Monday, July 8, 2019

Hamlet, outdoor summer theater


 A tour de force from Boston's Praxis Stage


A rare and wonderful Hamlet for our times is playing in two Cambridge parks, Thursdays thru Sundays, and note that the Sunday performance is at 4:00, and all others at 7:00 pm. Seating is on the grass, take beach chairs or a blanket. For more information visit Praxis Stage on Facebook or https://www.praxisstage.com/.
    Talent infuses Praxis Stage’s production of Shake-speare’s famous tragedy. Each character lives and breathes right in front of us; it never occurs that we’re watching a performance. We’re immersed in pummeling reality—Hamlet’s. That is, until we turn on our minds for just a second and think: How can Eric McGowan be manic right before our eyes when he’s actually acting? In retrospect, he’s like Kevin Kline, Johnny Depp, or any of those greats who are born to become, wholly, another person for our benefit as viewers.
     Why does this particular Hamlet reach us so poignantly in the depths of our souls? It feels like a story from our own times—we’re watching the people we know from our own lives. And yet, the lines are the Bard’s from 1600. And, miraculously, or because of the players’ passion and talent, the lines in this production are clearly, purely heard and understood.
     Praxis’s artistic director, Daniel Boudreau, says that the company formed the day after Trump’s election, and that it “seeks to link theater with activism” by producing works that reflect current political issues and cultural conversations. “We are artists who burn to tell stories that address injustice and that imagine a more equitable and truly democratic society. We pay particular attention to forging productions with a richness in diversity and, particularly, with Boston-born and raised talent gracing our stages.”
Eric McGowan has us in his grip as Hamlet, a Hamlet  for today.  
    
Praxis Stage performs throughout the year, offering one Shakespeare play every summer. “We want to keep that immortal genius in our mouths, in your ears, and on as many minds as possible, as one route to the betterment of this world,” says Boudreau.
     Why the name Praxis? “It’s a philosophical concept we embrace,” says Boudreau. “Praxis embodies cultural, intellectual, and artistic reflection and action directed at the oppressive structures that must be transformed, if we are to live in a liberated society. Through praxis, oppressed people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition and transform the world.”
     That is why this Hamlet—the play and the man—are utterly real to us seated on the lawn. We watch in horror and disbelief as Hamlet's life descends into the hell of our own real lives—chaos, tyranny, crime, greed, corruption, evil, and grief. Hamlet's not insane, he's beside himself with the irremediable condition of our world and humanity.
 
    

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Fortunate Man, directed by Bille August


Award-winning Danish director Bille August’s A Fortunate Man, based on Henrik Pontoppidan’s Nobel Prize–winning novel, Lucky Per (1898–1904), is a feast for the eyes and mind. Whatever the camera focuses on in this richly conceived drama about young, ambitious, and fiery-tempered Peter Andreas Sidenius (Esben Smed), captivates our eyes, from the opening scene of a windswept heath overlooking Jutland’s blue sea to the next scene of Copenhagen’s cobblestone streets in the late 19th-century. One of the loveliest settings is the wealthy Salomons’ home with its soft refinement. Every detail has been considered and captured by the camera—costumes, period furnishings, lifestyles, mores, and the actors’ faces. The film is a visual, atmospheric emporium, and Peter’s life story a saga of epic, psychological proportions, this latter aspect most compelling.
Beginning with the film’s opening scenes in a backward region of Denmark, we witness Peter’s dire need to escape his authoritarian father who’s the local vicar. Peter’s nineteen and receives an acceptance letter to the university in Copenhagen—his ticket to freedom. Penniless, hungry, but full of ambition for his hydroelectric power inventions that have the potential to transform Denmark’s standing in the world, Peter grasps any opportunity for an entrée into the city’s echelons of power. This means he uses people to advance his progress. But don’t we all in our career choices? Still, judgment creeps into our audience view of Peter, particularly when his manipulations involve women, first a soft-hearted waitress who feeds him, then Jakobe Salomon (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), because she’s a rich heiress, albeit with an enlightened mind that he also admires. But it’s her financial position in the family that first catches his attention.
Peter’s extremely good-looking, with an ingenuous side that contrasts favorably to Copenhagen’s sophistication and class divisions. His freshness and enthusiasm for his groundbreaking ideas amplify his appeal. His dark side also surfaces—his deep-seated anger for his father and his severe religious upbringing. His inner rage plays a role in his fate. As his story moves along, gaining successful steps toward the realization of his dreams, his intolerance for others’ unfair, unjust, or superior behavior thwart his achievement. His character flaw is his stubborn adherence to truth. But is that a character flaw? Should jealous, condescending people from the elite class who control jobs and infrastructure, also control his path to success? Peter is ripped apart by his success or defeat being controlled by vindictive types. These concerns of his have far more importance to him than his closest relationships.
The movie, which is long because it’s a saga, keeps up tension from the beginning, when Ivan Salomon—Peter’s Jewish peer and entrée into the monied world he needs for his inventions—says to Peter, “You’re a fortunate man!” We are instantly braced for the demise of that fortunate man. All goes brilliantly for a while. Ivan takes Peter home to meet the Salomon family, which includes his two beautiful sisters, Jakobe and Nanny. The Salomons’ luxurious lifestyle intoxicates Peter, so does the free-flowing wine. The dignified elders who control the family’s investments welcome hearing Peter’s ideas and treat him graciously, despite his obvious difference in social etiquette. At one point, Uncle Delft says to Peter, “Fortune favors fools.” And toward the end of the movie, when Peter’s arc has played out from a manic climb to success to a descent into loss and despair, Uncle Delft again states a proverb to him: “Pride goes before a fall.” These three sayings match the arc points in Peter’s story: a fortunate man, fortune favors fools, pride before a fall.
Peter’s mental torment that began in childhood under a ruthless father grows with age and disappointment. His story reminds us of how so many young people with creative plans for their lives, soon find doors closed to them because of the guarded power of the rich and connected. Peter experiences a universal: Lost dreams cause the slow sadness, bitterness, and depression we see on late-middle-aged faces; life often delves out more sadness than joy. Peter also grapples with more than the average seeker. He’s a genius-inventor barred from the only social stratum that can bring his contributions to fruition.
Despite his defeat, Peter’s mind won’t, or can’t, stop its pursuits. He returns to Jutland, marries, and has children, but these most important relationships mean less to him than his mind’s unstoppable quest. He’s unable to assume financial responsibilities for the family because of his innate drive to invent.
           One day, at the family dinner table, he awakens to his reality—his authentic self—and abruptly leaves the table. The film then cuts to a decade later, with Peter living like a hermit in a rustic cottage on the heath near the sea. He’s bearded, physically neglected, but working with his same total absorption on his inventions. Whether from his childhood trauma or his genius genes, or a combination of both, he’s constructed to live a solitary life with his creativity, and he accepts it. Witnessing his humble surrender to his true self evokes our audience compassion in the deepest way. His last, emotional conversation with ever-faithful Jakobe transcends melodrama. It’s one of the most beautiful endings to a tormented life story because of its heartbreaking honesty.

Leona, directed by Isaac Cherem


Leona, a feature film debut by Mexican director Isaac Cherem, opens in dreamy, sensual slow motion. Seen through a billowing, diaphanous curtain, a young woman removes her robe and lowers herself into an elegantly tiled pool surrounded by potted flowers and decorative trees. As the camera glides through the curtain into this opulent pool setting, a throng of beautifully dressed women—daughters and mothers—stand by the pool with joyful faces. A voice recites ritual words to their friend in the water: “Rebeca, now that heavenly water bathes your body . . . your soul is clean to unite with the soul of the man you chose as your partner.”
Out of this cluster of women, steps Ariela (Naian González Norvind), the film’s 25-year-old protagonist, who looks different from the other women with her light, rippled hair, watchful face, and simpler gown. She dips a silver pitcher into the water and pours it over Rebeca. When the celebration ends, Rebeca says to her: “May you find someone soon, Ariela.”
Finding that life-partner within the tightly knit framework of Ariela’s Jewish “community,” as her elders call it, in Mexico City, becomes the film’s driving theme. It entails Ariela’s coming of age and figuring out who she truly is within the narrow scope of her upper-class family and religious-cultural heritage. A subtle soundtrack complements every emotional nuance in this story.
As soon as Ariela leaves the bridal party and gets into her car, she pulls off her wealthy woman’s gown and pulls on jeans and a T-shirt. She drives to her current job as a mural painter and sets up her equipment. Later, while still on this job, she meets Ivan (Christian Vásquez), a young Mexican man who stops to watch her work. One thing leads to another, and they fall in love, even though Ariela knows dating a non-Jew is forbidden in her community.
Time passes and Ariela meets Ivan’s artistic, educated, and well-off family, but she’s not able to reciprocate by introducing him to her side—in fact, the family has discovered her secret and told her he’s not welcome, nor is she if she continues to date him. The rabbi kindly explains that she’s breaking community rules.
Ariela goes her own way, moving out of her mother’s apartment and into her own place, though she continues to share Friday night Shabbat and other traditional events with the extended family, all of whom love and support her dearly but refuse to accept her love life. The clan is fiercely loyal, a trait that keeps them separate and insulated from the greater society they inhabit.
Months pass in this way, and Ivan’s love erodes because of his rejection by Ariela’s family. He can’t accept her living two lives, one with him and one that excludes him in a major way. They break up.
In the montage that follows, Ariela dates men recommended by the family or the matchmaker, but none of them are possibilities for her way of living and thinking. On each date, she’s forced to wonder who she is and what future can she make for herself? Her best friends, her family, and the men she dates all speak and act differently from her. Her daily mural work is the one thing that keeps her from feeling lost. And the artwork is fantastic, creative, therapeutic. She now signs the intricate images as Leona, because Ariela mean lioness in Hebrew.
At this juncture, Ariela connects again with Ivan. They meet and talk. He tells her he has a new girlfriend. They make love, and he invites her to his BBQ later that week. She goes, meets his new girlfriend, and finds the situation so awkward that she leaves, as if stumbling blinding inside her mind. She faces the truth that her choice about her “significant life relationship” can’t be happily solved. How can she possibly say goodbye to her family of cherished loved ones, even if they’re so different from herself? And how can she face life within that clan as an outsider, even with the satisfaction of her creative work? Can she really exist alone for life? The movie ends without a clear answer, but Ariela’s courage throughout the movie to be true to herself and identify with her Hebrew name Leona, gives hope that her future within her difficult circumstances, will find stability.
 
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Monday, March 25, 2019

Zama, directed by Lucretia Martel


5 Women Filmmakers
March 3–March 20, 2019
In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Boston Women’s Film Festival co-present five new films by contemporary women. Visit mfa.org for information.
 
In a blend of fable, parable, legend, and magical realism, Lucretia Martel’s Zama tantalizes the literary, art-loving filmgoer with unending sensory and intellectual stimulation. Do you love Kafka, Beckett, South American literature, surreal moments of the mind, and stunningly creative use of music, sound, location, and cinematography? Zama may have no competitor in recent film art.
The story jumps right in with both structure and moral truth, but takes a few minutes to grasp its richly nuanced sequence. Humor periodically strikes through the “voice” and leitmotif of Latin guitar music in a soundtrack that mainly employs the language of natural sound: silence, cicadas, birds, eerie whistles and rattles, barking, neighing, a lazily sweeping fan, children’s laughter or squawks, and women’s intimate chatter. Then, there are the blasts of surreal electronic dissonance that represent the human mind when it hears bad news. The music mirrors the emotion, and sound carries the story along more than the characters’ dialogue.
South American-born Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in his late-thirties and dressed in a red-velvet jacket and three-cornered hat, holds the prestigious position of magistrate under Spain’s colonial governor, in a backwater Paraguayan community in the 1700s. Don Diego does his job as “the crown’s functionary,” but he longs for—and persistently requests—a transfer to Lerma, a city near his wife and children. But years keep passing, along with new governors and foiled efforts for a transfer. Don Diego exists in a slow-growing, living nightmare, which can’t even end in death. It’s a simple storyline but an endlessly rich brew, perhaps because it’s based on a highly regarded novel by Antonio di Benedetto (1922–1986) and reimagined by a brilliant director.
The stage is set in one of the movie’s first scenes for an immersion in absurdity and magical realism. An indigenous prisoner is set free by Don Diego, but instead of leaving the rough-hewn office, the prisoner bends his head like a torpedo and races straight into a wall in inexplicable self-destruction. Such scenes occur throughout the film, eliciting astonishment on the faces of the witnesses, but that’s all. They say and do nothing about such occurrences. In the case of the prisoner, the witnesses are Don Diego, his Spanish deputy Ventura Prieto (Juan Minujín), and their young scribe Fernández (Nahuel Cano). We then hear a voice telling us a proverb that foreshadows Don Diego’s fate:
 "There’s a fish that spends its life swimming to and fro, fighting water that seeks to cast it upon dry land. Because the water rejects it. The water doesn’t want it. These long-suffering fish . . . devote all their energies to remaining in place. You’ll never find them in the central part of the river but always near the banks."
The camera then shifts from a scene of swarming fish in water to Don Diego standing alone on his outpost’s desolate river embankment—“the long-suffering fish.”















Ambiance and mood define this movie—the tropical heat, languor, and ennui of an isolated, primitive settlement. Time barely moves, torpor settles over everything, which nature’s sounds magnify—the cicadas’ buzz, a horse’s shudder, a gull’s caw, the river’s eternal lapping, and the sun’s relentless pulse. It’s barely tolerable for a non-native and shares the oppressive quality of Herzog’s Aguirre on the Amazon. No wonder Diego and others look for amusement in the “Oriental’s” cargo of brandy that arrives, or in sensuous afternoons in bedrooms. (In a nice touch, the rough-and-ready brandy shipment lands on “Getaway Beach.”)
The film moves through dreamlike, often hallucinatory settings and scenes. In one, Diego wanders through disparate rooms that feed through stalls to the object of his desire, Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), the elaborately wigged wife of the absent Minister of the Treasury. In this real but unreal realm, animals and humans coexist—goats, dogs, horses, lamas—and move around each other, touching impersonally but familiarly. Diego’s mission in seeking out Doña Luciana is twofold: to inform her of the Oriental’s brandy shipment and to advance his flirtation with her. Doña Luciana is a notorious paramour, but in mounting scenes she consistently rejects Diego—“Let’s not be reckless,” she murmurs like a lover, leading him on.
In another hallucinatory scene, Diego searches for Dr. Palos because the Oriental and his young son have succumbed to a tropical fever. Diego moves through a hazy room where a cigar-smoking hag performs a spiritual rite with a ragtag following. A naked baby crawls around the floor. Diego finally finds the doctor sitting under a table in a dead stupor.
In another episode, the governor gallops on horseback into the municipal courtyard, loses his temper when his horse doesn’t obey a command, and takes instant revenge on the animal by shooting it. Bystanders, including Diego, stare at the scene, but as usual say and do nothing, for it’s just another everyday occurrence in their distorted cosmos.
Much later in the film, a tribe of blind people wander through the mysterious night woods where Diego and his fellow bounty hunters (of the legendary Vicuña) sleep. We hear strange, haunting music. The campers lie still, watching these ghostly, humming figures as they untie and steal the campers’ horses in their seamless glide through the trees. Soon after, a warrior tribe with red-stained bodies upend the posse in a series of surreal, violent scenes—mirroring the increased surrealness of Diego’s mind. At this point, he simply accepts what comes, too beleaguered and demoralized to care, or to try to rationalize human life. Everything we see through his eyes is skewed, bizarre, corrupt, or inhumane, such as, early on, the Oriental’s son being carried in a crude chair on the back of a slave. The distance from shore to settlement isn’t far, but “class” has to be distinguished in this cruel way. At Doña Luciana’s house, a slave sits utterly still like a bronze statue, pulling the rope of a sweeping fan for the duration of his life. Its languid, perpetual rhythm with a monotonous squeak emphasizes the human torture.
The film has a subplot of Vicuña Porto, a violent outlaw no one has ever seen. He’s either alive or dead, real or mythical, and he’s a force to be reckoned with in the colony’s life and adds a neat twist to Diego’s denouement. As the movie winds up with the bounty hunters now starved and tattered after years of fruitless search, one of them, “Gaspar Toledo,” who might actually be Vicuña, spits at Diego, “It’s just a name, that’s all!” He means Vicuña’s a name that embodies all the evil perpetrated by man.
Like Odysseus’s impediments to reaching Ithaca, Diego meets obstacle after obstacle in his effort to transfer home to his wife and children. The first governor, who has put him off for years, punishes Diego for getting into a brawl with his deputy Ventura, a real Spaniard working for the crown, not an American Spaniard like Diego, or as the governor hurls at him: “an American passing for Spaniard.” A lama brushes against Diego as he gets this news, absurdly, but also grouping Diego in the animal’s lower status. The next governor spends his time gambling and playing games. When forced, he pays sadistic lip service to helping Diego. Meanwhile Diego’s psychic and physical states continue to decline. He’s demoted to filthy, decrepit housing near the indigenous people, including Emilia, mother of his illegitimate toddler. In his new room, one of his wooden crates of belongings suddenly moves across the floor. He’s told by his scribe Fernández that there’s a boy inside. Oh, that explains it—a boy inside. Nothing unusual. At this juncture, Diego’s official jacket has become ragged, his hat tattered, and his face worn. By the time the next governor arrives, which is years later, Diego is gray-bearded with dead eyes. He has lost faith but still retains a drop of hope that he might yet escape by joining the richly clad governor’s “posse” heading out to capture the mythical villain Vicuña.
The last scene is apocalyptic. A dazzling sight beholds us—a river covered in ultra-verdant aquatic moss and studded with fantastical trees. It’s unnatural. It could be paradise or purgatory. Diego, an ashen corpse but not quite dead, floats in the river’s viscous green in a rudimentary basin. An indigenous boy hovers above him, staring in awe at Diego’s horrid, maimed condition. Finally the boy asks harshly, “Do you want to live?” It’s the movie’s essential question to us all. We have just journeyed through a true rendition of life, of the human condition and its inherent, incorrigible vileness—“Do we want to live?”
The floating boat reminds us of both Ophelia drifting down the river and of Charon crossing the River Styx with his latest passenger bound for Hades. Diego may be caught between two worlds—the sticky unreality of the green “non-paradise” that symbolizes “reaching home,” and the black depth of human souls desiccated and decayed from their class hubris, their greed, power, and inhumanity. As a last touch, the folksy, ironic Latin guitar music pipes in, laughing at all of us.

Ophelia (1851–1852), Sir John Everett Millais, Tate



Charon on River Styx, Soumyajit Dey, India





Sibel, Boston Turkish Film Festival

March 21–April 7, 2019
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, mfa.org
















Filmed in Turkey’s beautiful, fresh-air mountains high above the Black Sea, the film Sibel uses the whistled language of Kuşköy, also known as “Village of the Birds.” The protagonist Sibel (Damla Sönmez) is a mute young woman and the elder daughter of the town’s leader Emin (Emin Gürsoy). She communicates with family and community through the ancient whistling language of the region. Even though everyone else in the village also whistles this language (it’s especially useful when working in the tea fields), they treat Sibel as an outcast because of her muteness that renders her unmarriageable. Her peers, including her younger sister Fatma (Elit Işcan), ridicule her and refuse to allow her to participate in their schoolmate Çiçek’s engagement celebration.
Besides capturing Kuşköy’s breathtaking scenery and cultural history, Sibel tells both a fairy tale and a contemporary story. Sibel, a veritable “Diana of the woods,” hunts a never-seen wolf that plagues the village, apparently for generations. Sibel looks and acts like the mythical heroes who pursue evil dragons. During her forest forages, her eyes are wild and her ears fine-tuned for prey. Sometimes she checks in on old and crazy Narin, who lives in a mountain hut. During each visit, Narin laments the loss of her teenage sweetheart, Fuat, who disappeared half-a-century before, “but is sure to be back soon.” Narin represents Sibel’s fate as an unmarriageable pariah.
Sibel collects bones, believing they belong to the wolf. She hopes that one day she can prove the wolf is dead by presenting its complete skeleton to the villagers, thereby gaining their respect. We later learn that the bones are probably Fuat’s, and that he was killed in front of Narin for their illicit relationship with her. This information explains her insanity.
One day, Sibel’s deep pit to trap the wolf captures a handsome young fugitive. His name is Ali (Erkan Kolçak Köstendil) and he’s badly wounded. Sibel drags him to her hunting shack, and in the days that follow she heals his wounds with medicinal plants. Ultimately, they form a close relationship. In the movie’s “contemporary story,” the government and media frame Ali as a terrorist on the loose, but in reality, as he whistles to Sibel, he’s a conscientious objector being hunted down by the authorities. Eventually the pair is discovered, and Ali vanishes to a fate we never learn, a possible shortcoming of the film.
The contemporary side of the movie also involves village traditions, in particular the ones that relate to women being ruled by men. Because of Sibel’s unauthorized relationship with Ali in the mountain hideout, her sister Fatma’s engagement is called off. The groom-to-be’s family refuses to be associated with such disgrace. Sibel then demonstrates her courage by walking through the village with her sister. Her head is held high and her huntress eyes are defiant. She sees Çiçek standing in the tea fields watching the despised sisters pass by. Their eyes meet in a moment of woman-to-woman recognition. Çiçek, now the wife of a man she never chose and probably abhors, makes a movement with her mouth that sends a message of approval and envy to Sibel: It’s better to be independent and a pariah than an enslaved woman.
Some years ago, Sibel’s directors visited Kuşköy, and their fascination for the local whistling language led to creating the movie. This “bird language” uses Turkish syllables expressed as piercing tones. The directors’ sought out Damla Sönmez for Sibel’s role, and inspired by the story, the actress devoted herself to learning the whistling language. She spent time with the villagers and later with a trainer. What she whistles in the film is exactly what the subtitles say. Her vivid performance fulfills perfectly Sibel’s folkloric persona. As a contemporary story, the film captures a place in the world that’s caught between an obsolete and unjust social order and the more advanced democracies of today, however flawed.

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Mind/Game (2015, documentary)


Featured at the ReelAbilities Film Festival
Screening Wednesday March 27, 6:30 pm, at the O’Keefe Auditorium, Massachusetts General Hospital, with a prescreening reception at 6 pm. A discussion with Chamique Holdsclaw follows. 
Free admission, www.reelabilities.org/boston

Copresented with the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, Center for Diversity

 










The story of basketball superstar Chamique Holdsclaw goes a long way toward helping to destigmatize mental illness. This riveting documentary about her life—Mind/Game (directed by Rick Goldsmith)—also examines how athletes, in particular, avoid getting help when they feel depressed, because part of being an athlete is not showing weakness or vulnerability.
From age eleven, Chamique loved the movement and art of playing basketball. Though she didn’t realize it at the time, the game also vented her pain, anger, and frustration caused mainly by her difficult family life—an alcoholic mother, a father with mental illness, and her own care for mother and younger siblings. At ten she went to live with her grandmother, who put love, encouragement, self-discipline, and stability into her life. “Take out your aggression on the court,” her grandmother told her.
Years later, after suffering the ups and downs of clinically diagnosed depression, Chamique realized that it was actually mania that partly fueled her college and WNBA stardom. The drive, the aggression, the feeling of omnipotence came from a mood high. Unfortunately, her bipolar diagnosis didn’t come until a manic episode in 2012 resulted in violence and Chamique’s arrest. In the end, the injured party—her former teammate and girlfriend—dropped the charges, spurring Chamique to make a lifetime commitment to both her well-being and her advocacy for greater and global mental health awareness. As she tells the camera honestly, with a touch of wistfulness in her eyes, mania’s edge has powerful allure. It makes her and others “want to feel life!” The meds that keep her stable, healthy, and productive take that thrilling high down a peg or two. But that’s okay, for as a psychiatrist in the film tells us, the majority of people with mental illness who get help return to work and lead highly productive lives.
In her advocacy work, Chamique points out important truths, such as in minority communities like hers—African American—mental health isn’t an accepted topic and thus not helped enough. Chamique now works with kids from minority enclaves, teaching them life skills and the acceptability, the value healthwise, in opening up, speaking out about personal issues.
Chamique has journeyed from her magazine-cover celebrity of the early 2000s—often compared to Michael Jordan’s—to her mental health advocacy work of today. Her honesty and openness to talk to the world about her experience, coupled with her appealing sincerity, make us listen and learn. Her story is one of the keys to transforming social attitudes.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Boston Festival of Films from Iran

Janurary 17–27, 2019
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


The Charmer
Directed by Milad Alami
January 24 & 27


Poignant, often heart-wrenching immigration movies come to theaters every year, and this year, The Charmer, by Swedish-Iranian director Milad Alami, offers a new slant—the mental impact on a young Iranian man hustling in Copenhagen for a Danish wife, a “paper marriage,” in order to escape his dead-end life at home. What Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) experiences in the city’s glamorous singles bars slowly builds to detritus in his mind. The audience never knows him fully—not his background or his innermost thoughts—but his face shows constant digesting of the moments that happen to him, as well as his deeper, secret preoccupations. The script by the director and Ingeborg Topsoe appears to move slowly along, but actually works quickly and masterfully with a surprising plot. Shortly into the film, we’re able to gauge that Esmail is basically a decent person, although currently helpless, hapless, dealing in deception, and approaching desperation. He skypes his family now and then, sends money home from his work as a moving hand, and shows respectful behavior to all. But his dark side also shows in his face—the mounting confusion of living a double life. Even as “a charmer” on the outside, he can’t completely conceal his inner turmoil. It’s a feat on the actor’s part to show innocence and darkness at once in the character’s face—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Each day Esmail takes meticulous care of his only dress suit and shirt, which he wears to the high-end bars (far from his own immigrant housing), where he hopes to attract women. We witness a chain of his romantic efforts that lead nowhere, with his visa limit ticking down. It’s painful to watch his flirtation and sex devolve into mere robotic programming, ultimately revolting even to himself. His basic moral compass has become too compromised, and we feel the increasing tangle of his mind and emotions. Perfectly rendered music, camera imagery, and the protagonist’s facial acting convey these deep emotional states.
A Persian-Danish family draws Esmail into their circle through lovely Sara (Soho Rezanejad), whom he meets at the bar one night, and who challenges him with his true motives for being there. Their relationship naturally grows with each encounter, bringing a sunnier, more authentic side to Esmail’s character—he’s not only with “his people,”  his homeland’s culture and food, but also with a woman who truly allures him. They fall in love, and sadly the presence of true love becomes the breaking point for Esmail’s psyche. In his half-maddened state, he says to Sara but really to himself: “This wasn’t the plan.”
We never know what Esmail’s “plan” was—was it to marry only in order to remain working in Denmark to support family back home? After some months or a year, would he divorce? How could he escape the inevitable mental turmoil of juggling two families unknown to each other? Where would his identity and self-worth be in such a scenario? It all crashes in on him and creates a powerful message about the individual’s experience as an immigrant looking for a lucky break, especially about a young person with an entire future ahead, who faces the monolithic “make-it or crumble” reality of a foreign, stratified world.
The great beauty in this story is its cinematically evoked depiction of Esmail’s mental state—its erosion caused by venturing out in hopes of a better future (the stunning cinematography is by Sophia Olsson). Esmail’s meltdown and failure aren’t ultimately failures, for when his internal eruption settles down, he is given the opportunity to recover his basic values, and he has gained wisdom. Rather than failing, he has lost at a gambling game, and one that comes with a heavy emotional toll.
The movie ends with Esmail selling his upper-class suit to a young, excited Iranian man, and we the audience probably share the same thoughts as Esmail, as he watches the young man’s masculine pride showing off the new goods: He’s setting off with the same dream of opportunity abroad; he has the same hope for his looks, his charm, but soon he’ll discover the reality of his chances, the reality of the world. Or, maybe he’ll be the one in a million to luck out, while I’m back here to grow old.

For Dystopian Lovers
Invasion, directed by Shakram Mokri
January 20 & 23

















If you liked last year’s Simulation by Abed Abest at the MFA’s Iranian film festival, then be sure to catch this year’s Invasion, by Shakram Mokri. It’s another dystopian film with the added dimension of futuristic vampires. The foggy, metallic, dungeon-like cinematography, complementary music, and mind-bending plot sustain attention, and for many, wonder.