WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS (2020)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee’s revered novel was first published in 1980, and renowned composer Philip Glass later adapted the South African writer’s work into a 2005 opera. It’s a fascinating piece of literature that, on the surface, doesn’t lend itself easily to the silver screen. Perhaps it works because Mr. Coetzee wrote the screenplay himself, and rising star director Ciro Guerra brings it to life. Mr. Guerra’s two most recent films were both excellent: BIRDS OF PASSAGE (2018) and EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015).

Mark Rylance (Oscar winner for BRIDGE OF SPIES, 2015) stars as The Magistrate of a desert outpost on the fringes of territory controlled by ‘The Empire’. The Magistrate is mild-mannered and non-confrontational. He’s a fair administrator, and Rylance’s outstanding performance ensures he’s a sympathetic figure, yet not a perfect man. The Magistrate’s approach is to maintain a peaceful co-existence with the local nomads, who are described as ‘barbarians’ by others in The Empire.

Things change quickly and severely when Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives at the settlement. We see his approach thanks to cinematographer Chris Menges’ beautiful wide shot of Joll’s horse-drawn carriage surrounded by desert and mountains. Depp plays Colonel Joll as a stoic man committed to a mission he never fully states. Instead he sermonizes about his interrogation process with such gems as “patience and pressure” are the key, and “truth has a certain tone”. It’s not long before we learn, right along with The Magistrate, that Joll’s definition of ‘pressure’ would be termed torture and brutality by any reasonable person. His ruthless ‘interrogations’ lead to the result he was sent to obtain: the local barbarians are planning an uprising.

Director Guerra provides sub-chapters for the various seasons through which the story progresses. The Colonel arrived in “Summer” sporting sunglasses, and proclaiming “Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt.” It’s a mantra that plays out in various ways. “Winter” brings ‘the girl”, a native with two broken ankles and other signs of torture. The Magistrate and the girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan, EX MACHINA) have an unconventional relationship, one that doesn’t go over well with Joll’s police force or the other locals, including Mai (Greta Scacchi), one of the loyal outpost staff members.

“Spring” is subtitled ‘The Return’, and it includes The Magistrate returning the girl to her people, and his subsequent return to the outpost where Joll’s second-in-command, Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), has him arrested and tortured for consorting with the enemy. Pattinson plays his role in wild-eyed contrast to Depp’s stoicism. When “Autumn” rolls around, it becomes clear that the real question is, “Who is the enemy?” or, perhaps, “Who are the real Barbarians?” The Magistrate is viewed as a traitor and laughingly referred to as “one just man”.

It’s frustrating at times to think about the modern day application of this story. What is an empire? The violence, narcissism, and lust for power lead to a loss of humanity that is painful to observe. Filmed in Morocco and Italy, the oppressive nature of the frontier makes this quite a downer, and one that requires effort and time to connect as a viewer. It also allows Menges and his camera to capture the details of the office and apartment, along with the sparseness of the jail … both in contrast to the vast frontier. This is a either a tale of morality or a cautionary warning shot that solidifies Joll’s adage. Perhaps pain is indeed required for truth.

Available On Demand August 7, 2020

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BIRDS OF PASSAGE (Pajaros de verano, 2019)

February 12, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not unusual for movies to “trick” us into embracing a drug dealer, and even kind of rooting for them – despite the near universal condemnation of such folks when we are outside of a dark theatre. Co-directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra were the producer and director behind the Oscar nominated EMBRACE OF THE SERPANT (2015) about an Amazon tribe striving to hold tight to their way of life despite outside interference. This time out, they focus on the rural Guajira territory of Columbia, with its desert conditions and villagers committed to their own traditions.

The film is based on a true story and covers the time period of 1960-1980, and is separated by chapter titles that include the year and a hint of what’s to follow. We first see Zaida (Natalia Reyes) as a girl in confinement as she prepares to be introduced as a woman to the villagers. This is one of the more elaborate rituals of the village, and it leads to Rapayet (Jose Acosta) asking for Zaida’s hand in marriage. Her mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez), a respected village elder, sets the dowry at what she believes in an unattainable level for Rapayet: 30 goats, 20 cows, and 5 necklaces. Ursula has unwittingly set off a chain of events that eventually brings the family money, power, and tragedy. How can a few goats and cows cause this? Well, when one is poor and needs to quickly assemble a large dowry, what better way than to enter the drug trade? And that’s exactly what Rapayet does.

Rapayet’s friend and partner in the coffee trading business, Moises (Jhon Narvaez), joins him in the transition of careers, and while Rapayet is content to build his empire quietly and under the radar, Moises runs amok with the power and money. Ursula is respected for her abilities as a dream reader, and she’s constantly dousing Rapayet’s business with the cold water of her visions … worried mostly about the safety of her daughter Zaida. By 1971, Rapayet’s business of peddling marijuana to gringos is booming, and by 1979 (in a chapter entitled “Prosperity”) we see the results: a mansion-fortress in the desert protected by guards with automatic weaponry (a sure sign that bad news is on the way).

What began as a look at peaceful remote villagers sticking to the traditional path of their ancestors, transforms into a drug war featuring cartel mobsters. Cinematographer David Gallego contrasts the beauty and simplicity of traditions with the danger and violence of new money and new world order. Leonardo Heiblum’s score is a terrific complement as well. The infancy of the Columbian drug trade presented here conveniently places blame on the free-spirited youngsters of the Peace Corps; while the story plays out like a Greek tragedy, replete with mixed messages on revenge, capitalism, tradition, greed, and family ties. It’s a rags-to-riches story that pulls no punches when it comes to the price paid for taking an illicit shortcut. It’s a path that can destroy lives and culture.

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EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Columbia, 2016)

March 12, 2016

embrace Greetings again from the darkness. Breathtaking black & white photography takes us on parallel scientific expeditions down the Amazon River, with stories inspired by the travel journals of Theodor Koch Grunberg (1872-1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001).  It’s the first ever Oscar nomination (Best Foreign Language Film) for Columbia, and director Ciro Guerra’s film certainly deserves any and all acclaim.

The common link between the two expeditions is an Amazon Shaman named Karamakate. A young and proud Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) acts as a guide in the early 1900’s for Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is already quite ill when we first see his travel guide Manduca (Yauenky Migue) dragging him from the canoe. 30 plus years later, Evan (Brionne Davis) finds an older and wiser Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar), and the two head down the river on much the same route as the decades earlier expedition. Supposedly both trips were a search for the sacred and rare healing plant called Yakruna.

David Gallego’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous throughout, and adds a dimension to the journeys as we see first-hand the sociological and biological destruction caused by colonialism and the rubber barons. The lost/forgotten cultures are reason enough for the natives to distrust white men, yet the mysticism and pride of the indigenous tribes are fascinating.

The character of Karamakate is a pleasure to get to know, and the film has a great deal to say … and does so while being a visual stunning experience.

watch the trailer: