Movie Review “After Lucia”: Screened as a part of “Renaissance of Mexican film and soft power”

After Lucia is an intense emotional story that will suck you into its world like quicksand from the very first scene. Its a film that touches upon several themes like coping with the loss of a loved one, dealing with grief, bullying in high school, gender inequality and how society treats its vulnerable.

After Lucia and a Q & A session with Michel Franco, the film’s director were a part of the “Renaissance of Mexican film and Soft Power” series that was organized by the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the USC Latino Student Assembly on Saturday.

After_Lucia-910871514-largeRoberto, a middle aged man, loses his wife in a car accident and moves from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico city with his teenage daughter Alejandra. We can see that Roberto is only half alive as he goes through the motions of his life. He puts off his sister-in-law Lety’s calls, is disinterested in his work and is barely there for for his daughter Alejandra. We can see the exhaustion on Roberto’s face, he is a man who wants to just curl up in his bed for eternity and wants the world to leave him alone. Franco does a superb job of showing the viewers this, like in the scene where Roberto is cooking at work and his colleagues are standing behind him planning to go to a wedding. We see a close up of Roberto’s  uninterested face filling the entire screen all the while hearing the conversation between the colleagues and sizzling sounds of his cooking. It’s a powerful scene because the viewer can see the sharp contrast between a scene bustling with activity and a man who is so unaffected by it.

Franco said later in the Q & A session, “You can’t judge a person for not being able to be at a 100 percent when he is grieving like that.”

But this story is as much about Alejandra, as it is about Roberto. Alejandra has lost her mother, moved into a new city and joined a new school. She needs her father more than ever, but Roberto is emotionally unavailable. Roberto and Alejandra are like roommates who aren’t friends – nice to each other but never close. Both of them don’t know what the other person is feeling and while Alejandra at least tries to help Roberto, Roberto is too engrossed in his grief to even notice what Alejandra is going through.

Alejandra makes new friends and allows them to define her new life. She uses drugs, though that’s not like her. Once while on a weekend getaway with them, she is drunk and makes out with one of the boys named Jose in the group. Jose drunk himself, videotapes the episode. The very next day, the video is out on the web and everyone is the school has seen it.

Alejandra, after this incident, is a victim of aggressive bullying and sexual harassment. The bullying episodes escalate, especially because Alejandra doesn’t complain. Alejandra doesn’t want to involve her already depressed father and she has no one else in her life who she could trust or talk to. The boys in her class start off by playing the video aloud in class and insulting her and when they learn she is powerless, they get nastier. They cut her hair, make her eat shit, piss on her and ultimately end up raping her. Alejandra escapes post the rape and runs away to Puerta Vallarta, but everyone including her school mates and father think she is missing. It’s interesting to note that Jose is never punished or ridiculed for this act, but Alejandra has to pay, a statement on the gender inequality when it comes to sexuality that is still largely prevalent in the society.

Franco has done some very interesting things in the film that make it very powerful.Chuy Chavez’s cinematography in this movie is brilliant. He does a lot of close-ups and creates a lot of intimacy with his characters. He doesn’t move the camera very much in a scene. He sets up the scene, almost transporting the viewer there. He places the camera in the back of a carseat, or on the side of a bathroom and lets the camera roll on for a few seconds, making viewers feel like they are invisible ghosts present in the scene and then he lets the scene act out.

“A director once said that the best camera doesn’t exist and will never exist will be the camera that could shoot the inside of someone….So yes, I was aiming for that intimacy and we used a very small camera….And also I am not moving the camera….So it was easier for people to forget that the camera existed,” said Franco about his camera work in the Q & A session.

He also uses sounds really well. Roberto gets into a fight with another driver on the road, the camera is on the backseat of Roberto’s car. The camera never moves and we hear Roberto fighting with the other driver, but only see the front seat of Roberto’s car or when Alejandra sees the video after its posted on the web, we see her reaction watching the video, hear the sounds from the video but never see the video itself.

After Lucia seems like it has a slow pace, but it isn’t slowly paced throughout and is never boring. The pace is reflective of the characters’ emotions. It is slow in the beginning of the film when Roberto and Alejandra are dealing with the tragedy and then picks up with the bullying incidents leading to the climax. Franco takes time with some scenes just to rile up discomfort in the viewers.

“We are so used to watching MTV and whatever films….They cut every two or three seconds and you are not even able to absorb or watch or understand or assimilate information, so I rather go the opposite way,” he said, while talking about why it took so long for going from one scene to the other sometimes.

The movie climaxes with an act of vengeance – Robert holding Jose responsible for Alejandra missing and killing him. Franco said that he couldn’t have imagined the ending in any other way, because Roberto thinks he has nothing to lose, but the audiences know better. He added that violence only breeds more violence and takes us nowhere.

The ending is open and unresolved. Franco said that he worked hard to keep the ending that way. “I think life is like that, good literature is like that..you can’t give all the answers to the audience….Also, if you don’t have all the answers, you’ll keep thinking about it for a long time.”

After Lucia won the Prix Un Certain Regard award in the Cannes film festival in 2012 and was Mexico’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 85th Academy awards.

Children of heaven

Majidi makes poverty an adventure, infuses simplicity into everyday life and makes it magical. Children of Heaven is a story of a brother(Ali) and sister(Zahra) trying to manage their lives with a secret to share (Ali loses Zahra’s old pair of shoes,after getting them repaired,on his way from the cobblers). Ali and Zahra share the same pair of shoes, Zahra runs home all the way from school and Ali wears the pair and runs to school…
This heart warming film is about Ali’s guilt, generosity, understanding of responsibility and their everyday mishaps when they try to share the same pair of shoes…
Typical Majidi style, with the kids as heroes leading the way to a new world by effortlessly lighting hope; An angry,helpless father burdened by responsibilities and poverty; The ambiguous and yet unambiguous, uplifting, and pointless ending – as if the point lies in the rest of the film and the end was only incidental. Such a must watch, for the innocence of kids, to rekindle optimism into the drudgery of everyday life

Shrek – The twisted fairytale

When I think of Shrek, the word I can most associate with it is ‘topsy turvy’. Think about it. ‘Prince Charming’ and ‘Fairy God Mother’ are the villains. The Kingdom of’ Far Far Away’-the utopian land of our imagination- is far from perfect. The ugly Ogre is our hero. And all the times he gets a chance to either get a beautiful wife or turn beautiful, he chooses not to. Sleeping beauty and the likes who are vulnerable and beautiful are made fun of for how unbelievably dumb they are.The tale is about accepting your ugly self. Finding true love is all about finding someone who can love you for what you really are.And yet, it is very much a fairy tale in structure and thought. An underdog’s story, of good winning over the evil, leaving you with hope that you will be accepted for who you are. Every fairy tale is supposed to represent the dreams and fantasies of a generation and Shrek does that only too well.  Only the codes change.  Today’s codes of aspiration are not flawless beauty, physical strength or vulnerability. Or lets say that’s getting passe. Today’s codes of aspiration move towards acceptance. We don’t need Prince charming to rescue us from demons, because we are not weak or vulnerable anymore.  But won’t it be a perfect if we met someone who loved us with all our ugly secrets and imperfections? Someone who could save us the trouble of having to wear the masks that don’t represent who we are anymore.

Un Buda

Un Buda is about Buddha’s idea of balance. Depicted through two brothers, affected by a tragic incident of losing their parents in their childhood, who grow into two starkly opposite people. The elder one – Excessively logical and rational, never to embrace mysticism or spirituality or God, and the younger one – constantly self – depriving, ever trying to attain nirvana, by enforcing detachment, self imposing confines, too quick to sacrifice – his love, his desires, without really considering the middle path, the balanced way

This movie takes us through their heads and their arguments and logic for being the way they are and their realisations and moves towards finding balance. There is no other way out, every extreme is a wrong path.The women in the movie are brilliant, following their heart, providing for the much needed calm, perspective and balance to both the men. Un Buda is contemporary, relevant and makes the point it sets out to make.

Samsara

Samsara is a Ladaki film shot in the mountains of Tibet by an Indian director named Nalin Pan (You must read his biography sometime here). Its a powerful, thought provoking and visually beautiful film questioning the spirtual value of ‘detachment’.

The movie begins with a band of Buddhist monks going to the caves to rescue and revive Tashi – who has been meditating for 3 years continuously, cut away from the world, in a state of trance. Tashi is really weak when the other monks find him, but has mastered equanimity, and has transcended notions of physical pain. They take Tashi to their monastery. Here comes the interesting part, I really loved the way of life portrayed in the monastery…slow, simple, calm…but full of life…I have never seen monks shown laughing and having fun;their loud, childlike laughter is heart warming; their everyday practise of compassion shown is refreshing and genuine. Tashi while convalescing realises, that he has sexual needs,and therefore manifests and meets the beautiful Pema. Tashi argues with his master in monastery that he hasn’t experienced life in its entirety.
“Even the Buddha left everything only after experiencing its worldly offers, then why should we renounce everything just since we are kids”
And leaves the monastery to live a worldly life..the rest of the story is about how he falls in love, builds a family, does business, development of attachment towards everything worldly and his journey thereon…

A very interesting thing to notice in this world is how grey different characters are portrayed. Its as if they belong to a different plane of evolution, A plane above the rest, that is.Not flawless, but more capable of understanding non – violence and the concept of ‘letting go’ than most collectives. Pema’s jealous lover gives her up on his own when he realises that she does not love him, but Tashi instead. Pema knowingly lets her husband make love to another woman understanding his desires, again without much ado; The landlord has much to lose, hates Tashi, but does not attack the angry Tashi back and says 
“You think I burnt your field? No one does such a thing here.Grow up!”

At a time of his lowest phase, Tashi wants to renounce everything and leaves his wife and son in the middle of the night…Pema questions if he is trying to escape or if he has really conquered his desires?? The movie makes you think about detachment,and if it can really be enforced? By trying to escape from our daily duties, lives and mundaneness, do we delude ourselves into believing that we attain detachment? And ultimately
What is more important? Satisfying a thousand desires or conquering just one?

This is one of the movies that has given me so much to think about, provided relatable characters with depth & flaws and very intelligently questions and counter questions assumptions we make about spirituality through Tashi’s journey.Very rare, in books or in movies do we find human characters like us detailed, searching for things that we all search for with the same intensity, confusion and angst. Without any miracles that rescue or teachers who appear to show the way, just leaving the two protagonists by themselves to find answers

Guess who’s coming to dinner

This movie is about prejudice. Conscious, and subconscious. Set in the America of the 60’s, when racism was a seething social issue, a young white woman falls in love with a black man. The twist in the story is that the girl does not come from a conventional family that supports racism or is afraid of social opinion/taboo and therefore goes along with the flow of the world.She comes from a progressive family of journalists, who are opinion/thought leaders and who are forefront in opposing racism. So,sincerely and effectively, the parents teach their daughter how not to discriminate between people on the basis of their skin color. The daughter grows without the burden of prejudice, takes their learnings to heart and falls in love with this black guy and brings him home after she decides to marry him.

Technically, the parents should not have a problem, but they discover they do. Progressive thoughts, and dinner table conversations are one thing. The courage and conviction to implement thoughts into action, another. Prejudices, go deeper than you think and know. Most times, we think we can kill prejudices with thoughts, but discover that we haven’t, only when the issue reaches our backyard and we are forced to face a situation and forced to take a personal stand.

The rest of the movie is about how both the families resolve their differences, and come to terms with their prejudices, how they resolve the conflict between thoughts and actions, and most importantly bridge the generation gap. The movie takes us through several conversations between different members of both the families, and gives a honest and fair chance to the confusions and fears that different members face.

One of the most cliche ways to resolve conflict of thought and action with respect to prejudices is to say I don’t have a problem with the variable as such (race here), but I do have a problem with how the variable has affected your identity (exposure levels, upbringing, lifestyle differences, intellect, social acceptance/standing et al.)There is no opportunity to do that here in this story, because the black guy is perfect. One of the most respected doctors in the international community with Ivy league credentials, handsome and impeccably mannered. So,the only only thing that can possibly stand against him is his color. Now, really you need to, need to face your prejudice.That’s another thing I love about the film, the way the parents were cornered to face the issue.

The movie is really relevant even today and would continue to be so even tomorrow, as the variable of race can be replaced with caste, class, religion, or any other social discriminator.

I highly recommend this movie…its funny, yet intense. Optimistic, and yet serious

The class

To sum up, The class, is a film on melting pot identities and nuances…its a peephole into a 8th Std class in urban France portraying diversity at its best (students from diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds belonging to different nationalities – Chinese, French, Moroccan, Slovakian, West Indies et al.)

So we see, an adolescent class of rebellious and confused kids…who are all trying to come to terms with their sexuality, figure out who they want to be loyal to – France or the nation they come from – when there is a football match going on, question their teacher about why he used Bill and not Ahmed in his example “Bill is going to have a burger”, who they want to be when they grow up, what they are embarrassed about (answers range from ‘my ears’ to ‘eating with my friend’s mom’).. and so on…

This identity confusion and conflict is brought up in a million places in the class…like when Marin (the French teacher) asked kids to write their names and pin it up on their desks, every kid does it in his own unique way…one with a flag of his nation, one with pink color and flowers et al..such a simple act infused with expression and individuality…Most of these scenes are really subtle…the director does not try to make any one point, he only realistically depicts a class

Through the movie, we traverse through the confusions and opinions of these different students’ with different personalities – some rebellious, some shy, some grudging, some bullies, some petite, some perpetually in their own world,some sincere..but each with his own voice and story

The best part about this movie is that – visually, it shows a class through the eyes of a teacher…the camera sweeps through the class,with many students doing different things and shifts focus from one part/student to another section, all the while leaving the class to be real, alive and thriving.So even if the camera shifts focus, the class is always there,with the many students constantly doing different things

The class is also about an education system with its flaws and the many teachers who breathe life into it..particularly about Marin, with his best intentions, and limitations in capabilities.

Wanting the best for his students, he encourages a tough Suleyman to take up photography, tries to understand his students through their aspirations and biographies, and fights for them with the other cynical, indifferent teachers who want to ‘systemize’ every ‘process’, explaining that students are more human than to neatly fit into processes and expelling difficult students is only a temporary and unhealthy solution

But Marin, not being perfect, also loses his temper,calls some of his students ‘cheap’ and fights with them saying ‘As a teacher I am allowed to say certain things that you can’t’..(This scene to me, is about the power equation that a teacher shares with the class, and a teacher has to be able to understand and handle that power…students can’t be at par with you when you are teaching them. However this power needs to be earned, and well – guarded, for the punishments for mistakes of a teacher are far higher, and more morally weighty).But this true depiction of Marin is what touched my heart, because that’s exactly how things are – imperfect – be it the system, students or the teachers – and acknowledging them is the first step to understanding and improvisation

The class delves into so many themes related to school and the education system and Marin with his flaws, mistakes, realisations, best intentions and genuine efforts is so so relatable!