Monthly Archives: October 2015

  • Beasts of No Nation

    Cary Joji Fukunaga (2015)

    Since his excellent Jane Eyre, Cary Fukunaga has made the widely acclaimed True Detective for HBO but Beasts of No Nation is his first cinema film in four years.   I found it an exasperating movie – too real for much of the time, eventually not real enough.  Fukunaga’s screenplay, adapted from a 2005 novel of the same name by the Nigerian writer Uzodinma Iweala, tells a coming-of-age story of a remarkably savage kind.  A civil war being fought in an unnamed West African country destabilises the life of the principal character, Agu, a pre-adolescent boy.  His mother, sister and younger brother leave the village where the family lives, in the hope of finding the capital city a place of greater safety.  Agu stays behind with his father, grandfather and elder brother, all three of whom are then shot dead by the national army.  Agu flees and hides in the bush, where he’s discovered and threatened by a band of rebels – members of what’s known as the Native Defence Force.  Agu is coerced into joining this group as a boy soldier.  He is taught to kill, and kill again.

    Most members of the rebel force are boys or youths but its leader, referred to simply as the Commandant, is an older man, played by Idris Elba (who was forty-one when the film shoot began).  Until Elba appears, Beasts of No Nation has the quality of dramatised documentary, not least because of the boy who plays Agu, Abraham Attah.  (His date of birth is shown as ‘2000/2001’ on Wikipedia; there’s no year given on IMDB.)  Attah brings to the film familiar pluses and minuses of the newcomer to screen acting.  His face, previously unknown to us, is freshly expressive; but it’s hard to make out what he’s saying.   Both the face and the furry voice enhance Agu’s realness but Attah’s inaudibility is frustrating too.  As the brutal warlord, Idris Elba gives dramatic shape to the action and a committed, compelling performance but he’s also physically outstanding, in a more problematic way.  Although Elba has West African parents, his skin colour is different from that of the other rebels and his heavily muscled physique contrasts too emphatically, even allowing for his character’s greater age, with the wiriness of the Commandant’s soldiers.

    Cary Fukunaga begins his film with a telling image.  Agu and another boy in his village are trying to get some money by selling a television frame that has no screen.  In showing the boys looking through the empty frame, Fukunaga seems to suggest to viewers of Beasts of No Nation that we may be used to seeing and experiencing African kids only through a television screen but will now be made to look at them differently, and more directly.  He certainly forces us to do that in the extended sequences of fighting and bloodshed that follow, and which account for a large part of the film’s 137 minutes.  Complaining that the violence is excessive runs the risk, of course, of accusations that you want to look away from the political reality that underlies Agu’s story.  But would Fukunaga dilute his telling of that story if he engaged the audience’s attention over rather less screen time and through rather fewer violent set pieces?  According to Wikipedia, he had been working on this project for several years by the time principal photography began in Ghana in mid-2014.  You respect Fukunaga’s effort but there were times when I wondered if he was too concerned with putting on the screen proof of his mastery of the complex logistics of the production.

    There are fine things in the film – for example, Fukunaga’s descriptions of the indoctrination of the boy soldiers, and of the startling proximity of childhood toys and games to weapons and warfare.  Dan Romer’s score doesn’t register strongly but Beasts of No Nation is often visually impressive.  Fukunaga, who did his own cinematography, avoids facile contrasts between the beauty of the landscape and the horror of human behaviour within it.  There are startling images of mingled blood and rain.  Yet because the violence involving the opposing forces in the civil war becomes almost the default setting of the narrative, its effect is numbing.   The confusion and ensuing violence of an episode in which the Commandant and some of his men/boys, including Agu, visit a brothel are more dynamic and shocking, because of the different context in which they occur.   There’s a similar impact, for the same reason, in an earlier sequence in a house that the rebel soldiers enter:  Agu sees a woman there whom he initially imagines is the mother from whom he’s been separated.

    The uncompromising mood of Beasts of No Nation shifts sharply in its closing stages.  The Commandant’s forces, out of food and ammunition and suffering from various diseases and injuries, abandon their leader and surrender to a UN patrol.  The boys are placed in a UN sanctuary for child soldiers, where they receive medical care and counselling.  In a climactic speech, Agu tells his counsellor that he’s done terrible things and knows he’ll be rightly considered ‘a beast’ but that he was once part of a good, loving family.  This final monologue is emotionally effective – not least because we’ve never forgotten how Agu started the film.  (The monologue is also mostly audible.)  But does Cary Fukunaga mean us to think that the other participants in the civil war whom we’ve watched are also victims of circumstance?  It’s to Idris Elba’s credit that, in his last scene, he shows the Commandant as a comprehensively defeated figure but is this man – a ruthless soldier and military careerist who also sexually abuses his boy soldiers – deserving of our sympathy too?  Or is the Commandant a dramatically useful baddie who gets the comeuppance he deserves?   The film ends with Agu joining other boys at the sanctuary to swim and play in the ocean.  We’re relieved, of course, that Agu has survived and may have the prospect of a better life ahead.  This closing sequence struck me less as a credible outcome for a child in Agu’s situation than as the concluding ray of hope required in a movie with the box-office ambitions of Beasts of No Nation.

    15 October 2015

  • One Floor Below

    Un etaj mai jos

    Radu Muntean (2015)

    The directors of two of the foreign language films that I saw at this month’s London Film Festival – Retribution and One Floor Below – were present for the screening of their movie in NFT2.   Before the start of Retribution, a BFI person welcomed Dani de la Torre and Borja Pena, one of the movie’s producers, to the stage, along with an interpreter.  When de la Torre was invited to speak, he apologised that his English wasn’t good and then said a few words in his own tongue.  Although I don’t speak Spanish, it seemed pretty clear he was telling us he’d prefer the film to speak for itself and would be happy to take questions afterwards.  The interpreter confirmed this (rather laboriously); Borja Pena had nothing to add; he and de la Torre left the stage, looking puzzled at having been dragged up there to say virtually nothing.  Why didn’t the BFI check beforehand what their supposedly honoured guests wanted to do?   Two days later, things had improved on that score.  There was an announcement before One Floor Below began that Radu Muntean was in the audience and would appear after the screening for a Q&A.  And so it came to pass – but now there wasn’t a microphone available for questioners in the audience to use.   Maybe this sort of chaos is par for the course at international film festivals; it’s certainly what you expect from BFI.   (I sometimes have to remind myself what their initials stand for, given the British Film Institute’s administrative abilities are well below those of an average student film society.)

    At least Radu Muntean’s mike was working, and I learned a good deal from what he had to say; but it didn’t change my mind about his film.  One Floor Below – with a screenplay by Muntean, Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu – is absorbing but schematic and eventually unsatisfying.  Sandu, a middle-aged man, returns to his apartment building one morning after walking his dog.  Sandu hears the raised voices of a man and a woman inside the flat on the floor below his own, and pauses on the landing to listen.  A few moments later, Vali, a younger man who lives elsewhere in the building with his wife, emerges from the flat.  His and Sandu’s eyes meet for a moment.  Later the same day, Sandu learns that Laura, the young woman who lived in the apartment where the argument was going on, has been found dead there.  From this point on, One Floor Below becomes a drama of silence.  Sandu (Teodor Corban) could tell the police what he overheard but doesn’t.  Vali (Iulian Postelnicu), unnerved by his neighbour’s reticence, doesn’t – perhaps daren’t – ask Sandu straight out to explain it.  Radu Muntean allows nothing in the story to impede its progress towards the convergence and combustion of Sandu’s and Vali’s bad consciences.  When they eventually come to blows, however, the clash resolves nothing.

    The good naturalistic settings and playing conceal the rigid underlying structure of the piece.  As Sandu listens to the decidedly sexual argument behind the closed door, the look on Teodor Corban’s face is intriguingly ambiguous:  is Sandu’s interest responsibly curious or that of a nosy neighbour or is he drawn to the conversation for more prurient reasons?  There’s an uncertainty too, although it’s less complex, about his motives for not telling the police what he heard when, that evening, a detective calls.  Does Sandu keep quiet simply because he hadn’t already mentioned the argument to his wife, Olga (Oxana Moravec)?  Is he concerned that getting involved will interfere with the smooth running of his and Olga’s car registration business – or with the dog show to which he and his early-teenage son Matei (Ionut Bora) are taking their golden retriever next day?  Once he’s decided to keep things to himself, Sandu starts looking shifty although Teodor Corban’s subtlety means this furtive manner isn’t obvious to the people around Sandu.  As the film goes on, he reveals his guilty unease in other ways too.  Watching a soccer match on television with his friends, he’s infuriated when they describe Laura as a whore and imply she deserved what she got.   He also renews his acquaintance with a man who’s now the local police commissioner; Sandu calls in at the commissioner’s office to say hello, but little more than hello.  These scenes are individually effective and the style of the film – the Haneke-esque lack of music and long, uninterrupted takes within scenes – concentrates one’s attention.  The problem is that Radu Muntean is so preoccupied with the study of Sandu’s (and Vali’s) state of mind that he doesn’t bother to make the context fully credible.  In particular, there’s no follow-up to the initial police enquiries:  we never know if anyone else in the building said anything to suggest a relationship between Laura and Vali; or what Vali said when he was questioned; or, later on, whether the police investigation is continuing at all.

    Radu Muntean helpfully explained during the Q&A the nature of Sandu’s business, which is important to the plot of One Floor Below.  In Romania, registration agents like Sandu act as intermediaries between car owners and the government and can help to expedite the potentially lengthy process of getting a vehicle registered.  The day after the killing, Vali approaches Sandu with a request for help with changing the registration of his car, and Sandu reluctantly agrees.   In the course of the next few days, Vali makes the re-registration procedure as troublesome for Sandu as he can.  Vali doesn’t mention there are outstanding fines owing on his car; he doesn’t turn up on time for an appointment to complete the registration.  Sandu comes home to his apartment one evening to find Vali having supper there with Olga and Matei, even though Vali was supposedly too ill that same morning to put in an appearance when Sandu called round to get some registration papers signed.  (Matei is crazy about video games and Vali has been giving him some kind of IT help; Olga tells Sandu that she didn’t feel she could avoid offering Vali a meal for his trouble.)  The idea seems to be that Vali’s guilty conscience impels him to become a continuing presence and irritant in Sandu’s life – to put pressure on Sandu’s nerves, and push him into going to the police.  Although this works as a dramatic device, I found it hard to accept that Sandu – who, in the immediate aftermath of Laura’s death, is anxious to distance himself from Vali – would agree to get involved in registering Vali’s car in the first place, especially since he’s aware that the registration doesn’t need to be changed.   Muntean predicates his story on the premise that the two men are morally and inescapably bound to each other as a result of their encounter on the landing outside Laura’s flat.  The director clearly means that premise to override considerations of realism but I don’t see how it can, in the realistically detailed world in which One Floor Below takes place.

    Muntean also explained in the Q&A the sources of his film:  a newspaper report about a key witness to the prelude to a crime who withheld information from the police; a car registration man, also named Patrascu, whom the director knew – and admired as someone who seemed always to be in control.  Muntean said he was attracted to the combination of these two elements, to putting a professionally well-organised fellow called Patrascu into a deeply uncomfortable personal dilemma.  (In the last scene of One Floor Below, Matei sleepwalks into his parents’ bedroom.  The boy is distressed and the scene is disorienting for the viewer too – not least because the film then ends abruptly.  It seems Matei has been watching too many video games and Muntean told us this sequence was based on an autobiographical incident involving his own son.)  But Muntean’s attitude in response to some of the points raised in the Q&A was strange (and not just because it was hard to hear what was being put to him).  He began by telling us that he wanted – like Haneke, he said – to make us think for ourselves instead of spoonfeeding us explanations.  When members of the audience offered their interpretations of what they’d just seen, however, Muntean was quick to tell them if they were wrong.  Sensing – and perhaps resenting the fact – that the audience he was dealing with was primed for an arthouse film to lack a definite resolution, he insisted that he was clear in his own mind – and implied that he’d made clear in the film – that Vali had murdered Laura.  He then took the moral high ground, asserting that he wasn’t judging or condemning Sandu Patrascu’s behaviour – as if we viewers might take a more censorious line (although the audience that accepts ambiguity in storytelling is more likely to accept moral ambiguity in the protagonist too).

    Radu Muntean said that he intended us to reflect on how we would have acted in Sandu’s place but it’s hard to know, when the character’s motives aren’t clear.   While encouraging independent thought, he seemed irritated by viewers who’d developed their own theories about the events of One Floor Below but I think Muntean brought this on himself.  The guilty conscience element is so dominant and so mechanical that it doesn’t repay much further analysis; as a result, thinking about this film at a deeper level means, in effect, trying to work out what’s actually happened in it and why.   The English subtitling, by the way, is unusually poor:  during the TV soccer game, for example, we learn that the match, goalless as yet, ‘is still blank’.

    14 October 2015

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