Monday, December 25, 2017


Directed by Narges Abyar
Boston Festival of Films from Iran
January 4–17, 2018, at the Museum of Fine Arts

Writer-director Narges Abyar’s Breath offers an unusually rich tapestry of childhood—that of a girl in Iran during the years 1977–1979, when the Shah is ousted and Ayatollah Khomeini takes power. Second-grader Bahar (Sareh Nour Mousavi) narrates the story—how the family moved from Tehran to rural desolation because of her father’s deadly asthma. Granny (Pantea Panahiha) raises the four children who are motherless. This Granny is a nasty, child-beating witch to whom Bahar occasionally says, “I love you,” and who now and then utters the same words to Bahar. This complex relationship of a parent figure tyrannizing children with “love” in the mix happens everywhere, but our intimacy with Bahar’s trauma raises the horror of crimes against children to a real-life level. In contrast, Bahar’s father Ghafour (Mehran Ahmadi), a truck driver, couldn’t be a more thoughtful and loving parent, and though he’s part of the rallies shouting “Down with the Shah”—presumably religiously conservative—he also encourages his daughter’s reading and top grades in school. At the same time, as the film progresses, Granny admonishes Bahar to keep a distance from her favorite cousin and playmate Taher, because she’s mature now and can’t be seen with boys. We’re shown how girls’ instructions are full of confusing inconsistencies: study with ambition to become, but separate yourself from men, hide behind a scarf, take an inferior role, accept male abuses.
Bahar’s imagination populates the movie as she narrates folkloric tales that appear in black-and-white animation on the screen. The lurid books she sneaks from her uncle’s collection also appear in these animated forms as she reads them in voice over. The stories come naturally to this talented child, but they also provide an escape from her troubled world of Granny and her fear that her father might die from an asthma attack. Later, the Iran-Iraq War breaks out, and Ghafour joins the army, leaving the children with Granny.
It’s a marvel to watch a child actor play the emotional vicissitudes of Bahar. She must embody terror when facing the black-clad, evil-faced Granny swinging her stick; she must soar in spirits on a sky-gliding swing; repose in her dreamy inner sanctum of stories; play the competitive and bullying games of children; and reveal adoration for her father, along with anxiety over his health. It’s a spectrum of inner and outward emotions handled remarkably by Mousavi. Among the other principal roles, Pantea Panahiha as Granny superbly incarnates the she-demon of fairy tales, which nicely complements the movie’s premise of a little girl’s inner fantasy life.
Culturally, Breath is like a rich vein in a gold mine, providing a view of another world in another era, evoking every sensory detail from food to music to setting and daily life with historic rituals and dress. The film also offers an excellent contrast to another movie in the festival, Tehran Taboo, which depicts a chaotic, twenty-first century Tehran, forty years after the revolution. Although this urban cultural chaos happens globally, its intricacies in this film pertain to Iran.
Breath is long, some scenes could have been edited out, including one or two of the animated stories and the final epilogue. The ending in general, with its dirge-like music, makes a dramatic war statement that has more to do with the lightly sketched-in political backdrop than the intense family story, the childhood biography, that defines the movie. War does affect Bahar’s life, including the sound of gunfire and bombs and the need to run to a neighbor’s basement for shelter. Yet, the conclusion of the movie focuses on the war thread and not the dominant themes of the movie: family relations and a child’s experience in both reality and the realm of the imagination. Small quibbles aside, Breath is a five-star movie Western audiences are fortunate to share.

Also featured at the Boston Festival of Films from Iran: Kiarostami’s posthumous 24 Frames, an experimental film that digitally alters 23 of the filmmaker’s stills to probe the “before-and-after action” of each shot. Visit for showtimes.


Monday, November 20, 2017

The Teacher

Directed by Jan Hřebejk
Written by Petr Jarchovský
Showing at the Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, thru November 29

Jan Hřebejk and Petr Jarchovský’s new film, The Teacher, tells an age-old story of totalitarian abuse, this time in the setting of a middle school in 1983 Czechoslovakia, then under communist rule. The children start the school year with their new teacher, Mária Drazdechová (award-winning Zuzana Mauréry), and thus begins a horrendous odyssey for both the children and their parents, as Drazdechová invidiously hijacks their lives. From day one, she works through the children to obtain services from their parents—medicines, luxury foods, taxi rides, and even a hoped-for lover. She rewards students whose parents comply by providing tips on the next day’s quiz. The children of refusers receive failing grades and otherwise fall victim to her lies and bullying. She accuses young Karol of distributing food vouchers obtained through his “disgraced mother” who defected to the West, and she claims Filip’s father sexually assaulted her.
Normally such stories of blackmail and political corruption involve adults who find themselves powerless to fight the system, for any protest means loss of a job, imprisonment, or even execution—all under false charges. In The Teacher, the drama is intensified because the victims are children. In her classroom, Drazdechová singles out three non-compliers—Danka, Filip, and Karol—for her sadistic treatment, with Danka eventually attempting suicide and the boys erupting with their suppressed trauma. Throughout her torture and machinations, Drazdechová maintains a sweet, baby-faced manner—all innocence—which adds to her evil.
The movie’s excellent, knitted construction helps develop the characters, especially the three families who decide to take a stand against Drazdechová. During the film’s opening credits, we watch lively children arriving to a communist-era school, and then, at night, we see somber adults filing into the same building. At first it seems the adults have come for night school, but once the action starts, we learn they have come for a meeting on whether or not to sign a petition to remove Drazdechová as a teacher. The school’s “head teacher” runs the meeting, having received a parental complaint. We soon learn, however, that she knows all about Drazdechová and hopes that at last an opportunity has come to be rid of her.
The story moves back and forth from the parents’ tense meeting room to flashbacks of Drazdechová’s connivances with both children and parents. Some of the parents who support Drazdechová—who also heads the school’s communist party organization—benefit from the party as judges, doctors, and bureaucrats. They toe the party line. Most of the working-class parents support Drazdechová because they want their kids to receive good grades in return for small services, such as hairdressing. This movement back and forth from a pseudo jury room to Drazdechová’s real-life persecution of her victims creates depth, drama, and balance in the film. We come to know the characters intimately—including their names—Kucera, Binder, Littman. We feel a strong urge to be in the deliberation room with them, so that we can battle the despicably dishonest people in control and lend a hand to those who insist on the truth. Which side will triumph?
An epilogue concludes the movie—a moral to the story. Communism has ended with the Velvet Revolution. Havel’s picture has replaced Husák’s in a middle-school classroom. What we’re shown in one quick scene is both ludicrous and true: You can’t stop evil—it just finds a new place to park, and the fight to rout it out has to start all over again.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

In Between

Directed by Maysaloun Hamoud 
Featured at the 29th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival
For showtimes visit


In Between, directed by Maysaloun Hamoud, continues the dialogue about the equality of women. The movie begins with an older woman waxing a young female leg and sharing advice: “Don’t raise your voice, men don’t like women who raise their voices. Remember to always say a kind word, and cook him good food. Don’t forget to put on perfume and to keep your body smooth so that he desires you.”
Music then explodes and we’re at a wild, co-ed, bachelorette party in Tel Aviv with drinking, drugs, and dancing—the central characters’ regular singles backdrop. Beautiful Laila (Mouna Hawa) with long curly locks and a cigarette always in hand, appears bored with this dating scene. Back home the next day, she and her housemate Salma (Sana Jammelieh ) meet an unexpected visitor, Noar (Shaden Kanboura), who’s come to stay with them until she can find her own apartment. Noar explains that her cousin Rafif—Laila and Salma’s absent roommate—said it would be all right. These few opening scenes set the stage for a look at the experience of young Palestinian-Israeli women in today’s urbane Tel Aviv. Laila’s a non-religious feminist lawyer, Salma’s a fringe DJ from a Christian family, and Noar’s a senior at the university and wears full Islamic garb.
Through each of the women’s stories related to their love lives, the film explores male domination, male attitudes toward women, and male abuses when their authority is crossed. Although the film focuses on experiences in today’s diverse Palestinian-Israeli culture, the treatment of Laila, Salma, and Noar is universal. The take-away, as the three women process the denouements of their relationships, is sad, to both them and to us: Men (or most), from lovers to fathers, just don’t get it, they can’t see it, so they can’t change. As if cemented into their behavioral genes, the men in the film (with parallels in other cultures) believe they are right about their entitlement to dominate—to tell women how to dress modestly, to not smoke, to stay at home with the kids—or to abuse them if the women resist. Women in the audience of this important movie freeze at moments when Laila, Salma, or Noar stand up for themselves to their men. We freeze fearing a physical blow, a bashing silencer instead of meaningful conversation. How do men in the audience feel during these tense, cowering moments? Undoubtedly the same. Then why can’t recognition of the problem on the screen translate to real-life consciousness about equality?
We witness one atrocious punishment against Noar by her fiancé Wissam (and compliments to Henry Andrawas for playing such a horrid role). The camera and audio focus intently on Wissam’s zipper going back up after he’s committed his brute crime of authority, and this focus makes the audience think how a man’s “instrument of lovemaking” also serves as a violent weapon. The three women helping each other through their relationship traumas give the audience another universal: women support, comfort, and work for each other and always have, and this community based on gender solidarity is the basis for their strength—their stamina, wisdom, friendship, and bedrock role in all societies. These qualities, so deep in women, contrast to the male strength of body and physical force. Thus the movie honors women but cannot say there will ever be changes in their relationships with men.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The 90-Minute War

Directed by Eyal Halfon
Boston Premiere
Featured at the 29th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival
For showtimes visit


Don’t miss this film! The humor and the performances that execute this saga are razor-sharp, imaginative, and nothing short of hilarious. Based on a book by Itay Meirson, The 90-Minute War begins with a serious broadcast by journalist Michael Greenspan: “The leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Territories will finally resolve the longest running conflict in modern history through a soccer match. The game will decide who gets to stay in the Holy Land and who has to go off looking for a new homeland.”
Not one cinematic opportunity is lost as the two sides make their way toward the match. The football chairmen—played by Moshe Igvy for Israel and Norman Issa for Palestine—stab, jab, and poke each other over every issue in their peoples’ historic disagreements. Igvy and Issa shared the Best Actor award at Haifa’s 2016 Film Festival and without doubt will bring some audiences back to revel in their performances again. Even though their roles steal the show, other memorable “types” support them.
The film is told as a documentary of the historic game, and many of the hilarious moments result from the filmmaking itself—what the characters say to the unseen camera and interviewer. A polished, chiseled FIFA leader helps negotiate the terms of the game, including who will referee, as both sides reject every nominee—Germany is out of the question for obvious reasons and England as well. For the laid-back, cigar-smoking Israeli chairman, even Sweden and Norway are out of the question: “They’re always against us.” Both chairmen rely on antacids as they sit across from each other during these difficult meetings.
The game will be held in Portugal as the people there don’t know anything about the Middle East conflict. Leiria’s stadium manager Mr. Gomes studies an atlas to find Gaza as tells his wife: “We’re the perfect place for the Camp David of soccer.” “What?” she answers, mystified. Gomes helps resolve the referee stalemate by suggesting his cousin Carlito, “who’s never even heard of the place,” and both sides agree to the choice.
Many problems emerge: Israel’s coach is a famous German goalie, Mr. Müller, which leads to anxiety at Israeli headquarters: “Can we really have a German leading our team in a match that decides the future of the Jewish people?” Several times, Israeli checkpoint soldiers harass the Palestinian team’s bus en route to practice destinations. Another obstacle comes up when one of Israel’s best players, Iyad Zuamut—an Israeli of Palestinian descent—can’t decide which side he should play on. This leads to FIFA setting new nationality rules for the game—players must live in the country they play for, for at least two weeks of the year.
Besides the documentary’s camera igniting moments of hilarity, Michael Greenspan returns at regular intervals to report on the teams’ progress. His deadpan delivery at politically loaded locations contains propaganda from both sides. Standing in a Palestinian tunnel with everyday smuggling going on behind him, he tells us how these tunnels bring fuel, medicine, American cigarettes, plasma screens, and fast food to the Palestinians. And on this particular day, they’re bringing Germany’s soccer star Ahmad Hany to play for the Palestinians. We witness Hany’s arrival through the dark, low-ceilinged channel.
Not only superlative characters and fast-paced humor define the quality of this movie. Amazing music and cinematography, by Ran Shem-Tov and Daniel Kedem, respectively, burst upon the screen and through the sound system between every scene, revving up the atmosphere in the manner of sports and politics, but in a subtly satirical way.
As the day of the game approaches and both chairmen realize the tremendous burden they carry for their people, a perfect moment occurs. The neutral Portuguese stadium manager, Gomes, invites both chairmen for a drink on the eve of the game. Unexpectedly the adversaries share a lovely, personal time together at the bar, passing around pictures of their children and grandchildren. Afterward, the filmmakers interview each chairman in his hotel bedroom. The Israeli chief admits how much he enjoyed the evening—“It’s always like that,” he says wistfully, “one on one we get along fine.” When it’s his turn, the Palestinian chief says: “I’m really sad. There should have been another solution.” After all the laughter we’ve enjoyed over the two sides’ conflict, these last touching moments give the movie a meaning beyond simple mockumentary.
Early in the film, the camera shoots a sports bar near the Leiria stadium, capturing the drinkers’ raunchy conversation about the upcoming game. The camera returns to this low-life bar after the game is over—as an epilogue. The characters’ shouting disgust for the game show us the irrelevance of which side won—a particularly incisive conclusion to the longest running conflict in modern history.



Directed by Ferenc Török
Featured at the 29th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival
For showtimes visit

Ferenc Török’s 1945 takes place in a backward Hungarian village at the end of World War II, when liberating Russian soldiers are present. Based on Gábor T. Szántó’s short story “Homecoming” and filmed in black and white with striking authentically, 1945 focuses on human morality and behavior. Two categories of people are juxtaposed to strengthen this study: the poor, undereducated rural community led by their abhorrent town clerk István, and two silent Jewish strangers who arrive by train to the town. The Jewish father and son, clad formally in black, hire a cart at the train station to transport their two sealed trunks to an unspecified destination. They choose to walk behind the cart, and the camera comes back to them often, reiterating their silent, dignified trek along the dirt road that leads to town. In contrast, the villagers who await them are already in a panic—which Jews are they and what have they come for? Knowing nothing about the strangers—other than the stationmaster’s fast-spreading rumor that their trunks contain perfume—the villagers jump to the conclusion that their own futures are at stake. They obsess about their fate because of their individual and collective guilt about what happened to their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. Their guilt dictates that only their role in the Jewsdeportation can explain the visitors’ arrival.
The townfolks’ commotion and generally nasty relationships to each other contrast to the silent walkers, with the cinematography of the two worlds also in contrast: the empty natural landscape versus the village hubbub where everybody knows everybody else’s business, including everyone’s wartime betrayals and illegal possession of Jewish property. The film takes as its subject how human guilt cannot be suppressed, but rather with the slightest provocation erupts defensively, often with more lies, and causes destruction of various sorts. Some of the guilty parties have remorse, others not, but either way, their guilt ignites havoc and dire consequences.
The quiet pilgrims on foot see and hear nothing of this village chaos as they pass through the town en route to their destination. Their straight carriage conveys dignity and honor, in contrast to their counterparts staring at them through windows, or racing about to burn evidence of their treachery or to hide wrongly inherited valuables. The returning Jews have no need to communicate to the villagers, other than to hire a cart for their trunks. The villagers are invisible to them; they don’t exist as moral beings. Even István’s offered handshake is proof of their hypocrisy.
Finally, the villagers’ panic comes to breaking point, and led by István they go to the Jews who have reached their destination and humbly ask what they have come for. The villagers’ guilt and their fate must have answers.
What they then learn, whether or not the truth sinks into their unenlightened heads, is that the father and son have come for something far deeper than the material possessions the villagers are so distraught about. The villagers didn’t care about the Jews in the early 1940s and they don’t care now—their anxiety is about their own safety and comfort—at the expense of children and families, their own neighbors and friends, whom they helped to murder.
At heart a parable—though the lesson is lost on the villagers, which is a lesson in itself—1945 treats audiences to fine cinematography by Elemér Ragályi and villager roles well-acted by Péter Rudolf as István, Dóra Sztarenki Kisrózsi as his wife, and József Szarvas as Mr. Kustár. Iván Angelus and Marcell Nagy play the Sámuels, father and son.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Stitching Palestine

Directed by Carol Mansour
Featured at the Boston Palestine Film Festival
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 29, 2017
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Stitching Palestine, directed by Carol Mansour, is a cinematic weaving that complements its “embroidery” subject: between each of the film’s twelve interviews with Palestinian women, the camera focuses on hands skillfully stitching colorful thread into a mesh backing. Arabic music accompanies these transitions, as do maps showing the numerous places each family moved to when forced out of Palestine in 1948—Lebanon, Gaza, England, Canada, the United States—a trail of moves. Displacement is a major theme of the film.
Richly embroidered thobes—traditional Palestinian garments—enter into every story, for they represent Palestinian heritage and cultural preservation. Families left everything behind in 1948, believing they would return in a matter of weeks. Now, several generations later, embroidery has come to embody the additional symbol of Palestinian resistance. As Malak al-Husseini Abdelrahim tells us: “We don’t have our country anymore but we have our embroidery. It’s become a nationalist issue . . . it’s about national belonging.” Her words are echoed later—“Embroidery is migratory, it’s like a refugee. There’s the notion of refugehood attached to it.” The movie shows us through each of the stories how embroidery has become synonymous with Palestinian identity— currently endangered.
The “12 Windows of Palestine” project—an initiative to create a mural reflecting the embroidery styles of Palestine’s twelve regions—augments the movie, as twelve women share their personal “tapestries.” For Huda al-Imam, the tilework of her father’s Jerusalem home always reminded her of embroidery—“embroidered with a paintbrush instead of a needle,” she says. When she discovered that the tiles were being discarded by the new Jewish owners, she salvaged them and created portions of her own flooring with their designs.
Words like apartheid, colonialism, occupation, prisoner, and ethnic cleansing come up in the discussions, with family evidence given. Anger is freely expressed by some of the women and restrained under a socially correct veneer by others.
Nazmiyeh Salem, who produces museum-quality pieces, is the third generation of a family that has lived in a refugee camp—“Embroidery flows in my blood,” she says. She and others describe how women today, and historically, have gathered to embroider and chat—it’s part of their female heritage and pride. Psychologist Leila Atshan adds to this, describing how the intricately connected patterns in each weaving contain the depth of their creator’s female experience. They show “the woman who has been able to persist and do so artistically and with femininity.”
Salma al-Yassir describes how, not knowing Palestine herself, she feels that she lives on “borrowed memory”—that of her grandfather and parents, their continuous stories of the homeland. Again, the sense of displacement pervades her life. Where does she belong?
The movie opens and closes with a poetic voiceover— bookends to the documentary—while colorful threads and stages of the embroidery process take place. The voice, the lines, weave with these visually changing “embroidery moments,” music in the background. The opening lines state dispassionately the current era’s sad truths:

With every stitch, she hides a story, a thought, a sigh.
Inside each of us, inside the map of Palestine,
our stories were like threads
that separate then come together
recounted and then hidden,
when faced with the “knot of occupation.”
A knot that rearranged all the threads,
scattering them in all directions.
A single life was now assigned two threads:
one thread that is real, another that could have been.
The stories transcended Palestine.
Their threads dispersed, seeking refuge or exile.
Those women who remained in their homeland
were accused of nonexistence.
It was said to them: You are not here.
They responded: We are not a lie inside a plot,
we are here.
And wherever we are
we narrate our stories in detail,
embroidering them on the face of our earth.
Some are privileged, others bearing life in a camp.
First, second, third generation.
Accents and cities, classes and cultures differ.
They are very different from one another
but all meet at one turning point
where all threads meet: the before and the after,
before 1948, and after it.
At that turning point,
Palestine was transformed.
It became a homeland the size of a planet.

A Magical Substance Flows into Me

Directed by Jumana Manna
Oct 21, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Music in an historically contested region that means “home” to numerous ancient ethnicities defines Jumana Manna’s documentary, A Magical Substance Flows into Me. The film’s overarching structure follows the work of Robert Lachmann, a German-Jewish ethnomusicologist who emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and made archival recordings of local music—Kurdish, Moroccan, Samaritan, Bedouin, and more. A voice-over narrator reads from Lachmann’s journal about his research, with archival images accompanying the descriptions. Lachmann tells us how he’s new to the country but hopes to share its Arab music through his love for it and his knowledge of its history. He’s found that the locals are dissatisfied with their musical traditions and seek something new, but he believes they should be encouraged in their pure, unspoiled sound. He also comments that these communities live together but as separate cultures, and thus Jerusalem is best suited for the archive he intends to build. As part of his work, he creates Oriental Music for the Palestine Broadcasting Service, believing such a program “can provide a neutral background that’s needed to enable both parties to collaborate.”
For the program, Lachmann invited the various communities to perform and we hear clips of their songs. Manna films some of the communities for a current portrayal of the music. These intercutting scenes take place in the musicians’ kitchens, living rooms, or terraces, emphasizing the music’s homey roots, its local focus. The musicians of today talk about their culture and in some cases the region’s ethnic complexities. They then perform a song.
The documentary’s shortcoming is its omission of adequate guidance for the viewer. Most of the time we don’t know for sure who we’re listening to, in order to clearly understand the speaker’s particular ethnic background and contribution. Identifying subtitles would greatly improve the film’s coherence, but this information appears at the very end of the movie in the form of end credits—too late for the audience to match up with the speakers. It may have been Manna’s intent to omit such identification as a way to make a statement about the historic blending of the region, but for the film’s strength, the lack causes the viewer to continually grope for context.
Nevertheless, Magical Substance’s effort to capture the roots of Arab music, its many community expressions and the world of its descendants, opens doors to another region so distant from our own and brings us closer.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Michelangelo: Love and Death

Directed by David Bickerstaff
Featured at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, September 3–30, 2017

For all its shortcomings, Michelangelo: Love and Death, directed by David Bickerstaff, treats the viewer to the chronology and principal works of Michelangelo’s long career—he died at eighty-eight. Born in Caprese near Arezzo in 1475, the Buonarroti family moved to Florence where Michelangelo was more or less raised, being farmed out to a stonemason’s family in neighboring Settignano at age six when his mother died. His first exposure to chisels and stone happened there. He returned to Florence as a youth to apprentice in Ghirandello’s studio, where Lorenzo de Medici discovered his talent and moved him into the Medici household and art academy. From that point on, Michelangelo received commissions from the Medici, two of whom became Popes. He lived during the High Renaissance when Florence was the center of art and learning and his colleagues (or competitors) included Leonardo, Rafaello, and Bottecelli. Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, lauded Michelangelo as il divino, and this new documentary shows us why.
Before he turned twenty, Michelangelo was allowed to dissect corpses at the Santo Spirito Church’s hospital, endowing him with the anatomical knowledge that makes his sculpture and paintings so incredibly alive and expressive. The movie employs several devices to walk us through the artist’s successes that followed: a narrator reading selected portions from Vasari’s biography, an actor reading Michelangelo’s poems, and various art critics, historians, curators, and artists filling in details about his life and greatness. The weakest device is the white-coated, bearded sculptor in a studio filled with Michelangelo relics, hammering his chisel against a white marble block with deadpan resignation. The segment repeats periodically, unchanging in its blandness, so that it serves no purpose beyond a filler role in this carefully sequenced narrative. The uninspired sculptor bears no resemblance to Michelangelo, known to all for his passion and personality—his terribilità. These strung together, unimaginative devices that walk us rather dully, formally, through the artist’s life and work are saved by the film’s tour of his works, though the “presentation drawings” at the end induce a yawn. Close-ups of the Pietà and David, and the brilliant colors and three-dimensionality of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling are breathtaking. Also of interest is learning about Michelangelo’s prodigious output and his range of ability—sculpting, painting, architecture, drawing, and poetry—and also how his patrons often diverted him to new projects so that old ones, perhaps those closest to his personal thoughts and feelings, were left undone. 
The value of this movie is its introduction to one of civilization’s greatest geniuses, offering a loving tour of his most important works for those who might not have a chance to see them in person. One has to wonder, when the tour ends, if the colossal David can ever be surpassed.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Letters from Baghdad

Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (,
September 21–29, 2017

Churchill, Bell, and T. E. Lawrence "of Arabia"
Letters from Baghdad, directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, handles an enormous amount of information in a calm, mostly archival portrayal of lands and times that appear exotic to Western viewers—the Middle East—today’s Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. The period is approximately the turn of the twentieth century to post–World War I, and the story’s lovely voice-over narrative by Tilda Swinton reading Gertrude Bell’s letters home to her family in England is key to the lulling, fascinating atmosphere that Eastern music amplifies along with unending views of desert landscapes, plodding camels, teeming markets, and tribal peoples clothed in voluminous fabric and unusual hats or headdresses. Sun-drenched, boxy dwellings, palaces and mosques decorated with Islamic patterns, and abundant snapshots and scratchy film footage of the region’s magnificent ruins add to the tingling ambiance. But what is it all about? Can the audience connect the dots and understand what’s going on beyond Gertrude Bell’s biography? For Americans, it might take more than watching the film to understand the content, for reams of history occur in the milliseconds of frames—history poignantly related to the Middle East’s warring state of today. On its intellectual level, the movie’s about the meddling of foreign, imperialistic, and supremacist powers in Eastern cultures.
On a simpler level, this meticulously created movie portrays an educated and brilliant British aristocrat, Gertrude Bell (1868–1926), whose independence, passionate pursuit of Arab culture, and ceaseless effort to establish an independent Arab state out of Mesopotamia broke through the glass ceiling for women of her times. Her social position and Oxford education helped her, but her love for the area and her ability to integrate with its tribes, was the main reason for her success at the top level of Britain’s foreign policy makers in forming modern Iraq. She worked with Churchill, T. E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” Percy Cox, and numerous high commissioners during both wartime and postwar negotiations—the latter to install King Feisal as Iraq’s first head. In the war period, Britain avowed it would serve only in the capacity of advisor to the future government, in return for help overthrowing the Ottoman rule. Snippets from Bell’s eloquent letters to her father over the course of more than twenty years, outline these essential experiences of her life, including her love for a married military man who was killed at the Battle of Gallipoli.
One can walk away with Bell’s bio as the movie’s take-away, and surely it is worthy, but deep, disturbing history is embedded in the film’s main World War I segment, the peak of Bell’s life and work. But how many American viewers know the Ottoman Empire’s history in the Middle East or the “Sykes-Picot” pact that Russia, Britain, and France secretly negotiated to divvy up their respective territories of influence within the future Arab state (not unlike Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt carving up Eastern Europe at Yalta after the next World War).
The movie employs periodic “talking heads”—people who knew Bell and share their impressions. Gilbert Clayton, Bell’s colleague with the same liberal, “self-determination” views, tells us: “When the war broke out, the intelligence department realized that the Arabs were going to have a considerable influence on its outcome in the Eastern theater. Britain pledged to recognize and support an Arab state if the Arabs assisted Great Britain in the war.”
But instead we witness Britain’s egregious betrayal of the Arabs—instead of assisting them after the war, Britain occupies them. We are shown an image of Britain’s official proclamation to the Arabs stating: Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors, but as liberators.
As such promises soon became obvious lies, the true believers in a sovereign Arab state, such as Bell and T. E. Lawrence, felt ashamed but had to remain loyal to their government. Although Letters from Baghdad comes across as an impartial conveyance of history and biography, it delivers the truth: We are still in the aftermath of all that World War I Middle East meddling by foreign powers. The region is still fighting for independence and self-determination. Even back then, oil was a motive for foreign intervention in the guise of help. The movie includes clips of Standard Oil aiding the Arab rebellion against the Brits, after it was clear Britain intended to control Iraq. The Americans, seeing how this rule would compromise their own interests, took the side of the rebelling Arabs. Bell wrote in a letter: “We don’t know what we want to do in this country. We rushed into this business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. Can you persuade people to take your side when you’re not sure you’ll be there to take theirs?” Time and again the movie reminds us that governments never learn from history.
The hawkish British commissioner in charge of the new country didn’t help the situation. Arab nationalist resistance rose with calls of “We want independence! Let the British leave our country!” One village refused to pay its taxes and received a warning that if it didn’t pay by such and such a date, it would be bombed. It was bombed. Other villages then joined the protest until they were “terrorized into submission.” An Arab journalist at the time tells us: “These were events to make humanity weep.”
As always in history, the informed, rational, and humane voices like Bell’s, Cox’s, Lawrence’s, and Clayton’s were ignored. Greed, power, and Western—even empire—supremacy reigned. Images of foreign diplomats in casual white on the green lawns of the properties they’ve requisitioned for their comfort make a strong statement. And Bell was not separate from this cohort; she dressed in finery that symbolized her position in the “empire.”
We leave the theater knowing that the Iraqi events of a century ago that “make humanity weep” continue today throughout the Middle East. With grace, compassion, and democratic values, Letters from Baghdad makes this point.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hermia & Helena

Written and directed by Matías Piñeiro
Featured September 2–20, 2017, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (


Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena continues his direction of contemporary stories linked to Shakespeare’s heroines, in this case the love-crossed women from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Loosely, the filmmaker’s protagonists, Camila and Carmen, share love objects the way Shakespeare’s Hermia and Helena do—Camila loves Lukas, Carmen’s old boyfriend, and Carmen has her eye on Leo, Camila’s old lover. Riffing further on Shakespeare’s love for “switches,” Camila and Carmen swap apartments—Camila takes over Carmen’s New York City pad to pursue the same arts fellowship that Carmen has just left; and Carmen takes over Camila’s pad in Buenos Aires. In a sense they swap lives, but with different end results, for Camila, whose fellowship project is translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Spanish, has clear objectives and purpose, while Carmen feels she’s wallowing in the same place as the year before.
The movie’s achievement is its rendering of contemporary life, not only in its portrayal of young adults coping with carving a satisfying future for themselves, but also in its filmmaking techniques, or creativity. Hermia & Helena will likely get few stars from viewers who judge according to convention, but its contrivances, artifice, and experimental intrusions add the exact dimension of young artists at work today.
Agustina Muñoz as Camila is worth the entire ninety minutes in the theater. Her face, all of its thoughts and expressions, and her voice, so firm and self-assured, mesmerize but also deliver a wonderfully powerful female character. (Thank you, Mr. Piñeiro.) The passivity and guarded personality of Lukas (Keith Poulson)—Camila’s character foil—also portray reality in two ways: the lack of opportunities for trained artists in a glutted and information-age professional world, and the fear many young adults—not just men—have of risking a serious relationship. In contrast to Lukas, Camila has no fears and goes after what she wants. She’s in New York not really for the arts residency but in order to find an old love—Gregg (Dustin Guy Defa)—and also to meet her American father Horace (Dan Sallitt), who never took any responsibility for her mother’s accidental pregnancy, nor ever considered looking for his Argentine offspring. Because of her intelligent, direct approach, Camila gets the answers she’s come for. Her father’s past disinterest and dissociation inevitably cause her grief, but her rational understanding of people and life allows her to accept him, at least formally. Here, there seems to be an important omission in the subtitles. Camila’s in bed under the covers at her father’s house after their painful conversation. We hear her voice leaving a message for her half-sister Mariane in Buenos Aires who has just given birth to a first son. Between restrained sobs, Camila congratulates Mariane and says, “Camilo,” we assume the boy’s name. But the subtitles say, “Beautiful” and omit the “Camilo.” Thus, a deep love-tribute to Camila is lost, and it’s an important one for it juxtaposes Camila’s sisterly love against the nonexistent paternal love of her past, and probably her future. 
The interspersed contrivances that contemporize the movie for better or worse, depending on the viewer, include periodic rag music for transitions; flashbacks to Buenos Aires marking each month Camila has been in New York; the subplot of Daniele (another Shakespearean swap, this one of friends); Gregg’s short film (a film within a film alla Pyramus and Thisbee of A Midsummer Night’s Dream); handwritten chapter titles, not unlike acts; and a few dream sequences showing Camila’s unconscious at work on her translation (possibly paralleling the fairies’ forest). But all of these devices work in their mishmash way toward a resolution for the principal characters that completes the movie—with a door shutting and opening, shutting and opening (just like life). Both Camila and Lukas agree to set out and dare change—an unknown future—rather than stagnate in the same place. Piñeiro’s filmmaking mirrors the characters’ trajectory and steps in its own uninhibited and creative direction.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Beguiled

Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Based on the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan

If you’re looking for a Hollywood movie to see, Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled is not that. And if you’re interested in comparing her remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 movie starring Clint Eastwood, search other reviews.
Quite a lot spellbinds in Coppola’s Beguiled, the word itself having multiple meanings for the film. Like Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickinson, Coppola’s work studies human character and psychology, employing a textured, historic setting, full of detail—a female world, cloistered and gated. Although the time is the third year of the Civil War and the location a plantation house built with the traditional front columns of the ruling class, the war is not the story. Instead, it provides a framework for why the finishing school that now occupies the mansion has only five girls remaining. Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), daughter of the former plantation owner, runs Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, with the help of an assistant, Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). Each of the five girls still at the school has a character role in the film, most notably Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning), a sexually hot teenager with a contemptuous personality, and Miss Amy (Oona Laurence), an eleven-year-old scholarly type with long, straight braids. All of the other women, except for their leader Miss Martha, wear elaborately braided hair and dress impeccably, their exquisite gowns sewed, laundered, and pressed at one time by slaves, who have since fled the Virginia homestead. Dress, manners, comportment are one of the “character studies” in the film—upper-class Southern women during the slave era. They curtsy when they greet someone, they speak with cultured articulation, and they learn the skills for their future as privileged women and wives: quiet handiwork, a smattering of French, music, and elegant dining-room etiquette. We see how they’re raised toward a perfection in femininity, like goddesses; their ladylike achievement is already established in childhood, but it also confines them, stifles them.
The next study, and related to the girls’ polite veneer, is their natural sexual drive for a man. And when a handsome man arrives to their cloistered world, all of them—from Martha with her aging face to the youngest girl—seek approbation from the lone man under their roof, Union soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish mercenary. He is the enemy, but being good Samaritans the women must treat his badly wounded leg and let him convalesce before turning him over to the Confederates. We see by their magnetism to him that they also make excuses for keeping him longer. Their innate female biology drives them to dress up for him, flirt, charm, and allure him. The three eldest vie to sleep with him.
The next study Coppola offers us is Cpl. McBurney and how from the start he warmly personalizes each interaction with the women so that they won’t turn him over to the Confederates. He’s a talented manipulator with his gentle, solicitous Irish brogue, but wouldn’t his behavior be the same for any of us caught inside an enemy camp? This enemy camp happens to be all-female with femininity at its most cultivated state, so his wiles work in that direction. And he easily succeeds because other forces are helping him, namely the women’s natural pursuit of a desirable man. The tingling of this male-female dynamic permeates each scene like erotic vapors. Here the title looms most, for the word beguile has several meanings: to charm, enchant, sometimes in a deceptive way, to seduce, to trick, and, in older usage, to help pass the time pleasantly. Beyond these meanings in the film, the movie’s otherworldly, strangely ghostly aura—the eerie forest of Hansel and Gretel—beguiles the audience. Credit for this atmosphere goes to Coppola’s sense of texture and Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography.
The strongest character in the movie is Miss Edwina, whose sad, detached face and resignation to her female lot convey a real person, whereas the other women in the story play their roles. Cpl. McBurney, though also a role, has a real moment when he loses his wounded leg. His violent reaction, his anguish and thrashing madness at the women’s treachery, show us a true reaction to a horrific occurrence. Like the women imprisoned by their chauvinistic society, McBurney is agonizingly trapped in his ruined life.
A brilliant twist occurs at the end of the second act and transforms the quiet sobriety and simmering sexuality of the movie into a gruesome realm, already set-up by the story’s ethereal, fairy-book atmosphere. Horror seamlessly creeps in, and the change in the girls’ personalities from angels to witches is a wonderful stroke. Our gracious Southern hostesses seated around the formal dining table in their beautifully crafted dresses and discreet jewelry, behave demurely as they serve Cpl. McBurney poisonous mushrooms. Miss Martha’s gleaming eye and gloating smile as she meets her enemy’s eye when his choking death throes begin, couldn’t be more sinister. Her formerly aging, pretty face is now pinched and wicked, like Dracula, the mouth suggesting a drip of blood.
We leave the theater full of thoughts, always the sign of a good movie. The study of women’s nature when their sexuality kindles raises questions: What if McBurney had been a Confederate soldier instead of a Yankee? Would the women have revenged so cruelly his deceptions with them? Was amputation really necessary or the result of Miss Martha’s wounded vanity? The creepy mood of the last act suggests the latter; attraction had turned to enmity, with shocking consequences. More questions arise: What happens when several women vie for the same man? Disaster, evil. Why was Cpl. McBurney so dumb as to sneak into one of the women’s rooms wearing shoes and tapping his cane, so that everyone else in the house could hear his movements, bringing on the crisis? How ironic that this Irishman made his way to the New World for a better life and because of dire need joined the Union Army only to have his life destroyed. And finally, what genre is this movie—highbrow horror along the lines of Robert Eggers’s The Witch, with its subtitle A New England Folktale? Whatever its classification, an artist has made it and with a beguiling aesthetic.