PIFF's website at the NW Film Center
These two may be my favorites of all the ones I saw for PIFF.
Lion's Den (Argentina, dir. Pablo Trapero)
It's been a long time since I've seen as good an opening to a thriller as the first ten minutes of Lion's Den. Following a disconcerting animated credits sequence featuring a sing-a-long with South American children--I wondered it they had switched screenings on me--we get a series of quick-cut scenes where the film's heroine, Julia (Martina Gusman), slowly comes out of a state of shock to realize that there have been two bloody murders in her home. The way director Pablo Trapero (alongside three other writers) pulls you into the plot is deftly executed, moving rapidly to knock the audience off balance and put us in Julia's shoes.
Because from there, Lion's Den isn't really a thriller, but a prison drama about a young mother in a situation that has gotten out of her control. Unable to give a feasible account of the evening--which involved her lover and his boyfriend in a knife fight, leaving the boyfriend dead and the lover, Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro), badly wounded--Julia is locked up pending trial. Since she is a couple of months along in a pregnancy, she is assigned to a maternity ward where convicted mothers can raise their own children until they are four. Depressed and nauseous with morning sickness, Julia takes a while to adjust to life inside, but eventually she becomes part of the community, even taking a lover, Marta (Laura Garcia), and using her outside connections to get goods for the inmates. Several years pass, and all the while Julia keeps fighting for her freedom. When her mother (Elli Medeiros) tricks her into taking her young son away, however, everything unravels.
Lion's Den is a harsh story filmed in a gritty style and lacking in any overt sensationalism. The script taps into a universal fear--of being caught in a legal system you can't get out of and incarcerated--and adds a specific and unique wrinkle I don't think we've seen in cinema before. The maternity prison is like a daycare center in Hell, a lethal combination of violence, boredom, and dirty diapers. A unique setting is nothing without a great character, however, and Julia is a fully realized human being with a real journey to undergo. The selfish, bleach-blonde girl at the start of the picture is vastly different from the confident, fierce mother that exits the final frame. Outside of one previous acting credit (Trapero's 2006 film Born and Bred), Martina Gusman has almost exclusively been a producer up until now and even has an executive producer credit on Lion's Den. Whatever prompted the switch deserves some kind of tribute or monument, because she's utterly convincing as Julia. So much so, I have cause to wonder if she really was pregnant during shooting. If not, Gusman sported the most impressive prosthetic belly I've ever seen. The performance shows an amazing range that is likely only just scratching the surface of her ability.
The film ends somewhere in the same territory where it began, with final scenes closer to a thriller than the hard-edged drama that passed between. Yet, neither the beginning nor the end feel disjointed from the middle, the transitions are as natural as Julia's changes. Behavioral action drives life, and it can drive a very good movie, as well. Lion's Den is one to look out for.
Lion's Den plays on 2/20 and 2/21.
Martina Gusman at Cannes for Lion's Den (a.k.a. Leonera).
The Beaches of Agnes (France; dir. Agnes Varda)
The new film by Agnes Varda is the memoir of an inventor, an essay by a prankster, and a documentary about a life in cinema. Altogether playful and seductive, while also at turns heartfelt and poignant, The Beaches of Agnes frames the remembrances of the famed director--the feminine voice of the French New Wave--in a series of mirrors. Varda recreates scenes from her life and from her films, intercut with actual home movies, photographs, and clips from those same films, sometimes side by side with the reenactments. The new stagings reflect the settings as they are now, with the past being taken over by the present that has replaced it. In the case of fallen comrades, Varda casts their children in their roles, including a fantastic scene that conjures her debut feature, La Pointe-courte. Varda takes unseen footage of test films she shot with friends and mounts it on a cart that was pushed through a narrow alleyway in the movie. The man featured in the film died while his children were young, and they never knew him as he is in the grainy black-and-white footage. As they move the cart forward, they watch the old reel--the past leads them on.
In recent years, Varda has created many museum installations that combine actual objects with video, and in its way, The Beaches of Agnes is an extension of that. It's one big art happening, a live multimedia staging, beginning with Varda positioning mirrors along a sandy coastline and ending with her in a room built entirely of film strips. As much of her life has been marked by visits to beaches around the world, the seaside becomes her stage. The constant flow of the tide is just like the flow of time. At eighty, Varda has seen and done a lot and known some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. This film is a tribute to all of them and their accomplishments, be they moviemakers, bakers, or musicians. It is also a tribute to the connections they made along the way.
The Beaches of Agnes is never overly sentimental or self-pitying. Varda celebrates even as she mourns. That's why, even at a near two-hour running time, her peculiar autobiography never gets boring. For some who are not film buffs familiar with the director's work, there may be a feeling of "you had to be there" in some of the cinematic ruminations, but overall, a life glimpsed through such a colorful lens becomes the life of anyone who views it. If Agnes Varda is cinema, and cinema is its audience, then we are all Agnes Varda.
The Beaches of Agnes plays on 2/20 and 2/21.
Current Soundtrack: Ocean Colour Scene, On the Leyline; The Prodigy, "O (Noisia Remix)"
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All text (c) 2009 Jamie S. Rich