Reviews From 40th Mill Valley Film Festival

by on October 5, 2017

In “Felicite,” director Alain Gomis makes his titular club singer an anti-heroic survivor of Kinshasa’s hardscrabble urban life.  Her face generally resembles a stony mask.  Womanizing drunk Tabu seems her boyfriend in the tolerated usefulness sense.  Felicite’s personal limitations start popping through via her efforts to raise money for injured teenage son Samo’s leg operation.  Such storytelling devices as soundtrack silence while someone’s obviously speaking and the film’s musical numbers capture its titular anti-heroine’s mental state.  Despite the dreamy promise of classical music numbers, shots of Kinshasa roads at night offer a more honest accounting of the city’s life.

***

Despite having such rich dramatic material to draw on, Annarita Zambrano’s debut drama “After The War” winds up being an exercise in shallow oafishness.

The event that propels the film’s drama is the 2002 revocation of President Francois Mitterand’s anti-extradition policy regarding Italian leftists convicted in Italy of violent crimes.   One such person affected by this revocation is Marco Lamberti.  He’s used his new life in France to become a public figure and to raise teenage daughter Viola on his own.  The high-profile assassination of a Professor Marini leads to Marco’s going on the run with Viola.  But the killing also results in public pressure being put on Marco’s mother and sister.

Zambrano never bothers to make Marco a human character.  There is no sense of the roots of his paternal bond with Viola aside from a general “do what I say” power relationship.  Nor does Marco seem plausible as a political figure.  If he did order the Marini assassination, what political advantage or next step was supposed to follow from the killing?  If he is a French public figure, why doesn’t he use his political prominence to turn the attempted extradition into a cause célèbre by claiming he’d been framed for the Marini killing?  The journalist interview sequence makes clear that Zambrano defines Marco solely as a self-deceiving monster.

It’s a perverse comfort to realize that Zambrano doesn’t sexually discriminate when it comes to populating her drama with shallow characters.  The renewed scrutiny on Marco’s activities doesn’t cause Marco’s mother to doubt her protectiveness of her son.  Anna, Marco’s sister, winds up having her family’s fortunes affected by her brother’s alleged involvement in the Marini killing.  Yet her coping mechanism never goes beyond slow burn resentment.

But it’s Viola who never displays depths beyond the budding teenager stereotype.  If Marco weaned her on tales of his romantic revolutionary past, the teenager certainly doesn’t display the excitement of actually living la vida revolutionary.  If Viola’s actions are her form of rebelling against her rebel father, the supposedly climactic payoff feels more like a moment’s petulance.  Certainly the consequences don’t seem to include emotional marks on the girl.  For a character intended to be a dramatic focus, Viola’s most lasting impression sadly remains the pair of jeans shorts that flatter her bare midriff and posterior.

“After The War” may be a debut film.  But it’s not the type of debut that encourages interest in Zambrano’s next project.

***

A far better debut film is Rayhana’s “I Still Hide To Smoke.”  Not only does it boast a wider variety of female characters, but they display more emotional depth than “After The War” can barely muster.

The film itself is a cinematic adaptation of Rayhana’s 2009 play.  The full title of the play and the film, incidentally, is “At My Age, I Still Hide to Smoke.”  It references both the sexism and social oppression of its setting.

For the film’s dramatic events take place in 1995 Algeria over the course of one day.  The story’s venue is a women’s hammam (communal bathhouse).  Head masseuse Fatima (Hiam Abbass) sternly runs the hammam while assisted by younger masseuse Samia and Fatima’s daughter.  Despite Fatima’s crotchety behavior, the older masseuse displays moments of kindness.  The hammam serves as a refuge for its patrons to do everything from talk freely about politics to smoke without worrying about others’ disapproval.  Pregnant Meriem takes Fatima’s refuge concept to the extreme.  She’s hiding out at the hammam because her religious fundamentalist brother Mohamed has targeted her for an honor killing to avenge the alleged disgrace of her alleged adultery.

Abbass, who stars in two films at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, makes Fatima a survivor of Algerian social oppression.  If the older woman’s tongue were an ax, it’d be sharp enough to fell a good-sized redwood tree.  Her sometimes brusque remarks to Samia may seem mean.  But they actually serve as a type of tough love for a woman whose 29 ½ year old unmarried status is complemented by her naivete, particularly in the ways of men.

On the other hand, the gentle-mannered Zahia is worthy of Fatima’s barely concealed contempt.  The young widow’s non-threatening behavior can’t disguise her culpability in allowing a friend to suffer an acid attack for daring to wear a skirt.

Rayhana’s film does criticize the Islamic religion but definitely not in an Islamophobe-friendly way.   Female frontal nudity occasionally pops up.  But these images definitely won’t excite the male gaze.  Honor killing and acid attacks are shown as problems.  But the pungent line “Your Islam is not my Islam” makes clear that the fault lies with those practitioners who adopt a highly conservative interpretation of Islam.   Think of Zahia and Mohamed as being spiritual siblings to Christians who claim homophobia is part of their religion.

The film’s references to Communist vs. fundamentalist clashes may fly over some viewers’ heads.  Certainly, Zahia’s ulterior motive in visiting the hammam isn’t made clear.

But even non-Algerians can understand that Samia’s still unmarried state is tied to class snobbery at her profession.  Also transcending the cultural barrier is the film’s showing why certain women-only spaces are necessary. When such spaces give women a measure of freedom from male domination or control, they can be incredibly liberating places.

Some viewers may cry foul at the magical realist ending taken by a powerful film mostly steeped in quotidian reality.  But given the aspirational pro-woman slant of the film, the final images feel like an appropriate response to what has gone before.

Adapting a play for the screen is never an easy task.  Rayhana’s success in making her adaptation gripping, funny, and tragic sparks curiosity and confidence about whatever she’ll tackle next.

***

Lynne Sachs’ lively and always fascinating documentary “Tip Of My Tongue” breathes life and even laughter into collective remembrances of the last third or so of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century.

Sachs is turning 50.  As with other people reaching that milestone, it’s an occasion for looking back.  But rather than conducting an exercise in solo reminiscence, the filmmaker invites friends and acquaintances who are around the same age for a weekend of remembering moments from their lives over the past five decades.

Sachs’ record of her experiment avoids airless nostalgia to become a living breathing chronicle.  The film’s not concerned with calling up memories for a particular year.  The frequent sight of years being written on surfaces other than paper unchains the participants’ memories from the fetters of the concrete past.   Instead, the recalled stories possess both present-day parallels and a small resurrected detail from the past.   A childhood recollection of the Kennedy assassination seems like a foreshadowing of children’s lives ruined by the possibility of gun violence.  A biracial man’s memory reminds the viewer of just how relatively recently interracial relationships were still illegal.

There’s an air of playfulness to the whole project.  Excerpts from the filmmaker’s poetry over the years deflate the seriousness of momentous events such as the Moon Landing.   Expected period footage coexists with irreverent animation.  One memory play evokes the joy of sitting underneath a tree and chatting with friends on a summer day.

Sachs’ unconventional documentary style will disconcert more literal-minded viewers.  Sometimes one person’s story is cut off midway through on the soundtrack and replaced with a tale from a different person.  Nor does Sachs directly identify any of the participants, even herself.  Some repeated shots are metaphors for the process Sachs is chronicling.

But the filmmaker’s approach pays off.  Sachs’ film shows that living with and through a momentous event doesn’t have to diminish our own personal experiences.

(“Felicite” screens at 2:15 PM on October 7, 2017 at the Rafael 2 and 2:00 PM on October 11, 2017 at the Rafael 3.  “After The War” screens at 9:30 PM on October 13, 2017 at the Sequoia 1 Theater and 6:15 PM on October 14, 2017 at the Century Larkspur 2.  “I Still Hide To Smoke” screens at 4:00 PM on October 9, 2017 at the Rafael 1 and 11:15 AM on October 10, 2017 at the Sequoia 2.  “Tip Of My Tongue” screens at 9:00 PM on October 10, 2017 at the Sequoia 1 and 9:00 PM on October 11, 2017 at the Century Larkspur 2.   For theater locations and advance ticket ordering, go to www.mvff.com .)

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