Rita Di Santo

Rita Di Santo

Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.

An anti-war movie of compassion and kindness: a review of 'The Invasion' by Sergei Loznitsa
Sunday, 26 May 2024 07:22

An anti-war movie of compassion and kindness: a review of 'The Invasion' by Sergei Loznitsa

Published in Films

Sometimes, documentaries work better than fiction. This is certainly the case with Sergei Loznitsa’s new film, The Invasion. Loznista was born in Belarus, grew up in Ukraine, and studied film in St. Petersburg. He has been an almost constant presence for the last twenty year at the Cannes Festival bringing both documentaries and fiction features. The Invasion is a documentary filmed over the two years since the beginning of the conflict.

It starts with a tragic prologue: the funeral of four soldiers killed in war. A church crowded with mourners, the impact of war immediately vivid. Loznista then follows the daily life of Ukrainians trying to find food and water. Unexploded mines render some places dangerous, but life must go on. A couple is getting married; the bride wears the traditional white traditional dress while the groom is in combat fatigues. A lady tells the story of her husband, a soldier now a prisoner of war in Russia. Slowly a portrait is drawn of a people who will not accept defeat. They are desperate but will do anything to stand against its enemy.

Loznista tours the country like an invisible ghost, witnessing tragic stories, many people dying, many trying to cope with the trauma of war. At school children sing loudly nationalistic songs: “We will devote our body and soul to our freedom we are brother of Cossack people”. The teacher goes around the school with the bell (used usually to announce lunch breaks) as an air raid alarm. A building near the school gets destroyed, someone emerges from the ruins. We see the wounded in hospital. The explosions “look like we are back in 1942,” a woman says. The last bombardment it is at the school, no children are left, only a dog is there, provoking overwhelming emotions of compassion.

IN 2012 Loznitsa brought the WWII drama In the Fog to Cannes, an anti-war movie. His position has not changed – in The Invasion he continues to show the folly of war. Despite focusing on the Ukrainian side, the film does not have a propagandistic or nationalist tone. Loznitsa adopts a level of observation and reflection that brings the conflict outside its border. It could be a conflict everywhere in the world, where the consequences are clear for ordinary people – we do not see politicians, journalists, or any other official figures. It raises questions but does not provide answers.

At the end of the film, we see another funeral, but the list of victims is much longer, a Ukraine song is the last thing that remains. This is an urgent, beautiful movie about the irrationality of war and the Ukraine people’s situation, which transports the audience with integrity and kindness.

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.

'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.

Breaking the glass ceiling: Interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi director
Monday, 20 December 2021 16:58

Breaking the glass ceiling: Interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi director

Published in Films

Rita Di Santo interviews Haifaa Al-Mansour the first female Saudi director, at the Red Sea Film Festival

Haifaa Al-Mansour does not need much introduction. She is a woman who is making history: the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. Her first feature Wadjda (2012), filmed while hiding in the back of a van on the streets of Riyadh, debuted in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Her latest, The Perfect Candidate, a political drama about a woman who runs for office and then finds her campaign gaining unexpected momentum, also showcased at the Venice festival.

Haifaa Al-Mansour now lives in the USA with her American husband, Brad and two children, but she was born in a little village in Saudi, and went to study cinema in Cairo, with the support of her father. I met Haifaa at the First Edition of The Red Sea Film Festival, in Jeddah, the first film festival ever held in Saudi Arabia.

How did you become the first filmmaker of Saudi Arabia?

I created my own luck. I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia. I grew up not speaking any English at all. I went to public schools, and I was in a small town that is almost not on the map. I was lucky that my parents, who did not speak English and just middle class, were liberal somehow at heart. They didn't force me to veil, and they brought music into the family, but I lived my childhood as the typical Saudi life.

When did you realise that you were becoming the first female filmmaker of Saudi Arabia?

I was a young woman. I didn’t have any connection with cinema people. I was making films for me, and my first film was an extremely amateur experience. My brother held the camera. My sister was the star, and I didn't know how edit it. I didn’t know what the concept of a short film was. I sent it to a film festival in Abu Dhabi and it got accepted and they sent me an invitation. I went there and I didn’t know what was happening. They told me “You are the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia.” And I said "Yes, I am!" I think if a woman has passion to tell a story, there will be a place for her. If you go online, you can apply and get funds. There is something for people who are willing to change their lives. You cannot force people who just don't want to do anything, right? But people who want to have an adventure in art, they will find a way. There's a young filmmaker in a small town like me away from anywhere and I think that there is a place for her to start.

Now you leave in the US. How do you feel coming back to Saudi Arabia?

It's amazing to go to the airport and see women in public working, at the passports control and everywhere. When I grew up, women weren't allowed at all to have contact with the public. We had to be shielded. I remember I interviewed a religious figure who was very conservative but now he has changed a lot and became liberal. One of his sayings was, "A woman has three places. Her father's house, her husband's house and her grave." So now to see women opening, being in public place, it is amazing.

It is very complicated to tell Saudi stories, because the change is very intrinsic. I have a sister who just recently got divorced and before the father would've taken the kids. She wouldn't be able to do any paperwork or go to the court by herself. She had to have a guardian. She couldn't drive. Now she can drive. She's taking her kids. She does all her paperwork. She's so empowered as a human being in her own little business, which is huge for her. I remember when I got married, I couldn’t do my medical exams, my American husband had to sign for me. Now a woman can do medical exams without the authorization of her husband.

Cinema was forbidden in Saudi, and you started by watching movies on VHS with your dad. When did you have the opportunity to watch movies on the big screen?

When I was a kid, I remember trying to rent from the VHS store in Saudi Arabia. I was 14, wearing my veil, and going completely covered. There was a sign outside the store 'Women are not allowed in'. I had to stay outside the store, looking at the catalogue, then my dad had to rent the movies I wanted to watch. We used to go to Egypt with my family, and I could watch movies on a big screen. I remember that very clearly. It's amazing now to see things have access to women.

What are your hopes with this festival? What type of conversation can we create and what needs to be done still? What do you see the next frontier will be?

I want to see more female filmmakers. I think Saudi's cinema now is very intimate because it is still at the beginning. But there is a huge room for women to tell their amazing stories. I'm excited to see a new wave of filmmakers, especially women. But I hope this festival becomes a place that launches the careers of filmmakers from the Middle East. We really need to see more voices from this world, and we need to see more liberal voices. It's a process. We need to open up, and we are opening. We need to hear more local stories that can create a cultural shift.

Can you tell something about The Perfect Candidate. I loved that film.

It shows how the patriarchal system oppresses women, but in a way that it seems like a fun movie as well. It is a story with a message, but it is also entertaining.

 How do you achieve that kind of balance?

People expect a sad film about someone who's being oppressed, but I always want to bring protagonists, who are not victims, who are maybe born in difficult circumstances, but they're not defeated by their circumstances. And I want the audience to love watching a movie. The power of cinema is in entertaining. I want them to go and have fun, even if I'm bringing a sad story from Saudi Arabia to some art house.

The 35 years where cinemas were forbidden, what did it do to you?

It made me appreciate the cinema more. Cinema is almost everywhere with Netflix and other platforms. Cinema is just a little bit in a shaky moment in the world, but not in Saudi Arabia. We love movies because we haven't had them for long time. There is this nostalgia of watching a movie with people in the room. It's an experience that we did not have, we are eager to go through that.

We can see a new generation of women filmmakers coming in this country. Is this strong presence of women happening only in cinema, or in all areas of society?

Women are just having a moment now. Before there was a glass ceiling for women getting promotion and all that. I don't think that glass ceiling is here anymore. Women can do things if they believe in themselves. Still, it's a conservative society and there will be a lot of struggles. It's not a dream. It's not a rosy picture, but it is a picture that is worth telling. And it's a journey that is worth taking because it will pay off.

It might be hard; people will not accept this change right away because we've been conservative for so long. We cannot imagine a female composer, because composing has a lot of control. It's not going to be easy. Women need to capitalize on the moment and just never take “no” for an answer and not be intimidated by the challenges.

Did you think that Chloe Zhao, winning the Oscar, made a big difference?

It's amazing to see women of colour just taking the front centre. It was really touching for me. I'm rooting for Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog. I'm really excited for her. It will be amazing to win the Oscars once again this year for a woman. That will make a splash and will pave the way for people to understand that we are just part of the mainstream. We are filmmakers and you must understand and assess us in that way.

How do you feel to be the first female filmmaker making history – the history of Saudi Arabia cinema?

I feel proud. I hope to inspire other girls to make films and stuff, but like, yeah. I just feel proud, but I'm in no way a role model. I hope people make better decisions.

'With art, you change people': Sara Shazli’s Back Home
Friday, 05 November 2021 12:36

'With art, you change people': Sara Shazli’s Back Home

Published in Films

Emerging filmmaker Sara Shazli’s Back Home had its world premiere at the El Gouna Film Festival. Twenty-eight years-old, she is the daughter of filmmaker and producer Marianne Khoury, who was the niece and long-time collaborator of Youssef Chahine.

Back Home was filmed during the pandemic and sees Sara going back to her family after a ten-year absence. It is touching to watch father and daughter living such a significant time together, but the film is not only about Sara’s family. It is also a look at the world outside the family’s apartment. With a sincere, curious, inventive eye, she observes the inequality and the madness of the world.

Structured like a road movie, it becomes a deep inner journey, reflecting on family relationships, loss and life. This is a praiseworthy breakthrough, which is both perceptive and determined to persuade us to look at things through different eyes.

Meeting Sara in El Gouna, she told me about her desire since young age to study cinema. “I wanted to prove to myself that I had talent. I was obsessed to enter in a good school with an exam, where I could not just pay to be accepted.”

The Cuban Film School was the right choice, she said:

It is a very good school in Latin America, very selective. I was the only Egyptian on board, and the only Arab. Cuba is far, but I've always been attracted to Latin America. Latinos are like us, Arabs, but more open minded.

 When did you decide to make this documentary?

In my third year in Cuba, I went back to Egypt to film my graduation project. I was waiting for my crew to come from Cuba. But it never happened. The pandemic started and I changed my project completely.

How did you start Back Home?

 When I arrived at the airport, I saw everybody wearing face masks. I thought what's going on in the world. I heard about the coronavirus. But from far. I went back to my family in Egypt, I had been away for 10 years. I went back to my family’s apartment. I've always struggled with this apartment because you see Cairo all the time, and it is very noisy. I started filming my dad, but not in the idea of making a film. I just wanted to capture my dad on my tape. I wanted him to live forever through my archives. I wanted to create him on the screen.

Back Home is about your family, but then you look outside the flat, almost searching for the world, to connect with it. And there are very brief but powerful fragments, for example when you look at the children playing during the lockdown.

Where I live in Cairo, it is not a poor neighbourhood, but a lot of people live on the roof. I don't know how people will receive this part. Maybe Egyptians won't like it so much because I'm showing the reality of the country, but for me, growing up in this apartment with all these windows, it wasn't a very nice view. Cairo is constantly in my face, and I used to stay at the window a lot. I feel like I'm high, they're low. It was the kind of thing I did not enjoy.

 In the documentary it is me looking outside the window, this is what I've been doing for the last 20 years. I look, I observe, I imagine other people's lives. How could they live on the roof with the sun? Who is the father living there? I wonder about how people live and how people manage to live in Egypt.

There is a moment when we see somebody, a man, lying on the pavement, in the middle of the Cairo traffic.

I was shocked when I saw that man. I was searching outside the windows in the street with my camera and suddenly I saw that man. I opened the window and I zoomed in. I asked myself, Is that man all right? What is he doing? But yeah, in Egypt you see stuff very shocking. The inequality between the rich and the poor is so strong. And you wonder, how do these people live?

 There is a sort of magic because they live in Egypt, they are safe. People in Egypt are nice. People are generous. Nobody dies of hunger. It's not like in Europe when you have somebody dying, nobody will help. But this also make me think if I have kids, could I provide for them? Would they be comfortable? I worry about that. In Egypt there are five kids in every family. This is the reality and that was important for me to show.

A dramatic moment is when during lockdown everything become silent at night, when the cars stop. Your dad says, "Oh, this is beautiful." And you reply, "It's scary."

Yes, it was scary, the silence. Terrifying. Because I've never, ever, ever, ever seen Cairo like this, ever, ever. Cairo, it's a dream. It's a dream, but also terrifying. I've been living in that apartment for many years. We never saw the streets empty. It was incredible. Cairo is always crowded. You wake up at 4:00 in the morning you will see people in the streets. People live at night, in the morning.

 The pandemic was not only for a region, but for all people, no matter if rich or poor. Egypt never really took it seriously. Egyptians don't care. Some people are obliged to go work.

In the last part of the documentary, you are finally out of the flat, but a feeling of “death” still there. In the cemetery your dad asks your mum do you want to be buried with me?

He was very obsessed with it. When people get old and start to be sick, they want to assure they will die in dignity. I was very touched because I understood my dad wants to be sure to have a place after his death. We bought the tomb for him. It wasn't for the film. He wants to assure that he will die in dignity in front of the desert. He always loved nature, water, deserts, open air. He's a free spirit person.

What is impressive in the documentary is your courage to say what you wanted, as a woman, and as an artist.

I was an introvert for a long time, and it used to make me suffer a lot. Sometimes you'll misunderstand a lot of people because things are not being said. I feel the need to express myself and I want people to be truthful to me too. So, when I don't have that, I go grab it. I look for it. It's important to let things out because we only live once. I really believe people should work on themselves and be honest with themselves and talk truth. I think this is the way to live. I don't carry burdens and strong emotions.

What can you say about gender equality?

In Egypt? It's so tough to be a woman in the world and it's also tough to be a woman in the Arab world. I also think women are powerful and they can make a difference. Honestly, I see so much more powerful women than powerful men. I admire women’s success. I never thought I could be representative of that. Now, I'm feeling I'm a woman. I'm also a strong woman and I must accept that. And with art it's even stronger because you leave a trace. You change people.

What's the use of cinema for you?

If you have something to say, make a film. If you don't have something to say and you just want to make it for fun, or to make money, that’s fine. But that's not true in my case.

Back in Old New York
Wednesday, 03 June 2020 15:28

Back in Old New York

Published in Films

Rita di Santo reviews Woody Allen's new film, A Rainy Day in New York, with a good deal of scepticism

“Don't you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”

This line from Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) summarising his recurrent self-obsessive topics - of politics, sex and religion - is the reason I am still intrigued by this filmmaker, despite his messy personal life.

With A Rainy Day In New York, the 84-year-old Allen is once again in his beloved hometown. Here we find a handsome young couple, Gatsby and Ashley, played by some of the best actors of their generation, Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning, naïve as ever, typical American beauty, round faces and pale white skin.

They are students at a little College not far from New York. Gatsby is a wealthy artist without a clear future, and his girlfriend Ashleigh is an aspiring journalist who has just received an amazing opportunity to interview famed director, Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber).

Galvanised by this chance, Gatsby treats Ashleigh to a weekend in New York City, where he plans visits to his usual lairs, from MoMA to the Met to the coolest hotels and piano bars. But after getting separated, Gatsby and Ashleigh have respective adventures that test the stability of their relationship.

Ashleigh becomes entangled with the filmmaker, then his screenwriter Ted Davidoff (Jude Law), then star actor Francisco Vega (Diego Luna), leading to a wild trip through the city. While she constantly cancels their plans, Gatsby attempts to avoid his mother (Cherry Jones), ending up cameoing in a friend’s student film, one that puts him in a scene with Chan Tyrell (Selena Gomez), the sister of a former flame.

Iconic cinematographer Vittorio Storaro provides the visuals, making New York a beautiful place, from romantic love to miserable escapade. Allen’s gallery of eccentric characters is full of contradictions, ungainly, insecure and a bit stupid, making the film an enjoyable, funny, carefree romp. But we also can find some of Allen’s typically murky and neurotic keystones.

For example, the name Roland Pollard uncomfortably recalls Roman Polanski, who like Allen has become a Hollywood outcast. Also, Roland represents the way people have judge dAllen, an old popular director in crisis attracted by the younger Ashleigh, who resembles his old girlfriend.

In the Me-Too era, Allen is still quite comfortable with unkind gender inequalities, but Roland’s behaviour is unacceptable. He is not funny, he is nothing but a “dirty old man”, especially given Fanning’s wild vulnerability - it is the usual dull-witted male-oriented fantasy. On the other hand, we have Gatsby, who faces the usual Allen dilemma of choosing between the nice, polite, naïve girlfriend and other women who challenge him or satisfy his infamous carnality.

After 50 years making movies, Allen is still full of ideas, but the social satire has lost its relevance. A movie that will please his fans, which his enemies will hate, and most others will ignore. It is not particularly charming, or funny. Yet it sighs with a romantic, contemporary, artistically vibrant vision New York, while dodging the bitterness of his later work. 

Blow It to Bits
Wednesday, 27 November 2019 22:46

Blow It to Bits

Published in Films

Rita di Santo interviews the British director Lech Kowalski, director of of Blow It to Bits

Timely and urgent, but not in the daily papers, Blow It to Bits is the story of workers who threaten to blow up a factory. A dense, entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking documentary, which clearly exposes the enemy within.

The director is Lech Kowalski. Born in London to Polish refugees who survived Stalin's gulags, he now lives in France, making underground films that are a map of his personal journey. Meeting him at the Filmmaker Film Festival, in Milan, he told me about his movie:

“The strike in question involves GM&S Industry France, it is a rural manufacturer providing auto parts for industry giants Renault and PSA, which owns Peugeot and Citroen. Initially a booming business, the factory whittled down over the years as production shifted overseas, as most French cars are now composed of parts produced abroad and then only assembled in France. In 2017 GM&S threatened to close down entirely and lay off the 285 workers, but they fought back in the hope of salvaging their jobs. Blow It to Bits is about the workers’ struggles.”

Kowalski heard that the workers had taken over the factory and to defend their jobs were threatening to blow it up if their demand to continue production was not met. The film’s title comes from graffiti that the workers had scrawled on a giant gas tank triggered to explode: “On va tout peter” — “We’re going to blow it all up.”
France was closer to the election and there was a fear that the French would vote for Le Pen and a right wing government. Kowalski explained:

“I spent a month and a half with these workers. It was very depressing because there were suicides, it was just terrible, a lot of them moved away. But what was interesting is some of them were still in court, fighting to get some money for eight years. The story I wanted to tell was about workers that live away from the big cities. I decided I'm going to stay here, because these people are innocent. They had a place in society, they used to live lives in a way they wanted. They had their fishing or hunting passion. They're very intelligent people and they were fighting for something. They were fighting also for their lifestyle.”

blow it to bit

How did you develop your story? I liked how they stand up to power with an unusual confidence in confronting the new order.

I wanted to make a film about the people. I didn't tell them that I was making a film right away. They thought I was a journalist, filming and filming. I didn't really want to get too close to them, because I wanted to observe them from the point of view of how the society sees them. The idea was to make it a collective film, not a film about the leader. Because the collective action was what gave them the strength. It was not really a fight against Renault and Peugeot so much. It was a fight against the government. Because the government was not supporting them.

It's very hard to fight Renault and Peugeot, they have a lot of power. You can do a few things; you can have a blockade and this kind of thing. But what they were angry about was that there was no one to turn to for help, from across the political spectrum. Politicians were antagonistic towards them. For me this fight was a search for a new kind of democracy.

What was your main aim?

I really wanted to make a film that the workers would enjoy, from an aesthetic point of view. It's not an action film, like a Hollywood film. It's a film made for the class that I am part of. And the class that the film is about. My father and my mother both were workers. I wanted to make a film that's for the average person who normally would not go to see this kind of film.

Can you tell me more about the GM&S?

The GM&S story is a story that has been going on for many years. It started out as a toy factory and it got bigger, bigger and bigger. Different investors bought the company until it became GM&S. And at that point, there was a threat to close the factory down completely. The factory used to have 600 workers a long time ago. Over the years with different owners, it became smaller and smaller and smaller.

Most of the workers were in their 40s, 50s and even 60s. For them there was no future. How can you get a new job at that age? In some respects, they have won. Because the new owner bought the factory and although he fired half the people, he kept 120.

This whole problem with the factories, and this whole problem with the changing of our society, it's happening because multinational corporations are trying to find ways to make as much profit as possible. Not necessarily even for themselves, but for the stockholders. Because at the end of the day, the stockholders are the ones that empower.

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These companies relocate to places where the employment laws are less strong, but also where other laws are different. Because for instance, there are fewer laws for preserving the environment in these new places where these factories are being built, like Romania, Morocco, South America, Mexico, China, and Vietnam. The laws are very loose and people who work in these factories are very close to slaves.

At the same time, these companies are making more profit and squeezing more money out of every aspect of the manufacturing process.

I was very impressed about their mood. When they block the high speed lane on the motorway, they are not aggressive or violent. Is it solidarity that makes them so optimistic and strong?

This is an interesting question for me. It's kind of a mystery why they had this kind of optimism and this kind of deep commitment, emotional commitment, to keep going. I think when you are fighting for something, you transfer your emotions into a kind of anger and frustration with the system. Then you want to be together to fight and get as much as you can. Because there is this desire to fight for a moral kind of victory.

The fight becomes more important than winning or losing. These are like partisans. At one point you know that maybe you'll get killed, but you go out there because you believe in what you're doing. And that's why this film is important for me. The story is hopeful because we knew as we were filming, the workers, and myself, and Odil (his partner and producer), we knew what this was not going to end well. Because it never does. Because the corporate system and the government is just too against these people to make it work. But they did get 120 workers to keep their jobs, which is a victory. The glass is half full or half empty, I would like to say that the glass is very full – of hope.

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.

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