Category Archives: Film Reviews

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem

Rated MA15+

2 hrs 12 mins

Palace Electric

3.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This film is from the Middle East, written and directed by Rami Alayan and Muayad Alayan, and about infidelity.  An affair between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman who met as he made deliveries at her café in West Jerusalem, and the consequences of the liaison in a place where fidelity to one’s tribe is paramount.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem was made with the assistance of production finance from countries like Germany and the Netherlands, as the Palestinian film industry is virtually non-existent.

It opens at the home of bakery delivery driver, Saleem, making tea for himself and his wife. The image of domestic harmony is suddenly ruptured, like a fist through a wall, in a raid by security forces who drag Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) away to interrogate him about an Israeli woman that he is supposed to have recruited.

What could the man have done to deserve such treatment? Flashbacks explain, as by that point the affair is over.

One night after meeting and making love in Saleem’s delivery van, as per usual, Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), had accompanied him on a delivery run into the West Bank, with hiding in the back of his van. The risky venture accomplished without incident, Saleem suggests a drink at a Bethlehem bar. Sarah agrees reluctantly, but they are betrayed by another patron who realises that she isn’t Dutch at all, as she claims, but Israeli.

After Saleem is hauled in for questioning and Sarah’s husband, a colonel in the Israeli army on undercover assignments, becomes aware of his wife’s infidelity, there is hell to pay. It is clear that no one can believe that the affair is just an affair, there has to be more to it.

It’s hard to imagine a worse predicament. Ensnared in a web of misunderstanding and paranoia, Sarah and Saleem become trapped between sides in the vicious and intractable feud that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How the affair had begun is not explored, unfortunately, only explained by scenes showing how the couple met across the counter at the café that Sarah runs. The opening titles claim the film is inspired by true events, so more insight into such risky liaisons would have been interesting. If relationships like this can and do happen, can we imagine there is hope yet for ending conflict?

Saleem’s wife Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi)

It was also surprising to learn that alcohol is served at bars with intimate dance floors in the Palestinian Territories. A vigorous sex scene or two in the back of the van is another surprise.  A lot less pleasant is the jolt when, on the road to Bethlehem, Israel’s massive security wall suddenly looms into view, a foreboding and futile barrier to interaction.

All actors are captured up close and personal and they do a great job,  though the film style is a bit prosaic way and some scenes are needlessly long.

Towards the end, however, the deliberate pacing seems spot on. As our attention turns more and more to Saleem’s pregnant wife, Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), and as a relationship develops between her and Sarah, the film becomes very moving and powerful.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

All is True

M, 1 hr 41 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is Shakespeare as you have never seen him before, and might find hard to believe. It takes place during the last three years of his life, when he had returned from London to live at his family home in the countryside, working on the garden. There is not a jot of creative writing in sight.

When the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613, after a canon misfire during a performance of Shakespeare’s last play, he retreated to Stratford-upon Avon, to live with his wife and daughters.

a tantalisingly vacant space to fill

Little is known about him during the years before his death, a relatively sudden event, at 52. It is a tantalising vacant space to fill in the Bard’s life, into which steps veteran actor Kenneth Branagh.

The only portrait we have of Shakespeare depicts a man with a sensual mouth and a wide intelligent brow. In his period wig and beard, the appearance of a heavily disguised Branagh with prosthetically lengthened nose, is a close enough to the mark.

Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) with daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson)

Ben Elton’s screenplay imagines the great man in everyday life, in a contemplative frame of mind, even getting an occasional reproach for absences and lapses from his wife, Anne Hathaway (played here by the redoubtable Judi Dench), and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susannah (Lydia Wilson).

An occasional visitor brings the outside world in. His patron, the Earl of Southampton (a sprightly Ian McKellen), the ‘fair youth’ who inspired Shakespeare’s poetry, arrives for a chat in one of the film’s highlights.

This intimate meeting, like all other interactions indoors during the evening, takes place in candlelight. The production designer has kept all the period detail authentic, without concessions to modern cravings for atmosphere or expressive lighting.

Shakespeare is less pleased to see a young admirer and aspiring writer who drops in. It interrupts his gardening, and the youth is given short shrift with the advice to simply get started if he wants to write.

dismissive of his own legacy, consumed by the loss of his son

Some of the film’s key moments are filmed from a very low angle. It might be meant to signify Shakespeare’s greatness, to remind us of his lofty stature as a poet and dramatist for all time, but it just looks a bit odd.

While Shakespeare is dismissive of his own legacy in this life story, he is consumed by the loss of his son, 11-year-old Hamnet who died many years before, while he was away.

Few of us may have known that he had a son, and the fact of it makes an interesting focal point of this homecoming by a man so absent from family, and so much of the world.

All is True is the alternative title of Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, a collaboration with one John Fletcher, who doesn’t get a mention here. It’s a playful title for a film founded on conjecture rather than fact.

All in all, it’s a slight piece, and tends to sound contemporary, to help make the great man more accessible. He had family issues like everybody else, but I’m not convinced that Shakespeare’s family would have communicated with him the way they do during very different times, four centuries ago.

Shakespeare (Branagh) and wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench)

Production design and costumes and candle-lit interiors give the film a strong sense of authentic period detail, despite doubts about the authenticity of language, and of manners and family relationships.

The mystery that is William Shakespeare may never be resolved. Perhaps the intellectual acuity, wisdom and poetry of his plays and sonnets, a contribution to the English language that none can match, is all we need to know and better kept that way.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Top End Wedding

M, 1 hr 53 mins

All Canberra cinemas

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Everything was good to go and to go well. He had proposed on bended knee, she had accepted and even her intimidating boss had given her 10 days’ leave.

The wedding was to be held at short notice in Darwin, the bride’s home town, but when the pair arrive, they catch up with developments that put a stop to everything.

The bride’s mum has cleared out and is gallivanting around, who knows where. An enigmatic note she left offers no clue, while her dad cannot remember to get out of his pyjamas and keeps disappearing into the pantry where he keeps the Chicago ballad ‘If You Leave Me Now’ on rewind.

Now Lauren, played by the dynamic and very talented Miranda Tapsell, is as decisive as she is big-hearted, and immediately declares the wedding on hold. Her fiancé Ned, a laid-back Englishman played by Gwilym Lee, simply adores her and will do what needs to be done to make her happy.

As the pair search high and low for Lauren’s mum, Daphne (Ursula Yovich), across Kakadu, through the Katherine Gorge and other stunning Northern Territory locations, she leads them a wild goose chase that includes an hilarious encounter with a hunky helicopter pilot who specialises in tours for mature female clients.

It is a pity we do not actually meet Daphne until the end, because Yovich brings so much to the role in the short time she has on screen and it would have been interesting to know more of her character’s story. The film’s first scenes are a flashback of her aboard a runabout, escaping to the mainland as her wedding party stand helplessly on the shore. Daphne has form at clearing out.

On the other hand, we could have done with less or, at least subtle, product placement. It is actually quite obtrusive here.

The high point in Top End Wedding is clearly the return to country, in the beautiful Tiwi Islands just north of Darwin. A joyous reunion is the beating heart of this film, a rousing finale brimming with goodwill for all. We would expect nothing less from Wayne Blair, who directed the outstanding musical comedy, The Sapphires, a huge success in 2012.

Miranda Tapsell was in that too, as one of a group of four Indigenous Australian singers who entertained troops in Vietnam in the 1960s. Here in Top End Wedding she is just as natural and charming, and shows how well she can carry a film on her own. What’s more she co-wrote it, with Joshua Tyler.

It is also terrific to see Kerry Fox as Hampton, the slave-driving boss who finds her heart, but some of the other characters in Top End Wedding are overdrawn and clichéd, a reminder that less is more. If the storytelling is at times a bit clumsy, at its best, this new romantic comedy is a frothy, feel-good treat.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

Burning

Rated M, 2 hrs 28 mins

Palace Electric New Acton

3.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s good to see a film like this, an all too rare event. A simmering drama from South Korea that slowly and inexorably turns the screws as a young man searches for clues about a young woman who has disappeared.

Maestro of psychological thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock built a career on stories like this, with characters who didn’t know what was going on, who were trapped and compelled to unravel the mystery, if they could. The classic Vertigo in which Kim Novak’s blonde vamp leads James Stewart’s retired detective astray is for many the acme of Hitch’s tales of disorientation and obsession.

As with Vertigo, the audience for Burning will need to be patient and settle to its unhurried rhythms while being fed information, possibly inconclusive and even contradictory, one pellet at a time. If film goers entrust themselves to Chang-dong Lee’s direction, slow paced and nuanced, the rewards will be worth the wait.

Drawn from a short story by the master Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami, it is based a screenplay the director developed with co-writer Jungmi Oh.

Burning is framed by a search for a story. Aspiring writer Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) has completed his studies and really wants to find a good story to launch his career. While doing his rounds as a deliveryman, he bumps into a Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), who he knew at school but seems to have forgotten. She seems rather flaky, but it seems she has not, however, forgotten him.

There is a little time to get acquainted before she leaves for a holiday in Africa. Jong-su agrees to drop in to her apartment to feed her cat. However, it never makes an appearance and Hae-mi returns with another man in tow, Ben (Steven Yeun), a suave and cultivated Porsche-driver whom she met at the airport in Nairobi.

an aching sense of interpersonal, inter-generational and social alienation readers of Murakami’s writing will recognise

Ben is an enigma. There is backstory to Jong-su, that includes a violent father and an isolated, dilapidated home in farmland on the outskirts of Paju, but there is little to learn about Ben. Except that for him work is ‘play’. Why is he, rich and idle, spending time with Hae-mi, a shopgirl so unlike the people he consorts with? Does he amuse himself with girls like her then move on?

Before she went to Africa in search of the meaning of life, Hae-mi had a job gyrating in skimpy clothes at a store to lure customers inside. Ben observes her isolation, but for all three young people there is an aching sense of interpersonal, inter-generational and social alienation that readers of Murakami’s writing will recognise.

Sense of place is strong, from Hae-mi’s tiny apartment, to Ben’s affluent home to the rundown farm where Jong-su lives. The backstreets of the city and the byways of the country take on a malevolence as Jong-su stalks Ben into the countryside and the old industrial areas beyond.

With Hae-mi disappeared and with Jong-su having little to lay claim to, Burning seems to be asking why the idle rich can strip ordinary working people of all they own.

Is a Jong-su’s obsession reality or fiction? On more than one occasion, a teasing cut suggests the aspiring writer is waking from a fevered dream.

While the truth is elusive in this atmospheric mystery drama, there is no doubt at all about the very visceral way that it all ends.

Jane’s reviews are also published by Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast by ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

Woman at War

M, 1 hr 41 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Of the various women warriors on the big screen this week, Woman at War is the most unusual. It is a clever balancing act that is both playful and serious, while suggesting that Icelandic humour and world view can hit the spot at times.

In Captain Marvel, a young female warrior played by Brie Larson is learning to unleash her powers and take her place in the pantheon of superheroes. The biggest blockbuster of the year so far and still going strong, it has quite a smart, witty script and Ben Mendelsohn’s performance to recommend it.

Destroyer with Nicole Kidman, barely recognisable if not fully convincing, certainly packs a punch. As a driven LAPD detective on a vendetta, Kidman is tracking down a vicious criminal mastermind who has escaped justice. It is one of those interesting films that really divides critics and audiences, and it is as gritty and grim as Captain Marvel is as fun and forgettable.

A very different kind of quest motivates Woman at War, a comedic drama from Iceland that is directed with wit and brio by Benedikt Erlingsson, who also co-wrote it with Olafur Egilsson.Woman at War plots the course of an environmental activist who, like David to Goliath, confronts a giant multinational corporation, Rio Tinto in fact, that is ruining the pristine countryside. In her efforts to stop it building another aluminium smelter, with Chinese backing, she becomes an enemy of the state in this engaging and eccentric film, right out of left field.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), raises her long bow and fires in the first scene. Bullseye. Single-handedly – well almost, a couple of others are in the know – she closes down vast sections of the grid and holds an entire country, albeit a small one, to ransom.

When not moonlighting as a committed activist, Halla is a healthy, energetic choir director who fits in well with her community. She is single, and at 49 years waiting to hear whether her application to adopt an orphan from the Ukraine has been successful. She had all but forgotten about it, but it comes through and hears that a little girl is waiting for her.

Now what does she do? How to reconcile the responsibilities of motherhood with militant activism to save the planet from environmental disaster? These are weighty issues. Perhaps the pacifist strategies of the heroes she has on her wall at home, Mandela and Gandhi, will inform her.

Along the way on Halla’s journey, a trio of musicians has been playing in the background and sometimes in Halla’s own home, even turning on the telly. It is a marvellously eccentric interpolation. Later on, a trio of Ukrainian folk singers share the frame with Halla. What an inspired idea, to have the score played and sung by performers who appear in the same space as the actors.

Another diverting device that keeps the mood buoyant is the hapless Spanish tourist cycling around the country. He keeps being found by the police in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is arrested on suspicion of being responsible for Halla’s acts of sabotage. It is an hilarious incidental detail.

When Halla’s twin sister, also played by Geirharosdottir, unexpectedly appears on the scene, she is indeed the other side of the coin, looking for fulfilment and inner peace and harmony in her yoga and meditation. Asa’s appearance means even more screen time with this excellent lead actress.

In less deft and subtle hands this funny fable from a remote and idiosyncratic land could have turned out differently. Woman at War could have been simply weird, but it is an unequivocal success instead.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz/90.3MHz Tuggeranong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Always Never

PG, 1 hr  27 mins

4 Stars

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

Words, words, words are at the heart of the matter in this offbeat tale of a fastidious man, a retired tailor who has lost one of his sons. He is a fiend at Scrabble who can get a triple word score but he is at a loss with people he cares for.

In the striking opening scene, Alan (Bill Nighy), still as a statue, gazes out to sea. He is dressed in a suit, holding an umbrella, and as solitary as the other iron men statues at Crosby Beach near Liverpool that are scattered across the shore.

For many years, Alan has been searching for the elder son who stood up from a scrabble game one evening and left, over a word dispute, never to return. His other son, Peter (Sam Reilly, so great in Control), is the one who stayed behind in Liverpool, married, lived a steady life and now has a son of his own, teenager Jack (Louis Healy).

However, Alan is forever gazing into the blue yonder, on the lookout for the prodigal that got away, failing to appreciate what he has. This elision and under-appreciation has turned his son Peter a touch sour.

Things get going with a trip to the morgue, of all places, where there’s a body that might be the missing Michael, and just when that macabre movement of revelation seems about to occur, the film pulls back. Sometimes Always Never is like that, skidding across those hard and difficult surfaces while keeping the tone light, making the film an unexpected pleasure.

a family album of dysfunction and healing delivered with an oblique, jaunty eccentricity

When the body proves to belong to someone else, Peter and Alan continue their trip together to follow up more leads. At a hotel, the indefatigable Alan the chance to rip a bloke off at Scrabble and somehow, we don’t see how exactly, make a pass at the mans’ wife (Jenny Agutter). The interlude brings into the focus the gap between father and son.

The search is quickly abandoned and on their return home, Alan is politely offered a place to stay. In no time, Jack has turfed Jack out of his bunk bed and taken over his computer, the gateway to a world of Scrabble partners online. Peter is very put out but his wife Sue (Alice Lowe) doesn’t seem to mind that much and Alan, sartorial snob that he is, has a transformational impact on his grandson.

what’s with these adverbs of frequency?

Laced with observations on the English character and sensibility, Sometimes Always Never is a family album of dysfunction and healing delivered with that an oblique, jaunty eccentricity that only the British can manage without cloying sentimentality. An accomplished balancing act.

The film is a quest to find the prodigal becomes a quest to find what’s missing in the ones who are left behind. Based on a short story by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and illustrated with wonderful, imaginative production direction by Tim Dickel, it is superbly well directed by first-timer Carl Hunter.

So what’s with these adverbs of frequency in the title? Are they rules for life? It’s something along those lines, but the lesson takes an unexpected turn, which is one of the many gentle surprises and delights on offer here.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and ArtSound FM 92.7

Swimming with Men

M, 1 hr 37 mins

All cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

3 Stars

Angst and how to lose it. Swimming with Men is pool immersion therapy that pokes fun at itself and encourages us to have a good laugh at its expense.

Synchronised swimming works wonders for a harried accountant, Eric (Rob Brydon of The Trip comedy series with Steve Coogan), who does laps at the local pool, but the silent blue world, counting tumble turns and following the black line up and down, doesn’t seem to soothe the work and relationship worries. These are mostly of Eric’s own making, but with little help from his busy wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) or his bemused teenage son, he is heading for a mid-life crisis.

 No questions asked as their manifesto states that private and professional lives are kept a secret

There’s a group of men who meet at the pool for synchronised swimming. They have also hit the wall and recognise their symptoms in a glimpse of Eric at the pub, tossing back double G&Ts.  They offer a gentle invitation to join them for a little camaraderie with the exercise, no questions will be asked as their manifesto states that private and professional lives are kept a secret and it is all about a focus on the swimming.

Eric Rob Brydon) caught practising moves at work

There is basis in fact for this apparently daft idea. Swimming with Men, with deft direction from Oliver Parker and engaging screenplay from Aschlin Ditta, is a riff on a documentary from 2010 about a team of middle-aged Swedish men who eventually took their hobby to competition to find, just like the characters do here, that they were in competition with teams from countries like Japan, the Czech Republic and Italy. The idea has already caught on.

Although it doesn’t have the same energy and grist and grind as that fave feel good movie The Full Monty, Swimming with Men has the same heart for its motley crew of characters. Including the wayward young Tom (Thomas Thurgoose) who the cops are after.

And a couple of the men are simply there, ‘new guy’ and nameless, caught by the camera doing funny things in the background. Change rooms offer such possibilities.

Basis in fact for this apparently daft idea

Synchronised swimming may look silly, but I discovered online that an it was an Australian, Annette Kellerman, who pioneered both water ballet, as it was once called, and the one-piece bathing suit, her design. Nothing silly there. It has been an accredited Olympic sport for decades.

However, this is not a review to give water ballet/synchronised/or artistic swimming a boost. This is to say that Swimming with Men is sweet silliness, even if it doesn’t always maintain the hilarity, and is most definitely feel good. If this is what’s needed during this dark month, then go see it.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

Green Book

M, 2 hrs 10 mins

Capitol Cinema Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

A highly entertaining movie released weeks ago and in a major upset won the Oscar for Best Film. Green Book has since had a new lease of life at the box office, which was to be expected. Although it can’t be deemed a progressive film, on the strength of its performances the award is very well deserved.

Made on a relatively small production budget, it was cruising along well enough before the Oscar windfall, attracting some negative reviews but strong word of mouth, for its humour, its humanity and outstanding lead actor performances.

Indeed, it has had surprising box office success around the world, where it is well ahead of other best film nominees, BlakkKlansman, The Favourite and Vice. It has been doing well in China, which is interesting.

A key issue with Green Book is that it could so easily have been made 50 years ago, during the decade of civil rights movements

The film’s title appropriates the name of a travel guide for black Americans in the Deep South that infamously identified the places where they would be welcome. There are some scenes demonstrating the appalling depths to which racial prejudice can stoop, but the title Green Book is in my view a clumsy attempt to attach a kind of high seriousness to itself that it doesn’t actually have.

When In the Heat of the Night came out in 1967 it was a riveting, indignant crime drama combining Sidney Poitier’s elegant black northerner detective with Rod Steiger’s rough, racist southerner policeman. They were investigating a murder together in Mississippi. That film showed how mutual, professional and personal respect could grow and prosper across the racial divide, something that Green Book does as well.

If Green Book isn’t alert and ‘woke’ enough to racial injustice in society, its qualities need not be dismissed for these reasons alone. It is a gentle, odd couple relationship comedy in which the lead character has the opportunity to improve.

Based on true events, it tracks a 3-month trip undertaken by Tony ‘The Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a rough and tumble bouncer from the Bronx, and the elegant black American concert pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who hired him as a driver and minder for a concert tour of the American South.

It is a road movie and hence belongs to that genre that narrates a quintessential journey towards understanding, enlightenment, or disillusion – what you will.

Mortensen’s character, a crude, casually racist and rather ignorant person, gets the chance to learn about himself, and to his credit he takes it

Despite the reservations, Green Book has a lot going for it. Namely, a truly outstanding character study of a rather crude, casually racist and ignorant person, Mortensen’s character, who gets the chance to learn about himself, and to his credit he takes it.

Mortensen declined the fat suit option, by the way, and acquired 20 kilos for the role to help keep the production budget down.

Playing opposite him as the refined and educated black maestro, Shirley, Mahershala Ali won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance.

Given the popular contenders, A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, and other excellent nominees, Roma and The Favourite, Green Book’s Oscar for best film, was a surprise for all, not just Spike Lee. Granted, it’s not great cinema, but Green Book is a showcase for two outstanding performances – one formally recognised with the best supporting actor that also went to Mahershala Ali.

A best film Oscar is a major windfall for director, Peter Farrelly, who  contributed some of the earliest ‘gross out’ comedies like There’s Something About Mary and hasn’t exactly distinguished himself to this point. The direction is workmanlike, but he had a hand co-writing the lively and engaging screenplay with collaborators including Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son).

It is Viggo Mortensen who had the biggest hand in making Green Book the film it is.

The Academy may wake up to this a few years down the track and give him the Oscar that should be on his mantelpiece now. It’s the way it works.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

Everybody Knows

Review by © Jane Freebury

M, 2 hr 13 mins

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre

3.5 Stars

In the ambience of the Spanish countryside, star couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, look so completely at home it is easy to forget that in Everybody Knows they are being directed by a filmmaker from a very different part of the world. Though he says that he felt very much at home in Spain when on a family holiday some years ago, the acclaimed writer-director Asghar Farhadi hails of course from Iran.

Now who wouldn’t feel at home in Spain? Spanish people can be so warm, expressive and direct, and what’s not to love about a country so in touch with its past and with so much zest for life in the present.

Be that as it may, it’s wonderful that this celebrated filmmaker is able to work outside Iran. He has done so before. He worked with French actors on his film The Past set partly in Paris—though it may be a while before he works in the US. Despite his green card he will not be visiting the land of Trump.

In Everybody Knows, Farhadi remains in familiar genre territory, that is, exploring the tensions within couples and within families, but on this occasion his characters are not Iranian, but Spanish, and they are free to express. To audiences in the West at least, Farhadi’s finely wrought, unsettling Iranian melodramas have a restraint and an ambiguity that resists easy interpretation and provokes questions.

Not so, Everybody Knows. The psychological and covert here take second place to the overt, the expressive, and mystery pertains to characters out-of-frame.

Events revolve around the character of Laura (Cruz), who is visiting from Argentina with her two children to attend her sister’s wedding, though not with husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) for the time being. It is joyful reunion that culminates in a big dance party, captured on a hovering drone, in the village square. Farhadi, although from a country where singing and dancing in public are banned, handles these scenes with ease and confidence.

One by one the characters reveal their foibles. Family patriarch is a rather grumpy old man. Laura’s teenage daughter, Irene (an exuberant Carla Campra), has a wild streak. Other associates of the family, like Paco (Bardem) and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie) who run a successful vineyard, we get to know more slowly.

When Irene disappears during the wedding celebrations and her kidnappers begin to send threatening messages, the family relationships are stripped bare. It’s when Cruz comes into her own as the distraught mother.

Initially, it is outsiders who come under suspicion. There are multiple possible suspects working among the migrant grape pickers in Paco’s vineyards. For some time, the film entertains this possibility, and it makes for tense kidnap drama, though the film falls short of the appellation of thriller.

If some family were apprehensive about Laura’s return, others were delighted to see her, while there were also those who, in their way, were prepared. There is a backstory that would have made Everybody Knows that much more interesting.

With its gorgeous leads and rural backdrop, it has convincing performances with tense moments. Only this film doesn’t have that finely wrought complexity so distinctive of Farhadi, in which much is actually left unsaid. That’s what is missing. Finely wrought, high intensity drama that unwinds like a coiled spring, leaving matters unresolved and leaving us high and dry.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Capernaum

M, 2 hours, subtitled

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

Set in contemporary Lebanon, Capernaum takes its name from a town that stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in biblical times.  With a nod to the past and to the future, it’s an intriguing title and an apt one. In the ancient languages of the region it meant ‘chaos’.

The opening shots are serene enough, high in the sky above the noise and confusion below. But wait, the first images look like encampments where roofs of plastic sheeting are secured by rubber tyres. A reminder that Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Capernaum is a mix of family melodrama and political activism, filmed on location in the jumble of disadvantage on the streets of Beirut. It is where Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea) and his siblings spend most of their time, selling refreshments to boost the family income instead of attending school.

The parents are hopeless. Father, Selim (Fadi Youssef) does little but sit around, while the mother, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), has an ingenious method for smuggling drugs into prison in the laundry.

Even that doesn’t yield enough money. To Zain’s dismay, his parents sell off his precious sister, 11-year-old Sahar (Haita Izzam), to the weird adult son of their landlord. When they exchange her for a few hens and some help with the rent, it’s the trigger for 12-yer-old Zain to leave home.The boy’s forlorn journey to who knows where ends in a shanty town that is home to people without papers, like himself.

A young Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who he encounters at the funfair takes him in and he cares for her toddler son Yonas (gorgeous Boluwatife ‘Treasure’ Bankole) while she goes to work. The unlikely arrangement works well until the day Rahil doesn’t return home.

It leaves Zain and Yonas to fend for themselves, a terrifying prospect, with danger on all sides. The time these two spend together is the film’s emotional centre, captured with a weaving, subjective camera from Christopher Aoun that establishes powerful rapport.

Rapport and compassion is what this film from Nadine Labaki is all about. She explored the women’s perspective on the civil strife that has racked Lebanon for decades in her first feature, Caramel, set in a hairdressing salon. In this, her third feature, the examines the plight of children of displaced families, and the responsibility of parents towards the children that they give life.

The boy who plays Zain, Zain Al Rafeea, is himself a refugee who fled southern Syria with his family. There is a story about him on the UNHCR website. Neither he, nor any of the other performers in Capernaum were actors. As director Labaki puts it, her entire cast were simply playing ‘their own lives’.

The courtroom scenes that bookend the film, in which Zain sues his parents for gross neglect, are unlikely in reality. But they are a powerful and thought-provoking device to bring to bear on parental, and community, responsibility. Labaki has a small role here as Zain’s lawyer.

Capernaum makes a stirring plea for compassion and is such a visceral, potent experience that it has high impact. With amazing performances from its beautiful young leads, this is an exceptional testament to the will to live.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7