• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (8/4/2022)

(Reviews of Small Body; True Things; Homebound; You Are Not My Mother; A Night of Knowing Nothing; and All I Can Say)


Lord alone knows what it's like out there for you folks who can move about at your own volition. From the vantage point of someone who has spent the last two decades as an enforced homebody, it can only be presumed that cinema-going is pretty much a normal activity again, despite the spike in Covid casses.


Rest assured, however, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained. Whatever choice you make, think of others to make sure everyone stays safe.


SMALL BODY.


In 2016, Laura Samani took her film school short, The Sleeping Saint, to Cannes. That same year, she learned about the existence of the sanctuaries in Northern Italy and across the French Alps that claimed to be able to revive stillborn babies for the single breath required for them to be baptised and spared the fate of spending eternity in Limbo. After an extensive period of research, Semani now bases her feature debut, Small Body, around a myth that inspired innumerable acts of simple faith in the centuries before the Roman Catholic Church abandoned a concept that had caused Dante Alighieri to place virtuous pagans and such classical philosophers as Plato and Soctrates in Limbo in The Divine Comedy.


On a small island off the coast of north-eastern Italy in 1900, Agata (Celeste Cescutti) prepares to give birth by participating in a ceremony in which she washing a cut palm in the sea while praying to the Virgin Mary for protection. However, her daughter is stillborn and her husband, Mattia (Denis Corbatto), has buried the body in a small wooden box before she has recovered.


Tipped off by the priest's housekeeper about a place in Ignac in the Dolais Valley where infants can be revived and sent to glory, she steals Mattia's fishing boat and rows to the mainland. In the woods, she meets Lince (Ondina Quadri), who offers to show her the way, if she allows him to sell her breast milk. Agata is forcibly bundled into a cart and is heading north when they are ambushed by a notorious female bandit (Giacomina Dereani). On seeing the contents of the box that Agata is carrying over her shoulder, the woman lets her pass and Lince makes her promise to give him half of what the box contains if he escorts her to the Dolais Valley.


Reaching the entrance to a coal tunnel through the mountain, the pair are warned that no woman has ever made it through alive. Unwilling to make a two-day detour, Agata insists on taking the risk and, with a canary tweeting in a box, they venture into the darkness. Lince wants to go back. But Agata is undaunted and describes the sea to distract him and they reach sunlight with a mix of satisfaction and relief.


After washing in the stream and breakfasting on mushrooms and nuts, the travellers press on. They sing by a campfire and Lince wonders what's inside the box, as Agata uses it as a pillow. When she wakes, she realises she has started bleeding and Lince helps her reach his home village. His parents refuse to help because they think it's unnatural for a girl to wear men's clothing. But an old woman (Anna Pia Bernardis) tends to Agata in return for her hair.


The next morning, Agata tells Lince that she is carrying her dead daughter and he feels so cheated that he sends her on alone. A ferryman takes her over a mountain lake, but she seems to lose faith and opens the box to peer inside. Perhaps feeling the body has deteriorated too much to be revived, she lowers the box into the water.


However, she has second thoughts and dives down to retrieve her child. The sacrifice costs Agata her life and Lince finds mother and daughter lying together in the snow. He struggles on to the sanctuary, where an elderly hermit (Marco Geromin) tells him not to be afraid, as the child takes a single breath. As the film ends, Agata cradles her baby to her breast in the depths of the lake.


Despite being betrayed during the climactic miracle by a glaringly bad piece of computer-generated imagery, this is a deeply moving study of belief and superstition that evokes memories of The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), Ermanno Olmi's Palme d'or-winning rumination on peasant life in the eastern part of Lombardy in the 1890s. Indeed, just as that masterpiece used the Bergamesque patois, so Samani and co-writers Elisa Dondi and Marco Borromei have their characters speak in the Friulian and Venezian dialects in order to reinforce the fact that turn-of-the-century Italy had yet to become a homogeneous state some four decades after Il Risorgimento.


Along with the inclusion of the cross-dressing Lince and the chauvinist jinx placed on the mine tunnel, this political aside gives the action a disarmingly modern feel. However, Samani and cinematographer Mitja Licen give proceedings a timeless feel through their views of the Carnic and Tarvisio mountains and the lagoons of Caorle and Bibione. The haunting a cappella songs composed by Fredrika Stahl also seem to cross the centuries, as they strengthen the connection between fallacy and faith and the potency of the maternal spirit.


In learning about human nature and how godless life can be, debuting non-professional Celeste Cescutti gives Agata a resilience and intensity that contrasts with the watchful worldly wisdom that Ondina Quadri's gender-fluid Lince has been forced to adopt in order to hide his vulnerability and the pain of being disowned. They never quite come to trust one another, but their mutual reliance leaves a lasting resonance.


TRUE THINGS.


Adapted from Deborah Kay Davies's 2010 novel, True Things About Me, Harry Wootliff's True Things is an unsettling follow-up to her acclaimed debut, Only You (2018). Co-scripted by Molly Davies, it chronicles a reckless romance from the perspective of a vulnerable character with a rebellious streak, whose willingness to be hurt sometimes makes her motives difficult to fathom. Yet it's this refusal to explain and justify that makes this low-key drama so compelling, if never exactly persuasive.


Thirtysomething Kate Perkin (Ruth Wilson) works in a benefits office in Ramsgate. Despite getting the job through best friend Alison (Hayley Squires), Kate can't help winding up her boss, David (Michael Moreland), with her time-keeping and failure to focus. Thus, when the rascally charismatic Kendrick (Tom Burke) invites her to lunch, she readily breaks the rule about dating clients (and a blind date set up by Alison) and relishes the thrill of a knee-trembler on the upper deck of a multi-storey car park.


Logging him as Blond in her phone, Kate ignores Alison's warnings about dalliances with strangers and enjoys fantasising about a man she knows nothing about, apart from the fact he has just been released from prison. She tell her nan (Ann Firbank) about meeting someone, when she visits her care home. But she's more guarded with her parents (Elizabeth Rider and Frank McCusker), who are highly protective, perhaps because she's not always chosen wisely in the past.


Relieved when Blond texts her after an agonising silence, Kate bunks off work and watches him skinny dip in a secluded pool before making love to the sound of buzzing flies. But he gets restless the moment she says she wishes they could stay like this forever and she doesn't hear from him for several days.


Accepting some veg from her father's garden (including a tomato with a maggot in it), Kate goes on her delayed date with Rob (Tom Weston-Jones), only to put him off by coming on too strong in his car and being left to walk home. However, she bumps into Blond, who leaves her stranded after inviting her to a party. He turns up on her doorstep and spends the night. But, when she goes shopping for breakfast, he does a flit with her car, leaving only a dashed-off note.


Alison suggests calling the police when he fails to return the vehicle, but Kate cuts off contact after she gets fired. Blond turns up some time later and is offhand when they meet in a pub. He dismisses having called her his soulmate and mocks her when she asks to be his girlfriend. Nevertheless, he invites her to his sister's wedding in Spain and a confused Kate flies out to meet him after enduring weeks of drift and nightmares.


In their apartment, he proposes out of the blue and sulks when Kate doesn't immediately accept. He sneers at the shoes she has brought for the wedding and leaves her to her own devices at the reception. When he jumps into the pool fully clothed, Kate walks out and dances the night away at a club. Finding him sleeping, she leaves a note (as he had done earlier) and heads home.


As Tom Burke had played an equally feckless beau in Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir (2019), we know exactly what to expect of him when he sidles up to Ruth Wilson's desk. He doesn't disappoint with a display of self-obsessed insouciance that makes Wilson's self-lacerating insecurity all the more painfully poignant. Whether daydreaming of erotic encounters or fretting about cryptic absences, Wilson exudes an emotional fragility that is made empathetically tantalising by the flashes of barbed wit that characterise her defiant dealings with anyone who tries to pry or pity her.


She puts up with a lot, but also inflicts a good deal of distress upon herself, particularly by flying to Spain for a family function that can only expose her again to Blond's indifference. Rather than ending in tears, however, the sojourn prompts Kate to cut her losses and regain control of her life. That said, she still has a number of bridges to mend and she needs to find a new job.


By not delving overly into either Kate or Blond's backgrounds, Wootliff is able to get away with contrivances that would send alarm signals with better-drawn characters. However, she and editor Tim Fulford make deft use of Ashley Connor's intimate imagery to appreciate Kate's destabilising mindset. Joakim Sundström's sound mix and Alex Baranowski's score also complement each other tidily to contrast her romanticised perception of the illicit trysts with the less rarefied reality of Blond's verbal, carnal and psychological cruelty.


HOMEBOUND.


Jack Clayton is one of the forgotten British directors of the 1960s. But two of his finest films, The Innocents (1961) and Our Mother's House (1967), appear to have had an impact on writer-director Sebastian Godwin's feature bow, Homebound.


Driving towards a remote house in the country, newlywed city girl Holly (Aisling Loftus) is reassured by older husband Richard (Tom Goodman-Hill) that she will get a warm weekend welcome from his three children, Lucia (Hattie Gotobed), Ralph (Lukas Rolfe) and Anna (Raffiella Chapman). Richard seems unconcerned that ex-wife Nina has chosen to absent herself from Anna's birthday celebrations and produces cake and champagne when the trio eventually present themselves after a fruitless search of the premises.


Richard is a bluff sort and shocks Holly when he suggests killing a goose for lunch. Lucia slits the bird's throat with relish after Ralph declines, but no one seems to have much appetite at lunch. Indeed, Holly starts feeling even more ill at ease after a visit to the gloomy cellar to find a bottle of wine. When the others go swimming in the garden pool, she lingers to do a bit of snooping. But is dragged off to join the others by Lucia, who seems anxious to keep the outsider away from a black door.


Having decided not to tell the children about their marriage, Richard and Holly get cross when they catch Lucia and Ralph eavesdropping on their pillow talk. The mood remains tense the following morning, with Holly being keen to get back to town, while also not wanting to leave her stepkids alone. She sees Anna burying a doll in the woods and is frustrated when Richard merely shrugs after she finds Nina's phone (complete with many unanswered texts) while rummaging in her room.


Eventually, things come to a head with the discovery of a body in the cellar (which remains off camera) and the children react violently when Richard tries to coerce Ralph into explaining what has happened. But his bludgeoning with a spade doesn't bode well for Holly, who is informed by Lucia that `it is time', as the screen fades to black.


With Tom Goodman-Hill knocking back the hooch and blaming his unseen spouse for his sullen offspring's increasingly sinister behaviour (and his own parental inadequacies), there's little wonder that Aisling Loftus starts to wish she'd waited a little longer before saying `I do'. There isn't much romantic spark between the pair, while her lack of curiosity about his personality and prior life means that the story starts with a specious premise. However, Godwin builds a palpable sense of Jamesian unease from the moment Holly steps out of the car and leaves himself with ample excuse to return to the characters for a prequel along the lines of Michael Winner's The Nightcomers (1971).


Whether whispering conspiratorially or playing unsettling piano duets, Hattie Gotobed and Lukas Rolfe are suitably Midwichian in their malevolence, while Raffiella Chapman suggests a disturbing melancholy beneath her eager exterior. But they are rather let down by the decision to keep their handiwork off screen, as Godwin leaves the audience to paint their own pictures to the accompaniment of Jeremy Warmsley's jagged score.


Cinematographer Sergi Vilanova Claudín keeps the camera prowling around the grounds and interiors of Wiveton Hall, which some may recognise as the setting for the BBC documentary series, Normal For Norfolk (2016-17). Thank goodness it doesn't have a woodshed!


YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER.


Ever since the publication of W.B. Yeats's `The Stolen Child' in 1886, the notion of infant abduction has haunted the Irish imagination. Made in the wake of the revelations about the Magdalene laundries, horrors like Aisling Walsh's The Daisy Chain (2008), David Keating's Wake Wood (2009), Ciarán Foy's Citadel (2012) and Aislinn Clarke's The Devil's Doorway (2018) preyed upon the dread lodged in the Irish psyche. Joining this disconcerting cabal is Kate Dolan's You Are Not My Mother, which adds to the mix some of the myths relating to Dark Faeries and Changelings that were explored in Corin Hardy's The Hallow (2015).


Having had her face scarred as a baby during a fire ritual that her grandmother, Rita (Ingrid Craigie), had hoped would protect her from being snatched away, Dublin teenager Charlotte (Hazel Doupe) is having a tough time coping with the mood swings of her mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), the demands of having been promoted a year at school, and the bullying of class mean girls, Kelly (Katie White), Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) and Amanda (Florence Adebambo).


Teacher Mrs Devlin (Jade Jordan) tries to keep an eye on Char, as does her Uncle Aaron (Paul Reid). But rumours circulating about madness in the family are exacerbated when Angela disappears for a day and Char is unnerved when she returns with a sunny disposition and insists on dancing around the kitchen to Joe Dolan's `You're Such a Good-Looking Woman'. Nevertheless, Rita gives Char a charm to protect her and her fears grow that something untoward is going on when Aaron is hospitalised after Angela grinds up her medication to spike his tea.


Annoyed by Suzanne's attempts to befriend Char, Kelly threatens her with an aerosol can and a lighter. But she's more concerned by the fact that Angela holds her under the water after Char tries to help her when she wades fully clothed into the river. She's also spooked when her mother puts half her arm down her throat to induce vomiting and goes into a cacklingly frantic dance to the Dolan tune before chasing her up the stairs, in spite of having snapped her ankle.


During a school trip to the local museum, Char learns about faerie folk seeking entrance to the human world through water and is grateful to Suzanne for thwarting Kelly's latest attempt to bully her. They bunk off to some wasteland and Suzanne teaches Char to smoke, while explaining that their estate was built on bogland. Char invites Suzanne home for supper, but Rita asks her to leave and she flees when Angela creeps up behind her and whispers in her ear.


Alone that night, Rita confesses that she was responsible for the scorch marks on Char's face, as she had tried to prevent her being abducted with her mother when she was a baby. The fire had got out of hand, but Rita still believes that Angela is a Changeling and that the faeries won't rest until they have also claimed Char. The teenager is horrified to find that Rita has tied her daughter to the bed to prevent her doing harm and regrets releasing her when she is locked in her room and hears Angela threatening her mother.


On Halloween, Kelly asks Suzanne for sanctuary, but she knows her father will refuse to have her under his roof. So, they decide to lure Angela away, only for Kelly to intercept her and barricade her inside a pallet pyre. She douses it with petrol and sets light to the wood. But Suzanne rescues her and they succeed in trapping Angela inside. The police explain to Aaron that they fear his sister has perished in the blaze and ask whether he's in a fit state to care for Char now that her grandmother has died. As he listens, the doorbell rings and Char is relieved to see that Angela has been released by the faeries and she gives her a talisman for protection.


Having impressed with her 2018 short, Catcalls, Dolan graduates to features with equal aplomb in this unsettling generational chiller that would make a fine companion piece to Australian Natalie Erika James's Relic (2020). As in that film, three women are menaced by unseen forces in a creepy domicile. Production designer Lauren Kelly works wonders to turn a North Dublin council house into dankly sinister source of dread, whose shadows are made all the more unnerving by the blaring horns on composer and sound designer Die Hexen's score.


Often reduced to peering through half-open doors or plates of obscure glass, Narayan van Maele's camera also makes the estate look forbidding, as the boggy soil suggests that evil is lurking beneath its streets. There's no wonder, therefore, that Hazel Doupe forever looks pensive, as she seems surrounded on all sides by malevolence, trauma and dysfunction. Carolyn Bracken's angularly intense display of latent unpredictability certainly keeps her on edge, but the bullying of Katie White and her cohorts seems to have been included solely to show Doupe how to make a DIY flamethrower.


Yet, for all its atmospheric trappings, the film is hamstrung by the fact that so much of its pivotal action happens off screen. We see next to nothing of Char's life before Angela's sudden disappearance and only have Rita's word for what has happened to the family in the past. She also rather undermines any insights into mental illness by rooting Angela's issues in her demonic possession. But she's not alone in this, as Rose Glass has a similar problem in Saint Maud (2019).


A NIGHT OF KNOWING NOTHING.


Faint echoes of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's Memory Box (2021) can be heard throughout Payal Kapadia's feature debut, A Night of Knowing Nothing. Co-scripted by Himanshu Prajapati, this treatise on recent Indian history, the role of cinema on the subcontinent and the value of a university education is inspired by the discovery in a cupboard in Room S18 at the Film and Television Institute of India of some student letters and a box of archive footage.


Over silent images of young people dancing, L reads a letter to her absent boyfriend, K, whose parents have locked him in his room because he has told them he wishes to marry. She describes a film she is editing and mentions the disturbances on campus. These are explained in newsreels as being part of a 139-day protest in 2015 against the appointment of soap opera actor Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the FTII because he is a lackey of the RSS government.


In another letter, L tells K about the student elections and how close she feels to their classmates. She agrees they are privileged to be making films in a subsidised academy, but wonders how they would ever get that chance if the FTII didn't exist.


She asks if he still keeps newspaper cuttings and we see headlines about violent incidents in India, as intolerance is allowed to go unchecked. We hear about the suicide of 26 year-old Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula, who wanted to draw attention to the treatment of the Dalit community (formerly known as `the untouchables').


As caste differences were responsible for driving L and her man apart, she reflects on the treatment of the Dalits and Bahujans and wonders why India can't escape from the prejudices of its past. Moreover, she ponders why K feels able to protest on the streets, but can't stand up to the parents who disapprove of L because she's from a lower caste. She admits to being disappointed by him and wonders if they ever really had a connection. Captions reveal that L has stopped sending the letters, as she is now writing to someone she wishes had existed rather than K himself.


In her letters, L makes frequent reference to the arrest and release of three students from the left-leaning Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She marches against the hike in student fees and wonders what the working-class female police officers on duty think of the bourgeois protesters and whether they realise they are demonstrating to ensure that the poor get an education and the chance to better themselves. L hates the idea that some people are being made `less Indian than others' and laments that the Hindu nationalist élite governs for itself rather than the nation as a whole.


Police used violence to break up the protests, with one Muslim student revealing that he had to prove he was not a terrorist in order to obtain his release from prison, Over footage of students being rounded-up from a hideout, L describes a dream in which her friends are dissolved in water and she is powerless to help them.


This appears to have been L's last letter. She ended it with a note stating that `everything will be remembered'. We hear part of a speech to FTII students that they have a duty to entertain and educate the masses, even though this is difficult in divisive times that have allowed bigots to put populists like Narendra Modi and Donald Trump into power. Maybe in 100 years, cinema will have been forgotten, but the need to tell stories will remain.


With Bhumisuta Das voicing L in a melancholic tone that speaks to her lament for a lost love and her pessimism for her country's future, this is an affecting collage that lays bare the problems facing the world's biggest democracy. The 8mm and 16mm images (most of them in monochrome and the Academy ratio and suffering from a gate weave that makes them seem at once distant and immediate) are skillfully used by editor Ranabir Das to comment on L's reflections and confront the audience with the realities that can never be forgotten.


Given the importance of anti-caste social reformer B.R. Ambedkar to the letters and the demonstrations, the ICA might have shown this in a double bill with another epistolatory documentary, Suneil Sanzgiri's Letter From Your Far-Off Country. Alternatively, it could be shown with another personal memoir of turbulent times, Firouzeh Khosrovani's Radiograph of a Family (both 2020), as this was one of many films that got lost during lockdown and it would have been well worth the excellent MUBI's while to have kept them online in its archive.


ALL I CAN SAY.


Nothing dates people more than music. Thus, only those of a certain age and taste will be familiar with Shannon Hoon, the frontman of Blind Melon, who rose to ubiquitous fame in the early 1990s. However, anyone watching the video diary footage collated by Danny Clinch, Taryn Gould and Colleen Hennessy for their documentary, All I Can Say, will feel as though they have an intimate knowledge of a musician who remains something of an enigma three decades after his wastefully early death.


Despite being a mosaic of fragments, this account of Hoon's career has a readily followable chronological structure that begins with the 18 year-old leaving Lafayette, Indiana for Los Angeles in 1985. At a party, he so impressed Brad Smith and Roger Stevens with an acoustic rendition of his song, `Change', that they invited him to play with them and Blind Melon was formed with the addition of Glen Graham and Christopher Thorn.


Having looked up his sister Anna's old school friend, Axl Rose, Hoon found himself singing backing vocals on the Guns N' Roses album Use Your Illusion. He also recorded a four-song demo with his band and Blind Lemon was quickly whisked on to the balcony of the Capitol building to sign a contract. Footage shows Hoon confessing his surprise at the speed with which he was climbing the ladder. However, the pace only increased following the release of the MTV video for `No Rain', which featured Heather DeLoach in a bee costume. Crowds flocked to gigs and Blind Melon guested on countless high-profile TV shows.


Camera in hand, Hoon recorded everything from recording sessions and interviews to gigs and encounters with fans. One highlight saw the band make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Others allowed Hoon to eavesdrop on Neil Young singing his song, `Helpless', in his dressing-room and walk the wrong way across the zebra crossing on Abbey Road. But there were also lows, notably an indecent exposure charge after urinating on a fan at a show in Vancouver (hence, presumably, the extended bathroom clip). Hoon also became increasingly addicted to drink and drugs and played at Woodstock `94 in his longtime girlfriend Lisa's white dress.


When she became pregnant, Hoon agreed to go into rehab and was present (complete with camera) at the birth of his daughter, Nico. Home movies show him as a doting dad. But, shortly after the 28th birthday that prevented him joining Kurt Cobain in the infamous 27 Club, Hoon went on a bender after a gig in New Orleans to promote Blind Melon's second album, Soup. The next day (21 October 1995), he was found unresponsive on the tour bus and pronounced dead at the scene.


As the film is made up exclusively of footage that Hoon recorded, this is very much a record from within the eye of the storm that swept Blind Melon to fame. For all the fly-on-the-wall immediacy, however, there's little sense of perspective, as the unfiltered Hoon recorded so compulsively so that he could take stock of what he had achieved when the fuss died down. Moreover, there's no qualitative insight into Hoon's music or its legacy. So, those seeking analysis will have to wait for the DVD, which is slated to include an interview between Judd Apatow and Hoon's co-directors among the extras.


As an editorial exercise, this is rather remarkable, as Hoon left hours of material. His habit of recording interviews also proves invaluable, as he is able to be his own narrator. Some of the live performances might have been allowed to run their course to allow viewers a chance to gauge Blind Melon's merit. But the rapidity of the cutting is key to conveying the sense of Hoon the rocker, the stoner, the jester, the provocateur and the loner being at the centre of a whirlwind that left him little opportunity to enjoy the fame for which he was wholly unprepared, let alone consider its psychological effects and the disillusion-inducing pressures of coming up with new songs while being incessantly on the road and in demand.


Throughout his brief time in the spotlight, he had the gift of being in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, just as new avenues were starting to open up, his luck simply ran out.


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