September 21, 2014
One of this year’s most startling films has to be Child of God. It took a while for this film critic to warm up to it while watching it. It’s harsh, spare but ultimately eye-opening. Once you tangle with its stark intentions: accepting the humanity of a man who commits reprehensible acts, this is truly a film that deserves respect (read my review: James Franco captures pathos of a necrophiliac psycho with ‘Child of God’). The film, based on the 1974 book by Cormac McCarthy and directed by the popular actor James Franco, challenges the audience on several levels. Viewers are not only expected to bring open minds but also a sense of empathy for a character most movies would portray as frightening or despicable. That demands the audience to travel to a dark place within themselves.
I spoke with the film’s star, actor/director Scott Haze, via phone ahead of his visit to the Miami Beach Cinematheque where he will sit down and talk with two film critics about Child of God for about an hour. “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar will engage Haze during the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema.” The event will feature clips of the film and will be recorded on video to be archived for educational purposes.
Speaking from his car in Hollywood, California, Haze talks openly about the lengths of his preparation and the baggage that comes with being judged as part of a Franco-directed film. Much of our conversation has already been published in the “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist.” Read it by jumping through the logo to the blog below:
We spoke for nearly a half hour, so there was a lot to our chat. Below you will find a modified Q&A featuring lots of the great material I could not fit into the “Cultist” story. It captures the gist of our 25-minute conversation without repeating anything from the “Miami New Times” story:
Hans Morgenstern: Have you ever been to Miami?
Scott Haze: I’ve been everywhere in the United States except for Miami, which is crazy.
Do you have any expectations?
My expectations are really probably very lame. Miami’s been such a backdrop for some of my favorite movies as a kid, so the expectations I have are that it’s a great city, it’s a fun city. There’s a lot of beautiful women. There’s a lot of parties.
I have a sense that you and Franco worked very closely on this film, which I think is one of the most humanizing portraits of a serial killer that I have seen.
You know, this project started as a passion project with James years ago. He knew that Sean Penn wanted to make the movie, and he’s a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy, so I guess it started as his desire to translate this project into a film. He does a lot of adaptations, but this was a dream project. This one and As I Lay Dying were the two movies that he wanted to make before he died.
What is the audience supposed to take away from this film?
I don’t know. I think that’s the cool thing about cinema. People are obviously not going to see The Wizard of Oz or Spiderman. You walk away with different things when you watch Child of God. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have walked away with many, many different things. A lot of people have connected to the feeling of looking at somebody who’s really alone and what it was liked in the 1950s in Tennessee. It could happen to somebody because back then they didn’t have Instagram, they didn’t have Twitter, they didn’t have Facebook, so Lester probably couldn’t have gone online and made friends, so it’s a different time. I think a lot of people have felt — if they look at being isolated and being alone for that amount of time — what it looks like. Some people are deeply moved by it, some people are rooting for Lester, some people cheer him on. Some people are horrified, but they want to see the story unfold, so they stick with it. It’s been really varied.
What did you do to get into this character’s head?
I did a lot of stuff. What I did was I realized I had to lose a lot of weight because I just played a Marine, had a shaved head. I was really built up, so I ended up losing tons of weight. I had a friend in Tennessee, and I went out there with an actress named Elissa Shay, and we did work on the script for about a month, and I filmed like a short documentary on the town and the community and what it was like interviewing a thousand people who were from that actual time frame and where Cormac set the novel. The novel is set in rural Tennessee. My friend actually happened to be the town historian of that city, so he took me on like this crazy tour of learning about caves, and everything Lester does in the novel I did. Half that stuff didn’t make the movie, which is just funny. I think of all that work I did, like scenes we shot where I make my own ax, which is in the novel, so I did everything that Cormac wrote in the novel … and then [my friend] had a cabin there, which was alone in the woods, and then I ended up living in isolation for well over a month in the cabin. Then I was in the caves for a little over a month. There was like this ongoing, evolving process of how this thing happened.
Watching your performance, you really go all out. Was it a fun role to play or was it painful?
It’s both. It was really, really hard, but at the same time, I look back on it, and a lot of people said I was just kinda crazy at that time, but it was fun at the same time. I knew that this was a great role. As a kid growing up wanting to play these great roles, I knew that I was very fortunate. I knew that Sean Penn wanted to do this role, and he couldn’t get this movie made for 15 years. It was like an adventure, like the stuff you watch on the Discovery channel.
Speaking of physicality, why include the scene of you shitting in the woods?
Well, that’s just in the novel. It wasn’t like I said, “You know what, James? What we need to do right now is I need to shit.” I think it was more like it’s what Cormac wrote, and I think there’s like something really wild about showing the conditions he’s living in and his mental state. There’s a lot of things that that does that I think Cormac was thinking about when he wrote that into the book … basically when you see that, the audience should realize what they’re in for. At that moment, when you see something like that, you don’t go, oh, I’m going to see Spiderman now, and I think James is a filmmaker who doesn’t want to shy away from something that may be hard on the audience.”
You are director too. How does that help the performance?
I direct films, I direct theater and I’m a filmmaker myself … I get it. There’s a scene in the movie where I could walk through the cold water in 10 degree weather or I don’t. What it was is it was James and I teamed up to tell the story, and we both understood that we were both completely invested. I think that being a director helps me in so many ways. It helps me in my preparation. It helps me in understanding filmmaking. It helps me in understanding how to help other actors in the scene. A lot of what I did I think it helps in a lot of ways.
The critical reception has been divisive at best. What are critics not getting?
If you were to put Brad Pitt in the role of Lester Ballard would that make Child of God different? I don’t know. I read an article in “Vice” that asked, ‘What are people missing out on by not realizing that Child of God is important to cinema today?’ I think it’s just a testimony to where we’re at with entertainment. These are really important movies that examine situations in life and human behavior that tell a story and don’t involve a green screen and don’t involve a cape or a superhero. Not only that, it’s really tackling serious circumstances in a very honest way. It’s hard to watch if people consider it a horror movie, and it’s not a horror movie. It’s a character study. It’s easy for people to say, ‘this is shocking, this is so crazy,’ and I don’t think it is.
I think you are definitely touching on the way I feel about it because I think the more you escape, the more you detach from humanity. This film makes you realize you have to have humanity to sympathize with such a character. There’s something more dehumanizing in these cartoon movies as opposed to a film like this which says, ‘Hey, wake up.’
I’m really glad you liked it, man. I really am because I’ve talked to people since the movie came out who are just awful to talk to, and they ask me some of the stupidest questions. Like the worst one is, Did you read the book? I’m like living in a cave to prepare for the movie and ‘I’m like, ‘Did you read the book? Yes, I read the book, a thousand times.’”
I think sometimes reviewers are biased due to the star persona of James Franco, but at least some people, like Jonathan Romney in “Film Comment” are writing intelligently about this movie.
The reason I think that this one was more well-received than a lot of his work, cause this movie played in competition at Venice last year and people like yourself who understand it love it, and they said this was his best movie, and I think it’s because of the story we’re telling that we were able to get away with things that you can’t get away with if you’re doing Ocean’s 11, like we had a camera on sticks in the middle of nowhere or going handheld. The fact that this movie is so rugged in the filmmaking style that he rolled with added itself sometimes to help it when it could have been disastrous. Your overall question is that there’s tons of people that just hate people, and they just want to take people down who are out there trying new or daring projects, so yeah, it’s huge, and I know that he knows it, and I know it, and anybody who roles with our crew know it if he’s named as our director that people are going to come in and hate, and I don’t think it’s fair to him. I think he’s doing something that’s not revolutionary but that they used to do in the theater back in New York. They had a group of actors that all just made movies together that were friends, and I think, as the years go on, people might step back and look at this differently with what he’s doing. Sure some of it is crazy, but most of it is not. Most of it is really daring, challenging projects that no one else thinks to do or doesn’t have the balls to do or doesn’t want to do, and he does it because he wants to do it, and then his close friends get it.
Child of God is showing exclusively now in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque through Sept. 28. On Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m., actor Scott Haze will join “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for each screening and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.
September 18, 2014
Of course real David Bowie fans know that the 67-year-old rock icon frequently called “the chameleon of rock ‘n’ roll” has been so much more than Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. As a Bowie fan, I felt inclined to break him down to 13 other personas (including his “just a member of the band” phase with Tin Machine, as pictured above in 1990). All longtime Bowie followers know he has made inconsistency an art form. After all, isn’t David Bowie a facade for David Robert Jones? So I threw together a listicle for the Miami New Times’s art and culture blog “Cultist” ahead of the national, one-night-only screening for David Bowie Is. You can read it and see lots of videos, by jumping through the “Cultist” banner below. I open with a Bowie anecdote few have probably heard about from director John Landis:
I’ve had a chance to preview David Bowie Is. Though I won’t review it, suffice to say Bowie fans who have not had the chance to see the exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, where it premiered last year will love it. The documentary, directed by Hamish Hamilton with Katy Mullan, does not directly focus on Bowie but on the bits of Bowie ephemera that make up the internationally acclaimed David Bowie retrospective exhibit. The directors provide some nice insight into the persona that is and was David Bowie. The film, shot during the exhibit’s last day at the V&A, connects the dots between his many reinventions through things like costumes and hand-written lyric sheets, reflective of the essence of the exhibit. It also features speeches by the curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, and celebrities like Jarvis Cocker.
Focusing on particular periods of Bowie’s 50 years of recording and performance history, the film does not dwell on the popularly known Bowie such as Ziggy or his “Let’s Dance” era, which could tire the diehards, but really examines the minute details that actually reverberate across his career. For instance, a nice amount of time is spent on a rare short film called “The Mask,” which Bowie stared in as a mime. It’s premise, about a shoplifter who steals a mask that makes him popular when he wears it and the tragic karma that befalls him, may sound familiar to those who understand the strain Bowie felt to committing to his Ziggy persona for those two years of lengthy touring in the early ’70s.
I won’t spoil anything else beyond that. Below my signature and the film’s trailer are the only screenings in Miami. The O Cinema screening has sold out, however.
David Bowie Is plays one night only on Sept. 23, coinciding with the exhibit’s only U.S. visit in Chicago, at many U.S. theaters. In South Florida it will play at Miami’s Tower Theater, which has two screenings, one at 7 p.m. and another at 9:15 p.m. (get tickets). The O Cinema Wynwood screening at 9:15 p.m. has already sold out. For screenings in other parts of the country, visit this link and put in your zip code.
September 16, 2014
Some of the bleakest films in recent memory have been based on books by Cormac McCarthy. The Road almost felt like an exercise in hopelessness. No Country for Old Men had a sense of inevitable futility. Respectively directed by John Hillcoat and the Coen Brothers the films captured McCarthy’s dark sensibility via cinema. Now comes the media factotum James Franco to take on McCarthy and one of his earlier novels: Child of God, which is not only told from the demented perspective of a serial killer who has sexual relations with corpses but does not forget those who failed to stop him. Whatever you might think of this actor/director/author/poet who seems to spread himself kind of thin, there is no lack of quality direction invested in his adaptation. It follows Lester Ballard, a man abandoned by his family, community and humanity as a whole. What becomes of such a person is disturbing in its implications of society, and that Franco pulls off channeling that from the book as well as he does — though not flawlessly — deserves praise.
Smartly constructed, Franco’s Child of God (like the book) unfolds across three distinct acts that subtly grow baser and more harrowing as the story unfolds. The film takes place in rural, mid-20th century Tennessee. It’s winter, and the trees are mostly stripped bare of their leaves. Actor Scott Haze puts himself into the titular character of Lester Ballard with a grandiose lack of inhibition. We meet him confronting a group of people and an auctioneer on what Ballard says is his rightful property. Rifle in hand, he yells bloody murder at those who show interest in the land and large house. The scene, as with much of the film, is presented via handheld camera. It establishes the movie’s raw tone early on. Furthering the film’s earthy quality, the extras and bit players come across as non-actors genuinely recoiling as this beast of a man in a scruffy beard spits angst and frustration in an almost unintelligible drawl.
Child of God would probably not be as watchable were it not for Haze’s go-for-broke performance. His version of Ballard recalls what Denis Lavant did with Mousier Merde, a remarkable monster who could hardly speak and ate bouquets of flowers after emerging from the sewer in two films by Leos Carax, a short film in the omnibus Tokyo! and his terrific feature Holy Motors. But Haze doesn’t get the cartoonish flourishes of living underground and devouring flowers. Ballard feels more realistically and frighteningly grounded in the primal.
What Child of God is more interested in exploring — if it’s not already apparent in the title — is the underlying, universal basis that everyone needs human connection. In one scene after another Ballard is denied genuine, vested sympathy by others on screen. Haze channels Ballard’s anguish with a visceral performance beyond his unkempt exterior and a nose prolific enough to produce large globules of mucus when he’s at his most desperate. His hangdog face and over-bite add to his character’s pitiable quality, but there’s also a conviction in his eyes and posture that never wavers throughout the movie.
Franco also uses cinematic flourishes that speak to his keen skills as a director. The perspective of this man is of course easily manipulated through cinema. It’s about editing and the decision of what to show of the narrative, but it is a film that “shows” in the best narrative sense. The banjo music by Aaron Embry brings Deliverance to mind and unknown narrators give background vignettes that allude to the ghost of the person Ballard once was, though they make him no less frightening. “He’d grown lean and bitter. Some say mad,” says a voice-over narrator as Ballard stalks the side of a road, his gun in plain view, yelling at cars. Oh, Ballard also defecates in the woods and scrapes between his butt cheeks with a stick (just one more element of Haze’s conviction to his character).
With a harsh, layered musical sting out of a horror movie, Franco turns to Part II of the film. The unseen narrators have dropped out at this point, reflecting the notion that what lies ahead will seem inconceivable to the civilized person. Eventually, Ballard stumbles across a pair of young lovers who have died in their car of carbon monoxide poisoning, and during an extended sequence that features him having his way with the corpse of the young woman, he finds love. Ballard is now cuddling up with the young woman’s body in an abandoned home, saying “it’s me and you.” Companionship at last. As noted, the film is only headed further down a grim path. The sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) who enters the film to the sound of bells is half on alert for Ballard. As the unkempt, homeless man is left to roam the woods, he eventually finds shelter in a cave. Ballard is mostly regarded as a nuisance… until his crimes are revealed.
This is a man presented with little human connection from the beginning of the film and alluded to as much by the mysterious narrator(s) who help flesh out Part I of the film. It’s an extreme and ultimate example of the dissolution of humanity, but it stays true to the McCarthy ethos. Yet, deep under the murder and necrophilia, Franco finds a way to keep the humanity of the film’s protagonist relatable while maintaining an objective sensibility that does not make his acts forgivable. The film only seems to jump too ambitiously toward the end, after Ballard seems to have come to terms with his impulses, giving him an alien quality that betrays the film’s ambitions… or maybe it’s making its point even more harshly.
It’s tough to say because Child of God demands a lot from the audience that dares to seek out truly adventurous filmmaking. Far from a feel good film yet not deserving of the label of exploitation, Child of God aspires for a kind of enlightenment via the shadows that should not be ignored. As with much of Franco’s work, it’s the fact that he dares to explore certain themes that does not always make him easily palatable but no less worth shrugging off as irrelevant. He’s not. Of course there is no excusing Ballard’s crimes, but the film speaks to the need of sympathy for such people. It’s a cautionary tale that supposes psychosis as a social problem and not all psychological. A lack of moral guidance can happen from the outside as well as from within. The film dares to indict society and the onlooker as much as its protagonist. No one is innocent of horrors because, let’s face it, stuff like this can happen.
Child of God runs 104 minutes and earns its R rating. It opens exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, Sept. 15, which provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. On Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m., actor Scott Haze will join “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for each screening and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.
The opening shot in Jealousy (La Jalousie) is striking in its power and minimalism. Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant), staring slightly off camera, struggles between smiling and crying. It’s a brilliant moment that shows a profound range of emotions washing over her, as she oscillates from sadness to deep pensiveness to a look that almost seems like acceptance before a fade to black. The powerful shot sets the scene for the film, which does not rely on flashy flourishes but rather the stillness of the camera capturing human emotions as they unfold. Jealousy tells the story of serious, sensitive, struggling actor Louis (played by Louis Garrel, the director’s son), who early in the film ends a relationship with Clothilde, the mother of his child, also a former actress. He has moved on to a new relationship with Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), who is also a struggling actress, as she hasn’t landed a role in over six years. The couple’s daughter Charlotte (Olga Milshtein) is also deeply affected. We meet her through a beautiful shot, as she watches her parents break up through a keyhole in her door. She certainly can feel something has upended their world, but she cannot understand it.
While on the surface the story of Jealousy can be succinctly summarized: a man breaks up with the mother of his child for another woman who in turn leaves him for another (wealthier) man, the layers of narrative make this film a deep psychological portrait of relationships. It goes beyond the romantic bond between the partners. Director Philippe Garrel is in his finest, most subtle form in years. He presents several scenes with Louis and his daughter in these small moments that create depth and intimacy in a relationship. Seemingly — at least by the Hollywood standards of action-driven narrative — not much happens, yet we are able to gain an understanding of who these people are and what motivates them because of the director’s delicate hand.
Though the film is titled Jealousy, the theme seems to be more about what binds people together and the complex ties interwoven in a mosaic of people coming in and out of one another’s lives. In one of the scenes, Louis, who grew up without his father, is approached by a woman who tells him she loved his father. In another montage, Claudia washes the feet of an old writer whom she befriended because she liked his work so much. These vignettes might be confusing or out-of-place, but in Garrel’s subtle narrative they connect us to the characters and create an atmosphere that feels so familiar it allows us easy empathy for these people.
A standout character is little Charlotte, who moves the story along with her straightforward yet delightfully sweet tone. The character is partially based on director’s own experience as a child. For instance, in one of the scenes Charlotte talks to her mom about the lovely day she spent with her dad and his new girlfriend. The scene plays out as she starts to divulge the fun afternoon and then tries to take it back as she notices her mom’s reaction. In an interview with Film Comment Garrel admitted that the episode happened to him, and he remembered feeling guilty about it. That is just one of the ways in which this film is so personal, yet the performance by Covenant makes it very light with a performance that feels genuine.
A study on relationships, Jealousy feels both abstract and quite personal. Shot in black and white, the film showcases the many shades of gray within the personal. The acting is at times subtle but clearly depicts the high and low points of flawed relationships with earnest affection by a director who has returned in full effect. The choice of black and white, Garrel said in the interview, comes from his love of silent cinema: “I’ve made silent movies, I love silent films. They’ve left their mark on me.” When it comes to acting, one can see that he pays painstaking attention to the technical details. The mise-en-scène is one of the main achievements of this film. Also, the film was shot in real anamorphic scope, 35mm. Garrel also specified “for certain close-ups I use special lenses, designed to shoot from very close, which allow faces an incredible expressivity.” A beautiful film indeed, and one that will leave a lasting impression for sure.
Jealousy has a run time of 77 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated. The film opens in the South Florida area today, Friday, Sept. 5 at the Tower Theater in Miami, the Miami Beach Cinematheque and in Coral Gables at the Bill Cosford Cinema (all theater names are hotlinks to screening times and dates). The Tower Theater provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.
August 24, 2014
Gangster movies are often defined by plot twists and duplicitous schemers that are hard to trust and sometimes feel for. These movies sometimes feel hard to keep up with, and their characters are often defined by their flaws. The darkness in their motivations and the inevitable double crosses speak to plot and hopefully propel character development. Heart hardly ever comes to mind when one thinks of a crime film. But Salvo, the new gangster film by Italian directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza has heart. That it hardly sacrifices suspense for its soul is testament to the strength of the filmmakers, here making their feature film debut with international distribution.
Salvo is a collaborative work between Grassadonia and Piazza not only in directing but also in writing. For much of the film, their storytelling feels compact and graceful. The film has a patient quality, and there’s hardly any dialogue, but it is hardly languorous. The movie opens with a tense chase scene that lasts nearly 30 minutes. Though the directors allow the scene to unfold with patience that does not mean it lacks suspense. The life or death danger is established early on with an intense shootout on a walled-in street in the seaside city of Palermo. It’s refreshing to watch motorcycle-mounted assassins, sinisterly dressed all in black, fail, and it speaks to the intimidating skills of the film’s protagonist (Saleh Bakri), a mob boss’ (Mario Pupella) deadly protector, who does not reveal his name until nearly the end of the film. Obscuring him further, the camera mostly focuses on his eyes either in a rear-view mirror or in close up. When the chase turns into a foot pursuit with the hunted becoming the hunter, the camera maintains its distance or only offers shots of his back. It adds to the scenes’ intensity.
Throughout Salvo, the directors show a smart understanding of camera placement, which was revealed by their award-winning short “Rita,” a film about a blind girl who goes off for a swim at the beach with a young thief who had sneaked into her home to hide from his pursuers. In the short, the directors used no reverse shots, as the camera focused solely on the cherubic-faced lead who could not see, so there was no need to show anything from her POV. This technique creates empathy from the audience and a visceral sense of suspense. With Salvo they take it up another notch, as the chase comes to a slow close, and the killer enters a house where a blind young woman, also named Rita (Sara Serraiocco) counts money. Once again, the lack of reverse shots is employed. A sense of suspense is allowed to draw out, as Rita tries to act unawares of the stranger in her presence, who is often reduced to a shadow in the background that follows her around the house.
For much of the film there’s little dialogue. The directors are clearly more interested in creating a story that relies more on visuals than literal explanations. The movie therefore demands striking visuals, and the directors deliver with a strong sense of composition. From landscapes to interiors, the film has a vibrant visual vocabulary. It never feels ornate, but it does feel vivid. Cinematographer Daniele Ciprì uses mostly deep focus, which allows scenes that are blurred from the perspective of Rita to stand out. There are some drawn-out scenes of the mundane, but the directors keep them interesting with the composition of shots. The colors of the film gives it a high contrast tone that recalls similar films of the ’70s. Its deliberate pace also feels like this film belongs to an earlier era, not to mention the fact that today’s technology means little to the movie’s cat-and-mouse story. The tools of these people is violence, after all, so it’s all about cars and guns, though these devices are never allowed to overshadow the characters. Sometimes the violence occurs off-screen, which only enhances the film’s thrills. The directors also stage varied shots that are filled with surprise and atmosphere, recalling a well-laid out comic book. This is narrative through visuals in the best way.
The tone is true to the film’s theme as well. It’s about a gangster given a chance to restore his humanity, personified by a seemingly helpless blind girl who generates great sympathy but also a respectable tenacity. For much of the film, the drama does not feel forced or contrived. It’s allowed to unfold organically. But sometimes the film’s theme is too heavy-handedly laid out, especially toward the end, and then it ends on a sentimental note of mysticism and tragedy, which was never necessary from the film’s start. The contrivance betrays the film’s earlier astuteness and feels like hokum compared to its first 90 minutes. Still, Salvo is a strong debut that’s stylish and evocative by a pair of new filmmakers from Italy worth keeping tabs on.
Salvo runs 104 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is not rated (of course there’s gangster blood shed). It opened in the Miami are exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided me with a screener for the purpose of this review.
With recent headlines of journalists killed or under threat to be killed in war zones, the trauma of the conflict for those journalists, who are civilians, remains an under-explored theme on film. War Story tells the story of the aftermath of a journalist’s killing. After covering a conflict in Libya, photojournalist Lee (Catherine Keener) is left to mourn the loss of her partner during that assignment. The movie picks up after she has left Lybia. The information is sparse, one has to piece it together as the plot develops slowly and quietly. The mood is sad and somber but there is little in the way of dialogue. The camera zeroes in on a weathered Keener, trying hard to convey physical and emotional pain in silence, as she makes her way across the Mediterranean Sea. She’s headed to Italy to meet her mentor and former lover Albert (Ben Kingsley).
Lee arrives in Sicily and moves into a hotel where she has stayed in the past. After a few days of confinement in the familiar hotel room, where she tries to heal from mental wounds via nostalgia and physical wounds with time, the grief-stricken Lee ventures out and quickly feels the pull toward another crisis, the situation of Arab immigrants in Italy. She thrives in conflict and finds a reason to move forward, throwing herself into a cause through the character of Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi), who is in need of help as she is not only trying to escape the country that so virulently rejects her, but she is also seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy. All of this gives pause to Lee, who would rather move on to the next assignment than deal with her own tragedy. The camera lingers on Lee for extended periods of time, even when she is carrying a conversation with somebody else. Although the performance is strong something is missing, the attempt at storytelling through images falls short of its ambition, as the camera feels almost randomly placed in many scenes.
The most flagrant cinematic failure arrives when Lee gathers her strength to finally meet with Albert, a former mentor who was with Lee when she had traveled earlier as a journalist to a war-torn region. The moment is crucial, much of the film has been leading up to this, but when they meet the camera pans a large room full of books and hangs back for about half of their conversation. Two excellent performers are reduced to small, expressionless shadows sitting across from each other at a distant table. If director Mark Jackson’s poor composition choice had not been apparent earlier in the film, here is his biggest misstep. It was fine that Lee suffered in silence from much of the film, but to reduce revelations to expository dialogue in a scene where not even the expression of the actors matter only highlights the film’s weak visual storytelling. Jackson almost seems desperate to pack in information for the short time Kingsley is on screen, an artifice to drive the point home on the addictive nature of the job and the cautions against it. “You’re a woman. An amazing woman who has decided to go into war zones and take pictures. You’re a bit crazy to want to do that. And I think now you’re too crazy to stop.”
The culminating scene does not bring the story full-circle; rather, the bifurcated nature of the issues presented here: individual loss, grief and a feeling of impotence after losing a loved one in a war, along with the struggling North African immigrant in continental Europe fit together uncomfortably. The treatment of characters is then superficial. As much as the director tries to go beneath the surface with his camera work it all comes across as flat and staid.
War Story is the second feature film by Jackson. With a mysterious and atmospheric mood, earlier in the film, Jackson successfully establishes a meta-narrative showing the anguish the photographer is incapable of articulating through words. The gradual narrative of the story is supposed to impart the impact of loss, tragedy and war. However, the pace is so slow and the narrative so subtle as to be nonexistent. It makes for lots of sleep-inducing moments rather than creating the potent moments these politically charged subjects call for. Instead, there are some superficial moments, like when Lee ignores the constantly ringing phone in her room, which could be a sign of grief, avoidance, trauma or all of the above. Jackson takes on themes that may have been too big to cover in one film, from journalism in war-torn areas, to segregation and the humanitarian crisis of immigrants in the global North, to abortion — the ideas are all too large to sustain as the film just feels incomplete.
War Story runs 90 minutes, is in English and Italian and is not rated (expect heavy themes). It opened in the Miami area at The Tower Theater this Friday and plays until Aug. 28. It’s also available on VOD. IFC Films provided us with a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.