Sunday, May 07, 2006

Four Movies in Two Days: The Yacoubian Building; Two Players from the Bench; Blessed By Fire; Crime Novel

I've been going from one theater to another for the last couple of days, and all the movies I've seen have been worth it.

First, on Friday morning, I saw "The Yacoubian Building," about which I'd heard people talking at the festival after the first screening. They looked happy and excited on their way out of the screening, so I wanted to see it. Now that it has won the new director prize at this year's festival, I hope that it will find its way to movie screens in the US. It was completely watchable and fully engrossing; despite its length. I think the review that I read, which called it "Tales of the City" but set in Cairo, was pretty on target. The movie itself was beautfully shot, the acting, by so many major Arabic speaking stars was superb, and the script was clever. Based on a best-selling Arabic novel of the same name, The film tells the stories of several tenants of the same apartment building in Cairo, from the palatial suites of the wealthy, to the roof-top shanties of the very poor: Zaki Pasha and his sister Dalwat, the corrupt car-dealer, congressman and his secret second wife, the young woman Bosaina, and her boyfriend who seeks a position in the police force despite his lowly origins as a porter's son. The film is most challenging in its confrontation of class and gender dynamics in Egyptian society, and at its least-informed in its effort to deliver a sensitive portrayal of homosexuality. I was glad to hear an audience member ask a question about the really ridiculous representation of homosexuality as somehow stemming from childhood sexual abuse, at least as it appeared to in the film's major low point. Despite that, I enjoyed the film immensely.
I went to work on my book for a few hours and then made it to my second movie of the day, "Two Players from the Bench" a comedy written and directed by a popular Croatian director, Dejan Sorak. I was surprised to see that it was actually possible to create a comedy about the Hague War Crimes Tribunal, but indeed, this film was hilarious and smart. The audience, largely Croation, was cracking up and laughing hysterically throughout. The film lampoons both nationalism, as something phony, comical and dstructive, while also showing the international justice system as somewhat naive and easily manipulated by nefarious operatives. One corrupt man is able to set up the dismissal of charges against a Croatian war criminal by bringing in two very phony alibi witnesses (the two players from the bench). Although it is set in a political environment and concerns issues of war, justice, and nationalism, the film is only very subtly political, or rather "anti-political," depicting two "regular guys" caught up in a machine that is quite beyond them. The absurdity of their situation and their "common-sense" attempts to make the best of it create most of the humor of the movie. When asked what he thought about the tribunal and whether it was effective, the director dodged the question, saying "I'm an artist, not a politician." I was disappointed in his response, for it seemed that the obvious answer in the film was "no."

** *
Saturday afternoon I started my movie day with the moving Argentian film, "Blessed by Fire," a story of war and its affects on veterans and their families based on a novel by an ex-combattant of the Falklands/Malvinas war of the 1980s. As the directors said, this was most of all an anti-war film, and before the screening, the writer of the novel announced that an Iraq veteran had committed suicide the day before. This is the "human cost" of war, he said, after the film, which people forget too often. I'm surprised, but glad, that it won the prize for best narrative feature at the festival. As a universal story of the horror of war, it was among the most moving I've seen, and it also tells the story of a particular war about which most Americans know very little, and I hope that its winning of this prize will win it an American distributor. Apparently it has a distributor everywhere else BUT the US. There are few stories of war from the side of the losers...although "All Quiet on the Western Front" does come to mind. As I was watching the film initially, I wondered, what is so horrible about this war that would make so many people come home and committ suicide years later? It's not as if they're committing any war crimes that they're guilty about, which you hear about in Vietnam stories (not so much in films). And I realized, when the soldiers finally went to the front, that it was both the punishments by the officers and the defeat itself that led to the lasting psychological damage. While it could be seen as in some ways a nationalist film by the Argentinians, the brutality of the officers toward the conscripts doing the fighting was so extreme that it would be hard to fit this story comfortably into a recuperation of the Galtieri regime in any way. Interestingly, one of the "thank-yous" in the film's credits went to Nestor Kirchner, who recently condemned the Malvinas war as a jingoistic act of Galtieri's dictatorial government, but who also says that the Malvinas islands should belong to Argentina.
Saturday evening I went to see "Crime Novel" the popular award-winning Italian movie by Michaele Placido, produced by Warner Brothers in Italy. I really enjoyed this film, which tells a complicated story of crime and politics in Rome during the 1970s-1980s. In the midst of telling the story of a group of small-time hoods in a quest to make it to the top in Rome, it also depicts the Aldo Moro killing and the Bologna train station bombing, and implies the participation of members of the government in the latter. As the film's star actor put in in the Q&A, one must make critiques of the contemporary Italian regime rather indirectly, and this film has succeeded by seeming to really just be about "ancient history." Gangster movies, while always providing a fantasy of a life beyond rules and with great material pleasures, also always give us the chance to compare the actions of criminals with the actions of governments and legitimate businessmen, and "Crime Novel" is a good example of this kind of gangster film. While it did not have the depth of Pasolini's Accatone still one of my all-time favorites, it did strive for that level, and it leaves its audience with more than just a few hours of entertainment. Given the potential importance of this movie for the whole gangster genre - a significant Italian contribution at a critical moment in the history of Italian gangsterism and political corruption - I wished that Scorcese and Di Niro had shown up for the screening and the Q&A. Scorsese was clearly an influence, and it would have been interesting to hear his take on the movie. Instead, I hear that he did a special screening of some 1950s matinee movie this weekend.

No comments: