An assault on facile histiographics in which institutional authority often operates, Radu Jude's I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History as Barbarians is an astute reflection on the 1941 Odessa massacre carried out on the Eastern Front by the Romanians. Documentaries detailing historical atrocities are associated heavily with pedantic informative displays about 'the truth' yet Barbarians subverts such limitations through its formalist and narrative designs, ones in which the ontological lens is itself reflected upon not defined - historical reenactment serving as a useful device for analytical examination about vague notions of 'the truth'. Exhibiting how historical negationism is often a by-product of implicit subversion - often rooted in tribalism and/or binary notions of moralism - Jude's film is a documentary which places truth-seeking and inquiry as a paramount ideal when studying the labyrinths which exist in any examination of history. The film invites us into this discursive strategies related to truth-seeking centered around the historical record - one in which ideology and theology related to the social, political and economical modes of life often distort or subvert any naive notions of objective truth. This recognition is paramount, as Jude shows a maturity unmatched by most of his contemporaries, having a temperament which also allows the film's tone to be far from dry, being often surprisingly funny, and dare I say jovial, dealing with such a sobering subject matter with a mature, clear focus which is incisive, informative, poignant but never pedantic or simplistic in its evocations on Romania's historiography. Embracing a more nuanced understanding of objectivity, one which recognizes subjectivity is intrinsic to documentation and historiography, Jude's film provides a powerful, thought-provoking, and expansive experience which transcends the specificity of its subject - the 1941 Odessa massacre. The temporal examination of history, whether in the present or in retrospect, is reflected upon - the malaise of the moment, contemporary actions being intrinsically enslaved to emotion and the incalculable nature of moment being beautifully juxtaposed with historical negationism in which the lens of the present distorts the past to serve itself. I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians invites the viewer into the process of historical inquiry, removing any semblance of pedantic or paternal designs. The film fundamentally recognizing that truth seeking is a process, one which must reject humanity's penchant for ideological tribalism which breeds either dogma or whataboutism, welcoming the viewer to contemplate the complexities of morality in the context of historical truth seeking. It's almost as if the valorization of the nation state is a systemic barrier to peace and a more ethical way of life, the fear of the other being a force wielded by institutional abstractions to maintain power and ultimately authority over the masses. :)
The banality in the day-to-day existence of modernity, our penchant for material-based fulfillment as a counterproductive coping mechanism left by the metaphysical void, Peter Strickland's In Fabric infuses his sterile, outre aesthetic sensibilities onto the narrative schematics of a haunted red dress to deliver another singular vision from the British maestro. Having the formalist identity indebted to giallo, Strickland's horror film is one which relies on an aura of the peculiar, distorting familial spaces such as the retail story, the office, and the home into something which feels supernatural, brooding with a sense danger. Spaces often synonymous with comfort and safety now evoke a sense of danger, as In Fabric's structural and formalist constructions coalesce to find the horror and by-proxy, comedy, in absurdities of today, where commercial therapy is a deception, a horror in society due to how it obfuscates the metaphysical pursuit of self-worth
Embracing a pulpiness which arguably strengthens the film's brazen thematic designs, Juliano Dornelles & Kleber Mendonça Filho's Bacurau infuses the formalist sensibilities of the neo-Western with John Carpenter's palatable sense of dread, delivering a heightened allegorical drama which sets its sights on modernity's monolithic, methodical destruction of the old world. This fast-paced thrillers narrative schematic employs abject violence which borders on satirical, exhibiting a bold, heightened vision of the state of the world under the global market economy, one which aims to subjugate or destroy those communities which don't conform or assimilate to the modern way of life.
Sembene examines the solipsism intrinsic to traditionalism through a simple narrative frame-work, astute in its recognition of the slippery notions of authority as a positive sum-game regardless of what societal system one inhabits.. Nuanced in its approach, Moolaade' lacks pretense in its examination of lasting impact of colonialism, drawing an interesting distinction between the economic and social liberalism's impact while lambasting the notion of liberty under a patriarchal system. While economic liberalism is widely acknowledged by the tribe as mercenary and exploitative, an economical imperialism of sorts, the film's pensive examination of social liberalism is where a harsh, yet salient dichotomy emerges. A patriarchal vice-grip censors any such notion of social liberation, one in which the elders repress and censor anything which threatens their traditional way of life. With personal autonomy clashing with the traditional customs of the tribe, the lines are not drawn by gender but ideological grounds, the staunch traditionalists, which also feature countless woman, and those who desire change, wishing to be granted autonomy over their own bodies and choices in life.
Perhaps one of the most substantive and salient uses of the mockumentary structure in cinematic history, Luis Ospina & Carlos Mayolo's The Vampires of Poverty weaponizes the observatory documentary artifice to deliver a blistering critique of the exploitative nature of many such film's which exploit and explicitly subvert objectivity for personal gain. Managing a tone that is relatively jovial, due largely to its farce-like construction, The Vampires of Poverty kills with kindness, exhibiting the problematic nature of films which posit themselves as purely objective experiences, particularly when they are incapable - or even worse, unwilling - of leaving the ontological lens with their subjects. Exploitation for personal gain vs. providing one's subjects a voice is a fine line but one that is paramount and The Vampires of Poverty in 30 minutes delivers a film that shouldn't just be considered mandatory viewing for documentary filmmaker but anyone who has an affinity for the documentary format.
One of the toughest cinematic experiences of the year, Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole is an emotionally devastating experience, one in which the mental, physical, and spiritual degradation of war is explored in searing detail. Taking place in Soviet Russia at the end of WWII, the merits of this victory over fascism are indisputable, yet Beanpole chooses this universally acknowledge justifiable ear to make its anti-war commentary even more salient, exhibiting how even in great just victories on a macro level many on a micro level are left behind, pushed aside, or at worst forgotten completely - the promise of peace and better times ahead distorting the work which needs be done in the present. An anti-war film set entirely after the last bomb has dropped, after peace has been declared, Beanpole examines the wounds which persist in those who experience such unimaginable horror, exhibiting how the scars of war don't easy vanquish, they linger, infecting the souls of those who lived through it long after the fighting has stopped. Detailing how those affected are desperate to find some semblance of happiness, purpose, or meaning in life after suffering such trauma, Beanpole showcases how emotional violence becomes a commonality in day-to-day life, the dehumanizing effect of war being a micro effect as much as a macro one, severing relationships to a degree in which severe strain is placed on the communal notions of society at large. Trauma is embedded into the fabric of this film's structural and formalist designs, death feels familiar, even commonplace in the post-War landscape in which life itself is distorted by the machinery of war. While severe acts of emotional and physical degradation are displayed throughout Beanpole, it would be misguided the call the film a cynical experience, as what Beanpole exposes throughout its narrative schematics is the reactionary nature in which the psyche deals with trauma. Each of these characters is so deeply damaged they are clinging to some form of purpose, they are looking for meaning which at times causes them to hurt one-and-other, but in the film's final denouement these unwavering pursuits for purpose coalesce with humanity's capacity for empathy, with Beanpole delivering a striking portrait of post-war struggles. While arguably provocative in moments, Beanpole narrative designs are holistic and serve a purpose, offering an astute study of the human condition through its brazen and searing anti-war message.
A worthy homage to Rudy Ray Moore in which Eddie Murphy himself pays his respects to a pioneer, Dolemite is My Name is celebration of entrepreneur rigor, salient in its ability to exhibit the sheer force of creation, a process in which the ontological transforms into the material. Managing to never fully divulge into hagiography, Dolemite is My Name recognizes the facile nature of celebrity, exhibiting how Rudy Ray Moore's drive to be someone was largely due to a social environment of suppression, implicitly suggesting that his own father suffered such degradation which in turn drives Rudy Ray Moore to accept nothing less but prominence. A man unwilling to accept his voice be regulated to subculture, Rudy Ray Moore's story is presented with pride but also tonal precision, centered around comedy but featuring scattered melancholy which invokes the milieu of the minority, one which often is left behind by the majority in a centralized market economy.
Metaphysical might of the human spirit juxtaposed against the faux-sense of strength granted by material accomplishments, Mati Diop's Atlantics is a soul-searing romance which transcends the natural world to deliver a striking narrative debut about the power of love. Rhythmic formalist designs create an aura and tone which invokes a sense of reflection from the viewer, the film's soul-searing love story between boy and girl being the perfect conduit for the film's larger holistic aspirations - a meditation on the post-colonialist world, and specifically the migrant crisis, a crisis when continues to be an ongoing stain on modernism crystal clean notions of human progress.
An evocation on guilt, obligation, and retribution, Marco Bellocchio's The Traitor is a mafia story which feels familiar yet unique, taking a complex narrative which could have easily felt uneven or overwrought and making it taut, immersive and emotionally resonant. Constructing its formalist and structural designs holistically around its principle characterization of Tommaso Buscetta, the first mafia informant in Sicily, The Traitor manages to be an incisive film when it comes to ego, detailing how fragility isn't diametrically opposed to ego but congruent. Notions of duty, obligation, and honor, conflict and contrast with his subjective morality, as the main protagonist of this story struggles with ethical imperatives related to retribution. Emotionally resonant due to the introspective lens which the film places on this complex character, The Traitor never strays into melodrama, recognizing how his personal flaws are what make him not only interesting but compelling, his pride being a barrier to emotional availability but also an instructive force which ultimately drives him to finish what he started as an informant. Subtextually, the film provides a nuanced examination of institutional power, uninterested in crude or binary moral claims associated with public -the state- or private- the mafia in the context of this story. The Traitor instead grasps with the social, political, and social entanglements of any institution of a specific historical magnitude - in this case the Mafia being embedded into Italy itself - exhibiting the corrosive nature intrinsic to authority and how the tentacles of power, authority and ultimately control have no such allegiances, being only loyal to itself in the quest for more. Aesthetically speaking, Bellocchio and company employ a meticulous and rhythmic visual schematic; Wide compositions juxtaposed with heavy use of empty space invoke the fulcrum of this character's cognitive experience, expressing through visuals the emotive nature of a once deeply connected and powerful man now largely on his own, standing up against one of the most powerful institutions in the world, the 1980s Silician mafia. A mafia story that isn't really about the mob, The Traitor is an exquisite piece of epic scale filmmaking which manages to touch on a lot of interesting concepts related to institutional power, authority, and perhaps most incisively, how fragility isn't in conflict with but is a part of ego.
A story about identity at its core, Nadav Lapid's Synonyms is incisive in moments, but holistically it feels rather slight, a bit silly, and at its worst utterly pretentious in its brazen aesthetic designs which amount to very little outside of instilling emotional detachment in the viewer from the humanistic component of its story. A sterile, meticulous directorial style unfortunately impairs the overall experience far more than it invokes the psyche of its main protagonist. The story of a young man who emigrates to France from Israel to flee his nationality, one which he has grown to despise, Synonyms exhibits the violence of pure notions of assimilation through this character who is looking for rebirth through a change in citizenship. The entanglements of identity are not easily obfuscated, even when they themselves are complete abstractions, such as the case with nationality, and through this juvenile main protagonist, Lapid exhibits the illogical nature of such types of attachments, regardless of the complementary or pejorative connotations of perception. The moral attachment this character experiences for the foreign Paris over his native Israel is emotionally understandable but intellectually illogical, as Lapid constructs this character with explicit directorial flair in which he feels more like an inanimate, malleable instrument, one which is well performed by Tom Mercier, but one that is not particularly well crafted in its characterization. This effect makes this human story feel inorganic in stretches, striping the film of its emotional agency and relying too much on its thematic commentary in a work that needs both to truly succeed on a fundamental level. Nadav Lapid's Synonyms is the type of film I probably would have been enamored with a decade ago, and while I have extremely fond memories of his previous films, my response to his style this time around makes me somewhat wary of re-watching his prior work.
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