NZIFF 2021: Memoria (2021)

Some films are made for film festivals, and none more so than any given new film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of them have becoming (surprisingly) modest arthouse hits, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Memoria is very much in a similar mould, with lush jungle terrains (here in Colombia) and a slow, mysterious narrative that seems to promise both naturalism and also science-fiction and fantasy at times. The central investigation may recall Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in being based around a mysterious sonic fragment, but there’s little else that recalls mainstream narrative cinema, and Tilda Swinton is looking strangely ordinary here as she searches for… something.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul proves that even making a film largely in English and set in Colombia, he’s still able to make exactly the kinds of films he makes, which is to say slow, somnolent and oblique. As with Cemetery of Splendour I nodded off a little at times (to be fair that one was a film about people with some kind of sleeping sickness), but it felt like part of the artistic process, a durational one, about a woman who seems to be searching for the source of a mysterious sound. That search takes her to various specialists (real or imagined?), and to a small village in the mountains, and those shots of ruins and lush vegetation seem very much of a piece with his most famous works. I think in many ways Memoria extends those themes, with some surprising additions that never exactly serve to make clear what’s been going on, but instead intensify and deepen the mystery. But that’s often the way. This had me fascinated and I loved the slow rhythms of it, but it danced nimbly away from explaining itself. Undoubtedly both this and the pacing will madden many of its potential viewers, but it’s an experience in being open to the possibilities of narrative.

Memoria (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 18 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 449: Missing (1982)

In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).

Global Cinema 24: Brazil – The Trial (2018)

Brazil is the biggest country I’ve yet covered in this series and it has a long and fruitful cinema history. Indeed, Mubi where I watched this film has been curating a ‘new Brazilian cinema’ strand over the last few months that has featured plenty of equally interesting titles and if I weren’t a little pressed for time this week I’d have featured more of those films in the leadup to this review. I certainly do intend to do a Brazilian themed week before too long. However, as the film I’m featuring today is about modern Brazilian politics, it seemed like the best introduction to this huge country.


Brazilian flagFederative Republic of Brazil (Brasil)
population 210,147,000 | capital Brasília (3.99m) | largest cities São Paulo (21.3m), Rio de Janeiro (12.4m), Belo Horizonte (5.1m), Recife (4m), Brasília | area 8,515,767 km2 | religion Christianity (87%), none (8%) | official language Portuguese (português) | major ethnicity white (47.7%), mixed (43.1%), Black (7.6%) | currency Real (R$) [BRL] | internet .br

The largest South American country is also the world’s fifth largest by area, and sixth largest by population, so needless to say there’s a lot to fit into this paragraph. It borders all other countries on the continent except Ecuador and Chile, with an incredibly diverse geography. The name comes from the Portuguese for Brazilwood (“pau-brasil”), a tree that once grew along the coast, with this part of its name referring to its reddish colour like an ember (from brasa); in the indigenous Guarani language, it is Pindorama, meaning “land of the palm tree”. Evidence of human habitation goes back some 11,000 years, and the earliest pottery found in the west is from the Amazon basin — around 7 million indigenous people lived in the area covered by the modern country by the arrival of the Portuguese, who claimed the land in April 1500. Colonisation began in earnest around 30 years later, and was divided by King John III into 15 autonomous areas before bringing them back together under unified leadership in 1549. There were any number of wars with indigenous people, whose number were added to by the slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa, brought over to work the sugar plantations (slavery continued until 1850). In the early-19th century, Rio de Janeiro hosted the Portuguese royal court for over a decade, unifying the colony with its coloniser across the Atlantic. However, independence was soon after declared on 7 September 1822, resulting in the foundation of the Empire of Brazil, though a series of internal conflicts and political tensions eventually led to its transformation to a republic in 1889, albeit one essentially under military dictatorship. The ensuing century saw a tumultuous push and pull between dictatorship and socialism, with the current trend being back towards authoritarianism. It is a democratic republic with an elected president.

The film industry can be traced back to the late-19th century, though the country’s production didn’t come to prominence until Cinema Novo in the 1960s under directors such as Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, with another more commercial peak in the 1990s. There are a number of prominent film festivals and its films continue to be well-regarded by critics.


O processo (The Trial, 2018)

Though I recognise a few of the names, I am by no means acquainted with Brazilian politics. It’s a huge country, with a huge range of experiences, races, class divides and no doubt a range of very specific things that lead to various factions within their political system. This documentary throws you headlong into that without on-screen captions as to who the people we see are, and with only a few intertitles for context, as its first woman President, Dilma Rousseff, faces impeachment for a small number of charges which — depending on your viewpoint, and all of them get voice here — could either be rather minor in the scheme of things and therefore a pretext for a coup, or else evidence of deeper corruption. And aside from Rousseff, a few other major figures (mostly men) are also in the firing line for corruption and criminal charges.

What becomes evident though is that, notwithstanding your familiarity with the specifically Brazilian context, the kinds of political theatre we are accustomed to seeing in all our countries, and the creeping way of the fascist right to turn the electorate against itself, is very familiar. What is also interesting is that aside from Rousseff herself (who is more talked about than actually seen or heard), the impeachment trials and the film itself seems to converge around two other women — though there are no talking heads interviews, so it’s all very much in overheard meetings, brief news clips, press conferences and parliamentary proceedings. These are Janaina Paschoal (a lawyer and prosecutor, subsequently elected as a member of a far right party) and Gleisi Hoffmann, who is in Rousseff’s party and a senator at the time of the trial. Again, without offering overt context, the film allows the viewer to form their own opinion of the various arguments, though Hoffmann feels like a compelling presence at the edges of this show trial.

Anyway, my main point is that though I didn’t know much about Brazil or its politics, this documentary felt compelling and interesting, not just about that country but about democracies, and the propensity for various factions to derail them. I’m not sure that the subsequent election of Jair Bolsonaro allays any of those fears.

The Trial film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maria Augusta Ramos; Cinematographers Alan Schvarsberg and David Alves Mattos; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 10 September 2020.

LFF 2020: El prófugo (The Intruder, 2020)

The final LFF film I had a chance to watch before getting on a plane to the literal opposite side of the world was this horror chiller from Argentine director Natalia Meta, and it’s pretty effective at what it does.


I remember watching the director Natalia Meta’s first feature Death in Buenos Aires (2014) on a whim on Netflix a few years’ back and I think it’s generally underrated. She shows terrific flair at times in this new film, a dark psychological horror, following Inés (Érica Rivas), a woman who works as a film dubbing artist and who starts to get hallucinations and be driven a little bit insane by people who may be living in her mind, or may not be. It’s not perfect, and I think it meanders a little at times, but when it hits it’s really effective at creating suspenseful shivers. There’s enough really bravura filmmaking and control of tension to make it a really interesting watch.

The Intruder film posterCREDITS
Director Natalia Meta; Writers Meta and Leonel D’Agostino (based on the novel El mal menor “The Lesser Evil” by C.E. Feiling); Cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez; Starring Érica Rivas; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 12 October 2020.

Global Cinema 21: Bolivia – When the Bull Cried (2017)

It should be clear by now that I don’t choose what I consider the most representative or famous titles from their country. Partly, it’s about what is easily available for me to watch, but I also seek out films directed by women and people of colour. There isn’t a huge amount of Bolivian cinema, but almost certainly there are better known titles than this Belgian-Bolivian co-production documentary, though I feel it certainly captures something specific about Bolivian life, at least in the mountainous mining communities.


Bolivian flagPlurinational State of Bolivia
population 11,428,000 | capital Sucre (259k) [constitutional/judicial], La Paz (765k) [executive/legislative] | largest cities Santa Cruz de la Sierra (1.5m), El Alto (849k), La Paz, Cochabamba (631k), Oruro (265k) | area 1,098,581 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (70%), Protestantism (17%) | official language Spanish (Español boliviano), Aymara, Quechua (Runasimi), Guarani and many others | major ethnicity Mestizo (68%), native Bolivian (20%) | currency Boliviano (Bs) [BOB] | internet .bo

A landlocked South American country, with two capital cities (though the seat of government is located in La Paz), neither of which is the largest. It ranges from peaks in the west to eastern lowlands within the Amazon Basin. The name comes from Simón Bolívar and the country originally called the Republic of Bolívar; the modern name was adopted in 1825. The country was first occupied several millennia BCE, before the Aymara arrived. It wasn’t until the first millennium CE that the population cohered into cities, and it became a regional power as the Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco) empire. This empire crumbled due to a lack of food production, and by the mid-2nd millennium the Incan empire moved in. Spanish conquest began in 1524 and didn’t take long to complete, after which point the colonial power exploited silver via mining (tin took greater importance by the 20th century), though the brutal slave conditions led to an indigenous uprising, which coalesced into a struggle for independence in the early 19th century. Marshal Sucre led a military campaign that resulted in the Republic being declared in 1825. A number of wars took place between neighbouring powers on the continent for the ensuing few decades, and the country successively lost a lot of territory, including access to the sea. Periods of military dictatorship ceded to democracy in the 1990s, though there has been further instability since then. There is an elected President.

Bolivia has produced feature films since the 1920s, many of which have been documentaries. There was a New Bolivian Cinema in the 1960s, in parallel to Brazil and Argentina’s movements the same decade, and social realism continues to be a feature of modern, digital filmmaking practice.


Cuando el toro lloró (When the Bull Cried, 2017)

The title suggests something a little bit poetic about life in the Bolivian mountains amongst a small mining village. The film is dominated by images of rocks being cracked open by elderly women looking for tin, and of men going down into the miasma of the mountain, some of whom don’t return, as the women regretfully note. The traditions and customs are seen, protection sought for the dangerous work many in the community do, and the film ends with a gory animal sacrifice, the pulsating heart seen burning on a flame being despatched to El Tio, the deity worshipped around these parts. It’s an evocative film, albeit a slight one, running at just over an hour.

When the Bull Cried film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Karen Vazquez Guadarrama and Bart Goossens; Cinematographer Guadarrama; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Thursday 1 October 2020.

Global Cinema 7: Argentina – The Fish Child (2009)

Argentina is one of the largest countries in the world and so has a wealth of cinema stretching back to its very earliest roots. There was a strong political cinema in the 1960s, most notably The Hour of the Furnaces from 1968. Since then, international auteurs have cropped up, not least Lucrecia Martel (one of my favourite filmmakers), along with a host of films by women or dealing with LGBT themes, amongst many other things.


Argentine flagArgentine Republic
population 44,939,000 | capital Buenos Aires (3.1m) | largest cities Buenos Aires, Córdoba (1.5m), Rosario (1.4m), Mendoza (1.1m), San Miguel de Tucumán (868k) | area 2,780,400 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (63%) | official language none (Spanish) | major ethnicity European/Mestizo (97%) | currency Peso ($) [ARS] | internet .ar

Mountainous to the west, and bordering the Atlantic on the east, Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, second to Brazil in South America, and with a huge amount of biodiversity. The name comes from the Italian for “silver coloured”, as it was believed by early European explorers to have silver mountains, and it used to be called “the Argentine” in English. Human habitation can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, though relatively sparsely populated by hunter-gatherer and farming tribes. Amerigo Vespucci brought the first Europeans to the region in the early-16th century, and Spanish colonisation continued throughout that century. A revolution in 1810 signalled a war of independence, declared on 9 July 1816. Liberal economic policies promoted a huge amount of European immigration, making it one of the world’s most wealthy and well-educated countries by the late-19th century. Following WW2, during which the country was mostly neutral, Juan Perón seized power and nationalised industry, bringing in social welfare and women’s suffrage (thanks to his wife Eva), but power swung back to a military leadership who pursued a brutal policy of state terrorism against leftists as power shifted back and forth. An ill-judged war against Britain in the Falklands led to the toppling of the military leadership, and a move back to democracy. The head of government is the President, alongside a Senate and Congress, overseeing 23 provinces and one autonomous city (the capital).

Given the country’s wealth, its cinema has long been one of the most developed on the continent, with a Lumière screening as early as 1896 prompting Argentinian filmmaking soon after. A ‘golden age’ followed in the 1930s, the pinnacle of indigenous production, though it dwindled under Perön. A ‘new cinema’ arose in the late-1960s, an unequivocally political and militant cinema, though there were more commercial strands of work and these were prominent in the 1970s when censorship and repression was at its height. There has been a resurgence in cinema of all kinds since the 1990s, sometimes called the New Argentine Cinema.


El niño pez (The Fish Child, 2009)

There’s quite a bit going on in here, both in terms of the mix of genre motifs, but also the complicated structure, and the layering of realism with magically surreal touches. These latter elements, which are tied to the film’s title, are a way of rendering poetic something that is painful and troubling — as magical realism so often does — within a story that broadly skirts around the issue of class in Argentina but in a ‘lovers on the run’ framework. Lala (Inés Efron) is the teenaged daughter of a rich (ethnically white) family, who is in love with the family’s maid Ailin (Mariela Vitale), a couple of years older than her, and naturally they plot to get away and live together, free from the various things tying them down. The structure of the film is then a way to reveal these things slowly to the audience, as first we understand a crime has been committed, and then who did it and why, and some of the reasons why the characters have come to this place. I’m not sure it’s always entirely successful, but it’s a heady blend of styles and influences, which constrains its LGBTQ themes within an artfully genre-tinged framework.

The Fish Child film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Rolo Pulpeiro; Starring Inés Efron, Mariela Vitale; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 22 July 2019.

Niña mamá (Mother-Child, 2019)

My blog’s theme last week was documentaries screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest because that festival has gone online with a select programme this month. I’ve already watched a number of films through their portal, including this Argentinian film about young mothers. I’ll try and write a round-up of my favourites when the festival has closed (in mid-July), but in the meantime I’ll be wrapping up my Argentina theme week tomorrow with the Global Cinema entry for that country.


A solid observational documentary which in soft and muted black-and-white shows young women (some extremely young indeed) talking to hospital gynaecologists about their pregnancies, the various issues they’ve had with spouses, whether they’ve had the support of their parents, and touching obliquely at least on their lives, and the futures they imagine for themselves. The unseen women doing the interviews gently ask about whether those who are carrying their children to term have considered “interrupting” their pregnancies (some of them have had more than one child, though all of them are teenagers), while others are going through that and express a complicated range of responses. Neither the interviewers nor the film makes any judgements on any of the women, but we get a sense perhaps of the focus of sex education and lack of funding available to the hospital and its staff. It’s not always sad, because there’s such a range of experiences on show, but it’s reflective on the situations too many young women find themselves in, and the way their (lack of) options can define so many lives.

Mother-Child film posterCREDITS
Director Andrea Testa; Writers Francisco Márquez and Testa; Cinematographer Gustavo Schiaffino; Length 66 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Thursday 11 June 2020.

Two 80s-Set Films by Pablo Trapero: El Bonaerense (2002) and The Clan (2015)

Both of these reviews, written back in 2016, are fairly short, but they deal with a filmmaker who’s considered one of the major forces in contemporary Argentinian cinema, crafting small dramas as easily as big family stories. The only other film of his I’ve seen was 2006’s Born and Bred, but his films have all been worth watching.


There’s a wash of grainy texture to El Bonaerense, a film set in the 1980s as far as I can tell (unless they really are as backwards as their morals), as a small town locksmith finds himself framed for a robbery. He’s swiftly swept up into the metropolitan police force (El Bonaerense, for Buenos Aires) by an uncle who’s owed a favour. That’s generally how the story proceeds, with even the ‘nice’ guys prone to taking bribes and administering a corrupt sense of justice. No one but the director comes out of this situation well.

Trapero remains a fine stylist for his more recent film The Clan, which is a true crime story also set in the heady Argentinean 1980s, and there are solid performances throughout. I gather that all crime films after Scorsese have to juxtapose their stories with cranked-up pop music, but if you’re going to do that, this film does it pretty well in following one Argentine family, who are up to all kinds of no good. Trapero seems interested in interrogating his country’s past via stories of low-lifers, and he keeps the films moving along a swift clip, with no little style to the way he frames and edits his work.

El Bonaerense film posterEl Bonaerense (2002) [Argentina/Chile/France/Netherlands]
Director Pablo Trapero; Writers Nicolás Gueilburt, Ricardo Ragendorfer, Dodi Shoeuer, Trapero and Daniel Valenzuela; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto; Starring Jorge Román, Victor Hugo Carrizo; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 August 2016.

The Clan film posterEl clan (The Clan, 2015) [Argentina/Spain]
Director/Writer Pablo Trapero; Cinematographer Julián Apezteguia; Starring Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 11 September 2016.

XXY (2007)

Several other Argentinian films deal with gender identity issues, whether The Last Summer of La Boyita (2009) or Puenzo’s other work like The Fish Child (2009). The review here is of her earlier film, also dealing with an intersex person, and I think it’s pretty subtle and interesting, though undoubtedly it’s worth making a content note that there is a fair amount of prejudice the lead character has to overcome, as so often in this genre.


I like this coming of age story about Alex (Inés Efron), a young intersex woman — or at least that’s the identity she has chosen. It has a lyrical and gentle quality to it, although clearly not all the events in the film are in any way gentle — indeed, there are some really flagrantly nasty encounters, but on the whole they don’t define the character’s story or the way the film presents itself. But aside from Alex herself, it’s also about the family and people around her, primarily her relationship with her father (Ricardo Darín), and it puts the focus on Alex’s choice of identity, and the difficulty she has in doing that at what is already a trying time of life. I’d say it takes the genetic matter that its title alludes to, and makes it into a rounded, human story.

XXY film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Inés Efron, Ricardo Darín, Valeria Bertuccelli; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 3 March 2018.

El último verano de La Boyita (The Last Summer of La Boyita, 2009)

A number of the Argentinian films I’ll be covering this week deal with gender issues, in what I feel (albeit from my particular viewpoint) as being fairly sensitively-handled. Still, it’s interesting to see this country’s cinema deal with sexuality in these ways, but it’s a large and disparate country whose culture pulls in many directions.


Sparse as coming-of-age films (or indeed any films?) about intersex people are, I already feel like Argentinian filmmakers have form on this, given there’s XXY as well a couple of years before this one. This story takes the viewpoint of the young girl Jorgelina (or Georgie, played by Guadalupe Alonso), who may be cisgendered but feels excluded from the world of grown-up women, as her sister is a few years older and starting to show interest in boys. This is how the first half of the film goes, really, as Georgie, having been a close playmate to her sister, is more and more sidelined during an annual family trip to the rural area of the title, and we see her just kicking around the countryside and the local farms, where she has another friend, Mario (Nicolás Treise), who seems to be going through his own coming-of-age. And that’s where the story takes a turn towards the gender issues, which I think are handled fairly sensitively: there’s a sense we get of Mario also being slightly set apart from his older peers, but there’s never any heavy-handedness around how he identifies, just these discreet scenes with Georgie’s doctor father, and when he tries to explain Mario’s physiological differences, she (and the soundtrack) just puts her fingers in her ears to drown him out. It’s all very gentle and shows a great sense of place, the camera never too insistently prying into young people or their growing bodies — and this may be where having a woman director makes a real difference.

The Last Summer of La Boyita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Solomonoff; Cinematographer Lucio Bonelli; Starring Guadalupe Alonso, Nicolás Treise, Mirella Pascual; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 March 2019.