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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (20/1/2023)

(Reviews of The Substitute; Nascondino; and Dreaming Walls)


THE SUBSTITUTE.


Argentinian director made a fine impression with his debut feature, Suddenly (2002). However, British audiences didn't get much of a look at subsequent outings like The Invisible Eye (2010) and A Sort of Family (2017). His seventh picture, The Substitute, has secured a release, though, and this tale of a teacher struggling to engage his underprivileged students evoke memories of titles as different in tone as John N. Smith's Dangerous Minds (1995) and Laurent Cantet's The Class (2008). Yet, this also has things in common with Robert Mandel's The Substitute (1996), a thick-eared thriller that starred Tom Berenger as a Vietnam vet combating drug dealers in a Miami high school.


Lucio Garmendia (Juan Minujín) is a writer who has joint custody of his 12 year-old daughter, Sol (Renata Lerman), with his poet ex-wife, Mariela (Barbara Lennie). He is devoted to his father, Roberto (Alfredo Castro), a barrio activist known as `El Chileno', who has the support of Mayor Suarez in opening a soup kitchen on the turf of the local drug dealer, Olmos (Agustín Rittano), who is nicknamed `El Perro'.


Needing a job, Lucio becomes a supply teacher at the school where Amalia (Rita Cortese) is the principal. The other teachers warn him it's a tough neighbourhood and Dilan (Lucas Arrua) is outspoken in his first lesson about the pointlessness of studying literature. In fact, Dilan is a decent kid, who volunteers at the soup kitchen and he is prepared to cut Lucio some slack, as he is El Chileno's son.


His next lesson is no more successful, however, and Lucio realises he is pitching too high. Taking his father's advice to empathise with the kids and their situations, he lends Dilan a book and encourages Walter (Jonathan Bogado) to rap in class. But his communication skills need honing, even when talking to Sol, who resents living between two homes and not being able to practice her music.


When he finally gets through to the class by discussing crime fiction, Dilan writes a story about his father, who was called `The Watchmker' because he liked stealing expensive watches. As he is reading it out, however, the police raid the class to search for drugs and Walter is caught in possession of some pills and cocaine. Lucio is appalled by the intrusion and asks Dilan if El Perro is supplying the dealers. He refuses to answer and asks Lucio to leave him alone.


Lucio is dismayed to discover that Suarez was behind the drug raid to make El Perro look bad in the forthcoming mayoral election. He asks his father if he condones such tactics, as Dilan has been caught in the net. But Roberto tells Lucio not to be so naive, as there have to be casualties in rooting out evil. Sol takes a similar tack when Lucio is surprised to discover that Mariela has a girlfriend.


With a ministry inspector adding to his woes on a day when an anti-drugs demonstration is held outside the school and the staff argue over how to deal with the crisis, Lucio seeks with colleague Clara (María Merlino) to find out why Mayomi (Mejia Rodriguez Amay de Los Angeles) has been withdrawn from class by her father. They go to a rundown district that's a million miles away from Lucio's new apartment. But he still has trouble coercing Sol into taking an exam, as she would rather be playing her cello.


In a bid to get the kids to talk, Lucio arranges the chairs in a circle and is getting them to open up when the inspector barges in. Amalia lectures him on rocking the boat and he winds up in bed with a sympathetic Clara. He ventures into Dilan's neighbourhood and finds him hiding in a shed behind the café run by Susi (Cynthia Romina Estrella). Shocked at having a gun pulled on him, Lucio promises to ask Roberto to help smuggle Dilan out of the country to evade El Perro. But he is reluctant to help, as he doesn't want to cause trouble during the election. Besides which, he is having health problems and needs to keep quiet.


Having agreed to let Sol go to the school of her choice, Lucio reconciles himself to Mariela's new relationship, but avoids telling her about Clara. Roberto brings Dilan to the apartment so he can hide there until it's time to leave for a safe house in Uruguay. But he falls in shortly afterwards and Lucio defies hospital security by locking himself in his father's room so they can talk.


It proves to be their last meeting, as Lucio learns his father has died as he is securing papers for Dilan to travel abroad. He has been threatened in a washroom by El Perro, who insists that Suarez planted drugs at the school to make him look bad. However, he refuses to pardon Dilan for letting the side down and threatens Lucio with reprisals if he gets in his way.


Shortly after Roberto's funeral, El Perro sends one of Dilan's classmates, Kevin (Brian Montiel), to poison the casserole at the opening of the soup kitchen. He warns the diners in time, but has to flee through the barrio and Lucio's car gets shot at as they make their getaway. Relieved to have got Dilan safely on the bus, Lucio returns to the apartment, where Sol points out that one of his paintings has been hanging the wrong way and he claims to see more clearly now. As term ends, he asks the class about the soul and whether it serves a purpose. The inspector is impressed, as the students settle to write an essay about the emotions they attach to body parts.


There's plenty going on in this well-meaning drama, which Lerman co-scripted with María Meira and Luciana De Mello. Frustratingly, a good deal of it is familiar from the numerous other films about inspirational teachers striving to turn around the lives of their pupils. Cinematographer Wojciech Starón capably captures the look of the barrio, but Lerman fails to establish why a highbrow like Lucio would go to teach in a neighbourhood that is clearly outside his experience, even though his father is a cult figure among the hard-pressed.


No one seems to know that Lucio is El Chileno's son, which suggests he hasn't got his hands particularly dirty in helping his father's cause. Moreover, his lack of appreciation of what the kids need from his lessons and his apparent refusal to seek any advice makes his arrogance all the more resistible and his emergence as their champion feel all the more contrived. This is a shame, as Juan Minujín contributes a fine performance, as a self-absorbed thirtysomething who still has a lot to learn about life beneath his ivory tower. Notwithstanding the filial bond, few of his relationships are explored in any depth, however, with the result that the female characters are somewhat short-changed, particularly Clara, who is deftly played by María Merlino.


Alfredo Castro also impresses, although the script rather muddies the electoral subplot and reduces El Perro to a conveniently villainous cipher, as it incongruously tries to leaven the social realism with a gangland thriller element. It's all very Loachian and admirable in a politically conscious way. It even has a degree of overlap with the themes in Nascondino (see below). Yet, for all its sincerity and restraint, this never quite convinces.


NASCONDINO.


Filmed over four years in the Spanish Quarter of Naples, Victoria Fiore's Nascondino (aka Hide and Seek) chronicles the trials and tribulations of an 11 year-old boy to show how criminality and humanity live cheek by jowl on the streets of a city crackling with complexities and contradictions. Derived from the London-based documentarist's 2017 short, Fire Games of Naples, this is a compelling and sobering insight into how deeply embedded criminality is in the Neapolitan psyche.


As Entoni makes a bonfire of Christmas trees with his pals, his grandmother, Addolorata, admits to worrying about the emotions that run through his head. While out with his friend, Dylan, Entoni finds a mobile phone and tries to extract a reward from its owner. Instead, he gets a clip around the ear and complains that there's no such thing as gratitude. But he doesn't sulk for long, as he goes to help a barista before zooming around the piazza on a scooter.


Life is to be lived and Addolorata accepts that Entoni is a bit of a scamp. He often asks how she made her money, but she confides in voiceover that it would be too dangerous to reveal much about her past or the people with whom she was involved. She just fears that Entoni will follow in her footsteps and won't be as fortunate. But he claims to dislike violence and has little time for those kids who show off by brandishing guns.


Bored in the family apartment with mother, Natalia, younger brother Gaetano wants to go with Entoni and play in the streets. However, he's left on his own after he splashes some girls while swimming in the sea and his mates agree to leave him behind because he's always causing trouble. Watching him play with a finger spinner, he seems like any other kid. But Addolorata laments the fact he is fearless and only listens to the voices in his own head. She doesn't blame Natalia, as her husband has been in prison since Entoni was three.


Addolorata is also concerned by moves to remove troublesome children from families with connections to organised crime. Her fears were realised a year later, as Entoni is linked with torching a car. While visiting a disused prison, he and Dylan deny any involvement and show how young they are by bouncing on a mattress and chatting hesitantly about visiting their fathers in prison.


However, Addolorata reveals that this brush with the law seems to have had a calming effect on him. This makes her sad, though, as she was widowed with three children at 23, when her husband died in prison. She battled on to make money for the family, but struggled to understand Natalia, although she admires her devotion to her kids. Entoni refuses to consider her boyfriend, Francesco, to be a father figure, even though he barely knows his own. He is also something of a loner now, as he has hardly seen Dylan since the car fire.


This hasn't been forgotten, however, and we see Entoni spending his last two days at home before he's sent to a children's boarding centre. He fights with Gaetano and cheeks Natalia, but he is also in reflective mood, as he describes a dream in which he comes out of prison and a hope that he will be married in a decade's time, with all his troubles behind him. Entoni watches a Marian procession in the narrow streets and professes a belief that she will look after him while he's away and help him reform, as he's a good boy really.


Another year passes and Addolorata recalls her own experience of prison and being accused of being a crime boss with links to the Gomorra. She claims to have survived the gossip and earned respect by adhering to the code of omertà. By contrast, Entoni escapes and we see a recreation of his flight across country and his relief at hitching a ride into the city. However, his grandmother relates how they kept returning him so that he didn't end up in a higher-security facility. When he meet up with Dylan for a sea swim, however, Entoni insists that he was hidden away in a secret place, but can't reveal any details. They both grin at the mention of the burnt car and Dylan wonders why the cops never came after him.


They do pursue Entoni, however, and he gets 20 days in the Nisida Juvenile Prison for persistent escaping. Just days before, he had gone across Naples to wave to his father from the road opposite his jail. Now, he is sharing his fate and Addolorata trusts in Padre Pio and her angel cards to protect him.


Five months later, Natalia and Gaetano drive to the beach across from the island and wave at the prison in the hope that Entoni can see them. He is becoming a handful and he joins Dylan at the Christmas tree fire. Addolorata worries that Entoni's fate is sealed, but she keeps hoping, as does Natalia.


Closing captions reveal that Entoni suffered a breakdown in prison after a friend was murdered by an off-duty policeman. Three years after he was originally detained, he was judged psychologically unfit to remain in prison. But a file has now been opened on Gaetano.


There's something dismayingly predictable about the last line, yet it sums up Fiore's contention about the vicious circle that affects so many Neapolitan families. As the focus is firmly on Entoni, we only get to hear from the authorities via radio bulletins and, consequently, we don't get a rounded view of the policy and why it was implemented. From Entoni's perspective, it seems draconian in the extreme, especially in the light of his resulting mental health issues.


Although influenced by crime films (Entoni claims at one point that he wants to be an actor), it's clear that the Spanish Quarter kids feel as though they belong to something special that entitles them to the kind of wild freedom that ultimately gets Entoni into trouble. Despite being guarded about her past deeds, Addolorata hopes that her grandson can keep his nose clean. But she also knows that the lure is strong to the point of being preordained, even though it's the footsoldiers who invariably spend time behind bars.


Some of the more curated scenes jar slightly, as Fiore seeks to show all aspects of Entoni's existence. But she achieves an immersive intimacy that allows the boy to demonstrate his roguish charm, as well as the more sensitive side that haunts his dreams and aspirations. What is particularly impressive, however, is how naturally Fiore and cinematographer Alfredo De Juan capture the evocative bustle of the neighbourhood. Tangles of wires and cords hang over the narrow streets through which religious processions wend their way, as they will have done for centuries. But Maradona matters as much as the Madonna in these parts.


As ominous as it is moving, the film displays a compassion that has long been exhausted amongst the upholders of law and order who are more intent on constraining the likes of Entoni than understanding them. In truth, similar documentaries could be made in major cities anywhere in the world. But Fiore deftly conveys the unique atmosphere and social realities of Naples that makes it nigh on impossible for succeeding generations to loosen the grip of historical destiny.


DREAMING WALLS.


When Nigel Finch went to New York to make Chelsea Hotel (1981) for the BBC arts flagship, Arena, the decorators were in. The same was true when Abel Ferrara came to see how the residents were coping after the departure of fabled manager, Stanley Bard, in Chelsea on the Rocks (2008). Now, Belgian documentarists Amelié van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier have stumbled across another renovation on West 23rd Street in Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel.


Those seeking a history of Hotel Chelsea and its heyday as a bohemian sanctuary should seek out the earlier films, as only fleeting mention is made to the daring and the dissolute who once called this red-bricked Gothic edifice their home. Instead, Van Elmbt and Duverdier strive to capture the mood at the moment the past is consigned beneath a coat of fresh paint and a new future as a boutique hotel is about to commence.


As if to suggest that ghosts haunt the premises, the picture begins with Patti Smith noting the Chelsea's link with Dylan Thomas before images of Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, and Nico are projected on to a brick chimney. Voices echo, as the camera roves along corridors to observe the peeling paint and exposed wires. Scaffolding covers the facade, as workmen mill around the few residents who continue to occupy the building.


It's early in the new year and Nicholas Pappas takes down a Christmas tree, as wife Zoe contacts other tenants to discuss the inconvenience of work that has dragged on for almost a decade. Choreographer Merle Lister chats with a Black builder, who confesses to feeling the presence of some unhappy spirits. He has Googled the Chelsea and discovered its chequered history and shares his passion for Leonardo Da Vinci before dancing with Merle, who is still game, even though she needs a walker to get around.


As Warhol and William S. Burrows, Allen Ginsberg, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen flash up on the walls, Finch's film is pillaged for the voice of tour guide Arthur Marks III, Larry Rivers signing an original work in Stanley Bard's lobby, and Nico singing `Chelsea Girls' with Joe Bidewell on electric guitar. We meet performance artist Rose Cory, who has lived in the hotel since 1987 and has undergone gender transition, marriage, drug dependency, and divorce there. They lament the passing of Manhattan's avant-garde phase and wonders how long the hold-outs will be allowed to remain in situ by the new management.


Composer Gerald Busby recalls the Japanese artist, Hiroya, throwing himself down the stairwell, as he reveals the efforts to move the residents to the first floor to keep them away from the guests at the new hotel. He also notes that large rooms have been partitioned, while a service elevator has been installed to keep the old lags out of the lobby. Merle potters around seeking inspiration for dance routines and wraps herself in the plastic sheeting hanging from the ceiling.


Artist Susan Kleinsinger and husband Joe Corey recall the garden they had before they were forced into a smaller apartment. They wonder how long they will able to afford the rent, as Joe is ailing and Susan's work doesn't always sell. But she is proud to be one of the last painters still active in the building. A Finch clip shows 104 year-old Alphaeus Cole dismissing modern art and one wonders how this devotee of John Singer Sargent would react to the wire sculpture that Skye Ferrante does of Merle and a nude model named Yaelle.


Merle shows off some photographs of her 1970s dance company. She tells a friend over the phone that she is working on a new project, but it seems unlikely she'll get to stage it. Nico and Zoe put up with a service elevator clattering past their window and she bemoans the fact that she receives little gratitude for her efforts on behalf of the Chelsea's housing association.


Everyone is inconvenienced by living in a building site. Steve Willis has been a tenant since the 1990s and recently had his one bedroom flat converted into a studio. He describes the process as `a slow-motion rape' and guides the camera around his lost space (which was once part of Janis Joplin's old room). Having seen the last surviving original room, Willis wonders why anyone felt it was okay to destroy the vision of the architect (who was Philip Gengembre Hubert in the 1880s).


The same question would have probably not have concerned composer Virgil Thomson, whose Finch interview is recycled before we see some hipsters harmonising in a suite. Susan reads her husband a story about a bunny and an egg, as they snuggle on their bed. On the staircase that has featured in videos by Madonna and Mariah Carey, Merle coaches a female dancer through some moves from `Dance of the Spirits' that she had performed in front of friends and a camera many years ago.


Rose is also eager to bring old artworks to a new audience, while Skye is nurturing his daughter's passions for books and art. They read Dylan Thomas and we hear lines from `Do not go gentle into that good night' over a view of sunset from the Chelsea roof. Merle comes to dine with Nico and Zoe and they dismiss her suggestion that the energy created by the bohemians of the past is retarding the renovation (as they just want the builders gone, as they will be able to cope with any rent hikes). They agree that it would be nice to be free of the junkies and hookers, but they have very different ideas on Stanley Bard's legacy.


Susan mourns Joe with the three cuddly toys he gave her on the day he died. She feels his spirit, as we see Marilyn and other familiar faces being beamed on to the walls. The camera glides into finished parts of the building and records Nico and Zoe dancing a waltz. It also makes its way into the famously crowded apartment of conceptual artist Bettina Grossman, now the Chelsea's oldest resident, who filled her rooms with so much art that she had to sleep in the hallway. She accuses the owners of trying to frighten her into leaving because they didn't offer her any financial incentive, as they did with others. As she's still exhibiting, she refuses to be intimidated and the film ends with her shuffling out into the New York night on her walker, as we see the lights burning in the windows of the occupied apartments.


Sadly, Grossman died in November 2021, but she is now part of the spectral pantheon that will forever hold court at the Chelsea Hotel. Shooting over three years, Van Elmbt and Duverdier capture this sense of boho indomitability in an impressionistic snapshot that pretty much follows the rubric of its predecessors. There may be less stardust, but the film - which also includes clips from the archives of Shirley Clarke, Andy Warhol, and Jonas Mekas - is none the worse for that, as the likes of Merle Lister proves charismatically compelling in her own right.


The shabby splendour of the hotel also shines through, as does the elegance of the occupied rooms that are maintained with such pride by their residents aware of their small place in Chelsea history. Whether the mystique survives their departure is open to debate, as much depends on how the new business fares. But this melancholic elegy provides a valuable record of the last echoes of an (in)glorious past refusing to go gentle.


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