By Juan Barquin
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Travis Cohen
By Juan Barquin
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amy Nicholson
By Juan Barquin
Bossa Nova, Orfeu
Renowned Brazilian directors Carlos Diegues and Bruno Barreto each have attempted to make a movie worthy of the music that provided their nation with a soundtrack for the past century. But neither Diegues's samba-inspired Orfeu nor Barreto's Bossa Nova proves a very good dance partner. Like the floor charts sold to North Americans eager to learn the latest Brazilian dance craze, the commercial concerns of contemporary cinema keep these once-daring directors locked into well-worn steps.
Diegues and Barreto pay homage to the samba and the bossa nova, at one time the dominant forms of cultural expression for the Brazilian working and middle classes. In the favelas, the shantytowns that cling precariously to the sides of the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro, the samba made a musical celebration of the struggle to survive. Down by the seashore in the 1950s and 1960s, the bossa nova jazzed up samba's one-two syncopation to create a sophisticated groove for the middle-class hipsters who hung out in Rio's beachside bachelor pads.
Both the low-down and the high-tone rhythms have inspired classic films. Carmen Miranda's 1933 debut in The Voice of Carnival inaugurated a musical comedy genre known as the chanchada. In 1955 Nelson Pereira dos Santos directed Rio 40 Degrees (Rio 40 Graus), a film that took samba seriously and inspired the socially conscious cinema novo movement that would preoccupy Brazilian filmmakers in the generation to come. In 1956 French director Marcel Camus set Black Orpheus, an Oscar-winning retelling of the Greek myth, in the favelas at carnival. The French film adapted the Brazilian version of the tragedy first staged in Orfeu da Conceiçäo, a play by poet and songwriter Vinícius de Moraes. Although set during carnival, neither the play nor the French adaptation stuck strictly to samba. Black Orpheus introduced bossa nova to the world by featuring compositions by Moraes and his collaborator in cool, Antonio Carlos Jobim -- a pair best known to the rest of the world for their cocktail-shaker classic, "The Girl from Ipanema."
Diegues watched Moraes's play as a teenager in 1956, the same year he saw Pereira dos Santos's samba film. Inspired by the treatment of Afro-Brazilian culture in each work, the young man went on to make a series of films dedicated to the history and political struggle of Afro-Brazilians. A proponent of the cinema novo movement, Diegues resisted standard Hollywood aesthetics as inappropriate for Brazil. Cinema novo proposed instead what collaborator Glauber Rocha called an "aesthetics of hunger," refusing to cover up the poverty suffered in Brazil with the glamour of a celluloid spectacle.
Twenty-five years later, an older and more cautious Diegues has done just that with Orfeu. The director still demonstrates a commitment to documenting the downtrodden by updating the myth to contemporary Rio. The war among Greek gods becomes a war between contemporary favela drugs lords, a corrupt police force, and the godlike Orfeu (Toni Garrido), a carnival champion and ghetto poet determined to stay in the slums as an example to his desperate neighbors. Cinematographer Affonso Beato's favela looks stunning, however. In the days leading up to and following carnival, costumed revelers move through a landscape so fantastic that even stray bullets and summary executions fail to render favela life horrific. By comparison the festival finery taken from footage of the real-life carnival 1998 looks unappealing. Shot with the staid inexorability of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade at the sanitized samba-drome, this carnival is so dull it's no wonder Orfeu prefers the slums.
The only element of the film that is even less interesting is Patricia França's portrayal of Euridice. Supposedly this country girl's beauty and innocence overwhelm the handsome young lord, leading him in the end to the netherworld of insanity. While both Garrido and França are easy on the eyes, neither achieves the depth of character required to take this melodrama to the heights and depths of tragedy. Playwright Moraes originally tapped into the Orpheus myth to show how carnival and samba are exuberant Dionysian pleasures, which paradoxically are made possible by suffering in the favela. To achieve these highs and lows, Diegues would have had to linger less on the lachrymose passion of his protagonists, and spend more time in the frantic halls where costumes are created and dances rehearsed -- more time, that is, in the samba schools.
If Orfeu trips up on tragedy, Bossa Nova falls short of comedy. Pompously dedicated to Jobim and François Truffaut, the film fits better in the company of television jingles and sitcom fare. For a U.S. audience grown accustomed to the brilliant collision of coincidence broadcast weekly during the final years of Seinfeld, the clichéd subplots of mistaken identity and misplaced ardor in this comedy of errors plod along an all-too-predictable course. Internet romance. Pretty English teacher. Horny soccer stud. Enough said.
The most genuine moments of Bossa Nova revolve around the tailor shop owned by the Argentine immigrant father of protagonist Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes). In one beautiful scene, the father and his two grown sons bend with their ears to a bolt of fabric, listening for the tell-tale sounds of quality. In another inspired moment, Pedro Paulo secretly measures with his hand the back and shoulders of love interest Mary Ann (played adequately by Barreto's wife, Amy Irving) as they descend in an elevator after English class. When the film sacrifices the father as a convenient plot device, killing him off to set up a series of gags at the hospital and discoveries at the funeral, all hope of a memorable cinematic experience dies with him.
Neither Diegues's Orfeu nor Barreto's Bossa Nova live up to their musical inspiration. Fans of Brazilian music whose collections already hold the best of bossa nova can safely stay home. Those listening for new trends might do well to spend the money saved on movie tickets to purchase the Orfeu soundtrack. The score, created by contemporary legend Caetano Veloso indeed is a tribute to Brazil's rich musical legacy. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado
Bossa Nova screens Friday, February 18, at 7:30 p.m. Orfeu screens Saturday, February 19, at 7:00 p.m.
Of all the freakish moments in Orphans, Scottish writer/director Peter Mullan's compelling film from 1997, none is as breathtaking as the image of a man trying to carry his mother's coffin on his back. Bent over to accommodate the weight, he looks like a nightmarish beast of burden, a mule as imagined by Brueghel. By the time he finally succumbs to the impossibility of the task and crawls on all fours only to be knocked to the ground by the crowd of mourners following him, you don't know whether to laugh or shudder.
Much of the film, which follows four siblings through the 24 hours leading up to their mother's funeral, is infused with a similarly odd mood. Oldest son Thomas, the one who ends up with the coffin on his back, spends the night keeping a strict vigil over the body, an act that alienates his brothers and sister and leaves him alone at the funeral. Sister Sheila refuses to stay at the church with Thomas. She forces her wheelchair down the street, where she encounters a family preparing a surprise party. They take her in as a storm ravages the night. The two remaining brothers, Michael and John, find their own misadventures in the streets of Glasgow. Michael is stabbed in a pub but nurses his wound through the night. He wants to claim a worker's compensation injury in the morning. John swears to avenge him, and nearly murders someone.
Punctuated by unsettling hilarity, the film's funniest scenes are those in which someone is either sobbing or terrified. The screams of young hoods at an amusement-park attraction are not derived from glee but rather from terror at realizing that the man they provoked, John, has followed them and is aiming a shotgun at them as they spin around on a ride. Michael insults a bartender and gets thrown into a cellar, where he finds a half-dozen other people who also have offended the barkeep. Sheila's wheelchair gets stuck in an alley and she is rescued by a little girl wearing a princess hat.
To call the movie (which won Mullan a Grand Prix at the 1999 Paris Film Festival) a black comedy is to undersell it. It's more like a marriage between James Joyce and John Ford, in which comedy, tragedy, and other primal elements mix. (You should try to make out the heavily accented dialogue. The subtitles don't do it justice. "Kill the fucking wain" is translated as the much less colorful "Kill the baby.") This is the first feature film for Mullan, who recently starred in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, after appearing in films such as Trainspotting, Braveheart, and Riff Raff. As a director Mullan is sometimes a bit heavy handed. At least two of the characters find themselves in crucifixion poses, and the Shakespearean elements -- storm, death, family rifts -- though appropriate, are not subtle. Orphans is marvelously engrossing, however. Dedicated to Mullan's mother, who died in 1993, the film will strike a chord with anyone who has lost a parent, encountered emotional peril, or merely lost his way in the night. -- Robin Dougherty
Orphans screens Wednesday, February 23, at 9:30 p.m.
"Here I'm alone, with the beat of my heart...." Solas, a warm and exquisite piece revolving around the ill-fated lives of its characters, is a film about loneliness, aging, and love.
A movie from Spanish director Benito Zambrano, Solas tells the story about a mother and her daughter who, in different stages of their lives, suffer equally from loneliness and deception. Maria is a bad-tempered woman, hard and bitter, who lives in a poor neighborhood, and without many expectations. Working as a maid she struggles with the reality of being pregnant by a man who not only sees her as a sex object but also shuns the idea of fatherhood. Her isolation, however, is altered when Maria's mother, whose husband (Maria's father) has become ill, comes to visit for a few days.
Maria's mother is one of the best character achievements of the film. She is a sweet, soft-spoken woman who, despite being subjected to the brute force of an abusive husband, moves among others with a gentle heart. Almost imperceptibly her slow and tired movement leaves behind a lovely trail, like an old and sweet perfume. That is, until life gives her the opportunity to express her hidden personality. Then everything around her sparkles, and love and understanding substitute for her former silence and submission. This is best demonstrated in her acquaintance with a neighbor, an old widower who shares his loneliness with his dog. Empathy grows between the two neighbors as they discover the possibility of friendship and companionship to fill the emptiness of their lives.
Solas proposes that happiness doesn't depend on great moments in life but rather on daily events. A beautiful example of this is a tender scene in which Maria's mother helps the widower take a bath after he has soiled his pajamas in his sleep. Although the film is an intimate piece with a languid and thoughtful pace, its subplots are developed in short and sharp parallel sequences. Take, for example, the subplot of Maria's hospitalized father who, as a grumpy and remorseless man, is unable to open his heart to his daughter and his wife. It not only provides the film with tremendous vivacity, but also creates an emotional bond with the audience.
Solas brings a message of hope to the old and the lonely, with a surprising and unconventional climax that proves partners can be anyone from anywhere as long as they don't spoil each other's happiness. The film is direct, sometimes merciless in its exposition of family, human relations, and the weight of being lonely and forlorn. Its language is almost poetic, sometimes bursting with common and bitter street talk, yet it manages the plot with maturity, avoiding concessions and superfluous actions. Solas reminds me of a few film masterpieces dealing with similar topics -- the marvelous neorealistic Humberto D and Bergman's Wild Strawberries. And what's most surprising is that director Zambrano, a young, recent film-school graduate from Seville, chose as his feature-film debut such a truly adult subject matter, one that portrays people's everyday life, alone. -- Sergio Giral
Solas screens Sunday, February 20, at 2:00 p.m.
Fans of TV's The Sopranos may not recognize Edie Falco as the title character in writer/director Eric Mendelsohn's appealing Judy Berlin. Here the Emmy Award winner plays an aspiring but talentless actress, far removed from Carmela Soprano's svelte sophistication. Her frenetic ballet of a performance is a gem, however, and it's one of several good reasons to see this film (winner of the Director's Award last year at Sundance), which also features Julie Kavner, Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy, Anne Meara, and the late Madeline Kahn.
A valentine to his Long Island hometown, here poetically dubbed Babylon, Mendelsohn's first feature film follows a group of characters through a day that's interrupted by a solar eclipse. As the midday sky darkens, momentous things seem possible, and people reveal themselves in unusual ways. Not the least of those affected is David Gold (played by Aaron Harnick, Barbara Barrie's real-life son), a young man who has returned to Long Island after failing to nail down a filmmaking career in Hollywood. On the day of the eclipse, he runs into an old high school classmate, Judy, who is about to depart for the West Coast, hopeful of finding her own shot at stardom. Judy's naive optimism somehow punctures David's defeated cynicism, if only momentarily, and he can't resist spending the day with her.
Even more compelling is the way the flirtation between Judy's schoolteacher mother, Sue (played by Barrie), and David's father (Dishy), the school principal, surfaces. What makes their connection possible is the unsettling appearance of a retired teacher with Alzheimer's, who barges in and interrupts Sue's class. At the same time, David's addle-brained mother, Alice, wanders over to a neighbor's house, seemingly oblivious to the feud she instigated with this neighbor months earlier. One of Kahn's last performances, her turn as Alice is indelibly haunting, as is this depiction of a woman wandering around in midday as though it were a dream.
As with most films in which the protagonist is a would-be filmmaker, Judy Berlin is something of a young man's film. What's unique is Mendelsohn's ability to look beyond the David Gold character to the world surrounding him. Cinematographer Jeffrey Seckendorf's camera, loaded with black-and-white film that's almost sepia, captures a town through its stoplights, gas tanks, and phone wires. Critics have already compared Mendelsohn (a one-time cog on several Woody Allen films) to Altman, in part because he effortlessly stitches together small moments into a larger visual quilt. In one such scene the camera pans Meara and Kavner chatting in the background as a more important character passes by. As with everyone else onscreen here, we glimpse these two and want to know much more about their lives. -- Robin Dougherty
Judy Berlin screens Sunday, February 20, at 4:30 p.m.
Love Tangles is the first movie from Olivier Péray, with a plot that is light and affable and manages to maintain a sophisticated equilibrium despite the unnecessary complexity of its structure. The film deals with basic human emotions of desire, love, and seduction. It's a charming story with charming characters and situations that are set against Paris in springtime, when the bare legs of women give special splendor to the city. Love is obviously in the air as Lionel, a young and attractive publisher, is surrounded by two beautiful women on a café terrace. His story is told by his best friend, Alain, to a young stranger, Sophie, both of whom are sitting at another table watching. Lionel is a seducer, who is called a "sex machine" by his comrades. His success with women provokes Alain's jealousy and, as such, he makes a bet with Lionel: He must choose a woman at random and spend a night with her without having sex. Lionel accepts the challenge and chooses Claire, a smiling, married travel agent.
At first Claire seems to be the calm and proper type, but behind her conventional appearance is an uncontrollable appetite for sex and lust. To win the bet Lionel makes Claire believe he is impotent; he tells her he likes women but can't have sex with them. But Claire develops a passion for Lionel and imposes herself on him as his savior; she gives him "exciting" sexual treatments to awake his sleepy libido. Claire eventually leaves her husband and moves in with Lionel. Everyday life, however, soon turns the affair into a boring relationship, provoking a turn of the screw.
Lionel is a Don Juan. His greatest passion in life is to conquer a woman. In this aspect the film deals with the Don Juan syndrome, showing that behind every lady-killer there is an impotent man. The film explores the snags of sexual behavior, exposing what is behind the mask of a femme fatale or a womanizer.
Alain is the film's narrator and framer. He lays out these themes by giving different versions of what happened between the two lovers. This removed, Bertolt Brecht-type method provides the viewer the opportunity to participate in the drama and form his own opinion about the behavior and real nature of the film's characters. Such distance, however, is excessive, gratuitous, and sometimes distracting from the main plot.
French films traditionally have revolved around love and sex. Love Tangles owes a lot to François Truffaut, whose films about passion, women, and faithfulness have made him the most popular and successful French film director. His 1977 L' Homme Qui Aimait Les Femmes was a charming, sophisticated comedy about a man who falls in love with almost every woman he meets, and tells his story in flashbacks while writing his autobiography. While not as good, Péray's film also is about tricks of seduction and how to disguise the truth to dazzle any lover. But it also warns conquerors about the danger of falling into their own trap, turning the conqueror into a victim of love. -- Sergio Giral
Love Tangles screens Sunday, February 20, at 9:30 p.m.
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