The Insult [L’insulte]

(Lebanon / Belgium / Cyprus / France / USA 2017)

“We live in the Middle East. The word ‘offense’ was born here.”

— Wajdi Wehbe

The plot of The Insult [L’insulte] [قضيةرقم٢٣‎] recalls the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Perhaps someone should have told Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a hothead Beirut mechanic in his forties (born about three weeks after me), and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the sixtyish foreman of a construction crew.

While tending to plants on his balcony one afternoon, Tony accidentally spills water on the guys in the crew working below him on the street. Yasser spots the problem: a sawed-off pipe is coming out of the balcony. He offers to fix it, but Tony declines. Rudely. Yasser directs the guys to fix it anyway. Just as they finish, Tony sees the new pipe — and he busts it up into pieces. Watching it happen, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”

This is where it all starts to snowball. Tony is a Lebanese Christian, a devotee of Bachir Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. Tony demands an apology. Yasser refuses. His boss (Talal El Jurdi), overwrought by the combustibility of the situation, persuades him to do so after he learns what happened.

When the two men approach Tony at his garage, he makes a vicious ethnic remark to Yasser, who punches him in the gut and cracks two ribs. Tony sues Yasser — involving the police in a small criminal investigation doesn’t quench his thirst for “justice,” which to Tony is more about putting Yasser in his place. Initially, both men represent themselves before a lower court. The judge (Carlos Chahine) dismisses the case in a huff, annoyed that neither man can articulate his position.

Infamous attorney Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who fancies himself a defender of the Christian perspective, takes a political interest in Tony’s case. He convinces Tony to appeal the dismissal. Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), an attorney from legal aid, offers to represent Yasser for her own political reasons.

Soon, the media gets wind of the case. Before the watchful eyes of reporters, the two attorneys, who have a relationship, drag personal and political wounds into the light of the courtroom. The trial ignites tensions and threatens to spark national unrest. Even the President is concerned.

The Insult is not perfect — I could’ve done with less time in the courtroom and none of Éric Neveux’s flimsy techno soundtrack. Still, director Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, hits the right notes here, diving right into the religious-cultural-political differences that do more than divide — they affront. The conflict is specific to Lebanon, but the outrage — consuming and exhausting everyone it its path — is the same that you see all over today, from Europe to South America to the United States.

With Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Julia Kassar, Rifaat Torbey, Georges Daoud, Christina Farah, Elie Njeim

Production: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Scope Pictures, Douri Films, Cohen Media Group, Canal+, Ciné+, L’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement International

Distribution: Cinéart (Netherlands), Diaphana Films (France), Cohen Media Group (USA), Distribution Company (Argentina), Filmarti (Turkey)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://www.3b-productions.com/tessalit/linsulte/

http://cohenmedia.net/films/theinsult

La Chinoise

(France 1967)

“Okay, it’s fiction. But it brings me closer to reality.”

— Véronique

Set in the context of the New Left movement in late 1960s France, Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise is not really about the political ideas it raises — many of which seem relevant today. No, at its core is Godard satirizing the idealism of youth.

Structured as a mockumentary in what undoubtedly is an intentionally scrappy art school style, La Chinoise is a series of “interviews” of five middle class college students about their Maoist terrorist organization. Headquartered in a loft apartment in a suburb of Paris, they named their organization “Aden Arabie” after a novel by French communist Paul Nizan.

The apartment, all done up in primary colors like a Piet Mondrian painting, is owned by one of the members’ parents.

Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky, who sadly died exactly a week before the screening I attended) (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/obituaries/anne-wiazemsky-french-film-star-and-novelist-dies-at-70.html) is the bossy leader, a philosophy student from a family of bankers. She’s involved with Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a “theatrical actor.” Yvonne (Juliet Berto) grew up on a farm and works as a housekeeper and occasional hooker. She’s involved with Henri (Michel Semeniako), a writer who protests and publishes essays. Serge Kirilov (Lex de Bruijin) is a Russian nihilist who is single and suicidal.

La Chinoise is dense with ramblings about social and economic philosophy, politics, and literature. However, Godard uses all of it to make his point: these are kids who are still naïve and don’t fully grasp what they say they stand for. He shows them running around with toy weapons, playing school, and acting out scenes from books in the apartment, often cutting to pictures of comic book and cartoon characters. The joke is pretty funny when you consider the bourgeois backgrounds of the kids.

A conversation between Véronique and French philosopher Francis Jeanson on a train best illustrates Godard’s point: he asks a series of questions challenging her proposal to blow up the university in an effort to expose the flaws in her plan — and maybe get her to question her motives and the depth of her conviction. It goes over her head. So much for carrying pictures of Chairman Mao.

Side note: Claude Channes’s song “Mao-Mao” features prominently here. It’s a nifty little earworm.

With Omar Blondin Diop

Production: Anouchka Films, Les Productions de la Guéville, Athos Films, Parc Film, Simar Films

Distribution: Athos Films (France), Pennebaker Films (United States), Kino Lorber

96 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

https://www.kinolorber.com/film/view/id/1111

Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August [Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto]

(Italy 1974)

“Oh, Madonna! This nightmare is finally over. God, do I want some coffee. Fresh, of course.”

— Raffaella Pavone Lanzetti

More than 40 years after the fact, Lina Wertmüller is still an audacious filmmaker. Not only does she incorporate sociopolitical commentary, satire, and crazy sex into her work, but her ’70s films are inherently interesting because they push buttons. She’s the first female nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, and there’s a reason for that: she’s a radical with more balls than just about anyone else working, even today.

Case in point: Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August [Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto] — or simply Swept Away for short — is not a standard comedy. The plot is simple: an insufferable rich bitch, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), is vacationing in the Mediterranean with her millionare husband (Riccardo Salvino) and their friends on a yacht. Raffaella is thoughtless and demanding, and she relentlessly berates rugged deckhand Gennarino Carunchio (Giancarlo Giannini) because the coffee isn’t fresh, the fish doesn’t taste right, and the pasta isn’t al dente enough.

She insists that Gennarino take her swimming. The two end up stranded in the water, far from the yacht. They eventually spot land, which turns out to be a small uninhabited island. Gennarino, a fisher, has no trouble finding food or shelter. Raffaella isn’t used to doing things herself, and soon finds that she is dependent on Gennarino. He isn’t exactly gracious about his new upper hand. It isn’t long before their relationship takes a sexual turn.

Wertmüller, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, plays on traditional notions of sex roles. By today’s standards, Swept Away is probably too violent to come off as funny. The many scenes where Gennarino slaps and physically pummels Raffaella are bad enough, but when he rapes her on the beach? It’s disturbing. How is that funny? That’s the point — at first, anyway.

Swept Away isn’t really about sex: it’s about power. Here, the power dynamic shifts once Raffaella and Gennarino are out of the “civilized” world and lost in the wild, where economics and social status no longer define one’s place. Like all of her early films, Wertmüller has a lot to say about class structure; here, she also has a lot to say about male/female relationships. She’s controversial, but her approach works really well. It helps that Melato and Giannini, who starred in earlier films together, have a believable chemistry — and they spend a bit of time here wearing very little.

Swept Away is not a typical film. I call it a comedy, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any category. It’s sharp, subversive, and still pretty potent.

With Isa Danieli, Aldo Puglisi, Anna Melita, Giuseppe Durini, Lucrezia De Domizio, Luis Suárez, Vittorio Fanfoni, Lorenzo Piani, Eros Pagni

Production: Medusa Distribuzione

Distribution: Medusa Distribuzione (Italy), Cinema 5 Distributing (USA)

116 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) B+

http://www.linawertmuller.com/framegeo.htm

I, Daniel Blake

(UK/France/Belgium 2016)

I Daniel Blake.jpg

Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake has gotten a lot of attention and praise. Good: it wrestles with a topic that’s timely on both sides of the Atlantic—and elsewhere, for that matter. A political and poweful message, Loach has touched many a nerve. Case in point: I, Daniel Blake won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it finished with a 15-minute standing ovation (http://variety.com/2016/film/global/palme-dor-ken-loach-rebecca-obrien-1201785482/). 15 whole minutes?! Wow.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a kind of antihero. He’s gruff, he’s private, he’s not handsome or young. He probably goes to church. A heart attack seems like the thing that would change his life, but what really does is a new neighbor (Hayley Squires) and her two kids (Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan).

I didn’t stand up, but I get it. Bureaucracy versus common sense is always fertile ground for storytelling. I applaud Loach for what he’s saying here, I really do. I, Daniel Blake is a good film: it’s engaging, brave, and relatable. The acting is good all around. So is the premise.

In my opinion, though, it just isn’t a great film. We’re talking shades of meaning here, so if you have five seconds to spare, I’ll tell you why. First, I’ve seen this device many times before—in the last year, even. A cranky old man meets a character that represents youth and hope, and it totally melts the icy facade and changes his life. Well, OK. This sense of hope is usually personified by the very person society looks down on. Next?

Second, I saw where the plot was going way before I got there. Again and again. Predictability is never groundbreaking.

Third, I can’t help but think that this film takes the easy way out. A heart attack in a movie ends only one way. And it’s only a sad ending. Yeah, I, Daniel Blake is emotionally manipulative.

So, my issues center on Paul Laverty’s writing. I wish I had a better way to tell this story. I don’t. For all its pluses and minuses, though, I’d rather watch something more intense. Overall, I, Daniel Blake is disappointingly soft.

With Kate Rutter, Sharon Percy, Kema Sikazwe, Steven Richens, Amanda Payne, Chris Mcglade, Shaun Prendergast, Gavin Webster, Sammy T. Dobson, Mickey Hutton, Colin Coombs, David Murray, Stephen Clegg, Andy Kidd , Dan Li, Jane Birch, Micky McGregor, Neil Stuart Morton

Production: Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, British Film Institute (BFI), BBC Films, Les Films du Fleuve, Canal+, Ciné+

Distribution: Entertainment One Films (UK), Le Pacte (France), Cinéart (Belgium/Netherlands), Cinema (Italy), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece), Prokino Filmverleih (Germany), Scanbox Entertainment (Denmark), Sundance Selects (USA), Transmission Films (Australia), Vertigo Média Kft. (Hungary), Canibal Networks (Mexico), Cine Canibal (Mexico), Imovision (Brazil), Mont Blanc Cinema (Argentina), Longride (Japan)

100 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

https://www.wildbunch.biz/movie/i-daniel-blake/

Love & Anarchy [Film d’amore e d’anarchia, ovvero ‘stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza…’]

(Italy/France 1973)

The premise of Lina Wertmüller’s Love & Anarchy [Film d’amore e d’anarchia, ovvero ‘stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza…’] has the ring of something from Federico Fellini or maybe Pedro Almodóvar (though Fellini makes a lot more sense because she actually worked as his assistant for a spell).

Freckly yokel farmer Tunin (Giancarlo Giannini) learns that his friend was murdered. Why? Because he was an anarchist who was plotting to assassinate “ll Duce” Benito Mussolini. What’s more, Mussolini’s fascist police killed him. To avenge his friend’s death, Tunin takes up his cause.

Tunin ends up at a brothel in Rome. He spends a night with Salomè (Mariangela Melato), who reveals that she’s a co-conspirator for her own reasons. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the coup is a harebrained idea.

Salomè takes Tunin to a rural spot just outside Rome with her and another prostitute, Tripolina (Lina Polito). Salomè distracts Spatoletti (Eros Pagni), the head of Mussolini’s police, while Tunin checks out the area; they then devise a plan to execute the mission.

Meanwhile, Tunin and Tripolina fall in love. Convinced that he isn’t going to make it past the assassination alive, he persuades Tripolina to spend the next two days with him.

The same radical spunk that Wertmüller exhibits in The Seduction of Mimi is just as prevalent in Love & Anarchy; this film is loaded with decadent, sexy hijinks. However, it also its share of some really tender moments—that surprised me. Love & Anarchy turns out devastatingly sad—I left the theater literally bummed out. For all its ridiculous sociopolitical and sexual shenanigans, it’s a far more powerful film.

With Pina Cei, Elena Fiore, Giuliana Calandra, Isa Bellini, Isa Danieli, Enrica Bonaccorti, Anna Bonaiuto, Anita Branzanti, Maria Sciacca, Anna Melato, Gea Linchi, Anna Stivala, Roberto Herlitzka

Production: Euro International Film, Labrador Films

Distribution: Peppercorn-Wormser, Kino Lorber

120 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

https://www.kinolorber.com/film/view/id/1306

The Seduction of Mimi [Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore]

(Italy 1972)

I never heard of Lina Wertmüller until a retrospective of her work showed at a theater near me. The Seduction of Mimi [Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore] is an excellent starting point because it’s a textbook example of her style and the themes that inspire her. Plus, it’s an entertaining movie.

Mimi (Giancarlo Giannini) is a laborer in Sicily. His trouble begins after he votes for the communist candidate in a local election—his employer has been pushing its employees to vote for the mafia candidate. The ballot is supposed to be secret, but Mimi learns that it isn’t when he’s fired. Fearing that things will get complicated, he leaves his wife, Rosalia (Agostina Belli), behind and skips town.

Mimi ends up in Turin, where he finds work on an illegal construction site. He witnesses an on-the-job fatality and proves to be a problem when he learns that the mafia bosses running the job plan to dump the body. To keep him quiet, they place him in a union job at a factory.

It isn’t long before Mimi meets the alluring Fiorella (Mariangela Melato) selling sweaters on the street. He’s hooked on her; in fact, he knocks her up and she gives birth to a son. This is where The Seduction of Mimi gets really fun. Mimi is promoted to a management position back in Sicily. Naturally, he brings Fiorella and the baby with him. He’s protective of his new family and paranoid that Rosalia will find out about it, so he leads a thorny double life that…let’s just say doesn’t end well.

The Seduction of Mimi is rough, moving along like an episode of The Benny Hill Show. It’s compelling nonetheless because it has a certain elegance. Wertmüller is known for mixing sex, class, and politics. It’s a tricky feat, but she manages to pull it off while keeping The Seduction of Mimi totally amusing even by today’s standards. The stuff with the mafia and the gay rumor that gets out because Mimi won’t have sex with Rosalia are both hilarious. The whole revenge subplot that involves getting Amalia (Elena Fiore) pregnant is brilliant on so many levels, and that scene at the end where all of Mimi’s children clamor for him calling him “Papa!” is perfect. Giannini with his bug-eyed Chaplinesque faces looks crazy throughout this film, nicely underscoring the insanity of his situation. I smiled a lot during this film.

With Turi Ferro, Luigi Diberti, Tuccio Musumeci, Ignazio Pappalardo, Gianfranco Barra, Livia Giampalmo

Production: Euro International Film

Distribution: New Line Cinema (USA), Kino Lorber

121 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

https://www.kinolorber.com/film/theseductionofmimi