Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Tahar Rahim”

Samba

Following his breakout success in The Intouchables, audiences will doubtless flock to see the magnetic personality of Omar Sy back on the big screen in this latest French rom-com-dram.

Once again playing the outsider to the bourgeoisie, Sy is the titular Samba, a Senegalese immigrant living in Paris who has managed to keep his head down and his illegality secret for ten years. Desperate for gainful employment and the opportunity to stay in France, Samba’s sudden dilemma brings him into contact with the nervy Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg, taking some light-hearted time-out after hardcore fare like Nymphomaniac and Melancholia), a novice immigration consultant who has her own issues.

Putting aside concerns that Sy may be stepping onto the typecasting treadmill by playing the “worldly, impoverished one” in odd-couple movies, there is no disputing his star-power.  Where Alice is clumsy, emotionally and physically, Samba is disarmingly smooth, and though Gainsbourg is slightly over-the-top in her oversized coat and sleeping pill addiction, it’s easy to see why Alice falls under Samba’s thrall.

Aided by marvellous photography and a terrifically edgy yet ambient soundtrack, the plot (adapted by the film’s co-directors from the novel by Delphine Coulin) delivers thought-provoking and sympathetic insights into the very real plight of Paris’ immigrant community.

These home truths are, however, somewhat undermined when the French penchant for laughs disrupts the mood – and not always successfully. While a throwback to a decades-old Coca Cola commercial is cutely delivered (allowing the perpetually serious Tahar Rahim from A Prophet to crack his first onscreen smile), there are some unfortunate farcical moments and a plot contrivance that can only be forgiven thanks to Sy’s inherent charm.

The Past

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 9th March 2014

Cinephiles who fell in love with Iranian director Asghar Farhadi for his Oscar-winning festival hit A Separation will be delighted to know that the follow-up proves his undoubted talent for producing hard-hitting realism from gripping performances.

Transporting a Middle Eastern story to the gritty suburbs of Paris, Farhadi’s cast speak French but maintain their Persian heritage as a man returns to his former lover and family to sign divorce papers after several years away. His partner (The Artist’s Berenice Bejo, make-up-free yet luminous) must contend with temporarily housing the two men in her life, while her new boyfriend (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet) goes about his sullen business. Meanwhile, Ahmad (a superbly nuanced Ali Mosaffa) integrates effortlessly into family life, cooking Persian fare and parenting the children. Over the course of a few days, scabs are ripped off old wounds as everyone’s future is thrown into uncertainty.

Despite the kitchen sink drama, subtle acting from the opening scene onward allows us to quietly observe the players’ machinations and equivocations. The timbre of relationships is mostly portrayed through actions rather than words, especially impressive in the extraordinary cast of children who sport silent pouts and wounded eyes.

Farhadi has said The Past is an Iranian rather than French film, but viewers’ familiarity with either culture will determine whether they agree with him. Certainly, the core narrative dilemmas are universal as, typically, Farhadi has written a story of blame shifted by naturalistic interactions, where heavy rain and wet hair signify the weight of a past which threatens to destroy the future. Explosive details are eked out, keeping the audience guessing and enthralled until at last he allows us to breathe again.

Cannes films at the NZFF (Sunday Star Times review)

This article first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 1st July 2012

Despite torrential downpours peppered with deceitful sunny spells, there has been great excitement since the New Zealand International Film Festival programme was announced this week. Film-buffs can be found brandishing highlighter pens and screening guides in cafés all over town, and are counting down until our respite from dark, cold winter commences on 19th July.  

We can thank the excellent Festival programming team for bringing home no fewer than 15 films from Cannes less than a month after the closing ceremony.  Of these, eight won prizes.  All have something that will entertain, provoke or thrill a keen Kiwi audience.

Top honours at Canneswent to Michael Haneke’s Amour.  It played early in the fortnight, and critics were prematurely (though correctly) hailing it as the likely Palme d’Or winner even as they left the cinema.  Kinder than his recent work, but no less challenging, Amour follows the deterioration of an elderly woman whose devoted husband lives alongside and through her ill-health.  This sounds grim, and is no doubt an experience that will resonate uncomfortably with many viewers.  But Haneke seems to have no agenda or desire to upset us, beyond drawing us into a perfectly pitched exploration of love and loss.  Though unsurprising when it won, I didn’t meet a single critic who thought it undeserved. 

Mild dissent, however, when second place went to Matteo Garrone’s Reality.  There were grumblings that Jury president, Nanni Moretti, had unfairly favoured a compatriot, but I must disagree.  Garrone has said he wanted to try his hand at something lighter following the violent Gomorrah, and indeed Reality starts off with a great deal of whimsy and subtly-played humour. It concerns a family man from Naples whose children convince him to try out for Big Brother (Grande Fratello) and who becomes obsessed with the prospect of admission into the house and, by extension, a life of fame and fortune. The result is an incredibly clever fairytale, stylistically gorgeous yet documentary-like in its naturalism, and the lead performances are so real you feel you are ensconced in true Neopolitan life. But clearly Garrone cannot help himself in terms of having it descend into a tale of desperation that leaves you feeling sombre.  Fascinating, too, is the film’s backstory: lead actor Aniello Arena is currently serving a 19-year prison term, and was let out during the day to shoot his debut film, back to his cell each evening.  The irony of an imprisoned person playing someone who aches to be admitted into the captivity of the Grande Fratello house cannot be ignored.

One impressive film, while not in the main competition, displayed such restraint and power that it would have been worthy.  Our Children (the French title more appropriately translating to something like Losing Reason) sees a superb Tahar Rahim and Best Actress winner Emilie Dequenne as a young couple, madly in love, who marry and start a family.  Living under the wing/thumb of the fatherly Niels Arestrup (who played opposite Rahim in A Prophet), their existence becomes suffocating, leading to a tragedy of unthinkable proportion.  Much is made of its being based on a true story, but what makes the film a compelling and breathtaking watch is Dequenne’s brilliant rendition of a mother gradually losing her grasp, and the subtle ambiguity of the men’s performances.  This realistic, unhysterical yet utterly devastating film was in my Cannes Top Three.

It wasn’t all darkness in the South of France, however.  Walter Salles’ adaptation of On the Road showcases Sam Riley (brilliant in Control), Garrett Hedlund (better in this than in Tron) and Kristen Stewart (Twilight.  She still pouts a lot).  Perhaps it’s the nature of the roadtrip source novel, but while this starts with great promise – plunging us into the young Beats’ world of smokin’, boozin’, shaggin’ and druggin’, with the odd burst of poetic writing – once you’ve seen their shenanigans several times, you hanker for your pyjamas and a quiet night in.  It’s the energetic performances that make this engaging, sometimes delightful viewing.  Hedlund sports an intense stare and has charisma to burn, while supporting actor Tom Sturridge makes an impressive debut as Carlo Marx.

For The Hunt, Mads Mikkelsen won the Best Actor prize as a kindergarten assistant who is falsely accused by a friend’s child.  This delicate subject is handled in an interesting way, upending our assumptions of how a closeknit community might respond, but delivering a film replete with superb acting and realistic dialogue.  This thriller had me seething with outrage, still grappling with it the following day.  Considerably slower is the Russian “war film” In the Fog.  Eschewing battle scenes and melodrama, it focuses instead on the relationship between three resistance fighters whose distrust of one another creates an allegory on moral decision-making.  Beautifully photographed and in no hurry whatsoever, the film is composed of long, well-choreographed scenes, designed by the director to give the viewer pause for thought.

Short, and perfectly formed, I felt a patriotic frisson as the New Zealand Film Commission logo swam across the screen before Zia Mandviwalla’s nominated short, Night Shift.New Zealand’s only film in competition this year, it is a true gem, subtle and devastating, and unofficially short-listed by the jury in their deliberations. 

And finally, if you have any interest at all in Kubrick’s seminal work The Shining, then conspiracy-documentary Room 237 is a must-see.  Five interviewees, who would reject the term “fan” but have no leg to stand on against “obsessive”, put forward their obscure but strangely compelling arguments for what the director “really meant”.  Is it a diatribe against the plight of the Native American Indian?  Proof that the moon landings were staged?  You’ll never watch The Shining the same way again.

A Perdre La Raison and On The Road

The sun came back on Tuesday. We’d had two really crappy days, but I tend to think these things are sent to make us more appreciative of the good weather when it returns. I know I am not the only person here who celebrated with her first ice cream of the holiday.

With the improved weather came the superior films. Tuesday afternoon I settled in for A Perdre La Raison, irritatingly (and erroneously) translated on the press materials as “Our Children” but otherwise known as Loving Without Reason. (I had a chat with an intepreter about this and we didn’t have time to come up with a better title, but neither of the English translations really works.) Written and directed by Belgian filmmaker Joachim Lafosse, it concerns the intensely passionate relatonship of two young people who marry and have a family, while becoming increasingly reliant on and under the wing/thumb of the husband’s adoptive father (played with enormous restraint and appropriate ambiguity by A Prophet‘s Niels Arestrup). The story leads to a great tragedy that, while forseen, ultimately left me and other audience members horrified and numbed.

It is quite simply a superb film, and my greatest relief/joy/admiration for the writers is that they have crafted a completely realistic, unhysterical portrayal of a situation that could conceivably happen anywhere, to anyone. (The story was prompted by a real-life event in Belgium, but the characterisation and detail of the tale created from scratch.)

I then had the good fortune this afternoon to get a one-on-one interview with the director, during which I was able to commend his film’s excellent handling of difficult subject matter, and ask him detailed questions about the choice of music. And then directly after, I joined a Serb and a Lebanese journalist to interview the leads, Emilie Dequenne and Tahar Rahim, who shot to fame for his debut role in A Prophet with Arestrup. Very fruitful, and I will be able to give a few insights in a later review. I hope we get this film in the NZFF, I think it is a hugely important issue, handled brilliantly, and NZ audiences will respond well. Apparently Belgian audiences have not been as warm.

Last night I had dinner with a family of Toronto-based film writers and journalists, at a fantastic little Italian place. An amazing fireworks display greeted us as we left towards midnight, and we ambled home with the smell of gunpowder in the air.

Up early again for the eagerly anticipated adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, starring Tron‘s Garrett Hedlund (with his intense stare and charismatic gravelly voice), Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart, and the wonderful Sam Riley, whose talent was evident from the opening frames of Control and who can now add this to his growing list of well-played roles. I’ve not read the book, but Peter Howell from the Toronto Star has, and he thought it was terrific. I liked it a lot, and think there are many good things about the film (in particular the performance by young Brit Tom Sturridge as beat poet Carlo Marx) and Walter Salles’ proven success with the road movie genre (The Motorcycle Diaries) confirms him as the perfect person to bring this difficult novel/memoir to the screen. Perhaps for me it suffers simply for being faithful to its source material and being a bit drawn out and lacking a prominent narrative arc. Based as it is on a (portion of a) life story, there are no murders or explosions (I am fine without them, but I am just saying), but a lot of driving and drug-taking and sexual activity and riffing of poetry, and all this is very diverting and impressive the first few times, but does wear a little thin. Perhaps I missed my On The Road moment years ago, and so, without harbouring an attachment to the classic book, I don’t connect so much with the content. That said, the performances are great and often the energy in a scene imbues in the viewer a longing to just jump in a car and take off. As the protaganist Sal Paradise (Riley) is asked at the beginning, “You goin’ some place? Or are you just goin’?” – the film clearly articulates the book’s philosophy that it’s the goin’ that counts.

As I write, the young stars are walking the red carpet below me to excited screams from the crowd. Kristen is telling the reporter she is “in love with the book” (how’s that post-Twilight credibility working out for ya?) while Sam and Garrett just look pleased to be en route to their premiere.

Sybil was right

A Prophet (Un prophete)

This was my most eagerly anticipated film of the current NZFF – Sight & Sound foreshadowed its brilliance many issues ago, and I was a fan of Jacques Audiard’s work since Read My Lips (Sur mes levres) even before he gave us the excellent The Beat That My Heart Skipped.  Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar 2010 (it lost to The Secret in Their Eyes), there has been plenty of buzz.  It is therefore with a sigh of relief that I can say “they” were right.

One might have thought Audiard would cast Heart‘s lead, Romain Duris, in his latest film of the French criminal underworld.  But wisely he did not – instead, similarly eschewing the intrinsic menace of Vincent Cassel (his lead in Lips who is arguably now too ubiquitous for this low-key, gritty realism), we are treated to the blank canvas of Tahar Rahim, in his first feature film lead.

Rahim plays a young Frenchman of Arabic descent, Malik El Djebena, who is sent to prison for six years.  It’s made clear in the opening scenes as he is introduced to prison life (the interviewing, strip-searching and washing-down notably less brutalising than in other prison dramas like Hunger and In the Name of the Father) that Malik is on his own – he has noone on the outside to visit or send him money, and no prison family waiting with open arms.  As a result, he is swiftly appropriated by the Corsican mafia, headed by the effectively authoritative Cesar Luciani, and forced into unwillingly performing business for them that then sets him up under their protection.

It’s an interesting quandary that immediately puts the audience in his shoes, and had me considering how I would act in the same situation.  And I have to say, when confronted by the Corsican thugs and given no option, I doubt I would have stood my moral high-ground and refused.  And thus Malik becomes the prison’s porter and Luciani’s boy, inevitably given increasing duties as well as privileges as he works his way up the mafia ladder.

Rahim’s performance is superb, not just in its subtlety but in the way he slowly develops Malik’s character as we watch him grow into his prisoner’s life over the years.  Rejected by the Muslims (for being “un Corse”) and insulted by the other Corsican lackeys who resent an Arab being their boss’s perceived favourite, by the end of the film he has aligned himself with key players, done his fair share of betraying and conniving, and has his own criminal enterprise up and running on the outside.  Of course, none of this is obtained easily, and the moral dilemmas abound.

I frequently forgot I was watching a film, so realistic was the production design and dialogue, and so unobtrusive the camerawork.  The story is engrossing and seemingly lacking in judgement – we are not set up to root unreservedly for Malik, yet we do care how his future unfolds.  Nor does the film make an obvious statement about the prison system (unlike the aforementioned prison dramas, which leave you in no doubt that jails are abusive environments where men are treated like animals).  Granted, the biggest benefit I personally can see from spending time inside would be the ability to learn some serious criminal skills – and the opportunities for furthering this career once released seem to be guaranteed and manifold.  Now if that’s not an argument for prison reform, I don’t know what is.

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