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Seen on newspaper front pages in the west, the words “Bosnia” and “Iran” mean just one thing: trouble. Spelling out the old and new realities of global tension, they stare up from the breakfast table, souring our day, curdling our café au lait. But what if you find those words inside the newspaper, deep inside? On the arts page. A Bosnian movie. An Iranian movie. Any better?
Of course. God bless culture. It makes us put down guns, cross no-man’s-lands, shake hands, understand. “Oh my goodness,” we mutter of Iran’s It’s Winter and Bosnia’s Esma’s Secret, “these people are human. They have stories to tell and heartbreaks to confide. They have emotional lives as complex and confounding as our own.”
This should not be a revelation, but it always is. The reductive Manicheism of war or geopolitics makes us amazed that Iran has – or in the poignant, ambiguous It’s Winter takes power to prove that it has – citizens such as the preying rake and good-for-nothing (Ali Nicksolat) who battens on a lonely young wife (Mitra Hadjar), “widowed” by a work-seeking husband who has never returned from abroad.
An antihero? In a land known for its militant religiosity? The director Rafi Pitts, born in Iran, was educated in Britain. Perhaps that helped. (Today we would be less sure.) His film is set on Tehran’s outskirts, where a wintry courtship is enacted between the volatile drifter from the north, barely clinging to a mechanic’s job in a shabby car plant, and the deserted wife, holding heart and hearth together as time goes by with no word from the missing, finally presumed dead, husband.
There is no sense of finality even when these two marry. We just see them huddled in a marriage office corridor, overhearing the troth-plighting words of the couple before them. Everything in this movie is makeshift: landscapes full of industrial transience (earth-movers, rusting railways), relationships patched from hope and doubt, a suitor whose silence is as trustworthy as his words and whose character blends self-pity, aggression, vulnerability and egotism. The marriage, when it comes, gives no guarantee that the first husband is dead. Little, in this world, guarantees anything. It’s Winter brilliantly suggests a life, a society, putting its faith in faith, and finding all that this creates is an infinite vista of mirrors reflecting wish, not reality.
The title heroine of Esma’s Secret, set in Sarejevo, is another kind of widow: an unmarried single mother (Mirjana Karanovic) with a sulky, tomboyish 12-year-old daughter whose father, the girl has been told, died a war hero.
Did he? That may be Esma’s secret. Meanwhile the mum earns change as a cocktail waitress, tries to borrow larger money for her daughter’s school trip, and participates in group therapy at the local women’s centre. The film begins, as it ends, with a wonderfully mysterious slow pan across female faces entranced in thought: a sea of women sitting in abstracted judgment on recent history and the glimpse it has given them of a hell on earth. The encounter group is an exercise to exorcise; so is this compassionately detailed film.
Jasmila Zbanic, the first-time writer-director, does nothing to ingratiate. The daughter is a knotted parcel of resentments (marvellously played by Luna Mijovic) for whom adolescence is just the latest Gordian trial. The mother is a loner for whom “home” is a city of snow-mantled rubble where life must be conjured from death. In one beautiful shot, she looks through a rain-distorted car window at street lights that resemble fuzzed and bulging moons. They are parody planets, luridly weeping reminders of what it was once like to live a normal day under a normal sun.
This film came and went in the first 48 hours of the last Berlin Film Festival, barely noticed except by a jury that for once went on to do what a jury should. It gave a little-sung film from a little-sung country the Best Film prize for showing what cinema can do to touch hearts and help nation speak to nation.
Then there is Déjà Vu. The latest testosterone-booster from director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Enemy of the State) sends us out of cinemas with a head full of exploding ferries, crashing cars and crackpot physics. Set in a New Orleans innocent of history – no mention of Hurricane Katrina – it has federal agent Denzel Washington sleuthing for clues to a terrorist-destroyed passenger boat, with help from Val Kilmer’s squad of surveillance geeks.
Team Kilmer has discovered how to travel in time. There is much talk of wormholes, parallel universes, String Theory and, no doubt on long nightshifts, Schroedinger’s cat. The science-babble facilitates the film’s quantum leap into improbabilities undreamed of even by Minority Report, with Washington D operating on a long leash from Washington DC as he confronts baddies (Jim Caviezel) and bimbos (Paula Patton) 100 hours before he could have met them. He may even get to meet himself.
It is all in Stephen Hawking, you could argue, who should have got a name-check alongside screenwriters Bill Marsalii and Terry Pirates of the Caribbean Rossio. Director Scott proves he too can be in several places at once, fast-cutting between cameras in the same scene with no warning to the sensitive. This adrenal style – giddily enjoyable at times – may be intended as a countercheck to the film’s portrait of surveillance-obsessed America as, Denzel apart, an army of fast-food fatties sitting in front of monitors. Is this the most overweight supporting cast in history? Is it Hollywood’s comment on obesity? Can we – should we – look for time-tripping technology that will take us back to the age when everyone looked like James Stewart?
It is often just as hard to keep up with Eragon, though millions of young adults will be able to do so. They have read Christopher Paolini’s bestselling sword-and-sorcery book. The plot starts off in the expected way. Boy (Ed Speelers) meets dragon; boy befriends dragon; boy watches as dragon goes kerflooey all over the skies. She (for so it is) aims her Promethean wrath – fire-breathe first, ask questions later – at the armies of wickedness led by two evil lords with weird clothes and state-of-the-art villain make-up (Robert Carlyle, John Malkovich).
When characters open their mouths, awe diminishes drastically. Malkovich’s dialogue trembles on the edge of the risible (“I suffer without my stone”), while Jeremy Irons, as the boy’s mentor, bravely delivers the undeliverable in his suavely monastic tones. The dragon is a triumph of digitised choreography, but I wish she too had not opened her mouth to speak. Rachel Weisz voices her in the soothing, synthetic tones of a long-haul air stewardess. We expect her at any moment to say: “Thank you for choosing Dragon Airways. We hope you will fly with us again.”
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