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The road to redemption

by
25 January 2011

Stephen Brown sees a variety of new and recent films

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Javier Bardem, summoning up as commanding a performance as the one that he gave in No Country for Old Men, plays Uxbal, who is dying of cancer. Set in parts of Barcelona definitely not in the guide books, he hustles a living cheaply providing illegal immigrant labour. Uxbal is a man of conscience. He looks after his estranged bipolar wife, family, and employees. A deported Sene­galese man’s relatives are lent his old apartment.

Uxbal also acts like an old-fashioned chantry priest, charging relatives for interceding with the spirits of deceased loved ones. In fact, Biutiful is mainly about this interface between life and death. Uxbal is trying to put his affairs, material and spiritual, in order be­fore the prostate kills him. Unfor­tunately, well-intentioned deeds go wrong all too often. Uxbal, dead or still alive, we know not, is shown face to face with his long-deceased father in a scene that tops and tails the picture. The smile it brings to Uxbal’s face is — there is no other word for it — beautiful.

Thus Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film powerfully continues his metaphysical explorations. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel demon­strated our spiritual interconnectedness. This time, and in a much more linear narrative than hitherto, he takes up what theo­logians call the teleological argu­ment that we can judge God’s existence only by looking at how everything ends. All shall be well despite (and be­cause of) what has befallen us. Iñárritu sees forgiveness, wrought out of love, as an essential com­panion along that all too human road to redemption.
On general release.

Thus Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film powerfully continues his metaphysical explorations. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel demon­strated our spiritual interconnectedness. This time, and in a much more linear narrative than hitherto, he takes up what theo­logians call the teleological argu­ment that we can judge God’s existence only by looking at how everything ends. All shall be well despite (and be­cause of) what has befallen us. Iñárritu sees forgiveness, wrought out of love, as an essential com­panion along that all too human road to redemption.
On general release.

CLINT EASTWOOD is a man of many parts. Among them is the one that niggles away at life after death. As early as his second directorial attempt, High Plains Drifter (1973), he was toying with notions of resur­rection or perhaps reincarnation. Unforgiven (1992) and Gran Torino (2008) ponder the need for redemp­tion.

Now we have Hereafter (Cert. 12A), in which Marie (Cécile de France) has a near-death experience amid the Indonesian tsunami; a San Francisco-based psychic, George (Matt Damon), can converse with the other side; and 12-year-old twin brothers (played by Frankie and George McLaren) continue to communicate even though one has died and the other lives in London.

The threefold narrative strands begin to interweave over the subject-matter of the film’s title, but not that effectively. Having represented conventional religious organisations as creepy or sinister (through a sanctimonious Christian and a tub-thumping Muslim), the film has equipped itself to dismiss great faith traditions in favour of a clairvoyant with a charisma bypass and a Swiss clinic — far more reliable inter­preters, it would seem, of all things spiritual.

Eastwood can still work his own magic to bring in a neat story that is not really about the afterlife at all, but one thoroughly tried and tested about this present world. You know the sort of thing I mean: boy meets girl, and they all live happily ever after. So no surprises there, except that the screenwriter is Peter Morgan. After The Queen and Frost/Nixon, we expected worthier things. I sup­pose much of Morgan’s output has been about secret (arguably devilish) deals’ being made. Here he seems unsuccessfully to be trying to re­dress the balance by taking the side of the angels.
On general release.

THE PORTUGUESE NUN (still to be certificated) could just as well have been called What Are You Staring At? In a film whose style is reminiscent of that doyen of Cath­olic cinema, Robert Bresson, each dialogue consists of protagonists speaking (and pausing/contemplat­ing) straight to camera. Julie (Leonor Baldaque) is a young actress flown in from Paris for the shooting of a mystically inclined movie set in Lisbon and based on the 17th-cen­tury novel Letters of a Portuguese Nun. In her spare time, Julie under­goes in effect a pilgrimage of the city. Her gaze becomes our gaze, the film beseeching us to look anew at the creation as something both divine and human. Each of Julie’s encounters — whether with the director (played by Eugène Green, and also the director of our film), a suitor, her co-star, the concierge, a despairing aristocrat, the orphan or his carer — become moments of light for one or both parties. Most significant of all, she keeps return­ing to the chapel where Sister Joana (Ana Moreira) spends each night in prayerful vigil. Eventually they speak. Their dialogue is as man­nered as the other ones. For some this may seem stilted, but, as the nun says, it is a means of showing the truth through unreal things. God, she declares, has long been under siege from the forces of rationalism. Her nightly prayer is a contribution towards ending it. When we, too, discover that earthly and divine things are not two separate entities, then the siege is lifted. The film compellingly shows prayer as a movement of love, one that passes into life itself.

On limited release. www.ica.org.uk

FEZEKA’S VOICE (Cert. PG) is a nice film, although, coming hot on the heels of Africa United, it may struggle to get noticed. Both pieces deal with children attempting to travel. Not the World Cup football final this time, but a choir wanting to perform in England. At the centre is an archetypal brilliant teacher, Phumi Tsewu, who in the manner of such characters as found in Dead Poets Society or Goodbye, Mr. Chips, is inspiring.

On limited release. www.ica.org.uk

FEZEKA’S VOICE (Cert. PG) is a nice film, although, coming hot on the heels of Africa United, it may struggle to get noticed. Both pieces deal with children attempting to travel. Not the World Cup football final this time, but a choir wanting to perform in England. At the centre is an archetypal brilliant teacher, Phumi Tsewu, who in the manner of such characters as found in Dead Poets Society or Goodbye, Mr. Chips, is inspiring.

The difference is that Fezeka’s Voice is a documentary and Phumi Tsewu, a real person. He encour­ages, prays with, cares for and generally brings forth great things out of these teenagers. As in the 2006 film We Are Together, the narrative follows the lives of South African children who through music find purpose. On this occasion, the children are not from an orphanage (although several have no parents as a result of AIDS), but pupils who live in the Guguletu township of Cape Town.

At Fezeka High School, 77 de­prived children are given a voice through their choir work. The Salis­bury Arts Festival, of all things, becomes the focus of their aspira­tions, representing for them a world beyond the ghetto which is what most of them have ever known.

Wanting to go to Salisbury and getting there, of course, are two separate things. The first half of the movie concentrates on telling us who these extremely polite children are. Was there a bit of playing to the camera, or am I being too cynical? In a place where poverty and gang warfare is prevalent, their adolescent rebelliousness seems to amount to singing rhythm-and-blues numbers behind teacher’s back.

We also experience the frustra­tions of passport controls as Phumi tries to make travel plans for his troupe. As viewers, we would be disappointed if these rather over­played setbacks prevented a dream from coming true. Sure enough, the choir reaches Salisbury, and to my mind it is the more interesting part of the film. The children are billeted with families of such different cul­tural mores from their own. An encounter with rhubarb fool or learning to ride a horse spring to mind. There is also a wonderfully warm and amusing scene featuring Desmond Tutu talking in the cath­edral close.

When everything is said and done, however, it is the sight and, even more, the sound of white and black singers giving glory to God which energises Holly Lubbock’s film. At less than 80 minutes’ run­ning time, nobody would com­plain if he had given us even more music.

The film so far has received limited distribution. For details of the dates and locations of further screenings, and of how to donate, or to arrange community screenings, see www.fezeka.com.

When everything is said and done, however, it is the sight and, even more, the sound of white and black singers giving glory to God which energises Holly Lubbock’s film. At less than 80 minutes’ run­ning time, nobody would com­plain if he had given us even more music.

The film so far has received limited distribution. For details of the dates and locations of further screenings, and of how to donate, or to arrange community screenings, see www.fezeka.com.

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