NYFF capsule reviews: Misunderstood, ’71, La Sapienza

Misunderstood (Asia Argento, 2014)

The new film by actress/director Asia Argento is not directly about the value of childhood and its inherent innocence, but an effort to show how adults are unable to comprehend (or misunderstand) children, resulting in loss and ruination of that same precious childhood and forever affecting their lives. It is rich, passionate filmmaking with daring use of color and props, with abandon, from multi-colored clothes of the children to upholstery and furniture and the dense production/art design of claustrophobic Roman apartments, filled with pretentious and kitschy material possessions. Argento not only gets the early ’80s celebrity milieu (unearthing quite a few forgotten pop musical gems at the same time), she has a keen eye for symmetry and color, even while framing outside shots of Roman urban architecture. Filled with slant, slightly askew shots, peeping over the shoulder or from bottom up, and paced with a certain kinetic energy, the movie not only seems to be looking at hapless 9-year-old Aria (child of an irresponsible celebrity couple) but also looking from her unformed and hyper point of view, interweaving reality and imagination. Maintaining a dark comic tone, it is filled with broadly drawn, caricatured adults who in their egomania come off as everything from selfish and deplorably cruel to fools worthy of our mockery. This works because Argento takes our heroine’s journey on to the surreal with an expected but highly disturbing ending. Even if the main idea is not new (it has been addressed numerous times by more famous and bigger names), there is a certain passion here, an undeniable effort and force to make us understand the protagonist. So much so that it makes the viewer wonder about any autobiographical roots (Argento is the daughter of famous horror cinema master Dario Argento). Is it a mere coincidence that ‘Aria,’ the name of the girl in the movie, is also Asia Argento’s real first name?


‘71 (Yann Demange, 2014)

’71 is about 24 hours or so in the life of a British soldier who gets trapped in enemy territory in a war with no clear enemy lines, or any clear enemy, for that matter. There are only betrayals, counter-betrayals and emotional landmines. But the danger is as imminent and serious as in a proper, live battle. The time is the height of The Troubles in Ireland, which is being ripped apart by ethnic and religious strife. Jack O’Connell (in a mostly wordless performance which is competent, if not brilliant) is a new recruit just deployed to pacify the latest wave of unrest in the seething, ticking-time-bomb city of Belfast. On his first assignment he gets lost in IRA territory and rest of the film is his survival story among sparring sectarian factions. Comparisons with Paul Greengrass are inevitable for this film, and these are not limited to the fact that Greengrass handled this same topic in his much-praised Bloody Sunday (2002), but also from the technical and directorial perspective. We get the same urgency, the fast cuts, edge-of-the-seat, suspenseful chases and fights accentuated by (now often abused) shaky cam style. But that would be too easy a framework to judge this film. Yes, the film is exciting and keeps you engaged to the very last minute. Action is tight and effective. But the film offers little else of substance. Mainly it lacks any serious treatment of the topic (or rather makes a tepid attempt to go places which are not required). The narrative is weak and tries to address the political and human aspects of this particular 24-hour ordeal in a half-baked way. What we get instead are amateur attempts (e.g., trying to be politically unbiased) or manipulative story lines (e.g., stock child characters). This is something which differentiates Demange from Greengrass who – famous for his detached, cold approach in his Bourne films – with some exceptions like United ‘93 (2006), rarely tries to juggle so many themes and aspects and sticks to one idea. Perhaps it would have been a much better film if Demange had fully followed Greengrass’s style.


La Sapienza (Eugène Green, 2014)

Inspired by the philosophy and work of 17th century Italian architect Francesco Borromini (one of whose most famous buildings is also called Sapienza), the film tackles a much-discussed and perennial problem of art: does Art have to be humanistic or spiritual to have any value? Architecture being the particular form here and Borromini one of the champions of this philosophy, the film is most concerned with the actual architecture and the language and meaning of art and space that we create and then inhabit. What do our surroundings and dwellings, that we move in and out of every day, tell us about ourselves? Does that give us a clue how we should create them in the first place? Given that, the conventional narrative (a middle-aged couple of intellectuals reevaluating their own life and its meaning and getting inspired by a younger couple not yet devoid of their innocence) exists more to support the core idea rather than for itself. Thus the technique of directing almost all the characters talking straight to the camera, literary dialog and kind-hearted tone, might be unrealistic and off-putting for some. Certified Copy (2010) might come to mind as something similar, but Kiarostami in that film at the end of the day was more interested in human relationships than the relationship between humans and Art. Perhaps Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect (1987) is a better comparison. Green mentioned that he didn’t want to merely show the beautiful work of Borromini, but to convey the ideal way to look at and appreciate the architecture. Not just viewing the buildings but experiencing them (something akin to how we appreciate paintings). On that front at least, he surely excels. The film is gorgeous, breathtaking and exquisite in shooting Borromini’s masterpieces as well his birthplace of Ticino, Switzerland. Most of the buildings are religious-themed anyway, but Green’s camera (static as well as roving) captures them with such calm, precision, love and intensity that it becomes a rapturous experience whether you believe in anything above us or not (a concern the characters in the movie share too). Remarkably, there is limited reliance on any spiritual music to hammer in the point. What we see, and to Green’s credit how he makes us see it, is the true gain here. Love, of oneself, of fellow-beings and soul is what matters in art. Any other creation produced mainly for materialistic goals and pleasure might provide you the former but hardly ever the latter. Certainly not a pleasure of the long-lasting, truly fulfilling kind. That is the true wisdom, the Sapience.