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African Cinema, Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema, Italian cinema, Melodrama

LFF #2: What Money Can’t Buy . . .

It’s odd how sometimes randomly selected films sometimes reveal the same underlying theme. Today it was consumerism or, more precisely, the belief in money as the ultimate goal in securing happiness.

Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs, France 2010) was the highest profile film I went to see during the festival. After the major success of his thriller Tell No One, an adaptation of Harlen Coblen’s novel, big things were expected of Guillaume Canet’s follow-up. A packed audience in the biggest screen in the Vue West End waited patiently for the screening following late delivery of the print and as far as I could tell from their reaction, enjoyed the film. I overheard some claiming it as great entertainment. I have to differ. There are some beautifully delivered scenes but I found the overall effect unsettling.

The title, I think, is slightly off-beam. ‘Self-delusions’ or ‘Self-obsession’ might more accurately describe the group of Parisian bourgeoisie who take a holiday each year in the Cap Ferret region of South West France. Max (François Cluzet) is a wealthy restauranteur with a private beach house and a settled family. He pays for everything and acts like a feudal lord. Vincent (Benoît Magimel) is a younger osteopath with a young son. His wife Isla, like Max’s wife Véro, is long-suffering. There are three younger members of the group with on/off relationships and, most important, a popular younger member who spends the film in intensive care in hospital in Paris – and exists as a reminder of good times and a source of guilt for the vacationeers. Finally, there is the local man on the coast who acts as the ‘head man’ of the local community invaded by the Parisians.

Shot in CinemaScope, the film is always very watchable (though 139 minutes is stretching it). There are exciting and on one occasion shocking action scenes, broad comedy and moments of tragedy. The film is to my mind an unsettling mixture of a traditional French genre (the bourgeoisie en vacances) with the kind of satirical comedy that critiques the bourgeoisie in the plays of Alan Aykbourn or the films of Mike Leigh (both with their fans in France I think). Personally, I don’t find this funny after a while and I think Canet rather undermines the critique with the dramatic ending. But perhaps my biggest gripe is that the women are not given enough to do in the film and in particular Marion Cotillard, the biggest international name in the film, spends most of her time looking tousled, laughing and crying and smoking dope. This is mainly a film about spoilt, bratty men who don’t know the value of things and, in the case of the lead character, think that having money means that you must show off. It’ll probably be a big hit, but I didn’t like it. Here’s the French trailer (no subs yet) but it reminds me also that Guillaume Canet seems obsessed with American pop and rock music. I’d mistakenly thought that in Tell No One he was referring to US culture for a purpose, but presumably here it is associated with wealthy Parisians?

After Little White Lies it was a relief to turn to a working-class family in Italy. La nostra vita (Our Life, Italy 2010) may be the most successful film that I saw – at least in the sense that it is a melodrama and it made me cry and some scenes were almost unbearable. It seems rather hackneyed to see the film as ‘Loachian’ but it is certainly a scenario that might have been written by Jim Allen or Paul Laverty. However, it might have been even darker in their hands and would certainly have had a more traditional socialist perspective. That was not the aim of the film’s writer-director Daniele Luchetti, as he explained in the Q&A. Instead, he was aiming for something which in some way worked as a general metaphor for Italy’s ills, rather than a specific political critique.

Claudio and his family


The central character, Claudio (played by Emiliano Germano, who shared the Cannes Best Actor award in 2010 for his performance), is a foreman for an unscrupulous developer ‘throwing’ up new blocks of flats on the outskirts of Rome and using what in the UK would be called ‘lump’ labour, but which here comprises mainly immigrant workers without papers. After a terrible family tragedy, Claudio feels compelled to use his work to make some kind of personal statement. He puts his family’s welfare on the line (including his own small children) and attempts to set up as a sub-contractor, taking on a punishing schedule despite lacking the necessary experience to complete the job (which he has ‘won’ mainly by blackmailing his own boss). The narrative involves Claudio’s extended family as well as his neighbours and a number of migrant workers. It is the migrants who explain to Claudio that he only thinks about money – that he tries to solve all his problems with money and that this is the Italian disease. Family is more important than money is one possible moral of the story. The film also includes my favourite line of dialogue (OK, subtitle) for some time. When Claudio compliments his older sister on how good she looks now she is wearing high heels, she replies: “Yeah, heels are like relatives, they give you support but they hurt like hell!” I hope that the Cannes prize helps the film get wider distribution.

The third screening of my day was a documentary running for less than an hour so it was accompanied by a short (14 minute) film. Lezare (For Today) was made in Ethiopia with a narrative based on a folk tale. It is beautifully shot and absolutely heart-breaking. In a village (which could be anywhere in Africa), the day begins and a beggar boy smells fresh bread. He starts to beg for the money to buy himself something to eat, but today is tree-planting day and the schoolteacher offers him a small coin if he will help the villagers in planting tiny saplings. He duly does so, but after the planting, when he returns to the breadshop to buy a loaf, the coin is gone. He lost it planting the trees that the teacher told him will secure the village’s future. He races back to the planting area to look for his coin – you can probably guess what happens. I do hope that this short becomes available for use in schools and sustainability campaigns. It was made on HD by Zelalem Woldemariam who has an impressively designed website. There was some support from American organisations.

The documentary that followed was also devastating, chronicling the effects of the hyperinflation and economic collapse in Zimbabwe (where for a while money couldn’t buy you anything since it was being devalued by inflation even as you searched for something to spend it on). The film was made (at some risk) by an independent filmmaker, Saki Mafundikwa during 2008-9. It does end on an optimistic note with the opposition party sharing power after the elections, but what it has to report is shocking. The film’s title Shungu refers to the resilience of Zimbabwe’s people. They certainly need to be resilient since many are starving, reduced to eating the pulp of wild fruits in a country that once exported food and which boasted Africa’s best education provision.

Shungu is a conventional documentary, ‘authored’ only to the extent that the filmmaker explains what he is doing and why. Sometimes the simple method is the most effective and Mafundikwa has found a cross-section of Zimbabweans who tell their own story (alongside the filmmaker himself who presents the health problems of his own father). There is a large international TV market for documentaries of this length and I hope that this gets bought by BBC/Channel 4 and similar channels in Europe. Ideally the film would interview more people and cover more points of view, but we know so little about what life is like inside Zimbabwe and what is offered here is very welcome..

Discussion

One thought on “LFF #2: What Money Can’t Buy . . .

  1. Have to say I completely agree about Little White Lies. I’m still amazed Canet managed to spin something so trite out to such an absurd length of time.

    Posted by avalonlyndon | July 31, 2011, 23:58

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