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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (29/12/2023)

(Top 10 of 2023)


Selecting a Top 10 at the end of a year is a tricky business. Some years, it's difficult to find 10 titles worth including; others it's easier to make lists of fictional and documentary features in order not to miss anything out. There will always be casualties - the arthouse charmer that crept under the defences; that earnest indie that hit the nail of the head; and the quirkily inexpert debut that somehow managed to be hilariously entertaining. The unluckiest loser this year has to be Aki Kaurismäki's Fallen Leaves, which is ineligible because it was reviewed for Empire rather than Parky At the Pictures.


Excuse the lengthy list, but this little lot also feels worthy of name-checking at the very least (and there will undoubtedly be more):- Trenque Lauquen; Tótem; Reality; Time Still Turns the Pages; Afire; 20,000 Speecies of Bees; Anatomy of a Fall; Lola; 1976; Nascondino; The Cow Who Sang Into the Future; The Lost Weekend: A Love Story; Kokomo City; The Innocent; Love According to Dalva; Paris Memories; Scrapper; Maigret; Umberto Eco: A Library of the World; On the Adamant; Smoke Sauna Sisterhood; Typist Artist Pirate King; Mother and Son; Joyland; Godland; Under the Fig Trees; War Pony; A Bunch of Amateurs; Subject; The Super 8 Years; Massimo Troisi: Somebody Down There Likes Me; Where Is This Street?; and Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano.


This is the third Top 10 of 2023, following on from submissions to Sight and Sound and Radio Times. Empire seemed content to do without yours truly this time round (for the first time in 27 years). As the first two picks were made several weeks apart, a number of late releases came into contention. Then, in the run-up to nominating for the Critics Circle Awards, another clutch of possibles entered the frame.


Most likely, there were many more. But the UK's major distributors haven't gone above and beyond this winter, when it comes to offering access to pictures to which they have appended the timeless award season legend, `For Your Consideration'. Perhaps they'll be more eager now the CC nominations have been announced and they can see the twinkle of the glittering prizes?


Such first world problems merely expose the entitled pettiness of the pampered critic, of course. But they still complicate matters when it comes to arriving at a definitive Top 10. Adding to the conundrum in 2023 is the fact that the runaway winner wasn't accessible in its week of release and, therefore, didn't get a Parky At the Pictures review. So, for the first time in 38 years, it's been necessary to write a new review for the final column of the year.


With apologies to those that should have made the list and gratitude to the PRs and distributors who have so generously shared their films over the last 12 months, here is the last Top 10 of 2023:-


10) EARTH MAMA.


Having told the stories of five women from Sacramento striving to keep hold of their children in The Heart Still Hums (2020), the documentary short she co-directed with actress Taylor Russell. Savanah Leaf makes her feature bow with Earth Mama. Drawing on insights gained from her sister Corinna's adoption, this intimate drama dispenses with conventional notions of social realism to impart a gritty poetic spin on the economic realities and bureaucrat structures and strictures that impinge upon a pregnant woman whose maternal instincts risk being subverted by the legacy of addiction and self-doubt.


Heavily pregnant, 24 year-old Gia Wilson (Tia Nomore) works as an assistant at an Oakland photography studio. Her phone is low on credit and her card is maxed out. Moreover, the traffic makes her late for a supervised visit with Trey (Ca'Ron Coleman) and Shaynah (Alexis Rivas), the children who were taken into foster care because of her drug use. Her daughter refuses to acknowledge her. But her son clings to his mother, who is more determined than ever to prove to the court that she's fit to have custody.


Tired of needing gold stars to prove she's a good mother, Gia bawls out the case worker reminding her that she's behind on aspects of her appeal. As Gia points out, however, she has to attend so many appointments that she can't put in long enough hours to pay her bills. Yet, when she attends a prenatal class run by social worker Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), she gets ticked off by pregnant friend Trina (Doeichii) for refusing to discuss her situation.


Denied a $100 advance by her boss, Gia strolls into a children's playground, steals some nappies from a buggy, and ignores the calls to come back as she hastens towards her car. She attends rehab classes and gives supervised urine samples, as part of the process of proving she's not using and is fit to mother. Trina's always there for her, while her childhood friend, Mel (Keta Price), helps her assemble a cot kit. But Gia knows she is making this journey alone, as there is no sign of the father(s) of her children, while her only family appears to be Ari (Slim Yani), the drug-dealing sister who is letting her sleep on the sofa.


Having consulted Miss Carmen about open adoption, Gia is urged not to give up by Trina, who declares that African Americans have had their culture, homes, and freedom taken away from them. But they have to keep hold of their babies. That night, Trey calls because he can't get to sleep and Gia soothes him by playing `Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye' by The Casinos down the phone. As she sits alone, she goes to her safe place, a giant redwood forest with the canopy over her head and a gnarled network of roots beneath her feet.


Miss Carmen arranges for Gia to meet prospective parents Monica (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Paul (Bokeem Woodbine) at a restaurant. She talks about school and her own changed dreams with their teenage daughter, Amber (Kamaya Jones), who has brought some teddy bears for Trey and Shaynah. Gia likes them, but zones out while they are telling her about their relationship, and she remains quiet in the car, as Miss Carmen offers to arrange a check-up to ensure her baby is healthy.


Taking Trina to a local beauty spot, Gia breaks the news about the adoption plan. While conceding that she worries about her kids forgetting her, she tries to explain that it would be nice to visit her child in a happy home rather than a Child Protective Services office. But Trina isn't sure it's the wisest move and tells Gia about the protective hand she sometimes feels from other mamas on her shoulder.


Mulling over her friend's words, Gia gets Trey and Shaynah to read to her when they come to her house. Gently coaxing her daughter and praising her hesitant efforts, she demonstrates the maternal suitability that her case worker needs to see. She also listens to the lifestories of some young Black friends having their picture taken and watches Amber and her parents through the window of their comfortable home.


When Monica joins her and Miss Carmen at the ultrasound appointment, Gia imagines herself pulling the umbilical cord through her navel. When Trina takes her to a nocturnal sideshow, she gets into an argument with a woman who disapproves of her adoption scheme, and Gia gets angry with Trina when she tries to console her. Still feeling the world's against her when she gets home, she sneaks into Ari's room and has a hit. Drifting away, she imagines herself naked in a moonlit forest and steps forward with a certain serenity.


Snapping back to reality as her waters break, Gia goes into premature labour. As she recovers, Miss Carmen informs her that the doctor has found substance traces in her daughter's system. Asking why she chose to abuse her baby, Miss Carmen refuses to accept Gia's excuses. But she also refuses to rise to the accusation that she makes a living from selling babies and tries to help Gia reach the best decision for her newborn before her case worker makes it for her.

Monica and Paul arrive and, having handed over the baby, Gia asks Amber to make sure her new sister avoids the mistakes she has made. Then, it's back to work before her day in court to request greater access and longer time with her kids to ensure they know she is committed to them and is doing her best, even if she sometimes has to wing it.


This sentiment is echoed in one of the testimonies from the support group that bookend this moving and deeply impressive debut. These frank, heartfelt contributions bind the feature to the short that begat it and help Leaf step outside the perameters of such linear realist influences as Ken Loach's Ladybird Ladybird (1994). She has also cited the importance of Michael Haneke's Code Unknown (2000), and Crisitian Mungui's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), and Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman (2008).


With their hints of body horror and magic realism, the dream sequences also keep miserabilism at bay, as does Tia Nomore, who inhabits her character rather than merely playing her. Almost daring the camera to capture her expressions and moods, she gives Gia a disarming stillness that conveys the emotional effort she is having to summon in order to cope with the endless everyday occurrences that keep conspiring to make her life so difficult.


The time she spends in the photographic studio hardly helps matters, as she keeps being confronted with happy people posing for mementos, as well as the chirpiness of her male co-worker, Miles (Dominic Fike), who is around her age yet doesn't seem to have a care in the world. Sister Ari barely has time for her, either, while her dealing makes it tough for Gia to arrange a home visit by her case worker.


A rapper like Nomore (a first-timer who is also training to be a doula), Doeichii almost duets with her during their exchanges, as the dialogue is so natural and their delivery so understated. The exchanges with Kamaya Jones also have a ring of authenticity, as Leaf had similar conversations with her sister's birth mother when she was 16. Only the discussions with Miss Carmen feel scripted, as they not only have to carry the plot forward, but also offer encouraging words and suggest options to those in Gia's position. Erica Alexander handles them with tact and compassion, as Leaf strives to achieve an observational approach that steers clear of melodrama - although a couple of intimately intense scenes might have benefitted from the absence of Kelsey Lu's otherwise discreet score.


Shooting on 16mm stock, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes consistently hits the right note, as he plumps for stillness over the handheld jerkiness that has become such a realist cliché. His close-ups of Nomore are particularly poignant, but the shots of the forest and San Francisco Bay are also effective. Despite representing Team GB in volleyball as an 18 year-old at the 2012 London Olympics, Leaf grew up in this area after her animator mother, Alison, moved from Vauxhall for work reasons. Her familiarity with the surroundings filters into the film's tone, in much the same way that the Seraing district of Liège lends grounded lyricism to the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. There can be no higher compliment and one can only hope that whatever follows is up to the high standards set here and in the Grammy-nominated video for Gary Clark, Jr.'s `This Land' and the shorts, F Word (2016), Fin (2017), The Ayes Have It (2018), The 4th Wave (2019), and Run (2023).


9) EO.


Currently awaiting its fate at BAFTA and the Oscars, Jerzy Skolimowski's EO has been labelled that rare beast in arthouse circles, a remake. There's no denying that it contains echoes of Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966), which Jean-Luc Godard declared contained `the world in an hour and a half'. The 84 year-old Polish auteur is clearly conscious of the similarities, especially when it comes to the themes of human cruelty and misplaced good intentions. But this stylised account of a donkey's search for lost contentment favours audacity over the austerity of Bresson's masterpiece to provide a mournful (if occasionally emotionally manipulative) snapshot of humanity on the road to nowhere.


EO is a circus donkey, who is first seen in a blur of red strobe light performing with Kasanadra (Sandra Drzymalska). As part of the act, EO lies on its back in the ring and clambers up to its hooves. The audience applauds and the doting Kasandra rewards the animal's efforts with a tasty treat and plenty of fussing. It responds by nuzzling her and seems to know she is defending him when the surly Wasyl (Maciej Stepniak) uses a whip to get EO to pull a cartload of rubbish to the tip, where a grabber crane hauls scrap metal.


On returning to the circus, Wasyl is confronted by animal rights activists, who accuse him of torturing the creatures in the show. Moreover, a bailiff presents him with a bankruptcy order that entitles him to confiscate EO and a couple of camels. Kasandra is devastated and. from the close-up of an eye, EO seems equally crestfallen, as the transporter lorry carries him (or her; it's never made clear) away.


Gazing out from the box being towed through the countryside, EO sees some horses running free in a field. But he is welcomed at a stable with a garland of carrots and munches away, while some local dignitaries preen their way through the ceremonial opening. While the horses are groomed for photo shoots and exercised in a spacious arena, EO pulls a hay cart and looks on with what appears to be a onetime performer's envy at being out of the spotlight.


One day, the lusty antics of two stablemates cause EO to upset the contents of his cart and he is shipped off to a donkey sanctuary. The owner's wife offers him a carrot, but he turns his head and pines for Kasandra in his stall. He is gentle with the special needs children who come to visit, pet the animals, and go for rides through the woods. But EO is unsettled when a drunken Kasandra (whose real name is Magda) arrives on a motorbike with her boyfriend to feed him a carrot muffin for his birthday.


Kicking away a bar from his pen, EO escapes into the woods, where he watches a frog skimming across river water by moonlight. He sees a spider meander up a slender thread and hears wolves howling and foxes scurrying. But EO stands his ground, even when lasers zigzag between the trees and the sound of gunfire rings out.


Arriving at an abandoned building, EO stops as the camera edges into the darkness and emerges in a well-lit tunnel. The donkey trots along the puddle-pocked path and seems oblivious to a colony of bats that screeches overhead. He finds himself in hilly terrain and feasts on such grass, as the red filter returns, the score becomes stridently dissonant, and the camera performs drone-loops over a wind turbine.

Emerging in a picturesque, but deserted town, EO whinnies at a tank full of goldfish before being cornered by a couple of firefighters, who tether him to the back of their red tender. As he feeds at the side of a road, however, he is untied by a football fan, who takes him to the game taking place at a nearby ground.


When a last-minute penalty is awarded to Zryw's opponents, a hush descends. But EO brays just as the kick is taken and the ball sails over the bar. A scuffle breaks out, as the visiting supporters protest. But EO is adopted as a hero by the victorious fans and is led through the streets with a blue-and-white scarf around his neck. The loud celebrations in the clubhouse prove too loud and he sidles away. But he is recognised by some vengeful thugs from the other team and is savagely beaten when they gatecrash the party.


Waking at a mink farm, EO longs for Kasandra's gentle touch. Instead, he is left to fend for himself by a disinterested vet. A dogsbody keeps an eye on him, though, and harnesses him up to another cart after he recovers. EO dislikes his new job, however, as he carries cages containing condemned minks to their fate. Sensing their distress he kicks the keeper in the head.


Rather than being put down, EO is sold with a consignment of horses destined for an Italian salami factory. The driver, Mateo (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz), protests at transporting a donkey, but he sets off regardless and heavy metal music blares out, as EO looks through the slats of the container to see factories belching smoke into the air.

Once off the motorway, the view improves and a bird soars over snow-dusted peaks. Mateo stops at a service station to wash and buy supplies. He notices a migrant woman (Gloria Iradukunda) following her and uses food to lure her to his cab. She eats hurriedly and accepts packages of pork and cheese, but flees the moment Mateo mentions sex. Cursing himself for being so bad at seduction, he slumps back in his seat, only for someone to reach in through his window and cut his throat.


EO is tied to a pole on a verge, as the police unload the horses. Having wandered into the services after his car breaks down, Vito (Lorenzo Zurzolo) happens upon him and is so moved by being nuzzled that he decides to liberate the donkey and take him home. As they ride in the back of a horse box, Vito wonders whether he's stolen EO and confesses to having eaten lots of salami. His guilt comes naturally, as he is a priest, and he is left to wait patiently at the offertory, while the Countess (Isabelle Huppert) takes a call about her misbehaving stepson.


While the countess smashes crockery in the kitchen and chides Vito about his gambling habit before revealing that she is selling up and returning to France, EO grazes on the lawn. He is secure and can feel the sun on his back, as he hee-haws loudly while wandering the villa grounds. But thoughts of Kasandra prompt him to pass through an open gate and he finds himself on a bridge beside a raging sluice dam.


Once again, determined to find the one person who had truly loved him, EO patters along a rustic road. He falls in behind a herd of cattle and allows himself to be swept along, as there is safety in numbers. A couple of drovers fail to notice him, as the animals shuffle through a penned maze towards a slaughterhouse. As the screen suddenly cuts to black, a zapping noise is heard and a caption assures us that no creatures were harmed in the making of a film that is intended to champion animal welfare.


While Bresson shows us Balthazar's last breath, Skolimowski leaves us with the faintest hope that the error will be rectified. After all, EO has had narrow escapes before. But most will be left forlorn by the crushing inevitability of the heartbroken donkey's fate. After all, that's the way the world works.


Skolimowski evidently despairs of modern society, as even those seeking to do good have an aggressive arrogance that prevents them from discerning details. The animal rights protesters are so wrapped up in their laudable cause that they don't bother to question whether EO needs delivering from what they perceive to be an exploitative hell. His affection for Kasandra is palpable and, while some of the reveries are a little unwieldy, his pining for her protection is deeply moving.


In many ways, EO is as single-minded as the activists, as his first two post-circus billets would have made acceptable homes. Indeed, his outrage at the treatment of the dogs drives him to violence after having been taught it at the hands of the football hooligans. But he remains a docile creature and his trusting nature leads him into the abattoir pens that bring back memories of the final scene of Bong Joon-ho's Okja (2017). Victor Kossakovsky's porcocentric Gunda (2020) and Andrea Arnold's Cow (2021) also come to mind.


While the obvious comparisons have been made to Au hasard Balthazar, EO actually follows the equine route established by Anna Sewell's Black Beauty (1877). Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska note that brutality is still meted out to animals 150 years later, while also commenting (almost didactically) on the damage caused to the natural world by pollution, deforestation, diverting waterways, the consumption of animal products, and sheer human greed. Their criticism of circuses is more muted, as we never discover how the camels were employed. But this is very much a reminder that humans are at the root of virtually all the planet's problems, whether they are social or ecological.


Even more than the nightmarish vision of the robotic quadruped, Isabelle Huppert's haughty cameo proves something of a distraction. Nevertheless, she amuses as the kitchen-wrecking countess being tempted by her prodigal stepson. But the cast is consistently upstaged by the assinine sextet of Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, and Mela. They don't `act', of course. But Skolimowski's camera placement and Agnieszka Glinska's deftly Kuleshovian editing allows them to convey reactions that assume emotional significance without resorting to anthropomorphism. Abetted by Pawel Edelman and Michal Englert, Michal Dymek's cinematography is remarkable throughout, whether framing EO, placing him within his environs, or capturing the beauty or the monstrosity of modern life. Pawel Mykietyn's agile score is equally effective, although it plays its part in Skolimowski's occasionally unequivocal attempts to influence the audience's response to the world contained in his hour and a half. This can be forgiven, for, while he might have gone about it in a less blatant way, Bresson similarly sought to coax empathy.


Donkeys are such placidly trusting and innocently accepting creatures that it's impossible to resist them. Try watching the Paul Gallico adaptations, Ralph Smart and Maurice Cloche's Never Take No For an Answer (1951) and Jeannot Szwarc's The Small Miracle (1973), without shedding a tear. But might the message have been clearer without all those red filters, drone swoops, and facile scene transitions?


8) FREMONT.


Born in Iran, but raised in Britain and trained at the London Film School, Babak Jalali made an instant impression when his short, Heydar, an Afghan in Berlin (2005), was nominated for a BAFTA. Having made his feature bow with Frontier Blues (2008), Jalali moved on to Radio Dreams (2016) and Land (2018), although neither secured a release in his adopted country. He returns, however, with Fremont, a monochrome comedy that stars a former television presenter who was forced to flee Kabul after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan. Maybe someone should send Tobias Ellwood a ticket!


Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) works in a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco. She gets along fine with Joanna (Hilda Schmelling) and Fan (Avis See-tho), who discuss what they'd do if they won $1 million on a TV quiz show. Since leaving Afghanistan, where she had been an interpreter for US troops, Donya has suffered from survivor's guilt and finds it difficult to sleep. Next door friend Salim (Siddique Ahmed) gives her his appointment with therapist Dr Anthony (Gregg Turkington) and she decides to go, even though married neighbours Suleyman (Timur Nusratty) and Mina (Taban Ibraz) doubt whether it will do her any good.


Employers Ricky (Eddie Tang) and Lin (Jennifer McKay) let her leave their Chinatown premises early and Donya has to talk her way past a jobsworthy receptionist to see the doctor, who is also dubious about bending the rules of appointment booking. However, he agrees to see her on a pro-bono basis, although she's baffled by why he asks so many background questions when she just wants something to help her sleep. Joanna thinks a romance would do the trick and urges Donya to buy a double bed to give fate a nudge, although her own love life is hampered by the fact she shares a bed with her mother.


At the cheap Turkish restaurant where Donya eats, waiter Aziz (Fazil Seddiqui) breaks off from watching soap operas to advise her not to let things get on top of her, as Afghanistan has always been a battleground and things won't change because she feels guilty. At her next appointment, Dr Anthony questions her about the family she left behind and whether they are in danger because she fled. But she proves evasive and claims not to think too much about the old country because she has such a frantic social life.


Salim returns the chemical mousetrap he had borrowed from Donya because he thinks it's too cruel for such a small creature. Joanna decides to give up blind dates because she keeps meeting losers, but Donya encourages her to stick with it and even hints she might come along one time. Despite being frustrated by the new drinks machine at work, she persists with her therapy sessions, even though she's reluctant to give much away and denies suffering from PTSD after witnessing combat and having several translator friends denied seats on evacuation flights.


When Fan keels over at her desk while writing cookie messages that Joanna thinks are rubbish, Donya is offered the job. Ricky gives her a pep talk and a head massager to help her relax. He reminds her of the responsibility of keeping people sweet with her messages and informs her that the best writers love themselves. She's pleased with her first attempt - `The fortune you seek is in another cookie' - and gives one to Dr Anthony at her next appointment (although he struggles with the wrapping).


He suggests channelling her emotions into her writing as a way of coming to terms with her experiences. But she can't always come up with the necessary inspiration and Aziz tells her to find a man because it's clear she's lonely. Joanna sings Vashti Bunyan's `Diamond Day' on her home karaoke machine and Donya cries. Dr Anthony makes up his own cookie messages and reminds her that ships may be safe in port, but that's not their purpose.


Inspired, Donya puts her phone number on a message about fulfilling a dream and Lin wants her fired. But Ricky knows that China and Afghanistan share a border and that she deserves another chance because her memories will produce great messages. He brings a globe to her desk and spins it slowly, while he hints that people from all countries should get along, but that they sometimes need to use discretion,


Unable to sleep, Donya asks Salim if it's okay to think about love when people back home are suffering and he says it's fine providing she doesn't choose an asshole. Dr Anthony tells her the story of Jack London's White Fang to show how good can come from trauma. She is intrigued and explains that she works in San Francisco because she doesn't want to spend the day surrounded by Afghans in Fremont. Mina confides that she is unhappy and worries her son will grow up without learning the right values and Donya bites her tongue rather than revealing that she dislikes Suleyman because he is so dismissive of her. When he forces his wife to stop talking to her, however, Donya looks directly into the camera before yelling up to his window that she worked for the enemy to help keep him safe.


At the factory, Lin charges Donya $2.50 for a coffee because the machine has broken down. She asks if she likes her job and Donya says she does, but is nettled by her boss's attitude. When Dr Anthony gets teary reading about White Fang's reunion with his mother, Donya consoles him and reveals that she had been ostracised by the other translators for being a woman. He snuffles into a tissue and is grateful that she has opened up. Meanwhile, someone has responded to one of her cookie messages and she calls Joanna for advice on whether he's genuine. She practices the date in her room and borrows Joanna's mother's car to drive to Bakersfield to meet her respondent at a pottery.


En route, Donya stops at a small garage to check her oil and mechanic Daniel (Jeremy Allen White) helps her out. He follows her to the diner for lunch and asks about her accent. She corrects him when he calls her `Afghanistani' and he says she seems to come from a friendly people. Despite declining his offer of a cup of coffee, she goes to his office anyway to clarify that she's not really a writer. Daniel is glad she is who she is and says the coffee will always be on the house if she comes by again.


Arriving at the pottery, Donya discovers she's been sent on a wild goose chase by Lin, who wants her to pick up a deer statue. Having booked a motel room, Donya feels like a fool, but she heads home next day with the deer strapped into the front seat with the safety belt. She stops off at the garage and gives the deer to Daniel. He claims to have always wanted one and goes off to make coffee, leaving Donya standing in a pool of sunlight beneath a tree in the garden. A train passes and, as she turns, the frame freezes.


This may be a suitable ending for a film with a decided nouvelle vibe, but it's the deadpan drollery of Jim Jarmusch that trickles down through this delightful dramedy. Writing with Carolina Cavalli, Jalali not only creates a collection of memorable characters, but he also gives them all a distinctive voice, whether they are musing on the caprices of the world like Salim and Ricky, struggling to find their niche like Joanna and Mina, or trying to find the right words to get through to Donya, like Dr Anthony and Daniel.


Each role is played to perfection, but the standout is first-time actor Anaita Wali Zada, whose watchful display is enhanced by the subtlety of Caroline Sebastian's costumes and Holly Ruth's hairstyles. Protecting herself with an impassivity that occasionally permits a smile, Donya is resilient, resourceful and resolute in a confrontation. But the 22 year-old Wali Zada had to be coaxed into bellowing at Suleyman, as she had never shouted at anyone in her life. Moreover, she had to overcome limited English during the 20-day shoot. Awards don't go to this kind of performance. But they should.


Credit should also go to cinematographer Laura Valladao, whose hazily monochrome Aspect ratio images deftly capture the ambience of Donya's apartment, Dr Anthony's office, Daniel's small-town garage, and the cookie factory (which actually operates with the old-fashioned machinery shown in the film). Mahmood Schnicker's guitar music also fits the bill, as it weaves cross-cultural influences to reflect Donya's shifting moods. The odd scene meanders, but Jalali's editing of the largely fixed-camera shots is self-effacingly fluent. He will probably want to move on in his next feature, but there will be many who hope that there's a sequel out there waiting to be stumbled upon.


7) HELLO, BOOKSTORE.


Bookshops have provided the backdrop for a number of popular films, including David Hugh Jones's 84 Charing Cross Road (1987), Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail (1998), Roger Michell's Notting Hill (1999), and Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop (2017). There have also been a couple of intriguing documentaries and D.W. Young's The Booksellers and Rachel Mason's Circus of Books (both 2019) are now joined by A.B. Zax's Hello, Bookstore, a beguiling delight that explores the impact on one independent bookseller of the Covid-19 pandemic.


The Bookstore has been part of life on Housatonic Street in Lenox, Massachusetts for five decades. In 1976, it was taken over by 30 year-old Matthew Tannenbaum, who remains its sole proprietor several thousand purchases later. He's first seen in fish-eye monochrome isolation, as he fields doorstep and telephone enquiries during lockdown in 2020. Turning people away feels like a betrayal and we can see why when Zax flashes back a year to show the shop in bustling colour and reveal


Tannenbaum in his element, as he recommends books to browsers and reminds customers of the in-house Get Lit wine bar's motto: `You can't drink all day unless you start in the morning.'


Selling both used and new tomes, Tannenbaum is the kind of bibliophile who believes there's a book for everything.

Recommendations often come with anecdotes and he readily tells Zax about discovering the Beats when he was in the navy. He recalls being widowed and taking on the sole responsibility for his daughters, Shawnee and Sophie, who were only seven and three. The former is now pregnant and the prospect of becoming a grandfather excites him.


Children read in chairs dotted around the store, as Tannenbaum answers questions about plotlines and quotes from books that have left indelible impressions. His passion is for writing and sharing secret discoveries with others. But this is harder to do when Coronavirus keeps people beyond the door and he has to place books on a stool on the pavement to ensure mandated distances. Transactions are conducted by credit card, with numbers being shouted through the glass.


Tannenbaum is glad to maintain his service, but business slow to the point that he is selling in a week what he used to shift in a day. As a result, he has to suspend his account with Simon & Schuster because he owes them so much money. At one point he asks (a question that could be asked by many a freelance film critic), `Who would spend all the hours that I spend for the little pay that I get?' Needing to keep up stock levels during a cash-flow crisis proves a trial and he knows he risks losing customers by having to turn them away. He cheers himself up by reading passages from beloved tomes and trying to organise Zoom talks with local authors.


He shows an assistant around the storeroom and points out titles of interest that he felt compelling to pick up but has never put out for sale. With another kerbside customer, he reminisces about how a fascination with Anaïs Nin led to his 70s stint at the Gotham Book Mart, which had been opened during the Jazz Age by Frances Steloff. She didn't read much, but made this a literary focal point and Tannenbaum recalls Martha Graham being a regular. His mind also wanders back to delivering a manuscript to the Scrivener publishing house and walking up stairs that had been used by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, although he surmises that Edith Wharton would have sent her chauffeur.


From the till, Tannenbaum leans forward to enjoy the smile of a man who has found the book he was looking for. This is where he weaves his magic, telling one customer about the shop's founder, David Silverstein and his connections to Alice Brock and Arlo Guthrie. A toy train runs along a track in the Christmas window, as Tannenbaum takes a woman on a tour of the shelves that results in her leaving with two carrier bags. Another learns how his Polish father had rowed across the St Lawrence to join his parents in New York after being denied access to the United States.


So many yarns and each one is told with unassuming eloquence, as Tannenbaum praises the authors who have shaped his mind. Shawnee adores the fact her father has time for everyone and remembers coming from school to watch him interact with customers. But he would be the first to admit to being a mediocre businessman and he realises during the pandemic the extent of his debt. His daughter suggests a GoFundMe campaign and he reads aloud the accompanying appeal in which he stresses the need to sustain a community resource.


Following a local TV spot, Tannenbaum is interviewed by a journalist from The Boston Globe and relates his history with the store. He recalls selling Arthur Rimbaud's poetry to Patti Smith and opening Get Lit in tribute to Czech wine writer Jan Wiener, who had flown with the RAF during the Second World War after fleeing Occupied Europe. Within two days, the appeal doubled its $60,000 goal and Tannenbaum jokes that he feels like George Bailey in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). When a woman at the door thanks him for being so unstintingly kind and cheerful, he remembers his three year-old telling his father that he was going to go outside and make friends by smiling at people - and he's been doing it ever since, with his grandson being the latest beneficiary of his geniality.


Filmed in the Direct Cinema style pioneered by the Maysle brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, and Frederick Wiseman, this is a winning tribute to a man who has managed to spend the bulk of his life being surrounded by the things he loves and occasionally being interrupted by people giving him money. Remaining affable in the face of potential Covid ruin, Tannenbaum is a worthy subject of what is, to paraphrase Philip Roth, a gift of a film, a perfect film lacking nothing.


Co-editor Mark Franks and composer Jeffrey Lubin help Dax convey the rhythm of Bookstore life and the ambience of a space that feels welcomingly cavernous and embracingly intimate. Indeed, Dax never leaves it in largely employing an unobtrusively static camera that allows events to unfurl around Tannenbaum in centre stage. This means that some scenes develop like a thoughtfully read poem, while other montages feel like a thumb flick through the pages of a picture book.


It's an adroit approach that also leaves room for Tannenbaum to read with evangelising elegance from Wendell Berry's Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer, Willa Cather's My Ántonia, Billy Collins's `On Turning Ten', Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, John Crowley's Little Big: or The Fairies' Parliament, Gustave Flaubert's November, Robert Frost's `Good Hours', Donald Hall's String Too Short to Be Saved; Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm, Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie, Philip Rotth's The Human Stain, Maurice Sendak's Higgelty Piggelty Pop! or There Must Be More to Life, and Edna St Vincent Millay's `Souvenir', `Travel', and `My Heart Being Hungry'.

The only sad irony is that the film will eventually be available on disc from Amazon.


6) PACIFICATION.


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.


5) THE ETERNAL DAUGHTER.


Having revisited her own past for those deeply personal portraits of the artist as a young woman, The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II (2021), Joanna Hogg goes in search of more elusive auto-fictional insights in The Eternal Daughter, in which she ponders the morality of making a film about her mother in a story about a director questioning whether she has the right and the mentality to base a scenario upon her mother. Once again, the mother-daughter characters are called Rosalind and Julie Hart. But, while Tilda Swinton played alongside real-life daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in the earlier outings set in the 1980s, she is cast opposite herself in a narrative that takes place in the present day.


A December fog swirls around the roads leading to the remote Moel Famau hotel in Flintshire. At the wheel of a white taxi, the cabby (August Joshi) relates an anecdote about his wedding reception at the venue and the ghostly presence in the photos of a face at a window. As he pulls up outside the entrance, Julie Hart fusses over the luggage and her Springer Spaniel, Louis, while mother Rosalind waits patiently nearby. She takes a seat in reception, while Julie approaches the desk to sign in. Despite having phoned ahead to confirm the reservation of a room with a view of the ornate garden, Julie is informed by the brusque receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies) that the room is unavailable and that they will have to make do with a twin overlooking a wedding marquee.


As they've arrived late, they have also missed the evening meal. But the receptionist promises to bring up a kettle, while she remains at her desk, as the Harts negotiate the creaking staircase with their bags. Rosalind reassures Julie that she doesn't mind being in a different room, but chides her daughter when she takes an age unpacking and laying everything out until it is just so. Perching on the bed, Rosalind offers Julie one of her `little helpers', but she declines because she wants to go and collect the kettle.

Seeing the receptionist teetering on to the drive and slip into the passenger seat of a red car that screeches away with loud music booming, Julie realises she is going to have to fend for herself. Despite the suggestion that the hotel is fully booked, she sees no one as she ventures into the kitchen area and returns to the room to endure a sleepless night, as the old mansion creaks and groans.


The next morning, Julie mentions the noises to the receptionist. But she's dismissively unconcerned and leaves her guest to pick her way upstairs with a breakfast tray for her mother. Although she has booked the getaway as a treat for Rosalind's birthday, Julie is hoping to make progress with a screenplay she is researching and leaves her mother tucked up and tucking in, while she finds a quiet place to work.

Although undisturbed for the day, Julie struggles to get anywhere and returns to the room as the light is fading. Still mourning the recent loss of her husband, Rosalind is pleased to see her because her only child's career keeps them apart for long periods. She reminisces about spending part of her Second World War childhood in what was then her Aunt Jocelyn's home and recalls how the worry about her family in London had tainted the enjoyment of being in such luxurious surroundings with her cousins.


This mention reminds Julie that she had received a message from her own cousin, who still lives nearby and had hoped to pop over and see her. Rosalind would rather be left alone, but she eagerly heads downstairs for dinner and mother-and-daughter pore over the basic menu as though they were in a fine restaurant. Doubling as a waitress, the receptionist shuffles impatiently while waiting for the order and plonks the food down with little finesse. Tutting at the absence of a fish knife, Rosalind cuts into her battered cod and jokes about having to make the best of things as she had done during the war.


While her mother heads upstairs, Julie takes Louis for a walk and calls her husband. The signal is poor, so she limits herself to pleasantries before hanging up. As she follows the snuffling dog, Julie peers into the windows of an outbuilding and feels uneasy and her mood is not improved by further disturbance by the various clanks and thuds that keep her awake.


Eager to press on with her script, Julie leaves Rosalind in the room and scuttles off to the desk she has found in an upper lounge. Still finding inspiration eluding her, she comes downstairs to find Rosalind writing Christmas cards in front of the fire in a comfortable sitting-room. She offers to help and they chat with Rosalind maintaining the measured composure that sets her apart from her restless, anxious-to-please daughter.


Back in the room, Rosalind reveals that this isn't her first return to the old place since the war. She had come to stay with her husband and had been illl following a miscarriage. Julie curses herself for bringing her mother back to a place she associates with unhappiness and admonishes herself further when Louis slips out of the door and bolts off into the night. Calling to the dog in the grounds, Julie bumps into Bill (Joseph Mydell), the night porter who helps with her search.


Having returned to the room to find Rosalind asleep and Louis curled up beside her, Julie goes down to inform Bill (as the receptionist has already done her evening flit). He offers her a drink and they sit in the dim light, as she confides that her father's name was William and he explains that he has been employed as a jack-of-all-trades since his cook wife died and he decided to stay on to be close to her.

Next day, Julie makes an early start on her screenplay and comes down during the afternoon to find Rosalind and Bill nattering in the sitting-room. She is pleased to see that her mother has made a friend, but she is hurt when Rosalind admits to feeling sorry for her daughter because she never got to be a mother and consoles herself with the notion that her films are her children. Wandering in the garden after another brief call home, Julie again finds herself drawn to the darkened windows of the brick building and she shudders and hastens back to the room.


Overcoming her sadness, Julie determines to give her mother a happy birthday. When her cousin (Crispin Buxton) arrives unannounced, she hurries down to head him off and consults the receptionist to ensure that everything goes off smoothly with the champagne and cake. Putting on a smart red dress, she also lays out some neatly wrapped gifts on her mother's side of the table and is gratified by the look of delight when Rosalind comes down for dinner. She comments on the prettiness of the wrapping paper, as she opens a musical box and smiles gently as Julie explains that she wanted to give her one like the one she had received from her husband.


Sipping bubbles, Rosalind suddenly feels tired and asks if she can open the other presents later. Julie suggests they have supper, but Rosalind isn't hungry and they squabble when Julie says she'll wait until her mother's ready. Overcome, Julie asks Rosalind if she knows how hard she tries to please her and how difficult it is to be kept at a distance and always be made to feel a disappointment. She also confesses that she finds it hard to be happy knowing that Rosalind is unhappy. Hoping the cake will restore Rosalind's spirits, Julie returns with a single candle and a song. But, as she starts to sob with a mixture of love, guilt, and remorse, the camera pulls away and we see she is all alone.


After taking another stab at the script on her laptop, Julie packs to leave. The receptionist seems concerned about her, as the other guests mill around the lobby and the hotel takes on a different air. Bill greets her outside and helps her into a taxi. As it pulls away, the fog begins to clear around Moel Famau.


Joanna Hogg has cited several influences on this slender, but decidedly affecting tale. The ghost stories of M.R. James are clearly a factor, although echoes of the classic BBC adaptations can also definitely be detected. Similarly, Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) feels as significant as Henry James's source story, `The Turn of the Screw', while the fact that Julie can be seen reading Rudyard Kipling's `They' suggests the impact of its sense of loss and limboic accidie. The notion of memory and mining the past is also referenced in the Harts' room being called `Rosebud', which is the key word in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). But the opening shots of a vehicle heading towards an isolated hotel, the spectrally consoling presence of Bill, and the use of Béla Bartók's `Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta' all imply that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) might also have left its mark on proceedings.


Shooting during Covid in the wondrously atmospheric 300 year-old Soughton Hall, Hogg invokes the spirit of Hammer in setting her old dark house scene. But restraint is very much the watchword of Stéphane Collonge's production design and Ed Rutherford's 16mm imagery. Scrupulously ensuring that Julie and Rosalind never appear in the same shot, the lugubrious camerawork rather gives the game away, although Hogg is less interested in creating a conceit than in exploring the effect of environment on mood and the difficulties that daughters have in communicating with their mothers.


Although Rosalind looks a bit young for someone born in the 1930s, Siobhan Harper-Ryan's make-up and hair designs for Tilda Swinton are exemplary, while Grace Snell's costumes deftly convey character. But it's Swinton skill at capturing the similarities and differences between the genteely composed Rosalind and the fusspottish Julie that makes this `Gothic mystery drama' so captivating. She fully justifies the casting decision and editor Helle le Fevre plays a vital role in stitching the shot-reverse footage into a performance of subtlety and perceptiveness. Also helping is the sound mix supervised by Jovan Ajder, which recalls the noises in the night that Swinton had to endure in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria (2021).


The debuting Carly-Sophia Davies is splendidly abrupt as the receptionist seemingly oblivious to the concept of customer service, while Joseph Mydell brings some warmth and wisdom as the only character who gets to speak to both mother and daughter. Swinton's own pet also steals scenes as the snufflesome Louis, who seems as willing to accept Rosalind's presence as Julie. But we never do get to learn why she furtively presses `record' on her phone whenever a mother who isn't there starts to reminisce about her past. Perhaps executive producer Martin Scorsese knows.


4) R.M.N.


The leading light of the Romanian New Wave, Cristian Mungiu has consistently sought innovative ways to assess the changing state of his nation. In addition to winning the Palme d'or with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and the Best Director prize with Graduation (2016), he has also exposed Romanian reaction to a raft of social issues in Occident (2002), Tales From the Golden Age (2009), and Beyond the Hills (2012).


Taking its title from the country's internationally recognised abbreviation and the letters of `rezonanta magnetica nucleara' (`magnetic resonance imaging' or MRI), R.M.N. is based on events that took place in the village of Ditrau in January 2020. Shot in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, this unflinching drama provides a typically disconcerting insight into attitudes towards race, class, gender, and age that are not confined to the fictional Transylvanian enclave in which it's set.

Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, and Roma live in the town of Recia (which is known as Récfalva in Hungarian). They just about get along, but it doesn't take much for tensions to rise. Even while working in a slaughterhouse in Germany, Matthias (Marin Grigore) is sufficiently short-fused to nut his supervisor, although he did call him `a lazy Gypsy'.


As he heads home, eight year-old son Rudi (Mark Blenyesi) sees something in the woods to make him stop speaking. Meanwhile, bakery manager Csilla Szabo (Judith State) consults boss Viktoria Dénes (Orsolya Moldován) about applying for EU funding and hiring foreign workers to fill posts that the locals consider too menial and poorly paid to accept. Csilla plays cello in a chamber orchestra that practices in the church tended by sheep farmer Papa Otto (Andrei Finti), whose health is failing him.


Arriving home with only the clothes on his back, Matthias is given a cool welcome by wife Ana (Macrina Bârladeanu), who resents his accusations of coddling Rudi by letting him share her bed. He tells Csilla that he's back for Christmas and promises to think about a job at the bakery. They had been lovers before his departure and her marriage to a Hungarian had subsequently broken down. But she has since renovated her childhood home and is now on an even keel.

Matthias is concerned for Papa Otto, who has clearly been a mentor, and he asks Doctor Szántai (Miklos Bacs) to help him. But he says too many people are away working for him to find a carer. While Matthias slaughters a black-spotted pig for a neighbour, Csilla rehearses Umebayashi Shigeru's `Yumeji's Theme' from Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love (2000). She turns him away when he comes to the house and refuses his offer of pork because she's become a vegetarian. He asks how she intends spending Christmas and feels it's sad that she'll be alone watching films with her dog, Kaiser.

Next morning, Matthias walks Rudi to school and tries to reassure him by scaring off a bear in the woods with his shotgun. At the bakery, Csilla welcomes Sri Lankans Mahinda (Amitha Jayasinghe) and Alick (Gihan Edirisinghe), while the children perform in a festive concert at the school. Rather than head home, however, Matthias takes Rudi into the woods to teach him survivalist techniques. Explaining that Papa Otto's people had come from Luxembourg 700 years ago, he rows across the lake to an island to show Rudi how to boil water that has been tainted by the nearby mine. But the chief and unabashedly toxic lesson imparted is: `You have to not feel pity. Those who feel pity die first; I want you to die last.'


Ana isn't impressed and argues with Matthias after Rudi has gone to bed. She insists on raising the boy in her own way, even though Matthias loathes the idea of him learning to crochet. He threatens to kill her if she comes between them before skulking off to see Csilla, who reluctantly lets him in and allows his hand to caress her back.

On Christmas morning, Csilla gives the Sri Lankans a tour of the factory before dropping them at their lodgings. She's invited in for lunch by Matthias's in-laws and meets Ben (Victor Benderra), a Frenchman who has come to count the number of bears in the forest. Ana, and Rudi are also at table, but Matthias doesn't linger, as he wants to check on Papa Otto. He finds him slumped and calls someone with a truck to take him to hospital in the nearest town. Following behind on a motorbike, Matthias looks at the MRI scans that have been sent to his phone and he calls Csilla to cancel supper plans (although she has already cooked).


She is at the town dance when Matthias gets back and he sees her bopping with Ben. He chats to some pals who are unhappy with the Sri Lankans for taking jobs and the Roma for growing in number. When Csilla leaves, however, he follows her and they go to bed. Lying naked, she asks if he loves her and teaches him to say it in Hungarian. Mumbling sleepily, Matthias accepts that Csilla doesn't love him, but still tries to persuade her into letting him stay. Instead, she talks him into doing her a favour next day and he rides off to collect Rauff (Nuwan Karunarathna) from the station.


Viktoria reads the negative comments left on the community chat site that accuse the new arrivals of bringing disease and plotting to immigrate en masse into Recia. Ben sees an example of the regional xenophobia, when he films a parade calling for autonomy for Dacia and Matthias explains to him that people dress as bears to channel the spirit of the beast. There's more violence at an ice hockey game against a local rival, which contrasts with the serenity of the concert that Csilla plays in the church to a small audience.


On New Year's Eve, Ana gets into a panic because Rudi is missing. Matthias finds him in the woods where they set a trap and gives him a stick so he can chase away the fox feeding on the corpse. But the locals want the Sri Lankans driven away and they receive threatening texts. When they try to attend mass, they are ushered out of the church and the members of the congregation argue with the priest (József Bíró) about whether God's children should be treated equally. He points out that they dislike the discrimination they face while working abroad and should empathise with guest-workers not denounce them. They forcibly disagree and chastise the cleric for not protecting his flock from interlopers who are ruining the bread and from the Roma who want to steal their land.


Deputised to speak to Viktoria, the priest suggests that she could save herself a lot of bother by letting the Sri Lankans go. But she refuses and the townsfolk draw up a petition demanding their removal. Csilla reassures the trio that everything is okay and learns a few words to speak to Mahinda's wife on the phone. They invite her to supper and they are playing tunes on wine glasses when a flaming torch is thrown through the window of their cottage and Csilla threatens to call the police claiming to recognise the hooded assailants. The landlord asks them to leave because his wife has a heart condition and Csilla borrows a minibus to take them to her place. Rauff is missing, however, and Csilla takes a dim view of Matthias turning up on her doorstep to express his disapproval of her sleeping in the same house as foreigners. Suggesting he puts his own affairs in order, Csilla reminds him that they are casual lovers rather than an item and, therefore, he doesn't get to tell her what to do.


The village looks picturesque at the foot of a snow-covered mountain, but the atmosphere is poisonous. Bread deliveries are refused, while the police show little interest in investigating the attack or the online abuse. Undeterred, Viktoria tells Csilla to continue with the EU application and hire two more guest-workers. On hearing a town meeting has been called, Csilla tries to introduce Mahinda and Alick to the priest to show him they are decent men. He claims to be too busy and takes umbrage when she (as a non-churchgoer) suggests he's being unchristian.


Csilla tries to find Matthias to apologise, but he's laying low after the police say they know about the incident in Germany and that he needs to watch his step. This doesn't stop him from jumping out on Ana and Rudi on the forest path and denying the boy's assertion that he saw a body. When he comes to the town meeting, however, he insists on Csilla holding his hand and reassures her that he hasn't signed the petition.


Forced to move from the church to the cultural centre because so many people want to attend, the forum begins noisily with the mayor (András Hatházi) pointing out that, beside a murder and a showdown with the Roma, there hasn't been any ethnic tension between the Romanians and Hungarians for decades. When the floor is thrown open for contributions, the prejudice against the Sri Lankans is readily evident. But Ben also comes under fire because he's an ecologist and it was a green initiative that led to the mine being closed. Someone suggests he counts bears in his own country instead of treating Romania like a zoo. Another sniffs at the number of Blacks and Arabs in Paris and voice pipes up that it serves them right for wanting colonies in the first place. When he states that people have a right to work and that there are lots of their compatriots in France, he's mockingly called Mr Egalité-Fraternité and reminded that Romanians and Hungarians are not the same and that anyone begging on the streets must be Roma. A speaker suggests France has learnt nothing from the Charlie Hebdo incident and that its citizens deserve to have their throats slit.


At this juncture, the mayor suggests focussing on the issue at hand and he's denounced for acting like a Communist. A woman pipes up that everyone knows foreigners like the Sri Lankans will bring their families and soon they'll be everywhere, demanding mosques and exclusion zones. She reckons it won't be long before women will be attacked for not wearing the veil. The doctor then avers that they have different immune systems and blames the spread of AIDS and bird flu on migrants. Viktoria insists that the Sri Lankans were fully tested and tries to restate that they are not Muslims. But she's shouted down and Vasile Brebu (Gheorghe Ifrim) stands to point out that guest-workers are exploited wherever they go and that the bakery takes EU handouts while refusing to pay a living wage.


When Viktoria defends her methods, she's denounced for driving a Mercedes while working people struggle to make ends meet. She snaps back that they would rather take the dole than work and Brebu demands the back-payment of overtime from his days at the bakery. The priest tries to intervene, only for a female voice to note that he also has a Mercedes and he is derided when he retorts that it is secondhand and belongs to his mother. Viktoria offers to give the Sri Lankans gloves or move them away from the dough, but the meeting votes to boycott the bakery. Matthias finds himself caught between wanting to please Csilla and saving face with his neighbours. But a fight breaks out when a Romanian takes exception to the Hungarian minority trying to dictate how things are run.


The scuffle stops abruptly and an appalled silence descends when someone rushes in to inform Matthias that Papa Otto has hanged himself. As the church bell tolls, the entire meeting follows Matthias up the slippery hill into the woods. He cuts Papa Otto down from a tree branch and, as he carries him over his shoulder, Rudi clings to his father's leg and tells him that he loves him.


Back at the bakery, Viktoria tells Csilla to cancel the EU application and redraft it to the Under 30 employees category. Fearing that the Sri Lankans will be left high and dry, Csilla refuses and Viktoria criticises her for having principles while leaving her with debts. She insists they will be moved on to work in other places. But Csilla announces her decision to accept a job offer in Germany and Viktoria accuses her of stabbing her in the back.


Ignoring Matthias's calls, Csilla sees the Sri Lankans to a safe haven and sends Ben to return the shotgun that Matthias had left at her home. He is keeping vigil with Papa Otto, but takes the weapon and heads home to find that Ana and Rudi have moved out. He tracks them down to her parents' house, but they refuse to let him in. Thinking he sees Rauff, Matthias goes to see Csilla. She is playing the cello and apologies to him, as she backs into the garden. Suddenly, he shoots twice at what might be a bear lurking in the darkness. As he turns back towards the house, he can hear music, but looks bewildered by what is going on.


He's not alone, as the denouement is puzzling in the extreme, as it seems to flaunt the loose ends relating to the missing Sri Lankan, the sight that scared Rudi (and why he was suddenly able to speak again), and Matthias's relationships with Ana and Csilla. But who said that life should ever be anything other than nasty, brutish, and short?

It's certainly the case in Recia, as Mungiu launches several broadsides at the insularity and infighting that divides a community seemingly hell-bent on its own destruction (while blaming someone else). At times, the setting and ambience recall Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk's Pamfir (2022), in which another prodigal son finds himself out of his depth after discovering that much has changed in his absence. But there was nothing in that provocative picture to match the town meeting, which was photographed as a bravura 17-minute long take with a static camera and involved 26 speakers. The staging is audacious, with Matthias, Csilla, and Viktoria being nearest the lens, while it all kicks off behind them, as mostly nameless individuals rise to reinforce baseless stereotypes, spew racist bile, or just plain rabblerouse.


There are occasional moments of Loachian melodrama, while Otto's tumour and Rudi's vocal recovery feel atypically clumsy. The conclusion also seems unnecessarily obfuscatory. But Mungui maintains a satirical rigour, as he pokes into every crevice of a fracturing society. Even the Lutheran, Orthodox, and Catholic churches contribute to the simmering sense of disharmony and disintegration.


Marin Grigore plays Matthias as a lumpen proletarian whose many faults can't quite obscure his affection for Papa Otto and Rudi and his determination to do his best for them, within reasonable limits. But he's clearly a chauvinist who is too insecure to express his emotions in anything other than boorish clichés. His `romance' with Judith State's Csilla doesn't quite ring true, as she is so much his social and intellectual superior.


Yet she recognises his decency and evidently finds him physically attractive, even though they barely connect on other levels. Her relationship with Orsolya Moldován's boss is more intriguing, especially when she comes to question her modus operandi. The dinner sequence with the Sri Lankans is also a delight, with the glass harp concert proving the ideal prelude to the shocking fire bomb.

Simona Paduretu's interiors adroitly contrast Csilla and Matthias's dwellings to emphasise their gulf in class and taste, while the switch from the cramped church to the community centre is wittily underlined by Tudor Vladimir Panduru's widescreen imagery. He also ensures that the forbidding natural beauty of the landscape (around the onetime UNESCO heritage site of Rimetea) provides a symbolic backdrop to the unnatural bigotry of the residents. And more than just for novelty, Mungiu has gone for colour-coded subtitles to guide outsiders through the Babelesque babble, with white being used for Romanian, yellow for Hungarian, and pink for everything else. A neat touch by a master in total control of his art, as he juggles the ambiguous, the incongruous, the dehumanising, the bitterly real, and the chillingly familiar.


3) LOVE LIFE.


Since debuting at the age of 22 with The Chair (2002), Japanese director Koji Fukada has produced seven further features, with only the Cannes prize winner Harmonium (2016) securing a UK release. The BFI now presents Love Life, which takes its title from a 1991 Akiko Yano song and its theme from the lyric, `Whatever the distance between us, nothing can stop me from loving you.'


Married for a year, Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and Jiro (Kento Nagayama) share a cosy flat with their six year-old son, Keita (Tetta Shimada). He has just won an Othello tournament and his parents are throwing a party, with Jiro's workmates coming together to create a congratulations display with placards and balloons. His parents, Makoto (Tomorowo Taguchi) and Akie (Misuzu Kanno), are also coming, even though his father disapproves of his son marrying a divorcée with a child.


Popping back from settling a dispute at the soup kitchen where she works, Taeko bumps into Jiro's friends and is introduced to Yamazaki (Hirona Yamazaki). As he cooks party food, Taeko asks her husband why he never mentions her and we learn from his pals that she was going to marry Jiro when he cheated on her with Taeko. Makoto considers her a cast-off and insults her during a discussion about secondhand fishing equipment. But Akie forces him to apologise in time for Jiro's friends to perform their greeting, which is actually for Makoto's 65th birthday. However, two nuns have to stand in for Yamazaki and another member of the group after she gets upset waiting in a nearby café and runs away.


The party goes well, with Keita using a new blue bi-plane as a microphone to sing karaoke with the nuns. When Makoto starts to sing an old song, the boy goes off to play in the bathroom. But he slips and knocks his head on the tub and drowns in the water that Taeko had forgotten to drain. She finds her son lifeless, but her cries can't be heard above the karaoke track.


Taeko and Jiro are questioned, but a verdict of accidental death is returned. Aike dislikes the idea of Keita's body being returned to the apartment, as it used to be her home and she gave it up to the newlyweds and took another opposite to help out with the child rather than retire to the country. But Makoto comforts her and Taeko shuffles away behind her husband in the silent daze in which she remains, as he takes down the decorations.


She wakes thinking Keita is running around the room and finds Jiro looking at photos to use at the funeral. Taeko fetches her own laptop to access older pictures and he tells her to pick her favourites from any time, as he won't be offended if she doesn't choose any recent ones. He also tells her to stop blaming herself and Aike echoes the thought when Taeko calls to have a shower because she can't bear the thought of using the bath (which has become something of a shrine).


Despite the efforts at being supportive, no one says much and there is no physical contact between husband and wife, let alone with the in-laws. Aike apologises for getting upset at the hospital and explains that she has only ever had to deal with losing people older than herself. Taeko understands, but isn't really taking anything in.

She holds up at the funeral, as mourners file past to place yellow flowers in the open casket. Among them is Yamazaki, who looks nervous as she joins the line. But all eyes are on the unkempt Korean man in the mustard shirt, who pays his respects before slapping Taeko, who crumples to the floor and starts sobbing, as he is the deaf husband who had abandoned her soon after Keita was born.

Taeko finds his passport and some letters and hands them over when she finds Park doing a nocturnal soup run. He apologises for his actions and accepts that she can never forgive him. But they run into each other again, when Taeko interprets for Park when he comes to the social security office to claim benefits. Still shaken by his parents' decision to move, Jiro is surprised to see his wife and her ex together. But he urges her to take the case and she helps Park get a job in an electrical store.


As his parents are due to move, Jiro starts using the bath again (holding his face underwater in a moment of quiet despair). But Makoto realises that Taeko needs more time and suggests that she keeps using their apartment until it is sold. She joins Aike on the balcony for a smoke and they discuss religion and whether faith might have saved Keita. Neither woman really believes, but the accident has made Aike realise how powerless humans are and how she needs the reassurance of a guiding presence.


While Jiro is away helping his parents settle into their new home, Taeko tries sitting in the bath fully clothed and throws up. When an earthquake strikes, she protects the Othello board that she has kept as Keita left it and is pleased that Jiro called to check she was okay. However, he was sitting in his car with Yamazaki, who just happened to be staying with her parents near where Aike and Makoto have relocated. She asks if she can see him again before he leaves and Jiro agrees.


When they meet up, Yamazaki admits that she felt resentful towards Taeko when they first met on the day of the party, as she thought she knew of her existence and was being smug. But Jiro hadn't mentioned her and Yamakazi is even more distraught because she had wished something bad would happen to spoil their idyll - only for Keita to die. She tries to apologise and Jiro kisses her, but she ticks him off for never being able to look people in the eye.


Meanwhile, Taeko has found Park on the park bench he shares with a brown-and-white spotted cat and installed them in the empty flat. She shows him the Othello board and asks a favour. He sits with her as she bathes and insists that she should stop blaming herself. However, Taeko signs that she was relieved he had shown anger at the funeral, as everyone else was trying to get used to a world without Keita as quickly as possible.


Returning from the country, Jiro sees Taeko and Park fooling around on the balcony, where he is pretending to be a ghost while hanging out his laundry. He storms across the car park to confront them, but Taeko has gone to buy cat food. Jiro scribbles a note about waiting for her and, knowing Park can't hear him, he accuses him of being selfish for coming back to express his own grief and deny him the chance to mourn with his wife. He loathes him for the pain he has caused Taeko by disappearing and for the rift her situation had prompted with his parents.


Unaware that Jiro is speaking, Park tidies up his bed roll, while the cat scampers around the room. Taeko is surprised to see Jiro when she gets back and pushes him away when he tries to kiss her. In the commotion, the cat gets out and they search the compound for it. Jiro finds it and Park suggests he should keep it. He's about to leave when Taeko panics that she won't see him again because she feels dutybound to protect him as he's so vulnerable. At that moment, the postman hands Park a letter and he asks Taeko for the money to sail home and see his dying father.


Jiro drops Park at the ferry terminal, where he signs to Taeko to ignore people who tell her to move on with her life. His plea never to forget Keita moves her and she tells Jiro that she had let Park down before when she had spotted him and turned away shortly before their wedding. But she can't abandon him again and joins him on the boat, much to Jiro's annoyance, as he had just suggested to his wife that they start making eye contact when they speak to each other.

Hitching a lift, Taeko discovers that Park had lied about his father, as he is really going to the wedding of his son by his first marriage. As she knew nothing about this, Taeko hits Park in the backseat of the car, as the driver jokes about a lovers' tiff. At the outdoor reception, Park gets attacked by his ex-wife (who is also deaf), as she had never wanted to see him again. The son explains to Taeko, who finds herself swaying to the song the wedding singer is performing. She keeps dancing after everyone else rushes inside from the rain and suddenly realises she's alone.


Back at the apartment, the sun glints off the CD dangling from a string to keep the birds off the balcony. As the beam bounces off the Othello board, Taeko comes through the door. She is giving the cat some milk when she hears a message ping on the PC. It's from Keita's online Othello partner, who had no idea he had died. Jiro comes back with shopping and they agree to go for a walk to work up an appetite for lunch. Taeko apologises and asks him to look at her. The camera lingers on the balcony to watch them cross the blue play area. They walk apart, but there's hope they will soon be back in step.

Immaculately made and played, this is a deceptively intricate study of how couples work and the many forms of loneliness. In addition to turning around three triangles - with Keita, Park, and Yamazaki each exposing fissures in Taeko and Jiro's relationship - the action also includes a four-person ménage, as Makato and Akie put pressure on their son and his wife through their respective overt and unspoken prejudices.


The mise-en-scène is scattered with telling details like height marks etched on walls that reinforce the intimacy of the story, while also enabling it to skirt its more contrived moments unscathed. For every overly convenient postman, however, there's an unexpected nun, as Fukada contemplates life's capricious capacity for getting caught on fate's breeze. He also explores modes of communication, with the scene in which Taeko and Keita use sign language to tease Jiro behind his back being as delightful as the dockside farewell is poignant. Equally touching is the online chat between Taeko and Sudo the Othello player, who bond without the eye contact that both Taeko and Yamazaki demand of Jiro. The irony, of course, is that Taeko and Park don't look into each other's eyes while signing, either, as they're too busy watching fingers.


Such acceptance of human foible and the measured pacing of the drama recalls the chamber dramas of Yasujiro Ozu. However, there are also echoes of Éric Rohmer, Hirokazu Kore-ada, and Hong San-soo in this discerning blend of acute sadness and quiet wit, which reminds us that everyday reality can't be neatly sorted into the happy and the unhappy. Forever finding new angles within Masaki Owa's confined interiors, cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto consistently emphasises the space between people who are supposed to be close to each other, while Fukada and co-editor Sylvie Lager stress the awkwardness that often comes with physical and emotional proximity.

Leading a small, but estimable ensemble, Fumino Kimura particularly excels as the bereaved mother exhibiting dignified restraint while being buffeted by both tragedy and whimsy, while Kento Nagayama adopts an air of polite formality in order to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. With Olivier Goinard's poised piano score keeping sentimentality at bay, this remains throughout an insightful and provocative treatise on the peculiarities of human nature and the sometimes absurd and often cruel randomness of existence.


2) THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS.


Scripted during the Coronavirus pandemic, Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch's The Eight Mountains arrives on UK screens in the week that it triumphed at the prestigious David Di Donatello Awards. Adapted from a prize-winning bestseller by Paolo Cognetti, this epic tale of friendship represents something of a departure scale-wise for the Belgian director of the Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012) and the Timothée Chalamet drama, Beautiful Boy (2018). Nevertheless, with its affecting performances and visuals shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio, this elegiac saga has an embracing intimacy that should make it an enduring arthouse favourite. In the summer of 1984, Pietro Guasti (Lupo Barbiero) befriends fellow 11 year-old Bruno Guglielmina (Cristiano Sassella) while spending the summer in a cottage in the Alpine hamlet of Grana with his mother Francesca (Elena Lietti). Bruno lives with his Aunt Sonia (Chiara Jorrioz) and is proud of the fact that he is the only child left in what was once a thriving community. He shows Pietro around and they are soon inseparable, as they tend the cows, climb roofs, dam streams, and discover the local dialect.


A year later, the Guastis return to the Aosta Valley and Pietro and Bruno take up where they left off. When the latter is sent to work for his farmer uncle, however, Pietro goes hiking with his father, Giovanni (Filippo Timi). Realising that his son is missing his friend, Giovanni takes him to the farm and Bruno comes on a walk with them. He also joins them for a trek to the glacier, which ends prematurely because Pietro gets altitude sickness and he feels ashamed.


He is also confused when Giovanni offers to pay for Bruno's education in Turin, as he hates the city and likes the fact that his friend is free to roam the Grenon mountains and make cheese. Bruno, however, is eager to leave his dying village and make something of himself. But he's denied the opportunity, as his bricklayer father insists on him coming to work abroad with him and Pietro (Andrea Palma) only briefly sees Bruno (Francesco Palombelli) again as a teenager before they are parted for 15 years.


Pietro barely saw his father during that period, as they had argued and he had gone his own way. When Giovanni died aged 62, however, Pietro (Luca Marinelli) returned to Grana to discover that Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) had promised to renovate the ruined hill dwelling of Barma Drola and Pietro reluctantly agrees to help fulfil his father's lost dream by labouring through the summer.


Francesca reveals that Bruno had sought their help after running away from his father and Giovanni had become fond of him. Pietro sees markings on the cottage map of the treks they had taken together and asks Bruno about them. But he says Giovanni never talked about him when they were together and Pietro regrets missing out on such special times. He doesn't feel jealous, however, as he blames himself for being so headstrong and mucks in with any task that Bruno sets him.


They transplant a sapling that had grown within the shack and Pietro hopes that it takes. Francesca comes to stay at the cottage and thanks him for helping Bruno, who is sleeping rough at the site while Pietro returns to the village each night with the two donkeys he loads up each morning with materials and supplies. As they get close to finishing the build, Pietro goes on one of his father's favourite hikes and calls down from Grenon to Bruno.


To celebrate finishing, they swim in the lake and cook fish on a bonfire. Bruno announces that he is going to restore his uncle's alpeggio, as he remains a mountain man at heart. He encourages Pietro to write, but he winds up working as a chef and brings friends Lara (Elisabetta Mazzullo), Barbara (Elisa Zanotto), and Massimo (Benedetto Patruno) to Barma Drola. Bruno teases the latter pair when they explain about opening a nature retreat and he jokes that they wouldn't survive a winter.


He takes to Lara, however, and she asks if she can work at the alpeggio. Bruno calls Pietro to check he's not treading on his toes and he gives them his blessing. She adores mountain life and starts selling their cheese in the nearby towns. They have a child and Pietro feels in the way during his visits, as they are always so busy. While staying at Barma Drola, he checks on the sapling and wishes he could talk to his father about his pressing need to do something worthwhile with his life.


Needing to find himself, Pietro goes to Nepal. By the time he visits Bruno again, he has written a book and the friends drink grappa into the night pondering who is wiser, the man who visited the world's eight mountains or the one who scaled Mount Sumeru, which is situated at its centre. Recognising their journeys, Bruno claims to be the winner and they laugh.


On his return to the Himalayas, Pietro meets Asmi (Surakshya Panta) and they become an item. Bruno is pleased for him, but disappointed that Pietro won't be able to spend as many summers in the Alps, as he has another book to write and feels he must strike while he's in vogue. Such is their bond, however, that they only want the other to be content. Pietro is hurt, therefore, when he sees Lara and Bruno arguing about paying their bills. She accuses him of being a dreamer detached from reality and this hits Pietro harder having found Giovanni's entries in the visitors' book left in a keep box beneath a cross on his favourite peak.


Hearing that Bruno has lost everything, Pietro comes back from Nepal. They meet at Barma Drola and spend their time in silence. One night, Pietro asks when Bruno is going to see his daughter again and implores him not to turn out like his father. Deeply offended, Bruno orders Pietro to leave, even though it's a winter night. Next morning, he collects his things and descends to Grana. He finds Lara waitressing and sad to have fallen out of love with Bruno. But Pietro can't abandon him and returns to the hut to make his peace.

Bruno blames himself for letting the business get too big, when all he wanted was the simple life. He reassures him that he will be fine, as the mountain would never harm him. But Pietro gets a call from Laura saying that a helicopter rescue party found no sign of Bruno, even though the cabin was snowed in. She asks if Pietro thinks that Bruno would have let himself perish, but he swears he had no morbid thoughts.


In voiceover, Pietro admits he lied and he feels sad that Barma Drola will fall into disrepair because he doesn't have the heart to return and repair the roof. Instead, he returns to Asmi and the realisation that he is condemned to a lifetime of wandering between the eight mountains without his brother.


Often feeling like a compact cross between Marco Tullio Giodardana's The Best of Youth (2003) and Edgar Reitz's Heimat (1984-2004), this is an involving, moving, and occasionally frustrating chronicle of an abiding friendship. The boxiness of Ruben Impens's outstanding cinemtography reinforces the sense of affinity, but the vistas are nonetheless imposing and provide the rugged backdrop to the shifting fortunes of the city slicker with a wanderer's soul and the mountain dweller who can't resist the call of home.


Bearded for much of the time, Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi splendidly pick up the baton handed over by the excellent Lupo Barbiero and Cristiano Sassella, as the isolated tweenagers who develop a bond that remains strong over distances and decades. There are times when the screenplay takes changes in status and attitude for granted, most notably when Pietro becomes a writer and Bruno becomes a farmer with a family. It also occasionally feels odd that the pair exist in a bubble that seems unbuffeted by the social, economic, and political events of their lifetime. But Van Groeningen and Vandermeersch are so focussed on their protagonists that secondary characters are sketchily limned, with Lara particularly coming from nowhere to change the dynamic of the narrative without the audience knowing anything about her. She's fully rounded compared to Asmi, however, who is left as a smiling paragon of exotic virtue, who seems not to mind Pietro's wanderlust. Francesca similarly lacks depth, which rather undermines her pivotal role as a mother to both boys.


More might have been made of Pietro's prodigal years, although the innate trust between the pair precludes any rivalry or tension. It does, however, leave a chunk out of Pietro's development as a man and leaves him feeling a little hollow when it comes to his emotions and intellect. There's also a tendency to accept as a horny handed montanaro Bruno, when he clearly feels deeply about the mountains and his accumulated kin. Considering how much visual emphasis is placed upon the textures of the rocks, the sparseness of contextual

details seems curious.


Dotted around the soundtrack, the folky numbers by Swedish singer-songwriter Daniel Norgren enhance the melancholic tone that makes this so affecting and compelling. But, with so much happening off screen, it's left to the forbidding beauty of the mountainscapes to drive home how fragile we are and how briefly we linger.


1) PAST LIVES.


It's been quite a year for South Korean-Canadian playwright Celine Song. In January, her feature debut, Past Lives, was feted at the Sundance Film Festival. It has since been released across the world, reaching UK screens in September. As 2023 comes to a close, Song's semi-autobiographical saga had featured on numerous US best lists and been nominated for five Golden Globes - Best Picture, Best Non-English Language Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress. One can only hope, it repeats this feat at the Academy Awards in the spring.


In a chic New York watering hole, an unseen couple (Chase Sui Wonders and Isaac Powell) speculates on why Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), and Arthur (John Magaro) are sitting together at the bar. As they watch, they wonder what the Korean pair are talking about while appearing to ignore their companion.


Almost a quarter of a century earlier, Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) had been classmates in Seoul. As they walk home from school, Hae Sung tries to console Na Young because he has beaten her in a maths test for the first time. He almost apologises for pipping her and reminds her that she will always be the clever one. Feeling reassured, Na Young returns home, where she discusses the family's imminent move to Canada with her parents (Ji Hye Yoon and Won Young Choi) and younger sister, Si Young (Seo Yeon-Woo). They have decided to adopt English names and Na Young has hit upon Nora Moon.


Knowing that their children are fond of each other and need to spend some special time together before the departure, Hae Sung and Na Young's mothers supervise a trip to the park. They clamber over statues and hold hands during the car ride home, with Na Young dozing off on Hae Sung's shoulder, as he looks intently out of the window. Although she wants to say something profound at their parting (as she had told her mother that she will probably marry him), Na Young can only summon a quick `bye', leaving Hae Sung somewhat perplexed.


A dozen years pass and Hae Sung settles into a routine in Seoul after completing his compulsory military service. Studying to become an engineer, he often meets up with old friends for soju-drinking sessions, but always seems on the periphery, perhaps because he still lives with his parents. Nora, meanwhile, is studying at college in New York. During a phone call to her mother, she learns that Hae Sung had messaged her father on his restaurant's social media page to ask how Nora is doing. She concedes that she had had a schoolgirl crush on Hae Sung and decides there would be no harm in sending him a friend request.


He replies and the pair agree to chat via webcam, even though Nora is embarrassed by how rusty her Korean has become. Having got over the shock of seeing each other again, they reminisce about the past and catch up on the previous 12 years, with the conversations becoming more spontaneous and open. Nora has ambitions to become a writer, but Hae Sung has yet to find his niche and is about to travel to China on a cultural exchange programme. Enticed by being able to indulge in a little harmless nostalgia and reconnect with home, Nora starts chatting with Hae Sung on buses and in libraries to overcome the time difference. But their communication is hindered by technology, as signals fade or screens keep freezing. Moreover, while she is pleased to have re-found her friend, Nora is discomfited when Hae Sung asks why she has never returned to Seoul. She invites him to New York, but he declines because he is off to China. At the end of one of their chats, Nora suggests that they take a break from facetiming, as she wants to devote herself to her writing and Hae Sung reluctantly agrees.


While attending a writers' residency in Montauk, Nora meets Arthur Zaturansky. They hit it off and, during a late-night discussion, Nora mentions the Korean concept of `In-Yun', which posits that some people come together because they have had a connection in a past life. This can be intimate or transient and Arthur is so taken by the idea that lovers may well have shared multiple lives that he falls for Nora and they marry.


Twelve more years pass and Nora and Arthur are both enjoying authorial success. He has written a bestseller, while she is auditioning the cast for her play. They support each other at signings and opening nights, with Arthur having learnt a smattering of Korean in order to fit in with Nora's family and friends. Things haven't been going as well for Hae Sung, however, as he has just broken up with his latest girlfriend. On a whim, he decides to fly to New York and see if he can find Nora.

They make arrangements to meet and she is touched when he brings snacks, which is a Korean gesture of affection. Recognising that he still has the natural reserve that she has shaken off in North America, Nora hugs Hae Sung and takes him sightseeing. While on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, she realises how handsome he has become and how much she has neglected the Korean side of her personality.


Feeling the bond between them, each wonders how things might have turned out had they stayed in Seoul or had remained in touch. Returning home, Nora tells Arthur about running into Hae Sung and how good it had been to see him. Stricken with insecurity, Arthur seeks reassurances that Nora isn't having any regrets and doesn't feel attracted to her childhood sweetheart. Mentioning that she has started speaking Korean in her sleep, Arthur admits that he feels excluded from that aspect of her life and fears that he might not be exciting enough for her. Nora swears, however, that, while she has been examining her relationship to her cultural identity, she has not come to the conclusion that she and Hae Sung are destined to be together.


Reasoning that Arthur and Hae Sung need to meet so that each can understand her relationship with the other, Nora suggests they have dinner. This brings them to the East Village bar where they were being people-watched. As Nora and Hae Sung are chatting in Korean, Arthur nurses his drink. When Hae Sung mentions `In-Yun', Nora admits that she has no idea what they had meant to each other in their past lives. What she does know, however, is that they are no longer the kids who had doted on each other at school or had felt the thrill of an online reunion after so long apart.


When Nora excuses herself to go to the bathroom, Hae Sung apologises to Arthur in halting English for monopolising his wife and for speaking in Korean. He insists he doesn't mind, as he knows they need to talk and resolve their situation and nods when Hae Sung informs him that In-Yun applies to them, too.


Walking back to Nora and Arthur's apartment, she waits with Hae Sung for his Uber to arrive. After a period of silence, he wonders how this moment fits into their past connections and whether they will ever find each other again in the future. Embracing briefly, Nora sees Hae Sung into his car and walks slowly home pondering the meaning of his last words, `I'll see you then.' Arthur is waiting for her outside the door and wraps her in his arms, as she starts to sob. Barely looking at the passing scene, Hae Sung sits in the backseat of the cab and heads for the airport.


Exquisite in every regard and one of the most cinematic films a playwright has ever produced, this three-act love story doubles as a study of national and cultural identity and a celebration of the way in which people and places and the past and present shape the intellectual and emotional sides of our personality. As might be expected of someone with a theatrical background, Celine Song's dialogue is eloquent and incisive. But her use of silence is also exemplary, as she not only leaves space for the principals to express themselves through body language, stillness, and their eyes, but also gives the viewer time to consider what has been said and assess how applicable it is to their own experience. Consequently, the film slips between passages of wit and insight worthy of peak era Woody Allen or Richard Linklater's Before trilogy and the kind of contemplative humanist compassion that one associates with Yasujiro Ozu.


Shooting on 35mm, Song ensures that Shabier Kirchner's camera is considerably more mobile, as it captures the sights and atmosphere of Seoul and New York with a mix of detachment and intimacy that is maintained by both Keith Fraase's deft editing and the switches between ebullience and wistfulness in Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen's perceptive score. Grace Yun's production design similarly emphasises the differences between Nora and Hae Sung's milieux, while Katina Danabassis's costumes reveal how Korean he remains, while she becomes more cosmopolitan.


Much, of course, depends on the calibre of the performances. Teo Yoo employs hesitancy to suggest the difficulty that Hae Sung has in understanding and expressing his feelings, while John Magaro hides Arthur's aesthetic and emotional maturity behind his video gaming and the decision to call his debut novel, Boner. His pillow talk with Nora and barroom chat with Hae Sung are as well judged in hinting at his anxious envy as the Skype montage had been in showing how Nora momentarily allows her heart to rule her head before she refocusses her eyes on the prize. This tussle between ambition and self-possession and nostalgia and passion underpins Greta Lee's exceptional appreciation of the difficulties of being both a modern woman and an old-fashioned romantic. In a perfect world, she and Song would each win Oscars. But their film will have taught them (and us) that sometimes you just have to own your choices and settle without regret for what the fates will allow.


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