“[Abbas] Kiarostami gave the Iranian cinema the international credibility that it has today. But his films were unfortunately not seen as much in Iran. He changed the world’s cinema; he freshened it and humanised it in contrast with Hollywood’s rough version.” – – – – – Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud – Iran / France, 2007
Growing up through the turbulent times, rallies and rebelling, Iranian Marjane witnesses how outcast her identity made her and her people. But as she became an adult her tough, stubborn nature stayed with her. Though so wrapped up in her resentful anger towards the world, she perhaps for a while misplaces her heritage. Telling people she was French because of the savage treatment she would receive if they knew she was Iranian – a familiar, loving voice asks her if that is a good enough reason to deny where you are from. Persepolis is not all doom and gloom though, curve-balling genuinely funny moments into the mix with acute observations and candid profanity. The self-descriptive hitting-puberty sequence is terrific in its relatable exaggerations, for example.
In all its technical, cinematic brilliance, Persepolis is a master work of story-telling from the get-go. Not an ounce of fat hangs from this meat, a fluent, brisk bout of filmmaking, harboring a multitude of emotions right down to the bone. A wondrous blend of animation and biography, an invigorating history lesson with the Iranian Revolution and war with Iraq as a backdrop. To add, Persepolis is a compelling drama in its own right. A great one. The French-Iranian motion picture is directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, based on her own autobiographical graphic novel. Presented in atmospheric, arousing black and white not only to kind of neutralize our perceptions of skin color and the vast cultures, but also so the animation can mirror the style of the graphic novel. Satrapi wanted to give a universal echo to what is blatantly, adoringly about Iranians. And it is a true honor to behold. – – – – – Robin Write
Relatos salvajes / Wild Tales
Damian Szifrom – Argentina, 2014
Wild Tales is a less is more approach to the collected short stories type of movie that circles around humanity’s social limitations. Blackly comic, acerbic, and full of bad behavior acting as catharsis, Wild Tales was my choice for Best Foreign Film at the 2015 Academy Awards and won Best Foreign Film at the BAFTAS. What is apparent from the very start is that Wild Tales is constructed as a comedy with its focus on societal manners and behavioral expectations. Director Damian Szifron effectively blends harrowing drama with situational humor that places the audience directly in the central character’s shoes.
While the actions of the central characters are illegal, immoral, or just plain wrong we feel empowered by their lack of inhibitions and driven to right the wrongs of the world. Basically these people refuse to be victims regardless of what consequences come their way. A wronged motorist, a plane full of people, a man dealing with bureaucracy, a newly wedded Wife coming to terms with her Husband’s past infidelities, a young server seeking revenge, and cleaning up the aftermath of the mistakes of wealthy children. The six stories are as disparate as they are similar all connecting to human frustration and expected human behavior. – – – – – Rob Motto
Under the Shadow
Babak Anvari – Qatar / Jordan / UK, 2016
Under the Shadow is an authentic, atmospheric film showing us horror in its abstract demons (the Djinn), and through the social turmoil of the war between Iraq and Iran in the late 1980s. Produced in the UK, the film is written and directed with masterful technique by Iranian-born Babak Anvari (also his first feature), and was the rare UK submission for this year’s Foreign Language Film – sinfully not selected in the end. The tried and tested tale of a mother attempting to protect her child is portrayed in Under the Shadow with such a unique, natural flavor and poise, it is scene-for-scene unmissable. Set in war-torn Tehran, Shideh and her young daughter Dorsa experience some spooky goings-on, not least when an undetonated missile crashes through the apartment building.
Amidst the horrors, the suspense, surrounded by war, Under the Shadow is also about a woman restricted by her own culture, unable to continue her studies because of her political views, struggling to be on the same page as her husband, and finding unease with Dorsa’s current behavior. Actress Narges Rashidi plays Shideh with such commanding conviction, and she is aided and abetted by sprightly youngster Avin Manshadi as Dorsa. Anvari’s writing and directing are both superb, an assured debut, Under the Shadow is carefully constructed in story-telling and technique, while featuring some fine inner-apartment photography, sound design, and efficient editing. One of the decade’s very finest. – – – – – Robin Write
Kynodontas / Dogtooth
Yorgos Lanthimos – Greece, 2009
Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos are almost the definition of original with their mesmerizing screenplay for Dogtooth. A penetrating, mind-boggling family drama, something you are not prepared for, and unwilling to let go. For me, the movie has aged like a wine I was not entirely sure how to place the first taste, but as time goes by my admiration and awe for the picture grows. Not only that, the film triggers deep curiosities and fears, whether you can fully grasp what they are or not, about adolescence, about parenthood, about the supposed big, bad world. Lanthimos directs with such ownership of the surreal material, it is a miraculous achievement in all its oddball nature. Taking the prize for Un Certain Regard in Cannes 2009, Dogtooth put the Greek filmmaker firmly on the map. – – – – – Robin Write
Bang Gang (Une Histoire d’amour Moderne) / Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)
Eva Husson – France, 2015
Based on true events that happened in a Paris suburb, the film tells the tale of 16-year-old high schoolers who, taking advantage of a friend’s parents being out of town, organize orgies in a secret group they dub “the Bang Gang club”. It all starts with an innocent game of spin the bottle which quickly gets out of control, and their raging hormones start acting up. Impromptu orgies occur, but as with all sexual activity, some emotional undercurrents can sometimes sneak in.
Although these characters are mere background for the main events, the orgies, Husson refuses to have any real focus on character until the very last third of the story. The film is an indelibly forceful look at teenagers trying to find themselves in an almost numbing world. They don’t seem to care about the consequences of their actions; they just want to feel something physical by going skin to skin with as many “friends” as possible. There is a great deal of nudity in Husson’s film, but it’s all purposely done to be not very erotic. It truly is a modern love story showing us how sexually liberated today’s generation is and how misguided their attempts at finding love can be. – – – – – Jordan Ruimy
Saul fia / Son of Saul
László Nemes – Hungary, 2015
Only one other film from Hungary has won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, Mephisto in 1981, but Son of Saul is a different kettle of fish altogether. Directed with a gritty expertise by László Nemes, Son of Saul is an Auschwitz concentration camp set film during World War II, where Jewish–Hungarian Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) discovers the still-breathing body of a boy we believe he knows. Amidst the harrowing horror, prisoner Saul just wants to give the boy a respected burial when he is smothered to death horrifically by guards.
Son of Saul is as engaging as motion pictures get. The camera lingers around Saul and his inmates like a bad smell, with every head-turn and exclamation, it’s a captivating progress, and you can hardly take your eyes from the screen. In danger of execution, Saul and a bunch of others flee during a riot, but the danger rarely seems to halt. The off-shot gunfire echoing in the film’s finale is just as haunting as anything we actually see during the movie. Son of Saul was hugely tipped for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, but it came away with the Grand Prix instead. – – – – – Robin Write
Batoru Rowaiaru / Battle Royale
Kinji Fukasaku – Japan, 2000
Before The Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale. The premise of the film is simple: A group of ninth-grade students from a Japanese high school have been forced by legislation to compete in a Battle Royale, a competition of sorts where they must fight each other to the death. The students are each given a bag with a randomly selected weapon and a few rations of food and water and sent off to battle. They have three days to kill each other, or they will all perish. The film is ultra violent, as one would expect from Japanese cinema, with much of the discomfort being from the sheer fact that we are witnessing young adolescents inflicting pain and torture on one and another.
A film like Battle Royale could only be made in Japan, certainly the Hollywood mainstream cinema would have never even tried to approach something so dark, twisted and disturbing. The decision to have children as main characters was a clever one, children have the innocence that makes the brutality of this film that much more shocking. And yet in a world where mass shootings in High School are on the increase, Battle Royale’s dystopia seems strangely relevant. Battle Royale is not meant to trivialize school shootings and youth violence, but rather hold a mirror up to society to show how we have almost become desensitized to violence. This film will be tough viewing for some, but it is certainly not like anything else you will encounter. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Dare mo Shiranai / Nobody Knows
Hirokazu Kore-eda – Japan, 2004
There are a handful of films which leave such a lasting impression on me, and one of those films is Nobody Knows. The films is so heartbreaking, but doesn’t ever reach the point of being too over sentimental, nor does it feel forced or contrived. The film is set in Tokyo, where the reckless single mother Keiko (You) moves to a small apartment with her twelve years old son Akira Fukushima (Yûya Yagira) and hidden in the luggage, his siblings Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu). Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), another sibling arrives later by train. The children have different fathers and do not have schooling, but they have a happy life with their mother.
However when Keiko finds a new boyfriend, she leaves the children alone, giving some money to Akira and assigning him to take care of his siblings. Despite budgeting, the money runs out, Akira manages to find means to survive with the youngsters without power supply, gas or water at home, and with the landlord asking for the rent. I was shocked to discover that the director Hirokazu Koreeda,was inspired by the true story of the Sugamo child abandonment case. The child actors were not professionals but it doesn’t show, because their performances are very natural and the film is stronger as a result because of this. Koreeda held extensive auditions to cast the four children. He also did not give the children detailed explanations of their roles, because he wanted them to be natural and it shows. This film really touched something inside me, and I could relate to this film due to my own upbringing and my own relationships with my siblings. A poetic, moving masterpiece and everybody should know about it. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Alain Cavalier – France, 1986
Alain Cavalier’s film of Thérèse, and her longing to commune with God, is an extraordinary experience. Told with intricate poise and grace, the religious pleasure a saint like Thérèse can feel is hardly inaccessible. Winner of 6 César Awards in 1986, Thérèse shone brightly in Cannes too. Truth be told, and this will not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is no film quite like it. The visual style has a kind of elaborate, human restraint, while director Cavalier and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot capture within the frame a lingering, provoking nature.
There is little reason for lavish sets and props, instead items are isolated, and the film’s use of minimal scenery and production design is by no means a reflection of budget restraints – nor does it ever cheapen the atmosphere. Rather this simplistic tool segregates not only the characters, almost like a theater sound stage, but also us, the audience, without making it claustrophobic. Cavalier’s direction dictates the pace, what we see, and ultimately how and when we experience it. The central performance by Catherine Mouchet is riveting and resonates with a hopeful, sullen beauty – the striking resemblance to the actual Thérèse too is easy to see. – – – – – Robin Write
Dah / Ten
Abbas Kiarostami – Iran, 2002
A woman and her passengers driving around Tehran. But that’s not just about it. The late, great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is the master of simple, naturalistic cinema. And by simple I mean majestic, thought-provoking, and unforgettable. His marvelous habit of placing you so intimately into Iranian culture with the frank way the talk to each other, is magnificently apparent here. And with subtlety comes a piercing experience. Not many film directors, of any nation, did it quite like Kiarostami. So implicit in the social world of these people, you could blend in yourself with such a cinematic education.
The duration of Ten sits us inside the car of the woman driver (Mania Akbari) almost documentary-like. Passengers come and go, ten of them of course, including her somewhat obnoxious kid (though it comes from a place of hurt), her troubled sister, an elderly woman on her way to the Mausoleum. There’s even a faux pas as the driver accidentally picks up a sex worker, and proceeds to interrogate her on the morality of her trade. Kiarostami is no stranger to character debates over shadowy subjects of the Iranian culture. And his dialogue is rich and true, a pleasure to hear it spoken, even in conflict. There’s some authentic humor too, “Mind that old woman,” says one passenger, “She’s on her last legs, but still.”. One of the final moments when a woman reveals a new haircut is extremely touching. A perfect, down-to-Earth masterpiece. – – – – – Robin Write