January 29, 2007

Cornell Cinema

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Favela Rising (2005)

Favela Rising presents a direct challenge to the notion that poverty is wedded to violence. The film recognizes that there is indeed something which mediates the relationship between the two, and it identifies the link as that existential malaise: hopelessness. Or, rather, feelings of hopelessness. After all, as the main character of this documentary, Anderson Sa, shows us with boundless enthusiasm and passion, there is no such thing as a world without hope because hope springs eternal.

Filmmakers Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary have captured an intensely moving story centered on a group of individuals in the favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio de Janeiro who try to improve their lot by presenting the residents with alternatives to violence and, perhaps more importantly, apathy. The group, AfroReggae, uses rhythm, rap and beats to attract young members of the community who would otherwise join the street gangs that rule the favelas to participate in a constructive activity. AfroReggae serves as a positive force for the community (perhaps their only organized one), and the film informs us that over the years, it has helped to dramatically reduce the number of drug dealers in the favelas in which it has been active.

At the center of the group is Sa, a genuinely good-hearted, ebullient person who tries to lift up the citizens who would otherwise be trampled down by the incessant and suffocating violence. His story is in itself a remarkable one, but it is what he achieves with AfroReggae and his social preaching that makes the film truly affecting. To know that such dedicated individuals exist in this world who, with their vibrant, organic organizations which pulse with as much humanity as they do rhythm, can turn the tide of cynicism in such a forlorn place as the favelas of Rio is not merely comforting, but reaffirming too. It reaffirms whatever faith you may have in this world by reminding you that it is one worth saving.

Lunacy (2005)

Lunacy begins with a spoken-word introduction from its director, Jan Svankmajer, à la Alfred Hitchcock Presents, informing the audience that this Czech “horror” film is filled with “all the degeneracy of that peculiar genre” and emphasizing that “this is not a work of Art” (meaning you should think of it as such). Loosely based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and on the life and work of the Marquis de Sade (a fascinating libertine from whose name comes the term “sadism”), Lunacy is self-described as a “philosophical horror film.” Filled with all the macabre pulp-hackery of Poe, dark fairy tale legacy of Eastern Europe and political bluster of a French revolutionist, Lunacy falls somewhere in between philosophy and horror — just like the madmen who inspired Svankmajer. Somehow I think that was his intention.

The plot revolves around the misfortunes of a troubled youth, Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska), in 19th-century France (replete with highways and computers!). Jean is returning from the funeral of his mother, who was locked away in an insane asylum, and he is haunted by a recurring dream wherein two hospital orderlies break into his room and take him away. On the way back home, he meets a man called the Marquis (Jan Triska), who mysteriously offers him his hospitality for a few days, setting him up in his castle. Things take a very bizarre turn, however, when Jean witnesses a sacrilegious sermon, an orgy and a “therapeutic ritual” by the Marquis, wherein he buries himself alive, so he can suffer what his mother suffered, and then proceeds to escape from his coffin with a trench-coat full of tools.

The Marquis promises Jean that he can help him with his problems, and he brings him to an insane asylum to confront his fears. Here, the patients have free reign of the institution, and the doctors and staff are locked in the basement. A pretty young girl who seems to be a sexual slave of the Marquis implores Jean’s help, telling him that the Marquis and current “director” were themselves patients who led a revolt and that he needs to free the real staff. It is here where the film climaxes on its fantastic moral head trip.

Lunacy is one of the most bizarre, disorienting films I have ever seen. It will certainly keep you enthralled — even if it’s with the same ambivalence of watching the goings-on on a mental hospital.