Never Gonna Snow Again (Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie)


Zhnia knows where his massages rank.

(2020) Dramedy (Kino Lorber) Alec Utgoff, Maja Ostraszewska, Agata Kulesza, Veronika Rosati, Katarzyna Figura, Lukasz Simlat, Andrzej Chyra, Krzyfsztof Czeczot, Maciej Drosio, Olaf Marchwicki, Astrid Nanowska, Wojciech Starostecki, Jerzy Nasierowski, Konstantin Solowiow, Blanka Burzynska, Adrian Podlaski, Lena Wochal, Casper Richard Petersen, Maria Seweryn. Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert

 

Remember when it seemed as if everyone in the movies was wealthy and white? The pendulum has swung in a differing direction and now it feels like movies tend to be about marginalized groups more often than not, superhero movies notwithstanding.

Into a toney, gated community on the edge of a big Polish city, comes Zhenia (Utgoff), a handsome, enigmatic young man from the Ukraine with a serene smile and the magic hands of a trained masseuse. He speaks Russian, and as he gets a residents permit for plying his trade in the development he informs the bureaucrat that he lived in Pripyat, the village just outside of Chernobyl. Zhenia was just seven years old when the reactors blew.

He is accepted in the community as not only a wonderful masseuse but an excellent listener, even if some of the residents are concerned that he might be radioactive. He does seem to have some supernatural ability to take away pain and anxiety, even for a little while. He also can hypnotize his clients and from time to time move objects with the power of his mind.

Several of the middle-aged women in the community have become infatuated with Zhenia, including Maria (Ostraszewska), an exhausted mother whose children are contemptuous of her, Wika (Rosati) whose husband (Simlat) is dying of cancer although with almost blind optimism he assures everyone around him that he is indeed getting better, and a woman (Figura) whose devotion to her bulldogs approaches a kind of mania. But who is Zhenia, why is he there, and what does he hope to accomplish before the demons of his past catch up with him?

Movies like this can go one of two ways; one is the mythic, which is not the way Never Gonna Snow Again goes. The filmmakers, veteran Polish auteur Szumowska and her longtime cinematographer Englert, who shares directing credit with her here. While Zhenia has at times some Christ-like qualities, this really isn’t a Christian parable. Instead, there is a lovely bittersweet feeling here, almost elegiac in places. The greys and blues that are the bulk of the palate that Englert uses make this ideal rainy-day viewing.

\Utgoff is tremendous here. Zhenia is a bit of a cypher, releasing information about himself in dribs and drabs, but Utgoff makes him compelling. He moves with a dancer’s grace (and in fact, Zhenia dances a ballet at a couple of points in the movie) and with an impressive physique is bound to make a few hearts of those who find such men attractive go pitter pat. Utgoff has a good deal of charisma, but wisely knows when to use it and when to be less forthcoming. The end result is that Zhenia turns out to be something of a blank slate that the other characters (and the viewers) project their own interpretations on.

And Englert is nothing less than spectacular as a cinematographer here. If he toiled in Hollywood, he’d be getting regular Oscar nominations – his shot compositions are some of the finest you’ll ever see in a movie. Szumowska has the experience to know when to let the images speak for themselves and doesn’t always clutter them with dialogue. It makes for an almost spiritual feeling in certain places.

The one criticism I’d make about the movie is that the plotting sometimes feels too static; we get these wonderful images and some compelling business but it doesn’t always take us anywhere. In that sense, this is a movie that is better experienced than watched passively. Let it wash over you and make you a part of it rather than trying to figure it out might be the best way to go, because if you choose the latter course, you may end up feeling frustrated at several points in the movie.

There is some satire here, and some pointed, sharp humor as well as some social commentary (the title itself is a reference to climate change) and some thoughts about Polish nationalism – a trend which seems to be running in a number of Western nations lately, including our own. However, the points are rarely made more than gently and subtly, and while some characters appear to be taking stands in favor or against one cause or another, we are never preached to, at least overtly.

\All in all, this is the kind of movie that weaves its own magic and you’ll either be enchanted by it, or you won’t. I do think you need to be in the right frame of mind for it (which, I suppose, is true for any movie) but it is worth the effort. This is the kind of movie that will stay with you for a long while afterwards.

REASONS TO SEE: Utgoff is compelling. Beautiful shot composition. A wonderfully bittersweet tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is kind of static in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity, some profanity, sexual overtones, and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Poland’s official submission for the most recent Best International Feature Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS:As of 8/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Teorema
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Who Are You, Charlie Brown?

They Will Have to Kill Us First


Songhoy Blues has the blues.

Songhoy Blues has the blues.

(2015) Documentary (BBC Films) Fadimata “Disco” Walett Oumar, Moussa Agbidi, Khaira Arby, Songhoy Blues, Jimmy Oumar, Nick Zinner, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Marc-Antoine Moreau. Directed by Johanna Schwartz

Mali is a West African nation that most Americans probably have never heard of, let alone pick it out from a map. It has been beset by a civil war initiated in 2012 by the MNLA, or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a group ostensibly fighting for the ethnic Tuareg minority to create their own state in the Saharan northern portion of the country. In order to further their own ends, they made a deal with the devil – fighting along with jihadist separatists who were determined to institute Sharia law and a religious totalitarian government. You can guess which group got their way.

The broadcast of music was thus forbidden in the territories that the jihadists, some of whom were linked to ISIS, controlled. For the people of Mali, who had developed their unique style of music that included hip-hop, rock and roll, folk styles and to a very large extent the blues, this was tantamount to surgically removing their souls. Music was part of the national identity of the country.

All of this was told in a clever rap song at the beginning of the film which immediately links the importance of music and the story of this country’s misery. Harsh punishments were instituted in the jihadist territories, with a graphic video depicting a man’s hand being amputated. Rape became common in the area and infractions such as not praying loud enough triggered brutal reprisals.

Two of Mali’s biggest musical stars are women; both of whom are best known by a single name. Disco (a nickname bestowed on the Madonna-loving artist as a youth) is a more modern artist and Khaira more traditional but both have huge audiences. Both, like millions of Malians, have been displaced from their homes – one to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, one to the capital city of Bamako in the South, away from her beloved home of Timbuktu. Guitarist Moussa Agbidi from Gao is also in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, but his wife remained in the city of Gao where she was arrested. He was trying to eke by playing at what venues he could find work at or whatever occasions (weddings, parties) that required musicians.

Also in Bamako, a group of young musicians calling themselves Songhoy Blues were writing some wonderful songs, one of which plaintively called the displaced back to Mali to help rebuild the country. Ironically, they themselves would end up leaving after being discovered by a French producer and English musicians Damon Albarn of Blur and noted minimalist Brian Eno as well as American guitarist Nick Zimmer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They moved to London to record a critically acclaimed album and went on tour to support it.

The stories here are raw and wrenching. The ability of man to be completely and utterly inhumane to his fellow man is going to make you shake your head in sorrow at the very least. There are moments that are hard to watch as we’re shown news footage of bodies and body parts strewn about the rubble of a small town that has felt the brunt of the war between the government, the insurgents of the MNLA and the jihadists.

But then there’s the music and oh my goodness, it’s incredible. I expected African music that was more rural and rhythmic with chanting and gorgeous harmonies but this is very close to what I would consider Indie Rock. The musicianship is incomparable and the songs plaintive and longing. The lyrics are thoughtfully translated through subtitles – much of the dialogue is in French which is what the Malians mostly speak. It’s not often I urge readers to buy a soundtrack to a documentary, but this one is worth it; it’s on Atlantic Records and should be available through most vendors who sell music either digitally or in the rarest of the rare, CD stores.

The film ends with a concert in Timbuktu organized by Keira and Disco. We don’t really get a sense of being there, although it IS beautifully photographed. The ending should be uplifting, cathartic or depressing but here it’s only kinda meh. It left me feeling that I was missing a few minutes of ending. The narrative does tend to meander a little bit as we bounce from subject to subject but then again that is true of most documentaries.

Still, the movie is plenty powerful throughout, the ending notwithstanding. Most of us here in the west know little or nothing about Mali’s suffering. We get an inside glimpse at it, the frustration of those caught in between warring factions who just want to live their lives in peace. Most of these people are Muslim and they despise the jihadists who have so disrupted their lives. One of the best sequences in the film shows a group of men and women in full dress dancing enthusiastically. One look at that and that might change some minds about the people who follow that religion. This is a movie full of vitality and joy – and also frustration and despair. The human condition in 90 minutes.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. The stories are heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is disjointed and meandering occasionally.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images of civil war, a little bit of profanity and some of the themes here are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Schwartz’s first cinematic feature film (she previously directed a made-for-TV documentary Mysterious Science: Rebuilding Stonehenge).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: 45 Years