A Profile in Courage and Determination
The David and Goliath narrative is a common template in literature and screenwriting. And, all too often, it’s a recurring theme in many real world events. One hopes that the outcome in those everyday instances mirrors that of their literary counterpart, though circumstances don’t always shake out that way. The chances of success are far greater, however, when addressed from a standpoint of courage and determination, themes that pervade the new fact-based drama, “She Said” (web site, trailer).
For decades, the old boys network held sway over most segments of society, especially in the business world. The network of powerful, influential, mostly White men had successfully managed to get its way in virtually all forms of endeavor. And with that kind of power came the ability to manipulate others into giving them whatever they wanted. This included not only business and financial concessions, but also those of a more personal nature, namely, sexual favors, particularly where women were concerned. Women were routinely coerced into providing whatever the old boys asked for (or, in many cases, demanded) in exchange for career advancement and future opportunities. Their silence about these practices was bought with their signatures on required nondisclosure agreements, and those who threatened to blow the whistle about these incidents were effectively blackballed, denying them any kind of future in their respective endeavors. Those who insisted on protesting these circumstances were generally paid off through settlement agreements that exonerated the guilty and effectively kept their accusers muzzled, no matter what indignities had been committed. And nowhere was this more prevalent than in the entertainment industry.
Such sleazy practices went on virtually unchecked for ages. Powerful men in Hollywood and the broadcast industry got away with these disgraceful forms of bullying and humiliation without notice, despite this being a widely known open secret in the industry. It enabled the perpetrators to have their way without ramifications while leaving their victims terrorized and abused, fearful of speaking out for what it might mean for their future in show business. But, as the number of women who suffered under these conditions swelled over the years, a tipping point was coming. And, thanks to a pair of intrepid New York Times journalists and their courageous, determined editors, the scales finally tipped in the victims’ direction.
In 2016-17, with the revelation of sexual misconduct claims leveled against TV journalist Bill O’Reilly and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (voiced by James Austin Johnson), the Times staff began pursuing such stories in earnest. Reporters Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) began looking into the issue after reports started emerging about similar alleged incidents tying Hollywood notables like Gwyneth Paltrow (voiced by herself), Ashley Judd (portrayed by herself) and Rose McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail) to producer Harvey Weinstein (Mike Houston), one of the most powerful and influential men in the movie business. The charges dated back to the 1990s, when Weinstein headed the film distribution company Miramax before later moving on to The Weinstein Co. in 2005. Most of the allegations managed to stay out of the public eye, largely due to the negotiation of a number of undisclosed settlement agreements to keep the incidents quiet.
When Twohey and Kantor began hearing about such rumors, they wanted to look into them further with the support of Times Investigations Department Editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) and Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher). In addition to allegations involving the aforementioned actresses, many reports also surfaced involving Miramax staff members, such as Laura Madden (Jennifer Ehle), Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) and Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh). The investigation team believed that, if they could convince multiple victims to step forward, the flood gates would open; they assumed that the “safety in numbers” principle would take hold, helping the affected women overcome their fears of speaking out on the record, despite their nondisclosure agreements.
However, since nearly all of these prospective sources had signed NDAs, they were prevented from speaking out publicly, leaving the journalists with no reportable evidence to substantiate the claims. And Madden, the only one not to have signed such an agreement, was suffering from a recently diagnosed case of breast cancer at the time, leaving her physically and emotionally depleted and unwilling to put herself through another trying ordeal.
To complicate matters, Twohey and Kantor were further stonewalled when they sought to pursue matters through official channels, such as the New York Police Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to see if they could gather evidence about claims leveled against Weinstein. They were told that such information didn’t exist or couldn’t be released or that there was essentially nothing to the charges – accusations made by ambitious opportunists seeking to advance their careers through the “casting couch” system.
Because of these roadblocks, Twohey and Kantor had their work cut out for them. They had to look for back door contacts to find leads that they hoped would provide the necessary background to help steer them in more promising directions. They pursued leads developed through meetings with unlikely sources, such as Weinstein Co. board member Lance Maerov (Sean Cullen) and Weinstein’s accountant, Irwin Reiter (Zach Grenier). This was a tedious process, to be sure, but it was the only way to get the information they needed to keep going.
When word of the Times investigation began circulating (despite nothing having been formally published), Weinstein caught wind of what was happening and began lawyering up. In addition to his regular counsel, he hired high-profile attorney Lisa Bloom (Anastasia Barzee) to offer guidance and to help him run interference. Bloom was an ironic choice given her involvement in representing victims in previous sexual misconduct-related cases, such as those involving notables like O’Reilly and Bill Cosby. Weinstein thus took an aggressive stance in fighting back even before anything surfaced in print, a determined attempt to make everything go away, much like what he was believed to have done in negotiating the aforementioned settlement agreements.
As all of this was unfolding, the reporters faced their share of personal challenges as well. Kantor was a young mother trying to balance career and home life. And Twohey, who had recently given birth, was suffering from a severe case of post-partum depression, one so serious that it made it difficult for her to work (though, ironically, her career proved to be just what she needed). Fortunately, they were married to loving, supportive husbands (Adam Shapiro, Tom Pelphrey) to back them up at a time when they needed it most – and enabled them to keep working.
Over time, fortunes began turning in the reporters’ favor. Damning documents surfaced, and several once-reluctant victims agreed to step forward and go on the record. With the evidence they needed now in hand, Twohey and Kantor, with assistance and guidance from their editors, took up their pens and put them to use. Before long, other victims stepped forward – over 80 in all – leaving Weinstein reeling. For their efforts, the reporting duo won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, while Weinstein found himself in court. What’s more, the investigation by Twohey and Kantor led to the growth of the #MeToo movement, a grass roots coalition of women who mustered the courage to step forward and acknowledge the sexual misconduct to which they had been subjected. It was a culture-changing moment, one that righted a longstanding wrong and has had an impact that has lasted to this day.
As Twohey and Kantor investigated this story, they soon discovered that it was an uphill battle. But, if they thought tackling this issue was difficult, one can only imagine how the victims felt. Having been hemmed in by their nondisclosure agreements, they didn’t dare speak out for fear of never being able to work in Hollywood again, either for Weinstein or for others who came under his influence. Yet even complaining about their circumstances, either to Weinstein, government officials or those in the business, got them marginalized unless they capitulated to the dictates forced upon them. And, even if they complied accordingly, they still had to live with themselves for backing down, decisions that left them feeling humiliated and demeaned.
However, given the gravity of this situation, the reporters believed it was imperative to be unearthed. They were convinced they could take meaningful steps to bring the story to light. And those beliefs are what got them through this ordeal. Their steely determination to see things through reveals a strong conviction for what they were doing, an undertaking for which they had confidence in their abilities and hope that circumstances would eventually break their way.
Of course, making that happen called upon them to tap into beliefs that would ultimately enable the realization of their sought-after outcome. For example, when they began to see that gathering hard, publishable evidence was not going to be as easy as they thought it might be (especially given the preponderance of anecdotal material that was coming their way), Twohey, Kantor and their editors knew that they needed to get creative in terms of how they uncovered the truth in a way that could be reported on the record. They had to expand their range of beliefs about how the information could be gathered and have faith that those innovative techniques would work in their favor. And, when they drew upon unlikely sources that allowed them to work their way deeper into the story, doors began to open in significant ways.
Twohey and Kantor also had to galvanize their resolve given what they were up against. Baquet made it clear to them early on that, based on his past dealings with Weinstein, he was a formidable force to reckon with, someone who would do anything to block them at every turn. That meant overcoming any fears they may have had in taking on this subject, an important step considering that fears are themselves a form of belief. Indeed, if their fears had been allowed to get in the way, they could have easily interfered with their work.
The reporters weren’t the only ones who needed to get past their fears in this scenario; the victims needed to do the same as well. They stood to lose much by speaking up. But they also stood to lose much by staying silent. Consequently, they felt trapped by their circumstances, unable to move forward, all the while mired in a lack of self-respect and consumed by lingering trauma.
The depth of the victims’ fears becomes apparent in the film through a number of flashback sequences. While the picture doesn’t depict the incidents in question, it nevertheless shows the aftermath of what happened, particularly the devastating emotional impact on the victims. This includes what occurred in the wake of the misconduct perpetrated against, first, a young Laura Madden (Lola Petticrew) and, then, a young Rowena Chiu (Ashley Chiu), an episode to which a young Zelda Perkins (Molly Windsor) sought to come to her rescue (and was subsequently muzzled by Weinstein for her “interference”). These events effectively silenced these women – and many others like them – for decades after the fact.
However, as the investigation progressed, the victims became empowered by what was unfolding. As it became more apparent to them that the Times reporters were closing in on Weinstein, this development empowered the women and helped them transform their fears into a newfound sense of courage. They realized that the journalists were working for their benefit and that of many other women yet to step forward. They could now see that they were part of a team working toward a meaningful collaboration, one that could serve a greater purpose than merely helping them get past their own anguish. Madden was a lynchpin in this, given that she was the only principal not bound by the restrictions of an NDA. And then there was Judd, who courageously realized that this situation was too significant to allow herself to be constrained by her nondisclosure agreement, that she had to step forward to help out Twohey and Kantor. Madden and Judd went on the record with their stories, and the rest is history. Justice served.
Movies about journalism can be somewhat problematic (especially these days in this age of growing media mistrust). Which is why these films really and truly work best when they play it straight, focusing on the facts in a no-nonsense, straightforward way, with no grandstanding or exaggerated histrionics, and that’s one of the innate strengths of this latest offering in this genre. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation and best-selling book of the same name, “She Said” provides an impressive fact-based recounting of the efforts of the reporters and editors to uncover the blistering sexual misconduct allegations leveled against Weinstein.
As a onetime-practicing journalist myself, I appreciate the unencumbered approach director Maria Schrader has employed here. While some have called this work “pedestrian” and “plodding,” I respectfully disagree with those characterizations and would readily put it alongside works like “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “Spotlight” (2015), movies that detractors of this picture have contended are far superior when, in fact, they’re all mostly on par. Moreover, just because the film takes a rather direct approach in telling its story, that doesn’t mean it’s without its compelling moments of emotional heft, particularly in the testimony of the victims. The picture may not employ anything overly inventive, and the film is admittedly a tad too long, but it nevertheless chronicles the reporting process clearly, concisely and unburdened by technical jargon or gaps in explaining the legal and journalistic consequences involved. It also features a fine ensemble cast, most notably Mulligan (in one of her best performances) and Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton in significant supporting roles.
This offering genuinely deserves a fair shake, something it’s regrettably not getting to the degree it deserves (thanks to its often-unfair torpedoing by cynical critics and misogynist trolls). It brings to life an important story that was long in the offing and that has, thankfully, had a lasting, deep, culture-shifting impact. The film, currently playing theatrically, is on the radar for awards season consideration, though, with what other offerings that have already been released and what is currently pending, “She Said” may have some difficulty breaking through in light of the somewhat tepid response it has received thus far.
For whatever reason, those in positions of power and influence seem to believe that they can get away with whatever they want. It’s a theme, interestingly enough, that appears to be running through a number of this year’s film releases, such as this offering and the dramatic character study, “Tár.” One would think in this day and age that such indulgent, self-serving attitudes should be a thing of the past, but apparently that’s not the case. Because of that, we still need courageous, determined watchdogs to keep us honest, especially those who feel they’re immune from the consequences of their actions. In a world that has grown increasingly intolerant of such uncalled-for transgressions, we should be grateful for those who are looking after our interests – and who are unafraid of speaking their minds and hearts when circumstances warrant doing so.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Is Turnabout Fair Play?
We like to think that we’re fundamentally all equal, and, in idealistic terms, it’s hard to take issue with that notion. However, from a practical, realistic standpoint, inequality is unfortunately alive and well in so many contexts. It’s undoubtedly unfair that such differences have been allowed to continue to hold sway and that there are those who must endure such inequities. But can the situation be rectified? And, if so, how? Those are among the questions raised in the new satirical dark comedy, “Triangle of Sadness” (web site, trailer).
Pity the poor 1%. They have it so rough. One indeed wonders how they get by. Consider the plight of male model Carl (Harris Dickinson) and his significant other, model and social media influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean). They have such difficult dilemmas to resolve, like who pays for dinner at an upscale restaurant. It might seem like a minor point to most of us (save for the total of the bill), but the couple turns the subject into a protracted and increasingly shrill discussion, first in the bistro then in the chauffeured ride home then in the hotel elevator and finally in their hotel room. Even though they may not possess the resources of the super rich, they’re nevertheless rather well off. So, of all the people for whom one would think such a discussion shouldn’t matter, it would be them. Yet there they are, squabbling over something that brings out the pettiness that characterizes those of their ilk, first in terms of finances and then in terms of gender roles.
Their behavior and attitude set a prime example of what’s to come. This episode thus serves as a sort of prologue, perfectly capturing the nature of the class of people who will be depicted in the remainder of the film. Carl and Yaya will be part of this coterie of characters, of course, but they’re only one aspect of the upcoming show, one that sees them and their peers put through their paces.
After this opening segment, the film picks up with Carl and Yaya, among others, on a cruise aboard a luxury yacht, where the staff is commanded to bend to every whim of the passengers, no matter how frivolous, demanding or capricious their requests might be. The ship’s chief steward, Paula (Vicki Berlin), has the crew whipped into shape through a combination of polite intimidation and hilariously over-the-top motivational speaking exercises. And, almost without question, the staff obediently complies, which isn’t always easy given the many outrageous demands made by the wealthy, eccentric passengers, some of whom include:
- For starters, there’s Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), a successful fertilizer magnate (who doesn’t always describe himself quite so diplomatically) who exemplifies the unabashedly capitalist Russian nouveau-riche. Though jovial and pleasantly generous, the unrepentant oligarch nevertheless has a crass, somewhat unsophisticated streak that makes him come across like a cast member of “The Moscovite Hillbillies.” He travels with his spouse, Vera (Sunnyi Melles), who has all the class of a mafia wife (and the tacky outsized jewelry to prove it), and Ludmilla (Carolina Gynning), his trophy mistress. Together, this trio unabashedly flaunts their affluence, yet they also do their level best to put a positive face on their wealth and even encourage the “less fortunate” among them to join in their fun (such as Vera’s insistence that the entire crew participate in a group swim, a request that’s reluctantly fulfilled despite cruise line restrictions against such forms of interactive fraternization). And who says the Russians don’t know how to enjoy themselves?
- Winston (Oliver Fred Davies) and Clementine (Amanda Walker) are a charming, elderly, exceedingly rich British couple who have been together for years and are still very much in love. They freely share these sentiments with the other passengers, exuding a warmth that’s undeniably infectious. They seem like loving grandparents whom anyone couldn’t help but adore – that is, until one finds out how they made their fortune: as munitions manufacturers specializing in the marketing and distribution of grenades and land mines, primarily to third world nations caught up in nasty and ongoing internal struggles. Charming couple indeed.
- Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin) has more money than he knows what to do with, having made a bundle as a coder for various IT applications. But, considering his milquetoast personality, he’s lonely, unable to attract the attention and affection of others (most notably women). The sheepish Swedish programmer quietly yet desperately seeks company, but he’s often his own worst enemy, sitting silently by himself , hoping that someone will take notice of him. It seems that money truly can’t buy happiness.
- Therese (Iris Berben), sadly, suffered a debilitating stroke that has left her severely incapacitated. She’s confined to a wheelchair, wholly dependent on her husband, Uli (Ralph Schicha), to care for her. To make matters worse, she’s barely able to communicate, capable only of calling for her spouse and uttering a few phrases in German, most notably “In den Wolken,” which translates as “in the clouds,” the realm where most of her clueless peers appear to reside. It seems that money can’t buy health and well-being, either.
- And, then, of course, there are the many dimwitted eccentrics who are aboard, too, such as a woman (Mia Benson) who constantly complains that the ship’s sails are dirty and in need of cleaning – never mind the fact that this is a motorized vessel with no such riggings. Of course, given that the passengers are always right, the crew continually and politely indulges her request, promising that they’ll attend to it at their soonest convenience. I guess with that kind of money one can afford to live in one’s own little world, no matter how much it may be detached from the rest of us.
Tending to the needs of this motley crew is the eminently patient staff, all under Paula’s micromanaged direction. For instance, there’s Alicia (Alicia Eriksson), a steward who struggles to correctly reconcile her responsibilities, such as complying with Vera’s group swim request, knowing that she’s supposed to be accommodating but without violating ship’s regulations. Then there’s Abigail (Dolly De Leon), a dutiful maid who tolerantly abides by all of Paula’s and the passengers’ requests, no matter how thoughtlessly made. And then there are the engine room crew members, such as Nelson (Jean-Christophe Folly), who, like most of his peers, is African – and, sadly but unsurprisingly, confined to their place below deck.
Overseeing this operation – allegedly, that is – is the ship’s captain, Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson). That qualification is noted because the skipper spends most of his time locked in his cabin, drunk off his behind. The ship’s first mate, Darius (Arvan Kananian), and Paula try to keep Smith in line, shouting announcements and reminders to him through his cabin door and trotting him out when needed, such as ensuring that he shows up for his required appearance at the Captain’s Dinner. That’s all easier said than done, however, given that the avowed Marxist has quiet contempt for his well-heeled passengers, quite the irony considering the position he holds. Maybe that’s why he’s three sails to the wind most of the time.
So what are Carl and Yaya doing aboard this ship of fools? Considering their significant social media influence (particularly Yaya), they’ve been asked to partake in the voyage to help promote it, a freebie offered them by the cruise line. But, more than that, their presence is symbolic of their desire for upward mobility. They aspire to turn their modest wealth into the mega wealth enjoyed by their fellow passengers, believing that this kind of social climbing is something worth pursuing. But is it? As events play out on the cruise, they may find that such an aspiration is not all it’s cracked up to be.
While the cruise starts out living up to expectations, matters slowly deteriorate, first with minor inconveniences and gradually escalating to far more problematic issues. This becomes apparent during the ill-fated Captain’s Dinner, whose timing couldn’t be worse – during a violent storm at sea. As the ship rocks back and forth and the various courses are served, the passengers grow increasingly unwell as seasickness overtakes virtually everyone and leaves the vessel a progressively disgusting mess. (Where’s that Dramamine when you need it?)
But that’s just the beginning. To say more at this point could potentially be considered a spoiler, so, if you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading here. But, to fully understand what this film is all about, keep going if you want to know more.
As the catastrophe that is the Captain’s Dinner continues, the ship’s power goes out, leaving the vessel dead in the water (crashing waves notwithstanding). But conditions finally settle down by morning, leaving one to believe that the worst has subsided – that is, until a pirate ship appears on the horizon, a development followed, ironically and fittingly enough, by a grenade explosion on deck, sinking the ship and most of the passengers with it.
In the aftermath of the disaster, only a handful of passengers survive – Carl, Yaya, Dimitry, Jarmo, Therese, Paula, Abigail and Nelson. They make their way to what appears to be a remote deserted island. They have few supplies and no realistic hopes of being rescued, at least any time soon. So what’s next?
Under these conditions, a new social order emerges. Those possessing the strongest survival skills (principally Abigail) take over as the tables are now decidedly turned. So how will this modern-day version of Gilligan’s Island (with a few passing nods to Lord of the Flies) shake out? Can “the Howells” of this primitive new society maintain their status, or will they be forced to capitulate to a new group of masters? That’s what remains to be seen as this sociopolitical odyssey unfolds.
One might easily come away from this story asking, “How could things possibly get so out of hand?” Well, just take a look at what’s going on in the world around us these days, and you’ll see that such an outcome is not so far-fetched. If we’re such a supposedly intelligent species, how have we ended up with so many widespread social, political, economic and environmental problems to solve, nearly all of which are readily attributable to our own making? Time Out magazine has fittingly hailed this film as “the perfect comedy for our times” – and how astute that observation is.
As a vehicle designed to get us to sit up and take notice, “Triangle of Sadness” has indeed struck a nerve, shining a bright light on the pervasive inequalities in today’s world. In doing so, it has also put us and our beliefs under the microscope for what amounts to some very uncomfortable scrutiny. And examining those beliefs is crucial, for they shape the world around us, for better or worse. In this case, it’s not hard to imagine which of those applies.
This is not to suggest that our beliefs are always put to nefarious uses; they’ve also created much good in the world, as they can essentially be employed in the materialization of virtually anything. But, as this film illustrates, they can wreak all kinds of havoc when implemented for wholly self-indulgent purposes, all the while making it look as though such dubious choices are something to be looked up to.
In bringing all this to light, this offering symbolically depicts the results with spot-on incisive wit. For instance, the yacht’s problematic voyage is a perfect metaphor for a ship of state sailing in troubled waters. And, to compound that problem, it’s being captained by a drunken, irresponsible skipper at the helm who doesn’t know what he’s doing (remind you of anybody?). Captain Thomas Smith could be a symbol of virtually anyone in a position of power, struggling to keep their respective political, social or business institutions afloat. One need only look at the fiasco that is the Captain’s Dinner to see how these notions can manifest metaphorically, symbolically indicative of bigger and more troubling issues.
The relations between the passengers and crew also reflect the class distinctions so prevalent in today’s world. While that relationship is comically portrayed here as a present-day version of the 1970s British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, it actually depicts a more serious issue that spans the differences between the world’s haves and have-nots. It also addresses what can happen when circumstances prompt a switching of roles and what can occur as a result. For the 1%ers, life suddenly isn’t what it once was – and may never be again.
The inequalities extend beyond economics, too. The question of gender equality comes up frequently, even amongst the privileged themselves. One need only look to the relationship between Carl and Yaya, for example, to see how this plays out. But it doesn’t end there. When the castaway survivors end up stranded in the wilderness, Abigail assumes a leadership role that puts the supposedly strapping alpha males in their place, a position to which they’re sorely unaccustomed.
What’s most important to bear in mind here is that all of these developments – unsatisfactory though they might be – nevertheless stem from the beliefs of their creators. In this case, we’re talking about co-creations in particular, collaborative results that arise from the jointly held beliefs of everyone involved. Some might argue that it’s patently advantageous for the haves to manifest what they have created for themselves, but what do the have-nots get out of it? That’s difficult to say, given that we can’t get inside their consciousness to discover the exact reasons behind what they’re doing. However, it could be that they are part of a collaboration whose underlying intent is to materialize a scenario in which all parties involved have an opportunity to experience and learn a valuable life lesson that they may not be able to get any other way. Should that be the case, they’re obviously in store for a potent, possibly transformative experience – and, again, for better or worse for all involved.
Is turnabout fair play? That’s a good question, one that’s put to the test in this outrageously hilarious new sociopolitical satire from writer-director Ruben Östlund. Drawing upon themes explored in previous works like “Force Majeure” (2014) and “The Square” (2017), the filmmaker examines what happens when the uber-privileged find the tables turned on them, placing them in circumstances where those they once callously and willfully disrespected suddenly find themselves having an undeniable upper hand. But will those who were once oppressed draw from their unfortunate experiences and treat the newly downtrodden with dignity and compassion, or will they morph into newly emerging versions of those they previously spitefully detested?
In addition to matters of money and power, the characters in this sidesplitting farce also wrestle with issues related to gender, physical beauty and social influence and how they wield their clout in these areas in their relationships with others, including both peers and those of different class status. The symbolism employed to convey these notions can be a little obvious at times, but it’s always inventive and decidedly clever in its implementation, making the picture’s message readily known but without being too on the nose. Also, some of the bits – as funny as they are – occasionally go on a little too long, a quality easily apparent given the film’s unusually protracted runtime of 2:27:00, uncharacteristically long for a comedy. Nevertheless, so much of what takes place here works so well that it’s truly hard to find fault with the Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor. Its superb ensemble cast truly shines, and the locales are perfectly chosen, most notably the yacht, which was once owned by Aristotle Onassis.
This is the kind of picture that one might not suspect to be quite so uproarious upon entering the theater, but the film definitely delivers the goods, much in the same way that the Oscar-winning offering “Parasite” (2019) did. And, if you found that funny, you’re sure to find more of the same here. Catch it in theaters while you still have an opportunity to see it on the big screen.
To be fair, the differences that have divided us have been around for eons, and changing those entrenched patterns is not something that’s going to occur overnight. Indeed, we should be proud of what progress we have made. But there’s still much work to do, and change will only emerge when we decide to change our minds – and our beliefs – to set matters in new directions. We must come to understand that there’s no point in continuing to hold on to that which no longer serves us, but that’s something of which we must be convinced before proceeding. Let’s hope that movies like this help us to make those decisions – and sooner rather than later.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
An Introspective Look at Life
How often do we seriously take the time to contemplate life’s bigger questions? We either preoccupy ourselves with everyday matters that unwittingly prompt us to put these issues on the back burner, or we may view these subjects as too daunting or scary, pushing them into the dark recesses of our consciousness for later handling (opportunities for which almost never surface). But how prepared do these approaches leave us for the time when we really will have to address them? Then what? Those are among the considerations raised in the new surrealistic comedy-drama, “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” (“Bardo, falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades”) (web site, trailer).
Imagine being somewhere that’s both eminently familiar yet also strangely foreign. You recognize your surroundings and the people who are present, but something seems uncharacteristically off. You think you’re comfortable (or at least you want to believe so), but then things begin to happen that take you by surprise, perhaps even unnerving you. Incongruities intrude upon your expectations. Then you find yourself engaged in activities and conversations that you’ve never experienced before. You even find yourself talking about subjects that you’ve managed to avoid for years or perhaps even for the whole of your life. And, before you know it, you find yourself outside of your comfort zone.
At the same time, however, you also come upon a number of pleasant, unexpected experiences. You hear others paying you glowing compliments and even showering you with accolades. These occurrences, as enjoyable as they are, however, don’t seem to mesh with the other incidents, making you question the disparity, as well as how genuinely deserving you are of the honors being bestowed upon you.
The longer this goes on, the more you come to realize that you’re not in Kansas any more (or, for the protagonist in this story, Mexico). But where exactly are you? That’s the conundrum to be resolved here.
Such are the puzzling circumstances being faced by Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho). The respected, late middle-aged journalist and documentary filmmaker is trying to figure out what’s unfolding around him. The Mexican-born broadcaster and auteur has been living in Los Angeles for years after making a name for himself while living south of the border. Once he amassed a bundle of notoriety, however, he headed north with his family to cash in on his marketability, both in terms of the financial and artistic opportunities it afforded him. And cash in he did, taking on a plethora of projects that essentially turned him into a workaholic, a choice that brought him considerable recognition but at a high cost.
As Silverio’s story opens, though, he’s away from his adopted California home, paying a visit to Mexico City, a place he hadn’t visited in years. While there, he has encounters with former colleagues like Carlos (Hugo Albores), Luis (Francisco Rubio) and Hortensia (Clementina Guadarrama), reunions that don’t quite go as planned. He even has some surreal experiences, such as a visit to the city’s historic Chapultepec Castle, a strange occurrence in which past and present appear to collide, leaving the bewildered protagonist and his baffled companion, the US Ambassador to Mexico (Jay O. Sanders), in stunned disbelief.
Silverio next finds himself experiencing what appear to be memories but as viewed from the perspective of his current age. He relives a series of events with his wife, Lucía (Griselda Siciliani), including moments of tenderness, eroticism and disguised tragedy. He engages in a series of conversations with his son, Lorenzo, first as a child (Jerónimo Guerra) and then as a young adult (Iker Solano), discussions that start out pleasant enough but take unexpected left turns, particularly when the talks veer into sociopolitical topics and matters of nationalistic pride. And then there’s the birth of his firstborn, Mateo, a sickly infant who somehow communicates with his mother’s obstetrician that he wants to crawl back into the womb and forego living in the real world, given all its problems, a comically depicted incident that symbolically conceals a darker truth that Silverio has apparently been unable to address.
Silverio’s personal memories are augmented by a review of his highly praised professional accomplishments, such as documentaries about the desperate exodus of migrants travelling northward to seek new opportunities in the US and a profile of an incarcerated drug lord (Noé Hernández) known for his savagery. It raises uneasy feelings for him, especially when he ruminates on the privileged opportunities he’s had in comparison to the lack thereof for most of his fellow countrymen. It also makes him wonder how much he can truly appreciate and adequately depict their experiences given how far removed he has been from them and what they have had to endure. Feelings of hypocrisy creep into his thinking, especially in light of how much he has been applauded by peers and gringos who can’t begin to realistically relate to the experiences of the average Mexican.
Such thoughts emerge in Silverio’s consciousness as he prepares to receive an award from an esteemed American journalism organization, the first foreign-born correspondent to be so honored. Part of him has to wonder whether he’s genuinely worthy of this distinction or whether it’s a move aimed at easing tensions related to US-Mexico immigration policies. In any event, the award presentation is celebrated at a huge, lavish party where Silverio is honored with all of his family members, including Lucía, Lorenzo and the daughter he adores, Camila (Ximena Lamadrid). However, the celebration proves to be a bittersweet affair, one where he’s sufficiently feted by many of his professional colleagues (mostly Americans) and berated by others, such as Luis, who essentially accuses him of being a sell-out to the Mexican journalism community.
Despite the mixed signals Silverio receives from peers, he takes great personal comfort from his family members, who revel in his success and accolades. He even has an opportunity to divert his attention away from the formal festivities to one of a more intimate nature, an encounter with his late father (Luis Couturier). Papá expresses his profound pride in his son’s accomplishments, a moment that’s expressed surrealistically where an adult Silverio is depicted with the stature of a young boy, a symbolic reflection of the nature of his relationship with his dad. A comparably loving encounter with his mother (Luz Jiménez) follows, one that takes him away from the party and gives him pause to start putting together the diversity of experiences he has had thus far.
Additional unusual experiences follow, including a dark, unsettling surrealistic journey to the movie set where Silverio was making a documentary about conquistador Hernan Cortes (Ivan Massagué), a family vacation to Baja California (which, by the way, Amazon has been seeking to purchase, a breaking news story that’s reported on routinely throughout the film), and a return to Los Angeles where an obviously tired Silverio seeks to resume his life and meditate on everything he’s been through of late.
But what does it all mean? Given the far-reaching introspection Silverio has just gone through and the extraordinarily fantastic events he witnessed and experienced, this was far from what one encounters in everyday life. It’s as if he was reliving his life, reviewing it for what it has been, what he might have done differently and who he really is – not what the public, publicists and the world at large say and think about him. If this sounds like something not of this world – especially when it explodes with visions and apparitions none of us typically encounter – you’d be right. And, if you’re wondering where that is, you need only look as far as the film’s title, “Bardo,” the world between worlds that many schools of Buddhist thought maintain we “visit” after passing from the physical plane.
Some might contend that revelation is a spoiler, but that’s an inflated characterization in my view. As noted above, one need only look at the title of the film to see what it’s all about (and, for those who are unfamiliar with the concept of the Bardo, a quick internet search will reveal the answer quickly enough). The more crucial issue at stake here is what do we do with what comes out of a Bardo experience? That’s what Silverio needs to figure out for himself in the wake of what he’s gone through, something that all of us must do after having our own Bardo experiences (or their equivalents as expressed in other spiritual traditions). Of course, determining that we’re having such an experience in the first place is the initial crucial step in this process. It’s something we must all go through in order for the experience to sufficiently grab our attention so that we can focus on and learn from it. Whether we call this process a Bardo experience or a “life review” or whatever other term best suits us, the principle is essentially the same in each case. And that’s what Silverio is now finding out for himself here. The big question, of course, is what will he do with the knowledge he gains from the experience – and takes with him as he moves on to whatever comes next.
Based on what appears on screen, it’s obvious that Silverio’s time in the Bardo is a highly personalized experience. But, then, that really shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that his experience there (like the ones that any of us would undergo when in such a state of existence) is a review of the highly particularized life he has just lived, a customized reality that manifested through the power of his own individual beliefs. Because this school of thought maintains that we create our world through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents – something that many of us may not readily recognize due to a lack of fundamental awareness of it – our journey to the world between worlds provides us with a chance to examine, review and assess what we materialized during the earthly existence we just departed. It truly is a life review with an opportunity to learn valuable life lessons at which we may or may not have succeeded while we were still in corporeal form.
But why is Silverio so seemingly confused by what he’s experiencing (at least initially)? There could be a number of reasons. The familiarity of the environment he finds himself in may be so strongly compelling that he might believe he’s still experiencing the physical existence from whence he just came. It’s only when anomalies begin to appear – the surrealistic images, the nonlinear timeline, the examination of issues he rarely if ever contemplated while in physical form – that he begins to suspect that something’s up, nudging him toward considering alternate explanations for what’s transpiring around him.
It should be noted that he’s probably not alone in this, either; many of us may have comparable experiences, due in large part to our lack of familiarity with this sort of thinking. Moreover, many of us may have allowed ourselves to have our beliefs conditioned about what to expect after death, frequently a product of religious doctrine. We may have thoroughly convinced ourselves that our afterlife experiences follow circumscribed cookie cutter patterns that we all undergo. But, if the purpose of a life review is to explore the existence we just experienced – one that’s different for each of us based on the beliefs we used to create it – is it realistic to expect that this process of assessment will be identical for all of us? It’s thus easy to see how we might easily become confused when our experience doesn’t jibe with our expectations.
However, if we follow Silverio’s lead, the answers should begin coming to us as we make our way through the experience. When our time in the Bardo begins to mirror where we came from (but in a more candid, more exaggerated form), we’re more likely to piece the puzzle together, just as Silverio does. In many regards, what we experience in the Bardo parallels what we went through in terrestrial existence, but, because the rules of manifestation operate with greater ease, speed and authenticity here than on the physical plane, we begin to see things with greater clarity. We have an opportunity to witness our true selves (and the authentic underlying nature of the life we just lived) with a heightened sense of transparency and lucidity. With the obscuring influence of camouflage now stripped away – an often-hindering force that clouds our beliefs and impacts a true understanding of our existence – we see things through a new set of eyes.
One of the potentially more difficult tasks we might face under these conditions has to do with the matter of judgment. Many of us may be quite surprised when we find that this is yet another afterlife expectation that’s different from what we had allowed ourselves to believe. When we learn that the responsibility for this is placed in our hands, we may be perplexed and overwhelmed. It’s clearly something that Silverio wrestles with as he looks back on his life. For example, he was a good provider for his family, but was he truly an accessible, loving husband and father in light of his workaholic tendencies? Similarly, was he really the sell-out that some of his Mexican professional peers saw him to be? But did their arguably jaded perspective invalidate the heartfelt views of others, like his father, who were genuinely proud of everything he accomplished?
What’s one to make of such seemingly contradictory assessments? Does this mean Silverio would have to repeat certain lessons in his next life to get them “right”? Or did the experiences he had actually live up to what he had intended to go through before incarnating? How does one adequately judge success or failure in circumstances like that? Is that not potentially ambiguous? And what do we do with that information as we prepare to move on to what’s to follow?
These are the kinds of thorny questions that “Bardo” raises, and answers aren’t readily forthcoming. Perhaps that’s because there are no pat, one-size-fits-all resolutions for addressing issues like this, something that many of us may never reflect upon to any significant degree. However, for those of us who are getting on in years, such considerations may cross our minds more readily, and, with the finish line in sight, we may be more tempted to want to prepare ourselves for such an impending eventuality.
“Bardo” is handily the most personal, introspective film that writer-director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has ever made. Perhaps that’s because he ultimately treats the Bardo more as a state of mind than a place, despite the similarity of its earth-like appearance and elements. Through this cinematic vehicle, he delves into a wealth of reflective, heady subjects not unlike those addressed in some of his earlier works, such as “21 Grams” (2003), “Biutiful” (2010) and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014), as well as similarly themed releases made by other filmmakers, such as Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” (1979), Federico Fellini’s “8½” (1963) and Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980). It’s also the most flamboyant offering Iñárritu has ever tackled, but that’s not surprising, given that he has a history of making flashy, unconventional movies. And, because of that, it’s easy to see how this release has come to be characterized as a less-than-subtle cinematic autobiography, one that, because of its outrageous nature, has prompted some critics and viewers to label it a self-indulgent vanity project.
But, even if true, is that an inherently bad thing, especially if it gets us thinking? He uses his signature filmmaking style, storytelling approach and singular worldview to examine subjects like personal integrity; relationships with family, friends, colleagues and significant others; regrets and accomplishments; fulfilling one’s potential; and what one might have done differently. In this outing, he takes these familiar themes and their treatment and puts them on steroids, but what better way is there to tackle subjects like these in a setting as innately open-ended and unconstrained as the Bardo? The result is an eye-opening experience for characters and viewers alike.
Admittedly, the picture’s 2:39:00 runtime could have used some judicious pruning (its length having already been scaled back from its even more protracted director’s cut version). That’s especially true for much of the picture’s first hour, which could have been trimmed significantly without losing much (had the director done so, I probably would have given this release an even more glowing recommendation). But, once this release finds its stride, it truly takes off as a great piece of cinema – one that’s inventive, gorgeous to look at and well-acted and that has something to say to boot. What more could a movie lover ask for? Iñárritu really is in his element here, at least for much of the final 90+ minutes, and that’s more than good enough for me. Even though this offering probably won’t appeal to everyone, I’d certainly love to see moviegoers give this one a fair shot. The film is currently playing in limited theatrical release and will be headed to online streaming in the near future.
It’s been said that we’re all on our way to someplace else, an uplifting, inspiring prospect that often fills us with anticipation. But, if we truly want to be ready for the journey, we have to be prepared for it, and that often means learning and reviewing our life lessons, teachings that can prove valuable for embarking on such odysseys. And what better way to groom ourselves than to conduct the kinds of assessments we partake in during our stays in the Bardo? Some may see these as way station experiences; others may view them as jumping off points; and others still may consider them to be launching pads. However we look upon them, though, they make it possible for us to take flight, to take that courageous step into our future – and the destiny that awaits us.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Wrestling with Indecision, Pain and Moving Forward
When life repeatedly beats us up and knocks us down, it can be difficult to get back up. We may be reluctant to continue putting ourselves out there in the wake of such results. Even potentially pleasant prospects may lead us to be suspicious; the apprehension of yet another disappointment could leave us weary and hesitant. So how do we overcome this without stagnating in a state of seemingly perpetual indecision as a means to keep from getting hurt? That’s the question addressed in the compelling 2017 Ukrainian drama/love story/character study, “Falling” (“Strimholov”), now available for streaming online (web site, trailer).
In a nation long beset by pressing challenges, including authoritarian Soviet rule, the Chernobyl disaster, the 2014 Maidan Revolution and now the war with Russia, Ukraine is a nation that has endured much as it has struggled to find a new identity for itself, especially among the younger segment of its population. The lingering ghosts of a troubled past and a future full of uncertainty have left many feeling lost, despondent and directionless, creating for an often-bleak outlook. As true as it is today, that was also very much the case in 2015, a year after the Revolution at a time when the winds of the now-wider war began to blow, leaving many of Ukraine’s youth up in the air about their country’s and their own fate.
So it is for Anton (Andriy Seletskiy) and Katya (Dariya Plakhtiy). They’re both something of a puzzle, both to others and to themselves. And, with the uncertainty hanging over them in 2015, the prevailing conditions have left them just as uncertain about themselves. That’s the point from which their stories begin in this slowly unfolding drama, which reveals the nature of their circumstances slowly and in piecemeal fashion after a chance meeting outside a Kyiv nightclub.
Anton is perhaps the bigger enigma of the two cryptic protagonists. He’s recently rejoined the outside world after a protracted stay in a substance abuse rehabilitation center. The onetime virtuoso musician has come to live with his aging grandfather (Oleg Mosijchuk) in a cabin in the woods on the outskirts of Kyiv. Grandpa provides a degree of stability, tinged with a restrained but firm sense of tough love and an overall outlook shaped by having lived for years under Soviet rule. He’s willing to help out his grandson as he adjusts to life on the outside once again, but he’ll only go so far and doesn’t hesitate to make his reservations known, such as his disapproval over Anton’s plan to pay a visit to his alcoholic mother (Larisa Rusnak). He’s concerned that Anton will backslide under his mother’s influence, undoing all the progress he’s made. But Anton’s visit is short-lived as his mother wanders off on her own, leading him to the realization that attempting to maintain a relationship with her is fruitless – and in myriad ways.
As Anton struggles to find his way, so, too, does Katya, who lives in a Kyiv housing complex with her German boyfriend, Johann (Christian Borys), a photojournalist who journeyed to Ukraine to chronicle the Maidan Uprising a year earlier and is now ready to return to Berlin. He wants Katya to accompany him, but she has her doubts, both about the relocation and the future of her relationship with Johann, who’s rather intolerant of her indecisiveness. The mood at home, needless to say, is quite tense, and it prompts Katya to go off on her own to get some breathing room, not sure of where this decision will lead.
As circumstances would have it, Anton and Katya both wind up outside a Kyiv nightclub. Their chance meeting leads to a conversation and, ultimately, to subsequent encounters near Anton’s new remote home, meetings that are more than a little coincidental. They gradually get to know one another, revealing things about themselves that they both seem to have been reluctant to discuss with anyone else. A bond of trust and even tentative romance forms between them, one that has healing effects but that also raises new apprehensions, such as where this connection is actually headed. Katya still hasn’t committed to either staying in Kyiv or moving to Berlin, and Anton is quietly afraid that he might relapse given the pressures placed on him about the future of his music career and an impending call to fulfill his mandatory military service now that he’s no longer in rehab. To complicate matters further, Anton’s grandfather has suddenly taken ill, and the future of his care hangs in the balance, especially if Anton must leave home for active duty.
These dilemmas thus characterize the uncertainty that many young Ukrainians were wrestling with at the time, brought down to a personal level through the experiences of these two lost individuals. Anton and Katya, like many of their peers in the time frame of this story, can’t help but wonder what their future will bring, questions that, in the real world of today’s Ukraine, probably can’t help but have become compounded by current considerations. Indeed, how does one move forward with one’s life under conditions like these? Can the help of those similarly situated truly help in overcoming these challenges? And what if missteps occur along the way? What then? Is there anything that can genuinely combat the feeling of “falling” (in all its permutations) in the midst of such circumstances?
In many ways, it could be argued that the themes addressed in this film are universal to many of those in this group of contemporaries, which is why many of those in this age range can probably identify with the kinds of existential questions that these characters face. But, given the additional challenges Ukraine’s youth faced at the time and in today’s trying times – some of which are presciently foreshadowed in this 2017 offering – one can’t help but feel for their sense of being adrift and concerned about what consequences may await them.
So how do we find the way out of circumstances like these? Arguably the first and most critical step is to examine our beliefs, for they dictate the nature of the reality that emerges. But, as simple and straightforward as that might sound, it may be more difficult to fully grasp the nature of what materializes and the relationship between it and what drives the process – especially if we don’t have a handle on the specifics of the underlying beliefs, an apparent issue for both Anton and Katya.
Thankfully, because beliefs make virtually anything attainable, the protagonists – like all of us – have an infinite range of possibilities open to them, depending on which beliefs they choose to embrace and employ. However, when we operate without direction or if we’re overwhelmed by the choices, we could easily end up staying stuck in a holding pattern, with no readily identifiable goal in sight. To a certain degree that’s reflected in Anton’s woodland living environment; he can’t see the forest for the trees in his worldview, and that’s being metaphorically reflected back to him in the state of his physical existence. The choices are too numerous for him to decide on anything particular, and his environment is indicative of that.
We must also be careful which beliefs we choose to embrace, and, again, Anton’s experience illustrates the importance of this. One of the possibilities that scares him most is backsliding from the progress he made in rehab, and it dangles precariously over him. In fact, it’s so daunting that it clouds his view of what could lie ahead for him in a relationship with Katya. Fears are beliefs in themselves, and, if he holds on to this one too tightly, it might manifest in what he says he least wants to happen, jeopardizing his shot at something good – perhaps the most positive development to have emerged in his life in quite some time. It’s one thing to be prudent, but it’s something else entirely to be preoccupied with, paranoid about or reconciled to such a fate, because it could very well come to pass, despite whatever objections we might think we hold about such an outcome.
Katya’s indecisiveness could just as easily get her in trouble, too. It stems from her beliefs as well and could carry significant consequences. She’s obviously drawn to Anton, who, in many ways, suits her sensibilities better than Johann does, especially since her new romantic prospect is not trying to pressure her into making a decision one way or another. But, if she wavers on this point too much, she could lose out on something that’s capable of bringing her the kind of happiness that seems to have been absent from her life of late.
The existence of ancillary considerations can interfere with the decision-making process where our beliefs are concerned. They can cloud our judgment and again leave us adrift, especially when it comes to trying to determine the direction of our future. Their creation and presence (again belief-driven) could even be seen as a form of stalling, their hindrances placing a drag on proceeding with choosing what we want to manifest. That would account for Katya’s indecision. It also might explain Anton’s concerns over his military obligation and his grandfather’s well-being.
The delay in moving ahead with the direction of one’s life might not be seen by some as a tremendous calamity. Stalemates may not be the most productive way to spend our time, but they’re often likely to be viewed as somewhat innocuous. In some situations, they may even buy us some time to assess our options before making a firm decision, potentially avoiding a huge misstep. But, if we allow ourselves to wallow in such conditions for an unduly long time, we might set ourselves up for a drastic change, one that shakes us out of our complacency and lack of progress. And such a possibility – if embraced as a subconscious belief – could carry dire consequences as well.
The foregoing is not meant to be a disparaging comment on those who find themselves in such circumstances. The conditions that placed them there, for example, may have been so unnerving and oppressive that they left them stuck, unable to move forward; in all fairness, they can’t be faulted for being overwhelmed. That’s particularly true for those who live in a place like Ukraine, which has undergone so many tumultuous changes in such a condensed period of time. However, those affected by such scenarios should also be cognizant of what could arise from standing pat; the consequences of that could be truly problematic. Let’s hope they can see their way clear to a better and brighter future, something that Ukrainians deserve given what they’ve been through.
Writer-director Marina Stepanska’s multilayered 2017 debut narrative feature tackles an array of issues on both a macro and micro scale, including how they’re reflective of one another. In this unconventional drama/love story/character study, the film follows the fortunes of two young Ukrainians torn between giving up and getting back up after each time they “fall.” Their uneasy but undeniable romance provides in-the-moment flashes of happiness that they tentatively struggle to savor, no matter how fleeting and transitory they may be. It’s a story that preponderantly waxes bittersweet, often characterized by despair and listlessness but yet not without its meager though nevertheless sincere hope for better times, provided they can figure out what constitutes such a state of being. Admittedly, the narrative builds slowly (sometimes a little too much so), jealously holding on to its secrets and revealing them in carefully measured doses. But this storytelling approach manages to create a sense of anticipation that’s genuinely rewarded when the characters’ truths at last surface – and the unexpected outcomes that await them. This offering likely won’t appeal to everyone, but, for those who are sufficiently patient to wait for their payoffs, this release comes through on many levels, leaving viewers with much to contemplate in the wake of this engaging cinematic experience. The film is available for streaming online from Film Movement Plus.
As if the Ukrainian people hadn’t had enough to deal with before the start of the current conflict with the Russians, the present state of affairs has only added to the ongoing slate of issues that has been affecting the country for decades. And, under circumstances like that, it’s understandable how anyone might want to concede his or her fate. The effort to keep standing up after each fall may be more than anyone could bear. The result of that, unfortunately, could be indecision and stagnation, the belief that a lack of personal pain is preferable to the prospect of any possible hurt, no matter how remote. In a sense, though, it’s heartening that Ukraine has stood up to the current crisis, that its citizens have chosen not to give up in the face of this possible fall, revealing that it truly is possible to bounce back from pain and indecision, especially when the very existence of one’s nation and culture are at stake. Perhaps “Falling” was made at a time when the prospect of this struggle was in the air and the thought of it may have been more than anyone wanted to address given the nation’s prior history. However, as devastating as the war has been, it’s given the Ukrainian people a purpose to rise up, to overcome their past falls and to become who they were ultimately meant to be, an effort truly to be saluted. Let’s hope that they keep up the fight and succeed in this endeavor, that they never have to endure any more falls, and that they have the strength and fortitude to continue standing and saying, “No more.”
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.