Rita Di Santo

Rita Di Santo

Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.

Synonyms: a denunciation of aggressive Israeli nationalism and its macho, militaristic culture
Thursday, 14 November 2019 20:57

Synonyms: a denunciation of aggressive Israeli nationalism and its macho, militaristic culture

Published in Films

Rita Di Santo reviews Synonyms by Nadav Lapid, showing at the Seville Film Festival

Seville Festival is a great place to catch up with the best in recent European cinema. Audiences can enjoy prizewinners such as the winner of Berlin’s Golden Bear, Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms.

The film follows an ex-Israeli soldier who rejects his nationality as he moves to France to start a new life. Shaking the boundaries of storytelling, with a sharp sense of humour and a subtle political message, it is a startlingly original anti-war movie that has been deemed controversial, even “scandalous” in Israel and France. The truth is that the film courageously skewers stereotypes from both nations.

Synonyms is loosely based on the Israeli director’s experiences of moving to Paris when he was younger. The film starts with a young man, Yoav, on the streets of a cold and rainy Paris. We follow him into an empty apartment, in a wealthy neighbourhood. After some rest, Yoav takes a bath, but gets robbed of his clothes and rucksack. In vain, he races naked through the building seeking help. Freezing, he returns to the bathtub – a tragi-comic moment – and tries to find some comfort from the hot running water, but the tap stops running, leaving Yoav apparently freezing to death.

The following morning, a rich young couple discover Yoav and take him to their apartment. His body resembles one of the many that we see on the news coverage of refugees. The couple, Emile and Caroline, are intrigued by the presence of this mysterious, handsome, naked young man, who comes back to life and starts talking a bizarre form of French.

Accepting a few gifts from Emile, Yoav goes to live “on the other bank” of the Seine, where he gets by on a few euros a day. Yoav and Emile become friends and their long conversations are extravagant, deep and witty. Yoav uses the French dictionary compulsively, plunging deep into French grammar, structures and synonyms. Refusing to speak a single word of Hebrew – a subtle metaphor for the rejection of Israel’s aggressive, nationalistic politics – he declares the country he left “obscene, ignorant, idiotic, sordid, crude, abominable, repugnant”.

Splendidly acted by Tom Mercier, Yoav is gentle, kind, extremely polite and seductively irresistible, his unique energy deriving from his dignity and the cry for the freedom of new identity. He attracts Emile and Caroline like a magnet, with equal intensity but in different ways. He establishes an emotional-platonic attraction with Emile, and there is an erotic-sensual charge to his relationship with Caroline. Sexually ambiguous, Yoav is the kind of dashing, charismatic, yet strangely withdrawn figure you find in Melville or Godard, an Alain Delon or a Jean-Paul Belmondo.

More burlesque than tragic, the character lives out his contradictions. He rejects a macho culture, but his body is one of a soldier. He is gentle, but forcefully imposes another language on himself. He rejects his past but brings back memories of former life. The movie itself is political, but not politically aligned. It specifically denounces Israeli politics, but its target could be any other country, any nationalistic-aggressive regime.

Yoav moves in his new world with confidence and strength. He dominates his world, not with hard power, but with a soft power of constant dialogue, independence and a challenging attitude. On one hand, It seems to be a movie about the lunacy and odd equilibrium of the powers of modern world; on the other, it is an endorsement of this soft power which envisages the triumph of identity liberation – as Yoav opens the gates of his Embassy to everyone.

Lapid’s directorial style is lucid and confident, using the camera in unconventional ways, making the action move inside the frame, altering the frame, playing with the frame. Sequences are shot in low-key monochrome in homage to the Nouvelle Vague (the French revolutionary style of the sixties). It is the perfect style to express freedom – it is a liberating cinematic experience. The love triangle also recalls Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim.

The playful, elusive style leaves the doors of interpretation open. Maybe this is a dream of a Yoav, following a sleep in the bathtub, or maybe it’s the story of a ghost of a young man, that a rich wealthy family didn’t want to rescue, or they didn’t want to have in their empty flat, but his memories lives upstairs.

Noura’s Dream
Monday, 07 October 2019 14:26

Noura’s Dream

Published in Films

Rita Di Santo reviews Noura's Dream

After screening at the Toronto Film Festival, French-Tunisian filmmaker Hinde Boudjemaa’s Noura’s Dream had its Middle East premiere at the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt.

The film tells the story of a working-class Tunisian woman who has an affair while her husband is in jail – something that would seem normal in another part of the world, but with Tunisia’s strict laws against adultery Noura can be jailed, at any time, for five years.

Working hard to look after her three children, Noura is caught between her responsibilities and her dream of divorcing her husband to marry the love of her life, Lassad. When her husband is unexpectedly released, everything comes to a head and love seems not to be a choice for a woman in a patriarchal society.

The movie carefully avoids sentimentalism, morals, and clichés, and digs deep in a fascinating portrait of an ordinary, modern woman. Noura is frail and insecure, and far from perfect, she is passionately true to herself and her fight for the freedom of her feelings is absolutely absorbing.

Popular Tunisian-Egyptian actress Hend Sabri plays Noura, giving a magnificent performance of a vulnerable woman who becomes a self-confident and independent person. Director Hinde Boujemaa creates an atmosphere of intimacy that resonates with meaning and sentiment, revealing a key understanding of filmmaking. Tunis becomes a place to tell a slow-burning universal story of women’s struggle.

Sharp dialogue brings a new dimension to facts and a new way of thinking. Boujemaa, who has previously made a documentary, establishes herself with this fiction debut, as one of the most thought-provoking voices in contemporary female filmmaking.



Young Ahmed: the fear and anguish of a young radical working-class Muslim
Thursday, 23 May 2019 15:31

Young Ahmed: the fear and anguish of a young radical working-class Muslim

Published in Films

 Rita di Santo reviews Young Ahmed, which won the Best Director prize at Cannes recently 

Like Britain’s Ken Loach, Belgium’s most renowned filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make movies bursting with concern for the struggles of the working class and the most vulnerable in society. Their protagonists often teenagers who find themselves in the midst of a dysfunctional economic system, misjudged and alienated. Young Ahmed, the Dardennes' latest, premiered to great acclaim at this year’s Cannes film festival, bringing the Best Director prize to the brothers.

The movie is about a 13-year-old Muslim caught between moral crisis and emotional change. Ahmed’s mother struggles to understand how, in only one month, his attention has turned from his PlayStation to the Koran, while a local extremist imam pushes him to follow the example of his cousin and become a jihadi fighter. His radicalisation leads him to refuse to shake hands with his thoughtful teacher Inès “because women are impure” and Inès’s boyfriend is “a Jew”, but Inès understands Ahmed - who is also affected by dysplasia. When Ahmed tells the imam that Inès teaches Arabic and Koranic verses using music, the imam denounces her and Ahmed responds with a violent assault. Arrested and committed to youth custody, where therapeutic treatments appear to be working miracles, he convinces the authorities that he’s sufficiently reformed for a “making amends” encounter with Inès herself. While in the custodial centre, Ahmed works on a farm where he meets another teenager, Louise. There is a spark, but when she kisses him, he is wracked with guilt. He asks her to become a Muslim so his sin will be less serious. But the tremors of love make him to lose control, and violence could again be his outlet.

It’s an intense drama rendered shocking by the youth of its violent radicalised protagonist, a child, an innocent, abandoned and manipulated. The conclusion shows the Dardenne brothers at their best. Their style is austere, methodical, simple, hand-held camerawork, use of available light, absence of non-diegetic music, the observation of everyday tasks, and a sense of moral weightiness centring on a taciturn protagonist.

The Dardennes offer no answers, but make clear who is to blame, casting the teenager as victim and revealing a series of abuses, including psychological abuse from the imam, who constantly lectures and manipulates Ahmed on how to live his life and what is a sin. Other institutions are cruel, such as the rehabilitation centre, which puts Ahmed to work on a farm, where though only 13 he is treated as an adult worker; or the psychiatrist who must determine if Ahmed “is a danger to society”.

The film alludes to some of the challenges of integration for Arabic-speaking child refugees. The form of Arabic taught comes from the Koran, which is ancient Arabic, but only modern Arabic, a completely different language, would help them get a job. They also need to master French, but few are familiar with the language. This movie provides a powerful insight into the life of a teenager that is both sympathetic and urgent.

Loach returns to the Cannes Film Festival
Friday, 19 April 2019 08:17

Loach returns to the Cannes Film Festival

Published in Films

Rita di Santo reports from the press conference introducing this year's Cannes Film Festival.

It will be all about “romance and politics” declared Thierry Frémaux, director of the Cannes Film Festival, as he announced this year’s programme (14-25 May).

A quick glance at the nineteen titles in competition tends to confirm Frémaux’s statement, with some highly-anticipated works from heavy-hitters such as Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, Pedro Almodovar’ s Pain and Glory, Arnaud Desplechin’ s Oh Mercy!, the Dardenne brothers’ The Young Ahmed, veteran Marco Bellocchio’ s The Traitor, and Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven and – top of the cake – Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life.

Almodovar Cannes 2019

Cannes will be provocative from day one. Zombies could be seen on the first red carpet, with Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die opening the festival. It’s about the small town of Centerville, where the buried rise from their graves to feast on the living. The citizens of the town must fight for their survival.

The unconventional will return with the young French filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s Matthias et Maxieme. More titles from the new generation include Les Misérables by Ladj Ly on Paris suburbs, Bacurau by the Brazilian Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, The Gomera by Rumanian Corneliu Porumboiu, and Frankie by Ira Sachs, with Isabelle Huppert.

The presence of female directors is still not very strong, but at least is expanding, with four promising titles: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire by Céline Sciamma, Sibyl by Justine Triet, Atlantique by Mati Diop and Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe. Two more Arab women present films in Un Certain Regard: Papicha by Algerian director Mounia Meddour, and Adam by Moroccan director Maryam Touzani. In total, 13 of the 51 filmmakers (a little over 25%) announced in the overall selection are women.

Also, the quantity of American titles is not as strong as last year, but out of competition one of the most awaited Studio titles is Rocket Man, a biopic of Sir Elton John directed by British Dexter Fletcher, who replaced Bryan Singer on the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody after he was fired.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino's latest film, was not mentioned because it is "still in editing". But like every year, the Festival reserves the possibility of hosting a film at the last moment.

Also out of competition, but one to look out for, is Claude Lelouch’s sequel to his Palme D’Or-winning A Man and a Woman, The Most Beautiful Years.

Cannes2019 resized


The last words from Thierry Frémaux were dedicated to explaining the situation with the streaming giant “Netflix”. To appear in Competition at Cannes, a film must be available for theatrical distribution in France, disqualifying Netflix titles released directly onto the streaming platform due to the country’s theatrical windows policy. The policy caused Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma to miss out on a Cannes spot in 2018, instead premiering in Venice in August.

But despite the strict politics of Cannes Festival, the Palme d’Or is still considered the highest honour in world cinema, preserving the artform and contesting the illusions of the commercial.

3 Days in Quiberon
Monday, 17 December 2018 11:13

3 Days in Quiberon

Published in Films

Rita Di Santo reviews 3 Days in Quiberon, a feminist rebuke which implicates the audience as well as the industry.

In May 1982, actress Romy Schneider was found dead in her Paris apartment. She had been in the middle of writing a letter to cancel an interview with a woman’s magazine when she suffered a heart attack, most probably caused by a cocktail of drugs and alcohol. She was only 43 years-old.

In 3 Days in Quiberon, French-Iranian-American writer-director Emily Atef reconstructs this last period of Romy Schneider’s life. From when, one year earlier, she checks into a ritzy hotel-resort in the Breton town of Quiberon with the intention of quitting alcohol for good.

Despite her fragile state and having previously been brutally attacked by the German press, Schneider agreed to an interview and photo shoot with Stern magazine. The interview would prove incendiary and would be her last before her death. Focusing on this intense encounter between actress, journalist, and photographer, as well as the childhood friend who tries to protect her, the film bares the soul of this tormented and fascinating actress.

The director seems almost to fall in love with her subject. Romy is beautiful, charismatic, and smart, with an angelic face. The elegant black and white photography is evocative and surreal; time seems to stop. Marie Bäumer’s performance is magnetic and captivating. She approaches the role of the Austro-German diva with a candour and intimacy which allows the actress to live once more on the screen, but as an ordinary woman, pacing her bedroom in a dressing gown, drinking champagne and lighting one cigarette after the other, depressed, neurotic, frustrated with her career, finding it difficult to get beyond the shadow of her most famous role, Princess ‘Sissy’.

3 Days of Quiberon is a moving study of an exploited actress and abused woman – abused by the photographer, always observing her through his camera, the ambitious journalist, who wants more secrets from her, even her childhood friend, who has a career only thanks to her. Schneider was denounced by the press as a woman of “light behaviours” – too many lovers, and a bad mother to her son – but in the end we understand her as a woman who refused to obey the rules of a patriarchal society. In a way, this movie is a feminist rebuke, which implicates the audience as well as the industry.