Tag Archives: magic

Past and Present, Vodou and White Privilege, Clash in Bertrand Bonello’s ZOMBI CHILD

[Image from Cinevue]

ZOMBI CHILD. Country, France. Director, Bertrand Bonello. Screenwriter, Bertrand Bonello. Language, French, Creole. Cast: Louise Labecque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou, Sayyid El-Alami. Runtime, 102 minutes. Part of the 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate. Venue: Alice Tully Hall. US Premiere, October 1, 2019. US Release date: TBA.

Mostly Indies: C+

After experiencing back-to-back disappointments with his 2014 film Saint Laurent and his 2016 Nocturama, I was a bit hesitant to approach Bertrand Bonello’s incursion into the horror genre with his current work Zombi Child, an incursion into art-horror that attempts to merge Haiti’s tradition of turning civilians into zombies to reinforce slavery, blended somehow with a sheltered all-girl’s school, because I wasn’t sure how well he would treat the subject matter of what is part of Haitian religion and its own culture without turning it into something a bit silly or fetishistic.

The result of Bonello’s movie is equal parts historic recreation mixed with elements that seem borrowed from Val Lewton’s own I Walked with a Zombie (1944) or Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), and in that is good in my book. From the start, Zombi Child kicks off rather eerily, with the depiction of an unknown bokor preparing the drug that will be used for nefarious purposes against an unfortunate. That unfortunate turns out to be Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), who collapses in the middle of a street in an unknown Haitian town and gets buried soon after. Only that he is not dead, Bonello films a chilling shot from Narcisse’s point of view as he silently and passively listens to the dirt falling onto his grave, only to find himself enslaved in the fields working for a black master.

The film then cuts to the present and zooms into an all-girl boarding school, where (predictably) the girls are mostly ignorant of the outside world. Amongst them is a young Haitian girl, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), who while accepted in a clique of girls who love to listen to trap music and discuss literature, is also seen as a bit of a freak, mostly because she has been heard making strange noises in the girl’s bathroom at odd hours. Another girl, Fanny (Louise Labecque), seems to be going through an existential crisis of love as she mourns the loss of a former boyfriend, Pablo (Sayyid El-Alami). Conversations between Fanny and the other girls of their clique lead Fanny to discover Melissa’s Haitian heritage and seek her aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) out for something unspeakable.

For the most part, Zombi Child seems to be split down the middle with its two disparate storylines which merge into a final, satisfying third. Its Haitian scenario is truly an atmospheric nightmare in which Clairvius, drugged beyond his wits, works the fields and wanders aimlessly through streets, slowly piecing back his life together. The French story sags quite a bit, and serves as a (very) slow ascent up the rollercoaster, giving us bits and pieces of information about the two most salient girls, before revealing to us not just what one is about to engage in, but that the other may have been a product of some unholy union and carries that in her own veins. It’s an intriguing piece of cinema, not quite horror but close, in which the cultural and political heritage of one country informs and colors another, and its incursion into a fantastic and horrifying climax serves as both expungement of a trauma by one girl, and the reaffirmation of another girl’s own culture.

A DARK SONG

 

A DARK SONG
Ireland / UK
Director: Kiam Gavin
Runtime: 100 minutes
Language: English

3/5

This has been a year of mildly good horror movies that satisfy but not in any way memorable — certainly not like the terrifying The Eyes of My Mother, to name one. A Dark Song hails from a country that has produced some truly disturbing pictures, and when it premiered at the IFC it was shown as a double-bill with The Kill List, a movie that if you haven’t seen it, you should, it;s that good. Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song navigates a fine line between the real and not real in telling its story of a young mother determined to summon up dark forces to bring her dead son back from the dead.

From the word go, the mood is a little unnerving. Steve Oram, seen previously in 2012’s Sightseers with Alice Lowe (herself seen earlier this Spring in Prevenge which you can catch via Shudder, by the way), plays his warlock/wiccan role with an almost frightening intensity and subjects co-star Catherine Walker into what seems to be a form of boot-camp for the magically inclined before sealing the house they’ve rented far, far from the world, and commencing with the ritual. At first we don’t see too much happening and there are stretches of time where all we get are the two characters bickering at each other, and in one uncomfortable scene, an act that technically amounts to visual rape, where Oram orders Walker to remove her clothing — not for anything magical, but to simply masturbate.

Once the paranormal starts manifesting itself, the movie takes a turn and one scene in particular is a cut above the rest. We see Walker approaching a couch that may or may not have a dark figure sitting on it, apparently having a smoke. As she gets closer, it becomes clearer and clearer that something is in the room with her, looking at her with unknown intent, but a slight change of the angle, and poof! The thing, whatever it was, is gone. Nothing like this matches the sense of dread that has been building up — partly because Oram’s Joseph is so mentally volatile and Walker’s Sophia oscillates between wanting something very badly and disbelieving of it all since nothing has actually happened of note. It’s the age-old saying that horror movies are at their best when they withhold rather than show and in this aspect, A Dark Song uses this to great effect, until the denouement arrives, and then it just becomes another typical horror flick that almost went over and into the abyss but stopped just short.






EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

embrace of the serpent

There are films, and then there are films. I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, but when you see movie after movie after movie, often non-stop, and then something like Embrace of the Serpent reveals itself, your eyes literally fly open. You feel as if though somehow, the fabric of the screen had somehow trickled away into dust and disclosed another world, time and place, a beckoning, living paradise drenched in wonders, adventure, and mysteries just waiting to be discovered.

Split into two timeframes — 1909 and 1940 –, Embrace of the Serpent is the story of Karamakate, the last surviving member of his own tribe, living in solitude in the Vaupes, deep in the heart of Colombia.

The first time period, 1909, has Karamakate (Nilbio Torres, a commanding, warrior presence) coming upon Theo (Jan Bijvoet), an explorer whose fallen sick, and his partner, the Westernized indian Manduca (Yauenku Migue) who asks Karamakate for help. Karamakate expresses an open distrust for Theo — after all, he is a Blanco, a white man, and they’ve been responsible for decimating his tribe. Theo expresses that he’s only searching for the yakruna, and that he can help Karamakate find remaining members of his tribe along the way.

A gradual, yet sometimes volatile relationship develops between the three men as they canoe through the river. On their way to the fabled yakruna, they come across a rubber worker who begs Manduca for death, poisonous food that Theo in his ignorance ingests, and a tribe whose leader steals Theo’s compass. Upon discovering the act, his goodbye sours; he needs the compass, but also states that these people will lose their own tradition of using the sky for location. Karamakate counters, justifiably, that knowledge shouldn’t be for a chosen few.

One of the more telling encounters is at a mission where a monk has seemingly converted young boys into the ways of the Spanish. At first fearful that the three men will raid his place, he accepts their visit. Here is where a sense of religious hypocrisy comes into the picture: later on, the men realize the monk has forbidden the boys speak their native language and whips one of them savagely. This visit will repeat itself in a moment straight out of a cult movie, when in 1940 an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) and another explorer, Evan (Brionne Davis), come upon the now grown men from that mission, living under the vicious thumb of a man who believes himself to be the Christ and who’s clearly insane. It’s a perversion of the previous scene and a symbolic indication of how south things went after the Spanish conquered the new world. In eradicating most of the native culture (deemed heretic and barbaric), they plunged the remaining people into an even more savage reality, as dark as the Dark Ages, bordering on religious frenzy.

embrace of the serpent-1

And in the midst, the Maguffin of the story, the elusive yakruna, the rare pearl beckoning both Theo and Evan, both with Karamakate as a guide: withholding and willing to destroy information to preserve something pristine, but a little more giving the second time around. Perhaps the zeal of youth is to blame; who wouldn’t protect the secrets of his own civilization before allowing it to be corrupted by a society determined on imposing its stamp and stamping everything else out?

Of course, the older Karamakate has mellowed, it seems, and can now only dispense knowledge where in the past, he would have kept it for himself. Perhaps that is all he can aspire to. Embrace of the Serpent is a fascinating epic like no other, it’s its own Apocalypse Now, demonstrating the heavy load that being the sole survivor of one’s own people it can be.