First Reformed [2018] – A Caustic Drama on the Existential Dread of a Clergyman

Man’s inner turmoil and his subsequent quest for spiritual redemption has always been the central theme of Paul Schrader, one of American cinema’s important screenwriter and director. Right from his early work as a screenwriter in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976) to his spectacular directorial ventures like Hardcore, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, American Gigolo, and Affliction, Mr. Schrader has had an abiding interest in alienated, lonely figures, struggling to achieve spiritual salvation from their repressive surroundings. In fact, Paul Schrader’s pet themes are very evident in the early image of Travis Bickle, the protagonist of Taxi Driver with a raging existential crisis; he sees the urban decay through his taxi, a sort of metal coffin symbolizing his extreme isolation. Now the legendary screenwriter returns with another somber portrait of a spiritually tortured individual, weighed down by feelings of guilt, despair and emptiness.

First Reformed (2018) could be considered as Schrader’s best feature since Affliction (1997), if not one of his career best. He takes all of his blistering pet themes and suffuses into 21st century concerns related to environmental degradation, moral corruption, political radicalization, etc.  First Reformed revolves around a grizzled priest (Ethan Hawke in a career-high performance), battling his inner demons. The basic premise and the fragmented, austere visual space (shot in 1:37:1 aspect ratio) immediately make us cinephiles remember two great works of the masters: Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963). Besides these cinematic references, Schrader tackles the transcendental motifs of Andrei Tarkovsky (especially, The Sacrifice). Toller is a pastor in name only, since the New York Dutch colonial-style church ‘First Reformed’ (built in the year 1767) serves as a local tourist attraction. Deemed as a ‘souvenir shop’ by the locals, Father Toller doesn’t have much of a congregation. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of easy gig the heavy drinking, 40-year-old divorcee Toller can keep up with.

 In the gloomy evenings, Father Toller isolates himself in his sparsely-furnished abode to write a journal, in order to examine his faith and emotional pain. Toller intends to ‘shred & burn’ the journal after a year. It’s a sort of confessional written with a whisky bottle at close, which ought to serve as a mental therapy. Toller’s assignment to ‘First Reformed’ Church was provided out of pity (due to Toller’s personal tragedy) by Reverend Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), who oversees a mega church (named ‘Abundant Life’), which indirectly assists the confluence of business figures, politicians, and other powerful people. One day, one of the very few members of the congregation approaches pastor for counsel. The member is pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried in a bit underused/underwritten character), who invites Toller to speak to her despairing husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is a radical environmentalist, who engages in a theological debate with Toller on how he could bring a child into this stark world that's gradually but steadily pushing itself towards apocalyptic environmental disaster. “Will God forgive us?”, the question posed by Michael echoes in Toller’s mind and coerces him to look into the void. In fact, the pastor’s grievances swiftly escalates after Michael’s tragic decision and when he learns about the crooked oil corporate bankrolling the church. As the 250th anniversary of the ‘First Reformed’ church comes close, Toller contemplates about committing an extreme act to purge the senselessness and apathy of the world at large.

Although a tale of spiritual and existential malaise, writer/director Schrader charges the narrative with black humor, observing the little affronts heaped upon Toller with a deadpan delight. Weekend visitors to the Church seem to be more interested in its gift shop souvenirs (t-shirts, caps, etc) than in its historical importance or unique architectural design. Reverend Jeffers berating Toller for not accepting the realities of his situation (“You’re always in the garden, even Jesus got out of the garden”) was another one of quietly amusing moments in the narrative. There are also several incisive moments where Schrader connects his audiences to the central perturbing question: “How can God forgive what humans have done to his creation?” From the deliberately pointed moment of Toller reminiscing to little school kids in the basement trapdoor that was once used for Underground Railroad (a network of safe-houses established during the 19th century by abolitionists to aid the escape of African-American slaves to Canada and other free American states) to confronting environmental degradation and monetization plus marketization of religion, the movie deeply grapples with moral vacuum stirred up by global economy demands.  

It all may make First Reformed sound a bit preachy. But Schrader largely channelizes the social and moral concerns through the very personal collapse of Toller’s resolute inner-self. Mr. Schrader artfully locks us within Pastor Toller’s head-space that it becomes hard to not vex over the world that's seen through his eyes. And hence the grim radicalization of Toller raises more genuine concern even more than the sociopathic leanings of Travis Bickle (though Toller says to Michael, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously”, he keeps on falling into the chasm). Moreover, despite the ambivalent, slightly positive ending there are no concrete resolutions to be found, only more thoughts to reflect upon.

Overall, First Reformed (113 minutes) is an enraging and bewitching work on a individual’s crisis of faith, awakened by the world hell-bent on its own environmental and social destruction. 


A Ciambra [2018] – A Perceptive Young Boy’s Life on the Fringes

Italian film-maker Jonas Carpignano’s neo-realist coming-of-age tale, A Ciambra (2018) is about a 14-year-old boy named Pio, growing up within a secluded and marginalized Romani (Gypsy) community in the Southwest Italian region of Giola Tauro, Calabria. Carpignano’s previous feature-length directorial debut, Mediterranea (2015) chronicled the tale of two refugees making their way from Africa to southern Italy. A Ciambra is an expansion of the premise, the director broached in his 2014 short of same name. He also smartly ties both his feature-length movies’ narratives together, by weaving a strong bond between Pio and the central character of ‘Meditteranea’, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), an immigrant from Burkina Faso. Moreover, by straddling the lines between documentary and fiction, Jonas Carpignano creates a rich cinematic tapestry revolving around two diminished and displaced communities without resorting to poverty porn. Like the old neo-realist cinema, A Ciambra possesses an unmistakable authenticity, deftly pulling us into the insular and unpredictable life of a chain-smoking, car-stealing teenager.

Cinema has long looked at Gypsy or Romani community with mistrust. Their penury, ostracism, and discrimination have largely been absent from popular narratives (Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders (2013-) series is an exception as it contained nuanced, complex Romani characters), as most films reduced the community’s existence into few punchlines. Of course, there have been vibrant yet obscure films about Gypsy people so as to rightly decimate the misunderstandings and myth-makings. Aleksandar Petrovic’s I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967), Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom (1993) & Korkoro (2009), and Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (1988) are some of the interesting ethnographic character studies of Romani, Gypsy people I have seen. Shot on a handheld 16 mm in cinema verite style, Carpignano’s movie withholds the same degree of verisimilitude. The Romani family – the Amatos – in A Ciambra play a version of themselves. The backstory Mr. Carpignano has divulged about (in interviews) how he came to meet the Amatos and make them chief subject of his movie is itself makes up for an intriguing drama. In fact, the director’s ability to perfectly capture the Amatos’ rough everyday life and dynamism in family relationships attracts our attention more than the familiar beats of the coming-of-age narrative.

Early into the film, we get acquainted with the bustling sense of chaos that drives the structure of every-day life for the Amatos. The camera conveys the rawness of 14-year-old Pio’s reality with everyone, from adult to children, are yelling or cussing. This parallel world has been previously made familiar to us with films like Pixote (1981) or City of God (2002). Kids casually smoke cigarettes in front of adults, easily distancing themselves from the adults’ lambasts. They aren’t even kids, but rather a mini-version of hustling adults. Once after establishing the delirious atmosphere and questionable morals of the Amato family, the director pulls back and gradually addresses their concerns in life in a more humanistic way. At some point, after closely watching their confined lives that’s devoted to commit organized yet petty crimes for making ends meet, we can’t help but feel that they have no other choice in life.

Pio already wants to prove his family that he is no longer a boy by joining his father and elder brother Cosimo’s criminal endeavors. Pio fervently follows Cosimo around, learning a thing or two in order to face his fears and exhibit his mettle. He picks up various tricks involved in car-thieving trade and other hustling trades, required to survive the streets. When Pio’s brother and father are caught by police, Pio sets out to fill their shoes and provide for his extended family. He befriends an African man Aviya, whose presence provides Pio a sense of calmness and level-headedness. Earlier, Cosimo and other family members exhibit their prejudices and mistrust about the emerging African immigrant community, who live in huts, barracks, caravans, and tents like Romanis once lived. Pio’s tentative friendship with Aviya (almost becomes a substitute for Cosimo) provide him the window to look into African community, who share the same invincible human spirit similar to the Romanis. But there are limits to this budding friendship, which Pio harshly learns later in the narrative.  

Director Jonas Carpignano’s style very much resembles social-realist films of Dardenne brothers. The camera strictly attunes to Pio’s narrow, restricted worldview, as he’s constantly on the look-out for ways to exploit his surroundings. Cinematographer Tim Curtin swiftly throws us into the chaos of a family dinner or thieving job, leavening the scene with natural energy. It serves the basic cinematic aim of enclosing audience within the different world. The issues surrounding the marginalized community are subtly shown without any overt preaching. The only exception to that is the indelible moment Pio share with his reticent grandfather, who bestows Pio the wise advice essential for their survival: “Remember, it’s us against the world.” Mostly director Carpignano intimately focuses on the anxieties and longing of the young boy. As a matter of fact, the director’s attempt to construct a standard story-line with three-act structure does make certain elements repetitive and contrived.

The family members’ real challenges in life itself may contain countless dramatic arcs than this manufactured coming-of-age plot-line. Moreover, Carpignano’s sense of fiction, especially in the second-half, follows a very predictable path. Nevertheless, due to the emotionally resonant relationship between Aviya and Pio, and because of the gut-wrenching climactic portions, we eventually receive a much enriched adolescent ‘rite-of-passage’ story. The non-professional Pio Amato does a wonderful job in conveying the look of uncertainty and fear plaguing a boy at the crossroads of adolescence (a worthy contender to Charlie Plummer’s tender performance in ‘Lean on Pete’). The other non-professional players (the whole Amato clan and group of African immigrants) have done a fine job in keeping together the raw, morally relative developments of the story. Altogether, A Ciambra (118 minutes) is an engrossing work of contemporary neo-realism, enlivened by the director’s eye for details and vivid textures in portraying an impoverished, crime-ridden community. 


Tickets [2005] – One Journey and Three Nuanced Tales of Self-Discovery

A train journey offers a host of amusing possibilities. A train environment possesses wider social canvas, through which we get to learn different human contexts, discover friendships, and renew hope in humankind. In cinema, train has always been a significant backdrop. We cannot understand the terror the audience of 1896 must have felt when they saw Lumiere Brothers’ short black-and-white silent clip of a train rushing on to the platform of a station (the audience thought the train might burst out of the screen). From silent comedy masterpiece (The General) to Hitchcockian suspense (The Lady Vanishes) to the recent action thrillers like Snowpiercer & Train to Busan, trains were used as the perfect tools to generate the thrill of genre pictures. But rarely do we get to see a picture like Tickets (2005), which uses train as more than a genre attraction. It rather explores the transitioning inner emotions of people on the move.

‘Tickets’ (2005) is a portmanteau film, popularized by the old European film-makers (from 40s through 60s). Portmanteau films (or anthology films) are made up of two or more stories (each section directed by different film-makers) that mildly interrelate (and unified by same theme or genre). Making portmanteau films are bit tricky, since some directors may not respond better to the short-format challenge and as a result ruin viewers’ interest. Helmed by three renowned humanist film-makers Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami, and Ken Loach, ‘Tickets’ is blessed by the perfect unison of a humanist vision. Despite the differences in style and subject matter, there’s none of the uneven tone that plagues portmanteau films (Wild Tales is the best recent indication that portmanteau films aren’t wholly dead).

The project originated from the mind of Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami who suggested to his producers Carlo Crest-Dina and Babak Karimi about making three stories, linked by common themes. Kiarostami personally favored Olmi and Loach. Their mutual admiration of each other’s works initiated the project (first the idea was to make three segments of a documentary, but latter turned into a single, fictional feature). The three stories in the film are written in order (by Olmi, Kiarostami and Loach’s long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty), giving ample space for directors to build on the presented themes. The three stories are set in one train journey, from Central Europe to Rome. Although the characters in these different stories exist in their own isolated world, they form to be vital elements of a larger beautiful canvas.  

In director Olmi’s opening story, an elderly professor/scientist (Carlo Della Piane) reflects on the moments he just shared with the PR woman (Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi). The professor takes the woman’s friendly and charming nature and thinks of it as a possibility for romance. The memories of the past plus the idiosyncratic behaviors of the dining-car passengers interrupt the professor’s thoughts about the woman (kudos to gorgeous editing). He stops typing his business report on the laptop and opens a file to write a passionate letter for her. Olmi’s graceful direction gradually puts us in the perspective of the old man, riddled with hushed emotions. The professor also often takes a glimpse at a poor (Albanian) family, holding a crying baby, standing at the small space between the dining-car compartments. Since the professor’s romantic dreams are partly influenced by the images and sounds he hears around him, we wonder about the significance of this poor family at the compartment door-step. The director subtly plays with all these elements and weaves a kind of closure that’s nothing short of brilliant.

The middle story, directed by Kiarostami, revolves around a young man (Filippo Trojano) and a nagging old woman (Silvana De Santis). Their relationship isn’t very clear. They are traveling to Rome with second-class tickets, but occupy couple of reserved first-class tickets. The old woman’s demanding character nature is initially established with the verbal fight she has with another passenger. Filippo, who needs some breathing space, strikes up conversation with a smart 14 year old girl. The girl recognizes him since they are from the same town of Bracciano. Mr. Kiarostami extraordinarily makes use of first-person perspective (reminding us his 2002 film Ten) to dwell on the theme of detachment. It’s a very simple story with nothing dramatic, yet in the hands of Kiarostami, every gesture and dialogue looks compelling (also Kiarostami once again proves how language barrier isn’t a big thing for his humanist works).

The final section, directed by Ken Loach, is the most exuberant of the three. The characters are three Scottish young men & ardent Celtic supporters (Martin Compston, Gary Maitland, and William Ruane), traveling to Rome to see their team play in Champions League Final. They are just ordinary lads, working in a supermarket in Glasgow and must have rummaged through their savings to make this long trip. We are introduced to the characters through the typical but enjoyable brash talk (full of Glaswegian swear words). Their kindness is revealed as they share sandwiches with an Albanian boy. They chat with him and are delighted to know that the boy loves football. The Scottish trio give away sandwiches to the boy’s family (the same Albanian family we saw in the first story), comprised of a pretty elder sister, mother, grandmother, and the little baby. Mr. Loach earlier strikes off our preordained image about European football fans being prejudiced over the presence of immigrants. So, when they encounter a problem, which may or may not be caused by the Albanian family, it sets off a complex moral dilemma.

The film works largely due to the myriad ways the directors explore the profound thematic concerns. The themes examined ranged between class conflict, isolation, misconception, lack of communication, self-awakening, fear, memories, and human frailty. Yet, the directors don’t shove any particular themes on us through insipid dialogues. They let the themes unfurl in their own pace and style, and through their choice of characterizations. The result is a powerful and genuine study on the human condition. Moreover, the vibrant people in the three tales become microcosm of the dilemmas, agony, and pleasure we ourselves feel in a simple journey. The film is replete with small yet vital humane gestures. If our life is like a train journey, its beauty and importance lies in the showcase of love, empathy and sensitivity. A mere document of passage called ticket gives the characters a decision to make which may slightly transform their lives, or at least their preoccupations. The simple yet vital human gesture of the professor, the gentle conversation between Filippo and the teenager, the suspicions and sacrifices of the Celtic fans conveys a lot about our enduring humanity and the age we live in (marked by fear of terrorism, moral apathy, and alienation).

Often in portmanteau or anthology features, one tale would champion over others or falter so as to set up an erratic tone. It doesn’t happen with Tickets. Each tale is blessed with subtle directorial touches and naturalistic performances that it becomes hard to answer the question: which one’s the best? The first time I saw Tickets, I very much loved Ken Loach’s part, especially for its earthy and humorous tone (I was so elated by the final sequence). But after repeat viewings, I must confide that all the three tales are equally brilliant.

‘Tickets’ (109 minutes) is uniformly engaging and very rich in character as well as thematic details. These loosely inter-related tales may not be the greatest works of the three great auteurs. Nevertheless, this collective work on the ebb and flow of human connections is one of the very best portmanteau films ever made. 


Sweet Country [2018] – A Hard-Hitting, Socially Conscious Outback Western

Aboriginal Australian director & cinematographer Warwick Thornton’s subtle and unnerving directorial debut Samson and Delilah (2009) won the prestigious 'Camera d’Or' for best first feature film at the Cannes Film Festival. It was a fascinating study of the indigenous community, its identity, and the irreparable aftershock of colonization. Now his latest film Sweet Country (2018), a melancholic outback western, explores the fractured white-Australian national identity, the institutionalized racism, and the dehumanization plus disenfranchisement of the native populace. Sweet Country is also a remarkable character study, chronicling one oppressed man’s fight to survive in an unforgiving world. Director Thornton evokes the gorgeous visual tropes of classic Westerns, made by John Ford and Howard Hawks. But at the same time he eschews genre conventions and never shies away from pointing out how the Australian national identity evolved through the brutal appropriation of Aboriginal bodies, places, and culture. You could say that it’s an angry film, which enunciates the prejudice and violence that happens to have laid the foundations of modern Australia. But the rage is expressed in a nuanced manner, making it foremost ‘a good cinema’ and not just ‘a indigenous movie project’.

Based on a true story, this slice of Australian frontier history is set in its Northern territories in the late 1920s. The movie begins with a prolonged close-up shot of a boiling cauldron as we hear a fight breaking out between a white master and a black (aborigine) farmhand. It’s one of the many foreshadowing techniques Thornton employs to warn us of the inevitable brutality in this wilderness. Compassionate preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) lends his Aboriginal stock-man Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) to the odd new neighbor Harry March (Ewen Leslie) to work on his cattle station. March is a PTSD-afflicted war veteran and an alcoholic with a vicious temper. Sam takes his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and young niece to work on March’s farm. The bigoted March’s behavior instills unsavory experience for Sam and his wife.

On a neighboring farm lives Mick Kennedy (Thomas M Wright), yet another brute, who has a mixed-race son Philomac (played alternately by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). Philomac defies his master every chance he gets and sets off a chain of events that leads Sam to gun down mad March in self-defense. Sam has a good understanding of what he would be subjected to for shooting a ‘white fella’ (even in self-defense). So he and Lizzie go on the run. Meanwhile, a hotheaded police Chief Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) leads a posse to hunt down Sam. The posse that chases after Sam comes across conflicts and soon the hunter-hunted dynamics undergoes a change. Nevertheless, Thornton never leaves us in doubt about Sam’s fate. Tolerance, justice, culpability, and empathy are far-fetched concepts in these weather-beaten lands, where human minds are poisoned by institutionalized racism.

 Screenwriters David Tranter and Steven McGregor’s depiction of Aboriginal characters doesn’t make them one-dimensional good people. On one hand soft-spoken Sam’s spiritual connection to the country is evoked. On the other hand, there are indigenous characters like Philomac and Archie (Gibson John) who aren’t helpless victims and are rather driven to do or say anything to save their own skin. This de-romanticized portrayal of Aboriginal characters is pivotal to understand the aftermaths of slavery and colonization, where there isn’t a simple preordained category of ‘innocent natives’ and ‘brutal whites’. Archie, the Uncle Tom-type, is particularly an interesting character whose utterly submissive nature invalidates our easy moralizations. While Thornton zeroes-in on Aboriginal’s fear and lack of faith in white-man’s system, he also doesn’t forget to showcase the mood of insecurity and unease in the minds of white settlers. The white men’s inner conflict was very well fleshed-out as much as the tribal native people. Mick initially comes across as a villain like Harry March. But in the end he looks like a pathetic guy, never feeling at home in this relentlessly harsh landscape. Even Sergeant Fletcher doesn’t withhold one-note villainy and his impulse to avoid vigilante justice is unexpected. Thornton often counters the white community’s bigotry by the rare yet vital expression of empathy. The compassionate judge delivers true justice in the form of a fair trail. Nevertheless, individualistic expression of empathy is swiftly over-turned by the establishment hell-bent on ostracism, which gradually strips away the native’s rights, lands and bodies.

Warwick Thornton makes good use of the flash-forwards pointing to the stark events that are waiting to hit us on a gut level. It would be ridiculous to say that these flash-forwards makes things predictable; as if we could expect anything different in a system built on hate and distrust. Similar to Lynn Ramsay’s recent riveting drama ‘You Were Never Really Here’, these fleeting shots showcase the never-ending trauma stitched throughout time and history. The harsh beauty of outback is something repeatedly mentioned from the days of Wake in Fright & Walkabout (both released in 1971). So, it’s no wonder that Thornton captures the landscape in all its glory. There are few interesting ironical glimpses at white-Australian identity. It’s overtly evident in the scene where people of the lawless town watch 1906 silent film ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’. They are enchanted and empowered by the violence of the famous criminal figure, but they want to hang a ‘black-fella’ [who also has Kelly in his name] for shooting in self-defense. The performances throughout the film are brilliant with Morris, Sam Neill and Brown adding extra layers to their characters. Morris and other Aboriginal characters are played by non-professional actors who lend a fine authenticity to the proceedings. Thornton takes a less-is-more approach with Morris whose calm presence imbues a strong tone of tenderness and dignity to the narrative. 

Sweet Country (113 minutes) is a nuanced discourse on the trauma and suffering experienced under colonialism and systemic persecution. The slow-burn design may frustrate some viewers, but this understated sociopolitical drama is visually stunning as well as deeply emotional.