May 1, 2012

SFIFF 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Craig Phillips

Ok, Enough, Goodbye

[The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 3.]

The distinctly deadpan feature debut of Lebanese filmmaker Rania Attieh and her American co-director Daniel Garcia, OK, Enough, Goodbye is a warm but not overly sentimental, low-key character comedy. Like the Middle Eastern answer to Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man, the film concerns a 40-year-old schlub (Daniel Arzrouni) who still lives at home in Tripoli—a seaport city with a rich history dating back to the 14th century, which has since fallen on hard economic times.

The locale has an air of sadness about it; not just war-torn malaise but a feeling for things lost between generations, palpably seeping into this household as a mother regrets that her son is such a loser. She speaks of wedding ceremonies and gowns she used to make, while her sociophobic son can't get a date with anyone other than a prostitute. The unnamed protagonist works in a bakery and doesn't otherwise get out much. When his mother takes off unexpectedly, leaving him on his own, the story becomes about one man's searching—first for his ma, then for himself. It's hard to blame anyone's downbeat demeanor in a decaying, depressing environment, but this sourpuss only becomes more irritable after he's "abandoned." To the directors' credit, the film doesn't deride him but also isn't afraid to mine his neuroses for comedy.

The characters are candidly depicted in documentary-like interviews (one of whom is a neighbor child our sad-sack hero must babysit against his will), though the conceit is a bit awkward in conjunction with the film's running voiceover narration. But OK, Enough, Goodbye has an immediate, realistic feel that subtly grounds the humor. The energy level threatens to flag at times, but Arzrouni proves to be a compelling presence. He hires a poor Ethiopian maid to clean house, except she's really there to keep him company; of course, she doesn't speak a lick of Arabic and doesn't understand his rants. The unlikely pair, along with the neighbor boy briefly form an oddball family unit, at least until our momma's man finds himself a more fitting companion. And, OK, that's enough, goodbye.

Rebellion

After a foray into Hollywood as an actor (Munich, Haywire) and director (Babylon A.D., Gothika) following the critical success of La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz returns to France as the director of Rebellion, a provocative and highly effective thriller that trades on his dual history as provocative auteur and flashy studio hack. The film is based on a bloody 1988 incident that occurred in the French territory of New Caledonia; more specifically, Ouvéa Island, a deceptively beautiful tropical landscape that offers such Apocalypse Now-like imagery as helicopters against an orange Pacific sky.

Kassovitz also stars as Captain Legorjus of the Gendarmerie (military police), a skilled negotiator who is called in when indigenous Kanak separatists attack and take French soldiers hostage in an uprising. Legorjus is almost too compassionate for the job, butting heads with the more truculent soldiers who think of the natives as savages. While it's filmed from a French viewpoint, one gets a sense through the captain's open-mindedness that things are more turbulent than his countrymen pretend.

Well-paced and commendably tense, Rebellion unfolds as a commando flick with a ticking clock (there are only 10 days to find and negotiate with the hostage takers) but manages to navigate the political complexities—and absurdities—of the situation. A French general tries to take advantage of the event's unexpected "gift" by making a name for himself as a war hero; similarly, career-minded politicians are more concerned with elections than humanity, and a pompous French colonial minister rejects proposals while eating his luxurious breakfast. "Words always take longer than weapons," the negotiator reminds the minister, but words ultimately end up as deadly as harsh truths are revealed in what it means to be a "good soldier." The separatists aren't especially interested in talking; the rebel leader tells Legorjus that without the nickel in the mountains, the French wouldn't know they exist.

Rebellion runs a bit longer than necessary, but it's easy to appreciate Kassovitz's patience in letting details gradually unfold. Working with cinematographer Marc Koninckx, the film stunningly captures the exotic landscape—not just the jungle canopy but the rocky, volcanic terrain; an otherworldly maze of caves, craters, hiding places. While it's not peak-era Costa-Gavras, it's still mighty compelling material—and if you're not riveted by the tragic finale, tell it to the French government.

Winter Nomads

Manuel von Stürler's beautifully conceived Winter Nomads follows a shepherd and his young female apprentice as they trek across a snowy Switzerland. The journey is called "transhumance," a centuries-old and increasingly rare method of feeding sheep naturally in grassy areas. Von Stürler confidently shoots in a vérité style: there is no narration to explain who these shepherds are, their personalities and backstories trickling out along the journey, with only the occasional mingling of Olivia Pedroli's gentle guitar score to remind us there's a director behind it all.

It's hardly a Disney movie, but the exquisite milieu, adorable canines, comical sheep and donkeys make for a family-suitable nature travelogue. The narrative tension comes from man's relationship to beasts, or a man and his naïve, stubborn apprentice as she learns the surprisingly complicated ropes. They sometimes rely on the kindness of strangers (one nearly resident gifts them slices of leftover pizza), though not everyone is so neighborly about their route, and not all lambs are lucky enough to simply be used for sweaters.

Though reminiscent of the recent, Montana-set documentary Sweetgrass—also a vérité portrait of shepherds—von Stürler's film is more satisfying. One especially sweet scene features master and pupil celebrating Christmas, eating cake at their sodden camp as distant church bells ring out midnight mass. Winter Nomads is meditative, but never dull.



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Posted by ahillis at May 1, 2012 12:20 PM