27 June 2017

selenak: (Orson Welles by Moonxpoints5)
The Infiltrator was part of the Bryan Cranston retrospective and basically came across as a well-made routine thriller without anything being either bad or having anything innovative going for it. I.e. if you've watched thrillers about undercover cops working to bring a drug cartel down, you can predict all of the story beats. (Other than one spoilerly bit ).) It's entertaining and does what it sets out to do, and needless to say Cranston is reliably good in the part, but I wouldn't say it's a must.

City of Ghosts, otoh, was a fantastic documentary, directed by Matthew Heineman, about the citizen journalist group Raqqa is being slaughtered silently (RBBS). Before I watched it, I was unfamiliar with the phrase "citizen journalist" , but it's really a perfect description, because before the IS came to Raqqa, only one of them was a journalist, the rest had professions like high school math teacher or engineer. Nonetheless, they took incredible risks getting out photos and film evidence of the atrocities the so called Islamic State visited - and still visits upon their city. The surviving founders of the group had to flee but they still have some members in Raqqa, trying their best to continue getting material out. I'm always hesitant to use the phrase "real life heroes", but these people are truly heroic, and one thing that galls me especially is that when they've made it alive to Germany and safety, they promptly run into one anti-refugees march by the godawful AFD in Berlin.

The documentary starts during the "Arab Spring" in 2012, for which the Assad Regime going after Raqqa school children was one of the local triggers, and ends last year. We follow the core group of RBBS; Heineman is an invisible presence, he lets them narrate their stories, and when there's background information/exposition, such the way the IS uses the media for recruitment changed radically from the very early static speech videos to the Hollywood style big production videos that came into use after the fall of Raqqa, the activists are doing the explaining (subtitled, for the most part, everyone talks in Arabic) while the audience sees excerpts of the videos in question. BTW, I'd never seen an IS recruitment video before, and I have to say, the exact copying of action movie gimmicks and aesthetics (complete with following-the-bullet shots, soundtrack, etc.) is nearly as unsettling as the content. It's not much of a comfort that RBBS was able to puncture the IS self image enough by getting videos and photos showing the true state of Raqqa out to counteract the IS claims about it that the IS forbade any satelites in Raqqa and ordered the inhabitants to publically destroy theirs, so they regain control of the imagery. But it's something.

If the excerpts from the IS videos go for action movie gloss on violence, the mobile phone camera made videos of the RBBS are shaky, abruptly cut off, full of (inevitably) strange angles - and shocking in quite a different way. For example, the first time we see executions, the abrupt deaths and the already dead bodies lying around are bad enough, but without either the camera or any narrator pointing this out, what is as gruesome is what you see in the background. Yes, these are heads on pikes on what used to be the town square, not cheap movie props in the latest zombie splatter, but real human heads.

There's a lot of survivors guilt among the activists; one of them had to watch his father being executed in punishment, all of them are directly threatened by the IS who calls for their deaths, one lost his brother who was among the refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean, and when he talks about his dead brother, he says he still sends him messages per Facebook (as the account hasn't been taken down). "I am broken, my brother. Broken." And yet, and yet, they still continue to risk their lives. There's also a lot of comraderie we see, being physically comfortable with each other, and the rare moment of pure joy, such as everyone having a snowball fight in Berlin. You feel for them, and admire them - and hope the movie will be seen by as many people as possible. Maybe it will remind them that 95% of the victims of IS terrorism are Muslims - and said victims won't, shan't be silenced, are doing their best to fight back.

L'Intrusa, directed by Leonardo di Costanzo, is, like The Infiltrator, "based on a true story", with organized crime in the background, but the contrast couldn't be greater. While delivering a tight narration, there's nothing routine or slick about this movie, which is set in Naples and manages to avoid every single cliché. The fact you don't see the Vesuvio or the bay anywhere is just one of them; L'Intrusa is set in one of the poor quarters. The central characteris Giovanna, who has organized a miixture of daycare centre and social centre for kids and teenagers to offer them a life off the streets. When the film starts, the centre is well established and has been running for years, has been embraced by the neighborhood - but then something happens that puts Giovanna in an unsolvable dilemma. One of the small to mid level gangster's wives - Maria - and her two children have come to the centre, claiming refuge. Giovanna, Maria's daughter Rita and Maria are the three main characters; the supporting cast is also individualized, from Giovanna's right hand woman Sabina to the widow of a man Maria's husband has shot to the little daughter whose father was beaten to a pulp by Maria's husband right in front of her.

L'Intrusa never shows on screen violence. It doesn't show the Camorra doing what the Camorra does, but the after effects are present everywhere. This was a deliberate choice by the director, who in the Q & A said that if you depict Mafiosi "from the front", i.e. put them in the centre of the narration, even if you position them as villains, you end up making them in some ways sympathetic or even glorify them. "So, in my films, I only come at them sideways" - i.e. they're not there on screen, but there's no mistaking the terribile effect they have. Now, the centre is a film full of life and joy, with a community acting together, and it's rare and very attractive to see that. But it's not utopia, and in fact the need for it directly grows out of the unseen horrors around it. Not surprisingly, more and more parents object to Maria's presence. Giovanna gets accused of prioritizing the perpretators over their victims. The aunt of the little girl who has seen her father beaten into a pulp demands to know how she should justify to her sister letting her niece interact, let alone play with Rita, what that would do to her niece. Things come to a head when Rita and some of the kids argue, a normal kids' argument, with the parents drawn into, but Maria isn't just any parent, and so when she says "if you touch my daughter again etc.", the awareness that this is the wife of someone who casually kills people, even if he's currently arrested and hopefully won't get out of prison any time soon, makes this a direct threat to the other kids.

Otoh, Giovanna's argument is: if you ever want to break the cycle of violence, you need to make sure that the Marias of the world don't raise their children to follow their fathers' footsteps. That these children learn other values, learn something different. If she turns these children away from the centre, this will not happen.

As I said: it's an unsolvable dilemma, and the movie doesn't simplify it. It even adds to the stakes because Maria at first comes across as arrogant and rude (it's not until well into the film when you see her alone that you realise she's shattered and scared as well). Not to mention that she starts out by deceiving Giovanna, and there's early on not much to justify Giovanna's hope that Maria actually wants a change for herself and her children - nothing but the fact Maria is here instead of being with her rich sister-in-law, who in the movie shows up twice in a big car to retrieve Maria, in vain, and evidently lives the well funded Mafia spouse life. Basically: you understand where everyone is coming from.

Something else I learned in the Q & A was that most of the actors were lay actors, actual Neapolitans whose main job is in social service (though no one played themselves), with Giovanna being played by a woman who is a dancer and dance choreographer. "Because Giovanna doesn't say much, she's so stoic, she expresses herself through her body language," said the director, "I wanted someone who could do that, that's why I picked Raffaela Giordano." Who indeed is able to express much by the way she looks at people, by her movements, and who looks like she's closer to 50 than to 40. Everyone looks "normal", i.e. like people you could meet on the streets, not like well styled actors with a daily workout. But none act amateurishly in the sense that you're taken outside the story or feel they're talking stiltedly; given Rita and the other children are a big part of the story, that's especially amazing.

Favourite detail: one of the projects the kids in the centre work on, and the one Rita falls in love with and participates with, is building a robot they name "Mr. Jones" out of old bicycle parts. You can bet that in most other movies, Rita and her baby brother would have changed placed in age and it would have been a little boy fascinated with the robot.

In conclusion: probably my favourite movie so far, and highly reccomended

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