Quo Vadis, Aida? (2021)
Written & Directed by Jasmila Žbanić
In July 1995, Bosnian forces took the city of Srebrenica. This was part of the Bosnian War, a three-year civil war that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Ethnic and nationalist groups fell into conflict; proto-fascist forces targeted Muslim populations. The Bosnian War is a complicated subject to talk about, just purely from how complex the internals of these regions are. It was never a clear war with one side versus another, but lots of smaller players as well. Quo Vadis, Aida? tells a very personal story about one of many brutal events that saw the mass culling of people while the United Nations/NATO seemed powerless to do anything. Through this story, we’re forced to contemplate what it would be like to then live beside the very people responsible for such swaths of deaths.
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Lilya-4-Ever (2002, dir. Lukas Moodysson)
Starring Oksana Akinshina, Artyom Bogucharsky, Pavel Ponomaryov
A young girl, face swollen with bruises, cut across her lip, runs through the overcast streets of an anonymous European city. The streets are littered with refuse; broken bottles, crumpled and empty chip bags. She stops on an overpass and stares down at the cars zooming by below. This is how director Lukas Moodysson introduces us to Lilya, an 16 year old Estonian girl trying to overcome a hopeless existence she was born into and unlikely to get out of. Moodysson is grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck and forcing them to watch this very real tragedy unfolding before their eyes.
Lilya’s mother and stepfather are leaving Estonia, but promise they will send for her once they are settled there. As soon as they leave, Lilya’s aunt claims the girl must leave the flat she shared with her parents for a smaller, more affordable apartment. She ends up in a rundown tenement and befriends Volodya, a boy thrown out of his house by his parents. Lilya is tempted into prostitution as her money and hopes dwindle down. Eventually, she meets Andrei, a man who shows genuine interest in her and gives her hope of leaving this place where she has no chance to better herself.
The film feels completely honest in its characters and the universe it builds around them. Lilya feels painfully real and could be one of millions of teenagers in any country across the globe living in abject poverty. The film doesn’t leave anyone out as responsible for the situation either. The entire system in place to protect children like Lilya is a farce. Teachers ridicule her intelligence so its no surprise she has no interest in finishing school. Her parents abandon her and her only relative, her aunt, dumps her on her own with no money or food. Every adult she comes in contact with wants to use her for sex or abandon her. Its no surprise that she resorts to prostitution as a means to survive. What is interesting is how her mother and her aunt are also sympathetic in their own ways. The women in this culture are fighting to survive, they may have to hurt another in the process, but they have been conditioned to fight tooth and nail. Even Lilya ends up committing the same betrayal when she has an opportunity to leave Eastern Europe.
Lilya-4-Ever could just as easily be remade in the United States and feature the oft vilified Hispanic population. Immigrants are people looking for hope that their homeland couldn’t provide. They fall into crime many times because they are reaching out for anything to hold onto so they don’t sink further. What is most touching about the film are the dream sequences Lilya has in the days where life has gotten the worst. She dreams of having wings, righting the wrongs she made in her past, fixing her life so none of this has happened. That painful regret is what tears at you the most in the end, and breaks your heart to see a life of such potential destroyed.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdu, Klaus Maria Brandauer
The Family has always been an important element in Coppola’s work. In The Godfather he examined the literal family and the symbolic family of the Italian mafia. The Outsiders and Rumble Fish took a close look at the divide between brothers by blood and brothers in gangs. Outside of his films, Coppola’s family has had an integral role: music in his early films was typical composed by his father Carmine, sister Talia and daughter Sophia employed their acting skills. And many of his family members have become involved in the industry, albeit changing their names for various reasons.
This element of family and changing names is a core part of Coppola’s newest film, Tetro. The film centers on Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenage boy living aboard a cruise ship who take advantage of a stop in Bueno Aires to visit his estranged brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Angelo has taken to calling himself Tetro (a variation on the family surname) and lives with a beautiful psychiatrist named Miranda (Maribel Verdu). Bennie finds Tetro is incredibly reticent to talk about their childhood and Bennie has been left in the dark about the family’s affairs his entire life. Their father, Carlo, a world famous composer is a dark shadow that hangs over them. As Bennie pries despite Angelo’s protestations he uncovers the dark truth about their family and finds his perceptions of life forever changed.
The film makes direct reference to Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the tale of a ballerina driven to destruction by her mentor’s obsessions and Tales of Hoffman, a film adaptation of the opera about a poet struggling to find the middle ground between his literary passions and the passions of his heart. These inform us of the internal workings of Tetro, who presents himself to Bennie as a closed book. Bennie’s curiosity leads him to a suitcase full of Tetro’s writings which have dramatized their family’s history but also lack a concise ending.
Coppola employs an interesting technique with the present reality being a stark black & white while memories and fantasies are filmed in digitally faded Technicolor, resembling paintings almost. These color sequences are either memories from the direct POV of Tetro, meaning the camera is his eye, characters speak directly to him and us the audience, or they are ballet sequences composed of pas de deux between a male and female dancer. The music alternates between melodramatic opera and ethereal voices to symbolize Tetro’s strange reaction when staring into the heart of a lightbulb.
This film and 2007’s Youth Without Youth symbolize Coppola’s new direction. In the 1980s, the prestige he had garnered in the 70s frittered away and he began to focus more on producing and funding burgeoning filmmakers. The death of his son, Gian-Carlo also drove his own works to lessen or fail to love up to his promise. In interviews he calls this return his period of “student films”. These are the movies he wants to make and he has gathered enough wealth in his life that he can drop a few million of his own dollars into a film and not worry about whether it makes back its budget. This sort of artistic freedom is seldom seen in Hollywood anymore. Here’s to Coppola continuing this new artistic journey for years to come.