2 films disappoint in 2019

Every­body Knows

Apart from the obvi­ous (see my review of Jok­er here), the two most dis­ap­point­ing films of the year just gone were Every­body Knows and Sun­set. The for­mer direct­ed by the Iran­ian Asghar Farha­di, the lat­ter by the Hun­gar­i­an Lás­zló Nemes.

Farha­di came to inter­na­tion­al promi­nence with his dev­as­tat­ing fifth fea­ture A Sep­a­ra­tion, reviewed by me ear­li­er here. And there are a lot of super­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties between that film and the one that was released this year. 

Or rather, it would be more accu­rate to say that Farha­di has devel­oped a very par­tic­u­lar way of telling a sto­ry, and in that regard at least, Every­body Knows is very much cut from the same cloth.

He focus­es on inti­mate, per­son­al dra­mas cen­tred on an appar­ent­ly sim­ple dilem­ma. But as the sto­ry unfolds, he drip-feeds you details that com­pli­cate it incre­men­tal­ly. So that by its end, you’re left qui­et­ly devastated. 

A Sep­a­ra­tion.

It’s not fair to expect every film to be a mas­ter­piece of course. After A Sep­a­ra­tion (‘11), About Elly (’09 — actu­al­ly made before, but released after) was an intrigu­ing­ly enig­mat­ic film. The Past (’13) was pow­er­ful for three of its quar­ters but fiz­zled out there­after. While The Sales­man (’16) was some­thing of a return to form.

But unlike any of those, the twists and turns of the plot in Every­body Knows feel qui­et­ly cal­cu­lat­ed and hence con­trived. Where pre­vi­ous­ly, those grad­ual devel­op­ments felt organ­ic, here they seem forced.

Which is a shame, as Javier Bar­dem and Pene­lope Cruz are, as ever, mag­net­ic. But how odd that Farha­di man­aged so suc­cess­ful­ly to com­plete­ly damp­en any sex­u­al chem­istry between the two. It ought to have been there in the script, as it was in their past. And he clear­ly could have had it, had he want­ed to, on screen.

Son of Saul.

Son of Saul was the fea­ture debut for Nemes, and won the Grand Prix at Cannes and the Acad­e­my Award for Best for­eign film in 2015 and 2016 respec­tive­ly. So we were all hop­ing to be sim­i­lar­ly wowed by his fol­low up. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Sun­set qui­et­ly disappointed. 

It’s not a bad film (nei­ther for that mat­ter is Every­body Knows), it’s just a bit of a mess, sto­ry-wise. Styl­is­ti­cal­ly, it’s told in much the same way as Son of Saul. Unusu­al­ly long, claus­tro­pho­bic shots are ren­dered all the more men­ac­ing because of what they don’t show us. We can hear what’s going on, but by focus­ing on him and on how he reacts to those events, it becomes all the more threatening.

The same tech­nique is employed here. But the stakes aren’t quite so high, so you have more time to con­cen­trate on the details of the sto­ry unfold­ing. And, sim­ply put, there’s not enough care invest­ed in that aspect of the film.


In many ways, it’s the mir­ror image of Every­body Knows. Almost the same, and at once its exact oppo­site. Where Farhadi’s film becomes for­mu­la­ic in the way that it struc­tures its sto­ry, Nemes uses the same visu­al tech­niques in Sun­set as he had in Son of Saul. So that what were pre­vi­ous­ly styl­is­tic inno­va­tions become instead mere­ly formulaic.

Nei­ther are bad films, and nei­ther film mak­er has sud­den­ly become unin­ter­est­ing. It’s just that, for two of the most excit­ing film mak­ers work­ing any­where in the world, Every­body Knows and Sun­set were some­thing of a disappointment. 

You can see the trail­er for A Sep­a­ra­tion here

And the trail­er for Son of Saul here.

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Omar” a Return to Form for Star Palestinian Film Maker.

Hany Abu-Assad's "Omar".

Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar”.

Hany Abu-Assad’s third film Par­adise Now (’06) was one of the films of the last decade. Detail­ing the lives of a pair of sui­cide bombers from Nablus as they pre­pare for their mis­sion on Tel Aviv, it man­aged to be impas­sioned and yet some­how rel­a­tive­ly impartial.

Or at the very least, as impar­tial as it can ever be for a Pales­tin­ian film mak­er born in Israel to make a film about what life is like for those con­demned to live in the Levant.

He was lured to the States for The Couri­er in 2012, which went straight to video, but he is back on home ground for this his fifth film, Omar.

Adam Bakri and Leem Lubani in Omar.

Adam Bakri and Leem Lubani in Omar.

Omar is one of a trio of young men, friends since child­hood, whose sole aim is their oppo­si­tion to Israel. But they do what they do un-think­ing­ly, auto­mat­i­cal­ly, in much the same way that monks attend to their dai­ly prayers. It’s just what they do. And in between, they live their lives as any­body else does.

Except of course, that what they do rad­i­cal­ly colours and irrev­o­ca­bly trans­forms every oth­er ele­ment of those lives that they are try­ing to live. Fam­i­ly, careers, plan­ning for the future and most of all love, are all giv­en a hope­less­ly dra­mat­ic edge because of the back­drop against which they must all be enacted.

Omar is a less polit­i­cal and a much more per­son­al dra­ma than Par­adise Now was. But it is every bit as pow­er­ful. And what it does demon­strate, is that Abu-Assad has learnt to par­cel out his dra­mat­ic twists and turns almost as impres­sive­ly as the mod­ern mas­ter of per­son­al dra­ma, Iran’s Asghar Farha­di (reviewed ear­li­er here). The ways in which Omar’s life, both his pri­vate and his pub­lic ones, unrav­el is painful to behold.

The Lev­ant is a won­der­ful cor­ner of the world to have to go dig­ging for dra­ma in. But it’s almost incon­ceiv­able that that dra­ma should be found on the sur­face of real people’s actu­al lives. And not in the fiendish­ly depraved depths of an unho­lily imag­ined Hell.

You can see the Omar trail­er here. And the Par­adise Now trail­er here.

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Farhadi’s “The Past” Boasts Immaculate Performances from Young and Old.

The Past.

The Past.

Asghar Farha­di is one of the few gen­uine­ly excit­ing film mak­ers work­ing any­where in the world. The Past is his sixth film and the first he’s made out­side of his native Iran.

After the huge and entire­ly mer­it­ed suc­cess of his pre­vi­ous film A Sep­a­ra­tion, reviewed here, The Past was one of the most keen­ly await­ed films at the 2013 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. But it only end­ed up get­ting the con­so­la­tion prize of Best Actress for Bérénice Bejo. Quite cor­rect­ly Blue Is The Warmest Colour won the Palm D’Or, and was reviewed here

The good news is, The Past is a lot bet­ter than that would sug­gest. Bejo has asked her estranged hus­band to come back to France to sign the papers on their divorce, with­out fill­ing him in on the details as to why she now needs it.  And over the course of the next few days he and we slow­ly learn of why it is that Bejo’s teenage daugh­ter is so unhap­py with her moth­er, her new man, and how they came together.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

As with About Elly and A Sep­a­ra­tion, Farhadi’s abil­i­ty to care­ful­ly tell his sto­ry, slow­ly reveal­ing its metic­u­lous­ly posi­tioned plot points is unri­valled. And all the per­for­mances are out­stand­ing. Bejo, who shot to fame in 2011 in the inex­plic­a­bly laud­ed The Artist reviewed here, is a rev­e­la­tion. Ali Mossafa is superb as her for­mer hus­band, but most remark­able of all is Alyes Aguis who plays the 5 year old son of her new man.

All three chil­dren – the two chil­dren plus the teenage Lucy – give the kind of extra­or­di­nary per­for­mances that French cin­e­ma some­how excels at. And The Past is part of that proud tra­di­tion of films from the likes of Fran­cois Truf­faut and Louis Malle which explore the world of adults through the eyes of chil­dren, ren­der­ing their vis­tas all the more mov­ing  because of the per­for­mances they man­age mirac­u­lous­ly to coach from them.

Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

Truf­faut’s The 400 Blows.

But it would be disin­gen­u­ous to pre­tend that The Past weren’t ever so slight­ly dis­ap­point­ing. The momen­tum dis­si­pates in in its final quar­ter as the focus shifts from the for­mer hus­band to the new man. And instead of build­ing to some sort of con­clu­sion, it qui­et­ly comes to a halt.

By any oth­er stan­dards though, this is a must see. Even if in years to come it’ll be looked back at as a minor Farha­di, rather than one of his key works.

You can see the trail­er for The Past here.

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About Elly”, Yet Another Superb Iranian Film.

2009_about_elly_0011After the huge suc­cess of Asghar Farhadi’s A Sep­a­ra­tion (2011), view­ers in the West have now been giv­en a chance to catch up with the film he made before it, About Elly (’09).

A Sep­a­ra­tion was Farhadi’s fifth film, and was qui­et­ly bril­liant. Unsur­pris­ing­ly it swept the boards, win­ning the Acad­e­my Award for Best For­eign Lan­guage film in 2011 as well a Berlin’s pres­ti­gious Gold­en Bear, and was reviewed by me ear­li­er here.

About Elly is yet fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion that Iran is one of the most excit­ing cen­tres for cin­e­ma in the world — you can see the trail­er here. Film mak­ers like Farha­di and Jafar Panahi are spear­head­ing a sec­ond wave who have now arrived to sup­ple­ment what was going on there in the 80s and 90s. You can read about that in my review of Panahi’s This Is Not A Film here. Who by the way is pre­sum­ably still under house arrest there. 

This Is Not A FilmAbout Elly’s open­ing 20 min­utes or so mean­der along in an appar­ent­ly sleepy fash­ion. Three or four pairs of mid­dle class Ira­ni­ans have trav­elled to the coast for a hol­i­day break. But then out of the blue, some­thing hap­pens. And then we and they spend the rest of the film try­ing to piece togeth­er what it was.

It’s not a thriller though. It’s a small, per­son­al dra­ma, in which the ten­sion aris­es from the lit­tle lies that the friends begin telling each oth­er as a result of the event that they are all try­ing to unravel.

FRENCH211-2Not a mil­lion miles from the ter­rain cov­ered by Anto­nioni in L’Avven­tu­ra, though with­out the lat­ter’s for­mal rigour and aus­tere beau­ty. Rather, as with A Sep­a­ra­tion, it’s clos­er in tone to Bergman. Farha­di is less inter­est­ed in form and space, and choses instead to immerse him­self in the world of his char­ac­ters and the sto­ries that enfold them. 

And once again, those kind of com­par­isons are ful­ly mer­it­ed. About Elly is a riv­et­ing, engross­ing and at once beguil­ing sto­ry. And Farhadi’s abil­i­ty to reel you in by with­hold­ing sto­ry points until the very last moment makes him one of the most excit­ing film mak­ers in world cinema.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music.