Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Crustacean ecstasies

Hani Mustafa and Soha Hesham review some of the Panorama of European Film’s highlights

Crustacean ecstasies
Crustacean ecstasies
Al-Ahram Weekly

No sooner does the Cairo International Film end than the Panorama of European Cinema starts – with Misr International, headed by producer-director Marianne Khoury, providing a select programme of European fare – extending the period during which film lovers can be exposed to artistic cinema. The programme, what is more, is this year being screened in Alexandria, Tanta and Al-Minya as well as Cairo.

In its eighth round the Panorama opened with Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti’s My Mother, starring him alongside Margherita Buy and the American actor John Turturro. The film received the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Festival. Moretti’s films have received many prestigious prizes:  Sweet Dreams won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1981, The Mass is Ended the Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 1984, Dear Diary the Best Director award at Cannes in 1994 and The Son’s Room the Palme d’Or in 2001.

Moretti likes to star in his films, telling the story from the viewpoint of the character he plays. This time, however, he is the actor, casting Buy in the lead. She plays a film director. In Dear Diary he dealt with the question of mortality, with the protagonist suffering a vicious disease that threatens his life, though it was treated in a sarcastic spirit. In The Son’s Room, with the hero grieving for his young son, the topic took on an unmitigated tragic edge.

In My Mother Moretti returns to the topic of waiting for death. While making a film, the heroine, Margherita visits her mother at hospital. Moretti contrasts the director’s authority and control on location and her desperate denial when her brother Giovanni (Moretti) informs her that her mother is dying. The heroine is a strong character, as the opening scenes show: she recreates a workers’ protest and its suppression with water canon to exacting standards, admonishing the cameraman for showing too much water, and she ends her relationship with her actor boyfriend with finality.

The drama intensifies when her mother falls ill and she realises that her lead actor, an American named Barry Huggins, doesn’t have enough Italian to adequately perform the role – a powerfully comic parallel storyline. Moretti makes use of Margherita’s dreams, which come across as reality and embody the conflict in the director’s confrontation with her mother’s death. In one brilliant scene she wakes up to find her entire house submerged in several centimetres of water. She is obliged to move into her mother’s where she discovers that she was not as attentive to the old woman as she might’ve been. Catharsis happens towards the end when her life has settled down somewhat and she accepts that idea that her mother’s life is ending.

In an entirely different way the British filmmaker Tom Browne’s Radiator, which won the Jury Prize at the Dallas Film Festival in 2014, deals with old age and mortality. It opens with a phone call from the mother Maria (Gemma Jones) to her son Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira) asking him to come over and help look after the father Leonard (Richard Johnson). Though not seriously ill, Leonard is suffering from old age: he needs help to move and to get through the day. Daniel arrives to find his father on the settee downstairs, where he has been for days without moving, letting no one help him up or clean under him. He has been soiling himself.

In their exchange, the viewer is given to understand the father is a severe character who has been overcritical of his son.  It gradually becomes clear how dependent Leonard is on Maria. Filmed almost entirely inside the country house crammed with furniture – perhaps symbolic of Leonard’s character – the film depends almost entirely on the power of the acting.

There seems to be no plot as such, and the viewer may suffer some boredom with the film relying solely on small human details, but a climax does happen when Maria leaves for a few days to attend a celebration at some relations of hers, leaving Daniel to attend to Leonard’s needs. This alters Leonard’s routine and places father and son in direct confrontation. By the time Maria is back Daniel is so beside himself he immediately leaves. The next time he is summoned home Daniel finds something essential has changed in Maria’s relationship to Leonard.

Also remarkable was the Russian filmmaker Hanna Polak’s documentary Something Better to Come. Polak’s short documentary The Children of Leningradsky was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. In this feature-length work, filmed over 14 years, she attempts to document the life of a girl named Yula squatting in the rubbish dumps of Svalka outside Moscow. Polak had volunteered for humanitarian work at Svalka since 2000, following Yula’s life before she realised she was making a film about her.

The film documents the daily routine of the squatters, how the children play, how one young man builds his own room out of discarded wood and carpet and car tyres and how they deal with subzero winters. The event of the film occurs when Yula’s mother takes her to her alcoholic father at his broken down house, also outside Moscow, and he refuses to let her live with him. Yula is 16. Later she is seen going to give birth at the hospital, where she leaves her baby girl, giving her up for adoption rather than forcing her to live in the dumps. The film ends with Yula obtaining a small flat where she lives with her mother and boyfriend – pregnant with another child.

***

The screening of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster on Saturday was so packed it required a second theatre, but many viewers who had arrived with high hopes for the eighth Panorama’s highlight left disappointed with the film’s rigid logic and peculiar tone.

Before the credits, a woman (Jacqueline Abrahams) is seen driving her car across the countryside when she abruptly stops in the middle of the road to shoot a donkey in the middle of a grassy field for no apparent reason and then goes back to driving. After the credits, David (Collin Farrell) is alone the house with his dog, and the voice of the narrator, a woman, begins to tell the story of how David’s wife left him when she fell out of love with him.

Cowritten with Efthymis Filippou, Lanthimos’s film then shows David checking into a sort of hotel where he must give up his clothes and belongings – to be given a wardrobe of coloured items. The woman manager enters the room to inform him that he has 45 days to find a partner, otherwise he will be transformed into an animal of his choice. David tells her that, if he must be transformed, he would like to be a lobster. He appreciates their longevity, fertility and wet lifestyle. He also happens to mention that his dog is his brother.

David is the only character with a name. Other lodgers, with whom he begins to mingle in search of a partner, are identified by characteristics of theirs: the young thin man, the butter biscuit woman, the nose bleeder, the heartless lady (the latter being the one who shot the donkey). Periodically the inmates are released into the wild to hunt people, bringing them back as trophies and so gaining extensions in the period during which they are to find a partner.

When David approaches the heartless lady she decides to test him for heartlessness by slaughtering the dog – who happens to be his brother – and as a result he locks her in the transformation room and escapes into the wild. There he finds an equally cruel society with its own rules, but he falls in love...

With flawless, unique music, The Lobster might be regarded as an objection to the worldwide obsession with marriage. It is Lanthimos’s fifth film after My Best Friend (2001), Kinetta (2005), Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011). The Lobster won several prizes as well as being nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It also won the Best Original Music and Sound Design award at Ghnet International Film Festival and the Eurimages Award at Seville European Film Festival.

More approachable was the Croatian-Serbian film The High Sun by Dalibor Matanic, winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes and the Slovenian Art Cinema Network Award at Slovene Film Festival. With cinematography by Marko Brdar and editing by Tomislav Pavlic, it is a visually striking sequence of three separate stories using the same cast. The first takes place in two neighbouring villages, one Serbian, one Croatian, in 1991. A Serbian girl, Jelena (Tihana Lazovic) is in love with a Croatian young man, Ivan (Goran Markovic). Lying down by the lake in each other’s arms, they agree to flee their homes – with both their families, notably Jelena’s borther, objecting to their relationship. Little do they know that the day they escape Ivan will be killed...

In the next story, it is 2001. Natasha (Lazovic) and her mother (Nives Ivankovic) are returning to their home, damaged by the war which also claimed Natasha’s brother, in an attempt to fix it up. They employ a worker from the other side of the ethnic divide, Ante (Markovic), with whom Natasha develops a love-hate relationship, having a single sexual encounter with him on his last day at the house.

The third story is that of the Croatian Luka (Markovic), a university student driving to the countryside with his friend for a summer party near his parents’ house. It is 2011. Luka decides to pay his parents a visit, which turns out to be an occasion for picking at old wounds and accusations of abandonment. He also visits his former girlfriend Marija (Lazovic), whom he abandoned while she was pregnant with his son...

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