Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cultural Musings: Son of Saul, Jacques Rivette, Downton Abbey and The Mindy Project

Géza Röhrig in Son of Saul.

Son of Saul: I can see why the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences chose László Nemes’ Hungarian Holocaust drama Son of Saul as the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. It’s a grim and uncompromising art house movie that easily personifies the perceived intelligent non-Hollywood virtues of movies made in other countries. However, the story of Saul (Géza Röhrig), a concentration camp inmate in Auschwitz, who becomes determined to see that a boy he says is his son be given a proper Jewish burial, also possesses the problems of so many foreign language movies. It’s emotionally dry, quite arid in its execution and in terms of its storytelling, more than a little monotonous.

So why did it receive Hollywood’s top honour? Well, that’s easy to explain – and not just because Hollywood in recent years has become quite partial to films and documentaries on the Holocaust. Simply put, if the Academy doesn’t award the Best Foreign Language Film award to straightforward, more commercial films like Tsotsi, A Better World and Nowhere in Africa (the latter is quite good, nonetheless), it will bestow it on ‘difficult’ films like Amour, Ida and Son of Saul, movies that are more likely to test the patience of audiences. I did like Ida, the 2014 Polish Oscar winner, which like Son of Saul was shot in full frame and was also Holocaust related, but that movie, about a young Polish woman about to take her vows to be a Catholic nun, who discovers her parents were Jewish, was a rich story that said much about Polish attitudes towards its Jewish populace during the Second World War. Son of Saul, by contrast, doesn’t have much to say beyond the tragedy of Saul’s plight and, in fact, almost stretches credulity with the way Saul, who is trying to find a Rabbi to say Kaddish (the Jewish mourning prayer) for his son, pops up in all parts of Auschwitz, so we can see how different facets of its operation – the crematoria, the shooting pits, the disposal of the prisoners’ ashes in the ocean etc. – are carried out. I know something of this subject and it’s doubtful Saul could get around with such ease, even as a member of the privileged Sonderkommandos – Jews who did some of the Nazis’ dirty work (for example, confiscating the new inmates’ possessions) in exchange for better food and lodging. And while lead actor Géza Röhrig has an expressive face, the movie doesn’t give him much to do in terms of characterization or shading.

Truth be told, I can think of any number of better recent Holocaust films, Schindler’s List (1993), of course, but also the Italian, English-language film The Truce (1997), The Pianist (2002), the Hungarian movie Fateless (2002), which did a stellar job in showing how the Jews were psychologically dehumanized in the camps and reduced to mere numbers, and The Grey Zone, Tim Blake Nelson’s little seen and severely underrated 2001 movie about the Sonderkommando revolt in Auschwitz, which took out several crematoria before bring brutally suppressed by the Germans. Nelson’s film even had a touch of appropriate Jewish humour, as the Jewish resistance bickered about tactics and whether or not to shelter a young girl who had survived the gassing. As the late filmmaker David Stein once told me, he could relate to how the men interrupted and talked over each other, a lighter, believable moment in an otherwise dark, despairing film. Son of Saul, besides aping the subplot of the surviving Jewish child, also references the Sonderkommando revolt at the film’s conclusion, though mostly off screen, but unlike Nelson’s powerfully poignant film and the others mentioned above, this movie left me cold.

Filmmaker Jacques Rivette (1928-2016).

Jacques Rivette: It’s no real surprise that the passing of New Wave French filmmaker Jacques Rivette in late January of this year should have received so little mention. The Oscar show’s In Memoriam tribute, which remembers the film luminaries who died in the past year, didn’t acknowledge him – though Chantal Akerman, the (lesser) director did receive notice – nor did Time magazine, which ran obits for fellow New Wave directors Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. In fact, I only just found out Rivette died, at age 87 of Alzheimer’s, when researching my Son of Saul review for this post. This seems par for the course with many less commercially successful filmmakers – brilliant Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi who died in Jan. 2015 and whose credits include Illustrious Corpses, Christ Stopped at Eboli and The Truce, was similarly overlooked – and, interestingly, also for major science fiction writers whose deaths are usually not indicated outside the environs of the SF community. Yet Rivette did enjoy some success in recent years, with commercial releases in Canada of such provocative films as La Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Va Savoir (2001). But tellingly, perhaps his finest film, the deliriously imaginative magical realist fantasy Celine and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau) (1974) was never put out on DVD in North America.

His films typically ranged far and wide, with subject matter all over the map. That may be why he never found quite the audiences he deserved, compared to other New Wave filmmakers, François Truffaut (The 400 Blows) who always had a more commercial bent, as well as Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, who tilled (incredibly well, it should be added) the same ground in most of their films – the complex vagaries of young love for the former, the nasty machinations of the bourgeoisie for the latter. Rivette’s movies, though often set in a theatre environment, could just as likely deal with the travails of a young nun in The Nun (La Religieuse) (1967), the emotional push/pull between an artist and his subject in the four-hour La Belle Noiseuse, and the supernatural love story at the heart of The Story of Marie and Julien (Histoire de Marie et Julien) (2003). He even helmed a French language adaption of Emily Brontë’s English novel Wuthering Heights, with 1985's Howling Wind (Hurlevent). 

Rivette’s movies like his 1961 debut, the mystery Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient), Love on the Ground (L'amour par terre) (1984), Gang of Four (La bande des quatre) (1988), Va savoir and Up, Down, Fragile (Haut bas fragile) (1995) often played with tropes of the thriller or film noir, revolving around individuals who were usually not what they seemed, events taking place that could not be explained, and a sense of menace lurking behind the corners, even in his ostensible love stories. You could never be sure you knew what was going on screen, which made the best of his movies riveting and enticing. They were also usually long, never – except for his possibly Alzheimer-affected 84-minute final film, 2009's Around a Small Moutain (36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup) – running less than two hours in length. (The ultimate Rivette movie, which I have never seen, is 1971's Out 1: Don't Touch Me (Out 1: Noli me tangere), which clocks in at around 13 hours.

Of course, not all his movies worked perfectly (the four-hour La Belle Noiseuse was probably an hour longer than needed, but compelling nonetheless) and he could lose the thread of his films (I’d say the nearly three-hour Haut bas fragile, falls apart in its final third), but I never knew what to expect from a Rivette movie, That was his unique appeal as a filmmaker and what made him stand out from the pack. His death leaves only Jean-Luc Godard, from the original French New Wave, but Godard long ago ceased to be a relevant moviemaker, despite (inexplicable) continued critical acclaim, and, more significantly, has seemingly forgotten how to make interesting movies. Rivette never lost that skill. Moviegoers, who like discerning, intellectually astute films, could do no better than to check out his available output. He was one of the greats.

Laura Carmichael and Harry Hadden-Paton in Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey: I don’t entirely agree with Critic at Large’s Michael Lueger's smart take on Downton Abbey’s series finale – I never felt the show was as repetitive as he thinks it was, but did find its plotlines too often rushed, as in Lady Edith’s road to matrimony – but I, too, will miss the British series which just wrapped up (in North America) after six mostly entertaining and involving seasons. I must admit I would not normally be so pleased with such a sentimental finale and almost consistently upbeat tone but the characters on the show, for the most part, had suffered enough – in the case of Bates and Anna, to a ridiculous degree – and deserved some satisfying closure. Over its six seasons I grew to care about these people so much – and the acting was consistently flawless – that I couldn’t help but wish them all well. And as a snapshot of a socially changing England, it was first rate, Thus, this ending was bittersweet: Downton Abbey had ended but satisfying, as they all lived happily ever after. And I’m fine with that. (As for the critical dismissal of the show, which Michael writes about, well, why take that seriously? These days unless the show is a cable offering, you can expect the reviews to be bad. That’s as myopic as most film criticism is these days.)

Chris Messina and Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project.

The Mindy Project: For its fourth season, Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project has moved to the cable Hulu network, after Fox’s cancellation of the comedy. That means it’s a bit longer, as there are fewer commercials, and a bit raunchier, with more sexual references (usually involving oral sex). But that’s not what’s been most interesting about the first half (13 episodes) of the current season. The relationship between flighty but loveable Indian obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) and irascible, set in his ways Italian Dr. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) took a different turn when Dr. Lahiri became pregnant, moved into Danny’s apartment, and gave birth to their son Leo. So far, so predictable – the show seemed to be putting these two together because they make such a nice couple – but quietly The Mindy Project has been building to something quite unusual for a comedy series: a relationship that, despite its sexual compatibility and genuine love, may not be able to surmount inherent problems in the dynamic between Mindy and Danny. He wants more kids, She doesn’t think she does. He’s not happy she’s setting up a fertility business (with engaging new series regular Garret Dillahunt who plays a conservative Southern doctor). And he doesn't hesitate to tell Mindy how to behave in what he considers a proper manner. The show has been leading up to some of this conflict through its run  – Danny’s mother, played by Rhea Perlman despises Mindy and only recently began to warm up to her, but Danny has rarely called her on her dismissive attitude of his beloved – but, particularly in the last two episodes of the first half of the season, it’s all come to an emotional head. Realizing that patriarchal Danny isn’t respecting her desires and incensed that he is sneakily trying to get her pregnant again, Mindy confronted him in one of the most powerful and disturbing scenes the usually sunny series has yet run. Mindy’s anger, hurt and disappointment as she assailed Danny was palpable acting at its finest and Messina’s near deadpan response – he simply does not get where his fiancée is coming from – matched her perfectly. The next episode strongly implied that Mindy was going to leave Danny and the manner in which it suggested that, with Mindy sneaking off to her not yet rented apartment, on Christmas Eve no less, and removing the For Sale sign from its window was handled with beautifully evoked delicacy, especially after a saddened Mindy returned to Danny’s bed.

Relationship issues are naturally fodder for any number of television shows, but – aside from the fraught relationship between cheated-upon Alicia Florrick (Julianne Margulies) and her once-philandering husband Peter (Chris Noth) in The Good Wife, currently in its final season – I haven’t seen anything that has struck me as this honest and true, particularly as the majority of TV comedies (Black-ish, Modern Family, The Grinder) prefer to traffic in mildly squabbling but happily married folk. I don’t know where The Mindy Project will go with Danny and Mindy’s relationship but even to present a genuinely caring couple who may not make it anyway because their differences are too severe to overcome is pretty revelatory and revolutionary, in the same gutsy vein that Mindy broke the perfect, thin white female TV norm. I have more than a few problems with the show as a whole, including incredibly annoying supporting characters (yes, you, Morgan!) or underused ones (British doctor Jeremy Reed, played by Ed Weeks, becomes a little more diminished as a character each season), but the strong central relationship between Mindy and Danny has always been its saving grace. Now it's gone to the next level of intensity and I, for one, will be along for the ride, even if it ends – as seems possible, even likely – on a saddened note. Television rarely surprises in this unexpected 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 is currently wrapping up a course on genre cinema.

1 comment:

  1. Bless you for not dissing the Downton Abbey finale, Shlomo. The series sucked me in despite my resistance to it, and as you say, the characters had suffered enough. A sentimental ending in which they all lived happily ever after was just fine with me.