Wednesday, March 29, 2023

New Movies for March on Frankiesense & More

Join yours truly and show host Frankie Picasso for five new movie reviews on the next edition of The Good Media Network's Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing Thursday March 30 at 12 pm ET, will also feature my Oscar scorecard and a film festival wrap-up. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Quiet Girl," "The Blue Caftan" and "Let It Be Morning," as well as a podcast preview, my Oscar scorecard and a film festival wrap-up, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

‘Let It Be Morning’ advises escape from our self-made prisons

“Let It Be Morning” (“Vayehi Boker”) (2021 production, 2023 release). Cast: Alex Bakri, Juna Suleiman, Maruan Hamdau, Samer Bisharat, Yara Elhan Jarrar, Arin Saba, Doraid Liddawi, Salim Daw, Izabel Ramadan, Ehab Elias Salami, Nadib Spadi, Costa Kaplan. Director: Eran Kolirin. Screenplay: Eran Kolirin. Book: Sayed Kashua, Let It Be Morning (2004). Web site. Trailer.

No one likes feeling trapped by his or her circumstances (at least not overtly), but sometimes we find ourselves unwittingly confined by the walls that physically and/or metaphorically surround us. These “cages” or “prisons” keep us locked in place, preventing us from moving forward in our lives. And no matter how much we may want to see our way clear, sometimes we’re unable to figure out how to proceed. What’s most distressing, though, is that, while we’re stuck, we often can’t help but grow progressively anguished and frustrated by the lack of progress, conditions explored on a variety of levels in the wry Israeli comedy-drama, “Let It Be Morning” (“Vayehi Boker”).

Present-day Israel is a nation made up of a patchwork of complex constituencies, much more so than is generally widely known or openly discussed in the media. However, the complicated interplay among these various communities socially, economically and politically makes for some intriguing dynamics within them and in their relationships with one another. This is particularly true among the diverse segments of the country’s Palestinian population, which is often mistakenly viewed as monolithic in nature. There are those (especially the residents living in tightly knit rural locations) who are eminently proud of their honorable heritage, despite the skepticism, suspicion and opposition they often face from much of Israel’s citizenry. Then there are those who are seeking to assimilate within Israeli society, particularly when it comes to accessing social and economic opportunities that they have often been prevented from pursuing. And, of course, there are the Palestinians living in the territories, who have been strategically isolated and effectively kept from securing such life basics as gainful employment. Such conditions have even prompted some of the territory residents to sneak past the checkpoints to obtain work off the books in Israel, a practice many proud Israeli Palestinians support but that those seeking to assimilate look upon in disdain. It’s a combination of conditions that often strain relations, sometimes even within families.

These circumstances quietly loom large in this film, which opens with a traditional Arabic wedding celebration in a small rural community populated almost exclusively by Israeli Palestinians. Sami (Alex Bakri), a successful, upwardly mobile family man living in Jerusalem, reluctantly attends the ceremony, which takes place in the town where he grew up, a place he left behind long ago. He sees it as somewhat homespun and quaint, the embodiment of values from which he’s moved on in favor of a more urban, cosmopolitan way of life.

Newlyweds Lina (Yara Elhan Jarrar, left) and Aziz (Samer Bisharat, right) celebrate their marriage in traditional Arabic festivities in their rural Israeli Palestinian community in the engaging comedy-drama, “Let It Be Morning” (“Vayehi Boker”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Sami also has reservations about spending time with extended family members with whom he believes he has little in common anymore. There’s Sami’s brother, Aziz (Samer Bisharat), the groom, and his demure bride, Lina (Yara Elhan Jarrar), both of whom he sees as timid and not especially adventurous or ambitious. Then there’s his reserved sister, Rola (Arin Saba), and her political aspirant husband, Nabil (Doraid Liddawi), who self-righteously seeks to advance his career by aggressively exposing and condemning the practices of the illegal workers crossing into Israel from the territories. Sami also has to deal with his father, Tarek (Salim Daw), a proud Palestinian who’s convinced his son will soon leave Jerusalem and cheerfully move back to his hometown, a belief that appears to be colored somewhat by the onset of an emerging form of dementia. In fact, about the only family member Sami can tolerate is his mother, Zahara (Izabel Ramadan). She’s not especially happy with her lot in life but puts up with it out of obligation. Sami understands her plight, and she appreciates his desire to distance himself from where he grew up. These conditions provide a basis for a bond between them; indeed, they’re about the only family members who truly have a connection and understand one another.

The trip also means that Sami must spend time with his immediate family, something he appears to have been doing less of in recent months. Sami’s wife, Mira (Juna Suleiman), has tired of the widening chasm that has been opening up between them. She suspects – and correctly so – that Sami is having an affair back home (and with a Jewish woman at that). In fact, about the only thing that’s keeping them together is their young son, Adam (Maruan Hamdau), whom they both appear to adore. Still, the relationship between Sami and Mira seems mostly obligatory at this point, and the tension between them serves as a frequent source of intensifying conflict.

So, with this backdrop, Sami, Mira and Adam attend the wedding, with Sami hoping to get it over with as quickly as possible, an unlikely objective given the length of typical Arabic marriage celebrations. But, by late evening, the festivities wind down, at last making it possible for Sami to begin the drive back to Jerusalem. However, upon reaching the outskirts of town, he and his family are met by a contingent of Israeli troops. They inform Sami that the road ahead is closed for an unspecified period of time, forcing him, Mira and Adam to return to his parents’ house. They go there under the impression that it will be just to stay the night. But, as they find out the following morning, it’s about to be for a duration far longer than anticipated.

Sami soon learns from a doe-eyed Israeli soldier (Costa Kaplan) that the reason for the road closure is being kept secret, which is part of the reason why the length of the shutdown is also unknown. Sami is upset at being stuck, partly because he no longer wants to be there, but also because he’s worried that his delayed departure will place his much-coveted job in jeopardy. And that concern is further complicated when he discovers that cell phone service to the village has been cut off, making it impossible to even notify his employer about what is transpiring.

When confronted by Israeli troops, brothers Sami (Alex Bakri, right) and Aziz (Samer Bisharat, left) assume the position expected of them when they approach a roadblock checkpoint, as seen in writer-director Eran Kolirin’s “Let It Be Morning” (“Vayehi Boker”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Pyramid Films.

Not long thereafter, Sami and the residents of the village learn that more than just the phone service has been curtailed. The electricity goes next, followed by the water supply. And, as the lockdown continues, the town begins running out of food and other basic supplies, all without explanation. What’s going on here?

As supplies dwindle and tensions rise, tempers soon begin to flare. Too many people with too much time on their hands and no answers in sight begin engaging in conflict and various forms of antisocial behavior. These conditions also open doors for opportunists, such as Ashraf (Nadib Spadi), a local bully who assumes the role of an alpha strongman. Ashraf is particularly abusive toward Abed (Ehab Elias Salami), one of Sami’s childhood friends. Sami was initially reluctant to spend any time with Abed when attending the wedding; he looked down on his longtime acquaintance, seeing him as yet another reason for why he fled his hometown for life in Jerusalem. But, now that Abed is having the screws put to him under these trying conditions, Sami feels for him and wants to try and help him out, especially when he learns that Ashraf and his goon squad appear to be quietly cooperating with Israeli authorities during the lockdown in exchange for preferential treatment.

In fact, as time passes, Sami begins to have a change of heart about many of the issues for which he previously lacked tolerance. Why? Well, having time on one’s hands can be put to use in a number of ways. Some, like Ashraf, use it for personal gain. But, for others, like Sami, it affords a much-needed opportunity for reflection. As the matters that previously occupied much of Sami’s attention begin to take a back seat, his priorities gradually change. For example, he tries to help Abed, both in his dealings with the neighborhood thug, as well as in helping him get over the draining frustration he’s experiencing with trying to reconcile with his ex-wife, a reunion that Sami knows will never happen and that would never do his friend any good.

Then there are Sami’s relations with his family. He seeks to patch up things with Mira. He becomes more tolerant of his dad. And he tries to inspire Aziz to grow a backbone, especially in helping him overcome the quietly embarrassing “performance anxiety” he struggles with when it comes to handling his apparently unconsummated marital relations. Slowly but surely, others around Sami begin following suit in their own personal endeavors, the net effect of which is a town full of residents who have chosen to knock down the walls surrounding them. If they can accomplish such changes in their own everyday dealings, there’s no telling what else they might accomplish by applying those principles to the larger issues that they all face collectively. Indeed, it’s amazing what’s possible when we concertedly put our minds to something.

Of course, even as these personal walls begin to collapse, there remains the biggest obstacle of all, the unexplained roadblock that’s keeping the village residents confined and cut off from life’s basic necessities. What will it take, if anything, to eliminate this last-remaining barricade? That remains to be seen, but, if nothing else, it will undoubtedly require a joint effort to make it happen, not to mention a combination of the correct actions and intents. Are Sami and the residents up to it? And, if so, when and how will it finally take place?

In breaking out of their respective forms of confinement, the characters in this story take significant steps forward in liberating themselves, enabling movement toward lives of greater fulfillment, inspired by their newly enlightened outlooks. But how, exactly, is this accomplished? That’s what this film so effectively illustrates.

To begin with, the residents of the village come to understand that their enclosures are creations of their own making based on the beliefs that they hold. That’s a crucial realization since that understanding prompts them into recognizing that those beliefs are responsible for manifesting the reality they experience, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that makes such outcomes possible. At the same time, such an awareness of the mechanics of this process is essential to grasping how it fundamentally works. Without it, those seeking to alter their lives are essentially unable to do so, at least to the degree they hope to achieve that goal.

At bottom, the characters in this story must come to understand that the materialization of the existence they experience is as much an internal process as it is an external one. Since our beliefs emerge from within us, they’re responsible for what springs forth from them physically. And, because beliefs are innately changeable, it’s possible for what they produce to be changeable as well. Of course, that won’t happen until they (and we) intrinsically understand that.

Doe-eyed soldier Elad (Costa Kaplan) strums his guitar while guarding a roadblock checkpoint outside an Israeli Palestinian village in the new comedy-drama, “Let It Be Morning” (“Vayehi Boker”). Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

If Sami and the village residents want something different from the limitations they’re seemingly saddled with, they must be able to envision alternate existences free of them, prospects that originate from their underlying beliefs. This involves grasping a broader perspective about how reality functions, one that’s akin to the experience of the prisoners trapped in the allegory of Plato’s Cave, in which those individuals base their understanding of existence only on the incomplete knowledge they derive about it from shadows that appear on a wall before them. Were they to turn around and see how those shadows are created, it would open a broad new perspective for them, not unlike what the characters in this film would experience by expanding their view of how reality operates.

Interestingly, as frustrating as it may seem, the lockdown helps to make this new understanding possible. By giving them the time needed to reflect on their circumstances – free of the distractions that had previously prevented the village residents from doing so – this community-wide confinement provides them with the means to appraise what’s transpiring around them. It also makes possible the chance to change it, based on what they want.

In many ways, given the despair they’re each experiencing, this scenario could be seen as a form of undergoing “the dark night of the soul.” The harsh conditions of their current existence push them toward looking for better options, alternatives that they come to understand must begin with them if they’re ever to be realized. So, if they now grasp that, then why are they staying put in realities characterized by inherently unsatisfying limitations? It’s indeed time for a change. They yearn for the dawn of a new day, one that encourages the manifestation of their passionate plea “let it be morning.”

And that’s precisely what unfolds here, on both individual and collective stages. Sami is obviously the one most impacted, considering how many enclosures he’s erected around himself. He at last sees the self-imposed prison he’s built regarding his views about what kind of life he wants for himself. It’s kept him from appreciating what his family (both immediate and extended) might have to offer him. It’s kept him from seeing that his life in Jerusalem may not be all it’s cracked up to be. And it’s kept him from grasping the irony that his supposedly “freeing” romantic affair could be just as much a trap as he thinks his marriage is. Liberating himself from all of these confines opens up a new range of possibilities for him, lines of existence that could well prove far more fulfilling for him than what he has been experiencing – and enduring – for some time.

The same is true for those around him, too. Mira realizes that Sami may not be the louse she’s come to believe he is. Aziz realizes he just might be able to satisfy his wife after all. Abed understands that he doesn’t need his ex-wife to be happy. And, at the same time, others, like Ashraf and Nabil, get wake-up calls that poignantly drive home what can happen when they employ their beliefs for self-serving purposes, especially those that inflict harm and ill will upon others. These are all important revelations, and they’re all driven simply by changing the beliefs that manifest them.

A protracted lockdown provides Sami (Alex Bakri), a self-absorbed, upwardly mobile Jerusalem family man, with an opportunity to reflect on what’s important in his life in “Let It Be Morning” (“Vayehi Boker”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

The foregoing illustrations examine what can happen in our existence on an individual level, but the effects of this process can be felt more widely, on a collective level, as well. For starters, given the widespread displeasure that everyone was experiencing in his or her personal lives, they all realized to some degree that they needed to make changes, and the collectively induced materialization of the lockdown helped to make those alterations possible. By pooling their belief resources in a mutual undertaking – creating the community-wide confinement – the residents gave each other the time and space needed to reflect on what they each wanted to change in their lives. They may not have been conscious that they were doing so – or even be aware of the very school of thought behind this process – but the outcomes they produced yielded results that they could all benefit from. That’s quite a collaboration, one that works wonders for everyone, despite the seeming inconveniences that might have been caused along the way.

However, as effective as the foregoing co-creation may have been in addressing everyone’s individual issues, the collective matters – those affecting everybody – remain. This, of course, relates to the roadblock – why it exists and how it’s affecting everyone in the village, whether they’re permanent residents or merely visiting from elsewhere. It’s also important to recognize what it symbolizes, given that it’s a physical metaphor for issues affecting the Palestinian population throughout Israel.

In essence, the film is suggesting that the purpose behind the roadblock reflects a view widely held among much of Israel’s non-Palestinian population. Cordoning off Palestinians in this manner, keeping them separate and even denying them the basic necessities of life, could almost be looked upon as a modern-day form of apartheid. It’s an outlook shared by many Palestinians who have experienced treatment like this firsthand. And it’s a policy that they’ve grown to resent, seeing it, as director Eran Kolirin has observed, as living under a state of siege.

The roadblock thus serves as a symbol of the foregoing, and the community’s reaction to it in the film reflects the growing resentment that Palestinians living across Israel have come to feel about such policies and practices. It mirrors an emerging movement, an act of defiance and resistance toward treatment that’s becoming less tolerated, a collective prison that those impacted by it increasingly wish to see torn down. The time for overt activism in this regard may not have arrived as yet, but the imagery included in this picture illustrates a development that could well be on its way now that those opposing it see the purpose behind its implementation. And, if such confinement is unacceptable on a personal level, what would make anyone believe that it could or should be tolerated on a collective level either?

Everyone may not agree with these views. But, then, how could anyone approve of the continued persistence of limitations and restrictions like these, whether employed on either an individual or collective basis? Overcoming fears and limitations is one of the chief intentions behind this philosophy, and it deserves its proper due, something this film seeks to encourage. It’s good advice, no matter where anyone lives and under what conditions they’re experiencing – or looking to escape.

In an attempt to shore up his faltering marriage, Sami (Alex Bakri, right) takes his son, Adam (Maruan Hamdau, center), and wife, Mira (Juna Suleiman, left), out for a day kite flying in writer-director Eran Kolirin’s latest, “Let It Be Morning” (“Vayehi Boker”). Photo courtesy of Pyramid Films.

Prisons come in a variety of forms – some imposed on us, others self-created – but, regardless of how they materialize, they all have the same impact: a means for keeping us locked in place. The myriad permutations they embody and the ways in which they affect the members of a family and their community provide the focus for this gentle comedy-drama. As troubling as the narrative in this offering may appear, though, events unfurl in unexpected ways, often laced with humor, satire and heartfelt emotion. The developments in this story tend to evolve somewhat slowly, but the payoffs are definitely worth it in a film that’s beautifully told and photographed, backed by a gorgeous original score. Admittedly, the picture tends to be somewhat episodic at times, but it manages to cover all its bases and leaves no plot threads unresolved.

In addition to its designations as Israel’s official selection to the 94th Academy Awards in 2022 and as an Un Certain Regard Award nominee at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, “Let It Be Morning” seems to have taken an inordinately long time to make it into general release, but the wait was definitely worthwhile. This touching, sincerely realized work is a genuinely heartrending cinematic gem, one of the finest films to come out of Israel in quite a while. After a brief theatrical run earlier this year, the picture has since become available for streaming online and on home media.

Breaking free of what restrains us is quite a liberating feeling once we recognize the need for its implementation. Reaching that point may not be easy, however, given the degree of soul-searching involved. It may also be difficult when we consider the admissions that must be made. However, once we get beyond those potential impediments, we have an opportunity to move ahead toward more satisfying ways of being, free of the restrictions that have held us back and kept us from realizing what we’re capable of achieving for ourselves. That can mark the start of a new beginning – and the dawn of a beautiful new morning.

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

Taking Flight on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday March 28, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Monday, March 27, 2023

‘The Blue Caftan’ celebrates love in all its colors

“The Blue Caftan” (“Le bleu du caftan”) (2022). Cast: Lubna Azabal, Saleh Bakri, Ayoub Missioui, Abdelhamid Zoughi, Zakaria Atifi. Director: Maryam Touzani. Screenplay: Maryam Touzani and Nabil Ayouch. Web site. Trailer.

Love is such a precious gift, one that often seems elusive to those looking for it. But it’s out there if we know where to search for it, and, ironically, that usually begins inside each of us. Unfortunately, when it emerges, we frequently don’t recognize it for what it is, or we unduly place obstacles in our own way that keep us from embracing it. This can lead to longing, anxiety and dissatisfaction, conditions that can linger for prolonged periods. But, these considerations aside, love is nevertheless a powerful force that will find us, provided we leave ourselves open to it, even under the most trying of circumstances. Such are the dynamics at work in the moving new Moroccan romantic drama, “The Blue Caftan” (“Le bleu du caftan”).

As the owners of a tailoring shop specializing in custom-made classic Moroccan caftans, Halim (Saleh Bakri) and his wife, Mina (Lubna Azabal), have made quite a name for their handiwork. The elegance and beauty of their lovingly crafted outfits speak volumes, clothes made of exquisite fabrics adorned with incomparable hand-stitched embroidery, works of art that take time to create but that are worth all of the effort that goes into them. It’s no wonder that these one-of-a-kind pieces are in high demand. But, because of this, Halim and Mina have amassed quite a backlog of orders that they’re having difficulty fulfilling on time. In addition to the volume of work, the middle-aged Halim doesn’t work quite as quickly as he once did, and he’s not about to sacrifice his dedication to creating quality garments for the sake of expediency. This is compounded by Mina’s faltering health, keeping her from doing as much in the shop as she once did.

To keep from falling further behind and risking the viability and reputation of the business, Halim hires a handsome young apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), to help out. The gifted tailor is well versed in the classic sartorial arts, skills that are rapidly vanishing among those in his age group, making him something of a rare find. He quickly takes to the work Halim assigns him, producing noteworthy results. Halim is quite impressed with Youssef’s output, too, but his interest in his young charge soon takes on more than a professional dimension; the attraction quietly becomes personal as well, and Youssef does nothing demonstrable to distance himself from his boss nor to discourage Halim’s subtly simmering feelings from surfacing.

Halim (Saleh Bakri, left) and Mina (Lubna Azabal, right), long-married owners of a Moroccan tailor shop, face a variety of challenges in director Maryam Touzani’s beautiful new film, “The Blue Caftan” (“Le bleu du caftan”). Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

As the relationship between Halim and Youssef begins to deepen, Mina looks on in restrained irritation. She sees what’s going on between the two men, and she’s not happy about it. Mina has long known about Halim’s wandering eye, especially when it comes to his sidelong glances at other men. She’s also aware of her husband’s clandestine visits to local bath houses for discreet, anonymous encounters with other men, so none of this comes as much of a surprise, even if she never broaches the subject with him.

This time, however, things are different. Halim’s fascination with Youssef seems more serious than his other previous dalliances, which leaves Mina feeling threatened about the future of their marriage. It doesn’t help that her health is worsening, too; the potential heartache of what might transpire depletes her energy at a time when she could use all the help she can get to feel better. And, because of all this, she takes out her frustration on Youssef, blaming him for the slightest of errors in the shop, even if he isn’t at fault for what happened. The situation grows increasingly intense as the various strands of this story begin to unravel.

As all of this plays out, Halim and Youssef spend considerable time working on a customer order for a gorgeous blue caftan with elaborate gold embroidery. The garment – one of the most beautiful creations to come out of the shop in years – requires much of their time and attention, and it often seems like it’s never going to be finished, partly because of the intricacies of the design and partly because of the growing demands being placed on Halim to care for Mina and to run the business on his own. But that’s also where the part Youssef plays begins to take on greater importance.

The hiring of Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), a young new apprentice in a Moroccan tailor shop, leads to an array of challenges, as depicted in the beautiful new romantic drama, “The Blue Caftan” (“Le bleu du caftan”). Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

As Mina’s condition worsens, she begins to see that Halim is not going to leave her; instead, she comes to realize that she’s the one who’s likely to be leaving him, and that leads to a change of heart on her part. She sees that there’s something between Halim and Youssef, and she wants someone to be there for her husband when her time is up. It also helps that she sees the kind of support that Youssef offers to him – and to her – as her health continues to slide. The love that emerges among the three of them is something to see, with everyone providing the much-needed comfort that they each require during these trying times. That kind of care is essential to get through this ordeal. And it just might provide the necessary impetus to help Halim and Youssef complete that blue caftan order on time, a garment as beautiful as the wellspring of love that blossoms among this unlikely trio.

It’s always heartening when favorable outcomes emerge from difficult circumstances, especially since many of us are accustomed to believing that such results are long shots, if not impossible. They give us comfort that our existence is not the inherently horrible place that so many of us have come to believe it to be, that beautiful, miraculous events can indeed occur. Admittedly, reaching that point may not always be easy, and it may take a wealth of faith to see it realized, but it’s something that shouldn’t be summarily ruled out, provided we believe in the possibility.

That’s what can happen when we employ the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Many of us, like the characters in this film, may not have heard of this school of thought, but that doesn’t mean the realization of its principles are outside the realm of feasibility if we concertedly put our minds to it. And, even if Halim, Mina and Youssef aren’t consciously aware that they are doing so, it’s entirely possible that they’re nevertheless employing these concepts to make the best of their circumstances.

As the professional and personal relationship between a tailor shop owner, Halim (Saleh Bakri, right), and his handsome young apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui, left), intensifies, their lives grow progressively more complex in the engaging new drama, “The Blue Caftan” (“Le bleu du caftan”). Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

For example, as much as Mina may initially be unhappy with her husband’s sexual leanings, she has the choice of remaining in bitter denial of his nature or moving in the direction of devising solutions that work to everyone’s benefit, including her. The question is, can she believe in a resolution that’s amicable to all involved? That’s important at a time when someone like Mina is going through the personal challenges she experiences. To begin with, she needs assistance with her continued care as her health weakens. But, just as importantly, she comes to understand the difficulties that Halim is going though, and, even though not all aspects of their relationship may have worked out as she would have hoped for, there’s still an obvious love between them, something that will definitely be affected if her decline continues. What’s more, she recognizes the obvious need for Halim to have someone there for him to carry on when that time comes.

Those are undoubtedly difficult realizations to accept, let alone to address. But does that automatically mean we should give up on them? If we truly care about the well-being of ourselves and those we love, shouldn’t we take steps to see that those needs are adequately addressed? We must first believe that those possibilities are attainable, of course, but, if we can envision their manifestation, we’re on our way to seeing them come into being, an outcome that’s certainly preferable to the alternative.

Situations like this also force us to get real with ourselves, to accept our true selves for what they are, to abandon the denial we’ve been embracing for so long that has kept us from achieving true happiness. That’s very much the case where Halim is concerned. He’s well aware of where his desires lie, but he’s allowed himself to be trapped by beliefs that prevent him from openly acting on them, leading him to clandestinely sneaking about for fleeting moments of fulfillment instead of willingly embracing what he truly wants. How much genuine satisfaction can be achieved from such a course of conduct over time?

As time passes, the strained relations between life/business partners Halim (Saleh Bakri, right) and Mina (Lubna Azabal, center) over the appearance of a new person in their lives, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui, left), ease considerably, leading to a new understanding among the three of them in director Maryam Touzani’s “The Blue Caftan” (“Le bleu du caftan”). Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

If he really wants something better for himself, he must first believe in the possibility to bring it into being. But, if he’s to do that, he must first ask himself why he hasn’t done so up to this point. Perhaps it’s out of fear, such as what others might think about him if he defies cultural expectations about relationships and marriage. Perhaps it’s out of shame and the exposure of his true self, a nature that goes against established norms. Or perhaps it’s trepidation out of finally getting exactly what he wants and whether he’s ready for that. No matter what the cause (or causes), he has to examine them, understand the beliefs driving them and figure out how to rewrite them so that he can attain what he innately wants.

It should go without saying that making decisions like this is difficult at a time where there’s so much else on his plate. However, at the same time, windows of opportunity are making their presence known, providing openings for addressing the most immediately pressing matters at hand, as well as clearing a path to the future. Some may view such an assessment as somewhat cold and unfeeling, and their contentions admittedly have some merit. At the same time, though, it’s also an eminently practical way of looking at things when hard choices are seemingly all we’ve got. In light of that, should we face circumstances like these without a game plan or with an awareness of options that can best help us get through these ordeals? Like everything else in our lives, it comes down to our beliefs and which ones we choose to embrace and act upon.

Youssef stands to play a vital role in this scenario, too, both as one who can lend a hand and who can obtain what he wants for himself. Not only does he have the career opportunity he desires, but he also has the prospect of a potential romantic partner looming. Even more than that, though, as he grows to know and care for Mina, he becomes part of a family of sorts, something that has apparently been missing from his life. Fortunately for Youssef, he recognizes what can come from all this, and he freely and willingly embraces the opportunity. Indeed, happiness is possible, even under trying conditions, provided we’re capable of believing in its materialization, especially where love is concerned – and in all its colors.

Challenging times can yield remarkable surprises, such as in the relationships among Mina (Lubna Azabal, left), Halim (Saleh Bakri, center) and Youssef (Ayoub Missioui, right) in the new domestic drama, “The Blue Caftan” (“Le bleu du caftan”). Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Perhaps the biggest question I have about this film is, “Why hasn’t it received more recognition than it has?” This positively beautiful picture – winner of the Un Certain Regard FIPRESCI Prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and the Silver Hugo Award for best director at the 2022 Chicago Film Festival – should have received far wider attention than it did in this year’s recently completed awards season, including the Oscars. Writer-director Maryam Touzani’s second feature outing presents viewers with a gorgeously filmed, sensitively told story that succeeds on so many levels that it’s difficult to list them all. The picture’s superbly nuanced screenplay, beautiful background score, stunning costuming and exquisite cinematography, to name just a few aspects, combine to make for one of the best films I’ve seen in years. It also brilliantly evokes a variety of moods, from romantic to loving to sensual to erotic, all without ever becoming obvious, excessive or tawdry (though don’t be surprised if it opens up the water works at times, so keep the hankies within reach). Then there are the stellar performances of the three principals, all masterfully handled by Azabal, Bakri and newcomer Missioui.

Indeed, how this Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or nominee got so egregiously overlooked truly escapes me, and I sincerely wish it had been released in time for me to include it on my list of the year’s best releases. It should have rightfully claimed nominations for best foreign language/international film in a number of competitions, given its far superior attributes compared to many of the underwhelming releases that somehow managed to land awards or nominations. It’s rare these days when a film has just about everything going for it, but “The Blue Caftan” certainly succeeds at this and is definitely well worth the viewing time. The film may be a little difficult to find at the moment, having played primarily at festivals and in an all-too-brief theatrical release, but one can hope that it will become more widely available for streaming online and on home media in the near future.

The depth of feeling that love can evoke is truly astounding. If it can be coaxed into existence even during a time of sorrow, that in itself is a testament to its power and what it can accomplish. Those who have the wisdom and vision to recognize it under such conditions are truly blessed – and often in more ways than they may immediately recognize. It’s at times like these when, fortunately, love contains the potential to blossom in all its many resplendent colors. And what a beautiful thing that is.

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

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Wrapping Up the 2023 CEUFF Film Festival

If it’s March, it wouldn’t be complete without the Gene Siskel Film Center Chicago European Union Film Festival. After several years of adjustment, abbreviation and cancellation due to COVID-19 concerns, the festival finally returned to normal form this year for its 26th annual edition. I managed to screen 10 of the event’s 24 offerings, which are summarized below. Check out what’s new in cinema across the pond!

“Exodus” (Sweden) (4.5/5); (9/10) Web site Trailer

The refugee crisis (especially those escaping from Syria) is an issue that is finally getting its due cinematically, first with the Netflix fact-based offering “The Swimmers” (2022) and now with this impressive debut feature from writer-director Abbe Hassan. The film follows the odyssey of a young Syrian girl (Jwan Alqatami), travelling alone, who flees to Turkey from her homeland on her way to Sweden for a reunion with her sisters and parents. But, upon exiting the crowded shipping container that transported her on the first leg of her journey, she’s met with a raid by Turkish immigration authorities, barely escaping in the unexpected company of one of the exploitive smugglers who organized her flight to freedom (Ashrof Barhom). Thus begins a trek through Europe as this seemingly mismatched duo makes its way to Sweden, a perilous trip that embroils the protagonists in an engaging array of challenges and revelations, especially the uncovering of the many different sides of these complex characters, superbly portrayed by Alqatami and Barhom. As this story plays out, the filmmaker effectively weaves together elements from a variety of genres, including action-adventure tales, thrillers, emotionally touching dramas and road trip/buddy movies, successfully depicting the refugee saga for it truly is – a bittersweet experience filled with joys, triumphs, disappointments and tragedies. It draws much-needed attention to the plight of these downtrodden souls seeking safety from an insane conflict that’s needlessly displacing so many innocents caught in the crossfire, just one of many such clashes currently occurring around the world. “Exodus” is a genuinely compelling watch, one that truly deserves a mainstream theatrical distribution, as well as recognition for the attention it so absorbingly draws to this urgently heartbreaking crisis.

“Fathers and Mothers” (“Fædre og mødre”) (Denmark) (4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), (8/10) Web site Trailer

Ah, parents these days. They’re not what they used to be, which is unfortunate, as this scathing Danish comedy-drama aptly illustrates. Director Paprika Steen’s latest serves up a wickedly funny take on a group of upscale parents who have enrolled their children in an elite private school designed to help kids maximize their potential. Despite their seemingly good intentions, however, the parents in this story unwittingly compete with one another to be the best über-moms and dads possible, particularly when it comes to showing off their degrees of social consciousness and political correctness. In the process, they ostensibly engage in polite but toxic games of one-upsmanship with each other, a form of posing that eventually transforms supposedly enlightened discussions into bitter arguments that violate their so-called principles, accompanied by bad behavior that makes anything their kids do look tame by comparison. Much of this plays out at a getaway country weekend for the parents and their children, where a type of unconscious role reversal takes place in which the grownups show their true colors on a variety of fronts as their more mature kids look on in shock, disbelief and contempt. Some may view all this as a mean-spirited exercise, but it’s actually spot-on when it comes to poignantly portraying the hypocrisy of those who believe that their you-know-what doesn’t stink. Given the multiple characters and story threads at work here, the film can be somewhat episodic at times, and a few of the narrative tracks don’t feel fleshed out as fully as they might have been. Nevertheless, this offering paints an authentic picture with its share of incisive dramatic moments, as well as ample biting humor that’s depicted directly, by implication and even in deftly placed nonverbal visuals. When viewed in this context, it’s apparent that there’s a lot more going on here than may initially and superficially meet the eye. There’s a great deal of insightful material tightly packed into this package, but it mostly involves things that need to be said – and, ultimately, in ways that are very much in your face. Let’s hope that those who need to get the film’s message indeed do considering what’s at stake.

“Kalev” (Estonia) (3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), (7/10) Web site Trailer

Sports dramas – especially those where the athletes are competing under trying conditions – have become a staple in the movie industry over the past few decades. They all tend to follow a fairly standard formula in which underdog competitors aspire to greatness while wrestling with ancillary challenges that threaten to derail their efforts, divert their focus and force them into difficult choices. These pictures also feature common themes like inspiration, tenacity and the virtues of teamwork. And we all know the outcomes of these pictures going in, so their conclusions rarely, if ever, come as a surprise; the suspense is in watching how our heroes overcome their ordeals and reach their destinations. Such is the stuff of the latest offering in this genre, “Kalev,” the fact-based story of the Estonian national basketball team in its 1990-91 bid to win what would be the final USSR Basketball Championship before Estonia declared independence from a Soviet Union that would collapse not long thereafter. Writer-director Ove Musting successfully hits all the right (i.e., expected) notes and throws in a few delicious unanticipated twists in this feature film debut, an economically told and edited offering that moves along at a refreshingly brisk pace, punctuated with stirring re-created game sequences that make viewers feel like they’re right in the middle of the action. While the narrative and screenplay might have benefitted from a little more originality, that’s a minor concern in the overall scheme of things given how many aspects it gets right. Die-hard sports fans (particularly basketball lovers) will surely enjoy this one while learning a little more about the inner workings of Soviet politics and the fates of the courageous Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) that led the charge in breaking free from the oppressive rule they were forced to live under for decades. Here’s to the winners!

“Orchestra” (“Orkester”) (Slovenia) (3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), (7/10) Web site Trailer

They say that “What happens in Vegas, stays on Vegas.” And, based on this second offering from writer-director Matevž Luzar, the same could be said for the members of a Slovenian brass band on tour in rural Austria. Told in a series of interlaced vignettes, this monochrome comedy-drama follows the exploits of these hard-partying musicians who seem more preoccupied with having a good time than with the performance they’re about to give. The story threads involve both those on tour, as well as their families left behind at home, all of whom engage in their share of comparably fun-loving but often-questionable behavior. Through the various segments, an array of revelations emerge, many of them humorous though karma-laden and not especially honorable, essentially engaging in actions that could best be summed up as adults behaving badly. The strands of this tale don’t exactly send complimentary messages or present examples of conduct particularly worth emulating, though they do spotlight the perils and consequences of comeuppance, often with hearty laughs. Not all of the sequences work equally well, but those that hit the mark do so with a clever mix of both subdued, rapier wit and raucously outrageous sight gags, along with poignant dramatic and emotional moments that give viewers pause to think. “Orchestra” may not be especially memorable cinema, though it is a modestly amusing guilty pleasure that’s a fun way of spending a few hours at the movies.

“The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciúin”) (Ireland) (3.5/5); Metacritic (7/10), Letterboxd (3.5/5), (7/10) Web site Trailer

Truly affecting domestic dramas are among my favorite types of films, and writer-director Colm Bairéad’s debut narrative feature takes a noble stab at the genre, one that’s tender and moving but that doesn’t quite land itself in masterpiece territory. Set in rural Ireland in 1981, this film, whose dialogue is mostly in Irish Gaelic, tells the story of a misunderstood young girl, Cáit (Catherine Clinch), whose dysfunctional family can’t be bothered with her, so she’s sent to live with her mother’s relatives for the summer until Mam delivers yet another child who’s likely to be just as unwanted as she is. While separated from her parents and siblings, however, she discovers a whole new way of living – and loving – with people whom she’s never met. And her presence in their household does much to rejuvenate their lives as well, a relationship that benefits all concerned – that is, until it’s time for Cáit to return home. The emotions stirred here are indeed palpable, but, given the picture’s novella source material, the narrative is a tad thin, requiring the picture to be embellished with plenty of gorgeous nature shots, emotive closeups and a heart-tugging background score to shore up the lean aspects of this offering. There’s certainly nothing wrong with any of that; in fact, it provides viewers with more than most other comparable releases supply. However, as an offering that earned best foreign language/international film nominations at both the BAFTA Awards and the Oscars, I expected more, a film that would truly have me more engaged and potentially on the verge of tears at any time, goals that came up a little short. It certainly raises important issues related to child neglect and emotional abuse, and it shows that change is possible where such circumstances prevail, but it just didn’t grab me that way I would anticipate a picture like this should. Enjoy it, but don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t live up to your expectations as well.

L’Immensità” (“The Immensity”) (Italy/France) (3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), (6/10) Web site Trailer

How frustrating it can be when you watch a movie that has a lot of tremendous moments but doesn’t hang together well as a complete whole. Such is the case with this latest offering from writer-director Emanuele Crialese, which tells the story of a family in the midst of multiple domestic crises. Set in Rome in the 1970s, the picture follows the life of Clara (Penélope Cruz), the depressed wife and mother of three who’s married to an abusive, philandering, often-disconnected husband (Vincenzo Amato), and her attempts to cope with her circumstances. Clara loves her children dearly, but the young ones all have challenges of their own, especially her eldest, Adriana (Luana Giuliani), a teen who’s struggling with gender identity issues. Clara and Adriana seek various forms of escape, as depicted in several fantasy sequences and regular forms of play (all captured with a terrific sense of humor), but are those diversions enough to take away their heartache? The film also seeks to address a number of Italian cultural matters, such as the privileged role of men and the expected subservient place of women, dynamics that unfold in the principal narrative as well as in ancillary story threads. Sadly, while these are all noteworthy elements of the story, there’s a little too much going on for the picture to hold everything together cohesively, especially when crammed into is relatively brief 1:37:00 runtime. Also, a number of the story’s aspects are presented a little too vaguely for my taste, leaving them open more to ambiguous, unfocused interpretation than nuance or even bona fide clarity. To its credit, however, when the sequences work, they do so quite effectively, in large part thanks to the fine performances of Giuliani and, particularly, Cruz, whose ravishing elegance recalls a young Sophia Loren. It’s unfortunate that this offering isn’t better fleshed out; it could have stood to either have some elements cut out completely or to expand and elaborate on others, improving the overall narrative. As it stands now, however, this release feels choppy, underdeveloped and incomplete, despite the strength of those aforementioned moments. Those are the sequences that make this offering work; it’s just a shame that there weren’t more of them and that they were better tied together.

“Talking About the Weather” (“Alle reden übers Wetter”) (Germany) (3/5); Letterboxd (3/5), (6/10) Web site Trailer

What truly makes us happy in life? Is it our ability to impress others with our accomplishments and an impressive body of knowledge? Or is it the simple things, like family, friendly conversation and spending time in the company of those we love? Those are the questions posed in writer-director Annika Pinske’s debut feature. The film tells the story of Clara (Anne Schäfer), a middle-aged college lecturer and doctoral candidate living in Berlin who seems confused and uncomfortable with her existence. That gets called into question when she pays a weekend visit to her hometown in rural eastern Germany, a community that was once part of Communist East Germany and has had trouble adjusting to Western economic and social ways. The contrasts between these two locales couldn’t be more extreme – an academic ivory tower enclave in a cosmopolitan city and a folksy, economically challenged village where life is comparatively simple. The differences in atmosphere and attitudes are also palpable; Clara’s life in Berlin is filled with toxic psudointellectual toadies deeply engaged in mental masturbation and professional one-upsmanship, while the country folk – who are often looked down upon as homespun rubes – converse about things like the weather, the arrangement of items on platters of food and the people around them. The question for Clara then becomes, which of these options is more fulfilling? This sentiment may not be especially original, though it’s good for us as social beings to be reminded of it now and then, and that’s what this film seeks to achieve. Regrettably, it doesn’t pull off that accomplishment as well as it might have. The opening segment, before Clara embarks on her trip, goes on far too long and really runs the stilted intellectual discussions between her and her peers into the ground, making viewers wonder what exactly are they watching. It’s only when we see her out of her collegiate element that the purpose behind much of what preceded it becomes clear, and that subsequent segment, unfortunately, tends to get short shrift and is often presented in a fashion whose message and character are a little too obvious. Better balance in the writing, editing and directing would have helped immeasurably and made the film and its meaning more effective. But, then, for a first-time feature, I suppose it takes a new director some time to get these kinds of things sorted out a little better, and that’s apparent in the final product here. It represents a nice try for a filmmaker who appears to have some potential but who needs to get the kinks worked out of her material going forward.

“January” (“Janvāris”) (Latvia/Lithuania/Poland) (2/5); Letterboxd (2/5), (4/10) Web site Trailer

The 1991 independence movement led by the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in the days preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union was a dynamic but dangerous time in the re-emergence of those nations as sovereign states, a subject that has provided the basis for a growing number of recent cinematic releases. Because of these conditions, it was also a time when the citizens of those republics had no clear indication of what the future would hold. Could they successfully break away, or would they come under the harsh retribution of their superpower occupiers? And what did those residents think about these possibilities – should they support revolution or remain ostensibly loyal to those who could potentially crush them with little effort? When these circumstances are added to the personal uncertainty associated with someone who’s in the throes of coming of age, these questions loom even more profoundly. Such is the case in this historical drama about an aspiring young Latvian filmmaker (Karlis Arnolds Avots) looking to find himself amidst all of the surrounding chaos, both in his homeland and in neighboring Lithuania, either as an experimental auteur or a documentarian of what was transpiring around him. The protagonist also wrestles with an on-again/off-again romance involving a cinematic colleague (Alise Danovska), as well as his decision of whether or not to honor his Soviet conscription obligation. On the surface, all of this would appear to offer the makings of a powerful, compelling, first-class drama, but the unbalanced execution of writer-director Viesturs Kairiss’s narrative keeps the film from living up to that potential. The principal issue here is a story that takes far too long to get off the ground, incorporating a wealth of easily excluded extraneous material that adds little to capturing the character of the time and the merits of its associated scenario. And, when things finally do get on track, there’s a good chance viewer interest may have been lost long by that point (I know it was with me). It’s baffling that this offering was considered worthy enough to win the best international narrative feature at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, along other comparably dubious accolades. In short, this should have been a terrific picture, but, unfortunately, it represents a lost opportunity for telling an engaging story about a tense time and how a lost soul tries to find his place in it.

L’employée du mois” (“Employee of the Month”) (Belgium) (0.5/5); Letterboxd (0.5/5), (1/10) Web site Trailer

It’s hard to convey my level of disappointment (and disgust) when it comes to this perfectly dreadful movie. As one of the pictures I was most looking forward to seeing at the festival, I walked out thoroughly appalled by what I had just watched. What should have been a screwball dark comedy, with a premise loosely based on elements from the classic workplace farce “9 to 5” (1980) and the long-running hit TV sitcom The Office, somehow managed to find ways to completely miss the mark from start to finish. To begin with, as a picture that’s supposed to be a comedy, it simply wasn’t funny, with virtually every bit failing to land. Then there was the pacing, which was far too laborious for a story that should have moved by at breakneck speed. But, perhaps most importantly, writer-director Véronique Jadin doesn’t appear to have a handle on what distinguishes macabre humor from nasty, mean-spirited poor taste. I can’t believe how many times during the picture I caught myself saying “There’s absolutely nothing funny about that.” And, even if this production were meant to be a goofy, gory tale a la movies like “Raw” (2016) or “The Columnist” (“De kuthoer”) (2019), it’s not nearly campy, creative or playfully over the top enough to be able to pull off that feat. What’s more, the film’s attempts at making statements about equal pay, toxic masculinity and sexual harassment in the workplace are far too obvious and heavy-handed, expressing sentiments that virtually anyone save for those who’ve spent years living in a cave should readily be able to recognize without being beaten over the head. Thankfully, the only saving grace here is the picture’s mercilessly short 1:18:00 runtime, but even that feels eons longer than it actually is. I suppose the most troubling thing I find about this offering, however, is that I actually heard audience members laughing during this travesty. It made me wonder about people these days and how they could possibly see the humor in any of this. There’s a big difference between a deft touch and a sledgehammer approach, even in dark comedies, but the filmmaker apparently doesn’t recognize it, and that shows in her work.

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

Thursday, March 23, 2023

‘The Quiet Girl’ explores reversing neglect

“The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciún”) (2022). Cast: Catherine Clinch, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Michael Patric, Kate Nia Chonaonigh, Joan Sheehy.  Director: Colm Bairéad. Screenplay: Colm Bairéad. Book: Claire Keegan, Foster (2010). Web site. Trailer.

Everything in life requires attention. And, the more precious, special or complex something – or someone – is, the more crucial the provision of that kind of regular care and consideration becomes. But, regardless of how much attention is supplied in any of these cases, the one thing that absolutely cannot be tolerated is neglect, particularly when applied willfully or when it involves anything or anyone of a vulnerable nature. Such disregard is capable of being overcome, though, as seen in the touching new Irish domestic drama, “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciún”).

Life can be lonely in a rural setting, especially for children and particularly for those who don’t exactly live up to what others expect of them. Such is the case with Cáit (Catherine Clinch), a young girl of few words who lives with her family in the Irish countryside. Her parents, Mam (Kate Nia Chonaonigh) and Da (Michael Patric), don’t seem to understand her, but, then, they also don’t make much of an effort to try to do so, either. Mam is busy making babies and trying to keep up with managing the rest of the family (a task made all the more difficult by her apparent battle with chronic depression), and Da is so self-absorbed in his own little world of sports, drinking and philandering to care much about his sensitive, misunderstood daughter (or anyone else in the family for that matter).

That intentional neglect wears on Cáit, who increasingly shrinks away from others as she quietly and sadly tries to figure out what’s going on around her. Her withdrawal often results in awkward behavior and neurotic clumsiness as she senses more and more that her parents, siblings and peers just don’t care about her, an assessment that, unfortunately, rings all too true. In fact, as Mam approaches the birth of yet another child, she reaches the point where she can’t deal with her daughter any more, even though Cáit’s not done anything inherently disruptive, annoying or inflammatory. And, after Mam discusses the issue with Da, they decide that they’d be best off sending Cáit away for the summer, at least until the baby is born. It’s a solution they believe to be best, the only downside being that Da resents having to make the five-hour drive to drop off his daughter at the home of her new caretakers.

Shortly thereafter, Cáit is left in the hands of Mam’s cousin, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley), and her husband, Seán (Andrew Bennett), who live on a farm not unlike the one where the young lass came from (except that her cousins’ place is far more tidy and orderly). Eibhlín and Seán take an immediate liking to the new arrival. They see her as a reserved but sweet girl, despite the disdainful impression Da tries to convey about her. Needless to say, given these mixed signals, Cáit is unsure about what she’s getting herself into, but, once her father departs, circumstances begin to change drastically.

Upon arrival at the home of her new caregivers, Cáit (Catherine Clinch, left), a reserved, misunderstood and neglected young lass living in rural Ireland, is warmly greeted by her cousin, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley, right), in the new domestic drama, “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciún”). Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

Under the tender, attentive care of Eibhlín and Seán, Cáit finally begins to receive the kind of loving and nurturing that she wasn’t receiving at home. Admittedly, she’s somewhat apprehensive about it at first, considering that she’s never been the beneficiary of such attention. Yet, slowly but surely, it allows her inner warmth to emerge, a quality that both bolsters her sense of self-worth and brings profound (and apparently renewed) joy into the lives of her caretakers, who are still recovering from a painful tragedy of their own. The members of this new de facto family all benefit tremendously from one another’s company, and, even though not everything goes perfectly, their respective circumstances vastly improve, making everyday living far more enjoyable and fulfilling than any of them have experienced in a long time – or ever.

As the summer winds down, however, the time approaches for Cáit to return home, something that everyone quietly dreads. Cáit, Eibhlín and Seán have found genuine happiness during their time with one another, and they’re not anxious to see it end. Likewise, they each can’t imagine what life is going to be like with a return to the way things were before they spent their time together. Indeed, the threat of losing all the good they built with one another hangs over them like a dagger, and, as they make the five-hour journey back to Cáit’s home, the prospects of what comes next are all that any of them can think about.

Given the unrelenting despair that Cáit initially experiences, she might legitimately begin to believe that there’s no other way to live. The anguish, disappointment and neglect that she repeatedly endures are so pervasive that they could well be taken as a given, a fate to which she must become reconciled. However, at the same time, when she sees others living lives different than that, some part of her must become convinced that alternatives are indeed possible. The question, of course, is how does she access them? And, as the story begins to unfold, she gradually comes to discover that the answers are closer at hand than she might have allowed herself to believe.

That word – “believe” – is crucial to unlocking this puzzle. In light of the unending ordeals that she’s been subjected to, Cáit’s initial belief about the world is that these conditions intrinsically provide the basis of her existence. However, when she sees the lives of others and compares them to her own experience, some part of her consciousness must begin to believe that she can tap into those alternatives as well. And, once she allows herself to buy into that notion, doors begin to open up to take her to them. Those altered beliefs provide access to new opportunities, new ways of living far different from what she has been accustomed to. That shift is made possible by the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our reality is shaped by the power of these intangible resources, for better or worse. And, even if she’s not aware of this school of thought, as her odyssey plays out, she begins to understand how its principles work and how she can make use of them to forge a new life for herself.

Cáit (Catherine Clinch), a reserved, misunderstood and neglected young lass living in rural Ireland, tries to figure out the confusing world that surrounds her in director Colm Bairéad’s Oscar-nominated debut feature, “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciún”). Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

That, obviously, is manifested through her stay with Eibhlín and Seán, who show her an entirely different way of living. The love and nurturing she experiences under their care illustrate how life can change in ways that are more suitable than what she has typically known. As she becomes accustomed to this, she embraces it as a new given, one that effectively allows her to shed what no longer serves her – the old way of life that she has left behind. And, considering what she receives in return for making this adjustment, it’s more than an equitable exchange. It’s no wonder that she’s reluctant to return to her old life when the summer is over.

A comparable change occurs for Eibhlín and Seán, too. Given the pain they endured after their personal tragedy, a huge void was left in their lives – and their hearts. That’s where Cáit’s entrance into their existence comes into play. She helps to fill that gaping hole in their everyday lives, giving them purpose and someone to whom they can share the wellspring of love that they have to offer. Cáit gives as much to them as they give to her, and all it took for Eibhlín and Seán to realize this was a comparable change in their beliefs in this regard, the result being a win-win for everyone.

This scenario illustrates what’s possible when like-minded individuals combine their efforts in an act of co-creation. By aligning their beliefs and pooling the power behind them, such acts of collaboration can yield remarkably satisfying and fulfilling outcomes. I’m sure that Cáit, Eibhlín and Seán would heartily concur with this conclusion in light of what they jointly brought into being. And, by doing so, they set a valuable example for those looking to do the same, no matter how daunting or unlikely the circumstances may seem at the outset.

Of course, making this happen requires a degree of faith in being able to realize the desired outcome. That can certainly test one’s resolve, whether working individually or jointly with others. But, as noted earlier, when we observe others achieving what they seek to attain, that knowledge can quietly and significantly bolster our convictions, enabling us to empower those beliefs toward fulfillment.

This can be challenging, however, especially when we’ve been a party to creations that ultimately prove unsatisfying. In fact, one might legitimately wonder why anyone would manifest such questionable outcomes in the first place, an argument with genuine merit. Indeed, why would Cáit, Eibhlín and Seán saddle themselves with such circumstances? But, then, as many of us often discover, experiencing the absence of what we want can help us to envision – and appreciate – what’s missing, especially when the desired results at last materialize. Cáit, Eibhlín and Seán come to find this out for themselves, and, based on their reaction, it’s readily apparent how much they value what they’ve produced. We should all be so fortunate in our own endeavors.

In the hands of attentive new caregivers, Cáit (Catherine Clinch, right), a reserved, misunderstood and neglected young lass living in rural Ireland, embraces the nurturing and attention afforded her by her loving cousin, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley, left), in director Colm Bairéad’s Oscar-nominated debut feature, “The Quiet Girl” (“An Cailín Ciún”). Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

Based on author Claire Keegan’s 2010 novella, Foster, “The Quiet Girl” addresses the impact that willful neglect can have on the impressionable among us (particularly children) and what can result when the issue is ameliorated through much-needed love, attention and nurturing. In that regard, writer-director Colm Bairéad’s debut narrative feature does a fine job in examining this matter. Set in 1981 with dialogue mostly in Irish Gaelic, this offering tells its story with ample sensitivity and compassion, augmented by gorgeous cinematography, a beautiful background score and fine performances by its ensemble cast. However, given that this film is based on a short work of fiction, the narrative is inherently a little thin, despite the palpable emotions it stirs. Because of that, the filmmaker tends to over-rely on such devices as frequent nature shots and emotive closeups to shore up the lean aspects of this story. There’s certainly nothing wrong with including elements like this; in fact, they provide viewers with more here than what most other comparable releases supply. But is this enough? Indeed, truly affecting domestic dramas are among my favorite types of films, and the director takes a noble stab at the genre in this release, one that’s tender and moving but that doesn’t quite land itself in masterpiece territory. Enjoy the picture for what it says and the message it seeks to convey, but be careful not to be taken in by the somewhat overblown hype that it has been accorded. As an offering that earned a BAFTA Award nomination for best adapted screenplay and BAFTA and Oscar nominations for best foreign film, I expected more, a tale that would truly have me more engaged and potentially on the verge of tears at any time, goals that came up a little short. The picture is playing theatrically.

Growing up is difficult enough in itself, but, when it’s weighed down by issues like those depicted here, which no one should have to endure during what’s supposed to be a time of sweet innocence, it can become unbearable, if not downright tragic. Fortunately, there are those out there who are capable of stepping up and setting things to right. That’s especially important when it comes to reversing the effects of the kind of uncalled-for neglect to which this film’s young protagonist is so cruelly subjected. A little care, attention and thoughtful consideration can make a world of difference, particularly when it comes to adjusting the life path on which someone so vulnerable is set. Cáit is lucky to have the new caregivers who entered her life. All children should be so fortunate.

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

Monday, March 20, 2023

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "All That Breathes" and "Chrissy Judy," as well as a trifecta of Oscar coverage, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

A noble pursuit takes flight in ‘All That Breathes’

“All That Breathes” (2022). Cast: Salik Rehman, Mohammad Saud, Nadeem Shehzad. Director: Shaunek Sen. Web site. Trailer.

Lofty notions are often seen as impractical and unrealistic. And, indeed, they’re frequently looked upon as impossible to implement given their staggering requirements and essential commitment. But that’s not to say that they can’t be accomplished with the right amount of determination and a strong faith in the possibility of their fulfillment. One such instance is aptly and beautifully chronicled in the uplifting new documentary, “All That Breathes.”

The Indian capital of New Delhi is a city beset by an array of challenges. With an urban population of 11 million and another 17 million in its adjacent Delhi capital district, it’s the world’s second largest metropolitan area. And, with so many people packed into such a concentrated area, the city and its surroundings suffer from environmental issues, most notably its suffocating air quality, which the World Health Organization designated as the worst on the planet in 2014. This has led to severe health problems – particularly those of a respiratory nature – for many of its residents. But it doesn’t end there; it has also seriously impacted the city’s animal population, especially its birds (most notably its large flocks of black kites), who often become so impaired while in flight that they literally fall out of the sky.

In addition to these environmental issues, the Delhi region has increasingly become prone to civil unrest, with both demonstrations and street violence, often of a political and/or religious nature. The threats posed by these events often make life difficult for the locals, with protecting one’s personal safety and well-being becoming the top priorities. Indeed, with such immediately pressing matters necessarily taking precedence, it’s frequently impossible for many to be concerned with virtually anything else.

Indian bird rescuers Mohammed Saud (left) and Salik Rehman (right) attend to a black kite with a broken wing in their makeshift New Delhi avian hospital in the beautiful new urban wildlife documentary, “All That Breathes.” Photo courtesy of HBOMAX.

But those conditions don’t stop everyone from trying to make their city a more habitable place for both man and animal alike. That’s where the noble efforts of two committed brothers come into play. Since 2003, Nadeem Shehzad and his younger sibling, Mohammad Saud, have devoted their lives to the care and protection of Delhi’s ill and injured bird population (primarily kites) through a makeshift avian clinic in their building’s basement. In that time, they and their colleague, Salik Rehman, who joined their efforts in 2017, have nursed 20,000 kites back to health.

The lengths that these Samaritans go to in aiding their feathered friends are often quite astounding. As the film shows, they’ll engage in such actions as wading across bodies of water to rescue incapacitated birds, efforts that sometimes even put their own safety at risk. What’s more, considering the volume of birds under treatment at any given time, the wounded ones often occupy much of the available space in the brothers’ building. But it’s that kind of dedication that led to their establishment of Wildlife Rescue, an organization devoted to this cause. And this work didn’t go unnoticed by officials; for his efforts, Nadeem was recently appointed an Honorary Wildlife Warden of Delhi. He also honed his skills further in 2021, when he spent three months in the U.S. receiving training with bird rescue organizations.

A black kite receives a much-needed bath at the facilities of Wildlife Rescue, a bird rescue organization devoted to saving New Delhi’s ill and injured bird population, in director Shaunek Sen’s beautiful new Oscar-nominated documentary, “All That Breathes.” Photo courtesy of HBOMAX.

When there are so many challenges affecting us on a daily basis – especially in a city battling escalating social unrest and ongoing environmental issues – it may seem unfathomable that anyone could, or would want or be able to, spend time, energy and effort on an easily dismissed cause like bird rescue. But the trio working on this project clearly possesses an enlightened vision to view the bigger picture importance of this endeavor, employing a wider perspective. In times like these, strange as it may seem to some, such individuals are just as valuable to the continued existence of our world as anyone working on the front lines to address what are thought to be its most immediately pressing problems. Without those willing to take on challenges like these, there’s no telling where we might be headed in the long run.

Still, even with that knowledge, one might legitimately wonder why anyone would take up a task like this, especially since it’s one that may not attract wider attention, something that might also be accompanied by issues like a lack of support and, to keep it going, a lack of funding. Yet the brothers and their colleague carry on nonetheless, because they believe its goals can be fulfilled. And those beliefs are important, for they drive the process of what ultimately manifests, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the materialization of the world around us. It’s unclear whether Mohammed, Nadeem and Salik have ever heard of this school of thought, but, given their success, it’s quite apparent that they’ve mastered its principles and employed them to make their aspirations come true.

Bird rescuer Salik Rehman meets with one of his avian “patients” in documentarian Shaunek Sen’s second feature, “All That Breathes.” Photo courtesy of HBOMAX.

Perhaps the most important belief at work here is the rescuers’ conviction that everything is connected, both with humanity and all that resides in its surrounding environment. They take the view that the birds are just as vital to our existence as we are and that, consequently, they’re just as worthy of care and nurturing as we are when injured. This viewpoint is, arguably, broader than that held by many humans, taking into account an appreciation for everything that legitimately resides within our world. When such an understanding is embraced and employed, it demonstrates a degree of inclusiveness and compassion that a reality with so many innate problems must have if it’s to survive and thrive going forward. The trio of Samaritans here see the rich and diverse tapestry of our existence – and the need for each and every strand of it to be preserved and cared for lest it unravel into a collection of disconnected threads.

This is particularly true where the kites are concerned, as they are a bird of prey that’s essential to the proper functioning of the ecosystem. Their preservation is crucial if a harmonious balance is to be maintained in the environment. Were it not for them, the streets of New Delhi could well be vastly overrun for all manner of vermin, making an often-challenged ecosystem even more difficult to endure for all the creatures – man and animal – that inhabit its environs.

Practical considerations aside, however, the rescuers carry out their mission for an even more vital purpose – because it’s the right thing to do. Nadeem, Mohammed and Salik have a profound reverence for their world and everything in it, and they’re doing their part to so that said sacredness is maintained. This is their destiny, what conscious creators often call their value fulfillment, the act of being their best truest selves for the betterment and welfare of themselves and everyone around them. And, based on what’s shown in this film, it’s apparent they’ve lived up to every bit of that ambition.

New Delhi’s sizable black kite population is integral to the city’s ecosystem, but such issues as poor air quality threaten their well-being, as seen in the new documentary, “All That Breathes,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of HBOMAX.

In an age where selfishness has run roughshod over selflessness, it’s comforting to know that there are those out there who have not succumbed to these troubling circumstances. And, thankfully, evidence of this is generously served up in director Shaunak Sen’s poetic, gorgeously filmed documentary. The film is positively beautiful to look at and does tremendous justice to the dedication and compassion of these wildlife Samaritans. In doing so, the filmmaker offers poignant observations about the connections that bind all of us – both man and animal – to one another, despite whatever petty squabbles or secular considerations might attempt to get in the way, augmented by thoughtful voiceovers, a beautiful, atmospheric score, and stunning cinematography, particularly in its close-up footage of the black kites as they’re so lovingly nursed back to health. A few segments drag a bit, especially with their inclusion of a little too much needless incidental footage, but, if that’s the picture’s greatest failing, there’s really little to otherwise fault in this widely decorated release. This is the kind of film that beckons us to heed that age-old advice about taking time to stop and smell the proverbial roses – and to teach us all how to take flight as the truly concerted, humane individuals we’re capable of being.

“All That Breathes” has certainly garnered its share of recognition in the time since its release. The film captured the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema – Documentary category and the Cannes Film Festival’s Golden Eye Award, as well as being named one of the year’s Top 5 Documentaries by the National Board of Review. It also received nominations as best documentary feature at the Oscars, the BAFTA Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards. That’s quite a haul for a film with subject matter such as this. The film is available for streaming online.

The world could certainly use more individuals like the Samaritans depicted in this film. In fact, if we had as many people committed to projects like bird rescue as we do who are ready to engage in manmade conflicts, chaos and calamities, we would certainly find ourselves living in a very different world. That’s not to suggest such an outcome is unattainable, but it has to start with our beliefs – and changing them to pursue these goals instead of those pointless endeavors that so many are willing to take up. Now there’s an idea that could truly take off. And maybe, with an example to emulate like the one shown here, perhaps someday it will.

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