Land and Shade [2015] – An Austere Art-House Drama with Painterly Visuals

The ruthless dimension of neoliberalism is the main culprit for the social problems faced by a Colombian family of four in Cesar Augusto Acevedo’s nuanced drama Land and Shade (2015, La Tierra y la Sombra). The land is scarred, covered with dust and soot due to the sugar industry’s controlled fires of the near-by cane fields. People are either displaced or succumb to prevailing diseases and poverty. The fragility of the powerless is plainly visible in the faces of people working on the charred fields with machetes. With no identity, history and sometimes even a family to hold onto, all these people hope for is the promised economic progress. But the overwhelming power leaves the poor people to be choked out in their own home. Land and Shade has a thread-bare narrative, which focuses on deepest human feelings than making a overt social message. The evocative static shots, punctuated by slow camera movements may keep many in a languid mood, while other patient viewers may experience the film’s nuanced quality of getting under one’s skin.

Director Cesar Acevedo confides that Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky are his favorite film-makers. It shows in the director’s film form, which is intent on capturing the inner passions underlying beyond the characters’ surface emotions. Acevedo observes space and time, the relation between bodies and emotions, and even the smallest of gestures to dig deep into the hostile capitalistic forces. The movie opens with a static, long shot as we see an elderly man named Alfonso (Haimer Leal) walking down a dusty road confined in-between lush cane fields. A giant truck attached with four big containers slowly comes up the road. Alfonso nestles himself inside the fields as the truck thunderously passes him, raking up huge clouds of dust. The bleak grey has long become the shade of this beautiful land. Alfonso has returned to his family in rural Colombia after a 17 year absence. He is there to look after his adult son Gerardo (Edison Raigosa), who has chronic respiratory problems from having worked on the sugar plantations. Gerardo’s wife Esperanza (Marleyda Soto) and Alfonso’s estranged, resentful wife Alicia (Hilda Ruiz) take the job in the fields.

The non-unionized work forces wastes away their health in the burned-out cane fields for a pittance. The poor family which can’t afford a doctor for Gerardo’s ailment could only close the windows to keep off air pollution (soot rain down from nearby burn-offs in the fields). Hence, Gerardo rests in room, enshrouded by darkness, indicating the inevitability of his fate. The sticky paws of giant industries hold the land in a way to shape the disintegration of family unit. Even the domestic interaction of family members often rests on the discussion of unceasing social troubles. The only person who still withholds the wonder for nature is Alfonso’s six year old grandson Manuel (Jose Felipe Cardenas). In the placid days, the grandpa and grandson build feeding table under a giant tree nearby, for the birds. But, death and agony always broods over the horizon. Death materializes in the way Gerardo is covered in white blanket when he lies on the backside of a small truck to go the hospital; pain reverberates in the frames, when the two women workers are ruthlessly exploited for paltry sum. What do these people do in such a wretched atmosphere? They keep open their hearts and just keep on going.

Director Cesar Acevedo and cinematographer Mateo Guzman, both working on their first film, have done a marvelous job in shooting the interior scenes with low lighting. In one scene, Alfonso opens a window when sitting for lunch with his grandson. The boy insists to close the window as no pollution can enter their little nest. The family’s survival depends on this wilful confinement. The majority of static shots open with characters already positioned in the frames indicating their confined status. In one sequence, there is the rare free-flowing camera movement, which actually turns out to be a dream sequence. Even in the outdoor shots, warm-palette coats the frames insinuating the dangers lying beyond their family unit. The birds (& the horse in dream) which symbolizes the freedom or freewill are never seen (only their soulful voices are heard). The long takes of Alfonso cleaning the dusty leaves and sweeping off the ash surrounding the green plants says a lot about the collateral damages of exploiting the land.

Acevedo’s storytelling method often dwells on the physical and emotional proximity of the characters. He finds tenderness and deep love in the smallest of gestures. Alfonso shielding Manuel and his ice cream from the dust; Gerardo and Manuel hugging inside the white blanket while traveling on the backside of truck; or the shot of estranged old couples jointly cleaning the body of their son – these smallest of things withholds immense power to straightly speak to our hearts. Amidst all the cruel situations, the simple movements to showcase love are captivating to look at. When Alfonso and his Alicia attain proximity they seem to attain it through shared love and pain. It may seem a very simple thing, yet it looked so beautiful to me. At times, the visuals do seem rigidly controlled, spreading a little disconnection from totally absorbing their suffering. Nevertheless, those are minor flaws in what could be called as a magnificent debut feature (Acevedo won Camera d’Or at Cannes, for best directorial debut). It is also understandable on why the director didn’t delve deeply into the story of cane cutters (played by real life workers). The intention was to just tell the simple story of a fragile family (the potent political statement could be saved for his next film. 



Land and Shade (97 minutes) is a glacially-paced poignant drama about the emotional and physical destruction of a vulnerable family unit. The muted and cumulative power of its visuals contemplates a lot about the belligerency of capitalism than any sharp statements. 



  La tierra y la sombra -- IMDb

The High Sun [2015] – Love Tarnished by Bitter Conflict

Croatian film-maker Dalibor Matanic made his directorial debut at the age of 25 with The Cashier Wants to go to the Seaside (2000), a darkly comic romance/drama. Unlike the majority of Balkan films made after the disintegration of Yugoslavia (in the early 1990s), Matanic’s works concentrates less on the politics and more on the themes of humanism. In his second film Fine Dead Girls, Matanic used acerbic characters, residing in a small apartment complex to weave a microcosm of the post-independence, recession-era Croatia. Despite cynicism and disturbing scenes of violence, Matanic’s central characters overcome their cursed fate through unbridled display of compassion and hope. The director’s eighth & recent film The High Sun aka Zvizdan (2015) is much broader in scope (both in terms of budget and theme) and he once again uses universal themes of love, hate, and passion to explore the fractured history of his nation.

The High Sun, winner of Jury Award at Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, follows the impact of ethnic hatred on the romantic relationship of inter-ethnic couples. The film tells three different stories, set in three different decades of two neighboring villages – one Serbian and other Croatian. The catch is that the same two lead actors play the different romantic leads in the stories set in the years 1991, 2001, and 2011. In the prewar story (in 1991), we see young Jelena (Goran Markovic) and Ivan (Tihana Lazovic) enjoying their idyllic summer day, cavorting on the edge of a beautiful lake. They are rebellious and so much in love that they have decided to leave their respective villages the next day and settle in Zagareb city. The Romeo and Juliet witnesses the first seeds of chaos as line of military jeeps move over the lush fields. Jelena’s elder brother Sasha is drafted to army and he seethes with rage for his sister choosing a guy ‘from the other side’. Sasha’s hate shines through Jelena and Ivan’s prism of love leading to a shocking end.

In the second episode (in 2001), the war is already over and a moody girl Natasa returns with her mother to war-torn family home, which is now in the enemy territory. The empty place reeks with the memory of Natasa’s brother who is killed in the war. Natasa withdraws herself into a shell as the mother tries to rebuild the place and life. A young repairmen Ante of the ‘other’ ethnic community is brought in to rebuild. There seems to be no chance for a romance between the young ones as Natasa can’t let go of the fact that Ante’s people were responsible for the death of her beloved brother. However, she learns how others have also suffered and cursed to be in a permanent state of despair. A reconciliation of sorts happens, yet the poisonous past hinders the blossoming of love. In the third episode (in 2011), university student Luka arrives for a party at his hometown. The good-old days seems to have returned to the town, yet the unhealed wounds of the past opens up when Luka goes to meet Marika, the lover whom he neglected. Luka hopes to find redemption and escape from the tragedy of the past.

The three episodes in The High Sun have a very simple and predictable narrative arc. Some may wonder if the film would have been more captivating with tight editing (the film runs close to 2 hours). But the slow-burning approach worked for me, thanks to interesting visual choices of director Dalibor Matanic. Matanic’s mature nuanced vision and attention to small details makes up for the easily foreseeable story arc.  Cinematographer Marko Brdar brilliantly captures the nature; he especially excels in arresting the sunlight within the frames. Matanic goes for Bressonian close-ups (of legs, hands – to portray the emotional unrest) than the traditional close-ups of the face. The magnificent landscape itself becomes one of the characters as it reflects the humans’ inner wounds. The paradisiacal Lake present in the three episodes of the film is amazingly showcased. A dip in the lake in the respective romantic tales provides a purifying experience. The other recurring visual motif in the film is the silent witness. In fact, silent witnesses are always present in Matanic’s films. In The High Sun, a watchful dog and a compassionate dad are the silent witnesses. They are just like us with no control over the events, yet forced to watch everything. Doors, gravestones, and dark tunnel-like passages are the other recurring visual motifs. These motifs either signals the freedom of an individual from his/her own bruised self or their inability to escape the dark past.     

Director Matanic’s visual flair stands out in three sequences: the aggression and tension towards the end of first episode; the raw sexual tension in the second; and the wild techno scene in the third. These three sequences are astoundingly staged as they become a movie within a movie. Take the fate of trumpet playing protagonist Ivan in the first story. The music he plays by standing in the edge of enemy territory becomes the call for his lover. And, when the music finally stops, Matanic focuses on the dropped-down trumpet as we now only hear the cries. This simple sequence opens with beauty and ends in chaos. If you contemplate on a sequence that happens in the third episode (the one I mentioned above), the opposite happens: moving from chaos to moment of clarity (near the lake). Of course, the raw sex scene was so memorable; because it closely captures the character’s (Natasa’s) unbridled lust and the emptiness and emotional pain that follow up.  In spite of the brilliant film form, it wouldn’t have been powerful if not for the challenging lead performances from Markovic and Lazovic. They add distinct character traits to their three respective young roles. In an interview, Mr. Matanic was asked, ‘why he used same actors for each story?’, to which he replied, “By repeating familiar faces through stories I wanted to create a subconscious effect in the audience such that they would be aware of the possibility of history repeating itself and that all the characters are in fact one body at the end – they are one love, no sexes, one hope.” He and his actors seem to have perfectly succeeded in conveying that effect. 


 The High Sun aka Zvizdan (122 minutes) reflects on the collective wounds of violence and hatred in a community through three simple stories of love. The stunning, interpretative visual language does an oxymoronic blend of passionate and traumatic emotions [director Dalibor Matanic has said that this film is the first part in his ‘Trilogy of the Sun’]. 



Christine [2016] – A Sensitive, Painful Character Study of a Disconnected Soul

In keeping with channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide

A bulletin-report review:
  • There’s something powerful in observing the alienation of an individual. The concept of alienation is a phenomenon of different dimensions. An individual could be alienated from a group or nature or entire society, but perhaps the worst form is alienation from the self.
  • Few months back, I saw the emotionally affecting portrait of alienation in the distressing Czech drama I, Olga Hepnarova. Antonio Campos’ Christine (2016), although set in a different form of society, is also an observation of an individual alienation from the self (both movies based on real life incidents).
  • Both the women decided to answer their isolation by taking different end paths. Yet, these two films aren’t just about the gruesome acts; it intensely taps onto their emotions to make us feel their disappointments and frustrations.
  • Rebecca Hall gives a phenomenal performance as Christine Chubbuck, a 30 year old field reporter for a small-market TV station in Florida, in the mid-1970s. Christine is recovering from depression and lives with her mother, who constantly worries about her daughter’s possible relapse.
  • In the film’s opening shot we see Christine through a camera, creating a feeling that she is interviewing an important personality on a burning political issue. It is slowly revealed that she is sitting alone in the studio putting forth question to empty chair opposite her. The opening shot beautifully establishes her driven nature and how she is stuck in an atmosphere that dismisses her chief qualities. 

  • The station manager Mike (Tracy Letts) wants to adopt the new standards for TV news. He is interested in the tag ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. So he is not so interested in Christine’s important stories on the adversely impacting zoning board decisions. 
  • In the initial scenes, we see semblance of Christine’s normal, good life. Although she isn’t famous like the anchorman George (Michael C. Hall), she is respected by her colleagues. She drives around her yellow Volkswagen beetle, enjoying the tunes. Christine volunteers to do puppet show in the local school for differently-abled children.  
  • Gradually we see the cracks opening up. The woes of the past mix up with the existential crisis of the present. Christine reaches a point to see how she can’t compete in professional and personal life against the forces intensifying her sufferings. 
  • She has stern looks in a medium that’s embraces people exhibiting suaveness. But, Hall doesn’t just concentrate on the hard-bitten nature of Christine. She perfect balances the character’s fragility and contradictory feelings.
  • Rebecca Hall was especially amazing in the scene she goes for dinner with her heartthrob George (anchorman). Hall showcases the romantic yearning, the desire to advance her career, and also the wariness of accepting the dinner invitation. “I shut people out, even though I don’t mean it” says Christine, which perfectly makes us relate with her alienation from others and self. 

  • Majority of scenes in “Christine” hinges on exhibiting how the central character’s life veers off from her expectations. Every dedicated effort leads to disappointment and condescending reaction from others. The escalating emotional burden of all the minor insults could be closely felt. 
  •  In Christine’s downward spiral her own rage and jealousy are given equal importance like the other external factors. She is victim of herself too. So, this approach to not take an unnecessary, broader approach to place the blame fully on exploitative journalism was commendable. [The sad demise of Christine was alleged to be the inspiration for Sidney Lumet’s incendiary 1976 masterpiece “Network”, although the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky has proven that it’s an eerie coincidence].
  • I loved how the characters of Tracy Letts and Micheal C. Hall are written. In a typical film, they could be transformed into egotistic villains. Here we see them as people aware of their limitations. They are also sad characters like Christine.  
  • Maria Drizza plays the sweet, young network camerawoman Jean Reed, who shows abundance of compassion for Christine. Her presence seems to be the point of view for movie viewers. The final scene involving her looks like an extended commentary on themes already established. But the scene kind of gives space to relate with our own alienation rather than ending on a blunt, sympathetic note. 
  • The film does demand little patience since its narrative has none of the instantly captivating dramatics or robust visual language. While the material sensitively approaches the central character, the ultimate flaw of the film is the lack of new angle to the sad incident. Visually, the study of alienation (using Bressonian techniques) in I, Olga Hepnarova had a distinct, well-designed perspective. Here it relies heavily on actors (except for few scenes).   

  • At the same time, Director Campos (and screenwriter Craigh Shilowich) doesn’t turn the film into a one-note study of the character’s abnormal psychology. The script is careful in avoiding the histrionics related to movie’s portrayal of mental illness. 
  • The fragility and desperation of the once unknown reporter Christine will strongly resonate with people like us, who ingest little doses of alienation to shield from the day-to-day indignities and dissatisfaction. The film shows how small, shifty external forces could turn one’s self as his/her worst enemy. 



Christine (2016) -- IMDb

Cinema of Corneliu Porumboiu: Empty Gestures, Empty Words, and Troubled Transition

In 2001, thirty four year old Romanian Cristi Puiu made his directorial debut feature Stuff and Dough under a shoe-string budget. It was a road movie with distinct political undertones, pertaining to post-Ceausescu dictatorship (between 1965 and 1989) era in Romania. The movie also brims with dead pan comedy. Cristi Puiu mentions how watching Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law (1986) happened to be a key thing in shaping his cinematic language. Stuff and Dough is now widely regarded as the starting point of the fascinating Romanian New Wave. The wave surged with Puiu’s Un Certain Regard winner The Death of Lazarescu and reached higher visibility with Cristian Mungiu’s harrowing abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), which won the prestigious Palme d’Or award. These Romanian movies took the ‘cinema verite’ style, avoiding forced melodrama, and full of tight composition and masterful long takes. The film-makers drew us to take in the non-event existence of the Romanian public, while gradually diffusing layers of subtleties. Like any other New Waves of cinema, the Romanian one was anticipated to have reached its saturation point at the start of this decade. Yet, Romanian cinema continues to make waves in the international arena. Last year, two masterly, complex dramas – from Cristian Mungiu (The Graduation) and Cristi Puiu (Sieranevada), screened at Cannes Film Festival – received glowing reviews and found a place in many critics’ top film lists of the year.  

Corneliu Porumobiu was a very important film-maker of the Romanian New Wave whose thematic spectrum widened & deepened the sociopolitical perspectives. As Puiu continued to do narrative experiments within the rigid visual style, and Mungiu dealt with ferocious subjects, Porumboiu perfected his visual and thematic reflections. Porumboiu has metamorphosed to be the most philosophical film-maker of the new wave (Radu Muntean was another central figure of the new wave, who followed different styles and explored new themes; Radu Jude, Crisitian Nemescu and Catalin Mitulescu are also my favorite directors of the new wave). Like Puiu and Mungiu, Porumboiu also received coveted awards in the international film festivals (won Camera d’Or at Cannes for best debut feature -- for 12:08 East of Bucharest and Un Certain Regard for Police, Adjective). Porumboiu’s movies offer many surprisingly rich insights, most of which could only be gleaned in re-watches. Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu’s works, despite the subdued visual tone, passes along blistering emotions to create some dramatic impact. Compared to those, Porumboiu films are like hushed-up poetry. So you need certain time to fully assimilate his seemingly simple narrative. And gradually, you could peel off the surface and blithely stroll across the subtle layers of Porumboiu’s visual poetry.

One of the primary themes of Romanian New Wave is to show how the traces of old apathetic, corrupted bureaucratic machinery are still embedded in the nation’s consciousness. So, Porumboiu and other film-makers never approach the 1989 revolution with adoration. They just treat it as a point where a long transition commenced. Amidst the Romanian film-makers, Porumboiu incisively depicts this transitional state. His films mostly capture central character’s physical movements in vivid details (from a distance that isn’t too far or too close). Literally and figuratively, the characters go through transition. However, their movements are blocked at a stage and the individual is forced to stay within the boundaries of faulty system. The characters’ desire for security or better life gets lost in the blandly colored rooms of bureaucratic offices (or even amongst the dictionaries and law books). Immense focus is given to observe the non-events (like characters walking one end of the street to another). The non-events marvelously join together to pass off the feeling of wasted time and absurd, alienated atmosphere.

Corneliu Porumboiu was 14 years old during the 1989 revolution which toppled Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship. In an interview (to Brooklyn magazine, Mr. Porumboiu says that communists came into Romania at a time when the country didn’t pass through consciousness, beliefs, and ideas like in western society. He states that their nation was somewhere between industrialization period and middle ages in the late 1940s. Communism only added more fake layers to the already empty ideals. The director’s filmography repeatedly strips off these natural-looking fake layers. The fascinating quality is that while subtly stripping off this fakery, Mr. Porumboiu never pushes us to take a judgmental stand. The characters remain as humans, cloaked under different flaws. 

 Director Corneliu Porumboiu studied management before pursuing film-studies at Bucharest’s I.L. Carnegie University. In 2002, he made his first short film titled Gone with the Wine. The film tracks down the lives of alcoholic bittersweet characters, living in demoralizing, decrepit surroundings. He followed it with couple more short films – A Trip to the City and Liviu’s Dream. These early works received international acclaim in the short film festivals. Particularly, Liviu’s Dream gathered lot of attention and it happens to be the darkest work of the director, till date.  Starting from 2006, Mr. Corneliu Porumboiu has made four meditative feature films and one spectacular documentary The Second Game.


12:08 East of Bucharest (2006)

12:08 east of Bucharest opens with the image of a glistening Christmas tree amidst the concrete jungle in an empty Stalinist town square. It is early morning on 22 Dec. 2005. It’s the 16th anniversary of the Romanian revolution that’s supposed to have fully shattered the devious communist regime. A local TV host comes up with an idea for a talk show: "Did the people of the small town participated in the revolution?" What ensues a superb dry comedy that establishes how nothing has changed. It shows how a society with feeble societal values will forever be caught in the devious cycle of history, repeating the mistakes of past. Beneath the funny layers, Mr. Porumboiu questions the relevance of a alleged glorious time-stamp when people are rendered impassive by the oppressive system. 

Police, Adjective (2009)

 The word ‘police’ is used in adjective form to either denote police procedural where mysteries are solved through detective’s ingenuity or to address a police state. In that manner, Porumboiu’s film is a procedural, but not the regular gun-pulling, adrenaline-pumping kind. What we see is a policeman following a quotidian surveillance ‘procedure’ to report back to emotionless officers in drab buildings. While a usual climatic showdown in a procedural is marked by gunfights, in Police, Adjective a superior officer uses a intimidating dictionary as the weapon; and the scene, unfurls in a static camera shot is more intense than a gunfight. The film is about the manipulative language, used to oppress and keep the people inline. The movies have offered me new, rich insights in the re-watches. Police, Adjective is my favorite among Corneliu Porumboiu’s filmography. 

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013)

Despite a long title, the movie has a deceptively simple plot-line: a director negotiates with his lead actress to persuade her to do nude scene. The only visible complicated knot is that the director is romantically involved with the actress. But as expected there are more layers to it and Porumboiu’s wry sense of humor stops the meta-exercise from becoming an academic lecture. The film also becomes meta-literal with a lengthy scene of an endoscopy; may be to reflect the experience of viewers who would hate the pedantic tone of narrative. Unlike the previous two films, Metabolism totally neglects a narrative form to be a clever, experimental exercise. 

The Second Game (2014)

In this documentary, director Corneliu and his father Adrian Porumboiu bond over a recorded football game which happened in Dec. 3, 1988. Adrian served as a referee for that match (played in a astounding snow-drenched field). This seemingly boring, obscure sports footage watching documentary does reveals the complex implications. The Second Game is the most experimental work among the director’s works, which could a majority of viewers to declare it tedious experience. But, I felt that this is yet another intelligent work, reviewing different things from father-son relationship to sports under communism to antique video technology.   

The Treasure aka Comoara (2015)

 The Treasure is the tale of two men searching for a supposed buried treasure in the ancestor’s abandoned house – pre-communist era loot. Corneliu Porumboiu was involved with a friend to shoot a documentary about the people who had buried their precious things when communists took over the power (communists nationalized all the properties). The story of family treasure is common urban legend in Romania. But, the documentary stopped at half-stage, the director used the subject matter for fiction.  As usual the droll humor is derived from the dry functionality of the nation’s bureaucratic and legalistic system. Simple elements like a Robin Hood story and the visual composition of a garden (where the treasure is supposed to be buried) contemplates on the unsolved problems between individual and state.