Monday, February 26, 2007

Into Great Silence

Imagine a world of voluntary solitude and silence, with scarcely any human contact or modern conveniences. Into Great Silence explores this cloistered life in the remote Grande Chartreuse monastery nestled deep in the picturesque French Alps. Here, men divest themselves of all material possessions to completely devote their attention to God, leaving behind careers, relationships, and technology to return to a simple way of life largely unchanged throughout the centuries. We all have a concept of what life in a monastery might entail, but Philip Groning’s documentary provides the real deal in exquisite, languid detail.

Groning first approached the monks in 1984 with the request to film his documentary. At the time, the monks denied his request but said they might be ready in 10-12 years. 16 years later, they were ready for him and he eagerly took them up on their acceptance of his offer. He didn’t just drop by for a few days of casual filming; he actually moved into the monastery for six months and lived among the monks, obeying their customs and respecting their way of life. This afforded him unequaled insight into the reality of their situation, allowing him to craft a deeply moving portrait of their world. He didn’t have any film crew, so he was solely responsible for the entire project, completely relying on natural lighting and fortuitous timing to capture his incredible footage.

Since the monks maintain a vow of silence, the film is largely devoid of any speech. This extends to commentary, as Groning wisely eschews any voiceover in favor of letting the scenes speak for themselves. Groning also avoids the use of a soundtrack or archival footage, keeping the focus completely on the daily activities of the monks. Viewers may not always understand what the monks are doing due to the lack of description, but the approach works wonders as an immersive technique. There’s also little in the way of any narrative arc other than the change of seasons and the introduction of some new arrivals near the midpoint, again enforcing the concept that the monastery is as it has always been, presented to viewers in a completely unadulterated state.

The monastery was founded in 1084 and has endured throughout the centuries with little change or recruitment efforts. The monks believe that they are following the will of God, so they’re completely unconcerned if His will is that the monastery runs out of monks and closes its doors some day. They do run a business to support themselves, producing a green herbal liqueur named after the monastery, but the film completely sidesteps this aspect of their existence. It’s disturbing to realize that the monks survive by producing an alcoholic beverage for the delight of sinners, but to their credit they originally created it as a medicinal drink so they somewhat deflect any criticism since they can’t be blamed for its misappropriation by the heathens. Also, at the end of each year they donate any remaining profits to charity so they’re clearly not getting rich off peddling monk moonshine.

So how do the monks communicate with each other? Well, as it turns out, they’re not silent all the time. Once a week, they go for a long walk in the country and are allowed to talk to each other for its duration. Also, they have a system of passing notes throughout the week as needed. Aside from that, they maintain their silence. As for their solitude, each monk is assigned his own private living quarters and stays there most of the time for worship and meals, venturing out only for chores, communal services, and the sole communal meal held each Sunday afternoon.

It’s shocking to think of actually making such a drastic and seemingly depressing life change, but the film strives to show that the monks treasure their choice and relish their monastic lives. They lead exhausting lives, especially because they gather for worship around the clock so they never get a full night’s sleep, but they seem completely content. They’re seen laughing with each other on one of their weekly walks, and at the film’s most surprising juncture they’re shown playing in the snow like schoolboys, taking turns sliding down a hillside to their obvious delight. Even their daily private worship seems blissful, as they’re surrounded by a stunning and pristine environment that shows them the wonders of God every day.

The film must be watched in the right frame of mind, as casual viewers with little clue of what’s in store will likely be bored out of their minds by its unhurried pace. At nearly three hours in length, it could be a bit of an endurance test for some, but viewers successfully able to escape from the multitasking modern world will find themselves enraptured by a truly transcendent experience.

Into Great Silence opens in limited release in NYC on February 28th, followed by Los Angeles on March 9th before moving to additional locations over the next few months. For more information and venues, visit the film's website.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Zachary is the fourth of five sons in a French Canadian family, with the first initial of each son’s name contributing a letter to the title of this film. He was born on Christmas day, and is rumored to have magic healing powers as a result. He’s also unsure of his sexuality, a confusing situation made no easier by his conservative father and a thuggish older brother. Over the course of two decades, we watch Zachary grow from a sensitive young boy to a conflicted, odd adult, highlighting key steps in his development along the way.

At first glance, C.R.A.Z.Y. appears to be a gay-themed film, but Zachary is so unwilling to embrace his own sexuality that his orientation is never explicitly clear until the final scene. Instead, the film becomes more of a disjointed family drama, with substantial time spent exploring Zachary’s relationship with his parents and his least favorite brother. Dad is a straight arrow who cannot tolerate the idea of Zachary’s deviant behavior, while his oldest brother Christian is a tough, drug-addicted loser who is more interested in borrowing money to support his habit than participating in any constructive dialogue.

The film begins with Zachary as a young boy at the ages of 6 and 8, but rather than just providing a quick backstory it lingers far too long in this timeframe, sucking up about a quarter of the film’s length. This allows the audience to get a full idea of the initial family dynamic but doesn’t add much to the overall scope rather than prolonging the running time. We see young Zachary scolded for breaking one of his father’s favorite records, a rare import of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” (natch), setting up the inevitable resurfacing of the record later in the film. We see his initial confusion about his sexual orientation, but not enough to give a clear indication of which direction he might end up later in life. Zachary’s mother coddles him as a child, allowing him to pursue more feminine interests, while his father tries to steer him in the right direction by buying him a different musical instrument or sports-themed gift each year.

From his teens on, the character of Zachary is played by Marc-André Grondin, easily the best aspect of the film. He expertly conveys the deep-seated confusion and emotions of the character, while also morphing his character’s appearance through various styles of the 70s and early 80s. He’s adept at portraying both the sensitive and masculine aspects of the character, making the character’s confusion all the more palpable. Zachary is the product of a Catholic, macho family in a conservative neighborhood, so his repressed longings mark him as an outsider far before he decides his destiny. He prays and hopes that he isn’t gay, he believes it’s wrong and doesn’t want to succumb to temptation, and even in the film’s final act he’s denying his longings to his family and himself.

While the film is worth seeing and remains interesting throughout its nearly two hour length, it loses effectiveness through its scattered themes. It’s never clear whether it wants to be a gay film, an exploration of a son’s relationship with his father, a study of the five very different brothers and their interactions, or just a coming of age tale colored by the styles and music of its era. Worse, it jumps around between its different themes with abandon, frequently following key developments in one storyline with unrelated actions in another, losing its momentum in the process. Even the seemingly primary exploration of Zachary’s orientation is somewhat unsatisfying due to its constant ambiguity, alternating between his fantasies about a man and lip synching to David Bowie to his relationship with his girlfriend and his thrashing of a fellow suspected homosexual. His “straight” actions can be viewed as his own coping mechanism as he tries to fight his inherent tendencies, but there’s never enough free reign given to those stifled tendencies to definitively draw that conclusion.

Aside from its plot shortcomings, the film looks extremely polished and has strong performances all around. It also does a fantastic job of capturing the flavor of its setting in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, with believable fashion, décor and music. C.R.A.Z.Y. is now available on DVD, for more information visit the film’s website.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, February 18, 2007

La Sierra

La Sierra opens with a somber statistic: in the past decade, over 35,000 people have been killed in Colombia’s bloody civil conflict. The first image on screen is a fly-covered human corpse sprawled in a ravine, a gruesome victim of the ongoing violence. Right from the start, we’re thrust into the midst of a brutal urban war zone, immediately informing us that we’re most definitely not in Kansas anymore.

The documentary focuses on the effects of the ceaseless violence on the residents of the hillside community of La Sierra, a barrio located on the outskirts of the metropolitan city of Medellín in Colombia. Although Colombia is known as the cocaine capital of the world, and La Sierra’s young residents make no attempt to hide their frequent use of the local product, the armed conflict is portrayed as strictly a turf war, not a grab for control of the lucrative drug trade. It’s puzzling at first why anyone would bother fighting over control of the dilapidated and impoverished barrio, until the filmmakers turn the focus to the personal stories of three of its residents.

Jesús is a 19-year-old footsoldier in the local gang protecting La Sierra, a victim of a homemade grenade that took his hand. Cielo is a widow and mother at the age of 17 struggling with leading a virtuous and poor life while trying to avoid the lure of easy money in the red light district. Edisón is the 22-year-old leader of the paramilitary gang, a veteran of the conflict and a father of six (by six different girls). Through their willingness to share their experiences, we’re granted an intimate and mesmerizing glimpse of their horrific lives.

Shockingly, the young adults have been surrounded by violence for so long that they’re largely desensitized and nonchalant about its implications. They realize they can be killed at any time, but with the time they have they’re content to live their lives to the fullest. This is particularly evident in their sexual histories, as they all have children well before they exit their teens.

While Jesús and Cielo have compelling individual stories, they pale in comparison to gang leader Edisón. He’s a fascinating individual, a charismatic and intelligent young man who offers extremely insightful and unguarded thoughts on the effects of the conflict. In spite of his history as a murderer and womanizer, he somehow manages to become a sympathetic character. He’s not overly macho or conceited about his power, he’s just a normal young man trapped in an abnormal situation. He’s the heart of the community and the film, a big fish in a very tempestuous pond. It’s sobering to consider what could have become of him in another environment, and all the more tragic when we learn of his fate.

While the film draws easy comparison to the fictional City of God, an earlier movie focused on the effects of violence on the youth of a Brazilian slum, the reality of this documentary puts it above its predecessor in terms of overall effectiveness. The violence is omnipresent and stifling, the hopelessness of their situation is heartbreaking, but they greet each day as a gift and strive for as much simple happiness as possible. Ultimately, the film is far more life-affirming than depressing, a small miracle considering its harrowing subject matter.

The filmmakers captured their footage over the course of a year, putting themselves in constant danger as they followed their subjects through the war zone. At one point, Jesús’s group comes under surprise enemy fire but the camera keeps rolling while they dive to safety. The paramilitary gang agreed to have the filmmakers in their midst, but those same subjects were packing weapons brandished with abandon throughout the film, leaving the distinct impression that even in a relatively safe zone the cameraman could have been a victim of careless friendly fire at any time. This unprecedented level of immersion in the conflict and the lives of its participants helps to make the film a powerful and memorable experience.

La Sierra is now available on DVD, for more information visit the First Run Features website.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Cuban Masterworks Collection

After our half-century embargo against Cuba and our resulting general ignorance of all things Cuban, it’s likely that the first reaction most US viewers will have to this new DVD boxset is “Cuba makes movies?” Thankfully, the fine folks at First Run Features have taken the bold step of sifting through the rich and varied archives of Cuban cinema to present this intriguing collection.

Kicking off the set (and also available individually) is an amusing black and white film called The Twelve Chairs, based on an old Russian tale. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because Mel Brooks also made a film based on the same story a few years later. In the film, a formerly rich man is forced to locate all of his mother’s ornate chairs after she spends her dying breath telling him of a fortune in jewels hidden inside one of them. Unfortunately, the chairs have been removed from his family’s home and scattered to various new owners. He’s not particularly clever or resourceful, but he’s aided by an assistant who eventually leads him to the scattered chairs. There’s not much in the way of character development, but the quest is occasionally comedic and offers an interesting look into the aftermath of Cuba’s revolution.

Next up is another black and white film titled The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, easily the most oddball selection in the package. The title character is a jack of all trades who eventually bumbles his way into a surprising role as a guerilla leader in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The film is wildly inventive for its time, but the result is a mishmash of seemingly unrelated situations that give the impression the filmmakers were winging it without any real cohesive flow. One minute Juan is a poor farmer, then he’s a circus performer, then he’s on to some other random and temporary occupation until the film settles on its revolutionary aim near the end. There’s some implied commentary about the hardships of the poor, having to take whatever work they can to get by, but the film is constructed in such an inscrutable manner that it never seems like any biting indictment of the political environment.

The final three films are in color and were all directed by Humberto Solas. While they have different themes, they share similar glossy, high society settings and explore the problems of its wealthy and powerful denizens, making Solas seem something like a Cuban version of Merchant Ivory.

In A Successful Man, the roots of the Cuban revolution are explored through the lives of two brothers on different sides of the power struggle. The film has a grand scope, covering 30 years of a family’s history as well as the country’s changes. It benefits from its grand settings and sweeping camera work, but lags in its attention to convincing character development.

In Cecilia, the focus turns to interracial love in the upper class, as the title character longs for acceptance by a white man in spite of her mixed blood. Of all the films, Cecilia seems to have the best character development and most accomplished plot, probably because it concerns itself primarily with matters of the heart instead of the surrounding political climate. As the attractive title character, Daisy Granados provides a heartbreaking turn as a lovelorn lass fighting an uphill battle against an ingrained caste system.

The final film, Amada, also has a love affair at its heart, but cast against the larger backdrop of World War I. Amada is trapped in a loveless marriage and finds solace with her cousin, leading to a Shakespearean tragedy of overwrought proportions. The film never makes us care about Amada, so her melodramatic longing for her paramour comes off as cheap romance novel pap rather than engaging cinema.

All of the movies have been restored for this collection, with crisp and clean pictures throughout. Each disc has limited bonus material, usually a basic photo gallery and directory filmography as well as a brief feature on some aspect of Cuban cinema such as its actresses and current crop of filmmakers. The set could benefit from more in-depth background material as this is clearly an introductory experience for many viewers. Also, the subtitles are positioned beneath the frame in all of the films, meaning that viewers hoping to fully utilize their new widescreens will have to learn Spanish fast or resign themselves to less than optimal viewing settings. Aside from those minor quibbles, the set is an extremely welcome addition to US DVD shelves and will hopefully lead to further exploration of the ignored movie archives of Cuba. For more information, visit

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Close To Home

Close To Home presents a timely and insightful view of daily life in the turbulent Middle East. It offers a unique spin on the impact of terrorism by focusing on the struggles of young women in urban Israel as they are forced to fulfill their compulsory military service. The girls are assigned to a unit tasked with patrolling the streets of Jerusalem in the hopes of identifying potential terrorists before they strike. In theory, it’s a wise plan designed to protect the citizens of Jerusalem, but in action it’s a mind-numbing and unpleasant activity for the girls as it forces them to racially profile and question any Palestinians they encounter.

The film follows two of the girls paired together against their will, the innocent and compliant Mirit (Naama Schendar) and the rebellious Smadar (Smadar Sayar). Mirit initially does everything by the book, always following her patrol schedule and rigorously documenting all Palestinians she spots. Smadar would rather be anywhere else, and frequently ditches her duty to have her hair done, spend some time shopping, or just ignore any suspects that cross her path. This raises some interesting questions about the Israeli security plan as the girls are responsible to serve their country in some capacity, but the country may not benefit by relying on potentially naïve and unwilling participants to patrol its streets.

As the girls grow accustomed to each other, they eventually share a tragic moment that allows them to form a tenuous bond in spite of their differences. After this event, the goody two-shoes Mirit relaxes and starts to shun her duty, first by stalking an attractive stranger and then by abandoning her post for a harmless dalliance with another man. When her superior catches her transgression, Mirit is temporarily incarcerated, leading Smadar to realize how much she misses her company and setting up the final act when they are reunited.

While the film is centered on the friendship and daily routines of the girls, it's impossible to overlook their dangerous environment. The film is unsettling not just because of the omnipresent threat of terrorism, but because the city they patrol looks so much like any other Western metropolis. The residents go about their business as usual in spite of the military personnel patrolling their city, while the military girls are modern, cosmopolitan individuals similar to any other city girls, but at any moment their beautiful city could be rocked by a random act of terrorism. The Palestinian residents are subjected to constant harassment and requirements to produce their IDs on demand, leading to an us-against-them mentality that can’t help but breed animosity on both sides. It’s a frightening glimpse of what the US could easily become, and a reminder of how fortunate we are for now.

Close to Home was written and directed by Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hager, two Israeli women with minimal feature film experience whose collaboration has resulted in a strong calling card for both of them. Like their subjects, they both completed their mandatory military service immediately after high school, providing them with personal insight into their fascinating production. Their lead actresses also contribute winning performances, creating wholly believable and memorable characters living through an unimaginable experience.

Close to Home opens in limited theatrical release in New York City on February 16, 2007. Additional dates and venues available at

Labels: , , , , ,