Religion in remote places. Films reviewed: The Witch, the Club, Embrace of the Serpent

Posted in Anthropology, Catholicism, Chile, Cultural Mining, Drama, Dreams, Indigenous, Movies, Mysticism, Supernatural, Suspicion by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2016

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Religion can take a strange turn in remote places; this week I’m looking at three such movies. There are defrocked priests in a tiny fishing town in Chile, a shaman in the Columbian rainforest, and a preacher’s family in the woods near Salem village.

12357191_658718044294625_522435059894350027_oThe Witch
Dir: Robert Eggers

“A New England Folktale.”

It’s the 1630s in the New England colonies. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is a firebrand preacher in Salem Village. He doesn’t like the way things are going there, with all the suspicion, accusations and trials about witchcraft. So he packs up his wife and kids and settles in a clearing near the woods. But witchcraft may have followed them there.

It starts with little things. A wild boar destroying crops and the farm animals behaving in a strange way. Pretty teen Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is annoyed by the bratty little twins – they look like devilish imps. So to scare them she pretends to be a witch. But her brother takes it all very seriously. He goes looking for an old witch in the woods. And now he’s gone.xGjG7n_witch_01_o3_8778312_1439860966

Caleb is baffled by the events, but goaded on by his shrewish, pregnant wife, he looks deeper into the troubles. What does that satanic goat want? What’s happening to the milk cow? And is there a devil’s child on its way? Are there witches in the woods? Is Thomasin one of them? Or is it all just paranoia brought on by their isolation?

This is not your average horror movie. It’s an art house flic that’s more strange and creepy than scary. The images are spooky but beautiful/grotesque, and the music is great. Apparently the script is based on actual diaries from that era. So the dialogue is full of thees and thous… but don’t expect Shakespeare.  Just first-hand accounts of witchery 400 years ago.

The_Club_-_4The Club
Dir: Pablo Larraín

Four priests and a nun live in a house together in La Boca, a remote fishing village in Chile. The men are there by order of the Vatican in penance for their suspected crimes and misdemeaners. Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers: No) is their de facto jailer. But in fact they live comfortable lives. The gamble, they drink, they cuss. Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro: Desde allá, No) even has a hobby:  a greyhound he bets on at dog races.

But then something happens. A new priest arrives at their sanctuary, pursued by a strange young man named Sandokan (Roberto Farías).

Sandokan parks himself by their front gate and begins reciting things in a sing-song voice. He tells in graphic detail all the horrible sexual abuse he suffered as an altar boy by a Catholic priest. This leads to a shocking incident.

The Vatican sends an investigator – with a handful The_Club_-_6of secret files – in the person of Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso). Garcia is a hard-ass Jesuit stickler who demands the truth from the priests. This is not a spa, he says. They must confess everything.

But the priests and the nun are no pushovers. So it becomes a tug of warThe_Club_-_5 between the stubborn but suspect priests, and their powerful interloper. What are their secrets? Which of them is really guilty? And what will become of the mentally damaged Sandokan?

The Club is another excellent – but disturbing — movie from the great Chilean director who brought us “No”. He uses many actors from his previous films. This one’s a dark comedy but with a very serious undertone about the intersection of politics and religion, crime and punishment.

EMBRACEOFTHESERPSENT_01_o3_8681619_1439859054Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)
Dir: Ciro Guerra

It’s the early 20th Century. Theo Koch-Grunberg is a German Ethnologist living among the indigenous peoples of the northern Amazon rainforest. Theo (Jan Bijvoet: Borgman) is scraggly-looking man with a bony face and a long white beard who speaks the local language. He’s trying to find a shaman to show him the way to find a rare flower with mystical and medicinal properties. So with the help pf his student Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) he turns to Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) of the Arekuna nation to be his guide. Karamakate is a strong proud man who is one of the last of his people still living free in the traditional way. He walks through the forest basically naked except for a Embrace of the Serpentceremonial necklace. He carries no possessions. Everything he needs — the history, laws, medicine, geography, and stories of his people – are in his head. And he imposes strict rules that Theo has to follow if he wants Karamakate to lead him in canoe and on foot to the secret plant. He must starve himself in order to experience its power.

Flash forward half a century. Another foreign ethnographer, Evan (Brionne Davis) is back on the same path with the same goal: find pgBEVm_EMBRACEOFTHESERPSENT_04_o3_8681707_1439859084that flower! And he turns again to a much older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) to guide him. But Karamakate now says he’s forgotten everything.

The movie jumps back and forth between the two journeys, 40 years apart. And what they see and experience is amazing, stunning, frightening and spectacular. There are missionaries who dress up indigenous kids as altar boys and forbid them to speak their own language (shades of Canada’s residential schools.) Adults are turned into slaves to fuel the short-lived Amazon rubber boom in Manaus. And the jungle is full of false messiahs, drug addicts, jaguars and boas, marching soldiers and fleeing crowds… They see it all.

The whole movie is shot in some of the most spectacular black and white footage you’ve ever seen. This is an amazingly breathtaking film. It’s emotional, tragic, absurd and realistic. It’s based on the notebooks of those two explorers, which contain some of the only recorded records of indigenous people of the North Amazon. I recommend this movie

The Club, The Witch and Embrace of the Serpent all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Yes and No. Films Reviewed: Yossi, No.

Posted in 1980s, Advertising, Chile, Cultural Mining, Death, Drama, Gay, Israel, Politics, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 18, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

This week I look at two foreign-language films, both dramas about men in their thirties with a tragic past but who may be able to find a better future. Both are dramas, one from Israel, the other from Chile.

YOSSIYossi

Dir: Eytan Fox

Yossi (Ohad Knoller) is a guy in his mid-thirties trying to deal with his buried past. When he served his compulsory duty in the Israeli army he had had a secret relationship with another soldier. His lover, Jagger, died in his arms, and he’s been living with that for the past decade.(This movie is a sequel to Fox’s Yossi and Jagger, which I haven’t seen yet.)

Now he’s a doctor, a cardiologist. He’s still in love with a dead man but is surrounded by sex, everywhere he looks. A pretty nurse he works with lets him now she’s ready to sleep with him. An aggressive and popular doctor he works with, Moti (Lior Ashkenazi), is determined to get him laid. Yossi is gay but in the closet, and fights off all the advances at work. But when he tries his hand at on-line pickups he finds gay life even more alienating and cruel than the false front he puts on at the hospital. He is crushed when a potential date rudely rejects him for putting up 3-year-old photos on his dating profile (which makes him even more self-conscious for having let himself gain a bit of weight).

When an older woman appears at his hospital, he recognizes her as his lover’s mother. But his attempt at closure — letting Jagger’s parents know the truth about his relationship with their dead son – doesn’t work out quite like he’d hoped. His work begins to suffer, his life feels meaningless, the world seems pointless and superficial. And when he flubs up an operation, he’s sent off for a paid vacation to “get better” from his depression.

He drives away. On the road, he meets a group of young soldiers, who remind him of his own friends a decade earlier. As a fellow veteran (possibly from the same company) he gives them a lift to a beach resort. And, since he enjoys their company, especially the well-groomed and witty Tom (Oz Zehavi), he decides to stay on.

Like the gay character in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, he spends his days staring longingly at the young men, especially the openly gay Tom splashing around in the swimming pool and on the beach. He sends off subtle hints of his “gayness”: he carries the book, Death in Venice, to the beach and listens to Mahler in public.YOSSI

But when Tom, never one for subtlety, hits on him, Yossi refuses to pick up on it or even acknowledge it. He won’t take off his shirt at the beach, and, in his blue funk, he can’t imagine anyone actually wanting or desiring him. Will Yossi ever come out of his shell?

This is a slow-moving, subtle, tender, (and somewhat depressing) follow-up to the director’s earlier drama Yossi and Jagger. It picks up where that film left off, but 10 years later. Not having seen that film, it’s hard for me to judge Yossi’s backstory, but for much of this movie, he seems so blah, so closed-to-the-world and flat and uninteresting that I wonder why all the other characters in the movie seem to be so sexually entranced by him, throwing themselves at him, left and right.

That’s not fair — he is actually a charming, modest and soft-spoken character, and by the end you do feel for him. Yossi is really two movies; the first is a troubling look at a depressed man facing his past. The second his possible start on a new course. The second half is much easier to take.

No_Poster_27x39_1SHT_a_smallNo!

Dir: Pablo Larrain

Augusto Pinochet was the notorious right-wing dictator of Chile since he toppled their government. The coup happened in 1973, when the military overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende. Backed by Operation Condor his government killed thousands of people, arrested 80,000, dropped lots of out of helicopters, torture, NO Gael Garcia Bernal 2arrest, forced disappearances…lost more things like that. Nice guy…

OK flash-forward 15 years to 1988. Things have calmed down, Chicago-School neo-liberal trade laws are taking off, and exports are thriving. Pinochet feels he is secure in his office, (he is fully in control) so, to polish up his international image he decides to have a referendum: Yes means he will continue; No means they will have a national, democratic election, the first since the coup.

This is where the movie begins.

NO Gael Garcia Bernal5As part of the plebescite, he offers 15 minutes of TV-time a day for the opposition (the NO side) to have their say. What this means is his government has (in addition to their own allotted 15 minutes for YES) another 11 hours and 45 minutes a day, since the military government and its corporate cronies have almost blanket control of the media. Except those 15 minutes. So official broadcasts are full of “happy patriotic Chileans” standing military-style outside the factories and fishing boats, waving to the Great Leader.

The No side needs to find someone to lead their campaign. But who would want to stick their neck out when it’s so easy to get your head chopped off? Instead, they go for a talented, apolitical, mainstream ad exec named Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal). Rene has his Chilean street creds – his parents were leftists who fled to Mexico after the coup – but here’s Rene back in Chile, living comfortably, with no chip on his soldier. He’s a skateboard riding Mexicano with a rattail in his hair (it’s the ’80’s).

The hardliners on the No side want to remind everyone of Pinochet’s crimes, the death, the killing, the persecution, the oppression, the disappeared. But Rene’s an ad-man at heart. Grief won’t sell. Sadness won’t sell. Death is anything but sexy.

He has to come up with something fun, satirical, humorous, hip. Despite the anger of the NO Gael Garcia Bernal 3persecuted who hired him, Rene wants a successful advertising campaign, above all. We need a jingle, he says.

It’s only once he’s deeper into the campaign, that he experiences, first hand, some of the frightening tactics of the dictator. His son is at risk, and he sees his (ex-)wife beaten at a public demonstration. And he’s especially vulnerable when he discovers his own boss, Lucho (Francisco Castro) at the ad agency, is actually leading the pro-Pinochet’s campaign. It becomes a personal competition not just a political one.

This is a fantastic movie that follows a historically important political event as it happens, but as seen through the eye of the TV commercials and their makers. The film itself is done in period 80’s style, complete with flaring video tape, blurry shots and a rectangular, TV-screen shape.

I saw No at TIFF last year, and found myself at the Chilean film reception. I remember casually asking an official there, part of the Chilean film industry, whether people in Chile prefer to say “Pino-shay”, like Canadians do, or “Pino-tchett”? Actually, she replied, most Chileans prefer to say that man’s name… as little as possible. (Gulp!).

No starts today, and Yossi opens next Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox – check your local listings. Also on now is the Toronto Irish Film Festival, and, starting next week, March 21-24 is the first ever water film festival – running documentaries about the crucial issue of H2O!. Go to Ecologos.ca for more details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .

Tagged with: , , ,
%d bloggers like this: