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The Forgiveness of Blood

There’s no point in denying it. Foreign customs, practices and laws are seen as odd to a typical American. They generally don’t reflect our own and it’s easy to write them off as archaic and nonsensical. The predicament a family struggles to live through in the Albanian film, The Forgiveness of Blood, is a good example of that. After the father of one family kills a member of another over a dispute over who is the rightful owner of a piece of land, the grieving family has the right to take the life of a male in the offender’s family as retribution. Such a thing happening in the United States would go against every moral code our country stands upon, but it’s a common practice when an event like this occurs in Albania. While it’s hard to get past the justification of such a cruel practice, it nevertheless allows for a gripping, tense, wonderful little drama that isn’t to be missed.

This blood feud would seem to have a fairly simple resolution—kill the father who killed the man—but when he goes into hiding, the only two males left in the family are Dren (Elsajed Tallalli), who is far too young to be a mark, and Nik (Tristan Halilaj), the oldest son, thus making him the primary target. Nik is a carefree kid. He goes to school, he plays soccer, he rides around with his best buddy and he has a crush on one of his beautiful young classmates who is reciprocating his feelings. He has done nothing wrong, but his life is at stake due to his father’s petty and selfish actions. While the film does hint that his dad may not have actually killed the victim in haste, but rather defended himself from an oncoming attack, the situation remains the same.

There are some rules to these blood conflicts, however, which allow safety to the family of the perpetrator. The victim’s family can only attack if the target leaves their home, so Nik is essentially under house arrest, shut off from the rest of the world. He stops going to school, his buddy only stops by periodically and his school crush communicates mostly through video messages on her cell phone. Nik’s life is at a standstill for something he had no control over, an unfair situation if there ever was one. He becomes unhappy and starts sneaking out of the house at night just to feel a bit of freedom, even though he knows he’s putting his life on the line when doing so. When his father emerges from hiding to be with his family, Nik understandably wants him to turn himself in so this senseless feud can end and he can go back to his normal life, an idea his father strikes down as selfish. Perhaps their customs dictate such a request as selfishness, but viewers will sympathize with Nik and by this point, if you haven’t already decided to be against him, the father becomes an evil entity, himself selfishly weighing his family down by forcing them to live in constant fear and danger.

This conflict isn’t only affecting the men in the household, however. Because of their inability to leave the house, the women must take the reins and do what needs to be done to make a living. Nik’s sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), is a grade A student. She wants to be in school and loves learning, which is most notable in a scene where she comes home one day and enthusiastically details the ins and outs of sea sponges to her father, clearly fascinated by their eccentricities. She’s a smart girl who wants to make something of herself. Unfortunately, she now has to hop in the horse drawn carriage and ride about town selling bread to ensure her family has their own food on the table, which effectively forces her to stop attending school.

Each character in the film loves and appreciates their family, but also has their own mapped out life plans. They have minds of their own and that’s why the drama works. They feel real. The Forgiveness of Blood takes richly drawn characters, gives them some wonderful dialogue to recite and places them in a hard hitting, emotional narrative that could end in a number of different ways. It’s one of those rare movies that you know is great as soon as you reach the credits, but the more you think about it afterwards, the more brilliant it becomes.

The Forgiveness of Blood receives 4.5/5


The Strange Case of Angelica

I’ve heard a lot about Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira. At an impressive 102 years of age, he is the world’s oldest active director and has over 50 productions under his directorial belt, his oldest dating all the way back to 1931. I’ve listened as respect was poured his way, but I never got around to seeing any of his movies. Having just finished his latest, The Strange Case of Angelica, I’m intrigued enough to go back through his filmography and pluck out a few that sound interesting. It may not have blown me away, but it still managed to capture my thought and imagination.

The story follows a photographer named Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), who is summoned late one night to snap some pictures of the Portas family’s recently deceased daughter, Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala). As Isaac stares at her body, he becomes instantly entranced by it. She is beautiful and her face is stuck in a smile, as if she knows everything is okay. As Isaac raises his camera and stares through the lens, Angelica seems to come to life. Though obviously shocked by what he saw, he carries on with his job and goes home, but for some reason, he can’t get her out of his mind and, even stranger, she begins to haunt his dreams.

If that sounds like a horror movie to you, you might be shocked to hear it isn’t. It might have all the makings of a good fright flick—eerie black and white portraits adorn the walls and ominous chimes of the clock as it hits the top of the hour set that tone—but it never goes that route. Despite some seemingly supernatural elements, calling it a ghost movie would be doing it a disservice. This is a slow, calculated film with a sense of calmness to it. Much like Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, the direction is understated and elegant and the camera mostly remains perfectly still. Characters casually walk in and out of frame and long takes are the order of the day. If you’re looking for something with a bit more urgency to it, you won’t find it here.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes so slow that it forces itself into a rut. There’s a fine line between slowness for the purpose of setting a mood and just being slow. The Strange Case of Angelica is both, but thankfully, the mood wins out over the occasional stretch of boredom, which is largely thanks to the downright brilliant shot composition. If there’s something hanging in the frame, for instance, such as a picture, you can bet it’s there for a reason. Nearly everything shown is symbolic of something else. One of the opening scenes in particular, where cigarette smoke dances in front of the camera almost like a passing soul, exemplifies the thought and care that went into crafting this movie, introducing its most important theme that makes its way full circle by the time the credits begin to roll.

The Strange Case of Angelica is a poetic take on life and love, full of beautiful imagery and haunting realizations. It could be argued that it sometimes takes a bit too long in getting to the point and that the general connection between certain scenes is kept a little too vague, but that’s beside the point. That vagueness is what keeps the movie open for interpretation and will allow viewers to analyze and discuss it. It’s not your typical drama/romance/ghost thriller (if there even is a typical form of that), but The Strange Case of Angelica is worth watching nonetheless.

The Strange Case of Angelica receives 4/5



Here in America, we aren’t treated to many foreign films. Unless you venture out to an art house theater, you’re not likely to find one, but unfortunately, art house theaters are few and far between, usually resting in large cities. I saw more movies than I could count last year, yet only one, I Am Love, was non-English speaking. In my review for that movie, I hypothesized that people would love it simply because it is foreign, something lots of smug filmgoers who reject anything Hollywood has to offer seem to do. I personally found the movie a sluggish bore, but it only took one more foreign film for me to join the smugness. Hailing from Mexico, Biutiful is one of the most intellectually provocative, interesting and, yes, beautiful movies to be released in quite some time.

While not as simple as this sentence suggests, Biutiful is, at its core, a character study of a man named Uxbal (Javier Bardem) who has just found out he is dying from cancer and only has a few more months to live. He is struggling with the idea of mortality, much like Michael Douglas in Solitary Man. However, he, unlike Douglas, knows what happens after you die. He has a special ability to see and communicate with the dead and knows for a fact that the afterlife exists. Because of this, he isn’t afraid to die. Rather he’s afraid of leaving his two children behind without him. Their mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) is trampy and bipolar and isn’t there for them when they need her. His brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández) is also unreliable and is actually sleeping with Marambra behind his back. With nobody he trusts, he fears what will become of his children.

That’s the beauty in Biutiful. It’s a character study about Uxbal, but his thoughts are not about him. They are of others. Although he can be a bit ill-tempered in certain situations, sometimes even towards his kids, he is generally a kind man, or at least he thinks he is. What he does is find people jobs, mostly illegal ones where they are stuck on the streets peddling pirated DVD’s and cheaply made handbags, but then he takes a cut of their money. He thinks he is helping those people when he is actually exploiting them. Much like his reflection in mirrors, what's looking back at him isn't necessarily what he sees.

Still, Uxbal tries to make things right before he dies, not only with his family, but also with those around him. He’s a man who has done some bad things, but you never consider him a bad man. Rather than hate him, you feel sorry for him. Even his kind deeds don’t produce the best results and as the movie progresses, he faces so many problems that his impending death is the least of them. Bardem creates a sympathetic character out of Uxbal and his performance is grand. The bottom line: he deserves that Oscar nomination.

Despite the engrossing, challenging material, Biutiful is too long. Running at nearly two and a half hours, it wears out its welcome by the end thanks to some unnecessary subplots, including one about two gay Chinese men that serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever to the overall story.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, directing his first Spanish language film since 2000’s Amores Perros, brings a keen eye to Biutiful. It’s beautifully shot with a beginning and ending set in a peaceful winter landscape that brings its themes full circle. Biutiful and the characters in it are many things: dark, yet hopeful; hateful, yet loving; self indulgent, yet caring; cruel, yet regretful. It’s a movie that takes multiple viewings to fully wrap your head around and its thematic complexity makes it an absolute must see.

Biutiful receives 4.5/5


I Am Love

I have a theory. It has been in the making for years, a thought that I’ve had numerous times, but have just now decided is a sound argument. People are more willing to forgive a foreign film for its flaws and recommend it simply because it is not American. While not all fall into this category, many cinema elitists trash mainstream Hollywood films while praising anything foreign or independent. The truth is that whatever nationality a particular film falls into is irrelevant. There are good foreign films and there are bad ones. I Am Love, while certainly not terrible, is one that can only be classified as mediocre, yet will most likely garner more attention simply because the characters don’t speak English.

The movie begins with Emma (Tilda Swinton) and her family all gathering together for some important news. They have become a wealthy family due to their ownership of a big business, but now the owner is stepping down and passing the reigns to his grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) and his son/Emma’s husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono). Flash forward months later and the family is making changes to accommodate the shift in power, but certain people have secrets of their own. Emma’s daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) has found love with another female and is telling only her mother because she fears her father and brother won’t approve and Emma has just begun having an affair with a friend of her son’s named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) which could tear the family apart if discovered.

Given the synopsis, it sounds like an intriguing drama. A lot is going on and the abundance of themes lend themselves well to exploration, but unfortunately none of it fully comes around. I Am Love seems like it’s trying to make a statement on love, lust and infidelity, but its attempts falls flat. Similarly, it leaves too many stones unturned, like the internal drama within the family from the feuding personalities of the new business owners Edoardo and Tancredi, as well as the shameful overlooking of how homosexuality can tear apart a family with differing moral values. Remember how I said Elisabetta tries to keep her sexual orientation a secret from everyone but her mother? Well, she succeeds. Her father and brother never find out, which begs the question, why make her gay in the first place if you aren’t going to explore it? The sole reason is for one shot at the end that reinforces its gooey “follow your heart” message that feels about as misplaced as the film’s relevance.

Following my screening of I Am Love, I was lucky enough to sit through a Q&A with John Adams, the man behind the music for the film. Interestingly enough, he pointed out that he thinks most movies misuse music by taking preexisting pieces and trying to place them at points that benefit the action onscreen. He believes that it usually doesn't work because those pieces of music were not intended for that purpose. Ironically, such is the case here. By badmouthing the very idea, he echoed my sentiments exactly. While the music is indeed marvelous in and of itself, it sometimes overpowers the scenes, if it even fits in place at all. Each scene blasted an orchestral score that bled the ears dry, like an early scene where Emma follows Antonio down the street that is accompanied by a quick beat more befitting an action picture.

Now, the direction is lush and the acting is splendid, so yes, I appreciated that, but I needed something else to draw me in. I needed an interesting story. I needed some hard hitting dialogue. I needed some emotion. I needed some redemption. None of that exists here. Even after a tragic scene late in the movie where a prominent character should have been in incredible amounts of emotional torment, none appeared.

I’m aware my opening paragraph criticizing cinema elitists may make me sound like an elitist myself (and if I’m being at all honest, I kind of am), but I’m not foolish enough to think everybody will like this movie simply because it is foreign. Some will truly find something special in it and shout its name from the mountains, which is fine, but I won’t be among them. I Am Love has some great moments, wonderful cinematography and high caliber acting, but it’s just so insufferably boring.

I Am Love receives 2/5