(jp) wrote: White Material (Claire Denis, 2009) Claire Denis has a whole lot to say about Africa, it seems. She's directed a number of movies about Africa, including her best-known works (1988's Chocolat and 2008's 35 Shots of Rum bookending the first two decades of her career). 2009's White Material finally showed up in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago, and I got to see a Claire Denis film on the big screen for the first time. And it's a good one. Most of the time, anyway. Loosely based on The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing's first novel, White Material is the story of Maria Vial (The Piano Teacher's Isabelle Huppert), a coffee farmer in a nameless African country transitioning to independence. Neither the name of the country (Lessing's book is set in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe; the film was shot in Cameroon, as far from Zimbabwe as one can get in sub-Saharan Africa) nor the time period (but it is to be understood that this is an historical, not a contemporary, drama) is given us, but I'm not entirely sure they matter. Maria lives on her family's coffee plantation, effectively running it. With her is her ex-husband Andre (Highlander's Christopher Lambert), their son Manuel (Denis regular Nicolas Duvauchelle), her ailing father-in-law Henri (Jules et Jim's Michel Subor), and a cadre of workers. Well, for a few brief moments at the beginning, anyway. As we open, independence is really starting to take hold-as the French army pulls out, the rural areas (read: places where you can stick a coffee plantation) are either under the iron hand of the State, bloody wastelands controlled by the rebels, or scenes of conflict between the two. The workers, who understand which way the wind's blowing, do the wise thing, pack up, and get out-leaving Maria and her family with coffee still on the vine. Five more days, she tells them, and you can go. Not that they're listening, and the rest of the movie's plotline is "how do we get this coffee harvested?" But the coffee takes a back seat to the other storylines here. The most compelling is that of The Boxer (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Isaach de Bankole), a rebel leader who stumbles into the Vial plantation, gut-shot during a battle and looking for a place to recuperate. (Whether Maria knows who he is from the get-go or not is subject to debate; I'm on the "yes" side, but for no concrete reason.) Then there is Manuel, disaffected youth looking for a thrill, and the relationship between Maria and Andre. The last of these is given the least amount of time in the film, but it is the most real. It's a relationship that is disintegrating, like the marriage did before it, though not for lack of trying on anyone's part; there is still a real affection between these characters, and had their relationship been taken center stage, this might have been a much better movie than it is. But that is not the way Claire Denis and the film of African liberation work. Indeed, had any of these storylines taken control of the film save the one that actually does, it might well have been a better film than it is. But again that is not the way, etc. And by saying this I don't mean to declare outright this is a bad film, not by any means. It's far too fragmented in the first twenty minutes, and in the last twenty minutes, and while that makes sense given the subject matter (the country is fractured, and thus depictions of it should be), I can sympathize with those who found it overly artsy or disjointedness for disjointedness' sake. There's an art to keeping that sort of thing coherent. Though off the top of my head I can't think of anyone terribly well-versed in it. Even this movies I've loved that have done this sort of fractured-film thing recently (A Serbian Film jumps to mind) have made me say "keep going, it'll make sense eventually." Here's the problem with Denis' film: there's nowhere to keep going. When I say the fracturing is the last twenty minutes, I mean the last twenty minutes. Then the movie just ends, and I guess the viewer's task is to pick up the pieces given you and make sense of them. To be fair to Denis, two of the four storylines are resolved in a coherent fashion. (The third, the fate of the Boxer, is revealed in the opening scene, as part of the beginning fragmentation of the film; the fourth, the fate of Maria and Andre's relationship, has been sealed long before.) But on the other hand, I look at the coherence in that scene, and the disjointedness of the rest of this part of the film, and it makes me even more frustrated. But on the other hand, I liked it more than this review would have you believe. I like the sly comic touches, though "comic" is perhaps the wrong word; it's a gallows humor, and everyone in the film save the most self-deluded realizes this. Andre is a friend of the Mayor's, and when the Mayor shows off his hand-picked militia, who are going to spirit him out of the country unharmed, the look on Andre's face is classic. (Remember, this is Christopher Lambert you're looking at. Who knew?) It's little touches like that that keep this movie riveting. Of course, the cinematography is spectacular; every time I review a Nollywood flick, I find myself saying the same things about the cinematography (how hard can it be when you go to the edge of the city, walk in a straight line five miles, and you're in some of the most beautiful country on earth?), and they apply here. It's green and lush and dark and scary, even the barren parts. You're in the middle of a burned-out field or walking down a dirt road and there's still no place the green can't simply reach out and swallow you. There's a parallel to be made here about political instability, but I'm currently too tired to make it. In the end, there is much to recommend about this movie, including some of its most surprising factors. (I keep harping on Christopher Lambert here...) And there are fewer things to not recommend, but the fewer are also the major. You'll have to see it for yourself and decide-which is a recommend, I should think. *** 1/2
(de) wrote: Kundun takes place in Tibet during the year of 1937, shortly after the most recent Dalai Lama had passed away. Since the passing of the 13th Dalai Lama, monks are in search to find the next leader, whom they believe is a young boy. The young boy at the beginning of the film is put to the test from a variety of items that did and didn't belong to the last Dalai Lama. He is asked to pick out objects that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama and set them to the side, in which he successful does. Hence a sign to the monks that there leadership has been reincarnated into the young boy. Kundun is a film that depicts when the communist country of China invades Tibet to enforce a communist government in a peaceful nation of Tibet. In order to save his life the Dalai Lama must flee to India to make sure he survives. Originally the Dalai Lama travels to China to meet with Chairman Mao Zi Dong, in hope that they would be able to understand each other. This film reminds me of many ways of how World Religions are so similar. There have been so many instances where religions leadership individuals are sought after by governments. When the opposition gets scared of being overpower or conquered they turn to violence a lot of the time. For some reason violence is used as a power mechanism to show all the strength that one man has if you fail to obey them. The Dalai Lama and his teachings were seen as a threat to China, Chairman Mao wanted a united power of religious power that he would control in Mainland China, and Tibet was to join it one way or another. Another way this movie relates to World Religions is spiritual aspect it contains. The monks are in search for the next Dalai Lama. They rely upon being guided spiritually to finding the next individual to lead a population of followers to living a life in tune with His teachings. Every religion has a spiritual aspect to it. They receive divine guidance, answers to personal prayers etc all by using their spiritual part to their body and mind. There must be a higher power to guide us.