In the first of a new monthly feature, Getintothis’ Chris Leathley runs the rule over April’s best cinema releases, including Italian fables, British celluloid memoirs and Anglo-American neo-noir.
As 2019 progresses, in cinematic terms if in no other way, we can be confident of a vintage period and there’s been plenty to enjoy as a film fan.
Interestingly, much of what has been released has had political connotations, overt or otherwise.
We live in turbulent times, where to produce any kind of art is to necessarily be political, if you are to comment meaningfully on our current society.
That is not to say that directors and screenwriters have been constructing ideological edifices on screen, clumsy and obdurate in their perspectives.
Rather, we have seen filmmakers subvert genres (horror being a prime example), or weave fantasy and reality in order to send not-so-coded messages to their audiences and beyond.
More than this, recent cinematic releases have been bold and provocative in terms of method as well as content.
Crude propaganda is not what contemporary filmmaking appears to be about, whatever the political motives of the directors themselves.
The moral complexities and ambiguities of everyday life have been writ large in the movies that we have seen and this is certainly to be lauded.
If these films have not always consistently hit their mark, that is simply a reflection of their broad scope and ambition.
Great artists are risk-takers who reject complacency and resent restrictive expectations. On this basis alone, we can be well satisfied with the films shown over the last few weeks.
Film of the Month
Happy as Lazzaro
Dir: Alice Rohrwacher
European and American filmmakers have often sought to translate the spiritual and the sacred on to the screen, with wildly different approaches and results.
Few, if any, however, have managed to incorporate the sense of earthy lifestyle and environment (except, perhaps, Pasolini) within a tapestry of religiosity and mysticism like Alice Rohrwacher. Happy as Lazzaro, Rohrwacher’s third feature, avoids coarse proselytising nor does it fixate exclusively on matters ethereal.
Instead, Rohrwacher is creative enough to construct elements of pastoral and urban fantasia that can co-exist seamlessly alongside neo-realist depictions of a roughly hewn existence. Moreover, Happy as Lazzaro avoids monotony by ensuring that for every bitter truth, there is a humorous aside or moment of elegant introspection.
Just like life itself, you might say.
The film itself revolves around its titular character but not in the manner that you might expect.
Lazzaro is a gentle figure whom some (erroneously, as it turns out) believe to be simple-minded. As a result, he is carelessly exploited. This exploitation by his bosses, the corpulent gangmaster or the arch Marquesa, is mirrored by the actions of his fellow sharecroppers on a tobacco plantation.
This tobacco plantation appears to be run along corrupt lines, with the owners ruthlessly taking advantage of the plantation’s isolated locale (it has been cut off due to flooding and a bridge collapse) and the limited education of the working populace in the area.
It is a weirdly anachronistic environment, with hints of 19th Century serfdom combined with 70s/80s capitalist vulgarity. We are never really clear early on as to how and why such a community has continued to persist.
As the film evolves, so does Lazzaro’s role. He becomes entangled, wholly innocently, within a chaotic, farcical kidnap plot with the disaffected son of the Marquesa, Tancredi.
Both directly and indirectly, this leads to people seeking their fortunes away from the plantation. Eventually, Lazzaro will do the same but in highly unusual circumstances.
To reveal more would be to ruin the film but it is sufficient to say that Happy as Lazzaro develops into a curious mix of magic realism and urban drama. Indeed, my best description of its style and content would be to imagine that Salman Rushdie had decided to make a film, alongside perhaps, a young Ken Loach.
It might help to think of them both being very drunk at the time too.
Much of what Rohrwacher has to say in this stunning film is allegorical and implied. She trusts us enough to encourage varied interpretations of the protagonists, not just Lazzaro, but also his fellow workers or indeed his draconian superiors.
There is very much a sense that Rohrwacher chooses to utilise both myth and parable as two narrative devices in Happy as Lazzaro but applied to a very different contemporary context by the film’s conclusion. One of the most impressive facets of this film is that Rohrwacher works within these idioms without loss of subtlety or mystery, even in the urban metropolis of the present day.
That, in and of itself, is the most beguiling part of Happy as Lazzaro – it remains an enigma. Not a frustrating or pretentious conundrum but a sensual puzzle, one that we derive huge pleasure from diving into even if resolution appears unlikely.
Nevertheless, Happy as Lazzaro does not fight shy of harsh reality.
Life on the margins, extraordinary and fantastical margins at that, are never trivialised. While every act may appear to reside in a psychogenic fugue, most explicitly on Lazzaro’s part, we do not lose sight of the suffering on display.
Poverty, and the moral compromises enforced by it, are openly displayed throughout and overall, the cinematic aesthetic of Happy as Lazzaro is finely grained and textured.
Attention is drawn to the natural world, both rural and man-made. From wind billowing the trees and fields, to supernatural moonlight and on to dust motes wafting in rays of spasmodically lit interiors, we are treated to visuals of painterly deftness and depth.
This does not preclude a wonderful sense of naturalism within the cinematography employed by Rohrwacher. It’s her unique mix of both mysticism and blunt truth that makes Happy as Lazzaro so special. The fact that this is evident in both style and content is reflective of Rohrwacher’s supreme mastery of her craft.
Of course, it is always difficult to judge a film objectively without reasonable distance and time having passed.
That said, it remains to be seen if any other 2019 release can surpass what is a magnificent work of cinema, one that will surely persist in our affections and imagination well beyond the year of release.
Best of the Rest…
Ray and Liz
Dir: Richard Billingham
Richard Billingham made his name in the world of contemporary Art with a striking photographic collection entitled Ray’s a Laugh, a volume that depicted his mother and father, two charismatic but deeply flawed parents who brought Billingham up in the Black Country from the 1970s on.
This would be the genesis for what would later become Ray & Liz, a cinematic production that defies lazy Kitchen Sink tropes and conventions of decades past.
Rather, Billingham chooses to frame his recollections of a frantically dysfunctional childhood in a film of poetic nuance and elliptical memory.
As a result, it’s a breathtakingly audacious depiction of Billingham’s life in three rough phases – early childhood, uncomfortable adolescence and his parents later separation leading to his father living a solitary existence within a tower block.
This isn’t a movie that tries to provide a neatly packaged summary of Billingham’s experiences or the lives of his parents, nor does it wallow in working class cliché or romanticism.
Billingham’s choice of non-linear time-shifts and meandering, fragmentary exposition mimics our own partial recollections of past events. Rarely, if ever, do we enjoy crystal clear perception of what has been, even if Hollywood regularly and crassly begs to differ.
Billingham acknowledges this as his camera ruminates upon earlier traumas which are not necessarily his.
Indeed, one supposes, that he could not have been fully aware of these problematic events or behaviours at the time. In that sense then, Billingham is bringing artifice into proceedings but always with a clear-eyed rationale in mind.
Similarly, Billingham is unapologetic in his use of photographic sensibilities when constructing scenes and effects, be it the scarlet lighting in his father’s tower block flat or the haunting lunar luminescence of boyhood walks at night by his neglected younger brother.
He is aiming for an artistic sincerity that belongs in the gallery as well as on the streets.
This contradicts most other filmmakers in this area although Terence Davies certainly applied rigorous aesthetics to his own working-class cinema in films like Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992).
Most importantly, Ray & Liz does not sentimentalise.
The horror, the humour, the hope and the despair are all present, but within an over-arching filmic vision that points to life beyond the superficialities that so often absorb our attention in films of this ilk.
Ray & Liz is staunchly rooted in the working-class communities of Thatcherite Britain and before, but it implies dimensions to these lives that have all too infrequently been explored.
It is with this in mind, that we suggest that Ray & Liz is one of the most remarkable works of British cinema in years.
Out of Blue
Dir: Carol Morley
Carol Morley is a vibrant voice at the heart of British filmmaking.
Earlier films such as Dreams of a Life (2011) and The Falling (2014) proved that Morley is a director with a prominent capacity for imaginative cinema.
Out of Blue therefore generated considerable anticipation ahead of release this year but, if truth be told, only partially delivers on these expectations.
The premise of Out of Blue is one that will seem familiar to all Noir fans. A veteran detective (Mike Hoolihan – played to grizzled perfection by Patricia Clarkson) pursues a murder case involving the bright, articulate daughter of a local scion of the community, Col. Tom Rockwell.
The case appears elusively malleable, both in terms of cause and execution.
Moreover, Hoolihan is investigating whilst battling internal demons that have been exacerbated by past alcoholism and the increasing scepticism of her worried colleagues.
Morley deviates from the ordinary conventions of this storyline by experimenting in fractured cinematic methodologies, especially in the form of fluid editing and seamless blurring of the real and the unreal.
The viewer, until the film’s denouement, is never truly confident of who or what really exists within the movie.
Out of Blue therefore leaves vapour trails of meaning in its wake.
While the actual physical ‘crime’ that is depicted is relatively straightforward, the real mystery of Out of Blue is where Detective Hoolihan’s traumatised personality derives from. Indeed, one could argue that Out of Blue is less a detective drama and much more a schizoid memoir of infant psychological injury.
Out of Blue is certainly a graphically sumptuous meditation on past, present and our place within this continuum.
The script is literate but sporadic, leading to a loss of narrative momentum at key points within the film. This is regrettable and probably explains why many critics have been disappointed by the movie, perhaps expecting the lugubrious loquacity of classic Noir.
It is also probably fair to say that the film’s resolution, such as it is, might strike viewers as disappointingly banal when compared with what has gone before.
Nevertheless, Clint Mansell’s score for Out of Blue pulses with unnerving intent.
Patricia Clarkson’s performance as Mike Hoolihan is further testament to her notable talents as an actor, just as the disturbing turn by Jacki Weaver as the bereaved mother of the victim is similarly impressive.
Most obviously, Out of Blue evidences the exquisite technical artistry of Carol Morley, a director who deserves more cinematic opportunities.
Thus, Out of Blue is not quite the masterpiece that we were hoping for but it is a noble effort nonetheless. We look forward to more from Carol Morley in the near future.
Still worth a watch…
Dir: Jordan Peele
A fun romp inflected with Twilight Zone-style histrionics, as a family are terrorised by their dopplegangers.
Within the entertaining twists and turns of the script, we also find allegorical references to the status of minorities within present-day USA. Lupita Nyong’o impresses in the lead role.
Under the Silver Lake
Dir: David Robert Mitchell
A movie that centres upon Andrew Garfield’s slacker protagonist, festering in LA, as he sees his own aspirations slide further into irrelevance.
In the midst of this morbid obsolescence, he becomes obsessed with a beautiful neighbour who then promptly disappears. An unusual mystery thus ensues, veering uncomfortably at times between parody and neo-noir.
Nonetheless, the vivacity of Mitchell’s filmmaking brio ensures that it is eminently watchable.