After making Blackboards in Kurdistan, twenty-three-year-old Iranian film-maker Samira Makhmalbaf has chosen post-Taliban Afghanistan as the setting of her third feature, the winner of the 2003 Cannes Grand Jury Prize. The film tells the story of Noqreh, a young woman who wants to be president of her country. Unbeknown to her fanatically religious father she attends a new school for girls. However, even there, Noqreh’s ambitions are initially met with laughter. Undeterred, she sets out to find out more, asking everybody she meets how the leaders of their countries came to power.
This leads to many humorous moments, but Noqreh’s naíÂ¯ve attitude is also a way to prod and question political and social structures and to explore the complex reality of Afghanistan today. The film does not demonise anyone, not even Taliban followers. Fundamentalist old men are playfully mocked, and Noqreh’s father is portrayed as a bewildered man rather than as a tyrannical monster.
The non-professional actors add authenticity to a film that gives a voice to the Afghan people, and it is worth seeing if only for the non-Western perspective it offers on the country. The sight of Kabul in ruins is chilling and the overall picture is that of a country plunged in chaos and confusion, with no hope of a better future any time soon. Describing the harsh realities of life in Afghanistan, the film remains admirably unsentimental.
A slow-paced, elegant meandering through places and ideas, the film takes its title from a Garcia Lorca poem about the death of a matador, and the line recurs throughout the film, imbuing it with dreamy mystery. A beguiling mix of realism and poetry, of humour, hope, beauty and despair, At Five in the Afternoon is a deeply affecting work, highly rewarding both visually and emotionally.
Almost ten years after the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell, Japanese anime master Mamoru Oshii has delivered a new episode of his existential cyber-thriller. In the year 2032 a number of doll-like female robots designed for sexual purposes have gone haywire and killed their masters. Cyborg detective Batou and his mostly human partner Togusa are assigned to the case. Clues lead them to Locus Solus, the company that makes the ‘gynoids’ and soon they are on their way to its headquarters, situated in a remote Northern region.
Visually, Ghost II is even more impressive than the original film, which is no small feat. The incongruous Gothic fortress in the midst of a stunning post-apocalyptic landscape, the procession of gigantic automated figures that greets Batou and Togusa on their arrival there, the sinister mansion by a lake where they fall prey to evil cyborg Kim’s enchantments all contribute to create a wonderfully surreal, unsettling world.
It is a world where the boundaries between human and robot, animate and inanimate are entirely blurred. In this Oshii reprises the theme of the first Ghost and furthers his reflection on what it is to be human in the computerised age. In Oshii’s poetic vision, dolls with human souls deliberately malfunction and humans turn their bodies into machines to transcend their limitations. A highly literate work, Ghost II opens with a quotation from Villiers de L’Isle-Adam while the name Locus Solus is a reference to the world of fanciful machines dreamed up by French maverick writer Raymond Roussel. However, although Oshii’s ambitious approach is admirable, the dialogue is overloaded with too many opaque philosophical aphorisms. This is the only weak point in a film that is in all other respects truly remarkable and one of the most thrilling and sophisticated animes this reviewer has seen.
Cast: Fernando Ferná Gó, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent
Víctor Erice’s 1973 classic is a wonderfully dreamy, slow-paced evocation of rural Spain just after the end of the Civil War, seen through the eyes of six-year-old Ana. Set in the barren plains of Castile, the film starts with the projection of James Whale’s Frankenstein, brought to the village by a travelling cinema. After seeing the film, impressionable Ana becomes obsessed with meeting the monster. Eschewing the rules of a conventional plot, the film proceeds to paint the vivid imaginary world of childhood by weaving together subtle, suggestive imagery. Particularly beautiful are the intimate, honey-hued, candle-lit night scenes in which Ana and her sister whisper stories about the monster. Particularly revealing are the games they play, from the more innocent to the more unsettling ones, from pillow fights to playing dead.
The Spirit of the Beehive provides an impressive example of the creative benefits that can come from budgetary constraints. Lack of funds prevented Erice from making a horror film, as was his original idea. Instead, he used a classic horror film as the starting point of his work, infusing it with an understated Gothic mood all the more potent as it is found in the ordinary, as when little Ana walks through a cascade of half open doors, alone in the dark, big house. The moral ambiguity that surrounds the monster in Frankenstein is further explored and given depth, as it resonates, through Ana’s encounter with the wounded soldier, with the confusion and ambivalence of a country torn apart by Civil War.
The film is economical with words, the elliptical plot carried forward almost entirely visually. Erice’s lightness of touch avoids obvious metaphorical meanings and lets the juxtaposition of poetic images and strong scenes build a rich, poignant, complex world, the compelling atmosphere enhanced by a masterful use of light. The result is a haunting masterwork that elegantly connects the trauma of a whole country to the personal trauma of a little girl confronted with death.
Much lauded on its release in 1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes, adapted by Kôbô Abe from his own novel, has certainly stood the test of time. A pared-down allegorical reflection on the human condition set in an oppressive, limitless sand and sea landscape, it is also an intense, gripping drama that keeps you hooked until the deeply troubling end.
Jumpei Nika, an amateur entomologist, spends a day roaming about a beach in search of insects but misses the last bus back to his hotel. The local villagers offer to put him up and take him to a young widow’s house built at the bottom of a sandpit that can only be accessed by a rope ladder. The next day, when Jumpei wants to leave, the ladder is gone. The widow explains that the villagers ensnare visitors to help shovelling the sand that constantly threatens to engulf their village. Jumpei, horrified, makes desperate attempts to escape but all in vain. As the sand infiltrates every nook of the house and every part of their bodies, the erotic tension mounts, leading to extraordinarily sensual scenes.
The brilliantly inventive direction turns the stark, minimal set-up into a powerful metaphor for human life. The numerous close-ups blur the boundaries between human and natural realms and suggest intricate parallels between the destinies of men and insects. Jumpei, the bug-catcher, is caught like the insect trapped in the lamp while the widow, herself a prisoner in her sand hole, snares him in her den like the spider seen hiding in the shadow. The ferocious vision of mankind culminates in a chilling scene where masked villagers jeer at the helpless couple down in the pit, like some cruel divinities. A striking, thought-provoking, beautifully shot piece of film-making, this is an absolute must-see.
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Hélène de Fougerolles, Zoé Auclair
Based on a nineteenth-century short story by Frank Wedekind, Innocence is the debut feature of Lucile Hadžihalilović, a long-time collaborator of controversial French director Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Seul contre tous). A dreamy Gothic fairy tale, its slow-paced portrayal of female childhood is imbued with a deliberately old-fashioned feel. In a way reminiscent of Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, it uses elements borrowed from the horror genre to depict childhood fears, conjuring up a mood of understated disquiet.
Set in an isolated all-girl boarding school deep in the woods, the film starts with new girl Iris arriving in a coffin, as is the custom of the school. Tutored by older girl Bianca, Iris adapts to the quaint atmosphere of her new abode, where, entirely cut off from the outside world, the pupils are raised in a strict but benevolent manner, playing in the gardens when they are not being taught dance or biology. But at night lights come on in the forest to guide the older girls to a mysterious other building.
Underground tunnels, eerily silent rooms, dark corridors, enigmatic teachers, carefree games and beautiful surroundings create an atmosphere that is at once idyllic and sinister, safe and oppressive. By never completely explaining the mystery away, Hadžihalilović lets us experience from within the anxiety and unease felt by the girls as they undergo the change from childhood to adolescence. Just like them, we are plunged into a world of visual and aural perceptions that we do not completely understand. Admirably capturing the way children apprehend the world and brilliantly evoking girls’ rites of passage, Innocence is a truly unique, magical experience.
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