Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Remoulding the real

Recalling more interesting fare from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (11-20 October), Hani Mustafa takes up a new theme

Al-Ahram Weekly

Cinema is a child of the middle class, and it has arguably reflected bourgeois more than any other interests. It was the great economic crises that followed the invention of the medium that shifted this focus as the art form grew. The realism of the first half of the 20th century was one attempt at dealing with the echoes of the Depression in Europe and, especially, the period that followed WWII. It was in Italy that realism emerged at the hands of such directors as Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica, whose work set off a chain reaction of experimentation that seems to have involved a steady movement away from traditional content and style that continues to this day.
One such experiment, for example, is to cast non-professional actors to heighten the sense of verisimilitude. Such was definitely one of the techniques with which directors like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami managed to give Iranian cinema such an excellent reputation in art houses around the world over the last four decades: they employed actors from the environment in which they shot, which while presenting them with a coaching challenge imbues their work with a unique urgency.
In Caesar Must Die (2012), which was screened in the Showcase programme at the sixth Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, use non-professional actors for the lead roles to startling effect; in the context of this film non-professional performances do not make the environment being depicted more credible but rather create an interesting tension between the real and the imagined. Shapeskeare’s Julius Caesar, itself loosely based on factual history, had already spawned a string of film adaptations: Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1953 film starring Marlon Brando and James Mason as Mark Antony and Brutus, respectively, and Stuart Burge’s 1970 film starring Charlton Heston as Mark Antony, for example.
The Taviani brothers, then, are continuing with a long tradition of Roman history adaptations. What they offer up is classic Shakespeare dressed up as documentary cinema — which is hardly unprecedented in itself. What is unique about this film is that it is set in the Rebibba prison, a maximum-security facility in Rome, its actors real inmates charged with drug trafficking and murder, many of them members of the Camorra. The film opens with the final scene of the play when, following the applause, the viewer sees the actors returning to their cells, led by the guards. “Six months before”, the action starts.
A man approaches a group of prisoners to explain there will be casting to determine which of them will perform in the famous play. Only the real names of the inmates and their sentences are provided as the viewer discovers the abilities of the inmates through an acting exercise in which the actor is required to say his name and address twice: once in an extremely sad and once in a furious tone. The resulting levels of reality are at once touching and entertaining. A series of rehearsals within the prison reveals yet another contrast of scene and setting — more dramatic delight — recalling all manner of theatrical theories about the fourth wall, space and audience participation.
The film shows only the most famous scenes of Shakespeare’s play: Caesar talking of his wife’s prophetic dream, in which his statue bleeds on being struck with a knife; Caesar striding through the prison corridors while the conspiring senators greet him warmly, turning the conversation to dictatorship — only to start striking him with their knives — all the way to Mark Antony’s speech which changes the people’s mind about the event as a whole. This latter is perhaps the most brilliant sequence in the film. Yet the Taviani brothers’ achievement is how they convey the effect the production is having on the inmates who participate in it and throughout the prison: how hardened criminals like Salvatore Striano, playing Brutus, strive to learn their lines while they go about their daily duties, and how depressed they are when it is all over.
British director Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, screened in the official competition at Abu Dhabi, is a different instance of the way cinema can remould the real. Winterbottom casts two celebrated actors, John Simm and Shirley Henderson, as a working-class husband and wife whose experience over a period of five years — during which the husband, Ian, is in jail while the wife, Karen, raises four children — is depicted in detail. Realistic experimentation lies in the fact that the film itself is shot, a few weeks at a time, over the exact same period; in addition, the children are non-professional actors, real-life siblings.
Thus this strange monument to contemporary ennui reflecting the plight of the poor. There is almost no drama in this film: only the flat ins and outs of the daily lives of the characters — hearty breakfast before the children set off to school, for example — interspersed with frequent visits to the head of the family in prison. The director shows solidarity with the woman-mother who bears responsibility for the family single-handedly for so long.
Only one moment can be seen as vaguely dramatic: Karen’s growing closeness to one of her husband’s friends, which is so subtle the viewer does not notice it is happening until Ian’s release at the end of the film, when Karen tells Ian that loneliness drove her to have a relationship with said friend. The consequent, loud row keeps the children awake all night; yet in the next scene life continues exactly as before, as if nothing has happened. Yet the incident is expertly woven into the action when Ian manages to smuggle drugs into prison during a rare break when he is allowed out, which angers Karen considerably since it can extend his period in prison at a time when she can barely bear her burden.
It seems the director made a concerted effort to avoid anything potentially dramatic, paying no attention to plot-line at all — only the family’s “everyday”. The viewer is never told how Ian ended up in prison, for example, or what sentence he got. Yet Winterbottom manages to make the daily life of the family engaging enough, showing the children growing up with incredible verisimiltiude while their parents age.

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