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Monday 21 January 2019

Caphernaüm (Capernaum), Lebanon 2018, co-written and directed Nadine Labaki, 8.5* out of 10

With Caphernaüm, Nadine Labaki and her team have made an important and powerful film that deserves prizes but makes for difficult viewing. Not easy to stop one's eyes from welling up with tears of anger and emotion. The unsentimental acting performance by the young charismatic Zain al-Rafeeah is brilliant and memorable. It stays with us long after the film has ended.

Beirut 2018. Serving a five-year jail sentence for a violent crime 12-year-old Zain (Zain al-Rafeeah) is suing his parents Selim (Fadi Yousef) and Souad (Kawsar al Haddad) for bringing him into this world. What follows is a flashback which shows Zain's life in Beirut’s poorest quarters where children are brought up as slaves of their parents being farmed out to unscrupulous employers. They must learn to beg steal borrow in the chaos, dirt, and cruelty that surrounds them in order to survive from hour to hour. Zain’s best friend is his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita 'Cedra' Izzam); but his father sells her into marriage and seals her fate. Zain rages against his parents against the chaos around him. He runs away and finds a friendly adult in the illegal immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) from Ethiopia who asks him to babysit her one-year-old child Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). We follow Zain, Rahil, Yonas and the others as their lives are thrown into ever more unbearable chaos within which they are trying to survive with a last remnant of human dignity.

Caphernaüm, named after the chaotic biblical city in Northern Galilee, near where today’s Israeli town of Kfar Nahum stands, is near enough cursed to hell in the New Testament Matthew 11:23 “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” That is the hard-hitting accusation that Nadine Labaki brings against all those who allow a place where young children face the chaotic violent and hopeless living conditions in full sight of the Lebanese government and the international humanitarian community. Living conditions forced upon their children by parents, relatives and neighbours who see themselves as victims of "the system" too. 

Accepting the fantastical premise of the boy dragging his parents to court and a court dealing with the case is a bit of a stretch to our credulity, but the hard-hitting almost unbearable depiction of the lives that street children and asylum seekers face in the poorest quarters of Beirut every day is heart-breaking. The moment when Zain decides that his best chance of getting food and a future is copying a young Syrian refugee-girl's accent and making up a war-story for himself to get food rations from UNHCR is shocking. There are a few scenes of humour too, but not of relief.

The chaos of the precarious street life is impressively captured by Nadine Labaki and her team. The viewer feels right in the middle of it,  looking at it from a child’s perspective, and it is gut-wrenchingly uncomfortable. 

The acting performance by young charismatic Zain is brilliant and memorable. It will stay with the audience long after the film has ended. Zain is unsentimental. He curses, he fights and he accuses the adult world around him with an unrelenting harshness of judgment that it deserves. 

Caphernaüm won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for a Golden Globe and is Lebanon’s entry for Best Foreign Movie at the 2019 Oscars. 

Nadine Labaki and her team have made an important and powerful film that deserves prizes, but it makes for difficult viewing. Therefore, I would advise discretion in deciding whether to go and see it. While the ending is somewhat unbelievably not all doom and gloom, I did not sleep too well in my oh-so-comfortable bed in my oh-so-comfortable apartment after seeing Caphernaüm.

Saturday 19 January 2019

Colette, Film 2018, co-written and directed by Wash Westmoreland, starring Keira Knightley, 8* out of 10

With Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette this biopic costume-drama fin-de-siècle France has a most interesting and astonishingly modern subject. While the chance for a more edgy treatment was missed, this is still a well made and highly entertaining film. Keira Knightley shines in the title role.  

Burgundy, France, late 19th century. Strong-willed country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) meets the 14 years older Henri-Gauthier Villars (Dominic West), a successful publisher and self-publicist with a posse of ghost-writers spreading his literary fame in find de siècle Paris. Henri and Gabrielle fall in love, get married and she moves to Paris. Far from being intimated by the French metropolis, its freedoms and opportunities for the comfortably-off, Colette, as she will become to be known, begins to take Paris by charm, in the shadow of her illustrious husband and eventually by storm in her own right. In a deceptively equal partnership with her brilliant PR man and lovable cad of a husband, she manages to turn her literary and other artistic talents into a means to leading the life she wants to lead.  Colette breaks many taboos but somehow succeeds in turning her transgressions of bourgeois norms into desirable trends and fashions. 

Colette’s life is a tour de force of sexual liberation and self-realization that swings all ways (and always). Driven by her strong-willed intelligence and a flawed but perfectly matched “partner-in-crime” and companion, who at some point will become unable to keep up with her let alone control her, she leads the transition to a libertarian Zeitgeist with good cheer and integrity.

Colette the film does what British period biopics (even f they are about France) do so well: give an aesthetically pleasing impression of place and time with great sets, beautiful costumes and pleasing colourful pictures. In this case, pictures of the bourgeois intellectual and just a little bit decadent life of fin-de siècle Paris, and the Burgundy countryside. 

A well-written screenplay tells the story in a straightforward manner, a story which strikes a 21st-century audience with themes that chime with our own times in terms of the concepts of a woman questioning men’s privileges on behalf of her sex. Colette did so with verve, intelligence and a good-natured humorous attitude often lacking today. She did so enlisting support from talented friends and lovers she chose with great skill and good fortune. 

Another parallel to contemplate is the ruthless marketing, merchandising and branding of Colette the author (initially falsely presented as Gauthier-Villars under his pen-name Willy) and her literary creation “Claudine”, both of whom are made to go viral, in an anticipation of social media based techniques. 

All this makes this film very interesting and entertaining viewing.  Keira Knightley beautifully portrays a multifaceted and deep character like Colette through the different stages of a long and productive life, a strong performance by Dominic West as her caddish, yet loving and supportive husband. As usual, when British actors are at work, there are very pleasing performances in supporting roles too, notably Fiona Shaw, as Sido, Collette’s mother, and Sloan Thompson as Colette's lesbian lover, friend and long-time partner Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belboeuf.

Personally, I would have liked an edgier form of telling the story than the straightforward costume drama. On the positive side, the strong screenplay by Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz presented “Frenchness” in English without giving way to the temptation of satirizing it from an English viewpoint. 

All in all, Colette the movie is interesting, entertaining and rewarding film, skilfully made.

Friday 18 January 2019

Cold War (Zimna Wojna), Film Poland 2018, co-written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, 10* out of 10

After Ida (2015) this is another brilliant film by Pawel Pawlikowski apparently inspired by the story of Pawlikowski’s own parents.  Cold War succeeds by beautifully interweaving the personal, political and musical with memorable cinematography in black and white by Lukasz Zal and an unforgettable performance by Joana Kulig as Zula.

Poland 1948. Wiktor (Tomasz Klot) is a musician helping to set up a folk music group in post-World War 2 Poland, where the Communist Party is using patriotic feelings to make its Soviet dominated internationalist ideology palatable nationally and internationally. Zula (Joana Kulig) escapes a prison sentence for using violence to defend herself against an abusive father by joining the newly formed folk music group the Mazurki (named after the Polish Mazurka folk dance). Wiktor and Zula fall in love and begin a deeply passionate, sensuous and poisonous relationship, where strong feelings of love alternate with feelings of contempt, while over many years they jointly and severally physically cross from East to West and back again. The political developments in Poland and Eastern Europe, represented by the political commissar and director of the folk group Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) and the relationship political climate between East and West, represented by Paris, form an unusual, vivid and interesting context for Wiktor and Zula’s turbulent personal story of “je t’aime, moi non plus”.

Pawel Pawlikowski succeeds by beautifully interweaving the personal, political and musical with memorable cinematography in black and white by Lukasz Zal. The influence of the Lodz film school is evident. The strength of the story is underlined with a beautifully judged understated performance by Tomasz Klot as Wiktor and an unforgettable performance by Joana Kulig as Zula. Seeing an evolving communist Poland from inside and the experience of being a Polish musician in exile in the Paris of 1950 are insightful and unusual perspectives for audiences in the West. 

After Ida (2015) this is another brilliant film by Pawel Pawlikowski apparently inspired by the story of Pawlikowski’s own parents. It’s a story that now belongs to the history of Europe of which Poland is now an integral part, something we in Western Europe have not yet internalised as we should have. On the latest count Pawlikowski, who grew up in Poland, the UK and Germany, has received over 60 nominations and 22 awards for Cold War, all of which are richly deserved.  Highly recommended; do not miss it.