Monday, 20 August 2012

The Monk reviewed

Dominick Moll's The Monk follows the rise and downfall of Father Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), a Capucin friar who was raised, and have lived all his life, within the walls of a monastery located just outside 17th Century Madrid.

The film begins with a voice over a dark night scene, describing how Ambrosio came to the monastery, a baby dumped on its main doors after the servant carrying the tiny bundle that stormy night refused to dump him into the river, as evidently his instructions were, when lighting revealed a figure of the Virgin Mary, as if she was watching him, a kind of ancient Big Sister, or so he felt. Remember, what we are talking about here is deep Catholic Spain, centuries ago.

As the years pass away, Ambrosio's fame as a passionate, fiery and uncompromising preacher grows, the church overflowing with parishioners during his sermons, to the point that at least one of them, a young woman, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), faints the first time she heard him preaching. Obviously, this is the 17th century equivalent of a modern day rock star, all that adulation...

But the monk is a preacher who lacks the compassion of those who have lived.

A key scene is when Ambrosio heards the confession of an inveterate sinner, and now pedophile (Sergi López), who describes the debauchery of his niece in great detail, whom he felt as if she were her own daughter, a confession which almost felt as if he was taunting the priest, perhaps trying to tempt him to go astray too. This character reappears at the end of the film, in different circumstances and guise, closing the story. About this time, Ambrosio tells Father Miguel (Jordi Dauder), his mentor and the friar who picked him up as a baby from the threshold of the monastery all those years ago, of a recurrent dream he has been having, a dream in which he sees a young woman clad in a red cloak, praying in front of the church, a woman whom he doesn't see her face, and whom he cannot touch.

Another key scene is where Ambrosio confesses a young novice, Sister Agnès (Roxana Duran), a confession that led to her death in the most horrendous circumstances at the hand of the Mother Superior (Geraldine Chaplin makes an appearance here). The same Mother Superior whom we see sternly humping the ground as she marches at the head of her covered novices during a procession of the Virgin Mary, a procession used by Ambrosio as cover to commit the deed that leads to his downfall, and punishment at the hands of the Inquisition, presumably. A deed like the one he himself sent Sister Agnès to her death.

The monk's fame also attracts a mysterious novice, Valerio (Déborah François), to the monastery. A novice who turns to be someone other than what he pretended to be, becoming the tool that led to his downfall, paradoxically after saving his life. Did Valerio do what he did unwittingly?

Meanwhile, Ambrosio grows increasingly obsessed with Antonia, the nature of their real relationship, and the horror that follows, not revealed until the very end, in an scene that ties together all the loose strings.

The Monk brilliantly conveys not only the febrile religiosity of a deeply flawed friar high on rhetoric, and short on compassion, but also the contradictions between an oppressive Catholic Church and the zest for life of the population in 17th Century Spain.

However, I felt that The Monk hovered indecisively between being a horror film, and one exploring the nature, and the excesses, of extreme religious fervour, as the episode with the myrtle branch, itself an ancient emblem of love, indicates.

The Monk is released in the UK by Metrodome Distribution on 20th August 2012

Certificate 15 / 101 Minutes

Directed by Dominik Moll (Lemming / Harry He’s Here To Help), THE MONK is a sumptuous adaptation of the eponymous cult classic Gothic novel which follows the rise and fall of a Capuchin Monk in 17th century Madrid.
Abandoned as a baby on the steps of a monastery and raised in strict Capuchin fashion, Ambrosio has become the most famous preacher in the country.

While large crowds from all over the country come to hear his mesmerizing sermons, he’s also bitterly envied for his success by certain fellow monks.

Convinced of his virtue and righteousness, Brother Ambrosio thinks he is immune to temptation until obscure events start terrorizing the monastery.

Could they be connected to the unexpected arrival of Valerio, an apprentice monk who has the miraculous gift to relieve Ambrosio’s splitting headaches and hides his disfigured face under a wax mask?

Starring Vincent Cassel ( Eastern Promises, Mesrine & Black Swan) Déborah François ( L’Enfant, The Page Turner) Sergi López ( Pan’s Labyrinth, Harry He’s Here to Help & Dirty Pretty Things) and Geraldine Chaplin ( Talk to Her, Doctor Zhivago & The Orphanage)

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Silent Souls, a meditation on tradition and modernity

The burial of Tanya (Yuliya Aug), the beloved wife of Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo), according to the ancient traditions of the Merya people, gave director Aleksei Fedorchenko, and writer Denis Osokin, the vehicle to produce this visually stunning film, a cinematic poem not only about life and death, but also about the asphyxiating space left for the traditions, rites, ways of life of minorities, such as the Merya people, to culturally survive in the increasingly corporate and globalized space of contemporary life.

Miron, the manager of a rather dilapidated paper mill on post Soviet Union Russia, and Aist (Igor Sergeev), a forty something bachelor, who works as a photographer in the mill, embark on a long road journey for the cremation of Tanya's body, and the burial of her ashes, on the flowing waters of the river, according to their tradition. At one moment, during their travels, we see them wandering through the “stacked to the roof” aisles of a large supermarket in a provincial town, marvelling, to some extent, at the wide variety of goods, toying with some plastic toys. I could not stop having a feeling of nostalgia when I was watching this scene. I decry the increasingly cultural homogeneity and conformity resulting from the advance of modern capitalism.

Silent Souls is more than just a road film, it is a journey as much through a cultural landscape, through a landscape of the mind, as through a physical space. Miron finds out, as he “smokes”, in this road trip with Aist, much more about Tanya than he knew at first. “Smoking” is being defined in the film as a practice of the Merya, where they narrates intimate details of their conjugal relations after the spouse has died, if their interlocutor agrees. I am not sure if “smoking” is the right translation of the Merya word.

Visually, the stunning footage of the camera focussing on Aist's bicycle as he pedals home with the two birds he had just bought, tells us from the very beginning the nature of Silent Souls, not only a journey through the interstices of contemporary Russia, but a cinematic ode to the desire to escape from that confinement, from our confinement, in fact. Indeed, from this point of view, the sexual encounter between Miron and Aist with the two women after the burial is not only a song to life, but also a song to freedom, to be away from the sadness of death, from the ties of life. On this sense, the escape of the two buntings that Aist bought from a rather taciturn street seller, at the beginning of their journey, become inexorably linked to the escape of both Miron and Aist at the end of their road trip, as they return to the river.

What initially began as a journey initiated by Miron to honour his wife in death, as he did in life, through his “smoking” it also becomes Aist's journey, as it became clear that he was not only in love with Tanya, too, but he also brings up his own remembrances of his parents, the ridicule that his father, a poet in the Merya language, suffered. A scene comes up of Aist, as a child, helping his father to bury a typewriter in the river. Then, their encounter with the two women becomes an act of liberation for both of them, as it was their final act, when they return to the river, where a typewriter is waiting for Aist, while Tanya awaits Miron.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Orlando reviewed

Tilda Swinton's performance, in its nuanced directness, was central for Sally Potter to realize her vision, her interpretation, of Virginia Woolf's novel into cinema.

In this masterly classic of British cinema, Tilda Swinton plays the four hundred year old, or so, Orlando. By the end of the story, she has become free of all the encumbrances of gender, class, property, history, particularly depicted in that scene when she returns, with her young daughter, riding a motorcycle with a sidecar, to their ancestral stately home, a rather palatial residence by the Thames, serenely mingling, and watching, the usual throng of tourists, no-one commenting, or even seeing, the uncanny resemblance of the woman standing beside them with the portrait of her as young Orlando on the wall, a painting of her when she was still a young man in the 17th century. As the character says, talking to us, the viewers: “Same person, different sex. That's all”.

By returning to the nest where her (his) career began, she is now free to fly out of that nest, which is, ultimately, a nest of vipers. Illuminating is the scene where, having recently become a woman, she endures the disdain of a gathering of enlightened 18th century poets, including Alexander Pope, who all conclude that a woman needs the guiding hand of a father, or a husband, all questioning her presence in the salon on her own.

In Sally Potter's interpretation of the central character of the novel, the film opens with young Orlando reading, and writing poetry under an oak tree, preparing himself to the forthcoming visit of the old Queen Elizabeth I (sublimely portrayed by Quentin Crisp). After, briefly, becoming her lover, the Queen grants Orlando the deeds of the ancestral stately home, on one condition: that he shall not grow old. This is how we get to see him, now a woman, on the same field in the closing scene, daydreaming under that same oak tree, her daughter running around, a video camera replacing the quill that the younger Orlando used to write his poem The Oak Tree, all those centuries past, and recently accepted by a rather obnoxious publisher (upon rewriting it, of course), whilst an angel (Jimmy Sommerville) appears floating above the trees (we see, in the features section of the Blu-ray disc, how this was achieved), falsetto singing, the future shining for them as a tear slowly runs down her face.

She no longer looks directly at the camera, confiding in us, the audience, as she did in the opening scene. There no longer need for that.

The episode where Orlando fells madly in love with Princess Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), the daughter of the Russian Ambassador (Viktor Stepanov), during the great frost of the beginning of the 18th century (these scenes were filmed in Russia), much to the chagrin of the aristocratic young lady to whom he is betrothed. This scene sets the pace and the mood for the rest of the story, as we see over and over Orlando defying the social conventions of the time as she follows her own path, her own heart.

The other scene that Sally Potter sets up to show Orlando's nature is when we see him worrying for the fate of a rebel attacking the city in Central Asia, where he has been posted as an ambassador by the king (while in the novel this city is indicated as being Constantinople, in the film the actual location is not specified), taking no notice when he is told that it does not matter, that the fallen soldier is not a man, but the enemy.

Further adventures follow, where, Orlando, becoming a woman after a long sleep, returns to England, taking hold of her ancestral home, and its delights, until it is finally taken away from her as she is legally dead, and, on top of that, by being a woman, she can no longer hold the deeds of the property.

Upon meeting the loquacious and idealist Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), she has a daughter, and but she refuses to go with him to America, where the future lies, by simply asking him “when this future is going to come”.By doing so, she liberates herself, and her daughter, from all the ties entrapping her to the zeitgeist.

“Same person, different sex. That is all”.

This Blu-ray release contains a series of documentaries on how the film was made, plus an interview to Sally Potter, which would be of interest to cinephiles. Particularly enlightening is the section that narrates the ins and outs of filming in Russia, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Orlando Blu-ray disc is already on sale in Britain, courtesy of Artificial Eye.

Sally Potter’s dazzling adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel is the tale of the apparently immortal Orlando, who begins an epic quest for love and freedom in the court of Elizabeth I as a man and completes the search 400 years later as a woman. This journey takes Orlando from the frozen river Thames and central Asia, where he changes sex, through to romantic love and loss in the Victorian age, motherhood and war in the twentieth Century, until finally arriving in the present moment. Tilda Swinton leads an outstanding international cast in this enchanting, witty, visually stunning and brilliantly original story of self-discovery, romance and adventure.

Special Features
  • Documentaries ‘Orlando Goes to Russia’, ‘Orlando in Uzbekistan’
  • and ‘Jimmy Was An Angel’
  • Selected scene commentary by Sally Potter
  • Interview with Sally Potter
  • Venice Film Festival press conference
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Stills galleries

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Himizu reviewed

An intense and claustrophobic drama, ultimately cathartic, played against the desolate and hellish landscape of Fukushima, post tsunami, where the violence of human relationships resonate in the violence inflicted upon the landscape, and its people, by nature.

Yet, that intense focus is constantly relieved through the film by the often hilarious antics of a group of survivors camped in tents on the land where Yuichi Sumida's family runs a boat hire business, imparting a kind of normality to the destructive lashes of the tsunami, and the seismic nature of the relationships between Sumida (Shôta Sometani) with his family, and then with a young girl, a classmate, Keiko (Fumi Nikaidô), also fifteen.

When I said Sumida's family, that was an overstatement, when you consider that his mother comes every night with a different man, and his father, who is usually drunk, keeps beating him up, and telling that he wants him dead, as he then can claim for the insurance money he thinks he has. On the opening scene, we see the boy walking on this grey and utterly devastated landscape, the photography becoming darker, we then see one of the survivors, an older man who usually behaves like the proverbial buffoon with a heart of gold, still wearing a white shirt, his business having been wiped out. A rather muddy lake near the boat house, with an incongruently and precariously located shed in the middle, acts as a visual leitmotiv which constantly reminds us of the closed and muddy prospects awaiting all of them, a metaphor which I have seen in many recent Japanese films, although more in the context of the brutal economic conditions. In this sense, the boundaries between dreams and reality are eroded, a dream scene opening Himizu resolves the development of the story on a different direction at the end, that initial dream scene having thrown us off the story line, somehow.

Sumida wants only one thing in life, not to have a dream as his teacher keeps indoctrinating the kids at school, but just to be ordinary, like a himizu, a mole. Not a strange request, considering his dysfunctional family. Keiko, a classmate, falls in love with him, much to his embarrassment at the beginning of their relationship. But she persists, particularly when we see her mother lovingly building a gallows for the girl to kill herself, as life would be so much better if Keiko was not around. A gallows painted red.

Keiko does not only falls in love with Sumida, although he is constantly feel annoyed by her, but she sees in him a project to develop, too. A project where she can also develop herself. When the boy's mother finally leaves him for not to come back, Keiko, and the group of survivors, try to help Sumida to run the boat hire business, his only way of being able to subsist, in spite of his rejections. Yet, any attempt by him to try to run just an ordinary life, his dream, gets constantly scuppered by the constant apparitions of his drunken father, demanding money and psychologically torturing him. One night, after suffering another brutal beating by him, one beating too many, something breaks inside Sumida, and in a moment of absolute rage and impotence, he attacks and murders him, to be almost instantly horrified by his action. In despair, he stalks the streets of the nearby town, attempting to get rid of all those violent people, like his father, who also roam those streets.

A tale of two brutalized teenagers not only by the devastating power of nature, but also by their selfish and destructive families, a tale of a journey through hell and, ultimately, redemption, against the backdrop of the hellish landscape of Fukushima (this is the second Japanese film which has been filmed there that I have reviewed), and the darkness offered by their future: emptiness, and the gallows.

I found particularly attractive the manner that director Sono Sion has structured Himizu as a counterpoint between the central tale of Sumida and Keiko searching for their morrow, and a chorus, like those of a Greek tragedy, formed by that group of survivors, who finally leave with the coming of the redemption of the two teenagers, the closing luminous scene alluding to the dark dream like opening scene.

Sono Sion's Himizu is out on selected British cinemas from today, June 1st, 2012, courtesy of Third Window Films.

Sion Sono
Minoru Furuya (manga), Sion Sono (screenplay)
Shota Sometani, Fumi Nikaido, Tetsu Watanabe, Mitsuru Fukikoshihi, Megumi Kagurazaka, DenDen
Set after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, all 14-year-old Yuichi Sumida (Shota Sometani) wants to become is a regular boy and live a decent life. His environment though repeatedly drags him into the mud. He runs his parent's rental boat business, which is located next to a nondescript lake. His mother frequently comes home with different men and soon she leaves him entirely. His father only comes around looking for money. Whenever Yuichi's father is drunk he tells Yuichi "I wish you were dead."
Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido) is a classmate of Yuichi Sumida. She harbors a severe crush on Yuichi. Keiko's home life isn't much better than Yuichi's. Her mother builds a gallows with a noose in place for Keiko to take her own life. Her mother believes her life would be better off without Keiko.
Under these circumstances, Keiko pays a visit to Yuichi's home. A group of people are lingering nearyby who live in make shift tents on the property. Keiko tries to befriend Yuichi, but she is berated and even physically assaulted. She doesn't get deterred though and sticks around.
One day, the yakuza come by Yuichi's home. They look for Yuichi's father who is nowhere to be found. The men then tell Yuichi that he has to come up with 6 million Yen by tomorrow to pay off his father's debt. Yuichi already heartbroken by his mother's abandonment and abuse from his father nears a tipping point. A string of incidents then occurs that brings Yuichi's world to a screeching halt. Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Yuichi?

Date of Domestic Cinema Release: 
June 1st, 2012


68th Venice Film Festival - Marcello Mastroianni Award, 14th Deauville Asian Film Festival - Critics Prize, 4th Terracotta Film Festival - Audience Award, 30th Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival - Orbit Prize
68th Venice Film Festival, 36th Toronto International Film Festival, 16th Busan International Film Festival, 44th SITGES International Film Festival, 14th Deauville Asian Film Festival, 8th Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 21st Oslo International Film Festival, 26th Mar Del Plata International Film Festival, 30th Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival 

Avé reviewed

Avé depicts a journey through the roads of Bulgaria as Kamen (Ovanes Torosian), a rather taciturn art student, hitch-hikes from Sofia to a village, Ruse. To begin with, we do not know why, we only know something extraordinary may have happened, as the previous scene showed a member of staff at the art school wanting to talk to him. However, we soon learn that he is going to a funeral of a close friend, another art student, Victor, who has killed himself. The reasons for this act are never explicitly said, although we may infer those, as the story develops. Kamen is obviously disturbed, and brooding, by the death of his friend. However, what is interesting is that we learn about this fact through Avé (a wonderful Angela Nedialkova), a runaway 17 year old girl who kind of joins him on his journey on a road going out of Sofia.

She has a penchant to fabricate, and tell, stories, herself, and Kamen soon becomes part of this spider web coming out of her imagination, these stories she constructs from the flimsiest treads she finds in every situation that she, and now, Kamen, find themselves embroiled, sometimes potentially violent, with some of those drivers who have picked them up, including a pedophile lorry driver ( Martin Brambach), although I thought that the depiction of this particular character was a bit clichéd. She, having probably spent a longer time hitch-hiking , has become much more street-wise than Kamen, her stories are, in part, a construction of a imaginary character for her to have some street credibility, and protection.

However, I have to stress the words in part, as the narrative progresses, a much darker story emerges. Whilst the film is, apparently, a story about this uneasy couple, Kamen being very hostile to her to begin with, and told, mostly, from his point of view, as the camera is more often than not focussed on him, the girl is, in reality, its centre. Avé is a exploration into her psyche, as one of the stories she tells Kamen, in private, turns to be true, a tread which links her past, her recent journey, and her morrow, a scene that ends the film not with an answer, a closure, but leaves the door open for the mind to further delve into what is to come.

This is the beauty of Avé, the fact that behind what seems to be, on first sight, a simple road movie set in Bulgaria rather than on the wide plains of North America, there are glimpses of a complex and troubled psyche, and the transformation of both characters, his initial hostility to her becoming love. There is a significative scene, near the end of the film, where we see Kamen, now on his own on board of a train, repeating to a stranger those stories he first heard from her lips, a device he not only uses to give him a cover for his actions without exposing his inner feelings to the outside world, but as a way to remember her, to live her own story within himself.

Bruno S., whom we know from Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and Stroszek, plays a part as the grandfather of the dead boy, Victor. An interesting casting, as I consider both films to be road movies, literally in the case of Stroszek, and figuratively in the case of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

Konstantin Bojanov's film is an assured and striking debut feature, exploring not only the complexities and development of both main characters, but also a kind of survey of contemporary Bulgarian society as we see, through their eyes, those people who have picked them up, the places where they have stayed, all those highways, those road side cafés, those bus and railway stations.

Network is pleased to announce the DVD release of this road trip with a twist- AVE (15) is available to buy on DVD on 28th May 2012.


Recalling classic road movies such as The Passenger, Five Easy Pieces and La Vie Revée des Anges, and inspired by haunting real-life events and encounters, Konstantin Bojanov’s debut feature is as spontaneous and freewheeling as the characters’ adventures. Portraying the unfolding of two personal dramas with levity and humour, this remarkable, triple-award winning film explores exceptional moments when time feels suspended, and one’s responsibility is only to the beat of one’s own heart.
While hitchhiking from Sofia to Ruse, Kamen, an alienated art student, meets Avé, a 17-year-old runaway. With each ride they hitch, Avé invents new identities for both of them, her compulsive lies dragging Kamen deeper and deeper into trouble, drawing him into a confusing adventure and ultimately forcing them to confront both death and love in a cathartic and life-changing experience.