Capsule Review: A White Horse

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

A White Horse takes its time as it unfurls, taking the old adage “show, don’t tell” to heart. Director Shaun O’Connor and writer Paul Cahill tread lightly, giving the audience flashes of insight that eventually add up to a heartbreaking conclusion, one handled with deftness and empathy; they never spell out exactly what is going on in The White Horse, and its impact is stronger for it.

The film largely follows one conversation between Bridget (Amber Deasy) and her mother (Cora Fenton). Bridget has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and found her way to a phone booth, where she calls home to talk to her parents. The close-up shots create a feeling of claustrophobia and confusion, never letting us fully orient to the world around us—especially for Bridget, cramped in that small phone booth. The actors give excellent performances, conveying the complicated family bonds with the subtlest of gestures, and adding a sense of desperation to the short.

A White Horse serves as a harsh reminder about certain aspects of mental healthcare we would rather sweep under the rug; though A White Horse is set in the 1970s, its message—very, very unfortunately—still rings true today, and the gut punch of an ending refuses to let us forget that.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

SXSW 2021 Capsule Review: Soak

Written by Alexander Reams

51/100

I was not a fan of this film. The filmmaking is juvenile, and the story director Hannah Bang is trying to tell is presented poorly and sloppily. Though South Korea’s night time looks gorgeous, and the production design and lighting is great. Other than that, the film was extraordinarily middling. A 16 year old tries to bring her runaway mother home. A simple plot, and oftentimes those can be the best executed because they can be open to new ways of telling the story as well as the viewers interpretation. The most complimentary thing I can say about this film is that DP Heyjin Jun does a fantastic job of showcasing a rain soaked South Korea. My main issues lie with the screenplay and the lead actress, Do Eun Lee. Lee does her best with what she is given, which isn’t much. The film wants to convey ideas of forgiveness and loss, but it’s dialogue between Do Eun Lee and Chaewon Kim is basic and only operates at the surface level. I wish I had enjoyed this film more the poor writing and acting that constantly bombard the film kept me from ever being able to lean in.

Soak Trailer

Soak played at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter.

Episode 103: 1921 Retrospective: Orphans of the Storm / Destiny / The Phantom Carriage

“I am profoundly fascinated by cruelty, fear, horror and death. My films show my preoccupation with violence, the pathology of violence.”

Fritz Lang

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Cherry & Pelé. Then they look back 100 years to three 1921 Feature Films: Orphans of the Storm, Destiny, and The Phantom Carriage.

Streaming links for titles this episode

Orphans of the Storm is currently streaming on Kanopy and Prime Video

Destiny is currently streaming on Kanopy

The Phantom Carriage is currently streaming on Criterion Channel

Visit us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

The Secret in Their Eyes: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

The Secret in Their Eyes

Directed by Juan José Campanella, 2010

Jim Wilson: Hi, Taylor. Welcome to Collokino.

Taylor Baker: Thanks for having me, Jim! This has been a long time coming. I’m glad we’re finally able to sync up for a discussion.

Jim: Agreed. I’ve been meaning to have you on for a while now, since you co-host the Drink in the Movies podcast with Michael Clawson, my most frequent guest. In fact, I just completed a talk with Michael a couple weeks ago, so it’s fitting to have you on next.

Taylor: I’ve shamefully only seen one film out of the six that you two have discussed, that one being Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Your most recent discussion has inspired me to watch L’humanité. Dumont is another longtime blind spot in my viewing and your characterization of him has piqued my interest a great deal.

Jim: I hope you do. Dumont is a challenge, even for those who, like myself, love every frame.

You’ve brought Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes to talk about. Though I’m a fan of Argentine cinema, his films have been a blind spot of my own, until now. Why did you choose this film to discuss? What’s your background with it, and with Campanella’s work in general?

Taylor: As an adamant lover of mainstream challenging filmmakers Aronofsky, Zahler, and Noé I’m hopeful and intrigued!

Thank you for allowing me the courtesy of dumping one of my longtime loves on your doorstep. I’ve always intended to engage with it again but the right timing never seemed to occur. Shortly after receiving your invitation I realized that this would be a wonderful way to grapple with both the film and my feelings toward it.The addition of Felix Monti as cinematographer of both The Secret in Their Eyes and The Holy Girl, a Martel film you rate quite highly on Letterboxd, also made me feel that this would at bare minimum be a fruitful discussion for each of us. The Secret in Their Eyes was brought to my attention in a podcast (I believe it was called Nerdist at the time and is now ID10T) with Jon Favreau around 2014, in which he postulated that it may be his favorite film. At that recommendation I sought out the film, reacted very strongly during that single viewing, felt that affection continuously grow, and now we’re here talking about it! I’ve only dipped my toe into Campanella’s oeuvre once since The Secret in Their Eyes. This last December his newest film El cuento de las comadrejas (The Weasel’s Tale) finally had a North American release, and Graciela Borges the “star” of the picture delivered one of my favorite performances of the year 2020. The film itself is a delight, that I’d recommend to anyone with a penchant for whodunnits that have a comedic tone.

Jim: I’ll keep it in mind. I didn’t make the Monti connection between The Secret in Their Eyes and The Holy Girl. Good eye. You’re right; I love Martel.

So let’s jump into it. Could you give a brief synopsis of the film? Where and when do we find ourselves as the story commences? Who are the main characters, what are they doing, and what do they hope to find?

Taylor: Absolutely! As it stands, I’m still within 24 hours of completing the film for the first time in years as well as the novel on which it is based. There are a number of minor and major differences between the two. I’m sure I’ll delve into a handful of those later (the stadium scene is not in the book for instance), if I misspeak please correct me as the two are blending a bit.

The film revolves around Benjamin Esposito (played by Ricardo Darin), a retired legal counselor with a longstanding and unacted-upon love for Judge Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) and the proverbial “one last case” that all great men with long careers in criminal justice seem to have. Those two items, the final case and the unacted upon love–invite the title of The Secret in Their Eyes quite clearly. Whether the looks between Hastings and Esposito or Isidoro Gomez to Liliana Coloto. The motif, which I think is a strong one, is laid bare quickly for all. And at some level that is the entirety of the point of the story, the meaning in those looks, and where the differences between them lie.

As the film begins, we are introduced to the oldest timeline in this dually progressing narrative. The starting images are a brutal flashback of the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo, notably her first role in a film). This case is the center of our narrative, and the life of our protagonist as far as we see it in the film. We then quickly skirt to Esposito; the year is 1999 and it is the day of his retirement. He fittingly avoids his own retirement party, and inquires with Hastings about being loaned out his old typewriter, with an A key that doesn’t work. With this typewriter in hand, he can properly pursue being a novelist. His writing of the story is our backdrop to the simultaneous timeline, and though a common refrain in these sorts of mysteries. One that I found worked elegantly here, mostly. It seems that in this act of reflection Esposito is searching for peace. Morales on the other hand, desires justice.

Jim: I’m of two minds about the effectiveness of the “novel” that Esposito is writing. What does it contribute to the film’s narrative structure? It’s a useful device for externalizing Esposito’s internal struggle about how to cope with his feelings for his old boss Irene, and how those feelings are entangled with his obsessions about the old Morales case. But I can’t help thinking nothing would be lost if it were entirely excised. Not to mention how obviously short it is, which the “old” Morales points out. Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but it never means as much to the story as it seems Campanella wants it to mean. I do like the earliest scenes of him writing it in his notebook, before he reacquires the clunky typewriter. When he tries to capture his feelings for Irene, he rips the pages out and crumples them up, clearly dissatisfied, but when he tries to describe what he imagines was the scene between Liliana and Morales during their final morning together, and is equally as unsatisfied, he doesn’t tear the page out, but removes it tenderly. He’s frustrated with his renditions of both, but there’s a reverence for the details of the Morales story he doesn’t feel for his own, which is, of course, in important point of tension in the film as a whole.

But to back up a bit, I have to say I really enjoyed this film, and thank you for bringing into the conversation. Crime dramas aren’t my thing at all, but Campanella brings a sensitivity to this that’s extraordinary, which he portrays so well in the looks the characters exchange. There’s a darkness to this film I love, a density formed by the compression of time and la pasión, of history, and the romance history grinds beneath its heel.

Speaking of history, the film is both backgrounded and foregrounded by the Dirty War in the 1970s, of which Argentina was a part. As Esposito and his collegue Sandoval zero in on Liliana’s murderer, some of the ugliness of this time in Argentina’s history comes directly into play. Since Lucrecia Martel and other Argentine directors have educated me to the insidious effects of that time on the psyche of all Argentinians, I recognized it right away. Do you think that to viewers who aren’t aware of it, like we Americans, it’s handled effectively?

Taylor: Your point on excising the framing device is well taken. I suspect that at its removal the dual timeline of the narrative would then not be in play as a consequence. Such a seismic shift from the source material I think (though we’ll never really know) would prove fatal to the many aspects of the narrative that do work in this presentation. Though it can be boiled down to a framing device I think it also allows a point of observation to the viewer on the thematic and personal content that is complimentary. We don’t just straddle years here but decades and a sequential procedural through these events in that way would underscore a lot of the pieces and pacing choices that moved me and kept me engrossed. On the other side of the book, I don’t think Campanella was precious with the source material so much as the feel and the events. A lot of choices he made I find to be astute reinterpretations of the narrative that takes largely uncinematic material (internal narration to the reader) and reappraises it to be both visually engaging and propulsive. At a basic level I just don’t see how you can tell the story in the novel that I read without using the device. It is the entire foundation the project is built on. Being able to jog between those decades without even a label of what year it is, is very, very rare. At least in my viewing habits. I’d be much less interested in a beat-by-beat timeline procedural of these lived events than the story presented here.

I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Ah yes, la pasión! It’s such a basic premise to provide to characters but so rich and universal. A dense darkness is found in so many frames of the film. One of the most memorable of which for me is a scene near the end in the shed in which Morales, Esposito, and Gomez are in frame simultaneously. The pathos each character walks into that frame with, their entangled lives, their shared unhappiness. The despair of that shadow cast room, with its deep focus and fuzzy edges is tangible. Something you could practically take a scoop of. I will say “certain” crime dramas are very much my thing. This, Mosaic, Millennium, and Unsane to name a few are in that stratosphere of excellence in this psychological crime drama subgenre.

Great question. Obviously, I have a subjective reaction here that may be off. But so far as I can tell rather than make the Dirty War a pointed fulcrum of the inexcusable abusive behavior of the Argentine government, Campanella instead goes for a broader visually transitive abuse. Letting the viewer feel the unrest on the periphery of society, allowing us to see the kill squads in action in Sandoval’s death, the racism exhibited in the beating of the innocent construction workers, and the depth of corruption in the subsequent freeing of Gomez after they’d finally put him away. That is a long way of saying I think he handled it most effectively because he prioritized allowing us to “feel” it, rather than making us “know” it. Do you think it was handled well?

Jim: Generally, yes, but I wonder how much Americans, especially, understand the concept of state-sponsored terror. Though the film doesn’t extend it out as far, I read Gomez as someone who’s been on the government payroll since before the events of the film. Perhaps the book is more explicit about this. The point is that Gomez, the suspect whom Esposito, Sandoval, and Hasting reel in for the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto, is a regime goon. It embarrasses the government that he’s been revealed. The point isn’t whether he committed the crime or not, because that’s a forgone conclusion at the point he whips his dick out and declares his dominance, but whether he manages to save his own skin after he’s hung out to dry. The extent of dehumanization here is alarming. So to answer your question, I think the monsters are evident enough, though the system that enables them remains mostly faceless, except for Romano – the most crooked judge – who lets Gomez go. Romano’s a slick, memorable character, when he should be a lot scarier, and more forgettable. His smirks are too cute, his retorts too clever, for such a stupid, craven man. But Campanella leans more toward theatricality than naturalism, a point I do find tiresome with certain characters.

To your first point above, I see no reason why the dual timeline would be impossible without Esposito’s novel. Plenty of films have dual timelines, with no characters writing novels. But yeah, if it’s part of the film’s source material, so be it. As I see it, it’s not so much a diminution as an insignificant excess.

But let’s stick with Gomez. Esposito and Sandoval defy judge Fortuna’s command not to pursue Gomez, and visit the town of Chivilcoy, where they steal their way into Gomez’s mother’s home, looking for evidence. It’s easily the funniest segment of the film, though I do have to say that Campanella keeps an effective balance between the horrible and the humorous throughout. The only useful thing they find are some letters written from Gomez to his mother, the portent of which eludes them for days, until Sandoval divines from them Gomez’s pasión for football, or soccer. This leads us to the film’s most astonishing episode of cinematic bravura, at the stadium. Set up this scene for me, Taylor. It is pretty singularly amazing, the point on which the entire narrative turns.

Taylor: First I should elucidate in greater detail some of the background of Gomez’s release. I can see how with only the film to lean on you would get that feeling. Gomez took a construction job at a 20 floor building in Buenos Aires, to follow Liliana into the city. His murder of her is unclear in it’s premeditation but of the rape one can have no doubt. He came to the city specifically to commit that atrocity. If you recall our previous interaction with Romano, in which Esposito confronts him and the two are held back from fighting by a crowd of people. Esposito tells Romano he is going to report him, for ordering the beatings of two innocent workers doing a job at Liliana’s neighbors apartment. He files that complaint and Romano is removed from his position as Judge. But he has a decorated uncle from the army in his family. Instead of being destitute Romano is relocated to head up a position in State Intelligence. In this new position he can continue to abuse power, but this time unchecked and without a way for formal reprisal. As time goes on eventually Gomez surfaces in the Argentine prison system, and Romano has a chance to get even with Esposito. He can use a piece of legislation to free a political prisoner (due to the nature of corruption he can change anyone in the prison system to the designated inmate status to allow them to be released into his employ.). Thus he frees the guilty man in the case that caused his fall from grace. Not for any reason other than to get even with that son of a bitch Esposito. This is also a precursor to the death of Sandoval, which directly correlates with when Morales kidnaps Gomez. Romano is sure that Esposito has killed him to get back at Romano and thus orders a kill squad to his apartment. I do like the depiction of evil being a man that you would have a hard time picking out a lineup on the suspicion of war crimes at first glance. Though theatrical I think there’s a truth there of how these people are perceived while at the heights of their power. Duterte’s current regime springs to mind with this type of maniacal whimsy.

Oh boy, you’re putting a lot of responsibility in my fingertips. Alright as you mentioned Sandoval is at a local watering hole with the stolen evidence,  Esposito bursts into the bar yelling at him for this. Sandoval urges him to calm down, and when he’s finally quieted down, he introduces Esposito to another denizen of this local haunt. Whom he inquires the meaning of the names in the letters that Gomez had written. This upstanding notary immediately begins to recount the position and year of the footballers. Sandoval and Esposito now seemingly know how they will locate Gomez, at the Tomas Duco Stadium. The scene begins at night flying over Buenos Aires with a looming helicopter shot that dips through thin clouds and alights on a play on the football (soccer for your American readers) pitch. An attempt on goal is made and it bounces off the crossbar, our camera swoops deeper and while looking 90 degrees down directly our editor Campanella himself seamlessly blends from a helicopter shot to a robotic arm crane shot that zooms along the faces of an enamored crowd. If you watch closely you can see a CG transition as the camera flips during this scene. This robotic arm crane shot switches to a handheld camera as we land between Esposito and Sandoval. They are frustrated, and finger the wrong man. As they walk back to their spots the camera almost accidentally profiles a close up of Gomez’s face on the right portion of the screen and we see in the deeper frame Esposito as he realizes it’s him. They charge back toward the camera, a goal is scored, the handheld camera shakes raucously with the crowd and now we’re in a proper chase. This introduces a long tracking shot with no break mainly following Sandoval in pursuit of Gomez. There are a handful of things I absolutely love here, firstly the confrontation with Baez as a practical way for Javier Godino, who plays Gomez, to reset and rest and for the cameraman himself to get a breather. The next is when we follow Gomez out of the bathroom after bashing Sandoval’s face on the wall and shoving Esposito into a corner. He runs down some steps and we see him in a beautifully performed deep shot confronted by police, he turns and runs back up, meeting the camera. Now he has to jump off this floor and as the camera swoops from one ledge to the other and pitches down 90 degrees again like the helicopter we see CG being used to stitch it together for one continuous-feeling shot. He falls and our cameraman subsequently falls behind him allowing the viewer to feel the drop and the chase physically. Gomez then runs onto the pitch and is tripped by a player before being placed under arrest at the end of a police baton. It’s an arresting sequence and one of my favorite extended scenes in all of cinema.

Jim: Right, it’s that point right after the camera passes over the end of the field and into the stadium, a direct 90 degrees down, where the splice is. It just makes sense, to transition during the blurry bit. But what’s remarkable about that sequence, to me anyhow, is how most of the bravura doesn’t steal the scene. The interior spaces of the characters, their thoughts and anxieties and relations to the hundreds of bodies circulating around them is always primary. Esposito’s urgency, Sandoval’s cunning, Gomez’s terror, the way each of them navigates the massive concrete structure, are all in advance of the film craft. All the amazing tech stuff is entirely in service of the experiences of the characters. It’s pretty beautiful. It makes me think of Noé.

I think there are three critical character angles any discussion of this film has to include, maybe even a fourth, if you include Sandoval. Esposito observes Irene, obviously, since he’s infatuated with her, but it’s through his eyes we also observe Morales. Sandoval is independent of Esposito’s perspective, it feels to me. He exists in his own right. Maybe that’s why his death, his murder, feels so devastating. Through his eyes, we were given an alternative to Esposito’s view. The film noticeably darkens after his death, and we’re alone with Benjamin.

Esposito’s infatuation with Irene, and its frustration, seems shaped by a class separation, which Esposito doesn’t dare bridge, even when Irene’s ardor is clear. The way class and politics dominates these peoples’ lives is tragic.

But more than Irene, Esposito is obsessed with Morales. I think Benjamin recognizes in Morales a tragic version of himself, an externalization of his own internal yearnings, except that both men mix up, and ultimately spoil, the point of mourning, as does all Argentina.

In the spaces between the principal characters, there are loads of metaphors about the nature of Argentine society specifically, and western cultures more generally. Did any of that stand out to you?

Taylor: That’s a great point. While the logistics and cinematography are entirely enamoring it is the interiority of these characters that draws us with such intent into the scene as it unfolds. And more specifically, it doesn’t overshadow but rather embellishes and brings out the feelings. Fascinating, you managed to make me love that scene even more. I resonate with your comment on Noé deeply. His camera choreography is second to none.

I have to largely agree with your comments here. I hate having to digress again, but just so you know where I’m coming from it’s extremely difficult to separate the characters in the book from the characters within the movie. And while they’re not “very” different, they are indeed different, as are quite a few crucial thematic points, and specific points that are hammered home. So restricting myself to just the film, I will say firstly that a large amount of the context of the class separation between Benjamin and Irene is lost on our American ears. Like so many Latin-based languages outside English, there is an enormous amount of information to be gleaned from the article preceding these spoken words between them as well in the word choices. To my ears this dance of class and rank that I know is present is entirely lost. As to deeper metaphors about society. I think outside the experience between Irene and Benjamin, the clearest illustrations are, the seeming expansion of wealth in Buenos Aires against the poverty of the working class, the racism in the region(which interestingly enough Campanella may have chosen to reframe, as in the book Morales was an around 6′ tall, fair haired fellow.), the systemic brutality that is only challenged by individuals in regards to the two men beaten to force them to confess, and perhaps most plainly the clear delineation of who has wealth and who doesn’t–by the mere ownership of a car. Was there anything I didn’t mention that stood out to you, or anything that I did that have you a keen read on?

Jim: I was particularly taken by the way Campanella arranges the big reveal scene, when Esposito discovers what Morales really did with Gomez. Earlier, Morales tells Esposito that he kidnapped and killed Gomez, but as Esposito reflects on this, including things Morales had told him years prior, he doubts the confession. Morales had told him back in ’74 (or thereabouts, I forget the exact years) he didn’t want Gomez executed, but that he wanted him to live “a life full of nothingness,” which is, ultimately, what Morales ensures Gomez suffers.

But what’s stunning about that scene, when Esposito discovers the homemade prison in which Morales has confined Gomez for twenty-five years, is the impression of them both being imprisoned, of Morales and Gomez sharing that confinement. Because isn’t that what happens in a society when the justice system collapses? Everyone, the victims, the criminals, the bystanders, the corrupt officials, everyone, becomes a prisoner, confined by guilt, shame, indifference and inhumanity. Innocence dies completely. Morales’ homemade prison is a physical manifestation of what each citizen experiences cognitively and emotionally. Everyone is locked away in their own heads (Morales refuses to talk to Gomez, which is the worst punishment), atoning silently for their collective sins. This has been a constant theme in stories out of places like Germany and the old Soviet-bloc countries. And I’ll bring up Lucrecia Martel again, Campanella’s fellow-Argentinian, whose two films La Cienaga and The Headless Woman are entirely about this theme, both set in an otherworldly, purgatory-like place where the inhabitants are hollowed-out and zombie-like, their humanity literally stripped away after so many years of living in a society where nothing matters except survival. “A life full of nothingness” indeed.

I do want to say a few words about Sandoval, too, Esposito’s drunken compatriot and fellow clerk. I’m sure there’s much about him I’m not getting the cultural references to, but he’s clearly the rebel character, an unabashed anarchist who has little respect for the formal rules of the game. But he’s smart, honest, and honorable, all the things society would like to beat out of him. That he’s literally sacrificed (maybe even self-sacrificed), held up like an offering to a vengeful god, means as much to the gravity of this story as any other part. And he’s the comic relief. Sandoval is the smart, funny insubordinate, who cracks the case and pays for it with his life. I love Sandoval.

Take things where you want to, Taylor. I’ve been directing too much. Frame the film in the terms that best describe how it impresses you.

Taylor: It’s a brilliant shot, reminiscent of the depth of field chase scene when Gomez goes down the stairs briefly, your tens of feet away from the center of focus but have a particularly clear feeling evoked by the shot. The lighting, sound design, and physical acting each echo back at the viewer a depth of despair. Not one that either man is enacting on the other but despair for each, at the sense of this is what it’s come to. And our stenographer Esposito, clearly affected by the horror, but not party to it. I don’t think I was particularly conscious of the macro metaphor in play there as I was so caught up with the interiority of each character. This is juicy. I need to ruminate on it further.

I too love Sandoval. He frequently goes where Esposito can’t and comes back with the knowledge, or pushes him over the edge in ways that he wouldn’t go otherwise. Such as the comedic theft from Gomez’s mother that you previously referenced. Moving both Esposito forward and the case along despite his personal problems and demons. An interesting anecdote on the topic of Sandoval would be that originally the confrontation with Gomez in which he bares himself and screams that he did it while interrogated was originally performed by a very, very, very drunken Sandoval against Esposito’s will. The nuances to the changes in the adapted screenplay are something I haven’t unlocked yet. There’s something deeper than just “this works better in a movie” going on. There’s clear choices Campanella made to get at a point that partially eludes me.

I’d like to spend some time addressing the immaculate location shooting. There’s not one instance of disbelief at the authenticity of what I’m viewing. Everything appears to be tangible. These landmarks each have meaning after the viewing too, which is somewhat unique. We were just talking about that shed and the look of those homemade prison bars. The stadium and voluminous concrete structure, metaphorical in and of itself but especially in context to the Dirty War. In which many citizens are watching on while a few men fight to win a game on a field, which is eventually where our arrest takes place. From the grimy night time bar, to the looming pillars and marble slab floors of the court. It’s just background, but its reliability begets a deeper trust in the very image. A magnitude, a heft belongs to the film through these locations and their incorporation to the body of the film.

And I think we must address the maestro, Campanella himself. The Secret in Their Eyes sits as the most prominent achievement in his oeuvre by far. Neither before or since has he made a film that resonated so deeply at home and outside of Argentina. None have had the prominent staggering bravura of the stadium scene. He Directs, Writes (adapted screenplay), Produces, and serves as Editor (for the first and only time in his entire career here). Every single drop of the film we see has gone through his hands in different forms and at different levels. It feels sculpted to me, hand crafted, and lovingly stitched. I found the editing in the film to be tremendous, at times fascinating. I don’t really know how to contextualize such great potential from him as an editor, being put aside entirely. It seems to me he is dedicated first and foremost to storytelling and if you have exhibited greatness with one of those tools it’s odd to me that he would put it down. Is there anything here you want to expound on or help me make sense of here?

Jim: The editing really is excellent, I agree. I’ll tell you, before I watched the film the first time, I read the plot summary at Wikipedia. It overwhelmed me a little, with all these characters and timelines and history and various moving parts, and it worried me a little, thinking the film would be a confusing jumble. But a lot of credit, if not all of it, has to go to the editing for crafting a fluid path through all those elements, so that I never felt lost, or at least not for very long. It’s quite an achievement.

The locations and sets are, like you say, entirely authentic. The massive, sublime quality of the stadium, the train station, and the courthouse building are breathtaking; they miniaturize the people inside them. I don’t know how intentional it is or what to take from it, but the architecture dwarfs the people, perhaps as a reinforcement of the other oppressive and diminishing forces in the story. There’s a scene where Esposito is speaking with Irene, while an intern lurks nearby, waiting to report something to Benjamin. They’re standing on a mezzanine of the courthouse, overlooking the cavernous atrium at its center. Right behind them is an enormous, hulking base of a single column – merely the base of only one of many columns – on the other side of which the intern waits, and it lends this palpable sense of mass and gravity pressing down and looming over the characters’ tiny selves. It evokes an awesome sense of solemnity.

Provided the perfect score you award this film at Letterboxd, maybe you’ll have nothing to answer this with, but is there anything in the film you don’t like, or find deficient?

Taylor: That’s interesting. You’re right, though our “heroic” main characters are at some level larger than life, the masses are miniature. I think you’re really onto something there. I have to say a lot of the non-primary side characters were miniaturized in the novel as well. I’m sure there’s a choice Campanella made there specifically to evoke the feeling you’re referencing. The subjectivity of importance literally being contrasted by their diminution next to a column. A metaphor toward impermanence, and the drop in the bucket this case is. Like using a pail to slow the Titanic from sinking.

A bit off topic but one of my favorite things in this story is how Sandoval sews together the case files to be bound. It’s this little detail that informs us of a process, his role in the building, and visually transmits the feeling of sewing a cold case shut.

For clarity I should specify at least this range of score. When I use a 5 on Letterboxd it’s not necessarily perfect. I probably only have around 3 ‘perfect’ films, I’d have to double check. Anything between 95-100/100 I translate to 5 stars. The Secret in Their Eyes is around a 95-96 for me upon rewatch. I love the question; I’ve been thinking about this since last Friday. I don’t think there’s anything I truly dislike. On the topic of deficiencies though, yes. I think there are at least several. Here’s a few that have come to mind.

1. I think that some of the clarity of who’s who in the courthouse in the first third of the film is not as tight as it could be to provide clarity.

2. I really, really wish we’d gotten to see Sandoval do the drunken interrogation as it was written in the novel, it was a buffoonish slapstick scene that I think would have translated in these performers’ hands into something really special.

3. The transference of city to countryside could have been a bit more experiential to the viewer, I tend to like it when a film “feels” like it took you somewhere new and different. That didn’t really happen here, even when we’re at the pivotal scene at the end it didn’t feel tangible just how far away from the city we were. The same goes for ‘where’ the stadium is, ‘where’ the scene of the crime is, etc.

4. I’d have liked to see Esposito file the report on Romano, that sequence in particular for the weight it has doesn’t build as cleanly as I would like. If Campanella could have shot it as a multilayered scene without telegraphing the importance of the moment, I think that would have paid dividends in grounding us into the rigmarole this entire system is subject to. Rather than just let the nameless cases sit in piles, we could have seen one besides our central case be made to contextualize the near hopelessness they’re drowning in.

5. Lastly, there’s something off about the depiction of Hastings. She seems to be in a sort of uncanny valley of agency. More prop than person with interiority. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I simultaneously got to know her too well without really knowing her at all. For example, we get to know Sandoval’s haunts, his wife (who is understandably fed up with him and his antics), his apartment, etc. We know what Hasting’s office looks like, we see her in other locations but they don’t feel like her locations. She’s almost always secondary, never the dominant character foundational to the location being introduced.

Did you have any similar feelings? I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything you disliked or found deficient outside what I’ve listed as well.

Jim: Well, first I’ll start inside and endorse your last point. Look, a lot of films are guy films, and that’s fine. Campanella is very comfortable with all his male characters, the women not so much. Aside from Irene Hastings, there really aren’t any female characters, except Morales’ wife Liliana, Sandoval’s wife, and Gomez’s mother, all of whom are only representations of general female roles in society, not individuals. Again, that’s fine, but it does leave out the critical perspectives of fifty percent of the population. But then there’s Irene. As you say, Irene is never a complete character. She’s placeless and incidental. She’s only there to serve as a vessel for Benjamin’s various emotional torments. And that’s not fine, and is my biggest problem with the film. Irene Hasting’s is an important character, but it feels like every time the camera turns to her, it’s not to explore her, not to find out more about her, not to even recognize her as doing anything in the scene, except being a respondent to Esposito. The only time she seizes the action within a scene is during the interrogation, when she sexually intimidates Gomez. It’s not the best look.

But I don’t want to make too much of that. It’s an extraordinary film. Like a great many male directors, Campanella isn’t very good with female representation. I’m not gonna take it all down for that.

I have a little bit of a problem with the broadly over-dramatized script. Everything feels just a little too ripe and overplayed, but that’s probably just me. That interrogation scene is a prime example, as is the train station departure scene. The strings feel a little too strained there, as Campanella tries to squeeze out more consequence from a scene that it can realistically give. I could complain some about the aging effects, but it’s too common a problem.

The first time I watched it, I liked the compositional style of having something or someone partially foregrounded and out of focus, while the focus is on the middle-grounded subject. The second time I watched it, I realized how overused it is. It’s cool, but excessive.

It feels like we’re nearing the end, so I’ll let you wrap up talk about the film. Anything else on your mind about it?

Taylor: I too found the train scene forced. There’s simultaneously too much reverence toward the source material in making the train a more important part of the narrative and a lack of believability that these characters as we’ve seen them thus far, behaved in that way. I actually didn’t much mind the aging make-up, it did a swell job when the character is in the background. On close-up though, and especially with Morales it was noticeably off. I’m a sucker for this contrasted depth style of cinematography. While I agree it does at times feel overplayed, it just consistently looks damn good, and allows multiple reference points within the scene to be used effectively. I can appreciate the sentiment though.

There’s one lingering thing I’d regret not mentioning. The intimidation elevator scene with Hasting’s, Esposito, and Gomez. It’s played completely silent, and relies on exchanged looks and Hasting’s to transfer a sense of terror to the viewer. It cements the film’s tone without drawing more attention to itself than it needs, both in its execution and in that once it’s over it isn’t referenced within the film. It just is.

Thanks so much for having me and allowing me to bring this title. It’s been a great conversation to process my thoughts and refocus on it with intent. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I picked it back up. And to those reading that would like to watch The Secret in Their Eyes it’s currently available to rent from most VOD platforms.

Jim: Thanks for accepting the invitation! But before we wrap up, I want to give you the same opportunity I gave Michael last time to promote your favorite five films from 2020.

Taylor: I’d be delighted to share them, thanks! Top 5 in descending order:

5. J’Accuse or An Officer and a Spy (Roman Polanski)

An adaptation of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, two of my favorite performances of the year from actors Louis Garrel and Jean Dujardin. If one is able to separate art from artist, you’ll find a fantastic historical film. With lurid outdoor cinematography and a propulsive pace. At this time, I think it’s still unreleased in North America.

4. Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh’s flitting walk and talk built on improvised conversation, gorgeous cinematography, and delightful turns by Streep, Wiest, and Bergen. There’s not one bad performance, and it oozes breezy coolness. One of the most rewatchable films released in 2020 for me. It’s available on HBO Max.

3. Normal People (Lenny Abrahamson & Hettie Macdonald)

I’m cheating here as Normal People is a limited series. But since it was in my top 5 on the show, I’ll include it here. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal play Marianne and Connell, two students who begin a complicated relationship in high school that morphs over the period of their early adulthood years. It’s one of the moving narratives I experienced in 2020, and continually find myself drawn back to its dramatic power and emotional gravitas. It’s available to stream on Hulu.

2. My Mexican Bretzel (Nuria Giménez)

My Mexican Bretzel is close to unexplainable, it weaves together home footage, diary entries, and clever sound design into something bigger than life and more personal than a true story. It’s one of my absolute favorite discoveries and continues to elude my abilities to explain it coherently. At this time, I believe it is unreleased in North America. It was briefly available on an independent film channel as part of Prime Video, but I’m unable to locate it there now.

1. Last and First Men (Jóhann Jóhannsson)

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Directorial Debut Last and First Men is an adaptation of noted Science Fiction writer Olaf Stapledon’s book by the same name. In which our species has evolved, gone off planet, and is attempting to communicate with us across millennia as they begin to go extinct in the hopes that with our actions in the past we can save them. The camera lingers on gargantuan concrete structures, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score evokes a well of emotionality, and Tilda Swinton’s almost otherworldly narration tells us of these ancestors’ lives and experiences. Closer to a Visual Album than a narrative feature, this is my most treasured experience with a screen from 2020, and something that I’ll never forget. Though sadly this is a posthumous release, it is a remarkably fitting headstone for Jóhannsson. A feeling I’m confident anyone who sees it will share. Available thru Physical Media purchases from European Amazon Sellers, but unavailable in North America currently.

Since Michael already pried 1-5 out of you, could you share your 6-10?

Jim: I really look forward to J’accuse. Louis never fails.

Six through ten? Sure. Ten is proudly Bruno Dumont’s last film Jeanne (Joan of Arc in the US), the weirdest take on that tale you’ll ever see. Brian Duffield’s Spontaneous so awed me when I saw it, I knew it would make the list, here at nine, about a teen romance developing and enduring in the middle of an absurd, but no less horrifying, wave of inexplicable terror. At eight is Justine Triet’s Sibyl, about an out-of-bounds psychotherapist. Black Bear was another pleasant surprise, from director Lawrence Michael Levine, starring Aubrey Plaza. Feverish and surreal, it’s a metatextual story about inspiration and the creative process that I really love, so it’s secure at seven. Six is Babyteeth, from Shannon Murphy, starring Eliza Scanlen, a girl with terminal cancer who isn’t dying the way some might prefer.

I really enjoyed talking with you about The Secret in Their Eyes, Taylor. Thanks for bringing it. Along with the Martel films I mentioned, I also want to recommend The Official Story, from Argentinian director Luis Puenzo. Written during the twilight of the right-wing dictatorship implied in The Secret in Their Eyes, it was filmed during the dawn of a recovering democracy, in the mid-‘80s. The title might suggest it’s a documentary, or adjacent, but it’s not. It’s the story of a teacher searching for the true identity of her adopted daughter. If Argentine cinema and history are of interest, do not miss it.

Thanks, Taylor. Lots of fun. We’ll have to do it again.

Taylor: So long, Jim! Thanks again for going through this one with me. Looks like I have some homework in Jeanne and Spontaneous. I loved Babyteeth too. Puenzo film is now on my Watchlist, sounds intriguing. I look forward to doing this again, be well!

The Secret in Their Eyes Trailer

The Secret in Their Eyes is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers.

You can connect with Jim Wilson on Letterboxd, as well as review his entire list of Film Conversations.

SXSW 2021 Review: Inbetween Girl

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen. Good coming of age stories are far rarer, but Inbetween Girl adds a very solid addition to their ranks, standing out among its peers by deftly handling conversations of sex and race as seen through the lens of a mixed race teenage girl. Teenagedom is such a tricky time both to navigate in real life and to portray on screen—too often filmmakers go overboard, making the teenagers into walking bags of hormones and relying on overused tropes to create eye roll worthy caricatures. Inbetween Girl writer and director Mei Makino successfully avoids these pitfalls, crafting instead an immensely relatable film with a lot of heart that feels like an authentic portrait of high school drama.

The film follows Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith), an art-minded teen who, amidst her parents’ messy divorce, finds herself drawn more and more to Liam (William Magnuson), who drives her home every day from soccer practice, despite the fact that Liam has a girlfriend, Sheryl (Emily Garrett). Well, as it turns out, Liam is also becoming more and more drawn towards Angie, and their attraction grows until Liam shows up outside Angie’s window one night, and, well, you can guess. (The way Liam uses a single finger to shut Angie’s computer during this scene is such a classic cocky high school/college boy move. My God. Does no man have any creativity these days?)

Angie, despite feeling guilt for her continual hookups with Liam, cannot bring herself to end things because she does truly have feelings for him, but most importantly, because Liam is the one thing in her life not spinning out of her control. Post-divorce, her white mother (Liz Waters, who looks suspiciously young to have birthed a teenager) has become more of a workaholic than usual, leaving Angie to fend for herself most nights. Angie’s Chinese father (KaiChow Lau) immediately begins dating Min (ShanShan Jin), and happily converses in Mandarin with both Min and her daughter, Fang (Thanh Phuong Bui), leaving Angie—who never learned the language—feeling usurped and uncertain of her racial identity. So, she sticks with Liam. Of course, this can’t last, and when Angie and Sheryl bond over an English project, things come to a head. 

I have very few quarrels with Inbetween Girl. Most of the resolutions to Angie’s story feel appropriately messy, though some seem a little too neat; however, through the whole way, we are anchored by Emma Galbraith’s wonderful performance. She smoothly navigates all of Angie’s conflicting emotions, giving us a grounded, natural performance that never falls prey to any of the teen movie trope traps (say that five times fast). The rest of the cast give almost uniformly solid performances—in particular Magnuson, Garrett, and Lau—and Makino’s script gives them all a chance to shine.

Makino manages to make a very specific storyline about a biracial teenage girl discovering her sexuality in Galveston, Texas have resonance across all walks of life while still maintaining Angie’s unique identity on its own, pulling off a tricky balancing act with ease and charm. For a feature debut, this is no small feat, and if this is only the beginning for both Galbraith and Makino, I can’t wait to see where they go next.

Inbetween Girl played at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Full Moon in Paris (Les Nuits de la pleine lune)

Written by Michael Clawson

A little bit like a gender-reversed Chloe in the Afternoon, but with ‘80s flavor and far more melancholic. Restless living in the Paris suburbs with her boyfriend Remi, who keeps very different hours, Louise wants an apartment of her own in the city, a pied-à-terre from which she can freely come and go at any hour without bothering Remi, and where she can sleep all day after a long night out dancing and socializing with friends (more of a homebody, Remi doesn’t share Louise’s enthusiasm for partying multiple nights a week). She doesn’t see having a place of her own as something that might endanger her and Remi’s relationship; in her mind, it’s only mature to recognize and accept their different natures, and what’s good for her will be good for them both. Unlike Frederic in Chloe though, who’s welcomed back by his wife in the end after second-guessing his decisions, Louise, in a tragically ironic twist, is met with crushing news when she decides she wants what she had to begin with. Rohmer doesn’t punish Louise for acting on her desire for independence; he simply follows through on one of the sadder possible outcomes.

Full Moon in Paris Trailer

Watch Full Moon in Paris on Kanopy

SXSW 2021 Capsule Review: The Nipple Whisperer

Written by Alexander Reams

65/100

I was very excited to see The Nipple Whisperer due to Denis Lavant being cast in the lead role. He is a fantastic character actor, and just last year at SXSW 2020 I’d seen him in the short film Figurant. Though I didn’t particularly enjoy Figurant Lavant was a delight to watch in it so I was very hopeful to see him again here. The Nipple Whisperer follows Lavant as he goes about his day, until he meets someone from his past that he has not seen in a long time. His former muse. It unfortunately doesn’t have enough time to explore Lavant’s character Maurice’s “power” and the film suffers for it, losing its chance for a deeper emotional connection with the audience.  On the technical side it is very well shot, Fiona Braillon serves as the cinematographer. She relies on an Alexa Mini, which shows its power specifically in some of the scenes in the studio where the camera is moving. Despite these greater technical aspects, the film continually suffered from a lack of emotional connection and explanation that would allow the audience to connect with Lavant’s character on a deeper level. 

The Nipple Whisperer Trailer

The Nipple Whisperer played at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter.

SXSW 2021 Interview: Charles Wahl and Daniel Maslany Discuss ‘The Mohel’

Directed by Charles Wahl and starring Daniel Maslany, The Mohel tells the story of a man caught between the worlds of religion and money as he prepares for his son’s Brit Milah ceremony. The film received its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Festival.

Interview by Anna Harrison

Charles Wahl

What was the inspiration for this movie? How much did you draw on your own experiences for the film? 

The Inspiration for the film came from a conversation I had with another Jewish filmmaker when I was telling him about what it’s like to live in a smaller city that doesn’t have a big Jewish community. I had mentioned that there aren’t any Mohel’s anywhere near where I was living at the time and how stressful a process it was to have to fly one in for The Brit Milah ceremony. That conversation led to other stories I had heard from friends and family throughout the years about conversion, and interesting incidents around ceremonies. By the end of the conversation the other filmmaker said “you have to make a film about this!” Taking a step back I thought…he’s right! After sleeping on it for a little while I started to find a way to frame a story that dealt with all the themes I wanted to explore, the often transactional nature of religion, and the challenges of living with old-world traditions in the modern world. A Brit Milah seemed like a perfect setting to tackle those themes, and I drew from an amalgam of experiences from my family, friends, and my own life. I was really attracted to the dynamic of focusing on a character who is basically trying to do what he thinks is right by pleasing everyone around him. He doesn’t want to let his mother down, his wife down, his baby boy, or the rabbi!  

Were there any major script changes from conception to end? 

The screenplay remained pretty consistent from the start all the way to the end actually. As we moved closer to production I mainly reduced dialogue as we went, and made some subtle adjustments to Lola’s character. I wanted to make sure her presence was felt throughout, and how she felt about her husband and child was clear. In the initial drafts it was a little more ambiguous than the finished film.

How long did the development and filming process take in total? 

From the time I committed to start writing the script, until we had a final master was about a year and a half. A good chunk of that time was spent waiting to find out if I received grant funding from Arts Nova Scotia, which I did and am incredibly grateful for. And also trying to find a production schedule that worked for everyone. All of the main players involved in the film are very busy, and it took a lot of time to find the right window of availability for everyone.

You wore several different hats for this film—writer, director, producer. Were there any times those roles clashed, i.e., the writer side wanted to do something, but the producer side knew it wasn’t feasible? 

Haha all the time! I definitely wanted to write some larger scale sequences, and as I was writing the producer side would constantly slap the writer side’s wrist and say I don’t think we’ll be able to pull that off. For example I wanted to expand the child’s birth to kick off the film. I wanted to show how long intense, and vigorous the birth was, and then show how after all of that he had to instantly start organizing the Bris. I knew pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to pull the resources to do that. 

Were there any unexpected production hurdles or challenges? 

The biggest challenge was to make sure everything was authentic. For the film to work I knew that all of the religious aspects had to be right, otherwise it wouldn’t resonate with viewers. To achieve the authenticity Sam Rosenthal, the actor who plays The Mohel, and I went and met with a Rabbi at a local synagogue. We walked him through the story and he agreed to help us. He provided all the prayers used in the film, recorded himself saying them properly for Sam to use to rehearse with, and ultimately was the person we would reach out to throughout the process with any questions about propping, wardrobe, etc.

How did you get the babies to cooperate (or, rather, how did you handle when they were uncooperative)? 

The baby was all of our biggest fear going into production haha. As a father of two children myself I know how unpredictable young babies can be. So to be ready for the shoot we put contingencies in place if the baby was acting up, like using one of the lifelike dolls in wide shots, and things like that. But in the end, the baby was amazing. He never fussed at all throughout the entire shoot…it was pretty incredible. 

I love the film’s cool color palette; it was really striking and aesthetically pleasing. How do you decide on a film’s visual look? What’s the collaboration process like with wardrobe, set, etc. to arrive at said look? 

Cinematographer Guy Godfree and I talked about different looks and styles quite a bit as we led up to the shoot, but we were both on the same page that it should all feel very natural, raw, and atmospheric at the same time. To do that we opted to film on an Alexa Mini with Vintage Anamorphic glass.That way we could get the production value and cinema quality from the anamorphic, while being able to stay lightweight and keep the lighting natural. In terms of colour we knew we wanted things to feel very earthy and muted. We didn’t want any really bright colours on people, and instead for it to be formal and restrained. We worked with the production designer, and wardrobe stylist to make sure all the colours stayed in the palette. And then we were really lucky to work with Colourist Wade Odlum to help refine the look and get it to the next level. 

Right away, James and Lola’s relationship feels sweet and lived-in—specifically, I’m thinking of when James says, “We can’t afford either of them.” It’s such a small moment but the way the line is delivered so naturally and comfortably sold me on their relationship. How do you approach conveying strong relationships and three-dimensional characters when you have a shorter running time and script? 

A lot of that energy came from Daniel and Kaelen’s energy together. They are both really incredible actors who do the work and come in prepared. I had spoken with them both at length ahead of the shoot about the characters, and by the time we got to the set we were all on the same page. Also it helps that they had worked with each other before so the ice had already been broken, and once they were together on set they could get to work on figuring things out. The way Daniel performed “We can’t afford either of them.” was all his choice. I had imagined it delivered a different way when I wrote the script, but when I saw Daniel’s choice I thought it worked so much better.

If you got a tattoo, what would it be and why?

I am actually planning on getting another couple tattoos soon. I have two young boys and I got them to write their names for me, and I am going to get them tattoo’d on different parts of my arm as if they had doodled them on. Parenthood has truly shown me how fast life moves, and I want to have something on me that will symbolize this time in their lives forever.

Daniel Maslany

How did you get brought on board The Mohel? 

I had worked with Kaelen Ohm (who plays Lola), before and I remember we had a great chat on set about the kind of work we were interested in. She had been in Charles Wahl’s SXSW 2019 Short Little Grey Bubbles and so she passed my name along to Charles when they were discussing casting for The Mohel. Charles sent me the script to read and Little Grey Bubbles to watch, and I loved his approach and ability to capture intimate and authentic moments on film – both in his writing and directing. 

What drew you to the script and how did you relate to James? 

I was drawn to the way Charles chose to present this story, and his use of comedic touches within a really tense situation. I liked the idea of playing a father too, as it’s not a role I’ve had the chance to play before. I completely related to James. He’s stuck trying to do what’s best based on expectations and tradition, and yet the film doesn’t end with a huge argument where everything is aired out, but instead all of the tension is simmering just underneath – which is way more interesting to play. Charles presents some interesting questions for audiences to discuss when the credits roll. I think the best short films pose those kinds of questions for an audience, without giving us all the answers.

Was there a rehearsal process, and if so, how long did it take? 

Charles and I took a lot of time to chat about the character history and dynamics before, but we didn’t spend a lot of our time rehearsing in advance. Charles is really clear with what he wants, and yet he creates a space where it feels easy to play and explore and find things naturally. Charles wanted to minimize the time I spent with Sam Rosenthal (who plays the Mohel) off camera, which helped feed into our dynamic as strangers that are suddenly involved in a really personal and pivotal ceremony together. I had more time with Kaelen, and I think the two of us found a really fun chemistry with implied history that developed naturally when we did our first scene together. I love rehearsals but it’s also so fun to save things to be discovered on camera, and there’s an immediacy that’s difficult to recreate when you’ve gone over a scene many times before. Charles even asked me not to memorize the Hebrew blessing that James’ recites during the ceremony. I was only able to brush up on the first few lines, as they are more common phrases that James would have grown up hearing, but on the day I had to recite the blessing by just repeating after Sam – who was really motoring through it! We also shot that scene from only one angle without being able to edit around things. I was so nervous to mess it up, which is exactly what James would be feeling in that moment. 

Did your understanding of James change over the course of filming? 

Yeah, I think the more I play any character the deeper my understanding grows. I learnt the most about James from the other characters -my wife, my mom, the rabbi. You can prep your own lines as much as you want, but there’s so much information to be gained by just taking in how characters respond to you and treat you. It was such a great cast to work with.  

I was really impressed by how real and fleshed out James felt despite the film only being 14 minutes long, which is a testament to your performance and the script; when you have a short runtime, how do you “maximize” your screen time to convey a complete character?

Thanks for saying that! I think the key moments Charles chose to show within those 14 minutes are really all you need. There’s a real freedom with a short film, knowing that the character isn’t going to be someone you live with and play for future episodes or seasons. You can imagine a history and obviously discuss that with your scene partners, but all that matters are the little moments that you might find within the scenes. I also felt I was mostly just playing myself, which I don’t get to do very often. And Charles is so delicate in what he even chooses to show on camera. He’s very restrained, and worked with our cinematographer Guy Godfree to give it a very spontaneous feel as if the camera is just catching moments rather than things feeling overly composed or set up.

What was working with Charles Wahl like? How much of a collaborative process was making The Mohel?

Charles gives so much space and respect to all of his collaborators. He creates a calm and positive atmosphere on set that really encourages play. And he is also incredibly detailed, and will have considered all of the answers and possibilities to any question you might have. He’s such a great director. I would work with him again in a heartbeat.

You have done extensive work in theater; how has your theater background informed your work in film? What are some of the biggest differences in how you approach your performance in the different mediums?

It’s funny you ask that, because I actually really feel a connection between the process of making a short film and working on a play. My experience in theater has often been that you can see the very origin of inspiration for what we’re making in the room – especially when developing new plays. Feeling close to each department, and involved in a real collaboration with other artists is so rewarding. I have that same feeling working on a short – and particularly The Mohel. The intimacy of the kinds of stories you can tell in a short film really reminds me of working on a play in a small black box theatre. The process might be different, but the creative spark feels very similar. In terms of performance style, the night before we started shooting The Mohel, Charles said to me, “Don’t worry about showing the camera what you’re thinking or feeling. Just feel it and experience it and we’ll take care of the rest.” That felt like the perfect key in to the tone and style he wanted for the film, and it’s such a liberating note to hear from a director. 

Favorite movie of 2020?

I really loved the documentary Dick Johnson is Dead directed by Kirsten Johnson. It was so unbelievably moving and personal and funny, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

The Mohel Trailer

You can also read Anna’s review of The Mohel, or you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

SXSW 2021 Review: The Mohel

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

The Mohel is about a circumcision. James (Daniel Maslany) and his wife, Lola (Kaelen Ohm), have just had a baby, and James wants his son circumcised in a brit milah, a traditional Jewish ceremony that occurs eight days after a baby’s birth. But more than that, The Mohel is about a man caught between tradition he never fully understood and his current life, and through the performances the film conveys universal emotions regardless of religious background, though it remains firmly grounded in the Judaic tradition.

James, it becomes clear, is not a “good Jew,” as evidenced by his constantly-falling-off yarmulke he dons for the brit milah. Rabbi Fishel (played wonderfully by Sam Rosenthal), whom James hired, quickly notices this, and catches on to the fact that wife Lola was not born Jewish but rather converted; she reaches out to shake the rabbi’s hand before remembering that he wouldn’t be allowed to touch it, and forgets to cover up her decidedly unOrthodox tattoos. Still, Rabbi Fishel charms everyone with his geniality, and James and Lola begin to relax.

Yet after the ceremony itself goes smoothly, Rabbi Fishel reminds James of his religious shortcomings and the ways in which he falls short. In short, James isn’t Jewish enough. But what, exactly, does Jewish enough mean? Does it mean James has to become like Rabbi Fishel, who follows the law to a T but passes severe judgments and punishments on those he deems unworthy?

The film doesn’t dig quite deep enough into its premise of someone caught between worlds, but remains a competently made film with a beautiful blue color palette and strong performances that elevate it. It’s surprisingly funny (a rabbi walks into a circumcision and says, “I don’t just work for the tips!”) and never drifts into melodrama; while it fails to completely connect on a deeper level, The Mohel is an easily watchable film, even if some of it is also easily forgettable.

The Mohel Trailer

You can read Anna’s interview with Charles Wahl and Daniel Maslany, or you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Episode 102: Abbas Kiarostami: Certified Copy / Close Up / The Wind Will Carry Us

“I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.”

Abbas Kiarostami

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Waiting for the Barbarians & The Book of Vision and the Abbas Kiarostami Feature Films: Certified Copy, Close Up, and The Wind Will Carry Us.

Streaming links for titles this episode

Certified Copy is currently available on Criterion Channel

Close Up is currently available on Criterion Channel

The Wind Will Carry Us is currently available to rent or purchase

Visit us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook