Wednesday, 9 September 2009

TIFF '09: Picks & Pans #4

EVERY DAY IS A HOLIDAY This film of three women on their way to visit their respective husband at the men’s prison in Lebanon is a feast for the eyes and the intellect. It was an existential meal of dry desert landscape, female friendship and atmospheric tension. Each woman’s story is fascinating as it is revealed. Two of the women are Arabic-speaking Lebanese (one slightly older than the other; one middle class and bi-lingual, one working class) while the third is a young, newly married, French-speaking Lebanese. Cast with a trio of fabulous actresses, this film offers a refreshing and welcoming female-centred perspective of Lebanese society.

I loved the way first-time feature director Dima El-Horr composed this film. Maybe it’s her work as a former projectionist and editor that has given her an experienced eye for what will hold an audience’s attention and for certain lengths of time. Her work as a stage and television director shows in her placement of the actors in relation to background and foreground. The beauty of the film suggests that she must have worked very closely with editor, Kassem Hatoum and cinematographer, Dominique Gentil.

GIULIA DOESN'T DATE AT NIGHT I usually love, like or hate a film, but rarely do I feel indifferent. I watched this film with a decided lack of passion. It wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t cinematically expressive either, much like its lead male character who is waffling about his marriage and his writing career. When he meets the mysterious Giulia at the pool where his daughter is taking swimming lessons, I thought the emotions would perk up, but they didn’t. Giulia’s story is interesting and emotionally complicated, and I wish we could have followed her journey exclusively, rather than this spend so much time with a lead whose face and actions show no variation. I know the character is at a crossroads, but even indecision and ennui have corresponding facial expressions.

I’ve never had much luck with my Italian film selections at TIFF, and so far, nothing has changed. After a wonderful summer viewing classic Italian films at Cinemathèque Ontario, I’m disheartened by Italy’s modern offerings. Ho hum…

HOTEL ATLANTICO Confession time! I’m in love with the lead actor’s face. There’s something reminiscent of an El Greco painting in his flowing dark hair and the lean lines and shadows of his face. We accompany the mysterious meanderings of his character, “The Artist”, on a journey that has no defined destination. All we know of The Artist is that he is a moderately famous actor who is trying to get away from the baggage that comes with an artist’s life. Along the way, we are introduced to various characters, some sinister, some perplexing, and some lustful. Each person he encounters propels him to the next leg of his trip, and we follow along with him, trying to piece together aspects of The Artist’s life, looking for clues that will give us answers to questions raised along the journey, and hoping for a final solution. Is it the destination or the journey that’s most important to you? Your curiosity will determine whether or not you go and see this film, and your answer to the question posed will determine your reaction to its ending.

JAFFA The TIFF programme guide describes this film as a “contemporary Romeo and Juliet story” (page 267), which is the kiss of death to me. I’ve loved Shakepeare’s works since I was twelve years old, but I have never liked Romeo and Juliet. I went to the press screening because director, Keren Yedaya’s film Or won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2004, and Jaffa screened at Cannes this year.

I thoroughly enjoyed this version of Romeo and Juliet because it had a moral depth and complexity to it that I like seeing played out on screen. This is a story of two young people who are very aware of their world and its spoken and unspoken restrictions. There are no easy answers to questions raised in this film; decisions are made based on limited choices and shades of gray rather than black or white.

Arabic Taufik and Jewish Mali are childhood friends now in their early twenties. What was okay in childhood is not okay in adulthood, and a mixed marriage will not be welcomed by either side of the family or be readily welcomed in the larger society where the religions and cultures do not blend. Knowing this fact, has lead the two to be very quiet about their love. They both continue to work in Mali’s father’s garage along with Mali’s brother, and Taufik’s father. Meir has never liked Taufik and resents his skills in the garage. Meir is not quiet about his feelings about Taufik and there is building tension between the two young men. Trying to maintain the peace between the younger generations of men, are the fathers, who understand the larger historic and social implications of long-term coexistence without friendship. Despite their best attempts, the tension between the two men escalates.

What makes this film interesting to watch is the family dynamics at Mali’s house, where her brother and mother (played by the fantastic Ronit Elkabetz of The Band’s Visit) share a distrust of the Arab presence in Jaffa, but are at odds with each other on every other subject. She wants him to be more ambitious in his work and less mouthy and more respectful to her. The domestic scenes of mother and son squabbling at the dinner table, Mali’s father nightly ritual of rubbing his wife’s feet, and the family watching television together are snapshots that can be seen in many homes around the world.

Actress, Dana Ivgy, does a commendable job showing us who Mali is. Even when she is happy, there is a gravitas about Mali that is palpable. Her role as daughter is well-defined through her silent actions at home and at work, and we get the sense that her silence is holding in more than just her secret lover; it is hiding years of tension in the home and expressing a learned habit of not drawing attention to herself that would raise questions.

I’m very much looking forward to Yedaya’s continued contribution to Iranian cinema.

MY TEHRAN FOR SALE There are some lovely shots of Tehran’s cityscape, and some interesting commentaries on the social and political structure of Iran as seen through the life and actions of a young actress. Merziah is an independent woman, whose lifestyle has estranged her from her parents. Very little is shown of her family, but we are given enough information to know that she has done something to bring shame upon her family and that they consider her dead to them. Merziah’s circle of friends dream of going to Australia, and it’s not easy to get a visa to leave Tehran, but with the help of her boyfriend, an Iranian-Australian who is visiting Tehran, she hopes that she will have her chance.

This story of stiffled youth and artistic expression in Iran would have been more interesting with a different lead actress. Unfortunately, for Marzieh Vafamehr, while she is beautiful she is not the most expressive actress. Great actresses are able to express emotions through their eyes, a talent which she lacks, and which distances us from her experiences. Adding to our sense of disconnection is the film’s flashback/flashforwards framework that convolutes a simple story, and destroys the elements of suspense that it was intended to create.

First-time director, Granaz Moussavi, shows promise, and while I admire her to attempt to introduce us to a different cinematic vision of Iran, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the end result. The film is interesting, but not brilliant.

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