Sunday, February 24, 2008

Reviews: Persepolis, 4 Weeks, The Longing

I've been meaning to write a review of Persepolis for a week now, so here are few thoughts about most of the films I've seen of late. Reading the archives of this site, I cannot believe how many movies I used to go to or watch in a given week, but then I used to write a lot more and read for pleasure as well....


PersepolisTwo weeks ago, I saw Persepolis (2007, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjanie Satrapi, directors, based on the novels by Satrapi), the very faithful film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed graphic novels, Persepolis 1-4, which appeared from 2000 to 2003 in their original French, and then in translation as Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003) and Persepolis 2: The Story of Return (2004), both from Pantheon. A good friend of mine, Phoebe M., originally recommended the first English translation, and I quickly fell in love with it, incorporating it into a literature course I taught a few years back. The books together narrate the unfolding of Satrapi's childhood and adolescence against the backdrop of political and social upheavals that occurred in her native Iran from the late 1977s, the last years of the Western-oriented and supported, authoritarian Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, through his fall and exile, which culminated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979-1980, and the subsequent, brutal 8-year Iran-Iraq War, launched by Saddam Hussein with the backing of then US-president Ronald Reagan and VP George H. W. Bush. (Reagan's administration later engaged in an illegal arms trade with Iran to fund the Nicaraguan contras, which exploded as the Iran Contra scandal, but none of this is part of Satrapi's interest or focus.)

In the film as in the book, Satrapi introduces us to her upper-bourgeois progressive, left-leaning family, including her liberated and often funny but deeply wise grandmother, widowed as a result of the Shah's machinations, her politically connected father, her mother, and other family members who initially embraced the Shah's overthrow only to find themselves in the crosshairs of the new regime, which grew increasingly severe, as the external threat (of war) combined with its internal, societal obsession with a puritanical understanding of faith and practice. Satrapi conveys the normalcy she as a upper-middle-class child is able to establish amidst this turmoil, which results in teenage rebellion and resistance fueled, in part, by Western culture in the form of punk rock music. (As a child of privilege (her mother is a descendent of the 19th century Shah, Satrapi naturalizes her own class and subject position, and one of the things I wanted to know about both in the book and the movie was how Iranian women and girls of other classes, especially the working-class and poor, experienced this period.) Eventually, her parents become so worried about her outspokenness that they send her off at age 14 to Vienna, Austria, where she develops tenuous friendships and hungers for the stability of home. She returns, marries, divorces, and then sets off again for Europe, this time wiser and surer of herself and her abilities, but also tempered by a deeper understanding and love of her troubled country. The genius of the graphic novels lies in Satrapi's imagery, which manages to be simultaneously pared down, both in color and formal terms, and richly evocative, in the the skillful narration of what is essentially a straightforward, moving memoir, and, in the seamless melding of the two.

The film, as I note above, almost directly mirrors the books, so the real novelty lies in the black-and-white animation, which removes the competitive and productive tension all graphic novels generate between the words as a conventional narrative text and the imagery, which often tells a parallel and sometimes different story, in favor of what is essentially a superbly rendered animated film for adults. Major French actors, including Catherine Deneuve (Mrs. Satrapi), Chiara Mastroianni (adult Marjane) and Simon Abkarian (Mr. Satrapi) provide the voices, and there's never a moment when the film flags or falters. A colleague who also saw the film mentioned that she wished there'd been something else, new, added, but for me, the transformation, which entailed considerable artistry in maintaining all that was best in the books while translating it into cinematic terms, succeeded tremendously. I'd read that the initial plans to dub the film with English-speaking actors has been dropped, but I hope that it occurs, not because I want to lose La Deneuve's dulcet tones, but because I think an English-language version may be more likely to reach many people in the US who know little to nothing about Iran and fail to see people like Satrapi's family (or Azar Nafisi's, whose Reading Lolita in Tehran offers a similarly personal though divergent take on the same era), whose humanity, whose very being, gets lost in fear-laden political abstractions.


Annamaria MarincaA few nights ago I saw 4 Weeks, 3 Months, 2 Days, the new and heralded film by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. I'd been told that the film had moments of real horror, which I mistook for a "horror film," but after seeing it, I realized that the horror is ethical in nature, and definitely present, in both the theme and the plot. What's more, this is one of the most truthful and thought-provoking films I've ever seen in a while, and it treats the topic of abortion with the complexity it deserves, rather than the false choices and cop-outs (Juno, Knocked Up, etc.) that Hollywood is so fond of. I'd add that 4 Weeks could stand as one powerful though extremely disturbing response to anyone who wants to ban or severely limit abortions, birth control medications, or RU-486 and similar drugs but has not considered or refuses to consider the implications.

The scenario in brief is this: during the latter days of the Ceaucescu Communist dictatorship in Romania, a female college student, Gabita Dragut (Laura Vasiliu), with the aid of her much more outgoing and self-assured roommate friend, Otilia (Annamaria Marinca, above, seeks an abortion, which is criminalized. Ceaucescu fetishized childbearing and punished both the pregnant woman and the abortionist, as well as anyone assisting them, if they were caught. The pregnant young woman is no icon or heroine, but a passive-aggressive, manipulative, dissembling mess, which becomes quite important when we learn the awful ramifications of her approach to acquiring and then trying to deal with an unspeakably sleazy male abortionist, Viorel "Bebe," aka Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Mungiu first presents Bebe as reasonable, almost sympathetic (he takes time to look after his mother, though the scene shows his harsh edges which, to my viewing, only augured trouble) and, given the circumstances, almost professional. But then he makes a shocking demand that only underlines the extreme vulnerability of the young women, and cruelty of the system they're living in and under. Yet from this point forward we witness in Otilia a fierce determination that sits beside an almost unvoiceable disgust and horror, a disgust at what she has been forced to submit to, at what she's allowed to occur, at what her boyfriend, whose snobbish urbane family casually treats her like a country bumpkin, cannot even begin to fathom, despite his obvious love for her. There's also disgust, verging on rage, that merges not with sympathy for, but with empathy--which it can only be, as she is as deeply implicated and involved in what transpires--with Gabita, and the ensuing portion of the film, whose details I cannot reveal, shows Otilia operating almost by sheer force of will, and pushes the notions of ethics and empathy to a near breaking-point. The acting by the leads is excellent, but Marinca especially burns a hole in the screen with her ferocity and determination, while Vasiliu's pusillanimous neediness raises your hackles as it's meant to. This is acting.

At least twice during the latter portion of the film, which pivots on several moments of rising suspense, I sat in uneasy, sometimes stunned silence. There is a moment where Otilia is wandering through the barely-lit streets of Bucharest, on a mission in the most literal sense, and the screen grows so dark it's almost unclear what's going on, and worse, what might happen, which induces a feeling of dread--pending horror--that's almost visceral. The film's conclusion includes a little joke, like a steam gauge quickly opened, that barely relieves all that has come before it, but it and the plate of food that embodying it serve as objective correlatives to what you eventually surmise: people, in this case women, may get by, may get on with their lives, may even still be able to live and hope and love, with a little or, in this case, a lot of help from their friends, after suffering, even under the harshest circumstances.

In this sense, the film was a provocative thematic companion to Persepolis, and I'm glad I saw them. Both films deserved Oscars tonight, but as of this entry, the first lost in its category, and the second was not nominated at all. I'll say it: typical!


SehnsuchtThough only 2 years old at most, my DVD player finally gave out, so I've been watching rented films on my computer, whose screen its on its last flicker. One film I rented recently, daring my computer not to fail, was Jürgen Brüning's 2003 film, The Longing (Saudade-Sehnsucht). I got it because of the Brazilian them, but I would not recommend this horribly acted, poorly plotted, melodramatic and maudlin wreck to anyone, except that it contains one scene that nearly makes up for the entire rest--waste--of the film. But you have to sit through the rest to get to it, and if you're not interested in depictions of Afrobrazilian gay people, then skip the film completely.

To summarize the plot, three 30-ish German guys are staying at an estate in Paraty (the picturesque historical town southwest of Rio de Janeiro, on the way to São Paulo state and city) belonging to the father of one of them, the spoiled and sulking Cyrus (Tarik Qazi), who is seeking his mother. The other two are a former hiphop (!) musician, Tim (Daniel Bätscher) who also mopes about when not blaring his awful raps, and the tragic blond Erik (Hendrik Schneider), who has lost money on the stock market and complains about being broke. To make money, the trio tape themselves having frolicking and broadcast it on the Net. (I'm not making this up.) They collectively treat the Afrobrazilian maid, Maria (naturally, played by Maria Lucia da Silva Ludwig), an adherent of the syncretic spiritualist faith Macumba (naturally), like she's an idiot, though you quickly learn she and a friend, also Afrobrazilian, hold a mutually dim view of these three. And rightly so. Things unravel from here, at least for Erik, who's involved in a deadly accident on the beach after a near rape (!), then, while in his own fit of guilt and pining, falls in love with an Afrobrazilian telenovela actor, Miguel (Aldri d'Anunciação) who just happens to hanging around a park in downtown Paraty, and, implausibilities of implausibilities, is also the brother of the man that dies in the encounter with Erik. At the funeral, Miguel's mother, played by the (very) famous and ageless Afrobrazilian actress Zezé Motta (star of Xica da Silva and other notable films--she was a replacement for Sonia Braga, who had the great sense to stay far away from this debacle), thinks Erik was her late son's friend and...well, it's just not worth going into. Suffice it say that somehow Maria, after taking Cyrus and Tim to a Macumba ceremony, with they both praise and mock, links up the hiphopper manqué links up with a real local hiphop group (his longing), and aids Cyrus in seeking his vanished mother (his longing). She isn't able to do much for Erik, who traipses after Miguel to Rio, where the telenovela is filmed, out of love.

There are more implausibilities, including a plane crash and so forth, but it's in Rio that the truly interesting scene occurs. Somehow or other, Miguel, who blurts out interesting comments about the plight of Afrobrazilians, decides to attend a meeting of a Black gay group. At this meeting, which is, I remember correctly, male and trans, a fiery young group leader, Fabio (Sérgio Menezes), holds forth on the social, political and cultural marginalization of Black Brazilians, gay Brazilians, and then gay Afrobrazilians. His disquisition is transfixing, and immediately made me wonder whether this was a documentary scene in an otherwise fiction film, or a fictional rendering of a real event. I also wondered whether the director, Brüning, had written his words, whether they were extemporaneous, or improvised, and whether such a speech, and moment, had ever been rendered in a Brazilian film. Of course I wanted to see more about this, which could have been its own documentary, short or feature, and which had the only decent acting in the entire film, but it was over in an eyeblink. Also fascinating was the fact that in the audience are identifical twin drag performers, the Dolly-Twins (Márcio and Marcelo Rodrigues), whose ultra-blasé responses and expressions provide a comical dose of irony, though they do keep listening until Fabio finishes and then jointly give him their "beijos" (kisses) before leaving to prepare for their star turn at a local bathhouse later on. The blond beloved shows up, in about as clumsy an irony as is possible, Fabio mildly reads Miguel, the lovers embrace, and the scene is over. We get no context for the scene except that Miguel is already portrayed as politically aware and that, to the extent that it's possible, he's partially out. But I kept thinking, what led Brüning to cram the scene in this film? Was it a desire to color the other narrative, along with familiarity with a similar group, Quimbanda Dudu, which exists in Bahia, and which is affiliated with Bahia's longstanding, activist organization Grupo Gay da Bahia? Have films of any sort been made about either group, or about Rio's gay rights group Arco Íris (Rainbow), or the ones in São Paulo? And given the rarity of representations of out Afrobrazilian LGBTQs, especially politically conscious ones, in documentary or fiction films, doesn't this warrant greater interest? It manages to queer an already queer film in ways I imagine the director never imagined. Nothing I've read about this film addresses this moment, which verges on breaking the diegetic trajectory of the movie.

In the accompanying documentary on the making of the film, Brüning does say that all his films are flawed, thus explaining the majority of what's on the screen, but with this one he wanted to portray something different about Black Brazilians than we usually see. (In the same documentary, Annunciação says that depictions of gays in Brazilian films are rare, though there are some high profile examples, in films such as Madame Satã, Carandiru, etc.) He certainly does that in this one scene, and it's a shame that he didn't decide to scrap the rest of what surrounds it and build on what I'm assuming is a minor cinematic revelation.


  1. Gosh, after that description, one can't help but ask whether you could put the clip on youtube. Sounds fascinating.

  2. I couldn't copy the clip because I don't have space on my computer, and my VHS-DVD record went to that electronics purgatory in the...Dumpster in the alley out back.