Cinematic Folk Ballad

Film review of David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”

(IFC Films, USA 2013)


“Every day I wake up thinking today’s gonna be the day I’ll see you again. And one of these days, it will be so.” – Bob Muldoon

A timeless ballad of love and loyalty that strikes humanistic and metaphysical chords under the open Texas skies, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is wistful American folk mythology at its finest. Lowery’s rural portrait lives up to its festival circuit hype, borrowing from but not clinging to the literary tradition of Faulkner and the lyrical cinematic strands of Malick’s earlier work. The film is a fully blossomed tale replete with stunning visuals and substance to boot.

At the epicenter of this tale are nuanced and captivating performances by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as the outlaw duo Ruth Guthrie and Bob Muldoon. The strong chemistry between the lovers is the mainstay of the film, lending credibility and piquancy to a plot that’s rather simple in its Odyssean core. When Ruth and Bob are arrested following a farmhouse shoot-out that leaves one person dead and a local Sheriff wounded, Bob takes the hit entirely and receives a twenty-five-to-life sentence. While Bob’s in jail, Ruth, pregnant with their first child, vows to wait for his return, which he promises in poignant letters. Some years later, Ruth learns of Bob’s recent jailbreak, and her previously uncomplicated life turns on its head as she grapples with her lover’s imminent homecoming. But Ruth’s not the only party anxiously awaiting Bob: latent resentments have been stirred, and it’s clear that Bob’s life will be in considerable danger if he dares to show his face in town again.

Affleck brings Bob to life with bracing passion and perilously unbridled idealism; Rooney’s restrained, meditative, and quietly agonizing Ruth is emotionally engaging as she weighs her own safety and that of her child’s with her desire to be reunited with Bob. According to Lowery (via Filmmaker), the pair was only on set together for three days. That said, Affleck and Rooney’s lack of screen time together is inconspicuous, which is a testament to the power of the film’s remaining elements. Editors Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo have engineered a pace that oscillates between slow-burn emotional moments and the suspenseful build-up of dread. The film’s score, by Daniel Hart, speaks to both sides of the pacing continuum with a succession of hand claps and long-winded evocative notes. The score pays homage to the film’s folksy roots without resorting to, say, archetypal banjo strums, and in doing so it helps to elevate the film from a straight Western to a modernist art house achievement. Most evident of all is the cinematography by Bradford Young, who appropriates the sun flare unapologetically and draws an array of precise and romantic exercises in light. 

Lowery’s script is notably short on dialogue and exposition, which works in the film’s favor by allowing Lowery the space in which to engage us viscerally through small gestures, pregnant pauses, dreamlike imagery, and subtext. The characters’ motivations are rarely explicit, largely forcing us to extrapolate their emotional architecture, but there’s plenty of substance to render this effort fruitful. Oftentimes the lack of specificity in the narrative allows the film to play like a dream: the details are never quite as important as the sensations, symbolism, and overall immersive quality. (Not surprisingly, this quality of the film bears a striking resemblance to Upstream Color, which Lowery himself edited.) This emphasis on simplicity of narrative has attracted much criticism–as if Lowery’s restraint were akin to laziness–but many critics fail to remember that the film’s self-proclaimed identity as a folk poem calls for a certain sobriety of exposition, therefore encouraging fullness of presence and feeling. 

In a powerful moment of circularity at the end of the film, Lowery manages to evoke through the simplest interaction between Bob and Ruth a nostalgia for unfulfilled dreams, youthful idealism, and the tragedy of a life not fully lived.


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Phenomenological Poetry

Film review of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” (USA, 2013)

Upstream Color

“The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it.” – Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Nine years following his groundbreaking sci-fi feature debut, Primer, Shane Carruth returns with a vengeance. Upstream Color is an amalgam of sensory experience, unfurled narrative threads, human longings, and cosmic inquiry in the form of a sci-fi film with literary underpinnings. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Carruth doesn’t want to waste time tying up loose ends; he’d rather play with questions and metaphors in an impressionistic adventure that leaves no stones unturned.

It’s better to talk about Upstream Color in terms of its gestures and impact rather than its explicit narrative. This is because, in a nonlinear sequence of muddled events that circle back and interconnect throughout the story, there’s only a certain amount of surmisable plot. A skeletal sketch: In the beginning, Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young creative professional, experiences a life-altering encounter with a stranger. The stranger hypnotizes her, forces her to recite passages from Walden and complete origami puzzles, prevents her from sleeping for days at a time, injects a worm into her body, makes her withdraw all of her savings from the bank, and then leaves her to wake up in a puddle of blood in a ransacked house. Upon awakening, Kris is quite literally a different person. She’s unemployed, broke, and utterly alone with only a hazy, obscured memory of having been terribly violated. You’d think this scenario would be the last place for a meet-cute. But then comes a man named Jeff (Carruth) who, inexplicably drawn to Kris, pursues her despite her guarded front and multiple warnings against potential intimacy. It emerges that Jeff, too, has experienced a horrific life-altering episode which has rendered him unsure of his identity. The two forge a fraught yet passionate romance that spans the rest of the film and culminates in an attempt to piece together their shared traumatic experience and ultimately exact revenge on the responsible parties.

That’s the plot… sort of. Upstream Color also swims in lyrical montages of naturalistic imagery, evoking a cosmic awareness of the life cycle and our indelible ties to the natural world. Worms fertilize, orchids bloom, pigs procreate, and water flows as Carruth highlights our interconnectedness and reminds us that nature is still a timeless, mysterious force that drives us and cannot be trumped by the conditions of modern society. Aided by relevant passages from Walden that are recited intermittently, the interaction of the natural world and the more bone-chilling sci-fi elements (such as genetic reconstruction and sinister mind games) happens organically and keeps us on edge even as it awes us. These senses of wonder and fear pervade the entire film. However hit-and-miss the specific plot threads, Carruth countervails the film’s flaws with his bold and uncompromising desire to captivate. There’s never a dull moment. Whether we’re navigating the narrative ellipses of Kris and Jeff’s relationship as they argue over ostensibly shared memories or whether we’re being subjected to horrific images of worms crawling under skin, the film is by all means engaging. 

Upstream Color is the kind of film on which you impose your own framework. It explores subjectivity through the idea that Kris and Jeff must construct personal narratives from chaotic external circumstances. Through the assemblage of assaulting soundscapes, nonlinear editing, and attention to nuance in visual detail, Carruth has us experience the film in much the same way. The film’s (and Kris and Jeff’s) reality–instead of existing within the delineated constructs that are prevalent in commercial films–is experienced as a fractured, illogical ride in which the facts are always under scrutiny and the only reliable element is the circular force of nature. Carruth asks us to consider cause and effect on both a cosmic and interpersonal scale, raising questions about ontology and our perceived control over our own existence. While at first it seems as if Kris and Jeff experience little to no control over their own lives, they develop agency amidst the tides of uncertainty, creating a shared subjectivity that strengthens their bond and defends against the overwhelming losses they’ve respectively experienced. And so, viewed through a more humanistic lens, the film is also about the possibility of human connection between two people who deem themselves damaged. Through unspoken words and delicately crafted space for inference, Carruth shows us that intimacy is not only possible, but that it can actually flourish under these (or any) abject circumstances if one is only willing to be vulnerable. 

In all its inchoate glory, Upstream Color is an exercise in phenomenological poetry. Whether interpreted within the purview of science, literature, film, philosophy, or humanism, there’s a lot to work with here. The film will leave you reeling even if you’re unable to articulate why, and that alone is a hallmark of good filmmaking.


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The Subtlety of Loss

Film review of Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (France, 2012)


Georges: “Please. Don’t feel guilty. What if this were me?”

If you believe film should be an experience that illuminates, probes, and reflects life, “Amour” is the greatest film of 2012. Michael Haneke, once again gracefully unconcerned with entertaining and pleasing the audience, allows the film to exist as an experience rather than a spectacle. Consequently, the film is like life: it’s not often satisfying, it meanders, it’s ambiguous, it’s beautiful, it’s both divisive and unifying, and it will break your heart.

As the narrative begins, we find ourselves in a theater. In one extended wide shot, we observe the patrons finding their seats, collectively forming an audience. The lights dim. The audience is asked to silence their mobile phones. Hushed anticipation pervades the space. Intermittently, someone coughs, sniffles, or rustles. Then, someone coughs, sniffles, or rustles in the seat behind you, and the cinematic architecture of reflection Haneke has crafted is illuminated. Haneke engages us in this uncanny mirror experience to prime us for “Amour”: It’s a film about life and death, and, as such, you’re required to give yourself entirely to an experience of painful—but necessary—reflection.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, in an Oscar-worthy performance) are elderly and retired. We know all we need to know about their past: they’ve had fulfilling, passionate careers in music, and now they live in a labyrinthine apartment in Paris, which—save for the first scene at the concert—is the only setting of the film. One morning, at breakfast, Anne seems to black out. Georges, who at first thinks Anne is playing a practical joke, soon learns that he’s witnessed the precipice of a very long decline. Anne is going to die, and George’s inner strength and devotion to her will be tested as he endeavors to help her do it.

Two weeks before I saw “Amour,” my own grandmother died. The day before she died, I lay with her in bed as her body and mind shut down. Like Anne, my grandmother knew she was going to die, but what she didn’t know were the excruciating “how’s”: how long the process would take, or how much she would suffer. The first time Anne speaks of her death, it’s in the form of an order. It’s directed at Georges, and it clearly states never to take her back to the hospital. That’s exactly the order my grandmother gave. “Amour” and life fused in that moment, and, cognizant of why we bother to create art at all, I gave myself entirely to the film.

In a long history of writers and artists struggling with “the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death (Italo Calvino),” Haneke brings us a masterpiece that’s glaringly new and vital. “Amour” is a harrowing portrait of senescence that breathes with you. It asks all the hard questions about life, death, and love in between. As the landscape of Georges and Anne’s lives shifts to uncover new meanings of intimacy, empathy, and coping, we’re shifting, too. From “Cache” and “The White Ribbon,” we knew Haneke had the requisite audacity to tackle raw themes cinematically, but what we learn from “Amour” is that he has mastered the ability for which all filmmakers strive: the art of making the specific the universal.

Haneke achieves this through subtlety. It reigns throughout his oeuvre, but it peaks in “Amour.” When a self-centered, cold, detached middle-aged woman comes to visit the apartment, we observe a long, detailed conversation about Anne’s health. Not only until Georges, speaking to the woman, refers to Anne as “your mother,” do we realize we’ve met the couple’s only child, Eva (Isabelle Huppert). Haneke employs this kind of subtlety to an effect that humanizes the characters and circumvents the maudlin. Some critics have mistaken Haneke’s subtlety for sterility, or have interpreted it as circumlocution in fleshing out the narrative and relationship within. These answers, however, seem to be too easy; only a lethargic audience unwilling to engage with the film entirely would complain of too little. The space Haneke gives us to let “Amour” marinate is what makes it so uncomfortable to watch, but ultimately so rewarding. Haneke doesn’t shy from depicting Anne’s loss of dignity; we’re there with Georges. We watch Anne circle back to childhood as language disintegrates and she rapid-fires through memory circuits, uttering “Mommy,” struggling for coherence in expression, then reverting to echolalia. We experience Georges’ frustration as he explains to his daughter that second opinions are no longer relevant, and that there’s no better way to do this than what’s currently being done. We sit with Georges in the white light of his apartment, in the long takes, in the wide shots, and we absorb and internalize because Haneke has given us the gift of space.

In fact, the most poignant moment of the film could have been the most maudlin in other, less subtle, hands. Suspended in a silence that becomes increasingly their reality, Anne and Georges sit at the table. Anne then asks Georges for the photo album. He’s apprehensive—perhaps afraid of the maudlin himself—but ultimately retrieves it. Anne is mesmerized by this photographic narrative of her life. She flips through. “It’s beautiful,” she says, finally. “What?” says Georges. Anne: “Life. So long.” This is devastating for us, because, during the silence Haneke afforded us while Anne peruses the album, we’ve been imagining our own life and its many stages, trials, tribulations, desires, and loves. We’ve been flipping through our own photo albums, contemplating our own mortality, wondering if life really is that long, or if it will feel that way when we’re 85, and whether we’ll ever be ready to let it go.

My grandmother stopped answering the phone when she learned her death was imminent. Members of family and extended family had previously deemed her, in jest, the yenta (Yiddish: old gossip), as the home phone was her principal accessory in her later years. Yet suddenly she wouldn’t return a single call; she failed even to pick up the phone to speak with her closest friend of eighty years, who would not be able to visit. Though faraway friends and relatives oscillated between confusion and indignation, no one in the immediate family asked her for reasons. We knew why. “Your concern is of no use to me,” Georges tells his daughter after being admonished for failing to return her frantic calls. Death, in old age, is a quiet guest. You have to sit with it; you accept it into your home, first in the form of a hospital bed or a wheelchair, then in other, more insidious forms, such as a gradual loss of appetite. To maintain grace and strength in the face of mortality, you can’t be harried with sympathy and condolence. The world, having been a very large place while you were living in it, turns insular. When Heidegger wrote, “death is in each case mine,” he meant that death is the only thing in life that a person must face alone. It is the loneliest thing in the world, and both my grandmother and Georges accepted it that way. Haneke has crafted an indelible experience. In “Amour,” we interact with the loneliest truth of life, but we emerge from the theater feeling less alone for having lived.

In her last coherent moments, Anne turns to engage with her inner life, which she, as everyone, must reconcile with human existence. This is depicted in long insert shots of historical paintings and landscapes hanging in the couple’s apartment. It is also depicted in a moment late at night when, in quiet desperation and restrained fear, Anne asks Georges to bring her a book. Up until the very night she died, my grandmother was reading. Just as books inaugurate the child into the world and its history, books guide the elderly through their voyage out of it.

After Anne dies, a pigeon flies into the house. Georges’ insular world has been invaded, and he stares at the pigeon as if it were a foreign object. Eventually, he decides to do away with it, and what ensues is the physical manifestation of the struggle to concede to Anne’s death. In the end, he lets the pigeon go.

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Adaptive Reverie

Film review of Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (USA, 2012)

Hushpuppy: “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.”

At six years old, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is the youngest warrior of the bayou. Raised by her abrasive alcoholic father, Hushpuppy knows nothing of the world beyond “The Bathtub,” a small, destitute, off-the-grid community of people on the bayou determined to live on the land (or water, in the case of flooding) despite the adverse conditions. Merely a levee separates it from mainland Louisiana, however The Bathtub is a world of its own, governed intermittently by raucous celebration, communal endurance of hardship, and a fierce spirit of independence. Like all residents of The Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her father subsist on a diet of alcohol, fish, and chicken, own only what can be found and assembled, and rely upon the most primal of instincts to maintain survival. Save for her father, who cares deeply about Hushpuppy but is seldom affectionate and often abuses her after binge drinking, Hushpuppy is very much alone in this world. The one enduring thing she does have, though, is her capacity to dream.

Through the lens of magical realism, Benh Zeitlin allows us to enter the realm of a unique child’s vivid imagination. Hushpuppy’s imaginative capacities are bolstered by her extremely limited educational resources and the persistent need to cope with trauma through mental escape. She invents answers to all of the timeless questions that plague her life and existence at large with an effortless lyricism. “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe,” Hushpuppy muses,  “and that makes it right.” We escape with Hushpuppy into visions both intimate and grandiose: we watch as Hushpuppy cooks a can of cat food for her mother, inventing the conversation; we watch as Hushpuppy delves into visions of ominous melting glaciers and massive prehistoric boar-like beasts. To engage her imagination, Hushpuppy’s father tells her mystical stories of her origins and of the love he shared with her mother. In Hushuppy’s world, imagination reigns.

When Hushpuppy’s father disappears for days on end and abruptly returns in a hospital gown sans explanation, what was already an unpredictable existence begins to assume a new kind of chaos. The community teacher/shaman warns of an impending storm that will flood The Bathtub. The hurricane is seen as an augury of cosmic changes to come, and only weak members of the community will flee in the face of destruction. Hushpuppy’s father, determined to teach Hushpuppy resilience and self-sufficiency, barricades them inside a small shack. While Hushpuppy’s father descends into alcoholism, the storm rages outside, the water rises, and Hushpuppy retreats into her imagination inside a small, precarious boat. The aftermath of the hurricane brings what every resident of The Bathtub fears most: relief efforts. A haunting depiction of modern life follows as we view the relief effort from Hushpuppy’s vantage point. Strange, soulless people from the other side of the levee have intruded upon The Bathtub in order to capture and control its residents in an evacuation camp, and though Hushpuppy’s father is becoming critically ill, he will have none of it. Hushpuppy, then, is left to fend for both her father and herself. Somehow, they must find their way back to The Bathtub, and somehow Hushpuppy must save her father from death, but first Hushpuppy is going to look for her mother… on this side of the levee.

Quvenzhané Wallis, a non-actor, delivers an unforgettable performance that would demand viewing of the film even if the content were mediocre. (Her raw talent is reminiscent of the four-year-old French child actress Victoire Thivisol in Ponette.) With breathtaking charisma and soulful eyes, Wallis ushers us into Hushpuppy’s dreamlike narrative, filling the wide gaps between sparse dialogue with heartrending moments of humanity. Wallis’s performance affords a visceral experience of the more surreal elements of the film; the intensity of her body language serves as a portal into both her own internal landscape as well as the surrealist scenes without a clear cause-and-effect structure. Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild feels a lot like watching yourself wander through a reserve of your most poignant childhood memories, overcome with intense colors, sensations, and sounds as a pervasive sense of longing and wonder envelopes you. The experience is as haunting as it is sensational.

In one scene, Hushpuppy, in search of her mother, wanders into a Nola nightclub filled with female dancers. One dancer takes an interest in her, and the two lost souls dance together, temporarily filling one another’s voids. In the woman’s arms, Hushpuppy recalls the touch of her mother, whispering, “This is my favorite thing.” Because of the dreamlike, fragmental quality of this scene and the fullness of sensation, we are unsure whether it is wish-fulfillment or reality, but in the end, it doesn’t matter; it’s a simple, honest, unpretentious meditation on how it feels for a young child to have lost someone she never had the chance to love.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is of a new breed of film (think: Tree of Life, Martha Marcy May Marlene) wherein surrealistic impressions coupled with intense moments of realism drive us to uncover depths of humanity that often remain dormant in our everyday lives. It’s a must-see.

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Existential Indulgence

Film review of Anne Emond’s “Nuit #1” / “Night #1” (Canada, 2012)

Clara, on walking home at 5AM after a one-night stand: “I look at the joggers and think, ‘I’m not like you. I just had sex with a stranger.'”

Clara and Nikolai meet at a rave. Like animals separated from the pack, they can smell the loneliness and despair on one another’s flesh, and the overwhelming force of the desire to have a connection draws them together. They return to Nikolai’s apartment for a hungry sexual experience that begins with Nikolai’s request for Clara’s name and concludes with an awkward hesitancy to cuddle… because, after all, they are strangers.

But this is no typical one-night stand. When Clara, unable to sleep, sneaks out of Nikolai’s apartment, Nikolai awakes and chases after her, ushering her back inside. He then catapults into a tirade about the modern state of relationships, chiding Clara for being a modern woman (“They’re just like men!”) and setting the stage for what will become a very long night of understandings, misunderstandings, emotional monologues, harrowing confessions, cigarette smoking, and ultimately a meaningful connection.

Clara and Nikolai are, by normalizing societal standards, two very broken people. Clara has sex with a new man–sometimes multiple new men, sometimes at once–every weekend, does copious amounts of drugs, confesses to being “completely empty inside,” and is self-loathing to the utmost degree. Nikolai, in turn, cannot hold down a single job, has fruitless ambitions of becoming the next great artist, is self-sabotaging, irreverent, and mistreats women without a flinch (though, to be fair, he claims he’s never once hit a woman). In brief, the characters are invariably fault-ridden. Writer/director Anne Emond seems to have taken Clara and Nikolai to a level of caricature in order to illuminate certain aspects of the modern condition. Of every ten statements about themselves that Clara or Nikolai make, you’ll be able to relate to one. Though nine of them may alienate you and cause you to judge Clara or Nikolai harshly, that outstanding one statement will chill you to the bone. Thus, despite some of their arguably unlikeable or unsympathetic characteristics, there are parts of Clara and Nikolai that will resonate with you. This will facilitate a distressing kind of self-reflection that, if anything, makes the viewing of Nuit #1 ultimately worthwhile.

On the surface, Nuit #1 is a study of a one-night stand. Anne Emond’s intentions, however, are an existential exploration of interpersonal connection, the modern condition, and the universal search for meaning. Whether or not she achieves this fully is up for debate. The film comes together in pieces rather than as a comprehensive work in and of itself. The pieces: the rare but momentous points of connection between you and Clara or Nikolai, the inconsistently realistic poetic monologues, the exaggerated but heartfelt depiction of two lost souls. Slightly undermining these strong moments is a pervasive sense of inconsistency. For example, Emond plays with gender role reversal at the beginning (Clara leaves the apartment in the middle of the night without saying goodbye; Nikolai becomes emotionally upset), but soon reverts to painful stereotypes (Nikolai talks about having callously left a girl after an abortion; Nikolai has testosterone-motivated anger issues; Clara has an emotional breakdown and is the only one of the two who does any sobbing; Clara is forgiving of Nikolai’s glaring, unrelenting red flags, taking on all of Nikolai’s burdens before eventually unloading her own). In the same vein, the existential undertones of the film straddle a thin line between insightful and indulgent. Clara and Nikolai, while both capable of articulating pertinent existential dilemmas, also seem to have a notable lack of agency and tend toward self-victimization, often at the expense of others. They view their respective existential crises from a fatalistic vantage point, which detracts from the film’s statements. This is somewhat forgivable, though, because the film’s conclusion leaves us with a sense that connection is possible with the Other: Clara and Nikolai, though they can never understand one another fully, have something real together, and they’re probably going to fight to keep it alive.

“You’re a little bit crazy,” Nikolai initially says to Clara, “but it’s not at all uninteresting.” This, ultimately, is how Nuit #1 plays: a little bit crazy (and a lot indulgent), but not at all uninteresting.


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Noble Italian Noir

Film review of Giuseppe Capotondi’s “The Double Hour” (Italy, 2009)

Recall the searing feeling of betrayal that encompasses the moment you find out that someone is not at all the person you know him or her to be. There’s the upheaval of all the groundwork you’ve lain with this person, the feeling of having been exploited, and ultimately—most painfully—the newfound distrust in your own perception of reality. The Double Hour sustains these feelings for a grueling 95 minutes, serving the worst kind of betrayal on a silver platter—and it tastes great.

From the initial scene, Kseniya, our protagonist, draws us into her vulnerability. She is a poor hotel maid from Slovenia serving Italy’s elite, and her existence is permeated with an overwhelming loneliness. She’s barely sleepwalking through the routines that comprise her days, but there’s something about her that drives her forward. This is evident in the distracted silences that sometimes consume her while conversing with others, the intensity of her eyes, and the swiftness of her movements despite her dreary reality. Kseniya is captivating: immediately she holds hostage not only our attention, but also our sympathy. Thus, when Kseniya meets a man for whom she genuinely seems to care, survives a horrifically traumatic experience that leaves him dead, and has to return to her previous lifestyle more alone than ever, we feel for her. This, however, is when first-time director Giuseppe Capotondi begins to wreak beautifully constructed cinematic havoc. Is Kseniya becoming schizophrenic in the aftermath of the trauma? Is she the victim of an intricate web of secrets and lies that threaten to entwine her irrevocably? Or is there some knowledge of which we are being deprived? The plot soon becomes inscrutable; narrative threads dissolve into nonlinear, surreal scenes that may or may not reflect reality. Despite the fact that we’re inside her head, we have no idea whether or not Kseniya’s depiction of reality is to be trusted. Still, she continues to elicit emotion within us, swallowing us into the vortex of her cryptic world.

Claustrophobic cinematography and an expansive, multifaceted soundscape lay the foundation for this incredibly innovative, genre-bending Italian film. The Double Hour shamelessly toys with audience expectation and ultimately leaves us with that searing feeling of betrayal that is so familiar in life yet so rarely explored in cinema. Both entertaining and thought provoking, The Double Hour is a commendable first effort for Capotondi, which will inevitably propel him into further explorations of untouched cinematic territory.

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A Portrait of Athens

Film review of Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel’s “Wasted Youth” (Greece, 2011)

Wasted Youth more often feels like a borderline documentary than a narrative drama. The film takes a bold voyeuristic approach in chronicling a day in the lives of two people: a young teenage boy whose only escape from nihilism is his passion for skateboarding, and a middle-aged police officer who suffers from a bleak depression. In theory, these two characters have the ability to captivate an audience. However, because the storyline that they navigate is thin and the pace of the film itself is unrelievedly slow, the dramatic elements rarely break the surface. It becomes difficult to emotionally engage with the characters because the events of their lives are quotidian in a manner that feels superfluous and the conversations often devoid of meaning. In this manner, the film is distancing. The intimacy of the documentary approach somehow works against the characters in Wasted Youth, presenting them as specimens rather than people. As a result, neither empathy for the characters nor dramatic tension is sustained well enough to propel the audience into the climax, which is jarring and ultimately feels undeserved.

The film is successful not in its dramatic elements, its narrative, or its characters, but in its embodiment of a mood. Though I have never visited Athens, after watching this film I feel that I have. The gritty texture of a city in hard times comes through beautifully. In conjunction with this mood, the film also succeeds in conveying a very strong style. Through the realism inherent in the hand-held cinematography and natural lighting, a portrait of a struggling Athens in the midst of a heat wave that breeds insanity and discontent emerges. In the end, the character that most resounded with me was not the teenager or the cop; it was Athens itself. 

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