The awarding of prizes for an academic paper in a linguistics summer camp in a Polish provincial University is the setting for Zanussi’s great exploration of hierarchy, power, knowledge, justice, democracy, morality, conformism, corruption, ethics. A jaded, cynical professor, Jakub (Zbiniew Zapasiwicz) tries to enlighten and manipulate an earnest and idealistic younger colleague, Jeroslaw (Piotr Garlicki) and the verbal jousts between them are the occasion for the explorations of the issues the film dramatises. ‘Why not take things at face value’ asks the younger man? ‘Because it’s not all that simple or honest’ responds the elder.
Zanussi’s frame is always full of people or landscape – students staging sit ins, gangs swimming naked in the river, classes replete with students, dozens at dinner — in a way that makes one realise how thinned out much of contemporary cinema has become, not just visually, but thematically. Here when two characters speak in a two-shot it carries the context of the social so many people earlier helped depict. Place, and society are always the background to the protagonists’ thought and actions.
It’s no surprise that the film was read as an allegory for Poland in the last years of the Communist regime. It’s a film in which signs are often read by the characters as having other referents than its popularly acknowledged ones, but these other referents can only be divulged through avenues of power and knowledge. People are often compared to nature through animals: the cat will have its prey, and only by collaring it with bells will those poor birds and mice have a chance. But the analogy with nature has its limits. Human groups build their own value systems we’re told. But are those honest, just, democratic, ethical; and do they pave the way to knowledge and progress? At the end, Jaky thinks he’s brought out the beast in Piotr but Piotr makes clear that if he had, he’d be dead.
A film that seems particularly relevant in the light of present discussions on the role and purpose of universities. A great film.
Camouflage is currently available to view on MUBI.
A fine gangster film, novel for being an excellent debut feature from Daouda Coulibali and set in a region of Africa (Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Niger) that is a nexus for transporting cocaine from Columbia to Europe.
The film begins with a series of titles contextualising and explaining as follows:
‘In the Bambara culture, fraternal societies must train their followers to make them into valuable members of the community. In the Ntòmo society new members must pass through five levels:
The lion level teaches a man where he came from
The toad level tells him where he is going
The bird level teaches him who he is.
The guinea fowl level considers the man in the cosmos.
The final level enlightens the member on his place in society. This is the level of the dog (Wúlu).
The Wùlu of this story is Ladji (Ibrahim Koma), who works in a collective taxi. He’s the one who decides who to pick up and he’s figured out all the angles: avoid the elderly, fat and infirm: they can lose you a lot of money. He dreams of driving his own bus. But in spite of being excellent at his job, he’s passed over for the boss’ nephew, who’s got nothing going for him aside from his relations.
The film starts in 2007 in Bamako, and the corruption is shown to pervade everything and everyone, even Ladji’s sister, Aminita (played by singer Inna Modja) is turning tricks to get by. It ends in 2012. Ladji, the dog, can’t live with himself; his sister, the whore, is sunning herself by the pool in the lap of luxury. The final title card tells us:
‘In creating divisions at the heart of the army; in inciting competition between different tribes, and in constituting one of the sources of financing for terrorist organisations, cocaine trafficking largely contributed to the failures the State of Mali underwent during the course of 2012.’
A very good crime film about the rise and fall of the gangster figure; as in so much of the genre, it is as much a critique of the society its portraying as a depiction of particular characters. And that is a chief attraction for someone like myself: we not only get a film with likeable characters, excellent action and a poetic touch, but we get to find out about the cultures depicted: the tribalism, the meaning of art in these cultures, the corruption of politicians, the way white people are seen, what a rich house looks like to these people, the value of a bus. This is a gangster film in which negotiations takes place in a tent in the desert, in which the way out of a shootout is through a boy with a donkey, a place in which an intelligent, thoughtful and responsible young man has no way out but gangsterism, drugs or death and in which death is preferable to drugs; It’s where whores survive but dogs are put down (there is a slight tinge of misogyny in the film).
Olivier Rabourdin plays the French Entrepreneur who is also the drug kingpin
We try out Mubi, a curated streaming service that gives you 30 films at any one time, and only 30 days in which to watch them. Our choice is Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, a 1970s Italian satire on police corruption and the politics of power. It leads to discussions on its expressive imagery, its topsy-turvy plot, sexual kinks, peccadillos, and lifestyles, the performance of power and authority, and male jealousy and rage.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is one of the best political films of all time, with a great opening sequence. A satire on politics filmed and played in high style. What does an establishment figure have to do to get arrested?
Winner of the Academy Award of Best Foreign Film in 1971 and with a great score by Ennio Morricone.
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Donnelly (Brendan Gleeson) bids goodbye to his dead wife at the hospital, placing a photograph of their pet rabbit to accompany her on her way. He gets on a train with a loud-mouth kid (Rúaidhrí Conroy) who unsparing in his observations and picks a fight with fellow passengers, particularly a couple (David Wilmot, Aisling O’Sullivan) who’ve just lost their baby in a cot-death: ‘Oh here come Fred and Rosemary’ with the photo of the baby that ‘looks like the gay guy from Bronski Beat’ . It turns out that the trouble-making kid has also lost his mother the previous night. He’s the one who shot her; and so brutally ‘she had no head left on her’.
Thus a carriage encased in grief and anger, differently expressed by each, but so febrile with sadness and pain anything can ignite it into violence, which it will. Three deaths that will in turn result in at least three more deaths. All this told through McDonagh’s trademark vibrantly vulgar phrasing, jokes that erupt out of darkness, sharply unsentimental point-of-view, equal parts mean and funny, and with flashes of surreal violence, the centrepiece of which here centres on a cow inflating from too much gas. ‘Oh Jesus, what a fucking day!’ is the last line in the movie. All we know and like of McDonagh is already fully realised here in this short movie, which I highly recommend.
Part of the McDonagh retrospective currently showing on MUBI
Nominated and won the Best Live Action Short Academy Award in 2006
A road movie about cultural dislocation. Arash has been living in Paris for the last five years but is returning home to Iran to sit for his law exam. He hasn’t taken to France. ‘French people don’t have a reason to be interested in you,’ he says, ‘what I’ll miss most is the alcohol aisle in the supermarket’. All his friends are Iranians. Two of them, Ashkan and Hossein, convince Arash to go on holiday in the last two weeks before he’s due to return home, hoping he’ll stay. Maybe he’ll meet someone and fall in love…
Like with all road movies, what the characters learn on the road is something about themselves and something about the country made of up of the places they visit. What makes this film distinctive, and thus more interesting than most of this type, is that what they learn about the country they are visiting is always dialectically counterpoised to the country they originate from: thus the reference for the South of France is the North of Iran; the girls they meet on the road are shown how women in Iran wear a scarve and what the various ways of wearing the scarve signifies etc.
Through the trio’s travels in the South of France, we learn about Iran:
Arash: I don’t know about you but I’ve been doomed since childhood.
Arash: They used to call me the son of the Devil.
Arash: Whenever I heard the call to prayers or religious hymns, I would hide behind the drapes and start screaming.
We learn that the very obese Arash originally put on the weight as a deliberate ploy to avoid military service; that Hossein had to mortgage his family home in order to give the government the fee necessary to guarantee his return from Paris to do his military service. Hossein who’s since married a French woman is stuck. Imagine at 33 having to return to work for someone else for free for two years. Does he abandon his wife in France, ask her to meet up with him in two years in Iran, or forfeit the home where his family leaves in Iran. Hossein’s problem is that he misses Iran; he sleeps better there; he’s happier there; but he’s more himself in France; can only fully realise himself – come closest to the person he’d like to be — outside of the strictures of home.
The film presents a very different picture of Iranians than one is accustomed to from the media. Here we see an easy, affectionate friendship between three blokes, who talk of love, poetry, and Tarantino; and why they don’t want to go to the mullah’s version of heaven: ‘That’s why I only drink the hard stuff, I’m going to hell on a high speed train’. It’s where he’s sure his friends will be. And who wants to spend eternity with mullahs? We get to see little of French culture, the landscape, a few village parades, the odd exchange of cigarettes with the natives. Even the girls they meet and share part of the road with them seem to me to be immigrants (I don’t think the film is explicit on this but when they perform a song, they sing in Spanish; one of the other girls they talk to, a waitress, is of mixed origin – her father is Moroccan, etc.)
We do get to see a group of men—funny, open, emotionally at ease with each other — restrained still by the patriarchal, authoritarian culture of home – Arash, surely close to thirty or more – has to answer to his father on the phone like a teenager; distant, perhaps excluded, from French culture but already changed by it in a way that makes a return for most difficult, perhaps impossible. Arash, modest, funny, at ease with himself as with others is a character you’ll come to love. France would miss him if it had ever bothered to get to know him.
An imaginative and exhilarating documentary on a group of teenagers in Aulnay-sous-bois, a council estate on the outskirts of Paris. The film is made up of interviews, recreations, and imagery usually found in slick sci-fi pictures (drones invading la cite, an owl descending for its kill). It looks very beautiful but more importantly, the film’s subjects and what we learn about them feel true, rounded, lovely.
These teenagers are first generation immigrants from various former French colonies. Some dream of the village they left behind, others hope never to return to it; none feel French, or rather they do, but second-class French, not like the ‘real’ French, the French de souche, who they imagine as being blonde and blue-eyed. They rarely see them because though they used to live in this council estate, they moved out once the blacks and arabs moved in.
Unlike most films of this type, this one doesn’t focus on the drugs and shootings on the estate, though that is constantly there as background but instead on the dreams and aspiration of these children: they want to be architects, stylists, successes in a world that they know doesn’t have much room for them and will try to keep them out.
All of them seem to have suffered from some trauma; some are in care, others have parents who are strangled by debt, many of them live with a single parent; those rare ones who enjoy two parents rarely see them as they work all the time; the children talk about the responsibility of illiterate parents who rely on them even to fill out the simplest forms. The voices of some of them seem silenced by the memory of past traumas. Most of them have a problem with trust. They talk of all the fights. The girls are ostensibly the worst they tell us. One of them started looking like Beyoncé but during the fight all her hair got pulled out and she ended up like 50 Cent. Many of the boys talk about the temptations of getting work as a lookout for the drug dealers. You’ll wonder what once happened to these beautiful children and the lives they’ll lead subsequently.
The film’s success is that it draws them out. As the film unfolds, each child, from so many different countries, believing in so many different religions, but with a shared experience of life in a council estate where drugs and killings are a way of life, is caught in that cusp of adolescence. Still children but on their way to adulthood, capable of independent thought, very articulate, and each in their own way beautiful.
My heart particularly ached for a fat young queen who’s an avid fan of the American soap opera ‘The Young and the Restless’ and can voice every plot detail. Régis N’Kissi likes being different, makes his own clothes and dreams of being a stylist: ‘all my dreams are about fashion’. He swaggers through the school corridors wearing fur and shades. He’s well-known and well-liked he tells us, then adds modestly ‘not like Beyoncé,’ but well-liked nonetheless. Though he always wears a bow-tie, Régis’ earned the respect of his colleagues by fighting one of the tough guys in the parking lot behind the school they call the Stadium, going three rounds and winning. No one’s bothered him since.
Each child is allowed to tell his or her story and voice his or her aspirations. The drugs and the shooting are part of their shared culture but so is the school and their experience of each other. Swagger’s a film that both gladdens and brings a slight ache to the heart.