If seriousness of intention and fidelity to some progressive tenet or another were the exclusive criteria for judging a film, three fictional arrivals this August would pass with flying colors. Opening today at theaters everywhere—as they put it—and boosted by prime-time TV commercials, “Closed Circuit” is a thriller about how the MI5 kept an informant on its payroll who eventually became instrumental in a terrorist attack that left over a hundred Londoners dead. Now playing at the Laemmle in Los Angeles, “Inch’Allah” is a film set in the West Bank that is as committed to the Palestinian cause as any documentary I have ever seen. Finally, having just concluded a brief run at Lincoln Center, “Estudiante” takes up the political terrain in Argentina with dialog over Marxism, Peronism, liberalism that rings true—this is I can attest to as someone who has followed Argentine politics for four decades now.
Unfortunately all three films lack a serviceable script. While I tend not to review films that fail to qualify as fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (a rigid category that leaves no room for half-fresh or half-rotten), some discussion of where the films go wrong might be helpful for the two or three aspiring directors and screenwriters who have this blog bookmarked.
To start with the worst news first, “Closed Circuit” is a film that cannot decide whether to be John Le Carre or Robert Ludlum. In trying to be both a serious and realistic examination of the increasingly star-chamber character of British courts during the never-ending “war on terror” and the standard thriller with romantically-linked hero and heroine trying to elude hit-man working for the secret police, it fails on both end. It must be said, however, that even if screenwriter Steve Knight had made his mind up to go with only one of the genres, it is doubtful that much would have been gained given his track record. As the screenwriter responsible for “Amazing Grace”, an awful biopic about the British abolitionist William Wilberforce, Knight has a propensity for clichés and illogic second to none.
Shortly after a truck bombing near a subway stop in London, the cops arrest one Farroukh Erdogan, a Turk who supposedly was the mastermind. After his state-appointed lawyer commits suicide, Martin Rose (Eric Bana) steps in as his replacement. In addition to being represented by a defense attorney, Erdogan has a Special Advocate—a lawyer named Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) who is entitled to hear evidence and testimony in closed court that involves national security. Even his defense lawyer is not permitted to hear the testimony. When a defense attorney and a Special Advocate are paired up, they must sign a statement that they have had no ties either professional or personal. The two lawyers, who were lovers once (the affair ended unhappily), agree to lie to the review board since they are both eager to take part in what is regarded as the trial of the century. So far so good, right?
About 15 minutes into the film, Rose learns that Erdogan was a snitch working for MI5—forced to take the job in exchange for having a drug charge taken off the books. His suspicions are confirmed by a NY Times reporter who tells him that the trial is meant to cover up his connection to state security, an monumental scandal if word got out. When Rose’s predecessor figured this out, MI5 threw him off the roof and made it look like a suicide. A day or so after she reveals this to Rose, she is killed as well. Okay, I said to myself when I saw this in the screening room, what are the chances that British secret police are killing defense lawyers and NY Times reporters? If it was a Bourne movie, obviously very good.
When the film goes into full-bore Bourne mode, it draws upon every cliché in the book. Nighttime chases down dark alleys. A break-in at the Special Advocate’s apartment by an MI5 agent who tries to choke her to death. She gets away by sticking him in the arm with a scissor. Right. Sure.
Coming down in the elevator, I was so discomfited by the film that I asked the man and woman in the screening room what they thought. Generally, film reviewers are solitary folk disposed to musing over the films privately as they exit. But in this case, both the man—from ABC News—and the woman—from the Huffington Post—shared my take. It made me feel good to be in touch with reality even if the screenwriter wasn’t.
“Inch’Allah” was filmed in a refugee camp near Ramallah on the West Bank with its cameras riveted on its most squalor-filled parts, in particular the Palestinian side of a wall that separates it from a settler village. You see women and children picking through the garbage trying to find something to salvage for a few dollars. It is a grim portrait.
The Palestinians rely on a clinic funded and staffed by the Quebecois, including a doctor named Chloe who has become close to Imad, a Palestinian man who runs an advocacy office, and his sister Rand who is pregnant. The sister’s husband is in an Israeli jail awaiting trial. The film begins with news that the village on the other side of the wall has been the target of an armed raid. Everybody, including Chloe, is happy to hear that some settlers have tasted lead. We have to assume that the film was set in the period of the last intifada when such attacks, including suicide bombs, were an everyday occurrence.
Besides her work in the clinic, Chloe relies on the occasional tryst with Imad and Ava, a female Israeli border guard who doesn’t like what she is doing but accepts it as her duty.
What’s missing in the film is any sense of drama. As a character, Chloe is eerily detached from her surroundings and incapable apparently of expressing a single political opinion except for the fact that she doesn’t like how the Palestinians are being treated. Since she is wiling to paste up posters in the village about a young boy being run over by an Israeli truck, it seems odd that in the entire time she spends with Ava, there is not a single demonstration of conflict. When Palestinians tell her that she is a kind of missionary, she has a blank reaction. One is not sure whether the screenwriter intended her to be so affectless or—like Knight—simply lacked the ability to develop the character. In any case, the movie just floats along somewhat aimlessly until a highly melodramatic scene involving Rand’s delivery in the back seat of a car takes place. It feels tacked on.
The director and screenwriter, a young Quebec woman named Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette described her perspective in the press notes:
My perspective on Israelis and Palestinians is not political. I’m telling the story of a woman caught between a rock and a hard place.
Maybe that’s the problem.
Finally, there’s “El Estudiante”, a film that I doubt will ever make it to Netflix. This is a distinctly Argentinian product that had its moments but ultimately left me cold.
The student in question is Roque, a somewhat older lad from the countryside who has enrolled at a Buenos Aires university that is being roiled by elections for the university senate that have ramifications far beyond the campus. Old-time political parties, including the Peronists, view the campus as an important part of their power base.
When we first meet Roque, he comes across as a party guy with a taste for cocaine and oral sex. A week or so into the semester, he runs into Paula, an assistant professor about his age, whom he feels attracted to. Happily for him, the interest is mutual.
To speed along their relationship, Roque professes interest in the slate she supports in the campus elections, a party called Brecha (Opening). Paula has been politically involved since her teen years and views the elections as key to the university’s well-being.
The campus is politically charged to say the least. In one of the more interesting scenes, a professor whose politics are hard to define gets into an argument with a Marxist student about Latin America and colonialism. The professor calls his analysis simplistic, pointing to the Aztec domination of lesser tribes. They go at it for two minutes until the student storms out.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of that. Mostly it is discussions between members of different parties about what kind of deals that they can cut, with the Peronists looking more opportunist than the rest. Surprise, surprise.
Roque is a singularly uninteresting character whose easy accommodation to this sordid environment lacks dramatic intensity. It is like watching ninety minutes worth of a student government election campaign. The film is obviously a metaphor for Argentine society but I would have preferred less metaphor and a deeper engagement with the broader social and political issues.
In the press notes, director/screenwriter Santiago Mitre states:
When we started traveling with the film, we couldn’t help but notice that despite the specifics of its setting, it struck a chord with young people from many cultures, who are questioning the long-held traditional ways and means of political life. The recent events in the U.K., Spain, Greece, the Middle East and Chile are a contemporary reflection of the film’s core question: How can young people in civil society today work with, reinvent or reset the mechanisms and objectives of political activism.
Now that sounds like the basis for a fascinating film. One wonders how Mitre lost his way in trying to develop one.