March 5, 2008 7:41 pm

Touched by the artists of autism

Some films don’t wait for you to judge them, they sit there and judge you. Often – low-budget to no-budget – they sit there in rags and still judge you. They look as if they should be begging handouts rather than handing out wisdoms. But money has never determined masterworks.

Garage, an irresistibly poignant Irish tragicomedy, must have been made by rubbing two euros together and waiting for a spark. The spark takes two minutes to come. Then the warmth rises from the forlorn and crumbling garage on the edge of town – a Samuel Beckett set waiting for some validating comic despair – where the podgy, smiling, gauche Josie (Pat Shortt) potters about as caretaker, the dead-end job he has grown up with.

It would be laughable to call the film’s plot a plot. The largely absentee owner foists a 15-year-old boy (Conor J. Ryan) on Josie as co-worker. The pathologically shy Josie tries to bond with him, with his mates (boozing round a railside campfire at night) and with ageing local girl Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff). But the bondings never take. And with the boy he commits a small, innocent, eventually catastrophic indiscretion.

Josie’s smile remains but his soul cracks like an inward shell. Pat Shortt, a stage and TV comedian in Ireland, lives the role as if it is living him. His walk is an impassive, stoical bustle: the head up, the pot-belly forward, the hands making unconscious fists in front of the locomoting thighs (like a sexual keep-out sign). Every sparse line of dialogue, in a movie where silences are thick, is delivered by Josie less as spontaneous conversation, more as formal notice of parley in a life whose each social moment is part of an emotionally alienated man’s warfare with himself and his fellow humans.

Loneliness embroiders the film’s edges, from the feeding of apples to a horse in a field to the single pork chop sizzling nightly in his back-room bedsit. There is a stunning scene of wordless comradeship with a weeping old man that comes and goes and leaves a welt in the viewer’s soul.

Screenwriter Mark O’Halloran and director Lenny Abrahamson, who made Adam and Paul, another sad-sack tragicomedy, may be the best thing that has ever happened to Irish cinema. Artists of autism, they make solitude a subject both comic and tragic, a vaudeville which every viewer welcomes the chance to laugh at – just a little – before it turns into the Valhalla awaiting us all.

Wasn’t it Dr Johnson, pointing up the confining conventions of stage drama, who said: “If a play is set in the king’s bedchamber, everyone must have business in the king’s bedchamber”? Today we have cinema, which goes anywhere and does anything. Yet still a film about Henry VIII is set, almost entirely, in the king’s bedchamber.

You could argue that everyone did have business in Henry’s bedchamber, at least if female. According to The Other Boleyn Girl, scripted by Peter The Queen Morgan from Philippa Gregory’s novel, the randy monarch enjoyed not just six wives but two Boleyn sisters. He started with Anne (Natalie Portman), impregnated Mary (Scarlett Johansson), then was persuaded back to Anne by the minor inconvenience of Mary’s already being married. The hapless girls had first been shooed into court (goes this version of events) by their ambitious dad, played with a twittering, endearing, Blackadder-ish single-mindedness by Mark Rylance.

The rest is history, or what passes for it in Anglo-Hollywood costume dramas. Director Justin Chadwick (TV’s Bleak House) is happy to present the film as an opulent scandal-sheet, pithily scripted, prettily acted and richly designed in those few scenes where we stray beyond the room of the sighs, gasps and crumpled sheets. Can it possibly be true that Anne tried to recruit her brother to the task of begetting an heir when Henry’s libido waned? Is there really evidence that Anne was beheaded with a swishing broadsword rather than a thudding axe? Both are more imaginable, mind you, than that the Mediterranean-born Catherine of Aragon would acclaim a piece of singing from Mary Boleyn with the word “Bravo!”. Grrrr! “Bra-va”.

Having Africanised Bizet in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, to cheers and a Berlin Golden Bear, Mark Dornford-May does the same to the Bible in Son of Man. The Cape Town-based British stage and screen director airdrops the gospel into South Africa, where a babe born to a township Mary grows up to lead the fight against present-day oppression.

Yes, Jesus is black and the militias he fights are today’s, though to protect the guilty and offer lip-service to the New Testament the place is called Judaea. The movie stabs out songs, satire and revolutionary zeal, all in Xhosa with subtitles. But the Carmen colour and eccentricity have gone missing. Stomping out its simple strophes, the film feels more like an extended agitprop jingle than a full-score reimagining of Christendom’s best-known story.

There is more for the heart and mind in another African movie, We Are Together. Children from an orphanage in Kwazulu Natal, their lives and families devastated by Aids, sing for their supper and eventually – with Paul Simon in New York – for a CD. The feelgood ending doesn’t squash the documentary’s earlier pain and pathos. It cannot buy us off with a fairy tale, even a real one, nor does director Paul Taylor try. We are uplifted by the grace and glitter of the climactic concert. But we remember too the hilltop shack where the children live, above the thick-earthed slope studded with funeral crosses. And we remember the children waking, one morning, to the folded bed cover and bare mattress that mark life’s last resting place for the boy who died in the night.

If China is the world capital of the knock-off, Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly is a counterfeit Steven Spielberg. “I can do you Saving Private Ryan with a bit of Schindler’s List,” seems to be the movie’s pitch, as it hawks its alternation between photo-real violence and redemptive recollection. Feng’s Chinese civil war epic smashed domestic box-office records, appealing to a nation that has to watch Lust, Caution bowdlerised of every sex scene but is allowed to gasp at digitised disembowellings. The near-monochrome photography lends a specious austerity.

Hollywood itself cannot be out-vulgarised. With Vantage Point, the week burns up on re-entry into unreality. The presidential assassination plot gives us replays of the minutes leading to the shooting, seen from different character viewpoints. Security man Dennis Quaid; bystander Forest Whitaker; the terrorist; his terrorist’s girl...This is Rashomon on speed, with the difference that all the replays are true and all the drama phoney and contrived. Thrills, spills, kills: by the close we are screeching round town on two wheels as the goodies chase the baddies and the unbelievable hot-rods after the merely implausible.

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