Friday, July 17, 2015

Recent Cinema – Wild Tales, Leviathan, Félix et Meira and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

A scene from Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales.

Non-American films might not show up as often on Toronto movie screens as I would like. but when they do, they usually offer an adult, different point of view, whether the subjects they raise are unique to their country or share affinities with my own. Here are four recent examples; none of them masterpieces but all well worth your time.

Erica Rivas in Wild Tales.
Wild Tales: One of the blackest comedies I have ever seen. Damián Szifron’s Argentinian-set omnibus film is comprised of six stories, whose only commonality is the consistently outrageous execution of the tales, which include a Duel-like (times 10, actually) battle between two angry drivers, a man who has had enough with his car being towed, which sends him on a violent downward spiral, a spoiled rich kid involved in a fatal hit and run, of a pregnant woman, no less, and a dramatic Jewish wedding to end all Jewish weddings. That only scratches the surface in describing the nutty goings-on in Wild Tales, whose prologue begins aptly enough with the passengers of a plane suddenly discovering suggestive links between them and ends, well, I won’t spoil it but it’s the most disturbing of the tales in the movie. (The only dud is the roadside tale wherein a loan shark stops in at a highway restaurant and is recognized by one of the waitresses on duty. That one merely peters out uninterestingly.)

I’ve seen a lot of movies in my time but even I couldn’t believe some of the situations Szifron set up in the movie, jaw-dropping scenarios where you can only remark or gasp; he didn’t actually show that, did he? Wild Tales, at the very least, matches, and sometimes, tops anything John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar (who is one of the film’s producers, the film is a Spanish-Argentinean co-production), Ken Russell or Bertrand Blier could have conceived of – a high bar of over the top filmmaking indeed. And all of it is depicted in a gleeful, delighted tone that yet is never mean spirited or cruel. It’s as if Szifron is posing as an anthropologist, examining us human beings under a cinematic microscope ad wondering, stunned, at the crazy, excessive antics we can get up to. Admittedly, none of it quite as clever, story-wise as it could have been – there are no Usual Suspects-type brilliant plot twists on tap here or even punch lines out of an inventive O. Henry short story – but the movie is so blackly entertaining that. at the end, that doesn’t really matter. Wild Tales certainly lives up to its moniker – and then some.

Aleksey Serebryakov in Leviathan. (Photo by Anna Matveeva, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Leviathan: Vladimir Putin’s corrupt Russia is the backdrop, a character if you will, to a little guy up against the wall drama in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s fact-based Leviathan, which has faced censorship at home for its no holds barred, scathing denunciation of a country where justice is almost impossible to find. It lays out the story of Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a short-tempered car mechanic, who is facing the likelihood that his home, which he built himself, is to be expropriated by the town, supposedly to build a telecommunications centre. But Vadim (Roman Madyanov), a petty crook, who is also the town’s mayor, may have personal plans of his own for when Kolya’s property is demolished. As Kolya’s second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his teenage son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodyaev) look on, and try to calm the angry man down, he makes a last ditch effort, through the offices of an old lawyer friend, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to save his residence. It’s not spoiling things when I point out that things don’t exactly go Kolya’s way.

Roman Madianov in Leviathan. (Photo by Anna Matveeva)
If Leviathan was laid out merely as a prosaic, small-fry-facing-up-against-the-powers-that-be movie, it would not have been as interesting as it actually is. (That’s been done to death.) To be sure, that is part of the film, but it’s also a moving, poignant look at Kolya and his desperately unhappy family, who smoke and drink far too much (Russia has one of the industrialized world’s highest mortality rates) and in the case of Kolya’s son Roma, still mourning his dead mother – Kolya’s first wife died of cancer – also lashing out against his father. They’re generally dissatisfied with all aspects of their existence. Dima, the lawyer from the big city (Moscow), adds a layer of sophistication – and tragic complication – to the movie but also personifies the townsfolk’s deep distrust of Russia’s centre of government, and by extension, Putin himself. (The film was co-written by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin and is well acted throughout.) I could have done without the oh so obvious scene of a hunting party whose targets are iconic pictures of past Soviet leaders, from Lenin to Gorbachev, though the fraught meetings of Vadim and the town bishop – an unholy alliance of religion and capitalism – do make an impact.

Leviathan also looks great, courtesy of Mikhail Krichman’s ravishing cinematography though unlike The Return, Zvyagintsev’s equally gorgeous 2003 movie, set on Russia’s coastline, the view from here is much more forbidding, decaying, ramshackle institutions, reflecting the backwardness of Kolya’s town and the decrepit state of Russia itself. Factor in the townpeople’s generally unhealthy lifestyles, cynical take on the events transpiring around them and their often boorish, selfish behaviour and it becomes abundantly clear that today’s Russia is an unredeemable mess. Ironically, the movie is loosely based on an American incident but adapting it to the former Soviet Union makes for a perfect fit. Zvyagintsev has seen what Russia has become and it ain’t pretty.

Hadas Yaron in Félix et Meira.

Félix et Meira: One of the more interesting developments in recent Québécois cinema, emanating from Canada’s French-speaking province, is the, belated, recognition of the ‘other’, that is the non-French Canadian residing in the province and particularly in Quebec’s largest city Montreal, (That metropolis is composed of approximately 20 percent Anglophones and 20 per cent Allophones, with neither English nor French as the mother tongue.) Fine movies like Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar pivoted around immigrants who spoke French but came from Arabic countries, Lebanon and Algeria, respectively. Félix et Meira (Felix and Meira) is a bit different, postulating a complex relationship between two lost souls, Félix (Martin Dubreuil), a French-Canadian man reeling from the recent loss of his father and Meira (Hadas Yaron), a married with child Orthodox Jewish woman, stifled in her marriage and, like Félix, needing to make a human connection.

Director Maxime Giroux, who also co-wrote the film with Alexandre Laferrière, is clearly interested in opposites and he’s smartly seized on the Montreal suburb of Outremont as his setting, a place where, uniquely, the Orthodox live chock a block with their French-Canadian neighbours, albeit not without friction. Félix et Meira, however, is not a Canadian version of Spike Lee’s incendiary Do The Right Thing –  nor does it set out to be one – but, instead chooses to tell a quiet love story, which it purveys in a ruminative, low key fashion.

Martin Dubreuil and Hadas Yaron in Félix et Meira.
It's an appealing approach, but I didn’t quite believe how Félix and Meira’s relationship developed. Perhaps Girard didn’t either, because he takes an odd turn partially into their relationship. They meet when Félix intrigued and attracted by Meira’s presence at a local diner, where she buys kosher meat, decides to find out more about her. She rejects him at first but soon warms up to him. And that’s where the film’s problems come in because suddenly a black and white musical film clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe pops up, pretty much out of nowhere. At first it seems to be another manifestation of Meira’s budding secular impulses and immersion into a non-Jewish world – when the film begins, she is surprised by her disapproving husband Shulem (Luzer Twersky) listening to a hidden Wendy Rene soul record – but soon enough it’s clear that this video clip functions as a bridge to overcome the hurdles of delineating the slow genesis of their relationship, and thus avoids the reality of how they can believably consummate it in the first place, as Hasidic eyes and ears observe pretty much everything Meira does. (She doesn’t have the freedom to roam that Félix does.) She even sneaks off to see Félix without any explanation being offered as to where she’s stashed her kid so as to be able to have this assignation. Later scenes in Venice are similarly problematic. (The Tharpe clip likely also suggests, besides indicating Meira’s full entry into the non-religious world that she is ba'alat teshuvah, someone who embraces Orthodoxy and was not born into it. The movie does not elaborate on that possibility, however.)

The far-fetched nature of this forbidden relationship aside –  Twersky, who comes from an Orthodox Jewish background advised on the film so its details are authentic, but he also admits that this type of relationship is not the norm, and indeed a far more likely scenario would be a Hasidic man taking up with a secular (Jewish or non-Jewish) woman –  the actors come close to selling the entire movie on screen. There's a beautiful delicacy in Yaron’s and Dubreuill’s scenes together, as they tentatively gaze at each other before even engaging in any physical contact. Those moments are so moving in their longing for each other and their accompanying fears of what their connection might do to their lives, even though Meira, of course, has far more to lose.

Yaron, who essayed a different type of Orthodox Jewish role in Rama Burshtein’s Israeli film Fill the Void –  one where her character would never ever think of leaving the fold –  gives a particularly expressive and poignant performance in Félix et Meira, with none of the declamatory obviousness present in movies like Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies where Renée Zellweger’s Orthodox Jewish heroine was turned into a kosher Norma Rae.

Girard's direction is occasionally quite inventive as in a scene where Meira is sent (exiled) to a cousin in the U.S. As she walks the streets of Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, the screen seems to expand as Meira revels in the joy of being among her own familiar kind instead of being a minority in a non-Jewish environment in Outremont. Less successful is Girard’s depiction of Meira’s husband who doesn’t register as strongly as Félix and Meira do. He is offered some sympathy as he tries to understand and sometimes browbeat his ‘wayward’ wife but it’s not nearly as generous a portrait as that given Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) in a similarly themed role in John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo. Mostly though, this is Félix and Meira’s story and that central relationship always compels even if it’s located within a sometimes false and unconvincing milieu. When Yaron and Dubreuill are centre stage, the film is magic.

Ronit Elkabtez, Menashe Noy, and Simon Abkarian in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: Orthodox Judaism or rather its strictures is the subject of Gett; The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s final film in the trilogy of the life of Viviane and Eliahou Amsalem, first seen in To Take a Wife (2004) and Shiva (2008). The series began with Viviane’s deep unhappiness within the patriarchal bosom of her husband’s family, segued into the Jewish mourning period when a family member passed away and, now, ends in religious court, which in Israel is the arbiter of Jewish marriage and divorce (Israelis who want a civil wedding must arrange that abroad though it is then recognized by the state). Viviane (Ronit Elkabtez), desperate and wanting to have the freedom to remarry within Judaism, has tried and fail over and over again to convince her husband (Simon Abkarian) to grant her the Jewish divorce (the gett) she requires. The Beth Din (religious court) is her final option. (I couldn’t help thinking of an episode early in the run of The Sopranos when Tony Soprano used a unique threat to compel a recalcitrant Orthodox Jewish man to grant that gett.) While the U.S. has made great strides in forcing Orthodox Jewish men to stop blackmailing their wives by refusing to accede to the gett, Israel, too much in thrall to the Orthodox, is another matter. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem lays out the labourious process, over several years, wherein again and again Viviane and her lawyer Carmel (Menashe Noy) appear before the trio of religious judges deciding the case and fail each time to move Eliahou to do the right thing, that is when he evens bothers showing up for the hearing.

Within that skein, the movie takes a harsh unsparing look at the judges’ general disinterest in and dismissal of Viviane’s plight, which they deem hysterical. They compound the insult by constantly pushing her to make every effort to save her marriage even though the poor woman clearly has had enough. (You could be forgiven if you get angry at this injustice in the courtroom. One also has to ask why Israel continues to allow this state of affairs, where sexist judges can essentially dismiss the suffering women denied their divorces, to fester.)

The Beth Din, in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.
Gett does till the ground of the previous films in the trilogy a bit too often and the constant court appearances do become tiresome and repetitive, though that is also the film’s point. (For an alternate Israeli look at the plight of women facing sexism, in the military, check out Talya Lavie’s fascinating film Zero Motivation, a quirky M*A*S*H meets Chekhov comedy/drama about three opposite women stuck on an isolated army base.) It also plays fast and loose, as so many films of this type do, with courtroom rules, sometimes allowing objections to be sustained and other times not, even when the objections seem equally legitimate. At another occasion, despite admonitions from the leading (and most dismissive) judge that Hebrew be the only language spoken in his courtroom, the Moroccan born Eliahou is allowed a long soliloquy in his native French. (The movie is French-Israel co-production so use of that language may have been a requirement for the funding.) We also never learn much about Viviane’s lawyer, Carmel and his motives for taking on her case. He’s from the same Orthodox community as the Amsalems so his courageous stance on behalf of Viviane, and presumably other such women, called agunot, which in Hebrew means ‘chained ‘to their marriages, ought to be placed in some explanatory context. He remains a legal mouthpiece for Viviane’s arguments and not much more than that.

As with Félix et Meira, it is the lead actors in Gett who rivet you to the screen. Ronit Elkabetz (The Band's Visit) may be her country’s best actress and in Gett her character’s pain and anguish are written in her face. You won’t be able to take your eyes off her and the gamut of emotions Viviane displays including, even startlingly, love for her husband, makes for an extraordinarily well-modulated performance. There’s even a hint that she bears some (though not most of the) responsibility for the dissolution of her marriage, if only in that she possessed a free spirit that she ought to have known would not sit well with Eliahou and his traditional family. Simon Abkarian is just as impressive as he takes what could have been a stock villain – and in so many ways Eliahou is indeed villainous –  and renders him, if not a sympathetic person, at least an understandable one. That soliloquy where he declaims, movingly, about his deep feelings regarding Viviane, allows one to glean, if only a little, the genuine love he felt for his wife when they first married even as his demons, rooted in familial upbringing, allowed him to be so cruel to her later on. Gett is thus a double tragedy, that of Orthodox Jewish women consigned to purgatory when they want to escape the shackles of an unbearable marriage and also of a loving union that might have been if Viviane’s husband had made an effort to actually make it work. The film’s conclusion is thus not cathartic – it really couldn’t be considering how long it’s all taken to unfold – but a sad recognition of that fact, indelibly etched in the faces of the two people who were they different individuals could have navigated the rocky shoals of matrimony in another, more positive way.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

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