A Hero (2021)

Asghar Farhadi | 2hr 7min

Rahim’s troubles started three years ago when he was imprisoned for failing to pay a debt of 150,000,000 tomans to his brother-in-law, Bahram. Now, having served his time and been released on parole, the opportunity is there to start afresh – but where is the harm in an innocuous lie that it was he who discovered and returned a lost handbag containing gold, and not his partner, Farkondeh? After all, it helps cover up the fact that she was the one who discovered it two weeks prior, and that they initially planned to use it to pay off his debts. On top of that, letting him take the credit might even restore his reputation in the eyes of the public. It may usually be easy to apply convenient archetypes to moral tales such as these, but the ethical ambiguity that Asghar Farhadi permeates A Hero with undermines any attempts to do so, and from it sprouts a complex drama that sees a simple plan to regain honour veer off in unexpected directions.

An opening shot confining Rahim within a tight frame between bars, right before he is sent out into the world on parole.

With a handheld camera and a flair for searing realism, Farhadi’s directorial presence in this story is largely observational, rejecting artifice in favour of a grounded, down-to-earth examination of flawed people caught up in one poor decision. There is a spontaneity to his frequent rejection of clear, static shots of his scenes, instead letting characters drift out of the frame and behind obstructions as if we too are just another pair of eyes bearing witness to the shortcomings of our own humanity.

As such, his environments feel entirely organic, not just because of his location shooting in the Iranian city of Shiraz, but also the dedication to naturally filling out diegetic soundscapes and busy environments around Rahim. In one early conversation with his sister, the noises of his son’s video game offer an irritating layer of distraction beneath the dialogue, and later as he spies on Bahram at the market, a shopkeeper behind him underscores the anticipation with a hammered dulcimer, offering the only musical accompaniment of the film up until its final minutes.

Farhadi often resists clear shots of his characters, keeping a light spontaneity to his handheld camera in crowded spaces.
Building out an organic world around Rahim, as Farhadi scores a scene using diegetic music from within a market.

With such a detailed, intricate world being built, the rippling of Rahim’s mistake out into the wider community feels further grounded in the reality of Iranian culture. Even more than money, it is honour which becomes the most valuable commodity in A Hero, so much so that it might as well be a currency of its own. Within this social context, Rahim is a poor man indeed, looking to earn back the respect of his community by whatever means necessary. There is something about Amir Jadidi’s face in this role that is utterly sympathetic too, bearing a well-meaning honesty in his expression while he shoots off what he believes are insignificant lies, as even in those lies there is still a constant struggle between his moral compass and his desire to be seen as a good person.

Amir Jadidi’s face is a well of emotion, remaining honest to the scene even as he verbally lies.

For a while, Rahim’s plan appears to be successful. His first destination after being released on parole is the royal tombs of Persepolis, carved beautifully into rocky cliff faces where labourers are working on restorations. Farhadi holds his camera at a low angle here for what feels like an eternity, watching Rahim arduously climb the scaffolding steps to a site of great historical honour, and slyly foreshadowing his own journey to the heights of public esteem. Not long after he returns the gold, his story airs on national news, he wins a merit certificate, and he is even promised an early prison release. At a charity event, jump cuts move quickly through the crowd of attendees heaping piles of cash onto a giant plate for his benefit, and with the minor exception of Bahram, his creditor, everyone is more than happy to eat up this feel-good story of an indebted prisoner returning lost valuables.

The royal tombs of Persepolis make a wonderful set piece at the start, representing an ascent to cultural honour.

As it turns out, Bahram’s single seed of doubt is all it takes to spread rumours through the community of Rahim’s dishonesty. Attempts to patch things up and assure others of his integrity tear at the seams, and the honour which he cares so deeply about quickly slips between his fingers. Desperate measures are called for, and eventually his stammering son is pulled into the affair, recording a video that they hope might draw some sympathy. His parole officer who once admonished him for his lies is fine with this cheap ploy, but it still does not sit right with Rahim. Elsewhere, the charity which recognised his generosity is concerned that their affiliation will taint their reputation, and the prison is accused of orchestrating the whole thing. In teasing out these ambiguous moral lines that keep repercussions unclear until they transpire, Farhadi crafts a wonderfully thorny screenplay, refusing to draw hard distinctions between right and wrong, and choosing instead to provoke considerations of what any one of us might do given the very specific and unfortunate circumstances.

For a film relatively free of beautiful imagery, A Hero’s last shot stands far above the rest as a poignant bookend to Rahim’s rise and fall. Just as we first met him leaving prison on a path to success, we now leave him withdrawing back into that dingy, confined space, where those stripped of dignity are segregated from the rest of society. Piercing the dim foyer is a rectangle of bright sunlight leading to the outside world, framing a loving reunion between a newly released prisoner and his wife that now seems like a prospect that might only exist in Rahim’s distant future. The distinction between freedom and incarceration here is as distinct as the sharp contrast of light and darkness in Farhadi’s stunning final composition – or perhaps, in the case of Rahim, it is all the difference between honour and soul-crushing shame.

A gorgeous final shot lingering for three minutes – a return to prison and a release happening simultaneously through this bright doorway to the outside world.

A Hero is currently playing in theatres.

Petite Maman (2021)

Céline Sciamma | 1hr 12min

In the wake of her grandmother’s passing, 8-year-old Nelly goes with her parents to her mother’s childhood home to clear it out. Then one night, without explanation, her mother picks up and leaves. It is probable that she just found the process too overwhelming, but through the eyes of her daughter the departure feels deliberately cold. Out in the woods though, there is another 8-year-old girl, Marion. It is no coincidence that she has the same name as Nelly’s mother, nor that she shares the same birthday, or lives in an identical albeit much younger house. Petite Maman follows up Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire with an equally delicate though relatively more fantastical study of young women in the process of self-discovery, thriving in natural environments cut off from the structures of society, where genuine love can strengthen its roots and flourish.

Sciamma does not rely on a great deal of exposition to set the scene. The very first shot of the film tells us everything we need to know, as Nelly finishes up a crossword puzzle with an old woman in a nursing home before ducking in and out of other rooms, farewelling her other elderly friends, and then leaving with her mother. Evidently, she has been there a lot recently, and given the thoroughness of her goodbyes, she won’t be coming back. Sciamma is succinct and to the point in her camerawork, weaving through the building in one long, unbroken take and letting Nelly’s quiet grief gradually sink in.

In encountering a younger version of her mother, Nelly is doubly gifted with the opportunity to see her grandmother one last time, understanding her life from a viewpoint beyond her own. Petite Maman is very much a wish fulfillment in that aspect, giving this young girl the time and space to appreciate her elders whose lives once looked much closer to hers than they do in the present. Likewise, the younger Marion finds fresh perspective in seeing a glimpse of her future. Twenty-three years might seem like a long time away to reckon with her mother’s death, but for Nelly, it is far too soon.

Together, the two girls go about playing make believe, rowing, cooking pancakes, eating cake, and building a makeshift hut out in the woods. In that dainty structure of sticks and autumn leaves, there stands a gorgeous monument to their fleeting friendship, offering a safe place tucked away from the eyes of prying adults where they can revel in childhood together.

Although in the present-day the older Marion recalls building that hut, she never mentions doing it with another girl, and thus the door is left open for some ambiguity. Everything in Petite Maman feels like a tangible reality, but Sciamma does offer small hints in her continuity editing that this may simply be a fantasy in Nelly’s mind. One specific transition takes us from the past house to the current house without us even realising it, blurring the boundaries of where they start and stop, and Sciamma also often cuts from scenes of the two girls sitting together to shots of Nelly on her own.

These two worlds are blended right down to the casting of the two young actresses, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, a pair of twins who might almost be indistinguishable were it not for their colour-coded red and blue costumes. Sciamma effectively taps into the natural rapport between them in their scenes together, drawing out natural laughter as they play and, in more subdued scenes, giving them the space to talk sweetly and deeply.

“Did I want you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not surprised. I’m already thinking about you.”

Much like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman is almost entirely free from music until the end, where a pivotal piece underscores significant action. Sciamma enlists the talents of French electronic music producer Para One here to compose an innocent love song for two young friends spending their last morning together before they must both leave, its synths perpetually pounding with both restless excitement and a desire to live in the moment.

Of course though, this isn’t the last time the girls will see each other. Where for Marion it will be 23 years until she meets her childhood friend again, Nelly needs only head back home to see hers. Sciamma chooses wisely not to elucidate how real all of this is, but in the final scene between mother and daughter there does appear to be an acknowledged shift in their dynamic. For a moment, the older Marion is no longer “Mum”, and she reciprocates the authentic openness that Nelly puts forward. There is value in this parent-child relationship, but Sciamma recognises it does not need to be restricted to those roles either. For now, amid all the grief, there are simply two friends sharing each other’s love and pain.

Petite Maman is currently playing in theatres.

After Yang (2021)

Koganada | 1hr 36min

Memories never play out linearly in After Yang, and why should they? They are simply fragments of the past, brought to the surface in moments of deep reflection with the hope that, in connecting them to the present, they might reveal something significant about us. That is at least the purpose they serve for this family of four, consisting of parents Jake and Kyra, their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika, and an older robotic son, Yang. He may have initially been bought to connect Mika to her heritage by delivering fun facts about Chinese culture, but when he breaks down it doesn’t take long for the family’s disappointment to become a melancholy grief. Leaving nothing behind but his memory bank that recorded only a few seconds of footage each day, Yang becomes the subject of Koganada’s poignant meditations, pondering those complex lives that exist just beyond the scope of our periphery.

The quiet, futuristic world that Yang and his family live in is a strangely elusive one. Perhaps a grander scope would have revealed a slightly more utopian version of Blade Runner, but as it is Koganada simply leaves us to dwell in the tender intimacy of homes, shops, offices, and cars, where small pieces of this advanced culture seep into everyday lives. Explanations aren’t given as to why there are pot plants growing inside vehicles, or how video calls seem to transmit through invisible cameras, nor are they needed. The technology of this world is instead broadly underlined by an organic tenderness, seeking to reconcile the cold sheen of glass and metal with gentle humanistic malleability.

Subtle world building through the mise-en-scène – the living plants in self-driving cars offer an enchanting touch.

Perhaps “humanistic” is the wrong word to use though. After Jake wonders whether Yang was happy being artificial, another character disdainfully responds, “That’s such a human thing to ask, isn’t it? You always assume other beings want to be human.” Even as Jake and his wife, Kyra, probe deeper into Yang’s memories and discover pieces of him they might identify with, there also emerge components of his identity that are irreconcilably unique. Where most people live only one life, Yang appears to have lived many, hidden away from his family’s view. Or perhaps the truth was always easily accessible, and they just never asked.

Wonderful editing in these memory montages, match cutting between two low angles of leaves and feathers tossed in the air.
This could be a Kieslowski cutaway – using glass to refract light in these beautiful compositions, much like the prism of subjective memory.

Inside his memory bank, each fragmented recollection manifests as a single tiny star surrounded by millions of others, all of which are suspended within a dark forest. Just as those shining specks of light make up an entire galaxy, so too do these small, mundane moments make up Yang’s entire existence, expanding far off into the distance. When played in succession, they form delicate montages, providing glimpses into the most mundane joys – a rock concert, the rustling leaves of a tree, a toad, Mika playing by herself, and so on.

Each memory fragment is a star in a galaxy full of them. Stunning metaphysical imagery.

When it comes to the flashbacks of human memories, quantity is exchanged for focus. Jake, Kyra, and Mika each take ownership of individual sequences that recall their past conversations with Yang, and although we do not cover nearly as much ground here as we do in the memory bank, we do gain much deeper insight into their individual relationship with the techno-sapien. These are some of the longest scenes of the film, but Koganada still presents them just as abstractly as Yang’s memories. Time doubles back on itself as lines of dialogue repeat over unmoving mouths, and settings also seem to shift unexpectedly, revealing these nostalgic ruminations not as accurate historical renderings, but rather subjective reconstructions, prone to the whims of present-day emotions.

It is Jake’s flashback that is particularly revealing, playing out a conversation about his passion for tea that might as well allegorically stand in for the value of memory, wrapped up in history and culture though with its own distinct flavour. “You can taste a place, a time,” he expounds, while also voicing his admiration for a man he watched in a documentary who was on an elusive hunt for rare teas in China. The metaphor is subtle but potent, especially when Yang expresses a wish that he too could form as deep a connection to something as Jake does. What lingers for us in long, impassioned embraces merely flits by for Yang, covering a broader scope though without the same specific attachment.

Questions of artificial intelligence and humanity probed throughout this narrative, and reflected in the visuals.

As we are reminded though, it is a human trait to pity that which is not like us. There is no reason for us to believe that Yang’s life was half-lived, nor that he was anything less than content. The isolation he feels need not be something shied away from, but something that can be relished for its soothing silence, and Koganada adopts an Ozu-like temperament in visually realising this. Static shots peer through the doorways, curtains, and hallways of the family home, often on the other side of large glass windows which keep us ever so slightly distanced from the characters. In the delicate colours that light up these spaces, whether they are green streetlamps bouncing off car windows or the living room’s dim, golden illumination, Koganada offers a tender balance to his otherwise seclusive cinematography, offsetting any harshness with a calming tranquillity.

Reflections in glass, doubling images to create meaningful subtext.

Even as his characters wrestle with a long, drawn-out grief that evolves through multiple stages, Koganada never falters in weaving in that light stylistic touch. To call it a celebration of humanity isn’t entirely incorrect, though it only paints half a picture of what he achieves here. After Yang is a commemoration of being, human and non-human, studied and savoured through the refractive lens of memory where old ideas find new life in the present.

Characters framed in isolating compositions behind glass windows, kept at a distance from the camera. Very much an Ozu influence.

After Yang is currently playing in theatres.

No Sudden Move (2021)

Steven Soderbergh | 1hr 55min

It starts with a small, simple job – send a businessman to retrieve an important document from his boss’ safe at the office, and keep his family hostage back home in the meantime. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro are the contractors, Curt and Ronald, though the identity of whoever is hiring them remains suspiciously elusive. Bit by bit, No Sudden Move spins out into a wild, sprawling caper across 1950s Detroit, as Steven Soderbergh calls in Bill Duke, Julia Fox, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, and Matt Damon among other stars to fill in his ensemble of low-level criminals, high-flying gangsters, business executives, and police officers. The narrative itself is a gripping labyrinth of double-crosses and power plays, all pointing towards an inevitable conclusion – it’s the big guy that will always get the last say.

Comparisons might reasonably be drawn to Coen Brothers films where carefully planned crimes descend into chaos and perpetrators wrestle with questions of fate, though the dark irony of No Sudden Move is rarely so farcical. For the most part, Soderbergh plays his thrills and drama straight, leading us through a frenzied first act before taking his foot off the pedal and letting his plot unfold at a milder, though no less engrossing pace. Ed Solomon’s dialogue moves rhythmically, and with this in mind Soderbergh exerts a fine control over his suspenseful atmosphere, deliberately running it up against the fast pacing of his editing and at one point shrilly ringing a telephone in the background, building the scene to a panicked crescendo.

As Curt and Ronald navigate their way to the top of corporate and criminal ladders beyond their understanding, Soderbergh slowly builds an underworld of shady business secrets hidden within the quiet, conservative suburbs of Michigan. His characteristic yellow lighting is put to superb use in this setting, complementing the mustard-coloured 50s décor ridden all through seedy motels and wallpapered living rooms.

In his skilful camerawork, Soderbergh lends a paranoid edge to these lavishly designed sets reminiscent of Alan Pakula’s political thrillers in the 70s, especially as Soderbergh’s high and low angles turn patterned carpets and ceilings into visually sumptuous backdrops. Every so often this world is tipped off-kilter with the occasional Dutch tilt, and if that isn’t uneasy enough, Soderbergh’s slightly fish-eye lens distorts his shots just that little bit more, compressing the edges of his frames in such a way to throw this familiar, all-American setting into a permanent state of agitation.

Of course, Soderbergh’s visual flair always works to underscore how out-of-depth Curt and Ronald are in their journey to find who is pulling the strings at the top. With a large sum of money waiting for them on the other end, and an ensemble of gangsters, police, and businessmen blocking the way, the stakes are nail-bitingly high. To think that the little guy ever stood a chance against the total sum of these forces though is foolish. While low-level crooks are fighting among themselves, there is a dry irony to the ease with which the money is claimed back by those holding real power. As one wealthy executive puts it:

“It’s money, and I have lots of money. I will continue to have more still. It’s like a lizard’s tail. Cut it off, the damn thing just grows back.”

It is almost frustrating seeing this character give in so easily to blackmail. The stakes that have been set so high for us are minuscule to him. Such is the way with virtually every narrative thread in No Sudden Move though. In Soderbergh’s carefully crafted world of greed and treachery, victory only manifests when it is granted by the elite, and it is snatched away just as easily.

No Sudden Movie is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

The Souvenir Part II (2021)

Joanna Hogg | 1hr 46min

It isn’t long after Anthony’s death that Joanna Hogg picks Julie’s story back up in The Souvenir Part II. If its precursor was an examination of her first love, then this counterpoints that with a thoughtful study of her first major loss, and with a significantly larger emphasis on the young director’s professional life, the parallels between both women are closer than ever. We see the comparison in Julie’s efforts to make a film inspired by her troubled relationship with Anthony, but we also witness it in her increased confidence and emotional insight. Perhaps this mental shift is a result of Anthony’s influence beyond death, but it may just as well be her own messy, existentialist grief that gives way to such rich character development. Like the flowers we open on and frequently cut away to in her mother’s garden, she is still learning and maturing, gradually becoming the person that Hogg is today.

Julia’s family house and garden become the new settings to Hogg’s home scenes, dispensing with the modern apartment of the first film to make way for a quainter aesthetic.

It is harder to parse The Souvenir Part II out from its predecessor in terms of style though, as Hogg remains remarkably consistent in her use of static wide shots dramatically narrowed by interior corridors and doorways to build oppressive frames around her characters. Perhaps the greatest visual shift here though is in location – there is no feasible way Julie can continue living in that apartment that is so full of Anthony’s overbearing presence. When she first returns to it, idly touching its walls and furniture, the space feels like a foreign world she no longer belongs to. It is her parents’ large home in the countryside to which she escapes, and its nourishing green gardens where we see her at her calmest.

Film sets turned cinematic – superb framing in doorways and mirrors as Julie enters this shoot.

The organic rapport between Honor Swinton Byrne and her real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, is even more present in Part II with the increased time they spend simply talking through their heartache. The latter gets a particular affecting scene in which she speaks of experiencing love and pain through her daughter, offering a soothing presence to an ensemble that is otherwise full of hyper-critical film students and professors. Richard Ayoade is back once again and is thankfully given even more screen time than the first film as Patrick, a delightfully hipster filmmaker whose response to Julie’s positive feedback to his direction is a flippant “That’s marvellously generic.”

Though the challenges of film school are still present, there is a distinct contrast between the way Julie pursues her creative ideas between both films, and it is especially notable in her discussions with university mentors. While they savagely pick at her script for its messy presentation and threaten to withdraw the school’s support, she speaks with a more direct passion than we have seen before. Perhaps the lack of precision they accuse her of is a result of her own chaotic state of mind following on from Anthony’s death, but even then, there is still a fresh self-assuredness to Swinton Byrne’s line deliveries.

On set, Julie aggravates crew members by deciding in the last second to change the camera’s placement, offends old collaborators in choosing not to cast them in her project, and patiently weathers complaints that she doesn’t know what she is doing. Hogg’s dialogue is entirely true to the realism of the piece in these scenes, overlapping characters trying to be heard in the heat of arguments and delivering the sort of amusingly ego-driven conflicts recognisable to anyone who has been on a film set.

A strong composition when Julie first meets Jim, another director and one-time fling.

As troubled as Julie’s film production is, it also acts as a healing process, helping her work through her memories of Anthony and questions of how much a problematic person should be venerated after their death. In basing a character directly off him though, Julie runs up against the difficulty of giving his actor an idea of who he really was, rather than her concept of him. Perhaps to address this tension between fiction and reality, Hogg denies showing us the products of Julie’s efforts on the night of her film’s premier. Instead, she digs deep into the fantasy and plays out the purest representation of her mind that she could not bring to the screen – a surreal collage of dreamlike settings, costumes, and symbols that she runs through, while Anthony’s words echo in voiceover. Within this break from the film’s reality where hallways of mirrors lead her through a dark funhouse, Hogg hits on cinematic gold, deconstructing her own artistic and grieving processes by merging them into a singular representation and naming it The Souvenir.

Stunning, surreal imagery in this short film within a film, also titled The Souvenir. Costumes changes and sound stages shift from scene to scene, loaded with symbols.

Up until the very last scene of Part II, there is still the question of whether Hogg would consider building on Julie’s story further with another sequel. If we were to compare the final seconds of both parts though, it is evident that there is far more closure here. Not necessarily because of the characters or narrative, which could theoretically keep spinning out beyond Julie’s university years, but because of Hogg’s pointed decision to move her camera beyond the walls of the soundstage upon which it is shot. This Brechtian swing at the fourth wall is far removed from anything we saw in the first film, and yet in Part II’s meditations on cinema as a filter through which reality is processed, it feels like a strangely natural conclusion. That the actual painting The Souvenir only makes a brief appearance here is negligible – the actual “souvenir” in question emerges from the memories we wish to hold onto, and the loving mementos that are crafted from their remnants.

Julie turning her camera to Anthony, but also Hogg’s own camera – a meta moment of self-reflection.

The Souvenir Part II is currently playing in theatres.

Bergman Island (2021)

Mia Hansen-Løve | 1hr 53min

The rocky isle of Fårö is laden with the cultural weight of renowned Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, and for those artists who come to the island looking to follow in his footsteps and the residents who can barely go a day without hearing his name, his impact is inescapable. It is evident in Bergman Island that director Mia Hansen-Løve is no exception, and neither are Chris and Tony, the foreign filmmaking couple at its centre. Their pilgrimage to Fårö may be motivated by Bergman, of whom they are both admirers, though for Chris it also possesses a light beauty which is not always present in his dark, psychological examinations of humanity.

The local populace here has at least capitalised well on their claim to fame, with Bergman Safaris whisking tourists around the island and historical shooting locations being turned into guesthouses. As Chris and Tony settle into the famous bedroom from Scenes From a Marriage, complete with an identical gold-and-white queen bed, they share a half-joking acknowledgement that staying there may not be healthy for their own relationship. And indeed, troubles do emerge along the way when Tony neglects to assist in Chris’ writing and she stands him up for a scheduled tour, though this does not motivate some magnificent artistic epiphany for her as it did for Bergman. Instead, Hansen-Løve uses this relationship to sketch out a divide in filmmaking methodologies between the tortured artist and the hopeful creator, both of whom struggle to understand the other.

It is when Bergman Island takes a dive into the film imagined by Chris during this retreat at the one-hour mark that it steps up to a new level, not necessarily for the pure power of its narrative, but rather for its formal interaction with the main storyline. As she narrates her ideas to a disinterested Tony, Hansen-Løve cuts straight to the imagined film in her mind, where two Americans, Amy and Joseph, travel to Fårö for a wedding and incidentally rekindle an old romance. Though this starts as a diversion from the main story, it eventually grows into a full act on its own, dominating a good forty minutes of this two-hour film, until Hansen-Løve begins to lightly toggle between both realities at once.

This may be the most Bergmanesque aspect of a film that is otherwise questioning how any Fårö-inspired piece of art could possibly escape from beneath the shadow of a director whose legacy has taken over the entire island. Objects and costumes begin to crossover between Chris and Amy’s respective worlds, until a collision of sorts unites them both into one, blurring boundaries in such a way that feels distinctly evocative of the Swedish auteur, though not entirely imitative. To point out those places where Hansen-Løve falls short of reaching the same stylistic or formal heights as Bergman is to neglect her statement about true originality in art, but regardless – one must wonder whether this might have been a little more even had its alternating structure been set up earlier on.

The history of art weighs heavy on Bergman Island, and it is evident that even in trying to defiantly escape its shadow, Hansen-Løve’s admiration and distaste for the European director is built into her artistic DNA. By endeavouring to peer past his creations and find that which inspired him in the first place though, fresh perspectives begin to emerge. In the lilting harps, bagpipes, and pan flutes that permeate the film, she also imbues this stony, Baltic island and its Nordic architecture with an expressive texture, building on her search for a new kind of sensitive appreciation. Where Bergman saw severe austerity in the landscapes of Fårö, Hansen-Løve discovers optimism and fantasy, and once Bergman Island hits its stride in its second half, she effectively weaves it deep into the layers of its storytelling.

Bergman Island is currently playing in theatres.

The Hand of God (2021)

Paolo Sorrentino | 2hr 10min

There is a Christian sort of mysticism woven very lightly into this coming-of-age memory piece, rising above the nostalgic realism which is often more present in other films of this kind. Roma had its fair share of transcendent scenes, and Belfast found wondrous flashes of colour bursting through its monochrome photography, but within Paolo Sorrentino’s gentle reflections on his adolescence in The Hand of God, fate and folklore are both just as real as anything in Italy’s rich, tangible culture. Fabio is our stand-in for the young director here, passing time in 1980s Naples listening to music, cheering for soccer player Diego Maradona, and dreaming of one day working in the film industry. Perhaps the clearest shared trait between the director and character though is their equal reverence for Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, evident in Sorrentino’s exquisite compositions that add touches of spiritual surrealism to the boy’s otherwise ordinary life. The Hand of God is patient, joyful, and tragic, threading a theological sense of destiny through the vignettes that lead Fabio to adulthood.

We are initially introduced to Fabio via his family, but even before then Sorrentino sets the scene with a magnificent helicopter shot flying us along the gorgeous coastline of Naples in an unbroken three-minute take. Aunt Patrizia is the first character we meet, and right away she is whisked away from a street corner by a mysterious chauffeur claiming to be San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, to a grand palazzo where a magnificent, shining chandelier lays on the floor. Here, San Gennaro introduces her to the Little Monk, a sprite in Neapolitan mythology who may either bless or curse those who encounter it. When Patrizia returns home recounting her experience and claiming it has granted her a child, the rest of her family brushes her off as crazy, save for young Fabio.

An excellent opening with a three minute helicopter shot flying along the coastline of Naples, setting a scene for Fabio’s coming-of-age.
The chandelier fallen to the ground, yet still alight – perhaps one of the film’s strongest images in the lighting and surrealism.

Within this boisterous Italian family, Fabio is the only one who still holds onto some empathy for Patrizia, who among the others is consider an outcast for her erratic behaviour. Surrounding them is a huge ensemble of amusingly provocative relatives, many of whom don’t hold back in their vindictive judgements and taunts. They will happily call their overweight sister a “whale”, and merely hours after meeting someone’s disabled fiancé, they cruelly toss the battery of the electrolarynx device he uses to talk into the ocean. There is also an implied acceptance of each other’s iniquities though, as in sweet moments of fondness they all share lunch together along a table in the beautiful countryside, and idiosyncratically whistle to each other in an affectionate call-and-response.

An extensive family of distinguished personalities. Their strange mannerisms and conflict drive a lot of this narrative and always keep it engaging.
The detail in Sorrentino’s mise-en-scène paired with lighting and an excellent framing of his actors – a superb combination of many of his strengths.

Fabio himself is an image of idealistic youth, quieter and more observant than most of his family, and constantly wearing tiny headphones around his neck. The actor who plays him, Filippo Scotti, even bears a slight resemblance to Timothée Chalamet, and through this lens it is hard not to draw comparisons with Call Me By Your Name, which similarly follows a laidback coming-of-age narrative in 1980s Italy. Like Chalamet’s Elio, Fabio even has sex for the first time with someone many years his senior, experimenting sexually before being left to move on. But where Elio pursues music and academia as his primary interests, Fabio actively attends movie auditions and worships at the altar of soccer player Diego Maradona.

Period decor in the patterned tiling on the walls, building out a visually detailed world around Fabio.

It is from Maradona’s legendary goal at the 1986 World Cup quarter final that The Hand of God takes its name, the scoring itself being an unpenalised handling foul. With seemingly all of Naples behind him, this goal sends Fabio’s entire neighbourhood of apartment blocks into a joyous uproar, every family pouring out onto their balconies to celebrate in unison. It will go on to be an unforgettable day for many Italians, but for Fabio, the “hand of god” also comes to represent what might as well be divine intervention. While he watches the game with his extended family, his parents fall asleep on their couch, unknowingly succumbing to a gas leak that will soon prove lethal to them both, and which might have killed him too had he been home. Sorrentino half-jokes in interviews now that when this happened to him in real life, Maradona was the one who saved his life. To Fabio though, his survival was no accident.

A shot of pure tragedy, relegating Fabio to the background in the confines of this doorway the moment he becomes an orphan.

As we witnessed in the first scene, Christian mysticism isn’t entirely out of the question for these characters. It is present in both the narrative and Sorrentino’s transcendent visual artistry, especially in his tracking shots that move with quiet deliberation, like an invisible entity wandering alongside Fabio in his journey. Even more stylistically impressive though is Sorrentino’s ability to capture picturesque beauty across such a wide variety of Italian geography and culture, from its open coastal landscapes to the Mediterranean architecture and period-specific décor of 1980s interiors. He also stages his actors in quietly powerful formations in these spaces, using one such composition to mark the film’s tragic midpoint when Fabio breaks down at the hospital and is caught by the camera within the narrowed gap of a doorway.

The coastline of Naples continuing to serve as the foundation of Sorrentino’s stunning panoramas.

Given how much spirituality seeps into the small crevices of this film, we shouldn’t be surprised by the eventual return of the Little Monk at the end. It effectively bookends this narrative with two blessings, sending Fabio on his way to adulthood at the same point in time that Maradona’s team wins the World Cup, once again marking his journey with a parallel to the soccer champion. The surreal mysticism that subtly underlies The Hand of God is not just a private, spiritual treaty for Sorrentino, but a shared experience of community driven by the stories people share, whether those be historical sporting events, culture-defining films, or ancient Italian legends.

Seascapes, interior decor, and Italian architecture – Sorrentino wields steady control over every location in his film, whether natural or artificial, and always finds the most striking shots in his lighting and composition.

The Hand of God is currently streaming on Netflix.

Pig (2021)

Michael Sarnoski | 1hr 32min

Pig makes for a thoughtful, delectable debut for director Michael Sarnoski, but it would be wrong to not attribute a good portion of its success to Nicolas Cage’s patient, deadly serious performance of a man on a quest to recover his stolen truffle-hunting pig. For all of the jokes made about his overwrought line deliveries over his long career, it would be hard for anyone to pin down the standard “Nicolas Cage” character, but even with that in mind it is surprising that his portrayal of reclusive ex-chef Rob is so remarkably contained. When he speaks, his voice comes out in a soft, growling timbre, though all it really takes is his imposing screen presence and the disillusionment in his weary eyes to make visible the quiet pain of the character.


Rob’s relationship with his pig is less that of an owner and their pet, and more of a symbiotic companionship. We spend time getting used to their routine of sniffing out truffles, selling them off, and cooking up meals, and while Sarnoski relishes the wholesome beauty of it all through this largely dialogue-free opening, there is also a sadness hanging in the air. It is when Rob ventures back into the folds of Portland’s foodie culture which he dominated over a decade ago that, bit by bit, we discover more about his past, and any sense that this might be a John Wick-style quest for vengeance goes out the window. What Sarnoski delivers instead is a journey of grief, bargaining, and acceptance, in which his lost pig signifies something far more delicately personal than we might have assumed.
 
It is this deep sensitivity that Rob pours into his cooking, and it is through gentle montages that Sarnoski soaks in the artistry of the act. If John Wick’s superpower is his skill with weaponry and hand-to-hand combat, then Rob’s is the ability to evoke memories and emotions so powerful that he can move hearts with a single dish. This may seem an overly sentimental premise, but both Sarnoski and Cage’s dedication to the absolute honesty of the piece sells every tender minute of it.

The purity of Rob’s craft is felt even more deeply by its contrast to the foodie culture we witness elsewhere, in which high-end fine dining restaurants are stripped of their authenticity, and are founded on the corrupt exploits of dimly lit, underground crime rings. Sarnoski is just as in love with the sensual details of this world as he is in the emotional growth of his characters, and it his through his patience in building both from the ground up that Pig becomes a powerfully moving ode to the healing act of creation itself.

Pig is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

The Worst Person in the World (2021)

Joachim Trier | 2hr 8min

There is something novelistic about the way Joachim Trier lays The Worst Person in the World out in a series of chapters around our young protagonist, Julie, each one unfolding a different vignette of her wandering life. Almost like a contents page, we are informed right at the start that there will be twelve of these collectively bookended by a prologue and epilogue, the intent being that this structure will help us sort through her messy mistakes, ambitions, and relationships. As she tentatively navigates a modern world, moving from medicine, to psychology, to photography, and teasing out the possibility of motherhood on top of it all, Trier guides us through with an omniscient narrator that turns her into a sort of literary protagonist. The result is a playfully formal character study of uncertainty, thoughtfully building out what might as well be a coming-of-age film for those approaching their 30s.

The chapters that attempt to give Julie’s life some semblance of order vary in length and significance, though their titles always offer some sort of prism through which we can interpret each new stage of her development. “The Others” is the first, following a difficult weekend away her with her boyfriend’s family, and is succeeded by “Cheating” where Julie pushes the limits of her relationship after encountering a handsome stranger, Eivind, at party she spontaneously decides to crash. Trier lightly flits through their bizarrely intimate night together like an escape from ordinary life, blowing smoke into each other’s mouths, watching each other use the toilet, and discussing the most personal parts of their lives, treading dangerously close to infidelity.

A gorgeously intimate slow-motion shot, smoke blowing from Julie’s mouth into Eivind’s.

Later in the film, Trier dedicates a short chapter to Eivind’s own history with his girlfriend, briefly coming at the complicated situation from an alternate angle. This is the sort of narrative freedom we are granted in his third person perspective, especially given the past-tense narration which comes at these characters’ unsettled minds and stories with a sense of comforting resolution, implicitly assuring us that everything will eventually be ok. It is in this voice that Trier’s storytelling is layered with compassionate contemplations of Julie’s journey, accepting the “impossibility” of such paradoxical statements as “I do love you. And I don’t love you.” It is evident in this empathetic voiceover and Renate Reinsve’s enchanting performance that such indecisiveness comes not from apathy, but rather a great amount of passion spread so far across conflicting interests.

It also when Trier’s deft screenplay takes a step back to let silent sequences of magical realism take over that the depth of Julie’s love and fear emerges in full force. Her daydream of leaving Aksel for Eivind might flash by in the space of a second in reality, but Trier delights in immersing us in this fantasy across an entire day. At the moment that she realises what must be done, the world around her comes to a halt, and she takes off running down streets of frozen people and vehicles to search out the only other man not affected by this shift in time. As their imagined date inside this utopian bubble comes to an end, she runs back home with a smile stretched across her face, and we come to realise the significance of such a dream where life-changing decisions do not rub up against the pressures or frictions of a complicated, ever-changing world.

The greatest scene of the film, stepping beyond the realm of reality into a frozen world where Julie and Eivind are totally free.

Had Trier indulged in a few more formal flourishes such as these, The Worst Person in the World might be considered a more ambitious piece of cinema, though there is certainly no shame in the admirable accomplishment of writing and structure that he presents us with instead. We don’t always trust Julie to make the best choices, but that feeling of messing up and feeling a crushing amount of shame is fully recognisable, not just in Reinsve’s performance but similarly in those other young actors around her. The empathy that bleeds through this screenplay is huge, though it is most clearly in Trier’s Brechtian distancing that he lets us consider Julie not as the centre of a world she is prone to destroying, but rather as a single, flawed adult living in a society that is full of them.

The Worst Person in the World is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Cyrano (2021)

Joe Wright | 2hr 3min

The tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, the 17th century French cadet, duellist, and writer, is one that is rooted deeply in theatre tradition, with adaptations spanning back to the original staged dramatisation of his life in 1897. There is a classical power to its pure simplicity, telling a fable of unrequited love between the disfigured man and his distant cousin, Roxanne, who longs for Christian, a handsome soldier, while also being sought after by the cruel Duke De Guiche. But Joe Wright has also proven previously that it is in these adaptations of period pieces where his elegant style flourishes, using their archetypal narratives as a canvas for his sumptuous production design and fluid camerawork, calling back to Max Ophül’s swooning mid-century romances.

The differences in this interpretation are strikingly evident from the start, particularly in the casting of Peter Dinklage whose dwarfism replaces Cyrano’s traditionally long nose, and the anachronistic, folk rock musical numbers composed by American band The National. Where Wright’s version falters is in its clumsy attempts to reconcile these songs with its narrative pace, occasionally hitting on pieces of contrived sentiment. Rather than building scenes towards an organic emotional outpouring, many of the songs here rather land in the middle of ordinary conversations and end with awkward deflations, jarringly returning to plain dialogue almost immediately. It isn’t easy handling some of this material without letting it come off a little forced, and it takes everything in Peter Dinklage’s power to smooth over these bumps. His co-stars Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. don’t always fare so well, who in comparison to his weighty screen presence float by without making as much of an impact.

Not just the soft, warm lighting, but the light fixtures themselves playing a role in this gorgeous shot from the theatre.

From a literary perspective, direct comparisons can be made between Cyrano’s traditional narrative and that of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both being rooted in French history and strikingly similar archetypes between its four leads. Perhaps the most significant difference though is in Cyrano’s assistance of Christian, helping him win over Roxanne with his romantic poetry. Much like his Hunchback counterpart Phoebus, Christian is a handsome simpleton, though he uniquely possesses his own insecurities in seeing how Roxanne falls for Cyrano’s words, all the while claiming them as his own. While we wonder whether it is Christian’s looks or Cyrano’s words that Roxanne loves, both continue clinging to her affections, realising that without each other they cannot be the full person she desires.

Wright’s camera gliding through these archways as duellists strike formations with the music on either side – an elegant piece of choreography.

The exquisite style that Wright brings to such a delicate tale of longing very deliberately recalls the graceful long takes he used in Pride and Prejudice, though in his staging of gorgeous dance numbers and even one thrilling piece of fight choreography, there is an added complexity to its movement. As it manoeuvres between rows of duellists fighting in synchronicity to the music and lifts above crowds in sweeping crane shots, Wright plays into his greatest strengths as a filmmaker, exploring this splendidly detailed piece of history with his restlessly intrigued camera.

A bright light diffused through this magnificent set, shining a holy aura upon Cyrano and Roxanne in their final moments together.

As for the period décor, costuming, and lighting which it studies with such fascination, Wright captures a rare sort of Baroque beauty in evoking the painterly mise-en-scène of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The natural lighting of candles spreads through theatres, manors, and hovels with a warm, dim glow, but there is also a striking allure in the way he diffuses sunlight across a cavernous fort of sandstone walls and scaffolding in the last scene too, lending a holy aura to Cyrano and Roxanne’s final interaction. Perhaps the most outstanding visual highlight to be found here comes as our three leads musically swoon and ruminate over Cyrano’s poetry, and Wright sends his letters fluttering down across Roxanne’s bedroom and Parisian streets in a display of aesthetic brilliance.

Maybe the single finest shot of the film, Wright filling the frame with letters fluttering down in slow-motion in the number Every Letter.

The film’s sudden shift to the frontlines of war where Cyrano and Christian both serve within the French military is as harsh as it is devastatingly awe-inspiring, hitting us right away with a gorgeous snowy landscape pierced by dark, rocky outcrops and French camps. Without the delicate splendour of 17th century Paris at his disposal to dazzle us, wintery mountain ranges become the foundational beauty of these war scenes, pushing our male leads to the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion. It is also in these severe conditions though that we can feel the sweetness of Cyrano’s love for Roxanne persist even beyond Christian’s, his affection taking on an air of tragic fatefulness in the number Wherever I Fall where we watch the army’s dark silhouettes march from view into the thick, white mist. It is somewhat disappointing given its jaw-dropping style that Cyrano so often falls into forced sentiments, but Wright still at least proves his stylistic flair for handsome period pieces in his ingenious cinematography, using its visual majesty to engage with classical questions of poetry, war, and love.

A march of silhouettes into the mist, these mournful soldiers tragically accepting their fate.

Cyrano is currently playing in theatres.