Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Labor and reward: Tamer El Said's IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY and Lucrecia Martel's ZAMA

Two very demanding movies are currently opening in our cultural capitals: Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel's new work, ZAMA, which hit New York City a couple of weeks ago and opens in Los Angeles this week, and Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said's debut feature, IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY, which opens in NYC this Friday and then hits L.A. on May 11.

Audiences for art films -- foreign, independent and documentaries in particular -- generally expect demands that are simply not present in
almost any mainstream movie. These two films, however, go far beyond the usual demands.

For starters, it might be a good idea for viewers expecting to see these films to brush up on their history: of Spain and its colonization of South America in the late 1700s (for Zama) and of Egypt and the middle east during the couple of years preceding what is now called Arab Spring and the ongoing Egyptian Crisis (for Last Days...).

Both films simply begin in media res and expect you to quickly center your self and catch up. Lots of movies do this, it's true -- but few give you as little orientation as here. And then there is the problem of each movie's protagonist -- the titular Diego de Zama (played by that fine Spanish actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, above) and Khalid, played by Scotland-born actor Khalid Abdalla, below -- men so oddly passive that the word "off-putting" does not begin to describe their character.

In the Last Days of the City looks like a documentary, but it's fiction, though its characters tend to all have names the same as their actors' given name. Our "hero," Khalid, is a filmmaker slowly working on a movie, and most of his friends seem to be filmmakers, too. We meet them early on, during a movie Q&A. "This is a panel of cinema," one of them notes, "but so far we are only talking politics." As these film-making friends josh and spar, their various homelands, current  residences and political views all surface, and we can't help but wonder, How safe are any of these people?

News flashes from TV referring to Marbarek dot the movie, as do the various women in Khalid's life: his ailing mother, maybe an aunt, and an ex-girlfriend -- with whom he is as passive as with all else. He is currently looking for a new apartment, yet we never get a clue from where his income arrives. Is he independently wealthy? "Watching is not living," our hero is told at one point, and when he notices below his apartment building a man attacking a woman and then films this, you'll want to jam his camera between his teeth.

Who is this guy?:  Does he represent a passive Egyptian populace? No wonder his girlfriend (Laila Samy, above) bails on him. He is a handsome devil, however, and you may notice that, though he never seems to shave, the degree of stubble on his face remain exactly the same throughout the entire movie. Among the other visual delights is maybe the sexiest set of mannequins ever captured on film. First we see them nude, then behind windows covered with newspaper to obscure their naughty parts, and then finally completely hidden via burkas. 

Initially the movie is visually riveting -- so interestingly composed and edited that I was hooked. Along the way, we get some family, some history, some tradition, some religion, some politics, and even an ancient calligrapher.  Slowly, though, In the Last Days of the City (which times out at just over two hours) loses all power and finally most of its interest. When, toward the end, Khalid's very annoyed editor says to him, "I'm fed up. I feel I'm wasting my time!" you may second those sentiments completely. It's one thing to demand a lot of your viewers; it's quite another to finally give them so little in return.


Ms Martel's Zama, while also demanding, at least pays off some dividends, though not, TrustMovies thinks, as many as have been found in her earlier films. Visually, the movie is often stunning, filled as it is with gorgeous, if often strange landscapes and vistas (there's one shot of soldiers asleep on an either sleeping or dead horse, the likes of which I've never seen). Sometimes phantasmagorical, more often simply strange but real, Martel's movie gives us an inside view of colonialism in which our "hero" -- a medium-level functionary of Spanish power in South America (Paraguay, I think) -- is both a purveyor of colonialism and its victim.

Directed and adapted by Martel (from the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto), the movie is rich in metaphor and symbolism, never more so than in its handling of a near-mythic character named Vicuña Porto, a rebel leader whom we keep hearing is dead or beheaded or "Here are his ears" but instead keeps re-surfacing, alive after all. When we finally meet him, via the very energetic and interesting performance by Matheus Nachtergaele, we begin to understand what all the fuss is about. Even if, as ever, our poor "hero" Zama has no clue.

A coward and a passive weakling, this guy is such a loser. Everyone uses him, and always to Zama's disadvantage -- from the "royal" lady for whom he lusts and pines, to the governor of the province, to the very natives whom he supposedly lords it over. This fellow is the proverbial schmuck. Even if his most appalling line of dialog -- "This noble family has suffered enough" -- will make you want to upchuck, still, what happens to the poor guy is awful indeed. By the finale of this near-two-hour movie, you'll have experienced wonderful visuals, reacted to some awful carnage, and perhaps had your brain and pre-conceptions jogged a little. It was enough for me, but despite the film's subject and wonderfully strange time and location, I would not place this among Martel's best work.

Zama, from Strand Releasing, opens in Los Angeles  this Friday, April 27, at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7. Click here then scroll down to click on Screenings to view all upcoming playdates, cities and theaters.

In the Last Days of the City, from Big World Pictures, opens this Friday, April 27, in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art and on May 4 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, and then elsewhere, too. Click here then scroll down to see all upcoming playdates, cities and theaters. The filmmaker, Tamer El Said, will appears in Los Angeles and New York at certain screenings. Consult the individual theaters for date and time.

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