Travel still seems a thought both nostalgic and distantly hopeful for most of us, given that ending COVID may well take most if not all of 2021. Of course, there’s always armchair travel, and this week brings a particularly wide geographic range of new features that roam from rural Mexico to Poland, India, and Sudan.
You can rack up a lot of globetrotting viewer miles without venturing beyond new programs being added to BAMPFA’s streaming selections this week alone. Thurs/21 sees the launch of The New Brazilian Cinema (more info here), a six week series ending March 7 highlighting the fruit of progressive cultural initiatives encouraging minority artistic expression that began in 2003.
The four separate bills, each available throughout the above-noted span, include variously narrative and nonfiction titles encompassing transgender (I Remember the Crows), indigenous (Bicycles of Nhanderu, Guardians of the Forest) and public health (Long Way Home) themes, as well as the neorealist experiment of She Comes Back on Thursday. All produced within the last decade, these films may represent a resurgence of the independent and adventuresome spirit that charged Brazil’s fabled Cinema Novo movement of the 1960s.
That series overlaps with the simultaneous Documentary Voices (more info here), which runs over the same dates (though some titles have more limited availability). Beyond the two Brazilian indigenous-themed, mid-length docs noted above, there’s also Landfall, which looks at Puerto Rico in longterm post-Hurricane Maria crisis, and The Two Sights, a poetical meditation on both Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands and the psychic abilities some of its residents purportedly have.
Finally, Friday brings a new restoration of 1968’s Mandabi (more info here) by “father of African film” Ousmane Sembene. The literary writer turned filmmaker had made the very first feature directed by a Black sub-Saharan African with 1966’s Black Girl, in which the titular Senegalese woman became a domestic servant in France.
His sophomore effort was another landmark, shot in color, in and around Dakar, and in the Wolof language. It adapts Sembene’s novel to tell the story of a jobless Muslim man (Mamadou Guye) with two wives and too many children. All their fortunes seemingly rise when, out of the blue, a nephew sends him a money order for 25,000 francs from Paris. But cashing the thing proves to be a serious problem, and news of this as-yet theoretical wealth magnetizes various leeches, lenders, and outright thieves. As simple poverty gives way to an escalating, bureaucracy-clogged nightmare, Mandabi is a mix of Kafka and folk tale, humor and hopelessness.
Also starting Friday, albeit on the Rafael@Home streaming platform, is For Your Consideration: A Celebration of World Cinema (more info here). This is California Film Institute’s 17th year hosting a sizable chunk of the movies nominated by their countries of origin for the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar. The twenty-six features encompassed include some already released in the US (Denmark’s Another Round, Latvia’s Blizzard of Souls, Guatemala’s La Llorona, Peru’s Song Without Name, etc.), others soon-to-be (like Ukrainian Atlantis) and at least one that’s concurrently playing virtual cinemas on its own (see You Will Die At Twenty, below). From Saudi Arabia to Singapore, and Colombia to Bulgaria, this series (available Fri/22-Thurs/Feb. 11) will put your finger on the pulse of filmmaking trends around the globe.
The Rafael is also adding veteran French iconoclast Philippe Garrel’s B&W latest seriocomedy The Salt of Tears to its general streaming program this weekend. Ditto Dutch documentary My Rembrandt, about peculiarities (and questionable legalities) within the highest echelons of art acquisition today, among both private and museum collections. In addition, both Roxie Virtual Cinema and the Rafael begin showing award-winning Italian director Gianfranco Rosi’s new Notturno (more info here). This impressionistic nonfiction survey shot over three years’ course captures life amongst those fleeing civil wars, ISIS, foreign invasions and more, in the borderlands between Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Kurdistan.
Other new international titles of interest available on commercial and local streaming platforms:
The last tome my book group read, nearly a year ago, was Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a sort of literary-novel-slash-murder-mystery-slash-whatsit first published in Poland in 2009. When finally translated into English nearly a decade later, it helped win her the Nobel Prize. It’s the kind of idiosyncratic, unclassifiable, unreliable-narrator exercise that invariably loses some layers in adaptation. Fortunately, the adaptor here is Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, In Darkness etc.), who’s past 70 now yet has recently done some of the best work of her long career. In fact she’s completed two more features since this four-year-old one, which presumably had to wait for the book to gain some U.S. traction before distributors got interested.
Janina (Agnieszka Mandat) is a semi-reclusive, semi-retired woman who lives alone in the mountainous rural Klodzko Valley, near the Czech border. Though she does teach English part-time to kids at the village school, she seems happy to forgo most human contact—indeed the locals consider her a bit of a crackpot, as she rails against hunters and poachers in a region highly tolerant towards both. When her beloved dogs go missing during yet another hunting season, however, her grief and fury coincides with a local spate of mysterious deaths. It doesn’t help matters that when she goes to the police with her latest suspicions, her accusatory hysteria often encompasses astrological predications.
The book is a few degrees richer in its complexity. But Spoor (which is now on VOD) is nonetheless a pretty satisfactory screen version, with Holland making the most of her visual medium to emphasize Janina’s deep (if perhaps slightly daft) connection to surrounding Nature. The source material’s mixture of cozy mystery suspense, black comedy, mysticism and more is preserved as well as two hours can allow. It’s not quite a great movie, but certainly good enough to make one admire the expertise and sympathy that pull off something that might well have seemed “unfilmable.”
The White Tiger
Another prestige literary adaptation is this new Netflix joint, from Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning 2008 debut novel. Like Slumdog Millionaire (which came out that same year), it’s an irony-riddled tale of a rise from poverty that only further underlines the embedded, exploitative injustices of Indian society and its caste system. And at first, this latest from Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, the exceptional 99 Homes) feels stylistically a little too close to that Oscar-winning film’s template, dishing out a lot of overbearing splash and flash dismayingly far flung from the quasi-verite directness of this director’s early work.
Our narrator Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is a resourceful striver who manages to extricate himself from his impoverished village and demanding family. He achieves that by finagling employment as driver to a rich kid (Rajkummar Rao) just back from the US, and his very American bride (Priyanka Chopra-Jones). They’re full of Western liberal ideas, but those don’t always play so well in Bangalore. Which means they alternately treat Balram as a friend, a pet, a servant and a scapegoat. When a crisis occurs, the limits of their humanitarianism are cruelly exposed. That takes Balram and the story into darker territory—a good thing for The White Tiger, which sheds its forced early high spirits to find greater dramatic focus. Already released to available theaters, the film hits Netflix this Fri/22.
At the opposite end of the scale in terms of flamboyance and accessibility is this first feature by Fernanda Valadez, which won two major prizes at Sundance last year. It’s a stark, explication-free, sometimes near-impenetrable tale of profound loss: When her own teenage son and a neighbor’s aren’t heard from again after deciding they’ll go north to the US for work as undocumented immigrants, middle-aged rural widow Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez) fears the worst. She leaves Guanajuato to seek any information, getting rebuffed by indifferent authorities, temporarily helped by a bourgeoise woman (Ana Laura Rodriguez) on a similar quest, then by a young man (David Illescas) whose own sojourn up north ended in deportation.
Throughout her grueling, often fruitless odyssey, Magdalena fears she may ultimately discover her son is long dead, whether killed by predatory guides, drug cartels, or something else—as has happened to untold thousands before him. Valadez and coscenarist Astrid Rondero keep things more cryptic than necessary, particularly for foreign viewers who could’veve used a little intel on the deadly criminal perils that have largely driven ordinary citizens from regional swaths of northern Mexico. Still, Identifying Features has integrity, atmosphere, and a unique sense of purgatorial dislocation. If its near-abstract presentation feels exasperatingly mannered at times, there is still potency in the final destination here. It’s playing Roxie Virtual Cinema, and other streaming platforms.
You Will Die at Twenty
There’s also an eerie quiet to Sudan’s first-ever Oscar submission feature. But here, the economy of means is deployed to more lyrical, visually handsome ends. In a desert community on the Nile, Sakina (Islam Mubarak) goes to have her baby son blessed by a sheikh. But during the naming ceremony, an ill omen prompts the sage’s titular prophecy—the child will die on his 20th birthday. Unable to deal with that forecast, his father (Talal Afifi) leaves to work in Addis Ababa, failing to return for many long years. And Sakina, already dressed in black mourning for a coming death she takes for granted, is so overprotective she barely lets the growing boy out of the house.
Upon reaching adulthood, however, Muzamil (Moatasem Rashid) can stand it no more. He insists on some liberty, visiting the local mosque, working at a small store, absorbing some worldly wisdoms (and old movies) from jaded returned expatriate Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj). He even acquires a girlfriend of sorts—though the public expiration date on his head lends such pursuits a desperate quality. Is he really doomed, or has his young life been wasted in service to ignorant superstition? I won’t tell (neither does the film, exactly). But in any case, You Will Die (available through U.S. virtual cinemas as of Fri/22) has a beauty and confidence that suggests a major career ahead for Amjad Abu Alala, whose debut directorial feature it is.