This was the first film I saw in Glasgow and a great way to start my festival viewing – with an intelligent and taut Italian crime film. Anime nere focuses on the ‘ndrangheta, the criminal families of Calabria in the deep south of Italy. The film begins on the waterfront in Amsterdam (which is not identified) where Luigi, one of three Carbone brothers is negotiating a major drugs deal with a Spanish group. Back on a mountain top near the Calabrian village of Africo, Luigi’s nephew Leo is fed up with his father Luciano who has opted out of crime to concentrate on the farm and his goats. Leo decides to head off on the long train journey north to Milan where he meets up with Luigi and the third brother, Rocco, the ‘accountant’ in the criminal business.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative turns out to be the hot-headed Leo’s piece of minor vandalism carried out in his home village. It soon becomes clear that the Carbone’s rivals have just been looking for an excuse and a full-blown turf war is about to break out.
But it doesn’t – or at least not in the way that might be expected. This is more gangster as art film than gangster as The Godfather. Francesco Munzi’s film, based on a novel by Gioacchino Criaco is quite slow and it is deadly serious. Anyone who is a fan of the Italian TV crime series Inspector Montalbano will find this film both familiar but also disturbing. The connection is first via the actor who plays Rocco – Peppino Mazzotta – and who also plays Fazio, the Inspector’s ‘go to’ Lieutenant. But it’s also in the depiction of the desolate farms and abandoned villages of Sicily and Calabria. In the TV series it is played with some humour, but not here. There are several subtexts about the rural South and the sophisticated North and about the power of family ties and codes of honour – which of course are increasingly out of place in the global crime business.
The film doesn’t end as you might expect and throughout the violence is minimal with the worst bits off screen. But the tension is great throughout and you always expect something to happen. Vertigo are listed as UK distributors so I hope this gets into cinemas. Highly recommended if you are a fan of the European crime film – but give it a miss if you just like gunfights and sharp suits.
Titli is another important film in the gradual emergence of an ‘Independent Indian Cinema’. It represented the new strain of Indian cinema at Cannes this year and is still waiting for a release in India after festival screenings around the world. I was excited to see the film at the Leeds Festival – but disappointed in my quick scan of the audience around me by the absence of the local South Asian audience. We struggle to see Indian independents in UK cinemas and often they appear fleetingly in arthouse rather than multiplex cinemas. Titli is a debut (fiction feature) directorial outing for Kanu Behl, a graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film Institute in Kolkata. He himself is Punjabi and in the 1990s he grew up in Delhi with his parents – both actors, writers and directors. In 2007 he began an association with film festival workshops and Titli has been developed as part of a NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) Screenwriters’ Laboratory. Behl worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky!, Lucky Oye! in 2008 and Banerjee is the producer on Titli, making the film the first part of a partnership between his own production company and the mainstream production house Yash Raj Films – best known for Bollywood spectaculars. Banerjee is one of the leading figures in ‘Independent Hindi Cinema’ and took his place alongside Anurag Kashyap as a director on the compendium film project Bombay Talkies.
‘Titli’ means ‘Butterfly’ in Hindi and as a name for the lead character in the film, the youngest of three brothers, it is one of the reasons why he is teased and treated as naive. But Titli has plans to escape his all male family in a Delhi colony. While his elderly father (played by the director’s father) stays in the background, his two older brothers run a racket based on violent car-jackings in conjunction with a corrupt local police chief. Played by newcomer Shashank Arora, Titli is physically weaker, but, we suspect, a little brighter, than his brothers. The eldest brother Vikram, played by Ranvir Shorey (a comic actor in the other performances I’ve seen) is a terrifying brute here with the actor having piled on extra flab. Titli wants to escape and the rest of the family want enough capital to start a legitimate ‘cover’ business. But when the latest car-jacking goes wrong, losing everyone’s cash, Titli is chosen to be the means of recovery – by marrying him off to a young woman who could also be used in the family ‘business’. But the chosen bride (a suspiciously pretty young woman from a seemingly more established family) has plans of her own and she and Titli share a desire to escape. That’s enough spoilers. The script is well thought through and with good performances all round and lively camerawork, Titli is very successful. I’ve seen festival reviews which refer to violence ‘off-screen’ but I found that what was ‘on-screen’ was quite violent enough. I think that the preferred term for characters like Vikram is ‘a goon’ and he uses a hammer as a weapon of choice. This kind of violence is mainstream in India so I clench my teeth and sometimes close my eyes.
I want to recommend Omar’s review of the film on his new blog at Movie Mahal. He suggests that Titli marries the crime film and the traditional Hindi family melodrama – but of course here removes the mother figure. The new wife comes into an entirely masculine home (which production designers made even more claustrophobic by altering the rooms in the ‘on location’ dwelling). The second woman who exerts some external control over the family is Vikram’s divorced wife who demands her dues and causes further financial pressure. As well as this mixing of genres, Omar also notes the possible mixing of filming styles with elements of neo-realism feeding into the action sequences. I’ve seen references to improvised dialogue for many scenes and also the suggestion that the film was shot on 16mm to achieve a grittier feel. Neo-realism does move a narrative forward on the basis of simple but devastating problems associated with lack of money but what is important in Titli is perhaps that Titli the character is something of a fantasist/dreamer and that he has to recognise that he needs to become more realistic in his ambitions. His fantasies are based on the latest scam to involve India’s urban growth – the control of parking franchises in the new tower blocks seemingly rising everywhere in Delhi.
Films like Titli are conventional in the Western sense, i.e. they are recognisable as generic mixes which don’t utilise the specific conventions of the Bollywood (or Tamil/Telugu) masala film. There are no dance routines or ‘item girls’ but otherwise they are associated with the mainstream. I hope that the UK distribution arms of Yash Raj, Studio 18, UTV and Eros can get them into UK cinemas on a more consistent basis.
There is no reason why Blood Ties shouldn’t make perfect sense. The crime film or polar is a popular form in France and one of its principal features is an interest in American culture. Many polars have been based on hardboiled American pulp fiction, published in France alongside the French variety in ‘Serie Noire’ novels. French films – and indeed French crime fiction novels – have been re-imagined for the US market by Hollywood filmmakers and there is a history of French directors going to North America to make films in both French and English. The most recent high profile examples include the first of the Mesrine films about the French gangster (set mostly in Canada) and Bertrand Tavernier’s problematic production of the James Burke adaptation, In the Electric Mist (US 2009). (Blood Ties reminds me of Mesrine.) Why then does Blood Ties feel so odd? It might be because I’d read one negative review by Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and I was unconsciously looking for faults. But I kicked myself after the screening when I realised that this project of the actor-director Guillaume Canet was actually a re-make of the French film Les liens du sang (2008) which I’d not only seen but also written about. Doh!
The original film, based on a novel, Deux freres, un flic, un truand by Bruno and Michel Papet was based in Lyons in the early 1970s. That film was directed by Jacques Maillot and starred François Cluzet and Canet as the two brothers of the title, one a cop (Canet) and one a criminal (Cluzet). Canet and Cluzet had previously worked together on the very successful Tell No One (France 2006) based on a Harlan Coben novel. Canet decided on the remake to be made in English with the same story but set in New York in 1974. However this would still be a mainly French production. The main American creative input came from the writer-director James Gray, a friend of Canet, who was hired to co-write the script. Canet is clearly interested in American culture – and American popular music – so an English language film in America is not surprising. But why go for a period shoot with the resultant expense? IMDB suggests a budget of $25.5 million which is nearly up to Hollywood levels for this type of production. I suspect it was only viable because of the interest from various French TV channels. I can only assume that Canet wanted to get the feel of those New York policiers of the 1970s such as Serpico (1973). Certainly he searches for locations carefully. One film I was reminded of was Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, not a 1970s movie (it was made in 1997) but an evocation of the era.
The main problem in the film is the casting of Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as the criminal and the cop. They have no fraternal resemblance at all (nor to their father played by James Caan). Crudup looks like a perfect 1970s stereotype with a trim moustache and shaggy hair, whereas Owen looks like a leftover rocker from Coventry complete with leather jacket and tattoos. But the real problem is when they open their mouths. I’m no expert on New York accents but several critics have fingered Crudup for missing the mark. I don’t need any help to know that Clive Owen slides about all over the place. Now this isn’t to suggest that either actor puts in a bad performance. In fact they are both very good and after the first 30 minutes or so I began to enjoy the film quite a lot. My comment is really about Canet and his producers not having the nous to consider casting and script together. I suspect that Canet just doesn’t have the ‘ear’ for the nuances of English. That may be unfair, but something is amiss. Marion Cotillard (Canet’s partner) is cast as an Italian (I think that is right, but she might be Spanish – Monica seems the wrong name in any case) and her co-star from Rust and Bone, Matthias Schoenaerts plays the real bad guy in the narrative – with as far as I could hear, a very acceptable accent. (I should explain that ‘bad guy’ is a plot statement – the ‘good guys’ are actually horrific in terms of wiping out any opposition.) This is an excellent cast, with the further addition of Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, Noah Emmerich and a rather wasted Lili Taylor.
The idea of two brothers on different sides of the law is a familiar trope of crime films from the Hollywood studio era and from the polar. What is more unusual is the time devoted to the relationship between brothers and general family and police team background. The film has been criticised in North America because there is less ‘action’ and more melodrama and the action is supposedly not well choreographed or doesn’t use the correct CGI. It looked fine to me but my gripe would be that given potentially important roles for the four women in the cast, only Marion Cotillard really gets the chance to shine.
So, not perfect by any means but better than most Hollywood crime films of the same type and very much better than American Hustle in recreating the 1970s. It will probably disappear after the first week and come out on DVD pretty quickly, but if it comes to a screen near you it’s worth 125 minutes of your time.
The US trailer:
Le guetteur is a ‘polar‘ or crime film (see Roy’s post on the French polar). The benefit of this term is that it covers all varieties and sub-genres of crime films, eg, police procedural, gangster film, noir, heist film, etc). It has long been one of the staples of the French film industry and, as Roy’s piece argues, they do it pretty well. How does The Lookout stack up against this rich tradition? Well, fair to middling. The cast is mainly French but it is directed by an Italian, Michele Placido (I’m only familiar with his 2005 film, Romanzo Criminale (2005), which shows at least that he can handle action sequences pretty well).
Although a good translation of the word ‘guetteur‘, ‘lookout’ is a bit misleading, suggesting a fairly passive role. In fact, the lookout in question is a ruthless, highly skilled and enterprising criminal. The opening scene takes a typical bank heist gone wrong, and then gives it a fresh twist. Chief Inspector Mattei has received a tip-off that a major heist that is set to go down in Paris and assembles a large team of armed police. However, the police operation is disrupted when a sniper, who is perched some distance away on a rooftop, opens fire on the squad of arresting officers, killing and badly wounding several of them. Mattei’s connections lead him to discover that he is a former soldier and is high on Interpol’s wanted list but there is also a hint of undercover work for the French security services which might make it more difficult to track him down. But Mattei does discover his identity, Kaminski, the heist being shown in flashback as the film actually begins with Mattei interrogating a prisoner in custody. Kaminski refuses at first to answer Mattei’s questions, holding his gaze impassively, but eventually he asks to see his lawyer (with whom he has had a relationship in the past and who is willing to renege on her professional scruples to help her ex for whom she still holds a candle). The fact that Kaminski is played by the co-star and is in custody early in the first act (the film does seem to follow a three-act structure) suggests that he won’t be inside for long. In the initial heist, one of the robbers is badly wounded and (a nod to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and many other examples of the genre) must be attended by a defrocked doctor. Usually in the genre, this is a minor character but in The Lookout the doctor, Franck, at first a marginal character, turns out to be by far the nastiest criminal in the film and who takes the narrative in the direction of misogynistic horror.
One of film’s main strengths is the terrific set pieces like the one described above which lasts about seven minutes (and another one which ends the film) which rival Heat which it also resembles in terms of plot in the way that it is structured around a central conflict between the leading cop and the leading criminal. In the second act, Mattei is marginalised as the focus of the plot shifts to the criminals falling out with each other and here the screenplay (by Denis Brusseaux and Cédric Melon) seems to have an attention deficit disorder. It wants to do too much and the film becomes overwhelmed for a while. The number of characters – including the thieves, Kaminski’s lawyer, prisoners on detention, a (slightly stereotypical) gypsy, the hard-nosed wife of the wounded gangster – means that there are too many sub-plots (of short duration) and obfuscate the film’s central conflict between Mattei and Kaminski. There is a late-stage revelation (no spoilers) which functions to complicate the backstory between the two key conflicted protagonists which I thought worked quite well.
Casting is one of the film’s strengths, Mattei being played by Daniel Auteuil. He can sometimes seem as if he plays each role in the same register, that of angst-ridden gruffness (except when he plays parts requiring him to speak in his native Southern accent such as in Jean de Florette Jean de Florette or The Well-Digger’s Daughter/Le Puisatier), or even in comedies like Le Placard. But it’s a register he does better than any of his contemporaries. Mathieu Kassovitz, whose career alternates between directing (La haine/Hatred (1995) is his best-known film) and acting, shows that he can hold his own as a downbeat action star.
The creepy Franck is played by Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet whom I have seen mainly as a regular of the Dardenne Brothers (such as Le Fils/The Son in 2002) but he is beginning to have prominent parts in French films and played the leading role in L’exercice de l’État/The Minister (2011). The director has a brief cameo as garage owner with a sideline in supplying crooked passports to the criminal underworld and Fanny Ardant, one of the leading French actors of the last 35 years (she played, for example, in Truffaut’s La femme d’à côté/The Woman Next Door in 1979 and Marion Vernoux’s Les beaux jours/Better Days Ahead this year – who says women over 60 don’t get sexy roles!), has an even briefer one with about 20 seconds of screen time. I wasn’t sure if it was her as the part is uncredited but imdb.com confirms her presence.
Here’s a trailer (no English subs):