In my continuing quest to tell you about pop culture that the mainstream media generally ignores, here are three terrific films. One is still in theaters and the other two are available on DVD.
No. 2012. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Spanish with subtitles. Nominee for best foreign film Oscar. Run time 1 hour, 45 minutes. This film will certainly be on a lot of best-of-2013 lists and it’s still in theaters.
September 11 was a day of infamy for Chile long before it was for the US. On that date in 1973, the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, who led Chile’s government for the next 15 years. (Allende was either assassinated or committed suicide, depending on whose side you believe.) This historical background is introduced briefly at the beginning of the film, which is fact-based.*
In 1988, Pinochet agrees to international pressure for Chile to have a plebiscite on whether he should govern for another eight years and a Yes/No election is planned. Both sides are to have 15 minutes of national television time each night. (What a brilliant way to solve the campaign finance problem.) The leftists on the No side want to make TV commercials showing the torture, murder and disappearances of the Pinochet regime. But René Saavedra, a clever advertising executive, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, reluctantly agrees to help the left with its No campaign. People either don’t remember or don’t want to remember those days, he tells them. They want to believe they will be happy in the future. So the No campaign mounts a “Happiness Is No” campaign, complete with rainbow logos, theme songs, banners, parades and t-shirts. (Photo by Tomás Dittburn/Sony Pictures Classics)
You could argue this is a putdown of commercial advertising invading political discourse. Or you could just sit back and enjoy this clever satire on politics. The No side wins the plebiscite and the film ends in celebration. In fact, Pinochet had a behind-the-scenes role for years afterward.
The film is shot in smudgy color that feels like you’re watching an old videotape. There are other well-known Latin American actors besides the oh-so-darling Garcia Bernal, whose character is a mix of naïve and radical. You’ve seen him in Y Tu Mamá También, The Motorcycle Diaries, Bad Education, The Crime of Padre Amaro, and many other Pedro Almodovar films.
* The film has generated some controversy in Chile, of course. Described here. http://nyti.ms/12G358m
Holy Motors. 2012. Fantasy drama film written and directed by Leos Carax, starring Denis Lavant. French with subtitles. Get the DVD. Run time just under 2 hours. (July update: Holy Motors is now available streaming on Netflix.)
I hardly know where to start describing this. Lavant is M. Oscar, who lives 10 or 12 parallel lives or stories throughout the day and night of this film. He rides from gig to gig throughout Paris in a white stretch limo, which serves as dressing room, wardrobe and prop closet. His chauffeur Celine, a lovely woman with silver hair, apprises him of his appointments and keeps him on schedule.
He emerges from the limousine once as an old beggar woman, and again as a madman (M. Merde) who eats flowers stolen from a street market, then runs through the famous Paris cemetery, Pere Lachaise, where instead of names of famous people on tombstones, you see “visit my website at xxxxxx.com.” Other incarnations involve murder, simulated lovemaking in spandex, and a father-daughter interlude. You see why I said there’s no way to describe this film. Suffice to say, it’s a mesmerizing and beautiful film and you’ll be rewarded if you have patience. And … the title Holy Motors will make sense at the end. Kinda.
Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars in November and ended his review this way. “Here is a film that is exasperating, frustrating, anarchic and in a constant state of renewal. It’s not tame. Some audience members are going to grow very restless. My notion is, few will be bored.”
Goodbye Solo. 2008. Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani. On DVD. 90 minutes.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the Piedmont-Triad area of central North Carolina. So I was interested in this film set in Winston-Salem and Blowing Rock, a beautiful state park where I’ve hiked with my son. Solo is a Senegalese immigrant taxi driver who befriends William, a depressed old man, who hires Solo for a one-way trip to Blowing Rock.
Solo arranges to drive William whenever he calls the taxi company and tries to involve him in life in Winston, including meeting his pregnant wife and her daughter Alex. Solo worries about William’s plan for the trip to Blowing Rock, where it’s so windy “that if you throw a stick, it will fly back to you.” But he and Alex drive William to the park, and the last half hour involves the beautiful drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the visit to the park.
This is a small film, a sweet film (despite the ending). In a way, it represents how the area is changing with new immigrants like Solo making a home and a life. It’s not set in a taxi; you get acquainted with a lot of Winston-Salem and the region. This is Bahrani’s third film and I will be interested in seeing his other work.