This month’s picks include a dystopian Greek movie about a mysterious disease, a sobering film about Britain’s Windrush scandal, a harrowing drama from Colombia, a modern Indian take on Shakespeare and a dazzling stop-motion opera from China.
Stream it on Mubi.
Janis Rafailidou’s unsettling movie introduces its lead characters via a sex scene, although it’s not immediately clear what we’re watching. All we see are fragments of fleshy, entangled limbs, filmed so up-close that it’s impossible to discern any recognizable shapes or forms. This is Rafailidou’s modus operandi throughout “Kala Azar”: to peer at familiar objects and bodies so closely, and from such unusual angles, that their contours become strange.
The story unfolds in a desolate, somewhat dystopian Mediterranean landscape, though the setting is never explicitly identified. There are distant mountains, scraggly fields and dusty construction sites where crews of South Asian laborers toil away. Penelope (Penelope Tsilika) and Dimitris (Dimitris Lalos) are pet cremators who drive through this terrain, stopping by homes to pick up deceased dogs, cats and fish, assuring their owners that they will be disposed of with ceremony and care.
Fragments of narrative emerge as the couple clash with the director of the pet crematory over the mysterious roadkill they encounter on their journeys. But “Kala Azar” invests less in plot than in a sensuous, tactile mood, drawing on the morbid implications of its title (the name of a lethal parasitic fever) to conjure a melancholic world where life and death are no longer in equilibrium. It’s a particularly haunting watch in our current coronavirus-afflicted times.
‘Sitting in Limbo’
Stream it on Netflix.
Anthony Bryan’s mother arrived in London in the 1960s as part of the “Windrush generation” of Caribbean immigrants: working-class men and women who were encouraged to move to Britain in the postwar decades to fill labor shortages. Bryan was all of 8 when he joined his mother, and by 2015 he had lived and worked in London for nearly 50 years, when, suddenly, he was declared an illegal immigrant and threatened with deportation.
Bryan was among the hundreds of immigrants wrongly targeted in Britain’s Windrush scandal. In “Sitting in Limbo,” which dramatizes Bryan’s hellish experience, the director Stella Corradi captures the spiritual toll of this injustice. Bryan (Patrick Robinson) goes from his modest but full life with his partner, children and friends to making the labyrinthine rounds of immigration offices, courtrooms and prisonlike detention centers. Any legal relief, procured by his family at great cost, proves short-lived.
Corradi renders both Bryan’s downs and eventual ups with the same muted, evenhanded style, mirroring the truth that Robinson conveys forcefully with his weary, hardening face. No matter the outcome of his ordeal, Bryan has lost something that he will never recover: a sense of belonging. Yet “Sitting in Limbo” isn’t all grim. Corradi takes care to highlight the intimacy, love, and solidarity of Bryan’s community, paying tribute to not just their suffering but also their resilience.
‘Valley of Souls’
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“Valley of Souls” opens in 2002 as José (José Arley de Jesús Carvallido Lobo), a wizened old fisherman, canoes down Colombia’s Magdalena river. The night is dark, the river is vast and menacing voices can be heard in the distance. The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the far-right paramilitary army that wrought terror in the region in the late 1990s and 2000s, is rounding up locals. When José returns to his hut in the morning light, his sons have been taken.
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So begins the harrowing Sisyphean drama of Nicolás Rincón Gille’s film. Josés unerring resolve to find his sons becomes all the more tragic when you realize that the best he can hope for is their corpses. He’s fighting not for their lives but to grant them dignity in death.
Like the river at its center, “Valley of Souls” proceeds with a quiet, steady rhythm that quickens occasionally to reveal the horrors beneath its placid surface. Lobo is magnificently stoic, and Rincón Gille follows him with a patient, observational lens, turning José into a kind of patron saint of all the victims of Colombia’s violent civil conflict who remain lost in watery graves.
Stream it on Amazon Prime.
Three brothers share a home with their fearsome father on a verdant rubber estate in the South Indian state of Kerala. When the grizzled patriarch (whom we first meet as he’s doing age-defying pull-ups) suffers a debilitating stroke, Joji (Fahadh Faasil), the youngest, good-for-nothing son realizes that this might be his only chance to seize the life he desires. And so he does, setting off a chain of murderous lies and betrayals.
Mixing shades of “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” the director Dileesh Pothan enlivens universal themes of greed, ambition and familial conflict by firmly rooting his film in its time and place. The power plays in “Joji” draw on the caste and class inequities, religious animosities and feudal dynamics of rural Kerala, while the accouterments of the pandemic — masks, quarantines, protective gear — all become chess pieces in the narrative.
“Joji” reminded me of HBO’s “Succession,” with its tightrope walk between suspense and dark humor. The twists are entertaining and unpredictable, but the pleasure of the film lies in watching its carefully drawn characters squirm as they try to keep up appearances in absurd situations, such as a funeral service where the speeches are excuses to trade barbs. My takeaway? There are few things as universal across cultures as passive-aggressive families.
In Zhou Shengwei’s “S He,” a single mother fights to raise and feed her daughter in a man’s world. Except the “mother” in this instance is a glossy red pump with a crown of green vines, and the “men” are shiny black loafers with wide mouths and pointy teeth.
It’s hard to do justice to the dazzling craft of Zhou’s stop-motion movie with just words. You have to see it to appreciate the visual and thematic richness the director achieves using everyday objects. Shoes, socks, pins, nails, fruit and more become characters in an operatic battle of the sexes. The pump murders the loafer who keeps her locked up, Mrs. Rochester-style, and then ventures into the forbidden realm of male shoes, imagined here as a cross between a smoking lounge and a sweatshop. There, she must battle roving mechanical eyes and murderous keys to steal food — i.e., socks — to feed her offspring.
A dystopian screed against misogyny and capitalism unfurls against the backdrop of plastic seas and furry sunsets, but “S He” isn’t merely an exercise in symbolism. With his interplay of light, movement and sound, Zhou choreographs grand emotions and stirring pathos: the rage of a woman scorned, the desperation of a protective mother, the lost innocence of a forsaken child. For all its elaborate artistry, “S He” reminds us that the magic of the movies lies in their power to make us feel.