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Tag: politics

Under The Sun (2015)

The Father Of Invention

No stranger to hot topics, Vitaliy Manskiy, Under The Sun‘s director, has previously released, among others, Virginity (2008), about three young women using the titular asset to make their way in 21st century Ukrainia, and Pipeline (2013), casting an uflinching look at what the construction of the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline meant to local populations. He found himself in 2015 at the helm of a documentary officialy sanctioned by North Korean authorities, devoted to the one and only possible subject: how and why the last remaining Stalinian State is Paradise on Earth. He therefore dutifully followed the official instructions, only with one caveat: he kept the camera rolling during rehearsals of Pyong Yang’s version of cinéma vérité, most of the times to hilarious effect, but sometimes to a terrifying one.

There is, you see, always someone forgetting lines, or lurking in the corner of the screen, or looking straight in the camera at the wrong time, ruining the painstakingly recreated illusion of happiness and prosperity commissioned by the authorities. By virtue of these minor interferences, the omnipresent propaganda machine modeling the public consciousness in any possible way is proven unable to sustain a exterior gaze, despite, or maybe because, the constant Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il imagery and the delirious architecture crushing people under the weight of a dystopian, Orwellian quotidian.

Some of the scenes elicit giggles that turn to a laughter of delight. North Korea has obviously invented flash-mobs, with crowds of costumed people congregating in empty spaces to sing and dance. Kimchi can cure cancer and restore youth. In a stupendous scene of suspense lasting several minutes, a young girl might or might not fall asleep during the speech of an elderly general sporting more than fourty medals, her fight against boredom and tiredness being filmed in merciless close-up. “What do I say know?” asks the general after an endless tirade about the superiority of the North Korean army over American forces. Oblivious of the answer, he starts all over again.

Some others are painful to watch, like the final training of a very young girl dancing on marching drums. She is first ecstatic, giving the best she has, then as the teaching goes on and on she just looks exhausted and in pain. She breaks into tears. Asked to think of something good to stop crying, she first says “I don’t know what”, then recites the pledge to the Children Union like the good little citizen she is. It’s awful. Another little girl, or is it the same, chosen to embody any child of the Great Socialist Republic, appears in front of a gigantic red curtain to deliver a welcome address to some pageant at the glory of the Great Leader, and she has such a case of stagefright than it plays like the Radiator Lady scene in Eraserhead.

People take turns to have their picture taken in front of the two Great Leaders giant golden statues, looking dead inside. You look at them terrified, then you muse about the parallel architecture of the gigantic square, converging towards the current Great Leader’s grandfather and father, and you wonder: what place is left for him? He’s not on the many frescoes depicting the exploits of his elders, there’s no room left for another bronze colossus. This, maybe better than anything else, expresses the tragic alieness and alienation of a country without a future.

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Elvis & Nixon (2016)

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One O’Clock, Two O’Clock, White House Rock

In December 1970, the most popular rock n’roller on the planet decided that the American way of life was going down the drain and blamed the Beatles, drugs and the Black Panthers. He hand-delivered to the White House a letter to the President of the United States, asking to be sworn a Federal Agent at Large to help fight this trifecta undercover and it promptly happened thanks to a quick call to the FBI director. If for you this elevator pitch is pushing the envelope too far, think twice: it actually happened and there are pictures to prove it, which actually are the most requested documents for consultation in the whole US National Archives. The head of FBI was J. Edgar Hoover. The President was Richard Nixon. The third man was the King, Elvis Presley, and he had a super power: the Autograph.

One doesn’t need to scrap one’s head for too long to figure out what interested the writers (Joey, himself an Elvis impersonator, and Hanala Segal) in such a subject. An odd couple so incongruous that they could as well come from different planets, the comedy of fame clashing with the comedy of politics, the utter ridiculousness of both sides’ agenda (gaining in appeal and humanity while “not giving a fuck about the youth vote” for one, “infiltrating the Rolling Stones or maybe The Grateful Dead” for the other), all make for a meaty subject matter which could have, in less capable hands, be all sting and sarcasm. But they are fond of their characters and chose to tap their humanity instead of their delusions of grandeur, and humour, omnipresent in their movie, is always sympathetic, if loaded with a healthy dose of irony. The poster offers “the meeting of two of the greatest recording artists in history”, which is quite succulent.

The first third of the movie deals with the impossibility of the meeting, the second with its difficulty and the third with the meeting itself. Meeting the Commander in Chief is no given even for Presley: “We do not expect any royalty today”, answers Nixon’s advisor when informed the King is at the door. A couple of autographs to the right kids and the promise of a photo shoot later, he’s in. What was supposed to be a five minutes meet and greet lasts much more as the two men discover themselves closer than they thought. Ingenuously, what brings them together after a first round of pissing contest is childhood and self-doubt.

Presley (Michael Shannon, not even close to the rockabilly cherub Elvis still was in 70, but impressively conveying his charisma and his innate sadness) is an icon, maybe the most loved man in America. His feral years are well behind him though, and he has lost touch with who he is, or was, enshrined as he is in clothes, jewelry and adoration. He only trusts his two oldest friends, Jerry and Sonny (Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville, good at playing the rock and the roll, respectively). The two scenes where his vulnerability shows are great; without them Elvis would be some kind of Yoda, imbued with so much self-confidence and poise that it would be difficult to respond to him in any other way than worship. When he meets Nixon and finds a level ground with him, he’s a kid for a while, then regain his composure and departs quite curtly. It is a perilous exercise of tightrope and it works.

Kevin Spacey is wonderful as Nixon. It’s almost scary, a short while after watching him as President Underwood in House of Cards, to see him inhabiting the Oval Office in such a completely different fashion. The two men have nothing in common, Nixon’s cynicism being routed in his hate for what the “genetic lottery” has attributed him. “I’m not looking like a Kennedy”, he says in a moment which is both acerbic and surprisingly fragile. Never Underwood would have these thoughts, or those mimics, including this infectious jubilation when Presley calls him “a cool cat”, much to the dismay of his two advisers, Chapin (Evan Peters, too juvenile for the role) and Krogh (Colin Hanks, perfect). The fact that the screenplay takes the trouble of building fully fleshed characters in both camps is highly commendable.

One has some reservations about the film but they are of the minor kind. The karate scene (which Shannon judged “in poor taste”) might be ill advised, even though Spacey suddenly unleashes an animosity that is both scary and poignant. The Watergate foreshadowing of the parking meeting is a bit on your face. Budget limitations show at times. But in any scene Elvis is in, there is always a reaction from passers-by, and those “Oh my God!” moments are not only fun to watch but the mark of attention to detail. And for our devoted followers, there’s even a “What’s in the box” moment. What’s not to like?

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Il Divo (2008)

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Truth is the End of the World

Splendidly visual, Il Divo is anything but a biopic of  Giulio Andreotti, an austere and prominent Italian politician, 25 times minister and 7 times Prime Minister between 1964 and 1989. It is more of a portrait, fragmented and elusive as they best portraits are; it also offers an unique view on politics and murder during the bonfire of vanities that were Italian politics at the near end of the 20th century.

The only creature that can live long and prosper in a bonfire is a salamander, and that’s precisely what Andreotti (Toni Sorvillo, extraordinary) looks and acts like. Devoid of any visible emotions save for his hand motions, translated to Fanny Ardant in a transient role by his devoted secretary, the Presidente (of the Council, not the Republic, and that’s the problem) “doesn’t succumb to lesser vices” but ice cream. He doesn’t drink anything but water, he doesn’t smoke, he is not cheating on his wife Livia (Anna Bonaiuto, first seen being bored during the blueprint for the bunga bunga parties to come, during which the Finance ministry makes a fool of himself). Prone to migraines, he toasts with aspirin and read giallos in the Senate. He is as opaque as opaque can be before it gets dark.

Andreotti is by all means a survivor and a loner, a condition emphasised by his constant crossing of gigantic halls of power, in which no one or nothing can come in his way but a Persian cat with vairon eyes. He is opinionated to the point of brilliance, once telling Pope John XXIII “Pardon me Your Holiness but you do not know anything about the Vatican”. He has a dry sense of humour, the mere shadow of a smile touching Sorvillo’s lips when he’s asked the question “Have you ever danced?”, to which he answers “All my life, Madam.”

His entourage, presented one by one at the movie beginning, is a clique of rather shady Christian Democrats, including a cardinal nicknamed “His Healthiness”. When they congregate at Andreotti’s, his secretary announce them by saying “Storm clouds are gathering”, an excellent definition of what is happening. They plot their next moves, wishing but failing to have the Prime Minister elected President. They exchange jokes about past Popes. Andreotti hardly smiles. In a scene stupendous for the banality with which it suggests the growing chasm between him and his wive, they just hold hands watching TV, switching from a news program to a variety show. He doesn’t look at her, lost in thought; she looks at his profile for a long while, searching for the smallest trace of the man she once married. She does not find anything.

Last part of Il Divo deals with Andreotti’s trials and tribulations. The trial of the century opens, based on his presumed links with Mafia boss Toto Riina (Enzo Rai, scary as hell). We know the two met because the event was shown earlier in the movie. Still, Andreotti is so convincing in his denial that one doubts what he just witnessed. Was it magical realism, like the scene in which a skateboard incongruously rolls through the Senate hallway, or was it history? It’s impossible to say. Andreotti is an extra-terrestrial, a very cautious turtle carrying on him the weight of political decades, and you can feel every gram of it leadening, but never weakening his stance. The movie is a fucking masterpiece.

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