VIFF 2017 Capsule Reviews #2

Daniela Thomas’ new film Vazante is destined to turn some viewers off with its relentless spiral into madness and despair, but I think it is one of the must-see films of the season. It’s the story of Antonio, a slaver in early 19th century Brazil, who struggles to come to terms with personal tragedy (his wife dies in childbirth in the film’s opening scene). Antonio, along with a large handful of diverse characters, from his wife’s family members to loyal slaves, to plantation crop experts and beyond, are all struggling with the same sense of unease. No one is happy, and their discomfort leads to horror as Antonio takes increasingly erratic steps to deal with his unhappiness.

Vazante makes a solid commentary on the evils of slavery and the pitfalls of colonialism, but what it really comes down to is a very modern concept: that without a proper support network around you, even the most powerful among us can fall under the weight of our stressors. Mention must be made of the incredible black & white cinematography by Inti Briones and the lush but claustrophobic set design by Valdy Lopes.

The VIFF Dragons & Tigers series featuring cutting-edge cinema from Asia offers In Time to Come, a documentary from Pin Pin Tan that asks, “What use is a time capsule when all context and connection to it is gone?” A community in Singapore unearths a time capsule buried fifty years ago, and plans a new collection of modern artefacts to be opened in the future. While this provides the bare backbone of the film and launches its theme, Tan spends much more time filming the surrounding world of the city. She shows an eye for real scenes that feel off-kilter (a fire alarm going off in a mall while people continue their business; a new highway completely devoid of traffic; a bookstore opening each morning with way more staff than they need, to simply nod hello to the customers…). Thus, a sense of distance is deliberately created and nurtured, and frequently, sensory cues that would help form connections with a scene are stripped away, forcing the viewer to remain apart from the film. What this does is jumble and confuse you about what is going on, until in the end when the new time capsule is sealed up, you have no sense of what it represents at all. Is In Time to Come highly manipulative? You bet. But Tan wants it that way, and the end result is effective, even if I felt like I had been part of an experiment.

Ziad Doueiri’s new film The Insult might just bring Lebanon an Academy Award nomination. It covers familiar ground – the long-standing grievances between the various peoples of the Middle East – and gives it a fresh coat of paint in the form of a courtroom battle between a Palestinian construction worker and a Lebanese mechanic, each swearing that the other owes him an apology after a confrontation. The themes here are broad and obvious. Each conflict between Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, take your pick, leads to hatred, mistrust, and then another conflict, and then more hatred, etc. If someone wants to dismiss The Insult for a lack of subtlety, well, they will find ammunition for their arguments.

But Doueiri isn’t trying for subtlety, here. This film is a deliberately blunt hit to the viewer’s head… if these unending problems are so obvious, it asks, then why are you putting up with it? Transplant the film to America and have the case be between a black man and a white man from the South, and you would have an identical problem. The Insult deals with a fundamental truth… that pride, ego, and deep, powerful simmering pain get in the way of progress in all societies. Unfortunately, and of course inevitably, the film offers no solutions. It simply prays for common sense to somehow prevail. It is effective, but disheartening, because such “common sense” is apparently not common at all. Not in Lebanon, and not here.