Here’s a quick sampling of my week’s watches.
You can find more of my reviews at Always Good Movies.
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Country: Chile / Argentina / other
Undoubtedly, Pablo Larraín is the most exciting Chilean filmmaker working today. He has been carving his mark in the contemporary world cinema through beautiful artistic works such as “Tony Manero”, “Post Mortem”, “No”, and “The Club”.
Last year, he filmed a couple of interesting biopics, which regardless the bold approach and peculiar vision, had different impacts on me. If “Jackie” impressed me most through the stylish visuals, “Neruda” strongly hit me with its poetic narrative and passionate conception.
Written by Guillermo Calderón and starring Gael García Bernal and Luis Gnecco in the main roles, the film adopts the qualities of a detective story painted with lyrical hues and bolstered by a cat-and-mouse game taken to philosophical extremes.
In the late 40s, Pablo Neruda (Gnecco), an earthy and provocative poet, throws out passionate words that are food for the poor and strength for the oppressed. In addition to being the voice of the Chilean people, he’s also a proud militant of the communist party and senator, projecting his strong voice against the brutal anti-communist repression led by the president Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro).
Forced to abandon his splendid house, a stage for many wild nocturnal parties in the company of intellectuals, aristocrats, and often criminals, Neruda hides in remote rural areas in Argentina, where he tries to escape the astute and relentless inspector Oscar Peluchonneau (Bernal), who tries to hunt him down as he ardently narrates this story. At the same time that Peluchonneau eagerly dreams with the glory of the capture, he often vacillates in his true inner self by showing great admiration and curiosity for the poet’s work and personality. Nonetheless, he focuses on his mission with obstinate determination without exteriorizing what he feels or thinks.
In turn, the incorrigible Neruda is not afraid to expose himself to dangers. He regularly visits bars where he drinks and interacts with women and artists. The ones he can really trust are longtime lover Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) and the famous Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) who clandestinely takes his words outside.
Obsession remains one of Larrain’s favorite topics and here, he had the chance to explore it with a mix of dark and wry tones, interesting dialogues, and attractively composed settings framed by the lens of his habitual cinematographer Sergio Armstrong.
“Neruda” is a fascinating piece of cinema, an elegiac and exhilarating chant of refined artistry that reaches the sky not only through the faultless performances by Gnecco and Bernal, but also through an engrossing direction.
Directed by: François Ozon
Country: France / Germany
Respected French director François Ozon (“Under the Sand”, “Swimming Pool”, “8 Women”, “In the House”) is back with a post-war romantic drama that leaves us reflecting on life and its disappointments. He co-wrote the script of “Frantz” in collaboration with Philippe Piazzo, based on the 1932 drama “Broken Lullaby” by Ernst Lubitsch.
The story, set in 1919, immediately after the end of the WWI, takes place in Quedlinburg, Germany, shifting into Paris for the final act.
Paula Beer, in a meteoric ascension, was deservedly awarded at Venice for her role as Anna, a beautiful young German woman whose pacifist fiancé was killed in battle. Pierre Niney is Adrian, a sensitive French violinist who travels to a wounded Germany to visit the grave and family of his close friend Frantz Hoffmeister, Anna’s fiancé. He not only becomes close to Frantz’s parents, bringing some light to their gloomy lives, but also casts a strange spell on Anna, who was feeling extremely depressed and lonely. The reality, however, is not what it seems, and the drama becomes more and more profound as the secrets are unveiled.
The plot is decent yet not totally surprising and the systematic slow pace can be an issue for some. However, the poetic and somewhat nostalgic tones grabbed me until the end.
The nationalistic roars from both sides have a negative effect on these tormented characters, making them uncomfortable. They just intend to forget everything, let the pain go, and live their lives with no more rancor or guilt.
“Frantz” was impeccably acted and beautifully photographed by Pascal Marti, most of the time in an attractive black-and-white. Its visual aesthetics, interior settings, and the WWI-related topic made me think of Haneke’s “White Ribbon”, which was more incisive and less lenient than the present.
As usual, Ozon was solid behind the camera in a classic (re)tale about remorse, forgiveness, and passion. Even with a couple of awkward moments, “Frantz” provides substantial cinematic pleasure.
Directed by: Cristian Mungiu
Country: Romania / France / Belgium
Acclaimed Romanian writer/director/producer Cristian Mungiu called the world’s attention through observant contemporary dramas like “Occident” (2002), “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007), and “Beyond the Hills” (2012). He has a background in English literature and his work for the big screen focuses on quality rather than quantity.
His fifth film, “Graduation”, is a pungent drama whose story, set in a small Romanian town, touches themes such as corruption and influence peddling, education, family, and obsession, at the same time that looks at a problematic Romania with mordacious dissatisfaction.
The film has an intriguing start when someone throws a stone at the window of the Aldeas’ house, breaking the glass and provoking more curiosity than indignation in Romeo (Adrian Titieni), the head of the family and a respected doctor, his vulnerable wife Magda (Lia Bugnar), and their teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus).
The latter admits to her father she’s a bit anxious for a crucial scholarship exam that will permit her to study at the London’s famous Cambridge University. However, her anxiety is nothing compared to her father’s. He lived abroad himself after graduating, but decided to return to Romania for the impossible mission of getting ‘things’ changed. Disappointment and failure are at the base of his overwhelming obsession with Eliza’s future.
The communication between Romeo and his daughter is uncomplicated, but with Magda things are not so smooth since he has been unfaithful to her with Sandra (Malina Manovici), a 35-year-old single mother, former patient, and teacher at Eliza’s school.
Pressure and nervous tension surround him at all times, but Romeo is pretty confident that Eliza, a brilliant student, is going to make it. However, a day before the exam and on her way to school, Eliza was violently attacked by a stranger who attempted to rape her. Emotionally disturbed and with a wounded arm, is Eliza psychologically and physically ready to do the exam?
For the first time in his life, the desperate Romeo has to sacrifice his good reputation and put his honesty behind, using his connections and medical influence to guarantee a decent future for his daughter. Shouldn’t he be worried about her emotional state instead? This dilemma haunts us throughout the film and we can’t help feeling sorry for them.
Climaxing in a spiral of anguish and deception, the well-acted drama culminates its insightful analysis with disconcerting irony.
Mungiu remains faithful to a style that combines realism and emotional depth allied with an impressive cinematic dexterity. Dispensing a musical score, he privileges handheld shots in detriment of a more static approach, yet the camera movements never translate into abrupt or awkward images.
“Graduation” might not be his best work to date, but it’s certainly an urgent, denouncing, and intelligent eye opener that tells much about a ruined country in terms of moral values. Here, besides brandishing a powerful critical voice, the director also reinforces his admirable filmmaking credentials.
Would you like to know more…?