Acts of war have a way of warping the perception of the world that lasts far longer than the simple gouts of blood and explosive firestorms that accompany them. And while the cinema is especially suited to capture the visceral qualities of that violence, in the hands of skilled filmmakers it also has the potential to elucidate that shift in perception: the way the human psyche and human society reorient themselves in the face of large-scale trauma. It's a tie that binds a number of films at this year's AFI Fest: the stories of those who survive and those who do not, of solitary people navigating through the incomprehensible chaos of war and the films that try to make it comprehensible to the audience.
Writer-director Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala wears on its sleeve that its resilient heroine represents the Mexican body politic; in the film, that body is subject to an endless procession of cruelties and indignities inflicted by the horrors of the drug war. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) enters into a local Baja beauty pageant and inadvertently becomes a pawn of local kingpin Lino (Noe Hernandez) and his war against Mexican and American drug enforcement. Though the premise sounds patently absurd, and Naranjo isn't afraid to play up the darkly comic contrast of the pageant scenes against the rest of the film's bloodletting, we are mostly buffeted by gritty scenes of stark brutality.
The script, written by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz, was inspired by true events and attempts to depict with spirit-crushing realism a failed state where criminals can launch attacks in view of the public in broad daylight, and corruption runs so rampant that all the street cops are bought and paid for and police generals think that nailing beauty queens is a natural perk of the job. Whenever the film skirts toward potential exploitation, a perpetual danger in a story chronicling the perils of a beautiful woman in a compromised position within a violent underworld, Sigman pulls it back. Her embodiment of Laura carries a gravitas that the camera reciprocates. The audience is made to linger on her examining gaze as she studies her predicament, searching for a way out even as events become more absurd and desperate.
We stay relentlessly close to Laura, lensing the chaos through her eyes. She's always a hostage, even when she manages to escape. She's in the middle of an action story, but forced to be immutably passive. Everything she does, she does because she's told to, because she has no choice. Or more accurately, as Lino presents to her in the nighttime oblivion of the desert wastes, she can always choose to die and have her family brutally murdered. In the bleak world of this film, with one foot in reality, that's the first and last choice many people have.
My interest in Coriolanus was piqued by the fact that the trailer looked like one of the dream Shakespeare adaptations I scribbled into the margins of my high school English textbooks, only with somehow even more explosions and knife fights. (My high school self would also have probably snickered at hearing some of the most talented actors in British cinema saying "anus" so much.) Director Ralph Fiennes also stars as the titular general, displacing him from the ancient Rome of the play to "A Place Calling Itself Rome," a contemporary state plagued with external border wars and internal popular dissent. Caius Martius Coriolanus may be a hero as he returns from war victorious against the neighboring Volscians. But his ascent to the political office of consul rests on the approbation of the people, for whom he has little love. His open contempt for populist pandering is put through the meat grinder of political theater, coming out the other end as accusations of treason.
Some context-shifting adaptations of Shakespeare feel bipolar in the way they put old language into a new container. At one pole are the interstitial/framing moments, in which cinematic technique and stylistic flourishes abound. At the other is the delivery of dialogue, which suddenly feels shackled to the text and devolves into talking heads captured in shot-reverse shot. And when those two elements suffer from acute separation, it just calls to the foreground the fragility of the whole enterprise; in lesser hands, it's the flop sweat of a desperate bid for modern-day relevance.
Coriolanus, however, manages to neatly sidestep most of those problems. There are moments when the Shakespearean language falls silent and we're aware of other hands and other voices operating, but Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan show how little alteration is necessary to bring the concerns of the classic text into a contemporary space. The roving camera seamlessly switches from a handheld fly-on-the-wall style with which it traces the line of political argument and manipulation, to the intensive use of the extreme close-up—all the better to capture the general's wild-eyed battle fury, whether directed at the Volscians or at the Roman people. Any self-consciousness about the language is obviated when it comes to us through the uniformly superb cast, especially Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox as Coriolanus's mother and his staunchest senatorial ally. The subtleties of their expressions carry the emotional tenor of the text, and the displaced, poetic language makes audible the inherent theatricality of political speech and public protest.
In the era of Occupy Wall Street, the film presents Coriolanus as a leader who views the public as rabble easily manipulated by silver-tongued demagogues, whose dissent breeds internal weakness inviting external attack. Of course, the complexity here is that Coriolanus becomes the source of that external attack; Fiennes depicts the man as tragic, as sympathetic perhaps, but certainly not admirable—a man who can't even say the phrase "the people's voices" without a sneer. His delivery has a stentorian rumble that comes down like thunder on the battlefield but in the public square has a quaver to it that betrays the hubris and loathing in his heart. As he thrashes about in front of television cameras with untrammeled rage, literally foaming at the mouth, and almost choking on his own contempt, Fiennes asks a question relevant in Roman times, in Shakespearean times, and in our own: Is this what the elite really think about the rest of us?
We don't see anyone die in The Forgiveness of Blood. We don't even see anyone get shot or stabbed. But that lack of visible violence becomes its own kind of threat, a sickly, pervasive tension without release. Writer-director Joshua Marston (who scripted the film along with Andamion Murataj) chronicles the psychic toll of a blood feud in the Albanian countryside; as in his debut feature Maria Full of Grace, we see young people with richly textured lives and full of aspirations, before they're corralled into a system much larger than they are, one they're forced to submit to in order to survive.
Here, teenaged Nik (Tristan Halilaj) has his life thrown into turmoil when his father's confrontation with a neighbor ends with that neighbor's death. That death occurs off screen; all we see is Nik being whisked away by his relatives back to the safety of his home, as he's the primary target for reprisal. In their village, the ties of family are stronger than the reach of the law, and custom dictates this vendetta be settled with blood. The result: Nik's father disappears into hiding and the rest of the family become prisoners in their own home.
Marston deploys an ethnographic lens, dispassionately observing the situation yet hewing close to Nik's subjectivity, along with that of his sister Rudina (Sindi Laçej). Even though she's supposedly safe from reprisal, she suffers as well—a bright student forced to drop out of school to run their father's bread route so that they have money to survive. We're caught in Rudina and Nik's headspace of confusion and loss, lives upended and suddenly governed by new rules and new realities defined by their elders, who justify the situation with "That's just how it works."
For all of its immersion in the details of culture and environment, the film is fundamentally a character study. Nik is a teenager suddenly thrown into a realm where that concept has no meaning, and the chafing he feels inside his house turned prison vacillates between what seems like entitled whining and justified anger as a son having to pay for the supposed sins of the father. Marston pushes us into the young man's perception, into a siege mentality where a simple shot of Nik in front of an open window carries with it unbearable suspense. As in his first film, Marston provides no easy answers but only suggests that an individual's singular strength can only do so much to shape their world.
AFI Fest runs from November 3—10. For more information, click here.