The films of Asghar Farhadi: stories of unintended consequences that pose moral questions

The films of Asghar Farhadi: stories of unintended consequences that pose moral questions

Last week, BBC 4 screened The Past, a film by Asghar Farhadi. He’s the Iranian director, Oscar-nominated for his most recent film The Salesman, who has pledged not to attend the ceremonies even if he gets exemption from Trump’s travel ban. Previously I had seen Farhadi’s celebrated A Separation which, like The Past, takes the story of a seemingly straightforward divorce before developing, by way of a succession of unintended consequences involving a group of equally flawed yet decent characters, into a complex and challenging exploration of what forms moral behaviour.
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Denial: an opportunity missed to tell a story that needs to be told

<em>Denial</em>: an opportunity missed to tell a story that needs to be told

In 1996, the historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, her publisher, were sued in the UK courts by the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving for calling him a falsifier of history in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In Denial, David Hare has written a version of those events for a film directed by Mick Jackson and starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall as Irving.

Could any film be more well-timed? Unfortunately, despite having good moments, Denial proved to be something of a disappointment. I was left feeling that there was a really interesting documentary struggling to free itself from this dramatisation.

Continue reading Denial: an opportunity missed to tell a story that needs to be told”

The Last Letter: ‘this whole world will disappear for ever under the earth’

The Last Letter: ‘this whole world will disappear for ever under the earth’

The Last Letter is a film made by Frederick Wiseman in 2002. It was his first non-fiction film after four decades of making celebrated documentaries examining American institutions, and is a record of a sixty-minute performance by French actress Catherine Samie which Wiseman had previously directed at the Comédie-Française in Paris. It is one of the most compelling representations on film of the experience of the Holocaust that I have ever seen.

Stripped to bare essentials, the film presents a bravura monologue taken from from Vasily Grossman’s novel Life And Fate. Featuring only the performer on a bare stage, there are no props, and there is no score. The monologue represents the last letter to her son from a Russian-Jewish doctor who has been forcibly removed by the Nazis from her home to a Ukrainian ghetto. Continue reading “The Last Letter: ‘this whole world will disappear for ever under the earth’”

Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Ava DuVernay’s <em>13th</em>: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.

In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.

That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”

Bury my heart in La La Land

Bury my heart in La La Land

Oh please! Dig me a bunker, and bury it deep. There let me spend the next four years watching La La Land on endless repeat, safe from the horrors of the Trumpian, post-Brexit wasteland above, in a feather-bed of fantasy, blissfully out of touch with reality.

If the foregoing sounds a shade sardonic about Damien Chazelle’s garlanded new film, it’s not meant to be – simply a statement that in these dark and fearful times it feels good to be bathed in the romantic aura of a decently made film, that most of us feel that moving to La La Land, an old metaphor for a fantasy bubble somewhere over the rainbow, would not be such a bad thing. Not that La La Land is truly romantic, as I’ll suggest.

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Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man: not a perfect offering

Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man: not a perfect offering

The other day I went along to our local Picturehouse, drawn by what I anticipated would be a new film portrait of the late and incomparable Leonard Cohen. What I got was a lesson on the increasing unreliability of my memory: as soon as the opening credits began rolling I realised that I had seen Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man not just once, but probably twice before, perhaps on TV.

No worries, though: the film, which combines segments of an extended interview with Cohen and performances from a tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005, is one I was happy to sit through again. It’s always a pleasure to listen to Leonard’s wry assessments of his life and worth (one of his best is here: ‘My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly the 10,000 nights I spent alone’), while the cover versions are generally (though not always) interesting, even revelatory. Above all, there is the best cover of ‘Anthem’ (which gives this blog its title) by Cohen’s regular backing vocalists, Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen. Continue reading “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man: not a perfect offering”

Paterson: paean to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life

Paterson: paean to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life

Only one man – like a city.

In Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson, Adam Driver plays a guy called Paterson, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, where he drives a bus. As is the way of things for most of us, each working day follows the routine of all the ones preceding. But Paterson, an unassuming man with no pretensions, carries a notebook in which, as he goes about his daily business, he writes poems that see the special in the mundane details of the quotidian. Paterson is a man at ease with the world – he takes a quiet pleasure in his work, his city and the people he encounters – and his poems reflect this, transforming commonplace details such as a matchbox into paeans to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life. Continue reading “Paterson: paean to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life”