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-[Film Reviews]-, Australian Cinema, Lebanese Cinema, MIDDLE EASTERN CINEMA, OCEANIAN CINEMA

How the Other Half Lives… ‘The Nightingale’ & ‘Capernaum’ (2018)

Directed by: Jennifer Kent [1], Nadine Labaki [2] || Produced by: Kristina Ceyton, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent, Bruna Papandrea [1], Khaled Mouzanar, Michel Merkt [2]

Screenplay by: Jennifer Kent [1], Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojaily, Michelle Keserwany [2] || Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Sheasby [1], Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef, Nour el Husseini, Alaa Chouchnieh, Cedra Izam [2]

Music by: Jed Kurzel [1], Khaled Mouzanar [2] || Cinematography: Radek Ladczuk [1], Christopher Aoun [2] || Edited by: Simon Njoo [1], Konstantin Bock, Laure Gardette [2] || Country: Australia [1], Lebanon [2] || Language: English, Irish Gaelic, Palawa kani [1], Lebanese Arabic, Amharic [2]

Running Time: 136 minutes [1], 126 minutes [2] || 1 = The Nightingale, 2 = Capernaum

With few notable exceptions throughout cinematic history (e.g. Triumph of the Will [1935], Birth of a Nation [1915, Blackfish [2013]), I remain skeptical of the ability of politically oriented cinema (e.g. Third Cinema, social realism on film, popular documentaries, etc.) to directly impact current events or affect social change; I’ve read so many movie reviews stating a given film “needed to be seen” for portraying this social grievance, underrepresented ethnic group, or humanitarian crises or that, so much so it has become another cliche I note as if I were playing a game of Bingo for canned phrases by mainstream film critics. While I’m unsure how much of this advocacy for diversity on film is genuine or mere virtue-signaling, the actual quality of the films reviewed in these instances feels beside the point.

Much of the reason I write these How the Other Half Lives essays — double-reviews dedicated to female directors — is not to crown myself an affirmative action adviser for filmmakers, but rather to explore how different filmmaker’s backgrounds affects their actual craft. Diversity of artists encourages diversity of artistic content. The only moral philosophy associated with this stance is that heterogeneous filmmaking allows for greater artistic creativity and a wider range of celebration of the arts, not necessarily greater social studies.

Baykali Ganambarr looks in shock at the gory, post-traumatic stress of Aisling Franciosi’s vengeful quest in The Nightingale.

With that in mind, the first picture to discuss, today, is the sophomore feature by Australian writer-director, Jennifer Kent (The Babadook [2014]), The Nightingale. The film most comparable to Nightingale in both style and substance, to me, is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013); both films cover horrific social events (African-American slavery in the United States in 12 Years, indentured servitude and Aboriginal ethnic cleansing in Australia in Nightingale) and yet are most defined by their distinct, unorthodox approach to cinematography. McQueen’s Oscar-winner was captured in overwhelming close-ups, rarely expanding to wide or even medium-shots. The Nightingale, by contrast, is shot in 1.375:1 “Academy Ratio” to emphasize human figures over its Tasmanian location-photography, while at the same time acknowledging the vertical height and depth of its Tasmanian forest scenery. To be blunt, one of my biggest problems with Nightingale is this particular choice of framing, which feels appropriate whenever the camera is stationary, pans, or tilts, but feels cramped and distracting in every tracking shot. This is most problematic whenever characters are moving quickly or extreme violence is committed by groups of characters.

Other problems with Nightingale have to do with that extreme violence, namely its gratuitous rape scenes, its comical, heavy-handed dream sequences, as well as its elongated, overindulgent length. Sexual violence is a running theme in Kent’s picture, and in some respects her blunt honesty toward the topic is refreshing; in other ways, however, the sheer length, detail, and number of explicit rape depictions grows repetitive, feeling akin to the shock-value reminiscent of exploitation cinema or even torture-porn feasts by Eli Roth. This tiresome cinematographic approach isn’t helped by the movie’s engorged run-time, at 136 minutes, which is at minimum half an hour longer than the movie needed to be. The film’s third act in particular is meandering to the point of frustration, losing sight of its protagonist’s (a great Aisling Franciosi) thematic arc before circling back to it in the last five minutes.

Beneath these significant problems is the core of a good movie. Far and away the greatest strength of Nightingale is Franciocsi’s transformative relationship with co-lead, Baykali Ganambarr, which uses smart, realistic dialogue and these actors’ terrific chemistry to inform the movie’s harsh, brutal sociopolitical background and explain character motivations. Also worth complimenting is the film’s memorable location-photography, when the cumbersome aspect ratio allows it room to breathe, Sam Claflin’s scene-stealing villainous performance as sociopathic British officer, and the story’s deconstruction of revenge. A self-righteous, period-drama version of Kill Bill (2003-2004) this is not.

Opposite in tone and cinematographic approach is Nadine Lebaki’s Capernaum, a type of cinema verite ballad about the lives of children in Beirut slums, which recalls both the energetic tone and black humor of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), as well as the handheld documentarian aesthetic and Middle Eastern setting of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009). Capernaum, its title a reference to the Biblical city condemned by Jesus, benefits from a bravado, nonprofessional child performance from lead Zain Al Rafeea, a former Syrian refugee and Beirut slum resident, as well as a biting sense of humor. The film represents a dramatic step forward for Lebaki, whose previous films (e.g. Caramel [2007], Where Do We Go Now? [2011]) have achieved international recognition and box office success, but have suffered from sloppy screenplays and lackluster characterizations. Her latest film is the first, it seems, where her affection for nonprofessional actors (see Italian neorealism) is warranted and elevates her filmmaking, which emphasizes overwhelming handheld camerawork with little to no stabilizing equipment or elaborate blocking.

Perhaps the most identifiable shot in Capernaum, Zain Al Rafeea hauls Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in a jerry-rigged skateboard while the latter’s mother (Yordanos Shiferaw, off-screen) is arrested by immigration services.

The editing of Capernaum is also superb, reduced as The Hurt Locker was from hundreds of hours of raw footage to the expansive scope yet controlled running time of its final cut. Few scenes overstay their welcome, while the film’s cross-cutting between Rafeea and female lead Yordanos Shiferaw keeps the pacing fresh and feels organic. Like Nightingale, Capernaum uses a rock solid relationship between two opposite characters — a smartass, streetwise 12-year old and an affectionate, kindhearted mother working as an undocumented immigrant— to illustrate disparate personalities and forge meaningful bonds between characters of different backgrounds.

Viewed back-to-back as I watched them, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale and Nadine Lebaki’s Capernaum are not memorable for their sociopolitical content so much for how they portray that content. Their artistic worth is defined by their execution of their screenplays, like all narrative film, and in both cases, their stylized direction is nothing if not distinctive. I have problems with Kent’s visual framing, repeated depictions of sexual violence, and overindulgent storytelling within Nightingale, while I argue Capernaum masters the poverty-stricken, aestheticization of hunger concept about as well as a film can. Both films represent interesting takes on notable historical topics from a female artist’s perspective, which remains a rarity in contemporary cinema.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Nightingale is a stylized slog through brutal sexual violence and genocide in colonial Tasmania, rewarding for its singular directorial vision and great characters as it is tiresome for its gratuitous content and bloated narrative structure. Capernaum, meanwhile, sacrifices visual coherence for biting humor and an atypical protagonist in a wacky, modern version of Oliver Twist (1839). 

—> I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to The Nightingale, while Capernaum is RECOMMENDED.

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About The Celtic Predator

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