Sunday, 18 May 2014

A film review: "Otel-lo" [2012 Spain]

A scene from Otel-lo A scene from Otel-lo

Catalan writer-director Hammudi Al-Rahmoun Font makes his feature film début with "Otel-lo", an interpretation of one of Shakespeare's famous tragedies (Othello). The film might have been made with a ridiculously minuscule budget, but it hardly mattered. It manages to vividly bring to life the necessary drama regardless, one that even the Bard might have approved of.

Shakespeare's works have been adapted and reinterpreted all over the world in almost every sphere of human discourse, thanks to their universal appeal - if you strip away the medieval trappings against which the plays were set and examine their essence, that is perhaps as perceptive an observation of raw and universal human nature as one might find. Othello has remained a popular subject in cinema for this very reason. It might have been made a number of times, but this simple film by a 'rookie' director nevertheless still surprises us with a unique take.

It begins with a film director (played by Mr. Al-Rahmoun Font himself) conducting casting sessions for his forthcoming adaptation of Othello. We see on the chair Youcef (Youcef Allaoui) - a Moroccan Spaniard, and later Ann (Ann M. Perelló) - a born-and-bred Spanish woman, answering to camera some of the director's intimate questions. We learn that they both have their respective partners that they're until now loyal to, and also happy living with. They, who've never acted in film before, are to play Othello and Desdèmona respectively.

While they struggle to strike the on-screen sexual chemistry required for portraying a newly married couple (Othello and Desdèmona), Ann finds it surprisingly easier to get along with the actor playing Othello's Lieutenant Cássio (Keke Fernandez) - the character with whom Desdèmona will later be accused of having an illicit affair in the play. Their affinity doesn't go unnoticed by Youcef, watching with unease from sidelines as the two pillow-fight, giggle, and begin to flirt with each other on the set.

In other words, and using a Shakespearean reference, the green-eyed monster of jealousy had just been awoken for Youcef. And this is exactly what the director, aptly named Iago (the play's antagonist and Othello's ensign who sows the seed of mistrust in his master using lies and deceit), had wanted from his actors. He orchestrates proceedings henceforth to let his actors' passions inflame even further and run riot in order to capture the drama that he needs, with scant regard for their psychological trauma.

The film forcefully presents its argument against some questionable ethics in cinema, known to have also been practised by some of the greatest film directors, and ponders the extent to which a director can manipulate or exploit his actors in order to get their desired result. Shot with hand-held camera movements like in an undercover documentary, and with minimal lighting, the film, whilst recreating a claustrophobic atmosphere, was designed to give viewers the feeling that they're watching the film-shooting in person, and at close quarters.

As a result, the viewer could barely pause or look elsewhere - the director, exploiting an innate penchant for voyeurism among us, had successfully hooked us in from the very beginning, by having us listen to the characters' intimate goings-on and private conversations. The performance, particularly by Ann M. Perelló, is convincing and there are occasions when she makes the film her own.

But what stands out is the style with which it was made - you could call it a workshop or masterclass even - on directing, or at the very least, in handling a cast, and getting the most from them. I haven't seen footage of a Stanley Kubrick directing, but from what I'd read about him, it mustn't have been that dissimilar to this. Catalan art has often been known for its quirks, with a totally unique take on everything under the sun, and this film happily reinforces that stereotype. Highly Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Ann M. Perelló and Kike Fernandez
Pivotal to the drama is a sex scene, purportedly imagined by a jealous Othello, of a sexual affair between wife Desdèmona and his Lieutenant Cáccio - Iago succeds in coaxing a shy and hesitant Ann to participate in a sex scene that will also feature her in the nude.

Ann M. Perelló and Kike Fernandez nude in Otel-lo


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