This blog celebrates the wide range of excellent films shown at the Glasgow Film Festival, as well as other film festivals shown in Glasgow. Some reviews are long, some reviews are short. All are intended to give you an idea of what you might like to see, and take a chance on something a little different.
Free Chol Soo Lee is a documentary examining the life of Chol Soo Lee, who he was as a person, and then as a symbol which forged the first Asian-American social justice movements. Despite knowing a fair bit about American racially-charged miscarriages of justice, I’d never heard of Chol Soo Lee. Unfortunately history is teeming with examples, and by the time I was a teenager reading about the police murder of Kuanchung Kao in the 90s, it was nearly 15 years after his case ended. But the legal case was not the end of the story, for Chol Soo or the communities that united around his cause.
On an early Sunday evening in 1973, Yip Yee Tak was gunned down in the street in front of dozens of witness in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The murder weapon was left at the scene, a .38 revolver. The police noted that the night before, a guy had accidentally discharged a .38 revolver into the wall of his hotel room. They looked him up, and sure enough, he was convicted felon, with a history of skirmishes with the law. They put him in a line-up, and three eyewitnesses IDed him as the shooter. Jobs a good un, let’s all go home and get our tea.
Except Chol Soo Lee, the man they arrested, was innocent. The eyewitnesses were white tourists, who had picked a 4-year-old mugshot of him out a book of Chinatown suspects, that the police had drawn a Fu Manchu caricature on the front. No other potential suspects were ever drawn in for a line-up, and one of the witnesses who IDed him as familiar turned out to be a guard who had seen him as a boy in juvenile detention. Neither the witnesses or the cops seemed to realise that far from being a member of a Chinese gang, Chol Soo Lee was Korean.
And also the bullets didn’t match. The one from the hotel wall and the one that killed Yip Yee Tak, they weren’t fired from the same .38. And the prosecution knew the whole time. But Chol Soo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
4 years after his conviction, an investigative journalist K.W. Lee re-examined his case and started to raise community support for Chol Soo. It was a railroading, he claimed, and pointed to numerous flaws and racist prejudices throughout his arrest and trial. The documentary talks to many community figures who were pivotal to the campaign to free Chol Soo Lee, including friends, activists, lawyers and community leaders. Asian-American defence committees formed all across the country, each raising awareness and funds for his legal case.
Part of this story is about the impact and legacy of those community groups, of that first uprising of the Asian-American antiracism and social justice movement. But part of it is also about the man, Chol Soo Lee.
As he says of himself at the beginning, “I wasn’t an angel, but I also wasn’t the devil either”. Chol Soo was the son of an American soldier and a Korean woman, Puni, right at the end of the Korean War. Born out of wedlock, his mother was disowned by her family, and fled to America with another G.I. He was left to be raised by his aunt and uncle in a country devastated by war, poor and often hungry.
When he was 12, his estranged mother, having gotten herself settled in San Francisco, brought him to the States to live with her. She said she wanted to give him a chance of an education and a better life, but quickly things broke down between them. The profound disconnection in their relationship seemed to be the source of all his demons, and perhaps of hers too. She beat him mercilessly, until he eventually ran away and ended up being raised on the streets.
Hearing him discuss this vital absence, it seemed to tear a hole in him, giving him a loneliness that nothing could console. His whole life he never understood his mother, what drove her, why she beat him, why she abandoned him when he was put on Death Row. There was such a starvation of love between them, and yet, she had brought him to live with her in America, why? It is only when the filmmakers ask a friend of his mother’s, who feels she can finally say now both of them are dead, what Puni revealed to her. Puni was raped. While pregnant with Chol Soo, she had a dream of being pursued by a snake, which bit her, and no matter how much she beat at it, even taking a knife and chopping it to pieces, it would not let her go. Chol Soo never knew. Perhaps if they’d been able to acknowledge this truth, they may have understood each other a little better, maybe even been able to forgive each other a little.
Puni never supported Chol Soo in prison, and was extremely reticent to get involved with his liberation campaign. Quite frankly, she thought he did it, and took some persuading to be convinced he didn’t. When she eventually did get involved, she became very enthusiastic, speaking about his case on telly and turning up at his court appearances. Her anguish seemed palpable, which seems difficult to square with her coldness and abuse towards him. An ungenerous explanation was that she simply liked the limelight, but I think it was more complicated than that. I think she found him easiest to love when he was just the idea of a son, when they were at their furthest apart, and most removed from their domestic reality.
In the years after his case ended, Chol Soo Lee tried to live up to the legend that had been built around him, to prove worthy of the hard work and faith people had put in him. And for a while he was able to keep that up, visiting elders to thank them for their community efforts, touring the country visiting groups of activists who’d worked to free him, and working at a Korean community centre. But bit by bit, the old failings came back. As a man who’d spent all his young adulthood behind bars, he threw himself into excess upon his release, which led eventually to a coke addiction and a return to criminality. He was keenly aware of what a disappointment he was.
In the 90s, he accidentally set himself on fire while committing arson, burning his face, hands, and whole body. In footage taken later in his life, he is in visible pain. And I kept thinking about him and his mum. How they’d both had symbolic roles, mother and icon of a movement, how they’d been best at fulfilling those roles when there was the widest divide between themselves and those who had expectations of them. And how they’d both tried to fulfil those roles, and how they’d both failed. How they’d turned the pain they felt inside outwards, hurting those closest to them.
But that’s not all to Chol Soo Lee’s story, and the message of the film is to fight. Even if people are far from perfect, in a society that is far from perfect, for either to get better, you must fight. And there is no such thing as a defeat if you keep fighting.
A fascinating portrait of a man and a movement.
I loved this!
Watching this, I kept thinking of the time Emma Thompson was on the My Dad Wrote A Porno podcast, how she spoke passionately about sex positive representation, and that the best way to demystify and destigmatise a taboo subject was a good old dose of laughter. Good Luck To You, Leo Grande embodies all of that, with the gusto and humour Emma brings to the subject.
Emma stars as Nancy Stokes, a pseudonym used by a retired widow when she hires a dashing young sex worker. Nancy is a woman who always did the right thing. She was one of the good girls. She did what she was told. Don’t run around with the boys, don’t have sex before marriage, and certainly don’t have affairs. And in reward for her constant obedience, she had 30 years of orgasmless, passionless sex. It was never upon her initiation or need. And after a lifetime of suppressing lust, she was so divorced from her own wants she wouldn’t have known where to begin to articulate them.
I’d love to say this is a generational thing, and it is to some extent, but far too often this still exists in our culture. The old chestnut – that women’s sexuality is to be feared and controlled. And importantly the film shows how women are just as important in upholding and transmitting patriarchal values. Nancy spent her career as an RE teacher, catechising young girls in the dangers of their lust and their bodies.
What I like about this film is the ability to show any number of changing dynamics in power and vulnerability from moment to moment. Nancy and Leo, the sex worker, cycle through numerous points of harmony and contention, repression and release. Such interactions are usually presented in a flat binary, with power sitting entirely with the party making the purchase. But in the film, every moment has a complex and layered negotiation of need, vulnerability, control, and loss of control.
What I also loved about the film is that is set almost entirely in one room. Like bottle episodes, almost the entire film is confined to the hotel suite Nancy rents for their visits. The only speaking roles are Nancy and Leo, with the exception of a waitress towards the end of the film (who is also beautifully played). The film rests entirely on the talented performances of Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack. They make an hour and 40 minute film whizz by, in turns gripping and funny and tragic and jubilant, and they do it with just the two of them alone in a room. No special effects, no dragons, no robots, just pure human drama.
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is so funny, and so poignant, and so fun. Just a great watch!
Splinters is a documentary about the Rio Tercero explosion, something I was completely ignorant of before watching this film. It is made almost entirely from home movies shot by the filmmaker as a 10-year-old kid.
Natalia Garayalde lived in Rio Tercero with her family, her mum and dad, brother Nicolas, and sisters Caro and Gabi. Her mum was a schoolteacher and her dad was a doctor, and they lived a comfortable and happy suburban life. Rio Tercero was a small town, with a church, school, park, town square, and sports clubs. The major employers were two nearby chemical plants and a munitions factory belonging to the military. Natalia’s home movies speak to the fun and freedom of a 90s childhood in a middle-class home in a safe neighbourhood. Jumping in the backyard pool, playing with their new camcorder, making news reports while hanging upside down from their bunkbeds, so their hair stood straight up. It’s the kind of scenes that make you realise these are your best years, these are what you will look back on as the good old days.
Then on November 3rd 1995, the munitions factory exploded. All the bombs, explosives and shrapnel were thrown high in the air over the town. On videotape is a stranger who has bundled Natalia and her brother into the back of his car, driving them to safety at the outskirts of town. He scoops up a woman franticly running down the street with a baby in her arms, as metal rains down, and dogs run through traffic, seeking cover. The noise is like engulfing thunder and the sky has a black, sooty mushroom cloud. Everywhere people are panicking and the secondary explosions of falling bombs echo around them. From behind me in the cinema, I hear someone faintly whisper, “Fuck.”
The following scenes are surprisingly light, because they are shot by a kid, and are from a child’s perspective. Kids are like plastic, they bounce back from anything. Natalia’s reaction is that of most 10-year-olds witnessing a huge explosion . . . cool! Once it’s clear everyone is safe and sound, in her family at least, all she can think about is how exciting it is to be on the news. Plus, there’s no school, so wahhay! She and her brother tour the town doing their own news reports on the debris, barely able to contain their excitement.
The President even shows up in town. He’s here to quell any potential panic, assuring everyone this has been merely an unfortunate accident. He tells a press conference that the media should act responsibly and inform people of this fact, and not work against the government by spreading unfounded rumours. The chemical plants were not damaged, and there is no possibility of chemical contamination of the shrapnel and debris. Everyone should just go about their lives as normal, and funds would be made available for repairs.
If your bullshit senses are tingling, you’re not the only one. Natalia’s neighbour Omar is blamed for the disaster. Initial investigators’ tests concluded a spark had ignited explosive as a result of his work. At home Omar tried to recreate their experiments to clear his name. Setting up his camcorder, he placed a square of the explosive concerned on a table, then took his grinder and a piece of steel and stood over it raining sparks down upon it, like a fucking boss. He was so certain is was bullshit, he was willing to recreate it in his kitchen with no safety equipment, at not even arm’s length from his face. And sure enough, no amount of sparks caused it to catch fire.
The full story would not come out until decades later, and it was one of corruption, international arms trafficking, and flagrant disregard for human life. Another film might pull back to make the perpetrators and their dealings the centre of the story. But in Splinters, the film remains steadfastly on her family and her hometown. The lies that were told that day to keep everyone sedate had repercussions for everyone in Rio Tercero. Her family, like many others, saw the buried truth sprout dark flowers.
Splinters is such an interesting documentary, forcing the viewer into a state of vulnerability along with the innocent people of the town, completely dependent on outside explanation for why their world has suddenly upended. Right up until almost the end, you only know what Natalia and her family knew, living through it, and at the mercy of media reports for any perspective or protection.
An intensely personal window into the lives of those who are so often are reported only as numbers.
Cinemaattic are doing their Adrift season, so I went along to see The Sacred Spirit. A deeply strange film, it follows an ordinary family with extraordinary beliefs in UFOs, clairvoyance, and ancient Egyptian mythology.
Watching the film, it reminded me of an article I read on serial killers and abnormal psychology. Why can’t we spot them? the article asked. Because we’re all fucking weird, was the answer. The author wrote the piece from a hotel hosting a furry convention. Even an interest viewed by the majority as strange, has a whole culture in which it is affirmed as normal, where you can disappear into a crowd, be insignificant or even boring.
The spirituality of this film’s family is the same. It’s a minority form of religiosity, and a mix peculiar to this family, but it is by no means any stranger than dominant forms, or society in general. The main character, Jose, is not alone in his belief in extra-terrestrial contact, either in the film or in real life. His parents’ obsession with Egyptology is not unique to them either, as there is no end of kitsch tat mass-manufactured for a market craving it. Jose’s niece Veronica is able to watch any number of YouTube videos on the ancestral astral forms of humans, each promising enlightenment for a price, and each warning to download the video, lest it be removed by those hoping to hide the truth. From both within and without, there is a constant reinforcement of the reality of the magical as part of everyday life.
And that’s what this film’s about, the mystical and the mundane. Everyday life is full of such extraordinary things. For Jose and his family, aliens and psychic powers are a day-to-day reality as much as tables and chairs. Even outwith his family, in the community there is a woman seeking an exorcism of what she believes is her abusive husband’s ghost, a schoolchild talks about the smell of flowers being affirmations from God, and a neighbour constantly harps on about nefarious and clandestine gangs of Eastern Europeans who are spiriting children away to harvest their organs and sell them into sex slavery. And all of this is set in the run up to Easter weekend, when the dominant and normalised religious expression prepares to celebrate the dead returning to life, the manifestation of a God on Earth, on a date based on the position of celestial bodies, by eating bread and drinking wine which a spell has transformed into flesh and blood.
There is a bizarreness with which we watch the family in The Sacred Spirit, but as the film goes on, you find yourself questioning if this is all going to follow the reality of the characters involved. As a viewer, you can see how the conviction your beliefs are reality can make you vulnerable, but within the world of the characters, there are constant reinforcements and confirmations. The feeling of being sucked in transfers from the characters to the viewer at times.
The Sacred Spirit, in many places is very funny, but it almost feels too strange to laugh. Because the whole thing is played absolutely straight, you almost can’t let out your giggles at Jose and his UFO group standing in wee light-up pyramids, waiting to be beamed up. Throughout the film, there is a look at the weirdness of the forms of human spirituality, and while there is humour there, this is no contemptuous mocking. There is a sincere respect for ordinary people wanting to make sense of life and death.
A very strange film, with an edge of darkness bordering the playfully weird and wonderful.
An intimate portrait of a family still searching for answers 50 years after the suicide of their brother.
Marco Bellocchio is a legendary acclaimed filmmaker, with a lifetime of success. However he describes himself and his siblings as sharing an “arid unhappiness” from growing up in a house where they were provided with all the basics, but it was “a desert of affection”. Indeed mental illness and misery ran through the family, and each of them struggled to find their own way of surviving their childhood.
Their mother was a religious zealot, who saw her duty towards her children as primarily ensuring the salvation of their souls. She loved them passionately but it was an impersonal love. She loved them as a cypher for motherhood, and the devotion of a madonna. She didn’t really know them as people, or see their inner selves and struggles. Her intensity was something for her children to manage, a martyrdom that they daren’t speak ill of. Yet she was never a comfort or refuge for them. Their emotional needs were trifling matters compared to the war for their souls.
Whether her suffering drove her religiosity or her religiosity drove her suffering, it’s hard to say, but she got both in plenty measure. Her son Paolo had some kind of mental illness, or learning disability, or developmental issue. Marco describes his brother as a “lunatic”. He would scream and rage and have violent episodes and kept the rest of his siblings in fear. His mother, partly out of maternal devotion, partly out of fear of middle-class shame, kept Paolo in the family home, despite his erratic behaviour. But she never sought to treat or temper his evident disturbance, only checking him when he blasphemed in his ravings. Nor did she protect her other children from the effects of Paolo’s cacophonies. They all felt like they were just left to deal with things on their own.
Paolo and his deaf sister Letizia took up all their mother’s attention, and the other kids were left to fend for themselves. But it was from Marco’s twin brother Camillo the tragedy would come. Sandwiched between the profound needs of Paolo and Letizia, and his over-achieving brothers (as well as Marco becoming an internationally lauded director at 26, their older brother Piergiorgio was a prize winning writer) Camillo got lost in the cracks. He always had an air of melancholy about him, but he was so deft at turning everything into a joke and laughing it off, his siblings always laughed it off too. He did reasonably well academically until high school, when he was moved into sharing a room with Paolo. Marco laments that none of them really considered what that must have been like for him. They were all terrified of Paolo, but gave no thought what it must be like to have to sleep next to him.
The whole film is about the remaining questions after his suicide. No one saw it coming. No one had any inkling it would happen. Camillo had a hard time finding his way in adult life, struggling in secondary school, technical school, then the army. Unlike his prodigy brothers, he has no idea what he wanted to do with his life, and instead of seeing this as normal part of learning about yourself in your 20s, viewed it as a succession of failures. Perhaps if his suicide followed one of these disappointments, it would have been easier to understand, but it came when, at 29, he was teacher with a long-term girlfriend. Everyone had begun to believe they didn’t need to worry about him.
This film is a searingly intimate watch. Marco reproaches himself for being wrapped up in his work, his passion for cinema and politics. The title comes from an occasion when Camillo reached out to Marco for help, describing his struggle with depression. Marco offered a Marxist analysis of Camillo’s melancholy, and extorted him to read political literature. Camillo simply replied, “Marx can wait”. None of them seemed to see how immediate his need was.
As hard as it is to hear the story of a 29-year old man committing suicide, it is in some ways harder to see 80-year-olds sitting around discussing it. It is a loss that never leaves them, questions they never have answers to. 50 years have passed and Marco now looks like an old man, while his twin is forever a fresh-faced man of 29, frozen in photographs.
This film is about the lingering legacy of grief. Camillo is painted in negative space in this film, the ghost where the hole is.
So, The Miracle Child is billed as a movie about a wee girl who starts having miracles attributed to her. It’s not, it’s a queer film where the B-plot is headlined instead of the love story. Whether that’s to serve marketing or the mystery of the romance is kind of irrelevant, because once you’re watching it, this film is hella gay.
Bristling with barely suppressed sexual desire and the aching yearning of first love, the film centres on Lino, a young guy who holds his family together by working for a pittance as a Deliveroo driver and lovingly raising his younger sister, while his mentally ill mother sinks further into woolly-minded forgetfulness. He seems to be about 19, and he still shares a room with his little sister, who is about 9 or so. They live in a tiny flat with three months’ back rent due, in a poor neighbourhood. Yet, he still finds time to be a teenager, hanging out with his mates, playing footie, and going out on the randan.
His best mate is Mario. As the film begins we follow Mario’s dawning awakening that he doesn’t just love Lino as a friend, but longs to touch, to kiss, to hold him. For much of the film, Lino’s sexuality remains ambiguous, but it seems less the sexual aspect that would be an issue for him than the love. Lino needs Mario. Like, NEEDS him. He has been completely deprived of love from his mother, and has no father to look to. He has had to hold everything together for his little sister, whom he dotes on, and no one ever asks him how he’s doing or if he needs a hand. Mario is the only person he can be real with, rely on, the only person who is always there. He can cry with Mario, get a hug, sleep in his bed when he can’t handle going home. And he absolutely would never risk their relationship by changing it into something more. As the film goes on his unawareness of the nature of their mutual love seems to become more and more like willful blindness. Mario is so scared of rejection and Lino is so scared of change, your heart aches to see one of them take the leap.
Anyway, the film begins with his younger sister Annaluce seemingly bringing a dove back to life after it smacks face-first into the tits of the Virgin Mary statue. This storyline plays out with as much humour as drama, with the neighbourhood starting to revere her as a saint as the ‘miracles’ start to stack up. Of course, they be miracles or they may have a reasonable explanation, but it’s more about how the whole community changes their attitudes towards the family. They go from being completely isolated, with only Lino, still a teenager, the only one concerned with his sister’s welfare or his mother’s mental state, to being surrounded by people praising both mother and daughter, bringing money, gifts and an overwhelming amount of attention. The landlord who threatened to kick in their door for his money brings a prayer candle and forgives the debt.
The question is, why did they need a dead dove to do all this? The landlord could have forgiven the debt just as easily before he thought God was watching. Everyone knew the family was struggling, but the money only starts to flow when they all think they might get something out of it. Lino reviles the hypocrisy of it, and worries about Annaluce’s wellbeing in the midst of this religious hysteria. However his mother seems to feel a lift in her years-long depression, feeling hope for the first time.
Ironically all of this only pushes Lino further out his family. His bed is covered in gifts for Annaluce, who is now pre-occupied with praying for the whole neighbourhood. His mother dislikes his disbelief and constant complaining about not being able to get in his own home or sleep in his own bed for chanting pilgrims.
The Miracle Child of the film’s title is Lino, not Annaluce. She is repeatedly called a saint and miracle child by the neighbours, but it is Lino who laboured without fanfare or notice, who cared for those who could not care for themselves, who was patient and selfless, and worked and struggled, and who is going through this heart-rending unspoken love for his best friend alone. He was all these blessings ignored.
Which is why his love story with Mario has such desperation and vulnerability. One scene in particular – don’t worry, you’ll know it when you come to it – manages to walk this fine balance between tentative awkwardness, heart-breaking yearning, and profound eroticism. One of the best love scenes I’ve seen in recent years, complex, ambiguous but ultimately intimate and tender.
Excellent romance, with the rollercoaster of life weaving all through it.
Jealousy, Italian Style is a dark rom-com about a love triangle that leads to tragedy.
With films a full half-century old, and in a different language, there’s always a worry that the comedy may not translate, but with Jealousy, Italian Style the humour is based on the timeless and universal subjects of love, rejection, and despair. Even in 2022, it’s a good laugh.
The film starts with Oreste being brought in handcuffs to the scene of his crime, and asked to explain what happened. In the presence of his lawyer and a judge, he starts to re-enact the fight, while Adelaide, the lassie at the centre of the triangle, narrates how things came to this end.
While the film starts out quite light, with Adelaide and Oreste falling in love at first sight, and doing all the stereotypical romantic stuff, like chasing each other along a beach, there’s still a dark slant, with Oreste complaining that the beach is mochet, and helping Adelaide scrape something off her shoe. That bleak comedy dials up slowly as the film gets darker and darker, with it being a running joke throughout the movie that, there being so many skirmishes in Adelaide’s lovelife, she is repeatedly taken to the hospital by ambulance, until everyone there knows her on a first name basis.
The film’s structure also provides a lot of humour, because the linear story is effectively a long flashback, and characters will occasionally break the fourth wall to address the judge and make comments on their actions. The cast are excellent, with great timing and the exact expression to make the joke land. Marcello Mastroianni who plays Oreste is especially to be commended as he manages to make sympathetic a middle-aged married man who leaves his wife and kids to run after a girl half his age, and even hold that sympathy as he gets increasingly violent.
Both Adelaide’s lovers are politically engaged leftists, Oreste is a communist, Nello is an anarchist. She first meets Oreste at a communist carnival, and he sees their first meeting as the beginning of a new and happy life, full of optimism. When she leaves him for Nello, and then briefly for a wealthy lover in an attempt to forget both of them, Oriste searches for meaning from the speakers at a Marxist rally. This ideology which was supposed to change the world, and change him, has left him without answers to the most ageless and important of questions.
An utterly black comedy about the ruination of love, and its utter destruction of those it consumes.
Blue Eyes is like a noir crime drama meets a cat-and-mouse heist thriller, neither of which it does satisfaction. The thriller element never really has a high-octane action set piece to get excited about, and the bluesy noir style seems superficial without the developed characterisation to give it any emotional weight. They hamper each other in fact, as the moody tone only serves to slow the pacing down, and make the whole film ponderous.
Set in Rome, it has a basic plot about a bank robber who escapes by motorcycle. A French police chief is brought in to find the culprit. That’s it. Which is why it feels like it drags even though it’s only an hour and a half.
There is a definite focus on style over substance, and it is arguably over-stylised. Some scenes reminded me of stuff from the early 2000s, and not in a good way.
At the end of the day, it just feels empty.
I love family implosion movies. In The Peacock’s Paradise, grandmother Nena celebrates her birthday with her whole family around her. The film is set almost entirely within her flat, as unspoken tensions rise and long-hidden secrets are revealed.
As the characters arrive, you feel the chess board being set. Nena and her husband Umberto have kept secret from their children that Nena also has been lifelong lovers with her neighbour and ‘close friend’, Lucia. Lucia’s daughter Caterina knows, but keeps it from Nena’s children, who are as close to her as siblings. Grazia, Nena’s daughter, is a wealthy divorce lawyer, who is yet to tell her family that her husband, Manfredi, has left her for a girl half her age, Joana. She feels a sense of shame and failure, especially in the presence of her brother’s family. Vito, a widower, is there with his new fiancé, Adelina, and his daughter, Alma. Adelina is nervous and insecure, constantly trying to impress Nena, who was close with Vito’s first wife, and feeling inadequate. Nena dotes on Alma, but is less enthused with her pet peacock Paco, who has been brought along to the party.
The whole afternoon plays out with tensions rising among the party, springing from secrets the others have no knowledge of. Feelings are bruised as characters step on unseen landmines.
But what makes The Peacock’s Paradise a little different is the level of warmth and resolution within the family. Sparks fly and people fall out, but there is a genuine niceness to everyone there, and the potential to reconcile is as strong as their bonds. Also, Lucia’s health is declining and she seems to be drifting into some kind of dementia, so an awareness of their own mortality hangs over Nena and Umberto, prompting the question of what is really important in the end?
A nice film with a warm and subtly passionate cast, providing a slice of human drama set across a sunny afternoon.
The Hole is a film set in the 1960s Italian countryside about a cave being explored for the first time by an academic contingent.
First things first. This film is a landscape. It’s not about the people, it’s not a portrait. The entire film the only thing that is subtitled is a piece of television shown before the title card. Human discussion is not subtitled, anymore than the cows lowing or the birds singing would be.
Secondly, the film’s pace is suited for the cave as the main character. This is not a film about human rush and bustle. It is about an event in the life of this cave, and its pacing is of the soft harmony of the valley, and the curious and cautious exploration of the explorers. I tell you this so you will adjust your expectations accordingly, because once you relax into it, this film is quietly beautiful.
The film begins with a shot from within the cave, looking out at the dawning sky. The film is shot from the cave’s perspective, with the humans peering in, rather than over their shoulder peering down into the cave. The film is broken up into the legs of their journey across days and nights. It is not about their chat at camp or their personal interrelationships. When I say the film is about a cave being explored I mean exactly that, no more, no less. This is not the backdrop for a human drama. This is about the cave’s first experience of being documented and mapped by studious visitors.
There is a second plotline following an elderly herder who watches over the valley in which the cave sits. He is unnamed and has no subtitles either, but his inclusion emphasises the small span of human life compared to the land. He is shown going back to his hut in the valley, with no electricity or running water, living a way of life that has remained unchanged for countless generations. People rise and fall like flowers each season, but the cave has remained for thousands of years.
Equally as his twilight dwindles into night, we are reminded of ourselves as part of nature, obeying its times for growth and times for decay. The hole for him is the grave he will soon be in, as natural as the cave formed in the valley below.
As the spelunkers squeeze into the tight coffin-like crevices of the last few feet of the long descent, I held my breath at human fragility. This too could easily be their graves. But this is not about the drama of life-threatening peril, but the ever-present reminder of our own mortality. We are but visitors here. It is what makes their attempt at mapping this ancient structure at once so noble and so hubristic; they are so dwarfed by this enormous and ageless abyss that to try, in its face, to create a record for generations to come, seems so defiantly optimistic.
The Hole is a different kind of film in terms of pacing and tone than you might be used to, but it invites you to just sit and watch, to see a piece of the world, to experience its existence.