Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Category: Reviews

Sacro GRA

by Ben Diamond

Sacro GRA (Rosi, 2013, 90m)

Sacro GRA (Rosi, 2013, 90m) is a film about space.  Specifically, the space and spaces of the ‘no-place’, a purgatory of sorts – a no-man’s-land, clinging to the titular ‘GRA’ or ‘Grande Raccordo Anulare’, the ring road that surrounds Rome.  It’s the counterpart to the glitzy and decadent, but equally soulless Rome depicted in The Great Beauty, with tarmac, rather than champagne, coursing through its veins.

It starts on the road itself, inside an ambulance, where a medic keeps an old man warm who has fallen into a canal, whilst the ambulance speeds its way along anonymous stretches of highway.  The GRA itself is established as both a vessel for the business of death – the network through which ambulances ferry people to hospitals, and also a source of death in itself – later on, the paramedics attend a car crash that has occurred on the ring road, where the victim displays a morbid sense of humour, the scene itself a distillation of the internal machinery at work at the heart of the film – finding redemption, beauty, and humour underneath the noise and the mundanity.

Elsewhere, the people and scenes the film visits also explore the the concept of death, albeit in a more metaphysical, death-in-life way, the inhabitants of these places consigned to live out their days as lonely ghosts who seem to have absorbed their surroundings and as a result offer cryptic insights into what such a life does to you – how you develop a philosophy to deal with your lot.  Sacro GRA is a documentary, but everything is carefully framed, set up, directed, premeditated.  Characters rarely move in the frame, and their monologues, each a distinct vignette, are given added layers and meanings by the detritus that surrounds them.  If they are accompanied by other people in a scene, they’re often not being listened to.  Each person is a singularity, a law unto themselves.  They are treated by the camera with dignity, but also with a coolness and sense of detachment.

I don’t know where the filmmakers found these people, but they are, without exception, fascinating.  No questions are asked from behind the camera and no interviews as such occur, leaving an air of mystery as to each person’s circumstances, how they came to be who they are, what led them to do what they are doing.  The GRA is depicted as a barren place, and it seems to have some mystical qualities which inexplicably draw people in and render them infertile, as is the case of the two tabletop dancers who perform at a horrible, unglamorous dive bar, scantily clad but distinctly unsexual and disinterested (the patrons of the bar seem fairly nonchalant about the whole business too), their dance having less to do with fertility, and more to do with money.  Elsewhere we catch sex workers, but during their downtime, where their existence appears to have been nullified, purposeless and shooting the breeze in an existentialist, absurdist manner which would feel at home in one of the more banal moments of a Beckett play.

Such is the film’s insight and craft that waves of horror and creeping dread wash over you, without anything particularly horrifying or dreadful being revealed.  In fact, such is the relentless exposure to death in all of its forms, both real and imagined, that it takes on a beauty all of its own.  ‘Death is an artform’ might be this film’s manifesto.  When inhabitants of flats look out of the window, they don’t find horror in other people, because there’s no-one around, just flats in the building opposite, with the lights on – but nobody home.  Instead, the true angst comes from the wasteland, the empty space – and the ringroad beyond.  Fenced out, but also fenced in.

Night Will Fall

by Ben Diamond

Dark humour. It’s an interesting term, and an interesting phenomenon. I would describe it as using serious and upsetting scenarios or themes as fodder for comic effect. But, at the same time, the person employing the technique has to show a level of empathy and understanding which turns the misery we see, or read about, into something universal. This, in turn, allows us to laugh, and appreciate the attendant ironies. It is also this sense of empathy which distinguishes it from pure schadenfreude. It is a sophisticated technique, hard to pitch exactly right – the pitfalls being that when deployed it either veers off into total existential hopelessness (not funny at all), or, on the other hand, it is too conventionally funny, and therefore ceases to pack a punch when it comes to the true awfulness underlying the situation in question.

For all the failures of Martin Amis’s latest novel, ‘The Zone of Interest’, you could not accuse him of looking at The Holocaust from a tired angle. And he is brave to use dark humour as a way of understanding, filtering, and processing those awful events – perhaps brave in a way only someone who isn’t Jewish would allow themselves to be, or could get away with. The novel derives much of its twisted and awful comic sense from the fact that the events unfolding at Auschwitz are mere background details to the central ‘protagonist’, the amoral German officer Angelus Thomsen, who derives no pleasure from the atrocities he is implicit in, but at the same time feels no real shame in what he is doing either. Instead, he is more interested in the camp commandant’s wife, Hannah Doll. Thence the dark humour: the huge, unignorable genocide, the thing that no-one can ever forget, is eminently ignorable for Thomsen – a mere inconvenience, something that rattles around in the back of his mind. In contrast, the romantic interest for Thomsen, of no interest to anyone other than himself, is blown up in the narrative to his primary interest, never mind the advancing march of the Russian army or any moral considerations about his involvement in the running of a concentration camp. His sense of proportion is all wrong. Ha Ha.

It’s OK that we’re still thinking about The Holocaust. It’s OK that people are still writing books about it, and making films about it. We’ll probably never stop doing that. As WG Sebald said, “No serious person ever thinks of anything else.” But Night Will Fall (Singer, 2014, 75m), curious in its failures if nothing else, seems to duck all the interesting questions, and hides behind shocking images, some of which are new, and most of which, in one form or another we have seen before. To simply inform us about the atrocities of the concentration camps doesn’t cut it for me, I’m afraid. Save it for a BBC documentary.

It’s one of those films where you go in thinking you know what you’re in for, and halfway through you realise it’s not the film you expected. To be wrong-footed like this can be refreshing. But Night Will Fall doesn’t seem to want to wrong-foot its audience on purpose. It just runs out of intellectual steam, or courage, to do something different, halfway through. It bills itself as being a film about a film – it’s a documentary about the joint British-American attempts to make a film after WWII using footage soldiers shot during, and shortly after, the liberation of the Nazi work camps and death camps.

There’s so much here that could’ve been looked into. How did the US, British and Russian soldiers, trained in the use of camera equipment specifically so they could document the German atrocities, feel about their job? This film doesn’t really tell us. Instead we hear from the editors in London who received the footage and watched it for the first time. They were all shocked by what they saw, apparently. This seems like a fairly obvious revelation. All the interesting details are glossed over – Alfred Hitchcock’s involvement in the project, for example, and the tussle for directorial control over the film once the US and the British realised that Germany was a potential Cold War ally, and one who they didn’t want to demoralise too much by bludgeoning them over the head with evidence of the atrocities that they were all complicit in.

Instead, we are shown lots of footage from the original documentary, all of which is horrifying – skeletal corpses piled high in mass graves – but all of which looks familiar. It seems both gratuitous and unnecessary, and also something to hide behind. The film, at times, feels like it would be more at home in the archives of the Imperial War Museum or British Library, largely because of the reliance testimonies given by the survivors. Singer often falls back on these interviews, playing it safe with more familiar and comfortable territory. It feels like a film which is deeply insecure about its own identity.

We’ve passed the stage in Holocaust filmography where we must come face to face with the shocking and the visceral.  We need to move on to other ways of seeing.  At one point a British officer being interviewed (as new footage, not footage from the post-war project) is talking about how the women, once liberated from the camps, appeared to return to ‘some semblance of normality’ surprisingly quickly. He says, somewhat patronisingly, that within weeks they were cheerfully nattering to each other whilst deciding which clothes to wear. But, of course, how could they have any semblance of normality within weeks of being liberated from a concentration camp? Some Holocaust survivors that are still alive today still struggle to feel, or behave, in a ‘normal’ way, let alone a few weeks after liberation. It seemed to me, watching the film, that the officer was desperate to impose his wish for normality on the situation – the alternative was too awful to think about. But he isn’t pressed on this point of view. Indeed, this level of emotional subtlety seems to be out of reach for Andre Singer.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube clip from a much more interesting and bold film about The Holocaust: American Radical: The Trials of Normal Finkelstein. It is everything a documentary should be: puzzling, engaging, electrifying, interesting and unsettling. Norman Finkelstein is a Jewish academic, controversial because of his anti-Israel views, and because he operates within an academic system with a strict line on the conflict, which is dogmatically adhered to by the academic mainstream. The clip documents one of the most tense moments on his book tour, where he takes a strong line on the inappropriate nature of the invocation of The Holocaust when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. A brilliant orator, he takes on a hostile audience with many angry Jewish people amongst them. You wouldn’t have thought that there could ever be such a palpable sense of danger present in a lecture theatre. What a fascinating angle American Radical took – Holocaust and Israeli history being chewed up and spat out again by a Jew, who himself is a fascinating character study. If only Night Will Fall had been so bold.

Moebius

by Ben Diamond

Moebius

“Moebius”, Dir. Kim Ki-duk (2013)

It’s a rainy evening at the ICA, I’m fairly wired on a strong cup of coffee and on the screen in front of me there’s a nob on the floor, blood everywhere, and everyone is screaming. Essentially a stereotypical end to Friday night dinner at my parents’, except with more nobs on the floor, and more blood. But slightly less screaming.

I’m sure there are lots of lovely films coming out of South Korea that we could do with watching, but only the most extreme seem to filter down to our small island. Perhaps those are the only ones that catch my attention, but that’s the way it seems to be. Perhaps this tells us something about our own cravings for watching depraved behaviour on the big screen. Regardless, when they do arrive, they usually screen for a pitiful few days at a handful of cinemas and then disappear into the ether again.

Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, 2013, 89m) is certainly extreme. If this were a Friday night cinema audience, there would’ve been walk-outs. Luckily I sat with a tolerant crowd who chuckled through the most shocking bits. Whether this was to lighten the mood and make things bearable, or because there are dark echoes of comedy in the most ridiculous moments of the film is unclear. But what is clear is that Moebius is not extreme for the sake of being extreme. It has something to say. Albeit not with words.

As if this film wasn’t enough of a hard-sell already, it has no dialogue. Shouts, screams, gasps, moans and the odd chuckle – yes. But if you were after some sort of Korean version of a Mike Leigh film (with more castration), you just just jog right on, squire. The film kicks off with a mother trying to castrate her cheating husband, who reacts fairly badly to the whole proposition, naturally, and basically doesn’t let her do it, so she saunters on to her son’s room and de-nobs him instead. Obviously. When knives are being wielded and (dis)honourable members are being threatened, it becomes clear that there’s actually hardly need for any dialogue at all. You just fight for your life and try to hold on to your meat and two veg.

From there, Moebius re-configures and re-visits various key scenes which are established early on, mainly consisting of either masturbation or rape, or in some cases both, but with the sliding scale of consent for both parties artfully set askew each time, and with various different people taking the part of each role. In essence, it’s a fascinating look at the extremes in perverse sexual gratification we have been driven to (well, I can only speak of my own depravity, but if your internet history is anything like mine you should be ashamed of yourself). It’s simultaneously a satire of extreme pornography and a (semi-sympathetic) exploration of how, and on what, we ‘get off’ these days. A memberless father, for instance, works out a way of masturbation whereby he can achieve orgasm by roughly rubbing a stone against his foot until he starts to bleed. This pain-pleasure principle then evolves into one of the most shocking practices of the film, whereby a woman stabs a knife into the shoulder blade of various (willing) men, and proceeds to wiggle it about in the wound, the face of the male nestling on her shoulder, contorted in a rictus of agony and ecstasy.

In all the scenes of sexual activity, of which there are many, consent is never achieved. Which is not to say that the person on the receiving end of someone else’s blunt sexual desire doesn’t ever appear to be getting off on the act themselves. Instead, there is a by turns fascinating and uncomfortable dynamic where opposite poles of sexual desire send everyone spinning like repelling magnets. Sometimes even a person sans genitals attempts to engage in sexual violence. Does this count as sexual violence?, the film seems to ask. Well, it certainly felt like it.

At one point the son in the film is at his desk reading a comic. Maybe it’s a manga comic, containing depictions of extreme fantasies. Maybe it’s just a regular comic. Tellingly, the father comes in and the boy stands up. They look at each other for a moment; a pregnant pause. It’s as if there are empty speech bubbles hanging above their heads. Everything to say, yet they are unable or unwilling to say it with words. The film mirrors the comic-book format in many ways, often lingering in close-up on a face after an ‘action’ scene, similar to a speech-less tile in a graphic novel, the face alone describing the emotions within. As the film fizzed along, the madness made more, rather than less, sense, even as things got progressively weirder. I bought into the manifesto. I left the ICA with a slightly tender shoulder and a renewed gratitude for the continuing presence of my genitals, and their attachment to my body.