Sponsored link
Thursday, February 2, 2023

Sponsored link

Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Superior ways to goose the rich and...

Screen Grabs: Superior ways to goose the rich and privileged

Bolivian climate drama 'Utama,' Georgian oligarch-indictment 'Taming the Garden,' and French classic 'Rules of the Game' hit home.

A recent opinion piece in an entertainment-industry trade publication groused at a spate of recent films with rote “rich people are bad” themes, citing their arrival as “perhaps a direct result” of 2020 Best Picture Oscar winner Parasite’s influence.

Seriously? A South Korean arthouse import, however (relatively) successful, would create a mainstream global trend? Mightn’t it more be the case that movies are simply starting to reflect the escalating extremes in economic inequality that’s become undeniable not just in Third World nations, but ones previously noted for their robust (now shrinking) middle class? Every day the sociopolitical landscape looks a little more feudal, dominated by oft-reckless billionaire overlords, while the masses lean ever-more-heavily on religious zealotry and fear of the unknown. While the medium primarily offers escapism, it does not and cannot forever side-step pressing issues of our time.

Admittedly, Parasite dealt with class conflict in a complex and clever way, which you can’t necessarily claim for subsequent entertainments like The Menu, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Triangle of Sadness, or Glass Onion (which we just reviewed here). But the increase in movies that demonstrate a love/hate attitude towards the superrich—mostly loving their luxuries, hating the actual people—surely reflects universal concerns, not just imitation of a much-admired foreign-language feature.

On the brink of a new year, something many people now regard with more dread than hope, there are several films (including one golden oldie) arriving in theaters that probe the top-to-bottom span of economic reality. They’re all very different from one another, but without any being dreary to sit through, each provides a somewhat sobering view on its protagonists’ position along that long, long societal ladder that climbs from rags to richness.

Occupying practically-subterranean berth on that ascendency are the protagonists in Utama, which premiered at Sundance (where it won a Grand Jury Prize) early this year and opened Fri/30 at the Roxie. (It can also be streamed on Kino Now as of January 3, then on general digital/VOD platforms as of January 17.) Writer-director Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s debut feature is a minimalist narrative about people who “have nothing,” but have always gotten by living off the land—an account that, it turns out, can be overdrawn. Virginio (Jose Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe) are an elderly couple, probably in their eighties, occupying a mud hut in the Bolivian highlands.

He tends a flock of llamas, she does the household chores, including fetching water. But none of that is getting easier: He is too ill for his strenuous days but won’t admit it, while a long-running drought has dried up the well, and is shrinking the river. The entire sparsely populated community may well need to give up their ancestral home, resources are so depleted. The couple’s grandson they dub “Clever” (Simon Choque) visits, hoping to convince them to join him in the city. But they’d rather die out here as climate-change casualties than spend their final days in an alien environment.

This is a quiet, very handsome movie, its feel for landscape and almost anthropological detachment reminiscent of Werner Herzog. Even the music is ascetic, the whole sometimes low-key to the point of being a bit of a dirge. Yet Utama (which means “our home”) has a poetical quality that ultimately rewards your slowing down an internal tempo to suit its own heartbeat. Essentially tragic yet refusing melodrama, as impassively stoic as its nonprofessional actors, this movie is both stark and lovely. It is also a reminder that even those who demand zilch from society (let alone the “grid” they’re well off) are increasingly finding it hard to subsist on Mother Nature’s dwindling bounty.

Nature as a commodity that can be bought and monopolized by the highest bidder is the subject of Salome Jashi’s Taming the Garden, which opened Fri/30 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. This believe-it-or-not documentary’s principal figure manages to stay offscreen, yet he is unquestionably the “star,” as his will virtually alters the landscape of the country he was (briefly) Prime Minister of a decade ago. A billionaire who made hay during the immediately post-USSR privatization period, Bidzina Ivanishvili remains Georgia’s wealthiest man (his net worth is one third of its GNP), as well as a noted collector of modern art and “exotic” animals.

What he wants, he gets. That apparently includes a large number of trees (many quite ancient) which get uprooted and transplanted whole to his property in order to create a park that—when we finally see it in the end—seems more like a giant golf course than any natural arboretum. Most of Garden records the ginomrous industry it takes to fulfill this rich man’s whims, including the building of roads to remote areas. Some impacted residents are happy enough to see the trees go and get some money for it besides.

But as the high whine of chainsaws goes on interminably, permanently changing their environ, with trees plucked not just from forests but right in front of houses, more begin to wonder if they are (yet again) being exploited. Jashi provides no explanatory text or interviews to elucidate exactly what’s going on here. Between her frequently monumental imagery and the absurdly cumbersome task at hand, however, this film finally seems a sort of bizarre cosmic joke about the world we live in now—one where an aristocratic “master” can crack the whip to demand almost anything of the unwashed masses, like a pharaoh ordering another pyramid just cuz.

Finally, there’s the class cross-section provided by Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which opened Fri/30 at the Roxie in a recent 4K restoration. This rich seriocomedy has long been considered a world-cinema classic. But not always: In fact, it was received as an artistic and commercial disappointment in 1939, ending the director’s winning streak (which had included La Grand Illusion) and eventually driving him to a semi-successful sojourn in Hollywood. If that response seems curious in retrospect, with war looming over France upon the film’s initial release, its attack on privilege and hypocrisy seemed frivolous, even distasteful. A nation suddenly consumed by patriotism and existential threats was unamused.

The key figure here is Christine (Nora Gregor), an Austrian socialite who’s married a French nobleman—though you wouldn’t know it from the suitors constantly flocking around her. Among them is a famous aviator (Roland Toutain) so besotted that he throws a highly public tantrum when she does not deign to greet him at the end of his latest daring flight. In apology, she invites him to her husband’s vast country chateau for a traditional gentry weekend of riding, hunting, and cocktail consumption. Of course, there he’s out of his element, and surrounded by competing swains (including one played by Renoir himself). All this upper-crust intrigue is echoed “downstairs,” as Christine’s vivacious maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) has her own court of rivalrous admirers—as well as her own jealous spouse. (“Friendship with a man? When pigs have wings,” she opines early on.)

For some time Le regle du jeu seems essentially an airy comedy of (often ill-) manners amongst the elite, not so far from Noel Coward terrain, though more casual—Renoir encouraged dialogue improvisation within a loose script. But it gradually grows more serious, all the while juggling a complex tonal and moral complexity. If no one here is a villain, no one comes off terribly well, either. Part of the point was the director’s disenchantment at what he perceived as the self-absorbed bourgeois obliviousness of “important” citizens in a time of ticking crisis.

By the time the rather troubled, expensive production wrapped, however, no one remained so clueless as the onscreen characters, whose depiction struck a sour note from viewers who wanted reassurance, not indictment. Shocked by the negative reception, Renoir cut the film drastically, to no avail—not only was it soon banned, but the truncated version was the only one available for years afterward. It took at least a couple decades for Rules to start being properly reevaluated. Today, it remains what audiences of 1939 were disinclined to appreciate: A movie for, and about, grownups, in which no children are seen but plenty of childish behavior is on display.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Sponsored link

Top reads

The state of California is screwing San Francisco on housing

Thanks to Sen. Wiener and our own delegation, San Francisco may be in serious trouble in four years—and it won't be the city's fault.

Punk rock vegans, adult affairs, and Quantum Cowboys: 3 hot Indiefest tickets

Bruce LaBruce, Moby, David Arquette, and more talk to us about their latest bombshell flicks.

Landmarks board punts decision on the future of Castro Theater

After five hours of impassioned testimony, a decision that isn't a decision sends the issue to the Board of Supes.

More by this author

IndieFest’s 25th anniversary roars in with local lore, fabulous freaks, and high school hijinks

Here's the standouts, from Jim Rose's 'Circus of the Stars' to Bay BDSM drama 'Rough Edges,' and so many more.

Screen Grabs: Another Cronenberg, twice the ghastly fun?

'Infinity Pool' pours on the clones. Plus: tense 'Cairo Conspiracy,' 1962's 'A Violent Life' reissued, more movie reviews

Screen Grabs: Catching right up to 75 years ago at Noir City

1948 comes, again, to big screens. Plus: Epic editorial friendship in 'Turn Every Page,' Jafar Panahi's courageous 'No Bears'
Sponsored link

You might also likeRELATED