An Endearing Experience Going Down Memory Lane with Alfonso Cuarón
There may be a temptation to hold off viewing “Roma” for when it becomes available for streaming on Netflix soon after its limited theatrical release, but this is one movie best seen on the BIG SCREEN. A similar statement could be said for all of Oscar winning director Alfonso Cuarón’s (“Gravity” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) films because the look of his projects are as noteworthy as any other aspects, if not more so. He is a filmmaker in the true sense of the word! In the case of “Roma,” the black and white cinematography is utterly captivating and wonderfully takes center stage while offering a respectful nod to Fellini.
Set in 1970 in Cuarón’s homeland of Mexico, specifically a section of Mexico City, the film is a loving homage to his childhood home, his community and his family, made up of a stay-at-home mother, a father who is a doctor, a maternal grandmother, four small children and the family’s domestic help. The thinly veiled story is from the perspective of the family’s housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young, hardworking kind soul who notices everything, cares for everyone, but judges no one. The audience is with her as she rises before anyone else in the wee hours of the morning and prepares breakfast. The camera follows her throughout the execution of her other household tasks, such as hanging clothes up to dry on the line, and cleaning up after the family dogs left to their own devices too often in the home’s courtyard. Cleo puts the kids to bed, wakes them in the morning and accompanies them to school each day. She empathizes with the mother as she is crushed by her husband’s decision to walk away from the family, leaving them with little money to maintain their somewhat affluent lifestyle.
In between caring for the family, Cleo endures her own personal drama of falling in love and suffering loss. The dialogue is sparse, the story line is minimal, yet this film seems to convey volumes. It manages to be intimate while also epic; simple, yet complex; covering multiple classes of people, social issues and political upheaval, and all while navigating various physical landscapes. We’re taken from urban centers to country ranches and costal towns. There are experiences of poverty and wealth, and the tension of Mexico’s class divides. Throughout, the photography, shot by Cuarón himself, sweeps you up and envelopes you, adding a sense of emotional richness and texture, and although the characters are purposely not completely drawn, they feel authentic. Underscoring the film’s authenticity, and like a breath of fresh air, is the use of non-professional actors in key roles, not least of which is Aparicio herself. “Roma” is her debut, having come straight from teaching pre-school to Curan’s set. In all, Cuarón has successfully captured a sense of time and place resulting in a film that is as gorgeous as it is poignant, making it a cinematic experience not to be missed. “Roma” is slated to get only a brief theatrical release before being made available on Netflix.
A Period Comedy with A Bite
If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Olivia Colman (“Broadchurch,” “The Night Manager” TV mini series) perform before, there’s no better way to be introduced to her than through the new movie, “The Favourite.” In it, she’s part of a strong threesome that includes Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Colman definitely holds her own, if not a bonafide scene stealer as a mentally unstable and physically frail Queen Anne during 18th century England. This is a dark comedy romp of a film by director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) revolving around two power hungry women vying for the queen’s favor. Lady Sarah, played by Weisz, has long been Anne’s closest advisor and friend, with benefits. She relishes in running the show as Anne defers to her on most weighty matters of rule. If any men in power want to sway Anne on political matters, they know they have to get through Sarah first, for better or worse.
Sarah’s position seems secure until her distant cousin, Abigail from the poor part of the family, comes knocking on the palace door begging for a job. Since Abigail seems lowly and weak, Sarah does not see her as a threat, and takes pity, assigning her a position as one of many servants. It doesn’t take long before Abigail sets her sights higher and weasels her way up the palace ladder, garnering the attention of the queen while Sarah is not looking. Once Sarah feels threatened, it is too late because Abigail has secured a higher role, possibly pushing her cousin completely out of the picture. As such, the palace wars ensue to the utter pleasure of the queen.
The film starts out innocent and slyly enough, but the pacing and cruelties ramp up with every twist and turn. You may come into the film with one set of expectations - a light, fun comedy - but halfway through, you’ll find yourself in a completely different movie. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. “The Favourite” is an excellent example of dark comedy done well. In some ways it’s fun and frivolous, in other ways it’s disturbing and sinister. The characters are an unexpected treat, and in the hands of Stone, Weisz and especially Colman, they excel. That, coupled with being a period piece, it’s a delightful twist on more traditional movies of its genre(s). For a unique cinematic experience, take a ride on the darker side.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
Country: Ireland / UK / USA
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 119 min.
Steve McQueen’s Delivers in His Hotly Anticipated Follow-Up to 12 Years a Slave
One of the highlights of the Mill Valley Film Festival 2018, and a sure-to-be-hit of the upcoming movie season - as in race for the Oscars - is “Widows,” a heist suspense movie starring Viola Davis. In fact, to leave this just at a description as “suspense” is an understatement. This is better described as a palm sweating, edge-of-your-seat, entertaining thriller that you will probably view more than once. Although many movies of the genre can tend to be fun, but unexceptional, what sets “Widows” apart from its predecessors is its unique script, a fantastic ensemble cast, with a badass group of women at its core, and all headed up by critically acclaimed director, Steve McQueen (“Hunger” and “12 Years a Slave”). None would have suspected McQueen’s follow-up to his Academy Award “Best Picture” winning 2013 drama “12 Years a Slave” would have been a contemporary heist, but then again no one should associate McQueen with predictability. He is a visionary, and he clearly has no intentions of being boxed into anyone’s expectations but his own. Like "12 Years," this movie is adapted from a book. McQueen collaborated with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl” and “Sharper Objects”) to breathe new life into Lynda La Plante’s British novel of the same name.
Audiences are launched into the film with a bang, as multiple characters are in the midst of a high-stakes robbery, with Harry Rawlings, played by the formidable Liam Neeson at the helm. Set in Chicago and while implementing a two million dollar job with his team, things take a literally explosive and tragic turn, leaving all involved dead. Harry is survived by his wife Veronica (Viola Davis), and by all accounts as seen in numerous flashback scenes, they had been very much in love despite their many years together and having suffered an earlier loss of their teen son. It also seems evident early on that Veronica had been unaware of Harry’s life of crime. Soon after his death, though, she is faced with Harry’s sordid past and pressed to make good on his debts. Reeling from her loss while seeing no way to accumulate the necessary funds in the short time given, she devices a heist plan of her own and enlists (or pressures) the other women who also lost their spouses in the earlier ill fated robbery. Reluctant though they may be, the group, made up of Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon, attempt to pull off their late husband’s last planned score. Along the way, thugs are unleashed and dirty politicians uncovered, while issues of race, gender and social injustice are integrated. Lending to the film’s atmosphere and rounding out the core cast, is an equally impressive supporting cast including Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Cynthia Erivo and Robert Duvall.
Warning: If you’re expecting some glossy transition of the band of merry widows, from hating each other, being down and out and looking and dressing a certain way, to love and roses, with all forgiven and sleek fashion at the forefront, you’ll be disappointed. This is not “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Oceans 8”. This is raw, gritty, at times violent, and welcomingly complex. Strap in this holiday season and enjoy the ride.
A Love Letter to Us; A Tribute to Her
She was charming, effervescent, genuine and downright funny. Those are just a few adjectives that describe beloved comedienne and actress, Gilda Radner. So, of course someone would eventually make a documentary or film about her! Why did it take so long to chronicle the life and times of the leading lady of sketch comedy? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s all about timing, place and access. Or maybe it has something to do with unearthing rare footage and never before heard audio tapes. Either way, we can be glad documentary filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito did so. Gilda catapulted onto the comedy scene and into our hearts when she made up part of the original cast of Saturday Night Live in 1975. That ensemble included the likes of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Jane Curtain, Garret Morris and Chevy Chase. Even with heavyweight talent such as that, some of whom went on to become legends in the industry, no one’s light shined quite as brightly as Radner’s. That unique talent and universal appeal is but one aspect of the recently release documentary, LOVE, GILDA, which profiles the performer’s career and life. For those of who grew up with Rosanne Rosannadanna and Lisa Loopner, you’ll appreciate the trek down memory lane, but there’s insight into Gilda beyond the wacky characters.
Using Radner’s own writings from her diary, and her own voice from recently released audiotapes, the film is often from the subject’s perspective. Woven in with her voice, is a smathering of contemporary comedic actors obviously inspired by Radner. Having the likes of Amy Pohler, Melissa McCarthy and Bill Hader, reading Gilda’s words is sweet and effective, without being drawn out or heavy handed. Additionally, director, D’Apolito, accessed rare video footage from almost every aspect of Gilda’s life, including childhood. The film chronicles her life from her formidable years growing up in Detroit with a close family in which her relationship with her grandmother was key, and her father’s death at a young age, was devastating. Audiences always knew the rail thin Gilda, but she actually was a chubby kid, an issue that seemed to bother her mother more than herself. Gilda was seemingly always full of delight and gusto, and even more so once she hit her later teen years. It was then that the pounds came off, she went to college, developing an taste for performing and for boyfriends, of which she had many.
Being the life of the party was a role she would carry throughout her life, charming the best of them, and bowling everyone with her untapped talent and boundless energy. It is that, along with a natural comedic talent, that captured the attention of SNL creator Loren Michaels. He discusses his impressions of Gilda and why she was selected her as the first cast member of the iconic series. Not surprising, her life, loves and career were full of ups and downs, and D’Apolito is unflinching in her exploration of it all. Despite Gilda’s eventual wealth, fame and men, she also was a workaholic, struggled with eating disorders, became burnt out and disillusioned with her career. A first, short-lived marriage led to her famed relationship with Gene Wilder during the height of his career and the second phase of hers. Although their relationship and eventual marriage was cut short by her untimely death in 1989, it was the stuff of Hollywood legends. The specialness of their love that captured our attention, and the tragedy of her battle with and loss to cancer, make up the second half of the film. It is through the never-before-seen video footage that we get a window into their strong bond, her medical process and struggles, and her will to come back to her career and life and win. Her insatiable appetite for life, for love and to entertain permeates the documentary and prove to be the best of her story going beyond her her wacky characters and left for us in this touching film tribute.
Director: Lisa Dapolito (as Lisa D'Apolito)
Stars: Andrew Alexander, Anne Beatts, Chevy Chase
Country: Canada / US
MPAA Rating: None
Run Time: 88 min.
The trailer and premise of the movie Puzzle might lead potential audiences to think this is a typical, predictable romantic tale of an unlikely and forbidden pairing, but Puzzle, a feature directorial debut for Marc Turtletaub who is known for producing Little Miss Sunshine and Loving is neither typical or predictable. It is, however, simple, nuanced, with just the right amount of romance. It is a gentle character study of Agnes, an achingly shy woman who in her early 40s is, unbeknownst to herself, at a crossroads in life. She’s a wife to Louie - a hard working, blue collar mechanic who loves his simple life and routines- and mother to two older teen sons. One is college bound and thinks more highly of himself than he should while the other more elder son, is overlooked, feeling trapped in dead end job working alongside his father.
The opening scene carefully sets the stage of this quiet housewife who has been content to put her family’s wants and needs above her own. Agnes tends to a family birthday gathering at their modest Upstate New York house in which she alone acts as cook, caterer and cleaner. All would appear normal except that she is actually the guest of honor, adorning her own cake and interacting with no one. Louie loves Agnes and depends on her greatly. He isn’t cruel, but he is selfish and neglectful. His expectations for Agnes are simple but firm to maintain the status quo of housework, grocery shopping and occasional accounting for the family business. They both assume she wants the same until one fateful day, Agnes samples one of her birthday gifts of a 1,000 piece puzzle. Finishing in record time, this ignites a passion and reveals a skill she never knew existed. It also unleashes a series of disruptions in the family’s routine. Soon, and with much trepidation, she embarks down a path of unchartered territory that includes covert weekly trips to Manhattan and partnering with Robert, a competitive puzzler.
While Robert, portrayed soulfully by Irrfan Khan, is independently wealthy and recently divorced, is impressed with Agnes’ natural talent and intrigued by her sanguine demeanor, he is kept at arms length. Despite that, he is determined to charm and befriend her, and when the international puzzle championship. Although all of the above creates change in Agnes, making her take stock of her life and future, it does so very quietly and subtly. As was the case with characters and situations in Loving, Turtletaub treads lightly, crafting his protagonist through the lens of loving observation. Kelly Macdonald is perfectly cast as Agnes. The same quiet confidence she has brought to other notable supporting roles such as No Country for Old Men and Gosford Park, comes through superbly in this rare leading role. She’s taking what could be a cliche character and making her complex.
The film’s metaphor is obvious- in mastering the art of puzzling Agnes is putting the pieces together of what could be her new life. Despite the heavy handed metaphor use, the not as obvious journey getting there is sweet and worthwhile. In Agnes’ seemingly insignificant world, she’s making a stand and claiming a victory ... piece by piece.
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Writers: Polly Mann, Oren Moverman
Stars: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 103 min
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Long before she became the pop icon and darling of millennials that she is and known as the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was quietly creating a legal legacy and effecting change. At 84 she is a living legend as a pioneer for women and minorities rights. Not only is she one of the few women who have ever been appointed to the Supreme Court, she is also one of the most blatantly liberal and vocal justices, taking her descents to an art form. Despite her impressive resume and interesting life, her journey to the high court has never been exhaustively documented with a definitive biography. With the recent release of the documentary, “RBG”, by directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, that’s all changed.
Bypassing traditional documentary feature methods of incorporating a heavy handed use of talking heads or linear story telling, the filmmakers present an engaging, exhaustive profile piece, with affection and humor. This is a complex character that on one hand works until the wee hours of the night, but on the other, is passionate about attending the opera while also having a great sense of humor about herself and new celebrity persona. She’s a pint size dynamo that does exhaustive regular gym workouts putting those half her age to shame. The filmmakers successfully portray all sides of their subject. They deftly combine Ginsburg’s personal and professional life through the perspective of key relationships, like her late husband and her granddaughter who recently graduated from law school, along with touchstone cases that make up her career. While promoting the film in San Francisco, I got the opportunity to discuss the project with West and Cohen. Here is some of our conversation.
PF: How did you come to the conclusion that this was the project you wanted to take on, and did you know from the start that you would get the necessary access?
Cohen: No to the second question! We decided to make a film of this subject matter based on things we had done in the past. Betsy and I had each interviewed Justice Ginsburg for separate projects in 2011 and 2013. Soon after, Ginsburg’s star was on the rise on the internet, becoming Notorious RBG. That led us to think that there ought to be a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and why not us?
West: Regarding access - In January 2015, we wrote her a letter explaining our desire to do a documentary about her life. We quickly got a response, basically saying, “Not yet.” Initially we were discouraged, but then realized that she didn’t say no or never, so we started talking to a few of her colleagues and friends. Then we wrote her again, with a different request, saying we’d still like to do the documentary but we don’t have to talk to you right away. We also submitted to her a list of who we’d like to interview for now, making it comprehensive and serious. We got an answer back from her, saying, “I wouldn’t be ready for two years.”
From there, Ms. Ginsburg made several interview suggestions, leading West and Cohen to believe that on some level, she was on board. That led to the filmmakers securing producing partner CNN Film. From there, they began to shoot interviews and other footage for the project. At that point they even received lists of Ginsburg’s appearance schedule from her staff.
PF: Did the unusual shooting schedule you ended up having, as in not getting access to your subject right away, informing the style you took of weaving in her significant cases, etc.?
Cohen: Absolutely. We had the thought all along that we wanted to make this a combination of her legal legacy, which involved getting into some real nitty gritty of some cases she argued and won, but also show who she is as a woman and a human being. We wanted to learn about her childhood and her extraordinary marriage, one of the great feminist love stories of all time.
PF: Given her age, it seems a bit unusual that she would decide to do the documentary, but put you off for two years. Did you ever find out why Ginsburg initially preferred to hold off participating in the project?
West: We never found out definitively, but speculated that it was her way of gauge how serious we were about the endeavor. It helped us because although two years seemed like a long time, we did so much work before we interviewed her, that by the time we actually talked to her we had a rough cut. It turned out to be excellent to do it the way we did.
As Ginsburg nears the end of her career and life, many wonder if the liberal justice considered retiring while President Obama was in office. The filmmakers never specifically addressed that in film, they speculate the issue based on other topics Ginsburg discussed.
Cohen: Ginsburg said that she philosophically disagrees with the idea that a supreme court Justice should leave with the party of the president that put them in there. She believes this is a lifetime appointment and that she should do it as long as she’s capable.
West: There’s also a personal component of this where Ginsburg loves working. It’s hard for her to envision what her life would be if she wasn’t throwing her time into what is now the main love of her life, especially since Marty is gone.
PF: Did anything about her surprise you or especially delight you?
Cohen: One surprise was her reaction to the whole late-in-life celebrity that she’s attained. Not that she’s become a social media maven. She’s not initiating anything, but she’s tickled by it and is embracing it. We showed her the SNL parody of herself, which she had never seen, and once she realized what it was, she couldn’t stop laughing.
In addition to portraying Ginsburg’s love for the law and legal institutions, it lovingly highlights the personal relationships that brought so much purpose to her life. She and Justice Antonin Scalia could not have been more different from a legal perspective, but thrived as friends, sharing a love for the opera. Her late husband, Marty who was known for his outgoing personality and fun sense of humor, was a constant source of
joy and support.
West: The friendship of Ginsburg and Scalia is a great example of two people with very different philosophical differences who respected each other and were able to talk in a civil manner about those differences within the context of our democracy. It’s a testament to both of them and should be something that we all aspire to.
Throughout, the filmmakers carefully craft elements of their subject’s personal life, personality, along with Ginsburg’s professional agenda.
Cohen: There are two legacies. One is enshrining a whole rule of law where the genders are equal under the 14th Amendment. For example, as an attorney, it was her legal strategy and ultimately decision she made in the U.S. vs Virginia Military Institute case, really made that happen. That’s in the law now because of her. Then there’s a current legacy presented by her current descents. How that will impact future laws is yet to be seen.
“RBG” is a unique and enjoyable character exploration in part because who Ginsburg is, but also how the filmmakers approached and present the film. With it, Cohen and West have created a well rounded portrait of someone who is undeniably an important historical figure, but also very much alive and present who oddly enough is coming into her greatest fame at the age of 84.
Review by Paula Farmer
Back to Burgundy by Cedrick Klapisch Offers a Feast of Wine, France & Family Drama
For those more accustomed to the light touch and whimsical ways of director Cédric Kaplisch (“L’auberge Espagnole” and “Russian Dolls”), which is attributed to a big portion of his body of work, his latest film, “Back to Burgundy”, may seem a bit of a departure. But for the true fan familiar with his entire repertoire, then “Back to Burgundy” won’t be a complete surprise, reflecting aspects of films such as “Paris.” These two outliers have more emphasis on drama and family than comedy, fast edits and quirky characters. Distinguishing this current release even from “Paris” is the noticeable absence of his trademark intersecting characters and lives. For Burgundy, it’s all in the family. Three siblings are reunited when the youngest brother, Jean (Pio Marmai), returns home to the family vineyard in Burgundy to visit his ailing father. He left several years earlier, wanting nothing to do with the family business or with his father. Over the years, he instigated little contact with anyone, even opting not to return for his mother’s funeral. In his absence, his brother and sister worked side by side with their father to maintain the vineyards, producing quality wine with every vintage in their father’s tradition.
Soon after Jean visits his father at the hospital, the family patriarch dies, and it is unclear as to whether or not Jean got to say his goodbyes, make peace and get personal closure. What is clear is that although he misses his young son, he is not necessarily eager to return to his girlfriend who is running a vineyard in Australia. As a result, he stays for the next year in Burgundy, mending his fractured relationship with his siblings, Juliette (Anna Girardot) and Jeremie (Francois Civil), and helping to navigate lofty financial decisions regarding the family estate hit hard with inheritance taxes. Along the way, viewers get to experience the evolution of the sibling’s strained relationship, their adjustment to loss, and four seasons and two harvests on the vineyard. All could be a recipe for one depressing scene after another or a string of heated discussions, debating love, loss and money. Instead, Klapisch weaves a tight drama with touching scenes, lovingly laced with humor. He does so without getting melodramatic or sappy and he makes good use of the picturesque Burgundy landscape as backdrop. It is both rich and rugged, aptly portraying rolling hillsides dotted with vines and stone houses.
While the film’s premise of siblings struggling through estate issues after suffering the loss of a parent, may sound similar to another French drama in recent years - “Summer Hours” by Olivier Assayas - the comparisons end there. This is a smaller, more intimate drama, and although it is enjoyable and a laudable inclusion in Klapisch’s cannon, it’s not the masterpiece that “Summer Hours” is. That being said, this is a warm and beautiful must-see for fans of Klapisch, France and wine.
Director: Cédric Klapisch
Writers: Cédric Klapisch, Santiago Amigorena
Stars: Pio Marmai, Ana Girardot, Francois Civill
Language: French, English
Runtime: 113 min.
It's the day before the Oscars and I'm hearing rumblings of a possible upset in a few key categories. Yep, the year's most creative and enticing film that took the movie industry by storm, Get Out, is said to have gotten last minute momentum among Oscar voters, and has won audience polls worldwide. Although on one hand I'd like to submit my ballot with selections of what I'd like to win or what should win, I'm weak (and broke), voting instead with my money and picking what I believe probably will take Oscar gold.
That having been said, I did happily, yet somewhat torn, check the box for Jordan Peele/Get Out for Best Original Script. Because of the Me Too movement guaranteeing a female win in some behind the scenes category, coupled with the impressive directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, I thought she and Lady Bird a lock in this category, but alas it will be Peele and his creative brilliance to prevail at least here. Also, expect this little film that could to take center stage at the Film Independent Spirit Awards the night before. And I am glad!
Loveless & Childless in Russia
As the title would suggest, this is a cold, somewhat hard-to-watch film in which the two main characters are bitter and selfish people. Zhenya and Boris are at the tail end of a vicious divorce, with both determined to hurt each other as much as possible, and leaving their 12 year old son, Alyosha, as collateral damage. Boris is portrayed as quiet, brooding and preoccupied. A keg ready to explode. He is clearly fed up with his soon to be ex-wife, and out of touch with his son. Zhenya is a scorned woman who came from a rough background. She is full of rage and resentment, lashing out at both Boris and Alyosha whenever possible. She is a hateful mother, with borderline abusive tendencies. Boris has cheated on his wife and is starting a new life with his pregnant girlfriend, while Zhenya is focused on a serious new relationship of her own. As they aggressively push their marriage over the finish line, they put their apartment in Russia on the market and pack things up, mentally as well as physically. Throughout the process, they make it clear that neither of them has room for their son in the next phase of their lives.
In a particularly pivotal scene, Boris has come home late from work and the two fall into what is obviously an all too familiar routine of arguing vehemently while they assume Alyosha is sleeping. As the fighting ensues, they debate who should take custody, with neither wanting to assume responsibility. Unbeknownst to them, he is in the next room quietly sobbing, ravaged by rejection, fear and depression. Sometime at the end of next work day, Boris and Zhenya stay overnight with their new lovers, but thinking the other is at home. It is only upon Zhenya’s return well over 24 hours later, that she realizes Alyosha has not been at school or home the whole time. Unloved and unwanted, Alyosha has vanished from the town and their lives. Is this a matter of a runaway child, or foul play? The contentious couple are forced together to help in the search that has already started two days too late. Delaying the search and seemingly making matters worse, is an uncaring police officer who is dismissive of the child’s disappearance and refers them to a specialist.
Although the unfortunate circumstances has made the couple face some inner demons, they are not rebuked or punished for their sin of neglect, and you want them to be. There are no true revelations nor seemingly lessons learned. Although on one hand filmmaker, Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Leviathan” 2014) excelled at showing the raw realism of the disintegration of a marriage that should have never been, on the other he seemingly, missed opportunities to create a grittier mystery and develop intrigue and deeper character development. Being the brilliant director that he is, one can assume this is by design. Hauntingly shot in blue and grey tones, “Loveless” is a stark, taut, uniquely interesting drama filled with soul-less personas. This could possibly be appropriate to the particular community and to these specific characters than would be elsewhere, but at times feels a bit too alienating. Perhaps this contribute to what many say makes it “very Russian” and why it has deservedly earned a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination. At its core, we are given the only one sympathetic character, and he is gone early on. Instead, you are left with Boris and Zhenya. They are like the horrific car accident you should but can’t turn away from.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writers: Adrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin
Actors: Maryanna Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 127 min.
Review by Paula Farmer
This stunning drama from the Middle East could have been titled A Simple Apology, with the conflict, the story’s entire premise resolved quickly and easily with those two ever elusive words, “I’m sorry.” Instead it proves there would be nothing simple about an apology as there’s nothing simple about this film. It’s achingly complex and speaks volumes about what it means to be a victim, a refugee, and who bears the burden of a nation’s past sins. A spark turns into a flame of ethnic tension when a minor incident and misunderstanding between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee embroils the two in a lawsuit. Along the way, families feud and communities and cultures collide. With this seemingly simple premise, Beirut native, director Ziad Doueiri (“Lila Says” and “West Bierut”) has woven a complex drama touching on several social issues and leaving audiences both aghast and moved. By the film’s conclusion, it’s obvious why it has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film (and will probably win).
Palestinian general contractor Yasser Salameh, is overseeing a pivotal project in a Beirut neighborhood. While canvassing the project’s progress, he notices a damaged gutter coming from one of the resident’s houses. When he approaches the owner, Tony Hannah, offering to fix it, he is met with disgust, disdain and a resounding no to his offer. When the gutter’s issue persists and Tony manages to land a bucketful of water Yasser’s way, understandable cursing ensues and hostility between the two ignite. After a series of events, The hot tempered, seemingly easily offended Tony insists on an apology from Yasser. Although the promise of an apology is extended by the company he works for, and Yasser is poised to relent, things instead take a turn for the worse. In the face of Yasser’s pride sucking moment, Tony hurls an insult that encompasses Yasser’s entire nation. Instead of an apology, Tony gets two broken ribs.
The matter quickly escalates from the hospital to the courtroom, with both parties easily lawyered up because of the social significance of their case. Their war of words result in a two month trial and a media frenzy that divide the country and drudge up deep wounds that go far beyond slander and offense exchanged between a resident and a refugee. The communities on both sides of the political divide are swept up in the emotional battle that the tense legal drama has unleashed. Things take an unexpected turn when true motives are unearthed and the plaintiff’s traumatic family history revealed. We’ve long been aware of the victimization of Palestinians, but the trial raises questions as to who really is the victim, or are they both? Are they martyrs of insults and punches, or politics, war, ethnic cleansing and stolen childhoods? Will this trial just settle a dispute over a gutter or a grudge, or could it set a precedent by examining old war wounds?
Doueiri proves graceful and adept at navigating the obvious, as well as introducing the complex and profound. His main characters, portrayed fantastically by Adel Karam and Kamel El Basha, go from seemingly one dimensional to multi-layered. The film’s pitch perfect pacing and the superbly written political drama, coupled with its humanitarian factor, make it not only one of the best foreign films of 2017, but one of the best films of the year.