Only God Forgives (2013), Director: Nicolas Winding Refn, DP: Larry Smith
Only God Forgives (2013), Director: Nicolas Winding Refn, DP: Larry Smith
From acclaimed Egyptian director Amr Salama (Asmaa, 2011, Excuse my French, 2014), comes a 90-minute feature that defines the mediocrity that has overcome mainstream Egyptian cinema. The amateurish endeavor which stars some of Egyptian cinema’s most recognized faces was surprisingly selected to be submitted for the 90th Academy Awards, despite its conspicuous flaws and shortcomings on both the artistic and entertainment aspects.
The story follows a religious man as he goes through a crisis of faith when he realizes that his childhood idol, Michael Jackson, is now dead. The film shifts from the present to past memories to even dream sequences in its journey to unravel the life and upbringing of its main character, spawning a number of supporting characters and subplots along the way that most of the time serve no purpose whatsoever to the plot. This nonlinear approach at storytelling, along with the clumsy script, eventually leads the whole film to appear rather messy and underdeveloped.
Despite the fine camerawork and lighting, mainly the change in color palettes between present day and past memories, Sheikh Jackson fails to deliver the artistic merit it promises. The vulgarly flawed script, stiff acting, the lack of depth that all the characters sport whether supporting or even the main character itself, and the particularly cringe worthy CGI of a certain dream sequence all guarantee the film’s inevitable fall into oblivion over the upcoming years.
I tried not to bash this film, I honestly did, however there is something absolutely insulting when presenting similarly unexceptional films as masterpieces, especially when other underrepresented indie films are much more worthy. In the end, Sheikh Jackson may be an entertaining film, that is if you overcome the excruciatingly unrealistic societal backgrounds of the main characters, the highly clichéd script, the god-awful CGI, and the extremely distorted soundtrack, but is it really worth submitting to the academy, or even receiving half the praise it got? I highly doubt it.
A Woman in Berlin is yet another film that explores the fall of Germany from the point of view of a Nazi sympathizer. As the main character, who remains nameless, says in the beginning of the film “We all breathed the same air, and it was intoxicating”. The beautiful Nina Hoss stars as a single woman trying to survive the stray bullets and the multiple rape assaults brought on by the Russian army during the fall of Berlin.
The film is originally based on the controversial memoir by the same name, and it stays true to the source material for the entirety of its length. Director Max Färberböck succeeds in capturing the moral confusion of his main character, a female journalist living in Berlin in 1945. As the Russian troops sweep through the city, she finds herself, along with every other woman in her building, subjected to rape and sexual assaults every single day, as the Russian soldiers begin to implement their own idea of justice and revenge against the atrocities of the Nazi army. As it becomes harder and harder to escape the unwanted attempts, some of the women decide to offer company to high-ranking officers in exchange for protection from the night raids and the humiliation, a decision that will mark them for life.
When the memoir was first published in 1953 it received incredibly harsh opposition from people who believed these women where shameless to dignify themselves and their country in such a way, but are they really? The beauty of A Woman in Berlin lies in its multi-layered complexity. No one is innocent, and everyone deserves punishment, yet the vulnerability of all the characters represented on-screen can make the viewer’s moral compass extremely indecisive. It is a beautiful portrait of women in war-time that is rarely presented, and almost never with such precision.
Another film that deals with similar themes springs to mind, the 2011 Chinese drama The Flowers of War. However, in the case of Yimou Zhang’s epic, the shades of good and evil were easily separable. A Woman in Berlin manages to deliver a much more realistic tale, emotionally charged with all the human emotions that one would expect from a similarly chaotic time. It forces its viewer to ultimately gape in awe and sympathy at the strength of these women, who dare to make jokes out of their rape stories, and to simply survive.
In a nameless country, and with nameless characters, writer and director Atiq Rahimi weaves a hypnotizing tale about the cultural and sociological fall of a country, as seen through the life of one of its women; the mesmerizing Golshifteh Farahani. This film will not blow you away, it will not amaze you, or give you any sort of immediate satisfaction. However, give it a couple of days and it will creep its way into your heart and soul, expanding on every aspect of delayed gratification.
In a war-torn middle-eastern country, a young woman (Farahani) looks after her comatose husband, along with her two daughters, all cramped together in their old filthy house in a poor neighborhood that is in fact the frontline of the ongoing war. As the conditions harden, the woman finds herself talking to her unhearing husband, confessing her deepest secrets, and recounting her life story and how she came to marry him for ten years without him once listening to what she had to say. The longer she stays with the unconscious husband, the more she talks, and the more she talks, the more she reveals about the melancholic and often shocking mode of life imposed on the women of this country. It doesn’t really matter which oppressive middle-eastern country is depicted in The Patience Stone; as they all seem to obey the same pattern.
The beautiful Golshifteh Farahani pulls her weight in a bewitching performance that is indisputably the best of her career. She puts her heart into her character, and carries out her performance with such skill and mastery, where every blink of an eye conveys multiple layers of emotion. With the addition of the attentive cinematography of Thierry Arbogast, and the dexterous script of Rahimi and Jean-Claude Carrière , The Patience stone captures the spirit of Farahani’s performance like no other, and ultimately that of human emotion itself.
I read some reviews arguing that the film is rather slow or even boring. I remember when I first watched this gem I felt absolutely compelled to re-watch it again immediately. It was spectacularly abrim with emotions I had to watch it again to make sure I did not miss any of its facets. However, I do believe that a certain degree of knowledge of the dire conditions and toxic customs of middle-eastern countries similar to the one represented by Rahimi is crucial to recognize the expertly nuanced performance of Farahani, otherwise subtle emotions such as her fear of disobeying her unconscious husband, or her mixed feelings towards religion might go unnoticed.
The Patience Stone is a heartbroken love letter from Rahimi to his homeland Afghanistan. His portrayal of the chaos and turmoil is highly accurate yet remains as elegant as can be. Even scenes of violence and assault are depicted with such grace that maintains the privacy and humanity of his characters. He expertly embodies the way war, and fanaticism affect an entire country through the solemn tale of one of its women. This film is a beauty that might prove baffling to some, but those who can truly see its essence will ultimately grow sentimental about it, I am sure of it.
Lore (2012), Director: Cate Shortland, DP: Adam Arkapaw
Now where do I begin? The stunning visual storytelling of Australian director Cate Shortland, or the graceful camerawork of Adam Arkapaw, or the beautifully humane performance of Saskia Rosendahl, and let’s not forget Max Richter’s haunting soundtrack. I watched this feature when I was fifteen without any prior knowledge of it, or all the beauty, love, and humanity it entails. It was the most spellbinding film I’ve ever seen at the time, and no matter how many incredible classic films, or huge blockbusters I watch, Lore will always remain this unparalleled work of art that will undoubtedly surpass them all.
The story is set in 1945, after the fall of Nazi Germany; five siblings brought up by Nazi parents are forced to face the physical and psychological aftermath of the war after their parents’ arrest, as they are forced to travel across Germany to find their grandmother. Their journey, which spans the entire length of the country, paints a much more chaotic and depressing picture of the Allied victory of WW2. Lore is simply a coming of age tale, similar in its setting to Empire of the Sun and Hope and Glory, only this time it is told from the losing side. As the siblings’ journey continues, the oldest of the children struggles to reconcile her Nazi core beliefs with the ever-changing world around her, and as the children are eventually steered to depend on a stranger they met on the road whom Lore believes is a Jew, her struggles become much more psychologically exhausting.
The film offers a tenderly humane look at a certain part of history often overlooked. It’s very hard to discuss this film without having any political arguments, or falling into a pitch black dark hole of what is and what is not politically correct, but the truth is this film is not about the politics, and dwelling on its righteousness will only prevent its viewer from seeing the greater picture. Director Cate Shortland elevates her characters from being simply pawns either on that side or the other, the time she chose for her film is one of great disarray and confusion, a time where political parties proved nugatory, and the only things deemed valuable where survival and clinging to one’s sanity.
I remember quite vividly how Lore made me realize there was so much more to films than simply the story. It was Adam Arkapaw’s enchanting cinematography; the outstanding frame composition, the unforgettable cropped close-ups, the tasteful slow motion segments, and the slightly shifting color palette that tends to emphasize its characters’ state of being. It was all so magical to me when I first saw it, and it remains as such today. The cinematography of this film alone secured its place as my all-time favorite, but I believe it’s only fair to commend the impeccable sound design and editing of the film, which meticulously conveyed the distress and despair of Lore and her surroundings. With the addition of the mesmerizing soundtrack which I cited once above, Lore remains this irreplaceable film that introduced me to the world of cinema.
Have you ever watched a film that deeply affected you? a film that nestled itself in your mind for days and in your heart for life? Do you remember the first film, or films that simply turned you from a regular movie goer to a passionate cineaste? well I do. I have contemplated the idea of making a list of the films that actually made me as passionate about films as I am today, the films that I watched at a younger age and was blown away by their beauty and brilliance, the films that became an integral part my personality and eventually shaped my taste for the arts.
This blog has been a very personal project of mine, therefore I think it’s only about time I shared this very special list of films that both awed and inspired me, and ultimately formed the person I am today. This is my Cinema Paradiso.