Rita Di Santo

Rita Di Santo

Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.

There’s Still Tomorrow
Thursday, 18 April 2024 14:09

There’s Still Tomorrow

Published in Films

This is a brilliant directorial debut of Italian actress, Paola Cortellesi. Sharp, elegant and passionate, she tells a story of the past with great love and great joy.

Set in Rome just after the second world war, the Americans are patrolling the roads giving chocolate to the locals. Some people have become richer with the black market, others more honest are struggling to maintain their families, like Dea, who is a devoted mother and wife. She lives in a basement with her three children and husband. She works all day at home and beyond, repairing brass and umbrellas for local shops, and acting as a sort of nurse, doing intramucosal injections, in exchange for a little money which she hands over to her husband at the end of the day, while keeping some back to buy a wedding dress for her daughter. The days may be hard for Dea – but not as hard as the evening, when her husband, an ex-soldier suffering for post-traumatic stress, regularly beats her up. Dea quietly accepts the violence with a smile.

This well-plaited, bittersweet drama is a nostalgic look at the past, with solidarity among women, social life in the courtyards, kids playing freely, and men meeting in the local bar. It is a warm look at the working class, and a critical one at the wealthy.

Shot in a magnificent black and white, it is also a movie of great style, an homage to the Italian postwar cinema, imbued with a renewal of style, especially in the choreography of the violence sequences. The original style of narration moves from a social realist observation of the daily life of the community to the reality of working-class family life.

The script remains unpredictable from the first moment to the end. It takes fascinating turns, hinting at a romantic direction, then a dramatic one. Its tone moves from dark to comic and then dark again, reminiscent of the tradition of great Italian directors of the “commedia all’italiana” (the Italian comedy), such as Mario Monicelli. This is the first true Italian ‘comedy with meaning’ that we have seen for long time.

My Favourite Cake
Monday, 19 February 2024 15:22

My Favourite Cake

Published in Films

My Favourite Cake, the story of an elderly divorcée looking for love, could be seen as just a bittersweet crowd-pleasing romantic comedy. What happens in this movie is quite normal for these kinds of films, but it also happens to be set in Tehran, and My Favourite Cake has become another film to be added to the long list of those banned by the Iranian authorities.

Competing for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the Iranian directors Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha have been denied permits to travel to Berlin. Clearly the story contains elements the Iranian government find unacceptable - the consumption of alcohol, singing and dancing, women standing up against the morality police, and so on. It is something that we have not seen in Iran cinema for decades. In this sense, it is revolutionary, while at the same time highly poetic.

The movie establishes its own authority with elegant shots and an eloquent script around the protagonist Mahin, a seventy-year-old divorcée who lives by herself in a wealthy suburb of Tehran. Her daughter has emigrated, and she passes most of her days in solitude, going to the market, looking after her beautiful garden. Every afternoon she is in front of the television, watching her favourite soap opera. She has a romantic soul and has not given up on finding love. One day she notices an elderly taxi driver Faramarz. After been driven home by him she furtively invites Faramarz into her house. They eat together, laugh, chat, dance, and drink; a spark of love is ignited, but harsh reality is waiting. A sense of unbearable punishment pervades the last part of the movie, and the fairytale ends in a dark place.

The film touches—sentimentally perhaps, but affectingly—on questions of individual freedom, of self-realisation, which in the context of modern Iran are astoundingly feminist. And when you think that it was shot in the early days of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ protests sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, this is a powerful way to respond to the misogynist injustices of our time.

Small Things Like These
Sunday, 18 February 2024 15:27

Small Things Like These

Published in Films

Wonderfully adapted from the Claire Keegan’s novel, ‘Small Things Like These’, directed by Tim Mielant, is a strong film, emotional, radical and deep. It explores the infamous Magdalene Laundries, the institution where pregnant or “promiscuous” women could effectively be incarcerated for life.

The story is told through the kind eyes of Bill Furlong (Cillian Murphy), a dutiful father and coal wholesaler who, while delivering coal during Christmas 1985, discovers the shocking truth about the local convent. Bill’s discovery forces him to confront his past and the complicit silence of a town controlled by the local Catholic Church.

The Magdalene Movement first took hold in the mid-18th century. The campaign to put “fallen women” to work was supported by both the Catholic and Protestant churches, with women serving short terms inside the asylums with the goal of rehabilitation.

Redemption sometimes involved a variety of coercive measures, including shaven heads, institutional uniforms, bread and water diets, restricted visiting, supervised correspondence. But these barbarities are not all depicted explicitly. Everything is behind closed doors, hinted at, furtive, and it is Furlong’s imagination that opens a Pandora’s box of emotions. The facts of the present are conflated with his own past trauma, bringing out the pain and sorrow he carries, an agony that points to the collective trauma of a dysfunctional, religious society.

Mysterious, absorbing, surreal—there are moments in the movie where the characters look like ghosts: the girl Sarah, but the nuns also, and Bill’s daughters – the camera finds the quiet places and the shadows, peering in through windows and doors. Depressing and claustrophobic, dealing with a traumatic past, this is a shattering story of redemption and a truly magnificent film.

Isolation, social justice and solidarity: Perfect Days by Wim Wenders
Tuesday, 13 June 2023 18:41

Isolation, social justice and solidarity: Perfect Days by Wim Wenders

Published in Films

Internationally acclaimed German writer/director, Wim Wenders, doyen of European cinema, returned to competition for the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with his latest film, Perfect Days.

It’s a simple, touching story of a working-class man scraping a living cleaning Tokyo’s public toilets – a warm-hearted, touching piece of humanist cinema, sharp in its social criticism yet ultimately mighty in its belief in the decency of ordinary people.

Middle-aged Hirayama seems content with his labour cleaning the toilets. He reads books and listens to music on cassettes of the 70s and 80s, at ease with his solitude. While the actor fills the screen with thoughtful silences, his eyes reflect the amazement and joy of the little things in life. Wenders follows his activities with obsession and respect. Like a documentary, he records the details of his daily routine, as he wakes up early, waters his plants, takes his uniform, an old mobile phone, a few coins, and the keys to his van. With devotion, he scrubs one toilet after another. Until late one evening, when Hirayama goes back to his tiny home and finds his humble routine interrupted by an unexpected visit.

Clearly Wenders is not a “provocateur”. He tells the story with a gentle, elegant, poetic touch. The film has a compassionate, romantic look, but isolation, social justice, and solidarity are its backdrop. He understands poverty is not something that belongs only to less affluent parts of the world but can be found in a big modern city like Tokyo.

A poetic, sophisticated tribute that slides across the screen showing how, in a society becoming increasingly alienating and unjust, the soul of the gentlest of men may be dissolved. Hirayama, interpreted by Koji Yakushi, could won Best Actor Awards at Cannes for his poignant performance.

Love Without Walls, directed by Jane Gull
Monday, 12 June 2023 17:56

Love Without Walls, directed by Jane Gull

Published in Films

Jane Gull brings a bitter contemporary fairy tale to the screen in her second film about two lonely hearts, loving each other and chasing dreams: Paul wants to become a musician, Sophie a photographer. But the reality is tough when money is not filling the artists’ pockets. Despite his beautiful voice Paul struggles to get paid for his gigs. They become homeless, or as Sophie says, "love without walls,” sleeping at a friend’s family home, in a car, under bridges, in an abandoned theatre. From London, they move to Brighton. With a glimpse of the sea, they get stuck in the same corner between a car park, a coffee shop, and a church. The world suddenly seems to close in.

Gull builds a claustrophobic atmosphere around the two, like two mice in a trap, with no way out. How quickly a whimsical adventure can turn into a terrifying nightmare, which for the viewer becomes uncomfortable, real, like bumping into homeless people in the street, and you don’t know what to do, give them cash? Or just ignore them? Paul and Sophie’s story darkens, they become smelly, unattractive, unhappy. The tone of the film gets murkier, the subject matter requires it. The happy romantic comedy and musicality of the opening sequences are stripped away.

Love Without Walls loudly and clearly resonates with society. It shows the uncomfortable truth of a country that doesn’t want to be acknowledge that 70,000 households have been homeless since the pandemic. They are ghosts to our blind government. This movie is a sharp reminder, featuring great acting, cinematography, and a lucid director style. It is, without question, one of the most piercing, intelligent movies in town just now.

Pacifiction at Cannes 2022: a spotlight on contemporary politics and neo-colonialism in Tahiti
Friday, 27 May 2022 13:41

Pacifiction at Cannes 2022: a spotlight on contemporary politics and neo-colonialism in Tahiti

Published in Films

Rita di Santo reviews Pacifiction

Spanish director Albert Serra (The death of Louis XIV, Liberté) returns to the Official Competition at the Cannes Film Festival with an exotic trip to Tahiti, an atoll of French Polynesia, for a fantastic, imaginative journey that addresses contemporary politics and neo-colonialism on the island.

The story follows De Roller, the Haut-Commissaire, a man of power and manners, with a cream suit and dark glasses, who roams the island constantly. He’s assessing the mood of the local population, while rumours spread of a submarine whose presence would announce a resumption of nuclear testing for the first time since the 90’s.

De Roller seems to turn up everywhere, offering his service, describing himself as just a “representative of the state”. He seems to be well-informed on the surface, but with his own inscrutable agenda— does he knows more than he is letting on? Depending on whom he is speaking to, he talks about the submarine as something he has heard of but not been told about, and as an act that he himself does not approve of.

Circulating around De Roller are several other characters. There’s a fascinating, beautiful transsexual, Shannah, with whom he has an ambiguous relationship; Morton, whose club where staff parade half-naked is a focal point, and the Admiral who is theoretically head of the French fleet and who says things like “they will see by the way we treat our own people exactly how we will also treat our enemies.”

The film is a lengthy 2 hours and 45 minutes. Densely written, uncomfortable, and claustrophobic, it is a strange, multi-layered adventure story that ventures into inner space, a metaphorical investigation into the turbid waters of the human soul, as well as a political journey into the dark heart of European colonialism. It’s a nightmare journey into a land that seems has lost its identity, recalling Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but before the bombs have exploded – and this time what could be detonated is far more destructive.  

The composition of scenes by director of photography Artur Tort, ranging from vivid landscapes to surreal brooding interiors, portray the world with the visual complexity proper to cinema, and with the moral ambiguity that also seems appropriate to the world in which we live.

It’s amazing how a well-placed image can detonate a thousand reflections. Tahiti is a place where change can happen quickly and suddenly. It’s a place where modernity contrasts violently with what’s left of unspoiled, traditional life in one of the most beautiful places on earth – which has also become one of the darkest.

Cannes 2022: R.M.N. by Cristian Mungiu
Tuesday, 24 May 2022 09:01

Cannes 2022: R.M.N. by Cristian Mungiu

Published in Films

Just over two hours, this absorbing psychological drama brings back the political bite and pulse-racing suspense of Mungiu’s highly acclaimed abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (which won the Palme D’Or in 2007). With undeniable technical skill Mungiu builds a fiercely objective observation of the dynamics of the collective and the way we perceive others.

Set somewhere in rural Transylvania, the story centres on Matthias, who returns from Germany after losing his job and tries to get involved in the education of his young son Rudi, who has stopped talking and is afraid to cross the forest and go to school by himself.

Spurned by his wife, Matthias reconnects with his ex-lover Csilla, who is now the manager of the local bakery. Csilla is about to employ 3 new bakers from Sri Lanka, as they are willing to work for low pay, but this move shakes the peace of the small community, provoking frustration, conflicts, and the re-emergence of xenophobic feelings. The conflict grows to a crescendo, drowning out the few hopes of a resolution.

Tense and compelling from start to finish, the narrative structure of this movie is an intriguing tangle of themes. Mungiu knows how to deal with a complex subject, developing a debate in which points are raised and studied, but never concluded.

Everything that happens leads somewhere interesting, such as the moment when Matthias leaves his precious hunting rifle in Csilla’s doorway, a symbol of his non-violent intentions; later the rifle will be brought back to him. It's also morally sophisticated for example in the way that the contrarian, Matthias is turned into a sympathetic character after first appearing as an unbalanced troublemaker.

R.M.N. ends on an ambiguous image which is devastating in its simplicity. The film is mesmerising to watch, and thought-provoking afterwards. Mungiu’s film makes its mark as one the best things on offer.

A powerful statement about poverty and class struggle: The Gravedigger's Wife
Thursday, 17 March 2022 19:53

A powerful statement about poverty and class struggle: The Gravedigger's Wife

Published in Films

Rita di Santo reviews a film at the Luxor Film Festival

In this revolutionary triumph of emotion and form, Khadar Ayderus Ahmed rises to the ranks of one of the most interesting filmmakers emerging from contemporary cinema.

A film of acute tenderness and eloquence, The Gravedigger's Wife grounds its critique of a third world country’s socio-political mores in an achingly eloquent meditation on the struggle of a family in a cruel society.

The story is set and shot on location in Djibouti, which is close to Somalia, but is not an identifiable location in the film. It could be any poor part of Africa, or other places in the global South where hunger and poverty reign.

The protagonist, Guled, is seen roaming his village with a spade on his shoulder, looking for corpses to bury in exchange of few coins, or waiting crow-like outside the hospital, for an ambulance to arrive, when he runs to check if the patient it carried is dead.

In the evening he returns to his hut to his wife Nasra, an elegant, slim figure with a turban on her head, lying in bed. We soon discover that she suffers from an abscess on her kidney. An easily treatable disease in our country – but here, Nasra’s life is at risk. The only salvation is an expensive surgical procedure, which the couple cannot afford.

All Guled's savings have already gone to pay for antibiotics. Against his wife’s will, Guled decides to go back to his native village, to ask the help of his mother and brother.  

The journey puts Guled’s life at risk, as well. On foot, without shoes, no food, no water and no shade, under a scorching sun. A painful and silent trip in the hands of destiny, against all odds. It is a universal story, a sad folktale from the past to the present.

The director, Ahmed, was born in Somalia, but also has lived in Ethiopia, and clearly knows his subject matter and how to make the best of it. He gives us a mesmerising immersion in Africa’s landscapes and colours in this sublime and poetic film, which provokes multiple reflections.

The Gravedigger’s Wife presents and judges the problem of our world, giving voice to those who are not heard. In its exploration of class struggle it recalls classics like Bicycle Thieves. Here, the tool for survival is not a bicycle anymore, but just a simple spade. Guled’s figure, searching for a job with a spade on his shoulder, is a powerful statement of class struggle.

'My movies are about class inequality': Rita Di Santo interviews Alejandra Márquez Abella
Thursday, 03 March 2022 17:50

'My movies are about class inequality': Rita Di Santo interviews Alejandra Márquez Abella

Published in Films

Rita di Santo interviews  Alejandra Marquez Abella about her recent film Northern Skies Over Empty Space

After directing an episode of Narcos for Netflix, and a future film, female Mexican director Alejandra Márquez Abella boldly confronts macho culture and the Western genre in her new film Northern Skies Over Empty Space. The story centers on Don Reynaldo’s ranch as it celebrates its anniversary, and a gang arrives to demand money to Don Reynaldo. Told from the point of view of characters usually sidelined, Márquez Abella portrays an epochal shift in rural Mexico.

I met Alejandra at the Berlin Film festival, an elegant young lady with lots to say. 

Is the movie based on real events?

It is inspired by a real story that happened 10 years ago in Mexico. It is a very common story in Mexican history, and it's a very common story in Westerns. I wanted to tell this story, because I feel it is fundamental for the building of the masculine identity, having to defend and be heroic and courageous. My movies are about class inequality. My last film was The Good Girls, which was a film about rich women in a very rich neighbourhood in Mexico, in the '80s. This is a very different film, but it is connected because it deals with class subjects as well gender inequality. And this was a different way to speak about those objects.

Are the hunting sequences at the beginning of the movie announcing the theme of masculinity?

Exactly, it is being powerful over some someone else, having power of life or death. The power is with the man and women are kept to one side. It is about men having power over women and women sort of holding it all together, but it is still about men and anthropocentrism, about men being over everything, everyone, every other living thing, not just the women, but the animals and yeah, being unable to see the other in their eyes.

The movie shows also a very clear class system, we can see that the movie is set in modern times because of the hand luggage and cars. The class system, where workers are stuck in their role and the owners want to raise more money is a very common story in Mexico. We have massive social inequality, but I think in the film what happens is that every relationship becomes horizontal at the end, because we're all the same. We're all together in the same planet and we're fighting for the same things. The animals, the workers – everyone becomes equal, because we're all dust.

You portray a no man's land. There is no law, no institutions present, like a Western. Can you please tell me something about this?

Mexico has a big justice problem. It's difficult to bring criminals to justice in Mexico. We're stuck in a violent cycle, and we just recognize the obvious and evident criminal violence, but we don't see the many layers of violence in our daily lives. We raise our kids in a very violent way, as you can see in the film, the way we bring food to our table is a very violent way as well. Everything is violent. So, if we can't just recognize that violence in Mexico, we're going to just keep perpetuating violence.

How do you feel as a female director to talk about macho culture?

It was interesting because my crew was full of women. A lot of heads of department were female. I used to say we were observing men as women and just put them in a different place. Just to try to portray in a different way from how they display their power.

The family is a microcosm of Mexican society. You have the woman that decides to have children, the intellectual woman with the computer, the woman worker that accepts her lower class position. The woman who is a mother, just making children. How is the awareness of gender equality in your country?

We are a very traditional society, strong Catholics. Women usually play a role – they nurture, they are therapists, they must deal with their emotions but also with nurturing everyone and maintaining things. But I would say that the biggest burden is the emotional burden. I think Mexican women carry that on their backs because a lot of men can't have a relationship with their feelings. That's a big thing, it changes throughout families, but I would say that the Mexican woman is a woman very dedicated to her family and her cooking and that's it.

And what about the institutions, because we don't see any police, anybody representing the government? Where is the power of the government? What is the power of the government?

We were shooting this film in the Maurepas, which is a very violent place in Mexico. It has been a very violent place for many, many years. And the experience of shooting there to me was very revealing because you didn't know who the good guy was, or who was the bad guy. You didn't know if the police were the bad guys or the good guys, so you can't trust anyone. There is no law – in the film they speak about help from the military, but it's not clear whether anyone can help them.

And what is your next project?

I have a couple of projects now. It's a series. And then I have a film as well, which is the trip that my grandparents had. They migrated to Chicago in the '70s and they had a whole new life there. I'm working on that.

Revolutionary changes to come? The Red Sea Film Festival
Thursday, 23 December 2021 11:07

Revolutionary changes to come? The Red Sea Film Festival

Published in Films

Rita di Santo reviews the Red Sea Film Festival 

In a country where cinema had been banned for 35 years, the staging of a new film festival is an occasion to be celebrated. The first edition of the Red Sea Film Festival took place on December 6 -15 in the UNESCO world heritage site of Jeddah Old Town.

The festival line-up offered a rich mix of arthouse films, exploring themes of politics, everyday life, relations between men and women, homosexuality, violence, films that sparked conversations and debate. There were 16 features from the Arab world and Africa in the inaugural competition.

Brighton 4th

Georgian director Levan Koguashvili scooped the best film for Brighton 4th, a story of parental devotion and sacrifice, unfolding in the former Soviet émigré community of Brighton Beach, N.Y. This movie is a great revelation, imaginative and beautifully detailed, clever without being smug, affectionate without being sentimental.

Iraqi-Italian director Khader Rashid won best director for Europa about a young Iraqi man travelling across Europe who is targeted by vigilantes in Bulgaria. For the same movie Best Actor prize went to its young protagonist British-Libyan Adam Ali. This movie is a true original and as such of considerable value both as film and as a sad yet hopeful summation of the inhumanity of the migrant’s fight for survival in Europe.

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The Best Actress award went to young Indonesian Arawinda Kirana for her role in Yuni, a compassionate and sympathetic coming of age story. Among other awards special mention prize went to Darin J. Sallam’s Farha, a strong debut portraying a Palestinian woman hiding from Israeli forces.

The festival also had twenty-seven titles from Saudi directors, among them a notably strong presence of female directors. Becoming is an omnibus of films by five female directors: Sara Mesfer, Jawaher Alamri, Noor Alameer, Hind Alfahhad and Fatima Al-Banawi. It tells five women’s stories: story of an infertility healer; an 11-year-old girl raised in a conservative household; a disappearing bride; a forty-year-old hairdresser contemplating an abortion, and a divorced mother. All five try very hard to get near to what things are like here and now, in Saudi, what anxieties people face and what they do about them. 

Also deserving of mention is Anas Ba-Tahaf’s Fay’s Palette, telling the story of Fay, a young lesbian confined to her apartment by her brother because of her sexuality. It is a courageous piece of work, approaching a taboo subject without veils, grabbing the audience attention in a tough and beautiful manner.

The festival celebrated new talents from the region and across the Arab world. It was an exuberant affirmation of cinema itself. While the rest of the world watches movies on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Apple, here people want to watch movies on the big screen together, excited to have the freedom to do it.

It has to be noted, however, that the shadow of accusation remains that the government is using culture to whitewash its poor human rights record. It is no secret the Saudis are investing in their future, as they look to diversify the economy and attract foreign investments by opening the doors to tourism industry that could bring millions of dollars to its beautiful emerald coast.

Yet the cultural change has started, like a domino effect, especially for women. Women are now allowed to drive; they can go out unaccompanied by men; they can work; they do not to have to wear the abaya. Mixed-gender concerts are permitted, and other steps are being taken to liberalize the country. But it is only a start. More things wait to be changed, of course.  It remains a deeply conservative society and there will be a lot of struggles. But it's a journey worth taking because changes will come: revolutionary changes, hopefully.

red sea FF Brighton 4th

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