November 24, 2015
Miami cinephiles first had a chance to see the movie Theeb at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival earlier this year, before Film Movement picked it up for distribution and it took the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriter Award at the festival. Full disclosure: this film critic was on the jury with Books and Books owner Mitchell Kaplan and Gary Ressler, the surviving brother of the man for whom the prize is named (here’s a recap of MIFF 32). We all had little doubt about this film’s strength as a debut feature film co-written by the film’s director Naji Abu Nowar and co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour.
Theeb is currently rolling out into theaters (Theeb presents powerful allegory of post-colonial Arabia through eyes of Bedouin boy — a film review). The timing correlates with the film industry’s awards season, as it is Jordan’s entry to the Oscars for the foreign language film prize. It arrived in Miami for its Florida premiere riding a wave of accolades, including winning the Orizzonti Award for Best Director at the 71st Venice International Film Festival and, at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Narrative Film and the Best Film from the Arab World in the New Horizons Competition. In 2014, Nowar was also honored as Variety’s Arab Filmmaker of the Year. “It’s just been a crazy amazing ride,” admits Nowar, speaking over the phone, ahead of Theeb‘s theatrical roll out.
His debut short film, a documentary entitled “Death of a Boxer,” had its world premiere at the 2009 Miami Short Film Festival (you can watch the short here). It was there that he met Jaie Laplante, former Miami Short Film Festival director and current executive director for the Miami International Film Festival. The prize was accepted that night by Laith Majali, a producer on the film.
The reason Nowar was not present to accept his award during MIFF was because he was attending a screening of the film at a village called Shakryieh, in the Jordanian protected area of Wadi Rum. It was a special event for some of the Bedouin actors who participated in the shoot. For some it would be a first-time film-viewing experience. “They were all basically non-actors,” Nowar states.
The director said he found his actors during a year’s worth of research for the script with Ghandour while travelling around Jordan’s Southern desert region. They met different tribal groups from different areas. They found their actors while spending a couple of months in the ancient city of Petra. “It’s where Spielberg shot Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Nowar notes. “We were basically casting a tribe, and what we found was a subtribe in the Wadi Rum region — they were the last nomadic Bedouins to be settled — and so we really liked them because the adult men still had the knowledge of how to survive in the desert, of how to track, hunt, find water. They knew how to live the nomadic lifestyle, and they gave us a lot of information.”
Nowar and his crew took their time in both getting to know the tribe and teaching them lessons in acting, a period of time that took almost another year. “We decided to move in with them and to develop the film hand in hand with them and also cast the film there and direct acting workshops,” he said, “and we workshopped them for about eight months in acting workshops. We did that for a year, and we shot the film at the end of the year.”
One of the film’s standout cast members is, of course, the boy who plays the film’s titular character, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. “He’s just one of these people who just have it,” said Nowar. “He’s very much a natural talent, and often the best thing to do with a talent like that is to get out of their way and just keep it as simple as possible and just let them be themselves and not try and over-direct them. He’s just a force of nature.”
But he was also a boy. “You just try to keep it simple for him and not give him Pepsi. If you gave him Pepsi,” Nowar pauses to laugh, “you’d lose half a day. He’d go crazy.”
Working with non-actors also forced the filmmakers to work in ways that they wouldn’t with professional actors. “What Wolfgang [Thaler, the movie’s cinematographer] and I both decided was that because we were dealing with non-actors — because it’s very difficult to ask someone with a lack of experience to do complicated blocking maneuvers. Obviously, we’re going for effect, we’re going for certain things, but as much as we could — we were just going to try to capture the performances and move with the actor rather than take the actor away from the move because that would complicate things for the actor.”
This deliberate style of shooting also works on other levels. The movie has several instances of violence that interrupt the scenes in a natural, startling manner, with little editing of the images. Nowar also said that a slower pace is key in representing life in the desert for the Bedouin people, something he came to feel while shooting on location. “When you live there for a year, your rhythm of life adapts to their rhythm of life,” he reveals, “and their rhythm of life is very, very patient and quiet. I think that has a lot to do with not spending a lot of energy because of the heat and retaining water. Then, if they have to act, then they will act very quickly and then snack and then do something, and then they will be back, very quiet and relaxed again, and so I wanted to capture that rhythm of life, and put you in that rhythm of life. It’s very strange to come back to the city after, come back to cars and traffic.”
The last point worth making about this film could be considered a spoiler, so if you have not seen it yet, you might want to stop reading now and scroll to the bottom to get your tickets. The film ends with a powerful change in Theeb’s character. It’s a brutal development that walks a tricky line of revenge and disillusionment. The movie ends with Theeb taking someone’s life. It’s a gesture that gives the film an inevitable ambivalence. It could be misconstrued as a scene of revenge and punishment. But Nowar is too deeply in touch with Bedouin culture to put the act in such a context. “It’s a moral dilemma and an uncomfortable one,” says Nowar about the film’s final scene. “For me, it’s not something you necessarily want to do objectively, but it happens. I think it would be good to be in that discomfort.”
He credits his niece for pushing him to make a leap into Theeb’s perspective with more genuineness than he could have conceived otherwise. He said after he asked her to look at his script, he got some invaluable feedback. “I gave it to my niece, who is a novelist and comes from an original Bedouin tribe, and she said, ‘You know, the problem with this draft, Naji, is you’re writing the story as if he’s you, a nice boy who grew up in Britain and Jordan.’ … [In Bedouin culture] there is no court or police. There is no one to intercede to protect his rights or look after him, and you’ve got to act according to your own conscience. You’ve got to basically take the law into your own hands. That sounds cliché, but that’s the way it was back then. In Bedouin law he has to protect himself, and he has to protect his family, and he has to stop this man from continuing what he was doing. I just didn’t want to shy away from that. I didn’t want to change what would happen in reality to fit our modern sense of civility.”
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For more of my conversation with Nowar, jump through the logo for Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog. In this part of our conversation, the director reveals why Miami is such an important city for his filmmaking career:
Theeb is currently playing in our Miami area at Tower Theater and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. On Nov. 27 it opens at the Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale. For other screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. The film had its Florida premiere during Miami Dade College’s 32nd Miami International Film Festival, where I first reported on it in this post. Film Movement and the Miami International Film Festival provided images in this interview.
Theeb presents powerful allegory of post-colonial Arabia through eyes of Bedouin boy — a film review
November 18, 2015
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Problems in the clash of European culture with the Middle East are so much grander than the shocking events in Paris last week. There are decades, even centuries of issues to be resolved requiring a massive shift in how we all relate culturally, yet no one seems to truly want to take those steps without violence. As citizens of the planet caught up in the power grabs of government leaders, the best we can do as human beings is try to understand the Other. Though they may not change the world on their own, movies can be helpful in allowing for some of that understanding. With his debut feature film, Theeb, writer/director Naji Abu Nowar, a Jordanian filmmaker who grew up in England, has gifted the world of cinema with an astonishing yet heartbreaking film that offers a heavy lesson with a light hand, especially when it comes to the role of retribution in this world.
Theeb is not so much a political film as it is one of humanism. Told through the eyes of a 10-year-old Bedouin boy, Theeb is a disarmingly simple film that presents a different way of life in a different era. Some have called it a western that happens to take place in the Arabian desert, in 1916. When we meet Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), which translates to “wolf” in Arabic, his teenage brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) is showing him how to fire a bolt action rifle. It’s one of several scenes with double meanings, speaking to both Theeb’s fragility and strength. Nowar and co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour won the Jordan Alexander Ressler Screenwriting Award earlier this year at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, and — full disclosure — I was on the jury that bestowed the award on the screenwriters. The script stood out because it not only told a sensitively intimate story from the perspective of this child, but it spoke with deep insight to the tapestry of tribal life and brotherhood in 1916 Arabia as World War I loomed while foreshadowing its dark aftermath.
Theeb doesn’t seem to know it yet, but he is growing up in a tumultuous time in Hejaz Province, a region that is now part of Jordan. World War I is looming, and the British, still in colonial mode, are laying train tracks across the desert. When Hussein is tasked to help a British officer (Jack Fox) carrying a mysterious box through dangerous territory filled with bandits, Theeb sneaks along. The officer,whose name is later revealed as Edward, has little patience for Theeb, and he is clearly annoyed by Theeb’s appearance after they are too far along in their journey to safely turn back, according to Hussein. Edward sees the boy as a burden, and he’s especially annoyed by Theeb’s curiosity. The child can’t seem to keep his prying hands away from the officer’s ornate box. Edward chastises the boy at one point, yelling at him, “Do you know what a king is? Do you know what a country is? This is what people fight for!”
Our young hero never seems to speak much, especially since he doesn’t know English, but Al-Hweitat communicates so much in this film. He expresses a complex mix of shame, confusion and suspicion to Edward. The otherness of Edward is also captured brilliantly by the film’s cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler who shoots the officer at a distance or blocked by adult members of the tribe, allowing for only parts of the man to peek through the crowd, part of his green uniform here, a flash of his pink face and blonde hair there. From Theeb’s perspective, Edward becomes the exotic one. It’s distancing and complex, loaded with the mystery of the stranger.
Nowar’s film almost feels antithetical to Lawrence of Arabia. Though rich in landscape and shot on some of the locations David Lean used in that film, Theeb does not romanticize the Englishman going native. The divide between Theeb and Edward is as vast as the desert, reflected in the shifting sand dunes to cracked, dried earth to the narrow mountain pass leading to the ancient city of Petra. Theeb is a young man alone, and the way Nowar and Thaler capture the vast merciless quality of the desert only makes the boy seem more alone. Theeb and his brother only matter insofar as their duty to Edward, even though, as laid out in the film’s opening title text, to the Bedouins, these boys have a cultural obligation to their guest.
This is also a chaotic land, and the filmmakers capture its forbidding quality with a languorous pace that is broken up with startling moments of violence. The film is slow at times, but it works during shocking pay offs that speak to the dangers of this inhospitable land: bodies in wells, a dead man draped over a wandering camel and finally, a stranger dressed in black (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) who has been left crippled after a bloody firefight who considers killing Theeb but says, “Maybe I’ll let the beasts eat you.” This sort of harsh world tends to force alliances between enemies, however. It’s not man versus nature but men versus nature, and Theeb will need to grow up quick as he is confronted by a cynical world of murder, greed and treachery and the pull toward becoming the monster of his namesake.
November 15, 2015
The Coral Gables Art Cinema may have a hit in its specialty programming. They have scored the U.S. premiere of Return to Ithaca, the latest film by the Oscar-nominated French director Laurent Cantet based on and co-written by Cuba’s most prominent writer Leonardo Padura, who also co-wrote the screenplay. As I noted earlier in a review of the film (Return to Ithaca presents a vivid and intense portrait of a life lived in Cuba – a film review), it’s a profound portrait of what it is like to live under the Castro regime and all its history, which spans more than 50 years.
We had the opportunity to interview Cantet over Skype while he was still in Paris, ahead of his recent visit to Miami for the film’s premiere. We spoke about his personal interest in Cuba, and this story in particular. We also talked about his film-making techniques. For instance, why do his films have no musical score? Here is some of our conversation…
Hans Morgenstern: What interested you and making this film, from a personal level?
Laurent Cantet: I went many times to Cuba, and there was a feeling of falling in love with the country — it happened quite fast for me — and of course people I met there. I met a lot of interesting people who really wanted to speak. I felt their story was very important for me because even if I’m a little bit too young to have been involved in what happened in Cuba, there is a sort of mythology of Cuba for every French guy from the ‘60s, and this mythology is so far away from the reality that you discover when you go there. I think it was interesting for me to confront the reality of this mythology. Also I had a feeling I could share their story, too, because it’s not just a question of nationality. I think what they experienced during all this time was something so human and so involving for them that there are a lot of things I could share, especially the disillusion. I’m 55 now, and I … I don’t think I a lost my ideals, but I think I have a colder way of thinking than a few years ago. It’s the sort of thing you always face when you are in Cuba, especially this generation, people from 55 to 60 years old. They have been raised in the atmosphere of the revolution, the schools were revolutionary. Their way of thinking was really marked by this revolutionary feeling, and they really believed in it, and after 50 they had more doubts about that.
I think the rooftop where much of the film takes place is a brilliant setting. The Malecón and these little glimpses of Cuban color, from how the city looks to how the people act. How did you come to choose this setting?
I didn’t want to make a film that takes place in different places in Havana. I wanted to focus on the stories of the characters, and be close enough to just look at their faces, listen to the way they speak, so I thought a sort of theatrical setting would be the best solution for that. Then, I wanted to find a place where I could feel the city, and of course, a terrace for that is perfect. It was also based on one chapter of Leonardo Padura’s book, La historia de mi vida, en español, where a man comes back from Spain and meets his old friends on a terrace, like this, so we started from this, and I decided to stay there, especially because I wanted to have the feeling of the city without having a touristic point of view of it. As soon as you arrive in Havana, you are facing all the clichés you can imagine, all the old American cars, music everywhere, all the flags, all the signs and all that would have been difficult to avoid if we would go downstairs, and I like the situation of the Malecón, which is really the heart of the city, where people meet at night, where they dance, speak, sing and make love sometimes and have this point of view of the sea because the sea is a frontier for them and sometimes it’s very appealing. They would like to go through, and sometimes it’s scary too, so I think this feeling is pretty strong, especially at night when the city becomes just a black hole.
The music all comes from the scenes. I also don’t think you had a music score for The Class [his 2008 Oscar-nominated film]. Why?
I tried, but I couldn’t manage to find space for it. Here it would have been the same problem because they speak a lot, and they listen to music, so I didn’t do more than that. Especially because I think it’s important to have the sound of the city that changes according to the hour of the day or the night, and I prefer to focus on this sound, trying to build an ambiance that gives the feeling of the city more than adding music that would destroy it.
You have a strong cast of Cuban actors. Was it easy to convince them to appear in this movie?
It was quite easy. I saw some actors because I didn’t know many Cuban actors, but I didn’t meet much more than the ones who were in the film because they were so involved in the process, from the first moment. I felt that we would do something great together, and it was very moving to see how important the film was for them, and how they wanted to be in it. For example, Isabel Santos, she told me, ‘Usually I try to hide myself behind my characters. I don’t want people to know who I am, to know how I feel. I’m just an actress. I do my work, and I try to embody something.’ And here she was very surprised to finally build a character on what she is herself, and she didn’t try to avoid that.
I see you had a commercial release in France. How has the reaction been there?
The press was excellent. It was not a blockbuster, so we were not expecting one million entrants, but the numbers were quite good, something close to 100,000. That was pretty good for this kind of film. Even in France you had a lot of people coming out of the theaters crying because I think the film speaks of something universal in us. People can understand it and share it with the Cubans.
Do you have hope a U.S. distributor will pick it up?
That’s something I would really like. Yes, of course. I think the moment is the right one, too. I’ve been surprised. All my other films have been sold in the States, except this one.
Do you think other cities outside the Miami in the U.S. will understand the movie?
As well as the French audience, as well as the Spanish one, the English one. The film has been released in many countries and has had a pretty good reception. People could really understand it and really get moved by it, so why not the States … At the same time, I’m sure for American people it’s also sort of a fantasy. I think that, of course, on both sides, we’ve been influenced by propaganda and having a point of view that comes from inside I think is interesting.
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Cantet also shared his feelings about the film’s rocky road to a triumphant screening in Havana and how he feels about showing the film in Miami, a city rich in Cuban exiles. You can read all about that in the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog, by jumping through its logo below:
November 14, 2015
I’m of the view that Gaspar Noé’s 2001 movie Irreversible is nothing more than an exercise in shallow self-indulgence. It’s a cruel film whose real victim is the audience. I confess I skipped the French-Argentinian’s last film Enter the Void, though many I respect recommended it. It sits bookmarked on Netflix, just in case. When Love was offered as a preview screening with 3D, I went with an open mind. After all, Noé allegedly improved with Enter the Void. Ugh, what a mistake.
Love was an arduous experience. It follows a 20-something aspiring filmmaker from the U.S., Murphy (Karl Glusman), who has decorated his bedroom in Paris with cliché posters of classic movies like Birth of a Nation. Based on an opening internal monologue where Murphy spends as much time complaining about having to wake up in the morning as he does wondering where his lost love has gone, Murphy comes across as a shallow young man that can’t seem to get over his own interest in his own banal discomfort. It’s no wonder he never seems to genuinely connect with the two women in his life, the dark-haired, unstable drug-addicted Electra (Aomi Muyock) and the blonde Omi (Klara Kristin), the mother of his unintended toddler son Gaspar (Ugo Fox). If the implication is that he named the boy after the movie’s director the red flag is up. This dude is as shallow, lost and full of himself as the director.
One would hope a filmmaker like Noé would find some inspiration in presenting the film’s hardcore sex scenes in 3D, but Noé and his usual cinematographer Benoît Debie can hardly seem to decide what to do with them beyond the obvious (a scene of ejaculation that arrives way too late in the movie). Even worse, the third dimension did something I hardly see in a 3D movie: it made the film feel flatter. It’s so self-conscious in staging depth — like shots through an open window and a neatly framed walk-and-talk through a park — that it looked as if the film was completely shot in a studio. Ironically, the film’s bland look does more to push the viewer away than pull them in.
Despite the weak cinematography, the backgrounds were sometimes still more interesting to watch than the actors. The acting was atrocious. The only decent moments came from Muyock’s sometimes aloof and natural sensuality, which spoke will to her character as an idealized woman. Harsh cuts within the dialogue speaks to the weak performances that deliver Noé’s already stilted writing with little nuance or even feeling for the words. Speaking of editing, this film needed some trimming in its painful dialogue scenes and its more atrocious monologues. Noé doesn’t seem to understand the concept of less is more, giving the viewer too much of the same and going nowhere with it. Even the countless sex scenes felt redundant. The best of these scenes involved the seduction of Omi by Murphy and Electra. It served as a genuinely complex sensual moment that would complicate their relationship royally. As such, it was the only sex scene that genuinely mattered.
There’s only one good thing I could say about this movie: Noé accurately captures the frustrating yet mysterious allure of the opposite sex from the perspective of a man who has yet to mature mentally. But the underdeveloped mind of 20-something male is hardly worth sitting through for as long as this movie drones on for. Though Love runs two hours and fifteen minutes, it felt like three hours. I even considered walking out a couple of times, something I hardly ever do. I held out hope. The film meandered through one sex scene after another, jumping chaotically through time with implausible character developments. In the end, all I could take away from this is that Love is nothing more than the literal representation of a filmmaker too involved with himself to make a remotely interesting movie.
Love runs 134 minutes and is not rated (expect lots of hardcore sex, though). It’s now playing in our South Florida area at the Bill Cosford Cinema and at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screening dates in other cities or to order it on demand at home, visit this link. The Cosford Cinema hosted a preview screening in 3D for the purpose of this review. All images in this post are courtesy of Alchemy.
What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy depicts two distinct views of weight of past on Nazi offspring — a film review
November 13, 2015
As World War II stretches further in the past, its history remains no less striking. This writer understands the horrors of the war at least secondhand, as I have stated in earlier posts (Labyrinth of Lies uses high production value to tell compelling story of post-WWII Germany and Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story). Yes, my father fought on the German side, but he was not a Nazi. He told me stories of refusing the cult-like scene of the Hitler Youth at 12 years old, and he was harassed for it. His family tried to flee Hitler, but he was drafted into the Wehrmacht when he was 16. Though he rose up the ranks to sergeant, he refused invitations to apply for officer positions, and, in the end, he used his English skills to help the Americans, something he was most proud of doing at the end of the war.
My father is far from the kind of fathers the two men filmmaker David Evans examines in his new documentary, What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy. He follows renowned British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, who also holds the film’s writing credit, as he both individually examines and brings together two different men, Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank, whose fathers were high-ranking officials in Hitler’s Nazi party. While overseeing conquered territories from a castle that is now part of the Ukraine, these Nazi officials shared responsibility in the brutal massacres of Jews in the region, many of whom were related to Sands.
If that’s not dynamic enough, the two men share very different views on their fathers. Niklas is the son of Hans Frank, who became Governor-General for the region of Poland under Hitler. Horst is the son of Otto von Wächter, Hans Frank’s deputy. Niklas has little sympathy for his father, a former lawyer who hanged for his crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. “I could not forgive him. He was brought up as a Catholic. He studied law in Weimar Democracy, so he knew by heart what was right and what was wrong.” Meanwhile, Horst only makes excuses using that famous ridiculous argument that his father was just obeying orders.
Against a dark history of our recent “civilized” past, Evans, a filmmaker most popularly known for having directed episodes of Downton Abbey, presents a rather striking story churning with layers of psychological torment. Horst prefers to hang on to his childlike nostalgia of growing up with a loving family and refusing to believe his father made a conscious decision to commit atrocities. Niklas shares no love lost for his father, a man, he says, who loved Hitler more than his family. Sands is also a key player. Even though he is a well-known lawyer who fights for human rights, he seems a bit swayed to handle Horst with kid gloves. It’s almost as if Horst has found a state of arrested development that he has found peace in, and it’s a bit disarming.
Niklas stands out as pushing against Horst more aggressively. It makes for a strange kind of drama of conflicting strategies of coping with similar pasts. Toward the end of the film comes the real wedge between the two German men, when the trio attend an annual celebration commemorating the deaths of Germans and their allies in a small Ukrainian town. These zealots dress in vintage German uniforms and even carry vintage weapons. It’s an opportunity for Sands to turn his inquisitiveness on these people. The outcome is scarily similar to the rationale some U.S. Southerners have for standing by the Confederate flag. But more revealing is Horst’s reaction to these people learning about his Nazi legacy. It speaks to how fine a line he was walking in his reasoning.
The film demonstrates a variety of coping mechanisms for dealing with the past by all these subjects. Evans and Sands present personal archival films and photos from Horst and Niklas alongside more familiar vintage images of Hitler and vivid scenes from the Jewish ghettos. Interspersed are the strange and often stark confessions. While Niklas says, “My father deserved to die,” Horst says, “I don’t want to get stuck somewhere full of shame.” Both men are treated with sympathy. Indeed these two were children, brought into something no child should be able to comprehend. Growing up with this speaks to the burden of the past and how the past entangles itself with individual identity. If you think World War II died with the defeat of Germany, consider this intimate battle for reconciliation between these three men, still inextricably connected by a war that has defined their psyches in profound ways.
What Our Fathers Did runs 92 minutes and is not rated (it contains some disturbing images and discussion). It opens this Friday, Nov. 13, in our Miami area at the following theaters:
Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami
O-Cinema Miami Shores
AMC Aventura 24
Living Room Boca Raton
For other screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Oscilloscope Pictures provided a preview screening link for the purpose of this review. They also provided all images in this post, credited as follows:
Photo 1: Horst Von Wächter, Philippe Sands (In Background) and Niklas Frank at the site of a mass grave outside Zolkiew, Ukraine in My Nazi Legacy. Photography by: Sam Hardy
Photo 2: Krakow Ghetto, circa 1940. Image courtesy of Niklas Frank.
November 12, 2015
To live in Miami is to know the Cuban exile experience, whether you want to or not. You can’t avoid it here. The croquetas are too good.But also many of your Miami friends and co-workers are Cubans, be they first generation Miamians or recent immigrants. It’s with this familiarity that I experienced Laurent Cantet’s moving and insightful new movie Return to Ithaca. It has yet to find U.S. distribution or even play a U.S. film festival, but I think it found the right place to premiere in the United States: The Coral Gables Art Cinema in Miami-Dade County.
If there ever is a U.S. audience more sympathetic or aware of what it means to be Cuban, it is those living in Miami. This exile community suffers a very intimate kind of loss of their homeland, and it’s with little reservation that I would urge them to seek out this movie, co-written by one of Cuba’s most important living authors, Leonardo Padura. Based on a scene from his 2001 book La novela de mi vida, Return to Ithaca shows us how Cubans on the island suffer a complex yet exquisite kind of disillusionment. Over the course of one night, a group of five older friends, mostly in their 50s and 60s, turn reminiscences into a reckoning of their friendship as they struggle to come to terms with how the Castro regime shaped their fates.
The film finds its tension with the return of Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez), a man who gave up his career as a writer for menial work in Spain to send money home to his family. After spending the past 16 years in exile, his longtime friends begrudge him to varying degrees, even though they still harbor much affection for him. He left his wife to die of cancer while he lived the life of an exile. All five of these people represent different walks of life and express both their suffering and joy of life in their own ways. Tania (Isabel Santos), who is the most bitter with Amadeo, is a doctor. Rafa (Fernando Hechavarria) is a painter, who, like Amadeo, lost touch of his craft. But, more painfully, Rafa lost it to alcoholism at home. Eddy (Jorge Perugorría) is the boisterous illegal capitalist. Finally, Aldo (Pedro Julio Díaz Ferran), is the low-key engineer whose father died from the “pain of disillusionment.” They are good people, who, like most Cubans of their generation, have been left a bit broken by the ideals of the revolution, victims of the flawed ideology of Marx.
The chemistry with these actors is so palpable a sense of catharsis jumps off the screen. All of them give passionate, heartfelt performances that are nothing short of real and visceral. Cantet keeps much of the action on a large terrace. Working in the atmosphere of the city from a distance, he sprinkles in scenes of daily life here and there. Across the street, a woman yells from a window to her cheating boyfriend downstairs. In another far off scene, four men wrangle a live pig before butchering it for dinner. And across the terrace is El Malecón, the famous seaside street that has become iconic with Havana but also provides the gateway out.
As grim as the subject may seem, its theme is merely an undercurrent. It’s an appropriately bright film, and even though the buildings may be a bit decrepit, the characters are not, and the camera of Diego Dussuel certainly captures the beauty of all hours of the day, from the harsh shine of the afternoon, when the film opens with the group singing and dancing, to a rise of tension at dusk, then a swing toward contentment tempered by good cooking at night to, finally, a fecund reconciliation at dawn. The film only covers a day and sticks with these characters. “Variety” film critic Guy Lodge made an astute comparison to The Big Chill (read his review). Return to Ithaca feels as though it could have been a play, and despite taking its time to get the dramatic conflict going deep enough to play with deeper implications, the film never feels dull.
The film features a few in-jokes best understood by Cubans, like a scene early on where the friends sardonically chant a communist slogan, but it also has many touch points that anyone can relate with. They accept aging with a bitchy kind of humor. As Tania looks over an album of photos of their young and beautiful years, she moans, “Oh, merciless time.” They also argue over music, including that age-old divide: The Beatles versus The Stones. Music is a big conversation piece for this crew, and their passion shows that music is indeed worth arguing about. It also serves to catalyze their dynamic in a sly dramatic way before things grow personally tense over profound grudges. The screenplay writers, which also include François Crozade and Lucia Lopez Coll, have bitterness down to an art. There is a sense of jealous resentment over Eddy’s success, and it’s easy to sympathize with a resentment of Amadeo when he reveals he wants to return to Cuba for good. Back to the undercurrent, Return to Ithaca also carries a tragic sense of loss for a hollow past, and none of these friends never genuinely wish true ill will to the others but project a sort of bitterness of wasted lives and dreams falsely entrusted to what would turn out to be just another autocratic regime. There’s a vested interest in their friendship because it’s all they have.
Return to Ithaca runs 95 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (it does have an adult perspective on things). It opens exclusively in the entire United States this Friday, Nov. 13, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. On opening night, Cantet, Padura and Hechavarria will all attend the red carpet premiere event with a catered reception from 7 to 8 p.m. The following day, at 1 p.m., there is a director’s masterclass with Cantet moderated by local Borscht filmmaker and Sundance alumni Jonathan David Kane at The Gables Art Cinema. For details on the class, visit, the Miami Film Development Project website at filmprojectmiami.com. The Gables Art Cinema provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Funny Balloons.
Finally, I interviewed Cantet ahead of his visit to Miami. To read some it, head to the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog, by jumping through its logo below:
November 2, 2015
As the end of the year looms, 2015 has yet to conjure a song more infections than the one I wrote about in August 2014 by BRONCHO, “Class Historian” (Broncho’s new single: the catchiest indie rock song I’ve heard in years). Jump through the title of the article to hear it for yourself. It’s a brilliant, post-punk-inspired bauble. If anyone can find a catchier song, I invite you to share a link to it in the comment section.
Since then, the Norman, Oklahoma band has been on a long on and off tour supporting its second album, Just Enough Hip to Be Woman. It’s an energetic, smartly constructed record of 11 songs rooted in the hooks and swagger of early-‘80s post-punk that’s only 32 minutes long. You can hear the entire album for yourself on the band’s soundcloud here:
BRONCHO features guitarist/vocalist Ryan Lindsey, guitarist Ben King, bassist Penny Hill, and drummer Nathan Price. I spoke to the band’s frontman via phone ahead of BRONCHO’s first South Florida appearance opening up for The Growlers at the Culture Room. Naturally, I had to ask him about the magic behind “Class Historian,” and how he writes his music, specifically where did that long stuttering hook in “Class Historian” come from?
“When I first started playing that song, probably the very first time I played it, I came up with the idea,” he reveals. “I was thinking that that would be an instrument playing that part, but when I play by myself, I vocalize a lot of parts, and it just kind of stuck. It made more sense, so I just kept singing it rather than finding something else to play it. A lot of times stuff will happen that way, whether it be vocally or if I’m thinking about putting a part somewhere, I’d just be singing it and that, lots of times, will just turn into a verse or something.”
So words and lyrics, therefore, are a bit secondary to melody and music for Lindsey. Lindsey says they come to him from spontaneous moments of melodies popping into his head. He also finds words and their structure by following the music. “Lyrically, I’ll come up with ideas through singing through songs,” he says. “There’ll be a word that makes sense with the rhythm of the song, and then I’ll try to build the rest of it off of that, and then we kind of fill the blanks during the recording, try to figure out the rest and make sense of it.”
With “Class Historian,” I made a big deal in last year’s post of Lindsey’s phrasing and how he chooses to reinvent the accents of parts of words. Particularly the way he extends the first syllable of the word “historian” and rushes the rest of it, sort of nonchalantly tossing the word off. “I think you can get away with simple stuff,” he muses. “If you mess around with the really simple things and chop ’em up, I think, for one, it feels good rhythmically, and it adds a little rhythm to an otherwise really simple part. I think mixing that in as much as possible feels better to me. It’s more something I would want to sing and more something I would want to hear.”
When it comes to finding the words, he credits guitarist Ben King for helping out. “I’ll basically bring a chunk of ideas that I have, and on the last record Ben really helped me fill in the gaps … he wrote a bunch of lines, too, so most of the time it’s Ben and I working on the lyrics. As far as the band goes, it’s kind of a mix, but Ben’s a great person to work with on lyrics. He’s the only guy in the band with a degree,” Lindsey adds with a laugh.
Lindsey was at a recording studio in the band’s hometown, while taking a break from touring, when we spoke. Asked if he is writing while on tour, he replies, “Kind of. It happens sometimes on tour or when I’m home. If an idea comes to me, I’ll start singing. I’ll sing it in my head for a while and sometimes play it randomly. I’ll just think about it and come up with a lot of ideas prior to playing through it, and then I’ll start playing through stuff and see what makes sense. It’s pretty casual, really. Sitting down and like really saying, ‘I need to write a song,’ it sounds really stressful to do that.”
During the band’s tour for its first album, Can’t Get Past the Lips (2011), the group mixed in several new songs that wound up on its 2014 album. Lindsey sounds a bit surprised at himself when he admits that none of BRONCHO’s new material has appeared on its current set lists. “For the last record we played a pretty good chunk of the songs live for a while,” he says. “We played ‘Kurt’ and ‘It’s On’ for a long time and then ‘Class Historian’ we played for a while before we recorded it.”
He says the band’s current tour has felt so breakneck, it has even disoriented Lindsey’s sense of time. The last album is over a year old at this point, and the touring has been unrelenting for band members. Dates recently included festival appearances at SXSW and the Firefly Music Festival in Denver, among others. “It’s been a real blur,” admits Lindsey. “Like I just ran into a friend last night, and I hadn’t seen him since January, but I thought I saw him like a month ago,” he says with a laugh, “so it’s all a blur. It’s like a dream state.”
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For PureHoney Magazine, I wrote about the band’s evolution in its sound between this record and its 2011 debut, which had a rawer, garage rock sound. Lindsey and I also spoke about the song “Deena,” another wry cut that speaks to the band’s post-punk influence. He was real happy to talk about that song, which you will hear and be able to download as an mp3 for a limited time when you jump through the image below. He told me, “It’s nice hearing people talk about ‘Deena’ because I don’t hear very many people bringing that song up, but that was one of my favorite songs on the record.” You can check that out by jumping through the PureHoney logo below:
BRONCHO and The Growlers are touring Florida right now. They will be in our South Florida area this Tuesday, Nov. 3. BRONCHO will play an in-store performance at Radio-Active Records in Fort Lauderdale for free (plus free pizza) at 5 p.m. that day (details). Then they warm up the stage for The Growlers at The Culture Room, whose doors open at 7 p.m. (tickets here). The tour continues northbound, the following day, in Orlando (visit the band’s website for all dates, which continue through Nov. 21 in California). Photo of BRONCHO by Rozette Rago, provided by the band.
(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)