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A review: “Pupendo” [2003, Czech Rep.]

Jan Hrebejk’s comedy “Pupendo” takes a wry look at the last days of communist Czechoslovakia by comparing the fortunes of two families who, though ideologically similar, adapt to life under the regime in starkly contrasting ways.

Scene - pupendoBedrich (Bolek Polívka), a successful and respected sculptor prior to the crushing of the Prague Spring, has since been ostracised for his liberal views, and because of his steadfast refusal to enrol in the party and suck-up to the system, effectively jobless, and ekes out a living by reproducing kitsch pottery for a local businessman. His stoic wife Alena (Eva Holubová) and their two boys – one of them deaf, make up a closely-knit family with few disagreements among them.

Scene - PupendoThe other family that we get to follow is of Mila (Jaroslav Dusek), married to Bedrich’s former lover Magda (Vilma Cibulková). Even though he too hates the political system, he complies, and is also a member of the communist party. He’s rewarded by being made headteacher of the school where boys of both the families attend. Mila’s older daughter Pavla is presently Bedrich’s apprentice. Magda, once Bedrich’s student herself, also complies with authorities, and is the head of the Artists Union.

Scene - PupendoWhen a drunk Bedrich brings home a bum that he saw rummaging through bins, Alena isn’t too pleased, and to make her point, offers the stranger Bedrich’s supper. The stranger would turn out to be Alois Fabera (Jirí Pecha), an art historian, fallen on hard times following a divorce. Fabera, already aware of Bedrich’s past works, uses his residual influence in the art establishment to assign him a contract for a mural at the school – one that’s aspirational but also apolitical enough for Bedrich to accept.

Scene - PupendoMagda persuades Bedrich to take up another ‘national’ project as a return favour, and all goes well for a while, until a candid disclosure in a radio interview by Fabera lands them in hot water with the establishment, after which both families’ privileges get curtailed. However, Fabera also succeeds in getting Bedrich noticed by art establishments outside Czechoslovakia, and before long, Bedrich will have foreign admirers arriving at his doorstep…

Scene - PupendoA slice of life as seen by the director during the pre-Velvet Revolution days, the film, much like most Czech films made in the period following communism, presents the picture of an intelligentsia desperately yearning for change. It remains a popular subject for Czechs to this day, and the film duly obliges. But it is also a breezy, well made comedy that directly addresses its audience – one of the reasons for its box office success. While I couldn’t yet make a connection between the film’s title – alluding to a prank game played using a coin, and the film’s context, it is nevertheless entertaining, and Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]

 

The Nudity: Vilma Cibulková and Hana Seidlová
In a memorable scene, Magda, who is visiting Bedrich’s to oversee an upcoming sculpture, is in the shower when she hears Bedrich say that he wants to abandon the work. She angrily bursts into the studio and starts arguing with him in the nude. Forty year old Vilma Cibulková was brave enough to do the scene, and it reminded me of another more recent performance by Anne Louise Hassing, also in her forties – it’s so uplifting to watch middle-aged women walk about just as nature intended, in the nude. The second scene is of Mila’s son Matej eyeing a woman sunbathing, only to pleasantly discover that she’s also his teacher from school. The teacher is played by Hana Seidlová.

Vilma Cibulková and Hana Seidlová nude in Pupendo

Vilma Cibulková and Hana Seidlová in “Pupendo” (2003, Czech Republic).

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A quest for success, Argentinian style: “Gato negro” [2014 Argentina]

Gastón Gallo’s directorial début “Gato negro” [Eng. Title: The Black Cat] is about a man’s dogged determination to break away from poverty and become a success story, and the price he’ll end up paying in the process.

A scene from Gato negro (2014)We follow Tito Pereya from the time he’s a frustrated young boy growing up amidst sugarcane plantations and sugar mills in provincial Argentina of the nineteen fifties – where “nothing much happens”. With a stressed-out mother and an absent father, the only person he can connect with is his older brother Claudio, who’ll also be his best friend. But Tito is restless and raring to leave the village for good.

A scene from Gato negro (2014)He’ll get that opportunity when his mother takes him to Buenos Aires where she’d just taken up job as a domestic servant. But to his dismay, she enrols him in a convent and leaves hastily, promising to visit him during the weekends, which she never did. An angry Tito refuses to fit in the convent and runs away with another boy. Together they survive doing odd-jobs in a different town, until he gets bored and returns home.

Luciano Cáceres in Gato negro (2014 Argentina)As a young man, he leaves for the city one more time, and takes up the only job he could get, as janitor in a garment factory. Determinedly, he works his way up, and before long will start his own business in import and export. His enterprise becomes successful by circumventing law on occasions, aided by his uncanny ability to charm, befriend and bribe the powers that be, whether civil or military.

Luciano Cáceres and Leticia Brédice in Gato negro (2014)Apart from seeking success, Tito wants to be seen to be successful too. He builds his family and also makes peace with his estranged mother, a gesture which by then has become little more than symbolic. He surrounds himself with wealth and worldly comforts to get noticed and acknowledged by friend and foe alike, which will invariably also spark jealousy in some circles…

Luciano Cáceres in "Gato negro" (2014)While there’s nothing really unique about the film’s storyline – a tried and tested formula used the world over in various degrees of deviation, it’s a decent enough directorial début. Argentinians might relate to the film more readily than others due to its passing historical and cultural references. They have also made a serious effort at trying to accurately recreate various periods that the story spans. The performance of Luciano Cáceres in the lead role is pretty good, but the remaining cast fail to rise above the ordinary. Nevertheless, the film is entertaining and Recommended Viewing..!

DVD Order Link [NTSC]

 

The Nudity: Leticia Brédice
She plays the love interest who’ll later become the wife of Tito Pereya, her character was probably inserted into the storyline as an afterthought with very little time for development. She appears briefly nude during her first make-out session with Tito in the office warehouse.

Leticia Brédice nude in the film Gato negro aka The Black Cat (2014)

Leticia Brédice in a scene from the drama “Gato negro” (Black Cat), Argentina, 2014.

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A brief review: “Time of Darkness” [1991, Russia]

Tamara Tana and George Segal, 'Time of Darkness'Occasionally we bump into a film only when looking for something else. An exploration into early post-Soviet Russian cinema led me to Vladimir Alenikov’s medieval drama “Time of Darkness” [Russian Title: Fiofaniya, risuyushchaya smert], made originally in English. Produced by an American company, and even starring George Segal, it was also a general indicator of the US-Russia bonhomie at the time.

A scene from Fiofaniya aka Time of Darkness (Russia 1991)The low-budgeted film is set in eleventh century Russia, a period when many rural communities still practised their old pagan faiths, and newly arrived Christian missionaries were trying to convert them (which they achieved, but pagan ideas such as witchcraft and babkas (spiritual healers) are still fairly popular today). A spate of crimes erupt in a remote village after a summer festival, and young women newly converted to Christianity begin to get killed. While village chief Grigory (George Segal) attributes these attacks to a werewolf living in the woods, Fiofaniya (Tamara Tana), the healer-woman, after examining their bodies, believes that they were raped and killed by someone in the village.

Tamara Tana as Fiofaniya in Time of Darkness (1991 Russia)Fiofaniya also has the ability to have ‘visions’. It will help her piece together events leading up to the murder, but she wont be able identify the killer itself because he’d donned a carnival mask, like many other men in the village, during each attack. The heady mix of superstition, myth, and religion will make any effort at solving the crimes impossible, until Fiofaniya stumbles across a clue that’ll lead her to the killer. She’ll soon face mortal danger herself; with villagers fearing that she might be a witch, and the killer inciting the crowd to lock her inside the house and set it ablaze, almost replicating the fate that befell her own mother at a different village…

George Segal in Time of Darkness (1991 Russia)Its historical setting and the pagan-Christian conflict may be vaguely reminiscent of Andrei Rublev, but this is certainly not a Tarkovsky – and to its credit, it doesn’t even pretend to be one. This is just a good ole American B-movie, more accurately, a Russian attempt at making one, that has every right to share the same shelf as the Conan epics in your friendly neighbourhood VHS library. The director has later gone on to do more memorable work, but this film is all comic strip-style material with a dodgy screenplay, B-movie style.

Scene from Fiofaniya aka Time of Darkness (1991 Russia)And yet, it couldn’t help itself trying to be artistic at times, in a minimalist sort of way. Given its budget, it has managed to recreate authentic-looking sets and especially the corpses, but I have reason to believe that they might have also killed or maimed a real wolf while making the film, possibly for added authenticity. Either that, or it must’ve been a surprisingly clever piece of filmmaking for its time. Nevertheless what kept me engaged, were the bevy of undeniably beautiful actresses appearing in the film, and often in various stages of undress. These may or may not be the right reason for watching the film, but the extra spice certainly enhances the exotic storyline and lends it historical legitimacy (although I’m not sure about the extent to which Slavic pagans practised witch-burning).

Amazon.de DVD Link [PAL]
There is a much cheaper DVD available as well, but it is German dubbed. I also can’t attest to the DVD’s quality because mine is an older non-remastered NTSC edition, not available in Amazon at the time of posting.

 

The Nudity: Tatyana Novik, Tamara Tana, Mariya Korolyova, Zoya Simonova, & others
The film features nudity in a variety of public spaces; when people conduct medieval fertility rituals,  bathe in the lake, are pursued through woods, and also features a Lady Godiva-style stride through the village, sans the horse.

Tamara Tana, Tatyana Novik, Mariya Korolyova, Zoya Simonova and others nude in Time of Darkness, aka Fiofaniya, risuyushchaya smert

Tamara Tana, Tatyana Novik, Zoya Simonova, and others from the medieval Russian crime drama,
“Time of Sarkness” (Fiofaniya, risuyushchaya smert).

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User-generated entertainment: “Steekspel” [2012 Netherlands]

Having had his break after Zwartboek, Paul Verhoeven eases back into film-making mode with “Steekspel” [Eng. Title: Tricked], by using it as a ‘creative-battery-recharging’ project. It’s a moderate success because, despite its meagre fifty minutes, the pint-sized featurette manages to package a coherent narrative with several twists and turns.

Ricky Koole and Peter Blok in Steekspel (Tricked).It is Remco’s (Peter Blok) fiftieth birthday and his dutiful wife Ineke (Ricky Koole) has meticulously organised a party at their home. However, an unexpected visitor comes calling – his former mistress Nadja (Sallie Harmsen), with a very visible baby bump, which raise eyebrows all around and sets tongues wagging in hushed tones. After all, his affair was known to everyone, including his grown-up children and Ineke herself. It sets the tone for a series of soap-operatic events that’ll follow.

Ricky Koole and Peter Blok in Steekspel (Tricked)Remco had been a serial philanderer all through his marriage, which Ineke had only been too aware of. She tacitly tolerated his numerous affairs because they never last for a long period, and he invariably also returns home every night. However, she couldn’t tolerate Remco being the father of Nadja’s child, and has threatened to leave him if it turned out to be the case.

Peter Blok in SteekspelThat is however what Nadja will claim to Remco in private – that he is the father, and his business associates will use this pretext to blackmail him into selling the company in which he and Ineke have a stake. To complicate matters, he’s also having an ongoing affair with his daughter Lieke’s (Carolien Spoor) best friend Merel (Gaite Jensen), whom his son Tobias (Robert de Hoog) also fancies…

Ricky Koole and Peter Blok in Steekspel (Tricked).Kim van Kooten penned the first few pages of this topsy-turvy script before it was put up online, for crowd-sourcing input from public for the remainder of the film. Nearly 700 scripts were received, and van Kooten and Verhoeven sifted through a shortlist to pick and choose elements that gelled with the initial pages for completing the film. As a result, three other writers also appear in the film’s credits. The unusual project has apparently been one arduous exercise, and is highlighted in an accompanying documentary titled “Paul’s Experience”, where Verhoeven talks about the creative process and how it was a unique cinematic project – a glorified ‘Making-of’ if you will, which is presented alongside the film.

Gaite Jansen in Steekspel (Tricked).If employing too many ‘cooks’ could’ve easily ended up as mishmash in the wrong hands, Verhoeven uses it to his advantage by accommodating the additional twists and turns in the plot whilst retaining their connection. Besides, shooting each scene in succession, with the actors and even he not knowing what happens next, make them all the more credible, and encourages audience engagement. While the overall tone of the film is that of a typical ‘mainstream’ TV sitcom, it nevertheless entertains as much as it intrigues the viewer. We see Verhoeven make a film after a hiatus, and that at least is reason enough to watch it – Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL] | Amazon.de Blu-ray Link

 

The Nudity: Gaite Jansen
By Paul Verhoeven’s own standards, the nudity in this film is relatively mild, consisting of two scenes that feature a cute and topless Gaite Jansen – her character is the object of interest for father-son duo Remco and Tobias. In the first scene Merel flashes her breasts for Tobias’s camera, telling him that he could now jack-off without having to photoshop her face to someone else’s. The second is when Remco and Merel jump into bed while discussing the reappearance of Nadja. But I wonder – among all of them who submitted script for the film, didn’t anyone even consider for a moment that Tobias might perhaps be interested in something more than Jansen’s modest little titties, alluring as they may be! Blimey, did I just complain there?! :-)

Scenes of a nude Gaite Jansen in Paul Verhoeven's Steekspel aka Tricked

Scenes of Gaite Jansen in Paul Verhoeven’s film, “Steekspel” aka “Tricked”.

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Jodorowsky’s self-therapy: “La danza de la realidad” [2013 Chile, France]

After nearly a quarter of a century, Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Swiss Army Knife among provocative artists, conjures up a deeply personal film by adapting portions from his recently published autobiography. “La danza de la Realidad” [Eng. Title: The Dance of Reality] is also a family affair, with his wife and sons also chipping in for the project. His son Brontis, who many will remember as El Topo’s little son, plays Jodorwsky’s father Jaime, and his character is pretty much the main focus of discussion in the film.

Brontis Joforowsky and Jeremias Herskovits in The Dance of RealityAn autobiography with a difference, the film isn’t strictly a literal interpretation of events from childhood, but does contain factual details within a larger Jodorowskian canvas. It shows the early years of Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) growing up as a shy, white Jewish boy in the Chilean coastal town of Tocopilla. Giving insights into how he perceived the world around him back then and particularly his relationship with his parents, the now older Jodorowsky, as himself, enters scenes intermittently to comment on proceedings and mentor his younger self through his growing-up pains.

Brontis Jodorowsky in El danza de la realidadThe film, while making several knowing references to his earlier work, is presented as a fairy tale – like a nostalgic look-back, Amarcord-style. But that’s where comparisons with Fellini end; because this one is a different kettle of fish altogether – almost every scene is a visual attack on your senses – it’s a wild fantasia, ranging from the lyrical to the exquisitely profane. As anyone who’d seen his earlier works should know, Jodorowsky doesn’t pull back anything if he’s out to make a point. He will use any means at his disposal to load it with layers of mystic metaphors and other hippie-delights. You see police throwing protesting limbless miners to the back of a truck, circus clowns bullying a child, a hunchback woman die for love, a buxom mother show her son how to go unnoticed by others in public – in the nude, and a loving wife healing her husband by urinating on his plague-infested body.

Jeremias Herskovits in La danza de la realidadHere’s just one example of the many metaphor-laden scenes we get to see – after a stone that little Alejandro throws in anger at the sea unexpectedly results in thousands of fish getting stranded and perishing on shore, seagulls appear from nowhere to feast upon the sudden glut, and Jodorowsky muses, “I felt confused: should I suffer the anguish of the sardines, or should I delight in the joy of the seagulls…”. Jodorowsky’s mother Sara (Chilean soprano Pamela Flores) sings in the film instead of talking – while the reason was because it was his mother’s long-held wish to become an opera singer, and he was merely trying to fulfil her ambition symbolically, it is even more moving if you interpret it as the mother’s voice in itself sounding as music to young Alejandro’s ears.

A therapy:
Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, and Jeremias Herskovits in The Dance of RealityThe film has a personal mission too. Jodorowsky, heavily involved in his psychomagic, in effect workshops his film project into an elaborate therapy session, with family, to come to terms with a difficult past. He’d mentioned (separately) that he was traumatised in childhood by an overbearing father who expected him to be as manly as he was, one who he opines was also a hypocrite in facing up to his own ideology. Through the film, Jodorowsky not only highlights his father’s flaws, but also enables him to redeem himself and regain his humanity towards the end, which of course, didn’t happen in reality. Children in town back then made fun of him because he was white, and circumcised. He was often harassed by people because he was a (relatively) rich Jewish boy, and effeminate looking with his long blond hair, which was nurtured by his mother to remind her of her own father. It’s because of these reasons that the film was also shot in the very place he lived – in a Tocopilla that’s barely changed over the years. But since his childhood home was destroyed by fire, he built one again to resemble the original home for this film. He also repainted all the run-down homes in the vicinity to recreate his childhood landscape, in order to put to rest his demons. The film set, and everything that went with it, was gifted back to the town after the shoot.

Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, and Jeremias Herskovits in La danza de la realidadThe film isn’t a straightforward work of fiction or even a strictly fictionalised biography – the thoughts in the film aren’t that of Jodorowsky as a child growing up in the 1930′s, but that of an octogenarian looking back at it using present intellect. And since everything is seen from a vastly different viewpoint, there is no point in poring over its historical accuracy, let alone delving into the narrative. Regardless, it is engaging and life-affirming in its own unique way. The performance from actors playing the mother-father duo and the son, particularly Brontis Jodorowsky, is brave and ‘real’ to say the least. Jodorowsky’s other son Adan handles the soundtrack and music with panache. The film was also the result of a reunion of sorts between Jodorowsky and his co-producer Michel Seydoux – they’d stayed apart after a doomed 70′s project (Dune, the one that never got made but nevertheless inspired sci-fi cinema the world over). However, it is an altogether personal film and should not be compared like-for-like to Jodorowsky’s earlier works, and certainly, Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon.com Blue-ray & DVD Purchase Link

 

The Nudity: Pamela Flores and Brontis Jodorowsky
Brontis Jodorowsky throws himself into his character headlong, and opera singer Pamela Flores – much respected and loved in her home country, doesn’t hold back either, which also reflects in the eye-raising frankness of their respective nude scenes. Wholesome Flores barely flinches while singing in the nude, and Brontis is as at ease with his naked self as he was, as a child in El Topo. There are at least four scenes featuring frontal nudity, male and female.

Pamela Flores and Brontis Jodorowsky nude in La danza de la realidad aka The Dance of Reality

Pamela Flores and Brontis Jodorowsky in the autobiographical “La danza de la realidad”
aka “The Dance of Reality” (2013).

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