Some 200 films from a diverse mix of countries are to be screened at that annual celluloid jamboree – the London Film Festival. The event, which runs from October 7 to 18, will show movies that have garnered prizes at various international film festivals as well as those receiving their world premieres, at cinemas around the capital.
A mordant morality tale set in a sleepy Chilean coastal town is how one could describe Pablo Larrain's powerful new movie The Club, winner of the 2015 Berlin Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize. The aforementioned club is one to whose elite membership no one actually aspired. It is a kind of clandestine retirement home for scandal plagued priests, quietly removed out of sight (and mind)of the Vatican. Father Vidal (sad faced Alfredo Castro), Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), former army chaplain Father Silva (Jaime Vadell) and elderly Father Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking) are dutifully tended by a similarly 'retire' nun, played by Antonia Zegers. By day, they eat, watch TV and generally keep away from the locals, though mostly they seem to devote themselves to training their pet greyhound to compete in a national racing circuit. It is not long however before their quiet lives are suddenly disrupted by the shocking violence provoked by a newly arrived lodger.
Larrain cleverly draws us in to the hermetic world of the club while the murky visuals mirror the motives of the characters, brought vividly to life by the uniformly excellent cast. The film's biting wit is not especially anti clerical. What Larrain is attacking here is a Chilean culture of complacency, concealment and conspiracy.
He Called Me Malala
That courageous young woman Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for championing girls' education in Pakistan, is the subject of David Guggenheim's intimate and absorbing documentary, He Named Me Malala.
Malala was prophetically named after a famous Afghan poet and warrior. She was born into a family of teachers and activists in a small town in north-west Pakistan, learning about the power of education from a very early age and penning an anonymous blog for the BBC. Combining narration of her remarkable story with beautifully animated sequences, Guggenheim records heart-warming moments with her family and in her new school, as well as the lengthy surgery she had to undergo. This is an inspiring portrait of an incredibly resilient and determined teenager who won the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.
Michael J Larnell provides an acutely observed examination of male friendship in his low-budget, black and white debut film, Cronies. Louis and Jack have been mates since their tough childhood in one of the toughest mostly black neighbourhoods of Saint Louis. Now adults, they're growing apart, with Jack still living by his own rules, while Louis has a baby and a job at a carwash. Louis's new friend Andrew the white guy whose parents own the car wash threatens the delicate balance of the pair's friendship, when a spontaneous day out turns into a weed-fuelled test of their bond. This is a film in which nothing much happens, but that does not prevent it from being funny and moving in equal measure. The naturalistic performances by three local actors (George Sample III, Zurich Buckner and Brian Kowalski) add authenticity to the piece. In short, it offers a thoughtful reflection on nostalgia and how the sins of the past impinge on the present.
Mountains May Depart
A generation-spanning story that exerts considerable power is what Jia Zhangke serves up in his ambitious, astute and humane new film Mountains May Depart. The story spans three time periods in the life of a group of friends who become family. It opens on the eve of the 21st century and Chinese capitalism is burgeoning. Tao a dance teacher in her early 20s must choose a suitor between petit bourgeois, slick haired socialite Zhang, who has just invested in a coalmine and has big plans for the future and honest stoic worker Liangzi. The film then jumps forward, catching up with the characters 15 and 25 years later.
The movie is perceptive and analytical about how societal and economic forces affect lives and values and reinforces the idea that our steps through the past can't be retraced. However, what makes it memorable is a ravishing central performance Zhoa Tao who provides the film's racing heart. Masterly.
Beasts of No Nation
A timely film that provides a big impact is Cary Fukunaga's, Beasts of No Nation, adapted from Vzodnima's 2005 novel of the same name. In an unspecified African country civil conflict rips through the village where Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah), a sparky young boy lives with his family. His father buys passage to a nearby town for his mother and baby sister and tries to send Agu too, but the driver has no space so the boy stays in the village until the troops come flooding in. As fighters swarm through the village, Agu, after witnessing the brutal execution of his father and older brother, is forced out into the bush. Here he encounters an equally deadly fighting force – a battalion of child soldiers under the spell of their Commandant (a magnetic performance by Idris Elba) who acts as both father and fighting figure to these lost orphans. It is not long before Agu is inducted into a way of life where killing is the norm. This strikingly shot and beautifully acted film, which nevertheless could have benefitted from being tighter and slightly shorter resonates darkly beyond its situation, serving as a harsh reminder of childhoods destroyed in war zones.
Another film worth catching is controversial Iranian director Jafar Panahi's latest Taxi Tehran, winner of the Golden Bear Award at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival. It is mostly set and entirely shot from inside a car, a taxi of sorts, with the director playing himself as an affable amateur cabbie. After picking up a motley array of passengers – from a rabid reactionary and a liberal teacher to a man selling pirate DVDs and women heading to a shrine – he finally collects his niece who is making a little movie herself for school. Despite its concern with ethics, aesthetics and politics, the film exudes a disarming charm and mischievous wit.
But the best film so far is the opening movie, namely Sarah Gavron's Suffragette (released nationally October 12 2015), which is made by British women about British women who changed the course of history.
The story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement as they fought for the right to vote is grippingly told through the perspective of Maud (Carey Mulligan) who has worked hard and exploitative hours in the same factory job since she was a girl, her only respite being the affection of her husband (Ben Wishaw) and their young son. When her growing friendship with fellow laundry worker and activist Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) fuels her sense of injustice, she commits to the suffrage struggle. Maud joins at the same time that the movement becomes more radical and violent – smashing windows, bombing letterboxes and general civil disobedience – spurred on by the rousing leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). Their actions are in reaction to the increasingly hostile interventions of the state. In joining the fight for equality, she unites with women who risk their homes, their children and their lives.
This is no nostalgic piece for a fight worth remembering, it conveys the terror and immediacy of that unsettling time not only for the women involved but also for their families – the scenes of police brutality and harrowing prison conditions when the female prisoners on hunger strike were brutally force fed – are particularly moving. Unlike other representations of female militancy, the film refuses to condone or condemn their violent acts, instead reiterating their necessity.
Writer Abi (The Iron Lady) Morgan cleverly centres the story around an everywoman whose experience stands in for the many activists whose names have been lost but whose actions have prevailed, and brings a documentary-style realism to the proceedings while completely eschewing and trace of sentimentality or mawkishness. Excellent performances – Carey Mulligan, in her best screen role to date, stands out as Maud, a woman who becomes inspired, angry and awakened to the injustice she is suffering – help bring the characters vividly to life and enable us to fully empathise with their plight.
This incidentally is the first British film for which the Houses of Parliament opened its doors as a location and I am sure come Oscar time the movie will be triumphant!
A separate movie showing real archive footage of the suffrage movement, and their fight for the right to vote is being screened elsewhere in the festival.
London Film Festival
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Images: © Sundance Institute, © 2015 Fox Searchlight, © 2015 – NetflixLast modified: June 10, 2021