Import Fridays – Un prophete



Un prophete (2009, dir. Jacques Audiard)
Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi

Un prophete is playing at the Belcourt Theater starting today.

Everyone loves a story of “boy makes good”. Nothing better than a young man pulling himself up by his bootstraps and making a name. The only downside is the body count. That story is what French film Un prophete seeks to tell, and colors its story with issues of racial identity, particularly how it can influence other’s perceptions of us. And the film also manages to not miss the simple moments amongst all the crime and violence. It’s in those moments that the picture shines.

Malik has just entered prison after an undisclosed crime. He’s a very young Frenchman of Arabic descent, who is incredibly nervous and introverted now confronted with years in prison. After a chance encounter with Arab inmate Reyeb, he’s recruited by the Corsican mob on the inside to kill this rival. That murder colors Mailk’s existence, Reyeb appearing in his bed in the middle of the night, his garish throat wound still present. The haunting happen in such a subtle way, Reyeb just suddenly there, Malik never jumping but living with this ghost in his mind.

Malik begins taking on more responsibilities with the Corsicans, who still view him as a “filthy Arab”, while the Arabic in prison see him as a “Corsican dog”. It’s evident that this labeling has a strong effect on Malik. Despite this internal conflict, he soldiers on, running errands while on day leave for Cesar, the head of the Corsican prisoners. What Malik doesn’t tell Cesar is that he is starting his own low level operations on the outside, particularly running drugs.

Every thing Malik does is out of an innate sense of survival. He knows he won’t make it long on the inside so he takes the murder job from the Corsicans, spending hours trying to hold a razorblade on the inside of his cheek for preparation. The film lingers on those moment of prep time, letting Malik fester in the anxiousness of what he has to do. As terrible as you know his actions will be, you still root for him, want him to get away with it because of his relative innocence compared to the weathered inmates around him.

One of the highlights of the film comes when Malik flies a plane to meet with Arabs in Italy. This is his first plane ride and, instead of skipping over it to get to the action with the Arab mob, the film pauses and lets us see Malik’s wonder at riding in a plane. He peers over his seat mate for a glance out the window and is surprised when a flight attendant brings him cookies and glass of water. Scenes like this are what make Un prophete stand out from other “rise to power” mob stories. Malik’s tale ends in the way the audience will probably expect, but its not his position as the new boss that is important, its the journey that brought him to it and the person he was that he left behind.

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Jolly Good Thursdays – Peeping Tom


Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell)

Starring Karlheinz Bohm, Moira Shearer, Anne Massey

Released the same year as Hitchock’s Psycho, critically panned in Britain, pulled from theaters after an incredibly short run, and reviled by its director, Michael Powell. Peeping Tom sounds like it should have been forgotten. However, the film was years ahead of its time and is a masterful piece of commentary on voyeurism and the film audience. Infamous for containing the first nudity in British cinema (a nude model’s bare breasts are glimpsed for a couple seconds), but is about much more than seedy exploitation.

Mark Lewis is film studio cameraman by day, with side job taking nudie pictures for a corner newsagent. What no one knows is ,that from time to time, Mark takes to the streets with his camera and films the faces of women he murders. This is the result of a psychologist father who experimented on the compulsion people have to gaze, or be a peeping tom, on his own son. He fetishistically films young Mark, waking him up in the middle of the night by tossing a lizard in his bed or making him listen to the sounds of women being murdered. Now, with Mark alone in the world he has been lost in the damaged inflicted on him. He befriends a young boarder in his large mansion and fights his urges to make her gaze into the camera.

Peeping Tom  has some very clever camera play, especially during the murders where we see everything through Mark’s camera. And it does a very effective job of getting across the seediness of the world Mark inhabits. At the photo shoot over the newsagent’s shop, one model complains that Mark needs to hide her bruises from the camera, while another is frightened of people seeing her harelip. Powell creates exterior, physical deformities to emphasize the corruption infesting Mark. Are these women truly this scarred? Or it a manifestation of Mark’s psychosis?

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is, that despite Powell’s dislike of the picture, he weaves himself so personally into it. He plays young Mark’s father in old reel to reel footage, cast his own son as young Mark, and his own wife as the body of Mark’s lifeless mother in a funeral scene. In addition, the most elaborate murder is performed on actress Moira Shearer, famous as the prima ballerina in The Red Shoes. Powell and Shearer reportedly could not stand each other, he viewed her as an “airhead”. The film Mark is working on involves a director struggling with a red-headed flighty actress he is having to do retakes of constantly. In addition, Shearer plays the younger actress’ stand-in and is presented as an aging actress on her way out. A rather cruel, yet clever, way of Powell addressing his own problems in cinema.

Import Fridays – Revanche


Revanche (2008, dir. Götz Spielmann)

Starring Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Johannes Thanheiser, Hanno Pöschl
The desire to lash out in revenge against those you believe have wronged you is a deep and powerful urge in humanity. Particularly when the actions of another have caused great loss in your life. The issue of the death penalty bring up the philosophical questions of what we are entitled to when wronged in horrendous ways, and the fact that there is no end in sight to such a debate is proof of how nuanced and complex it is. Revanche, a 2008 Austrian film, takes on this debate and provides many more questions.
Alex is an ex-con, who has gotten romantically involved with Tamara, a Ukranian prostitute that works at the brothel where Alex is a handyman. The must keep their relationship secret from the brothel owner who has designs on turning Tamara into a sex slave for his higher end clients. Alex devises a plan to run away with Tamara, rob a bank, and live their days out in Ibiza. He has a perfect plan. Paul is a police officer who is uncomfortable with his sidearm and the way his fellow officers talk casually about shooting and killing perps. He happens to end up in front of a bank one morning and finds a woman sitting nervously in a car and praying to herself. Paul asks some questions and a tragedy occurs.
Revanche is about two men living in their personal Hells. Alex is torn apart by the loss in life following the bank robbery and Paul is equally shattered by the results of his actions. The two men’s lives become more and more entwined until the film’s climax which is surprisingly redemptive. The heart of the film is Alex’s grandfather, Hausner, a man living on a farm in the deep woods. He has just lost his wife and has not allowed it to crush his spirit. Hausner seeks out the simplicity of life, finding enjoyment a meal of bread and sausage and picking up his old accordion and remembering his youth. Hausner starts out as a convenience for Alex, a place to hideout but goes on to inform Alex on how he can cope with his loss.
Also central to the story is Susanne, Paul’s wife. She miscarried three months before the start of the film and even before Paul’s incident at the bank there is a distance between the two. Susanne ends up being an unofficial caretaker of Hausner, visiting with him in his home and accompanying him to church on Sundays. She develops a friendship with Alex that plays out in a very unlikely way and ends up binding Alex and Paul together forever. The way Revanche comes to its finale, a meeting between Alex and Paul by a pond in the woods, felt very atypical compared to what an American-ized version of this film would do. Despite its bleak and violent world, the film leaves us on a note of hope that we don’t have to be shackled to the pain of our pasts.

Film 2010 #22 – Terribly Happy

Terribly Happy (2008, dir. Henrik Ruben Genz)

It’s a common plot device in literature of all kinds to tell the story of the outsider in the tight-knit community. The plot of this Danish film could easily be dropped down into the middle of any Midwestern agricultural based small town. We have a disgraced police officer, Robert, punished by being moved from Copenhagen to a small outpost in South Jutland. Once there he meets Ingerlise, a young wife and mother whose husband, Jørgen beats her daily. Robert is tries to keep things professional but is slowly but surely seduced beyond his duties as an officer of the law. Things progress until Robert finds his hands stained with blood and his destiny now tightly grasped in the hands of the townspeople who dislike having outsiders interfere in village business.
Landscape is a vitally important element of the film. The small town is surrounded by dismal bogs and we’re told in the opening voice over of how cows are swallowed up in a matter of minutes. One particular town legend tells of a cow who surface in the spring and birthed a two-headed calf (one cow, one human) and the cow was hidden away after women began having stillbirths. This story is a metaphor for the politics of the town. Horrible things may happen but they townsfolk hide them away so that they don’t contaminate the rest of the populace. The bog itself both metaphorically and literally swallows up the town secrets. A half sunken truck peers ominously above the water but it is never explained, the circumstances of its arrival there hidden away decades ago.
It would be easy to cast Robert as the hero against the townspeople and for the first 45 mins of the film it appears that will be so. But as the circumstances of the officer’s placement in the wilderness are revealed it becomes obvious that Robert hides as much as the citizenry around him. As these past indiscretions are uncovered, Robert becomes assimilated more and more into the workings of the town. When he first responds to a juvenile shoplifter and is told by the store manager the old marshal would hit the boy and that would teach the lesson, Robert is appalled and says he would never hit a child. Later in the film, when the second shoplifting incident occurs, Robert doesn’t hesitate for a second to strike the child down.
This is a very complex crime film about unspoken social contracts. As quirky and eerie as the town appears and as dark as Robert’s actions become, they are fundamentally no different than a community where a father who abuses his family goes unreported or where a young woman refrains from reporting a rape out of fear of how her social standing will be effected. Director Genz tells a very universal story in a clever and dynamic way.

Film 2010 #11 – Gomorrah


Gomorrah (2008, dir. Mateo Garrone)

In Southern Italy there is a disease that infects the lives of many people living below the poverty line. This disease is a crime cartel known as the Camorra. The mafiosa organization has interwoven itself into the workings of both black market operations and legitimate enterprise, including investing in the construction of the rebuilding at Ground Zero in NYC. Such a concept seems too large to be real, but as director Garrone chronicles in this film, it is all too true.

Gomorrah, based on the nonfiction book by Roberto Saviano, takes an interesting direction in telling this story. The film is divided up into five separate plot strands that occasionally interweave, but more than not remain as their own isolated story. If the plots were to connect, it would cause the film to feel insular rather than expansive, which is the feeling Garrone wants to evoke. The Hollywood version of this film would seek to be sleek, refined, and would desperate to constantly try and engage the audience. Gomorrah, plays out slowly and at a pace that could be infuriating to some viewers. It is a slice of life film, showing how mundane and common these acts of violence and crime are in the lives of the people in these regions of Italy.

The main characters are Don Ciro; a man charged with distributing cash to the families of imprisoned members of the family, Toto; a 13 year old boy who seeks to join the family to gain prominence in his slum community, Roberto; a recent university graduate working with a mob boss to illegally dump toxic waste, Pasquale; a tailor who is struggling to make the order demands of the mob and moonlighting as a sewing instructor for a Chinese-Italian sweatshop, and finally Marco and Ciro; two young men who are caught up in the fantasy of being in the mob and are unaware of the real dangers of pissing off the wrong people.

Instead of focusing the top tier of the mafia and glamorizing it, the film seeks to explore the lives of the people at the bottom rung of the ladder. The lives displayed are gritty and bleak and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of rising out of the mire. The mob has so taken over every aspect of life that they have replaced the government, and in the case of Tito, his biological family. There is much this picture has in common with Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, just even less stylistic. In fact, I believe Garrone is trying to create a film without embellishment so that the every day nature of crime is the main focus. I highly recommend this as counterprogramming to the mainstream films that stylistically glorify the criminal lifestyle

Film 2009 #173 – Homicide


Homicide (1991)
Directed by David Mamet
Starring Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Rebbecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, Ving Rhames

The film starts out regular enough. A group of police officers and their higher ups discuss how they will bring in Robert Randolph, a drug dealer and cop killer who is somewhere in the city. Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), one of the homicide detectives speaks up and garners the ire of one of the officials who refers to him as a “kike”. Gold shrugs it off despite his partner’s (William H. Macy) anger. This event sets up who Bobby Gold is and how he views his ethnic heritage.

The plot diverges from our expectations when, on the way to apprehending Randolph, Gold is stopped by an officer who has responded to the murder of an elderly candy story owner. Gold learns very quickly that the old woman was a Jew and an immigrant decades earlier from Israel. Now, torn between two cases, Gold is stretched thinner and thinner. His main duty, bringing in Randolph fades, as he becomes more and more convinced that the candy store murder was anti-Semitic and that there is a conspiracy behind it.

Writer/director Mamet is still feeling himself out in the film medium with this third picture. His primary work is connected to the stage and it shows in the way he films Homicide. There are a few drawn out scenes that make use of set design and his dialogue displays his trademark sense of artifice. Paranoia is interwoven more heavily as the film progresses, and Mamet presents a riff on his con game plot by causing the audience to question if there is even a conspiracy occurring at all. I also began to note that Mamet’s dialogue and paranoiac tendencies cause his films to develop an almost fantastical sheen over their surfaces. The city is never named adding to that other worldliness and Gold induction into a secret city underworld mimics that of the archetypal adventurer becoming aware of the existence of the Other-world.

Despite all of the Mamet-ness, this stands as one of his more accessible works. The language is restrained from some of his more frenetic (see Oleanna). The film works as an engaging surface level examination of the conflict cultural heritage and duty to the society as a whole can cause.