Bacurau is released in the UK on Friday and is likely to make quite a splash. It’s a long film (130 mins) and has an 18 Certificate in the UK. This is primarily for the spectacularly violent killings. It’s a difficult film to classify but a film that seems remarkable timely, especially in the context of Brazilian politics. The film’s opening suggests that the narrative is set ‘a few years in the future’ but the only obvious reference to this is the decision to present a contemporary piece of technology modelled as something that might have appeared in a 1950s science fiction movie. Everything else could be happening now – and some of it probably is.
Teresa (Bárbara Colen) is heading back to her village in the sertão (the Brazilian ‘bush’ or ‘outback’) in the North East of the country, hitching a ride on a water wagon. The area’s water supply has been cut off. Teresa is returning for the funeral and wake of Carmelita, her grandmother who has died at 94 as the matriarch of the (fictional) village of Bacurau. When she arrives she pops a pill, a traditional psychotropic drug taken in the village on specific occasions. The proceedings of the wake are interrupted by a drunken Domingas (played by the veteran Brazilian star Sonia Braga), the local doctor and presumably a rival for Teresa’s grandmother. Perhaps more significantly, a visit by the local politician ‘Tony Jr.’ is met with derision. The village leaders do however take his ‘bribes’ of out of date food and distribute them. This feels like a village which is isolated and possibly under siege. It suddenly ‘disappears’ off Google Earth and then the first killings of local farmers are discovered.
Bacurau won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019 and its writing and directing duo, Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, have themselves hinted at their main genre inspiration, the Western. They have fashioned a film which presents a region of Brazil in new ways and makes reference to Brazilian history and culture and to periods of American domination of Latin America. It also reminds us of the films of Glauber Rocha such as Black God, White Devil (1964) and Antonio das Mortes (1969), both Cinema Novo Westerns set in the sertão. Many of the references will only be accessible to some Brazilian audiences. The film’s title, the name of the village, for instance is the name of
a nocturnal bird with excellent camouflage when it’s on a branch . . . it evokes the mystery of something that is there, in the darkness, alive but unseen, and that will only be noticed if it wants to be. The same is true of Bacurau the town: it is familiar with darkness; it knows how to lay low; in fact it prefers not to be noticed. (The directors quoted in the Press Notes).
But for some reason this multiracial village, with a collectivist attitude towards helping each other, is now under threat. Where does the threat come from? Who is behind the killings? Is it Tony Jr.? Who is the English-speaking German (Udo Kier) who seems to be the ‘contract killer’ leading the attacks? My viewing companions both agreed that the battle that takes up the second half of the film is reminiscent of ‘spaghetti westerns’. It seemed to me that some scenes were modelled on Seven Samurai or it’s Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven – except that the numbers are reversed, so a small group of heavily armed foreigners takes on a larger group of villagers. The directors also show their hand with the choice of music score which includes the memorable music devised by John Carpenter for his early breakthrough, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), another famous siege movie. It’s difficult to analyse other aspects of the production when the action is so tense but my impression was of long takes and long shots. The directors speak of miles of tracks laid down to enable a mobile camera. One thing I did notice which refers back to Seven Samurai was the use of Kurosawa style wipes, used here with the CinemaScope framing more associated with Leone. (Well done Simran Hans in the Observer for reminding me.)
It’s not difficult to link the film’s main ideas to contemporary politics with Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing President who came to power on 1st January 2019 (when shooting would have been completed) and who represents the opposite of everything that the villagers celebrate. The power of the film is to oppose the threats of politicians like Bolsonaro by reference to traditional modes of resistance. The Press Notes refer to two traditions in Brazilian culture. One is the cangaço genre which featured a form of ‘social banditry’ and was popular in 1950s and 1960s Brazilian cinema. The character of Lunga, a young man who has made his base in the disused dam embodies this kind of social bandit. The film also reflects various political divides in Brazil, including the American incursions and within Brazil the North v. South. A specific concept related to this Coronelism:
Coronelism was the political machine that dominated Brazil during the Old Republic (1889-1930), when local power was in the hands of powerful landowners, coronels, who controlled a particular area and its population’s vote. More broadly, the term applies to this model’s enduring influence in the life of the country. (from the Press Notes Interview by Tatiana Monassa)
I hope that Bacurau finds the large audience it deserves in the UK. It could be a worthy successor to Parasite in attracting audiences to films with subtitles and which explore the basic inequalities of contemporary life. And, unlike Les misérables, it has several important roles for women.
One of the magazines freely available at GFF is The Skinny and I read an interview with Mark Cousins about his 5-part Women Make Film which screened in the last few days of the festival. Cousins points out that people who haven’t seen many films made by women often generalise that “Women makes films about relationships” or “Women make films with more empathy”. He’s right of course. This kind of generalisation is damaging and stops many films directed by women for being seen as films by directors who are great filmmakers and who can make all kinds of films. However, it’s also true that when women write and direct films they sometimes do create narratives that have a strongly gendered perspective. Agnes Joy is a ‘comic maternal melodrama’, written by Silja Hauksdóttir, Gagga Jonsdottir and Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir. It’s directed by Silja Hauksdóttir as her second cinematic feature after several years working in television. I should also point out that the story idea came from Mikael Torfason, a novelist and film writer.
Rannveig (Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir) is a woman in her forties who we first meet at a family/clan gathering where she is searching for her 19 year-old daughter who is supposed to be entertaining the party by playing the violin. But Agnes (Donna Cruz) is hungover and reluctant. Rannveig’s problems are several. As well as Agnes she has to deal with Einar (Þorsteinn Bachmann), her husband who seems no longer interested in anything except watching Netflix and a mother who has retired from running the family business and now demands her daughter’s attention. Rannveig now has to run the family business, a small distribution firm. Here, she has lost interest but finds herself at loggerheads with the staff who want to employ cheap migrant labour (unionised and un-regulated). When she visits the surgery to get some sleeping pills she is angered when she receives a lecture by the young (female) doctor about the symptoms of early menopause. When Agnes announces that she doesn’t want to go on the long-planned holiday to the Philippines it seems like the last straw.
The disruptive element in the narrative is the arrival of a new neighbour, Hreinn who comes to borrow an electrical extension cable. Iceland has a population of less than 400,000 but produces a range of films and TV programmes. The same actors appear in several projects and must be easily spotted out and about. Hreinn is played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson who appeared in all episodes of the first two series of Trapped, the crime fiction series shown internationally. Agnes Joy makes Hreinn into a jobbing actor and allows him to be recognised as in the cast of Trapped. This postmodern touch is ironic since Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir as Rannveig is also in all the episodes of Trapped, but she’s playing the owner of a business not an actor. I’m not sure how the Icelandic audience copes with this but it must be strange. Anyway, Hreinn appears looking not unlike a mid-career Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick 1987?) with stubble and a kind of tousled charm. Rannveig and Einar invite him to a barbecue and the booze flows. Mother and daughter are vulnerable.
I won’t spoil all the plotlines. As the film’s title implies, Agnes has at least equal screentime as her mother. There doesn’t seem to be any discrimination towards her as an adopted daughter. The proposed Philippines trip is the only indication as to her background. The conflict with her parents is mainly down to her wish to leave school without passing all her exams. So far, Agnes has spent most of her free time working/hanging out at a local store with her friend Skari, who doesn’t seem too adventurous. The one aspect of Agnes’s identity that is foregrounded is her body image. Agnes is a powerfully built young woman, something which the script is careful to see as a positive feature. Unlike Skari, Agnes does have ambitions, the first part of which is to get out of the small town of Akranes and eventually move to Rekyavik. Leaving school is the first step. In one scene we see her seemingly asleep in class while the teacher tries to engage his students in a close analysis of the structure and writing style of the Norse sagas. It seems like a commentary of some kind on contemporary Iceland.
Agnes Joy is a conventional narrative with some darker moments leavening the predominantly comedic tone. The script is interested primarily in Rannveig and Agnes and the men are simply narrative agents to help create the situations in which the women’s stories can be developed. Nothing is particularly surprising but the comic situations work and the overall effect is that of a crowd pleaser. I certainly enjoyed it.
Nina Hoss is a star and a very talented actor and I have enjoyed all her work with Christian Petzold. Now it seems she is keen to support the work of German women as directors and I was excited to see how The Audition, one of two films Hoss made with women in 2019, would pan out. The film was co-written and directed by Ina Weisse, an actor who has now directed three features. Her co-writer here was Daphne Charzani.
The Audition is a complex drama about music and the passion of expert performers. It’s also about tuition and pedagogy and the emotional intimacy of one on one tuition. All of this concerns Anna (Nina Hoss), a violinist who has had to abandon an orchestral career because of anxiety about her playing and who now teaches in a music school in Berlin. Anna is married to a French luthier, Philippe ( Simon Akbarian), who works beneath their apartment and she has a son, Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) who is clearly also a talented musician but as a young teenager is beginning to rebel against his mother. Finally, Anna also has a caring responsibility for her elderly father. It’s a great deal to contend with, especially when Anna takes on a new student, Alex (Ilja Monti), and when she has an offer to join a string quintet led by a fellow teacher.
Female-centred melodramas often feature the woman who has to be wife, lover, mother and daughter but here she must try and be teacher and performer as well. Nina Hoss can manage to represent all of these challenges and she is supported by the script, the ensemble of other players and the direction. Watching the film I had a real sense of just how complex and intelligent was the script and how much Nina Hoss had to express herself through posture and gesture. In an interview she revealed that she could play the piano but had to learn how to hold the violin and how to use the bow. I also thought about how much high art culture seems to be venerated in Germany and other countries of mainland Europe for its own qualities and not, as sometimes in the UK, because of social cachet. I’m not knowledgeable about classical music but I was engaged by the intracacies of the music teaching processes here. I’ve seen some reviews that mention similar American films like Whiplash. I haven’t seen that film but I did think about several European films. Two that sprung to mind were Vier Minuten (Four Minutes, Germany 2006) and La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006). Both of these films share elements about tuition and performance with The Audition, although all three titles offer different narratives. Crucially they all deal with passion related to music and tuition.
The Audition is a good example of a contemporary melodrama. The music drives the passion which in turn needs a release in Anna’s sexual behaviour but also causes an anxiety. There is a great deal happening in the narrative which is difficult to sort out and analyse after a single viewing. Anna finds herself in some form of ‘contest’ with a range of male figures – her husband, father and son, her tutee and two of her colleagues at the music school. Unusually for a female-centred melodrama she doesn’t have a close female friend and the two women she does communicate with are both in some way competitors. One intriguing aspect of the interpretation of Anna concerns the costumes that Nina Hoss wears. One reviewer refers to them as ‘matronly’ and it’s true that I did notice the lack of glamour. There also seems to be a tension between the elegance that Nina Hoss brings to any role and the awkward stances taken up by Anna on occasion. An issue with her skirt also adds to her anxiety at one moment.
In many traditional melodramas the woman who has ‘too much’ passion is ‘punished’ in some way by the resolution of the narrative – a punishment that brings her back ‘into line’. We hope that we’ve moved on from that ideological position and the resolution of the narrative in this film is much more complex. It is a very dramatic ending and it isn’t necessarily all about Anna. In one sense she triumphs but in another she fails. There are consequences for several other characters.
This is certainly one of the best dramatic narratives I’ve seen for some time and I’m still processing it. I’ve read several reviews that I don’t agree with on a range of points. It was sheer joy to watch Nina Hoss present the complex world of Anna Bronsky. The good news is that distributors New Wave have acquired the title for UK distribution but no details of a release are available yet. When it does appear I hope to be able to use it in teaching.
The clip released for Toronto below shows a short scene between husband and wife. The German trailer (no English subs) gives a better impression of the range of incidents in the film.
Song Without a Name proved quite a difficult film to engage with during the opening few scenes. The opening shot in a film presented in black and white, comprises two ghostly figure in long shot trudging up a slope through the mist. Photos of newspaper headlines and street graffiti etc. reveal the political conflict of Peru in the 1980s. We are then introduced to the central character Georgina (Pamela Mendoza), part of a group of indigenous people coming together to sing, seemingly on a street corner. Perhaps because the film was presented in Academy ratio on a screen without masking in GFT3, the projectionist had difficulty in registering the image so that we could read all of the text of the subtitles. The film was re-started and from then on, I did begin to respond to the narrative. You can see in the trailer below that often there is no sharp edge to the image. Some commentators have remarked on the ‘shadowy photography’, others suggest a reference to film noir. The director and co-writer Melina Léon says she wanted black & white Academy to suggest both the monochrome newspapers and the TV image of the 1980s. The film’s story is based on real events from the early 1980s in which the director’s father had some involvement when he was setting up a newspaper. But the film is set specifically in 1988 towards the end of the first Presidency of Alan Garcia during which the Peruvian economy was in economic crisis mode and internal security was threatened by the Maoist guerrilla actions of the Shining Path and the smaller Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).
Georgina is heavily pregnant and she and her husband Leo make a living selling potatoes in a local market. Georgina hears a radio announcement about a clinic offering free birthing procedures. When her time is due she makes her painful way by bus and on foot to the clinic in Lima where her daughter is delivered but quickly taken away from her. Later she is told to go home and return the next day to collect her baby. But by the next day the clinic has closed and moved away. In a sadly familiar sequence of encounters, Georgina and Leo (Lucio Rojas) are turned away by different government departments and sent on another pointless trip to an office where their lack of paperwork means nothing will happen. (As indigenous people they do not have IDs.) The police seem unprepared to investigate the theft of their baby. In despair, Georgina seeks to contact the press and Leo turns for support to one of the guerrilla groups.
When Georgina finally gets to see a journalist we realise we’ve seen him earlier in the film, nervously visiting a guerrilla group. Pedro (Tommy Párraga) recognises that this could be an important story and he begins to investigate with support from his boss on a major Lima paper. At this point the central narrative begins to splinter. Georgina finds other women who are supportive and she becomes more involved in music and street theatre. Pedro’s investigation begins to uncover a baby-smuggling network but also the role of the ruling class in covering up and blocking his investigation. He also has his own narrative one which makes him a potential victim as well as an investigator. This ‘unravelling’ of the central narrative and the lack of a clear resolution has been a criticism of the film from some reviewers. I can understand this but I don’t mind the ‘open ending’. Having said that, the latter stages of the narrative do take on an almost dreamlike (nightmarish?) quality. The black and white photography has also been seen as a practical decision to enable an easier representation of 1988 without too many VFX required to change contemporary Lima. Certainly the scenes of Georgina’s first home and then the shanty towns by the sea with sand dunes and footways across the landing stages offer a certain kind of marginal location. I think I may have been confused by these locations. The shacks tend to look the same. Perhaps some of the scenes towards the end of the narrative do refer to 1940s noir?
The music in the film is by Peruvian avant-garde musician Pauchi Sasaki and her website suggests:
Her music recreates intimate subjective landscapes through electro-acoustic sonorities mixed with field recordings and synthesis.
Along with the cinematography by Peruvian-Chilean Inti Briones, the music creates a distinctive ‘feel’. Briones and Sasaki, along with director Léon have experience of documentary shoots. Briones also shot Too Late to Die Young (Chile 2018). That film was not as successful on release in the UK as I expected. It shares some qualities with Song Without a Name which as yet hasn’t got a UK distributor. Together they represent a willingness by younger (under 40) directors to explore the social, political and cultural issues of Latin America in the 1980s and into the 1990s. I did find the coverage of the Shining Path and/or MRTA confusing in Song Without a Name. I’m not sure who the indigenous groups are that Georgina joins and I wasn’t sure what to make of bombings in Lima. Overall though, I found this an interesting film and a contrast to the few other Peruvian films I’ve seen. The performances by the leads are very good. After its Cannes showing, Song Without a Name has won prizes at several film festivals around the world. I hope it does get a UK release.
‘Iceland: Shining Northern Lights’ was one of GFF20’s festival strands this year with 12 titles on offer – an impressive array of films from such a small country. I managed to catch three of them, all good. This second title after Pity the Lovers, was in some ways the most familiar because it stars Ingvar Sigurdsson, the first Icelandic actor to make an impression on me with his lead in Jar City back in 2008. I was delighted to find that he was present for the screening and he proved to be an entertaining guest. In Jar City he played a rather grumpy police officer, a role he repeated (although less grumpy) in the popular TV crime fiction series Trapped (2015-19). He has 81 acting credits, including several Hollywood roles and not all of them police officers, but in A White, White Day he appears as what the synopsis refers to as an ‘off-duty police chief’ in a rural community.
The film opens with a misty wintry scene, a day when it is hard to distinguish between earth and sky. From behind we watch a car career off a remote road, through the safety barrier and crash unseen below. We are then shown a house in a rural location and through a leisurely montage of similar static shots it is renovated/re-built over time and with significant changes to doors, windows etc. and the horses in the fields around it. This turns out to be the home of Ingimundur (Sigurdsson) a widowed police officer spending his time on the house as part of the grieving process for his lost wife. Ingimundur is struggling to come to terms with his loss. He has colleagues, friends and family to support him but he seems closest to Salka, his young grand-daughter, played by the daughter of the film’s writer-director Hlynur Palmason. It is an astonishing performance by the little girl and in the Q&A Ingvar Sigurdsson was full of praise for how she helped him with his role.
This intriguing opening might be the beginning of a crime fiction but in the Press Notes, the director tells us something else:
I’ve never thought about genres, I know very little about them. I don’t think I’m that conscious about where the film is going, but for me A White, White Day was about two kinds of love. Love that you have for your children or grandchildren, which is simple, pure and unconditional and then another kind of love – a love you have for your partner, your lover, wife etc. That is something completely different, it’s more complex, intimate, animalistic and something quite unique that you don’t have with anyone else.
This statement pushes the reader into thinking about the film in a different way. I do feel that having read through the Press Notes and re-run scenes from the film in my mind’s eye, I now read it differently. I seem to have watched several films recently which all seem to be ‘art films’ making use of genre elements and structures and, by doing so, frustrating audiences (see recent posts and comments on The Lighthouse and Little Joe). Like those films, A White, White Day was shown at Cannes in 2019 and will get a UK release from Peccadillo Pictures (date not yet confirmed). I wonder if it will cause the same consternation? At Cannes, Ingvar Sigurdsson won the ‘Rising Star Award’ which is ironic for someone with his great experience and previous acclaim. Around the festival circuit over the last year the actor and the film have been nominated for awards many times, winning on several occasions. The film’s arthouse credentials are clear. It is director Palmason’s second feature after the similarly acclaimed Winter Brothers (2017). Both films feature the cinematography of Maria von Hausswolff from Denmark and editor Julius Krebs Damsbo. The music in the new film is by Edmund Finnis and Palmason’s work with his actors and this trio of creatives has created a film that works primarily as a character study about the grieving policeman.
No spoilers here but I want to point to some of the ways in which camerawork and editing help to create a sense of Ingimundur’s feelings. The camerawork is at moments simply expressionistic as in the montage of static shots of the house and the sense of time passing slowly or the view from the house through a porthole. The mise en scène isolates Ingimundur in several scenes, especially at various social and family gatherings where it often seems that Salka is the only companion he seeks. He has been required (I surmise) to undergo some counselling from a psychologist and these sequences are edited in distinctive ways. When he is talking to the psychologist via a video link and loses control, the camera pulls back to show him attempting to break the connection by attacking the computer and the power and signal sources.
Having said this, it is impossible to not read certain incidents as making references to genre narratives. When a rock has fallen on the road near to where his wife’s car crashed do we wonder if it’s a sign that someone is attacking him? When he rummages through a box of his wife’s photographs and finds one that perhaps shouldn’t be there do we think of a crime fiction/thriller narrative? The whole narrative sometimes feels like a ghost story and the stories Ingimundur tells Salka seem to point to Norse mythology. Having spent a long time trying to write this piece, I feel that the film is much richer than I experienced at the time and I can’t wait to see it again. Do watch out for it – highly recommended!
Anglophone Canadian films are quite difficult to find in the UK (as distinct from Québécois films) so finding them in a festival is always a bonus. This title promised to offer some light relief from the heavier diet of arthouse fare in the rest of the programme. It was described in the brochure as an SF-romcom and that’s indeed what it turned out to be. It isn’t heavy on the science but the scenario does provide a slightly different take on the romcom, though there are one or two elements shared with the Tamil blockbuster Endhiran (2010) and various US time travel narratives.
James (Jonas Chernick) has long been obsessed with his own ideas for time travel, so much so that he has never properly developed a relationship with his fellow researcher Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman) and he still needs his wild younger sister Meredith (Tommie-Amber Pirie) to keep his daily life on track. He and Courtney work as researchers at a facility headed by Dr. Rowley (Frances Conroy). James believes he is close to a breakthrough in creating time travel technology but several other deadlines/crisis points are looming and both Meredith and Courtney are likely to abandon him if he doesn’t take action. At this point he is abducted by an older man masquerading as a taxi driver. He is shocked to discover this is his future self ‘Jimmy’ (as played by Daniel Stern who has a lot of fun with this role).
When James meets ‘Jimmy’, the science behind the idea of time travel gradually gets lost. Though there is some resemblance between the characters, Jimmy is taller and his facial features slightly ‘pulled out’ – apparently as a result of time travel. More significantly, Jimmy is a livelier, more mischievous and more cynical character than James. What does he want? He certainly wants to stay around for a while and he meets and charms Courtney. He also has the answers to the questions James has been struggling over, but he isn’t going to provide them just yet. In fact he may be trying to stop James making the discovery at all. His message for James seems to be ‘learn to live a little’. Everything finally depends on a new deadline. Dr. Rowley announces a funded scholarship which will send Courtney to Switzerland (cue race to the airport in best romcom style?) Meanwhile, James discovers that Dr. Rowley has a vital piece of kit she has been keeping secret. But will Jimmy try to stop him accessing it?
The problem for Anglo Canadian filmmakers is that they inhabit a world dominated by Hollywood film and TV programmes. Hollywood makes many films and TV series in Canada and Canadians watch a lot of US TV programming – it’s a coloniser-colonised situation. It’s a world I don’t really know and therefore it is interesting to read some of the North American reviews of this film. Cleopatra Coleman is Australian and Daniel Stern is American but still there is something about the film that makes it feel ‘Canadian’. It appears to have been shot in Sudbury, Ontario and there is that calm openness with just the hint of possible weirdness that means it isn’t likely to be American. I enjoyed the film. At times it is quite funny and I liked the characters. The narrative has some warmth and the script by Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde avoids some of the pitfalls of the genre. Daniel Stern gives the film its energy and Cleopatra Coleman is a joy. I doubt it will ever appear in UK cinemas but perhaps on Amazon or Netflix? (See comments below)