Blending Boundaries: RAMS at Cornell Cinema

Grímur Hákonarson’s Icelandic film, RAMS, won’t warm you up. Set in a secluded, mountainous valley, winter rolls into the lives of Gummi and Kiddi, two sheep-rearing brothers, much as it does in Ithaca, and brings with it an ironically accessible story of death and rebirth. Despite the wind and snow, RAMS captures the warmth of our approaching spring. The film combines an understanding of humanity and nature in the lives of Gummi and Kiddi, two aging men, neighbors and antagonists. When scrapie, a brain-eating sheep disease, infects Kiddi’s herd, veterinarians demand that every sheep and ram in the valley be slaughtered.

Mustang: Looking For a Way Out

With heads of dark, rich, slightly wild and uncontrollable hair, the five orphaned sisters of Turkish-French film director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang — Lale (Güneş Şensoy), Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) and Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) — seem to fly free in their rural Turkish village, independent, bright and happy. But this sense of freedom only remains during the brief beginning prelude before their conservative relatives lock the girls away from the world and try to mold them into perfect wives when the girls are (wrongly) accused of indecent play with male classmates on the beach. A story of female empowerment and of being jolted into adulthood, Mustang’s sisterhood is both beautiful and tragic. We’re guided through the story by Lale, who is the youngest, and in some ways the most visibly rebellious, sister — she seems too young to marry, she enjoys soccer and she sneaks out of her window like she was born to do it. Seeing the world of Mustang through Lale’s eyes is essential.

Son of Saul: Harrowing and Focused

And Every Single One Was Someone is a 1,000 page-long book that has only one word in it; reproduced more than 6,000,000 times throughout its thin, harrowing pages is the word “Jew.” As an elegy to those who lost their lives to the Holocaust, it imbues the detached, abstract notion of “six million deaths” with a palpable intimacy — a literal weight that physicalizes the immensity of what is arguably humanity’s darkest chapter. I’ve never held a physical copy of the book, but those who have claim that they felt unable to stop turning its pages, encountering the same word repeated over and over, as if the dead were pleading for our remembrance. To represent the Holocaust is to bear witness to an atrocity that eludes any sense of holistic representation. The implicit argument of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a nine-hour documentary constituted entirely of survivors’ testimonials, is that art — despite its beauty and nuance as a means of describing the indescribable — is unable to account for a total representation of murder on such an industrialized scale. It instead posits that the only way we can somewhat comprehend the barbarity of what occurred is by allowing those who endured it to recount their suffering: that the closest we can get to an “objective” understanding is to weave together a tapestry of subjective experiences.

Faulkner in Brazil: The Second Mother

A few years after publishing The Sound and the Fury in 1929, William Faulkner wrote an appendix to the novel laying out a few biographical notes on its main characters. He starts out with the ancestors who built Yoknapatawpha, moves on to the members of the Compson family and finishes with the cast of servants: “These others were not Compsons. They were black.” Three lines each describe TP, Frony and Luster, and then finally about the housekeeper Dilsey nothing is said, ending only with “They endured.” This is rather interesting because Dilsey occupies a middle ground between servants and the family, being the sort of maid who’s been around so long that she’s “practically family,” raising the children as her own, refusing to leave when her pay is cut and indeed enduring in the face of the Compsons’ decay, while standing as the moral center for the book. Now jump about a hundred years forward and consider Val, the housekeeper at the center of The Second Mother, the Brazilian pick for this year’s Academy Awards (screening at Cornell Cinema on February 25 and 28). Val has also been around long enough to be considered family.

Theeb: Learning from a Wolf

One would expect a foreign film like Theeb to provide the audience with some sort of historical backdrop in order to contextualize a niche storyline. However, besides the minimal information that we are now in 1913 Jordan, not much else is given to Theeb’s viewers, who are immediately afterwards thrown into a jarringly different geo-historical perspective limited through the eyes of a child. Viewers quickly learn this child is the titular character Theeb who lives away from sedentary civilization. Historically keen viewers can surmise (or avid Googlers can verify) that Theeb belongs to a nomadic group of people called Bedouins. The intrinsic vagrant nature of Theeb’s life coupled with his naïve youth parallel our limited contextual understanding of the setting of the film.