Friday, August 06, 2010

The Ignorant American Watches Some Foreign Films

Waltz with Bashir (2008)
Written & Directed by Ari Folman
Animated (but adult themes, content, and cartoon nudity and sex)
Voiced (sometimes by the real people identified in the movie)
Ron Ben-Yishai as himself
Ari Folman as himself
Yehezkel Lazarov as Carmi Cna'an
Mickey Leon as Boaz Rein-Buskila
Watched July 29, 2010

Gomorrah (2008)
Directed by Matteo Garrone
Cast includes
Gianfelice Imparato as Don Ciro
Salvatore Cantalupo as Pasquale
Salvatore Abruzzese as Toto
Carmine Paternoster as Roberto
Based on a "nonfiction novel" by Roberto Saviano
Watched August 5, 2010

A few weeks ago, when I was bored, I told Red Envelop Movie Rentals to bring up movies for me to review, since I thought I'd probably seen movies that I hadn't reviewed on their site, which helps them recommend movies to you. Well, the site started bringing up movies that they had sent to me and that I'd sent back. And I realized that I had not watched so many of them! (The dvd fairy made me backup copies and sent them back, and the dvds await watching.) I also realized how many of those films were foreign language films. (Stupid American, with no foreign language skills.) There's a reason behind this, though not a particularly good one. See, before I decided to blog all the movies I watched, there were many movies I would watch with only one eye, while I did something else, but paying attention with my ears. That means that I didn't watch very many foreign language films. I have been trying to rectify that.

But sometimes watching a category of film you don't typically watch can highlight areas in which you are not educated. This was definitely the case with both of these films, which is why I'm blogging about them together. While these are both very different films on very different subjects, they both highlighted, for me, my lack of knowledge on political and sociological issues of other countries. (My subsequent cursory self-education, via imdb and wikipedia, highlighted how little free memory I have, but that's another issue.) While I doubt that either of these movies were made with a great deal of thought as to if foreign audiences with my same lack of fore-knowledge would be able to easily understand it, I will be giving some thought to that. This is not to say that I think that foreign filmmakers should always, or ever, make sure that stupid American audiences will easily understand their films, though I do wonder how easy our films are to understand to foreign audiences, which does matter as many of our films, especially big budget action movies, make huge profits overseas. Then again, Hollywood action movies aren't typically made for us to stretch our minds.

I watched the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir first. It is an animated film, but a very adult-oriented animated film, complete with deaths in war, nudity, and even animated sex. But the medium of animation is well-suited to a film about the nature of memory where character recount what they remember about a war that happened over 20 years ago. The film is re-creates filmmaker Ari Folman's journey to either recover his own memories of or to be told what happened around him during the 1982 Lebanon War. He starts this journey after a friend recounts a recurring dream in which his own role in the war haunts him. While Folman tells his friend that he doesn't remember hardly anything about the war, the friend says that it is Folman's duty as a filmmaker to tell this story. That night, Folman has his own dream about the war, just a fragment of a memory, which is the thread that he follows in an attempt to regain knowledge of what he was involved in. Of course, there's a reason that he blocked out all of these memories, as he witnessed and did nothing to stop an atrocity that this war would be known for. For me, this movie was beautiful, imaginative, and moving, though not in a way that leaves on feeling good afterwards. While it did deal with recent Israeli history, which is an area fraught with emotions and opinions and contradictions, I felt that it was much more about the journey of these men, but especially Folman, to regain memory, to acknowledge their role(s) in the war and atrocities of it, and, if possible, process that knowledge. The movie makes no attempt to assert that this war, or any war, is a "good war." The movie also doesn't make an assertions or take positions about Israeli politics. It just focuses on these memories of this small group of men.

Early on, the viewer gets the idea that this movie is about a conflict in which Israeli forces were in Lebanon and that it happened in the 1980s. But there is no overarching exposition. Folman does not in his voice over say, "So I went to see Carmi, who I'd served with in the IDF during the 1982 Lebanon War." When he mentions the Phalanges, he doesn't elaborate on who they are or how they fit into the war, because his movie's target audience is other Israeli's who already know all this history. I think that if you are a viewer who comes to the film just to be "entertained," you might have some issues with this, but I do think that it only takes a bit of viewing (instead of reading) comprehension to put together enough of the pieces for it to make sense. I think that the movie is perfectly enjoyable to someone coming in with very little knowledge of Israel's recent military history, as long as they don't mind thinking just a little bit. In a way, as the movie is about (re)gaining knowledge, it seems appropriate to me to be putting these pieces together while Folman puts together the pieces on screen.

On the other hand, I found putting the pieces together less rewarding as I watched the Italian film Gomorrah, though that might have been a matter of expectations. Gomorrah is a movie about gang life in Naples, which leads one to expect a sort of typical "mafia movie." I've seen it compared to the movie City of God. Ummm, yeah, not really either of those. While it is based on a nonfiction novel which follows several different people who either work for or are somehow involved with the Camorra crime family. The movie follows five of these stories, which don't overlap or interact, which I think most (American) viewers would expect. I did think that the movie presented a gritty criminal underworld well, but it felt without context to me. I'm sure part of that was just my ignorance of the socioeconomic situation of Naples and Italy in general, but the movie does not provide any sort of exposition or context for those not in the know. One of the stories centers on a middle-aged money man, who we see visiting various apartments, giving them money, which most do not seem particularly thankful for. It is never explained WHY he is giving this money to people. (One imbd commentor said it was money paid to those who had lost relatives to death or jail because of their involvement with the crime syndicate, which sounds like as good of an explanation as any.) Towards the end of the movie, a war breaks out between the main crime group and what the subtitles identify as "secessionists." Once again, being lazy, I'll rely on the imdb commentors who said that this is in reference to a real gang war in the 1980s between different alliances or clans within the larger crime family. But I think that a great deal of this movie was lost on me because I don't live with this in my papers everyday. While this movie got quite a bit of critical praise, it just didn't strike me. Maybe I'll get the book, read it, then rewatch the film. Right after I watch all the other films the dvd fairy left me.

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