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Heavyweight punches.
Some films seen at the Sydney Festival and some coming to Melbourne

The last production of Julius Caesar I saw was down at The Wharf Theatre. It starred Ben Mendelsohn (making his debut on stage and as far as I know still his only treading of the boards) Robert Menzies and the scrumptious Paula Arundel. After two hours in front of a full house an intermission was declared. Well over half of the audience took the opportunity to bolt for home, a pub or wherever. The second half opened with the entire cast of fifteen or so assembled in the camp site in Egypt (?) seated along a table on which were mounted a couple of hundred unlit candles. A cast member then got up and lit one of the candles and was slowly, languorously followed by others who proceeded to light all of the candles. Slowly. Languorously. It dawned that no more action would be taking place until all the candles were lit. It took a good fifteen minutes. Maybe twenty or maybe about three quarters of an hour. So a couple of hours later, just as we reached the four hour mark for the evening it all drew to a close with polite applause. It was without question the worst night I had ever spent watching Shakespeare and the worst night I had ever spent at a production of the Sydney Theatre Company. The way it lingers so gruesomely in the memory suggests it may have been the worst night I ever spent in a theatre. I vowed never again to darken the door of any production by the alleged wunderkind prat responsible for it, Benedict Andrews, and have stuck to that vow ever since no matter how many accolades (usually transparently sycophantic), awards and gongs he is given and how many blessings are bestowed upon him by Cate Blanchett, Neil Armfield and co. We must now also continue to be further vigilant for it is promised that he will be directing a film shortly. Be careful and be warned.

imageThe Taviani Brothers’ Caesar Must Die by contrast rips through the essence of Julius Caesar in about an hour twenty and it is splendid entertainment made even more so by sheer invention involved in tracing the play from a thought in its director’s mind to its staging by male prisoners from a high security gaol, tracing it through improvised rehearsals to its triumphant production. Rollicking and uplifting film-making. In the manner of the great film-makers they are The Tavianis have come back to international prominence by doing something completely different, though again they head for literary source material.

Everyone asks where the brothers have been over recent decades. The answer would seem to be that they have worked fairly steadily but you had to be eagle eyed to keep up. As far as I know none of their films since their Tolstoy adaptation Night Sun has been screened here in the art houses. This meant we missed among others Fiorile, Elective Affinities, Tu Ridi and The Lark Farm. The last named was in an Italian Film Week I think. Their two part mini-series Resurrection, also based on Tolstoy, was screened on SBS. So plenty of activity if few sightings. Notwithstanding now being in their eighties and having been making feature films for fifty years, they haven’t lost an ounce of energy. If putting together a retrospective of their work didn’t involve the soul destroying prospect of dealing with Italian officials and Italian bureaucracies I’d suggest someone embark on it as a project so that we might eventually see all the things we’ve missed and enjoy again all those things that linger so in the memory.

At Berlin this year debate raged as to whether the Tavianis, esteemed veterans, or the tyro Portugese Miguel Gomes and his film Tabu should win the Golden Bear for Best film. The critics were solidly on the side of Gomes. Sight & Sound pronounced that Gomes film had ‘heaps more sensitivity, invention and intelligence at work than anything else in sight.’ Notwithstanding that words like ‘sensitivity’, ‘invention’ and ‘intelligence’ don’t themselves stand up to much critical scrutiny as to what they might mean in any given context but especially in the context of a fifty word notice, the S&S view was backed up across the Channel by Cahiers du Cinema which pronounced Tabu the only great (‘grand’) film on show but talked of the prize resuscitating the Tavianis. Hmm…well it’s all a bit of a game and the same Australian distributor has bought both films for screening so we’ll have more chances to judge.

The first thing that strikes you about Cate Shortland’s Lore is the edgy hand held camera as it sneaks up on characters in a state of chaos at the end of World War II. The camera prowls about picking out details in a somewhat disorganised way. It doesn’t take you long then to realise that the film has been shot by a cameraman who doesn’t want to keep it steady in his hand for a moment, possibly on instruction, or has early undiagnosed Parkinson’s Disease. I assume it’s intended for the purpose of giving an air of cinema verite realism to the goings on. The effect is simply annoying and false. A friend thought that Somersault, Shortland’s AFI Award winning previous feature, made a half a decade ago, had used the same trick. The second thing that strikes you is why an Australian film-maker would go where a hundred German film-makers have already gone in exploring a minor aspect of German post-war guilt and the lack of it. The third thing that strikes you is why Film Scotland would put money into such an exercise. All of this may have already been explained or will be explained later when the film opens here and the director does the ritual media interviews.

hertzogThe Melbourne International Film Festival has announced its first batch of thirty titles, fifteen docos and fifteen features. Among them are two of the more remarkable movies from the tail end of last year’s European festival season. A doco of interest is Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, another examination of the ways that America executes its criminal class or at least some of the more godforsaken members of it. Herzog goes down to Texas to interview a young man whose act of brutality is indescribably malevolent. Needless to say he believes he is innocent and that his god will save him. But..well not in this world anyway. The banality of it all is alarming. There are interviews with the chaplain who tenders to such parts of the flock, the boy’s sad-faced father, also a long term prisoner in the same gaol, and others including an accomplice who has escaped the death penalty and managed to impregnate a young woman who took pity on him after his sentence. I had hoped to give a link to Tony Rayns enthusiastic review in Sight & Sound but, at least today, every BFI link on Google diverts away from the chosen URL to a page advertising “The Dark Knight Rises to be shown at the BFI Imax from 20 July. Book now!” Whoever can be in charge over there!

wishAlso at MIFF will be Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish, just another small miracle of humanist wisdom from one of the master directors of the day and the age. It premiered at San Sebastian last year and opened in New York a month or so ago. You can read Manohla Dargis’s enthusiastic New York Times Review here. That review concludes, in case you cant get through the paywall, with: The nominal story involves Koichi’s belief — he heard it, so it must be right — that wishes come true for those who stand in a certain spot in front of two passing trains. Marshaling some friends and coordinating with (his brother) Ryunosuke, he heads off to wish for his family to be reunited, a grand adventure that is more persuasive in its emotional reverberations than in its practical details. That scarcely matters and soon becomes beside the point of Mr. Kore-eda’s gift for carefully excavating deep emotions that his characters cannot express or may not be conscious of. “I Wish” tends toward the vaporous and not just because of its volcano; but whenever its children are on screen, lighted up with joy or dimmed by hard adult truths, the film burns bright.”

Posted 11th June 2012