Goya famously once quoted, “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.” Stephen King once used this famous quote in a modified form: “This inhuman place breeds human monsters.” Gustavo Hernandez, a director who scored a strong debut with La casa muda (The Silent House) in 2010, seems to have wanted to compose an elegy to the first (this being an Argentinian-Uruguayan-Spanish co-production) with centering the story around an experiment. The experiment in question has actors stepping into Alma Bohm’s (Belen Rueda) drama team and subjecting themselves to sleep deprivation in order to find some truth in performance. At least, this is what I think this is; the movie is rather ill-defined in what it wants, but one would never notice because the first 45 minutes are mostly setup and not much else.
In defense of the movie’s premise, experiments in sleep deprivation were an actual thing. During the 1970s and 80s, researchers subjected participants to sessions in which they remained awake for extended periods of time. The goal was to see how long the human body could tolerate hours and hours of sleeplessness, and how this would affect the mind. When we step into the movie we see a young woman (Maria Zabay) wandering disheveled, through a darkened hallway. She seems to be drawn to something as-yet-unseen. All the while, we listen to soft yet urgent rustling sounds. The woman, who we learn is an actress of certain prestige named Marlene, comes upon a sinister-looking old woman frantically brushing her hair, her eyes locked into an unseen force, terrified. When Marlene leaves she is suddenly attacked by a horrific creature, it’s face obscured by a gauze. We then realize Marlene is the woman brushing her hair. She is a part of Alma Bohm’s bizarre experiment, and when the camera slowly zooms on Bohm’s sadistically satisfied face we know exactly what we are stepping into.
It’s a pity that Bianca (Eva de Dominici), is oblivious to the trap she’s about to walk into. An aspiring actress of notable talent, she gets bamboozled into participating in Bohm’s experiment. Bohm is using the entire sleep deprivation to conduct a performance based on a mother suffering from postpartum depression who attempted to kill her infant child. She gets pitted against her friend Cecilia (Natalia de Molina), who also happens to be a professional rival. Bianca has a backstory that gets some exploration. Her father (Miguel Angel Maciel) has his own demons that he is unable to put to rest. When his mental lapse almost kills Bianca, he commits himself to a mental facility. In a way, Bianca follows suit as she walks into a former mental hospital that is now Bohm’s headquarters.
Much of You Shall Not Sleep‘s first half is set-up peppered with slight jump scares that don’t ring as earned. Really, the hand placed on a shoulder, or a ghoulish face suddenly appearing, complete with the stinger? Snore, yawn, no. It is, however, rather interesting to see Dominici, de Molina, and Rueda interact amongst each other, with Rueda playing a cross between late-period Joan Crawford and Philip Zimbardo with relished bitchiness. The girls are interchangeable — both complement each other as ingenues — but Dominici has the meatier role as the wait trapped in a Gothic enclave trying to solve a mystery.
The second half of the movie ramps up the horror, but just a bit. Too much time gets spent in narratives that don’t really correlate with the story or the horror ambiance. Bianca manages to leave the place, and her departure serves as an interesting yet also uninspired choice by the director. Is she truly out of the shadows or still “trapped” in the scary hospital? I’ll leave that for you to decide, and it’s really nothing clever. However, the movie decides to pull out all the stops and disclose what it is really about in a series of revelations that would make Rosemary’s Baby blush and M Night Shyamalan proud. That in itself is not a compliment. Perhaps it may have worked on paper, but on screen, it looks like a cop-out. And those jump-scares just keep on coming.
You Shall Not Sleep has an intriguing premise and enough ambiance to warrant a view, but is an overreaching mess that will not merit its run time. Hernandez could have made a disturbing psychodrama of identity and yielded chilling effects and memorable performances from everyone involved, but instead goes the way of tired genre tropes and telegraphing it’s own secret way before it actually arrives.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 WeCan 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.
Every so often we get movies that try to capture the magic of Sidney Lumet’s A Dog Day Afternoon but wind up looking either like artificial constructs like Now You See Me, or rehashed versions of other, better crime capers dating back to the 1950s. Ariel Winograd’s The Heist of the Century (El robo del siglo) treads a middle ground between crowd-pleasing and rehash but is mainly a solid two hours of entertainment. Its story, like Dog Day, is based on true events. On a hot summer day in 2006, a group of thieves led by Fernando Araujo (Diego Peretti)_and Luis Mario Vetetti Sellanes (Guillermo Francella, last seen in 2015’s The Clan) execute one of the greatest heists ever in Argentinean history. How they orchestrate such a massive break-in I’ll leave you to see for yourself, because it is as insane as it is audacious and often times flat-out funny. Winograd keeps the action constantly pumping with little time for contemplation and draws his pack of conspirators in enough of a sympathetical light to keep some focus on the men instead of rooting for the cops to eventually bring their shenanigans to a halt. If the story itself falters, it’s that once you realize that everyone involved will eventually meet their moment of justice, you start to forget the movie altogether. I had a hard time truly relating to the events of the film shortly afterward, which is probably due to having seen so many movies of the same kind over the years. It says something when the only movie I can recall almost scene-by-scene is Lumets, but then, Dog Day is a classic all its own.[C]
When we meet Bruno (Sandi Pavlin), he’s trying to borrow a bike from a woman minding her own business because he is trying to get home to his dog. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that Bruno has escaped the senior-citizen home, and judging from the faces of the attendants coming in to take Bruno back, he’s done this thing before.
Later on we see him again, observing an. elegant older woman as she enjoys some exercise that ends when the sprinkler system goes off and she, instead of leaving, lets the water rain down on her as if in a blessing. Duša (Silvia Gušin) and Bruno start a tentative friendship although at times she seems a bit prickly, as if she wouldn’t remember him but does. A shared bond over a song develops, but they continue to meet over and over again for the first time.
Shades of Away from Her and The Mole Agent are all over Sanremo, and I mean that in a good way instead of looking for a cheap comparison. Sanremo establishes rather firmly that Bruno suffering from dementia and his repeated attempts at escape only make matters worse for him. He has a loving but strained relationship with his visiting daughter, who is conflicted with the sale of a house that contains so many memories. And of course, there is the presence of Duša, who gives Bruno a fleeting sense of hope.
Miroslav Mandic’s movie is one of great compassion for its characters. While we get that they have to be treated with a somewhat firm hand by the staff members of the home, it never deviates into potential cruelty. The look of the movie is desaturated, with dense fog opening the story. The fog may be an on-the-nose symbol of the state of Bruno’s mind, but an increased clarity in scenes and a gorgeous but somewhat surrealistic finale indicate that Bruno may have reached a sense of closure, even when his character winds up in a rather odd place. [B]
Arriving from New Zealand is a mockumentary in the style of Taika Waititi and Christopher Guest movies called This Town. Written and directed by David White, This Town tells the story of Sean (White again), a young man wanting to find true love and settle down. It’s just that he’s got a little bit of baggage which might be a deal-breaker. Several years ago he was not found guilty of slaughtering his entire family; however, just because a judge ruled in favor, it still doesn’t clear you of the crime. Or so Pam (Robyn Malcolm) thinks. She’s the former sheriff hot on his trail who’s turned her entire house into a network of clues and news clippings and recordings on 8-track in a last-ditch effort to nab Sean for good.
While Pam slowly manages to tie up the knots on her boundary-pushing investigation, Sean finds love with Casey (Alice Connolly). However, the town doesn’t do much to stand in between Sean and his rebuilding his life. This somewhat amounts to a bit of a problem in a movie that is often funny but not laugh-out-loud hilarious. Midway through, the movie loses a bit of steam and it seems as though perhaps it might be stretching itself a bit thin in order to meet a runtime. Even the comedic presence of Rima te Wiata — always welcome — feels a bit misguided and forced. By the end, once the end credits roll, I was having a bit of a time remembering White’s movie mainly because after a strong beginning it just didn’t know where to take itself and kept relying on too much of Malcolm to keep the conflict up. That in itself makes me rate This Town a C.
Brazil and Argentina present two movies that attempt to present a world gone upside down through a cataclysm, which references the 2020 pandemic. [Note, both movies were filmed before the COVID-19 outbreak struck.]
Absurdism through a black and white lens and a young man somehow manages to come out of a series of disarming situations, one direr than the other, in Ana Katz’s movie The Dog Who Wouldn’t be Quiet (El Perro que no calla). Daniel Katz plays Sebastian, a soft-spoken man who sees the world react around him and somehow manages to conform to its curveballs. When the story begins we see him tending to some plants while his dog Rita observes in silence. Neighbors suddenly fill his doorway complaining that the dog won’t stop barking and perhaps the animal is in some mental anguish. The complaints get mirrored at work where Sebastian had brought his dog: the animal is disruptive. Such a disruption may lead to other employees acting out in non-productive ways. Sebastian leaves his job and finds work as a caregiver for a man suffering from dementia, which leads to other events in which Sebastian finds himself suffering a poignant loss, falling in love, and surviving a cataclysm that mirrors the 2020 pandemic. Ana Katz paints an experimental, gentle drama with hints of deadpan comedy that on two occasions veers into animated drawings that, while distancing in style, actually add to the gravitas. Her movie is a quiet exploration of resilience, pathos, and of a kind man caught under a world filled with chaos.
The Pink Cloud offers a hellish premise straight out of Luis Bunuel. If you ever saw The Exterminating Angel from 1962, you will see remarkable parallels between that movie and Iuli Gerbase’s debut film. With both movies, we find people unable to leave a comfortable space that becomes increasingly claustrophobic and which eventually pushes its occupants into the limits of stress. Both movies offer no explanation for why its cataclysmic event happens and offer no satisfaction. The culprit in The Pink Cloud is — you guessed it — a mysterious atmospheric change in which clouds turn a lovely shade of rose… and turn the air into a death trap that can kill you in 10 seconds.
A woman and a man (Renata de Lélis and Eduardo Mendonça) wake up from a night of partying to find themselves now having to lock themselves inside her home, unable to leave. Lucky for the woman, her place is conveniently large enough to fit her and the man she barely knows so at first, when the clouds appear, it seems a passing fad. “It’ll end soon,” its characters say through Facetime, and we as an audience hope so, (and again, I’m reminded about March of 2020 when the pandemic was new). It’s when the clouds refuse to leave when days become weeks, weeks become months, and months turn into years, the movie stretches itself into an act of indefinite torture. Stakes get higher, situations that would never have happened with the movie’s characters — central and peripheral — all of a sudden become very real, and the movie plunges into a dark terrain from where there may be no escape.
The Pink Cloud (A nuvem rosa)asks a lot from its characters and its audience alike. Forced cohabitation, the unreality that you might find yourself alone and left to fend for yourself (as one character is), is horrifying. Seeing its characters set adrift when we are still in the middle of a pandemic is a sobering experience. I recall when I didn’t know if a sense of normalcy might return. However, a year later, life is slowly returning to its roots (although we are still a long way). I can move about even when I still don’t engage in my pre-pandemic activities. The small cast of characters of The Pink Cloud, on the other hand, are glued to themselves and their immediate surroundings. Unnatural realities are being created, and life, miraculously, still goes on. You don’t have an alternative. You’re stuck to whoever you were stuck with at the moment of crisis; you can either manage or die.
Both The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet and The Pink Cloud are awaiting distribution so a release date is TBA,