into the Jewish tradition of questioning to arrive at greater truths. In Yair’s scenario, Asher went through a very religious phase, and Rami’s assignment awakens some of his spiritual yearning. Once inspired, Asher uses the questions he wrote to try to understand his father.

The film is fairly hard on its women, showing them as rule-bound, naïve, or entirely absent. Nonetheless, it is important that men change their macho culture from within. Yair’s intimately shot film is a thoughtful, surprisingly touching look at boys and men that all can appreciate.

Scaffolding screens Saturday, October 21 at 8 p.m., Sunday, October 22 at 8 p.m., and Tuesday, October 24 at 1 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Mr. Gay Syria: In this compassionate, eye-opening documentary, Syrian refugees in Istanbul choose a gay member of their community to compete in Mr. Gay World to bring attention to their plight. (Turkey)

Scary Mother: A repressed housewife and mother unleashes her creative writing skills, but her family’s rejection of her sexually imaginative work drives her to the brink of a madness. (Georgia/Estonia)


10th 10 - 2017 | no comment »

Scary Mother (Sashishi Deda, 2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Ana Urushadze

2017 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Harlem
What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes

The protagonist of Georgian director Ana Urushadze’s stunning first feature, Scary Mother, is 50-year-old Manana (Nata Murvanidze), a housewife and mother with literary ambitions. Before the film begins, Manana’s yearning to write a novel finally gained the support of her domineering husband, Anri (Dimitri Tatishvili), and her mainly self-sufficient children. She was left alone to write her book in the bedroom while Anri slept in another room and the entire family took over the household chores. The film commences during the family’s excited anticipation of finally hearing the result of Manana’s labors at a private reading in their home. It is at the reading that Manana reveals that her dream deferred didn’t run, fester, or dry up—it exploded like a fountain of lava to rock the family and fracture the foundation of Manana’s life.

Manana and her family live in an ugly, concrete complex of high-rise apartments linked by metal walkways in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Despite looking like a literal iron curtain, their building has transformed inside into a setting for comfortable bourgeois lifestyles. However, it is perhaps significant that the productive characters in the film are men. Anri works nights at an unspecified job, stationary store owner Nukri (Ramaz Ioseliani) champions Manana’s book, and Manana’s father, Jarji (Avtandil Makharadze), is translating the work, probably into English, without knowing his daughter wrote it. Thus, Manana’s pursuit of a productive purpose transgresses against another kind of social order. There will be consequences.

There are many pitfalls into which a filmmaker examining creative people can fall—visual metaphors that land too neatly, alcohol flowing too freely, torment and madness too married to the creative impulse. Urushadze, daughter of acclaimed Georgian director Zaza Urushadze, doesn’t entirely avoid these traps—madness does rear its tired head, particularly at the final curtain, and Manana’s anger at her family is made visible when she moves into a room painted and lit in red. What comes more strongly into focus, however, is the unstoppability of Manana’s creative process once it has been unleashed.

Manana knows that her book will be met with resistance and, in a scene of manic brilliance, she speed-reads the opening page as though she can slip the content past her family without their comprehension. She finds anything new in her environment a source for inspiration, rather madly seeing characters and scenes encoded in the new shower tiles Anri had installed. In her dreams, she transforms into a mythical namesake creature, Manananggal, which lives as a woman by day and becomes a winged creature at night that feeds on the blood of pregnant women. The vision frightens Anri, but it is truly what Manana has become—a writer who feeds on the lives of others in order to create—and Murvanidze spares herself nothing in embodying her character’s obsession.

The film is beautifully shot by Konstantin Esadze, who captures the textures of crumbling concrete and overgrown cottages, and the velvety interior where Jarji plies his trade. He teases the viewer with half-seen movement and the near invisibility of Manana in the red room she repairs to when Anri declares her book worthless pornography and leads the family in burning what he thinks is the only copy of it. Everywhere, he traps Manana and the people in her life in boxes and watches their behavior. This strategy of Urushadze and Esadze illuminates the great unease Manana feels when compared with those content to have their lives carefully demarcated.

The title of the film could refer to the madness that seems to overcome Manana, or her own mother, who we learn from Anri went off the deep end. I rather think, however, that what really scares everyone so much is the wellspring of sexual imagination from which Manana gave birth to her novel.

Scary Mother screens Sunday, October 15 at 8 p.m., Monday, October 16 at 5:45 p.m., and Friday, October 20 at 3:15 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.


15th 05 - 2010 | 4 comments »

The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965)

Director: Wojciech Has

By Roderick Heath

In a town in war-torn, Napoleonic-era Spain, a French officer is distracted from the important business of killing when he discovers an old book in a building in which he takes shelter and is fascinated by its old-fashioned illustrations, especially the image of two harem girls in a suggestive embrace. He’s so absorbed by this he pays no attention to the Spaniards who try to take him prisoner, and their officer is soon fascinated enough to sit down and thumb the pages with him. The Spaniard recognises that the book has been annotated by his ancestor, Alfonso Van Worden, and offers his account of what happened to Alfonso (Zbigniew Cybulski) when he tried to make the journey across Spain to Madrid. He followed a dangerous trail in the rugged, depopulated Sierra Morena and stopped at the notorious Venta Quemada, an abandoned, haunted tavern. Within, he found a gateway to a hidden harem populated by two princess sisters, Emina (Iga Cembrzynska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jedryka), and their coterie of lesbian houris, who greeted Alfonso as their cousin and implored him to take up the Islamic faith and marry them both.

That’s just the first 15 minutes of this extravagant product of Polish cinema’s renaissance in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Resembling up to this point a bawdy soldiers’ fantasy, The Saragossa Manuscript deepens and broadens almost exponentially whilst never losing the sly, teasing edge with which it commences. Saragossa became iconic for some of the cine-literate counterculture of the ‘60s, and directors as diverse as David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Neil Jordan, Lars Von Trier, and Martin Scorsese had all venerated it. Although it’s a more playful film than any he’s made, it’s not hard to see why it would delight Lynch, nor its influence on the odyssey of bewilderment suffered by the protagonist of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) or the stories-within-stories structure of Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Buñuel paid it the unheard-of compliment, for him, of going to see it three times.

The Saragossa Manuscript fits in neatly with other Eastern European works of semi-surreal fantasy, possessing the same open-ended, free-flowing, dry-witted, sexually and intellectually knowing sensibility that often defines the native varieties of magic-realism beyond the Danube. It was, in spite of its antic ’60s disposition, adapted from a 19th century novel by Jan Potocki, and there’s a discernible influence of the rambling experimentalism of Laurence Sterne and the picaresque tradition (which the Spanish setting almost certainly pays tribute to) on the story’s practically post-modern enquiry into the nature of storytelling itself, and how it connects the human world. Alfonso’s accounted travails worsen as he tries to keep the promise he gave to the sisters to not speak of them to anyone, in spite of not knowing whether he merely dreams them; each time he sees them, he ends up drinking a potion that knocks him out, and then awakens alongside the bodies of two hanged bandits, the Zoto brothers. Alfonso is then continually prodded, by the anecdotes of others and by threats and pressure, to divulge his own secret.

When he receives shelter from a stern, but kindly hermit priest (Kazimierz Opalinski), Alfonso listens to the cautionary account of Pasheko (Franciszek Pieczka), a nutty nobleman missing an eye, after falling into a similar situation with two sisters, in this case his father’s young second wife and her sibling. He also met them in the haunted inn before awakening and having his eye gouged out by the ghosts of the Zoto brothers. When he leaves the priest’s house in the morning, Alfonso is arrested by members of the Inquisition, who torture him to learn the whereabouts of the sisters. But the sisters and the Zoto brothers, seemingly very much alive (the bodies on the gibbets were, they claim, shepherds hung as scapegoats) rescue him and spirit him back to the harem. This time, however, the outraged entrance of a sheikh forces Alfonso to again drink the potion, and when he awakens, he falls into the company of an airy, cryptic Cabalist, Pedro Uzeda (Adam Pawlikowski) and an Enlightened intellectual, Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek), whom the Inquisitors, mistaking him for Alfonso, accidentally try to arrest. Alfonso and Velasquez stay the night at the Cabalist’s villa, as the patron commands his sister Rebecca (Beata Tyszkiewicz) to aid him in distracting Velazquez and hiding from Alfonso the very book from which his memoir is being read, which seems to outlay all he’s going through but not the reasons why, the game needing to be played through to make sense.

As the disparate coterie settles down for dinner in the Cabalist’s enchanted villa, they listen to Señor Avadoro (Leon Niemczyk), a hardy, wise, poor aristocrat, and his anecdotes about his life in Madrid, which eventually brought him into contact with Alfonso’s famous duellist father (Slawomir Lindner). This story requires constant divergence into anecdotes within anecdotes to describe the net of narratives that, as Velazquez perceives, is the nature of the world: Rebecca prods him to recognise that ghosts and poetry are necessary to really capture the essence of life. Avadoro’s insanely complicated, but finally coherent tale explicates a knotty situation that involved his friend Don Toledo (Bogumil Kobiela), a rakish but spiritually fearful gadabout; Don Lopez Suarez (Krzysztof Litwin), the wet-behind-the-ears son of a Cadiz businessman (Stanislaw Igar); Frasquetta (Elzbieta Czyzewska), a conniving coquette; and Don Busqueros (Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz), a tricky but brilliant stage manager of fortunate outcomes.

The Saragossa Manuscript is divided into two distinct halves, and, in some ways, plays as two (or three, or a half-dozen) films in one. The plot that compels the film in the first half is set aside for most of the second as Avadoro tells his stories. Finally, all the pieces have some, occasionally barely discernable, relationship to the core narrative of Alfonso proving his fidelity to the princesses. Whilst the film is about the power of storytelling, it’s also about the spaces between stories, the indescribable, and the necessarily secret. Keeping the princesses’ secret is key to all the pleasures of paradise for Alfonso, but whether he’s in for paradise or damnation is kept cunningly vague until close to the end, when both realms suddenly seem irrelevant to the mystical circle of death and rebirth Alfonso becomes a part of. The cautionary tales he listens to prove to be mere flim-flam, in which moral instructions give way to their opposites, and barriers of time, the soul, and society crumble away. Even the sheikh, whose daughters the princesses are, proves to be the hermit priest, and possibly a version of Alfonso himself.

Potocki, who reportedly wrote the tale to entertain his wife, was fascinated by the occult and took inspiration from the structure of collections like Arabian Nights and Il Decameron, and Has’s adaptation anticipates Pasolini’s versions of those works. The film flows with a stately pace, and, at a hair over three hours, there are points during Saragossa where one wishes for less divergence and more zip. In spite of the teeming bizarreness and humorous flourishes, it’s a film that’s certainly beholden to its literary roots, with the act of telling requiring each anecdote to be set up in terms of teller and listener. Has seems to have worked with great enthusiasm and a not very high budget to recreate Spain on a Polish backlot, but there are few films that blend the matter-of-fact and the mystical with such ease. The inherent sensuality and sliding sense of truth and overcharged mysticism inherent in the tale only find rapturous realistion at carefully spaced intervals, when the film does wield genuinely disorientating creativity, for example, at the very end, when reality loses its shape for Alfonso in the harem cave, and when Alfonso glimpses the sisters, one beckoning as the other sits with his son, reflected in a hovering ornamental mirror.

Has nonetheless offers landscapes of sun-blazed rocks, of the mountains dotted with piles of skulls, rough-hewn gibbets and leering vultures, the luxuriant confines of the princesses’ harem, and the halls of the Cabalist’s villa, which may have had an imagistic influence on many directors who saw them. They employ the same kind of play-act surrealism that Buñuel liked, and the character interactions are expounded in some remarkably composed extended shots that are almost invisible in their physical fluidity.

Saragossa is very much a product of 1964: the mixture of classic literature with historical bawdiness suggests the immediate influence of Tom Jones (1963), with the cast’s females gleefully thrusting forth overflowing décolletages. The humour that runs through the film is constantly ribald and satirical, like Pasheko’s appearance, moaning in madness to alarm Alfonso, giving way to easy conversation such as when the priest tells him to stop wasting time. When the sisters tell him that they’ve never seen a man before, so they and their fellows in the harem “gave each other their love,” with all that implies, Alfonso has to admit: “This is beginning to sound interesting.” One anecdote describes Alfonso’s duellist father getting himself skewered by an opponent in a moment of clumsiness, the two men awkwardly apologising to each other with refined politeness before the father collapses. In another, Busqueros recounts Frasquetta’s punishing her husband for trying to kill her lover by faking a haunting, scaring him with a plethora of tricks, like making her voice resound in an amphora to sound otherworldly, and setting up a jack o’ lantern. The constant gag of Alfonso’s rude, disappointing awakenings after nights with the princesses, has a quality of bitter, but funny disappointment, and, as he admits to them, “Every time I see you two, I worry I won’t ever see you again!”

An undercurrent of menace in the main story is nonetheless apparent, as Alfonso is continually segueing from the fecund wonderland of the harem to the blasted, apocalyptic mountainside and the gibbet’s victims. In flashback, after receiving that near-fatal duelling wound, Alfonso’s father had cried out that he would sell his soul for a drink of water, at which point the woman who became Alfonso’s mother walked out of the hills to give him a drink. Is Alfonso a devil’s child, and are the sisters trying to claim back for the devil the soul he’s still owed? The answer, as the film’s closing moments suggest, is far less medieval and far more pagan: having learnt everything he’s been through was a sham to test his capacity to keep the sisters’ secret, and seeing the possibility that the sheikh is Alfonso’s own mirror image, Alfonso glimpses a world of pure spirit beneath the world he’s in, a refined metaphor for a cosmic chain of fathers and sons in a world with far more multiplicities than mere Manichaeism can contain. Alfonso is finally visited by a vision of the sisters with his child, inspiring him to throw away his memoir and ride back to Venta Quesada, giving in either to beautiful madness or to the call of a richer plain of existence where he’s fulfilled his natural duty of keeping the life cycle going. It’s hard not to cheer him on his way.

Cybulski was often called the Polish James Dean for his electric channelling of postwar angst in his performances for Andrzej Wajda, youth appeal with his trademark dark sunglasses—this is one of the few films where he discarded them—and early, tragic death just three years after making this film. He delivers a terrific performance as Alfonso, partly comic fool of fortune, part swaggering young gay blade, even if he disappears for a long stretch of the second half: he manages to make Alfonso neither overly knowing or ludicrously naïve, leading to the delightful moment where his protests of religious scruples give way to dizzied yelps as the sisters push him back forth and plant voracious kisses on him. He’s not alone in offering hilarious turns, with Kobieda’s Toledo and Maklakiewicz’s Busqueros particularly good, and Czyzewska’s Frasquetta in all her saucy, naughty glory. Niemczyk as Avadoro suggests a Polish Harrison Ford waiting to cut loose with some swarthy swashbuckling, though, unfortunately, he never does. The most exciting formal element is the score provided by Krzysztof Penderecki, the great Polish avant-garde composer; the score mixes delirious snatches of classical forebears with spare, bizarre musique concrete flourishes. The Saragossa Manuscript is a hell of a fun ride. l


4th 08 - 2008 | 4 comments »

Destiny (Al-Massir, 1997)

Director: Youssef Chahine

almassir-foto-cover.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Last week, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine died at the age of 82. I’m sorry to say that until the moment I read the obituary, I had never heard of this director. Once I saw his film output listed on IMDb, I felt ashamed that the only accomplishment of his I could identify with was that he gave Omar Sharif his break in movies. Fortunately for me, other cultural institutions in my town were not so blind to Chahine and his legacy. I was able to score four of his films at my local library—his Alexandria trilogy (Alexandria… Why?, An Egyptian Story, and Alexandria Again and Forever) and the film under consideration here, Destiny. Having viewed some of the trilogy made 20 years before Destiny, I’m interested in the consistency of his viewpoint. He tells stories in a somewhat disjointed, episodic manner in which various story elements have tenuous links to each other. He has a strong concern for politics—though the villains change over the years, oppression is always the enemy. Finally, he never forgets that audiences want to be entertained while they are being enlightened. And like other Christians and Muslims working under heavy censorship in Egypt—most famously Nobel Literature Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, who is represented by the character of Averroes in this film—he tells his story indirectly.

The film opens dramatically in a 12th century French village, as a man in chains is dragged behind a horse to be burned at the stake as a heretic. He is a Muslim from Andalusia who has translated the works of the philosopher Averroes (Nour El-Sherif), who believes scripture is not the literal word of God, but is a text open to interpretation. The condemned man spots his wife and son Joseph (Faris Rahoma) in the crowds that have gathered in the square to watch him burn. He tells them to run as the flames rise from the ignited wood piles beneath him. As we watch him turn to a blackened skeleton, Youssef vows to carry on his father’s work.

almassir3.jpg

The scene shifts to the Andalusian town of Cordoba, where we will meet up with Youssef again. He returns to the house of Averroes, where he is welcomed by the philosopher and his wife (Safia El-Emari) as the prodigal son returned. You might think Youssef will be at center stage, but indeed he is a fairly minor character throughout the film. This introduction has the air of introducing Western cultures to Middle Eastern thought (or something to do with the French financing of the film). Averroes is the center of the compass, the point all directions of Muslim thought—both friendly and hostile—touch.

After Averroes has held forth, like Socrates, for a group of students, the men disperse. One student admires Averroes’ intellect, while the other worries about the opposing forces at work that would silence the philosopher. Religious fundamentalists led by a charismatic emir (Magdi Idris) and secretly backed by the wealthiest man in the kingdom, Sheik Riad (Ahmed Fouad Selim), have started to make trouble.

almassir2.jpg

Averroes is a confidante of the Caliph El-Mansour (Mahmoud Hemida), a proud man blind to the unrest in his kingdom. His eldest son, Crown Prince Nasser (Khaled El Nabawy), prefers to avoid the palace to spend time with Averroes. His younger son Borhan (Abdalla Mahmoud) loves to dance, and spends most of his time singing and dancing with a family of gypsies led by troubadour Marwan (Mohamed Mounir) and his daughter Manuela (Laila Eloui). One night, Borhan gets drunk and sings his poetry to a couple of men, who fawn over his brilliance. Soon they have recruited him to join the emir’s sect and instructed him on how to kill his own father.

Borhan’s symbolic father, Marwan, is also the object of a fatwa. One night, as he walks and sings down an empty street, he is attacked and stabbed in the neck by two followers of the emir for the crime of singing. He survives the attack, his vocal chords intact, but strives to free Borhan from the clutches of the emir. In an elaborate plan, exciting in its execution, Marwan rides into the sect’s camp and kidnaps Borhan; at his home, Marwan begins the task of deprogramming Borhan.

Averroes isn’t faring too well himself as he learns that his work is to be suppressed. Joseph takes the precaution of hiding Averroes’ most important works in a barrel of flour. Averroes’ house is set on fire one night, and the philosopher despairs of his lost work; it is then that Joseph reveals that they are safe in the flour. Every friend Averroes has works around the clock to write out copies of his books to save them for posterity. Joseph carries a set off to France, but loses them when he falls in a river. Riad finds the volumes downstream and persuades the Caliph to burn the books and banish Averroes. As Averroes watches his words going up in flames, he learns that Nasser has spirited the volumes safely to Egypt. Strengthened by the gravity of events in his kingdom, Nasser becomes the kind of Crown Prince his father always wanted, and the emir and his money man are undone. Borhan returns to himself, saying that the emir got to his head, but never his heart. The film ends with the word “Ideas have wings; they fly like birds.”

almassir1.jpg

This film isn’t subtle with its message and its assertion that it is the artists and outcasts who “love life” and whose ideas must survive. Two or three musical interludes performed by the gypsies that owe a lot to Bollywood are entertaining, but also carry the message of freedom in the poetic tradition of Islam:

Raise your voice, Sing,
Songs are still possible/available,
And we still have much to live,
If one day you break down,
You must get up,
Stand up like a palm tree looking at the sky,
No retreat, no defeat, no fear…

The methods of sect recruitment are interesting to watch and painful to realize—Borhan, a cheerful and peace-loving boy, becomes a slogan-spouting automaton, ready to kill for the cause. It is interesting that music breaks the sect’s spell on Borhan, not the precious ideas of Averroes. This is rather a contradiction that Chahine sees no need to reconcile. In fact, Marwan dies, happily, in the cause of freedom. Chahine owes his allegiance first to Art, then to progressive ideas.

To what does the title Destiny refer? At the beginning of the film, it seemed as though it would refer to Joseph and whatever role he would play in carrying on his father’s work. But as events unfold, Joseph fails to save the books. It is, in fact, the destiny of the ideas this film conveys—again, indirectly communicated as Averroes’ work and Marwan’s artistry—that concern Chahine. This film isn’t a slick Hollywood production, but it has all the elements of a well-constructed film of beauty and ideas. Belated as it was, I’m glad to have found Youssef Chahine.


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