Format: DVD

Release date: 26 February 2007

Distributor: Verve Pictures

Director: Andrea Arnold

Cast: Kate Dickie, Tony Curran

UK 2006

113 minutes

A directorial debut from Andrea Arnold (winner of an Oscar for Best Short with Wasp in 2003), Red Road pulls out all the stops in an attempt to get to the heart of loss and mourning Glasgow style. Set predominantly in a large Glaswegian housing estate, the main character Jackie – a security camera operator by night, intensely grieving woman by day – accidentally stumbles on a man, who in ways only disclosed at the end, is closely tied to her past.

The emotional tour de force by its lead character Jackie, played by Kate Dickie, goes a long way to maintain the intensity of the film. Nevertheless, and despite great performances by an assortment of renegade working-class Glaswegians, the somewhat contrived revenge plot doesn’t work half as effectively as the film does in its portrayal of a particular place, namely Red Road. Captured with an assuredness that doesn’t quite match the plot, the shots of the tower-like structures, the debris and rubbish that contaminate the surrounding estate, give the viewer a sense of an environment where people have been reduced to an absolute state of dereliction. This state or rather estate is rendered astonishingly well, from a brutal pub fight between a son and his dad, to the stray dogs pissing endlessly on graffitied walls.

All the stranger then that Jackie’s nemesis turns out to be more of a gentleman than a thug, and an absolute star at what must be one of the most believable scenes of cunnilingus to hit the English screens for a long time. The problem is that the intensity of Jackie’s inner turmoil is allowed to simmer up, erotically speaking, but is otherwise kept at a distance for much of the film.

While the aim is undoubtedly to maintain a level of narrative suspense, I was gripped not by the scene where she hugs the clothes of her dead daughter, which made me want to gag rather than cry, but by the damaged environment so starkly portrayed around her.

This is, then, an extremely well-meant film – grappling with what should be a far more nuanced idea of how to achieve closure after death. I had a brief flashback to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, also about a woman in a state of protracted post-traumatic shock, but Red Road’s move from murderous red to sunny skies ends up – sadly – being too corny. Jackie may be on the road to healing her inner pain, but perversely enough I wanted her to return to the Red Road estate.




Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 February 2007

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako

Cast: Aí­Â¯ssa Maí­Â¯ga, Hélí­Â¨ne Diarra, Habib Dembélé

France/Mali 2006

115 minutes

Riding confidently on a growing wave of anti-capitalist sentiment in Western culture, Bamako should have no trouble finding an audience. Set in the capital of Mali and filmed in the home of director Abderrahmane Sissako’s father, Bamako is an elegant, poignant – and prejudiced – attack on the consequences of IMF and World Bank policy in Africa.

The film, a twist on the courtroom drama genre, revolves around a trial: the people of Africa vs. the World Bank and the IMF. The trial itself is formal, almost Western. A panel of judges presides over the hearing, while a team of professional lawyers represents each side in the case. A guard wearing a tousled uniform stands on duty, attempting to prevent anyone who isn’t a witness from entering the courtyard where the trial takes place (unless a small bribe is slipped his way). Sissako has assembled a cast made up of actors and activists, local villagers and well-known public figures from both African and Western society, blurring the line between fiction and documentary.

Between the passionate, emotional testimonies of the witnesses for the prosecution, life carries on in the courtyard. A marriage falls apart, a gun is stolen, a man lies dying in a darkened room off the dusty courtyard. Melé, played by the striking Aí­Â¯ssa Maí­Â¯ga, sings in a bar, desperate to escape her marriage and life in Bamako. Her husband Chaka drifts listlessly on the fringes of the trial, caring for their young daughter. He teaches himself Hebrew for a time when Israel will open an embassy in the city. Their relationship, and the glimpses into the lives of the people in Bamako – the police photographer who prefers the faces of the dead to the living; the young, unemployed men listening to the trial piped out of a rusty loudspeaker; the women who dye cotton to make the tie-die, traditional clothes – provide the film with its colour, charm and touches of humour. These scenes, and Jacques Besse’s serene cinematography could easily have been spun out into a film of its own, perhaps one with a more subtle message.

The esteemed witnesses make their case. Mali has been crippled by the strain of paying off the debt owed to the financial institutions. The railroads have been virtually shut down as a result of privatization, isolating and eventually destroying villages that once thrived. Teachers lose their jobs. Children are dying, their families unable to afford medicines that would keep them alive. There seems little doubt in the director’s mind that the West’s actions have helped to ruin Africa and destroy its unique culture. Corruption is touched upon only briefly, in what feels like a half-hearted attempt to demonstrate some semblance of objectivity about the source of Mali’s despair. The defence is represented by a somewhat buffoonish French attorney, Roland Rappaport. In reality a distinguished human rights attorney, Rappaport, in the role he’s been given, is arguing a case that he simply cannot win. His African colleague is meanwhile accused of criminal complicity for her involvement in defending the Western institutions.

It is impossible not to be moved by the impassioned testimony of the witnesses, followed by a brilliant closing argument by William Bourdon, also a French attorney and former secretary-general of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues. The tragedy occurring in Africa is undeniable, but the causes are enormously complex. While a case against the World Bank and the IMF cannot justifiably be made in 115 minutes, Bamako is nonetheless a film that ought to be seen, for its humanity and its original approach to the debate over globalisation. Its timely release ensures that it will be.

For a more academic approach and two contrasting views on the local consequences of the so-called “Washington consensus”, see Joseph Stiglitz’ Globalisation and its Discontents and Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization.

Sarah Cronin



Format: DVD

Release date: 3 April 2006

Distributor: Revolver Entertainment

Director: Gela Babluani

Cast: Georges Babluani, Aurélien Recoing, Pascal Bongard

France/Georgia 2005

93 mins

Just over a year ago the bold first feature of young French-educated Georgian director Gela Babluani was released in the UK to great press acclaim but little public notice. While salivating in anticipation of Babluani’s new offering, scheduled to pop up on these shores later this year, we take a look back at 13 (Tzameti).

In a small town on the French Atlantic coast, Sébastien, a struggling young Georgian roofer (played by Babluani’s brother Georges), starts working on a house belonging to a shady, ageing drug addict by the name of Godon. When Sébastien’s work engagement abruptly comes to an end without hope of payment, he steals a letter addressed to his former employer, which contains instructions regarding a mysterious and possibly dangerous money-making scheme. Recklessly impersonating Godon, Sébastien follows the instructions and arrives at an isolated mansion outside Paris. There he finds that he is to be a player in a deadly game of Russian roulette in which men bet on other men’s lives. Unable to back out, Sébastien is assigned the number 13.

While the number 13 immediately suggests bad luck, it proves to be neither lucky nor unlucky in the film. The number is not important in itself but in the fact that it strips the man it designates of all that makes him human, reducing him to a lottery ball spun around by the cruel law of chance. Gone are his hopes, desires and loves. Sébastien is now simply number 13, his thoughts limited to where the bullet is, and whether his whole being will be casually obliterated like nothing more than a fleck of dust in the next round of the game.

This game is truly an initiation to life in all its random brutality. The fresh-faced Sébastien is put through a trial by fire by a pack of hardened old gamblers who watch jadedly as he learns that in the game of life one can only kill or be killed. In the first round, still innocent, he simply cannot bring himself to fire his pistol into another man’s head. In the acute tension of that scene we experience right through our bones the emotions of an ordinary man suddenly faced with no other choice but to kill another man. Once that line is crossed the only thing that remains in Sébastien is a ferocious survival instinct – no longer innocent, he now plays by the rules of the game.

The tension that builds up as the players go through the different rounds is almost unbearable. And what the game lacks in ingenuity and sophistication, it more than makes up for in sheer, brutal efficacy. As economical as it gets, the bare-bone set-up lets Babluani’s visual flair and gift for dramatic tension shine through. The high-contrast black and white photography infuses the film with an oppressive feel – right from the more mundane opening scenes the grey sky is laden with the promise of inevitable doom. The strange, almost claustrophobic atmosphere is compounded by the impressive gallery of rugged, leathery gamblers, who, with their crocodile skins and glassy eyes look like the monstrous offspring of film noir villains and Goya portraits.

13 displays obvious similarities to the earlier Spanish thriller Intacto, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Intacto also revolved around a game of chance but while the plot was more complex than in 13, the exploration of the central theme was paradoxically shallow and simplistic. In Intacto luck was reduced to a simple attribute tied to one’s photograph, which rather too straightforwardly could be augmented by stealing other people’s photos or lost if one’s photo was taken. While it was an undeniably engaging thriller, Intacto had neither the elegance of a Borgesian conundrum nor the raw power and existential intensity of 13.

13 also has much in common with Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1882 short story ‘The Suicide Club’. In that story Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his faithful confidant Colonel Geraldine, having gone out in the mean streets of London in search of an adventure, follow a desperate young man to the Suicide Club, a secret society set up to ‘help’ ruined men desirous to commit suicide. Brought together by misfortune, these men become the instrument of fate in each other’s lives. Every night they solemnly sit around a table for a random card draw, the ace of clubs designating the man who must kill, the ace of spades the man who will be killed that night. Once there, Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine find that they are now bound by the rules of the Club and must take part in the fateful card game.

Just as in ‘The Suicide Club’, the world of 13 is a fascinating secret society of men who meet to play a game of life and death. And just like Prince Florizel, Sébastien naí­Â¯vely embarks on what he thinks is a promising adventure, unaware that by doing so he has already signed his name at the bottom of a diabolical pact. The fates of both men are sealed as soon as Prince Florizel follows the suicidal young man and Sébastien opens his employer’s letter, with no possibility of turning back. Of course, Stevenson being such a conservative writer, the ending of the otherwise compelling ‘Suicide Club’ is a boring, moralistic, and rather unconvincing return to order. Not so in 13.

Virginie Sélavy


Format: DVD

Release date: 23 August 2004

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Samira Makhmalbaf

Original title: Panj é asr

Cast: Agheleh Rezaie, Abdolgani Yousefrazi, Razi Mohebi

Iran/France 2003

102 mins

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.

Virginie Sélavy


Format: DVD

Release date: 27 February 2006

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Mamoru Oshii

Based on the manga by Masamune Shirow

Original title: Inosensu: Kôkaku kidôtai

Japan 2004

96 mins

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.

Virginie Sélavy


Format: DVD

Release date: 27 October 2003

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Víctor Erice

Original title: El Espí­ritu de la colmena

Cast: Fernando Ferná Gó, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent

Spain 1973

93 mins

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.

Virginie Sélavy


Format: DVD

Release date: 31 July 2006

Distributor: BFI Video Publishing

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Based on the novel by Kôbô Abe

Original title: Suna no Onna

Cast: Eiji Okada, Kyoko Kishida

Japan 1964

119 mins

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.

Virginie Sélavy



Format: DVD

Release date: 23 January 2006

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Lucile Hadžihalilović

Writer: Lucile Hadžihalilović

Based on a short story by Frank Wedekind

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Hélène de Fougerolles, Zoé Auclair
France 2004

115 mins

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.

Virginie Sélavy

A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews