Thursday, February 28, 2013

THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT: Dan Sallitt's remarkable movie about the "I" word opens in NYC at Anthology Film Archives

This week two excellent films open in New York that feature crackerjack performances by their leading ladies, both a little older than the characters they play, but both able to nail these characters amazingly well. Yesterday we covered Perla Haney-Jardine in Future Weather; today it's Tallie Medel, performing in her first full-length feature, THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT. And, yes, we're talking about incest here, though it's a word barely spoken (I think the brother and sister use the initial only, if that, during their conversations).

The man who made this terrifically engaging, intelligent and unusual motion picture is a fellow named Dan Sallitt. This is the first of his films I've seen, but if the others are anywhere near this level, I'm an instant convert. The first thing thing that impresses about this movie is how insistent writer/director Sallitt is in making character trump event or action. I believe in literally all movies I've seen that deal with incest (most recently Daniel & Ana Delta and No Tengas Miedo) the event turns out the be-all and end-all of the situation and film. This is understandable, as incest is such a taboo subject -- which makes it, of course, all the more transgressively alluring for some filmmakers and audiences to confront. But then it becomes all the more difficult to avoid exploitation.

Sallitt manages this avoidance extremely well. He absolutely hits his subject head on, but because he and Ms Medel (shown above) have placed us so firmly inside the mind and heart of his heroine (and to a much lesser extent, her older brother -- played by newcomer Sky Hirschkron, below), we actually come to care more about the people here than the event itself. And if your reaction is, at this point, "Well, of course we would!" then stop yourself. Achieving this reaction simply cannot be as easy as we may imagine, for human beings generally want the excitement and thrill that goes along with anything "naughty."

Sallitt offers us the family first, and if this particular family (below) seems a little odd, well, whose isn't? There's a loss of a father figure, early on, which seems to have had its effect on mom (Aundrea Fares, center, left, below) as has the departure of her eldest son, now at university. The remaining two daughters and the younger brother have adjusted pretty well -- except for this extreme closeness between the one sibling pair, which, as daughter Jackie makes clear, the other family members either choose to ignore or haven't fully noticed.

The family's house (below) is quite lovely, too; these folk live in a gorgeous, verdant community, where Jackie is doing well enough in school. When brother Matthew leaves for college, however, and the two must be apart, the girl takes a tumble.

Mom manages to get her daughter to a therapist, and, lordy lord, it's a good one. The sessions scenes are among the best I've seen on film: smart, real, and most surprising of all, these show us, without undue exposition and about as well as has yet been put on film or video, how therapy slowly works.

There's more, and all of it is about as well thought-out and presented as you could want. Sallitt takes his cues, I think, mostly from documentary film (and has been pointed out elsewhere, from the late Eric Rohmer). While this helps the reality quotient, some of the performances (never that of Ms Medel) can at times seem a bit stilted. And yet, with this particular group of people, stilted is just about what you would expect.

By the finale, you'll be amazed and heartened. The filmmaker has addressed his subject directly, and taken us and his heroine on quite a journey. The Unspeakable Act is one of the most deeply, deeply satisfying movies I have seen in a long while. It begins performances today, Thursday, February 28, at Anthology Film Archives, where it plays, in tandem with a short repertoire of Sallitt's other three films, through March 7 (his other films plays through March 8). Click here for tickets and here for directions.

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