Category Archives: Reviews

Heartbreak in Bellovia

Zachary Leader’s biography of Saul Bellow is out, the first volume anyway, which is a landmark in the settlement of any dead writer’s place in the cannon, a first reading of the critical will. Are those once-prized novels going to the charity shop or is his room to be left untouched, a shrine whose discarded tissues are deemed publishable? I decide on my own valuation and take the temperature of Bellow’s body of work using More Die of Heartbreak – not because it is particularly significant or representative but wanting to come at something fresh. That voice, the huge cranium of experience and ideas are instantly recognisable. My bookmark is soon slipping like a thermometer under the tongue of read pages.

More Die is narrated by Kenneth, a Jewish academic who has returned from Paris to the USA, much as his creator did. An expert in Russian literature himself, which gives Bellow a chance to show off his reading (like John Updike his books are often doctoral theses in fictional guise), Kenneth is motivated by a desire to help his uncle Benn Crader, a distinguished but otherworldly botanist. Benn has got himself married to Matilda Layamon, the ravishing and brilliant daughter of a powerful physician. For Benn this solves what Bellow characterises as the beauty and sex problems, but the bride’s interest is not so easily explained, until it emerges that her family want Benn to screw money out of a relative to finance Matilda’s debut on Wall Street. That’s about it as far as plot is concerned – and don’t expect a satisfying resolution, a neat gathering of threads at the end. Bellow takes the raw marble of existence and chisels only the basic musculature of a story. It’s the feel of the stone he’s after, the exhilarating mass of the rock.

After a while I stop highlighting brilliant passages and dazzling thoughts. In golf terms that hole is conceded. Instead I begin to note the continuities between this and his other novels which might indict him on charges of bonnet-based beekeeping. As usual the main players are all Jewish men. Women are objects, biologically and grammatically though not sexually, in which realm they are credited with inscrutable motives and unique powers to wound and enthral. The tortuous interplay of need and resentment: that is Bellow on love – in love too, by all accounts. The world of city politics, graft, money, dodgy dealing, shady characters, brilliant ideas – in short of low life and high minds – is another of his obsessions, the well he risked draining but from where he kept bringing back the goods. Now that tap has been turned off for ever might his narrowness of focus, that hilarious but outdated gynophobia count against him in the way Updike’s stock has fallen for being too phallocentric and middle American?

It is not that writing about the same place all the time is a limitation. No one blames Joyce and Mahfouz for specialising, their Dublin and Cairo containing universes of human experience. It is rather that having the USA as their subject associates certain writers with the sins of American exceptionalism or hegemony. Resentment at Uncle Sam’s weight-throwing round the world fastens on its cultural exports as well. Taking a critical stance helps – Steinbeck’s socialism armour-plates his reputation – and here perhaps the great beasts of recent American letters are deemed too infatuated with their subject, too celebratory even of its faults. Of course even a cursory reading of the Rabbit novels would reveal a piercingly honest take on the American Dream; but still the suspicion lingers that these questions matter more than anyone else’s and Updike did not help his cause by flying the stars and stripes outside his house. What, then, of Bellow, the intellectual apostate tinged with neo-liberalism for whom the whole world seemed sometimes to have shrunk to Chicago?

In his case the trick pulled was more artful and layered. The prose glitters  with hard-edged satire to which the adjective Bellovian does scant justice. We need a new word for that brilliant, unsparing acidity. The man was a painter in bile, an acerbicist. Yet still the impression is created that this is the only game worth playing, that the rumbustuousness of life on streets clamorous with dispute, chicanery and desire is a project privileged above all others in its rawness and immediacy. In valuing the material it presented to him as a novelist Bellow, it seems, fell in love with an America so rich in human interest and frailty, so gloriously and uniquely vernacular, and this is on the charge sheet being drawn up by the non-American branch of posterity. But More Die deflects those allegations in ways that surprise. The coruscating sourness is certainly there; yet hold the story up to a different light and other perspectives become apparent. In particular, Benn is portrayed as an innocent in the cut-throat world of marriage, a putz in even the elementary moves of self-preservation, but his commitment to the study of plants and trees, so profound it is almost mystical, gets lampooned in an almost kindly fashion and along with the academic values associated with it emerges as a dignified alternative to the wheeler-dealing around him. And Kenneth, who has women troubles of his own that make him a less-than-convincing adviser, comes to question the costs of involvement in the American drama which he, like Bellow, came back from the Old World to be immersed in. The style, in other words, is as uncompromising as ever but the point of view is more even-handed. Or perhaps it was there all along but just disguised by the moral toughness of the other novels. Bellow as a softie after all. Now that would be a re-evaluation.

Man & Superman

Just as anyone finishing a marathon deserves applause whatever their time, so the cast of Man & Superman at the National Theatre would have earned an ovation at the end of three and half hours irrespective of their performances, Ralph Fiennes in particular who seems to have been sprinting the entire way. By reinstating Shaw’s third act set in Hell, director Simon Godwin risks making the occasion a test of endurance for all concerned and it is a compliment to his production that there are only a few, relatively brief longueurs for which the author is mostly to blame.

Fiennes’ energy and command of the text are prodigious. There can be few actors capable of delivering the lines so quickly without sacrificing the sense or losing sight of other aspects of characterisation. To do so over such a sustained period of time calls for Olympian stamina and powers of concentration. He is ably supported by Indira Varma, with whom he conducts a battle of the sexes to rival Beatrice and Benedick; Nicholas Le Provost who, to continue the athletics analogy, comes home first in the seniors’ race; and Tim McMullan as an interchangeable brigand and Devil.

But questions remain about the play itself and its attempted modernisation. The dramatic presentation of intellectual arguments, a field latterly occupied by Tom Stoppard, can make the dialogue sound like an election edition of Question Time, albeit with more appealing candidates on display. There are too few changes of pace to modulate the harangues and although the scenes flit from London via Hades to Granada (a remorseless increase in temperature, as anyone who has been to that part of Spain will know) the characters bat away at each other as if they were still in the drawing room. As for that problematic third act, it is worth seeing for McMullan’s louche Lucifer and gives Shaw openings for some of his sharpest barbs at the expense of the English. But it is easy to see why previous productions have omitted it and let their audiences out in time for a drink after the show.

Then there is the problem of timing in the relationship between John Tanner and Ann. We are asked to believe that they were childhood sweethearts – or rather that the head-to-head scrap between them started young. It is difficult to square this similarity in age with Tanner’s becoming her joint guardian when her father dies. Seeing him as a father figure would fit the psychology of grief if there were more years between them, but that could be passed off as a transitory,  post mortem infatuation. No, Tanner needs to have been fighting with Ann ever since he was a boy and  be guardian material now. Shaw tries to have it both ways but does not quite succeed.

Part of the problem lies in the creation of a strong-willed female lead in her late twenties who, legally at least, is regarded as a child. By 1905 when the play had its premiere that contradiction was starting to wear thin. Put it in modern dress and it sounds ridiculous. Of course the same charge could be levelled at updated productions of Shakespeare in which khaki-clad soldiers, for example, settle their differences with daggers. Somehow the timelessness of the issues and language must avoid being detracted from by attitudes that now appear stuck in the past. This production of Shaw’s brilliant, baggy masterpiece, so magical in many ways, does not quite pull off that most difficult of tricks.

Death’s Sting, Love’s Arrow

In his ambitious new novel, Out of Such Darkness, Robert Ronsson takes on two of the modern era’s founding atrocities, the onslaught on Jews in Germany and the events of 9/11, and finds links or continuities which demonstrate, among other things, that nothing has changed. Cameron, a writer of detective fiction, describes his love affair with Wolf, a member of the Hitler Youth. Jay, a ‘brand recovery consultant’, is spared the destruction of the World Trade Centre that annihilates his colleagues and in dealing with survivor guilt comes up against the same intolerance that disfigured the earlier period.

This is a literate and well-researched book. The streets, lodging houses and underworld of 1930s Berlin are convincingly portrayed, while the life and work of Christopher Isherwood and the film made from one of his stories, Cabaret, are drawn on in ways that illuminate rather than overshadow Ronsson’s words. Likewise his own background in New York (he was in the air when the planes struck) gives him an insider’s view of the physical and emotional landscape inhabited by Jay and his circle. On one point I did waver for a while. Repeatedly alluding to the watches, cars and perfumes of rich Manhattanites treads a fine line between satirising their materialism and sharing their fixation. But in this case having one’s author writing about what he knows aids authenticity, even – or especially – when glimpses of nostalgia for the old lifestyle remain. The most effective caricatures contain a germ of affection.

The interplay between the two strands in the novel will be left for you to discover for yourself. No plot spoilers here. But two themes and a minor quibble are worth sharing. To get the last of these out of the way, I am not sure the device of having Cameron’s and Jay’s narratives printed in different fonts is necessary. The italics used for the voice in Jay’s head is helpful but in conjunction with the split typography makes the book look fragmented. This works against the convergence of themes which is being attempted and underestimates the reader’s ability to tell them apart. It is a personal opinion but I like to have my eyes gradually opened, not have my hand too obviously held.

More salient, however, are the motifs shared by the two stories. Cameron and Jay are both Englishmen abroad, tempted by the excitements on offer in their adopted towns. The portability of a sense of belonging and the attractions of a new life pitted against loyalty to home are issues never far from today’s headlines with half the world on the move. And in the great events and personal crises that unfold on the banks of the Hudson and the Spree we can detect in conflict, or maybe collusion, the two poles of the human psyche. Thanatos gorges on the persecution of Jews and in the stricken towers’ hecatomb of pulverised yuppies. Eros torments Cameron in the shape of his Aryan lover while the unspeakable arouses in Jay a reckless lubricity. Is this the first attempt to investigate the love life of New Yorkers as the dust cloud settled? If so it is not the least brave thing in a book unafraid to shock and to challenge. The collapsing Towers, after all, offer a striking image of detumescence. The potency in ruins was economic and political, but in their response did individuals, powerless otherwise, attempt to rewind the film in phallic acts of affirmation and defiance? The question, and its indelicacy, is mine; but the credit for prompting it, and other new takes on subjects thought drained of surprise, goes to Ronsson’s provocative novel.

The Dark Horse

When films are being considered about real people or events why not do the obvious thing and make them factual? This thought occurred to me during The Dark Horse, a biopic of Genesis Potini, the Maori chess champion afflicted by bipolar disorder (James Napier Robertson, 2014). Or perhaps that should be chiss champion, this being a story told using Kiwi vowels. I have since found out that a documentary came first, before Plotini’s untimely death, which changes the question slightly. I now wonder how much a fictional approach adds to our understanding – or messes with the truth in the interests of plot, time constraints or ticket sales.

The Dark Horse is on the face of it a fairly straightforward account which follows Plotini’s release from hospital into the care of his brother Akiri, a gang member with troubles of his own. Plotini is soon reduced to sleeping rough and a quick return to the asylum seems likely. Then he discovers a chess club, the Eastern Knights which uses the game to get troubled youngsters off the streets and finds a purpose and means of redemption for himself in helping others. This leads to conflict with Akiri over the latter’s son, Mana, who is scheduled for ‘patching’ or induction into the gang but sees in his uncle’s example a means of escaping that fate.

Influenced no doubt by seeing the hakka performed I have always assumed that New Zealand’s indigenous people avoided the wretchedness inflicted on Australia’s aborigines, but The Dark Horse depicts a more complex and disturbing reality. Adapting uneasily to urban life some Maoris have sought in criminal gangs the sense of belonging and warrior ethos of pre-conquest times, mixing their own mythology with dreadlocks and ghetto-speak, the hallmarks of black defiance elsewhere in the world. They live at the edges of white society, subsisting on petty crime and strung out on drugs and booze. It is rage turned inwards against themselves, a sense of dispossession metastasised as violence and addiction. Akiri’s cancer is both literally and symbolically true.

In a powerful, nuanced performance Cliff Curtis conveys the conflicted qualities of Plotini and his people: troubled and endearing, unstable and brilliant, the tragic and heroic complexly combined. It might be said that in his own career Curtis has enacted the marginalisation of non-western societies, having been called on to play a number of dark-skinned ethnicities not his own: to us, the casting directors seem to say, they all look the same. In returning to his roots, however he does justice not only to the man he brings to the screen but also to the history they both share. In its overcoming of adversity Plotini’s story represents a triumph of the human spirit plus some less fashionable ideas. It is a lesson in how identity can imprison as well as define the individual and, lest we forget, a tribute to medication and thereby to the science with which western civilization seeks to mitigate its bludgeoning of humanity.

That brings me back to the questions I started with. What is gained by dramatising the story, and what might be lost as a result? Of course exposure comes more easily to a feature film than to a documentary: how many of the latter turn up at your local multiplex? This is a matter of regret and a comment on the lack of seriousness in popular culture, reflecting the shallowness of most punters or their manipulation by Hollywood: take your pick. Not that many New Zealand movies go on general release but film festivals offer a means of access to more discerning cinephiles after which it is all down to word of mouth. Thus can a following be built, which in this case would be richly merited.

For the sake of argument, let us assume the public’s preference for story over analysis, for being entertained as opposed to informed is a given which The Dark Horse recognises. What aspects of Plotini’s life are illuminated or demeaned by this approach? In a less intelligent film the trajectory from despair to vindication would have been more predictable, the battle with the demons in Maori culture a platitude pitting the lone hero against one-dimensional villains. As director, Robertson avoids the worst of these pitfalls. There are sufficient dips in the arc to leave the outcome in doubt, enough self-awareness in Akiri and in Mana’s tormentor, Mutt to humanise the forces ranged against the troubled protagonist. At some level these frightening, unhappy men hate what they have become.

Still there are subtleties lost or skated over. Reading up on Plotini’s story I find that he co-founded the Eastern Knights and learned to play chess there. The fact that he knows the people running the club hints at this background and it would have been easy to make the point clear: but for some reason the film says almost nothing about his previous life. This explains why the precise nature of Plotini’s genius is never revealed. In reality, speed chess was his thing, a frenetic form of the game in which players exchange banter as well as pieces. This makes sense given the hyperactive nature of his upbeat moods, and throws light on his interest in the national championships which is fleetingly referred to. Can his medicated temperament adapt to the longer form of the game? Will he be accepted by the white establishment? This hint at insecurity and rehabilitation is never followed up, not the only loose end of an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking film.

Or is that a virtue in any work of art, neatness and completion being foreign to life? The postmodern view of objective truth is that it does not exist, perceptive fiction as capable of insight as fallible fact is of deceit, both versions overlaying each other in a constant process of change and interpretation. And it occurs to me that in its relationship with the documentary of the same name The Dark Horse encapsulates that necessary, binocular view of the world in which the quest to know what happened and to peer beneath the surface of events are different sides of the same coin, one that will always glitter no matter how long it has been in circulation.

Inclement Dice

Word is that in the Borderlines Festival Inherent Vice has been the most walked-out-of film. Naturally I was intrigued, even heartened by this promise of excess or obscurity and two people bailed out of our viewing early on. Their reasons, however could hardly have been moral in nature: although there was seediness galore and no shortage of ‘sex references’ they left before the latter became actual rather than implied. Likewise any artistic objections, the plot lines still manageable at that point although they did continue to ramify. No, I suspect what drove the quitters to the exit was an inability to hear what the characters were saying. ‘They mumble so,’ my mother used to complain about American films, a comment I condescended to with my love of authenticity and whistle-clean tubes. The former remains but the latter are as furred as a kettle, the hard water of loud music probably to blame. The audiences at the festival have been roughly my age, a cloth-eared demographic ill-served by muttering. But most last the course, nostalgia trumping incomprehension. Slurred speech, muddled thinking: those were the days.

It follows that anything I say about the film comes with a disclaimer, things likely to have been missed or misheard. Blessed are the cheese-makers, after all. With that in mind, Inclement Dice tells the story of ‘Doc’ Sportello, a hippy private investigator on the trail of his former girlfriend, her big shot sugar daddy, a maybe-dead musician, a murdered biker, a Far Eastern drugs cartel, a semi-official hitman and what powers of reasoning survive in a dope-addled mind. His opposite number in the police, ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen helps, hinders, berates, confides, arrests and discharges as the ever-more unhinged mood takes him. He is Doc’s alter ego, a good man ruined not by drugs (although he is not averse) but by corruption in the force and the death of his partner, condoned if not connived at by the chain of command.

It is a world of sex parlours and spliffs, property deals and police brutality, louche dentists and lovely DAs, miniskirts and marijuana. Music, too although the film resists the temptation to fill the soundtrack (and spin-off CD) with a compilation of hits. Instead Jonny Greenwood’s score remains unobtrusive, which ought not to work but somehow does. The exceptions are two bursts from Neil Young whose spacey lyrics and adenoidal pitch have come to speak for the age of Woodstock and Altamont, his voice, like the moment itself, uncompromising yet flawed. The countertenor of the counter-culture.

In the lead role Joaquin Phoenix gives a master class in befuddled integrity, while as Bigfoot Josh Brolin seethes with malice and discontent. Above all, however Inhalant Mice confirms the status of Paul Thomas Anderson as a mould-breaking film maker not afraid to push boundaries or test his audience’s stamina. Adapting a Thomas Pynchon novel takes nerve and balls. Thanks to the book – but not entirely – there are numerous influences or echoes at work. Sportello is a hippy Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, although Raymond Chandler would have got the job done in half the time. He is also Marlon Brando, sub-vocalising in The Godfather and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, except that given the date of Pynchon’s original it is hard to know who came first, the Doc or the Dude. Still Anderson’s vision is quirky and capacious enough to embrace all this source material while remaining resolutely his own. Who knows, he may even have invented a new genre: the pot-head procedural or CSI (Confused Stoner Investigates).

An Absurd Eye’s View

There are many reasons for making a film, as there are for writing a book or staging a play. Most of these forms tell a story enacted by characters we care about, find funny or hate. From Homer onwards, this has satisfied a human need to make sense of our lives. Or so we are told. But what if there is no sense, or if the meanings refuse to be so neatly aligned? Beckett was not alone in spurning such comfort food. Quantum physics laughs at our tidy universe. And in the slipstream of the mainstream Roy Andersson pursues his own vision of what passes for real.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is his fifth film and the third in a trilogy – although fans of The Godfather I, II and III would hardly recognise that fact. A series of tableaux unfolds in what may be a random order (two versions of the sequence were sent to Cannes, neither of which took their fancy). Some are isolated episodes with no apparent connection to each other. Others feature people and situations which recur, making them more obviously thematic. A man in military uniform keeps missing appointments. The same platitudinous message is given over numerous phones. People behave strangely in a bar. The central characters, however are two men selling joke products (vampire teeth and the like). Their patter is downbeat and deadpan. Nothing among their samples is remotely funny. They argue with debtors, creditors and each other.

Deliberately or not, this pairing recalls Vladimir and Estragon in their dogged pursuit of something ludicrous or chimerical. Unprepossessing if not physically strange they also echo the use made by David Lynch of oddness and deformity. Andersson belongs to a tradition of film-making that draws on non-professional actors – and feeds the fantasy some people have about being ‘discovered’ and turned into a star. It would be no compliment if this director asked you to an audition.

In a way that surely is intentional, one cannot help wondering what A Pigeon is all about. The two salesmen enact a parody of business, I decide, their humourless mantra (‘we want people to have fun’) a joke at the expense of corporate propaganda. The unexpected appearance of Charles XII of Sweden followed by his return from defeat at Moscow is a comment on the futility of war. The couple petting on a beach seem suspiciously straightforward – unless the black dog sitting next to them has a darker message. According to Andersson his films address the direction society has taken, reducing our sense of responsibility towards each other; and on reading this I remember the first three scenes, each featuring indifference to someone’s death. Suddenly the director’s purpose is less obscure, my own cleverness correspondingly enhanced. We prefer things to be orderly and accessible. Solving a puzzle helps us to feel good about ourselves. But in the process something integral to seeing and remembering A Pigeon gets lost. My ‘understanding’ of the film’s ‘hidden meaning’ seems too rational and reductive. Its appeal is more elusive and instinctual, its target audience the subconscious mind.

One means by which this effect is achieved is the visual eccentricity of Andersson’s style. Colours are reduced to a bleached or ghostly pallor. The camera’s distance from events almost forbids us to empathise. And something technical about the filmstock or digital editing makes people and objects stand out in a way that feels both unnatural and familiar. The same might be said of the sets, which are self-consciously sparse and of the characters’ movements which exude the awkwardness of something learned. We seem to be looking not at our world but at an outsider’s reconstruction of it based on limited data.

Taking the director’s motives at face value, does this approach deliver a critique of modern culture or fail to transcend its weird aesthetic? Much of the humour derives from bemusement or disbelief and a woman near us laughed in a way that only be described as unhinged. There are more direct methods of making a point but these often end up preaching to the converted. Depicting the status quo as ridiculous might be the best way to stop it seeming inevitable. Andersson has produced an absurdist manifesto that haunts the memory not like a statement of beliefs but like a dream.

Much Ado About Labours Won

Some teachers in the schools I attended must have served in the Second World War and aspects of their behaviour towards us may have been attributable to injuries suffered or experiences endured. I think in particular of Mr Edwards who walked with a limp and gave the impression of being angry all the time. As children we took for granted being swatted at by his stick. It was part of the adult world into which we had little insight and over which we exercised no control. In retrospect, however that seething quality bears the hallmark of pain or frustration, a bitterness poorly understood or catered for and daily insulted by the ungratefulness of boys.

I thought about this while watching Sam Alexander’s portrayal of Don John in Love Labour’s Won, the RSC’s follow-up to Love’s Labours Lost which pitches Much Ado About Nothing as the vanished sequel to the earlier play. In other productions I have seen Don Pedro and his gallants return from their war as if from a sporting fixture, boisterous, triumphant, apparently unscathed. Setting the current version in 1918 allows for – in reality demands – at least a nod in the direction of trauma and disability. Thus Don John’s villainy, explained in the text as a personality defect perhaps arising from jealousy as a younger son, is transformed into rage at being scarred, mentally and in the form of a gammy leg, his cane as much a weapon as a crutch – like Mr Edwards’.

This causality is hinted at rather than fully developed, not being provided for by Shakespeare’s vision of the man. More effective is in this respect is the background imputed to Dogberry. In a performance that stakes a claim to being definitive, Nick Haverson gives us an oaf, a bumpkin, a word-mangling martinet whose twitches and gurning are the stuff of farce. Then, all alone at the end of the examination scene his hand begins to shake and he descends – literally, the stage dropping beneath him – into shell shock-induced desolation, all the more anguished for being inescapably self-aware.

That low ebb for the constable is a high point in this generally irritating production. The Edwardian smugness (convincingly portrayed, if one wants to be charitable); the allocation of regional accents to idiots or villians (Borachio the Brummie); the light entertainment score; the musical numbers with timid choreography : I went on about some of these in my review of the play’s companion piece and will not labour the point now. More exciting things are being done with Shakespeare in other places: Maxine Peake as Hamlet, the continuing adventure that is Propeller under Edward Hall – I am sure there are others. Stratford feels like the establishment, too hidebound by reverence perhaps, too poor to tempt the most interesting casts. Still I went away with lines ringing in my ears (even if they had to compete with those trite yet adhesive melodies). And for that, I suppose some credit must be due.

Open Bethlehem

Sometimes a film comes along which makes conventional criticism not only irrelevant but also insulting or even complicit in the injustice being exposed. For the record Open Bethlehem has poor visual quality in places and is frequently hard on the ears. The sequence of events can be hard to follow and more loose ends are left than one might normally think wise. But they are not the standards by which a film like this must be judged. The subject matter invites an emotional response rather than nitpicking over technicalities. In any case many of the images have been taken covertly, their flaws not only understandable but badges of honour given the conditions under which they were procured. This is guerrilla film making, art as human witness, a political – but only political – call to arms.

After an absence of many years Leila Sansour returned to Bethlehem, the city of her father’s birth to show what had become of the place under Israeli rule. With her English husband in tow and intending to stay for a year she ended up being unable to leave, at an unrevealed cost to her marriage and while friends who had lived throughout the occupation despaired of the future and sought a life elsewhere. The reason for her change of heart was the wall – or rather Wall: a monstrosity on this scale deserves to be capitalised. The security device ostensibly designed to protect Israelis from terrorism snakes across the landscape, the only eyesore visible from space. Old olive groves, the livelihood of families for generations were torn up without notice. Houses were demolished with no hint of compensation or surrounded – no, imprisoned – on three sides. The citizens of Bethlehem have been reduced to queuing at a checkpoint in order to leave their city for work or to visit relatives, the number of permits available deliberately, perniciously small. And the Wall itself is no less ugly as a physical object than it is conceptually, a barrier made up of prefabricated concrete parts towering over the community it has demonised. Nor is this the first or worst unsightliness to be inflicted on this biblical terrain. Ranks of white houses and apartment blocks swarm over hillsides around the city on land stolen from Palestine. To British eyes they resemble a sink estate in the making, so cheaply built, so cramped and lacking in character you wonder why anyone would want to live in such a place, never mind the larceny that made it possible.

It is to tell the world of her city’s plight that Sansour set up the Open Bethlehem campaign. In the process she makes no pretence to even-handedness, a more serious charge that might be brought against the film. Mention is avoided of Arab attacks upon Israel, threatened or carried out whose defeat enabled it to grab so much territory, while the only concession to balance is a brief extract from Benjamin Netanyahu, seen speaking on a television screen. I can imagine his government’s spokesman, one of those plausible types with an Ivy League twang to his accent criticising this one-sidedness. But the Israeli case is made – and supported – everywhere with ruthless partiality. Around the time we watch Open Bethlehem Netanyahu is addressing the joint houses of Congress which give him numerous standing ovations. And the Americans wonder why people hate them so much.

Three more points arise from watching this sad yet not uninspiring documentary. First, to judge from the old photographs and films Sansour has rescued this used to be a beautiful and fascinating country, tolerant and culturally diverse. The tomb of the matriarch Rachel stands for what has happened. Formerly a little run-down, commercially unexploited and venerated by all three of the Holy Land’s faiths it has been encased in walls and forbidden to all except coach parties of Jewish visitors, the white dome barely visible inside the concrete and barbed wire, a symbol of something lost in the name of protecting it.

That brings me to the second cause for reflection. Bethlehem, the birth place of Christ is a crucible in which religion, heated to extreme temperatures by political forces becomes separated into its several elements: transcendence and obscurantism, immersiveness and superstition, the power to move and an inability to deliver. The horrors unfolding around the site of the manger make the message of peace and love, or at least its guardians and visiting bigwigs with their professional piety and funny clothes look powerless to prevent the most obvious and terrible wrong from happening on the Saviour’s doorstep.

Lastly, and most strikingly of all the film’s depiction of those struggling to survive this nightmare displays little in the way of rage. True, most of those featured are educated, many being Christian as well – a reminder of how liberal and cosmopolitan the Palestinians used to be before Israel drove Gaza into the arms of Hamas. But watching the film, and listening to its director answering questions afterwards I could not help wonder how many of us would endure the same fate with such moderation and dignity.


Wild Tales

Wild Tales, written and directed by the Argentine Damián Szifrón narrates six unconnected stories loosely linked by a common theme. Two drivers fight on a deserted road. A man takes it out on everyone who has failed him. A girl sees her wish for revenge fulfilled. In each case the rage felt at some insult or injustice, sometimes built up over many years erupts with violent consequences. A demolition expert contests a parking fine and watches his life implode. A rich man rebels against corruption even when his son’s future is at stake. And in the final, longest sequence a bride snaps when her new husband’s unfaithfulness is revealed.

These situations and the feelings they arouse are nothing new. Watching, I was reminded of the warring lovers in The Taming of the Shrew, Stephen Spielberg’s road movie Duel and Michael Douglas as a worm turning in Falling Down. But Szifrón gives them a local twist by tilting at targets closer to home: machismo, bureaucracy, justice for sale. And he is enough of an artist to know that the outcomes of catharsis are rarely predictable. Four of the episodes end badly, three with a kind of redemption – from which you will guess that one denouement manages both at the same time. This allows him to remain even-handed regarding the Freudian sub-text of his fables. Should the chains of self-control be thrown off along with the rest of civilization’s discontents; or do they exist for a purpose, the anarchy that results from indulging one’s anger the best argument for not letting it show?

Argentine cinema is as vibrant as it is underrated and Wild Tales has most things you might ask of a film: energy, brio, humour, shock – and depth to go with its surface appeal . The direction is beautifully judged: pacy where it needs to be (the wedding celebrations threatening to spin out of control) or backwater slow but still simmering with tension. And Ricardo Darín possesses one of the screen’s most watchable faces. The easiest way of judging a film’s worth is by its half-life in the mind, the rate at which images and interest become depleted. Two days after seeing it might seem rather early to be drawing conclusions, but Szifrón’s anthology shows every sign of passing that test.

Leave to Remain

Opponents of immigration love statistics and the words they unleash on our subconscious: swamp, tidal wave, illegal, fear. Personal stories they are less keen on with their power to move and instil sympathy. By dramatising the plight of young asylum seekers Leave to Remain reminds us of the suffering behind the numbers and calls for an answer to the problem that reconciles border controls with compassion and decency.

Bruce Goodison’s film , a low budget labour of love shot entirely on location uses a cast consisting mainly of refugees whose energy and raw talent gives the action much of its charm and authenticity. Noof Ousellam, the only one of the leads with acting experience plays Omar, an Afghan with a dark secret concealed by his bravado. Yasmin Mwanza is compelling as Zizidi, a girl more abused in her home country than seems bearable whose discovery of friendship and excitement at seeing snow offer glimpses of innocence retrieved from the worst kind of experience. But in many respects the still heart of the story is Abdul, a child adrift in a strange world: traumatised, introverted, uncomprehending. Masieh Zarrien’s face, immobile yet wonderfully expressive is the image one carries away, the bewildered face of a political controversy.

And then there is Toby Jones playing Nigel, the case worker, teacher and confidant of the teenage runaways. He is on something of a roll at the moment having starred in Marvellous and The Detectorists, and as he revealed in a Q & A session after the film was screened at the Borderlines film festival his Captain Mainwaring will be with us next year. Convincing yet understated performances in all of these roles display a mastery of screen acting and an insight into the interior lives of eccentrics and misfits that make him an oddball Everyman, an alternative national treasure.

There are dangers in this kind of enterprise, not least the temptation to preach and to take sides between victims and villains, depicting white hats and black hats rather than rounded characters. Leave to Remain largely avoids these traps. The functionaries of Lunar House are hard-pressed and obliged to be suspicious, flesh and blood in a system designed not to feel. Nigel is gullible, neglects his own family and lies on oath if only to protect his vulnerable charges. He is also a lousy teacher of English, but that is my own experience talking. As for the kids, Omar is guarded, hard to read and not always likeable while the others betray all the most irritating traits of adolescence. But far from hardening one’s heart this allows them the ultimate right – which the system they struggle with rarely confers – of being difficult and flawed. In short, of being human.