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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (24/3/2023)

(Reviews of 1976; The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future; The Beasts; and Antidote)


1976.


In 2004, Manuela Martelli and Aline Küppenheim co-starred in Andrés Wood's Machuca (2004), which was set in Chile just after the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973. Now, Martelli finds herself behind the camera for the first time, directing Küppenheim while Wood serves among the producers of 1976, a simmering rite of political passage that examines the repressive nature of the dictatorship established by General Augusto Pinochet.


Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) is choosing paint when she hears a commotion in the street. A woman calls out her name, but nobody helps, as she is being `disappeared' by the police. In all the commotion, two splashes of pink paint land on Carmen's elegant navy court shoe. She uses it to drag the black shoe belonging to the abductee that had landed under her car. Nothing more is said.


Driving to the coast with housekeeper Estela (Carmen Gloria Martínez), Carmen struggles to sleep and is dozing on the sofa when she's woken by the local priest, Fr Sánchez (Hugo Medina). He asks her to treat a leg wound that has been suffered by Elias (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a young man in his twenties, whom he claims is a hard-up cleric who happened to be shot while stealing food. Carmen calls her doctor husband, Miguel (Alejandro Goic), and asks him to bring some antibiotics from his hospital in Santiago. However, he refuses because times have changed.


Miguel arrives for the weekend with the couple's adult children, Tomás (Gabriel Urzúa) and Leonor (Amalia Kassai) and her partner, Pedro (Luis Cerda). He has brought a television set, but Carmen insists she has no time to be bored with the renovations and her new part-time job reading to the blind. In fact, she is nursing Elias and even uses deception at the nearby hospital to get him some penicillin (she had wanted to study medicine, but her father had forced her to marry).


As she is there to fuss over her three grandchildren, nobody suspects she's doing anything untoward. She claims not to know anything about politics and confesses to Fr Sánchez that she would not have helped him if she had known he was harbouring an opponent of the government. But he feels he has to atone, after a young couple he had been asked to protect perished in Argentina.


Carmen becomes fond of Elias and risks taking a series of buses to inform his comrade, Silvia (Yasna Ríos), that he is recovering. He jokes that he will name a hospital after her, but only knows her by her codename of Cleopatra. She tells him that she hopes he wins. Indeed, she views a presidential address on TV with a new scepticism and becomes more determined to move Elias to a safe house when a woman's body washes up on the beach and Silvia fails to keep their rendezvous.


Fearful of being followed and unnerved by being stopped at a police checkpoint, Carmen notices a clicking when she calls Tomás from a public phone, asking him to bring medical supplies for the children. They have stayed on with her for the winter holidays and she leaves them with Estela, while she is out. When Miguel arrives unexpectedly, he warns her about staying out late, as there are curfews.


While on a sailing trip with friends Osvaldo (Marcial Tagle) and Raquel (Antonia Zegers), Carmen is so nauseated by the latter's comments about Chileans being spongers who need a firm hand on the tiller that she throws up and passes it off as seasickness. Miguel suspects nothing, even though Carmen drives out to an outlying slum to ask the priest to shelter Elias. Convinced she's being followed after finding documents have been stolen from her dashboard, she stops at a roadside café, where a diver takes an interest in her and warns her not to miss the curfew when she asks him about the body found in the sea.


With the beach-house now painted pink in time for a birthday party, Carmen gets a shock when a member of the yacht club returns her papers and tells her to be more careful. She rushes out to collect a cake baked by Fr Sánchez's housekeeper, Julita (Vilma M. Verdejo), only to find he has been sent abroad by the church and Elias has been arrested. Carmen blames herself.


Red dye is whisked into cream for the topping of the cake. Everyone congratulates Carmen on making such a good job of the renovation. But she fights back tears, as she brings in the cake, with the flickering candles lighting up her face.


Manuela Martelli hits Hitchcockian heights in her debut feature. Co-written by Alejandra Moffat, the screenplay drops small hints about what is going on outside Carmen's charmed circle and cleverly takes the drama out of the capital to make it seem even more invidious that such brutal repression is happening in sleepy backwaters where everyone knows each other. There are no grand political statements. Indeed, it's Carmen's Catholicism that leads her to become involved in subterfuge and it's the smugness of people like Leonor who shape her views as much as the courage of Elias and Silvia.


Aline Küppenheim is outstanding as the elegant grandmother learning to stand on her own two feet for the first time since she seemingly went AWOL on a family holiday when the kids were young. She remains watchful and tense, with her driving sequences recalling Mario Onetto's nervous journeys in Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman (2008). But she refuses to be intimidated until dread grips her following the liquidation of her friends. The supporting cast is solid, although it's minor characters like Germán De Silva's diver and Elvis Fuentes's yacht club neighbour who leave the deepest impression, as their politeness has a baleful menace that highlights how pervasive the Pinochet regime was in all aspects of Chilean society.


Soledad `Yarará' Rodriguez's stealthy camerawork is abetted by the meticulous pacing of Camila Mercadal's editing, with touches like the blue paint dribbling into the pink pot and the red dye swirling into the cream in the mixing bowl subtly reinforcing the visual sense of unease. Brazilian composer Mariá Portugal's electronic score and Jesica Suárez's sound design also ratchet up the suspense, as Carmen edges further from her comfort zone without knowing who is watching her. Her status ensure she is lucky enough to emerge unscathed, but we're left wondering how she will react to having had all her everyday certainties exposed.


THE COW WHO SANG A SONG INTO THE FUTURE.


It's an increasing source of frustration that film-makers who expand shorts to feature length hide the originals away so that no sort of informed comparison can be made between them. The latest to presume that everyone who matters attend festivals and the rest can go hang is Chilean Francisca Alegría, whose prize-winning 2016 short, And the Whole Sky Fit In the Dead Cow's Eye, would provide an invaluable entrée into the complex ideas under discussion in The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future.


Of course, it's important that shorts have their copyright protected and make some money. But what's the point of hiding them away when they can boost an emerging talent's reputation and help the interested viewer get a handle on a film-maker's worldview. Surely it shouldn't be too difficult for the UK's distribution companies to cut deals with directors to make their key shorts available online in the run-up to a feature's theatrical release? How could it be anything other than beneficial to artists and audiences alike?


As voices sing of the end of days on the soundtrack and fish gasp for air, Magdalena (Mia Maestro) rises out of the Río Cruces in biking leathers and a crash helmet. She takes the bus into town, where she sets off the mobiles in a phone shop and causes husband Enrique (Alfredo Castro) to collapse with shock, as she had seemingly committed suicide in the river many years before.


The case fascinates Tomás (Enzo Ferrada), who identifies as female, despite the protestations of their surgeon mother, Cecilia (Leonor Varela), who was nine when Magdalena died. On hearing of her father's collapse, she hastens with Tomás and daughter Alma (Laura del Rio) to the family dairy farm, which brother Bernardo (Marcial Tagle) is reluctantly running until Enrique recovers.


Cecilia takes charge and removes the food and drink she deems bad for her father's health. She dislikes the dairy and shares Magdalena's disapproval of removing cows from their calves and taking their milk and visits the sheds after catching the eye of one cow in the field. As darkness falls, Cecilia ventures outside and cuts her forehead after being startled by a cow in the woods. But she snaps at Felicia (María Velásquez) the housekeeper when she tends to the wound and reminds Cecilia of how she had doted on the cows when she was a girl.


Felicia shows Tomás and Alma the empty beehives, while the television news covers the protests at the local pulp factory polluting the river. Cecilia takes Alma to see the cows, while Tomás rehearses a dance routine on the jetty. Magdalena creeps into the house to shower and find a change of clothes and Felicia warns her that the family may not be ready to cope with her re-appearance. Alma has already seen her grandmother, however, and is amused that she borrows Tomás's phone.


Enrique returns home and is pleased to have his family around the table. They all get the giggles and no one can explain why, especially as Bernardo is unhappy at running the dairy and Cecilia is eager to get back to the city. She senses something is wrong and wanders into the darkness to find Magdalena near the trees. Having not forgiven her for abandoning her as a child, Cecilia orders her mother to leave them in peace because she can only do more harm by staying.


Undeterred, Magdalena enters the kitchen to find Enrique. He is taken by her beauty, while he has aged. But she resists his attempts to come close to her and wanders out into the night. Cecilia follows and sees that the cows have come close to the house. Suddenly, they start singing to her about the pain of their lives and how they want to be allowed to die in peace. She sits down to listen to their song, stroking the face of the cow she had seen in the field.


The next morning, Cecilia hears Enrique calling out to Magdalena to forgive him and she puts him to bed. She asks what he has done wrong, but he doesn't respond. Bernardo has to herd the cows back from the river. He invites his sister into his shed, where he shows her their mother's motorbike. According to Bernardo, it came to the surface of the river and he has been restoring it because Magdalena seems to know that he now has need of it.


As Magdalena meanders along a road, a group of bikers stop and its Mapuche leader beckons her on to his pillion. They ride away, just as Tomás goes out for a rendezvous. Bernardo offers to drive them and reveals that Cecilia had witnessed Magdalena's suicide. She is partying on the riverbank with the bikers and Tomás arrives to see her canoodling with the leader.


She takes them to a nearby boat, where she uses Tomás's phone to urge them to fight any urge to kill themself. Tomás is taken aback when Magdalena begins to cry and rests her head on their lap. However, she gets hiccups and starts laughing. There's nothing to smile about back on the farm, however, as the cows are all dying. Bernardo realises they have been poisoned after drinking river water and erupts at Enrique when he blames him for the tragedy. He insists that he had told his father to repair the wells to ensure a supply of fresh water and also curses him for convincing Magdalena that she was mentally ill and repeatedly sending her to the hospital for treatment.


Cecilia is appalled by the revelation and wanders into the empty milking sheds. She finds a stray calf, which sucks her fingers. On returning it to the barn, she finds several other animals in pens and bursts into tears, as another calf comes over to nuzzle her. As she heads towards the river, Magdalena and Tómas set off on her bike. They pass Bernardo on the road and he looks back in surprise.


Remembering seeing her mother speeding along the jetty all those years ago, Cecilia sees a cow in the river and wades in to rescue it. The animal reaches the bank of its own accord, but Cecilia is pulled under the water. She meets Magdalena, who smiles and touches her face. Suddenly, they're on the bank, with mother leaning over daughter. But, when she looks again, Cecilia realises it's Tomás looking down on her and she nods her acceptance of their identity and they embrace. At that moment, bees swarm in the sky above them and Felicia welcomes them back into their hive. All seems well, as Cecilia passes a cow on the sand and strides off towards the light.


The plights of Mothers Earth and Nature are laid bare in this deeply moving, if occasionally gnomic magic realist saga. Yet, while maternal suffering is a recurring theme,

Alegría and co-writers Fernanda Urrejole and Manuela Infante want viewers to stop dwelling on the past and focus on the fight to ensure there will be a future. Humanity has abused the planet and its resources, but it's not too late to commit to change. But this optimism is rooted in a sadness for all the pain that has been endured in so many aspects of existence.


Indeed, in trying to be so inclusive, Alegría crams too many issues into a slender storyline, with the result that a number are only paid lip-service in what feels an increasingly confused final third. Throughout, however, the picture retains a dignity and integrity that make the scenes with the singing cows and the consoling calves all the more poignant. Special credit should be given to those who trained Leonor and the other cattle, although their personalities also owe much to Inti Briones's sensitive photography and Andrea Chignoli and Carlos Ruiz-Tagle's deft editing. Production designer Bernardita Baeza and composer Pierre Desprats also merit mention.


The acting is also commendable, with Mia Maestro making Magdalena as inquisitive as she is melancholic, while Alfredo Castro slips between machismo and vulnerability with a subtlety that makes Enrique as pitiable as he is detestable. Leonor Varela excels as Cecilia's hauteur touchingly crumbles in the cowshed, but the subplot about Tomás's identity feels shoehorned, in spite of an adroit display by non-binary actor-singer, Enzo Ferrada. Nevertheless, this is a striking debut and one can only hope that Alegría's subsequent work is of a commensurate standard and escapes the confines of the festival circuit.


THE BEASTS.


British arthouse audiences haven't seen enough of Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen. Previous outings Stockholm (2013), May God Save Us (2016), The Realm (2018), and Madre (2019) have been showered with Goya nominations. But we finally get a chance to see The Beasts, a seething, xenophobic thriller that was inspired by the same 2010 tragedy involving a Dutch couple in Galicia was examined by Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer in the 2016 documentary, Santoalla.


Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Olga Denis (Marina Foïs) have moved from France to Galicia to start a market garden. Although most people have come to accept them, Xan (Luis Zahera) despises them and nicknames Antoine, `Frenchy', at the bar where the locals farmers gather to play dominoes. He tends the wild horses that roam the forest, with his younger brother, Lorenzo (Diego Anido). Everyone knows Xan is an argumentative hothead, but Lorenzo is slow-witted (after a childhood accident) and backs his sibling to the hilt. So, when he spots that Antoine's truck has broken down on a remote road, he refuses to give him a lift to fetch help.


Eager to put Antoine in his place for voting against a wind turbine scheme that would have brought in lots of cash, Xan mocks his organic ethos and his plans to turn a derelict farm into a leisure facility for locals and tourists. Over a game of dominoes, he baits the outsider, even though Breixo the goatherd (Gonzalo García) had also refused to sign up. When Antoine claims the scheme would spoil his home, Xan chokes on his use of a word to which he doesn't feel he's entitled.


When the brothers leave empty bottles of orujo in Antoine's garden and urinate on the deckchairs, he confronts them and reports the trespass to the police. They point out that he and Xan have always been uneasy neighbours and urge him to keep his cool. But Antoine starts filming him with a pocket camera, with one incident at the bar involving them taunting him over eating cat meat. On another occasion, Antoine films him at a garage and Xan spits at him through his car window.


When Xan and Lorenzo put car batteries in the Denis well and they find lead in the tomato harvest, Antoine films himself accusing the latter of committing the crime. Xan and his mother, Anta (Luisa Merelas), drive him off their property and report him to the cops as the interloper and Antoine threatens to go above their heads if they show any favouritism.


Shortly afterwards, Breixo dies and his dry cleaner nephew, Rafael (Machi Salgado), informs Antoine and Olga that he is going to vote in favour of the turbine project. He appreciates that they have their ambitions for the area, but points out they are educated people, unlike the simple hill folk, who have watched their community dwindle over the decades. Much to Antoine's disgust, Rafael claims he is only thinking of his children, who will receive a nest egg if the wind farm goes ahead.


One night, Xan and Lorenzo block the road with their car and try to intimidate Antoine and Olga. She is convinced the brothers would have tried to kill her husband had she not been there, but he assures her he can talk to them. He buys a bottle at the bar and explains to Xan that he is not playing at being a farmer and wants to belong. But he despairs of the turbine people conning the Galicians into believing they will make a fortune from a deal.


Xan reveals he would buy a taxi with his cut and sneers when Antoine promises he wouldn't get anywhere near enough. Indeed, the payment wouldn't compensate him for the tomato crop that Xan had ruined. So, his cowardly act of sabotage has backfired because Antoine has to stay and hope that next year's yield will afford him an opportunity to leave. Just about keeping calm after being subtly accused of being ignorant and inept, Xan tells Lorenzo to leave and vows never to speak to Antoine again.


The Denis' other neighbours, Pepiño (José Manuel Fernández y Blanco) and Aurora (Mercedes Samprón Pérez) are a delight and they have a jolly evening celebrating Pepiño's birthday. Shortly after Antoine notices that his renovated farmhouse has been vandalised, Xan and Lorenzo stalk him through the woods. Luring away his dog, Titan, they suffocate him using the wrestling methods they use to bring down horses.


A year passes and Olga searches the woods for Antoine's body. She continues to farm and sell produce in town, while also branching out into sheep for cheese. Daughter Marie (Marie Colomb) comes to visit and pleads with her to pack up and leave because she's in danger from those who killed Antoine. But Olga has no intention of quitting and accuses Marie of having no right to judge her after having frittered the benefits of her upbringing and now struggling to get by as a single mother. The row turns bitter, as Olga refuses to have counselling or listen to gossip that Antoine simply walked out on her.


Despite the tiff, Marie stays and watches Olga be polite to the cops who have done nothing to help solve the case. She is also impressed by the ways he copes with a sheep dealer who connives to cheat her and with Xan and Lorenzo when they try to intimidate her at the livestock market. They part on better terms.


While out in the woods, Olga finds the camera that Antoine had left in the undergrowth to film the attack. The chip is damaged and the footage can't be retrieved, but she tells Anta that her sons will be going to jail and that she will be left alone. Her words seem prophetic when Antoine is found and the film ends on a close-up of Olga's face, as she passes Anta en route to identifying the body.


Simmering with hostility and tension, this meticulously made agri-thriller exposes the nationalist sentiments that will forever prevent Europe from being truly unified. Writng with regular partner, Isabel Peña, Sorogoyen delves back in time to recall Napoleon Bonaparte's contempt for the Spanish in demonstrating that Xan's loathing of his Gallic neighbour is about much more than a turbine windfall. But there's no side-taking here, amidst the class and racial clashes and the stand-off between the individual and the community.


He's fortunate in having such a bristling antagonist as Luis Zahera, although the hulking Denis Ménochet rarely depicts shrinking violets and the tavern exchange (filmed in one take with a fixed camera) crackles with loathing and resentment. As the rivalry has been festering from the first scene, it's markedly more effective than the later contretemps between Marina Foïs and Marie Colomb, which has only been set up by a brief facetime chat between Marie and her father, in which he passes on Olga's love. But each scene is impeccably played, while the supporting cast is a masterclass in typage.


In putting a Pagnolian twist on Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), Alejando de Pablo's imagery avoids romanticising the Galician countryside and, thus, makes it clear that life is equally tough for everyone still trying to make a living from the implacable landscape. Fabiola Ordoyo's sound design reinforces the picture's realist grit, which has been the hallmark of recent French features about farming in crisis. But the edge comes from Olivier Arson's jagged score, which keeps the audience on tenterhooks, as the feral ferocity intensifies and the focus deftly shifts to Olga and her calculating feminist quest for justice and revenge.


ANTIDOTE.


Documentarist Marc Silver is probably best known for Who Is Dayani Cristal? (2013), which tracked a Honduran migrant on his fatal journey through the so-called `corridor of death' to the Arizona desert. In the mid-2010s, Silver's focus on human rights and the abuse of power led him to the Amazon rainforest to examine how scientists are taking DNA samples from indigenous tribes in their search for medical breakthroughs. However, while filming in a remote part of Ecuador, he was introduced to the ayahuasca plant and Antidote considers its lore, rituals, and benefits, without quite discussing the drawbacks of bringing wellness-seeking Westerners to an area of fragile ecological importance.


We meet Manari Ushigua, who is the spiritual leader of the Sapara Nation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He takes us into the jungle to show how plants are gathered and how the prophecy of the forest spirit Piatzaw came true, when outsiders came in search of rubber and damaged Saparan civilisation.


In Peru, Maestro José López Sánchez from the Shipibo Rao runs the Temple of the Way f Light, which uses a mixture of ayahuasca and chacruna to create a substance that can be smoked or imbibed as part of a physical and psychological healing process. A group of Westerners come to the Temple hoping for release from the traumas that blight their lives. José explains how sharing the plant forges a line of connectivity called `akinanani' and he maintains that many of the world's problems could be resolved if more people had this bond of shared experience.


Facilitator Tanya Kammonen tells her group how the Shipibo take ayahuasca to help them diagnose problems and then use a song known as an `ikaro' to help realign energies within the body. As we see a ceremony taking place, Tanya reveals that she unearthed deeply suppressed memories of sexual abuse and was relieved of the pain they caused.


Colleague Richard Condon is prepared for the ritual, as he continues to repair the sense of brokenness he has felt since he was three, when his father left home. He says the plant has shown him that he is part of Nature and has redirected his life in a way that drugs in the 1960s had not been able to manage. Richard and Tanya discuss the indigenous conviction that the spirits need to return to save Earth and are aware of the contradiction that they require the help of the outsiders who had once tried to eradicate them.


The Saparans are also alert to the threats posed by interlopers, with oil companies causing great damage to their ancestral lands. They also blame the church for demonising the taking of ayahuasca and turning young people against their traditions.


As an old woman chants at the Temple by moonlight, night vision footage shows the group undergoing their treatments. Following shots of insects and birds, we hear some describing what the experienced and the lessons they have learned. However, as we know nothing about the speakers (even their names), their testimony lacks any context from which conclusions can be drawn. Indeed, the viewer is made to feel like an intruder in what is clearly a deeply personal and significant occurrence.


The group leaves and life goes on. There are hopes to spread the growing of ayahuasca, if only because it gives indigenous people the strength to keep defending a precious part of the planet. It provides a window to enlightenment and allows the spirits to see that they have not been forgotten. The more these boons are known, the further the knowledge of interconnectivity will spread.


Seeking to dispel misconceptions about ayahuasca and the culture that surrounds it, this is a well-meaning film. It's largely observational, with Silver's camera picking up lots of details from the strikingly beautiful natural world and the simple rituals of the Sapara and Shipibo nations. But, as virtually nothing is explained, it's rarely clear what we are actually looking at and what significance it might have.


As it's impossible to film what people are experiencing when having their visions, Silver contents himself with cross-cutting between murky night-vision images of faces in the throes of sensations that come across as both mystical and grotesque. Many will feel like voyeurs on private pain and the clips of a couple of seekers describing their visions only adds to the sense of discomfort.


Much of the scene-setting imagery is of the Athena poster variety, which means it looks amazing, but remains superficial. Moreover, Silver fails to address the extractivist

issues relating to the impact that wellness tourism will have on the rainforest. He also elects not to discuss the economic aspects of the Temple and the nature of the partnership between the locals and the facilitators. Thus, for all its sincerity, this is a frustratingly selective study that will leave many none the wiser.


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