Yet another criminal underworld is brought to the cinema: the world of Belgian cattle dopers. Nor are we familiar with Walloons as a different subspecies. But all this is windowdressing for the central portrayal of a man gone mad, a man obsessed with his body in compensation for what he lacks, a man who finally loses control and exposes us to his brutalizing, brutalized world. This is powerful, not pretty stuff, made the more interesting and watchable by the alien world it takes place in.
A riveting psychological portrayal of a troubled 11-year-old boy, coming to grips with the loss of his father and, on occasion, his bike. He moves from sullen outcast to a slightly willing sharer in relatively short order, although it seems an age because of the Dardenne brothers’ slow pacing. Shots linger, which allows us to digest and savor and see time passing. The problem for me lay not in Cyril, but in Samantha, the natural beauty hairdresser who is instantaneously willing to bend her whole life to accommodate the troublesome (to put it mildly) boy, whom she doesn’t know and for whom she has no responsibility. Maybe she is just the artificial foil against whom we are to see Cyril’s story, but I could never get over the psychological void of her portrait.
There are no bad people in this story, but (almost) all the people do bad things – the chief among them not telling the truth. There is always a good reason, one that seems, at the moment, more important than the truth. Seeing how each of the characters handles this personal dilemma is only one of many strengths of this marvelous movie, which deserves its Oscar win and was, in my view, the best film in any category at that event. The performances are so real as not to seem like acting, from the winsome 4-year-old to the grandfather with Alzheimer’s. Given chance after chance to explode in rage, whether at the person around them or their own fate, the main characters remain remarkably equable, which invites us into their minds: what are they thinking? what would I be thinking in that situation. Although the judicial process on view may be uniquely Iranian, and the role of the specific religion is foreign, there is nothing uniquely Iranian about any of the behavior on display. Just yesterday, the Times reported that William Rehnquist had undoubtedly lied about a memo he wrote in order to get confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. And the New Orleans Saints coach, when confronted by NFL investigators, was no more honest than the father who said he didn’t know that the woman he pushed was pregnant. But what would happen to his daughter and his father if he was sent to jail? Isn’t that reason enough to shade the truth, a little bit?
A comic but true-to-the-core depiction of Arab society in a small village where everyone knows, and gossips about, everyone else, usually at high volume. Meanwhile, below (or above) the frivolous surface, this smart movie presents the dichotomies of man and woman, love and hate, Christian and Muslim, life and death. All the actors are convincingly homespun, allowing the focus to rest on the pretty cafe-keeper, played by Nadine Labiki, the movie’s director. In this isolated Lebanese village, we are shown the need, and a way, to overcome petty divisions, even if we still believe this will not work in the bigger world out there.
Some thought that I rated last year’s Just Go With It inordinately high because of a puerile infatuation with Jennifer Aniston. As rebuttal, look at this rating: Jennifer was as adorable as ever, but this movie was just plain stupid. For some reason (their own lust?), the critics at The New Yorker, New York Times, Santa Barbara Independent all had kind things to say about this absurdist hippie spoof. For my part, I kept waiting for some payoff, even one joke to appreciate, but there was nothing here, just nothing. Alan Alda in a wheelchair was the only mildly entertaining character; the others wore out their welcomes shortly after introduction. When comedy bits are completely ridiculous, they had better be funny. These weren’t.
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