Join yours truly and show host Frankie Picasso for six new movie reviews on the next edition of The Good Media Network's Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing at a special day and time, Thursday December 29 at 1 pm ET, will also feature a few additional special announcements. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!
Wednesday, December 28, 2022
Tuesday, December 27, 2022
Reviews of "The Fabelmans," "The Inspection," "Argentina, 1985" and "Leonor Will Never Die," along with a podcast preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.
Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday December 27, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.
Saturday, December 24, 2022
“Argentina, 1985” (2022). Cast: Ricardo Darín, Peter Lanzani, Alejandra Flechner, Santiago Armas Estevarena, Gina Mastronicola, Gabriel Fernández, Laura Paredes, Héctor Díaz, Norman Briski, Marcelo Pozzi, Joselo Bella, Susana Pampín, Paula Ransenberg, Andrés Zurita, Nacho Miguens, Pepe Arias, Natalia Olabe, Fernando Gonet. Director: Santiago Mitre. Screenplay: Mariano Llinás, Martín Mauregui and Santiago Mitre. Web site. Trailer.
All too often, we set limits for ourselves that come to define us, sometimes in a far too restrictive way. But are we enduringly confined to such constraints, or can we surpass them and achieve more than we thought we’re capable of? The answer may surprise us, particularly when such revelations come about under conditions where the stakes are exceptionally high. Such is the case in the new fact-based historical drama, “Argentina, 1985.”
With the military overthrow of President Isabel Perón in 1976, Argentina was plunged into a dark, nearly decade-long dictatorship in which right-wing authorities persecuted countless alleged opponents (mostly innocent civilians and their families) with kidnapping, torture, sanctioned murder and “disappearances.” These brutal practices, part of what was known as “the Dirty War,” went on virtually unchecked for years, leading much of Argentine society to perpetually live in fear. However, over time, with growing opposition, the ruling military junta began losing power and was eventually deposed in 1983 after its defeat in the Falklands War and the ascent of a new democratically elected president.
In the wake of this reign of terror, calls were raised to prosecute those responsible for the rampant, unbridled abuse. However, military courts refused to take on this task, leaving prosecution in the hands of civilian authorities, who were also hesitant to proceed. After all, just because the military autocrats were officially out of power with the collapse of their so-called “last junta,” that didn’t mean that their considerable influence had completely disappeared, clandestine though it may have been by that time. Which is why Argentine public prosecutors were generally reluctant to undertake cases against their former leaders – they didn’t want to experience the same fate as the mysteriously disappeared as a result of their litigious actions, despite widespread support for such trials.
To overcome this conundrum, officials of the new government decided to try a different approach – conducting a trial in Argentine civilian appeals court. The proceeding against the nine defendants was to be presided over by a panel of six judges, with the accused represented by a smug, supremely self-confident lead defender (Héctor Díaz). But finding a suitable public prosecutor was a bigger challenge, since most were unwilling to subject themselves to the potential dangers of taking on such a provocative case. So who would end up being the “lucky” choice?
That responsibility fell to Julio César Strassera (Ricardo Darín), a longtime prosecutor who was reluctant to take on the task when approached by his boss (Gabriel Fernández). He was concerned about his personal safety, as well as that of his wife, Verónica (Gina Mastronicola), and his children, Silvia (Alejandra Flechner) and Javier (Santiago Armas Estevarena). And, to complicate matters, he worried about criticism (and possible retribution) from both sides in this fight – from supporters of the accused, for taking on this controversial prosecution, and from friends and relatives of the victims, for having often turned a blind eye toward the junta’s atrocities (or, in some cases, even tacitly aiding and abetting the perpetrators) during the height of the Dirty War, prompting them to wonder how diligent he would be in pressing this case. He thus saw his involvement in the upcoming trial as a no-win situation and one possibly fraught with dire consequences.
Assembling a prosecutorial team proved problematic, too; most of his peers flat-out refused to assist him. Strassera consulted a trusted mentor (Norman Briski) for advice, but he mostly confirmed what the prosecutor already knew, despite the sincere, hopeful encouragement he offered. And, when Julio finally learned (ostensibly by accident) who would be aiding him, he discovered that his principal associate, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), had little experience in such matters. Despite the ample enthusiasm for seeking justice that Luis brought to the table – a quality that made him something of a pariah within his conservative circle of family and friends – that fervor inspired little confidence with Julio considering what they would be up against.
Nevertheless, even though Ocampo was still rather new to all this, he brought fresh approaches and inventive ideas on how to proceed. He put together an eager team of law students to gather evidence on a tight time frame, and they employed a variety of aggressive, innovative and persistent tactics to assemble the proof for their case, in significant detail and on time. Julio was duly impressed by what they accomplished, and their achievements did much to boost his morale. In a relatively short time, he changed his outlook as the prospects suddenly no longer looked as bleak as they once did.
When the case went to court in April 1985 in what would become known as the Trial of the Juntas, Strassera and his colleagues presented 709 claims to the tribunal, 280 of which were heard, involving 833 witnesses. It would turn out to be the first war crimes proceeding to be conducted since the Nüremberg Trials held in Germany after World War II and one of the largest-ever prosecutions of its kind.
The depth of material collected took the defense team somewhat by surprise; they hadn’t expected that the prosecution would be able to gather so much evidence, in such detail, from what they assumed would be inherently reluctant witnesses. (So much for assumptions.) But, even with such a battery of damning testimony and information, Julio and his colleagues could not rest on their laurels; they had to remain diligent in pressing their case. What’s more, they had to do so under increasingly intimidating conditions, such as less-than-subtle surveillance, death threats and bomb scares, as well as a number of explosive detonations successfully set off in government facilities.
If anything, however, these threats helped to steel the prosecutors’ resolve to carry on. That confidence was further bolstered by the detailed, explicit testimony of witnesses, such as Adriana Calvo de Laborde (Laura Paredes), who presented a heartbreaking account of her time in junta captivity. The savage treatment she and her newborn child experienced at the hands of authorities at the time was so severe and so perverse that it stunned even a public that was already all too familiar with the willful cruelty and unspeakable barbarity that went on. It did much not only to galvanize the indignation of those seeking justice, but also to change the minds of many who were sympathetic to the defendants, such as Luis’s staunchly conservative mother (Susana Pampín), a onetime-diehard critic of her son’s allegedly bleeding heart leanings.
The Trial of the Juntas marked a significant turning point for the global human rights movement, as well as for promoting the development of democracy in Argentina. It may not have solved all of the nation’s problems, and it may not have made up for all of the painful losses experienced during the days of the junta. But it went a long way toward setting matters on a new path, and it was achieved by a group of determined, courageous individuals who didn’t think it could be done. There’s much to be said for that, and this film truly does justice to their story and the legacy it has established.
There are a number of significant takeaways from this story that have to do with more than just the particular circumstances associated with this landmark historic event. They relate to important principles applicable to a variety of situations, judicial and otherwise. And they can serve us well as long as we believe in their viability. That belief connection is important, because it impacts how successfully these principles pan out for us in the manifestation of the reality we experience, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in materializing the existence we experience. Whether or not the prosecutors in this case were aware of this school of thought is unclear, but they became beneficiaries of its principles as they carried out their work – and set an example for the rest of us to follow in any number of diverse ventures.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit in this is learning how to overcome one’s fears, even those that arise as a result of potentially dangerous conditions. As the film clearly illustrates early on, Strassera was obviously spooked about what he might face if he were to take on this case, both for himself and his family, as well as for those he would be asking to testify in this proceeding. Many of them had already experienced considerable pain, anguish and terror, and encouraging them to tell their stories would mean reliving it all over again, not to mention the possible retribution they could face from supporters of the accused for speaking out.
However, if justice were to be served, getting past those apprehensions was essential, even in the face of physical harm, damage to one’s reputation, and threats to loved ones and colleagues, dangers that many of those involved here had already experienced during the Dirty War. This meant mustering courageous convictions to see this through, believing in their power and potential for fostering their sought-after outcomes. And, amazingly, as their faith in these notions grew and fell into place, so, too, did the results they so dearly hoped for. That’s impressive, especially since they arose from something as unexpected as changes in their beliefs, intangible resources that may have been hard to quantify and fully appreciate but that nevertheless packed quite a powerful punch when put into place.
This, in itself, sheds significant light on another of those takeaways – the value of overcoming limitations and believing in what such measures can accomplish. As the discovery process for this proceeding began, Julio had huge doubts about whether the case could be successfully brought to pass. But, thanks to the innovative steps that Luis and his associates implemented, seemingly miraculous results emerged, outcomes that clearly defied expectations and provided the means needed by the prosecutors to effectively make their arguments in court. Indeed, as unrealistic as believing in miracles sometimes might be, doing so can yield unexpectedly stupendous results.
Obviously, developing and possessing skills like these are important to those in professions like law, where putting them to use to achieve successful outcomes is crucial to their very reason for being. But these notions are just as important in myriad other contexts, both personally and professionally, as well as in the everyday conduct of our lives. These principles might not seem like takeaways from a court proceeding, but the foundation underlying success in these undertakings is applicable to a host of activities that have nothing directly to do with the law. We can learn a lot from these examples – and we can achieve even more for ourselves when we put them into use in our own world. All we have to do is believe in the possibilities and then act on them.
Such realizations can carry tremendous benefits for those who experience them. When we become aware that we’re genuinely capable of attaining more than we thought we could, this understanding can significantly boost our confidence, self-esteem and sense of personal power. This becomes apparent in what both Julio and Luis experience over the course of the film. Luis is able to verify what he already knew about himself, an affirmation of his abilities and insights. But Julio is arguably an even greater beneficiary of this, as he comes to realize that he possesses skills he never knew he had, that he was indeed capable of rising above his own perceived limitations and achieve more than he ever thought he could. Now that’s empowerment.
Seeking justice is certainly a noble pursuit, especially when the transgressions calling for it have been particularly egregious. But it can also become a rather precarious endeavor when conducted under conditions that carry potentially serious consequences. Still, there’s always justice to be had, and its fulfillment is crucial to fostering reform, promoting healing and encouraging the emergence of a stable future, especially in a setting like the new Argentinian republic depicted in this film. Writer-director Santiago Mitre’s latest presents a thorough, capably told account of this courageous venture, with a solid screenplay and fine performances that effectively depict the dangers, ironies and nuances involved in this tightrope-like endeavor, as well as the personal impact on its principal figures. The film could stand a little tightening in spots, and some of the background music doesn’t always fit. But, in all, this is an engaging, attention-grabbing project that successfully avoids legal jargon and excessively detailed political considerations while revealing much about one of history’s most compelling judicial proceedings, one that, sadly, echoes the same sentiment to have come out of most such landmark events – “Never again.”
“Argentina, 1985” is one of those films that has flown beneath the radar thus far, receiving little fanfare and not attracting much attention among moviegoers, including avid cinephiles. However, with the onset of movie awards season, the picture is finally garnering the recognition it so genuinely deserves. It’s been named a nominee in the best foreign language film category of the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award competitions. In addition, the National Board of Review has selected it as one of 2022’s Top 5 International Films and as the winner of the organization’s Freedom of Expression Award. Also, the film was recently named to the short list of candidates for the Academy Award for best international film. Not bad for a film that not many have heard of. The picture is currently available for streaming online.
When we go beyond our perceived limitations, we may feel surprised and perhaps even a little unnerved. Finding ourselves in such uncharted territory may make us uncomfortable given its newness and unfamiliarity. At the same time, though, it also offers us proof of capabilities that can take us in dramatically new and uplifting directions. It may even act as a trigger for introducing us to parts of our being that we never knew existed, opening an array of new doors and new opportunities for us. And, with those channels now open to us, there’s no telling what we can achieve. The people of Argentina are no doubt pleased with what Julio, Luis and their team made possible for their country through the emergence of their newfound expertise and empowerment. And the citizens of the world should be thankful for the example they set, enabling all of us to see what’s possible when we put our minds to pursuing – and attaining – goals that ultimately benefit all of humanity.
Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
Wednesday, December 21, 2022
“Leonor Will Never Die” (2022). Cast: Sheila Francisco, Bong Cabrera, Anthony Falcon, Rocky Salumbides, Rea Molina, Alan Bautista, Ryan Eigenmann, Dido de la Paz, Raion Sandoval, Tami Monsod, DMS Boongaling. Director: Martika Ramirez Escobar. Screenplay: Martika Ramirez Escobar. Web site. Trailer.
When we feel like we’ve lost something, we often wonder if we’ll ever get it back. Those who innately see the glass as half full generally have the requisite optimism needed to reclaim it. But those whose worldview is less enthusiastic frequently treat their loss as permanent and irretrievable. But need things be that way? Are such black and white outlooks fixed and unalterable? When we consider that those attitudes are rooted in our beliefs – perspectives that are eminently changeable – it quickly becomes apparent that we’re not hopelessly reconciled to an irreversible fate, a scenario that an aging creative discovers for herself in the quirky but insightful new Filipino comedy, “Leonor Will Never Die.”
Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) has fallen on hard times. As a onetime-groundbreaking figure in the Filipino movie industry, Leonor made quite a name for herself as the creator of cheesy but immensely popular action adventure films in the 1970s and ʼ80s. However, in the ensuing years, she’s had her share of issues, including encroaching old age, worsening memory loss, mounting unpaid bills and the pain associated with the untimely death of her son, Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon), a tragedy from which she’s never fully recovered. Ronwaldo’s passing was especially difficult for her, given that he was her favorite, a preference that often hurt the feelings of her other son, Rudi (Bong Cabrera), a somewhat inept, directionless but kindly middle-aged soul. Rudi’s quiet despair over this is often exacerbated by Leonor’s lack of appreciation for his concern for her well-being, an attitude that she sees as needlessly clingy and overprotective, leaving her somewhat concerned and frequently annoyed. And all of this is made worse when Ronwaldo’s ghost periodically shows up for unexpected visits, reminding Leonor of his absence and Rudi of his mother’s favoritism.
Leonor needs a spark to get her out of her rut, and that opportunity comes while perusing the newspaper one day. She spots an ad putting out a call for movie scripts, and it gives her an idea. She remembers an unfinished screenplay that she had begun working on years ago, a project that she believes might have production potential if she were to complete it. So she hauls it out of mothballs and sets back to work on it in earnest. She’s so eager, in fact, that it’s the first undertaking that’s given her any joy in ages.
Leonor’s script for “The Return of the Kwago” tells the story of a working class action hero named Ronwaldo (sound familiar?) (Rocky Salumbides) seeking to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of local thugs. He also seeks to rescue a damsel in distress, Isabella (Rea Molina), the reluctant girlfriend of a mob boss who has her squarely under his thumb. For the benefit of viewers, images from this work in progress come to life in the film, essentially creating a movie within a movie, one distinguished from the main narrative by cinematography and other production elements typical of pictures in this genre. While the trite plot of “Kwago” exudes all of the clichés typically found in campy romps like this, working on the project nevertheless fills Leonor with an unbridled sense of enthusiasm, as evidenced by the fervor she exhibits while banging away on the keys of her typewriter. But, despite everything going along so well, events suddenly take an unexpected turn.
While taking a break from her work, as Leonor strolls outside her apartment building, a television set falls from an upstairs open window and hits her on the head, putting her in a coma. Rudi and Leonor’s ex-husband, Valentin (Alan Bautista), diligently attend to her hospital care, aided by an enigmatic physician (Tami Monsod) who clearly has eyes for Rudi. Ronwaldo’s ghost pays periodic visits as well, offering insights and suggestions. But Leonor’s condition remains unchanged – at least to those looking after her. In her own world, however, Leonor has begun leading a full and active life – as a character in the thick of her own unfolding screenplay.
Leonor’s participation in this inner world scenario fulfills several functions. For starters, it helps her work out the plot of the remaining portion of the story. But there’s more to it than that. It also provides her with an opportunity to address the unresolved issues of her life, such as her relationship with Rudi, her lingering grief for Ronwaldo and learning how to take back her sense of personal power. It becomes an experience where she gets a chance to rewrite the script of her life – and to have things turn out the way she wants them to for once. And, when the “Kwago” experience becomes intertwined with the everyday life she had come to know so well, things become especially interesting. Leonor’s experience thus sets an example for the rest of us, one in which we have an opportunity to write the scripts of our own lives.
The key to writing (or rewriting) the scripts of our lives rests with the beliefs that provide the foundation for them. In a sense, think of this as being akin to the story or the narrative that underlies a screenplay. Without this, there would be no script to work with. And this all unfolds thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these intangible resources for manifesting the reality we experience. Whether or not Leonor has ever heard of this concept is up for debate, but, given the experience she’s now undergoing in her consciousness, she has a chance to put its principles into practice and to witness what they can yield.
Leonor’s coma experience is valuable in a highly significant way: Because she’s actively setting the direction of the manner in which events arise and play out, and because she’s now definitively aware that this is happening, she’s able to see how we’re the authors of our own stories and what makes them up. And the effect of this is quite empowering. In fact, in Leonor’s case, it’s enabled her to take back the power she once wielded but has been without in recent years. It also allows her to mend fences that have fallen into disrepair over time. That can be truly revitalizing for someone who’s been feeling otherwise for a long time.
The lucidity that comes with the territory here also enables Leonor to steer the course of her story in the direction in which she wants it to go. This, too, likely proves rejuvenating, especially after years to the contrary. Instead of feeling like the victim of random, capricious chance, Leonor feels like she has become the master of her destiny, able to cause things to turn out the way she would like to see them unfold. That’s quite a fulfilling feeling, one that most of us would probably like to experience.
But the beauty of that is that we can experience it for ourselves. Once we’re aware that we’re the captains of our own ships, we can steer them in whatever direction we’d like. That can be quite satisfying, particularly among those of us who feel we have lost our power and witnessed our lives deteriorate in ways that leave us feeling out of sorts, out of luck and without hope for a better future.
In Leonor’s case, this can help to renew her outlook going forward. Whether that feeling is expressed through waking consciousness or entirely in the recesses of her mind, it doesn’t really matter. It’s an opportunity for the essence of her being to feel satisfied, fulfilled and empowered. And, in the end, isn’t that what really matters most? We should all be so fortunate to have the wherewithal to recognize and live out such a state of mind, and Leonor sets an inspiring example for us to follow.
Of course, in circumstances like these, some might be concerned that the lines between reality and fantasy can become all too easily blurred, making it difficult to distinguish where one leaves off and the other begins. This can be especially true for creative types (particularly writers). Concerns about ambiguity and distinction can easily arise. Indeed, can someone become so absorbed in the manifestation of a creative undertaking that perspective becomes lost? And what does this mean for those who care (and worry) about the artist?
Ultimately, however, one could argue, do such distinctions really matter? Isn’t one’s sense of happiness and fulfillment really what’s most in the long run? And does it truly matter where such outcomes materialize? Is the realm of our consciousness any less valid than the paradigm of physical existence? This is a point that often rattles my cage when characters in sci-fi and similar stories prattle on and on about what’s “real” and what’s not. Isn’t reality a relative matter, one in which beliefs and consciousness determine what arises and wherein venue considerations are secondary, if even relevant at all?
Some might find such a notion troubling, as it potentially undermines one’s sense of certainty when it comes to the nature of existence – that it must innately possess certain qualities (such as physicality) when it comes to its intrinsic nature. At the same time, though, embracing the idea that personal satisfaction is what each of us makes of it, regardless of comparatively mundane considerations like locale, can be quite liberating, opening up an array of vistas for conscious exploration and creation where the only limiting factor is our own beliefs – and where we can manifest for ourselves whatever we will in the pursuit of our own contentment. Talk about empowerment!
Leonor’s choices (and the beliefs she embraces in their fulfillment) may not be the same ones many of us would make. Being at the helm of a tacky shoot-em-up may not be our idea of what gives us satisfaction. However, if it makes her feel contented and accomplished – and if doing so helps her resolve issues that she’s been unable to reconcile otherwise – who are we to argue or judge? More power to her in her endeavor. May we all be so inclined. And may Leonor never die.
Writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s multiple-layered debut feature is an absolute delight, one that tells a hilarious yet perceptive tale, a challenging narrative combination to pull off as successfully as it is here. It’s an accomplishment comparable to what was achieved in such other 2022 releases as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Strawberry Mansion,” taking heady topics and making them entertaining. The story-within-a-story is deftly handled, with its respective parallel tracks skillfully woven and serving as great mirrors of one another. And, as these two parallel yet intertwined stories play out, a curious mix of synchronicities, kooky laugh-out-loud moments and metaphysical insights into the nature of existence all begin to emerge (sometimes simultaneously), providing viewers with much to both ponder and chuckle over. The “Kwago” sequences are especially noteworthy. Leonor’s emerging action adventure project is reminiscent of films frequently made in the Philippines in the 1970s, with elements similar to those also found in classic martial arts and Blaxploitation pictures of the era. These segments present a campy yet lovingly reverential homage to those films, capably and intentionally mimicking them in terms of their clichéd camera work, trite dialogue and sloppy technical elements (like out-of-sync vocal dubbing). Admittedly, the film begins to drag a little in the home stretch, but, as a very deserving Independent Spirit Award nominee for best international film, this is must-see viewing for those who appreciate unexpectedly profound subject matter served up with a healthy slathering of unrepentant kitsch.
Many of us dislike change. But, as daunting as that prospect can be, it pales in comparison to other even less palatable circumstances, like despair, hopelessness and depression. Yet it’s mind boggling how many of us will readily saddle ourselves with such conditions, believing them to be inherently permanent. Indeed, it’s astounding how anyone could simply roll over and accept what’s seemingly handed to us without question. But, as Leonor’s remarkable odyssey illustrates, that’s far from the truth, as long as we’re willing to make the effort to invoke change for ourselves, starting with the beliefs that bring our existence into being. With that knowledge in hand, we can follow Leonor’s lead, reclaim our personal power and rewrite the script of our life. And what a story that would make!
Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
Friday, December 16, 2022
The Sequel Worth Waiting for Makes a Great Gift!
Every good movie deserves a great sequel, right? So it is with books, too. In his latest offering, Third Real: Conscious Creation Goes Back to the Movies, award-winning author Brent Marchant shows how the magic of film can help transform our lives—and in ways beyond belief!
Available in print and ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books and other fine retailers. Find out more by clicking here.
The Book that Started It All Makes a Great Gift!
Ready for a cinematic journey? In Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies, award-winning author Brent Marchant takes readers on an enlightening and entertaining odyssey through the landscape of film, showing how motion pictures can inspire us in the process of bringing our reality into being. By applying what we learn to our own lives, we get the picture!
Available in print and ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, iTunes and other fine retailers. Find out more by clicking here.
Wednesday, December 14, 2022
The Book That Continued the Story Makes a Great Gift!
In his second book, Consciously Created Cinema: The Movie Lover’s Guide to the Law of Attraction, award-winning author Brent Marchant shows how movies illustrate the ways in which we draw upon our thoughts, beliefs and intents to manifest our reality. Watch the magic and mystery of existence come to life through the power of the silver screen!
Available in print and ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, iTunes and other fine retailers. Find out more by clicking here.
Tuesday, December 13, 2022
Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday December 13, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.
Saturday, December 10, 2022
“The Inspection” (2022). Cast: Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union, Bokeem Woodbine, Raúl Castillo, Nicholas Logan, McCaul Lombardi, Eman Esfandi, Aaron Dominguez, Aubrey Joseph, Andrew Kai, Tyler Merritt, Steve Mokate. Director: Elegance Bratton. Screenplay: Elegance Bratton. Web site. Trailer.
Family has long been seen as an institution dictated almost exclusively by bloodline considerations. However, over time, this view has gradually shifted to one where family has become what we make of it. It’s a principle that has assumed many forms, too, based on an array of defining characteristics, some of which have deviated significantly from traditional models. But what’s most important behind this development has been the beneficial impact it has had on many individuals who simply didn’t feel as though they belonged with their blood relatives, regardless of how much they were pressured into trying to make such arrangements work. That’s the theme underlying a new fact-based story about one individual’s search for a new start that unexpectedly ends up providing him far more than what he was initially looking for, director Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical debut narrative feature, “The Inspection.”
Twenty-five-year-old Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) has been fending for himself since he was 16. As the gay son of Inez (Gabrielle Union), a hard-edged African-American single mother, Ellis was kicked out of the house over her disapproval of his “degenerate” lifestyle, one that she sternly believed ran afoul of her self-righteous religious beliefs. In that time, Ellis has been doing whatever it took to survive, bouncing from one situation to another (including some jail time) and making little personal progress along the way. He acknowledges that many of his friends have ended up dead or in prison, and he worries he might be headed for a similar fate. Indeed, as the film opens, he’s living in a homeless shelter in Trenton, NJ, with few hopeful prospects for the future. But, given how things have been going, he’s decided that it’s time to make a radical change: As a native New Yorker, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he enlists in the Marines, hoping that it will give him meaningful purpose and set him on a new path, one that offers promise and potential unlike anything he’s experienced since being thrown out onto the streets.
Before leaving for boot camp, Ellis visits his mother to obtain his birth certificate to complete his enlistment. When she asks why he needs it, she laughs at his answer, convinced that there’s no way he’ll make it through basic training. She dismissively chides him, saying that he’ll easily be spotted for who he is, that he’s “gayer than two left shoes.” And, if all that weren’t insulting enough, as she hands the requested document to him, she says of it, “This is all I have left of the dream I held for you.” (Thanks, Mom.)
Despite his mother’s callous comments, Ellis is not deterred. He’s resolved to reach his goal, no matter what it takes. He’s also impelled to succeed by one of the homeless shelter’s residents, Shamus (Tyler Merritt), who says he hopes that Ellis won’t backslide and end up back in his company once again. And so, Inez’s disparaging remarks notwithstanding, he departs for his appointment with destiny.
But is the new recruit’s optimism enough to carry him through what lies ahead? Given the time frame in which this story is set – the ʼ00s – circumstances are different from what they are today. The LGBTQ+ community at large, for example, still faced its share of prejudice at the time, and that was an even greater challenge for those in the military, who were serving under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Also, it’s obvious from a number of small gestures that Ellis is a kind, compassionate, sensitive soul. Those undeniably admirable qualities are eminently noble, to be sure, but their compatibility with a culture often characterized by contrary attitudes and values could make fitting in difficult.
As Ellis steps off the bus that takes him to boot camp, his life changes in an instant. His initial indoctrination into his new world is characterized by rigidity, harsh discipline and intimidation. His drill instructor, Sgt. Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), barks orders and questions at him upon his arrival, including asking him whether or not he had ever been a homosexual. Laws is innately skeptical about Ellis’s negative reply, slyly responding with a sinister smirk and stating definitively that he will break the new recruit. (Of course, as a Marine drill instructor, that’s his primary goal when it comes to training all newcomers, a tactic intended as a means to help build them back up, but one that could prove particularly challenging for someone like Ellis, given his character and sensibilities–and Laws’s apparent intent to be particularly hard on him.)
As training begins, Ellis experiences his share of difficulties. He encounters institutionalized homophobia. He’s the subject of bullying (and not just from Laws, but also from fellow recruits). He’s even the target of sabotage by others who’d like nothing more than to see him fail. And, on top of that, Inez refuses to answer any of his letters, despite his sincere efforts at reaching out to keep her informed of his progress.
But, despite these difficulties, Ellis refuses to give up. He works harder when he needs to, in large part to earn the respect to which he believes he’s entitled. He also wins over allies, such as Sgt. Rosales (Raúl Castillo), one of Laws’s assistants, who takes a more sympathetic, more tailored approach in the guidance he provides to Ellis, both as a recruit and as a gay soldier. And, as training progresses, Ellis comes into his own. He even finds a way to remain true to his principles, such as his compassion in coming to the aid of others, like Ismail (Eman Esfandi), a Muslim recruit who’s often the target of unbridled prejudice and insensitive treatment from his fellow soldiers.
In a sense, Ellis becomes a role model of sorts for his peers, inspiring them to adopt new attitudes toward him and to what it means to be a Marine. When they see him being unfairly targeted, they begin coming to his defense, making sure he gets a fair shake and congratulating him on his individual victories, no matter how small. The treatment he receives begins to change, and unfettered acceptance comes more readily, even from those who were once critical and despite whatever issues he may have encountered previously. In turn, Ellis begins to look upon his experience in a new light, one in which he finds himself in a brotherhood where others have his back as much as he has theirs and where inherent differences no longer matter when it comes to supporting a colleague, including those from whom such conduct and consideration are least likely expected.
The bottom line in this is that Ellis finds the family he always longed for but never had, a development he hadn’t envisioned going in. But, for those who’ve had to endure such circumstances, a change like this is truly welcome and heartfelt, even (or, perhaps, especially) if it arises unexpectedly. It may not correct the slights of the past, but it can certainly provide a meaningful basis of support for the future, and that can ultimately prove invaluable. A family of choice may not be the same as one’s biological tribe, but it can be equally nurturing and supportive, and there’s much to be said for that.
Of course, none of this likely would have happened were it not for Ellis’s determination to succeed. Despite what the naysayers may have said, he believed he was capable of accomplishing this objective, and this is crucial, given that our beliefs form the basis of our reality thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting our existence, for better or worse. It’s unclear whether Ellis had ever heard of this school of thought, but he certainly made effective use of its principles and practices in the pursuit of his dream. When combining these concepts with his personal convictions, he was clearly setting himself up for success.
Despite his efforts at transforming himself into a Marine, one might wonder why he chose such a difficult path in reaching this point in his life. Why, for example, did he create nine difficult years of life on the streets leading up to his military experience? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to manifest something more productive and positive in the first place, especially since he was obviously capable of doing so, as evidenced by his boot camp experience? Perhaps, but maybe he needed to go through the ordeal of learning how to survive on his own under harsh conditions as a means to prepare himself for what he would have to endure when undergoing basic training. Similarly, perhaps he needed to experience the prejudice and homophobia he underwent with his mother and others to get him ready for what he would go through in a setting where such attitudes had become institutionalized. Indeed, sometimes we might not always understand what we’re manifesting and why, but, in hindsight, we frequently see that these “detours” serve valuable functions, providing us with the wherewithal to overcome the challenges we experience later.
Another benefit to come out of such ordeals is the opportunity to overcome our fears, apprehensions and limitations. This was true for Ellis both while on the streets and during his boot camp experience. They helped him develop a thicker skin in facing the challenges that confronted him. They helped him to think outside the box and to devise innovative solutions for addressing the issues in front of him. They also helped him galvanize himself in his beliefs, reinforcing them to help him implement them in the pursuit of his goals. Such efforts can yield tremendous, enviable results, as Ellis’s experience so clearly illustrates.
In order for Ellis to succeed in these efforts, though, he had to be himself – his true self, the one whose actions align with his innermost beliefs, those that reflect who he innately is. This called for him to retain the compassion and sensibilities that shaped his character, no matter how much those traits may have gone against the prototypical image of a Marine at that time. It also called for him to be forthright, honest and unapologetic about his sexuality as a proud gay man. To that end, it meant being up front with Inez whenever she, in her unrealistic false hope, raised the prospect of Ellis finding a nice girl and settling down as a stereotypical family man who would be a good husband and father and give her the grandchildren she so dearly wanted. He needed to make it clear that such developments would never occur, no matter how much she might wish for them. In short, he needed to stand up for himself and inform her of the fallacy behind the often-widely held notion in the African-American community that “there’s no such thing as a gay Black man.” He was living proof to the contrary, no matter how unbelievable and offensive she may have found it.
Ellis wasn’t alone in this pursuit, though; he had his family of choice to back him up in those times when he was challenged on these points, including those with his own mother. The brotherhood held firm, supporting one of their own when warranted. And knowing that he had these kindreds to have his back enabled him to stand even more unwaveringly in his own skin, a successful collaborative co-creation if there ever were one – and one that emerged out of a seemingly unlikely set of circumstances.
In short, Ellis’s Marine experience truly made him a man – but not the uber-macho prototype one typically expects when hearing this expression. Instead, it made him the man he was meant to be, the one who could stand tall in his convictions and live his life in line with his authentic self. Reaching that point may not have been easy, both during his time in the service and in the years leading up to it. But, in the end, he was able to embrace and act upon beliefs that made this possible through actions that spoke to living his personal truth. And what better manifestation could there possibly be to come out of circumstances, principles and practices like these?
Finding one’s family may not always occur where one most likely expects it. But, even if those expectations aren’t fulfilled exactly, what difference does it make if the sought-after result ends up being what was hoped for to begin with? Writer-director Elegance Bratton’s fact-based saga does just that, driving home that message with its poignant, moving, heartfelt story. In several regards, “The Inspection” echoes groundbreaking themes first addressed in “Moonlight” (2016) and in Bratton’s debut documentary feature, “Pier Kids” (2019), though with different but nevertheless equal significance. The film’s superb Independent Spirit Award-nominated performances by Pope and Union, along with fine supporting portrayals turned in by other members of the excellent ensemble cast (most notably Woodbine and Castillo), truly give this picture its razor-sharp edge and its touching moments of genuine compassion, an unusual mix of elements to come out of the same story, to be sure. Admittedly, the production could probably have benefitted from a little more back story development and slightly brisker pacing in the first half-hour, but those are truly minor shortcomings in the greater scheme of things where this film is concerned. If this ISA candidate for best first feature is any indication of what we can expect in future works from this filmmaker, I can’t wait to see what else he comes up with. The film is currently playing theatrically and will be available for online streaming in the near future.
We’d all like to hope that we can feel welcome and accepted for who we are in our families of birth, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way (and for reasons that may not always be entirely clear). Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we have to live out our lives in loneliness and solitude. We can forge the family we need and live perfectly happy and contented lives if we put our minds to it. By being our true selves, we can draw to us those whose sensibilities mesh with ours and who can innately tell that we belong together, even if such associations don’t conform to conventional models. In the end, it’s the people who matter to us (and to whom we matter) who deserve to be in our inner circle of kindred spirits. Indeed, why would we want to bother with those who can’t live up to that basic human courtesy? To be sure, family is what we make of it, and, when we put in the effort to see that through, we can surely create one that’s positively great.
Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
Wednesday, December 7, 2022
“The Fabelmans” (2022). Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch, Seth Rogen, David Lynch, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Keeley Karsten, Alina Brace, Julia Butters, Birdie Borria, Sophia Kopera, Robin Bartlett, Jeannie Berlin, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East, Isabelle Kusman, Chandler Lovelle, Stephen Smith. Director: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. Web site. Trailer.
When we look upon the works of gifted artists – regardless of the medium involved – we’re often tempted to wonder where the abilities that gave rise to them came from. To be sure, much of the credit obviously belongs to these creative types themselves, but still there are other influences that help to nudge their talents to the surface, inspirations that bring out their innate skills and enable them to flourish. Such is the intent underlying director Steven Spielberg’s coming of age story about an aspiring young filmmaker in the new less-than-veiled autobiographical offering, “The Fabelmans.”
In 1952, a young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) attends his first movie, a screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” with his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). Mom and Dad are enthusiastic about the event, convinced that their son will thoroughly enjoy the experience. However, some of the film’s action-packed scenes are a bit overwhelming for the youngster, particularly one involving a violent train crash, leaving him somewhat unnerved. Sammy’s reaction leaves Mitzi and Burt wondering if they had done the right thing taking him to the cinema. But, despite the boy’s unsettled response to the picture, there’s still something about what he saw that captivated him, especially when he asks for a toy train as a Hanukkah gift. What’s even more curious, though, is what happens next, when Sammy deliberately crashes the train after setting it up.
Mitzi is mystified and intrigued by what happened, though given the uncanny similarity between Sammy’s staged toy train accident and what they together saw on the movie screen, she encourages him to re-create the crash, this time prompting Sammy to photograph it with Burt’s 8-mm camera. And Mom’s astounded by what she sees – a cinematic sequence created with a level of sophistication far beyond what most people would typically expect out of someone of such a tender young age.
Mitzi thus takes a strong interest in Sammy’s capabilities. As an artist herself – a gifted classical pianist – she would love nothing more than to see her son thrive at something for which he possesses a genuine talent. And, with a developing passion for the cinematic artform, she truly hopes he’ll pursue it with zeal. In addition to seeing his abilities blossom, the experience also provides her with an opportunity to live vicariously through him, having mostly abandoned her own artistic calling to live the life of a wife and mother, a choice that seems to carry more than its share of regrets.
As for Burt, he provides Sammy with the means to carry on with his filmmaking, though he sees his son’s ventures as a hobby more than a springboard to a future career path. Dad is ever the pragmatist, firmly believing that he and his children should pursue “realistic” undertakings that will enable them to become good providers. That’s even reflected in his own work as an electrical engineer, a vocation with a solid, rational, science-based foundation (and one with ample future growth potential at the time). But that no-nonsense outlook is often at odds with the artistic sensibilities of his wife and son, qualities he can’t fully appreciate, given that such pursuits don’t seem to possess the obvious tangible economic and professional payoffs of a serious career track.
It’s not that Burt is cold, hardnosed and inflexible; far from it. He’s warm, sensitive and loving, even if not terribly imaginative or impulsive. He’s willingly sacrificed such “frivolities” to create a nurturing environment for Mitzi, Sammy and his three daughters (Alina Brace, Birdie Borria, Sophia Kopera). That goes for the Fabelmans’ extended family, too, including both of the children’s grandmothers (Robin Bartlett, Jeannie Berlin) and Burt’s best friend and co-worker, a jovial soul whom the kids have come to know as their Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen). It’s the kind of environment that has enabled Sammy to grow and develop into his art, even if that’s not exactly what Burt had intended for him.
As Sammy grows into adolescence, however, the relative peace and contentment of the family’s suburban New Jersey household is disrupted when Burt announces that he’s landed a better job in Phoenix, AZ. This revelation sparks a discordant note between Mr. and Mrs. Fabelman, especially when Mitzi learns that it’s unlikely Bennie will be joining them in Arizona. Burt explains that this is because his friend likely doesn’t possess the required skills to land a position at his new company. But why should that upset Mitzi so much? This is the first indication that there may be some deeply rooted trouble at home, a discovery that the now-teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) slowly begins piecing together, particularly when Bennie somehow miraculously manages to land a position at Dad’s new employer not long thereafter.
With the family relocated to the Grand Canyon State, they seek to settle in as readily as possible. Sammy continues with his filmmaking, growing ever more adept at his art. He has many friends who join him in his efforts, and he often includes his now-older sisters (Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, Sophia Kopera) as featured stars in his productions. That family connection proves important to him, too, especially with the growing tension within the household. The widening disconnection between his parents and his increasing suspicions about Mitzi and Bennie – a hunch confirmed when he captures them on film in a compromising moment – frequently leave conditions strained at home, especially in Sammy’s relationship with his mother.
Then there’s Burt’s underwhelming support for the development of Sammy’s talents. He continues to provide him with the equipment and materials he needs to make his films, and Sammy’s productions genuinely impress Burt, leaving him a proud father when he sees the end results. But the real encouragement still comes from Mitzi, whose support receives a big boost from a surprise visit by her Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a onetime lion tamer and film worker. Like Mitzi and Sammy, Boris has the artistic bent that runs through their family, and he fervently urges his grand-nephew to follow his calling, regardless of what others (like Burt) may feel. Boris is well aware that there are many who just don’t understand the nature of artistic sensibilities, and, for those who possess them, he advises that they simply ignore the oblivious viewpoints of others. Failing to go with one’s heart, he insists, will leave one feeling disappointed and unfulfilled, and he cites the example of Sammy’s Mom to illustrate that point.
Having been given his marching orders, Sammy looks to move ahead with his plans to become a filmmaker. But, just as those efforts get under way, there’s more upset in the household. Burt announces another new job opening, one that requires a relocation to Northern California. And, this time, Bennie won’t be coming along for the ride, a development that throws the future of Mitzi and Burt’s relationship into chaos.
With Sammy now in high school, his experiences in Northern California bring him to the brink of adulthood. In addition to having to cope with the trouble at home, he also has his first taste of dealing with issues like the impact of antisemitism and bullying. At the same time, however, he also has an opportunity to experience the pleasantries of life, such as his first love, an unusual relationship between a young Jewish man and a quirky devotee of Jesus (Chloe East).
As difficult as this phase of Sammy’s life proves to be, it nevertheless represents a culmination of an upbringing that laid the foundation for an aspiring auteur’s future, one in which a multitude of influences came together to help shape him, his mindset, his worldview and a repertoire of works waiting to be filmed. Sammy’s story depicts the impact that the combination of art, a love of cinema, family, religious and cultural heritage, and the need to follow one’s impulses had in making him who he has become as a fully realized individual – and how that fully realized individual would then go on to become the artist that he was destined to be. It provides us with an in-depth look at seeing exactly who Sammy Fabelman is and how he got to be that way, and that, in turn, enlightens us as to why his art turned out the way that it did.
In that sense, then, given the parallels between this fictious character and the filmmaker who created him, it’s easy to say that this is as much a picture about Steven Spielberg as it is about Sammy Fabelman. The similarities in their stories are so in sync that it’s nearly impossible to see where one leaves off and the other begins, about the only real difference being in their names. This becomes especially apparent if one were to screen this movie in conjunction with director Susan Lacy’s excellent HBO documentary “Spielberg” (2017), which provides an in-depth look at the filmmaker’s personal and professional life. “The Fabelmans” is so precise in capturing this authenticity, in fact, that it incorporates big screen re-creations of home movies from Spielberg’s own upbringing. And, in light of the foregoing, these two films shed significant light on how Spielberg’s film career developed and why it turned out as it did.
Even with the up-close insights provided here, though, one still might wonder why these particular experiences contributed to the shaping of Sammy Fabelman’s/Steven Spielberg’s life and career. However, there’s a significant clue provided in the film – Mitzi’s astute observation as she and her children are about to witness a potential calamity: the belief that “Everything happens for a reason.” While that statement might be seen by some as a piece of throwaway, warm fuzzy fluff, it rings true on so many levels, its deceptive simplicity revealing much about the nature of how reality functions. It’s a stepping stone statement that helps lead us to an understanding of the impact of our beliefs in the unfolding of our existence. If we indeed believe that everything happens for a reason, then nothing occurs by chance, that all of what we encounter has purpose, and the manifestation of those occurrences begins with us. Such is the essence of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we materialize the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.
By no means is it clear whether Sammy Fabelman or Steven Spielberg have heard of this school of thought. However, after seeing what each of them has accomplished, in both fictional and realistic contexts, it’s apparent that both are adept at understanding and making use of its principles.
In Sammy’s case, for instance, we see these concepts proficiently put to use in the films he creates. His inventive use of technology and techniques (often of a low-budget nature) in his “amateur” productions reveals a tremendous capacity for imagination, especially when it comes to maximizing impact with limited resources. He’s able to get the most out of what he has to work with simply by leaving his mind open to tapping into expansive beliefs that make such an outcome possible. Imagine what that can enable when a vast array of resources is available (oh, wait a minute – we’ve seen that in many of Spielberg’s finished products).
In a parallel light, Sammy demonstrates a profound ability to draw to himself the circumstances he needs to come up with the stories he creates for his films. In many cases, his own life experiences provide him with a basis for the scripts he writes for his movies. Indeed, it’s often been said that we should draw upon our own experiences when we tell stories, as those are the ones with which we’re most familiar and that we can most readily translate into finished narratives. That’s something Sammy readily does here and that his real life alter-ego has been doing for decades, and it’s a skill most capably demonstrated in this latest offering of his.
Taking on a project as big as making a movie can truly be a daunting task, one that could be intimidating if not scary. But that didn’t stop a young Sammy, even when some of the on-screen images he witnessed were somewhat frightening. He carried forward, overcoming those apprehensions and limitations, just as his real world counterpart has on numerous occasions (a topic he discusses at length in the aforementioned documentary). That’s yet another principle that’s integral to the manifestation process, one that, if not overcome, could easily leave us stuck in place, never allowing us to achieve our objective.
And, of course, achieving that objective is the ultimate goal of this process. Many call this the pursuit of our destiny. Those skilled in the ways of manifestation often refer to this as value fulfillment, the practice of being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and the world around us. Given the passions of the protagonist here, it’s obvious that making movies – for his own sake and that of cinephiles at large, not to mention for the sake of the art itself – is Sammy’s true destiny, arguably even his value fulfillment. And, considering that Sammy is modeled after the creator who made him, the same could just as easily be said of Mr. Spielberg. But, then, one need only look at his lengthy filmography as a writer, director and producer to see that at work.
“The Fabelmans” is, without a doubt, one of the best pictures about the love of moviemaking ever committed to film, easily in the same league as works like François Truffaut’s “Day for Night” (1973), Federico Fellini’s “8½” (1963), Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980), Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994), Guiseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” (1988), Peter Bogdanovich’s “Nickelodeon” (1976), Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992), Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013). But, even more than that, it’s also an homage to the joy and power of the larger creative process, the fundamental intent underlying the act of manifestation. This is thus an inspiring work for anyone who has a desire to express himself or herself through acts of creation, handily one of the great passions that truly makes life worth living – and existence worth experiencing.
What’s more, “The Fabelmans” is easily Spielberg’s most personal film, as well as one of his best efforts in recent years. Its polished storytelling and fine period piece production values are top notch, as are the performances of its excellent ensemble cast (especially Williams and an all-too-brief appearance by Hirsch, both considered Oscar nominee contenders). As with many of Spielberg’s later films, this one, too, is a tad long in spots and occasionally somewhat episodic. Nevertheless, the film’s strengths allow this effort to shine as one of the best releases of 2022. as well as a strong contender as movie awards season plays out. The picture is currently playing theatrically.
To know someone, we can find out much by looking at what said person creates. And, to understand those creations, we can learn much by examining the roots that underlie them. In this film, those revelations unearth the origins not only of the fictitious Sammy Fabelman, but also of the man who brought him to life, Steven Spielberg. An evaluation like this thus gives us a peek into the mind and motivations of one of the most talented and most prolific figures in the history of cinema. More than that, however, it also provides a view of the process that births creativity in tangible form, an ability we all inherently possess and can tap into if we so choose. It’s an opportunity capable of yielding tremendously magnificent outcomes, results capable of touching us all and changing the world at large. And, if there’s anyone who has contributed significantly in that way to the art of cinema, it’s Steven Spielberg, an achievement that may have never occurred had it not been for the Sammy Fabelman that resided within him. We owe them both hearty thanks for their contributions – and for helping to show the rest of us how we might do the same, no matter what milieu we choose to work in.
Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
Monday, December 5, 2022
Looking for the perfect gift for the cinephile, book lover or enlightenment seeker in your life? Consider these three entertaining and insightful titles, available in print and ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, the iTunes Store and other fine retailers. Find out more by clicking here.
Friday, December 2, 2022
“Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” (“Bardo, falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades”) (2022). Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Ximena Lamadrid, Iker Solano, Francisco Rubio, Hugo Albores, Luis Couturier, Luz Jiménez, Jerónimo Guerra, Noé Hernández, Ivan Massagué, Jay O. Sanders, Clementina Guadarrama. Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Screenplay: Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone. Web site. Trailer.
How often do we seriously take the time to contemplate life’s bigger questions? We either preoccupy ourselves with everyday matters that unwittingly prompt us to put these issues on the back burner, or we may view these subjects as too daunting or scary, pushing them into the dark recesses of our consciousness for later handling (opportunities for which almost never surface). But how prepared do these approaches leave us for the time when we really will have to address them? Then what? Those are among the considerations raised in the new surrealistic comedy-drama, “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” (“Bardo, falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades”).
Imagine being somewhere that’s both eminently familiar yet also strangely foreign. You recognize your surroundings and the people who are present, but something seems uncharacteristically off. You think you’re comfortable (or at least you want to believe so), but then things begin to happen that take you by surprise, perhaps even unnerving you. Incongruities intrude upon your expectations. Then you find yourself engaged in activities and conversations that you’ve never experienced before. You even find yourself talking about subjects that you’ve managed to avoid for years or perhaps even for the whole of your life. And, before you know it, you find yourself outside of your comfort zone.
At the same time, however, you also come upon a number of pleasant, unexpected experiences. You hear others paying you glowing compliments and even showering you with accolades. These occurrences, as enjoyable as they are, however, don’t seem to mesh with the other incidents, making you question the disparity, as well as how genuinely deserving you are of the honors being bestowed upon you.
The longer this goes on, the more you come to realize that you’re not in Kansas any more (or, for the protagonist in this story, Mexico). But where exactly are you? That’s the conundrum to be resolved here.
Such are the puzzling circumstances being faced by Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho). The respected, late middle-aged journalist and documentary filmmaker is trying to figure out what’s unfolding around him. The Mexican-born broadcaster and auteur has been living in Los Angeles for years after making a name for himself while living south of the border. Once he amassed a bundle of notoriety, however, he headed north with his family to cash in on his marketability, both in terms of the financial and artistic opportunities it afforded him. And cash in he did, taking on a plethora of projects that essentially turned him into a workaholic, a choice that brought him considerable recognition but at a high cost.
As Silverio’s story opens, though, he’s away from his adopted California home, paying a visit to Mexico City, a place he hadn’t visited in years. While there, he has encounters with former colleagues like Carlos (Hugo Albores), Luis (Francisco Rubio) and Hortensia (Clementina Guadarrama), reunions that don’t quite go as planned. He even has some surreal experiences, such as a visit to the city’s historic Chapultepec Castle, a strange occurrence in which past and present appear to collide, leaving the bewildered protagonist and his baffled companion, the US Ambassador to Mexico (Jay O. Sanders), in stunned disbelief.
Silverio next finds himself experiencing what appear to be memories but as viewed from the perspective of his current age. He relives a series of events with his wife, Lucía (Griselda Siciliani), including moments of tenderness, eroticism and disguised tragedy. He engages in a series of conversations with his son, Lorenzo, first as a child (Jerónimo Guerra) and then as a young adult (Iker Solano), discussions that start out pleasant enough but take unexpected left turns, particularly when the talks veer into sociopolitical topics and matters of nationalistic pride. And then there’s the birth of his firstborn, Mateo, a sickly infant who somehow communicates with his mother’s obstetrician that he wants to crawl back into the womb and forego living in the real world, given all its problems, a comically depicted incident that symbolically conceals a darker truth that Silverio has apparently been unable to address.
Silverio’s personal memories are augmented by a review of his highly praised professional accomplishments, such as documentaries about the desperate exodus of migrants travelling northward to seek new opportunities in the US and a profile of an incarcerated drug lord (Noé Hernández) known for his savagery. It raises uneasy feelings for him, especially when he ruminates on the privileged opportunities he’s had in comparison to the lack thereof for most of his fellow countrymen. It also makes him wonder how much he can truly appreciate and adequately depict their experiences given how far removed he has been from them and what they have had to endure. Feelings of hypocrisy creep into his thinking, especially in light of how much he has been applauded by peers and gringos who can’t begin to realistically relate to the experiences of the average Mexican.
Such thoughts emerge in Silverio’s consciousness as he prepares to receive an award from an esteemed American journalism organization, the first foreign-born correspondent to be so honored. Part of him has to wonder whether he’s genuinely worthy of this distinction or whether it’s a move aimed at easing tensions related to US-Mexico immigration policies. In any event, the award presentation is celebrated at a huge, lavish party where Silverio is honored with all of his family members, including Lucía, Lorenzo and the daughter he adores, Camila (Ximena Lamadrid). However, the celebration proves to be a bittersweet affair, one where he’s sufficiently feted by many of his professional colleagues (mostly Americans) and berated by others, such as Luis, who essentially accuses him of being a sell-out to the Mexican journalism community.
Despite the mixed signals Silverio receives from peers, he takes great personal comfort from his family members, who revel in his success and accolades. He even has an opportunity to divert his attention away from the formal festivities to one of a more intimate nature, an encounter with his late father (Luis Couturier). Papá expresses his profound pride in his son’s accomplishments, a moment that’s expressed surrealistically where an adult Silverio is depicted with the stature of a young boy, a symbolic reflection of the nature of his relationship with his dad. A comparably loving encounter with his mother (Luz Jiménez) follows, one that takes him away from the party and gives him pause to start putting together the diversity of experiences he has had thus far.
Additional unusual experiences follow, including a dark, unsettling surrealistic journey to the movie set where Silverio was making a documentary about conquistador Hernan Cortes (Ivan Massagué), a family vacation to Baja California (which, by the way, Amazon has been seeking to purchase, a breaking news story that’s reported on routinely throughout the film), and a return to Los Angeles where an obviously tired Silverio seeks to resume his life and meditate on everything he’s been through of late.
But what does it all mean? Given the far-reaching introspection Silverio has just gone through and the extraordinarily fantastic events he witnessed and experienced, this was far from what one encounters in everyday life. It’s as if he was reliving his life, reviewing it for what it has been, what he might have done differently and who he really is – not what the public, publicists and the world at large say and think about him. If this sounds like something not of this world – especially when it explodes with visions and apparitions none of us typically encounter – you’d be right. And, if you’re wondering where that is, you need only look as far as the film’s title, “Bardo,” the world between worlds that many schools of Buddhist thought maintain we “visit” after passing from the physical plane.
Some might contend that revelation is a spoiler, but that’s an inflated characterization in my view. As noted above, one need only look at the title of the film to see what it’s all about (and, for those who are unfamiliar with the concept of the Bardo, a quick internet search will reveal the answer quickly enough). The more crucial issue at stake here is what do we do with what comes out of a Bardo experience? That’s what Silverio needs to figure out for himself in the wake of what he’s gone through, something that all of us must do after having our own Bardo experiences (or their equivalents as expressed in other spiritual traditions). Of course, determining that we’re having such an experience in the first place is the initial crucial step in this process. It’s something we must all go through in order for the experience to sufficiently grab our attention so that we can focus on and learn from it. Whether we call this process a Bardo experience or a “life review” or whatever other term best suits us, the principle is essentially the same in each case. And that’s what Silverio is now finding out for himself here. The big question, of course, is what will he do with the knowledge he gains from the experience – and takes with him as he moves on to whatever comes next.
Based on what appears on screen, it’s obvious that Silverio’s time in the Bardo is a highly personalized experience. But, then, that really shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that his experience there (like the ones that any of us would undergo when in such a state of existence) is a review of the highly particularized life he has just lived, a customized reality that manifested through the power of his own individual beliefs, thanks to the conscious creation process. Because this philosophy maintains that we create our world through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents – something that many of us may not readily recognize due to a lack of fundamental awareness of this school of thought – our journey to the world between worlds provides us with a chance to examine, review and assess what we materialized during the earthly existence we just departed. It truly is a life review with an opportunity to learn valuable life lessons at which we may or may not have succeeded while we were still in corporeal form.
But why is Silverio so seemingly confused by what he’s experiencing (at least initially)? There could be a number of reasons. The familiarity of the environment he finds himself in may be so strongly compelling that he might believe he’s still experiencing the physical existence from whence he just came. It’s only when anomalies begin to appear – the surrealistic images, the nonlinear timeline, the examination of issues he rarely if ever contemplated while in physical form – that he begins to suspect that something’s up, nudging him toward considering alternate explanations for what’s transpiring around him.
It should be noted that he’s probably not alone in this, either; many of us may have comparable experiences. This is driven in part by our lack of familiarity with the conscious creation process. Moreover, many of us may have allowed ourselves to have our beliefs conditioned about what to expect after death, frequently a product of religious doctrine. We may have thoroughly convinced ourselves that our afterlife experiences follow circumscribed cookie cutter patterns that we all undergo. But, if the purpose of a life review is to explore the existence we just experienced – one that’s different for each of us based on the beliefs we used to create it – is it realistic to expect that this process of assessment will be identical for all of us? It’s thus easy to see how we might easily become confused when our experience doesn’t jibe with our expectations.
However, if we follow Silverio’s lead, the answers should begin coming to us as we make our way through the experience. When our time in the Bardo begins to mirror where we came from (but in a more candid, more exaggerated form), we’re more likely to piece the puzzle together, just as Silverio does. In many regards, what we experience in the Bardo parallels what we went through in terrestrial existence, but, because the rules of manifestation operate with greater ease, speed and authenticity here than on the physical plane, we begin to see things with greater clarity. We have an opportunity to witness our true selves (and the authentic underlying nature of the life we just lived) with a heightened sense of transparency and lucidity. With the obscuring influence of camouflage now stripped away – an often-hindering force that clouds our beliefs and impacts a true understanding of our existence – we see things through a new set of eyes.
One of the potentially more difficult tasks we might face under these conditions has to do with the matter of judgment. Many of us may be quite surprised when we find that this is yet another afterlife expectation that’s different from what we had allowed ourselves to believe. When we learn that the responsibility for this is placed in our hands, we may be perplexed and overwhelmed. It’s clearly something that Silverio wrestles with as he looks back on his life. For example, he was a good provider for his family, but was he truly an accessible, loving husband and father in light of his workaholic tendencies? Similarly, was he really the sell-out that some of his Mexican professional peers saw him to be? But did their arguably jaded perspective invalidate the heartfelt views of others, like his father, who were genuinely proud of everything he accomplished?
What’s one to make of such seemingly contradictory assessments? Does this mean Silverio would have to repeat certain lessons in his next life to get them “right”? Or did the experiences he had actually live up to what he had intended to go through before incarnating? How does one adequately judge success or failure in circumstances like that? Is that not potentially ambiguous? And what do we do with that information as we prepare to move on to what’s to follow?
These are the kinds of thorny questions that “Bardo” raises, and answers aren’t readily forthcoming. Perhaps that’s because there are no pat, one-size-fits-all resolutions for addressing issues like this, something that many of us may never reflect upon to any significant degree. However, for those of us who are getting on in years, such considerations may cross our minds more readily, and, with the finish line in sight, we may be more tempted to want to prepare ourselves for such an impending eventuality.
“Bardo” is handily the most personal, introspective film that writer-director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has ever made. Perhaps that’s because he ultimately treats the Bardo more as a state of mind than a place, despite the similarity if its earth-like appearance and elements. Through this cinematic vehicle, he delves into a wealth of reflective, heady subjects not unlike those addressed in some of his earlier works, such as “21 Grams” (2003), “Biutiful” (2010) and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014), as well as similarly themed releases made by other filmmakers, such as Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” (1979), Federico Fellini’s “8½” (1963) and Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980). It’s also the most flamboyant offering Iñárritu has ever tackled, but that’s not surprising, given that he has a history of making flashy, unconventional movies. And, because of that, it’s easy to see how this release has come to be characterized as a less-than-subtle cinematic autobiography, one that, because of its outrageous nature, has prompted some critics and viewers to label it a self-indulgent vanity project.
But is that an inherently bad thing, especially if it gets us thinking? He uses his signature filmmaking style, storytelling approach and singular worldview to examine subjects like personal integrity; relationships with family, friends, colleagues and significant others; regrets and accomplishments; fulfilling one’s potential; and what one might have done differently. In this outing, he takes these familiar themes and their treatment and puts them on steroids, but what better way is there to tackle subjects like these in a setting as innately open-ended and unconstrained as the Bardo? The result is an eye-opening experience for characters and viewers alike.
Admittedly, the picture’s 2:39:00 runtime could have used some judicious pruning (its length having already been scaled back from its even more protracted director’s cut version). That’s especially true for much of the picture’s first hour, which could have been trimmed significantly without losing much (had the director done so, I probably would have given this release an even more glowing recommendation). But, once this release finds its stride, it truly takes off as a great piece of cinema – one that’s inventive, gorgeous to look at and well-acted and that has something to say to boot. What more could a movie lover ask for? Iñárritu really is in his element here, at least for much of the final 90+ minutes, and that’s more than good enough for me. Even though this offering probably won’t appeal to everyone, I’d certainly love to see moviegoers give this one a fair shot. The film is currently playing in limited theatrical release and will be headed to online streaming in the near future.
It’s been said that we’re all on our way to someplace else, an uplifting, inspiring prospect that often fills us with anticipation. But, if we truly want to be ready for the journey, we have to be prepared for it, and that often means learning and reviewing our life lessons, teachings that can prove valuable for embarking on such odysseys. And what better way to groom ourselves than to conduct the kinds of assessments we partake in during our stays in the Bardo? Some may see these as way station experiences; others may view them as jumping off points; and others still may consider them to be launching pads. However we look upon them, though, they make it possible for us to take flight, to take that courageous step into our future – and the destiny that awaits us.
Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.