Though it wasn’t the first or arguably even the best screen story of its particular ilk, Pasolini’s 1968 Teorema still feels like the blueprint for every movie in which a mysterious stranger turns up and acts as a catalyst for tumultuous change—both constructive and destructive. In it, Terence Stamp played a nameless visitor who infiltrates a bourgeoise Italian household, miraculously “healing” all their neuroses and miseries. But once he leaves, as abruptly as he arrived, their new freedoms overwhelm them, leading to various acts of self-destruction as well as self-fulfillment.
That Christ/Kali mix of savior, seducer and destroyer is such an alluring narrative concept, it’s been recycled many times, its variations encompassing everything from Six Degrees of Separation to Parasite. Hewing closer to Teorema than most is Never Gonna Snow Again, a new film by director Malgorzata Szumowska and her longtime collaborator (as cinematographer, also more recently as co-writer) Michal Englert that was Poland’s Oscar submission feature this year. Their last feature The Other Lamb was also their first English-language film, and perhaps as a result its cryptic tale of an all-female (charismatic leader aside) religious cult felt underrealized in all save visual terms.
Snow has thematic and stylistic overlaps with that work, but it is much more satisfying. Emerging like a specter from the forest, walking into the city, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff) is an emigre “from the East” (Russia? Ukraine? Siberia?) who somehow becomes indispensable to nearly every household in a gated Polish subdivision of lookalike monster homes.
Needless to say, all these well-off people have problems, and going door to door with his massage table, Zhenia seems to alleviate them—with his hands, calming presence, patient listening, occasional hypnosis, and perhaps some dick. There is the classic frustrated hausfrau rattled by a chaotic family life she seems hapless to control; a man fighting cancer; a spinster who fusses over her little dogs like children; an intimidating ex-military officer; and so forth. Zhenia moves amongst them like a benign if inscrutable guru. No matter that sometimes he just seems like a regular bloke, or that his attraction to the cancer patient’s wife (Maja Ostaszewska) seems quite straightforward rather than mystic. We aren’t surprised when it seems he can speak any language, or dance ballet, maybe even practice telekinesis.
This enigmatic narrative sometimes briefly degenerates into the pointlessly mannered; Szumowska and Englert have a very distinctive style that is often arresting, but can risk pretentious self-congratulation. (His images are such a key contribution, one assumes it’s just a natural evolution rather than a major collaborative shift that Englert gets credited as co-director for the first time here.) But mostly Never Gonna Snow Again is quite enchanting, alternately sly, sinister, spiritual, and ambiguous, leaving all conclusions up to the viewer despite sprinklings of specific sociopolitical commentary. It opens this Fri/13 at theaters including the Roxie and the Rafael Film Center.
Another catalyst for change is the titular entity in The Viewing Booth by Jerusalem-born Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, who has made some of the most intelligently provocative documentaries to date (The Inner Tour, The Law in These Parts) questioning Israeli policies towards Palestinians. Here, while studying at Philadelphia’s Temple University, he invites people “interested in Israel to be filmed while they watch online videos from there.” Half the videos he’s compiled for their viewing are from Israeli non-profit B’Tselem, whose mission is to document human rights violations in the occupied territories, while the other half are from Israeli Army PR or other sources one might expect to provide an opposing view.
Though several American-born students took up the challenge, Alexandrowicz focuses on the experience of young Maia Levy, whose parents are Israelis, and who says she was “just there in the summer… I know a lot about the conflict.” But she also admits “I’m very, like, pro-Israel,” and it turns out what she “knows about the conflict” is heavily filtered by that stance, reflecting many (perhaps most) Israelis’ perspectives. Thus she can watch footage of Israeli soldiers night-raiding a house full of children for no discernible reason (they barely bother with the search they’re ostensibly there for), or others beating a surprised child, and suspect the victimized Arabs are being “dramatic.” She muses the footage might even be “staged,” because “They [Palestinians] lie a lot.” Her default reaction is to find some/any cause for skepticism that casts doubt on the injustice before her eyes, always at the Palestinians’ expense.
To her credit, she’s willing to question her own assumptions (though perhaps not to relinquish them), even more so when she is invited back six months later—to watch the footage of herself watching the videos earlier. Again, she is open to self-criticism, but not necessarily to change. “Maybe I’m looking for lies… for something to support what I think,” she says. “Maybe I believe that the Israeli Army is moral. Sort of. Sometimes.” In the end, she can only argue vaguely that everything is “so manipulated, like reality TV,” and that any filmed event’s reality is already altered past reach of certain knowledge. She does not, she admits, want her “whole belief and value system shaken to the core.”
At just 70 minutes, The Viewing Booth is a brief filmed essay/experiment, but it nonetheless provides striking insight into how and why so many people prefer not to believe the evidence of their own eyes—both re: the occupied territories, and in so many other politicized areas of life at present. Like the proverbial horse and water, you can lead a person to unpleasant truths—but their accepting them is another matter. The documentary plays Sat/14 and Sun/15 at the Roxie (more info here), with a director Zoom Q&A after the first show.
Two ambitious if uneven dramas also offer a lot to chew on, though you may or may not find them digestible as a whole. Photographer, documentarian, commercial and music video director Braden King’s second narrative feature The Evening Hour is a pulse-taking of rural America in the grip of an opioid epidemic as well as longer-term economic woes. Based on Carter Sickels’ 2012 novel, it centers on nursing home aide Cole (Philip Ettinger), who runs a prescription-drug-trafficking side business small enough not to run afoul of the area’s big- league dealer Everett (Marc Menchaca), a bad guy to cross. That is, until Cole’s old ne’er-do-well friend Terry (Cosmo Jarvis) shows up, reckless with a need and ambition sure to attract just such hostile attention.
There are also a lot of subsidiary figures, including Lili Taylor as the hero’s long-absent mom. But their narrative arcs feel curtailed, and despite the decent performances, this cast never gels into a credible regional community. (Oddly, the most authentic-feeling turn is by Brit actor/musician Jarvis.) What does work is the film’s aesthetic texturing, which from a good soundtrack to fine location-shot cinematography comprises a poetical hymn to downtrodden Appalachia today that is more rewarding than Evening Hour’s eventual crime melodramatics. The film opens Fri/13 at the Rafael Film Center.
In contrast to that slightly strained attempt at gritty realism, there is Ema, which is more in the concurrent Annette’s mode of stylized, hysterical emotional surrealism. This latest by the adventurous Chilean director Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda, Tony Manero, Jackie) may be about as realistic a portrait of the dance world as Showgirls, but it sure is a lot more pretentious.
With a shock of white hair like Andy Warhol, Mariana Di Girolamo plays the title figure, a bisexual performer in a modern dance troupe. She’s married to its possibly gay choreographer (Gael Garcia Bernal), and tormented by the memory of the child they adopted, then “gave back” after some serious behavioral issues. Full of astringent relationships, mannered dialogue, reggaeton gyrating, striking imagery, polyamorous sex scenes, and one ludicrous whopper of a late plot twist, this is the kind of over-the-top Betty Blue-ish exercise that will have some viewers crying “masterpiece!” and others calling B.S. Dull, it’s not. Ema opens Fri/13 at theaters including the Roxie, Shattuck Cinemas, Rafael Film Center.