Afghan Star


Afghan Star

Randy Jackson found Lema's performance "pitchy."

(Zeitgeist) Habib Amiri, Setara Husseinzada, Rafi Naabzada, Lema Sahar, Hamid Sakhizada, Massoud Sanjer, Daoud Sediqi, Tahir Shaqi, Fazi Hadi Shinwari. Directed by Havana Marking

The fallout from the War on Terror continues to wreak havoc on those countries that it has touched. After years of totalitarian rule by the Taliban, Afghanistan is finally beginning to turn the corner and modernizing, loosening ridiculous strictures laid on that country in the name of religion. For example, it was a crime under Taliban rule to listen to music or broadcast musical content on television.

A charismatic young television producer named Daoud Sediqi caught a glimpse of the British show Pop Idol (the American version of which is American Idol) and thought it would be something worth bringing to Afghanistan. Normally, I’d be making some joke about war crimes here, but the broadcasting of that show would prove to have a profound effect on the country.

This documentary, made by British filmmakers, captures a season of the show and its effect on Afghanistan. While the Taliban is gone, its supporters still wield enormous power, particularly in the Kandahar district. Death threats for those who go against the strict rules of the Imams is not uncommon.

Afghanistan also has a number of different ethnic groups, all more or less at each other’s throats. Sediqi was hoping that the voting would cross ethnic lines but in truth it hasn’t up to now. The program set up a cell phone voting program which would tend to favor younger and more open-minded voters, although in all honesty the results were still more or less along ethnic lines.

In fact, the four finalists – whom the documentary focuses on – were from different ethnic groups. There’s Rafi, who has the slick, charismatic and handsome look that would make him at home on our own version of the show. Hamid is a more polished vocalist from a professional group; he is from the marginalized Hazara ethnic group and he hopes his success will shine a spotlight on the plight of the Hazara. Setara is a fiery young woman from Herat whose last appearance on the show involves dancing and allowing her scarf to slip, both major no-no’s for the chaste Islamic woman. Lema is also a woman, also from a conservative region of Afghanistan whose music lessons, had the Taliban discovered them, would have led to her immediate execution.

That the documentary exists at all is a tribute to the resilience of the Afghans. Footage early on from the 1980s shows that the country had at least a passing interest in modern Western music, although that was abruptly and brutally cut short by the ascension of the Taliban.

This is not about the music competition and quite frankly, unless you’re a BIG fan of Afghan music, you’re probably not going to care who wins so much. In fact, the drawback here is that the music is mostly along traditional Afghani lines and those less open-minded sorts are going to dislike it pretty intensely. For my part, I found the music okay, not being a particular expert in the particular art form. All I can say is that I liked most of it.

Can you imagine what American Idol would be like if Kelly Clarkson would have had to go into hiding for dancing during her performance, or if Sanjaya had been making a political statement just by entering? It’s an amazing juxtaposition between two different cultures, where contestants in one thrive on popularity and the ability to sell records, compared with contestants who want to perform because they finally have been allowed a forum to. How exciting it is to see a voice which has been silenced for so long to finally be given its chance to shine?

WHY RENT THIS: A very compelling look at modern Afghan culture, particularly on the clash between traditional Islam and Western influences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The “pop” music of the show is actually fairly traditional music from the various Afghan ethnic groups and some may not find it to their liking.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the subject matter is on the mature side, but otherwise should be suitable for nearly everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official United Kingdom submission for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film for 2010. It did not, however, receive a nomination.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with director Havana Marking detailing the difficulties in making this documentary.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Kick-Ass

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto)


Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto)

Lunch is served.

(Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria di Franciscis, Marina Cacciotti, Maria Cali, Grazia Cesarini Sforza, Alfonso Santagata, Luigi Marchetti, Marcello Ottolenghi, Petre Rosu, Biagio Ursitti. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

Holidays are times to be with family. This is a fairly universal concept; no matter whether you are from India or Indochina or Italy or Indianapolis, this holds true – at least, most of the time.

Gianni (di Gregorio) is a middle-aged slacker. He is chronically unemployed and spends most of his time taking care of his demanding mother (di Franciscis), reading to her from Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” while she constantly interrupts about questions about D’Artagnan’s physical appearance. Apparently, his hooked nose would be a deal-killer for her. Mama has the look of Sylvia Miles in her Beetlejuice appearance, three years after she died. No, it’s not a particularly flattering look.

Gianni is a good-natured sort, friendly with everybody and well-known for being an excellent home chef. However, he hasn’t paid the rent for his ramshackle Rome apartment (although it is identified in the subtitles as a condominium, a flat is what it is) in months, his electric bill hasn’t been paid in three years. Alfonso (Santagata), the resident’s association administrator, comes to Gianni’s apartment to talk about the situation. Both Gianni and his mother are terrified.

However, Alfonso has a solution. It is a holiday weekend in Italy, Ferragosto – a Catholic holiday marking the occasion of Mary’s ascension into heaven. It is the middle of August and the heat is oppressive. Most sensible Romans head out of town to find a place in the north or at least in the mountains or by the sea where relief from the oppressive heat of late summer Italy can be found. There’s no question but that Gianni and his mama will be spending the holiday at home but Alfonso needs someone to watch over his own mama Marina (Cacciotti). If Gianni would be willing to do that for a few days, Alfonso would see to it that his debts would be forgiven. Gianni is not in a position to refuse, despite his misgivings.

The next day, Alfonso bring over his mama – and as an extra added bonus, his Aunt Maria (Cali). Gianni is mortified at the extra guest but after Alfonso gives him a little extra for expenses, he reluctantly relents. Mama puts on her best face and greets the guests with as much hospitality as she can muster which admittedly isn’t very much. She prefers isolation to socialization and makes sure Gianni knows it.

Afterwards, the family doctor (Ottolenghi) comes by to examine Mama – and Gianni, who thinks he might have a hernia (he just has a hernia of the head, as the doc exclaims). For services rendered, the doctor implores Gianni to take in his mother overnight for the holiday because he has to work at the hospital. Gianni, past the point of resisting, agrees. Why not? What difference is one more old hen going to make for the chicken coop?

All four women have strong personalities. Marina likes to smoke and get drunk, and when she’s drunk she makes a pass at Gianni. The doctor’s mother, Grazia (Sforza), has a restricted diet which she breaks at every turn, particularly with the macaroni casserole that Gianni and Maria are making which is slathered with cheese and tomato sauce, both of which were specifically forbidden by Grazia’s doctor son. Mama wants to dine alone and have as little to do with the unwanted guests as possible. Maria disagrees with everything. Gianni is at wit’s end. How is he going to manage this terrible holiday?

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. It is charming, heartwarming and deeply Italian; I almost guarantee you that you’ll be craving a nice plate of pasta and a glass of good wine by the time the movie’s over. Di Gregorio, who wrote, starred in and directed Mid-August Lunch, based the movie on his own experiences caring for his elderly mother.

Most of the actors are non-professionals, many of them personal acquaintances of di Gregorio. In fact, the apartment that the movie mostly takes place in is di Gregorio’s own home. How much more personal can a film be?

The movie has a sweet quality that will improve your mood from beginning to end. It is also laugh-out-loud funny with a humor that is sly and earthy in places, gentle and sweet in others. Being an Italian film, there is a shot of someone riding a Vespa down the street which is apparently some sort of national mandate.

The only drawback here is Gianni himself. He seems to drift aimlessly through the movie in a pleasant haze of white wine (which he consumes by the gallon). He resembles the late Jerry Ohrbach crossed with Roberto Benigni from a facial standpoint and shuffles through most of the film wearing flip flops and an amiable smile. While it’s difficult to really relate to Gianni, it’s still pleasant enough to spend time with him.  

Mid-August Lunch has won several festival awards, including the prestigious Venice Film Festival’s award for Best Film. While American critics haven’t really come on board this movie for the most part, that’s a bit of a crying shame. This is the kind of movie that really has no other aspiration other than to make its audience feel better collectively and perhaps make a gentle comment on aging. Regardless, this is one lunch that I advise you not to miss.

REASONS TO GO: A charming and heartwarming slice of life. While there are many laugh-out-loud moments, you will come away feeling better than when you went in.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni drifts a bit too much to be a compelling lead.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild sensuality in one scene and a good deal of wine drinking, but otherwise perfectly suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Di Gregorio also wrote the bloody mafia epic Gomorrah.

HOME OR THEATER: Having already received its New York release in mid-March, this will be decidedly difficult to see in theaters (unless it’s playing in a local film festival). However, this intimate comedy will work very nicely on home video.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Dynamite Warrior