Thursday, 28 April 2016

A film review: "Suburra" [2015 Italy]

Stefano Sollima, already successful in Italian television, impresses an international audience for the first time, and in no uncertain terms, in his second feature film, the gritty crime drama "Suburra".

Pierfrancesco Favino in Suburra Giulia Elettra Gorietti in Suburra
Alessandro Borghi and Giacomo Ferrara in Suburra Greta Scarano and Alessandro Borghi in Suburra
Claudio Amendola in Suburra Adamo Dionisi and Elio Germano in Suburra

The title metaphorically alludes to a seedy quarter of classical Rome where powerful and criminal elements once congregated to conduct shady deals. The film however, is set more recently in 2011 and focuses on an unholy alliance between corrupt politicians, cardinals, and various mafia outfits, setting off a chain reaction of events following an accident, just as the government pulls out all stops for a financial bailout during the economic crisis. It also advances the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI by a couple of years to add impact to an already complex plot involving these disparate characters.

When Filippo Malgradi (Pierfransisco Favino), a prominent minister of the crisis-ridden government 'unwinds' with a couple of prostitutes in a hotel room, the youngest of the two - fifteen year old Ilena (Yuliia Kolomiiets) drops dead due to a drug overdose. A reluctant Malgradi, with his career, reputation, and family life on the line, doesn't want to deal with the consequences, and dismissively asks the other prostitute Sabrina (Giulia Elettra Gorietti) to get rid of the body by any means, which she does with the help of Dagger (Giacomo Ferrara).

Dagger is from the Anacleti clan, and brother of the terrifying Manfredi (Adamo Dionisi), whose criminal interests range from money lending to drug pushing and prostitution. He begins to blackmail Malgradi over the underage prostitute's death, who in turn approaches a fellow politician for help. The politician asks Number 8 (Alessandro Borghi), a hit man and mafia don who controls Ostia, to 'have a word' with Dagger.

When Dagger is murdered, a war ensues between Manfredi and Number 8 against a backdrop of other big-time mafia interests vying for a piece of the pie surrounding a huge real estate redevelopment programme proposed for Ostia, a hitherto backwater port town. They are represented by a veteran mafia negotiator named Samurai (Claudio Amendola), who wants to defuse the war to ensure the smooth passing of the redevelopment bill in parliament. But the chain reaction has a mind of its own...

Any film about my favourite European city would inevitably end up in my watching list, but after La grande bellezza had set a new bar in depicting Rome in film, "Suburra" came as a pleasant surprise - and it is plain to see that the film had also drawn a bit of inspiration from the former. The taut thriller however paints a different picture - of a city seething with corruption and irredeemable characters - a Rome running a bit short of her heroes at present.

While a lot can be written in glowing terms about the film's impressive technical merits, I'll restrict myself to the production design that stands out, particularly Manfredi's villa filled with wholly incongruous artefacts that hint at the dubious ways in which they might have been accumulated, the owner's attempt - being of gypsy heritage, at trying to gain respectability in a society that fears and shuns him. True, these are clichés that only reinforce stereotypes, but it is also a reminder of the prejudice and racism that still exists today. The scenes in the villa, teeming with urchins from Manfredi's 'extended family', are also the only comedic moments in an otherwise brooding film.

By extracting strong performances from the main actors and keeping the tension going for the best part of the film, Sollima has crafted a gritty and memorable film along the lines of Giuseppe Tornatore's Il camorrista. It is heartening to see that Italian cinema can still produce the odd gem now and again - we only wish it was more frequent. Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon Blu-ray Link

The Nudity: Pierfrancesco Favino, Yuliia Kolomiiets, Giulia Elettra Gorietti,
and Greta Scarano
There is an extended sex scene involving characters played by Pierfrancesco Favino, Yuliia Kolomiiets, and Giulia Elettra Gorietti, interspersed with other events happening at the same time. Greta Scarano who plays Viola, the love-interest of Number 8, appears nude in a couple of scenes, first when her knickers are pulled down at a night club by Number 8, and later when she lay uncovered in bed and Number 8's associate comes barging in.

Pierfrancesco Favino, Yuliia Kolomiiets, Giulia Elettra Gorietti, and Greta Scarano nude in Suburra (2015)


Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Detached, but rooted: "Sedím na konári a je mi dobre" [1989, Czechoslovakia]

Juraj Jakubisko, like many of his contemporaries of the Czechoslovak New Wave, had an uncanny ability to weave elements of local myth, legend, and fantasy into a uniquely Slavic narrative that spoke directly to its audience. Often bordering on the absurd and the surreal, his films depict ordinary people coping with exceptional circumstances using little more than wit and humour. Creatively, his works are reminiscent of an early Vera Chytilová, only a bit more 'colourful' and audience-friendly. After initial success, he couldn't be as productive as he wanted to be after the crushing of the Prague Spring, and had to rely on various well wishers to finish his projects. He has however managed to produce some remarkable gems that this site hopes to uncover for a different audience.

Ondrej Pavelka in "Sedím na konári a je mi dobre". Ondrej Pavelka and Bolek Polivka in "Sedím na konári a je mi dobre"
Bolek Polivka in "Sedím na konári a je mi dobre" Bolek Polivka and Deana Horvathova in "Sedím na konári a je mi dobre"
Marketa Hrubesova in "Sedím na konári a je mi dobre" Bolek Polivka in "Sedím na konári a je mi dobre"

I start his filmography, not with one of his more famous works, but something more simple and accessible, but haunting nevertheless in the way it spins comedy against the backdrop of great tragedy and misery, "Sedím na konári a je mi dobre" [Eng. Title: I'm Sitting on a Branch and Feel Fine], with events unfolding as Europe's fighting war finally came to an end during World War II.

It begins at a refugee camp somewhere in Slovakia, where Prengel (Ondrej Pavelka), a young local soldier returning from war duties, and Pepe (Bolek Polívka), a likeable scoundrel and an out-of-work circus clown, bump into each other - Pepe is hungry and has a stolen bicycle to offer, and Prengel has some airdropped tins of pork at his disposal. They settle on exchanging food for a ride to wherever Prengel wanted to go, but are interrupted by a military policeman who recognises his missing bicycle with them.

They escape into the woods along with the stolen bicycle, and only after one of their frequent arguments do they discover the reason why the gun-totting officer was determinedly pursuing them for what was essentially petty theft - the bike's tubing was stuffed with jewels originally confiscated by the Nazis from fleeing Jewish families. While Prengel wanted them returned to the authorities, Pepe, with ambitions to set up his own circus company back in Italy, refuses and offers a share in the spoils instead.

When Prengel discovers that his home has been destroyed and family members killed, Pepe consoles him and decides to stay. They take formal possession of a Jewish family's abandoned bakery and mansion with the help of Prengel's former school teacher, now an influential local official, and are suggested to become bakers in their own right so that supplies to the devastated town could resume. They manage to get by with their mediocre baking skills because the townspeople weren't too fussed about the quality of their bread.

One day they notice a wandering young woman with a striking resemblance to Ester, the daughter of the Jewish family who owned the mansion. Both men fall in love and take her home. The girl (Markéta Hrubesová), apparently traumatised, rarely utters a word, and the men agree to behave like gentlemen and wait for her to choose one among them as her lover, despite the temptation arising every time she sheds her clothes to stay in the nude, which was often. Their love for her doesn't diminish even after she returns to something akin to normal and admits that she wasn't Ester after all, and that she only knew Ester as a schoolmate. Before long, they discover that she is also pregnant, and not because of them...

While the film draws its comedy using tragic events happening around the protagonists as a backdrop, it doesn't trivialise the events themselves - instead it makes us feel for the fallen characters and, in the typical style of Emir Kusturica, keep them in picture as a constant reminder of the real world outside, and the urgent need to adapt and move on. It also, aided by some fine production design and cinematography, injects a level of authenticity rarely seen in films from Western Europe and Hollywood - it is about 'real' people who rebuilt a continent to the best of their abilities, from the ashes of war. The people are worth remembering, if only to delay the next cycle of history repeating itself. If there is anything allegorical in this film, it isn't as apparent as in one of his earlier films with a similar topic, but even at face value, it stands out as great cinema and therefore, Highly Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Markéta Hrubesová, Ondrej Pavelka, Bolek Polívka, and Deana Horváthová
Having watched the film years ago, the scenes I couldn't forget were those of a pretty and wholesome Markéta Hrubesová, prowling the house in the nude with her pet black feline, and perched atop a tree while beckoning a randy and hapless Pepe - it's not something you come across every day (but dearly hope to). There is also a scene of Prengel and Pepe scrubbing themselves when Ester barges in to offer a helping hand. There is brief nudity from actress, producer, and director's wife Deana Horváthová, who plays a relatively minor role in the film as an overenthusiastic communist ideologue - her character is initially pursued by Pepe, but the tables are turned upon conquest, after he realises that her sexual appetite is greater than what he could handle.

Markéta Hrubesová and Ondrej Pavelka nude in "Sedím na konári a je mi dobre" [1989, Czechoslovakia].


Thursday, 14 April 2016

A film review: "Palmeras en la nieve" [2015 Spain]

Fernando González Molina has made a commendable effort in recreating colonial Africa for his latest film, "Palmeras en la nieve" [Eng. Title: Palm trees in the Snow], a saga encompassing the final years of Spain's tiny toehold in sub-Saharan Africa (Spanish, now Equatorial Guinea).

A scene from "Palmeras en la nieve" (2015) Adriana Ugarte in "Palmeras en la nieve" (2015)
Berta Vazquez in "Palmeras en la nieve" (2015) Mario Casas in "Palmeras en la nieve" (2015)

The story centers around Kilian (Mario Casas), a young man from Huesca who in 1953, joins his father and brother Jacobo (Alain Hernández) working for a cocoa plantation in a small tropical island named Fernando Poo (Bioko). It is during Jacobo's funeral in 2003, that his daughter Clarence (Adriana Ugarte) discovers a stash of letters and photographs pointing to a beneficiary still living in the erstwhile colony, and decides to visit the island of Bioko to investigate.

Clarence stumbles upon details of a long-term relationship that her uncle Kilian had with Bisila (Berta Vázquez), an already married native woman. Much of the film dwells on the couple's passionate affair against the backdrop of the colonisers' strained relationship with the locals, and their tenuous grip on sections of a populace simmering with discontent and nationalist sentiments.

It wasn't to be easy for Clarence in Baiko, not helped by the fact that most of the local population have reverted to using African names after Spain vacated (her clues pointed to locals with Spanish names). She befriends local man Iniko (Djedje Apali), falls in love, and will eventually learn to her surprise that he is a rather important relative of Bisila...

The tone of the narrative is vaguely reminiscent of, but not nearly as poetic as La puta y la bellena, with the nesting turtles in place of the whale as the film's metaphor. It tries to steer clear of controversy, as is often the case in films dealing with colonialism, by depicting its protagonist as just another Spanish employee in the plantation, albeit with perks not available to natives. But there's no getting away from the fact that they were still part of the colonial system - and I'm not sure if this had anything to do with the fact that the film was shot in various locations except Equatorial Guinea itself. Despite its minor shortcomings, the film nevertheless scores well in its production values, even bagging a couple of Goya Awards this year - altogether, a much better film from director Molina. Blu-ray Link


The Nudity: Berta Vázquez, and Adriana Ugarte
A stunning and athletic Berta Vázquez - as Bisila, appears nude in at least three scenes with Mario Casas as Kilian (apparently they are off-screen partners too). There is also a scene featuring an as-ever lovely Adriana Ugarte when her character joins Iniko under a waterfall, and they proceed to make love in a secluded beach.

Berta Vázquez, and Adriana Ugarte in the Spanish melodrama, "Palmeras en la nieve" (2015).


Saturday, 9 April 2016

A film review: "Territory" [2015 Russia]

Aleksandr Melnik's "Territoriya" [Eng. Title: Territory] is a remake of an earlier Soviet film about the Siberian Gold Rush of the late fifties and early sixties. Of course, the term needs to be applied rather selectively, because it was only the Soviet state involved in this particular 'rush'.

A scene from "Territory" [2015 Russia] A scene from "Territoriya" [2015 Russia]
A scene from "Territory" [2015 Russia] A scene from "Territoriya" [2015 Russia]

The film's intended focus is a celebrated geologist's attempts to persuade teams of geologists working on various assignments in the rugged Siberian tundra to get involved in prospecting for gold. He succeeds to some extent, thanks to the pioneering and adventure spirit of those involved.

We see tenacious men endure extreme conditions in the northeastern corner of Siberia - this is no place for the faint-hearted; some set out on foot, even unaccompanied, on treks to desolate barren lands, where they have to overcome ice, rapids, and other inaccessible terrain to reach their destination. Some of them don't quite succeed despite their valiant efforts, while some persevere, and discover gold.

The film's strengths: Firstly, it's the location, location, location; its the abundance of breathtaking and awe inspiring landscapes - and one will simply run out of superlatives in describing the unspoilt, untamed, and unforgiving form of nature that's so lovingly captured in film. It also puts into perspective the insignificance of man, and yet his heroic effort in battling himself in 'taming' it. The other strength is its main cast, who perform reasonably well.

The film's weaknesses: Unfortunately, there are several, and they're mainly to do with the narrative, like the totally unnecessary voice-over narration. It distracts from a film that could so easily have been contemplative and poetic. I had to turn off my subtitles for a slightly different reason though; it prevented me from appreciating the sheer majesty of the visuals we're seeing. And I knew I won't be missing anything important, because the droll female voice narrating the film was, for the most part, explaining what the persons on screen were thinking or feeling, like in a comic strip.

Another problem with the film, surprisingly and against the grain of what was commented above, is its rather 'mainstream' cinematography. Geology is an important focus for the film, and yet we barely find an appreciation for it in the way these landscapes, which are also geologically interesting, are depicted - it's all seen with a commoner's eye. Even if one allows for the fact that this is a feature film as opposed to a documentary, it wasn't aiding the narrative. But if you enjoy natural landscapes, especially anything above and beyond the Arctic circle, you'll love this film - only, remember to switch off the subtitles!


The Nudity: Grigoriy Dobrygin (?), and Tamara Obutova
The film starts with a brief yet funny sequence, when the dogs bolt along with the sleigh when their master slept. He wakes up and runs after them in the nude. There is also a scene featuring an Eskimo girl (Tamara Obutova) going about her chores half-nude, apparently in accordance to tradition. She puts on a shirt only after noticing that the stranger that they rescued had woken up.

Tamara Obutova nude in "Territoriya" [2015 Russia]


Sunday, 3 April 2016

Mucking about in the marshes: Schneider vs. Bax [2015, Netherlands]

Alex van Warmerdam showcases his unique style once again in the comedy thriller, "Schneider vs. Bax". He remains among the select few who continue to write, direct, and star in their own films, with his family members also involved in the production.

Loes Haverkort in "Schneider vs. Bax" (2015) Tom Dewispelaere in "Schneider vs. Bax" (2015)
Maria Kraakman and Alex van Warmerdam in "Schneider vs. Bax" [2015] Annet Malherbe and Tom Dewispelaere in "Schneider vs. Bax" [2015]

We're introduced to Schneider (a brilliant Tom Dewispelaere) as an entrenched family man, after his beaming wife and adoring kids wake him up in the morning to wish happy birthday. It's his day off, but is inexplicably summoned to 'office' for an urgent task. He rushes to work, promising wife Lucy (Loes Haverkort) that he'd be back before lunch to help with the cooking.

A loving family, and a dutiful husband - but unlike his family, we'll discover that Schneider is in fact a professional hit man. He is asked - more like begged, by boss Mertens (Gene Bervoets) to kill a man named Ramon Bax. It takes plenty of persuasion for Schneider to finally agree to take the task.

Meanwhile Bax (Alex van Warmerdam), a hit man himself, and a pill-popping old fox who was about to hang up his boots to become a writer,  is reminded that he too had a task for the day - he'll have to kill a man named Schneider when he comes visiting at his cottage in the polders. When he wakes up to the fact that his depressive daughter Francisca (Maria Kraakman) will also be dropping by, he tries to move the Schneider task to the following week, but his boss will have none of it.

For Schneider, what should have been a straightforward job before a family get-together, becomes complicated when Gina (Annet Malherbe) runs into him at his hideout, after being pursued by a murderous pimp. He rescues her, but now had to figure out what to do with the unwanted witness. A series of unexpected twists will only delay but not avoid the protagonists' eventual guns-blazing final showdown...

The screenplay deliberately avoids feeding audience with facts and motives, which makes sense because at the end, it doesn't really matter who is the better person among the two. What we do learn is that, despite their gruesome professions, these guys love and care for their family in their own way, and pursue what they see as right. This is also a comedy, even though we are not necessarily treated to clever jokes and slapstick moments. It's the little details around the narrative that make the film outrageous and sometimes darkly funny - it builds layers of cliché only to dismantle them in one stroke.

It's because of this that the film is engaging, despite its modest storyline and minimal cast. The locations, particularly the desolate but luscious marshland in the northern province of Groningen, form a splendid backdrop to the dark, and at times absurd events unfolding in front of us. The dialogues carry a dead pan humour and the cast get their timing just about right. It had always been a pleasant surprise watching van Warmerdam films, and this one is no exception. Highly Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Eva van de Wijdeven and Maria Kraakman
The first instance of nudity is when Bax hurries girlfriend Nadine (Eva van de Wijdeven) into leaving because he doesn't want her in the house when his daughter arrives. The second is of Maria Kraakman, which I won't explain because it could be a spoiler.

Eva van de Wijdeven and Maria Kraakman from the comedy thriller "Schneider vs. Bax" [2015]


Friday, 1 April 2016

A force of nature: "Gabriela, Cravo e Canela" [1983 Brazil]

Jorge Amado is one of the most revered authors from Brazil, and after phenomenal success in bringing to film his earlier novel "Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos", director Bruno Barreto adapted yet another popular novel of his, "Gabriela, Cravo e Canela" [Eng. Title: Gabriela], to reasonable acclaim.

Sonia Braga in Gabriela Sonia Braga and Marcello Mastroianni in Gabriela (1983)
Marcello Mastroianni and Sonia Braga in Gabriela (1983) Sonia Braga in "Gabriela" (1983)

Set in 1925, in the cocoa producing town of Ilhéus where the author himself grew up, it wryly observes the social changes happening at the time when the backwater town was finally opened up to direct trade and opportunities following an improvement in infrastructure. It was also a time when refugees from the drought-hit north came pouring into town - one of whom, covered in dirt through the long trek, was a young woman named Gabriela (Sonia Braga).

She gets picked up by a bar owner named Nasib (Marcello Mastroianni), a Syrian-Italian immigrant himself, to work as his personal cook at home. Not only does the unassuming Gabriela turn out to be an outstanding cook, but also a vivacious, sensual, and free-spirited woman, whose likes the conservative town had never seen. Impressed by his demeanour and mature looks, she offers herself willingly to Nasib, who could hardly believe his luck when they become lovers. But soon, the town's men begin to take interest in her too, offering her various incentives to move in with them. A loyal Gabriela politely refuses those offers.

A jealous Nasib, aware of the attention Gabriela gets everywhere, wants her as his own, and proposes marriage after getting his best friend and Mayor's son Tonico Bastos (Antonio Cantafora) to prepare/forge her identity papers. Gabriela was quite content remaining Nasib's cook and lover, but she nevertheless acquiesces to his wishes, and after their marriage, the dynamic of their relationship changes.

While Nasib tries to impart some 'refined culture' into his new wife Gabriela and force her to change her attire and manners, little did he anticipate that it would backfire spectacularly. A telling moment in the film is when Gabriela asks Nasib how it could possibly be more fun listening to a poet one barely understands, when compared to watching a circus performance. She finds the hypocrisy of the upper classes amusing, and sneaks off to the circus after Nasib falls sleep.

The film may have decided to shower greater attention to the sensual and sexual aspect of Gabriela's relationship with Nasib, but it's not difficult to see that Gabriela the character also stands as an allegory for 'the New World' itself. Her raw, untamed, and pure nature is clearly at odds with the 'old' world that's dictating terms, but she resists and sets her own terms while dealing with them. There is a social and political undercurrent to events happening in Ilhéus, and while that may not be the film's focus, it is nevertheless discernible. The film, like the novel, starts with an almost casual act of brutality and the people stand in solidarity with the perpetrator. He will however, face justice towards the end - a sign that change is in the air.

This isn't the veteran director's finest film, but I chose to review it mainly for its casting. Marcelo Mastroianni was already a superstar back in Italy when the film was made (though past his prime), but he nevertheless chose to take on this atypical role of a not-too-perfect Nasib to good effect. I'm aware that "Gabriela" has been made and remade several times, but it will be difficult to compare anyone to a Sonia Braga - she is Gabriela in every sense in the film - sensual, and as convincing as she was Dona Flor in Barreto's earlier film. Mastroianni and Ms Braga bring an explosive chemistry to their characters, and it works. It's also a memorable film that accurately recreates an earlier period in Brazil - and therefore Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [NTSC]


The Nudity: Sonia Braga, Tania Boscoli, and Antonio Cantáfora
Among mainstream films with liberal nudity, "Gabriela" is certainly a classic, because Sonia Braga who plays the titular character is at her most uninhibited. She's also often without knickers in her scenes, but it's not gratuitous - only part of a 'natural' characterisation, even if some of the characters she interacts with come out as leery and lewd. In addition to Ms. Braga's scenes, there is nudity in a post-sex scene featuring Tania Boscoli as Gloria, offering spending money to her young lover. Antonio Cantáfora's character is also caught while having sex with Gabriela, and runs through the street without any clothes on.

Sonia Braga nude in Gabriela, Cravo e Canela