Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Trees, Mosquitos, and Black Bread
How do you rinse a piece of filth such as Super 8 from your system?
I tried Tree of Life, Mosquito the Rapist, and Black Bread, the new film from Augusti Villaronga.
All contributed in different ways to the flushing of the former's scum-like residue.
It was a long time in the coming, but Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, despite some uneven passages, was worth the wait. It's an ambitious piece which uses the metaphor of family to explore life's larger questions. The director's approach to the subject has a breezy, emotionally sticky cadence, and I felt myself being transported by it.
Malick's affection for the juxtaposition of the non-human world with the human world continues here, as does his preference for non-linear storytelling. At times it's a touch unfocused, but, ultimately, the bits combine to form a satisfying whole.
Hunter McCracken, a natural, talented actor, plays the young son of Brad Pitt, an insecure, domineering patriarch of a small Waco family. Through McCracken's gaze, the film's events play out. Sean Penn is the older version of the son and most heavily billed actor after Pitt, but he's only on screen for a limited time and mouths but a couple of choice lines. The majority of the film's emotional wreckage is driven by the death of a young child and Pitt's inability to truly connect with his children. So consumed with bitterness and envy for the lives of others and his own fears, he handicaps his shot at happiness.
Malick, eager to address absolutes, provides an impressive Creation sequence early in the proceedings. Reminding us that it didn't take long for nature to turn brutal, this almost surreal dramatic additive underlines how impossible it is for us to escape the darker aspects of our genetic selves. For mine, the placement of this Creation sequence felt wrong. Kubrick did his version at the beginning of 2001; Malick does it twenty minutes in. It might have worked better half way through once we'd gotten to know our characters a little better. Still, its effective in its own right, if not naturally layered in.
The screening I attended was accompanied by plenty of walkouts. Non-linear narratives clearly make some people uncomfortable.
Best seen with an open mind and a dash of patience.
Switzerland isn't known for its horror films. It's not a bubbling hub of any kind of cinema really. So, what if they did make a horror film?
"They" did, and that horror film is Marijan David Vadja's Mosquito the Rapist, a '77 curio that left me slightly speechless. My initial reaction to its crummy acting and overlit scenery was dislike. The musical score, which sounds like someone tuning instruments in a back room, irritated me. Then, as the film unspooled, I developed a strange, grudging respect for its intentions, if not its execution.
Werner Pochath plays 'Mosquito', a mute man who collects dolls (nothing wrong with that!), secretly lusts after his bohemian neighbor, and endures workplace harassment in his office job. A flashback tells us that Mosquito (a name he calls himself) spent his childhood being beaten by his father and bearing witness to the sexual abuse of his little sister. A lurid flashback shows us the drunken old man grabbing the little girl's bare ass.
The collective trauma of Mosquito's upbringing has turned him into a mute defiler of corpses and drinker of blood. The lad doesn't do much raping, but he does break into crypts and funeral homes to dig the eyeballs out of the head and drink the blood of the recently deceased. He takes the eyeballs home and places them carefully in preservation formula.
Now and then, Mosquito smashes his dolls and rips their limbs off. He stalks around in an obvious, creepy manner, and never looks like he's up to anything but evil. Eventually, his traumas and flashbacks get the better of him.
The storyline I've just described sounds pretty damn fascinating, right? Well, that's the part I respect. It's the presentation, the style, and the tone that sucks. Shot the same year as George Romero's far superior Martin, which it resembles in some scenes, it's simply an incompetent attempt at genre filmmaking. Directed in the most ham-fisted, patchy manner, it's more Ed Wood than Romero, and lacks rudimentary qualities such as a uniform style or lighting that is suited to the subject. It's a strange thing to say, but if the film had the grainy, murky look of, say, Basket Case or Nekromantik, it would be 100% better. Not without a budget, the cinematography is, in fact, too clean, often flat, and overlit when it needs to be moody and shadowy. It's like nobody involved had a real clue about what they were doing.
Mosquito's most potentially horrific scenes involve Pochath drinking blood from corpses via a straw. He stabs the straw into their flesh and gulps away. Recalling Martin's syringe sequence on the train and the blood drinking in Larraz's Vampyres, these bits feel like horror, but their intensity is undercut by the moodless lighting and general cleanliness of the surroundings.
Mosquito does no actual raping in Mosquito the Rapist (aka Bloodlust), but I'm sure he thinks about it when his bohemian neighbor begins dancing half dazed and half naked on the rooftops.
After a late night with Mosquito, I was enthusiastic about rising this morning to watch my just-arrived DVD of Black Bread (Pa Negre), the brand new movie from Augusti Villaronga, the director of In A Glass Cage (El Tras Cristal).
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you would know how much I love and adore (yes, ADORE, fuck it!) In A Glass Cage. It's easily one of my favorite films of all time -- of any genre! -- and possesses a level of cinematic accomplishment most films can only aspire to. As horror, it's without peer. As drama, it's intoxicating.
I've seen all of Villaronga's films since Glass Cage and have liked -- not loved -- them a lot. If I had to pick two favorites post-Cage, I'd go with Moonchild ('89), a dreamy, surreal adventure, and 99.9 ('97), a moody horror outing. Despite a great title and high expectations, I was disappointed with his Aro Tolbukhin in the Mind of a Killer ('02), a thriller without thrills that got too bogged down in character at the expense of pace and plot.
Hopes, therefore, were high for Black Bread, a 2011 recipient of Spain's Oscar, the Goya, for Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Film. It also earned a Best Actress plaque at the 2010 San Sebastian Film Festival.
Without a doubt, this is Villaronga's best film since In A Glass Cage, and, once again, achieves a peak of cinematic accomplishment that is breathtaking.
A bravura opening scene involving a murder in a small Catalan village and a stupendous piece of trickery with a horse establishes the film's tone beautifully. We are then introduced to Andreu (Francesc Colomer), a naive Catalan boy whose father, Farriol (Roger Casamajor), known for his leftwing political leanings, has become a suspect in the murder. Subjected to his father's insistence that the high moral ground always be taken, Andreu is about to learn the true meaning of ambiguity. Shunted off to a relative's after his father goes into hiding, the boy's relatively simple life is upended by shocking revelations and a force that intervenes on his behalf.
As in In A Glass Cage, Villaronga explores the gray, and is careful not to crucify his characters with moral indignation. A young girl, her hand destroyed by a bomb, is having an affair with her teacher, but does Villaronga take sides? No, he presents the man as a human being, a creature with both redeeming and morally murky qualities. Andreu's relationship with his father is equally fascinating as the boy's belief in him swings from admiration to accusation.
One of the film's most potent metaphors is Farriol's bird collection. Early on in the story, Andreau is seen tending to them with Farriol, demonstrating his love for his father via his affection for the winged creatures. When Andreu's world turns topsy-turvy, the birds become an outlet for the boy's rage.
Tonally similar to Del Torro's Pan's Labyrinth, but told with greater simplicity and little fantasy, Black Bread is an even stronger echo of Rene Clements' Forbidden Games, one of the greatest films ever about the consequences of war on children. Certainly not as dark or baroque as In A Glass Cage, it is, nevertheless, a brutally honest and realistic exploration of human darkness.
The DVD from Spanish label Cameo boasts a superb rendition of the film's subtle beauty and nuance.