Azor


Banking on Argentina.

(2021) Drama (MUBI) Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Elli Medeiros, Alexandre Trocki, Pablo Torre Nilson, Juan Pablo Geretto, Gilles Privat, Carmen Iriondo, Yvain Julliard, Juan Trench. Directed by Andreas Fontana

 

The veneer of gentility is often thin indeed, particularly in an atmosphere dominated by uncertainty and fear. In Argentina as the 20th century turned into its eighth decade, a brutal military junta had begun a period of repression in which thousands disappeared. Not all of these were from the poor classes; anyone who expressed disagreement with the regime might find themselves gone, even those from the aristocracy.

Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Rongione) has arrived in Buenos Aires along with his sophisticated wife Ines (Cléau). He’s a third-generation partner in a Swiss private bank – one only open to the super rich. They are there to reassure their clients that all is well after his partner Rene Keys disappears. Yvan travels from board rooms to opulent gardens, from oak-paneled studies to modern offices, meeting with Argentina’s elite.

Conversations rotate around small talk, rarely lingering long on Argentina’s political situation. People are disappearing and there is palpable fear underneath the genteel world of cocktails, formal dresses, palatial homes and luxury cars. As Yvan quietly investigates the disappearance of his more passionate partner (Yvan is low-key to the point of stupor), he comes more and more into the orbit of those near the junta who are behind the repression and brutality. Especially threatening is the Monsignor Tatosky (Nilson), who purrs “Parasites must be eradicated, even from the best families.” It chills one to the bone.

This is not the kind of movie that has a machine-gun pace; it’s a slow burn, so much so that the viewer might get a chill from time to time. Fontana keeps the tension high without resorting to anything overt; everything is done with subtle glances here, an oblique camera angle there, a pregnant silence over there. In fact, I don’t thin there are many films that have utilized silence as well as this one does; it is the things unsaid in this film that matter almost more than the things that are said.

He gets stellar performances from his two leads who are perfectly cast; Cléau eggs her husband on much like Lady Macbeth, only more cultured and urbane, picking out his suit so as to impress but not outshine. She advises him on matters of decorum and is anything but a conscience; more like a cattle prod, in that regard, urging him to do whatever is necessary to maintain the couple’s status and privilege. “Your father was right; your weakness makes you mediocre,” she observes at one point. It is her way of motivating him, because Yvan is just filled up with self-doubt enough not to trust in his own competence.

In some publications, there are comparisons for the final act with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and there is certainly some justification for that. It involves a river journey that…well, I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say is the heart of this film’s darkness. This is a movie chilling in ways that horror films are not, nor can they be. This is the banality of evil, on display in the latest Armani suits.

REASONS TO SEE: Elevates the tension nicely under the thin veneer of gentility. Fine performances throughout the ensemble cast. Captures a period in Argentine history not well-chronicled in the States.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too slow of a burn for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontana’s grandfather was a Swiss private banker; the film is loosely inspired by his experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Missing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
I Love Us

Sweat


In the world of social media influencers, image is everything.

(2020) Drama (MUBI) Magdalena Kolesnik, Julian Swiezewski, Aleksandra Konieczna, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Tomasz Orpinski, Lech Lotocki, Magdalena Kuta, Dominika Biernat, Katarzyna Dziurska, Wiktoria Filus, Bartosz Sak, Edgar Griszczuk, Dorota Zieciowska, Katarzyna Cynke, Bogna Defecinska, Mateusz Król, Andrzej Soltysik, Anna Kalczynska. Directed by Magnus von Horn

 

We have always been a celebrity-obsessed culture, but the very nature of celebrity has changed. Ubiquitous social media “influencers,” popular vloggers whose popularity has led to companies vying for their endorsements, has brought things to new depths – although to be fair, something as shallow as celebrity has no depth to speak of.

Polish fitness guru Sylwia (Kolesnik) has more than 600,000 followers. She lives in a tony apartment in Warsaw, makes personal workout appearances in malls and posts incessantly about her daily life, often pimping energy drinks, workout equipment, workout wear and so on. She refers to her online followers as “My loves,” and her model-pretty face beams beatifically at the internet.

However, all is not rosy for Sylwia. Recently, in a moment of depression, she tearfully vlogged about her loneliness and her wish for a boyfriend she could love and who could love her back. Her sponsors are aghast; this goes against her upbeat image and being a downer could jeopardize her standing. She is stressing out over an upcoming appearance on a popular morning TV show that is far from locked down as well as the upcoming birthday celebration with her mother (Konieczka), with whom she has a not-so-warm relationship. And the topper is that she has herself a stalker (Król) who sits in his car outside her apartment building, watching her covertly as she walks her beloved Jack Russell terrier Jackson, masturbating as she does. There’s also her studly workout partner Klaudiusz (Swiezewski) with whom she has a platonic relationship – maybe.

The production design here is impressive. Sylwia’s world is cold and antiseptic, with lots of straight lines, bright neon colors and sterile atmospheres. It’s very modern – and very soulless, a commentary I think on the nature of internet celebrity. But is the dark side of being an influencer really so dark? There’s a scene late in the film where she runs into an old school friend whose life is considerably worse than her own, which does give her pause. Contrary to appearances, Sylwia is not dumb or even that shallow. Her image is carefully marketed and manipulated by Sylwia herself, and if she’s a bit jaded and cynical, it’s only because she achieved what she wanted to and discovered that the price for that achievement isn’t what she thought it would be.

The movie runs a little bit long – the worst culprit is the opening workout sequence that shows Sylwia and Klaudiusz endlessly doing various aerobics, high-fiving her followers and in general working up quite a, umm, sweat. A little judicious editing here would have made the sequence more effective.

You can thank Kolesnik for that. Not only is she insanely beautiful and fit, there’s also a lot more to her than the average workout chick spouting affirmations and aphorisms. If her image is a shallow one, it’s only because she’s giving the people what they want, and more importantly, what she thinks her sponsors want. I like that von Horn doesn’t really indict the whole culture of Internet influencers and artificial celebrity – people famous for being famous. He lets us see both sides of the coin, as it were, and make up our own minds. After all, some people would consider Sylwia living her perfect life. Not among them, however, is Sylwia herself.

The movie is currently out in theaters, but will be available on the MUBI arthouse subscription channel in about three weeks.

REASONS TO SEE: Kolesnik is a charismatic lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long, particularly during the opening workout scene.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kolesnik is primarily a stage actress in her native Poland; this is her first appearance as a lead in a feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Social Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Holy Game

State Funeral


Pomp and circumstance for a despot.

(2019) Documentary (MUBI) Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, Gregori Malenkov, Enlai Zhou, Valko Chervenov, Yumyaagiin Tsedenbal, Dolores Ibárruri. Directed by Sergey Loznitsa

 

In the pantheon of 20th century monsters it is clear that Josef Stalin stands right up there with Adolph Hitler and Chairman Mao. These three men were responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of people through genocide, war, starvation, and political assassination. These men had an agenda which was mainly about holding on to absolute power. All three were authoritarians. They remain, to this day, cautionary tales.

When Stalin died in 1953, it created something of a crisis in the old Soviet Union. He was the glue that held together the USSR after Lenin died; the glue was brutality and fear, but it was glue nonetheless. The pressing thought when he died was What will become of us? which was a legitimate question although one that couldn’t be expressed openly. Papa Joe, which he was somewhat ironically nicknamed, had projected an image of paternal caring and love, even though people were dreadfully afraid of the NKVD (which became he KGB) and of Lavrenti Beria’s network of informants who ferreted out any dissent and brought dissenters to horrifying ends.

So for the occasion of Stalin’s funeral, the remaining central committee members wanted a show of epic pageantry that would on the one hand allow the country to mourn and to also reassure the people that the business of government would continue as it had been. A lavish spectacle was planned, with the dictator lying in state in the Hall of the Unions in Moscow before a massive funeral in Red Square. All of it would be captured for posterity by hundreds of cameras documenting not only the main festivities in Moscow but also local and regional memorials from all over the vast Soviet Union.

Belarus-born documentary filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa (who is currently based in Germany) went through more than forty hours of footage and narrowed it down to two and a half hours. The footage has been digitally enhanced, looking as clean and crisp as the day it was shot. As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than propaganda. Well, of course, this is largely meant to be propaganda (I’ll get into that in a moment) but it has been skillfully edited to present much more of an objective picture.

Loznitsa eschews conventional narration, utilizing instead what was broadcast over the ubiquitous loudspeakers throughout the Soviet Union – glorifications of the Communist movement, glorifications of the Soviet Union and of course glorifications the dear departed, reinforcing his public image as a paternal figure. The soundtrack is enhanced with sounds of shuffling feet, wails of lamentation, and other ambient sounds. It is the images of the people filing past the coffin that will stay with me though; the working class, ordinary folk whose faces look numb. Is it grief? Or is it relief that perhaps things will get better with Stalin gone? If it was the latter, there’s no way to ever know – even were interviews to be conducted back then, nobody would admit to it for fear of ending up in one of Beria’s prisons, or with a gun pressed to their temples.

We have the benefit of viewing this film, like any other historical document, with hindsight. Even though most American audiences will not recognize most of the people in the film, they were the most powerful Soviets of their day, as well as high-ranking communists from all over the globe. I suspect a good many of them won’t be recognized even in Russia, nor would the irony of a massive funeral celebrating a man who murdered tens of millions of his countrymen be recognized in a land presided over by Putin, who has borrowed some of Stalin’s tactics.

It might be hard on some to sit through endless shots of people filing past a coffin – and that takes up an awful lot of the film, but trust me, this isn’t a boring or repetitive film in the least. As a country that is battling some tendencies towards authoritarianism ourselves, this is a cautionary tale to say the least. A cult of personality can thrive here. We’ve seen it done. If we want to see the aftermath of one, we can do worse than to look at this film…and remember it.

REASONS TO SEE: The Soviet propaganda machine in full flower. The images are surprisingly crisp and clean and often breathtaking in scope. The numb expressions of the common people is very telling. Makes terrific use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very long time to watch a funeral.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of Stalin’s corpse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stalin died on March 5, 1953 from complications arising from a massive stroke suffered two days earlier.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Death of Stalin
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Welcome Matt

Again Once Again (De nuevo otra vez)


Hugs communicate so much.

(2019) Drama (MUBIRomina Paula, Monica Rank, Ramón Cohen, Mariana Chaud, Pablo Sigal, Denise Groesman, Esteban Bigliardi. Directed by Romina Paula and Rosario Cervio

 

Motherhood is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Most women aspire to it, and most women who become mothers will tell you that as difficult as it is, it is something they wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. But that difficult part…it can be overwhelming, especially for first-time mothers. Every mom wants to be the perfect mom, but there really is no such thing – but that doesn’t mean the attempt isn’t made. Women submerge their own needs into the needs of their child and their families until it’s hard to tell if they even exist as an individual anymore. Sometimes, it feels to them like they don’t.

Romina (Paula) who lives in Cordoba, Argentina with her boyfriend and son, has taken her son (Cohen) to Buenos Aires to visit her mother (Rank) – but she’s not sure if this is just a visit, or a signal that her relationship with her boyfriend (Bigliardi) is over. Although her son is three, she feels like she has disappeared – “I can’t see myself,” she admits to her mother.

Her mother, who raised her speaking German as her mom’s family had emigrated from Germany in the early 20th century and spoke it in the home, is only too happy to have her grandson and her daughter back. “Stay as long as you need,” she urges and Romina takes her up on it. Her mom urges her to go out, take some time for herself – and she does, going to parties with her friends Mariana (Chaud) and Denise (Groesman). She dances, flirts, and has deep discussions about her feelings. Her mother from time to time criticizes Romina in that passive-aggressive way mothers do with their daughters, but Romina feels adrift, trying to find herself, wondering if it is even possible.

This is one of those rare films that has to do with a woman’s mid-life crisis. It looks at the feelings with no little bit of intellectual discussion This is a largely autobiographical film – Paula plays a fairly thinly veiled version of herself, and one gets the sense that she’s using this film somewhat as therapy. It’s not easy to resent the effect a child has on your life, as much as she clearly loves her son. When her mother gently prods her daughter that her son needs to socialize with other children as well as her socializing with her friends, you get the sense that this is a discussion the two women have had in real life.

The performances here are pretty solid, from a largely non-professional cast (Paula herself is the exception). The situations are mainly mundane and there isn’t a whole lot of action, although there is  lot of talking and inner monologues are displayed in clunky fashion against slide shows as Romina narrates her family history and talks about her relationships. We could have done without those.

For a first-time film director, Paula does a pretty good job, and delivers a rarity – a great ending. It symbolizes her change from a woman who is following in the shadow of her man, to a woman embarking on a new and unknown journey on her own. As she turns to walk away from the camera, she flashes an enigmatic little smile. It’s just perfect.

There isn’t a lot of catharsis here, and as far as insights go, the film requires you to work for them a little bit, which is something American audiences aren’t always willing to do. However, this is a very strong debut and a very interesting movie that held my attention for its entire length, not an easy thing to do these days. I highly recommend it, and MUBI subscribers, who already tend to be fairly adventurous in their film choices, are going to love it.

REASONS TO SEE: Very thoughtful very smart. A wonderful final scene.
REASONS TO AVOID: Romina’s uncertainty can be maddening.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references as well as some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romina’s mother and son are played by her real-life mother and son.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75/100, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
CREEM: America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine