Of the films I have previewed in the 2015 edition of the annual New Directors/ New Films event, several especially impressed me on various counts. This is the 44th year of the important series, sponsored jointly by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and running from March 18-29.
“Court,” a film from India directed By Chaitanya Tamhane, in one respect reminds me of the Israeli film “Gett,” in that the action also takes place primarily in a courtroom over an extended period of time. In India, with a mixed cast of professional and non-professional actors, Tamhane’s vision lays bare the injustice done in a system that favors the entrenched upper class against those in a lower economic class.
Although we also catch glimpses of others brought before a the court, the focus is on a folk singer whose lyrics express the hopes of those who resist the system. He persists in performing his songs as free speech at rallies, and is stubborn in his refusal to knuckle under no matter how many times he is arrested and brought to court. We watch him facing a trumped up charge of causing a sewage worker to commit suicide as a result of being influenced by the lyrics.
We see the judge running his courtroom with only the outer appearance of justice, and a tough woman prosecutor with disdain for the defendant as she tries to convict him with phony evidence. The defendant’s lawyer tries hard to shatter the prosecution’s case, and if she can’t get the singer on one charge, she’ll come up with another.
In a kicker to the film we see the judge and his extended family going on vacation, and the judge stupidly advising the father of a boy with serious problems to try a superstitious home remedy, which suggests that if the judge has such backward thinking out of court, how can his intellect be relied upon in court.
An unusual and engrossing film from Israel is “The Kindergarten Teacher,” directed by Nadav Lapid. We meet the amazing Yoav, played by Avi Shnaidman, a five-year-old boy who creates and recites poetry on the spot as he paces back and forth in bursts of inspiration. The poems are sophisticated expressions of the sadness he feels in his life, poems far beyond his years.
He is in the class of a kindergarten teacher, Nira, played by Sarit Larry, who is astounded by the youngster and takes it upon herself to want to get his unique talent appreciated and recognized. The boy has been told by his father that his mother, estranged from his father, is dead, and the father couldn’t care less about poetry,
The teacher, who is married, becomes fixated on Yohav and tenderly looks after him. She even bathes him. In a New York school, if she were seen doing this, she would be misunderstood and wind up on the front page of the New York Post. As a matter of fact, having nothing to do with that sort of abuse, she goes further in a different way. Nira kidnaps the child in a scheme to disappear with him to where his poetry could be nurtured by her in her warped idea of being thus able to further his true genius.
Such a relationship is a sick one, and we find Nira in an impossible situation. It is hard to believe she would be that much off her rocker. But little Yoav can do more than create and recite poetry. He knows how to handle himself as a kidnap victim, as we see in a turn that the film takes.
“Parabellum,” set in Argentina and directed by Austrian filmmaker Lukas Valenta Rinner, reminds us of those who see the world in danger and are determined to get ready for the apocalypse by preparing to fight to stay alive. On the surface, things seem quite ordinary. Assorted types in Buenos Aires head off to what seems like a non-descript camp. But it is more than a camping trip. They are escorted into a remote area while wearing blindfolds. The locale is meant to be top secret.
We soon see them training, as if they were entering the military. At first the situation looks rather comical. Overweight and sedentary looking men and women are in for some tough exercising. (Some are in better physical shape than others.) The drill includes learning to fight and how to use weapons.
It is all very solemn, and after the men and women have gone through their paces, we get a vision at the end that is ominous and looks as if the payoff toward which they have been working has been set in motion.
Probably the most important film among those I experienced is “Listen to Me Marlon,” Stevan Riley’s documentary about Marlon Brando, which gives voice to the actor himself as we see him different perspectives. Yes, there are the customary clips from his films that show his prowess as an actor. But more unusual are audio recordings made by Brando himself, and visual clips of him answering questions with revealing responses.
We get an overview of Brando, including evidence of his strong feelings about issues close to his heart. In one clip he waxes eloquently about the horrific injustices done in America’s history to Native Americans. There is also the famous clip about his declining an Oscar via the speech of a Native American woman.
For all his achievements as an artist and citizen, Brando had a tragic life. His son Christian served a prison sentence for a shooting. His daughter Cheyenne was a suicide. We see Brando breaking up emotionally in trying to deal with his loss. In contrast with his eventual gigantic size, we see him as the handsome young man he was in his youth, on and off the screen. Riley has given us a moving portrait.
“Goodnight Mommy” is especially bizarre and should appeal to those who like films tinged with horror, especially if there is a mysterious twist. The film has been directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz of Austria, where the film takes place. The set-up involves nine-year-old twin boys, Elias and Lukas, and when we meet them, Elias keeps following Lukas around. Their mother has been gone, and when she returns from plastic surgery, her head is bound in bandages. The boys become fixated on the idea that she is not their real mother.
What follows is their effort to find out, including by brutal means. Suffice it to say that all is not what it seems, and by the time you are enlightened by the revealing twist at the end, you are either likely to enjoy what you learn and think the film is oh-so clever, or perhaps resent having been thoroughly manipulated. At the Museum of Modern Art and the Walter Reade Theater. Reviewed March 18, 2015.