Review by Ken Burke Visitors
You might call this a visual essay—in glorious high-definition black-and-white video—on our human existence in the context of emergence and departure; very cerebral.
Amusing romantic story in India of how a wife’s intended reconnection with her husband goes wrong when her carefully-prepared lunches are delivered to the wrong man.
A potentially-divisive political drama set in Palestine’s West Bank where a young Arab man is forced by Israeli handlers to provide information about his rebellious colleagues.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting. But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge. Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage. Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]
The Oscars for 2013 have been awarded (March 2, 2014) so I’m going to include one last cluster of links where you can get tallies of which 2013 films made various individual critic's Top 10 lists and which ones were nominated for and/or received various awards. You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success—which you can see here—and any sort of critical/statuette recognition), but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2013, along with the Oscar nominations and winners granted to films released in 2013 here, but look quickly before this resource disappears.
However, now that we’re past the annual awarding of Oscars with some top-quality films getting their due (details at our updated February 25, 2014 posting if you need them), I’m quite happy to follow up with reviews of 3 marvelous 4-star films that are also quite worthy of your time (you may know by now that I’m very stingy with anything above 4, having given only 2 4½-star ratings since Pat and I began this blog—1 of them to 2013’s Best Picture Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013])—so, for clarity, that means that the work in review this week is certainly in league with many of these newly-minted-Oscar-recipients, 1 of which did compete for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film, 1 which could easily have been a contender in that category, and a 2014 debut that I’d love to see in Oscar contention next spring but doubt that I will—except possibly in the cinematography category—because it’s just too different from what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences normally considers for its honors. With those thoughts in mind, we’ll begin these reviews with that more-unique-than-usual-experience, Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors.
If you’re familiar with the mesmerizing, pixilated (stop-motion photography that appears on screen in speeded-up format when played back) cinematic essays of Reggio, which also use straightforward-but-breathtaking-cinematography from a full-global-perspective along with some occasional post-production-image-distortion, from his earlier work in Koyaanisqatsi (1982)—there’s a marvelous 5-minute compression of this one where the entire film comes at you at 16 times its normal speed, further hurtling you through the already-fast-moving pixilation scenes—Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002)—all with soundtracks from composer Philip Glass—and all based on the concept of humankind in conflict with itself due to the dehumanizing impact of our own technologies (with the titles respectively translated from the Hopi language meaning Life Out of Balance, Life in Transformation, and Life as War), then you might find Reggio’s latest image-encounters-hard-to-reduce-to-the-alternate-language-of-words-visual-exploration to be equally marvelous; if not, on any of the above considerations, then this may be difficult to endure, even in its concise 87-minute running time. His films are often referred to as “documentaries” (I assume because they have recognizable subject matter with no fictional plotline) or “experimental documentaries” (in that they don’t overtly preach a specific message), but given that the traditional breakdown of cinematic feature-film-approaches is into dramatic narrative, documentary, or experimental (although one could also add informational—such as with travelogues, even though they usually share persuasive purposes with documentaries in trying to encourage you to visit the location being presented—and instructional—where you’re being trained on how to perform some task, from baking a cake to assembling a low-grade nuclear weapon [back off, Homeland Security; I’m not the one posting this crap on the Internet]), I’d say that Reggio is doing more purely experimental work because while he’s commenting on the overwhelming, life-draining environments that we create for ourselves in a manner that resembles well-crafted, human-overload futuristic-science-fiction he’s not really laying out situations that call for our ingestion of facts followed by specific redemptive actions (in the manner of Michael Moore [Bowling for Columbine, 2002; Fahrenheit 9/1, 2004] or Morgan Spurlock [Super Size Me, 2004; The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, 2011) but is more just showing us something for our contemplation and greater awareness, in the manner of an abstracted painting or an evocative poem that will hopefully lead to a more globally-oriented-consciousness that will work to our mutual benefit.
In Visitors we get a different approach from the use of frantic action scenes in earlier Reggio films, though, as there are only 74 shots total contained in the 87 minute running time, with each of them on screen for considerably longer than the average Hollywood shots of just a few seconds apiece* (further given a sense of lingering presence by the frequent use of fade-out/fade-in transitions between these shots), many of them relatively static in content (except for the up-angle architectural ones where clouds fly by in the more-anticipated-pixilation-technique or some group shots toward the middle and end where people are walking toward the camera or displaying enthusiastic reactions to unknown events), and everything shown in pristine black-and-white, shot in the now-emerging-extra-high-definition 4K video format (which I hope will be available in all theaters that show Visitors because the crispness of those lingering shots adds greatly to their haunting presence), from the first head-on image of Triska—a female lowland gorilla currently living at the Bronx Zoo—to a series of singular facial studies (such as the one with the above paragraph), to group shots of faces (like the example just above), to striking angular shots of buildings, including one with a “Visitors” sign from which the film takes its name. Outdoor scenes are generally shot with what appears to be a red filter (at least that’s how you’d do it in shooting actual B&W footage, although this may well be shot originally in color, then digitally transformed to achromatic) which changes the rendition of the color spectrum, making light blue skies appear menacingly dark while giving a striking luminosity to any plant life in the frame.
* Go here for more details on average shot length, but you’d find that Visitors would average out at 70.54 seconds per shot giving it the third-highest-average of all time, following Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002) at 5,486.3 seconds per shot (because the entire film is just 1 continuous moving image) and Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948) where the calculated 10 shots total yield an average shot length of 433.9 seconds, or here for cinema-scholar David Bordwell’s extensive database of shot lengths, from which the above numbers are taken.
As we continue the somewhat-inexplicable journey of Visitors we get some variety in the contents, including cameo-lit shots of hands in various actions that give them the appearance of strange Star Wars animals, the aforementioned group shots of people in various motions, mounds of garbage in slo-mo-avalanche-mode, visits to abandoned buildings and an empty amusement park, disturbing nature shots in the Atchafalaya swamp region near New Orleans along with some elevated tombs from within the Crescent City itself shot with a very wide-angle-lens, all occasionally interspersed with NASA footage of the moon, and all in league with the meditative music so well orchestrated by Glass. I haven’t worried about Spoiler Alerts with Visitors—which is just now opening in my area this weekend, possibly yours as well—because even though I’ve given you a compressed list of what you’ll see, there’s nothing to be lost with foreknowledge here. This is clearly a film that demands to be seen, not described, so in addition to the usual clips links suggested far below for Visitors I’m going to try something new this week by inserting a couple of short video explorations of the thought and intentions behind this film so that you can get a better idea of what I’m attempting to talk about here. The first video (also found at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=5CNARLwC_1s if you’d like to go directly to it for a larger viewing format) is commentary by Reggio about his passion to make cinematic statements about the living environment we’ve created for ourselves and the contributions of Glass’ soundtrack to the film as a whole; there are also remarks by co-producer Jon Kane, who previously worked with Reggio as an editor, second-unit director, and visual designer for Naqoyqatsi.
The next clip here is a mini-documentary on Reggio’s works to help give you more context on how his previous accomplishments have led to what we find in Visitors; in this one you also get insightful commentary from this visionary director along with his ongoing-collaborators, Glass and Kane. Again, if you’d rather go directly to the YouTube for this one in order to enlarge it to full screen you can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eT75St3N8x8.
Essentially, Visitors presents the metaphorical consideration that human beings are just transients at this point on our planet, Earth, that it and earlier life forms were here long before us, that we’ve evolved a sense of differentiation from our biological ancestors represented by Triska but we share a great number of physiological similarities within our species despite the surface differences that we’ve often focused on so much regarding facial shapes, hair and skin tonality, etc., yet we all contain great complexities beneath those similar surfaces as well (which are illustrated by the squeamishness we might feel when looking for so long at some of those faces staring back at us, where we now have time to notice the inherent—yet oddly unsettling—asymmetry in lineups of ears and eyes, where even seemingly innocent children’s visages begin to take on a menacing tone—such as with the girl in the first photo above that began this review—as they run through their emotional gamut in front of that penetrating camera’s constant presence). Ultimately, we return to Triska, but in her final “mirror” image of all that we assume ourselves not to be but must finally acknowledge that what’s on her surface likely lies below ours as well, the shot pulls back to reveal a movie theater audience watching her on screen so that in our theater we seem to join them before a blinding white light obliterates everything except the reflective purity/sterility of the screen itself. Reggio’s not asking us to interpret Visitors precisely in preparation for some sociopolitical task; he’s simply asking us to halt the frantic lives he’s displayed in the previous “Qatsi” trilogy to take a much closer look at ourselves, the relatively fleeting impact we’ve made on our planetary home, and the waiting crypts and empty landscapes/dwelling artifacts that may someday be our only legacy. Many of those single faces are quite unnerving, yet the crowd shots show communal ecstasy, so all possibilities are open to us if we’ll just decide what to do with our potential. Visitors is likely not for everyone (especially if you prefer stories with resolved plots) and may not be playing in available locations even if you are interested, but if you can find it I’d say explore it because you’ll rarely see something of this compelling nature up on the big screen. The highest compliment I can pay to Visitors is that both times I saw it in preview screenings I felt that I could easily take a short break then sit down and watch it again immediately; that’s a response I rarely have, even with films that I’m ready to award 4 stars or more without the need for further thought. Visitors is definitely worth your visit if you’re open to its unusual-yet-transcendental approach to the inner psychological/spiritual depths that cinema might be able to aid us in discovering.
|Don't worry; we won't be doing much with|
Slumdog Millionaire, I promise.
The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra, 2013) is another film opening this weekend in my area (maybe yours as well), with some first-viewing-enhancement likely diminished by my standard Spoiler comments, so please keep that in mind if you choose to read further before seeing it for yourself. However, I realize that seeing it for yourself may be difficult outside of large metropolitan areas, so if you have to wait for DVD release I encourage you to take note of this one, a wonderfully humane and heartwarming film that doesn’t rush you into standard-romance-genre-closure (as did its much-more-famous-cousin of a few years back, 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire [Danny Boyle—although Loveleen Tandan is often listed as co-director only Boyle got the Oscar for Best Director, but she did share that honor in some other venues], an Oscar Best Picture winner but more indicative of the Bollywood-Hollywood approach to melodramatic-conflict-and-resolution-plotlines than what we find in the much more individualized narrative of The Lunchbox).
I wish I could say that writer-director Batra’s debut film was at least India’s contender this year for Oscar's Foreign Language Film prize, but it was overlooked by that country’s selection committee (in favor of The Good Road [Gyan Correa, 2013], bringing howls of protest from The Lunchbox cast and crew after they had received lots of positive responses at various festivals last year [here’s the complete list of the original pre-nominee contenders from all 76 countries prior to the selection of the 5 finalists if you’re interested]), so if you need credentials of some sort to get you in front of a screen where you have to read subtitles (although the characters do flow easily into English every so often) then The Lunchbox may not be to your taste, no matter how tasty I think its contents are—although it did win the Critics Week Viewer Choice Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, certainly not an easy task. But if you’re willing to explore a very low-key story of 2 lonely people who meet by chance, then develop an attraction through a messaging system exponentially more low-tech than E-Harmony, OK Cupid, etc., then I think you’ll find a lot to like about what you’ll find when you open The Lunchbox (although, with all due respect to friends of ours that did meet through careful interaction and negotiation on E-Harmony before actual encounters that led to marriage, maybe I’m attracted to this film because it speaks of the serendipitous joy that can happen through pure chance rather than calculated research, which was the case with my wife, Nina Kindblad, and me when we began chatting prior to the Paul Simon Graceland concert in Berkeley, CA just a few days over 27 years ago, marrying a very few years after that; further, the word “serendipity” has a serendipitous Indian connection here in that this term meaning “fortuitous happenstance” or “pleasant surprise,” as coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, is based on an ancient Persian tale of unanticipated adventures of 3 princes from the island nation of Serendip [or Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, just off India’s southern tip], so the overall resonance of The Lunchbox is quite in harmony with my particular sensibilities, with hopes that it would appeal to you as much—which does seem to be happening with other critics at least, where the Rotten Tomatoes folks are very fresh with a 94% positive rating while the Metacritics lag behind a bit with only 75% positive but that’s based on just 20 reviews where only 1 of them was what they called “mixed,” so the positive percentage is unjustly skewed just because Time Out New York’s Tom Huddleston wasn’t wowed enough—such power you possess, Tom!—at least this week). As for what’s actually going on in The Lunchbox, it’s a simple story of a lonely widower approaching retirement, Saajan (Irrfan Khan—who played the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire), plodding through his days in near-somnambulist-mode in his bureaucratic-government-claims-department-job (where he's worked efficiently for 35 years but has now reached a soulless state where he chases children away from his front gate and stares into his neighbors' home at dinnertime until they become uncomfortable) until one day the daily lunch he expects to be delivered from a local restaurant has different flavors than he anticipated, providing him with a bit of flair in an otherwise-unproductive-life where he won’t even bother to train Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the over-eager-young-man hired to replace him.
The reason for his surprise is that it wasn’t his intended lunch at all, but rather one sent by an equally-lonely woman, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), in an attempt to follow the advice of an unseen “auntie” (a title of respect toward an older woman, in this case an upstairs neighbor who Ila talks with through their mutually-open windows, rather than an actual relative; her voice is supplied by Bharati Achrekar while her character supplies useful ingredients to Ila with a little basket lowered down from the upper flooor) to literally “spice” up her equally-unproductive life in an attempt to get better attention from her emotionally-distant-husband (just one of the ongoing problems in her life, along with the memory of her brother who committed suicide long ago and the situation with her sick father who needs more medicine than her mother can afford). So, she puts her love into a stack of metal bowls that contain his better-conceived-lunch, then sends it off through a chain of Dabbawallahs (delivery men) who bring these daily nourishments from the neighborhoods where the white-collar workers live, across the huge city of Mumbai to their offices, dropped off in miraculous fashion to the proper recipients through a complex code of colors and symbols which guide the largely-illiterate-couriers to their proper destinations (a process that’s been in effect for 120 years, with an accuracy rate of only about 1 in a million ever brought to the wrong place—this based on a Harvard University study carried out by Westerners such as me who are amazed that something so seemingly-impossibly-complicated could work at all, let alone be so consistently correct). However, we’d have no story in The Lunchbox if everything went according to plan, so the near-foolproof-system's fatal flaw results in Saajan getting not only a better meal than he expected on the first day of the suddenly-ongoing-mistakes (if there’s a plot hole to consider here it’s why the deliveries suddenly got crossed—we know from his clipped conversations with her that Ila’s husband got a lunch as well, which we later learn was the one intended for Saajan because Mr. Distant Husband, Rajeev [Nakul Vaid], makes marginal comments about it that verify it's what Saajan expected, but why the mistake suddenly occurred, then continues, is never clarified; however, we do learn later, along with Ila, that her Rajeev's having an affair, so he may not be paying much attention to whatever shows up in the lunch bowls anyway) but also finding a note the second day from Ila wanting to know who’s getting her food because her husband’s clearly oblivious to her attempts at culinary seduction. This leads to an ongoing exchange of written correspondence between Saajan and Ila (which is proving beneficial enough for both of them that no attempt is made to correct the delivery mistakes—and from the look I got at what she’s preparing I wouldn’t want that food to be cut off either [I warn you that you’d better have a good Indian restaurant in mind when you come out of the theater because your stomach will be demanding equal time with your eyes and brain—hopefully, your heart as well, unless it’s like the empty dishes that Ila sends one day in a fit of anger; but if that were the case I doubt you’d have even read this far about such a plotline]). Once Ila has discovered her husband’s affair she starts daydreaming about taking her sad-eyed-daughter, Yashvi (Yashvi Puneet Nagar) away with her to Bhutan (the tiny Himalayan country far, far to the east of Mumbai, between India and China) in hopes of finding a better, happier life there; Saajan has now grown intrigued enough to ask if she’d consider moving there with him, so she suggests that they finally meet in person for lunch the next day. He doesn’t show up, prompting the empty lunchbox noted above, but he explains in a note sent back with the empty bowls (in case it’s not obvious, those same delivery guys have to retrieve all of those metal containers each day as well, bringing them back in the afternoon to the waiting wives at home) that he was there, observing her quietly, realizing that he’s too old for her, so he’s decided to break this off before she wastes her time with him any further. Her response is to follow the chain of couriers through the various train and bicycle routes of the sprawling city to track down Saajan at his office, but when she arrives she finds he’s already retired and departed for another city so she returns to her Bhutan plan alone.
Within this main plot about the long-distance-connection-and-separation of Saajan and Ila, we also get an ongoing subplot about how Saajan’s icy dismissal of his eager replacement, Shaikh, begins to thaw when he learns that the young man is an orphan (well, I guess we do have other shades of Slumdog Millionaire after all, but with all of the orphans in India I guess it’s difficult not to have that pop up as a plot point) who obtained a fake college degree in order to even be hired for the position, although his lack of proper training (with no help or oversight from Saajan up to this point) has put Shaikh on the verge of termination once his supervisor, Mr. Shroff (Denzil Smith—whose character strangely speaks only in English; maybe it's a class thing that I'm not aware of) learns of the many mistakes he’s made (I confess, this is another sentimental link for me to this film in that it reminds me of how I was once fired from a job because of errors my employer found in my work—however, in what I see as a passive-aggressive approach to employee relations, I wasn’t informed of these mistakes, just allowed to continue making them until enough had accumulated on their “don’t-let-the-door-bump-your-butt-on-the-way-out-“management-style”-inventory to justify my dismissal). With a combination of heart-thawage from the Ila notes and an awakening concern for how difficult it will be for Shaikh to recover from the disgrace of being let go, Saajan takes responsibility for the problems (the supervisor’s not convinced but he accepts the situation because he’s confident that his long-trusted-employee will be able to repair all of the damage quickly, which he does), then even honors Shaikh’s invitation to dinner in the home he shares with his fiancée—later the two young lovers marry, with Saajan as the only person at the wedding available to stand for his new colleague at the ceremony. Despite the rising success of the younger generation, however (by the time that Saajan takes his final step to retirement the supervisor has also warmed to Shaikh so he’s now in his hoped-for-position of appropriately moving up the ranks over time), Saajan feels he has little to live for in Mumbai so he’s off on a train for a new life in Nashik (another city in western India, about 100 miles away). He has a change of heart, though, deciding that he’s given up too easily on the possibility of a connection with Ila so he returns, following a similar-but-reversed-path toward her home with the help of the Dabbawallahs, but Batra intentionally leaves us hanging on that fateful afternoon, with no hint of whether Saajan will reach his newly-determined-destination in time to catch Ila before she disappears from him forever into the high mountains.This suspended-closure-trope has long been an effective device in the kinds of films that I (and André Bazin—if you don’t know much about him but would like to learn more regarding one of the great cinema theorists whose work substantiates many aspects of film criticism [even if the critics don’t realize it] a good place to start is here) would refer to as Theatrical Realism (some of the masters of these character-driven works in the 20th century were Charlie Chaplin and Jean Renoir, although Sam Mendes gives us a great example of it as well in Revolutionary Road —with excellent literary inspirations from authors such as Balzac, Hugo, and Dickens) where you can tell that a plot has been carefully constructed—often dependent on well-placed coincidences—and there’s a moral lesson to be learned, but what happens to the conflicted characters after the final fade-out is often left ambiguously to your further consideration. (Rather than offering you the assured closure associated with the story-driven-constructions that constitute most approaches to box-office-dominating-entertainment-movies—except for episodic entertainments such as the Hunger Games [Gary Ross, 2012; Francis Lawrence, 2013, 2014, 2015] and Hobbit [Peter Jackson, 2012, 2013, 2014] series where action is simply suspended in the earlier installments in preparation for later resolution. Lunchbox auteur Batra is well aware of the difference between what he's offering here vs. what resonates at the turnstiles in his country and worldwide: "It is difficult to make delicate cross genre movies in India because a majority of the audiences for off-Bollywood Indian movies are outside of India. I hope THE LUNCHBOX finds an audience in India as well. I hope the humor of the story brings the local audience in and they are happy to discover the underlying deeper story.") Certainly we can hope that the link will be continued between Saajan and Ila (all they seem to need is one more serendipitous meeting before she leaves for the train station, assuming that their note-based-romance will be enough to build on, even with no in-person-dialogue yet between the two), but we’re not intended to know that, just as they weren’t intended to know that each other existed—until a twist of fate made a connection for them. Better that we fill our thoughts about them with conjecture, which better parallels what they’ve been doing with each other throughout the entire film, because this is the type of story that’s intended to live better in our imagination than in our memory of resolved circumstances.
|André Bazin (who shares my love|
of film theory and cats)
With Omar (Hany Abu-Assad, 2013) we have a story that’s clearly resolved as far as the main characters go (set in the mode of what could be called Photographic Realism, a type of fictionalized narrative with resemblances to documentary because of either real-world-settings that evoke journalistic accounts of what the characters are experiencing—the sort of shot-in-the-streets-approach associated with the post-WW II Italian Neorealists [many would call Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief—or Bicycle Thieves, depending on whether you prefer more traditional or grammatically-accurate translations of the title—the epitome of this style] or studio productions that make concerted attempts to resemble such actuality-based-production-values, even with name-brand stars in the cast, sometimes shot on traditional studio sets [examples include The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940) and On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) in the older days, Precious—but, again, to be precise the official title is Precious (Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire)—(Lee Daniels, 2009), in more contemporary times]—with all of these, as is cinematic Realism’s nature, offering ambiguous endings relative to what the characters can expect next, which could easily be any level of personal disaster) but set in a much larger sociopolitical context that seems to defy any sort of closure in the real world, no matter how many fictional films attempt to point the way to some sort of conclusion, which at times seems horribly to be available only after a nightmarish scorched-earth-result, an ending I hope never comes to pass. One thing that’s clear about Omar, though, is that it’s a well-respected film, having won the Jury Prize at the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, then served as Palestine’s entry for the recent Academy Awards in the Foreign Language category before being accepted as 1 of the 5 finalists (losing to The Great Beauty [Paolo Sorrentino, 2013], a tough choice given the photojournalistic nature of Omar vs. the poetically-abstract qualities of its Italian competitor). Just as with The Lunchbox, the concept is simple: In the Israeli-occupied-Palestinian-territory of the West Bank, a young baker, Omar (Adam Bakri), is in love with Nadia (Leem Lubany), the sister of his resistance-fighter-friend, Tarek (Eyad Hourani), even though Omar has to climb over tall separation walls in order to visit her. Life becomes much more complicated, though, when Omar accompanies Tarek and their friend, Amjad (Samer Bisharat), on a clandestine mission to steal a car, drive to a military check point, then shoot an Israeli soldier with a sniper rifle before making a quick escape.
Before going further here, though, let me make 2 points: (1) While this film has been playing in some areas for a couple of weeks or more with anything I’ve said so far easily available from the trailers, I’m still going to remind you of my ongoing Spoiler Alerts because I don’t want to have to fend off demands for paying you for ticket money in lieu of attending a screening just because I ruined the plot’s possibly-surprising-progression for you; I warn you again, there are things you don’t want to know yet about this film if you’re planning on seeing it; and (2) at the risk of offending readers on either side of the militarized borders between Israel and Palestine, I take no sides on either one being “right” in their position about occupation and possession of these lands which have been in some sort of homeland-based-dispute for a couple of millennia; I will say that I support a 2-state-solution with firm borders (which I’m in no position to suggest where they should be), mutual political recognition, and mutual internal/external security, but I realize that’s easy for me to say, having no ancestral ties to either country’s heritage nor stake beyond humanitarian concerns on how this ancient dispute can be resolved—if it ever can be. (Because I've provided the other writer-directors a chance to speak for themselves this week, I'll do the same for Abu-Assad, giving context to the actions which propel his film in terms somewhat similar to mine: "The human side of freedom fighters is what intrigues me and, actually, it's the human side of any character that intrigues me, as often what makes us human is also our tragic flaw. Many people or characters appear perfect on the outside, whether a freedom fighter or a lover, but the tragic flaw of people means this perfection is only a perception, inside these people is imperfection and failure. My job as a filmmaker is to be intrigued by this phenomenon and also to show it in the most honest way, a way that is grey, not black and white.") If you’re still reading after those warnings/admissions, then let’s proceed with the bleak tale of Omar’s life, which leaves him little choice in how to navigate a constantly dangerous trail of events.
Omar’s troubles quickly escalate faster than he can scale a wall by climbing up a long rope, then try to avoid capture by running down narrow passageways. Besieged by Israeli undercover troops at a café one day, Omar, Tarek, and Amjad all run their separate ways, but Omar’s the unlucky one to get caught (after a previous scene in which Israeli troops stopped him, punched him out, and made him stand precariously for awhile on a small rock while they idly chatted—not as brutal a temporary torture as in 12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013] where Solomon Northup [Chiwetel Ejiofor] is forced to stand for hours with a noose around his neck, barely preventing an act of self-hanging, but still a devious bullying gesture supposedly intended to intimidate a potential Palestinian rebel but only building up more hatred instead), then be brought, after some harsh interrogation (I’d say “harsh” is the minimum I could use to refer to the scene where the captors use a cigarette lighter on Omar’s testicles in an attempt to get information from him) and imprisonment days in grim solitary confinement, to more calculated questioning by a field-hardened-but-ultimately-sympathetic-officer, Agent Rami (Walled F. Zuaiter, the only one of the primary actors with prior feature-film-experience, another similarity to The Bicycle Thief where the cast was recruited for their appropriate screen presence rather than their cinematic preparation)—at least as the film goes on he shows some concern for Omar’s situation; he’s not terribly interested in his prisoner’s problems when he’s first captured. While we don’t know at first why the Israelis seem to know anything at all about the killing of the soldier, we learn from Rami that they’re convinced that Tarek was the shooter so they want Omar to help them capture him; if he refuses to cooperate then it’s made clear that life will just be one big misery not only for Omar but also for Nadia (whom they also, oddly, know about—you get the impression that they're quasi-omnipotent), so reluctantly he seems to agree to produce results within a month, yet he tells Tarek that he’s the object of Omar’s mission then helps Tarek set up an ambush of more Israeli troops, in part because he has no interest in turning against his lifelong-friend-and-hoped-for-future-brother-in-law and in part because he needs to rebuild some credibility with all of his colleagues—including Nadia—that he’s not an informer, which he’s generally suspected of being given his relatively quick release from prison (countered with the excuse that they had no proof with which to convict him, a true position but with the tensions running as high as they do in such kill-or-be-killed-circumstances any hair-trigger-decision on anyone’s part could spell quick death, especially when something goes wrong with the ambush [which also seemed to be part of the plan to trap Tarek, leaving me a bit confused at this point as to which side Omar was actually on, what was calculated, and what came as a surprise to whom]) further complicated when Tarek escapes the botched ambush but other resistance fighters are killed (to be fair, the Israelis see them simply as homicidal terrorists; again, there’s no way to resolve this as long as each side understands the other as hostile intruders who must be either contained or eliminated—my best to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry or anyone else who can find a way out of this deadly maze without totally selling out one side or the other). Omar continues to assert to Nadia that he’s got an escape plan for them that will result in relocation to Paris, a promise that gives her hope but that we see little possibility for happening given the difficult dilemmas that Omar faces in trying to satisfy both sides that are pressuring him on a daily basis, with prison or death hovering in his shadows.
Certainly, one of the strengths of this film is its sense of immediacy, of being filmed where the actual conflicts are occurring so that the feeling of the thin line between fiction and fact is made all the more tangible. Omar lives in an environment of rubble, graffiti, and harassment, all of which is taken for granted as what passes for life in occupied territory, just as is the possibility that he’ll be the next martyr for his cause or he’ll be the next under-the-radar-hero for striking out against the occupiers. In this fitful conundrum imposed on him by Agent Rami he’s likely to be understood as neither but just a traitor to his cause because the real informant is his close friend, Amjad (Oh, hush; I gave you Spoiler Alerts. Now, here come some more revelations to completely ruin any future viewing of Omar for you!), looking to shift the blame to Tarek for the assassination in order to protect his own life and to smear Omar as the informant so that he can be the one to successfully connect with Nadia, a simmering love triangle that was much more serious on Amjad’s part than Omar ever realized until the accumulation of events begins to more fully manifest themselves—with the most surprising of all when Amjad says that he's impregnated Nadia (discovered by the Israelis, giving them the blackmail threat on Amjad who then has to cooperate with them) which puts Omar into the position of wanting to protect the 2 of them for their future, despite his personal loss in the process. Omar arranges for a meeting with Amjad and Tarek in an attempt to straighten all of this out, but a wounded-pride-struggle ensues, with Tarek dead in the process. While Omar marches in Tarek’s funeral procession (his death is blamed on the Israelis), 2 years later he’s under pressure from both the new leader of the Palestinian Jerusalem Brigade, still suspicious about the previous situations Omar was involved in, just as Rami is still pushing him to help capture this new rebel leader, ignoring the supposed deal that Omar was just under orders to help take down Tarek. To further complicate his mind, Omar has a conversation with Nadia—now married to Amjad, with 2 children—which reveals to him that she wasn’t pregnant when her brother died (so those undercover Israelis weren't so omnipotent after all), that it was just another ruse of Amjad’s to deflect Omar from any last hopes with Nadia and discourage Omar from turning him over to the Israelis. In the film’s final scene, Omar is with Rami and a few of his men discussing a plan to take down the new resistance leader; he makes some small talk about his inexperience with guns so Rami shows him how to shoot, then hands him the pistol to practice. Omar suddenly turns it on Rami and fires, followed by an equally-disruptive-cut-to-black as the credits roll even as we know that Rami’s men will surely shoot Omar on the spot, with his death not as a distraught suicide because he’s lost all who were close to him but instead as a clever means of finally clearing his name as an informant, thereby becoming a fallen hero of the liberation movement.
Omar is a bitter film about seemingly-hopeless situations, where no one is innocent, everyone either has vicious motives or assumes that everyone else does, and decency has no chance to take root as destructive circumstances undercut any sense of love, loyalty, or integrity. I have no idea yet how Omar and The Great Beauty stack up against the other 3 nominees (nor any of the 71 other possibilities that didn’t make it to the final ballot), but if these 2 are indicative of what was available for Oscar’s Foreign Language Film decision-making-committee to pick from then I think this speaks volumes about the overall quality of work being produced around the globe (although I do wish that those committee members had been given a chance to consider the much-less-grandiose, much-less-volatile The Lunchbox as well, but maybe you’ll give it a chance with your support in the theaters or through rental/purchase options). As I think back over these 3 distinctly-different but very fascinating examples of the great diversity of cinematic art that I've reviewed this week, I’m looking for some application of my usual musical metaphor that might tie them all together around my conceptual title of “Slow Realizations”—as we watch those staring faces and empty spaces in Visitors, giving us reason to re-examine just what the hell we’re doing with our existence that can justify the group celebration that comes near the end; as we observe the slowly-building-but-disembodied-relationship that grows between Ila and Saajan in their understated connections in The Lunchbox; and as we witness the ever-growing-environment of mistrust and retaliation that emerges in Omar—finally deciding that maybe just a long immersion in Philip Glass’s Visitors soundtrack might be just the right thing; however, that doesn’t seem to be available yet (unless you'd like to buy a CD) so if you’d like to just really immerse yourself in a contemplative mood where you can ruminate on human beings’ place (or not!) on this planet, the serendipity that often brings about unexpected interactions in life, and/or the ongoing violence that permeates the Middle East (not just as Israelis and Palestinians battle over Jerusalem and surrounding territories but Muslims of various allegiances battle each other from Egypt to Syria to Pakistan) here’s Glass’ full soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swUMpLsx6Pc, but if you want to indulge in the whole experience in one sitting please reserve yourself 1:14:00 or plan for some mini-segments that can better accommodate your schedule, allowing this ethereal music to massage your mind into another dimension of consciousness.
That’s all of the post-Oscar heaviosity this week, so I’ll see if I can find something like Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra) to lighten things up a bit next time.
If you’d like to know more about Visitors here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvYQj-0Kz4c (not a standard trailer so much as one of the typical long shots from the film; there’s more variety in this one at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdgDLNVDf3w)
If you’d like to know more about The Lunchbox here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5NHn0emHMg (standard "first world" trailer where the Hindi language is subtitled in English, but there’s also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwYN-XS92yY, an interesting trailer where Ila’s statements are presented in Hindi and Saajan’s are in English, most anything else is in Hindi as well with no subtitles)
In lieu of finding any statements from the director or the actors of The Lunchbox, here are some scenes from the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvFAbyMmu-A (Ila sends the first note to whomever is receiving her lunches [we know it’s Saajan], realizing that they’re not being properly delivered to her husband), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYyZmoQLiw4 (Ila gets her first note back from Saajan, an odd response in which he has some criticism of her cooking despite its being essentially a gift to him), and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmItPgeI4Qc (Ila informs the delivery service that her lunches haven’t been going to her husband but what she’s really doing is setting out on a trace of the delivery line to get to Saajan’s office); there are other clips on YouTube as well but except for voiceover statements from Saajan in English the rest of the dialogue is all in un-subtitled Hindi, so unless you’re fluent in it you probably won’t get much of what’s happening in the clips.
If you’d like to know more about Omar here are some suggested links:
As well here, with no interviews that I can find with the director or the actors, I’ll suggest some short clips from the film to give you a sense of it but the spoken language in each of them is Arabic with no subtitles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoO4m29jCVk (Omar meets up with his girlfriend, Nadia), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kw6_Ui0w8bY (Omar meets with his collaborationist Palestinian colleagues), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymuDC5duqkg (Omar is chased through West Bank Palestine by Israeli agents), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36WjdZlBSHM (Omar is stopped by Israeli agents for questioning), and http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=Ns1L01sQ3C0 (Omar is interrogated by Israeli field agent Rami)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.