Category Archives: International Cinema

Lambs to the Slaughter: Viktor Kossakovskiy’s Gunda

This review contains mild spoilers.

Animals in cinema fall under three categories. First, we have the merely decorative ones — the cute pets that have sometimes grace the screen, sometimes with a tiny part to play. Then we have the more symbolic, or even heroic, in which an animal — usually a dog, or a horse — becomes an emblem for a larger scope if you go for greatness, or the stuffed birds in Psycho which portent not to a greater danger just about to happen, but segue into another film titled The Birds. We could also include, as a third category, the anthropomorphic creatures that since the dawn of animation — drawn and now, computerized — have told their own stories, which dimly reflect the human experience.

What Gunda offers is something completely different, Zoning in ever so slowly to the barn where she lives, we don’t get to see her proper until we are about five or so minutes of an extremely slow zoom-in. Lying on the ground, she seems to be in some pain. We soon realize why. She’s currently in the end phases of giving birth to a dozen little piglets who are already squirming about trying to find her milk-engorged teats to begin feeding. Meanwhile, she lies on the ground, accepting, not really moving, barely making any noise at all. If anything, the only noises come from the piglets themselves, and while at first, they seem to be akin to the cries of newborn babies, later on, they will morph into the cries of hunger, play, and something completely unthinkable.

Gunda remains close to its protagonist, the camera practically right next to her and her piglets as they all move as one body throughout the confines of the barn and then venture out into the farm. Along the way, the omnipresent camera, while tracking her movements, also tracks that of a trio of chickens recently let out of a coop, and focuses on one who is missing a leg. Then the camera tracks Gunda who has approached what seems to be a cow farm. One majestic shot gives these animals a sense of grandiosity only afforded to scenes of horses during a stampede. To see a group of cows emerge and tear through the fields into the woods, sometimes skipping, as their bells clang, is truly an epic experience.

But then, Kossalovskiy’s camera does what little movies do: focus on not just the animal in question but on their faces. While it is possible that some people may wonder what is the purpose for this, it gave me a sense of identification if you will. Watching an animal who seems to be alert, watching me, as it continues to move about, is a bit unsettling, particularly when you realize later where Gunda is headed, and how complicit you are in its own thread.

It slowly becomes apparent that because Gunda transpires within the confines of a farm that these animals, as cute as they are, are completely under the control of their unseen humans. This becomes clear when Gunda herself while venturing a bit too far from her home, comes across an electric fence, We don’t see it; she doesn’t, either, and her squeal of surprise and pain is piercing.

The reality of these animals couldn’t be more present when focusing on the piglets, a thing which Kossalovskiy’s camera does, and often. At first, the suspense hinges on their mother’s enormous body. The babies are so small, so fragile, that one slight movement from her could mean the difference between life and death. Every time the camera, after cavorting with the chickens and cows, returns to Gunda and her babies, they seem to have grown. First, it looks like a week, then months. Suddenly, they have what seem to be personalities all their own. A scene in which two piglets taste the rain with their mouths is something out of magic. I couldn’t get it out of my head for a while.

Of course, something indescribably awful cracks the serenity of the entire montage, and then I feel the rug being pulled from under my feet. All this time, a false sense of security has been planted within the meandering narrative. The camera, which has stayed so close to both Gunda but especially her little piglets, continues to do just that, now only delivering a growing sense of shock that is more effective from what we never see but hear. Those squeals from the moment of the piglets’ birth now come with terror, while Gunda can only run — yes, run — after the large tractor that has come. It is a gut-wrenching scene and stands right up there with the scene in Bambi.

This is a deceptive documentary. It arrives enfolded in the black and white beauty of pastoral images, slowly draws you into what seems to be the life of a pig, only to disclose the ugly magician at the center. You will not see anything else like it. I don’t think it will change the world, but at least, it has changed me.

Woman at war blends disparate styles to create an unclassifiable eco-thriller with a wink

Sometimes you say you’re going to watch a movie or read that new book, and you place it in your queue where it sits and sits and sits. That is the case of Woman at War, a 2018 film by Benedikt Erlingsson (and follow-up to his quirky debut Of Horses and Men from 2013) that follows Halla (the regal Halldora Geirharosdottir), a chorus teacher living in Reykjavik who unbeknownst to everyone who knows her, moonlights as an eco-terrorist (or eco-activist, pick your term; I’ll stick with the former and I’ll tell you why later). Intensely focused on preventing an aluminum factory that could potentially contaminate Reykjavik, she has no problem decimating drone cameras, power lines — heck, entire towers! — in order to render any further development dead in Iceland’s as-yet pristine waters.

Trouble arrives — as it would — from a few angles. First, a manhunt predictably ensues, but it is, if anything, predictable. Second, a letter of adoption from a Ukrainian agency now gives Halla the chance to adopt and raise a little girl of her own and thus, fulfilling her dreams of motherhood. While Halla continues to evade officers in sometimes truly daring ways, the urgency of her mission, now compounded by the urgency of her having to leave to Ukraine to fetch her daughter, pushes Hall against a crossroads.

Erlingsson refuses to give into genre conventions which make his movie a weird, but totally satisfying experience. His Woman at War is part-action, part character study, part surreal thriller that offers a unique but dry sense of humor and a clever, unobtrusive music score played by stand-ins both Icelandic and Ukrainian that serve as a Greek chorus and subtly impose a slight effect on Halla’s own character and the chronology of her movements. A touch of 40s screwball enters the movie in bringing in a twin sister also played. by Gerhardsdottir, and while at first it seems it might only be to grant a sense of surreality, the story reveals much more later on.

There seems to be a running commentary on how tourists – and most global travelers who may not look like the ideal race – get treated overseas. A minor character, Julio Castillo, played by the actor of the same name (who also had an observer-like character in Of Horses and Men), repeatedly gets assaulted by officers who continually (and ineffectually) identify him as a terrorist. Julio, who also often breaks the fourth wall, becomes every tourist or immigrant who invariably tends to receive the brunt of the law while its more privileged folk run rampant and create chaos (and let’s not romanticize Halla; she is an eco-terrorist, she just happens to be a nice one with noble motives). An almost symbolic exchange occurs late in the movie between Halla and Julio that Erlingsson leaves unresolved, but he makes his point.

Woman at War is available on DVD formats and Prime. See it before Jodie Foster Americanizes it and thus saps it from all its light, comedic touches.

Suffer the Little Children: Bad Tales (Favolacce)

The D’Innocenzo brothers tackle suburban life as a portrait of hell in their latest (and second) movie Bad Tales. [Their 2018 movie Boy’s Cry is available on IMDBTV.]

Focusing on three separate families, they immerse their movie with a sense of surreal dread right from the start. Featuring a voice-over from an unseen narrator (Max Tortora), they seem to give the impression that the events of their movie transpired in the past, and the unseen someone is simply telling his memories. However, it turns out, the events that unfold come from a little girl’s diary… but these events are all false.

That already gets us into the mood of the movie, which is bleak. Two families, the Rosas and the Placidos, live side by side on the outskirts of Rome. When Viola, the daughter of the Rosa family, does something apparently awful, off-screen, her hair gets cut, and she spends the rest of the movie in a depressed funk wearing an oversized black wig, Dennis and Alessia Placido (Giulietta Rebeggiani and Tommaso di Cola) are a brother and sister who are forced to read their report cards in which they reveal they’ve gotten straight A’s except for one. Their father (Elio Germano), ostensibly the most violent of the two fathers, has installed an elevated swimming pool. In an irrational moment, because the Rosas were using it, he destroys it only to blame gypsies for the act.

We segue to the third thread in the movie. Geremia Guerrini (Justin Korovkin) and his father Amelio Guerrini (Gabriel Montesi) live in what seems abject poverty, but seem to enjoy a relationship. However, it seems there is no mother figure here, and Amelio seems to have no real means to support his son. Going even further into dysfunction, Amelio also seems like an overgrown kid himself with sex on his mind (and is trying to get Geremia to have his first sexual experience).

Woven into the story, which is already brimming with something awful about to happen due to the lack of communication between parents and children and an undercurrent of rage just hiding underneath all three of the fathers, is the threat of disaster just waiting to happen. A young woman floats into the picture. Contrary to the carnal fantasies in Fellini’s movies, she is its antithesis, a peroxide blonde with a look of hate on her face and a body about to blow because she is with child. One of the boys takes notice and repeatedly hits on her. Meanwhile, a teacher gives out some very disturbing classes to his students, who are, in turn, creating artifacts of obliteration… and that’s not the worst of it.

Bad Tales could easily be an American horror story of the quintessential family (and neighborhood) gone to rot from the inside out. The D’Innocenzo brothers keep most of their story under never-ending pressure — it seems that all this unspoken, unresolved tension that is eating away at their families must at one point get acknowledged. They make it near impossible with the presence of patriarchy rooted in the past, in which fathers were demanding monsters and mothers had no say in the house — or were simply absent. If the final act seems too brutal, that is because that is how a story like this would resolve itself. When there are no signs of communication and all attempts at logic fly out the window through acts of perpetuated violence, the only way out is, well, out.

Under the Radar: Gelateria

British humor is something that you can either totally get into, or completely negate as a comedic expression stemming from a situation that is completely bonkers and most likely has no clear, logical solution. In Christian Seritiello’s and Arthur Patching’s surreal comedy Gelateria, the story of an artist on the trail of her artwork — the centerpiece of their movie — gets introduced by a series of vignettes that seemingly have no relation to one another. However, if you step back and pay attention, you will see how there is a thread that forms a larger, albeit wonky whole.

Even if I chose to go frame by frame I still wouldn’t be able to give much in the way of spoilers. Gelateria begins with a man screaming out to sea, only that his voice gets muted and in its place, crashing piano keys. It then throws you into what has to be the convoluted mind of Zbigniew (Serritiello) who seems to spend the movie trapped symbolically in a non-moving relationship that somehow has taken the form of a non-moving locomotive. He wanders in and out of locations, either as himself into a jazz club where he gets relentlessly hazed by a singer who looks a bit like The Weeknd, as an outsider looking into a barbershop that has its own weirdness going on, and as merely a background picture in an art gallery that hosts the most unusual of (mostly failed) art and performers.

In the interim there are tangents — some a striking, some simply become incursions into bizarre observations on how we treat others — particular foreigners. The piece de resistance arrives almost by accident and requires an introduction, which happens via animation. We then get thrown back into the action with both Serritiello and Patching alternating the role of the unnamed artist who takes off into the unknown to retrieve her art. Her story goes completely off the rails. However, it does deliver a clever, self-referential wink of a pause that shows her, in the middle of a chase scene, re-applying lipstick. [Hey, a lady has priorities.]

If you’re reading this and it still makes little sense you’re in luck: it doesn’t, and it’s totally fun. I have to confess, I haven’t seen a movie quite like this in some time. The closest I can come to compare it to is to the early Monty Python skits and I do so reluctantly because I liked this movie on its own level of zaniness. Gelateria is its own lucid nightmare that makes you laugh, but nervously. On the surface, this movie arrives with an awkwardness closer to the comedy of discomfort. As its collage barrels along the entire piece morphs into something darker, sinister. I laughed because and despite its absurdity. In one scene a translator gets used for no purpose at all. In another. the artist in search of her missing body of work finds herself in a wake in which a woman drank herself to death, and now her mourners (and the dead woman) demand that she herself take a drink.

This is a striking debut feature film that transcends any linear narrative in lieu of presenting what seems to be its own internal logic and uses both its directors as substitutes for everymen (or everywomen). If this movie ever gets to see an American release, I hope that it will be through a prestigious film festival like New York Film Festival or next year’s New Directors – New Films where it would be completely at home.

Gelateria has been screened in various European film festivals to include Kinolikbez International Film Festival in Russia, Salerno Film Festival in Italy, and Mostra Internazionale di Cinema di Genova, also in Italy. A big thank you to director Serritiello for forwarding me his and Patching’s film. Please bring it to New York.

New Directors/New Films: El Planeta, Destello Bravio (Mighty Flash), Azor, Madalena, All the Light We Can See, and Liborio

Now that the 50th installment of New Directors / New Films is over I can finally resume reviewing. Having missed all of last year’s due to the pandemic (and many of the movies making their debut have not even made it to the initial stages of distribution) I didn’t want a repeat, So, to compensate, out of the 27 feature-length movies that came out, I managed to capture a little over half of them (while still seeing both recent virtual cinema releases and the foray into classics which I have yet to write about, so my apologies).

Trailer for Liborio, courtesy from Rotterdam FF

To understand a movie like Nino Martinez Sosa’s Liborio you would need to have read extensively and/or studied Dominican history. Yours truly lived for almost two decades in the Dominican Republic and while I can recall most events that transpired in the country’s 500-plus year life, the life of Olivorio Mateo Ledesma, better known as Papa Liborio, was not one of them. I don’t know why; perhaps my Dominican History teacher opted to graze the chapter. In short, the life of Papa Liborio, today, has become somewhat obscured to the point that it’s mostly a curiosity known to only the old guard and a few erudite.

(His)story goes that Liborio (Vicente Santos), a simple man of the fields, disappears in a hurricane in 1908. When he returns several years later, he is a markedly changed man. His return, seen in itself as a miracle, now sees Liborio speaking in prophetic terms, performing miracles, and carrying within and around him the glowing, magnetic aura of a new Messiah. Word of his abilities as a shaman and spiritual leader makes its way around the country. Followers in search of meaning and enlightenment arrive. Eventually, during the US occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1916, Of course, as it happens with many fringe cults — because Martinez Sosa never shies from presenting Liborio’s compound as anything but a cult run by a shyster with no actual powers — they become a target of American interest, with disastrous results.

A difficult topic to touch because of its inscrutability, Liborio comes across a bit of history lesson speckled with a lens into a time when the Dominican Republic was emerging from its former Haitian occupation and becoming its own country. All of its action takes place in an isolated portion of the country — San Jose de las Matas, with its gorgeous scenery — so in many ways, the people of Liborio are a community lost in time and faith and innocence of the outside world. Martinez Sosa displays much respect for his take on Papa Liborio but never turns his film into a hagiography. Quite the contrary, while his community truly believes (to this day) that Liborio was a holy man, the movie winks at us by letting us in on the secret that he’s really just another clever man able to sway the masses and turn rabbit tricks that look like miracles.

In another continent and time, women are succumbing to reveries and locked in a state of suspended femininity in Ainhoa Rodriguez’s Destello Bravio (Mighty Flash) The first shot gives us two women, one of them the movie’s central character Cita, drunk in euphoria, high from a wedding. The camera never intrudes but lets this moment of drunken bliss play itself out. Cita, one of the women, embraces the other, unnamed, and both fall to the ground, laughing. Later on, Cita will play a recorded message in an old cassette recorder to remind herself that one day soon she will see a mighty flash that will quite frankly, obliterate everything from existence.

That mighty flash never arrives, but that’s not the case. The women of Ainhoa Rodriguez are stuck in what seems to be a forgotten place in Spain where nothing happens. Extremadura stands in for this sense of isolation, which Rodriguez films in mostly muted colors. The entire look of the movie conveys a sense of the very essence of life sucked out of its few remaining residents, and of these, a strong divide appears between the women and the men. The men are mostly non-entities who simply exist as ghosts of their former selves.

teaser trailer from Destello Bravio (A Mighty Flash)

The women, however, still behave as if they were in pageantry and it was the 19th century. Female churchgoers criticize Cita for not coming to church in a glittery gold dress she wore to a wedding. Another expresses her fear of her dead husband. An early gathering yields to vaguely threatening noises that not everyone hears. Later on, another gathering of women peaks in early arguments that dissolve into a state of sexual reverie, and the lingering question is, what exactly is going on here? I would simply point at a place that has lost its sense of purpose. When all you have is frustration, despair, and passions that have been unresolved, you get the sexually and emotionally starved female ghosts of Ainhoa Rodriguez’s intriguing movie pregnant with desire.

The women in Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta are in a similar state of despair, but Ulman, instead of having their fabric of reality melt into a living nightmare of stasis and unfulfilled lives, prefers to take the route of a comedy of manners with a hint of something rotten underneath. That something reveals its ugly head but gradually. Ulman tells her story with enormous patience and a keen eye that observes its two leads, herself and her mother Ale Ulman.

The start of El Planeta posits Maria (Amalia Ulman) and Leonor (Ale Ulman) as women trapped by their own inability to be self-sufficient, depending on the kindness of unseen others. Maria is a make-up artist trying to land a good job, but her financial situation doesn’t allow her to travel outside Gijon where she lives with Leonor. An early scene has her finagling the price of sexual favors, which sets up the stage for something unsaid.

Meanwhile, she and her mother go on spending sprees, living the high life, acting as if they have it all when in fact, Leonor has been left destitute following a bitter divorce. Ulman slowly reveals the vapidity behind the appearance of glamor, and I kept being reminded of a much softer version of Midnight Cowboy without the extreme grittiness. Where the two men in that movie lived in squalor and followed a pipe dream that was already collapsing at the seams and turning into a living nightmare, El Planeta remains serene, almost as light as a bubble, until Ulman rips the rug from under our feet and we are left not just with an abrupt ending, but a sense that Leonor, the true narcissist in the movie, may have snapped.

Still from Madalena

In another movie, Madalena would be a mystery and being a mystery, it would have to get solved. Madiano Marchetti takes an oblique approach and focuses not on the main character itself, but on the people who either knew her or came upon her lifeless body dressed in white in a soy field. It is a novel take, but during the three semi-connected stories we get next to no information on who Madalena was as a trans woman and how did she end up murdered. The first story concerns a club patron whose only concern is to procure money that Madalena owes her so she can use that money to pay for her Vespa. The second story delves into the son of the owner of the soy farm where Madalena’s body was found. Fearful that a discovery like this could derail his mother’s political career, he spends the entire portion of his storyline trying to find the spot where Madalena was killed… only to never see her again. The final story comes with a hint of bittersweet resolution. Madalena’s trans friends, led by Bianca (Pamela Yule), come to her home to collect her belongings. Some reminiscing happens, but not enough to establish a sense of loss, so we transition towards an outing that places the three transwomen in a space of safety.

Watching Madalena I got the feeling that I was revisiting some of the banalities observed/listened in Bobbi Gentry’s 1967 song Ode to Billy Joe. While nothing in Marchetti’s movie comes even close to the Southern Gothic of Gentry’s song, the tone of reducing Madalena’s murder to a blip in time barely touching those who knew and didn’t know her seems to be the point here. We listen to the briefest of mentions of women murdered in unfortunate circumstances and it doesn’t quite touch us; all we can do is shake our head and go, “That poor woman,” if at that. Madalena, then, becomes a reveal of how society reacts to a trans woman’s disappearance: for one, she’s an inconvenience, for another, a threat of scandal, and for her very own sisters, just another day in paradise.

For Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), the private banker in Andreas Fontana’s Azor, the gradual realization that he may be in over his head might not as a surprise. After all, he is replacing a missing banker with a rather ominous reputation. Simply put, the very mention of the former banker’s name is enough to raise eyebrows and darken a room. Considering that de Wiel’s former colleague seems to have vanished overnight, it begs to question if he had a hand in mishandling certain securities he was entrusted to. There is an obscene amount of money and financial securities being moved from here to there, and with Argentina, in the middle of its Dirty War period in which many who didn’t walk a fine line or were even suspect met a grisly end, de Wiel seems to be the object of intense scrutiny. If these people are to place their trust in someone, they better abide by their rules.

Still from Azor

Fontana’s movie is elegant and filmed with a mainly brown palette. He fills every scene with hints of a greater evil just hiding in plain sight. Conversations are always filled with portent, and while it’s clear that something is foul in Denmark, no one gives as much as veiled explanations and narratives that leave a sense of dread pregnant in the air. Azor, for Argentineans, means “silence”, so during the story, it will be up to de Wiel that he sees nothing, hears nothing, and says nothing. In essence, there is a lot of Benjamin Naishtat’s 2018 Rojo which also dealt with the darker part of Argentinean history. Here we never see but the aftermath of the atrocities: homes and possessions repossessed, in line for the highest bidder. We get that these items belonged to “the disappeared” and now, are simply commodities. It is a horrific sequence because of how banal it looks. Judging from the way de Wiel reacts during the final sequence, it becomes clear that he has literally sold his soul for a life of comfort and protection.

Lastly, there is All the Light We Can See. Pablo Escoto has made a movie that will no doubt play well in film festivals and art galleries alike. Commercial, left of indie, it is not, with a story that isn’t as much a narrative as much as an exposition in the style of the Greek tragedy of a love affair gone wrong between two couples. While the movie is truly gorgeous to look at, at two hours, it is cumbersome to watch because of how stilted its language is, how mannered its performances are, and how much in ideologies he attempts to cram into what is essentially a fable of love.

SFIFF: An investigator gets drawn into a mysterious death and unearths demons from his own past in “The Dry”

It’s been a minute since Eric Bana made a movie (that was a success on this side of the globe). You can imagine my surprise when he teamed up with Robert Connolly, a fellow Australian (whose work has never been officially released here except in a few film festivals), for a movie version of Jane Harper’s novel The Dry, set to premiere in the US on May 21st. via IFC theaters.

Every small town has its secrets and the town of Kiewarra is teeming with them. An act of shocking violence that leaves an entire family except for its infant daughter dead opens the story. The (now deceased) father is a former childhood friend of Aaron Falk, a detective who grew up in Kiewarra and has returned upon being summoned by the friend’s parents to clear their son’s name. However, Falk has another connection to Kiewarra that is much darker and lingers on throughout the entire film like a festering wound waiting to release its noxious contents.

For the most part, The Dry is a solid procedural with Bana at the helm, accompanied by Keir O’Donnell as the police officer also assigned to the case. There are moments of genuine suspense and a plausible red herring that somehow doesn’t quite pan out in the way it should, but the flashbacks to when Falk was a teenager are on-spot, filled with dread. A tad bit of ambiance and mood could have helped give this incursion into Gothic a sense of land gone tainted and lives gone to waste. The movie’s flashback sequences, while informative, pop up a bit much and rob the movie of its more disturbing nature of the perpetuation of evil that can pop up in any form. It makes me think that a bit less would have helped more.

Even so, Connolly keeps the movie going, never pausing too much except when the story itself needs to. The Dry might not have a chase sequence typical of American thrillers and is probably a closer portrayal of how an actual procedural works, which keeps it grounded. However, it is compelling, polished, anchored by solid performances all around. Also, and this is not a spoiler, it does have a killer double denouement that has to be seen — they’re both that good. [C+]

SIFF: Bebia, à mon seul desir

I hate to say it, but I left the most confounding movie from the entire film festival for last even though this was one of the first. I was able to see this one in pieces, pausing, resuming if at all to grasp its significance and digest its symbolic imagery, and while at times the film alienated me in more ways I’d like to admit, I felt in whole that I had seen an extremely personal, but somewhat self-indulgent film about death and linking your ancestors to their final resting place.

The movie itself, with its strange title Bebia, a mon seul desir, is mystifying. A teenage runway model named Ariadne (Anushka Andronikashvili) learns that her grandmother has passed on and must return home for the wake and burial. Once she arrives, the disconnect is clear. A family friend, Temo (Alexander Glurjidze), picks her up and escorts her home, but instead of there being any emotional greetings yielding to sympathetic exchanges, the two remain stiff and separated from each other.

When Ariadna arrives home her alienation is made deeper by the appearance of her forbidding and perpetually angry mother (Anastasia Chanturaia) who has little time for affection but spends her onscreen time lashing out. We wonder what may have transpired between her and Ariadna to engender such barely repressed hostility. The movie doesn’t go there, but instead, lets it fester, untreated, which in a way is satisfying. Not all loose ends have to be tied, so to leave this part of family dynamics up in the air is a good move.

When the time of mourning arrives Ariadna becomes confronted with tradition and it makes her laugh before she cries. Female mourners sit next to Arifdna and begin to wail painfully, their voices going louder and louder until the priest has to tell them to stop. It’s only then when Ariadne’s composure, which began complete with an eye-roll and a nervous chuckle collapses. It is her only moment of emotion.

Ariadna learns that tradition has it that she has to take a ball of yarn and walk from the house to the place where her grandmother died in order to link her soul with her grave. Ariadna then starts the trek over an open expanse of land with Temo beside her. Here is where the movie, which has worked up until now, starts to lose focus. A ritual of any kind has to open your senses to something greater than yourself even when the said ritual may seem silly or unnecessary. Ariadna’s walk through miles of land transpires without much emotional gravity. It’s so performed as though Ariadna herself was suffering from a type of disassociation by proxy. While she may be, in fact, completing a cycle of life, there is no emotional arc that plays here, no act of heroism, or even selflessness.

Director Juja Dobrachkous gives enough information that may explain the disconnect between Ariadna and her mother’s home. It may even — and I’m overreaching here — form a parallel between other stories in which a person who leaves a country finds his or herself at odds with the place of birth and its customs, now seem as borderline barbaric or plain ridiculous. Her use of inserts of the past (she claims they are not flashbacks) also confuses rather than enlighten. They don’t seem to add anything new to this elliptical tale, which is a shame because the opportunity was clearly there from the onset to make a great mediation about roots, and the loved dead.

Aside from that, Bebia, a mon seul desir is striking in black and white in a manner reminiscent of Pavel Pawlikowski’s Ida, and many shots that focus not on characters but on no specific subject, in general, come off also a bit like that film. It’s a dreamy experience that seeks neither to enlighten nor to reveal, but to let you in on a strange, symbolic labyrinth.

Bebia, a mon seul desir is also playing at the New Directors / New Films festival. It has no US release as of yet.

SIFF: A blundering biopic of Sonja Wigert in The Spy

Female spies were all over the European map in World War II, but one that you might not know of was Swedish actress Sonja Wigert. That might be because during her natural life that aspect of her career was never revealed until a quarter-century after her death in 1980. It seems appropriate, then, that the powers that be would make a movie about her life in a ways to honor her work against the Nazi regime.

It would make sense, then, that one of Norway’s biggest female stars, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, would get pulled into Jens Jonsson’s movie, simply titled The Spy, which makes its bow at the SIFF. You might have seen Bolsø Berdal in the first two seasons of Westworld, but she was rather under-utilized in that series. In Spy, she plays Sonja Wigert, Sweden’s biggest box-office draw who gets recruited by her government to spy on the Germans, who in turn unknowingly use her to spy on the Swedes, with poor results for obvious reasons.

Jonsson’s movie could and should have been better, but instead, it falls back into familiar spy movie tropes that are so on-the-nose, so blatant, you can practically sleepwalk through the entire affair and not lose a beat. That’s not a good thing, because in a spy thriller, the need for suspense, even when its main character clearly survives the ordeal, even when you know the story well, is paramount. It just doesn’t seem as though Wigert is in any real danger, and one red herring does not exactly save the movie from its color-by-numbers development.

Adding to this, the movie never knows what period it takes place. If you are a stickler of detail as yours truly can be, you will notice that while the movie takes place in the late thirties and early forties, much of the hair and outfits seem a bit all over the place, as if the intent was to make it look of the period, but not be of the period. If we sum this to Bolsø Berdal’s committed but somewhat undefined performance, we get an actress playing an actress that seems to be not sure where her alliances are. Sonja Wigert deserves a better movie.

The Spy does not have a release date as of yet.

Grade: C

SIFF: The Gentle Irony of a holy place that is anything but in The Unknown Saint

So, you’re a thief and you’ve made a killing in gold. However, as life would have it, the cops are hot on your tail. You’re in the middle of nowhere and realize you’re going to face the music. Quick reasoning, you decide to hide your stash in a way that the cops will never find it — only you, when you get out.

The problem is, that while you do your time, when you get out, and go back to claim your stash… it’s not only not there/available, but there’s a monument that’s been erected over it.

The premise of Alaa Edit Aljem could not have been more ironic if you won the lottery the very same day you also got terrible news from the doctor. A film that delves into the gently absurd, The Unknown Saint posits an unlikely situation and the ramifications stemming from it like a blessing in disguise.

Trailer

Several plot threads convene into a grand comic whole in which the Thief (Younes Bouab) finds himself returning to the scene of the crime only to find out that the place is now a place of worship and that he’s regarded as a scientist. Yes, you read that right, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Along the way there is the Brain (Salah Bensalah), the Thief’s accomplice, continually blunders his attempts at retrieving the loot. A sexy, handsome doctor (Anas El Baz) has come to be the village’s doctor only to find out that the village has no need for him (except for entertainment), and a farmer and his son pray for rain, and get a lot more than they bargained for.

I find it refreshing that movies like these exist. I really loved how the desert, and the shrine at its center, become an all-knowing character hiding precious treasure in lieu of a miracle, but also, and in spite of the irony, a source of riches beyond the material. This is a gentle comedy in the Ealing style that initially makes you root for the Thief but, as the story progresses, you feel more empathy for the poor deluded folk who live in ignorant bliss. I especially love the universality of its story: this could have very well been a comic Western with slight magical realist overtones. As it is, The Unknown Saint is a fable with a slight moral lesson dressed in the trappings of a crime caper and a clever, empathetic Ealing comedy. [A–]

SIFF: A Political Thriller moprhs into a reflecting image about the power of peaceful protest, and a cry for “Freedom and Dignity” in THE TRANSLATOR

It is incredible when you walk into a movie that illustrates a situation happening thousands of miles away and realize that its events are much closer to the ones happening right at home, or in my case, in my own Dominican Republic, a country where I lived in for almost 20 years and who had its own shares of political violence against its resistors and who is today, trying to rebuild itself from the ashes of a dark yesterday.

Rana Kazkaf and Anaz Khalaf’s The Translator posits a stark reality for its exiled protagonist. Sami (Ziad Bakri), a Syrian exile living a life of privilege in Sydney, Australia, becomes drawn back to his country of origin when his brother Zaid goes missing following an arrest. The arrest seems to be linked to the 2000 Olympics when Sami (allegedly deliberately) mistranslated a blink or miss passage that sealed his fate. Having to see a video that shows Zaid being hauled off to an unknown fate (and potentially be disappeared as his own father was years ago when Sami was a boy) shakes Sami out of his zone and leads him into action.

Upon arriving, however, Sami has little time to breathe and becomes witness of just how dangerous the situation is. Reconnecting with his sister Karma (Yunna Marwan) is bitter; she blames his absence and that as a translator he is a hider — one who doesn’t speak his own words, when words equal the truth. Sami attempts to seek help anywhere he can, but it seems, no one can be trusted, and the more he stays, the less likely he might be able to leave.

If I had not seen the Q & A following The Translator I would have assumed this was based on actual facts. That is how sharp, how urgent, how “ripped from the headlines” Kazkaz’s and Khalaf’s movie looks. You could almost confuse it for actual news, or a risky, guerrilla-style documentary, with every shot filled with tension, its characters in a vicious struggle against oppression while those who do so loom over the narrative and give the movie a sense of inescapable doom.

The movie’s true meaning reveals itself later in the movie and it will resonate at a global level. A book containing documents of peaceful protests that get squashed by the military and the police becomes a weapon of truth — a truth we all know too well. The famous Kent State picture of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller makes a striking cameo appearance. We then realize this is not just a “Syrian” problem but ours as well, and it reflects itself over and over into recent history when seeing how Charlottesville ended and how our own peaceful protests have been targeted for being dangerous.

The Translator has no release date in the US. If it shows up at a film festival near you please go see it. [A]