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James Van Maanen

Soldini's Come Undone lets Rohrwacher and Favino raise our temperatures...

Because my first experience with truly sensual film came via Italy (La Dolce Vita, Rocco and His Brothers, L'Avventura), I find it odd that when Italian filmmakers these days place sexuality front and center, the results prove somehow less than fulfilling. Last year's The Man Who Loves (shown at the FSLC's Open Roads) was one example, and now we have Come Undone (Cosa voglio di più), the new movie from one of Italy's more popular (and currently exportable) filmmakers, Silvio Soldini, who earlier gave us Bread and TulipsAgata and the Storm and Days and Clouds.

What is the reason for this?  Does sexuality/sensuality, when shown as a part -- even a very large part -- of an entire life work better than when it becomes nearly the only subject at hand? Perhaps. (TM wasn't all that fond of the initially-hot but finally-tiresome 9-1/2 Weeks, either. In any case, Signore Soldini has made a much better film than did Adrian Lyne.

First of all, he captures quite well the easy-going, childless marriage of Anna and Alessio -- Alba Rohrwacher and Giussepe Battiston -- and the not-going-so-well marriage of Domenico and Miriam (Pierfrancesco Favino and Teresa Saponangelo). Money problems plague the latter, though it is the former's Anna who take the first step in initiating the affair with Domenico. As co-writer and director, Soldini's details are often on the mark -- particularly those of the tell-tale swimming attire that figures into things, and how aware one's co-workers can be when something's amiss.

Once the affair heats up, however, it can only go forward or end, and so midway the movie begins to vamp a bit to kill time. (Running two hours, as it does, there's a little too much time to effectively kill.) Back and forth we go: She's out, and then back in; he's out and then back in. For younger viewers who have not endured this sort of thing countless times already, there may indeed be some surprise and a bigger payoff. Others of us will have to content ourselves with the very good performances of actors who are always a pleasure to view.

Salt of This Sea: Ownership /Occupation in Israel/Palestine

Salt of This Sea
directed by Annemarie Jacir
starring Suheir Hammad, Saleh Bakri

You couldn't ask for a more timely or explosive subject for a film than that chosen by writer/director Annemarie Jacir, whose first full-length film is Salt of This Sea -- which is also said to the the first film from Palestine by a female director. This "Salt" is certainly more flavorful and timely than another that opened a couple of weeks back, and the initials of the person most responsible for the success of each film -- coincidence? -- are AJ.

Using a documentary style to carry her narrative, Ms Jacir, shown below, tracks the "adventures" of a Brooklyn-born young woman, Soraya (played by a great beauty named Suheir Hammad), of Palestinian lineage who comes to this native-land-of-her-soul in order to visit her late grandparents' home in Jaffa and access her grandfather's bank account.

Things do not move ahead so easily.  From her protracted airport visit and interview/search by authorities (can anyone, especially Soraya, be surprised by this?) to her experience with the bank, she and her quest are blindsided left and right.  Along the way she meets a young local, Emad, played by Saleh Bakri (of The Band's Visit, and another beauty: This pair alone makes watching the movie very easy on the eyes).

Emad works as a restaurant waiter while waiting for his visa to be granted to study in Canada, where he has a scholarship pending. The glimpses we get of Palestine life, while not horrendous, are certainly not pleasant. Employment (and the money to pay employees) seems unusually "iffy," and that visa, it turns out, has been rejected a number of times already (golly: do Israelis not want their Palestinian brethren to succeed in life?).

So Soraya, Emad and his best friend Marwan (a clownish but enjoyable Riyad Ideis) hatch a plan, and here the movie either hops the track entirely, depending on your tolerance for genre-jumping, or at the very least becomes pretty problematic.  I won't reveal all that transpires (mini-spoilers ahead) but will say that the photo below reveals a part of that plan -- which then takes our threesome deep into Israeli territory, where the men wear yarmulkes and Soraya's citizenship and use of English is a major help in getting by.

All this is not very believable, yet it enables Jacir to explore the themes that really matter to her (and should to the rest of us): ownership, occupation and the right to travel freely between points and countries. If the filmmaker does not do this nearly fully enough (her scenario is simply too creaky), she at least forces us to face up to some troubling contradictions in so-called western (and one eastern) "democracies."

When the threesome finally arrives at the home of the late grand-
parents, it is greeted by perhaps the most welcoming Israeli in memory -- who tells the group to stay as long as it wants. Yet so obsessed is Soraya by what was taken from her family back in the 1940s that she cannot negotiate even a minor peace. This turn of events is actually all too believable; it brings the woman's character and psychological problems to the fore, where they now remain through the film's conclusion.

It's not so easy to put the past behind you when that past has been taken from you due to nothing for which you or your ancestors were personally responsible. But this also brings up the principle used in situations from wartime conquering to long-term squatting: possession equals ownership.

You can't go home again as it turns out.  We knew that, but we may not have seen it expressed from quite this interesting/exotic a view.  Soraya and Emad become briefly like some new Adam and Eve, but nothing here  can last for these Palestinians. The film is propaganda, of course. Yet despite the clumsy manner in which some of the story is handled, the performances are strong and the ideas and feelings generated even more so.

From one angle you can view the film as the story of a disturbed woman looking for her roots while wreaking havoc on those around her. On the other hand, you could just as easily get away with giving this movie a title oft-used but still pertinent: a Stolen Life. 
Or maybe as a kind of suicide road-trip, minus the bombs.

What Happens When You Lose an Actor In the Delta

Screenwriter, essayist and professor emerita in New York University Graduate Film School, Yvette Biro has collaborated with film directors such as Miklós Jancsó, Zoltán Fábri and Károly Makk in her native Hungary, as well as with other internationally-known directors. Her most recent book -- Turbulence and Flow in Film, published in 2008 by Indiana University Press -- appeared in both in French and English. After viewing Delta and learning that its screenwriter was here in the U.S., a very short Q&A commenced via email.
Yvette Biro

Q: Were you always connected with the movie in both versions, the earlier one featuring the actor who died suddenly, and the current version? If so, how was it to work with a different cast on the same material? Did you have to make a lots of script changes to accommodate the new cast? And, do you feel that the movie might be better in this later version?

YB: The first version was truly different because we were closer to the original-classical Electra story. In this one, the murder of the father (though only as the basic situation and departure point,) defined the Electra's motivations and later the brother’s actions. It was their passion of taking revenge on the mother and her new accomplice-lover. Also, Electra was on the side of the people, against the rudeness of the new “governing power.” In a bit more hopeful ending, only the brother could escape, Electra became a victim, perishing in the fight.

With the tragic death of the original actor who played the brother we had to simplify the story, focusing more on the relationship of the siblings. They became naturally close to each other in this hostile environment, having in the background the denied crime. The restrained incest was always there.
From Delta
Q: The film is considered Hungarian, yet it is set in Romania, in what looks like a small town, amongst people who would be called here, a very “small-town” mentality: unpleasant, small-minded, hypocritical, nasty, angry, jealous, murderous, in fact. Is Romania the country of choice for folk who mirror these adjectives, or might the same thing be found in the small towns of Hungary (or Germany, where, I believe, some of the production money came from)...

YB: Right, the film is Hungarian but the physical environment had its inspiring function with its natural beauty and peacefulness. It was the landscape that had its primordial force in the articulation of the story: maintaining the remoteness, without the overemphasized social or ethnic background.

Q: Did you or the director ever envision any other outcome for these characters? Could the story have taken any path that might have proven more hopeful?The brother and sister from Delta

YB: We found that the wonderful idea to build a house, to work together, is simple and by principle, great, showing hope and looking for a better future. This common understanding and closeness are more significant than the guarded incest. Their love becomes natural, though timid, and not a scandalous, erotic sin.

Q: The film is odd and interesting because it sets up a taboo (incest) and then breaks it -- partially because the possible mates that these two characters have to choose from seems a pretty puny bunch: They can either choose each other, which is, in most societies, a no-no, or pick someone from the gallery of creeps on display. Only the girl’s uncle seems remotely like a decent guy. Whoops -- that would be semi-incestuous, too. Any thoughts on this?

YB: Yes. Thus the solution that they are not only excommunicated but punished to death became an unfortunately undeniable truth today: “Otherness” and having different habits, ways of living, is rarely accepted, and intolerance and hatred can often be regrettably violent. With this sorrowful recognition we got closer to our everyday experience.

Lost in the Hungarian "Delta"

director Kornél Mundruczó Delta Poster
screenplay by Yvette Biro
starring Felix Lajko, Orsolya Toth

When Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó was nearly finished filming Delta, his lead actor suddenly died. The filmmaker had to begin again and -- given the chemistry that exists between actors -- had to was recruit an almost entirely new cast. The whole film was shot a second time. Changes occurred in this second filming that rendered the finished movie heavy-handed -- at least according to the screenwriter Yvette Biro. The story's ending is where the moviemakers started, working backwards and piecing together a plot that would ensure their planned finale.

A young man returns "home" to a Hungarian town located along the Danube. His father has died, his mother has taken up with a new man, while his sister, with whom he has had little previous acquaintance, works in the family's bar. The young man is clearly not welcomed, except by the sister, but he sets up living quarters in an old family shack by the river. As sis and bro grow closer, they are warned repeatedly yet pay no mind. Everyone we meet in this movie -- except brother, sister and an uncle -- is downright unpleasant, and when complications ensue (don't they always?), there is little question what will happen.

The views of the Danube are lovely indeed, but the humanity that wallows within quickly grow tiresome. All of its activities are joyless and bleak. Not one speaks much -- there is little dialog here -- and this is probably just as well. The film's slowThe Sister at the Danube pace allows us to consider the society of eastern Europe, under the thumbs of feudal lords, the aristocracy, Communist dictatorships and finally -- oh god, no -- some bastardized form of capitalism, reducing the populace to a bunch of petty, nasty, small-minded hypocrites.

Delta is full of interesting shots: silhouettes and bodily extremities; only after some time has passed does the director allow us many close-ups of his characters. The "hero" in particular (played by Lajko) remains a mystery. Laconic in the extreme, he finally turns from low-key passive into someone hot and fraught. The sister, too (Toth), is a girl of few words, yet both performers are attractive and interesting enough to hold our attention. You could call the movie "primal," though in modern times, backward seems more appropriate. 

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