Parky At the Pictures (21/4/2023)
(Reviews of Pacification; How to Blow Up a Pipeline; Grazie Ragazzi; God's Petting You; A Clever Woman; and Free Money)
Having loitered exclusively in the 18th century for Story of My Death (2013), The Death of Louis XIV (2016), and Liberté (2019), Albert Serra returns to the present day for Pacificiation. The past very much impinges upon this 165-minute Tahitian treatise, however, as the Catalan master of Slow Cinema examines Polynesia's post-colonialist legacy and the Gallic old guard's lingering sense of entitled privilege.
Wearing a brightly coloured floral shirt beneath his white suit, High Commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel) is the senior French representative on Tahiti. When not reassuring deputations of locals about the new casino and rumours of a submarine resuming the nuclear testing that had caused cancer and birth defects in the 1950s, he is schmoozing at Paradise Night, the bar run by Morton (Sergi López), an ex-pat who is happy to welcome the Admiral (Marc Susini) and his crew to enjoy the floor show choreographed by Francesca (Monste Triola).
De Roller flirts with Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), a Mahu who works at the club, while seeking information about Ferreira (Alexandre Mello), a Portguguese who claims his passport has been stolen from the hotel. He also makes himself known to Olivier (Baptiste Pinteaux), a friend of Cyrus (Cyrus Arai) who has inherited a fortune and is keen to invest in a hotel on the islands. While making his rounds, De Roller also introduces himself to Romane Attia (Cécile Guilbert), a novelist who has come to Tahiti seeking inspiration in the manner of Paul Gauguin. He later hosts a reception for her and makes a rambling speech about her achievements that rather suggests he is unfamiliar with her work.
Angered by a clergyman's opposition to the casino scheme, De Roller threatens to ruin him and use his chapels as leisure centres for the islanders. He also lays down the law when Matahi (Matahi Pambrun) informs him that there will be a protest against the resumption of nuclear testing. De Roller refuses to be intimidated and warns Matahi that he knows that outside forces are behind his movement and that they will be resisted.
Taking a break from his duties, De Roller sails out to the breakers off the coast and takes a turn on a jet ski to watch the surfers and small boats riding the swelling waves. He drifts off alone as dusk descends to check for signs of submarine activity. Peering through binoculars, he sees a small craft bobbing on the swell. At the Paradise, he supervises the rehearsal of a dance that includes a cockfight and urges the performers to convey a greater sense of violence.
De Roller takes Shannah and secretary
Mareva (Mareva Wong) for a light aircraft flight over Tahiti. He revels in the beauty of the water and the ruggedness of the rocks before meeting up with the mayor of a neighbouring island, whose re-election he supports. Laughing off suggestions he should go native and wear a pareo, De Roller confides his concerns about the tests and the imminent protests before leaving Mareva to help with the campaign.
Just before a magic hour sunset that turns the sky pink, De Roller and one of his lookouts watch a rowing boat put out from the beach full of prostitutes. He is certain they are heading for the submarine, but knows he can't touch it, as it will be in French territorial waters. During a meeting with the Admiral, he raises the issue and asks him to rein in his men, as people are getting twitchy and there would be hell to pay if one of the boats capsized.
Unaware he is also being watched, De Roller drives to Shannah's place and finds her entertaining Ferreira. He informs the Portuguese that his documents have been found and offers his help if he needs transport. But he has no intention of leaving and De Roller clearly feels jealous, as he has feelings for Shannah.
Drifting through the club, he watches the topless female DJ before joining Lois (Lluís Serrat) in his car. He curses the French officials who come to Tahiti and lord it over the locals and denounces the upbringing that reinforces the sense of superiority that he knows is an illusion, as they don't have the control they believe. Lois listens sleepily, as De Roller laments the state of politics, in which people cut off from reality sit in the dark and do nothing without realising that time is passing them by.
An aide knocks on the car window to inform De Roller that his boat is ready. He heads out to search for the submarine, but there's no sign. Returning before sun-up, he scours the harbour, without spotting Mike (Mike Landscape), the American who is tailing him. They wind up in Paradise, where the Admiral coaxes his ratings on to the dance floor. Shannah joins De Roller, who watches silently.
When the sailors finally leave, they file on to their launch, as dawn breaks. As they speed away, the Admiral informs them that they won't be returning to the island, as they are about to embark upon their mission - to test the first nuclear missile since the 1990s. He tells them to be proud of their part in history and has nothing but contempt for those who will feel the after-effects, as they don't understand the meaning of sacrifice.
Ending starkly, with De Roller being exposed as a powerless pawn in the game, this is a sobering meditation on the ruthlessness of the ruling élite and their contention that the world is a playground for them to do with as they see fit. For all his efforts to lord it over his fiefdom, De Roller is out of the governmental and military loops, with his attempts to monitor submarine activity with binoculars and motor launches feeling like something out of a Graham Greene entertainment.
Hiding behind shades that prevent us from looking into his eyes, Benoît Magimel excels as the functionary going through the motions of conducting business as usual while also trying to be a man of the people. It doesn't take much for the swagger to shrivel and be replaced by insecurity, as he realises the restrictions of both his charm and his remit. His speech for the visiting novelist is a masterclass in bluffing one's way through shortcomings (is this one of the instances when Serra apparently fed Magimel dialogue through an earpiece?), while the petulant dismay on finding Ferreira at Shannah's place is both amusing and poignant. Yet, the precise nature of the relationship between Magimel and Pahoa Mahagafanau (who identifies as a third gender known in Polynesia as Mahu or RaeRae) is kept under wraps.
Invoking the conspiracy/paranoia spirit of 1970s vintage Alan J. Pakula, Serra directs at his usual, measured pace, pausing now and then to slip in a surreal aside accompanied by Marc Verdaguer and Joe Robinson's disconcerting score. In all, he recorded 180 hours of footage on three cameras shooting in tandem and often changed the script between set-ups. Yet, even at over two and a half hours, this feels like a short beside Serra's101-hour gallery work, Three Little Pigs, which presented complete adaptations in period costume of Johann Peter Eckermann's Conversations With Goethe and Hitler's Table Talk 1941-1944. His Private Conversations.
Cinematographer Artur Tort (seemingly making history by using Canon's tiny Black Magic Pocket cameras on a feature for the first time) captures some stunning views. But he also makes adroit use of expanses and interiors to show De Roller both out of his depth and hedged in by forces he doesn't fully comprehend until it's too late - for everyone.
HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE.
Coming a decade after Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves (2013), Daniel Goldhaber's How to Blow Up a Pipeline feels like a delayed reverberation that comes too late to shake climate change deniers out of their reckless complacency. Adapted from a non-fiction tome by Swedish environmentalist Andreas Malm, this eco-sabotage thriller is a far cry from Goldhaber's debut feature, Cam (2018), in which a webcam model has her identity stolen. However, its intentions are good and it reflects the sense that humanity has lost the plot at the very moment it needs to be focussed and proactive.
Brought together by a phone message, eight climate activists who have only previously communicated long distance arrive at a shack in the West Texan desert. They plan to blow up an oil pipeline to draw attention to the pressing eco crisis and are quite prepared to risk all for the success of the mission. While two prepare the chemicals and two more load up barrels, a further four drive out into the wilderness to dig down to the hot spot.
Taking a break, Xochitl (Ariela Barer) thinks back to losing her mother in a freak heatwave in Long Beach, California and being consoled by best friend Theo (Sasha Lane), who has just been diagnosed with a rare and terminal form of leukaemia caused by the pollution billowing out of the nearby industrial plant. They are part of a group calling for radical divestment, but Xochitl thinks they should make a more destructive statement. Shawn (Marcus Scribner) suggests hitting a pipeline in Texas to show how vulnerable the oil industry is. They rope in Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American who resents the misappropriation of tribal lands in Parshall, North Dakota and the pacifism and conservancy espoused by his mother, Joanna (Irene Bedard).
Having survived an explosion in an outhouse, Michael (who taught himself to make bombs) reassures the rest of the group that everything will be fine. After a campfire supper, the group discuss the morality of their plot, with Shawn claiming that Jesus was a terrorist in his own way, while Theo's girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), takes exception to a comparison to their actions and the Civil Rights movement. Dwayne (Jack Weary) insists that they aren't harming anyone, as they are targeting Big Oil rather than little people, while lovers Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth) concur with Xochitl, who claims that history has a Kumbayaing habit of rehabilitating rebels.
Michael worries the others are unreliable and asks Dwayne to stay focussed. He hails from Odessa, Texas and is furious with the oil company for driving him off the property his family had owned for over a century in order to lay the pipeline. Forced to move in with his mother-in-law, he meets Shawn when he agrees to speak to a director on whose documentary he is working as a sound recordist and Dwayne readily embraces the chance to fight back and shows them the most vulnerable places in the underground and overground runs.
On the day of the strike, they head out to the hole and lower in a barrel that Michael primes as Dwayne brings down a drone hovering over them. Leaving Logan and Rowan to find the wheelhouse, the rest get back into the van to plant the second device by the exposed pipeline. However, a strap snaps as they lever the barrel into place and it lands on Alisha's leg and breaks it.
Theo wants to get her to hospital, but Xochitl is more worried about leaving DNA traces and failing to establish their alibis. With the bomb in places, Michael, Dwayne, and Shawn go their separate ways. Meanwhile, Logan and Rowan run into a couple of pipeline inspectors and Logan has to distract them after puncturing the tyre on their truck and cutting the service phone line. His dash prompts a flashback to Portland, Oregon, where Rowan was arrested during a sabotage mission on government land. In order to walk free, she had to promise to collaborate with the FBI and Logan suggests that they find a new cell so she doesn't have to betray her friends. This is how they met Shawn. But, with Logan still running decoy, Rowan breaks into the wheelhouse to turn off the oil so that the explosions don't cause any large-scale environmental damage.
The barrels detonate and Xochitl and Theo drive back to the shack to clear away any incriminating evidence. The load the bin bags into Alisha's car and she drives off to pick up Shawn and Michael. Dwayne is laying low in his favourite bar, while Rowan takes Logan to a motel, as he's been shot. Having removed the bullet, however, she goes to report to Agent Rhodes (Sarah Minnich) and hands over the material captured on her phone.
As Michael and Shawn catch buses, Xochitl and Theo prepare to blow up the hideout. A flashback suddenly takes us back to Alisha protesting to Xochitl about the plan for Rowan to feed evidence to the Feds that frames her and Theo for the attack. She explains that a girl dying of leukaemia caused by the industry she has bombed will evoke sympathy and maybe lead to a reduced sentence. But they are more concerned that such heroism attracts others to the cause to stop fossil fuels before it's too late.
Theo is happy to sacrifice herself and thanks Xochitl for her friendship, as the cops close in. Rowan returns to Logan in the motel room to tell him that Rhodes has bought her story. They watch an online message from Xochitl imploring people to do what it takes to save the planet before we see the six at liberty going about their lives and carrying out a raid on a luxury yacht in Miami.
Played with conviction and vigour by an estimable ensemble, this may be too haphazardly structured to grip as a thriller, but it certainly makes a cogent case for fighting the power. Writing with Ariela Barer and executive producer Jordan Sjol, Goldhaber tries to hurl the audience into the centre of the whirlpool by opening with the mission already under way. But, by opting not to introduce the characters and their motives, it's impossible to know who's who, let alone what's going on. Flashbacks fill in the gaps, as the enterprise unfolds, but they get in the way and, despite Daniel Garber's sharp editing, rupture any tension that Goldhaber has succeeded in building up.
Clearly, he is keen to guard the twist relating to Rowan and Logan, but the disjointed plotline remains problematical, especially when it impacts upon the performances. Ariela Barer and Jayme Lawson fare best, with their conversation about Sasha Lane's right to go out on her own terms being particularly poignant. But there is always the sense that we're watching pawns being moved around in an intricate game rather than people staking everything on a cause in which they passionately believe.
Avoiding too much detail in preparing the devices, Goldhaber achieves a creditable level of authenticity. But he's keener to stress the fallibility of the novice saboteurs and the danger they face from their own inexperience rather than from the authorities. He also manages to couch their ethical arguments in accessible terms without becoming condescending or didactic. Moreover, his direction is as robustly effective as Tehillah De Castro's photography and Gavin Brivik's score. So, while this could be dismissed as a bunch of millennial archetypes acting on impulses they don't fully understand, it holds the attention and leaves viewers with a few ideas to ponder afterwards, even though they are never going to make the vested interests and their obsequious acolytes sit up and take notice.
In the mid-1980s, Swedish actor Jan Jönson started a drama workshop at the Kumla maximum security prison. Realising that the inmates spent their days marking time, he introduced them to Samuel Beckett's absurdist classic, Waiting For Godot. Emmanuel Courcol's The Big Hit (2020) took its inspiration from Jönson's experience and CinemaItaliaUK returns with Emmanuel Courcol's remake, Grazie Ragazzi, which follows the original pretty closely. However, some fine performances make the exercise worthwhile.
Frustrated with dubbing porn films, middle-aged actor Antonio Cerami (Antonio Albanese) is persuaded by producer friend Michele (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) to supervise a theatre class at a prison outside Rome. Governor Laura Soprana (Sonia Bergamasco) isn't convinced the programme will prove beneficial, but she's willing to give it a go. However, Antonio has his doubts when only Christian (Gerhard Koloneci), Mignolo (Giorgio Montanini), and Damiano (Andrea Lattanzi) turn up for the first session and they are hardly enthusiastic.
Libyan refugee Aziz (Giacomo Ferrara) and Radu (Bogdan Ioardachioiu) turn up for the second meeting and they are enthused when their fellow inmates applaud their rendition of `The Tortoise and the Hare'. But Antonio has bigger plans and talks Michele into letting him stage a one-off production of Waiting For Godot, as if there's one thing prisoners understand, it's waiting.
Agreeing to commit wholeheartedly, the prisoners practice tongue twisters while rehearsing. Radu plays the tree, while Aziz and Christian take on Vladimir and Estragon, and Mignolo and Damiano are cast as Pozzo and Lucky. However, tough guy Diego (Vinicio Marchioni) does a deal with Christian to take his place and Antonio has no option but to acquiesce.
He does impose himself upon Diego, however, and cajoles the stuttering, illiterate Damiano into sticking with Lucky, even though he finds the lines difficult. The governor reminds him to stick to prison rules when he has the cast sneak out of visiting rooms to join him for an impromptu rehearsal. She's distrusts Diego and goes on a limb when Antonio insists he needs him. But, under pressure from Michele to make the play as professional, as possible, Antonio loses patience and storms out.
Laura reprimands the actors and points out that Antonio is working for free because he believes in them. Michele also rallies Antonio and he agrees to return. While rehearsing at night by shouting their lines from their cells, the cast annoy the other prisoners and Mignolo gets into a fight in the exercise yard. Antonio has to plead with Laura not to cancel the show and he bundles his actors into a minibus to show them the theatre.
Having enjoyed the freedom of the journey, the quintet are overawed by the stage. But Antonio reassures them that he has faith, even when Diego threatens not to go on because his son isn't in the audience. They start hesitantly and Michele is worried. But they warm to the task, with even Radu wrapping himself in a blanket to creep across the stage, as the scene fades to black.
Mignolo's wife, Damiano's sister, and Aziz's mother join Laura in the applause. Backstage, Antonio brims with pride that is reciprocated with gratitude. However, the prisoners are whisked away and feel humiliated at being searched on returning to the jail. Antonio brings them the reviews next morning and is amazed to learn that other theatres have contacted Michele about staging Godot and Laura agrees to a tour.
High spirits cause them to improvise on the first night and Antonio brings them back to earth with a bump when he claims that the audience was laughing at them not with them. They protest that they're still amateurs, but the row subsides when Radu picks up a guitar and sings a Romanian folk song. Driving home, Antonio confides to Laura that he has made a mess of his life and doesn't even know if his 30 year-old daughter (Liliana Bottone) will be coming home for Christmas.
The tour progresses through a montage that takes the troupe to Siena, Pisa, and Perugia. Antonio is appalled when they sneak out to a beauty parlour and Diego shaves off Damiano's moustache when he suggests they escape. But the performance is deeply moving and is topped by Diego spotting his son and Laura leading a standing ovation as they hug. As this is the last night, Antonio leaves some booze in the changing room, so that they feel emboldened to strip naked on their return to the prison so that there's nowhere for the guard to search.
Laura is angered by this insubordination and refuses Antonio permission to take the play to Rome's Teatro Argentina. However, he leaves her a DVD of the show and she uses it to persuade a senior judge (Imma Piro) into sanctioning a swan song. On stage, the actors are awestruck. But, as dignitaries take their seats, it dawns on Antonio that they have done a bunk and he rushes through the festive streets to find them.
With the audience slowhand clapping, he sidles on to the stage to apologise for the disappearance of the cast. But he delivers a poignant monologue about the realities of prison life and what the experience has taught him and his ensemble. Diego calls to explain that they had to take their chance, as Antonio bows in a spotlight. He understands completely, but knows their moment of liberty is fleeting, as the fugitives are rounded up with muscular efficiency.
Jönson turned his last night humiliation in Gothenburg into a one-man show that caught the attention of Samuel Beckett, who declared it the best thing that had ever happened to Waiting For Godot. A number of films have subsequently centred around acting classes behind bars, including Zeina Daccache's documentary, 12 Angry Lebanese (2009), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die (2012), and David Mackenzie's Starred Up (2019). Both The Big Hit and Grazie Ragazzi echo their themes, but add a dash of cellblock wit that allows the directors to leaven their examination of such weighty topics as crime, incarceration, and emasculation.
Antonio Albanese genially holds things together, although we learn little about his career travails or the reasons for the estrangement from his daughter. Even less is revealed about the inmates, as though Milani and co-scenarist Michele Astori were scared of losing audience empathy by detailing the offences for which they had been convicted. Each player nimbly slips between his character and his stage persona, without stealing focus from his castmates. Notably, unlike the original, the prisoners are not presented as the butts of culture clash jokes, who are being exploited for not entirely altruistic reasons by Antonio and Laura.
Sonia Bergamasco is typically sincere in a sketchily written role, while Fabrizio Bentivoglio gets by on star wattage as the theatre owner whose motives aren't always apparent. Nicola Rignanese contributes some deft comic relief as the guard who cuts the inmates some slack after initially being hostile to the enterprise. But Milani leaves us in no doubt that serving a sentence is psychologically taxing, as he and cinematographer Saverio Guarna contrast the spartan conditions of the prison with the beauty of the countryside and the urban glories that tempt the convicts into waiting no longer.
GOD'S PETTING YOU.
You have to give Brighton's Jamie Patterson credit. Since debuting at the age of 21 with Swimming in Circles (2009), he has churned out an impressive 14 features in as many years and succeeded in getting them seen. He's tended to specialise in horrors like Billboard (2011), Blind Date (2014), Fractured (2016), Caught (2017), and The Kindred (2021; see below). But he has also produced such love stories as Confession (2011), Home For Christmas (2014), and Making Tracks (2018), as well as Daisy (2011), City of Dreamers (2012), Winners (2015), and Tucked (2018), which all centred on outsiders seeking their niche.
Echoes of the hard-hitting Justine (2020) can be heard through his latest offering, God's Petting You. This grittily witty Brit noir takes its title from a heroin addict's description of a fix and reunites the prolific Patterson with George Webster, who had starred in the 2012 short, The Underdog in the Red Dress.
During a session with his therapist (Alice Lowe), Brighton junkie Charlie (George Webster) relates how he met Tattoo Girl (Skye Lourie), a sex addict who wandered into the group session where he usually met his dealer, Dave (Joe Wilkinson). Depressed because Dave is decamping to Winchester to live with a woman he met online, Charlie offers Tattoo Girl a lift home and they sleep together.
When she fails to show the following week, he goes to her flat to discover she has been beaten by her porn star boyfriend, Jimmy (Benedict Garrett). Undaunted by the prospect of being pummelled, Charlie decides to rob Jimmy and start afresh with Tattoo Girl. Despite being enamoured of Jimmy's outsize appendage, she agrees to the plan, as Charlie is the first person who has been nice to her since she was first abused by her shrink as a young girl.
She insists they get a gun and latches on to The American (Patrick Bergin), who just happens to be in the same pub. He questions whether Charlie has the balls to handle a weapon, but he manages to shoot him with a hunting rifle during a midnight rendezvous. He next gets up close and personal with Jimmy's manhood while taking a beating to warn him away from Tattoo Girl. However, she shows up at group after Charlie has just insulted the leader, Sue (April Pearson).
Returning to the flat after agreeing to rob and kill Jimmy, they are disturbed by Charlie's cocaine-addled call centre boss, Mark (Joss Porter), who is depressed because his detested wife has left him before he could dump her. He outstays his welcome, but Charlie borrows his overcoat so he can hide the rifle when he goes to Jimmy's apartment the following night.
Naturally, Jimmy wakes during the 1am robbery and Charlie is spared another beating by Tattoo Girl blasting Jimmy. Appalled by the story, the Therapist insists on calling the cops until Charlie reminds her that she knows Tattoo Girl from years before and this results in another slaying. As bad luck would have it, Mark and his wife (Gemma Rook) turn up for a counselling and see the corpse. But they agree to turn a blind eye and the lovebirds hit the road for Mexico singing along to the radio.
Played with gusto by leads clearly having fun, this might not win many prizes for subtlety, but it blunders along with a quirky conviction that sweeps all before it. George Webster has a dishevelled charm to go with his wry world-weariness, while Skye Lourie does an effective line in blonde femme fatality. But even they struggle with the excess dialogue that Patterson crams into every scene.
He's also prone to smarmy jokes at the expense of the very characters he wants us to root for, which can feel a bit tasteless when they're a heroin user and a victim of child abuse. Such lapses are compounded by the laddish comedy around genitalia and the sex addiction of an unnamed and coarsely objectified woman whose moniker in the credits refers to the large tattoo on her chest.
Alice Lowe, Joe Wilkinson, and Patrick Bergin contribute capable cameos. But spare a thought for April Pearson (who happens to be married to the director), whose character is snidely insulted - as part of the picture's larky approach to addiction - for simply trying to help people resolve their problems. Ultimately, Charlie and Tattoo Girl rather deserve each other, if they even get out of Sussex, let alone reach Mexico.
A CLEVER WOMAN.
Jon Sanders turned 80 on 1April. He has had a splendid career since training under the great Thorold Dickinson at the Slade School of Art. In addition to serving as sound recordist on Murray Lerner's Oscar-winning documentary, From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1981), Sanders also directed several documentaries for Channel 4. He made his feature bow with Painted Angels (1998), but a decade passed before he embarked upon the series of low-key dramas for which he is best known.
Following Low Tide (2008), Late September (2012), Back to the Garden (2013), and A Change in the Weather (2017) comes A Clever Woman. Switching from his customary Kent setting, the action takes place on the Isle of Wight and marks a fitting tribute to regular collaborator Bob Goody, who passed away on 5 March.
A year after losing their mother, performance artists Phoebe (Tanya Myers) and Dot (Josie Lawrence) return to the family home with the intention of using it to stage a tribute to their composer mother. Tom (James Northcote), who has been looking after the property, loads up the player piano for Phoebe to sing one of the songs her mother had adapted from a poem by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge.
Manager Monica (Anna Mottram) applauds and the sisters embrace, as they come to terms with their loss and the prospect of unearthing memories while they sort through their mother's possessions. Dot's spirits are raised when she finds a bag of cuddly toys that she thought had been thrown out decades ago and tells Monica that their soft-hearted father must have known they would regret their 10 year-old declaration of maturity and is thrilled to be reunited with Mr Peach.
As their mother had repeatedly cheated on her husband, the girls had always felt a bond with their father. Yet they find it difficult to sort her wardrobe and reminisce about the significance of certain outfits, which reveal a feminine elegance that is reinforced by her collection of high-heeled shoes. A musical box tinkles, as Phoebe tries on a dress. But Dot has to give up squeezing into another garment and wraps herself in a shawl instead. They agree give the clothing to charity, but can't decide which dress to keep as a memento.
They find one of their father's jackets and drape it over a set of library shelves. Dot pops a hat on top and they wonder how he coped with the pain of humiliation at being repeatedly cuckolded. Phoebe recalls him becoming more withdrawn, but Dot insists that he always maintained the illusion of a happy home to protect them. Rummaging in his pockets, she finds a piece of fluff and they joke that this was the closest he ever came to having his own guilty secret.
The sisters are keen to make the house as accessible as possible to fans and neighbours and discuss with Monica their plan to offer a kind of guided tour by performing in the various rooms. She suggests that Tom could stay on to help them and notes that he could play the flute, as well as the pianola.
While Monica joins Tom upstairs to rootle through a room containing such items as a doll's house, a toy box office, and a fluffy elephant mask, Phoebe and Dot return to the bedroom. They lay out one of their mother's dresses and Dot confesses that she had lied about missing a flight, as she had simply not wanted to be there when her mother died. Phoebe reassures her that she had been by her side and describes how their mother had suddenly sat up in bed and stared forwards, as though she had seen where she was heading and had no reason to be afraid. The sisters hug and Phoebe urges Dot not to beat herself up, as everyone deals with death in their own way.
While the siblings go for a walk by the sea, Monica and Tom carry the doll's house down to Dot's room. They sit for a rest and Monica recalls a childhood legend that the dolls would get up when the humans went to bed and light up the house as they got on with their hidden lives. Tom leans in for a kiss and they tumble into bed. However, Monica's conscience pricks her and she wanders downstairs while he dozes and has a conversation in the kitchen with her husband, Billy (Bob Goody), which ends abruptly when he asks why she had betrayed him.
Dressed in overcoats and sporting hats, Phoebe and Dot sit on the sand and recall how their father used to bring them to the beach when mother wanted them out of the house. They laugh about playing King Canute with the tide and Phoebe slips off her shoes for a paddle, as they lark around the water's edge.
Monica just manages to get upstairs before the sisters return and Phoebe sings one of her mother's songs to a large wooden musical box. She brings it downstairs before loading Dot's song into the pianola. They discuss the meaning of the lyrics and Phoebe says she feels her mother is explaining her infidelities to them. Sipping wine, Dot disagrees and accuses her sister of forgetting how unhappy their mother often was.
Feeling tipsily confrontational, Dot seeks out Monica and berates her for using her bed to seduce Tom. Phoebe tries to intervene, but Monica refuses to be judged and threatens to return to London and leave Dot to cool off. Keeping out of the way, Tom returns to his room, only to find Phoebe hiding in the wardrobe. She confesses that it had been her safe place as a child, although she had once been forced to listen as her seduced her boyfriend. Tom is bemused, but Phoebe promises that things will calm down again.
As Tom leaves, he bumps into Dot, who explains that she and Monica have periodic bust ups, but always patch things up. She asks after Phoebe and guesses she has been inside the wardrobe. They come down to find Tom playing the flute accompanied by the pianola. Monica makes herself scarce, as Phoebe asks if she can interrupt because Dot has a song she needs to rehearse.
Her heart's not in it, however, and the sisters sit in a dimly lit room and ponder their next move. Phoebe wonders if they'll be better off closing this chapter and moving on rather than trying to preserve a past that's alive in their heads anyway. They each choose items they'd like to keep, with Phoebe opting for the musical box and the pianola, as they'll help her remember her mother's voice. As the camera pans slowly across the stuff they've decided to sell or give away, they agree that she had been a remarkable woman.
Wearing one of her mother's dresses, Phoebe sings a song about letting go of a loved one to the musical box. In the garden, Monica makes her peace with Dot before heading home. Tom asks if he can read the siblings a poem about bonds that cannot be broken, even by death. They give each other a reassurance hug, as the breeze blows up.
Improvised by the cast and played with intense sincerity, this is a poignant study of bereavement and the pain of letting go of possessions shrouded with indelible associations. Phoebe and Dot are well aware of their mother's flaws and the distress she caused their beloved father. But, as performers themselves, they also know the toll taken by creativity and come to appreciate that her life can't always have been easy.
The fact that Monica succumbs to temptation in much the same way their mother had frequently done scarcely makes it easier to reconcile themselves with her affairs. Yet, they are proud of the fact that she was a rebel and never felt constrained by rules that would not necessarily have applied to a man in her position. But they can't forget the sense of detachment that made it clear they were never her first priority.
A little more background information about Phoebe and Dot might have made them more relatable, as the fact we learn nothing about their careers or private lives leaves them feeling like characters in a chamber drama rather than real people. Careless details like Dot not knowing where she had been born chip away at the authenticity of the scenario, which is hardly helped by the implausible tryst between the thinly limned and stiffly played Monica and Tom.
Tanya Myers and Josie Lawrence are more convincing as sisters with a shared experience, although some of their conversations feel as arch as the way in which the musical numbers are shoehorned into the action. As always, Sanders keeps the camera relatively still during the lengthy takes, although cinematographer David Scott slips in some ruminative pans that almost suggest a restless spirit taking a last look before making its final exit.
The chasm between the West and the developing world forever seems to be widening. In Free Money, Kenyan documentarist Sam Soko and American co-director Lauren DeFilippo examine a pioneering scheme devised to deliver aid directly to the phones of those who need it most in an impoverished part of East Africa. It sounds too good to be true and this soon proves to be the case.
Founded in 2008 by four economics graduates from Harvard and MIT, GiveDirectly is a charitable initiative that aims to provide those in need with a guaranteed monthly sum. Based in New York, CEO Michael Faye feels the `teach a man to fish' approach to aid contains too many imponderables. Consequently, he sends agent Caroline Teti to the Kenyan village of Kogutu to launch a 12-year experiment that will see everyone aged 18 and over receive $22 pcm through their mobile phones.
Recipients are free to spend the money any way they choose and Teti is quick to allay fears that this `free money' comes from a sinister source (like the llluminati) and that there are no strings attached, such as the need to sacrifice a child. While the scheme is denounced in the US media, especially by those opposed to the concept of a universal basic income, it is cautiously welcomed by the villagers. The local priest reassures them that this isn't tainted money (while suggesting they give a tithe to the church), but the other menfolk fear that the cash will make the women independent and ambitious to see the wider world.
Backed by Google, GiveDirectly goes to great lengths to present itself as an alternative to those NGOs who solicit donations from the public. It also strives to pitch itself as a force for good in deprived areas. But BBC journalist Larry Madowo grew up in this part of Kenya and has no time for white saviours. Moreover, he is concerned about the consequences that such life-changing sums could have on communities and how they will adapt once the scheme ends.
Eighteen year-old John Omondi Ogunde is waiting to go to university and thinks the $22 will help him fund his studies. However, his father worries that he is too young to make sensible use of the money. Sixteen year-old Jael Rael Achieng Songa also hopes to pay for her education, as she wants to get a job that involves travelling. She jokes with a friend about singing with Justin Bieber and buying expensive clothes, but she is serious about her ambition.
Despite threats to cancel the project if they detect dishonesty, Caroline and her agents have trouble establishing the identity of the villagers, as some have changed their names on converting to Islam, while others can't prove that they are permanent residents. Jael's widowed mother, Mary Anyango Songa, also applies, but they can't take a photo of Jael as she's out.
While villagers are struggling with mastering phone use and PIN numbers, Faye appears on presidential hopeful Andrew Wang's podcast to discuss how mobile money transformed transfer payments and we see the joy on the faces of John's parents, as their phones ping to inform them their first deposits have arrived.
One year later, the villagers receive survey calls to check how they have been doing. A montage shows how some have bought cows or motorbikes, others have extended their homes or installed electricity. People are eating better and paying for school fees, while Kogutu has set up a merry-go-round saving scheme to which the beneficiaries donate in order to help those outside the GiveDirectly remit. Christine also reports back to head office about monitoring teenagers like Jael's friend, Emma Mkini Okoth, who are about to receive payments to gauge the extent they learn to plan for the future.
John has gone to college in Nairobi and divides his payouts between basic essentials and trendy new clothes. Jael, however, has not been added to the system and Christine bluffs when she visits about a glitch in the system, when it seems clear that they failed to return to take her photograph during the initial registration. She is attending school, but still has to do chores at home and is frustrated because her mother and grandmother, Syprose Okela Songa, have been paid in full.
As the experiment enters its third year, Madowo travels to Kenya to see how the GiveDirectly money is impacting on daily life. Some in the village claim promises have not been kept, but Syprose shows him the water tap she has installed in the yard and enthuses about the things she has been able to do for her family. He jokes that she looks as though she doesn't need handouts and Milka from the neighbouring village tells Madowo that they were puzzled when Kogutu was chosen, as it is much more affluent than Koinde.
Other villages complain about Kogutu's fortune and Syprose tries to explain that she tried to get GiveDirectly into including them all, but they insisted on targeting a specific community. When she reports this to the phone agent, she avers that they have no right to grumble, as the system relied on random selection.
Having found life in Nairobi prohibitively expensive, John is considering a return home. By Year Four, he has been forced to quit university and is now working as a barber in a shanty lock-up. This is also the year of Covid-19 and Madowo finds himself reporting on food shortages in Washington, as people (who had mocked GiveDirectly) are calling for donations and subsides to be given straight to those who need them most.
Back in Kogutu, Mary is struggling with her health and she can no longer sell chapati at the market. She hopes the error over Jael's registration can be rectified. But she receives confirmation that she has been excluded and, when the film-makers interview Christine, she insists she wasn't living with her mother when they conducted their survey. This is wrong, but she dismisses an appeal by saying protocol must always take precedence over sympathy.
As she goes about her well-paid job in Manhattan, Madowo interviews Faye about the scheme and its progress. He wishes he could bring everyone out of extreme poverty, but doesn't have the resources. Consequently, he has to make choices and analyse the evidence to see if he is having a positive effect. Madowo considers this to be playing God with people's lives and Jael and John are cases in point. As GiveDirectly is answerable to no one but itself, they have no recourse and Madowo thinks this sets a dangerous precedent.
The `experiment' will continue until 2031, but nothing is said about what will happen when the funding on which the villagers have become dependent will be withdrawn. But the film ends on a note of hope, as Mary is the latest recipient of the merry-go-round payment and she uses it to send Jael to school. She beams at being given a chance, after having previously been on the verge of despair.
Methodically exposing the deficiencies and hypocrisies of the way in which aid is currently given to developing nations, this siren documentary seeks to show both sides of a situation in which good intentions and slick rhetoric fall way short of countering reality.
DeFilippo and Soko give Faye plenty of space to outline his vision and justify its AB operational procedures. But their focus falls more on the impact that this highly selective scheme has on Jael and John, as they try to give themselves the best start. In staying with their travails, the film-makers overlook the other recipients who had invested in the present and it might have been nice to see how the woman who bought cows and the man who extended his home were faring down the line.
It would also be instructional to know what effect the savings pool has had on the village as a whole and how its lessons might be applied once GiveDirectly turn off the `free money' supply. Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile contribution to the debate about economic justice and how it can be brought about in a world in which - as one villager puts it - `nothing is ever free'.