We’re just a few days away from the Academy’s announcement of the shortlists in various categories, including Best International Film. And yet, our travels through the 93 submissions for the 95th Academy Awards continue unabated. This time, let’s look toward the Mediterranean, a great sea whose coastline encompasses three continents. Sadly, only one of those is guaranteed representation in the shortlist, AMPAS’ European bias forever hurting whatever diversifying objectives the institution might have. Here, however, such biases will be put aside, with one film from each continent composing this Mediterranean face-off. Consider a Lebanese memory box, a Montenegrin elegy, and a Moroccan caftan…
MEMORY BOX (Lebanon)
© Haut et Court
Isn’t it amazing how little we may know about those who’re closest to us? For Alex, her mother Maia is a mystery, her past forever hidden behind walls of silence erected long before her birth and perpetuated by Téta, the girl’s grandmother. These walls come crumbling down when, one day, a box full of old correspondence arrives in Montreal, come from faraway Lebanon. A literal repository of memories, Maia wants nothing to do with whatever is contained within, shoving it into a dark cupboard to be forgotten. But of course, youthful curiosity overrides s any maternal directive, and Alex soon dives into the box’s secrets, discovering years’ worth of missives, tapes, and photos sent by Maia to her erstwhile best friend.
Joana Hadjithomas works with her codirector husband, Khalil Joreige, in an adaptation process rooted in an actual memory box, her own. The film is a gesture of loosely-drawn autofiction, exploring long-gone feelings that have never been forgotten, remembrances of lost youth, and the traumas of growing up during the Lebanese civil war. Indeed, in its initial passages, Memory Box often feels like a free-wheeling experiment in reproducing old archives and then breathing cinematic life into them through whatever means possible. Sometimes, animated collages win out, while mixed tempat juxtapositions are another favored mechanism. One stand-out moment finds distant bombing interrupting a make-out session, the emotional experience visualized by burning holes into the frame’s celluloid surface.
This flurry of imagination characterizes Memory Box’s first half, resulting in an experimental experience that might be too stylistically robust for those hoping for a more traditional tale. The latter half inverts the paradigm, losing sight of subjective cinema and second-hand memories to search for an emotional wallop, maybe even some hard-won catharsis. This is a risky gambit, making it feel as if the fuel of invention is running out. Thankfully, the shifting priorities allow the actors to take center stage, and they deliver, sustaining the cinematic edifice even as it transforms into something more commonplace.
Special kudos to Rim Turik, who plays the adult Maia. Later in the story, one particular scene feels poised for cheap melodrama, gratuitous waterworks. As if sensing audience expectations, the actress plays up the joy of reconnection rather than the grief. Memories get seen as a balm instead of another cut amidst a thousand others, resolution rather than more pain. B+
THE ELEGY OF LAUREL (Montenegro)
© Meander Film
Like Memory Box, The Elegy of Laurel is a film divided into two halves. That’s even truer of the Montenegrin picture since its transition from austere realism to surreal stylings constitutes a much more radical shift. It changes the meaning of the entire apparatus, painting what came before in a different light. A portrait of crumbling matrimony becomes an oblique character study, wherein form and ineffable tonalities are the raw material through which a personality gets explored, mayhap eviscerated. The person under the scalpel is Filip, an arrogant middle-aged man who makes his living in academia and has decided to take his wife on a sojourn to a favorite spa near the coast.
Spend a couple of scenes with him, and you’ll soon find yourself thinking of men similar to Filip, his type of intellectual far commoner than they would like to assume. Nevertheless, the reaction is visceral because he’s sketched with subtle specificity, every behavioral pattern mapped out by the camera and actor Frano Lasic until you feel like you know him better than he does. So it’s no surprise when his wife leaves abruptly, interrupting the languor of days spent doing nothing with a final nail in their marriage’s coffin. Now alone, Filip remains in the vacation spot, trying to enjoy the rest of his stay while chilly compositions squash him under mountains of negative space, blank voids sucking the air out of every image.
A city interlude does nothing to dispel the unease, nor does a second change of scenery to woodsy isolation. Between wild forests and rocky mountains, Filip goes in search of an old family home. Instead, he finds a mystical goat and a telepathic snake that later takes the form of a young woman. His mother is also about in the woods, returned from the dead and looking no older than her son. Are these memories given fleshy materiality or something far sinister? The Elegy of Laurel is hard to parse out, though mythological references provide some semblance of sense to the nonsense, as do the Croatian folktales writer-director Dusan Kasalica used as the basis for these final chapters.
Slowly, one comes to appreciate the disorientation, its inferred chaos making for a formidable commentary on Filip’s fallibility. A man so arrogant as to presume he’s above others, forever in control, finds himself powerless. So much so that his sense of reality splinters, taking the film down a spiral of beautifully-photographed mysticism. B-
THE BLUE CAFTAN (Morocco)
© Strand Releasing
Somewhere in the Medina of Salé, a traditional caftan shop remains open, like a beacon of tradition in a modern world for whom the old ways mean very little. This is one of its last homes to a dying art, where machines are absent, and everything is done by hand. With time, the practice will likely be gone completely, knowledge lost after between maalems with no apprentices to teach. That’s not the case with this shop, however. Run by Halim and Mina, a childless middle-aged married couple, the place has recently hired Youssef, a handsome young man curious to learn, mayhap interested in something more.
He certainly catches his master’s eyes, longing gazes met during long afternoons working tirelessly over fine silks and gold braid. As it happens, Halim may create beautiful garments meant to be admired in public, but his private life is marred by secrets, forced to only exist in the shadows of society. Though his love for Mina is genuine, he’s gay, their marriage lacks passionate carnality. To answer his needs, he occasionally visits the public baths, everything furtive and hush-hush, a muffled whisper that’s never to be spoken aloud. Youssef’s presence, the reciprocation of forbidden wants, turns the world upside down.
This crisis comes at an unlucky time when the shadow of Death looms over the woman who observes all this with eyes that may not know everything but understand more than the men realize. Director Maryam Touzani portrays the evolution of interpersonal dynamics, illuminating complexities lesser filmmakers would have ignored in hopes of making a more easily-digestible story. The actors are a great help, delivering nuanced work even when their mismatch of accents may sound weird to Arabic-speaking audiences. Lubna Azabal is especially formidable as Mina, weaving a tapestry of contradicting feelings often unexpressed due to cultural custom and societal rules.
At the same time, the camera regards the cast with constant proximity, as if trying to peruse the very essence of their souls. Similarly, their working hands are documented with affection, the film losing itself in sewing symphonies that transmit just how important, how breathtakingly beautiful, caftan-making is for the characters involved. Touzani brings The Blue Caftan to a paradoxical conclusion in this balance of personalities and craft. While the film comes from a place of appreciation for traditional art forms, its drama is all about traditionalist values antithetical to the complexities of being human. Some traditions should be preserved, while others should give way to a new world of liberation, unbound desires, and lives lived to their fullest. B+