Ciro Guerra’s Waiting for the Barbarians (English, Mongolian), based on JM Coetzee’s novel (he wrote the screenplay, too), is a prime slab of Oscar bait, a prestige production if there ever was one. A high-profile cast (Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson) brings to life the story of a principled man (Rylance) in charge of an isolated frontier settlement at the border of a desert. The “barbarians” of the title are the original inhabitants of this place, the nomadic tribes that have now been driven to the mountains. When Depp’s sadistic colonel makes a visit and tortures these barbarians, the protagonist seeks some kind of atonement by helping a woman return to her tribe. This broken woman, blind and covered with scars, becomes a symbol of the brutalities of the British Empire. Yes, this is that type of movie. We’re meant to stroke our chins thoughtfully and ponder: So who, really, is the barbarian! What was elliptical and textured on the page becomes plodding and simplistic on screen. The film is watchable. It has warmth. But it never catches fire.
Hava, Maryam, Ayesha (Farsi, Dari), which Angelina Jolie has lent her support to, was a disappointment. The film follows three Afghan women of different ages and from different backgrounds, as they deal with pregnancy in different ways. Director Sahraa Karimi said, “As a female filmmaker from Afghanistan, I promised myself to be the storyteller of my fellow countrywomen who seek to change their lives in a traditional society.” But it’s equally important that the film’s language isn’t traditional, and that’s the real issue here. All the men are unsympathetic louts, all the women are like the birds in the cage we see early on. In the last scene, a flock of birds flutters past the trio, and into the great blue sky. The world needs more women filmmakers and new women-centric stories, sure, but how about some newer metaphors as well!
Dmitry Mamuliya’s Borotmokmedi (The Criminal Man; Georgian, Gypsy, Russian) is about Giorgi Meskhi, a 28-year-old nobody who comes by the corpse of a celebrity footballer who’s been murdered. Giorgi becomes obsessed with the killing, and the killers, to the extent that he buys a gun and turns murderer himself. The film is certainly interesting, tonally unique. It puts us into the head of an incipient killer — we literally see the landscapes of his mind. But the bleak scenes and set pieces are stretched out far too much, lasting looooong after the point has been made, and the intended effect is muted. The director said, “I wanted to create a guide map of a soul hostile to the outer world, a map of a sick soul, as every single thought coming out of its depth is a kind of disease.” He certainly succeeds. But was it necessary to show every single thought? How much information is too much?
In 2009, Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Double Hour premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival. (It won the Volpi Cup award for Best Actress for Ksenia Rappoport.) This year, the director closes the festival with his out-of-competition entry, The Burnt Orange Heresy, which got its hooks into me right away. I mean, here’s a line from the first scene: “Let me be blunt. Art would not exist without criticism.” Is there a better way to pique the interest (and stoke the ego) of someone covering a film festival? James (Claes Bang, from The Square) is an art critic, in Italy. He has written a book titled “The Power of the Critic”. And he earns a living by giving lectures to American tourists, who swallow everything he says, even the lies. After deconstructing a piece of art, James proclaims, like a God, “I have shaped your experience of this painting.” The best critics can do that. For this opening stretch alone, I award five stars.
I’m not sure the rest of the film, billed as “a Faustian tale in the guise of a neo-noir thriller”, holds up. But it’s entertaining as hell, with Mick Jagger aptly cast as the Devil. He’s an art dealer, and he ensnares James in a nefarious plan that involves a reclusive artist. Donald Sutherland is superb as this JD Salinger of the art world, who compares himself to “a carelessly discarded cigarette” and whose pronouncements on the colour blue hold more water than you think. The character, expectedly, has nothing but contempt for critics, those “ravenous dogs” [who] search for meaning where there is none.” I winced. Film critics face this all the time! The rest of the cast is equally sensational (Elizabeth Debicki plays a schoolteacher), and the script — reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books — is superb. This is the sort of sophisticated entertainment that was once part of the mainstream. Today, it’s a “festival film”. Whatever. Until next year, then. Arrivederci.