The AFI Festival drew to a close on Sunday, with a final gala showing of Defiance starring Daniel Craig (true story of resistance in occupied Poland – probably pretty good but probably, like most of Edward Zwick’s films, lacking the spark to make it great).
The winners of the various audience awards were also announced, and I’m sorry to report that I had seen none of them. I quite thought that Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra would figure on the list; Grand Prix winner at Cannes for Direction, it is adapted from a journalistic exposé of the criminal organisation the Camorra, the oldest of Italy’s organised crime syndicates and according to text at the end of the movie, the most deadly (three murders a day!). They are based out of Naples, and the film takes place more or less around the slummy tenement buildings on the outskirts, concentrating on those at the very bottom of the socio-economic/organisational hierarchy.
There are six separate story strands, that only intersect in terms of milieu and secondary characters; that they are kept largely distinct assists in giving the impression that these are six of any number of stories to be told about this world. There’s two youths who want to be gangsters, but enamoured of Tony Montana they want to become so with panache and on their own (doesn’t work out so well); there’s a money-carrier, an unfortunate middleman delivering pitiful sums to and being abused by those whose spouses are in jail; then there’s Totò, a kid who wants to join up and for whom there seem to be no other options in any case; there’s also a young graduate and the reptilian business man for whom he works, disposing illegally of toxic waste; and finally an old tailor working in an haute couture factory whose decision to help out a Chinese dress factory does not go down well with his criminal paymasters.
Each of these characters has close ties with the Camorra, and the film has been criticised for entirely excluding the ordinary people with no connection to organised crime yet whose lives it nonetheless affects. Similarly, there are no politicians or any hint of the world at large, but even given this narrowness of point of view, the scope still feels impressive epic. This is due in part to a large supporting cast, many non-professional locals, to a complete avoidance of any glamorisation (the well-orchestrated opening in a male salon puts paid to that) and to the rhythmic and thematic interweaving of the separate strands. It opens with a bang (all the violence is sudden, effective and brief) and the pace keeps up for the full two hours and twenty minutes.
The jittery camera is enervating at times, but it seems to be such a pervasive style these days that I suppose I should just get used to it. Either Garrone or cameraman Marco Onorato has an annoying habit of framing shots with a character in profile in one corner and the large expanse of background out of focus, which on all but a couple of occasions is an entirely empty aesthetic gesture. There’s also a clumsily symbolic caged monkey and a robbery in a crack den where no-one seems to have a gun, but the film is also full of excellent details, dynamic sequences and a fair bit of dry black humour.
It’s not especially likable – this world, and by extension the characters, display a blithe disregard for anything like conventional morality; the only exceptions are the graduate, in the only weak conclusion to any of the six strands, and Totò, who realises he must quickly abandon it in any case. But for its rich tapestry structure, grubby street-level realism, fantastic naturalistic performances all round and strong pulsing rhythm, it is an extremely impressive achievement.
Also not recognised by the audience awards was Divizionz, made by the African visual/musical arts collective Yes! That’s Us. Presumably because it was quite poor. I was looking forward to this a lot, as it promised to be a tale of struggling Ugandan musicians, but the film turns out to contain almost no music on the screen at all (the soundtrack’s still pretty good). Mostly the struggling musicians and acquaintances bicker with one another – another film with largely dis-likable characters. Also another film in which the camera is incapable of holding still, all the better, I suppose, to capture the vibrant street life of the slummy city outskirts in which it is set. But shooting on horrible-looking video doesn’t help, and energy behind the camera is no substitute for energy in front of it. A bit of a mess, and all the more disappointing in that it makes an unusual milieu seem all too run of the mill.
Much better, but still plagued by antsy camerawork (and editing) was Dennis Dortch’s A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy. It’s shot almost entirely in close-ups, which is horribly claustrophobic, with a bizarre fondness for the fuzz before auto-focus kicks in; it’s also riddled with jump-cuts and skips which in several scenes undermines the generally excellent and naturalistic performances of the actors. The film is split into six vignettes, all concerning male female relationships, and several of them do find a pleasing rhythm through editing, (backwards) music and a fine sense of the moment-to-moment shifting emotions of a close sexual relationship – most of the guys expect more action from the girls who stand by their right not to put out if they don’t want to. Never explicit but occasionally genuinely sexy it is essentially a series of sketches that doesn’t amount to a great deal; it even recovers some of its own ground to superfluous effect, but there are enough nice moments – and plenty of good humour – to make it a perfectly charming little film.
By far the most enjoyable film of the festival for me was Gachi Boy Wrestling With A Memory, a Japanese film about college wrestling in which the main character has the Momento problem of not being able to make new memories. At least that’s what the puff for the film says – in fact he can remember stuff for a whole day but loses the memories when he wakes up the next morning. I suppose the promotional folks didn’t want to cite 50 First Dates. Mukai Osamu is hugely appealing as the main dude, Ryoichi, with a lovely big grin and the air of a modest young man who doesn’t realise that he’s actually rather handsome. He joins the oddball group of wrestlers, which includes such characters as The Egg Prince and the pink-tutu’d Coquettish Valley: for this is not classical wrestling but Mexican-style show wrestling (and I know which I’d rather watch). It’s completely self-deprecating from the start – the squad has an amusing play-by-play man, and there are a few appropriately zany film-making touches – and like the wrestlers themselves, it has no quandary about being pure entertainment. All the predictable elements are in place, including training montages and a climactic showdown with the flashy Coelecanth tag team from the big leagues; but the romantic subplot (with the irresistibly cute Saeko as the team’s manager) is used not as slush but to twist the tone a little; the film hits some quietly serious notes and helped by the best soft-soap score I have heard in ages (just the right amount of syrup) becomes really rather affecting by the (borderline masochistic) ending.
My own audience prize, however, goes to another Japanese film, the latest from Kitano Takeshi: Achilles and the Tortoise. It’s not entirely clear who or what the tortoise is, but by at the end we are told by the sparing voiceover that Achilles has finally caught it (happiness? peace? freedom from obsession?) For Achilles is Machisu, a child at the start of the film, who with an art-collecting father and his circle of painter/dealer friends, paints obsessively. His productivity continues apace through young adulthood, as an art student trying out different styles and on into middle-age, played by Kitano himself, still a not especially good painter, still completely unsuccessful financially and still as driven to create art as he ever was. Despite an unexpectedly high body-count (an alarming number of which are suicides) it’s terrifically funny, particularly when we are with the art students, whose ridiculous antics and outfits perfectly capture simply how much fun art can be, even if it’s not really very good. The title refers to Zeno’s paradox which I am not going to go into here, and more than providing a literal symbolism it mirrors the apparent absurdity of a lifetime devoted to the artistic quest. Kitano himself took up painting after a near-fatal motorcycle accident (and then made the excellent Hana-Bi which featured many of his canvases as a recuperating cop takes up painting) and he has certainly been busy. His pictures are charming, child-like and rarely especially good, but that’s not the point – even if the film seems to end by declaring art to be garbage, one cannot help but feel that there is still something wonderful about a life devoted to the pursuit of art, against all logical considerations of family, self, well-being and even success, aesthetic or financial.
Continued from here