Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Faith and filmmaking lie at the heart of The Gardener, an idiosyncratic essay film by the father/son duo of Mohsen and Maysam Makhmalbaf. Beginning as a simple introduction to the particulars of the Baha’i faith, the film turns into a wide-ranging exploration of modern religion, alternating between Socratic dialogue and familial bickering (Mohsen’s embrace of spirituality seems driven partly by a desire to annoy his proudly agnostic son). Admittedly, the film treads on some familiar theological grounds, with both men falling back on banal stock arguments at times, but what compels is how the spiritual debate doubles as a cinematic one. Mohsen pushes his contemplative, exploratory style, while Maysam stumps for a more direct, mainstream approach—he even teases his father by suggesting they hire George Clooney or Brad Pitt if they want a bigger audience. A concluding maze of mirrors and roses allows Mohsen to fold questions of religion and filmmaking into a single stream of stunning images. Everything comes down to perception: what matters the creed as long as it leads to beauty?
Manuscripts Don’t Burn
Manuscripts Don’t Burn lays bare the workings of the secret police in Iran, where writers and intellectuals hide their thoughts in cupboards and wash their phones for fear of bugs. Years after a failed state assassination attempt, these men now try to preserve a written record of the crime, despite police efforts to intimidate them into silence. Director Mohammad Rasoulof’s depiction of this paranoid place is unflinching and controlled, but it doesn’t mask the anger that drives the film (his crew is largely anonymous to avoid reprisals). Most chillingly, the film shows police and rebels equally ensnared in the same oppressive system. The ground-level agents—those often conscripted to do the dirty work—are no freer than the people they terrorize. Rather than privileged elites, the state thugs are lower-middle-class grunts punching the clock and struggling to pay the bills like anyone else. Khosrow, one of the central characters, may dutifully torture helpless academics for a living, but he’s really just trying to support his ailing son. This is a society bound by guilt and fed on disparity, and Rasoulof lays bare its brute machinations. A brief dream sequence makes the point even clearer—the only thing that trickles down in this bankrupt moral economy is blood.
Johnnie To is in full-blown comedic mode in Blind Detective, which is something of a mixed blessing. Yes, the film is funny. Yes, the set pieces are big and wacky and weird—one even involves several people re-enacting a murder by wearing helmets and braining each other with hammers. But do we really need two-plus hours of slap-happy thriller-farce about a blind detective cracking cold cases? Even To’s relentless pacing can’t hide the fact that this film feels padded, with an episodic structure that makes it seem as if we’re watching the first three episodes of a weird new CBS procedural smashed together. To be fair, there are connections between the various tangents, which often deal with women devoted blindly to men (who typically prove to be unwilling or unlikely objects of affection). But this is just part of the film’s more-is-more strategy—why have one variation on the theme when you can have three? Why use any restraint at all? It’s not a running gag until it has collapsed from exhaustion apparently. Fittingly, the film makes a joke of Johnston, the sightless super-sleuth, constantly gorging himself with food in the middle of each caper. Audience members will feel a comparable gluttony as they try to digest this overstuffed comic confection.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
Death has never seemed so benign as it does in the hands of Alain Resnais in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, an autumnal masterwork of exceptional grace and wit. Following the death of a playwright, the man’s friends and colleagues gather at his mansion to fulfill his final wish. The group is filled with actors (and Resnais regulars) who have all performed in their friend’s adaptation of the Eurydice myth, and now must watch a young troupe interpret the same play. There’s a beguiling simplicity to the conceit, and it’s ripe material for Resnais, who has been mining these themes of memory and performance for decades now. As the actors watch their young counterparts, the play steadily breaks down the barrier between past and present. The elder actors begin mouthing the lines of their juniors, Eurydice overlapping Eurydice, Orpheus echoing Orpheus. (Three actresses play Eurydice in the film, but you could just as easily say Eurydice plays three actresses.) The performance overwrites reality itself, as the mansion becomes a train station, a hotel, a café. In the director’s capable hands, the concept is less an intellectual game and more a serene response to the shocks and sorrows of time and mortality. All the world’s a stage, indeed. So who will play us when we’re gone?
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear
If Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is any indication, Denis Cote must have had some awful camping experiences as a child. The director’s vision of rural Quebec is consistently sinister, and his forests offer death in the place of fecundity. His latest wilderness excursion involves Vic, a 61-year-old lesbian on parole and holed up at her catatonic uncle’s sugar shack with her girlfriend, Flo. Each equally and uniquely damaged, the pair struggle to create a kind of domestic bliss, but they’re menaced by the enigmatic Jackie—a cutthroat terror from Flo’s past with a knack for gardening and existential paradoxes (“Awful people like me aren’t supposed to exist,” she admits at one point). Indeed, in this film, few people outside of the titular duo, save perhaps for Vic’s stern yet forgiving parole officer, seem to even exist at all. People materialize out of the forest like phantoms before vanishing once again. These are not normal human interactions, but rather hauntings, and Cote’s outsider protagonists struggle—and fail—to bridge the gulf that lies between them and the rest of the world. Or perhaps, perversely, they finally achieve a kind of communion with their surroundings in the end, and at last find their place in life. Opinions may vary. Also, the moral of the story: phosphorous is good for the roots.