Parky At the Pictures (15/4/2022)
(Reviews of Benedetta; Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle; Navalny; and Charli XCX: Alone Together)
Even if we presume that cinema-going is a thing again, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.
Whether you opt for the big-screen experience or some quality home time, enjoy and stays safe.
In his silent heyday, Cecil B. De Mille acquired a reputation for depicting sins that were punished in the final reel. This gave him the opportunity to present risqué content to tantalise the audience before reminding them of their moral duty as upright citizens.
Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has spent much of his career doing much the same thing, whether he was critiquing his homeland in Turkish Delight (1973) and Spetters (1980) or satirising the United States in Showgirls (1995) or Starship Troopers (1997). Like his hero, Alfred Hitchcock, Verhoeven has always delighted in shocking his audience by inviting accusations of misogyny through his exploitation of the male gaze in pictures like Basic Instinct (1992) or Elle (2016). Now, the 83 year-old has thrown down the gauntlet to the woke brigade with Benedetta, a variation on the Diderotian theme that he and co-writer David Burke (nine-time collaborator Gerard Soeteman asked to have his name removed from the credits) have based on Judith C. Brown's academic tome. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986).
The action actually takes place during the Counter-Reformation and begins with the young Benedetta (Elena Plonka) teaching a lesson to the mercenary who stole a necklace from her mother, Midea (Clotilde Courau), by calling on the Virgin Mary (who always does what Benedetta asks) to make a bird defecate in his eye. On arriving at the convent run by the Theatine Order, Benedetta is informed by the nun showing her to her cell that her body is her worst enemy. While she settles in, her father, Giuliano (David Clavel), argues over the dowry with Abbess Felicita (Charlotte Rampling), who cautions her new charge not to believe that she was miraculously spared when a large statue of the Virgin fell on her because miracles are more trouble than they are worth when they start popping up like mushrooms.
Eighteen years later, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) plays Mary in an Assumption playlet at the convent in front of her parents. As she waits to be raised to Heaven by ropes, she has a vision of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (Jonathan Couzinie) calling to her and she has to be stopped from wiggling her feet by one of the other nuns. She tells her mother about what she saw over supper, as talk turns to the plague ravaging Tuscany.
While bidding farewell to her parents, Benedetta sees Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) being chased into the courtyard by her abusive father. She persuades her father to pay the stranger's dowry so she can stay (as Abbess Felicita doesn't run a charitable institution). While helping her bathe, Benedetta accidentally touches Bartolomea's breast and has to be rescued by Jesus from the snakes that threaten her during another vision sparked by her fascination with Bartolomea when she shows her the lavatory during the night.
Taken aback by Bartolomea's frankness, Benedetta decides to help her through suffering after Fr Paolo Ricordati (Hervé Pierre) tells her than pain brings us closer to God. She makes Bartolomea retrieve silk bobbins from boiling water and is reprimanded by Abbess Felicita for being overzealous, as we only benefit from our own suffering).
Among the other nuns, Sister Jacopa (Guilaine Londez) is a Jewish convert, while Sister Petra (Gaëlle Jeantet) was a prostitute in Florence. This makes the sinless Benedetta curious about her own body and she is so conflicted that she feels excruciating pains in her abdomen. A female doctor prescribes poppy juice, but Benedetta has more night terrors after dreaming of a false Jesus slashing her breast with his sword.
The abbess decides to let Bartolomea sleep in Benedetta's cell to nurse her. However, she has already visited her during the night to kiss her lips and confess that she wants to be intimate with her. Wishing to adhere to the rules, Benedetta insists on changing behind the curtain that divides the cell, but Bartolomea hides her nightshirt to catch a glimpse of her naked.
Woken from her sleep by a voice calling her, Benedetta sees Christ on the Cross at the end of her cot. He orders her to undress and remove his loin cloth before inviting her to place her hands on His. Bartolomea is roused by the sound of screams and leads Benedetta to the chapel, as blood continues to seep from the bound wounds on her hands and feet. Some of the sisters fall to their knees when she shows them her side, but the Mother Abbess is unconvinced, especially when Bartolomea claims to have heard Jesus speaking, but cannot remember what was said.
Provost Alfonso Cecchi (Olivier Rabourdin) is summoned and he views the wounds for himself. He notes the abbess's cynicism when she points out the absence of marks left by the Crown of Thorns. However, he realises that Pescia would profit from having its own living saint and cautions the abbess not to cross him when he sees Benedetta bleed from her forehead as a deep voice emanates from within her admonishing the onlookers for failing to recognise the work of God.
Sister Christina (Louise Chevillotte) pleads with the Reverend Mother not to allow Benedetta to get away with her deception. But she is powerless to prevent the provost from demoting her and making Benedetta the abbess. She moves into new quarters and allows Bartolomea to remain her close companion after she touches her breast to feel the new heart that Jesus has placed in her chest.
Angry with Sister Felicita for allowing the provost to override the convent rules in the Name of God, Sister Christina confesses to Fr Ricordati that she personally witnessed Benedetta using a shard of glass to create the thorn marks beneath her wimple. Meanwhile, Benedetta and Bartolomea kiss during a writing lesson and have sex. At supper, Ricordati coerces Christina into making her accusation that Benedetta forged her stigmata, but Felicita refuses to corroborate her claim and Benedetta orders her to self-flagellate in front of her sisters.
Bartolomea asks Benedetta if she had enjoyed seeing Christina whip herself, as she shows how she has whittled down her statue of the Virgin to make a dildo. As they try it out, an eye appears at a hole in the cell wall and a comet passes overhead, turning the sky red. Fr Ricordati insists it's an ill omen and Felicita accuses Benedetta of lying when Christina jumps from the chapel roof.
When Felicita leaves by night for Florence, Benedetta returns to her cell to sleep with Bartolomea. However, she is worried that the Papal Nuncio will come to investigate and expose her deceptions. Benedetta is perplexed because she believes God uses her body as He sees fit and denies consciously making the thorn marks. Bartolomea asks how Benedetta can give herself up to carnal pleasure is she is a heavenly vessel and she avers that she has done nothing unnatural or wrong.
As Benedetta orders the nuns to dig a grave, Felicita arrives in Florence to see plague victims lying in the streets. Nuncio Alfonso Giglioli (Lambert Wilson) seems unconcerned and chides a serving maid pregnant with his child for showing off her lactating breasts. He agrees to come to Pescia, where Benedetta is reassuring the sisters that Jesus has promised that the comet is a symbol of protection. However, Bartolomea is worried that things are getting out of control.
As the Nuncio arrives, he demands entrance at the sealed gates, only to be informed that Benedetta has died. He goes to the chapel and offers to give her the last rites, but she sits up in her coffin and pleads with Jesus not to send her back to Earth. She explains that she had been enjoying eternal rest before she was informed that she had to return to Pescia to protect it from the plague. However, the Nuncio is unimpressed and charges her with blasphemy, heresy and bestiality before declaring that her trial will begin the next day. Everyone follows him out of the chapel, apart from Bartolomea.
She is scared the next morning when the Nuncio calls her to stand at the start of the trial. He orders Felicita to describe what she saw and how and Cecchi accuses her of betraying her superior. Bartolomea claims not to understand the charges and confesses solely to loving Benedetta in the same way as her other sisters in Christ. But the Nuncio takes her to the dungeon, where a torturer uses a pear to force a confession.
Aware that the Nuncio has the plague from washing his feet, Benedetta is appalled when a crushed Bartolomea comes into the cell and opens the psalter at the place where the sex toy had been hidden in hollowed pages. She shrieks that she will no longer speak in defence of someone who misled her into evil. But Benedetta is unbowed, bellowing in the voice of Jesus that the Nuncio will die a horrible death, as she is led away by his guards.
As Bartolomea is banished from the convent, the Nuncio discovers that Felicita is dying of plague. He orders her to be isolated, but know that he already has sores on his upper body. Benedetta asks to see Felicita to make amends and reassures her that her daughter is in Paradise. She pities Felicita for devoting her life to a faith she disbelieves and whispers what God has confided to her.
The next day, Benedetta is wheeled into the square in a tumbril, with the townsfolk pleading with her not to abandon them to the pestilence. She accepts the Nuncio's offer to confess, as she stands on the steps beside the pyre. However, she speaks in Christ's voice, as He denounces them for abandoning His bride and they begin to panic. As the Nuncio orders Benedetta to be tied to the stake, the crowd surges forward and the fire is started accidentally when the executioner is felled by a rock.
Seeing that the tide has turned, the Nuncio tries to flee. But Felicita gives him a kiss of peace and he is captured by the mob just as Bartolomea frees Benedetta. A woman rushes forward and stabs the Nuncio repeatedly in the chest and he asks Benedetta if she saw his soul in Heaven. When she nods, he condemns her for lying to the end.
Waking in a derelict hut outside the walls, Benedetta tells Bartolomea that she has to return to Pescia. She is confident that the people won't burn her and, even if they try, she will be spared the flames. Bartolomea produces the broken piece of pottery that she found in Benedetta's hand when she untied her and accuses her of faking her wounds. Once again, she insists that God takes her over and she is sad that her beloved refuses to believe. As she walks across the fields to her fate, captions inform us that Benedetta was denied martyrdom, as she lived to the age of 70 within the confines of the convent, safe in the knowledge that Pescia had escaped the plague, just as she had promised.
Critics tend to hunt in packs. The festival press corps usually sets the tone and it's amazing how frequently reviewers achieve consensus while writing in post-premiere isolation. In many cases, the collective aesthetic and intellectual judgement is considered and warranted. Every now and then, however, attitudes are preconditioned and one rather suspects that this is the case here, as it may well have been with, say, Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc (2019).
Of course, directors like Paul Verhoeven often don't help themselves. Thus, it was almost inevitable that he would present the media with a stick (or wooden dildo) with which to beat him by succumbing to nunsploitationary temptation and softcoring the sex scenes between Benedetta and Bartolomea. Yet, Virginie Efira and Daphné Patakia have spoken about the sensitivity with which the scenes were filmed and have intimated that, by showing women defying the patriarchy by deriving pleasure from their own bodies, they have a feminist subtext.
Having just turned 40 three years ago when the picture was made, Efira was certainly old enough to make up her own mind about how she is to be depicted on screen. As an avowed admirer of Showgirls, Patakia was also surely under no illusions in baring all for a film-maker entering his eighth decade. It's also doubtful that someone as intelligent in her artistic choices as Charlotte Rampling would associate herself with anything that could be blithely dismissed as pornography.
But Verhoeven (who is branded `a pervy old man' in one review) must have known that the nudity would dominate the response to his feature and invite comparisons with the likes of Eriprando Visconti's The Lady of Monza (1969) and Jesús Franco's Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977) rather than more revered items like Ken Russell's The Devils (1971). His delight in rattling cages is equally evident in the vision sequences presenting Jesus as a kind of superhero. Yet, by indulging in such critic-baiting sacrilegiosity in order to offend the pious and the pompous, Verhoeven deflects attention from the serious themes to which he has devoted a lifetime of study.
Such is his fascination with Christianity that Verhoeven once belonged to the Jesus Seminar that was founded in 1985 by the American biblical scholar Robert Funk. Moreover, after failing to greenlight a film entitled Jesus: The Man, he published Jesus of Nazareth (2007), in which he posited Christ as a revolutionary bent on toppling the established order. He clearly sees Benedetta Carlini in the same light and it's a shame that there won't be much debate about such issues as the status of women in the world's major religions, the Catholic Church's attitude to opposition, the commercial exploitation of believers, the unknowableness of faith and the determination of God's will.
Away from the fuss, Efira deserves to be spared any Elizabeth Berkleyesque backlash for playing Benedetta with unflinching commitment and with a sly ambiguity that makes it impossible to deduce whether she was a saint or a charlatan. In her mind, the orgasms Bartolomea induces are more effective than suffering in bringing her closer to the ecstasy she feels during her visions of the Lord. For the same reason, she doesn't care about how she got the stigmata, as, even if they were self-inflicted, God was guiding her hand. As with Dumont's aforementioned Maid of Orleans, Benedetta has a conviction that makes her dangerous to misogynist clerics out of touch with the laity who rally to her cause. But any allusion to the current wave of populism in world politics appears unintentional.
The fearless Efira (who was nominated for a César) is ably supported by the free-spirited Patakia and the mournfully withering Rampling, although Lambert Wilson is let down by lazy scripting as the hypocritically chauvinist nuncio. He is splendidly dressed by Pierre-Jean Larroque, however, with his episcopal purple contrasting with the simple habits of the nuns. These are atmospherically photographed by Jeanne Lapoirie, who conspires with production designer Katia Wyszkop to evoke both Counter-Reformational art and the films like Roger Corman's The Masque of Red Death (1964). Equally effective is Anne Dudley's score, which moves gracefully between simplicity and solemnity.
Despite these dignified contributions by both the cast and the crew, this is not a great film. There are crass moments, such as the nocturnal defecation scene, while the visions of the warrior Saviour are almost cartoonish. Consequently, this falls way short of the standards set by Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels (1960) and Jacques Rivette's La Religieuse (1965). But, for all its male gazedness, it's also far from being the shamefully seedy smutfest that too many critics have complacently dismissed it as.
ONODA: 10,000 NIGHTS IN THE JUNGLE.
Five years after he drew solid notices for his feature bow, Dark Diamond (2016), French writer-director Arthur Harari returns with Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle. Running 165 minutes, this flashbacking epic reflects upon the 29-year tour of duty undertaken by Hiroo Onoda, who was the penultimate Japanese soldier to stand down after the country's surrender at the conclusion of the Second World War.
On 15 September 1974, tourist Norio Suzuki (Taiga Nakano) lands on the Philippine island of Lubang and heads inland. He sets up camp by the river and uses a cassette recorder to play a patriotic song from the war era. It's heard by Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda (Kanji Tsuda), who is bedecked in foliage camouflage in order to leave flowers at the places where his comrades had fallen.
As he listens to the music, Onoda thinks back to 1944, when he was entrusted with a resistance mission after failing to make the grade as a pilot. On arriving on Lubang with orders to destroy the pier and airfield to prevent an American attack, Onoda realises that the commanding officers have no intention of obeying the instructions he has brought. Indeed, after a small band is left alive after a bombing raid, all but three soldiers remain willing to follow him: Private Yuichi Akatsu (Kai Inowaki), Corporal Shoichi Shimada (Shinsuke Kato) and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka (Yuya Matsuura).
They agree to establish a camp on high ground, with a view of the jungle so that they can prevent the Americans from gaining foothold. Following an encounter with some Donko farmers after a recce reveals that the Americans have left Lubang, Onoda orders his men to ignore rumours that the war is over because he has been trained by Major Taniguchi (Issei Ogata) to ignore enemy tricks to put them off guard.
Akatsu is more reluctant to follow than the others, who buy into the notion that they are forbidden to die. They map the island, build a hut and torch rice fields in order to show the Donkos who is in charge. However, Akatsu tries to escape in February 1946 and is surprised when he is accepted back after Onoda finds him in the jungle. He reminds him that they are a family and should trust each other.
By September 1949, tensions are beginning to mount, as they haven't seen any sign of the foe or a relieving force. Kozuka and Shimada have a fight, which the former bitterly regrets when the latter allows himself to be shot by the Donkos stopping them from stealing a cow. As they bury Shimada, Onoda demonstrates they are still at war by offering a rifle to a captured farmer and Akatsu and Kozuka have to stab him with their knives to defend themselves. Shortly afterwards, Akatsu leaves the camp and Onoda and Kozuka renew their pledge to complete the mission.
On 1 January 1950, they continue to patrol and shiver in the rain at night. But they stumble across a party under a Japanese flag imploring them to come out because the war is over. Onoda is appalled when his father and brother speak through a loudhailer and he has to be stopped from shooting, when his father recites a haiku. That night, they creep into the camp and steal a bundle of newspapers and photographs that confirms their suspicions that the Americans are trying to dupe them. They listen to music and news bulletins on a Sony radio and reach the conclusion that Mao Zedong's China is continuing the war against the United States. Moreover, they identify a code in the haiku and head to the westernmost shore of the island to await the arrival of an agent who will give them fresh orders.
It proves to be a fool's errand, but they get to swim in the sea and appreciate the beauty of Lubang. They also celebrate their comradeship and are still on the alert as Apollo 11 reaches the Moon in July 1969. The radio broadcast is interrupted when Onoda (Kanji Tsuda) and Kozuka (Tetsuya Chiba) find a woman sheltering from the typhoon outside their hut. She is Iniez (Angeli Bayani) and they try to communicate with her in broken English. But, when Kozuka wakes her in the middle of the night by stroking her cheek, she feels frightened and steals a revolver. She panics and shoots Kozuka in the leg and he kills her, although the reality of violence sickens both men.
Maggots infect the wound in Kozuka's knee and Onoda has to suck it clean. He recovers, but is impatient to get out of the hut. While doing their laundry in a river, however, Kozuka loses his pistol and Onoda bawls him out for dereliction of duty. Realising there's a whirlpool in the current, Kozuka finds the holster and they are embracing with relief when Kozuka is killed by fishermen using a harpoon.
Onoda is even more alone when the radio packs in. But he keeps recalling moments with his comrades and their memories are still alive on 16 September 1973, when Suzuki arrives on the island. They talk over a drink and a cigarette and Onoda weeps on learning that the war has been over since 1945 and that his sacrifice and those of his men have been in vain. He poses for a photo with Suzuki and asks him to consult Major Taniguchi about what he should do next.
Suzuki finds Taniguchi in a small-town bookshop, where he is trying to forget the past. When he discovers that Onoda has named a riverbank in his honour, he agrees to travel to the Philippines and inform Onoda that hostilities have long ceased. He emerges from the jungle and takes the salute before emptying his rifle and accepting Taniguchi's gratitude for a job well done. Villagers line the route, as Onoda approaches a helicopter. Retaining his dignity, he climbs aboard and takes a last look at the island he had given his life to defend from an attack that never came.
Arthur Harari and co-scenarist Vincent Poymiromay have earned a César nomination for their screenplay, but it only tells a fraction of the story in this well made, but misleading film. Having already been the subject of In Jonathan Hacker's Timewatch item, `The Last Surrender' (2001) and Azril Zaim Aziz's short, The Last Imperial Soldier (2018), Onoda is also due to come under scrutiny in Werner Herzog's novel, The Twilight World (which was based on interviews before Onoda's death in 2014), and Mia Stewart's documentary, Search For Onoda, which was inspired by her mother's recollections of living on Lubang during Onoda's sojourn.
Notwithstanding the current interest, Onoda's story has been examined several times since he published his memoir, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War (1974). Indeed, ghost writer Ikeda Shin was so unimpressed by his unreliable witness that he published Fantasy Hero to challenge his claims. As James Balmont notes in his excellent BBC Culture article, Australian academic Beatrice Trefalt recalls the controversy in Japanese Army Stragglers and Memories of the War in Japan, 1950-75. But Harari has based his scenario on Bernard Cendron and Gérard Chenu's Onoda: Seul en guerre dans la jungle, 1944-1974 and admits that he has prioritised Onoda's perspective over that of the Filipinos he terrorised during his vigil.
This has led to critical condemnation, both for its lack of balance and its insensitivity at a time of revived nationalist sentiment in Japan. Despite skirting ideological detail, Harari has insisted that he was striving to show how the 22 year-old Onoda was indoctrinated during his training and imposed his unwavering sense of duty on to Kozuka (who was shot by the Lubang police and not some vigilante fishermen). Yet, while the film conveys something of Kozuka's plight, it is largely sympathetic towards Onoda, if only because it makes no mention of the pitiless brutality of some of the 30-odd killings personally perpetrated by him or carried out on his orders.
Such harsh truths overshadow the committed performances of Yuya Endo and Kanji Tsuda as Onoda and Yuya Matsuura and Testsuya Chiba as Kozuka. Similarly, in conjunction with Andreas Hildebrand's sound design, Tom Harari's cinematography uses the terrain to place greater emphasis on the pair's living conditions than on the damage they inflicted upon the island's rice fields. Moreover, in spite of the map-making montage, the Hararis fail to establish a palpable sense of place that might show how difficult it was for Onoda to tame the landscape, how closely he lived to the Donkos and why search parties proved unable to find him. The anti-war sentiments are admirable, but this is too firmly in thrall to the old school of Hollywood epic making to fathom the reality of the Kurtzian horror.
On 22 March 2022, while the rest of the world was distracted by the war in Ukraine, a Russian court sentenced Alexei Navalny to an additional nine years behind bars for fraud. The verdict was a foregone conclusion, as had been the case with the trial for probation violation in February 2021, which came a few weeks after Navalny had returned to Moscow following a period of recuperation in Germany, where had been treated for the effects of Novichok poisoning.
At various intervals throughout Canadian Daniel Roher's documentary, Navalny, one is left to wonder why on earth the leader of the Russia of the Future party flew home, when he must have known what would happen. The question is asked. But the answer doesn't really come in a profile that often makes compelling use of its remarkable access, while also affording its charismatic subject too many opportunities to be evasive.
He refuses, for example, to discuss in any detail his attendance at three of the Russian Marches held by far-right nationalists in the early 2010s. But, when he is frank, it's to devastating effect, such as when he recalls his father being sent to plant potatoes in the irradiated fields around Chernobyl to convince the people that there was nothing to fear after the disaster at the nuclear power plant. Navalny claims that he recognised that willingness to lie in Putin's eyes when he first saw him on television. Indeed, while he is served by imbeciles such as the senior official who kept changing the number of his oft-hacked `Moscow 1' password, Putin is anything but stupid, even when he struggles to find ways of avoiding uttering Navalny's name on camera.
Roher films Navalny at his Black Forest retreat, with his wife, Yulia, and their children, Dasha and Zakhar. He also interviews his chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, and Maria Pevchikh, who is the head of the investigative unit of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation. The latter is wary when Roher introduces her boss to Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian journalist with Bellingcat, the Netherlands-based open-source research group, as she can't be sure he isn't linked to Vladimir Putin. However, he turns out to be Navalny's new best friend, as his data analysis skills present him with evidence that not only allows him to identify those responsible for trying to murder him, but also provides the film with its extraordinary phone prank set-piece.
Between scenes of Navalny and Yulia feeding a donkey and miniature pony in a field near their safe house, Roher recalls how the Yale-educated lawyer became so successful at using his social media platforms to expose the corruption of the United Russia hierarchy that he was arrested on trumped-up charges of embezzlement in 2013.
Nevertheless, he ran to become Mayor of Moscow the same year and, in 2016 announced his candidacy to challenge Putin for the presidency in 2018. The Supreme Court disqualified him from running, but Navalny continued to attract subscribers to his YouTube and TikTok channels. Moreover, his campaigns sparked protests against an increasingly dictatorial Kremlin.
He recalls having green liquid thrown into his face outside his Moscow headquarters in April 2017 and being afraid that he would be scarred for life. While visiting Tomsk in August 2020, however, Navalny was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent. The film includes phone footage of him howling on a plane to Moscow and it was only the prompt action of medical staff in Omsk that saved his life. However, doctors at the hospital tried to deny Yulia access to her husband and, while they almost certainly consulted the Kremlin about how to proceed, they allowed Navalny to be flown to Germany.
He grins ruefully into the camera, as he admits how wrong he had been in thinking that notoriety would bring him security. However, he has no hesitation in declaring that he will return to Russia as soon as he feels strong enough to resume his campaign against Putin and his cronies. While waiting, however, he not only agrees to collaborate with Roher (`I realise that he's filming it all for the movie he's gonna release if I get whacked.'), but he also consents to meeting with Grozev and hearing his findings.
This is where the documentary enters the realms of spy spoof, as Navalny relishes the chance to assume the identity of security officer Maxim Ustinov in order to speak in person to those involved in the FSB plot to assassinate him. The first couple of agents become suspicious the moment they hear his voice. But scientist Konstantin Kudryavstev hasn't been trained so thoroughly and Navalny is able to coax him into revealing that Novichok had been applied to his underpants in Tomsk and that he would have not have survived if they had not botched the amount required to kill him.
With Grozev and a shocked Pevchikh sitting either side of him, Navalny revels in drawing the incriminatory confession that includes the passage: `We did it just as planned, the way we rehearsed it many times. But in our profession, as you know, there are lots of unknowns and nuances.' The transcript is passed to CNN's Tim Liester and Fidelius Schmid from Der Spiegel so that they can release an exclusive on 14 December that accuses the Kremlin of being behind a murder plot that Navalny mocks because the Sergei Skripal case in Salisbury had made Novichok Putin's signature poison.
As news comes that Kudryavstev has disappeared, Navalny drives Dasha to the airport so she can return to college in the United States. However, he has also decided to fly back to Russia and the cameras join him on the plane on 17 January 2021 and record him being detained at passport control after the authorities had diverted the flight to Sheremetyevo because of the crowds that had gathered to greet him at Vnukovo Airport.
The footage of him putting on a brave face in court and returning to his cell at Pokrov Penal Colony No.2 is all the more chilling as a closing caption reminds us how close Navalny came to dying while on hunger strike. Yet is his incarceration doing more to topple Putin than denouncing him from exile? Clearly, the invasion of Ukraine smacks of a desperate attempt to rally a nation that was showing an increasing to doubt and protest. But, such is Putin's control over the media, that few Russians know the truth about the ignominious campaign and the lies being told about its underlying motives.
Having impressed with Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band (2019), 29 year-old Roher graduates to graver fare with assurance. He's not the most rigorous interviewer, but he elicits sufficient trust for Navalny to buy into his ideas and, thanks to editors Langdon Page and Maya Daisy Hawke, the Maxim Ustinov interlude is as entertaining as it is riveting. Roher also generously makes mention of Putin's Palace: History of the World's Biggest Bribe, a documentary that Navalny wrote, directed and narrated for his Anti-Corruption Foundation and sent live on YouTube on 19 January 2021.
Also worth seeking out is He Is Not For You Dimon (2017), in which Navalny accuses former president Dmitri Medvedev of corruption. He may claim to prefer Call of Duty to chess, but Navalny seems to be a canny strategist. Which brings us back to that seemingly colossal and recklessly courageous miscalculation and why he made it.
CHARLI XCX: ALONE TOGETHER.
Another week, another musical act to have slipped through the cracks while yours truly was otherwise occupied watching films. Born in Cambridge and raised in Start Hill in Essex, Charlotte Aitchison starting posting songs on Myspace in 2008. As Charli XCX, she released numerous singles and mixtapes between diverse collaborations and the studio albums, True Romance (2013), Sucker (2014) and Charli (2019). More significantly, this workaholic musician acquired a devoted LGBTQIA+ army of fans known as Charli's `Angels'.
Denied the chance to play for them live during lockdown, the 28 year-old kept in touch via social media and set herself a 40-day deadline to write and record a new album. Edited from the footage she amassed during the making of How I'm Feeling Now (2020), Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler's Charli XCX: Alone Together is an intimate account of one woman's bid to stay sane and connected during a pandemic that forced her to co-habit with the on-off boyfriend with whom she had only spent 11 consecutive days over the previous seven years.
Holed up in the Los Angeles house she shares with managers and erstwhile classmates Sam Pringle and Twiggy Rowley, Charli decides to combat boredom and self-doubt by recording an album of songs inspired by her changing relationship with beau, Huck Kwong, who just happens to have been stranded on the West Coast during a visit from New York. Recognising that many of her Angels will be sharing her feelings of isolation and anxiety, Charli decides to involve them in the creative process so that they can all become each other's beacons of lockdown hope.
It's a lovely idea and the film includes the engagement of Cole, Ronald, Archi, Ellen, Myra, Madison, Lilah and Emiliano (aka Poison Oakland) with the daily updates and brainstorming sessions, in which Charli asks for feedback on tracks and help with her lyrics.
Thrilled to be able to interact directly with their icon and show solidarity with their caring community, the Angels have a validatory effect on Charli, who not only needs an outlet for her art, but also the acceptance that inner voices deny herself because of a crippling sense of unworthiness. A desperate Instagram concerns parents Shameera and Jon, who call to offer reassurance, while Huck shows signs of a willingness to commit to a non-long-distance relationship.
He is also roped into assisting with the album and the videoing of the sessions in which Charli immerses herself (when not painting rocks, devising cover concepts and purchasing green screen equipment in order to shoot DIY videos). Deadline pressure weights heavily, but being busy is essential to this bright, talented and poignantly fragile force of nature.
Such is her drive that she completes the project on time and even hosts an online launch party that gives the likes of drag queen Poison Oakland the chance to strut their stuff and show off their bedroom décor. Clearly, there has to be a transactional element to this relationship, but it's refreshing to note that it doesn't appear to be the main one (which isn't always the case with certain ageing rockers, who approve multi-format alternative editions of their new and retro releases in order to separate diehards from their cash).
One suspects that few outside Charli XCX's fanbase will seek out this film. But it has plenty of insights to offer into the millennial mindset, modern musical creativity, the value of social media, our dependence upon technology and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on personal relationships and mental health. There's also something rather charming about the way in which Charli handles fame and the responsibility of having fans who hang on her every utterance. However, witnessing the toll that being a pop star takes on a vulnerable twentysomething is often painful.
Comparisons are inevitable between this auto-actuality and All I Can Say (2019), which sees Danny Clinch, Taryn Gould and Colleen Hennessy shape a profile from the video diaries that Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon made compulsively during his all-too-brief career. The substances to which Hoon resorted in order to cope with his demons are notable by their absence in this carefully controlled portrait of the artist as a young woman. Let's hope Charli XCX's pronounced sense of role model duty keeps her focussed on what matters.
As Charli and her housemates and fans were responsible for generating the footage, the co-directors (who are music video specialists) are little more than glorified editors alongside Zoe Schack, Arianna Tomasettig and Robert Grigsby Wilson. Their use of CGI inserts and avatars feels twee, even though the resoundingly non-lo-fi gambit contains echoes of Mamoru Hosada's Belle (2021). But, given the amount of material that must have been amassed, organising it into something so raw, intimate, dynamic, coherent and affecting is quite an achievement.