07/02/15 Film Essay # , , , , , ,

Ida (2013)

Ida (2013)
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Stars: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik


Ida sinks us into a deeply personal, intimate space where shades of grey and white illuminate a blackened reality.  A girl’s tender present is invaded by a dark past. Perhaps the human psyche stretches across a great divide of ordinariness, anchored by extremes of joy and evil.  Joy seeks inklings of light.  Evil lurks in dark acts of desperate paranoia.  Why else the satisfaction of toggling a painful tooth, sobbing uncontrollably or wandering empty streets at night, fearful but excited to be in a foreign city?  Why else the pleasure of the film Ida in which a girl, by chance, grasps the idiocy and the miracle of her life saved only to become someone she was never meant to be. 

Ida’s story is rather simple and probably more ordinary than any of us want to believe. In post WWII Poland, a girl on the verge of taking vows to become a nun discovers she’s Jewish.  Ida was placed on the steps of the convent as an infant at the same moment her parents were being killed by a Catholic family who had first sheltered them and then killed them. They narrowly avoided being killed themselves by the Germans.  She discovers her history by visiting her Aunt Wanda before taking the vows that will wed her to the church forever. Wanda, her mother’s sister, knew of Ida’s existence in the Catholic orphanage but refused to claim her.  Somehow, in spite of being Jewish, Wanda has risen in Poland’s government to be a judge and, initially, that seems to be her reason for ignoring Ida.   

Ida has her mind set on finding the graves of her parents and Wanda reluctantly agrees to help her. The two women make the journey together, uncovering a secret that darkens an already dark story.  The aunt reveals to Ida that she left behind her young son with her sister Roza, Ida’s mother, for safekeeping during the war so that she could join the resistance.  Wanda fears the remains in hidden graves will contain more than the bones of Ida’s parents. 

Ida, cloaked in the plain scarf and cloth coat of a novice nun meets her Aunt Wanda in a Polish city bereft of bustle, foretelling scenes too empty and too loaded in the woods behind the house where the Ida’s parents lived. Wanda, already a woman who drinks too much, tosses down shot glasses of vodka and drives her car into a ditch.  She spends a night in jail before they arrive at the shack where their family once lived. A dirt-poor Polish farmer with a wife and a child of his own lives there now. At first, he withholds answers to their quest. 

The bleak plight of all involved is directly felt through imagistically powerful black and white cinematography.  Matter of fact images of aunt and niece carrying bones so recently dug up from a muddy ditch and rolled in blankets for transport to a Jewish cemetery proceed in poetic slowness, step by step without an ounce of color. To see the family bones carried so personally, bundled and carried close to the body from profane to sacred ground is unnerving, barely bearable.

Ida stirs our imagination, creating recollections of events never lived, empathy for those now dead and others who survived.  Memories are fantasized as if recalled. The aunt in this film clearly shunned the niece who would force her to emotionally relive what she’d left behind in order to adapt, accept and join a society in which she achieved prominence by not being herself.  Once Ida bears witness to her choice, the Wanda’s wall between past and present weakens and another story begins once the women return home. 

We have to ask.  What will Ida do? 

Ida, in accompanying Wanda in the search for her parent’s grave, engages life experiences that require her constantly to make her own choices, not simply follow rules of a convent. When a young man hitches a ride with them to get into the city, she meets a man who lives on the edge of what’s coming in modern society. He plays the saxophone, a musical instrument called masculine and sensual by the aunt. He has a gig to celebrate a Polish holiday and draws Ida into feelings she didn’t know she had.  Same age as Ida but without her history, his love is innocent. He represents a present in which the evolution of time has tamped down horror and new opportunities are emerging.

What will Ida choose?

The two women, bonded by blood but one old and one young, walk toward different futures. As surely as Ida progresses toward an awakening, Wanda spirals downward into a past with no recoup. Ida tries on her aunt’s shoes, wears her clothes, drinks her vodka and sleeps with the saxophone player.  A window of light will prove an exit for one, an entry for the other.  But no escape into the expansive divide of ordinary life lies ahead for either.

Ida is a tight film, intimate and deep in revealing what happened, what’s happening after the war in Poland and what needs to happen to maintain faith in humanity in an aftermath of shadows.  It is a film of beautiful images that evoke the mythic gamble of any individual’s circumstances of birth. True identity of some, like Ida, is partially given, partially created, and forever partially unknown.

Opposites of joy and evil clashed in WWII, wreaking tragedy and leaving a legacy of unconscionable grief.  And Ida is left to choose life as she sees fit.  That’s a choice her parents never had.  Yet the film ends with questions.  Is Ida reconstituted? Is hers a free choice or driven by a loss of faith in the rational mind of humankind?

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14/12/11 Film Essay # , , ,

Catfish (2010)

Catfish (2010)
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Stars: Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost


IF you’re nervous about the future of internet relationships

SEE Catfish for a romp with creative minds at work

BECAUSE fake takes on new meaning when multiples become norm

Three young men – two filmmakers and a photographer – catch the progression of an internet exchange en vivo, live on film beginning when the photographer receives an email from an eight-year-girl who asks his permission to send him a painting she’s made of one of his photographs that appeared in her local newspaper. The photographer, that would be Nev. The girl, Abby. The painting was quite good. It captured his curiosity and he agreed to friend her on Facebook.

The tale is a plot worth following but a more fascinating aspect is the way the film opens up a world where reality is caught and lost numerous times, challenging the characters and viewers to keep up with the truth. When the three men sense a cyberspace ruse being perpetrated on Nev, they opt to document it with ‘catch and release’ filming. They film a piece and throw it back to see what happens next. They know they’re not dealing with the truth but the truth they think they’re dealing with turns out not to be true either.

Just how many truths are there? On the other end of Nev’s line – be it online, cell phone line or a line of b.s. – is a storyteller with a fifth dimension. That would be the eight-year-old’s mother, Angela. Angela is a middle-aged wife and mother who lives in a remote region of northern Michigan with an atypical, albeit good-guy husband, two severely handicapped step-sons, their eight- year-old daughter and a computer. Master manipulator of cyberspace, Angela emotionally entangles Nev by turning her eight-year-old daughter into a believable child prodigy who sells her paintings for thousands of dollars and invents, out of whole cloth, a beautiful, flirty nineteen-year-old daughter of many talents who falls in love with Nev as only a smitten teen can.

At first, Nev goes a little weak in the brain from the idea that such a beauty would want him. He falls in love. As he takes the bait, the camera catches him enthralled and then sobered as he realizes she is – in fact – too good to be true. After Nev and his filmmaking buddies discover he’s being had, they agree to a ‘nothing like getting even’ plan. The young men set off in a car for Michigan to embarrass the nineteen-year-old who could not possibly be the beauty, the singer or the seductress she makes herself out to be. But the expose turns out to be a soulful look behind the curtain of Oz.

There’s no there there. Just a small house in the middle of nowhere with a family making do. Angela lives firmly in two worlds, fact and fantasy, making the best of one and creating stunning performance art out of the other. Cover blown, she slowly emerges from her lies as a hardworking woman with a deep heart, an unstoppable imagination and quite a gift with a paintbrush. As the three young men grapple with Angela’s unraveling story, their revenge fades and their hearts open. What they discover behind their expectations sets them back on their heels and we see a breadth and warmth of character in these three young men that is inspirational in our times.

No one gets hurt. But which is more real – fact or fantasy? Whichever we choose, this film makes the point that our reality is constantly shifting, morphing before our eyes with no bottom line and more characters active in every exchange than meets the eye. No wonder the reaching out, the suspension of disbelief. Beneath all the deception lies a buried truth, a deep desire to feel connected.

Why Catfish as a title? Might a catfish have anything to do with determining what reality we’re swimming in? At the end of the documentary, the good-guy husband of the storyteller adds a helpful two cents:

“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”

In other words, Nev ‘nipped the fins’ of Angela, a highly creative woman hiding out in an upstairs bedroom across a sea of wireless space into public view as a rarely seen and even more rarely appreciated ‘everywoman’ wife and mother devoted to her family.

The identity of the storyteller – itself, herself, himself – still isn’t completely known at the end of the film. Could Nev and his two buddies have made the whole thing up?

As the film ends we nip at Catfish, question its veracity. And if we turn the Catfish quest for truth on ourselves, we’ll keep “guessing and thinking” about the line between truth and fantasy. A teenage girl once said to me, “I think I’m getting this life thing. You just make it up as you go along.” What else could I say but “Uh huh” with an empathetic, quizzical smile and wonder how many identities she was going to explore in the next fifty years.

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08/06/01 Film Essay # , , , ,

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso CuarónCarlos Cuarón
Stars: Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Daniel Giménez Cacho


“Y Tu Mama Tambien throws propriety to the wind. A young Latina woman not only bolts from her role as dutiful wife but takes a swipe at patriarchy as she initiates two young men into a realization of masculinity far beyond macho.”

Well you might ask. What happens when a young, married Latina woman steps away from the yoke of traditional female forbearance of a cheating husband to joyride with two rowdy adolescent males celebrating their last summer of freedom before going off to college? And what accounts for her choice?

As the threesome drive out of Mexico City into the countryside toward a faraway beach, a bricklayer knocked off his bike by an automobile delays traffic. It will be three days before anyone identifies the corpse. It will be three days before we know who Luisa is.

And the true identities of Tenoch and Julio (the suavely naïve Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal), two young men who run into their cousin’s young but older wife, Luisa (a lithe swift talking Maribel Verdu), at a wedding will also not be known for several days. Luisa, driving with determination but without intention to an unknown destination, will accidentally initiate them into sexual complexities they could have lived a lifetime without knowing – and will, no doubt, take a lifetime to unravel.

Tenoch and Julio are best friends. Tenoch comes from a wealthy family of privilege while Julio hopes his brains will give him a ticket to better things. They essentially ignore being from different sides of the track, swearing a blood brother friendship — charlostras. They have a manifesto of loyalty to one another. Julio and Tenoch take pride in their quickie sex lives with steady high school girlfriends who have gone off to Europe for the summer. They compete with each other in masturbating contests in broad daylight on parallel diving boards and share grandiose fantasies of sexual conquests. While attending a wedding together, they get the bright idea of hustling the lovely Luisa, their cousin’s wife who is a few years older. They invite her to take a ride with them to the beach, enticing her with descriptions of a hidden cove called Boca del Cielo that only they know about. They are, of course, making the whole thing up. They have no idea where a hidden cove at an isolated beach might be. At first she just laughs them off. But then, seemingly devastated by a phone call from her husband admitting that he’s having an affair, Luisa calls Julio and says yes, she’ll go. Taken off guard by what they view as a stroke of unexpected good luck, they scramble quickly to borrow a car and figure out what direction to go. Luisa dumps stuff in a bag and they’re off.

On the way, midst much jocular conversation, Luisa again surprises them. She seduces Tenoch. Then, when Julio becomes jealous, she has sex with him as well — casually, in a matter of fact manner, in the back of the car while Tenoch is driving. She exposes how easily each can be seduced, foregoing any pact they’ve made with each other. This completely turns the tables from fun to fury, bringing out the fierce but suppressed side of the competition between them. Luisa asks, point blank, wasn’t this what they both wanted? Wasn’t she just making a fantasy come true? Perhaps. But, her willingness to fulfill the fantasy guts the game between them and, for the first time, they face reality. Confessions flow. Tenoch has slept with Julio’s girlfriend and vice versa – more than once. Whatever fabric of control they created between them is gone. Their ‘charlostra’ contract looks silly; they’ve broken every rule. Now, without the restraint of a pact, their relationship really heats up. Emotions run strong. They physically fight and verbally attack one another. Luisa decides it’s time for her to make some rules and, if they want her to stay with them on the trip, she’ll be the boss.

As the threesome move closer to the beach, illusion and reality begin to merge. They enter another world when their car breaks down and they are thrown on the mercy of people poorer than poor who generously help them. Luisa finds and is given a doll by an old woman that has her name on it. By a fluke, at the end of a road picked more by desperation than decision, they wake up to a curve of sand by the sea beyond their wildest fantasy. Held quiet by beauty without agenda, they’re very far outside the familiar. And the guys are following Luisa’s rules, requiring them to shut up and do what she says. She’s established a different kind of order where truth reigns and secret cravings emerge. Somewhere along the line, Tenoch and Julio realize that things are turning out a lot different than they imagined. Then, an odd little man shows up in a boat, taking them to a restaurant he runs with his wife under a tent where they eat, dance, get drunk and let their emotions run free into the night.

Luisa begins to make love to Tenoch and Julio simultaneously. And then, stepping away from them as mysteriously as she stepped away from her husband, she leaves them. Caught in the heat of passion, Julio and Tenoch continue having sex with each other, finally venting the pent up attraction they’ve felt for one another that’s been submerged beneath a heavy legacy of egoistic competition between men. The next morning Luisa says goodbye to boys who have become men. Tenoch and Julio are left with a reality that has no words. What Luisa has released in them is more startling than revelations about their desire for sex with the same woman, transforming their beliefs about male identity. She pulls back a veil of truth, showing their notions of heterosexuality to be as flimsy as their pact.

On this trip to fantasy land, Luisa blossoms into a woman she could not have known as the good wife. She breaks away from a programmed passivity and deference, awakening two young men to a world of feelings for one another they didn’t know existed and would’ve never known if they had not crossed her path. In a moment of celebration, they may all drink ‘to the clitoris’ but Luisa’s daring comes from another source. She’s close to a destiny that goes beyond the destiny of her sex.

Remember Y Tu’s metaphor — the accidental collision with death as its end where the true identity of the corpse will not to be known until sometime in the future? Y Tu Mama Tambien taps into the ancient Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne showing what happens to men who insist on possessing the essence of female sexuality. They find themselves in an embrace with their own true nature. Tenoch and Julio return to ordinary life, having lost not only their innocence but their illusions of control. Luisa stays behind – as she says, ‘like the surf on the sea’ — on a pristine beach about to be taken over by developers.

On a trip half real and half fantasy, Tenoch, Julio and Luisa make their way through the Mexican countryside to the beach, encountering extreme poverty, military domination and social uncertainty. They see their culture undergoing change, losing an innocence of isolation that may, indeed, require a different kind of man in roles of leadership, married to its women and fathering its children. But will Tenoch and Julio integrate Luisa’s lesson of men loving men — or will tradition be too strong?

None of them will meet again. Well, technically, that’s not true. We see Tenoch and Julio say a last goodbye in a diner where we learn of Luisa’s fate – one she knew all along while we waited in the dark for a few hours to discover who she was.

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