Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Caesar Must Die" and "Simon Killer" (Philadelphia Film Festival)

The Taviani Brothers' "Caesar Must Die" and Antonio Campos' "Simon Killer" are two films about bad communication, hopelessness, and predestination. However, in how they examine physical and mental prisons, the movies differ drastically. The Tavianis possess a sentimentality and belief in transformations that Campos almost completely veers away from. The Italians also maintain a distracting artifice that ultimately undermines their film's strengths, while the American largely strives for verisimilitude in depicting boredom, sexuality, violence, and heartache.

Berlin Golden Bear winner "Caesar" follows prisoners putting on "Julius Caesar" in Italian, which means that Shakespeare's language has been translated into a different tongue and (for our English-speaking benefit) back through the subtitles. This essentially turns the brilliant dialogue of this great play into bad, blunt screenwriting. Sure, certain sections are preserved, but for the most part it feels watered down. This diminishes the experience of watching the play, which is a shame, since the production itself is well-done and strongly acted. 

Another huge thorn in my side was the bothersome use of what appeared to be staged docudrama. A raw documentary style, though perhaps impossible, would have suited this film much better, as moments of transcendence are made trivial by their probable fabrication. The whole film would have felt like more of a revelation if it didn't feel scripted; this is especially true for the bits that are compelling nonetheless, such as Salvatore Striano's devotion to his role as Brutus and the grandeur of Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar. But unfortunately the Tavianis pour this artifice on, in hopes of hammering their thesis into place. The film peddles some interesting ideas and stunning images (courtesy of Simone  Zampagni's incredible B&W cinematography), but the whole is repetitive and scattershot, if enjoyable in certain moments. 

"Simon Killer," Campos' similarly cerebral follow-up to his haunting and successful "Afterschool," was a real handful while I was watching it, but after the final monologue ended, it came together to hit me, and hard. Simon (Brady Corbet), its main character (read: definitely not a hero, more of a total asshole), doesn't deserve any of what he stumbles upon, but due to his charms, he continues to end up in potentially worthwhile situations that he continues to squander. He's on a self-imposed exile outside of the US following the dissolution of a stable relationship. He starts out pathetically lonely, aimlessly wandering to Parisian museums, listening to the same few songs, writing notes to his ex, hitting on random French women, and videochatting with his mother. 

He ends up finding a beautiful and hopeful prostitute (Mati Diop) with whom he starts to spend his days. Though their first meetings seem full of good (intensely sexual) chemistry, one can sense a rift due to their disparity in terms of French. One scene, where "Victoria" (her real name isn't listed online) tries to share a horrible memory from her past and Simon (out of ignorance most likely) doesn't understand, is devastating, and kept me in the theater when I was close to walking out. The film often doesn't seem to be going anywhere, but on closer study it definitely is, and it eventually comes into the clear as a work of repetition. 

The setbacks are technical mostly, as Campos is too reliant on empty, common Dardennes-esque formalism when he's capable of much more (take the long take of the opening monologue, the stationary camera during the first sexual encounter between Simon and "Victoria," and the shooting of a disturbingly callous scene in a club set to "Dance Yrself Clean"). However, I really liked the "Enter the Void"-esque psychedelic transitions. The whole film feels pretty empty at points. But I give Campos credit ultimately, as he pushes all the way to a dispiriting, wrenching finish where a stuttering letter motif is repeated for a final time. I can see why this film has only played sparingly since its Sundance premiere, since it angers you, bores you, and eats at you in an uncommonly unsettling way. Yet I see those things as more valuable than most of what "Caesar" had to offer. 

"Simon Killer" is ingenious in its slow playing out of a previously doomed relationship in microcosms for all to see and gasp in horror at. Campos, in his provocative way, stresses how important good communication of various sorts is (stranger/stranger, lover/lover, mother/son, brain/eye), especially in this increasingly disjointed age. It's the kind of film that you might have to see again, even if you can't really muster up the courage to do that. 

Caesar Must Die: C+
Simon KillerB

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