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In search of Utopia: “Zheleznaya doroga” [2007 Russia]

I’d been working backward through the filmography of Aleksey Fedorchenko, and was pleased to see that his Fellini-esque surreal comedy from 2007, “Zheleznaya doroga” [Eng. Title: The Railway] was as much an allegory as a visual feast.

A scene from Zheleznaya doroga (2007)The hilarious premise posits a school headmaster hatching a rather unusual plot to make up for a shortfall in the school’s funding – by smuggling out coal from abandoned mines in the town’s vicinity, on a disused railway line that was heading south into the vast Russian Steppes. Thanks to a mistaken belief that coal was in high demand in that region, he sets about laying his plans in secret so that others wouldn’t catch wind.

Pyotr Zaychenko in Zheleznaya doroga (2007)He persuades a pal (Sergey Belyaev) with his kid Mishka (Daniil Shavkunov) to join the endeavour, and after dusting off a beast of a Soviet-era locomotive languishing in a museum, they enlist the services of an equally ancient driver (Pyotr Zaychenko) who’d apparently gone feral in the rusty overgrown railway yard. As the film progresses, the driver and his relationship with the locomotive become an important part of the narrative.

From Zheleznaya doroga (2007 Russia)After stocking the lone wagon in the train with sacks of coal collected by the school children, the foursome set-off on a surreal journey passing through disappeared stations, abandoned towns and meet some extraordinary characters along the way, including the remnants of a circus troupe that had gone missing in the Steppes many years ago.

A scene from Zheleznaya doroga (2007)By the time they reach their destination, they’d used up and bartered away the coal that they were transporting for largely worthless bric-a-brac, exchanged by desperate locals still surviving in middle-of-nowhere towns. Perhaps they were waiting for the trains to return, or perhaps they’d given up all hope of making it elsewhere. Much of the narrative is from the viewpoint of Mishka who observes goings on armed with a creative license.

A still from Zheleznaya doroga (2007, Russia)We meet giants, acrobats, and man-eating school children, and Luisa (Olga Degtyaryova), a sex-hungry redhead who boards the train after the headmaster proposes to her with a ring exchanged for coal by an old woman without fingers. Mishka listens to his father give varying accounts of his mother’s (Elena Veshkurtseva) gruesome/heroic death, and imagines each time saving her in a miraculous manner. Their journey, it turns out, is in fact a yearning for love…

Elena Veshkurtseva from Zheleznaya doroga (2007, Russia)Almost every aspect of the characterisation can be seen in an allegorical or literal sense, depending on your frame of mind. But they’re equally absurd, delightful, and moving either way, thanks to Fedorchenko’s genius and sense of humour. Steeped in irony and loaded with dry wit, the film is a prime example of Russian cinema at its creative best. Needless to say, this little gem is Highly Recommended Viewing..!

 

The Nudity: Olga Degtyaryova, Elena Veshkurtseva, and others
Olga Degtyaryova, as the redhead, appears nude in a couple of scenes, and there is brief nudity from other actors during the rest of the film.

Some scenes of Olga Degtyaryova from Aleksey Fedorchenko's surreal comedy "Zheleznaya doroga" aka "The Railway" [2007, Russia].

Some scenes of Olga Degtyaryova from Aleksey Fedorchenko’s surreal comedy “Zheleznaya doroga” aka “The Railway” [2007, Russia].

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Primal instinct: “La región salvaje” [2016 Mexico]

Amat Escalante is renowned/infamous for gritty and at times shocking realism in his films. But his 2016 erotic Sci-Fi fantasy drama (or dark comedy even) “La región salvaje” [Eng. Title: The Untamed] is quite different, and happily so.

Simone Bucio in "The Untamed" (2016, Mexico)The film begins with what we assume to be an asteroid in space heading our way. The next scene is of a young Verónica (Simone Bucio) writhing in ecstasy in the arms of a tentacled creature, wearing the expression of a painfully dependent opium addict. As Marta (Bernarda Trueba), wife of scientist Verga (Oscar Escalante), clears away the blood-stained sheets from the bed, an injured Verónica is shown limping across mist-laden woodland to make it to her parked cross motorbike.

A still from "La región salvaje" (Mexico, 2016)Dr. Verga who’d housed and studied the tentacled creature from his cabin since its discovery, is convinced that it represents the most primal of nature’s instincts in its purest state, with even the wild animals getting irresistibly drawn towards the crater site to copulate. He also opines that Verónica’s recent rendezvous with the creature turned out bloody because it’d lost interest of her.

Ruth Ramos and Jesus Meza in "The Untamed" (La region salvaje) 2016A parallel storyline develops around unhappy Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and her family. Her husband Ángel (Jesús Meza) had been having an affair with her brother Fabián (Eden Villavicencio), which the latter had wanted to end. Verónica strikes up a friendship with Fabián at the hospital where he works and divulges about a ‘lover’ who lost interest and ‘dumped’ her lately, and suggests he visit the cabin to find out for himself…

A still from "La region salvaje" (The Untamed), 2016 MexicoDuring the course of the film, it dawns on us that rather than a supposed sci-fi thriller along the lines of Alien, War of the Worlds, or even Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (with which it shares some plot similarities), we’re indeed watching something allegorical. It is in effect a critique of everything that’s gone wrong in modern society. Some scenes are darkly funny even when something tragic is happening, which can hardly be considered unintentional, especially with someone of Escalante’s notoriety at the helm.

A still from "The Untamed" (La region salvaje) 2016The film happily defies categorisation – like an early Almodóvar who didn’t worry too much about having to be audience-friendly, this is Escalante simply having fun with different genres whilst striding the thin line between homage and parody. Yes, there is social commentary, but that’s not the film’s main purpose. To me it’s a celebration of the film making process itself; the film has integrity and pays enough attention to detail, and even if we’d seen more convincing FX creatures in Hollywood, it shouldn’t matter too much on this occasion. That said, the bizarre scene where various species of animals are seen merrily shagging away in a crater-like pit is a sight to behold. And we all know that even Stanley Kubrick would struggle to direct wild beast porn, so the effects department clearly earned their keep here. Recommended Viewing..! 🙂

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

 

The Nudity: Simone Bucio, Ruth Ramos, Jesús Meza, and Eden Villavicencio
Nudity from newcomers Simone Bucio (Verónica) and Ruth Ramos (Alejandra) are largely due to scenes featuring tentacular groping and masturbatory activity. Jesús Meza (Ángel) and Eden Villavicencio (Fabián) appear nude in a sex scene too.

Simone Bucio and Ruth Ramos star in Amat Escalante's sci-fi erotic thriller "La región salvaje" aka "The Untamed" [2016, Mexico]

Simone Bucio and Ruth Ramos star in Amat Escalante’s sci-fi erotic thriller “La región salvaje”
aka “The Untamed” [2016, Mexico]

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My body, my choice: “Vergine giurata” [2015, Italy, Albania]

Alba Rohrwacher in "Sworn Virgin" (2015)There’s no need for alarm; we needn’t fear a militant or agenda-driven feminist narrative in Laura Bispuri’s debut feature “Vergine giurata” [Eng. Title: Sworn Virgin]. It is rather a nuanced critique of restrictive sexual and cultural norms in some communities and our protagonist’s determination for the right to his/her own body.

Flonja Kodheli and Alba Rohrwacher in "Sworn Virgin" (2015)The film begins with ‘Mark’ – formerly Hana (Alba Rohrwacher) leaving her frozen Albanian village behind for an Italian city where Lila (Flonja Kodheli), the daughter of her foster parents, lives. They were close and grew up together, until Lila decided to elope with her Albanian lover barely a week before her arranged marriage.

Alba Rohrwacher in "Vergine giurata" (2015)While Lila has since established a family in Italy, a tomboyish Hana found the idea of becoming a traditional housewife oppressive, and has hence drawn upon a right from local custom that would allow her to forego her societal obligations as a woman – she had taken a community-sanctioned vow to celibacy by cutting her hair short and dressing up as a man.

Lars Eidinger and Alba Rohrwacher in "Sworn Virgin" (2015)While Hana may have, in theory, became Mark – she had a man’s rights, including the right to bear arms and hunt for a living, she was in practise already branded for life a sexual identity from her days as Hana, and her new-found independence as Mark only led to her further isolation. She had to leave, and hence her arrival at Lila’s doorstep unannounced. A new life now beckons for Hana

Flonja Kodheli and Alba Rohrwacher in "Vergine giurata" (2015)The thoughtfully meandering film inter-cuts the past with the present to paint a vivid portrait of Hana and her world, one that resonates universally despite its specifics. As our evolving understanding of sexuality and identity keep reshaping modern lives, it’s imperative to keep the ‘dialogue’ within society open without necessarily being combative or antagonistic. The film achieves this in no small measure thanks to Ms. Bispuri’s commendable direction and Ms. Rohrwacher’s assured performance. For once, it’s also a relief to see Albanians not portrayed as criminal or refugee stereotypes, but as fellow humans with life goals not too dissimilar to our own. Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]

 

The Nudity: Alba Rohrwacher
Since the film specifically focuses on Hana’s metamorphosis from someone uncomfortable with her body and identity – to the extent of even living in discomfort by wrapping layers of cloth around her breasts to appear less feminine, brief nudity becomes unavoidable while portraying her gradual transformation.

Alba Rohrwacher from the Italian-Albanian film, "Vergine giurata" aka "Sworn Virgin" (2015).

Alba Rohrwacher from the Italian-Albanian film, “Vergine giurata” aka “Sworn Virgin” (2015).

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A brief review: “170 Hz” [2011 Netherlands]

Joost van Ginkel’s debut feature “170 Hz” concerns two deaf youths from different backgrounds falling in love.

Gaite Jansen and Michael Muller in "170 Hz" [2011]Evy (Gaite Jansen) and Nick (Michael Muller) are lovers, but the only thing they have in common, apart from their love for each other, is the fact that they’re both deaf who communicate through sign language. Apart from that, their worlds couldn’t be further apart.

Gaite Jansen in "170 Hz" [2011]While Evi’s middle class upbringing has come packaged with doting , if conservative, parents, Nick is from a less wealthy environment, and by all indications, has had a troubled childhood. Apart from being bullied by peers for his disability, Nick singularly also fails to impress Evi’s father when he’s invited home for dinner.

Gaite Jansen and Michael Muller in "170 Hz" [2011]With a father demanding her to stay away from Nick, Evi hatches a plan to force her parents to accept Nick into the family – to elope together for a few months and return after becoming pregnant. A eager Nick accepts, and after picking a disused submarine for their hideout, stacks it with provisions for their long stay.

Gaite Jansen and Michael Muller in "170 Hz" [2011]But Nick unexpectedly brings forward their day of elopement, and when Evi tries to ask for an explanation, he tactfully changes the topic. Their following days are spent in loving embraces and blissful abandonment. Fissures in their relationship first appear when Nick discovers and rewrites Evi’s typewritten diary with false details. When Evi learns about her pregnancy and suggests to Nick that it is time to return home, Nick dithers. Evi will discover that Nick has been hiding a dark secret from her all along…

Gaite Jansen and Michael Muller in "170 Hz" [2011]For a debut feature, the film is technically well done; the visuals are pretty and the performances are not bad either. But having said that, I failed to notice anything unique about the story line or narrative, save the protagonists’ hearing impairment. Outcast lovers in film – yes we’ve seen them in various forms already, but while some have managed to touch the audience at some level, I couldn’t say the same about van Ginkel’s first attempt. The director nevertheless shows promise which I hope to see realised in his subsequent films. I have to confess that the only reason for picking this film has been the lovely and memorable Gaite Jansen.

 

The Nudity: Gaite Jansen
While there are few scenes with nudity from Gaite Jansen, they appear to be a bit over-polished, like watching a Cadbury’s Flake commercial. Perhaps it’s the jaded voyeur in me, or perhaps its the director-cinematographer combo honing their skills to make a killing in the advertising world – you decide. 🙂

Scenes of Gaite Jansen from the Dutch drama, "170 Hz" [2011].

Scenes of Gaite Jansen from the Dutch drama, “170 Hz” [2011].

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A brief review: “Las hijas de Abril” [2017, Mexico]

Wishing you all a very happy 2018!

 

Michel Franco is among the leading lights of Mexican cinema working today. Franco follows up on his impressive 2015 drama ‘Chronic’ with an equally devious and shocking family drama “Las hijas de Abril” (Eng. Title: April’s Daughters).

Enrique Arrizon, Ana Valeria Becerril and Joanna Larequi in "Las hijas de Abril" [2017 Mexico]The film begins with Clara (Joanna Larequi) preparing dinner seemingly unperturbed by sounds of lovemaking emanating from the room next door. When it ends and Clara goes out to make a phone call, her teenage sister and very pregnant Valeria (Ana Valeria Becerril) emerges sweaty and famished, followed by her equally young boyfriend Mateo (Enrique Arrizon). Clara was calling her ‘Spanish’ mum Abril (Emma Suárez) to inform her of Valeria’s pregnancy – something Valeria hadn’t been quite keen on telling herself, and we’ll begin to appreciate her initial reluctance through the course of the film.

Ana Valeria Becerril and Emma Suárez in "Las hijas de Abril" [2017 Mexico]Following their parents’ divorce, the sisters have been living in the family’s vacation home, largely keeping to themselves, but the anticipated arrival of a new member into the household had forced Clara to seek out their mum for help. Abril turns up, unexpectedly for Valeria, to take control over matters, with what by initial signs appear to be a genuine concern for the welfare of her daughters and the yet-to-be-born child.

Enrique Arrizon and Emma Suárez in "Las hijas de Abril" [2017 Mexico]With Valeria struggling with the rigours of motherhood after baby Karen is born, it is often left to Abril’s resourcefulness, experience, and initiative to cope with Karen’s matters. Valeria momentarily takes a back seat and a naive and clueless Mateo, whose parents have already rejected their bastard granddaughter, succumbs to Abril’s whims and schemes, which take on sinister dimensions.

Ana Valeria Becerril in "Las hijas de Abril" [2017 Mexico]After Abril puts Karen up for adoption without Valeria’s permission, we begin to see her transform, with little fanfare or notice, from a caring mother and grandmother into a selfish, narcissistic, and amoral bitch intent on wrecking the lives the very ones she’s supposed to care and protect. Valeria will be forced to grow up, swiftly, to reclaim her child by exhibiting the single-mindedness her mother is already known for…

Enrique Arrizon, Ana Valeria Becerril, and Emma Suarez in "Las hijas de Abril" [Mexico, 2017]Michel Franco’s little gem was one of the few films that truly impressed me at the BFI London Film Festival this year and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t go on to bag a few more awards. The great storyteller that he is, Franco’s off-kilter narrative succeeds in using seemingly austere imagery to deceive and challenge his audience by posing inconvenient questions. The film’s title itself – ‘April’s Daughter’, could more tellingly be named ‘Valeria’s Mother’, because the film is mostly about the mother, played with utter conviction by Emma Suárez – she has us glued to proceedings no matter what we feel about the character she’s playing. Equally impressive is debutante Ana Valeria Becerril who plays the young teenage mother. Needless to say, the film is Highly Recommended Viewing..!

 

The Nudity: Ana Valeria Becerril
A heavily pregnant Valeria enters the room naked to help herself to a snack while overhearing her sister Clara talking to their mum over phone. The scene is also surprising in that it is the opening scene of the film. She’s also later seen partially naked and sleeping on the sofa when Abril visits.

Scenes of Ana Valeria Becerril from the Mexican drama "Las hijas de Abril" [2017]

Scenes of Ana Valeria Becerril from the Mexican drama “Las hijas de Abril” [2017]

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