Tuesday, 9 June 2015

In Lisandro Alonso's La libertad, a man cuts down trees, strips their bark and puts the wood in piles, before loading it into a borrowed pick-up truck and delivering it. Throughout this process, he meets four people: the owner of the pick-up truck and his young son, a shop assistant, and a businessmen who buys and sells the wood; aside from some half-hearted haggling, they barely exchange words. These words, though, are the only clue as to the film's location. Of course, the likeliest setting for the film is Alonso's native Argentina, but this narrative exists with so little context that it could easily be happening anywhere in the world; and at any time: the pick-up truck, a portable radio, and a chainsaw providing the only (vague) suggestions of a time-period.

Instead of (overtly, at least) attributing some kind of socio-political significance to this woodcutter and his work, Alonso devotes the entirety of the film to his quotidian routine, mostly observing with a free-wheeling, constantly-mobile camera that centres him in the frame even as his work takes him elsewhere; and sometimes Alonso ignores the work altogether and simply watches as the wind passes through the trees, or as the woodcutter finds the perfect place to take a shit. In this sense, La libertad, which translates as "freedom", is a fitting title: Alonso is tied to nothing, and his film is as boundless as narrative cinema can be. But La libertad's cyclical structure and the tedious, repetitive routine it depicts suggests that this freedom is perhaps not as liberating as it seems.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Opening with a Malian student standing alone in the suffocating aisles of a French supermarket, Abderrahmane Sissako's 61 minute debut feature, Life on Earth, quickly leaves Europe for Africa, following the student as he returns to the small, remote village of his childhood in search of his fading African identity. On arrival, Sissako, both director and actor, simply observes a day in the life of the village and its people, as the promise of a new millennium approaches: people use the only phone in the village to wish friends and relatives across the world a happy new year; a DIY radio show broadcasts excerpts from poet Aimé Césaire's essay on the negative impact of European colonialism, Discourse on Colonialism; farmers fight to keep flocks of birds from destroying their crops; a young woman has her photo taken.

Sissako doesn't really create a narrative out of these moments, instead using them to give a sense of this close-knit community on the precipice of modernity, but not quite there: the telephone barely works, frustrating callers with poor reception and long-winded dialling methods; and everyone in the village uses either donkeys or bicycles for transportation, with only the briefest glimpse of cars and motorcycles as they pass along the road. And then the millennium passes, unnoticed by the villagers: bicycle tyres still get punctures, birds still destroy crops, telephones still don't work; life in 2000 is exactly the same as in 1999.

Monday, 1 June 2015

"Common sense breaks down at subatomic level" says a theoretical physics professor early on in John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, and so it does, as a group of students and scientists gather in the basement of an abandoned church to study an impenetrable container covered in satanic inscriptions, filled with a bizarre green liquid. They run numerous tests, and the results are unexplainable: the acidity can't be that high; a life form can't grow in pre-biotic fluid; how can it be seven million years old? As baffling as it seems, these scientists, who value their fields of study more than their names, still reject the idea that this is real, even as the mounting evidence becomes harder and harder to dismiss.

Carpenter, as with much of his work, thrives in tight spaces, drawing horror from pitch-black rooms, long narrow corridors, and the imposing presence of scientific apparatus and religious iconography cluttering the already cramped church; while his use of nauseating practical effects catalyses his characters' acceptance of the situation - after all, who can deny the occult when a person collapses into a pile of cockroaches? It's at this point that Carpenter shifts gears. The mystery of the green liquid suddenly reveals itself, and the earlier scepticism is replaced by a panic-stricken fight for survival: one of the students tries in vain to reason with his possessed captors by telling (terrible) jokes, while another, seeing the hordes of zombified people blocking the alley beneath the first floor window, jumps down anyway to look for an escape route, before frantically climbing back up as the crowd closes in. 

Perhaps the most important reaction, though, is between physics students Brian and Catherine, the two "leads", or at least the two characters Carpenter spends the most time with. Early in the film, they're involved in a string of non-committal sexual encounters on campus, yet when faced with the devil incarnate, they profess their love for each other, as if the irrational situation they're in has made them more prepared to accept the unbelievable. It's fitting, then, that this film about scientific investigation ends with an act of romantic optimism - which Carpenter preserves with a gorgeous cut to black.