Friday, 29 August 2014

A film review: "Baixio das Bestas" [2006 Brazil]

"That stench you feel is that of a rotting world", exclaims Heitor to his neighbour and friend Mario, referring to falling standards of honour and respect within society. He ticks off a 'permissive' culture with 'loose morals', and castigates skimpily clad hostesses appearing on TV. He alleges that these occurrences are due to the lack of 'real men' with a sense of shame and authority. It is the same Heitor who will also display his teenage granddaughter naked to paying strangers at a truck stop. It is the same Heitor who gropes and treats the motherless child as slave, and it is the same monster who's also her biological father.

In "Baixio das Bestas" [Eng. Title: Bog of Beasts], Cláudio Assis pulls no punches in giving his tuppence-worth concerning sexual exploitation in the hinterlands of northern Brazil - a land of sugar plantations, poverty-stricken labourers, and denuded industry. The place is so poor that even prostitutes struggle to make a living; they'd put up with the worst kind of psychos to get by, because whatever business there is, is frequently siphoned off by pubescent (and younger) girls newly sold into slavery, often by family. It is the perfect playground for bored rich kids from city to indulge their misogyny in over their weekends. The film loosely follows two sub-plots that converge towards the end, but they're not the main focus because we mostly see them as faceless, voiceless people going about their lives - exploiting or suffering.

Mariah Teixeira in Baixia das Bestas Baixio das bestas
Mariah Teixeira in Baixio das bestas Mariah Teixiera and Caio Blat in Baixio das bestas

Fifteen year old Auxiliadora (played by a twenty one year old Mariah Teixeira) is the breadwinner for Heitor (played by Fernando Teixeira - and no relation to the former). Apart from cooking and 'looking after' her grandfather, she offers a mobile laundry service for townspeople, and is also the weekly strip show attraction at a highway truck-stop, overseen by Heitor himself.

Auxiliadora doesn't speak very much. True to her cruelly ironic name, which refers to someone who protects and helps, we watch her stoically go about her errands with an efficient, noble, almost automated fluency without as much as uttering a word. But her story is telling; she speaks for numerous souls in the same predicament as hers, almost everywhere even today. Circumstances will conspire to force her already desperate existence through hell and beyond, before she eventually discovers a way to survive.

Cicero (Caio Blat) is the son of an industrialist living and studying in Recife, only returning to his home town during weekends and holidays. After lazing around all day at home where a self-absorbed mother fails to establish any authority, he spends evenings and nights out with fellow-rich kid Everardo (Matheus Nachtergaele) who he's also in awe with, and who along with other layabouts, terrorise the neighbourhood and its brothels.

Their secret haunt is a disused cinema, owned by one of the gang members' father. They drink, pore over strewn film cuttings from porn films (there's apparently a lot to study from 70's pornochanchada), talk politics, play with guns, and viciously abuse prostitutes naive enough to visit their lair. The cinema aspect of the narrative also presents director Assis opportunities to expand on his symbolisms. "The best thing about cinema, is that you can do whatever you want", says Everardo, pointedly breaking the fifth wall during a passage of play. True, these guys can indeed get away with anything..!

The film is among the more brutal ones you're likely to come across. It is depressing as it is distressing, and there won't be a Hollywood-style finale even if you wait for the end-credits to finish rolling. Assis has a difficult subject to work with, and while it's not nearly as nuanced as his later films, it has a raging fire inside it - burning in solidarity with the people and the region that he too hails from. Almost every main character in the film symbolise something - they may be of the extreme kind, but they're also real - some of the horrendous scenes even mirror what we read in news bulletins these days, when we momentarily feel ashamed for belonging to the human race. It looks like nothing much has changed.

There are iconographic characterisations in the film, like the one played by Irandhir Santos as a cesspit/grave digger, who's in love but helpless in rescuing Auxiliadora from her grandfather - he represents a conscientious and aspirational Brazil that whistles its way through adversity and yet manages to party whenever it can. The cane plantations too are a film-character, and its burning towards the end represents regeneration and new life. Scenes featuring the region's native folk art of maracatu signify values and traditions that are maintained, against many odds.

The film scores very well in its technical values, and includes some of Assis' signature tracking shots courtesy of Walter Carvalho's engaging camera work. It has an eclectic but memorable soundtrack and the vibrant maracatu beats transport you across the ocean, to a more ancient time. The performances are real - disturbingly so, and many of the actors have since gone on to become household names - not because of this film, of course. Watching it is anything but pleasant - it is shocking and it will make you angry, but it is also a reality that needs to be told, an issue that needs to be addressed by society as a whole, and is naturally Highly Recommended Viewing..!

DVD Enquiry Link [NTSC]
This was among the pricier DVD's ordered recently through a Brazilian friend of mine. For a modern film, it is also inexplicably letterboxed-widescreen, but it does include English subtitles. Regardless, this film's crying out for a proper re-authoring!


The Nudity: Mariah Teixeira, Hermila Guedes, Matheus Nachtergaele, Dira Paes, and Caio Blat
The film features scenes of gang rape and other appalling forms of abuse, and no 'balanced' individual will enjoy watching it. The victims' pain and humiliation is plain to see even if one must have a degree of imagination to actually feel it themselves. These actors - either the abusers or the abused, must surely have gone through a bit of soul-searching before and after the film-shoot. Director Assis too appears (uncredited) as one of the gropers during a strip scene.

Mariah Teixeira, Hermila Guedes, Matheus Nachtergaele, Dira Paes, and Caio Blat nude in Baixio das Bestas


Monday, 18 August 2014

Lifting spirits shatteringly: "The Mighty Angel" [2014 Poland]

Wojciech Smarzowski is one of the important directors working in Poland today, and his latest feature, "Pod Mocnym Aniolem" [Eng. Title: The Mighty Angel] is also among the grittiest and bleakest that he's ever made. The film tackles the subject of alcoholism by approaching it as more than merely a social ill. I'd seen the film a few months earlier and never intended to write about it for reasons too close to home in many respects, but have nevertheless felt compelled to do so following Robin Williams' recent passing.

Robert Wieckiewicz and Julia Kijowska in Pod Mocnym Aniolem Robert Wieckiewicz in Pod Mocnym Aniolem
Robert Wieckiewicz in Pod Mocnym Aniolem Robert Wieckiewicz and Julia Kijowska in Pod Mocnym Aniolem

Jerzy (Robert Wieckiewicz) has everything going for him - he's a successful writer whose most recent novel is a best seller. His opinions and views are much sought after by academia and he is often appearing in various TV channels doing interviews. He is a respected and valued member of society. And he is also engaged to marry his beautiful and much younger publisher (Julia Kijowska).

But Jerzy has a problem - one that will lead to his repeated stints in rehab. He'll leave the clinic when he feels that he has everything under control, but his feet will irresistibly drag him to a liquor store ironically named The Mighty Angel the moment he steps off his taxi.

Jerzy will end up spending most of his time and money cleaning or getting rid of clothes soiled through drunken stupors, and replacing empty bottles at home with new ones - he's a person who truly did sound like a wind chime walking down the street when stumbling home. Before long, he'd be back in rehab once again.

Through all his frequent transgressions, he never realises that he's destroying himself; in fact he doesn't want to die - at least not just yet. He wants to drink himself to death only after he'd lived a long and happy life (better than living through dementia, in his opinion). It is small wonder that Jerzy's relationship with his fiancée, despite her tenacious love, patience, and understanding, will reach a breaking point.

It is their relationship's inevitable demise that'll lead him to hitherto uncharted territory, such as his wholesale loss of dignity, appalling injuries, and even police confinement - essentially like that of any other old bum on the street. The film ends with his subsequent release from rehab, and yet again standing at the crossroads, in more ways than one - and hoping, like most of us, to live that elusive long and happy life.


The central question that the film poses is none other than the age old one about the purpose of living itself. "Generally, the sense of human existence is reduced to strenuous efforts to lift one's spirits. Ideology, for example, may serve this purpose, the same with religion, technical progress, and material goods." Jerzy then goes on to wonder if alcohol may serve the same purpose too. It brings us to a subject that inevitably involves the often misleading term named 'depression'. The film makes a claim that one doesn't necessarily need to suffer from personal or societal problems in order to descend into a spiral of despair, and that it could be a philosophical issue too.

Jerzy isn't exactly going through a writer's block. He isn't traumatised by the past even considering his late father's own alcoholism, nor does he have any financial or social worries. He is successful and well loved. And yet he suffers, from problems arising from issues that are not only spiritual, but existential too. Using experiences of other alcoholics at the clinic as supporting case studies, the film is as much a comparative study about sadness as the suffering itself, associated with a habit which often begins benignly as a reward-seeking mechanism. Convincingly portrayed by Robert Wieckiewicz and unflinchingly captured by director Smarzowski, it is an unrelentingly brutal, solemn, and honest attempt to present the often-ignored other side of conventional narrative - that of the 'bum'. It might be difficult to watch, but it's Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL] | Amazon Blu-ray Link


The Nudity: Julia Kijowska and Monika Dorota
There is brief nudity shown during a couple of scenes - the first is of Jerzy and his girlfriend discussing alcoholism and expressing their mutual love for each other, and the second instance is of Jerzy having sex with a big-bosomed nurse at the rehab clinic.

Julia Kijowska and Monika Dorota nude in Pod Mocnym Aniolem


Friday, 8 August 2014

A film review: "El amante bilingüe" [1993 Spain]

Vicente Aranda isn't particularly renowned for comedy, because he hardly makes any - passionate melodrama is his preferred cup of tea. That's why "El amante bilingüe" [Eng. Title: The Bilingual Lover] stands out in his filmography, for trying to be one.

Ornella Muti and Imanol Arias in El amante bilingüe Ornella Muti and Imanol Arias in El amante bilingüe
Ornella Muti and Imanol Arias in El amante bilingüe Imanol Arias and Ornella Muti in El amante bilingüe

Set against the backdrop of resurgent nationalism in seventies Barcelona, the film is about an unusual romance between an oddly matched couple; Norma (Ornella Muti) is a wealthy and pretty Catalan woman, where as Juan Mares' (Imanol Arias) just another 'immigrant' (i.e., not from Catalunya), street-hawking his talents along the famed La Rambla boulevard. They marry after a whirlwind romance.

Returning early from work one day, Juan surprises Norma and a shoe-shine boy (Javier Bardem) frolicking in the bedroom, nude. Norma rebukes him for his unannounced entry and leaves home in anger, but allows him to stay in the flat that she owns. Fired from his job at the family business, Juan heads back to the streets where he plied his trade earlier.

One day, he becomes the target of an apparently random petrol-bomb attack by a group of skinheads and gets disfigured, loosing an eye in the process. Ashamed of his disfigurement, he dons a mask, and broods his fate in the apartment that he once shared with Norma. He misses her; often calling her at work just to hear her voice while pretending to be someone else, Juan will also confront her on streets disguised, and hurl a mouthful of choice expletives at her in Catalan, which he knows will only turn her on - she loves being talked dirty to in that language.

After inventing a new 'look' for himself, Juan will practice his seduction techniques on lonely neighbour Griselda (Loles León), who'll duly be taken by his 'mysterious persona'. With the new found confidence, Juan will plan a scheme that'd enable him to strike up a new relationship with Norma. He'll pretend to be Juan Faneca, a childhood friend of his, who'll be the last person to have seen Juan Mares alive...

While the storyline is quintessentially Catalan, it is also not a comedy that'll cheer audience immensely. Vicente Aranda, by mixing lighter moments with his customary dark satire, has tried to make a film that would generally be associated with fellow Catalan Bigas Luna, whose hugely successful Jamón Jamón coincidentally reached a new and wider world audience only the previous year. There are, of course, several uniquely typical Vicente Aranda symbolisms and moments on display. The house that Juan lives in has tiles constantly falling off the brickwork - a critique of crumbling family and society. A totally blind hotel receptionist, who can also foretell future, advices a half-blind Juan not to give up, since his predicament might just be slightly better off than hers.

Also typical of Aranda's films are the passionate, if slightly unconventional scenes of sex that they often feature, alongside a non-PC sense of humour. Ornella Muti and Imanol Arias were established stars but the rest were rising fast too, like Javier Bardem who appears in just a single scene but certainly creates an impression, and an uncredited Maribel Verdú who appears for no more than four seconds, playing a saxophone. Ms. Muti is as bold and classy as ever, and while this may not be Arias' best film, it is at least a different role to the ones he's used to. Whether you love or hate Vicente Aranda films, you'll certainly find them remarkably original, and for want of a better word - 'memorable' even. This film isn't any different. DVD Link [PAL] | English Subtitles

The Nudity: Ornella Muti, Javier Bardem, Loles León, and Imanol Arias
Prepare yourself for some kinky goings-on and dirty talk during the film's sex scenes. The leading lady here likes to play with her lovers using a shoe (and both Bardem and Arias enthusiastically oblige), and in one scene Ms. Muti also begs Juan to pee while still inside her - they'd just finished having sex and he was about to pull out, to use the toilet. There's also a scene of a voluptuous Loles León purring as she invites Juan to join her in bed. Spaniards are indeed a fascinating people when it comes to sex..! :-)

Ornella Muti, Javier Bardem, Loles León, and Imanol Arias nude in Vicente Aranda's "El amante bilingüe"


Monday, 4 August 2014

A review: "Meisje" [2002 Belgium, Netherlands]

Dorothée Van Den Berghe's début feature "Meisje" [Eng. Title: Girl] is about a young provincial woman who is determined to escape her mundane working-class existence, experience what it's like to be 'independent', and get herself associated with refined culture in a big city. The film also looks at issues concerning women of various ages using characters that the protagonist interacts with.

Charlotte Vanden Eynde in Meisje Els Dottermans and Mathias Schoenaerts in Meisje (2002)
Charlotte Vanden Eynde and Nico Sturm in Meisje Frieda Pittoors and Charlotte Vanden Eynde in Meisje

It begins with twenty year old Muriel (Charlotte Vanden Eynde) attending an interview for the post of museum guide in a Brussels art gallery. Even before waiting for her result, she gives notice to her employer back in the village, where her doting mother Martha (Frieda Pittoors) too works, and rents a room in a Brussels flat owned by Laura (Els Dottermans) - a thirty-something woman desperate to get pregnant.

Laura is an exuberant woman who thinks she has little time to waste on niceties such as love and loyalty. When her lover Oskar (Matthias Schoenaerts) refuses to be party to her pregnancy-plans, she promptly starts scouting for a new lover. When her terminally ill mother (Alice Toen) enquires about him in the hospital, she lets her know that they're no longer together.

Muriel doesn't land the expected job, but she persuades them to give her any other job in the gallery. After some initial reluctance, they make her a guard. Her erstwhile boyfriend Luc (Nico Sturm) is upset at her leaving village, and comes looking for her at work, in vain hope of convincing her to return with him. Instead, Muriel secretly begins fancying Oskar after bumping into him while returning from work one day.

Their first date won't turn out as planned, when Muriel is forced to babysit the children of Laura's new lover Alain (Wim Opbrouck) - he had after all offered to sample Laura's voice to kick-start her musical career. Sneaking out after putting the children to bed, Muriel, worried about them waking up, couldn't quite enjoy her date and returns home in haste. The same evening, Martha, clearly not happy about her daughter living away, comes looking for her in Brussels. Martha, Laura, and Muriel will unite under unexpected circumstances, and also open up to each other...

Van Den Berghe's début, whilst showcasing her talents as film-maker, also demonstrates her willingness to draw inspiration from other world directors such as Robert Bresson and Mike Leigh. But the film also delves headlong into self-reflective realism of the Nouvelle Vague kind, and perhaps could've lightened up a touch now and again. Of course, this isn't helped by the protagonist's rather reserved, Cinderella-type character whose forte doesn't include humour. What's insightful and well observed however, are the mother-daughter interactions - both between Muriel and Martha, and Laura and her mother, that are as moving as they're relevant in understanding modern family relationships. At least for this reason, it is Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Charlotte Vanden Eynde, Els Dottermans, and Alice Toen
The film contains a number of scenes featuring nudity and sex, some of which are also close-ups that might even have used a body-double for actress and performance artist Charlotte Vanden Eynde, who isn't particularly the shy type. Most of the nudity however is from Els Dottermans, and she also features in a hilarious, interrupted sex scene. Alice Toen is shown nude while undergoing a scan at the hospital.

Charlotte Vanden Eynde and Els Dottermans nude in Dorothée Van Den Berghe's "Meisje" aka "Girl".