Monday, September 25, 2023

Haunts of the Past on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday September 26, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Podchaser, Audible, Deezer, Podcast Addict and Jiosaavn.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Our Father, the Devil," "Concerned Citizen" and "On the Bridge" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Overcoming Prejudice on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday September 12, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Podchaser, Audible, Deezer, Podcast Addict and Jiosaavn.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

‘Concerned Citizen’ urges us to seriously consider our social values

“Concerned Citizen” (“Ezrah Mudag”) (2022 production, 2023 release). Cast: Shlomi Bertonov, Ariel Wolf, Lena Fraifeld, Uriah Jablonowsky, Yshelu Gebremkiel, Ilan Hazan, Flora Bloch, Idan Hubel, Or Butbel, Yaeli Rozenblit, Aram Rabinovitch, Shahaf Ifhar, Meni Rapoprt, Ofer Amram. Director: Idan Haguel. Screenplay: Idan Haguel. Web site. Trailer.

Do we always believe what we think we believe? That’s a good question, especially when we consider all of the implications involved. It certainly affects who we are, how we see ourselves and how we live our lives. But the ramifications carry wider considerations, too, such as our social values and how authentically we live up to them. Indeed, do we always practice what we preach? Or do we sometimes unconsciously slip into attitudes and outlooks that not only contradict our supposed views, but that may also shock others – and ourselves – with their mere utterances? That can be quite a startling experience, as illustrated in the new Israeli satire, “Concerned Citizen” (“Ezrah Mudag”).

For Ben (Shlomi Bertonov) and Raz (Ariel Wolf), a happily partnered, upwardly mobile Israeli gay couple, life seems pretty good. They live in a smartly appointed, perfectly coordinated, neatly organized apartment on the south side of Tel Aviv, a unit they picked up at a good price given that the neighborhood is in the process of transitioning from a rundown relic to a gentrified enclave. Granted this transformation is in its early stages, still troubled by its share of crime, bad influences and unruly locals. But Ben and Raz know they’ll eventually turn a tidy profit from their investment as the neighborhood is “discovered” and property values rise, an aspiration for which they’re not the least bit embarrassed or ashamed. In the meantime, they take tremendous self-satisfied pride in being good, civically minded residents, especially when it comes to being part of helping to upgrade a multicultural community made up of occupants from an array of ethnic and economic backgrounds. They also believe that this diverse demographic makeup will have a positive impact on the child they’re about to have with the aid of a surrogate, exposing their young one to a range of influences and helping to build tolerance and acceptance at an early, impressionable age.

There’s just one problem with this supposedly progressive attitude: It’s unclear how much the couple truly believes in what they’re saying or whether it’s just politically correct lip service. For starters, while Ben and Raz anticipate rising property values as the neighborhood transitions, just how much of the multicultural diversity that they so proudly brag about will be maintained in light of such a fundamental change? How realistic is it to believe that the low-income immigrant residents from places like Eritrea will continue to be able to afford living there? And what will happen to those supposedly good influences that they hope will rub off on their child?

But this issue doesn’t stop there, especially where Ben is concerned. He incessantly boasts about the many expressions of his modern, broadminded outlook, right down to the fact that he’s proudly serving as the sperm donor for the impending conception of the couple’s child. He further demonstrates his supposedly selfless civic mindedness by planting a young tree in a bare patch of soil adjacent to the streetscape outside his apartment building. He again takes great pride for his contribution, doing his part to make the neighborhood a more aesthetically pleasing place.

Israeli gay couple Raz (Ariel Wolf, left) and Ben (Shlomi Bertonov, right) live what seems like a pleasant life in a gentrifying neighborhood of Tel Aviv, but is it everything they hoped for? That’s a question addressed in the biting new satire about White privilege, “Concerned Citizen” (“Ezrah Mudag”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures.

However, Ben’s spirit of good citizenship gets carried a little too far when he starts obsessing over his altruistic addition to the public landscape. So, one evening, while in his apartment, he witnesses a pair of local African teens leaning against his fragile sapling, prodding him to go outside and have a talk with them about their wholly inconsiderate behavior. Their somewhat indifferent response, in turn, prompts him to return inside and call authorities about the incident. And, before long, from the comfort of his residence, Ben watches in shock as a pair of cops comes along, brutally beating one of the alleged perpetrators for a crime of unmitigated, first degree leaning.

Ben is devastated by what he witnesses, but he’s not sure how to respond. The actions of the police go too far in his view, but what is he to do? He’s suddenly torn about his own supposedly liberal views. Has he been walking his talk all along, or has he been engaging in the aforementioned lip service? Do his actions at protecting his precious little tree represent a form of inherent White privilege that he hasn’t recognized or wanted to own up to about himself? And is he now feeling guilt and remorse in response to what happened when he acted upon feelings that he thought he didn’t possess?

Ben consequently experiences an existential crisis that expresses itself in myriad forms. He’s forced into asking himself some difficult questions, facing some troubling truths and examining some hard choices. For instance, in light of the police brutality, can he bring himself to notify officials responsible for investigating such incidents? But, if that were the case, wouldn’t that mean he’d have to admit calling authorities in advance of the attack, something that he as a supposed progressive would like to keep under wraps?

Then there’s the need to examine his reaction (or overreaction) to the teens’ behavior when they were leaning on his tree. Was it really such a bad thing? And is it symptomatic of another dirty little secret he’d like to keep buried – that he’s bought into his sense of White privilege more than he’d actually like to admit? After all, there are a number of scenes in the film where he’s seen speaking with neighbors and friends (Lena Fraifeld, Uriah Jablonowsky, Idan Hubel) about some of the “distasteful” and “troubling” activities going on in the neighborhood, such as crime, homelessness and the careless depositing of undisposed human excrement on the floor of his building’s lobby. He wonders whether he’ll be able to put up with such behavior for the long term, especially once he’s ready to start raising a child there (the alleged benefits of multicultural diversity notwithstanding). It’s a realization that even prompts him to consult a real estate agent (Or Butbul) about selling his apartment – without telling Raz.

Needless to say, such developments start putting a strain on Ben’s relationship, but answers continue to elude him, even in sessions with his therapist (Ilan Hazan). But, such indecisiveness aside, Ben feels he has to do something, like look for ways to practice what he’s been preaching all along. That thinking surfaces, for example, when visiting the gym one day, where he verbally (and nearly physically) takes on an arrogant, prejudiced bigot (Aram Rabinovitch) who repeatedly berates an African locker room attendant with unrelenting racial slurs. But do such chivalrous acts genuinely make up for what happened, what Ben didn’t do and who he really is?

A desire for creating surroundings that are nice, tidy and pleasant is certainly laudable, but what if that drive for pristine perfection goes south, with the emergence of unexpected circumstances and consequences that seriously undercut such intentions? This examination of gentrification and what’s really behind it certainly opens the eyes of both characters and viewers alike. The picture doesn’t intrinsically judge the practice of neighborhood transition, but it certainly forces us to look at the effects of it and the causes that brought them on in the first place. And, because of that, we might come away from it not liking what we see. It’s something to think about the next time a real estate deal one can’t refuse comes along.

When neighborhood teens threaten the well-being of a sapling planted by civically minded resident Ben (Shlomi Bertonov, right), the incident sets off a firestorm and existential crisis for all concerned, as seen in writer-director Idan Haguel’s latest, “Concerned Citizen” (“Ezrah Mudag”), available for streaming online. Photo © Idan Haguel, © Guy Sahaf, courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

Ben’s situation presents an intriguing case study about what we genuinely believe. Our beliefs are powerful and persistent forces that can yield formidable outcomes. But they can also lead us down some dubious rabbit holes; their power and persistence can be so strong that they might thoroughly convince us that we actually believe what we think we believe but that, in fact, we don’t. To many of us, that might sound like a contradiction in terms – how can we believe in what we don’t believe? But the reality in a case like this is that we sincerely hold a false belief to be true, ignoring our awareness to the contrary (denial being more than a river in Egypt). Ben genuinely believes that he’s a liberal, selfless, progressively minded soul when, in actuality, he adheres to prejudices and conservative tendencies that he’d rather not recognize in himself. When confronted with that realization, he’d likely deny it, appalled with himself over such intrinsically flagrant hypocrisy, shocked and angered that he’d even consider holding such a belief. And, to make matters worse, there’s the “what would other people think” consideration that would no doubt weigh heavily on his head, particularly in his relations with his supposed kindreds and as a member of the presumably enlightened LGBTQ+ community.

So how does such a conundrum arise? It’s a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our thoughts, beliefs and intents shape the reality we experience, for better or worse. No one can say for certain how many of us are aware of or buy into such thinking, but, when we look at what emerges out of our consciousness and into physical existence, it’s difficult to deny a connection between the two.

It might seem a little strange that Ben secretly believes in things that he might otherwise readily deny, yet, as his experience illustrates, that’s clearly the case, whether or not he’s willing to admit it. But, if that’s indeed true, where did this enigmatic puzzle come from in the first place?

There could be several answers for this. For instance, Ben’s unacknowledged prejudices could well have developed in his youth, swayed by the thinking of those around him, such as older relatives or authority figures, ideas that he quietly but nevertheless subsequently embraced as his own. In doing so, he merely adopted them without thinking or questioning their appropriateness, tucking them away into his subconscious. Some might even say that these beliefs are part and parcel of White privilege, a likely product of his ethnic and socioeconomic upbringing. Granted, as he got older and learned about other perspectives, he may have gone along with those new notions but without having erased the old tapes in his mind when doing so. As a result, those old beliefs continued to hang around, not disappearing into oblivion and despite not having been tapped into for quite some time. But, as noted before, beliefs can be powerful and persistent forces, remaining quietly in place, even when we’ve thought they were gone.

Likewise, peer pressure to embrace new beliefs later in life may truly seem to have been strong enough to override whatever outmoded notions may have long been present, but that doesn’t guarantee such group think is sufficient to accomplish this. And that, in turn, is what accounts for the conundrum of seemingly disbelieving the old beliefs while still holding on to them. In this context, the new beliefs could be seen as something to pave over the old ones. But, no matter how much new metaphysical asphalt is applied, the underlying roadbed is still in place. Ben may freely agree outwardly with his open-minded peers, but deep down does he really believe what he’s saying? In a sense, this could be comparable to saying how much he, too, admires the emperor’s new outfit.

When a seemingly minor incident gets blown out of proportion, Tel Aviv resident Ben (Shlomi Bertonov) gets thrown into a crisis that prompts him to question himself and his values, as seen in writer-director Idan Haguel’s latest offering, “Concerned Citizen” (“Ezrah Mudag”), available for streaming online. Photo © Idan Haguel, © Guy Sahaf, courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

So how does one escape a situation like this? As far as Ben is concerned, he needs to be shocked into the realization of what his beliefs really are, particularly the inherent contradiction in what he claims to believe and what he actually does believe. And that often calls for the manifestation of some kind of eye-opening experience – in this case, the incident of police brutality and the role he played in bringing it about. Would Ben willingly seek to manifest something like that? Probably not. But might he unwittingly do so to expose the belief conflict residing in his consciousness, particularly in light of the many impending ramifications upcoming in his life? That, it seems, might be plausible.

If we genuinely wish to invoke meaningful, heartfelt change in our lives, sometimes we have to stir things up in our consciousness. That means undergoing experiences in which we seek to shake ourselves out of our own complacency, especially when it comes to our beliefs, given the central role they play in manifesting the reality we experience. And an incident like the one Ben experiences in which he subjects himself to an existential awakening is a good example of what this is all about.

Admittedly, getting used to a new outlook may take some doing. Given the newness of it all, there may be some missteps along the way (like not informing your partner that you’ve taken steps to sell your home to flee your circumstances), and there’s always the possibility of overcompensation (like nearly coming to blows with a bigot over his openly professed racial views). But these gaffes indicate that progress is being made toward rewriting one’s beliefs and letting go of those that no longer work. But, hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Tel Aviv nor one’s consciousness.

The important thing in all this is that at least there’s an attempt to examine what’s in place, what needs to change and the steps we can take to rectify matters. We might not even get things right in the attempt (or in multiple attempts, as anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or quit smoking can attest). However, it’s the effort that counts, and, for all his foibles, Ben appears to be trying his hand at it. Even if he’s not perfect at it, at least give the guy some credit already.

While the story in “Concerned Citizen” is somewhat light on plot, this wry satire nevertheless subtly but effectively addresses issues related to one’s personal character, authenticity and sense of integrity. True, writer-director Idan Haguel’s third feature outing probably could have benefitted from a more developed narrative, but its incisive look at what we say and what we actually do gives even the most self-righteous among us much to ponder, especially when it comes to walking our talk. We can learn a lot from the well-considered reflection this offering inspires, providing us a spot-on look at a question that we should all take seriously from time to time. The film is available for streaming online.

Nobody’s perfect, but those who claim to be should be careful what they say and do, especially when their acts and deeds go against what they profess. The old adage about actions speaking louder than words can seriously come back to haunt them when the two don’t align, as Ben comes to discover for himself in this in-your-face tale of comeuppance. If we’re certain our words and actions back up our beliefs, then we can rest assured we’re standing on solid ground. However, if the foundation beneath us is even the least bit rickety, we could be in for a very hard fall. And that’s something we should all be concerned about.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

‘On the Bridge’ explores the transition from life to death and beyond

“On the Bridge” (“Sur le Pont”) (2022). Directors: Samuel Guillaume and Frédéric Guillaume. Web site. Trailer.

What happens after we die? Indeed, as we transition from this world to whatever comes next, what can we truly expect? That’s arguably the most profound – and most mysterious – question that we ask ourselves during our lifetimes. And the only definitive way to know for sure is to actually go through the experience. Nevertheless, that’s not to stop us from speculating about what could occur, an undertaking explored with eloquence, grace and beauty as seen in the captivating animated Swiss documentary, “On the Bridge” (“Sur le Pont”).

In 2015-16, directors Samuel and Frédéric Guillaume launched an effort to examine this very question. They interviewed 113 seniors who were nearing the end of their lives, all of them in palliative care or living at home at the time. The filmmakers selected 1,400 extracts from those conversations, totaling 11 hours of material that was eventually edited down to a little over an hour of stunningly gorgeous animation of the interview subjects’ visions about what could lie ahead for them.

In essence, a group of individuals at a remote train station await a mysterious outbound departure to an unknown destination. The station is largely empty, yet the space has a palpable air of anxious foreboding about it. Nevertheless, the passengers all seem quietly reconciled to their circumstances, despite the inherent uncertainty. Before long, they board the outgoing train, each settling into their quarters or in the various common areas. And, as they do so, they begin to express their thoughts and feelings about this experience, recorded observations drawn from the aforementioned interviews. Some try to understand why they’re here; others talk about their hopes, fears and visions, with some sharing memories about their lives. But no one really knows where he or she is headed on this mysterious journey until they reach what appears to be their mutual destination – a suspension bridge over a river, one presumably spanning heaven and earth.

Upon reaching the bridge, however, their goal still remains unclear – what are they supposed to do now that they’ve arrived at this place, especially when the train inexplicably stops halfway across the span? Are they supposed to make their way to the other side? And, if so, what awaits them there? But how are they supposed to accomplish this task when there’s no way to safely exit the train and walk across the tracks? That’s a prospect made even more difficult when the trestles begin to weaken and falter as the bridge starts to collapse, eventually falling into the river below. So what’s next?

A mysterious train pulls out from a remote station toward an unknown destination, as depicted in the animated Swiss documentary, “On the Bridge” (“Sur le Pont”). Image courtesy of cine3d.

As events further unfold, the passengers who started out on this journey together each find themselves in different locales, all of them vibrantly beautiful, even if each is different in character and appearance. But where exactly are they? Is this “heaven”? If so, why aren’t the various venues the same? Could it be that heaven is a relative place? And, if so, how did that happen?

Although the film is built on real testimonies, the project is purely fictional, even if the various impressions depicted here are the products of each individual’s personal conjectures about what awaits them. The filmmakers made it possible for the interview subjects to freely express their feelings (regardless of how truthful, sincere or lucid they were at the time of their conversations) by portraying them here with anonymous animated doubles. And, even though all of the seniors have since passed on, their insights remain in this cinematic record, giving us all food for thought on a question related to the only common fate we all share.

So what accounts for each passenger’s different experience of what happens during this transitionary event? Well, quite simply, it comes down to their individual expectations, and those expectations are driven by what they believe will happen at that time. And that’s important to recognize, given that our beliefs determine what materializes in our existence, a result of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our reality is a product of those intangible resources. It’s unclear how many of us are aware of this thinking, but, considering how faithfully our experiences appear to parallel those underlying influences, it only stands to reason that there must be some kind of correlation between the two.

Passengers aboard a train to points unknown share their hopes, fears, visions and memories about life and what may lie ahead for them in the animated Swiss documentary, “On the Bridge” (“Sur le Pont”). Image courtesy of cine3d.

If the foregoing is indeed as true as it seems to be, then, doesn’t it seem likely that the same principle that underlie the manifestation of physical reality would also apply to the creation of any form of existence, including one that constitutes the afterlife? After all, if our consciousness is a common element of both forms of reality, then wouldn’t the components that constitute it – our beliefs – be present in both realms as well? And, by extension, wouldn’t their function also be the same in both cases – the materialization of the ensuing reality? And, going one step further, if our individual beliefs each manifest the existence we experience, wouldn’t it make sense that each of those realities would be separate and distinct from one another, tailored to what we believe, whether we’re talking about the earthly or heavenly planes? (Seems like a reasonable enough assumption to me.)

As this film illustrates, that’s what would account for one individual believing that the afterlife is a beautiful seashore with a gorgeous white sand beach, while, for someone else, it’s a stunning mountain peak. Both are conceivable forms of a heavenly existence, even if their appearances differ widely; they just happen to be tailored to accommodate the beliefs, expectations, impressions and desires of those materializing them. In that sense, one could say, “Now that’s heaven!”

Given how the manifestation process works, it’s not surprising that each iteration is separate, distinct and different considering one of the key principles that underlies this philosophy – the idea that everything is in a constant state of becoming. Like the ever-changing patterns that appear in a glass kaleidoscope, the same is true in the creation of the reality we experience, regardless of which plane of existence on which it occurs. That notion would, in turn, seem to verify the widely held contention that variety is indeed the spice of life (or existence), regardless of where it unfolds. This film offers further evidence of that.

Is life a beach in the afterlife? It could be, at least for some of us, as seen in the animated Swiss documentary, “On the Bridge” (“Sur le Pont”). Image courtesy of cine3d.

The picture’s use of the train as an image for illustrating that concept is a perfect metaphor, too. A train travels down a particular set of tracks, an apt symbol of a specific line of probability, just one of an infinite number present in the universal pool of possibilities. As the passengers aboard the train here travel down those tracks, they’re each headed down a particular line of probability, one governed by their respective manifestation beliefs. It’s a perfect way to depict how these events play out, and it’s one that’s been used both visually and verbally in a variety of other narratives, from movies like “Defending Your Life” (1991) and “Stardust Memories” (1980) to television shows like The Golden Girls to the musings of departed loved ones recorded in alleged after-death journals. Indeed, punching our ticket could prove to be a notion that’s almost as literal as it is figurative.

If we understand this process as thoroughly as it’s depicted here, we might assume that such an awareness could help us to be more proficient at putting it to use when the time comes, aiding us in manifesting an afterlife experience that comes closest to achieving what we hope for. That, in essence, could be seen as a way to more effectively live out our destiny. And, in light of that, what better way would there be to make our transition to the next step than that? Talk about traveling in comfort and style!

Even though the filmmakers contend that this production is a purely fictional exercise, it’s fascinating to note how many of its principles are readily reflected in many of the world’s spiritual, religious, philosophical and metaphysical texts. Indeed, if these principles come up as often as they appear to and this film faithfully echoes them, then maybe there’s something to them – and worth listening to. After all, who would want to squander an opportunity like this, especially when it offers us the chance to attain for ourselves exactly what we want? Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Reaching for the summit is one of many prospective impressions about what awaits us in the afterlife, as seen in the animated Swiss documentary, “On the Bridge” (“Sur le Pont”). Image courtesy of cine3d.

What exactly happens at the end of life? As we transition from this world to whatever comes next, what can we realistically expect? And how long does the process take – if time even means anything at that point? That’s what this insightful and fascinating animated documentary seeks to capture, combining the insights and speculation of individuals at the end of life. Their observations span the spectrum of topics, with moods ranging from ennui to hope to humor as they envision what’s ahead and how it will come into being during their fateful train ride. All of this is presented through stunningly gorgeous animation backed by an ethereal score and, of course, the narrated reflections of the wayfarers making their final pilgrimages. Directors Samuel and Frédéric Guillaume have created a beautifully moving, eminently enlightening work that’s positively striking to look at. This is essential viewing for anyone who wonders what comes at the end of the line and how to properly prepare for it. If you’re not profoundly touched by this offering, I don’t know what will.

Unfortunately, this film is somewhat difficult – though not impossible – to find, having largely played the festival circuit. However, in an effort to make their work more widely available, the filmmakers have augmented the project in book form published by Faim de Siècle editions. Besides providing additional insights on the subject, the printed version provides readers with access to the film and its bonus features via a QR code. Author Josiane Haas and illustrator Frédéric Guillaume give the floor to men and women who rub shoulders with death on a daily basis, including a former cemetery gardener, a housekeeper in palliative care, an embalmer, a theater actor and a funeral photographer. The book is thus a living collection of insights into the subject matter in a way that, ironically, brings it to life in a rich and colorful way. The book is available in bookstores and on the publisher’s website.

The end eventually comes for all of us, at least in our present forms. But that’s not the end of our eternal selves as we move on to new experiences and adventures, nearly all of which we won’t discover until we go through our respective transitions, whatever they may be. The forms those changes take are custom-made according to our beliefs as we cross that bridge that symbolically links us to who we are and what we’re about to become. And, if those transformations are anything like what’s depicted in this film, what an extraordinary time that will be.

Copyright © 2022-2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 8, 2023

‘Our Father, the Devil’ asks, ‘When is it too late to do the right thing?’

“Our Father, the Devil” (“Mon père, le diable”) (2021 production, 2023 release). Cast: Babetida Sodjo, Souleymane Sy Savane, Jennifer Tchiakpe, Franck Saurel, Martine Amisse, Maëlle Genet, Hiba el Aflahi, Valentin Fruitier, Maxence David, Patrice Tepasso. Director: Ellie Foumbi. Screenplay: Ellie Foumbi. Web site. Trailer.

It’s truly astounding how mankind is capable of both tremendous greatness and despicable savagery. How can one species lay claim to both? What’s more, how can both traits be found within a single individual? Yet, in a surprisingly large number of instances, that ends up being the case. So how are we supposed to treat someone known for works of beauty and compassion when they engage in pursuits that are of a completely opposing nature? Likewise, what’s to happen to an individual known for hatred and violence who somehow behaves surprisingly to the contrary? If we’re each indeed capable of acts at each end of the spectrum, which ultimately defines our character, and how are we to be regarded as a result? That’s a puzzling question raised in the insightful new dramatic character study, “Our Father, the Devil” (“Mon père, le diable”).

Marie Cisse (Babetida Sodjo) lives what appears to be a happy and contented life these days. The West African transplant works as the head chef at a senior citizens residence in the idyllic mountain community of Luchon in southwestern France. She enjoys her job and the company of her co-workers, most notably her fellow African colleague, Nadia (Jennifer Tchiakpe), with whom she engages in all manner of gal pal activities. And, to top it all off, she’s recently become the recipient of a cozy mountainside cabin with a stunning view, a generous gift from Jeanne (Martine Amisse), one of the facility’s residents and her former culinary mentor, who bequeaths it to Marie as a thank you for all of the good care (and delicious food) that she has given her. All in all, it makes for a truly pleasant existence.

That’s something new for Marie, though, given her deeply troubled past. As a refugee from Guinea, she managed to escape the atrocities and captivity of a ruthless warlord responsible for the brutal murders of entire villages, including those of her own family. She somehow managed to survive those heinous crimes, finally getting away after the monstrous strongman was himself killed. Yet, as much as she’s managed to put that behind her, there are still times when recollections of those painful days unexpectedly surface, prompting her to go into full-blown defensive mode, sometimes even as a result of small and insignificant events that pose no discernable threat other than reviving her memories.

One area in which Marie seems to have more than her share of apprehensions is in her dealings with men, especially when they try to get to know her, no matter how gentlemanly they may be. That’s most noticeable with a flirty but eminently courteous bartender, Arnaud (Franck Saurel), who works at the café where she often spends her free time. She routinely gives him the brush-off, despite his polite persistence and seemingly harmless efforts to befriend her. Marie even grows anxious with Nadia when she nudges her make the effort to go out and meet men. She’s a beautiful, young, available woman, yet she remains resolutely tight-lipped about the reasons behind her reticence.

In all, though, Marie has apparently adapted well considering what she endured. But that all changes one day when she arrives at work and hears a eerily familiar voice in an adjacent room. It strikes an unnerving chord with her, so she stealthily moves toward the source of her uneasiness and finds it in the personage of a newly arrived priest, Father Patrick (Souleymane Sy Savane), who’s understatedly delivering a homily to the residents. But what makes the revelation so chilling is that the cleric appears to be the second coming of Sogo, the guerilla who murdered Marie’s family and took her captive.

When Marie at last meets Father Patrick, she’s convinced that he’s the warlord who committed such terrible acts of barbarism. However, he, in turn, doesn’t appear to recognize her; either his reaction is truly sincere or he’s quite an actor. No matter what the case, though, Marie isn’t buying any of it. She researches the matter further online, reviewing photos that appear to verify her conclusion and prompting her to believe that reports of Sogo’s demise were in error, that he must have somehow faked his own death on his way to being reborn as the fraudulent Father Patrick.

African refugee Marie Cisse (Babetida Sodjo, foreground) is haunted by her past when a brutal warlord who tormented her and her family arrives at her workplace disguised as a priest, Father Patrick (Souleymane Sy Savane, background), in writer-director Ellie Foumbi’s superb debut feature, “Our Father, the Devil” (“Mon père, le diable”), now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Fandor.

Marie struggles to contain herself at work, but the terror induced by his reappearance frequently causes her to shake uncontrollably. Whenever she is in his presence, she seethes with anger, despite his apparent lack of a response to her mood. It soon becomes obvious that she’s nearing a breaking point. And, when the two of them are alone in the kitchen one evening after dinner, she makes her move – striking him with a pan, knocking him out and taking him back to her cottage as her prisoner.

With her captive bound and tied, Marie confronts him upon regaining consciousness. He insists that he’s not Sogo, that she’s making a terrible mistake. He pleads with her to let him go, but she’ll have none of it, especially when he periodically lapses out of character and lets clues to his true identity slip out. He continues to deny who he is, and, when that doesn’t work, he tries to win over Marie with a combination of tales of his godly self and sob stories about his troubled youth. And, when the going gets especially tough, he seeks to assuage his captor with confessions of his sins and efforts at seeking atonement after having successfully found Jesus.

In the meantime, Marie avails herself of this opportunity to exact retribution. She turns the tables on her onetime tormentor, inflicting upon him the same kinds of torture that she believes he perpetrated against her. In essence, she begins to become everything that he was, something at which she appears to be more adept than one might realistically think she should be. Indeed, exactly how did she become so seemingly uncharacteristically proficient at this sort of behavior? Under conditions like these, in which she insists he’ll burn in hell for what he did, couldn’t the same be said for her as she carries out her acts of apparently well-practiced vengeance?

As time goes by, however, Marie doesn’t appear to have an end game in place for this situation, despite what seem like threats (albeit empty ones) to the contrary. Indeed, how is she to extricate herself from this scenario? The heat soon gets turned up, too, when the local police begin inquiring about Father Patrick’s mysterious disappearance with the staff of the senior center, given that’s where he was last seen. The facility’s manager, Sabine (Maëlle Genet), subsequently instructs all of her employees to fully cooperate with authorities in their investigation, including questioning about what each of them might know. Needless to say, with that, the noose begins to tighten around Marie’s neck, but what is she to do? And, given how everything has unfolded thus far, how will all of this ultimately play out? Even Jesus might have difficulty figuring this one out, but, then, He just might have a role to play in its resolution, too.

In many respects, this scenario would appear to represent a no-win situation for everyone. But need it be? Can an equitable resolution be achieved? If true, though, how does one satisfactorily untangle such highly charged matters, especially given the staggering legal, moral and criminal implications involved? And these considerations apply not only to the evil warlord, but also to his victim and the retributive actions she’s carried out.

Under circumstances like these, many of us might readily say that Marie and Father Patrick/Sogo get whatever they deserve. And, considering what happened, those sentiments arguably have merit. But, at the risk of playing devil’s advocate (pun intended), is that the best response we can come up with? Is an eye for an eye the wisest course? It might make some of us feel as though justice has been done, but couldn’t it also be seen as appeasement for the vengeful? Is that what we really want to come out of this, especially among those of us seeking the creation of a better world or in invoking the name of spiritual teachers like Jesus, whose name is repeated frequently in this story? If that’s the case, then perhaps we need to employ a different, more unconventional approach.

Brutal African warlord Sogo (Souleymane Sy Savane), who now goes under the guise of soft-spoken priest Father Patrick in the French town of Luchon, runs up against his past when he’s reunited with a former victim who escaped his captivity in writer-director Ellie Foumbi’s excellent character study, “Our Father, the Devil” (“Mon père, le diable”), now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Fandor.

Doing this, however, may also require that we adopt different beliefs, including some that many of us may find hard to swallow. Notions like forgiveness and redemption come to mind, particularly when they’re accompanied by humility and atonement and backed by sincerity. These are ideas that many of us recognize as lofty, noble, praiseworthy concepts, but, in the face of everyday life and the transgressions that can be perpetrated against us, they’re often looked upon as philosophical principles that we don’t have the luxury of indulging in a practical sense. But is that really true? If so, then why have we devised such notions in the first place – as something genuinely attainable or as idealized conceptions that can never be realistically fulfilled?

If the foregoing views have sincerely been conceived of, then there must be some part of us that believes they’re achievable. And that’s important to consider, given that our beliefs play a vital role in the manifestation of our existence, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the materialization of our reality. Granted, the fulfillment of these ideals may not be easy (especially for those who have never heard of or embraced this way of thinking), but the mere fact that they exist within our consciousness suggests that their realization is indeed somehow possible. This is particularly true when we take into account the teachings of spiritual leaders like Jesus and others, who have attempted to enlighten us to the possibility of seeing these notions brought into being despite what the naysayers contend.

To be sure, giving credence to the value of notions like forgiveness, redemption and atonement requires us to stretch the thinking that many of us currently adhere to. Many of us have been long tied to beliefs that assert we should “do to them whatever they do to us.” But isn’t that locking us into a cycle from which escape is exceedingly difficult? Where is the space for personal growth, spiritual evolution and broadened enlightenment in a relentlessly intractable scenario like that? Think of where we’d be if we don’t make allowances for change like that. Is that what we truly want for ourselves down the road? And, if so, why do we even bother trying to improve upon ourselves if we can’t get past self-imposed impediments like this?

It must be noted, however, that situations like this are indeed two-way streets. Forgiveness and redemption of those who have wronged us mean little if there’s no heartfelt sense of atonement on the part of those who have engaged in these grievous acts. It’s hard to absolve evildoers who have no remorse for their misdeeds. But, for those who genuinely do, it’s equally unfair to continue blaming them for what they have sincerely admitted was wrong. If we fail to come through on that front, it amounts to nothing more than a case of “it’s not enough to apologize any more,” and goodness knows we see plenty of that phony self-righteousness going on in society and in the media these days.

Making outcomes like these possible thus requires us to become better at learning how to let go, how to leave behind what no longer serves us, like longstanding grudges. Again, this is something that is far from easy, given that we have long been taught – and have since long come to believe – that this is what we’re supposed to do in situations like this, with more egregious acts being made to bear more severe and more persistent resentment. However, if we’re indeed desirous of moving on to those more perfect worlds we’ve been told so much about, when are we going to make a concerted effort to change our ways to bring about that result? We certainly won’t do so by desperately hanging on with our sharpened claws extended, no matter what sense of satisfaction it might provide us in the short term.

If we continue to assert our aspirations to attain something higher for ourselves and our existence but do nothing in our beliefs, acts or deeds to achieve such an outcome, then we’re merely paying lip service to a hollow concept, no matter how much we might contend to the contrary. In light of that, then, if we sincerely want to see this dream fulfilled, at some point we have to swallow our pride, put our money where our mouth is and step up to make these objectives realized. If we don’t, we’ll never progress, and no amount of protesting that the devil made us do it will ever change things.

They say it’s never too late to do the right thing. But how far does that extend? Does it include atoning for the commission of heinous crimes? Or must one be perpetually forced to pay for those transgressions, even with the admission of heartfelt regret? Those are the heady questions raised in writer-director Ellie Foumbi’s brilliant debut feature, a gripping tale that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. The picture’s mutilayered narrative keeps viewers (and characters) guessing, almost as if both are being toyed with by the filmmaker, but this is carried out so skillfully that one can’t help but remain riveted. The story is effectively fleshed out by the film’s superb ensemble cast (especially the two leads), backed by inventive cinematography, exceedingly clever film editing, a fine background score, an array of subtly symbolic touches and a surprising amount of strategically placed, well-executed comic relief. Admittedly, there are some modest pacing issues in the middle, but they’re usually employed to set up one of the picture’s many smartly developed plot twists. This 2022-23 Independent Spirit Award nominee for best feature, as well as the recipient of many film festival award wins and nominations, is a well-kept cinematic secret that genuinely deserves wider attention, both as a thoughtful meditation and as an engaging drama. And, by all means, do not let the title scare you off! This is not a horror film per se, even though it deals with subjects that are in themselves horrific. “Our Father, the Devil” is an important, insightful offering not to be missed. The picture has primarily been playing the film festival circuit and is currently in limited theatrical release, but it’s well worth the effort to find it.

None of us is inherently all good or all bad. We may gravitate more toward the one than the other, but to label us as the embodiment of either attribute is grossly simplistic and patently unfair. Along our respective life paths, we each produce stupendous accomplishments and stunningly questionable, sometimes-egregiously appalling missteps. But are we always all of the one and none of the other? That seems like quite an overstatement in both directions. To that end, then, we need to be recognized – and treated – for who truly are: some of both. We should hope that we learn just as much about ourselves and the human condition from our errors as we do from our triumphs. And, if we absorb anything at all about any of that, we should hope that we grant others the same grace that they would bestow upon us under comparable circumstances. After all, in the end, it really never is too late to do the right thing, both for us and for others in our world.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Afire," "Blue Jean" and "Roise & Frank" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

‘Róise & Frank’ celebrates undying devotion

“Róise & Frank” (2022 production, 2023 release). Cast: Bríd Ní Neachtain, Cillian O’Gairbhi, Lorcan Cranitch, Ruadhán de Faoite, Michelle Beamish, Seán Mac Gearailt, Cormac Hennessy, Aonghus Og McAnally, Barley the dog. Directors: Rachael Moriarity and Peter Murphy. Screenplay: Rachael Moriarity and Peter Murphy. Web site. Trailer.

The loyalty, devotion and love of our four-legged canine friends is nearly always undeniable. They’re there when we need them, offering us compassion, empathy and lots of licks, the kinds of qualities and gestures that can lift our spirits and make our days a little more bearable, even under the worst of conditions. In fact, such treatment might easily lead us to believe that they’re something more than just furry, little tail-wagging companions, almost as if they’re angels in disguise. That point takes on more than a little relevance as seen in the charming new Irish romantic comedy-drama, “Róise & Frank.”

Life over the past year has been devastating for Róise (Bríd Ní Neachtain), an aging widow who lost her husband Frank after 40 years of marriage. Róise lives alone in the Waterford, Ireland bungalow she and Frank occupied throughout their years together. She’s had considerable difficulty overcoming her profound grief, despite half-hearted attempts at putting up a good front for others. She’s retreated from life, spending much of her time by herself and having abandoned most of her interests, like singing in a local choral group. She often feels as though things will never improve, basically giving up on life.

Róise’s depressed approach to living has others worried, such as her son, Alan (Cillian O’Gairbhi), a physician who struggles to balance the obligations of his career and as a new father while keeping tabs on mom. His patients who know Róise are concerned, too, frequently asking him how she’s doing, given that she’s largely vanished from their lives. That’s especially true for Róise’s neighbor, Donncha (Lorcan Cranitch), whose interest in her involves more than just her well-being now that she’s single again (even though dating and romance are some of the last things on her mind).

But circumstances change suddenly when an unexpected visitor shows up on her doorstep – a scruffy stray (Barley the dog) who seems to take an unusually strong interest in Róise. She’s initially annoyed by the pooch’s persistence in following her around and engaging in less-than-subtle attempts at ingratiating himself in her life. But Róise soon notices some unusual – and more than a little synchronistic – behavior patterns. For example, when the dog barges into the house, he makes a beeline for the easy chair in which Frank often parked himself. On another occasion, the dog intently scours Alan’s former bedroom to search for a ball that he used when he played in hurling matches, a sport that Frank positively loved. But the clincher comes when the dog bolts out of the house one day and heads straight to the cemetery in the local church yard, running directly to Frank’s grave, where he makes himself comfortable until Róise catches up with him.

When Róise puts all the pieces together, she comes to an astonishing conclusion: The dog is the reincarnation of her late husband. In Róise’s view, these unusual occurrences are just too coincidental to be interpreted any other way. But the cemetery incident seals it for her: When she thinks back to the time when Frank was on his death bed, she recalls the last thing he said to her – that, even though he was dying and moving on to a new plane of existence, their lives together were not over, that the relationship would continue, even if it didn’t take the same form that they had long been accustomed to. And, from her perspective, the dog’s sudden appearance and all of the synchronistic events that have since occurred undeniably confirm his final statement. She’s overjoyed at this prospect, one that significantly lifts her spirits. And she’s so convinced that she’s once again in the company of her beloved husband that she even starts calling the dog by his name, Frank.

When a stray dog (Barley, left) unexpectedly shows up on the doorstep of Róise (Bríd Ní Neachtain, right), a widow living alone, she becomes convinced through a series of uncanny synchronicities that the new arrival is the reincarnation of her late husband, as depicted in the new Irish romantic comedy-drama, “Róise & Frank.” Photo courtesy of Juno Films.

Before long, Róise begins to emerge from her protracted sorrow. Alan, Donncha and others are certainly pleased to see the change in her attitude. She even resumes the activities she abandoned, like rejoining the choral group. She also takes an interest in a young neighbor boy, Mikey (Ruadhán de Faoite), a sweet but somewhat geeky lad who longs to be a star hurler but lacks the skills to do so. However, with Frank’s help as an impromptu trainer, and backed by Róise’s zealous encouragement, Mikey soon develops into quite the talented little athlete, much to his peers’ stunned amazement.

Nevertheless, despite the positive reversal in Róise’s attitude, Alan, Donncha and others are concerned about her state of mind. They’re worried about her unshakable belief that the dog is the second coming of Frank. They can’t help but think that perhaps she’s becoming delusional, particularly given the depth of her conviction. They consider various options to urge her to give up this fantasy, some of which verge on interventional efforts. However, Róise remains steadfast in her beliefs, especially in light of what Frank’s presence has done for her and for Mikey. Frank has been a big help to them both, and she’s not ready to give up on that.

When gentle nudges to encourage Róise to change her mind don’t work, more drastic events begin to unfold to prompt her to abandon her “silly superstition.” Troubling circumstances arise where Frank’s safety, freedom and well-being are threatened, such as attempts by the neighborhood veterinarian to intrusively force Frank into getting chipped to comply with local dog ownership mandates. Given everything that Frank has done for her, Róise can’t help but return the favor, intervening on her partner’s behalf. But, when the two become separated, doubts surface about whether they’ll be reunited, conditions that throw matters into crisis at a time when things in Róise’s life had just begun to see an upturn. Will she and Frank get back together again, or is she doomed to return to the fate from which she just escaped? Or is another option possible? Indeed, Frank’s return was unexpected, so maybe there’s a chance that another such surprise might occur.

When Róise’s story opens, she’s clearly inconsolable. She obviously loved her husband dearly, and losing him was a tragedy greater than she’s been able to handle. She’s so caught up in her grief that she doesn’t know where to turn, a condition that seems to get reinforced with every passing day. And her belief in that circumstance only serves to sustain its unrelenting persistence. Yet, on some level, she also apparently, if quietly, holds out hope in the belief that her situation will somehow improve, even if she’s not fully aware of what that possibility might look like or how long it will take to bring about such a result.

When Frank (Barley) mysteriously shows up at the home of a long-grieving widow, he immediately bolts for the easy chair where her late husband typically sat, the first in a series of synchronicities that make her wonder who this unexpected stray really is, as seen in the latest offering from writer-directors Rachael Moriarity and Peter Murphy, “Róise & Frank,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Juno Films.

Róise’s conflicted beliefs would thus appear to have her locked into an irreconcilable existential stalemate. Yet, ironically, her beliefs could also provide the solution to extracting her from this problem. By skillfully drawing upon the power of her beliefs, she could deftly use them to resolve this seemingly insurmountable impasse. That’s because our thoughts, beliefs and intents play a central role in the manifestation of the existence we experience thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the materialization of our reality. It’s not clear how familiar Róise is with this school of thought, but, given how her story ultimately unfolds, it’s apparent that she has a reasonable, if not fully understood, grasp of some of its key principles and makes use of them in changing her destiny, even if she’s not entirely aware of doing so or of how to reach her destination.

Róise’s awareness of these notions emerges gradually, in carefully considered steps, through which she systematically puts the pieces together to arrive at a conclusion that falls into line with her most cherished, deeply held beliefs. That conclusion is largely based on her belief in the promise her husband made to her on his death bed – that their relationship was not at an end and would continue, even if not as expected. And, when she sees how that’s been fulfilled with her new house guest’s mystifying arrival, she sees how Frank her husband has indeed kept his word as Frank the dog.

Coming to this realization rests strongly on Róise’s recognition of all of the various components that went into the creation of this scenario. Perhaps the most significant of these is her keen ability to spot the synchronicities that pop up in her world after the dog’s arrival. She recognizes the meaningful significance of them, especially once they begin appearing regularly. She realizes that, collectively, they can’t be realistically chalked up to “coincidence” or random chance. She understands that these occurrences represent messages that are being sent to her so that she can see the larger pattern of which they’re a part. They thus constitute “clues” to help her recognize and understand what’s unfolding before her eyes. And they all point to Frank, be it in his current canine and formerly human incarnations, as part of keeping his promise.

What’s more, she recognizes that these synchronicities represent the fulfillment of her late husband’s promise with precise specificity. When he said that their relationship would continue after his passing, even if in a different form, events have indeed unfolded in line with that pronouncement. The disparity in the nature of Frank’s different incarnations couldn’t be more readily apparent once recognized, first as a man and then later as a dog. To Róise’s credit, she combines this distinctly singular piece of the puzzle with those connected to the numerous other synchronicities she’s been able to recognize, providing further confirmation of her belief in Frank agreeing to one day fulfill his promise. While Róise may have had to endure her share of emotional distress in reaching this point, she can take comfort now that her deeply held belief has been fully realized, even if not in the anticipated iteration.

Appreciating these realizations is important, not just for Róise but for all of us, because they illustrate how our existence is full of clues to help us understand how and why it materializes as it does. They truly are reflections of our beliefs, showing us how these intangible resources come to constitute the components of the reality we experience. More importantly, however, they help to make us aware that we’re the drivers of those beliefs – and, consequently, the nature of the existence around us, no matter what nature it may encompass, for better or worse.

Frank (Barley), a mysterious stray who ingratiates himself into the life of a long-suffering widow, proves to be a tremendous help in enlivening the lives of a number of people in need of assistance, as seen in the new Irish romantic comedy-drama, “Róise & Frank,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Juno Films.

Frank’s return also shows us how the elements of our existence can be helpful in many ways – and to many people – even if they assume an unlikely form. Given what we know about Frank’s human incarnation, he seems like he was a kind and loving person. And, in reincarnating, we see those qualities repeated, even amplified, in canine form. Not only does he help Róise get over her grief, but he’s also a guardian and protector for her when need be. He also extends his helping paw to Mikey, undoubtedly in much the same way he probably did with his son Alan when he was in human form. Now, as a dog, Frank thus plays (or continues to play) the roles of helper, teacher and caregiver, meeting the needs of those who require his assistance and further gaining experience at what his spirit does best, even if from a new perspective, one that’s just as driven by beliefs as when he was in human form.

While a tragedy may have been at the heart of what set this scenario in motion, it nevertheless manages to unfold in fulfilling and satisfying ways for all concerned. All of which goes to show that silver linings lurk where least expected. Uncovering those benefits may call upon us to take a discerning look at our existence, how we arrive at its manifestation and the role we play in that grand process, but doing so provides us with a greater understanding of reality, our place in it, and how we can derive the most from it for our personal and spiritual growth. Who knew that a cute little dog could do so much in helping us learn so much about the fundamental nature of our being.

How refreshing it is to watch a sweet, touching family film without it oozing enough sugary syrup to make even the most hardened stomach nauseous. Such is the case with this warm, loving, heartfelt tale from writer-directors Rachael Moriarity and Peter Murphy, one filled with a series of heart-tugging twists and turns that will positively leave viewers teary-eyed with joy. Despite a few predictable story elements, “Róise & Frank” nevertheless manages to delight in a natural, emotionally grounded way that never seems forced or artificial, thanks to its fine performances, breezy writing, beautiful cinematography of the Irish landscape and affecting original score. This enchanting Gaelic language offering will charm audiences to no end without ever resorting to schmaltz or manipulation, earning every reaction it evokes. Like its adorable four-legged protagonist, this one could indeed leave viewers coming back for more. The film is available for streaming online.

They say there’s no love as great as the kind that comes from a dog. And, given how Frank so freely and readily illustrates this, one can’t help but wonder how many canines like him may, in fact, be the reincarnations of deceased loved ones. Whether or not that’s true, however, we should be grateful for what they give us, no matter how they find their way into our existence. We should give ourselves a well-deserved belly rub or pat on the back for having drawn such devoted four-legged friends into our reality – and be thankful for everything they give us, time after time after time.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Clearing the Slate on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday August 22, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Podchaser, Audible, Deezer, Podcast Addict and Jiosaavn.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

‘Blue Jean’ challenges exclusion, homophobia

“Blue Jean” (2022 production, 2023 release). Cast: Rosy McEwen, Kerrie Hayes, Lucy Halliday, Lydia Page, Aoife Kennan, Amy Booth-Steel, Stacey Abalogun, Scott Turnbull, Dexter Heads, Lainey Shaw. Director: Georgia Oakley. Screenplay: Georgia Oakley. Web site. Trailer.

Willingly excluding certain segments of society makes absolutely no sense. By denying productive, creative individuals from the ability to participate in the development of our world, we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from innovations that make our life more fulfilling, enjoyable and equitable. Unfortunately, there are close-minded forces out there that would seek to restrict some of us from the liberties and freedoms that help to make society thrive in healthy and satisfying ways. And those who are left on the outside looking in must decide whether they want to surrender and conform or to rebel and challenge such limiting ways of thinking. Such are the choices faced by a segment of society under attack in the new historical drama from the UK, “Blue Jean.”

In the 1980s, the LGBTQ+ community was facing some strange contradictions. In some respects, it was beginning to slowly gain ground in areas like legal protections for civil rights and wider social acceptance. At the same time, though, with the rise of conservative political factions, such as the Reagan Administration in the US and the Thatcher government in the UK, the community was facing growing (and quite zealous) opposition to those initiatives. Indeed, the threat was often outright hostile, with right-wing politicians openly advocating ridicule and rationalized restrictions, as well as the repeal of whatever advances had been made. The effect of this was essentially aimed at trying to shove out and proud community members back behind closet doors. Gay men and lesbians were in fear of losing their jobs, as well as strained relations with family members, especially those who maintained low-key profiles about their lifestyles. At the same time, however, there was also a growing chorus of vocal activists who refused to lose the hard-won ground that they had already made. Diverse contrasts, to be sure.

These circumstances were difficult to reconcile for many conflicted community members, such as Jean Newman (Rosy McEwen), a fictional phys ed teacher at an English secondary school. The divorced educator started a new life after leaving her husband, exploring her feelings for women and becoming involved in a passionate relationship with Viv (Kerrie Hayes), an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. However, despite this blossoming romance, Jean has kept quiet about her status, especially at her job, the type of highly visible position that has become an easy target for those seeking to rein in gay and lesbian individuals, all in hopes that their sanctimonious efforts will curtail the potentially compromising and “promiscuous” behavior of these alleged social deviants. Jean would like to be more open about herself, but she knows that doing so could jeopardize her career, particularly with the Thatcher government’s initiative to pass Section 28, legislation aimed at prohibiting activities openly promoting homosexuality, a bill carrying wide-sweeping implications for the LGBTQ+ community. At the same time, however, laying low is also straining relations with Viv, given that she’s uninhibited about openly being herself – and wishes that Jean would be, too.

Jean is constantly reminded of her circumstances, too. In addition to the challenges of maintaining a low profile at work, she also struggles to do the same in her relations with relatives, such as her sister, Sasha (Aoife Kennan), her brother-in-law, Tim (Scott Turnbull), and her young nephew, Sammy (Dexter Heads). She’s often asked about why she divorced, as well as if there are any new men in her life, questions that she’s increasingly having trouble deflecting. But these issues are nothing compared to what she’s about to face.

When a transfer student arrives at Jean’s school, she has her suspicions about the new pupil. That speculation is soon confirmed when she spots the young woman, Lois (Lucy Halliday), at a gay bar one evening. Even though Lois is clearly under age, she nevertheless manages to pass for being old enough and fits right into the pub’s lively crowd. And, when Lois begins to behave in a flamboyant manner, Jean grows concerned. Despite efforts to maintain her distance, Jean pulls Lois aside and advises her to tone things down, fearing that she’ll become a target for the kind of scorn that’s surfacing more prevalently in British society. In doing this, however, Viv spies Jean’s actions and grows seriously upset. At first, Viv erroneously suspects that Jean is hitting on Lois, a prospect that hurts her feelings. But, when she finds out the real reason behind Jean’s behavior – that she’s actively encouraging Lois to hide her true self – Viv is even more disappointed, given that her partner is openly urging the young woman to deny her true feelings to herself, something that genuinely offends the activist’s sensibilities.

High school phys ed teacher Jean Newman (Rosy McEwen, center right) enjoys a night out with her partner, Viv (Kerrie Hayes, center left), and friends at a local gay night spot in writer-director Georgia Oakley’s debut feature, “Blue Jean,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

And this is just the beginning. Circumstances get further out of hand at school when Siobhan (Lydia Page), one of Lois’s mean-spirited classmates, skillfully attempts to entrap her in an alleged act of sexual assault in the girls’ locker room, an incident that Jean clandestinely witnesses – and about which she knows the truth. The event subsequently puts Jean in yet another dicey situation: How is she supposed to testify about what she saw when the girls are brought in for questioning by school authorities? She wants to protect Lois, but what is she supposed to say? Should she tell the truth, risking the reputations of both students? Or should she take a “protective” stance similar to what she advocated at the bar several nights before? But, more importantly, what will Jean’s actions in this case say about her strength of character and willingness to be herself? Both options represent potentially perilous paths, but what will she do? But, even more so, what should she do? And what will that mean for the future of her relationship with her family, her partnership with Viv and her employability as a teacher in an increasingly less tolerant society?

It’s pretty safe to say that most of us would like to be able to be ourselves. We’d like to think it’s only fair and natural. And, because of that, we’d all like to assume that we’re all equal in that regard, possessors of the right to be who we would choose to be, no matter how different we might be from one another. But, despite such sincere assumptions and reasonable expectations, there are those who believe that those who live outside of society’s mainstream should be denied such opportunities and the legal protections to guarantee them.

Circumstances like these have long hampered the growth and freedom of those in the LGBTQ+ community. That’s been especially true when society’s powerful elements have sought to hold back such individuals with the force of law and social ostracism, regardless of how unscrupulous and patently unfair such practices might be. But, by the 1980s, many of the community’s constituents began to fight back, efforts that brought about some initial reforms. At the same time, though, these efforts also generated a reactionary response among those seeking to preserve the status quo, as evidenced in this story.

Given these conditions, where is one supposed to stand? That all depends on one’s beliefs, and they’re important considering the role they play in the manifestation of one’s existence, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the reality we experience. It’s unclear how many of us are aware of this school of thought, but, in reviewing the evidence with regard to its viability, it becomes fairly clear that there’s an undeniable connection between the two.

This situation, however, poses a particularly powerful conundrum: Considering the forces at work here, what is one supposed to believe? It’s only natural to want to be yourself, but what if acting on that belief could get you fired from your job, disowned by your family, and/or shunned or ridiculed by society? Many would legitimately see those possible outcomes as powerful incentives to intentionally maintain a low profile.

But isn’t such an attitude giving license to a willfully exclusionary and discriminatory practice? Doesn’t it represent a fundamental compromise of one’s values? And doesn’t it undermine whatever progress has been made toward implementing needed reform and equalizing the prevailing circumstances? That’s certainly what many LGBTQ+ activists quietly believed for a long time – and what they were railing against when countermeasures were being effected to reverse the gains that the community had made at the time.

High school student Lois Jackson (Lucy Halliday) explores her emerging lesbian sensibilities in 1980s England in writer-director Georgia Oakley’s debut feature, “Blue Jean,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

While Jean’s outlook is admittedly understandable, consider the costs of maintaining it. To begin with, it means upholding a fabricated façade that doesn’t represent her true self, putting forth a false reflection of her innate character. Then it carries potentially serious consequences for her relationship with Viv, given that there would be a fundamental disconnect between them and their respective beliefs about their lives and themselves. Keeping up such a front and sustaining a partnership that’s inherently unbalanced takes a lot of work. Is that something Jean could realistically do for the long term? And, even if she could, how happy could she be with such an arrangement? At some point, she’s bound to tire of having to artificially force such beliefs upon herself, and where would that leave her? Indeed, where would she stand in connection with her sense of personal integrity?

Ultimately, scenarios like this come down to a matter of choice when it comes to the beliefs to which we adhere. Granted, the choices involved may indeed be difficult, but we must nevertheless decide what we can live with and what would suit us best. Living a lie is rarely a workable option, something that Jean comes to see in rather short order in light of the fallout she experiences because of her choices. So it’s at that point where she has to ask herself, “Can I do this for the long run?” In cases like this, it often doesn’t take long to see how honesty really is the best policy, particularly when it comes to making decisions for ourselves, our lives and our future.

For the record, despite strong opposition by the UK’s LGBTQ+ community, Section 28 was successfully passed and implemented by the Thatcher government in 1988, forcing many organizations like student support groups to significantly curtail or cease operations at the time. However, with changing fortunes (and beliefs!) in the community and society at large in subsequent years, it was eventually repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in England and Wales in 2003. Overturning the law was a major victory for the LGBTQ+ community, proving that inspired beliefs, backed by zealous actions, can yield noble and noteworthy results. It opened the door for further LGBTQ+ reforms both in the UK and elsewhere. However, this sad chapter in the community’s history also serves as a cautionary tale to those who might be tempted to let their guard down, as evidenced by the emergence of pending anti-gay legislation in a number of US states. The LGBTQ+ community’s belief work must thus remain vigilant to avoid return trips down those outmoded paths, and this film provides a potent reminder of that.

It wasn’t all that long ago when the LGBTQ+ community not only didn’t have legal protections for its rights, but also faced blatant discrimination against its constituents. As “Blue Jean” illustrates, this was true even in supposedly “civilized” and “progressive” societies like those found in North America and Europe. Writer-director Georgia Oakley’s debut feature does a fine (if at times somewhat predictable) job of depicting the effects these conditions had on both the public and personal lives of these individuals, an effort that earned the film a 2022 BAFTA Award nomination for Best Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. Admittedly, the picture’s opening act meanders a bit, but, once it gets on track, when the emergence of various damning revelations threatens to blow things wide open, it steadily grows more powerful and heartfelt. These attributes are supported by the fine performances of the cast, solid writing, and its skillfully crafted cinematography and production design, fittingly enhanced by its ubiquitous atmospheric azure tones. It effectively shows us how Jean became so blue – and how we should seek to prevent the same from happening to the rest of us. The film is available for streaming online. Sensitive viewers should be cautioned about some strong sexual content.

Like racism, Islamophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism, homophobia has persisted for far too long as a scourge on society’s mindset. Thankfully, with the introduction of legal protections and more enlightened social values, it appears to be vanishing in many parts of the planet. But just because it’s diminishing doesn’t mean that it’s gone for good. Consequently, it’s imperative that we remain diligent in eliminating this needless form of discrimination with its ugly, exclusionary practices, policies and views and in defeating the implementation of the Section 28s of the world. We owe it to all of the Jeans and Vivs and Loises out there. But, most of all, we owe it to ourselves if we proclaim to be a truly civilized society. To do less would mean that we’re no better off than we were in the 1980s. And, if we really wish to progress in the right direction, there is no going back.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

‘Afire’ explores what can occur when clearing the slate

“Afire” (“Roter Himmel”) (2023). Cast: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt. Director: Christian Petzold. Screenplay: Christian Petzold. Web site. Trailer.

Getting away from it all is often an effective way to regroup, recharge and put one’s life back on track, especially when it comes to sorting out complicated issues and stalled creative endeavors. At the same time, though, things can sometimes go sideways in these experiences; unforeseen developments may intrude on hoped-for expectations, thrusting circumstances into unexpected territory and uncontrolled chaos. Nevertheless, such disruptions can also yield surprising outcomes, opening new doors and sending us in new directions (once the collateral debris is cleared away, that is). Such are the circumstances posed to a quartet of old and new friends who unwittingly end up spending the summer together at a vacation house in the new German comedy-drama, “Afire” (“Roter Himmel”).

Aspiring author Leon (Thomas Schubert) and would-be art school student Felix (Langston Uibel) have work to get done, but they don’t seem to be able to accomplish it in their distraction-ridden home of Berlin. The friends decide to escape the urban interference by spending some time in the peace and solitude of a summer house owned by Felix’s family. The retreat is located on a remote woodland site near the Baltic Sea coast, not far from the resort town/artist colony of Ahrenshoop. It’s a quiet, lovely idyllic setting, one seemingly perfect for the pair of creative types to withdraw from the commotion of the city to work on their respective projects.

Leon seeks to put the finishing touches on his second novel, a book with which he’s rather dissatisfied, an effort that comes up short of his expectations, not to mention the quality of his first title. He’s anxious about wrapping up the project, especially since he senses that his publisher, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), feels the same way he does about the book. Consequently, he dreads what he has to get done before an upcoming meeting with Helmut, a task he’s not sure he can complete on time or in good order. It’s a tremendous source of stress, preoccupying his thoughts and keeping him from thinking about virtually anything else (like enjoying the prospect of spending some time relaxing).

As for Felix, he needs to work on creating a portfolio as part of his art school application. He’s unclear on what he wants to do, and he hasn’t made much progress on assembling it, even though he, like Leon, is facing a looming deadline. Unlike Leon, however, he’s not sweating what he’s up against; he’s confident that he’ll finish the work on time and that it will turn out fine. In the meantime, he remains optimistic and enthusiastic. And, no matter what, he’s not going to let the pressure get the better of him – or spoil his summer vacation.

An unlikely quartet of old and new friends (from left, Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs) gathers at a German summer house located in the path of an encroaching forest fire, as depicted in the new comedy-drama, “Afire” (“Roter Himmel”). Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

Upon arrival at the vacation house, however, conditions aren’t exactly what Leon and Felix expected. As it turns out, Felix’s mother lost track of the date of their arrival and rented out one of the bedrooms to a young, beautiful, enigmatic woman, Nadja (Paula Beer), a soft-spoken, laconic sort who makes up for this subdued attribute with a series of frequent noisy nighttime visitations.

As one might expect, Leon and Felix each have their own predictable reactions to this surprise house guest. Leon sees Nadja’s presence as annoying and intrusive, an insidious (if somewhat overblown) inconvenience with respect to rooming arrangements, not to mention the overnight sound levels in a small house with thin walls. He also firmly believes that she’ll prove to be a significant disruption to getting his work done. By contrast, Felix finds Nadja delightful and is eager to get to know her, particularly when she introduces him to one of her nighttime visitors, Devid (Enno Trebs), a hunky bisexual lifeguard who Felix is even more anxious to get to know. And, with this eclectic foursome in place, the summer is about to begin.

As the days pass, Nadja, Felix and Devid all become good friends, frequently enjoying one another’s company, while Leon sits on the sidelines and sulks. He rarely and only reluctantly joins in on any group social events, often citing his “need to work” as an excuse for bowing out. The only problem with that is that Leon doesn’t actually do much work, even with his recurring protestations and a supposedly pressing deadline looming. To complicate matters, Leon’s lack of progress on his book is drawn into sharp contrast to the growing number of personal and professional accomplishments of the others, such as the unveiling of Felix’s portfolio idea. Leon’s missing out on a lot of fun, too, with his stick-in-the-mud ways. His attitude keeps getting in the way, most notably where his quietly simmering attraction to Nadja begins to grow, even if these feelings go virtually unexpressed.

Needless to say, the emotional tension in the household mounts as everyone seems to be happy and productive except Leon. And, as this condition steadily escalates, it’s reflected back to the house guests in the nature of their surroundings, most notably the encroachment of a devastating forest fire creeping ever closer to the nearby woods, as evidenced by an ominous nighttime glow in the sky and the increased presence of firefighting helicopters buzzing overhead. Winds off the water have kept the conflagration at bay for some time, but, with the rise in the fiery mood at the vacation house, there’s a corresponding change in the path of the blaze, steering it ever closer toward it.

Ash falling from the sky from a nearby forest fire casts an ominous pall over the safety and security of vacation house guests like Nadja (Paula Beer) in the new German comedy-drama, “Afire” (“Roter Himmel”), now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

Circumstances reach a fever pitch when Leon musters up the courage to ask Nadja if she’d like to read his novel. She agrees and proceeds to give him her honest evaluation of the book, one that matches his own dismal assessment. That sentiment is, in turn, echoed back shortly thereafter when Helmut visits. He presents Leon with a heavily edited version of the work, one that still reads awkwardly, even after having had a heavy-handed red pencil taken to it. On top of that, during Helmut’s visit, he takes a liking to the other house guests, showering them with compliments on their achievements and hospitality, rendering Leon virtually irrelevant and invisible. Talk about turning up the heat.

With relations in the house strained and the surroundings threatening to go up in flames, the hoped-for summer vacation turns out to be anything but a fun and relaxing time, at least where Leon is concerned. But, with the winds of change poised to sweep over the area, what’s happened so far is only a glimmer of what’s yet to come – and what will emerge out of it.

Regrouping and recharging can be a vital undertaking for most of us, and it can be employed in myriad ways in our lives. Intentionally removing distractions, of course, is an essential element of this, as it’s necessary to clear our minds and to allow us to take stock of where we’re at. And that’s an inherent step in examining where we need to make changes, from the minute and mundane to grand, sweeping alterations that inevitably amount to clearing the slate. It’s a process that can call upon us to make drastic adjustments, some of which may seem cold, unfeeling and even ruthless, especially where all things cherished and beloved suddenly seem to become distressingly expendable. But sometimes these things simply have to go, no matter how much we may treasure them, particularly if we can see that they’re weighing us down and serving no meaningful purpose.

This requires us to take a good, hard look at our thoughts, beliefs and intents, and that’s important given the roles that they play in the manifestation of our existence, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these resources underlie the reality we experience. Some of us are no doubt familiar with this thinking, but, for others, it can be a difficult realization to grasp and accept. Nevertheless, if we find that our lives aren’t working in certain respects, we need to look inward to find out why, and this is as good a place as any to start. By scrutinizing our beliefs, rewriting them as necessary and chopping out any burdensome dead wood, we have an opportunity to start over and move in a new direction toward greater satisfaction and fulfillment.

To a certain extent, this is true of all the principal characters in this film, but it’s especially the case for poor Leon. It’s obvious he needs to get down to business in this regard. What’s worse, though, is that he doesn’t even recognize the need for this. He plods along, continuing to do whatever it is that he has apparently been doing for a long time, remaining mired in his relentless funk and never questioning the need or possibility of doing anything different. He’s plainly tired of and dissatisfied with this routine, too, forever sitting back and complaining yet making no effort to shift gears. In fact, as this story plays out, he’d rather procrastinate than take any action to rectify his situation. Talk about a need for intervention.

Leon (Thomas Schubert), an aspiring author disappointed with the progress on his second novel, tries to figure out how to salvage it while on retreat at a summer vacation house on the Baltic Sea coast in writer-director Christian Petzold’s latest feature, “Afire” (“Roter Himmel”). Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

That’s where this summer retreat comes into play. Leon desperately needs to move on from where he’s at (and apparently from where he’s been for a long time). And, on a subconscious level, there’s a part of him that must understand that, as seen in the many elements of his existence that have tried to shake him out of his complacency, no matter how much he’d rather not do so, at least outwardly speaking. Consider the evidence: The people around him approach life from a more joyful standpoint, attitudes he often finds annoying and frivolous; unexpected developments, such as Nadja’s presence and the encroaching forest fire, throw him curves that urge him to implement a more malleable approach toward life and his various pursuits, both personally and professionally; frequent though admittedly exaggerated distractions keep him from getting his work done (or so he thinks), despite the fact that it’s work he really doesn’t want to do in the first place; and the frank criticisms of his book by Helmut and Nadja are less-than-subtle wake-up calls that maybe he should be putting aside his current writing project in favor of something new and different with better literary potential. But the key question in this is, “Does he see things that way (or, perhaps more precisely, does he really want to see things that way)?”

This is particularly true when it comes to how Leon views life in general: Is it meant to be something enjoyed or something endured? In a videotaped interview with writer-director Christian Petzold, the filmmaker states that this is one of the objectives behind this story. So many people, he says, are so preoccupied with work, their careers and their professional achievements that they lose sight of many of the joys that life has to offer (an observation that probably accounts for the inclusion of more humor in this film than in most of Petzold’s previous releases, an attempt to metaphorically lighten things up). Just look at Leon’s case: he’s in a beautiful vacation setting, with ample opportunities for recreation and enjoyment, and in the presence of a possible romantic interest, yet he’d rather play the curmudgeon, ever complaining, missing out on a chance for a good time and spinning his wheels trying to resuscitate a dreadful book that probably can’t be salvaged. Where’s the perspective in all that? Is that life serving him? And, if not, why isn’t he making an effort to change it to something more suitable? The clues for how to improve upon his lot in life are all around him, too, but can he – or will he – see them?

Leon only need look to the examples set by his companions: Felix is thrilled when he finally hits on an idea for his portfolio (especially when he receives a ringing endorsement from Helmut when he shows it to him during his visit). Felix is also ecstatic when his relationship with Devid grows and blossoms, filling them both with tremendous joy. And both Devid and Nadja are content with the summertime jobs they’ve taken, he as a lifeguard and she as a purveyor of ice cream cones to tourists along Ahrenshoop’s waterfront boardwalk. Those may seem like comparatively simple pleasures and ventures, but look at how much happiness they provide. How can Leon top that?

So why isn’t Leon shifting gears? Perhaps it’s because he’s unaware of – or maybe even afraid of – the power of choice available to him. He’d rather surround himself with the familiar than strike out in a new (but potentially scary) direction. But, as circumstances unfold here, he may not be able to fall back on that option for much longer. With conditions changing all around him (conditions that he has unwittingly drawn into his realm of existence), he might soon be forced to adapt to what’s transpiring. He may have long been comfortable with “the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t,” but, as the devil he knows is steadily vanishing, he may soon be forced to deal with a strange new demon, no matter how much he may try to resist it. With the prospect of the slate being swept clean, he might have to contend with bottoming out and losing everything.

Aspiring author Leon (Thomas Schubert, left) develops a veiled crush on Nadja (Paula Beer, right), an unexpected house guest at the summer house where he’s staying, in the new German comedy-drama, “Afire” (“Roter Himmel”), now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

But is that possibility necessarily a bad thing? From both a literal and metaphorical standpoint, fire is a force that can destroy and devastate, but it’s also one that can cleanse, clearing away anything of questionable value to make room for robust, vigorous, valuable new growth. And, sometimes, it can do both simultaneously. Maybe it would be in Leon’s best interests to embrace what’s on its way, to make friends with change and the possibilities it may afford. Such scenarios might involve going out in a blaze of glory while clearing a path to something even grander, enabling us to bask in the glow of something eminently more rewarding. For Leon, that might prevent him from becoming a has-been author doing mediocre work with little fulfillment. Indeed, sometimes it takes burning a supposedly treasured resource to generate some light and heat, but where would we be without those things?

“Afire” is an engaging slowburn in every sense of the word, one that grows progressively more captivating as its enigmatic narrative plays out. The outset may come across as somewhat cryptic, even meandering at times, but the opening act sets the stage for what’s to follow in the back half. The picture subsequently presents a witty but profoundly insightful examination of what makes us who we are, how much we enjoy or endure our lives, and what we can do to make it better for ourselves when we eliminate what no longer serves us. The film’s subdued humor is deceptively gentle, imbued with a quietly biting underlying edge delivered with well-mannered precision and dexterity. That’s particularly apparent during Helmut’s reading of Leon’s reworked manuscript, an excellent example of truly awful but stunningly hilarious writing brought to life. In many respects, this wry offering is probably not what most viewers will expect, but, then, that’s a huge part of its appeal, a refreshing look at life and what we make of it. It’s a valuable exercise given how abruptly it can all be taken away, leaving us to ask ourselves, “What did we do with the time we had, and was it indeed worth it in the end?” Give this one sufficient time to unfold, and let it gradually sink in. It offers a lesson that may help us realize and understand more about ourselves than we can possibly imagine. The film is currently playing theatrically.

When it comes to fire, it can leave us warmed up or seriously burned. The question is, “Which of those options do we wish to embrace?” That all depends on how we view it, which, in turn, is rooted in the beliefs we hold about it. It will leave an impact on us no matter which view we take. In either case, though, the choice is ours – as is what it leaves us with.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.