I've Loved You So Long (****) is so interesting because of how mesmerizing it is while actually being about something so very small and subtle. This is a phenomenal directorial debut for teacher-turned-filmmaker Philippe Claudel, reminiscent in its confidence of craft and storytelling to that of Courtney Hunt's Frozen River. Both of these movies feature powerhouse female performances at their center, and both tell relatively small and intimate stories of emotional survival pitched against despairing odds. Kirstin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein burn up the screen in I've Loved You So Long. Never succumbing to histrionics or overacting, Thomas and Zylberstein create an intense on-screen connection that feels real and honest. Thomas is Juliette, a woman who has just been released into the care of her sister, Lea (Zylberstein), after serving 15 years in prison for the murder of her six-year old son. That's it -- that's the only plot description that I will divulge. This film doesn't do the things you think it will. Which is why it becomes as quietly devastating as it does. Claudel doesn’t poke and pry and take the easy way out with the challenging story that he has created. Instead, over the course of a tight two hours, he takes his time, allowing all of his actors to form a close knit feeling of intimacy, and then letting the emotional fireworks explode in the final few minutes. Never maudlin and rarely overtly sentimental, this is a powerful piece of filmmaking and storytelling. Thomas is extraordinary in an extremely introverted fashion, which calls for her to act more with her eyes and facial expressions that it does with her words. And equally impressive is Zylberstein, who has arguably a more layered character to pull off. Separated from her sister when she was a teenager because of the crime, she's a woman who is just learning how to involve her older sister in her life. Years of pain and confusion come simmering to the surface, and it's because of Zylberstein's ease and poise as an actress that we're never smacked in the head with cheap emotional grandstanding. This is an excellent film.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
ONE ITALIAN, ONE FRENCH, BOTH EXCELLENT
Matteo Garrone's Gomorra is a masterpiece. Simply put. As a piece of filmmaking, it's flawless. As a piece of storytelling, it's impeccable. Now, is it an "entertaining" mafia saga along the lines of Goodfellas or Casino or The Godfather? Not really. Gomorra is a punishing and unflinching look at real organized crime in Naples, Italy. Based on a bestselling and highly controversial true-crime novel which ended up requiring the author (and members of the eventual film production) to go into witness protection, Gomorra is kind of like the Italian version of City of God, in that it takes you on a hellish journey to a very violent corner of the earth and rubs your face in viciousness and unremorseful killing. And that, really, is the essence of Gomorra -- killing. Death, as it is in all gangster tales, hangs over this film like the Grim Reaper himself. There is no hope for anyone in this film. You expect any one character to get bumped off at any moment while watching the film; the phrase "always looking over your shoulder" is a sad reality for everyone in Gomorra. The film effortlessly weaves five separate storylines together. Two young punks who love reciting dialogue from Brian De Palma's bloody classic Scarface are anxious to become real-time mafooches, and are blissfully unaware of the real dangers that they face. An illegal garment maker who has learned his trade through various crime circles starts trading his knowledge to the Chinese in exchange for cash; you can imagine how pissed the Italians will be with this. Two youngsters are drafted into a life crime after doing petty jobs for the higher-ups. You get a look at the organization's money-man, who becomes increasingly conflicted with his job as the film progresses. And finally, there is the toxic-waste disposal element to the narrative, which is equally as troubling as any of the other segments. The documentary film style is reminiscent to that of The Battle of Algiers; Garrone plops you down into the scummy crime-filled environment and forces you to see everything at ground level. There is immediacy to the violence in Gomorra, a bracing level of coldness on display from the various killers which is pretty startling. It's all part of the business; killing just comes with the territory. And even though almost all of the characters are unlikable people, you watch with a growing sense of dread as it becomes all but certain that everyone will end up meeting their maker before the end credits start to roll. This isn't an easy or commercial gangster movie like the films I've referenced above. Instead, it's a brutal look at a real-world scenario that's going on right now -- and has been going on for years -- right under our noses. Like City of God, Gomorra takes you to hell and back. And while not anywhere near as hyper-stylized like City of God, there is a feeling of force and visceral impact in Gomorra that forces the viewer to take notice. This is a bold and uncompromising film, and the best one from 2009 that I've seen yet.