By Tristan Pollack Teshigahara
9/19/14: Week 2/The Wonders
Alice Rohrwacher (born in 1980) is a talented emerging filmmaker hailing from Tuscany, Italy. She (along with Mia Hansen-Love, Ramon Zürcher, Josh and Benny Safdie and Ryan Coogler just to name a few) belong to an ever-changing group of young filmmakers who are rapidly changing the game of what it means to make an independent film. The Wonders (Le Meraviglie), the director’s second feature, seems to hark back to the director’s own upbringing, although she mostly denies this. It is important to note the coincidences in the film (such as the mixed heritage and the shared family background in honey production), but what is more significant is recognizing the many layers in The Wonders. The first layer that is presented to us is the picturesque terrain in Italy, its rapid development and its transformation into some sort of amusement park. The Wonders is set against a landscape, but the focus in the innermost layer is a tale of a German-Italian family who represent the changing state of the countryside. The deepest layer of the film is Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the eldest daughter, who must pave the way for her siblings, while finding her own path.
The opening sequence of the film is perhaps the most engrossing and telling moment in The Wonders. Resembling and functioning very much like Plato’s cave, the films begins in pitch darkness. Several beams of light refract inside the humble abode of the family. We soon learn that the flashlights belong to intruders from the outside, disrupting the quaint but somewhat sequestered life of the family inside. The patriarch, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), is prone to rages, but is righteous in his beliefs. He also has plenty of love for Gelsomina, asserting his role as protector and teacher. As the head of the beekeeping business, he symbolizes the primitive nature of tradition, while his daughter seems to be a symbol of the inevitable gap between tradition and change. There is further emphasis drawn when the family stumble across the shooting of a television competition show that judges local produce, and is hosted by Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci). Alice Rohrwacher is most concerned about the disappearance of culture. The arrival of the tv crew, signify both Gelsomina’s liberation, but also her eventual rejection of rural life.
Depriving his family of civilized comforts and well-being, Wolfgang has slowly come face-to-face with his double-edged sword. He knows he has to upgrade his bee making facility, but lacks the funds to do so and will do anything in his power to protect his family from industrialization. Lucky for the plucky Gelsomina, Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono), a German delinquent who is constantly being shuttled from one family to another, creates a temporary distraction for her father as he takes him in for foster care in exchange for money. Seeing potential in the mute boy, he begins to recognize Martin as his little helper, which causes some tension with Gelsomina as she realizes Wolfgang’s wish for a son. When the financial worries increase, so do the verbal abuses between the parents, which leads Gelsomina to secretly apply her family into “Most Traditional Family” contest show.
Rohrwacher, who likes to focus on the transitional phase of children, is not a filmmaker who is concerned about sticking to genre conventions or narrative storytelling. Hovering between dream and reality, the director’s shooting style puts more focus on ambience than plot (though the motifs are clear), summoning an equivocal world of restriction and freedom in the children’s lives. The majority of the film is photographed in a documentary-like manner by Helen Louvart, but the scenes with the “Most Traditional Family” contest provide a dreamier perspective as seen by the children. Without delving into heavy-handed themes, Alice Rohrwacher makes a very interesting parallel between the children and bees. Like children, bees vanish and change their location. It is their nature to do so. Families also move elsewhere and are deeply affected by time. They change their habitat (possible their habits as well), but they don’t ever really change their behavior as a family. The fissures in time, memory and people are unavoidable. But families, just like bees, disaffected by the outside world, continue to live their life anyway.
9/22/14: Week 2/Heaven Knows What
The new film by the Safdie brothers is an honest work of art that should be seen by everyone. It is a beautiful elegy, but it is also a gruesome treatise of troubled teenage junkies who invisibly inhabit the city. Continuing with their austere independent filmmaking, this time the Safdies focus their lens on the outer rather than the inner (Daddy Longlegs was loosely based on their own experience). The third feature by the Safdies delves deeper into overt melodrama than the freewheeling romantic portraiture in their first film The Pleasures of Being Robbed (2008). However, their latest film follows a trajectory of perilous, strong female leads who function as anti-heroines.
The genesis of how the film came about sounds like a coincidence. The filmmakers were doing research on a different project in the diamond district of New York when they stumbled upon Arielle Holmes, a homeless 19-year-old addict, who was begging for help. What immediately intrigued Josh about her was her modest beauty and stubborn attitude. Noticing the unusually high decibel of her scream, he decided to help her by offering her a small bit in a music video shoot. All seemed to be well until the day of the shoot when Arielle didn’t show. The filmmakers eventually found out that she was checked-in the Bellevue hospital psych ward for an attempted suicide. After the unexpected turn of events, the Safdies encouraged her to record her story on paper. Consequently, she wrote about her experience in her unpublished novella “Mad Love In New York,” which became the source material for the film.
Like their street-smart actors, the Safdies favor quick-paced editing and solemn narrative filmmaking that doesn’t cater to the viewer or sugarcoat any detail of the plot. Heaven Knows What begins at the end of a love affair. Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a misanthrope at heart, is ready to leave Harley (Arielle Holmes), but he decides to sabotage her as she pleads for forgiveness. He tells her that if she was truly in love with him, she would have killed herself already, and subsequently she obliges. Thus begins the frantic prelude of the film. The following sequences follows Harley as she wanders the street, begging for change and yearning for her despicably cruel boyfriend Ilya. Her endless drive to score heroin wins her the attention of two slightly more stable male companions: Mike (Buddy Duress), a fast-talking dealer who becomes her guardian, and Skully (Necro), a friend whose unrequited feelings are left in vain. Some of Arielle’s real life addict friends are interwoven into the story, they too live in limbo, shooting up in fast food bathrooms and sleeping together by the park benches, adding an extra layer of gritty realism to the film.
Tracing her inner turmoils in voyeuristic verite close ups, cinematographer Sean Price Williams (a longtime collaborator for the Safdies) proves to be the integral anchor behind the film. Whether or not cinema can fictionalize or document the woes of drug addiction, the cinematographer is certainly the most morally responsible person behind the camera and Williams is well aware of his responsibility. There is no trickery involved in the way Williams moves the camera. Through the use of telephoto lens we are able to see her intimately with an open heart. Adding to the translucent camerawork is the oscillating sounds of Isao Tomita’s moog synthesizer arrangement of Claude Debussy’s Tone Paintings. The moody tones of Tomita’s synthesizers permeate the city, intensifying the dread that encircles Harley’s world.
In a world of morbid abuses, love is as strange a thing as heroin addiction. While the portrait here is far more grim and caustic than the likes of Panic in Needle Park and Requiem for a Dream, the film sheds new light on the seldom explored subject. It embraces the fragility and honesty of these destitute lost souls with such relentless warmth and grace. That should be the purpose of Cinema, to create something that not only moves a person emotionally, but moves inside human consciousness, allowing new perspectives to be recognized even if they are stigmas to our society.