The Awakening: tasty little film of death and how suddenly it comes

Ignacio Cerdà, Ethan Jacobson, Francisco Stohr, “The Awakening” (1991)

This 8-minute short is the first of three films forming a trilogy about death and how we are subject to elements beyond our control. In this short, these elements include time, objects and our own bodies. A student dozes off in class briefly and when he wakes, he finds the teacher and all his classmates frozen in time and space. He investigates and discovers the roll call has his name left off. He realises he is trapped in the classroom. Strange images of crucifixes and an eye atop a pyramid (this latter image appearing on a US dollar bill the student is observing when the film opens) and snatches of childhood memories flood his mind. His mind clears and he sees a commotion: someone is on the floor, apparently dying, and people are trying desperately to revive him. The student leans over and recognises the victim.

The whole film is very dream-like and surreal especially with the image of the eye and the pyramid suddenly appearing in full and precise detail on the blackboard and the student aware that the frozen figures before him are looking at him and through him. There is no dialogue and the music alternates between overly melodramatic and glitchy-electronic, reminiscent of crickets making a constant clicking and buzzing noise, creating a creepy mysterious atmosphere throughout the film. The student, wandering warily around the still classroom, starts to panic and his face twists under the strange images invading his mind. His face expresses startled horror as he realises what has happened to him. All the terror and suspense that appear are expressed in the student’s body language which up to the climax was very effective indeed; at the climax, the full horror doesn’t appear to hit the student, at least not in his face anyway, and he retreats into a dazed, passive state that continues to the end.

Although the setting is very ordinary and banal, and the student is no-one special – the teacher, played by Cerdà, even hands him an assignment marked “F” – the whole short is very unsettling with a sinister mood. Excellent camerawork which immerses viewers into the plot by assuming the student’s point of view at several points during the short including the horrific climax and its brief denouement helps to infuse suspense in what is otherwise a predictable little story. Experienced horror fans are sure to see the film’s revelation a mile away once the student wakes up from his snooze.

The music does tend to overwhelm the film especially during its most dramatic parts and viewers are left to wonder at the significance of the image of the eye and the pyramid in the film. According to Wikipedia, this is a representation of the Eye of Providence and in Christian mediaeval lore symbolises the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; in other ideological contexts and belief systems such as Freemasonry, it also symbolises the all-seeing God who observes our thoughts and actions. Is it possible that in communing with the dollar bill, the student actually does see God or something of God’s power? Does God give him a foretaste of what is to happen to him?

Quite a good little short, filled with mystery and deep symbolism, “The Awakening” is a small tasty appetiser into the world of Nacho Cerdà.

 

Fermat’s Room: a light and entertaining if not completely satisfying film about professional rivalry and intellectual obsession

Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sapeña, “Fermat’s Room” (2009)

Three brilliant mathematicians and an inventor, each already having solved a difficult problem, are invited to dinner together with a mysterious host called Fermat (Federico Luppi) in a barn on a remote island. Given pseudonyms of Galois, Hilbert, Oliva and Pascal, the foursome enjoy their meal with Fermat who then invites them to solve an enigma. Suddenly Fermat’s cellphone rings, he answers and has to excuse himself from the meeting in order to go to hospital to see his injured daughter. While he is gone, the guests discover he has locked the door and they are trapped; another cellphone and they answer it to find out that they are to solve a series of mental puzzles and riddles, each within one minute. If they run out of time or get the wrong answer, the walls in the room move towards them, shrinking the room. The quartet quickly realise they must solve the riddles and at the same time work out why they have been brought together by Fermat in the one place to be killed.

The actual puzzles in the film are not very complicated and many viewers will be able to solve them faster than the supposed geniuses do, though they have the luxury of not facing certain death if they take their time or get a wrong answer. The film quickly slips into a formula with Oliva (Elena Ballesteros) doing most of the brainwork on the riddles while the other characters (played by Lluis Homar, Santi Millan and Alejo Sauras) try to work out the connections among themselves and between one another and Fermat. In the meantime as the room becomes smaller, the guests try to stop the unseen hydraulic presses from pushing the walls closer to them by piling and arranging the furniture in ways to counteract the push. Past professional jealousies, the single-minded pursuit of an answer to an age-old intellectual enigma, an unfaithful lover, a car running into a pedestrian and other personal peccadilloes arise in the various back-stories that the foursome spill out to one another.

As might be expected the plot contains a red herring and a twist in that the real villain is not who the foursome suppose him to be. The twist relates to the general theme of professional rivalry and single-minded competition, and the fear that one’s lifework, built up over many years, even decades, can be eclipsed or demolished by a young upstart’s brilliant discovery. After the twist, the film then becomes a mad dash to escape the room with perhaps not even half the riddles the guests are supposed to solve having been completed. The true climax actually comes very close to the end of the film with those guests who have managed to escape pondering whether some papers they have taken with them should be published under one person’s name or another name. Some viewers will be able to guess that there is a third alternative.

In spite of the action taking place in just one ever-shrinking room, the movie doesn’t feel at all claustrophobic and the characters remain more or less level-headed as they work out the puzzles and work out their connections to one another. This can be a disadvantage to some people’s enjoyment of the movie: they may find the relative lack of emoting gives the impresson of the guests as being not too concerned with their dilemma. The acting can be uneven and Homar and Millan, playing Hilbert and Pascal respectively, flesh their characters out better than the younger Ballesteros and Sauras who play the young ex-lovers Oliva and Galois. Some viewers may query why two mathematicians have to be young and, in Galois’s case, tempestuous and testosterone-charged; they probably need to read something of the life of the real Évariste Galois, the brilliant mathematician who died at the age of 20 in a duel fought on behalf of a woman.

There is suspense and the puzzle-solving can be very absorbing and entertaining so the film moves more quickly than a synopsis of the plot would suggest. The whole project might have worked better and with more depth if there were more players (two, maybe three more people would do) and the room had been expanded to a maze with shifting walls. There could be a couple of deaths along the way – they need not be shown in all their gory glory – which would ratchet up the suspense and tension. The characters could have tried to beat the game rather than go along with it, with consequences both beneficial and detrimental to their survival. As it is, being Piedrahita and Sapena’s first full-length feature film together and made on a small budget, “Fermat’s Room” is an entertaining if not very satisfying film. The conclusion can be very hurried and some loose ends remain, well, loose.

 

Superego and Id meet slapstick in Oristrell’s breathless “Unconscious”

Joaquin Oristrell, “Unconscious” (2004)

An amusing and vivacious romance comedy set in Barcelona, 1913, “Unconscious” starts off as a search, possibly whodunnit, mystery and winds up a bonkers, overly slapstick trip into the more titillating and taboo areas of human psychology and sexuality. Dr Leon Pardo (Alex Brendemuehl) has recently returned from Vienna, having studied female sexuality as a student of the illustrious psychoanalyst Dr Sigmund Freud, and promptly disappears. Pardo’s wife Alma (Leonor Watling) enlists the help of her brother-in-law Dr Salvador Pifarre (Luis Tosar), also a psychiatrist, to find her lost spouse: the two pore through Dr Pardo’s casebook and discover he’s been treating four patients who may be able to assist in the search. The amateur detectives end up wading deeper into the extremes of human behaviour (for their time) such as homosexuality, transvestism, bondage, fetishism and incest than they anticipate, and their relationships with their spouses and with each other change permanently as well.

The film’s entire cast obviously had a ball making the movie: the acting is energetic, the lead actors make an excellent comedy duo and support actors like Juanjo Puigcorbe, who plays Alma’s psychiatrist father Dr Mira, and Mercedes Sampietro, Alma’s sinister housekeeper, chomp eagerly on the available scenery whenever the camera is focussed on them. Watling throws herself into the role of forthright Alma, unafraid to dive in where the more cautious Salvador fears to tread. The facial hair fashions of 1913 render Tosar’s Salvador into a John Cleese lookalike and Oristrell must have realised this as he sends Salvador into many situations where he comes a-cropper with dignity barely intact: being told a statue he’s holding is a fertility goddess, being co-opted into a porn film, having to wear Alma’s dress to a cross-dressing party and crashing down the stairs while bound to a pair of metal angel wings. These are comic mishaps I associate with John Cleese in the old British TV show “Fawlty Towers” and I almost expect to see Salvador in hopping hysterics screeching in that strained high-pitched Cleese tone while he flaps after Alma who could be a younger Prunella Scales. The various situations the two fall into grow ever more farcical and over-the-top right to the fantastical revelations, for which viewers are completely unprepared, about Alma’s family, Dr Pardo and their housekeeper which inspire Pardo to attempt to assassinate Freud during his tour of Spain. I’m still scratching my head as to how the smart and spirited Alma couldn’t have known her dad’s secret before marrying Dr Pardo and having their baby; I suppose the point among others that Oristrell and his script-writers are making is that mental health professionals can be the most screwed-up of all major occupational groups and their families the most dysfunctional.

Needless to say, students of psychoanalysis won’t learn anything here their lecturers and tutors haven’t already told them; if anything, the movie ridicules Freudian ideas such as “female hysteria” which is posited as a weapon men use to control wilful women, and insights into people’s unconscious feelings and desires – as when Salvador accidentally hypnotises himself and Alma discovers his feelings for her – suggest that people’s unconscious lives are funnier than their conscious lives are. Freud himself though is never presented as an OTT comic character; he’s a gentle person if a bit puzzled by the crazy Catalans and Spaniards around him, scuffling with a gun and firing bullets in the air.

The film is beautiful to look at with opulent sets – even the interiors of people’s apartments are furnished with colourful wallpaper (though having just read a book, James C Whorton’s “The Arsenic Century: how Victorian Britain was poisoned at home, work and play” on the use of arsenic-based products in Victorian Britain, I shudder to think of all the wallpaper dust the characters were breathing in and how that might have scrambled their brains and moral compasses) – and quaint vintage cars rattling on dusty roads. The attention to historical detail extends not only to the making of a pornographic film within the film proper but to the use of animated film reels to indicate scene changes or new chapters in the detective search. Pretentious, yes, but it does give the film a distinctive historical flavour. The structuring of the plot with separate chapters for each patient Alma and Salvador interview adds to the film’s breathless pace.

Oristrell may not be in fellow Spaniard Pedro Almodovar’s league yet but for the time being anyway, he has made a wacky sex comedy of the type the French used to make thirty years ago (“Pardon Mon Affaire”, “La Cage aux Folles”) and which few people these days seem able to do with style, intelligence and originality. I’ll stick my neck out and say that “Unconscious” may achieve the status of a minor classic: there’s rather too much slapstick and not enough wit (which could have been improvised) from the two lead actors to make this a truly great movie.

Agora: Hypatia’s life and times not done justice by film plot and structure

Alejandro Amenabar, “Agora” (2010)

This Spanish production presents a fictional account of the final years and death of the Greek female scientist / mathematician / philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. In Western literature, the death of Hypatia has often symbolised the decline of classical Greco-Roman civilisation and the values associated with it (in particular, free scientific inquiry and questioning / re-examining one’s beliefs and authority) and the rise of early Christianity and the values associated with that (unquestioning belief and faith in authority, literalism, bigotry and intolerance, the repression of women) and the film picks up this representation to decry religious authoritarianism and the damage it can cause. It’s an ambitious film with beautiful sets and actors with talent swanning around in gorgeous costumes but it’s let down by a confused and broken story that tries so hard to be relevant to modern audiences that clarity and emotional drama got left out.

As Hypatia, reputedly a woman of great beauty as well as of intellect, Rachel Weisz is not a bad choice: she does a good job with what she’s given though I think the film-makers could have given her more meaty work. The real-life Hypatia exercised some political and intellectual influence and leadership in Alexandria, and in this aspect of her life, Weisz isn’t quite so convincing as she is Hypatia the scientist: at one point in the film, she suggests that her persecutor, Cyril of Alexandria (Sami Samir), should be arrested but on what basis, she doesn’t say and doesn’t back up her statement with argument or emotional force. As slave-owner to Davus (Max Minghella), Weisz’s Hypatia should be more ambiguous than she is: true, she’s gentle and treats him well when she feels he deserves it or gets hurt but when the plot calls for her to treat Davus as the slave he is, she isn’t severe or commanding enough. Spending much of her screen time trying to reconcile her Neoplatonic beliefs about an earth-centred universe where the planets move in perfect circles with actual astronomical phenomena that suggest something else – and finding the solution to her questions in a heliocentric view of the universe in which the earth and its sister planets revolve around the sun elliptically – Weisz’s Hypatia strikes me as a refined and perhaps detached aristocrat who seems at a loss as to how to deal with the changing social and political realities that eventually claim her life. She offers no opinions on the various religious ideologies vying for the Alexandrian citizens’ hearts and minds and can only say that she believes in philosophy (but what kind, the film doesn’t say).

The film’s plot is mired in a fictitious love triangle of Hypatia, her student Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who later becomes prefect of Alexandria, and the slave Davus: since Hypatia spurns both Orestes and Davus as lovers, and these two never actually meet, why do the film-makers even bother setting the three of them up in the first place? Davus, fed up with Hypatia’s condescension towards him (he is her slave after all, what does he expect?), converts to Christianity and leaves her service to join Cyril’s congregation but finds himself torn between his loyalty to Christianity and his passion for Hypatia. Orestes goes from being an ardent, red-blooded pagan wannabe suitor to an ineffectual, morally conflicted Christian politician who admits to feeling lost without Hypatia’s advice. That’s about all the character development the film offers and it’s wasted on two support roles. Of the characters of Hypatia and her enemy the Bishop of Alexandria, and their motives for being and acting the way they do, there is no development: Hypatia is just a self-interested geek who sometimes dabbles in politics and the Bishop is a sinister cult leader who manipulates his followers all the way through the film. Wearing black turban-like cloths around their heads, these followers are made to resemble current enemy flavour of the day the Afghan Taliban in case we don’t quite get the message.

The film’s earnestness and desire to relate Hypatia’s times to us modern ignoramuses is emphasised by the camera’s occasional pulling back from the action, right, ri-i-ight back to take in a Google Earth satellite view of Alexandria (lovingly done at times, as if to say, wow, isn’t this reconstruction of an ancient city beautiful?) and of northern Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean region. We get the picture: religious bigotry and violence existed 1,600 years ago as it does now in the same parts of the world. The implication is a bit despairing, as if the conflict has always been an ongoing thing and only the actors change; first it was Christians versus pagans then Jews, now it’s Jews versus Muslims. The film breaks in half with two time periods in Hypatia’s life, one in which the Christian mobs pick on the pagans and sack their temple and library, the other taking place several years later with pagan worship outlawed so the Christians have to sledge the Jews instead. In the intervening period, Orestes has converted to Christianity and his character mellowed while Cyril has been promoted to Bishop of Alexandria. If viewers don’t get lost trying to figure the connection between these two arbitrarily chosen periods and why Orestes has become Christian and how his personality can have changed so much while Cyril stays much the same but with better pay and the lifestyle to match, I’ll be surprised. 

The film might have done better if Davus had been made the main character and observed his mistress’s downfall and death; he might also come to realise he has been brainwashed by Bishop Cyril and try to break away from him. Usually the purpose of having a fictional character in a movie about real-life people and events is to provide a focal person for the audience to follow the action and maybe comment on it. Through Davus’s eyes we might have seen Hypatia as a different woman, one more authoritative perhaps, more arrogant even, arrogant enough to think her status as an intellectual, political advisor and local celebrity warmly regarded by both Christians and non-Christians alike would protect her from a lynch mob. We might have seen the attraction of Christianity for someone like Davus and the danger of religious manipulation and extremist behaviour, and understand his inner conflict better.

As it is, the film is a good-looking introduction to a historical figure most people know little about in a period of ancient Roman history not previously covered by most films that cover the Roman Empire. I find it a shame that “Agora” is let down by an unnecessary plot vehicle, a protagonist and antagonist whose characters are rather flat compared to some others and a structure that just about derails the whole project by breaking in half. The pity is that Hypatia’s life and times contain enough real human drama and conflict about the forced retreat of science and reason before political expediency and religious extremism; the film could have made the point that Hypatia was as much a victim of Roman imperial policy and attitudes and of inaction on the part of local rulers in Roman Egypt as she was of the Christian lynch mob.

Buried: film just manages to avoid burying itself with gimmicks and diversions

Rodrigo Cortes, “Buried” (2010)

For a one-trick pony in which the trick is one man stuck in a wooden box buried 2 metres underground, this is quite suspenseful and entertaining. I only wonder for how long the novelty of a plot of one-man / one-set lasting 95 minutes will outlast the movie itself long after it has left the cinemas. At least Ryan Reynolds, playing the burial victim, does a good job of being nearly constantly in motion – even if at times that motion consists of perspiring heavily, gulping for air and trying to calm himself down so as not to waste his oxygen – throughout the film. Hardly much scenery to chew up, that’s true, but to keep the audience’s attention riveted on himself and not over-act or under-act must have been a hard job for Reynolds.

Fortunately modern technology in the form of a mobile phone – ah, now this film would never have been possible without mobile phone and GPS technology to make it all credible! – provides our protagonist with the opportunity to chat to various unseen actors locally and across the globe so we learn how and why he ended up literally boxed in. He’s Paul Conroy, an American truck driver working for a large company CRT that has sent him to Iraq to drive supplies from one town to another. One day his convoy is ambushed by local people, he gets clobbered and passes out while the other drivers in the convoy are killed. When he comes to, he finds himself in the coffin with nothing to keep him company save the mobile phone and a cigarette lighter. Frantically he dials everyone he knows – his family, the US State Department, an emergency operator in Ohio, his employer who puts him in contact with a hostage rescue unit in Baghdad – to get help before he suffocates from lack of oxygen. The conversations he has range from heart-breaking to cruel and callous and say a great deal about how people, in particular government and corporate bureaucrats, treat unseen others deemed significant or insignificant cyphers according to their usefulness in achieving certain political and economic goals and results.

We never see any of the people Conroy speaks to and this deliberate ploy to keep the action concentrated on Conroy in the coffin heightens the alienation and isolation he feels, particularly after his employer fires him so as to disown all responsibility for his fate and to his family, as well as the tension. From time to time Conroy’s kidnappers, represented by a lone accented voice, contact him to demand he film a video of himself and transmit it to Youtube or to cut off his finger on a second video. This provides for one of a number of moments of black humour, in which Conroy is told by his would-be rescuers that his first video received 47,000 hits on Youtube which have no effect on the urgency of the rescue effort; other moments include his conversation with a woman who may be an ex-girlfriend. One conversation he has which may strike audiences as cruel, blackly funny or pathetic is with his mother who has dementia.

The limitations of this one-man / one-set movie quickly become obvious: Conroy, representing an average Joe in a political context he barely understands, can only be obsessed with rescue and the people he converses with quickly exhaust the scriptwriter’s options of reactions from non-responsive and helpless to tragically incompetent and ruthlessly uncaring. The kidnappers themselves are knowledgeable about Iraq’s recent politics and history but it’d be stretching credibility and audience attention levels for them and Conroy to start arguing politics. I guess too when a person is stuck in a coffin for two hours with a mobile phone and limited oxygen, the last thing s/he’d be thinking of is philosophical questions about life, death, the universe and “Why did the kidnappers kill the other truck drivers but bury ME alive instead?”

The temptation for the scriptwriter to throw in sub-plot diversions like visiting creepy-crawlies and a sand leak into the box becomes strong and so Conroy must contend with a snake and a nearby bomb explosion that causes the sand leak; certainly these increase the suspense but the introduction of the snake and the way it’s done (sneaking into Conroy’s trousers while he dozes off) have the feel of a cheap gimmick.

At least director Cortes has the good sense to cut the film at 95 minutes, giving a result that is lean and fairly credible. Even at this length, the concept is stretching thin and the director and scriptwriter have thrown every idea they can into it: Conroy gets filmed from nearly every angle possible, he has one hallucinatory episode of being rescued, he contemplates suicide, the camera does numerous close-ups and pans away at least twice to give the impression of Conroy in a tube-like box (increasing his sense and the audience’s sense of total isolation), and there is a “so close yet so far away” moment in the film. This is the kind of film you watch at least once, to see how a particular concept should be treated in a commercial film context and how directors and scriptwriters can milk the concept for all it’s worth. Beyond that, we’re probably getting into the realm of Samuel Beckett who in his play “Happy Days” did so much more with the idea of one-person-buried-alive but we’re not talking commercial films any more.