Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 3

Clemency, Bacurau, and The Orphanage.

Despite what my tease at the end of yesterday’s piece may have indicated, I do not have thoughts on Rose Plays Julie.  I wanted to have thoughts on the film, believe me, but London’s Tube lines appear to have it in for me this week so I didn’t make the screening in time due to multiple scheduled trains simply not turning up. Joy.  Really hope this doesn’t become a recurring gag throughout the fortnight, because I shall be strongly displeased if I end up missing out on Jojo Rabbit as a result of such screwing.  Fortunately, even though I burst into my back-up choice short of breath and with calves so seized up from unexpected exertion that my every step for the rest of the morning looked like I was trying to walk after crapping my pants, the film I ended up seeing in Julie‘s place was properly delightful.  I’m just not allowed to talk about it yet since its World Premiere is tonight and I am therefore under embargo.  So, instead, let’s travel back to my Wednesday evening public screening and become horribly depressed by Clemency (Grade: B)!

Chinonye Chukwu’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning sophomore feature, you see, is all about the death penalty.  Inspired by the Troy Anthony Davis case from 2011, the story follows the final days of an inmate on death row, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), as his execution by lethal injection after 20-plus years, based on evidence which has proven over time to be increasingly flimsy, finally draws near.  Rather than going the didactic route and situating the entire film around an ethics debate, Chukwu (who wrote the script) instead focuses almost entirely on character work and muffled internal drama, narratively demonstrating how the practice and process of the death penalty psychologically destroys everyone it even tangentially touches.  Woods, obviously; the lawyer (Richard Schiff giving a haunting shell of a performance) who has been fighting his case for decades; the parents of the victim whom have become extremely bitter over the constant delay in what they see as justice.

And, most of all, Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), the warden of Death Row who, as the film opens, has just overseen her twelfth execution during her time in the position and, despite her intentionally detached by-the-book demeanour towards all of her charges, is clearly completely falling apart on the inside.  Unable to sleep, haunted by the faces of the inmates whose eyes she is forced to look into as they die, growing ever more emotionally remote due to nobody else being able to truly understand the weight she is forced to shoulder every day.  Arguably, Chukwu hedges her bets by making Woods possibly innocent because frankly nobody deserves to be treated like this, completely dehumanised and isolated despite the veneer of civility.  Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” poem gets an airing roughly halfway through to drive the point home, although the film otherwise prefers leaning in on the pregnant pauses and what certain characters don’t say; most especially in a gutting telephone exchange between Woods and the former girlfriend (an excellent Danielle Brooks) who chooses to meet him for the first time in two decades.

Resultantly, Clemency is an extremely heavy, crushing film, partly thanks to the unsparing way that the material is handled but mainly due to Chukwu’s direction drawing every last scene and exchange out to force the viewer into truly registering the weight of everything.  In doing so, her film does risk becoming something rather numbing – or maybe that’s because I had gotten out of Trey Edward Shults’ similarly heavy Waves just two hours before – but the two-hander at its centre ensures such an outcome is only temporary. Woodard and Hodge may very rarely directly interact with each other, but they are both still playing off of each other, offering complimentary and contrasting explorations of steely, removed resignation slowly cracking to pieces under the collective exhaustion and accumulating trauma of the past several decades.  Although it’s an extremely tough watch by design, the undeniable performances by Woodard and Hodge, plus Chukwu’s assured direction, makes Clemency highly deserving of viewing.

The same cannot be said for Bacurau (Grade: C), a Brazilian western from director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Aquarias) this time co-writing and directing with Juliano Dornelles.  Set in the titular rural village, so tiny and so rural it’s barely findable on a map, “a few years from now,” we open the film to find the eccentric community in mourning with their beloved matriarch having just recently passed away.  The village, you see, has been constantly victimised by the flagrantly corrupt regional mayor, having its water borderline-stolen by the construction of a nearby dam and their women forcibly prostituted to him amongst other transgressions, with the departed woman having been largely responsible for keeping the band of outcasts together and safe.  With her passing, strange occurrences begin popping up.  The village is mysteriously wiped off of all digital maps, horses randomly stampede through the streets at night, the water tanker comes back with bullet holes riddling its sides, and all phone signals in the area cut out without warning…

Much like with Waves, to say any more would be giving the game away since Bacurau builds to a mid-film pivot which reveals what the occasionally aimless first half has really been about.  Unlike with Waves, however, the pivot is the point where the film definitely lost me.  Filho and Dornelles eventually lay all their cards on table and Bacurau, for all its stylistic homages to and invocations of John Carpenter and Sergio Leone, turns out to be their effort at making an S. Craig Zahler movie.  Same indulgent slow-burn, same melding of genres to an extent that accurately describing the film requires the usage of multiple hyphenates, same sudden bursts of extreme violence which betray a love for the horror genre.  Unfortunately, their movie lacks the discipline of Zahler’s works, the focus of his filmmaking, the tension which emanates from every single frame, the crackle of his dialogue – most painfully felt when it’s time to transition into hanging out with the monsters of the piece, who aren’t so much “lovably hateable” as simply “hateable” with their comeuppance lacking any joy as a result.

A part of me feels that something may have been lost on me in translation, always a fear of mine when it comes to foreign political satires and the viewings thereof at the fast-paced world of a film festival.  But the socio-political angle that is supposed to form the crux of the film lacks teeth and is undercooked – again, the extended time spent with the one-dimensional agents of chaos decloaked in the movie’s second half turns out to be to its ultimate detriment.  And since said angles are ultimately undercooked and the characters are so thinly-sketched, the transition into the final act (which is at least extremely well-composed if dragged out far too long) just descends into ultra-violence for ultra-violence’s sake.  I don’t know, I just didn’t click with Bacurau, which is a shame given the positive words I’d heard from my group about it yesterday.

Lastly for the stuff from Thursday I am currently allowed to talk about, I must confess that festival-fatigue may already have its clutches in me – although given the past twelve months it’s difficult to solely blame my constant sleepy tiredness solely on festival-fatigue, I haven’t been sleeping well at all – as I am fairly certain I inadvertently nodded off for at least five minutes in the middle of Shahrbanoo Sadat’s second feature, The Orphanage (Grade: C+).  I mention this as less a damning indictment against the film, which is just fine and little more, and more as an admission that I did have a compromised screening and so may have missed something in those five or so minutes which caused the film to gain a truly transcendent power.  I highly doubt it, since the rest of Sadat’s latest never really rises above agreeably and objectively fine, but it is possible.

Based on the unpublished diaries of Sadat’s friend Anwar Hashimi, we follow 14 year-old Qodrat (Qodratoblah Qadiri, almost all of the actors in the film share their name with their characters) as he is arrested for ticket-scalping and sent to a state-run orphanage in 1989 Kabul, the twilight days of Soviet-supporting Afghanistan with the Mujahideen rebellion lurking in the film’s shadows.  He makes friends, has his first crush, gets an education, runs afoul of the wannabe-gangster on campus, gets into chess, and has many other rather genial adventures until the unstable status of the country outside his new home forcibly encroaches its way inside in tragic fashion.  Much of this is directed in your usual unshowy slice-of-life matter-of-fact manner, although Sadat does communicate a strong sense of period detail, and it’s all performed with naturalistic almost-improvised feel by the cast.

The one aspect where Sadat branches out is in the rare fantasy sequences.  Qodrat, prior to being arrested and dumped in the orphanage, is a voracious fan of Bollywood movies and so, when emotions get particularly high, he envisions himself and the people around him as stand-ins in replications of various Bollywood numbers, complete with lipsyncing and the same ramshackle production values of their source materials.  Again, there’s a chance I may have missed something although this was less tiredness and more my almost-complete lack of knowledge when it comes to the Bollywood movies it’s clearly specifically aping, but I didn’t find these sequences to add much to the movie in either theme or character.  To my eyes, they mainly appear to be here as groundwork for the Tarantino-esque re-written history climax designed to mitigate the tragedy which would otherwise conclude the film and send the audience off happy which feels a little crass and quirky for the sake of being quirky.  Otherwise, The Orphanage is perfectly fine but nothing much to write home about.  I mostly just wanted to watch My Life as a Courgette again, when I wasn’t accidentally dabbling with a power-nap.

Tomorrow: I get to spill about Michael Caton-Jones’ Scottish teen girl coming-of-age dramedy Our Ladies, and Robert Eggers finally follows up The VVitch with the hot-ticket item everyone here wants in on, The Lighthouse.

Callie Petch will keep playing these cats out like Ataris.

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