The Childhood of a Leader [2015] – A Visually Striking Offbeat Period Drama





Actor Brady Corbet’s brilliant directorial debut has a title that brings up a set of expectations & questions. When my friend finished watching The Childhood of a Leader, he asked ‘who is this leader?’ and ‘what’s the particular moment you think made him to be this type of leader?’ Brady Corbet never gives clear-cut answer to such questions. In fact, he calls his movie ‘an anti-origin’ story, which subverts preordained narrative beats to create a poetic as well as an unsettling parable about the rise of fascism.  The Childhood of a leader is one-fourth historical fiction and three-fourth psychodrama, set against the background of 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The titular child in question is a wilful young boy (Tom Sweet), the son of a brusque diplomat (Liam Cunningham), who serves in American President Woodrow Wilson’s negotiating team at the Paris Conference. The boy’s mother (Berenice Bejo) is a repressed & devoutly religious woman. There’s something of Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’, as hints are dropped that the boy may grow up to be a fascist leader. Nevertheless, the boy’s transformation from innocence to corruption is anything but conventional. Brady Corbet’s nuanced film-form and the mesmerizing orchestral score conjures an unnerving, somber tone that it becomes profound examination of political evil.

The Childhood of a Leader derives its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s short-story. But Brady Corbet confides that the story owes more to Margaret MacMillan’s non-fiction book ‘Paris 1919’ than Sartre’s tale. Director Brady was interested by the idea of creating the character of an alienated child, whose alienation and repression is itself ironically caused by the peace talks. The psychological violence inflicted on the child, in the background of peace conference, sort of becomes catalyst for shaping the near-future authoritarian leader. The script was co-written by Brady’s partner Mona Fastvold. The screen-writing duo sensibly avoids retelling the history and adapts a poetic tone, which gives viewers ample space for contemplation and to bring their own ideas on what the film is about. The Childhood of a Leader could even be read as subtle warning about the revival of extreme right-wing (in the contemporary Geo-politics arena). But the film would also perfectly work for cineastes, who don’t want to interpret political ideologies but rather prefer to lose themselves in the exemplary impressionistic compositions.


The movie opens with retro credits, juddering score, and montage of key World War I footage. We get the first glimpse of the ‘child’ or the boy – whose name (Prescott) is only mentioned towards the end – wearing angelic wings during the rehearsal of church’s nativity play. Soon, we see the same child throwing rocks at the fellow parishioners. The reason for the boy’s strange, displaced behavior is pondered over gradually. The boy and his parents have only recently arrived to the remote, wintry village in France (from US). Diplomat dad spends much of his time in the city, heading over Secretary Lansing’s negotiating team. The German mother and son are confined to the old, crumbling mansion. Of the mansion’s servant, an elderly French woman showers immense love on the boy. The other important member visiting the mansion is an attractive local girl named Ada (Stacy Martin), who teaches French to the boy. A day after stone-throwing incident, the boy’s mother takes him to apologize to the priest. It becomes the starting point of the boy’s power struggle with his parents. What follows is not series of cliched events to depict how a sociopath is made. Similar to the style of Haneke or Lars Von Trier, director Brady Corbet stirs up the existential dread without delivering a fixed dramatic blow. The tension is superbly orchestrated that we don’t bother much about the lack of a 'bang' or its open-ended nature. It’s worth watching for just experiencing the genuinely intimidating and uneasy atmosphere.      

Brady Corbet has done wide variety of roles in international as well as American indie circuit. He has worked with renowned directors like Michael Haneke (Funny Games US), Lars Von Trier (Melancholia), Mia Hansen-Love (Eden), Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure), and Oliver Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria). Despite playing small roles in the works of European auteurs, it must have been an ideal experience for the 27 year old actor to put him in the path of fulfilling his directorial dreams. In the reference column, Brady cites Sartre, Hannah Arendt, John Fowles and mentions Robert Bresson and Carl Theoder Dreyer as huge influence in shaping his debut feature. The bewildered perspective of the boy draws comparisons worthy of Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948) and the candle-lit compositions plus the shadowy elegance of certain frames pays fitting homage to Kubrickian aesthetics. Despite citing this long list of masterful literary and movie references, Brady’s direction never turns out to be a mere derivative. Brady Corbet and British cinematographer Lol Crowley have worked wonders in weaving a rich language, especially after considering the shoe-string budget (Brady also credits production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos for the film’s rich look, who is said to have taken cues from Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece ‘The Tree of Wooden Clogs' (1978)). Most of the long, masterful handheld shots are lit with natural light. The ghostly white profile of the boy cloaked in sailor shirts, set against earthy background tones reminds us of Renaissance art. The mid-shots of characters staring off into the distance alongside the graceful zoom-outs serve as wonderful tribute to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).


The Childhood of a Leader is a microcosm of the interwar period (between World War I & II). It depicts how the thin veil of peace talks couldn’t eventually conceal the deep-rooted lust for power and authoritarian behavior of the European & American adults. The focus is more on this greater irony than in detailing the events that misshaped Prescott to fully embrace his sociopathic tendencies. The script avoids narrative threads and red herrings, in order to realize tiny moments, which anchors the boy’s psychology and raises more questions. The strange aspect of the film’s formal design lies in its absence of a fixed character perspective. We don’t exactly share Prescott’s viewpoints, although we could feel his frustrations and bewilderment. Like the unsettled Prescott, we too feel that things are quite beyond understanding. Some of the sequences moves like fever dream, seen from none of the character’s perspective. Combined with Scott Walker’s menacing soundtrack, these aesthetic choices give a feeling of being caught inside an indecipherable nightmare.

The narrative restraint and slow-burn nature won’t definitely work for many. Most of the non-event sequences are totally open-ended about their implications. While it grows to a dreadful crescendo, there are no rich payoffs. This will bother those who expect some answers. Although Brady Corbet hasn’t written any big dramatic events, he subtly hints at little moments which may have served as small building blocks in creating the ‘leader’. For example, Prescott’s emotional burst after the dismissal of his only beloved friend and when he recites the story of lion and mouse with the message ‘Little friends may prove great friends’. The ending (‘Prescott, the bastard') set in fictional country isn’t very satisfying. It looks like the conventional part of this defiant manner of storytelling (although formally the final sequence seemed grandiose). Nine year old Tom Sweet as the titular child gives one of the best child performances in recent times (he’d never acted before). His sullen scowl and impassive expression casts a long shadow throughout the narrative. 

Trailer

 

The Childhood of a Leader (116 minutes) is a timely allegory about the rise of a grim leader in a totalitarian world. Director Brady Corbet’s exemplary visual language and the central performances make this a gripping art-house drama. 

 ★★★★

The Executioner [1963] – A Powerful Black Comedy on the Hypocrisy of Social System




Luis Garcia Berlanga’s Spanish masterpiece The Executioner aka El Verdugo (1963) is a satirical indictment of the state bureaucracy and the violence it perpetrates with apathy. Director Berlanga was one of the most influential & vital Spanish film-maker of his generation. He endured the brunt of harsh censorship that marked Franco’s military dictatorship. Mr. Berlanga never confined himself to a particular ideology and until his retirement in 1999 he boldly addressed the moral decay of those in power. I haven’t seen any of the films Mr. Berlanga made after 1975 (after the death of Franco). However, among the great subversive films he made in 1950s and early 1960s, my topmost favorite is The Executioner. 

After the scandal regarding Luis Bunuel’s Virdinia (1961), the Spanish government and censors did its best to stop the release of The Executioner. Yet, the film managed to slip past the censors to be screened at Venice Film Festival, where it won FIPRESCI prize. Franco himself condemned Berlanga as ‘a bad Spaniard; worse than a communist’. The oppression and rigidity brought upon individuals by the state authority, in the name of responsibility is what repeatedly explored through The Executioner. The film opens in a state prison as undertaker Jose Luis (Nino Manfredi) brings in empty coffin and waits for the execution process to finish. Jose meets the executioner Amadeo (Jose Isbert), a short, frail old man. Jose wonders how simple the guy looks that if he ever met him in a cafĂ©, he wouldn’t have guessed about the old man’s profession. 


Jose, of course, doesn’t even want to give a lift to Amadeo in their van. Yet, fate lands Jose in Amadeo’s house where he meets the executioner’s daughter Carmen (Emma Penella). Jose dreams of going to Germany and be a mechanic. However, he soon gets entangled with Amadeo’s family. Jose eventually marries pregnant Carmen. Thanks to Amadeo’s forty year service, Jose may finally live in a three-bedroom apartment allocated by the state. But, the usual bureaucratic confusion threatens to rob the family out of their apartment dream. In order to keep the home, Jose is forced to follow Amadeo’s profession as the old man is about to retire. 

Co-written by one of the prominent Spanish screenwriter and Berlanga’s long-time collaborator, Mr. Rafael Azcona, the script extracts lot of humor from strangely discomfiting situations. There are a lot of Kafkaesque elements in the way narrative observes the horrors of bureaucracy; it elegantly juxtaposes abnormal elements with the mundane. The dead pan humor could be enjoyed by viewers all around the world. The speedy verbiage adds a lot of colorful shades to the humor. It’s slyly funny when Amadeo observes how the modern criminals lack the bravery when they march for their death and also when he laments how the profession of an executioner is grossly misunderstood. The biggest strength of the script lies in the manner it clings to realism without being a full-blown satire or farce. Beneath the comedic edge, Berlanga and Azcona ingrain a humanist perspective, which puts us (like Jose) in a complete distressing situation towards the end.  


The most phenomenal quality of The Executioner is the impeccable use of mise en scene. In the majority of sequences, Berlanga opens the shot with activities of people, not particularly relevant for the narrative. The frustrated police officer in the prison who isn’t allowed to drink his soup in peace; driving the coffin from airport tarmac, followed by a line of black-clad mourners; the observation of tourist boom with the arrival of beauty pageant contestants, the aim is to realize the strictly-regulated domestic spaces, which propels with its own sense of logic. Director Belanger often visually hints at Jose being a man who hides from responsibility (the kind propagated by stringent bureaucracy). He nearly rejects to take the executioner’s bag; he hides when Amadeo arrives to find him in Carmen’s bedroom; he clad himself in a hilarious outfit to masquerade his profession. There’s nothing amorous in how Jose looks at Carmen. May be, he chose to marry Carmen to avoid a confrontation. In fact, Jose never confronts anybody. In the end, Jose is burdened with distressing personal responsibility; the one institutional authority imposes on him. Belanger often studies Jose’s face, full of desperate glances, to show how he is the perfect man to bear this dehumanizing logic of authorial figures. 

There are many great visual gags which unfurls in the background, hinting at the absurdity of the situation. Jose’s wedding sequence is one of the most hilarious moments in the film.  Mr. Belanger’s light comedic touches in the earlier sequences pave way to more chilling observations towards the end. Jose’s life journey is sandwiched between two long shots: In the earlier shot, we see Jose the undertaker driving off the van from the towering prison compound, while in the other shot Jose is dragged off across a vast white-walled corridor to do his job. The final sequences raise some hard-hitting questions about state-sanctioned executions. The comedic characteristics are replaced with a more grueling realism in the final sequences. The strong sense of humanity resonates when prison guards and priest haul the executioner forcefully rather than the person who’s to be executed (the warden calling what Jose about to do as an act of mercy raises some vital questions about death penalty). Although the Italian actor Nino Manfredi is marvelous in portraying Jose, the man who signs off his life while eating cone, the veteran actor Jose Isbert happens to the scene-stealer. Mr. Isbert instills Amadeo with a banality and effortlessness that could very well resonant with modern viewers. He is one of the best grumpy old man characters in the history of cinema. 

Trailer

 


The Executioner aka El Verdugo (92 minutes) is an excellent, subversive dark comedy about the crumbling of personal dignity within rigid bureaucratic structures. Director Luis Berlanga’s acerbic eye for details makes this a must-watch. 

★★★★ ½

My Life as a Zucchini [2016] – A Simple Story told with Profound Empathy




Nine year old Icare prefers to be called as ‘Zucchini’ (Courgette in French), the nickname the boy’s mother has bestowed upon him. The lonely boy stays up in his attic bedroom, expressing himself through inventive drawings. The father is absent, except as a superhero drawing in the boy’s kite. The mother has succumbed to alcohol and stays up in the living room. Zucchini goes around the house to collect his mother’s beer cans to make his own art. But soon the mother takes a fall; a kind of fall from which one doesn’t rise. He curls up in the attic’s corner with the colorful kite and empty beer cans as the only reminder of his parents and the possible kindness. Thus begins Swiss-French film-maker Claude Barras’ superb stop-motion & clay animation feature My Life as a Zucchini (aka ‘Ma vie de courgette’, 2016). The puppet characters of the movie have overlong limbs, big head, and big eyes, a face riddled with sorrow and trauma. The intention is to precisely show each subtle change in emotions which the pre-teen orphans can’t express through words. In fact, My Life as a Zucchini is about children who process incidents and emotions that are beyond their comprehension.

The stop-motion animation feature is based on Giles Paris’ YA novel Autobiographied’unecourgette (yet to be translated into English). The novel is said to be for grown-ups, which shows children at the receiving end of various tragedies. Alcoholism, abuse, deportation, and murderous acts have all victimized these kids. Claude Barras, who decided to adapt the novel a decade back, says the biggest challenge was to soften it without diluting the emotional reality. Barras achieves this through assortment of little details and brilliant suggestions. For example, in the prologue, the circumstance of the boy’s upbringing is established through little objects and frames drenching with quiet melancholy. Each unpolished, yet sumptuously detailed, shots brims with tenderness so that we empathize with the pre-teen characters rather than exhibit insincere pathos.


Despite the numerous tragedies intimated through the backstories, My Life is a Zucchini isn’t a dark film. Like the blue, clear sky that bookend the narration, the film is the story of kids working their way towards light. There are quite a few kind-hearted figures in Zucchini’s (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) world: a fatherly detective Raymond, who drives the boy to orphanage and promises to visit him often; the caring foster-home director with hard facial features; the genial staffs Mr. Paul and Rosy who takes them on a picnic to snow-topped mountains. Of course, there’s also Simon, a bully with bright-orange hair, abandoned by his drug-addicted parents. But soon his buttons of compassion are pushed upon and Simon warms up to Zucchini to be part of the healing process. The parents of five other kids in the orphanage have suffered tragedies ranging from deportation to mental illness. The new girl Camille immediately catches Zucchini’s attention (a crush and a confidante). She is dropped off by her irritable aunt. Camille masks her trauma with an affable exterior outlook.

The incredibly expressive puppets and warm voice-work are the biggest plus of the movie. Director Claude Barras background as an illustrator has helped him to craft a colorful as well as a rough atmosphere. Each shot makes you admire the pastiche of colors and the tiniest of details present in it. The dark-circles in the eyes and red or orange-colored nose beautifully suggests the lifetime of tragedies. The big eyes works wonders in the scenes when the kids learn new, hard-to-stomach things about life. Nothing is rushed through. There’s an adorable scene where the kids enjoy their dance party. A shot zooms out from the party-lights inside glowing cottage, allowing our senses to fully seep in the kids’ delight. The unobtrusive direction also deftly balances the melancholia and sense of hope, never over-burdening the tale with sentimentality. 


The polished, digital animation works (especially from Hollywood studios) have made us believe that animation is the apt medium to conjure cornucopia of visual delights. But animation can also be used to tell tales that are sometimes too tragic for a live-action feature. Case in point: Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Barefoot Gen (1983). It would be too demanding for a child actor to play the starved, diseased kid of war-time Japan. The tragedy would also be so overwhelming for the audience to get through it. But, Isao Takahata’s tenderly drawn images (in ‘Fireflies’) brilliantly convey the darker themes without ever overpowering or manipulating our emotions. The recent French animation productions like The Little Prince and Long Way North (both released in 2015) have followed the anime route of telling tragic stories with quiet power and minimalism. My Life as a Zucchini is yet another terrific example of using animation medium for an ingenious mode of storytelling. We can relate to the deliberate cartoonish movements of the characters with awkwardness and confusion we experience during the pre-teen phase.

I have only seen one French stop-motion animation feature titled ‘A Town Called Panic’ (2009). But, considering the excruciating process of making stop-motion & clay animation movie, I don’t think there’s many made in French. In the interview to filmcomment.com director Claude Barras explains how the small team of 10 animators worked for over a year to deliver this hour-long film (post-production took another eight months). The stop-motion works wonders for these tragicomic stories. Its rough qualities bring a kind of memorable realism to the proceedings. This realism elegantly fights off bleakness with compassion, barring the feelings of pity from casting its shadow. The script was written by writer/director Celine Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood) who impeccably renders the children’s perspective. Despite witnessing several horrors, Celine allows the kids to be kids, whose eyes widen after processing every bit of fresh knowledge and information. Some of the children’s interactions takes us back to the exchanges we had back in the good-old days (‘I love to open letters’ says a boy which I something I too desired as a kid). The kids’ funny as well as mistaken perceptions of the adult behaviors are also very relatable. The kids attempting to explain (through limited words) about ‘the thing boys and girls do’ (sex) is the narrative’s laugh-out-loud running joke. The adult characters are also excellently written, whose sense of love deeply rises from within. 

Trailer


My Life as a Zucchini (70 minutes) tells the familiar tale of innocent souls trying to figure out their place in this whole-wide world that’s equally filled with sorrow and love. But it tells this story on a very intimate level which enables us to put ourselves in these affectionate kids’ shoes. The result is a magnificent, bittersweet film for tenderhearted viewers of all ages. 

 ★★★★

Ma vie de Courgette (2016) -- IMDb 

 

The Border [1982] – A Taut Crime Melodrama




In Denis Villeneuve’s crime/thriller Sicario (2015), a meticulously crafted visual sequence depicts how wealth & peace (Texas, US) lays side by side with poverty & chaos (Ciudad Juarez, Mexico), separated by a thin border. The disparity we witness is absolutely distressing. Tony Richardson’s 1982 movie The Border was one of the rare, early films to address the same disparity between poor Mexicans and moneyed Americans. It connects the insipid consumerism and authorities’ (border patrol) lust for money with the worse treatment of Mexicans, attempting to cross into the ‘land of dreams’. The Border tells a simple story in a straightforward manner, providing neat resolutions for the characters involved. Yet, the subject matter is examined with sensitivity and for the two-thirds of the narrative the brooding conflict is well-staged. The other important reason to watch the film is Jack Nicholson’s performance, who completely immerses himself in the central character of an afflicted border patrol officer Charlie Smith. He brilliantly underplays in the role, keeping away his regular, time-worn antics.  

The Border opens in a cathedral in Mexico as a young single mother Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) worships with her small baby, accompanied by her younger brother. A strong earthquake razes down the cathedral and other buildings of the impoverished town. Maria is left without a home and livelihood. Like the other residents of town, she makes an arduous trip to the United States. Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson) is a middle-aged man with thinning hair, holding a dismal job position of an officer for the US Immigration Services in Los Angeles. When we first see him he is negotiating with the boss of a clothing factory on which one of the illegal Mexicans he should arrest to fulfill the quota. The boss who exploits the illegals by offering meager pay points out two Mexicans youngsters. Charlie detains them, reads their right in the most inexpressive manner. He is sure that the detained Mexicans will immediately make a trip back to do the same job. Charlie lives in a nondescript mobile-home with his scatterbrained, materialistic wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine). He has no friends and has learned to tolerate his wife and her declamations. She convinces him into transferring to El Paso, Texas.


Marcy’s high-school friend Savannah has sent a brochure of a duplex, situated next to her house. Hoping for a change and to satisfy his wife’s needs, Charlie decides to move to Texas, despite the lack of savings. The couple are greeted by frivolous Savannah and her border patrol guard husband Cat (Harvey Keitel). Thanks to Cat, Charlie gets the same job. First day on the job, Charlie learns how the department is understaffed and lacks funds. He also witnesses the death of a veteran guard – shot and killed by dope-movers. Soon, Charlie understands this job is as ineffectual as his previous one. And, adding up to his woes, wife Marcy is intent on realizing their dream home, riddled with waterbed and swimming pool. She insists ‘we don’t have pay for this stuff’, failing to understand how they are one missed mortgage payment away from the dream turning into a nightmare. All she wants is to make Charlie happy and perfectly fit in the glitzy social circle. Things get worse when Cat wants to let Charlie in on the ‘deal’. The deal is to ensure the safe passage of illegals (aka ‘wetbacks’ or ‘wets’) into US to work for the shady businessmen. Each trip could fetch a lot of dollars and the patrol guards also have to ensure there’s monopoly on the human-trafficking business. Meanwhile, the young Mexican woman with the baby makes it over to the border and gets stopped by Charlie’s team. The pure beauty and innocence of Maria makes Charlie think that she is the only good thing in this sleazy world. He begins to empathize with her plight and silently vows to guarantee her peace and safety.
 
The film was made a year before Gregory Nava acclaimed independent cinema ‘El Norte’ (1983). While, The Border isn’t as trenchant examination of the immigrant experience as ‘El Norte’, it still boldly addressed a rare subject for an American mainstream cinema (shot on location in El Paso). Alas, the film’s low-key nature and lack of high-wire action sequences turned it into box-office failure. Over the years, the film has gained the ‘underrated’ status mainly due to the great ensemble cast, led by brooding performance from Jack Nicholson. British film-maker Tony Richardson, who made acclaimed features like A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones (1963), etc moved to California by mid 1970s. Mr. Richardson’s works were often about men with rebellious streak; the ones who fight for their personal freedom. For The Border, he collaborated with three script writers (Deer Hunter writer Deric Washburn was one of the writers). Director Richardson and his writers target the senseless immigration policies of the Reagan-era (which has only become more senseless nowadays). By moving to and fro from the unfulfilling materialism to gross exploitation of humans, Richardson zeroes-in on the twisted nature of ‘American Dream’. The hypocrisy of the so-called dream, designed out of rampant consumerism, is appalling: the prosperity partly derived from cheap labor/slave trade and through shady dealings between US authorities and master criminals.


The film, however, travels in a pretty simple, conventional manner. As a mainstream cinema, the narrative is more interested in the salvation of its central character than in exploring the profound layers of the illegal immigrant labor ecosystem. And, that’s fairly understandable. Moreover, The Border is a low-key character study of a man, sick of amorality and greed around him. While Marcy’s idea of attaining the dream is centered on the accumulation of materials, Charlie just dreams of ‘feeling good about something’ (words he utters upon meeting Maria in her tin-roofed abode in one of the emotionally resonant scenes). The simmering conflict and the thirst for righteousness are masterfully expressed by Nicholson. Although the narrative trajectory becomes predictable in the third act, it never gets didactic or strays away from the well-etched realism (except for the final action sequence). Charlie’s quest is also never confined to sentimentality. Even though Maria is repeatedly symbolized like a divine figure, Charlie doesn’t take a path of senseless revenge to save her. The violence here is sudden and doesn’t pass off feelings of jubilation that the bad guys are down. He just wants to shake off the dirt from his conscience. May be the final image is too good to believe, yet it etches calm beauty that’s worth savoring. 

Trailer

 

The Border (108 minutes) is an earnest portrayal of a man trying to cling to basic human decency in an environment of corruption and indifference. It’s worth watching for the compassionate handling of the subject and for its emotionally affecting performances.    

★★★½