Deliver Us (Fantasia 2017)

Deliver Us (Libera Nos) (2016)

The Italian documentary Deliver Us (Libera Nos) opens on a peaceful, if slightly sinister image: an Sicilian priest quietly prays with a woman sitting in a chair, her back to the camera. As the priest presses his stole to the woman’s head, a terrifying change comes over her: she begins shrieking, jerking, swearing at the priest as though he’s hurting her. But the priest continues to pray, apparently oblivious to the woman’s increasingly violent and erratic behavior.

The scene plunges us directly into the subject of Deliver Us: modern-day exorcisms and the priests who perform them. The focus is primarily on Father Cataldo, a Franciscan priest in Palermo who regularly performs exorcisms on a dedicated following who come from all over Sicily. While there are other priests featured in the documentary, Cataldo is the film’s primary protagonist – and some would say antagonist – as he attempts to bring relief, and faith, to a multitude of people convinced they are possessed by demons.

Deliver Us is presented in a very spare style, refuting any desire to explain itself. There are no talking heads, no explanations of rites or theology, no direct interviews with the priests or the parishioners involved. There are no psychiatrists explaining mental disorders, no elucidations dogma, no naysayers, and no one to give credence – positive or negative – to the rites being performed. There is only what we see on the screen, the horror, the pathos, and the faith of a small group of people who believe, passionately, that their problems, mental, emotional, and physical, are caused by demonic possession.

As the film proceeds, a fascinating picture develops, of a culture and a community from which many (though by no means all) of us probably consider ourselves removed. While we might delight at Max von Sydow doing battle with the devil for Linda Blair’s soul, it is a far different story when faced with real people who believe themselves possessed by the occult. On the one hand, Father Cataldo’s practices have the potential to endanger the people he purports to help – though the film shows at least one sequence where he carefully questions potentially possessed people about their problems, asking them if they’ve seen doctors and therapists, and at one point even turns a woman away, telling her that she’s very probably depressed and needs medical attention. It is this element that begins to move the film away from the impression that it’s simply a debunking and towards an interest in the cultural and traditional development of faith, and the reality of it for those who live within it.

The scenes of exorcism are harrowing, not least because they appear to almost come out of The Exorcist. Swearing, crawling on the ground, smashing furniture, speaking in tongues, growling, and spitting, the people being exorcised are obviously affected by the rites of exorcism, their individual “demons” manifesting themselves almost on cue. These people, like their priests, are not performing possession – whatever their problems and potential illnesses, they are deeply engaged in the efficacy of the exorcism rite. They believe in it, and the film asks us to understand their belief without attempting to judge it.

The people exorcised are far from uniform. Women and men, young children and teenagers, professed “non-believers” and the deeply faithful, all eventually come to Father Cataldo. They are drawn from different classes and backgrounds, and their faith in the priest’s ability to help them is absolute. This is both unnerving and a little sad, but the film takes no steps to mock those who believe, or to force the audience into a position of superiority over these people. Many of them, in fact, purport to be cured, or at least helped, by being exorcised, finding strength to fight the “demons” that possess them in the words of the priest and the dedication to their faith.

Cataldo himself is far from a reassuring presence-there’s something perfunctory about him, especially in the opening sequences, as though he’s operating an exorcism factory rather than a Catholic service-but as the film proceeds, it becomes clear that he doesn’t have some deep-seated desire for great power over others. This is no charlatan, whatever one may think of exorcism. This is a priest who believes, very deeply, in his ability to help people, to fight (and win) the battle against Satan.

Deliver Us is ultimately a slice of life, providing no real answers to the multitudinous questions at the back of its images. But it is an affecting documentary, a window into a fringe element of faith that has often possessed horror film lovers, but holds within it a deep-seated system of beliefs and rituals that are still part of the world today. It is sad, it is frightening, and it holds no answers. It must be taken on faith alone, and that is both its strength, and its weakness.

Deliver Us is now showing at Fantasia 2017.

Fritz Lang (Fantasia 2017)

Fritz Lang (2016)

Fritz Langnow showing at Fantasia 2017, is a special kind of biopic. Rather than going the conventional route and telling the story of an artist’s life from beginning to end, the film engages with an important, pivotal moment in Lang’s life and career: the conception of his first sound film M, which would prove a masterpiece and mark a major shift in Lang’s artistic focus.

Lang (Heino Ferch) is at a crossroads in his career. One of Germany’s most beloved filmmakers, he has just released Woman in the Moon, the latest in a long line of silent epics dealing with a mechanized future. Artistically at sea and unhappy in his marriage to longtime collaborator Thea von Harbou (Johanna Gastdorf), Lang becomes interested in the case of a serial killer “The Monster of Düsseldorf,” who has been killing young women and children and apparently drinking their blood. He heads off to Dusseldorf to take part in the investigation, with the agreement of police Commissioner Gennat (Thomas Thieme), and discovers fodder for his next film: a sympathetic investigation into the mind and murders of a serial killer that will eventually become the film M. As Lang becomes more deeply enmeshed in the investigation and construction of his new film, he recalls his war experiences, the violent death of his first wife, and a childhood that all too closely parallels that of the killer.

Fritz Lang departs even further from the conventional biopic route by integrating Lang’s contemporary quest for the killer with clips from his films. As Lang steps off the bus in Düsseldorf, he walks directly into his own frame, a scene from where an innocent man is accused of trying to abduct a child. The film continues to overlap the fiction of Lang’s films, his artistic visions, and the “reality” of the Düsseldorf killings, drawing parallels between characters and events. Lang regularly sees scenes of violence that are inseparable from the actual action of the film – for instance, the murderer carrying one of his victims to a lonely hill and burying her body – in an attempt to depict the way that Lang constructs a scene for his film.At one point, he even follows a young woman home from the bus station, conjuring images of the murderer attacking her. In another, he attempts to put himself in the position of the killer as he eats lunch with a friend of one of the victims.Lang’s increasing desire to enter into and understand the mindset of the murderer, which will be ultimately reflected in M, is the film’s biggest sticking point, though it is never pushed so far to render the director wholly unsympathetic.

This identification between art, artist, and reality manages to avoid coming off as simplistic pop psychology, as the film deliberately enters into a nebulous world in which art and reality co-mingle. Fritz Lang is shot in the same aspect ratio as M, in black and white, and utilizing some of the same lighting techniques (based in German Expressionism) that Lang made famous. This allows for greater integration between the clips from Lang’s films and the “reality” of the film itself, effectively erasing the line between Lang’s artistic production and his real life. That this is all typified in a fiction film only loosely based on Lang’s life – and including a number of assumptions about his real life experiences – even further complicates that line between art and reality that all biopics must face. While Fritz Lang plays fast and loose with history – and should be looked at as a fiction film, not a true historical depiction of Lang’s work and psyche – it nevertheless attempts to access the intersection of art and reality within the mind the artist.

The experience of the film is immeasurably heightened by a familiarity with Lang’s work in general, and in particular. This is especially true in certain scenes, like that of a high-profile criminal telling Gennat that the criminal world will hunt down the murderer if the police fail to. That element will never be returned to in Fritz Lang, but anyone who knows knows that the confluence of police and underworld, both of them hunting down the murderer simultaneously, is one of the major themes of Lang’s work. The same goes for the underlying criticism of the German police state and the rise of fascism, inherent in M’s political message (both the left and right wings made claims for the film as theirs). While Fritz Lang briefly touches on altercations between communist and fascist forces, the presence of Nazi party members at a beer garden, and Lang’s half-Jewish background, the film nevertheless only skirts those issues, and doesn’t really relate them in any meaningful way to Lang’s creation of M. Fritz Lang rather focuses on investigating the relationship between the director, the murderer, and the production of art than attempting to tell a true-to-life story.

Fritz Lang complicates the relationship between art, artist, biography, and reality, overlapping Lang’s work with a fictionalized version of his life, exploiting the fluidity between murderer, victim, and observer. It is also a hearty acknowledgement of Lang’s important contribution to German cinema, told not with reverence or worship, but with a desire to access the meaning of Lang’s cinema in its oft confusing and contradictory themes and meanings. Whether or not the film ultimately succeeds must be up to the viewer, but seen through the lens of art and not history, it is a fascinating work.

Fritz Lang is now showing at Fantasia 2017.

Bitch (Fantasia 2017)

Bitch (2017)

It’s nice to know that, jaded as I am, a film still has the capacity to surprise me. Writer/director Marianna Palka’s biting indie Bitch is now showing at Fantasia Fest in Montreal, and is one of the more shocking, funny, and poignant films I’ve seen in a very long time.

Bitch opens with Jill (Marianna Palka) attempting to hang herself with her husband’s belt. Her failure to even commit suicide becomes a point of dark humor, as she grumblingly picks herself up off the floor and looks out the window to eye a mysterious dog that keeps coming around. We soon learn just what has brought Jill to this pass: she’s the mother of four children, ranging in ages from about five or six to thirteen, with a husband Bill (Jason Ritter) who works eighteen hours a day, has emotionally bereft affairs, and apparently misses the fact that his wife is having a breakdown. Then, one day, Jill just vanishes, inspiring a wild run to the school as Bill suddenly has to take responsibility for himself and his children. Furious, Bill finally returns home to discover that the children have found Jill – barricaded in the basement, naked, speechless, and snarling like a dog.

Bitch plays something like an absurdist take on other more realistic breakdown narratives (I found myself recalling Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence more than once). Jill finally cracks under the weight of having to be a constant caregiver to a family that both relies on her and hardly acknowledges her. Her devolution into a human canine, barking and snapping every time someone opens the door to the basement, is both pathetic and horrifying. The family suddenly find themselves without her support, their lives now centered around her, and falling apart because they can no longer depend on a woman who had become almost entirely invisible. Nowhere is this more obvious than with Bill, who spends the first half of the film with the stolid belief that Jill knows what she’s doing and is just trying to hurt him.

Bitch begins to take on the quality of a modern fabula, a stark, funny, and oddly moving take on contemporary patriarchy that reminds us of how far we really have not come. Filtered through a female lens, it’s a warning tale of a woman who, ignored as a human being, becomes an animal instead, roaring with anger and pain. Read as a fable, it can be forgiven some of the larger plot holes-like why the police aren’t more involved in all this-and the occasionally absurd lengths that Bill and his children go to keep Jill with them.

Much of the film centers on Bill, whose selfishness is coupled with his own desperation to fulfill the role of bread-winner in a rather dour corporate world that does not value him as a human being (there’s a recurring gag in which he continuously receives phone calls telling him that “everyone is waiting in the conference room, though what he does and why he’s needed is never made clear). Bill is as de-humanized, in his own way, as Jill, reaching out for a meaningless affair with a woman he barely knows, ignorant of where his children go to school, and never even able to have dinner at home. Ritter has one of the harshest and most poignant speeches in the film, as Bill begins to realize, all too late, just how culpable he is. The film’s clear and vicious attack on the patriarchal world that turns humans into machines, denying both humanity and nature, brings Jill’s suffering into relief. Freed of the burden of caring, of going through the motions to fulfill her proscribed role in society, she has found liberation only in becoming, and being treated as, a dog.

Bitch is a raw and emotional film from a deeply gifted filmmaker who bears continued watching. Avoiding easy answers, and allowing humor its space in what could have been a dour and painful narrative, the film exploits the abilities of its stars – there’s not a bad actor in the bunch – while developing a complex and intense cinematic language that evokes Jill’s anguished mental state. I’ve said it before, and Bitch inspires me to say it again: women are the future of film.

Bitch is currently playing at Fantasia 2017.

Sequence Break (Fantasia 2017)

Sequence Break (2016)

We’ve finally reached the point in horror filmmaking where directors and writers look back with fondness on the combination of schlock and awe that was 1980s horror. 80s Carpenter brought us The Thing and 80s Cronenberg brought us The Fly, so now we’re beginning to see films so clearly referential to both that they almost don’t need their own plots. Sequence Break from writer/director Graham Skipper, now at Fantasia Fest, is a horrific love letter to the 1980s, complete with pixelated horror graphics and some (very effective) body-horror a la Cronenberg.

This is the story of Oz (Chase Williamson), a young man who works at a shop repairing old arcade games. Informed by his boss that the shop is going to have to close, Oz hightails it to the nearest bar, where he meets fellow gaming enthusiast Tess (Fabianne Theresa), who takes a liking to him. The pair begin a sweet and tentative romance that is interrupted when a mysterious new game appears in the shop (along with a disheveled crazy man who occasionally appears to warn Oz about…something). As Oz becomes increasingly obsessed with the eight-bit video game, his world begins to fragment (literally) blasting him backward and forward in time and space as the game sucks him and Tess ever deeper into the void.

Sequence Break is one of those films with an intriguing premise that never completely pays off. It actually avoids being overly referential to its influences, instead attempting to build a world of its own design and with its own rules. What those rules are, however, becomes increasingly obscure, as the film never manages to create a coherent narrative around the fragmenting of Oz’s world. It’s not linear enough to be a mainstream horror film, but not fragmented enough to achieve the heights of surreal terror that it aspires to. The central romance, while sweet, still has a breath of wish-fulfillment behind it, with Tess almost aggressively pursuing Oz, who shyly ignores her for a good bit of the opening, more or less content in his anti-social world.

Although set in contemporary times, Sequence Break remains solidly enmeshed in 80s technology and culture – even aggressively so, as Oz refuses to buy a cell phone or a laptop. The nostalgic throwback does stand Sequence Break in good stead, with some excellent body horror elements that would make Cronenberg feel squicky. But there’s nothing underlying it. The crazy man prowling the arcade shop at night? Well, he’ll figure in, and you’ll probably be able to predict just how within the first twenty minutes. The melting video game controls that become a stand-in for sexual intercourse? OK, interesting notion, but what are you going to do with it? I can accept the body horror, the physicality of descent into a blank, eight-bit world, if only I managed to find something more than just grossness at the back of that horror. Sequence Break often feels like a film made by people who watched The Fly and Dead Ringers over and over, and never totally got what they meant.

I found I wanted more exposition, not less, to fully understand what was at stake within this narrative. Is Oz becoming the game? Getting pulled into it? Why did it show up when it did? And so forth. But unfortunately, it seems that the actual underlying ethos of the film is pretty trite, as becomes apparent with several revelatory scenes prior to the somewhat inexplicable climax. This has been done before; many times, in fact. While repeating a plot arc that has worked well in the past is far from a crime, Sequence Break never manages to achieve something truly unique. And that’s what it needs: a hook, a unique element that isn’t just about diverging timelines and the occasional nihilistic raving.

Sequence Break does not quite live up to its ambitions. It’s nowhere as shocking as it wants to be, falling back on old, somewhat time-worn tropes of self-realization that are so predictable as to be boring. The eight-bit images flicker across the screen, reminding us of a time when video games were massive things you played at arcades, and movies made do with the limited technology they had. But, really, we’ve seen all this before. Just watch The Fly.

Sequence Break is now showing at Fantasia 2017.

The Final Master (Fantasia 2017)

The Final Master (2015)

By now there have been a number of films dealing with Wing Chun, the martial art form made most famous in the west by Bruce Lee and his master Ip Man (whose story has been made into a series of films starring Donnie Yen). The latest of films to explore the form is The Final Master, coming to North America via Fantasia 2017, that tells the story of a Master who seeks to defeat eight dojos in Tianjin, so that he can open his own dojo and keep Wing Chun alive.

The Final Master opens with the machinations of Master Chen (Liao Fen), who partners with Grandmaster Zheng (Chin Shi-Chieh) to plot a pathway into the martial arts community of Tianjin. To achieve notoriety without angering the Martial Arts Council of Tianjin, the pair decide that Chen must find a disciple, who will then go on to defeat eight of the nineteen dojos in Tianjin. Then the disciple will, in turn, be defeated by Zheng, thus allowing Chen to prove his worthiness to open a dojo without offending or threatening the council. Chen agrees, and marries a Tianjin woman named Zhao (Song Jia) and takes on as a disciple Geng (Song Yang). But soon Geng proves that he’s a prodigy, and a dangerous one at that, while the further machinations of the Martial Arts Council and one of the major dojo leaders, The Madame (Jiang Wenli), might wind up imperiling Chen, his disciple, and his life.

The winding and at times confusing nature of The Final Master’s narrative makes it a struggle to follow closely. Director Xu Haofeng treats his subject with respect but not portentousness, injecting a good bit of humor both into the script itself and in the way that his camera captures the action and dialogue. There’s an archness to many of the scenes, with quick cuts that move from fight to a new plot point without much establishment. This works, for the most part, forcing the viewer to pay close attention, and to even enjoy a laugh, at times at the expense of the other characters. Regionalism winds up in the crosshairs, with the need to maintain honor becoming more important even than survival. The whole point of Chen’s saga is to keep Wing Chun alive, but his efforts are also self-aggrandizing, as he exploits his disciple and attempts to navigate the very thorny world of regional and familial pride, not to mention the complex philosophies that guide the martial arts schools.

The Final Master actually manages to violate several of the tropes of the martial arts genre without blinking – we never seen Chen actually training Geng, but skip right to the latter’s fights with the dojos. The triumph of the “good” master against the bad (or proud) ones never fully materializes, as the film’s primary antagonist The Madame exhibits her own sympathetic reasons for opposing Chen as she does. The women, in fact, are quite potent forces in this world, with The Madame set against the palpable anger and passion of Zhao, who both seeks independence from male dominance, and has fallen in love with her arranged husband. Male violence and pride is further mirrored in female desire to carry on the names of those they have lost, and to carve their own way in a world that fails to fully prize them.

But what The Final Master does best is Wing Chun. The fight scenes are visceral without ever becoming brutal. The film truly showcases martial arts as art forms and not only fighting forms – fighting correctly, elegantly, intelligently is every bit as important as winning. There are scenes of breathless action, and humorous asides – including one fight in which Chen faces off against twenty armed thugs while discussing needs and desires in marriage with his wife. The final fight scene, which takes up about ten minutes of the film’s runtime, is gorgeously choreographed, featuring every bladed weapon Chinese martial arts has to offer.

If the result is an occasionally messy film, I can forgive The Final Master, for it is also a sharp and beautiful one, that both embraces the artistic schools of fighting, and has a sense of satiric humor about how ridiculous are the elements of pride, honor, and rigid hierarchy that keep people in line. The dojos fear the loss of their art forms, yet guard their secrets jealously. Chen wants to keep Wing Chun alive, yet will sacrifice one of the few men capable of elevating the art. The contradictions are mirrored in the film style itself, at once respectful and critical, serious and satiric. The more I think about The Final Master, the more I like it. And, in any case, it’s worth it just for the choreography.

The Final Master is now showing at Fantasia 2017.