Dilettante's Diary

Dec 2, 2022

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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Reviewed here: Banshees of Inisherin (Movie); Official Competition (Movie)

Banshees of Inisherin (Movie) written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan.

It's 1923 and we're stranded on a barren island off the coast of Ireland. People here eke out a subsistence living. Padraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) have been the best of friends, but Colm suddenly tells Padraic that he doesn't like him any more. Colm finds Padraic "dull" and doesn't want to waste his remaining years in idle chatter with the likes of Padraic. Colm wants to devote himself to thought and to composing tunes for his fiddle. Admittedly, Padraic is 'nice" but niceness doesn't last, does it? Isn't it artistic creation -- like Colm's compositions -- that will last in the long run?

Here we have the windswept, treeless, rocky island, the rolling, shifting expanse of the sea, the sunsets, the wild birds. The cramped cottages with their thatched roofs, their thick walls, their smoky interiors. No internal combustion vehicles hereabouts; all transportation by donkeys and horses. No radios, no electronic communications. The older women in ankle-length skirts, with shawls pulled up over their heads. It's the kind of place where a fellow can welcome his beloved donkey to share his house with him. Occasonal bursts of canon fire speak of civil war on the mainland, not that it has anything much to do with the plot, but those perturbations help to emphasize the remoteness -- the innocence, you want to call it that -- of island life.

Not exactly idyllic, though. A bitter, gossipy post mistress reads everybody's mail. A brutal policemen beats his son and intrudes on everybody's business. A gaunt, pipe-smoking crone haunts many scenes like a spectre, with her ominous prognostications. In spite of the grim feeling of it all, however, there are generous dollops of earthy humour. How often have you seen a priest and a penitent swearing at each other as they storm out of the confessional?

What a marvellous picture of a different time, a different life. But surely a movie must be something more than a museum piece. I want a movie to tell me something about life that's relevant to me now. In this case, I don't know what that would be. I couldn't understand the intransigence of Colm and Padraic. Colm's insistence that he wouldn't spend his remaining years in chat never really hit home with me. His problem didn't seem crucial enough to lead to what happened.

Nor could I get Padraic's determination to break through to Colm. Why not leave him alone? (We'd never seen anything of their friendship, so we didn't know what Padraic was missing.) Perhaps there's a problem with the casting of Colin Farrell. Padraic is, by general consensus among the islanders, "dull," even a bit "dim." But Colin Farrell isn't. No matter how plalin he tries to appear, there's an unquenchable charisma about him. Maybe the situation would have been more understandable if Padraic seemed a little less attractive and more slow-witted.

Setting aside that problem, what is Mr. McDonagh trying to tell us? That benighted people -- all of us at some time or other -- manage to work ourselves into corners we can't get out of? In this case, the standoff between the two men leads to dire -- one might even say macabre -- consequences. Which brings to mind some of Mr. McDonagh's plays. (The Pillowman, being one example.) They seem to be riddled with an underlying fatalism about the human tendency to violence and destruction, as though it's inevitable. Are human beings that bad? I don't think so. To me, then, the message of this movie is a distortion of human reality, even though the movie does offer some examples of kindlly and humane interaction among people.



Official Competition (Movie) written by Mariano Cohn, Andres Duprat and Gaston Duprat; directed by Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat; starring Penelope Crus, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martinez.

A Spanish tycoon realizes all his accomplishments have amounted to nothing. He wants to leave behind something that will matter. So how about the best movie ever? He pays a fortune for the rights to a book his movie will be based on; he hasn't read the book but never mind, everybody assures him that it's a winner. It's about two brothers who have a long-standing feud. The tycoon hires Lola (Penelope Cruz), Spain's best director. And she hires the country's two best actors: Ivan (Oscar Martinez) and Felix (Antonio Banderas).

At the first reding of the script, the opening line has Ivan answering the phone. "Hello," he says. Lola interrupts: "Again!" This goes on about ten times. Ivan is about ready to give up before she's satisfied with his reading. That obsessiveness sets the tone for the rest of the rehearsals. Lola is meticulously demanding. The two actors can barely endure her punctiliousness. Ms. Cruz, with her sensuous beauty, is perhaps an unexpected choice to play such an odious character; you'd expect someone with a more hardened look. It could be that Ms. Cruz's beauty is meant as an ironic contrast to the draconian asepcts of the character.

We watch the rehearsals -- or fragments of them -- through the following days. The work is taking place in a huge, empty building like a brand new arts centre that nobody has moved into yet: lots of concrete and glass, long, sweeping corridors, vast rooms with a minimum of furnishings. As far as I could tell (the dialogue is in Spanish; I was getting it by way of English subtitles), there's no explanation of the venue. My guess is that it was chosen to emphasize the feeling that this is happening in a sort of other-world, almost a sci-fi contexxt, quite distanced from ordinary life. And the photography is anything but ordinary. One prolonged shot simply shows the top surface of a desk which reflects the slow progress of a jet plane across the sky.

The feeling of something beyond everyday reality lasts pretty much throughout the movie. You're never sure what's going on. There's always a feeling of everything being slightly off-kilter. The actors start playing tricks on each other -- and on us. One day, Lola doesn't show up and her assistant informs the actors that waiting for her constitutes their rehearsal. Scenes are dropped in that seem to have nothing to do with anything else: like Lola lying on the floor, talking into one end of a long thing like a vacuum cleaner's tube while holding the other end to her ear.

Is this a satire on movie-making, on actors and directors? Perhaps, to some extent. The two stars have opposing attitudes to their work, both attitudes being somewhat exaggerated and fatuous. Ivan considers himself very high-brow; he eschews publicity and awards -- so much so that, in the privacy of a bathroom, he practises his speech for declining an award -- if he's ever offered one. Felix, on the other hand, loves being a celebrity. He has a huge fan base including lots of women hoping for sex with him.

But it all seems episodic, not going anywhere or building to any point. Until ... about ten minutes before the end, plot kicks in emphatically and dramatically, with astonishing results. Leaving us with a movie that has been, not exactly enjoyable or fun, but consistently intriguing. Even if you can't quite understand it. In fact, the movie defies you to. One of Lola's memorable speeches has her trashing many accepted notions about movies. Is a movie good because we like it? Do we have to understand it? Do we need to assign a meaning to it? No! It is what it is. It stands on its own!



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