Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Cámara Oscura: The dubious art of searching desperately for beauty that is all around you

camaraposter The Argentine film, “La Cåmara Oscura,” directed by María Victoria Menis, tells the story of a woman who has been stigmatized from childhood as “ugly” and who goes through life yearning for joy. When her children are grown, a fateful encounter with an itinerant photographer makes the beauty inside of her finally blossom. This story is told in the idyllic setting of Entre Rios, Argentina in the 1920s, among campesinos who have immigrated from Eastern Europe. Their old world Jewish customs are skillfully interwoven with the Argentine society around them, and this makes the film charmingly familiar and unusual at the same time.

The actors turn in good performances, especially Patrick Dell’Isola as the photographer who has seen war at Gallipoli. However, I had difficulty resigning myself to the director’s choice of having the female lead playing her part so dryly. If silences and stone cold detachment can be called overacting, then Mirta Bogdasarian as Gertrudis Kohen gives what may be the Sarah Bernhardt performance of the year. We understand from sequences from her childhood that Gertrudis has been somewhat psychologically abused by her mother, and has developed a severe inhibition about expressing her appreciation of the beauty of life or reaching out for love. However, the extreme level of disengagement with the world that this character exhibits during the film seems exaggerated and melodramatic when it is not credible and it seems cold and antipathic when it is credible. If she had just opened up on occasion in some tender scenes, we would be able to feel her vulnerability and empathize with her yearning, but we never see that, except in a faint shadow of a smile here and there. It is hard to feel anything for her when she casts a deadening shadow over the ensemble of her household, made up of children and husband, all full of brio and joie de vivre. This is especially true in her interaction with her daughters, making the viewer wonder how these girls managed to avoid the maternal curse of gloom. If everybody treats her like chopped liver, who could blame them?

I imagine that the director made this acting choice in order to enhance the contrast of Gertudis’ loveless marriage with the smiles of contentment that she allows herself toward the end of the film. And indeed, this works very well, her final images with smiles on her face are moving and unusually expressive. However, it doesn’t erase the bitter taste of her performance over the length of the film. Gertrudis has lived an enviably peaceful existence, far from the cruelties and suffering of the world beyond the pampas and espinal, yet she never acknowledges this, as she can only see beauty in the distant stars and moon. Moreover, her decision at the end, if we read the open end to its logical conclusion, seems rather egotistical, and only confirms the impression that she has never considered her place as mother of a family as anything more than a duty imposed on her from without, and that her joy and fulfillment would be found elsewhere. And speaking of the ending, this open-ended cliché is one of the most overused and irritating gimmicks of auteur film, along with the pointless flashback cliché which opens the film. This director is too skilled and nuanced for that stuff, and would do well to put them aside.

On the whole it is a well crafted film visually and it can offer an entertaining hour and a half of cinema, as long as you mentally rewrite Gertrudis’s part in your mind, giving her the depth of emotion that is woefully lacking on the screen.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , | Leave a comment

Ladrones: Thieves, 2007. Ballesta and Valverde try just a little too hard to steal hearts.

Film directed by Jaime Marquez, (2007). Alex is lost in plain sight. After watching, as a young boy, as his

Maria Valverde

Maria Valverde

Juan Jose Ballesta

Juan Jose Ballesta

mother is arrested before his eyes on the metro, he grows up in an orphanage. Now grown, he finds himself out, alone, with nothing but his secret skill, and the dummy in his closet. This odd element in the story lets us know that this film is striving to be something more than its timeworn formulas might suggest. The dummy is a practice dummy for keeping his pickpocketing skills sharp, but we can see from the interaction of the youthful and handsome Alex (played by Juan José Ballesta) that it is much more than that to him, it is his only link to human affection. And the only way that he can engage it is to pick its pocket.

So he goes out on the streets to use his skills. It’s an original method to pick up a girl: pick her pocket. But when you’re this good looking, even the cheesiest pickup lines will work. And he knew how to choose: the only language that he knows is the language of deception, and like hearing your native language across a crowded room, he has found his kindred spirit. He cannot stop himself from stealing and now he has no reason to stop. He gets her hooked little by little. When he feels the pockets of the dummy in the closet, as she, in a cutaway scene, feels her face and body in the clothing she has stolen, their kinship becomes clear. The film is more a play of body language than of dialog, and for the most part, the skill and physicality of these two fine young actors makes it work. When their lips graze as he teaches her to lift wallets, perhaps that’s laying it on a bit thick, but no matter, it’s good theater, and entertaining choreography.

Much film time is spent on these shadow play scenes, and while they are beautifully directed, it seems that they may have come at the expense of some needed storytelling. Alex’s quest for his mother could use more space to spread out. It seems that the dummy is also a link to his mother’s affection, and his search for her is an underlying obsession that moves the story toward an inevitable tragedy. However, the integration of this with his Sara story is a bit awkward, so that when he does find his mother, we have to remind ourselves what the connection is. She is a prostitute, and the experience gives Alex hesitation, which happens to be the kiss of death for any pick-pocket’s career. When he realizes what is happening, Alex crudely snatches a woman’s purse to fill his need, but he gets no high from this, and he goes on a self destructive binge. The plot points are a bit too formulaic to be effective, but here Ballesta saves the day, giving his character just enough expressiveness to make it real.

The sequences are dreamlike, the music smooth and ethereal, giving this moody film a feeling of narcotic tragedy. The actions play out at night or in darkened interiors, as though we are seeing vampires, and indeed when Alex finally does leave traces of blood we finally see his humanity. He breaks into Sara’s house and when he enters her bedroom there is no need for words, the seduction and the violation are one.

It’s a story of seduction, addiction, and entrapment. Now she is following him, just as he followed her, and just as he had followed his mother. But it’s not the same, they have been touched by love and that has spoiled everything.

Juan Jose Ballesta has been playing this type of character in films for several years now, and he has refined his performance to a impressive realism. Both he and Valverde are very convincing and subtle actors. The story is an imperfect parable, but movingly played, making the easily seduced in the audience, myself included, forget about the otherwise annoying gaps and borderline clichés.

See Also: 7 Virgins.

May 31, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The crime and the grime: former-Yugoslav filmmakers explore the dark.

A look at recent trends in filmmaking in this Balkan region.

Where is filmmaking going in the ex Yugoslavian region now, after the fall of communism and a lost decade of war? Filmmakers from different republics have struck out on their own, but move on parallel paths, and when it comes to screenplays about life in the twenty first century, there are some common threads. Keeping track of these threads is perhaps the best reason to attend the Sarajevo Film Festival when all the national productions display their best work.

click here to see the trailer

click here to see the trailer

Perhaps the films with the most potential for international success are the ambitious film noir features which have been produced in Serbia in recent years. These are character driven films in which people move relentlessly forward in their lives with a dynamic destructiveness that leads them right to the edge. Klopka, (The Trap), directed by Srdan Golubovic, is a masterful story of two parents’ attempt to pay for their child’s operation. Nebojsa Glogovac plays the tormented father. This was followed a year later in 2008 by The Fourth Man, directed by Dejan Zecevic, with a very similar feel, and a story that is perhaps even more riveting. Here, a man with amnesia finds himself manipulated by characters he cannot understand, predict or trust. Nikola Kojo and Marija Karan are outstanding in their roles. In these productions, the directors have taken advantage of the wealth of filmmaking talent and professional actors at their disposal in order to create films worthy of international recognition.

the trailer

the 4th Man trailer

Another urban genre that comes from Serbia uses far simpler contexts, but to surprising effect. The power is in their simplicity: they speak to people who are already familiar with this region using a symbolic shorthand that has an immediate impact. These are stories about the people who inhabit the Orwellian apartment blocks and grey crumbling neighborhoods of Belgrade, gritty, dangerous places. The scenes are peopled by an ensemble cast that depicts a social network that is still intact, but with absolutely no ability to support its members. These characters are not individuals, but members of a community in which the connections have all gone rotten. Unlike in the noir films, there are no “ticking clocks” in the plots, and that is precisely what makes them so disturbing: the sense that nothing changes, that there is only despair or hope, pick your choice.

If hope very rarely wins out in the end, it is only natural. In this world, people take out their frustrations and bitterness on each other, teenagers grow up violent and parents sometimes drink themselves into oblivion. This could be a relentlessly dismal landscape for a film, yet the stories succeed because they manage to make their characters’ tenderness and love of life show through. In 2006 there was Tomorrow Morning, directed by Oleg Novkovic, a film as moving and gut wrenching as Serbian head banger rock music. A young man has returned from abroad to spend a few days with his family and friends, and the inevitable confrontations reopen all the old wounds, one by one. Here again, the performances are the key to the film’s significance. Everyone is nuanced and complex, especially the two women, Nada Sargin and Danica Ristovski, who are beautiful sirens in their nihilism and subversiveness. The story shows these characters wearing their emotions on their sleeves, shouting their angst to the rooftops. The screenplay does not attempt to get too deep into their psyches, but that is okay, as this is twenty-something alienation, inarticulate and hinting at further development down the road. It is a theme that is taken up again in 2007 in the film Huddersfield, directed by Ivan Zivkovic.

Love trailer

Love trailer

Love & Other Crimes, gives the genre that further development, placing an older cast and setting a finely polished script. This 2008 film was directed by Stefan Arsenijevic and, not surprisingly, co-written with Srdjan Koljevic, of Klopka. It is a smoothly developed story of a group of marginalized people, somewhat more cynical, who live in a dehumanizing Belgrade apartment complex. Two rival neighborhood racket gangs extort protection money from neighborhood kiosk owners. They co-exist fine, until they are faced with the intractable problem of one kiosk that has been planted right on the boundary line between their turfs. The boss’ enforcer, played by Vuc Kostic, is in love with the boss’ girlfriend. Knowing that she plans to steal the boss’s money that evening and escape this dead end neighborhood forever, he attempt to woo her by bringing her around to see his personal world within their impersonal neighborhood. He shows her the spot where they first met, the roof, the neighborhood video store run by a mutual friend, his apartment, where his mother dreams pathetically about her career as a cabaret singer. It is the force of these cameo performances that really gives the film life, the lady in the kiosk who finally puts away her bitterness and accepts the makeup she is offered, the boss’s teenage daughter who toys with the idea of suicide, even the ditzy receptionist at the boss’s phony solarium business manages to imbue her barely speaking part with life and humor. Both Kostic and Anica Dobra, as the boss’ girlfriend, are excellent in their roles, giving these hard edge characters an extraordinary humanity and strength.

Themes of struggle against the unjust forces of society are not exclusively Serbian, though. Films like Tomorrow Morning or Love and Other Crimes are being made all over this region of the Balkans, where a promise for the future had hardly been fully articulated, before it was ruthlessly trashed by the forces of reality. These depressing scenes could be coming from Sarajevo, Zagreb or Skopje as well. But somehow, the same themes tend to look different from those places. It will be interesting to compare two new films with very similar concepts, following the lives of young urban hooligans, which will be released this year, one from Croatia and one from Serbia. Metastases, (Metastaze), directed by Branko Schmidt, is a hard hitting, visually brutal look at youths in Zagreb who are lost in a world of criminal gangs and drug abuse. It is scheduled for release in Croatia in July, 2009. The Serbian film with a similar

Skinning trailer

Skinning trailer

setting, is Skinning, (Sisanje), directed by Stefan Filipovic, which will open later in the year. This film focuses on the transformation of one young man, from math nerd to skinhead, as he is sucked into the overwhelming world of criminality that surrounds him in his working class Belgrade neighborhood

The Bosnian film It’s Hard to be Nice, directed by Srdjan Vuletic, looks at the postwar emotional landscape of Sarajevo, where a collective post traumatic stress disorder has taken hold and defined the normal relations between people. The main character, Fudo, and his friends treat each other with utter contempt, cheating and violently confronting each other at the slightest offense. This is not such a claustrophobic world as Belgrade, though. The outside world exists, but it is equally cruel and treated with equal hostility. Foreign tourists gaze at the ruined city indifferently and local robbers scan the home addresses of foreigners on extended stay in Sarajevo, targeting their apartments in Germany and Holland for burglary by accomplices. Fudo wants to be at peace with the world, but that’s not so easy, when he is being beaten down by the people and circumstance around him. Almost at the breaking point, in the final scenes he stands bloody and enraged, and stares into the eyes of a young child, deciding what to do. Sasa Petrovic won the best actor award in Sarajevo in 2007 for his role as Fudo. This is not surprising, considering this is just the type of role that goes over especially well at Sarajevo. Daria Lorenci also does well as his wife Azra. The story has been told before, but here the conflict is on-going and essentially unresolved in the end. This also works well in Bosnia, because it reflects the reality of this republic where an uncertain and unreal peace fails to totally mask the wounds. Whether those wounds are healing or festering is still anyone’s guess, and this provides the inherent tension of the film. Bosnian audiences respond positively to a story like this, because the open end suggests the possibility that this torn nation will heal through sheer force of reason. I wonder if Serbian audiences would accept such optimism for their own stories.

Another well-known film of this past year is the Macedonian I am from Titov Veles, by Teona

Titov Veles clip

Titov Veles clip

Mitevska, about three sisters in a small industrial city who dream of escaping from the polluted, haunted place they inhabit. But this is quite different from the films described above, in that these women are outsiders in their own world. They are the daughters of refugees, and they seem to maintain a real distance from their neighbors. Their isolation is one of the main themes of the story. this is the opposite of the characters in the Belgrade stories, where everyone is overwhelmed by their connectedness, feeling trapped by social responsibilities and the demands of family and friends. In Kino Lika, Croatian director Dalibor Matanic takes a similar approach to Mitevska, by telling a story against the backdrop of mountains, sky and village life. In these two films, the viewer gets the feeling that the answers lie somewhere in the forgotten traditions, in the wisdom of the ancestors.

At Sarajevo, 2008, the Slovenian film, We’ve never been to Venice, directed by Blaz Kutin, premiered. This film about parents dealing with the death of their young child, looked at alienation from a completely different angle, a withdrawal from the world into a mental prison of self-recrimination and silent despair. The lonely struggle of this couple is in some way similar to the ambitious father in the Croatian film Armin, directed by Ognjen Svilicic, and shown in 2007.

Each of the former republics has its own unique perspective and idiosyncratic problems, and each one can create a slightly different art. When they come together as equals, at Sarajevo in August, they are worth so much more than their parts. They create a stereoscopic view of their cultures. The guns have long fallen silent, and Serbians, Macedonians, Slovenians and Bosnians can give expression to their arts again, now for the first time in a century, as distinct cultures. But not everything will be easy, the international borders that have gone up on the region’s roadways, have gone up in people’s minds as well. The Sarajevo Film Festival, which takes place every August, gives filmmakers from across the region the chance to jump those boundaries, and to get together again, as people from distinct cultures, but sharing in a common aesthetic, a common history and similar problems.

Serbian cinema on Wikipedia

Serbian Film Commission

May 15, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , | 1 Comment

While Rachel’s getting married, Anne Hathaway is running away with the film.

Thessaloniki FF

Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme, is a convincing melodrama about a family in a constant state of rebuilding and self destruction. The film has a first-feature-film quality about it, at times like a high quality home movie, at times self indulgent like a European film d’auteur and these conceits can detract from the whole. However, the stellar performance by Anne Hathaway carries the story along, and is the unrelenting focus of this work. This is a familiar premise: a far flung family comes together for the wedding of the good daughter, Rachel, all the time fearing the return of the black sheep. The latter is played by Anne Hathaway. She is Kym Buchman who has been released from rehab just in time to come home to a house bustling with happy prenuptial activity – just the kind of activity guaranteed to bring out the self-destructive and resentful instincts of the girl. Hathaway plays the character with demonic energy and spot on accuracy, sending shivers of recognition through the viewer with her first utterances. We have all known people like Kym Buchman, but if we are not related to them, we tend to push them out of our consciousness as quickly as possible. Here we are forced to look Kym in the face, hear her words and

Click image for video clip and interview

Click image for video clip and interview

understand her anguish. It is one of the great powers of cinema to make us do this, and Demme uses his skills and long years of experience to bring it out so effortlessly, in the service of an intelligent and intense script by Jenny Lumet. The film has its problems which inevitably detract from the effect. There are times that the cinema verité quality can be overbearing, the arrival at home by Kym in which the camera flows nervously from room to room becomes tiresome, as does an extended sequence later in the film centered around a dishwasher. What I found most distracting, however, were the cultural implications of what was going on. This was a film about a marriage, one of the most characteristic events in the sociological construct of a culture. Whole books of anthropology have been written about the marriage customs of various peoples around the world, because the rituals reveal so much about the relationship of individuals in the group. To be sure, there are scenes in this film where marriage customs are used to bring the story forward, for example, some toasts at the dinner table, and when Kym fights to be Maid of Honor, but in general, the marriage rituals depicted in this film are strangely alien and difficult to decipher. This is a family that is ruthlessly and maniacally multi-cultural: the bride, played masterfully by Rosemarie DeWitt, is white and blonde, the groom a dark skinned black man from Hawaii. The dresses for the bride and bridesmaids are saris, and the ceremonies are a mad pastiche of borrowed customs thrown together incoherently, including just about anything that could be dreamed up except the upper middle class Judeo-Christian rituals that one might expect. This obsessive foreignness in itself seemed to be of significance, implying some kind of self-denial, some fleeing from the self that this family is enacting, yet the strangeness of this wedding is never discussed, and is presented as though completely normal. It is as though one of the guests at the wedding had arrived dressed as Napoleon, and nobody even noticed. What’s more, the situation seemed forced at times. At one point it is revealed the bride, Kym’s absolutely-perfect older sister, is already pregnant. When this news comes out, her father breaks into immediate gleeful cheering, and rushes to embrace his daughter and prospective son-in-law, i.e., the black man whom he has just met that has knocked up his daughter. It just doesn’t ring true. These oddities seem to be a missed opportunity to give the family more depth and nuance. Yes, we just elected Obama as president, but we haven’t gotten to the Promised Land just yet, and Mr. Buchman could have at least stepped back a moment to reassess the situation. Other characterizations are also left to wither on the vine. Kym’s new love interest, the Best Man Kieran, played by Mather Zickel, is never developed satisfactorally. However, the most important element in the story is Anne Hathaway’s character, and this person is presented with great skill and nuance. I left the cinema wondering about the implications of her actions on the family, and that is a testiment to the efficacy of this performance.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , | Leave a comment

I am from Titov Veles: Special mention at Sarajevo

The Macedonian film, I am from Titov Veles won the Special Jury Award at the 2007 Sarajevo Film Festival. Special is just the right word for this movie, the latest from Teona Mitevska.
Perhaps the jury has a soft spot for this film, which was a SFF CineLink project in 2004, but there is no doubt that it is a special film. Teona Mitevska tells the story of three sisters who live together in a struggling post-industrial town in Macedonia. As the rest of the townsfolk get on more or less successfully with their lives, the three sisters are haunted and crippled by the past: their broken family history, and the physical and psychological damage caused by pollution, sexual promiscuity and drug addiction. The focus is on the youngest sister, Afrodita, who refuses to speak and lives in a dream world of desires and fantasies. She knows these things are unreal, but she is unable to live without them.
The film itself is at times dreamlike, surrealistic and poetic and at other times, brutally naked. This type of imagery may not appeal to all audiences, but it is well done and gives the film its unique quality. However, in my opinion, it is something else which makes this film special: the relationship between the sisters and their interaction with others. Teona Mitevska knows about family relationships, her production company is headed by herself and her two siblings, and she puts a lot of personal knowledge into this story. Morevoer, her sister, the very accomplished actress, Labina Mitevska, plays the lead role, successfully channeling Teona’s unique style of storytelling.
At the awards ceremony on Saturday evening, August 25, Teona played her “special” role to the hilt, floating onstage in her floorlength gown, she gave an emotional speech in which she tried to explain her personal vision of cinema, But no explanation was necessary, since the film speaks for itself. Labina and her brother were there, the multitalented trio not disappointing, as they took the limelight with their idiosyncratic wardrobe and creative spirit. Special is precisely the right word for them, and for this film.
I am from Titov Veles. 2006, Macedonia. Written and directed by Teona Strugar Mitevska.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | 1 Comment

7 Virgins. When Ballesta poses and pouts

Sarajevo FF, 2007. A film review.
It’s a drama, it’s a slick flick, and it’s “pretty-bad.” When does a non-judgmental style simply become exploitation? That’s a question still to be answered. The only sure thing is that this seductive Spanish film will successfully separate teenagers from the price of admission in their wallets.
Seven Virgins is a seductively cinematic story that is tragic on several levels. Tano, played by Juan José Ballesta, is a teenage boy who is serving time in a reform school. He comes out on a 48 hour pass in order to attend his brother’s wedding. We are instantly charmed by his youthful vigor, (Ballesta was born in 1987!) but forewarned by Tano’s coldness to the brother who has come to pick him up at the institution. We are then treated to the sight of him stealing money from his grandmother nearly as soon as he walks in the door. During the following two days, we see him fall back in with his casually delinquent friends. The relationships that he has are heartbreakingly dysfunctional. Among his friends the only allowable shows of affection are the play of insults. This game of dissing is fairly normal among macho characters, but these characters don’t know when to stop, they lovingly insult each other to the point of provoking violence. On top of that, they steal from each other, and recklessly put each other into danger. They all clearly care about each other, but are prevented from showing it by the macho rules they live by. The only affection Tano can publicly show is for the dead, the people that he has killed in a car accident, and even there, one has to wonder if he is sorry for the dead or for the fact that he is now serving the sentence.

His relationship with his girlfriend is nothing more than carnal, a situation she finds nearly unbearable, and when he gives her a gold chain that he has obviously stolen from a friend, this is the last straw, and she leaves him. At first he finds it impossible to speak to his brother about his brother’s hesitations about marriage, but then he does eventually reach out to his brother, and helps to make the wedding a success. Presumably, this is supposed to represent some kind of personal growth on Tano’s part, but it is peanuts, in the context of everything else that occurs.
The film is very entertaining, in an irresponsible and exploitative way. That, to my mind, is the saddest part of all. Teenage rebelliousness has existed forever, but the nihilism depicted here is something more disturbing. It is the dislocation of a society

Juan Jose Ballesta in a poster

Juan Jose Ballesta in a poster

moving headlong into a new century, when Grandma still lives in a peasant world of superstition, while the teen is living in a world of drugs and petty theft at the shopping mall. Yet, we are never asked to reflect on this social schizophrenia in any meaningful way during the film, we are just invited to enjoy watching the teens have sex and play their deadly pranks as though it were all a big joke. To my mind, this is cruel treatment of the characters and careless irresponsibility toward the young audience. The film does serve as a fine vehicle for the young star, Juan José Ballesta, as he performs in ever more complex roles. (check out his excellent performance in Ladrones, (Thieves) in 2007 to see his professional growth). Indeed, this stardust connection may be the only thing keeping “7 Virgins” from speedy obscurity.

What are the ethical responsibilities of a filmmaker that presents such drowning, amoral characters as sexy role models for the young people of his country? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that we don’t discuss this enough. Perhaps the filmmaker would claim that he does not mean for these characters to be role models, and that his audience will be sophisticated enough to perceive the underlying sadness of these boys, but I would not be convinced and I think the film’s official website proves otherwise. I don’t think we should allow filmmakers to get away with such disingenuous cop-outs. To be fair, there is some attempt to depict the inevitable consequences for the boys’ actions, both for them and for their victims, but it is overwhelmed by the unreasonably sympathetic characterizations and fawning rationales for their irresponsibility.
The film was presented in the “TeenArena” section of the Sarajevo Film Festival, films devoted to teenage viewers. The promotional copy ends with the observation that “Tano’s leave turns out to be a journey into maturity.” This is surprising, as it suggests that we are to consider Tano’s irresponsible actions at the end of the film to represent some kind of maturity. I think Spain’s future deserves something better than that, as do the boys in the film, who are the biggest victims of their own predicaments. The acting was excellent, and in fact, the main actors have won awards in Spain for their performances, but this movie, probably the most professionally filmed and commercially viable in the category, did not manage to seduce the young jury and audiences who judged the TeenArena. It was passed over for the Best Teen Film award, which was won by “This is England,” directed by Shane Meadows.
7 Virgins. 2005, Spain. Directed by Alberto Rodriquez, written by Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos, and produced by José Antonio Félez.
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May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment