Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2020

Four narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:44 pm

After wasting my time watching a bunch of crappy Hollywood movies to fulfill my obligation as a NYFCO member to judge front-runners like “Joker” or “1917” for our awards meeting in early December, I am finally returning to my kind of films. These are generally featured in art houses like the Film Forum in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. The four under review here are worth seeing if you spot them playing in your home town. There’s a good shot that they will eventually end up on Amazon, the only real contribution Jeff Bezos has made to humanity.

Corpus Christi (opens February 19th at the Film Forum)

In 1936, Ignazio Silone wrote the anti-fascist novel “Bread and Wine” that told the story of a young revolutionary who assumes the identity of a priest in order to throw the cops off his trail. He lives in a poverty-stricken village made up by the kind of backward peasant that Marx had in mind when he called religion the opium of the people. It was not exactly a call for abolishing religion since he also writes, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

Once he assumes this identity, the revolutionary is besieged by peasants who need someone to minister to their spiritual and economic needs. This forces him to improvise, often calling upon the good sense and humanitarian instincts that made him a revolutionary.

In “Corpus Christi”, a Polish film directed by the 38-year old Jan Komasa, we have a similar plot but the main character Daniel is not a revolutionary. Instead, he is a young man who has just been released from prison to serve the rest of his term for second-degree murder through a work-release program. He is sent to a rural town to labor for a pittance in a saw-mill. The town is not nearly so poor economically as the one in “Bread and Wine” but just as spiritually bereft, if not more so.

When he was in prison, Daniel became an assistant to the chaplain. Over time he became more and more spiritually-minded and especially looked forward to singing hymns at prison masses. On the day he was to be released, he asked the priest if there was any possibility of being recommended for the Catholic seminary. He was told that his prison term made that impossible. So much for Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness.

Perhaps as a sign of his yearning for the life of a priest, Daniel purloins a priest’s vestment and takes it with him to the town where he is to become just another parolee carrying out what amounts to indentured servitude. Once there, he stops in at the local church to meditate. When he learns later that day that the local priest is about to go on a leave of absence, he puts on the clerical clothes he brought with him and convinces the priest that he is legitimate and willing to sub for him. Was he succumbing to baser motives such as higher pay and an easier way of making a living? Or did the time spent in religious services in prison transform him?

The screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz, who is only 27 years old, told 28 Times Cinema: “What fascinated me from the beginning was the ambivalence of the premise. We have somebody who maybe just does it for money. Perhaps, it’s also for some emotional profit. He wants to feel he’s someone better than he really is. Maybe it’s a whole different reason. This multi-dimensionality was what kept me going working on the story.”

They say that clothing makes the man. In his case, Daniel turns out to be much more of a holy man than the one he has replaced. In a town that is tormented by a terrible automobile accident (or deliberate homicide), he brings solace to the families that lost a son or daughter. At the same time, he comforts a woman whose husband was judged guilty for plowing his car into the one that was carrying the young people still being mourned, a year after the tragedy. The town has ostracized her in a manner reminiscent of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.

As someone with not a spiritual bone in my body, I found “Corpus Christi” deeply moving. It lacks the political edge of the kind of films I tend to write about but the story-telling is first-rate. It moved me in the same way that Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” did. As Daniel, Bartosz Bielenia is unforgettable.

The Whistlers (opens February 28th at the Film Forum)

This is a Romanian film directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, whose work I am not familiar with. “The Whistlers” is a crime story with a very fresh take on the genre involving crooked cops and the drug trade. The main character is a middle-aged cop named Cristi who teamed up with a Romanian drug dealer to rip off some Spanish dealers.

The plot is far too complicated to go into any kind of detail so suffice it to say that Cristi ends up on the Canary Islands to meet with the Spanish gangsters who will coerce him into leading them to the stash he and his partner have buried back in Romania. To make sure they are not found out by honest cops (a scarcity in Romania, as the film will point out) on their trail, they communicate through a whistled language that is unique to the people of the Gomera island in the Canaries. It has between 2 and 4 vowels and between 4 and 10 consonants.

“The Whistlers” was likely made for an international audience and lacks the darkly introspective character of Romanian films of 10 to 15 years ago that explored the corruption of both Communist and post-Communist rule. In its favor, it is a throwback to Alfred Hitchcock’s confections like “To Catch a Thief” or “Marnie”. Intricately plotted and swiftly paced, it is far more entertaining than the lead-footed movies I endured in the weeks before the NYFCO awards meeting in early December.

Sorry We Missed You (opens at the Film Forum on March 4th and at Nuart in Los Angeles on March 6th)

This is Ken Loach’s 55th credit as a director since 1964. Now 83 years old, he still is capable of making the kind of gut-wrenching, pro-working class film that has distinguished his career.

In the opening scene, we meet Ricky Turner, a man in his mid-forties, who is being interviewed for a job delivering packages in an unnamed British town. Formally speaking, he will not become an employee but a “franchisee”. Like Uber or Lyft, he is supposedly self-employed but no more so than the people who used to spin cloth at home in the earliest stages of capitalism. That’s a sign of the combined and uneven nature of capitalism today that the most up-to-date technology is used to exploit a worker like Ricky Turner in the same way his fellow Brits were 600 years ago.

To qualify for the position, Ricky needs a van. He can rent one from the subcontractor but at a hefty price. Like most men or women desperate enough to work in such a position, he takes a risk and puts a down payment on a van for a thousand pounds. To raise the cash, his wife Abbie sells their car, something that makes her job much more difficult. She is a home nurse who goes from house to house looking after the elderly, most of whom are suffering from dementia or some other severe geriatric illness. The job is low-paying and emotionally draining. Without a car, Abbie is forced to take the bus. When they get home late at night, they can barely communicate with their children, a teen boy named Sebastian and a grade school girl named Liza Jane.

Their absence only accelerates the self-destructive tendencies of Sebastian whose only pleasure in life is going out with his mates spray-painting graffiti, one step ahead of the cops. When he is arrested for shoplifting spray paint, Ricky has to give up a day’s pay to sort things out at the police station.

In the final moments of the film, everything is falling apart around the famuly. This, of course, is not just a story about a family. It is the story of the English working class today, as heart-felt and as compelling as Engels’s “Conditions of the Working-Class in England”. In many ways, Ricky is a casualty of the collapse of this class since the drying up of construction jobs, his mainstay over the years, has plummeted him into the depths of contingent labor.

For background on how such workers fare, I recommend an April 14, 2019 Guardian article:

The Observer has been contacted by three drivers who have delivered parcels for Amazon. They report shifts of 12 hours or more on zero hours contracts, unpaid overtime and penalties for failing to meet onerous targets. Because they are classed as self-employed, they are obliged to pay for their vehicles and expenses and do not receive sickness or holiday pay. They claim long, unpredictable hours and transport costs mean that pay can amount to less than the minimum wage.

Better yet, I recommend going to Film Forum to see this extraordinary film by our greatest living radical filmmaker.

Burnt Orange Heresy (Opens March 6th at the Landmark in New York)

This stars Claes Bang, the brilliant Danish actor, as a chain-smoking, pill-popping art critic named James Figueras who makes a living giving lectures to tourists in Italy. Author of “The Power of the Critic”, he lives beyond his means and has even been caught misusing funds meant for business expenses for his lavish life-style. This bit of thievery came this close to landing him in prison.

At his last lecture, he meets a stunning blonde and they begin a passionate affair. A week or so into the affair, he is contacted by one of the world’s most successful art dealers, a man named Joseph Cassidy, who is played by Mick Jagger to serpentine perfection.

Cassidy lives in a palatial home overlooking Lake Como. On his grounds, living in a modest cabin, is one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists, an elderly man named Jerome Debney, who is played by Donald Sutherland. Debney shocked the art world by setting fire to his studio out of weariness with the art world and its critics. Since all his paintings were destroyed, Cassidy has hopes that Figueras can persuade Debney to do one last painting so as to cash in on its rarity—and hence its value.

I imagine that Bang was cast in this role since he was so great playing the shady director of a museum a lot like the Whitney in New York. It traffics in the questionable avant-garde, even more so than the Whitney. I reviewed the film in 2017 and invite you to see it now as VOD. It is fantastic.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” is based on a novel by Charles Willeford, who died in 1988. I was not familiar with Willeford. Before he became a writer, he knocked around as a professional boxer, actor, horse trainer, and radio announcer. He was a noir novelist like James M. Cain who one critic described as the “genre’s equivalent of Philip K. Dick’s best science fiction novels.” That’s a pretty good recommendation.

6 Comments »

  1. Looks like I will ask for a link to “The Whistlers.”

    Comment by harveycritic — February 16, 2020 @ 2:30 am

  2. As the European scene goes, Ken Loach could not have been more topical than in Sorry We Missed You. I live in a quiet Southern Italian town of 100,000. Apart from chronic unemployment, especially of youth, our main civic problem was finding a place to park among the historical monuments. Then online shopping with faraway places began. It didn’t seem like a bad idea since much of what we buy has to come in from points north anyway. But now the city’s streets are full of darting delivery trucks under various logos. The human landscape has become breathless, as frantic deliverymen rush back and forth from their triple-parked vehicles as if chased by a nervous breakdown. That Loach actually shot the film in Newcastle, a former industrial capital with a once strong labor movement based on coal and naval yards adds to the drama and the pathos. Our city never knew industrialization but the gig economy is flexible and screwing us too.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 16, 2020 @ 11:30 am

  3. This time I couldn’t be more in agreement with you. I’ve watched 1917 and what a wastage of time that was! Not to speak about Joker. The Irishman was at least a thoughts-rising movie as most of the movies which deal with the scourge of Italian organised criminality but still a far cry from masterpieces like Taxi Driver and Scarface. But what can we do? Al Pacino is all it takes to make a movie great regardless of the plot or the message.

    Comment by Riccardo Pusceddu — February 16, 2020 @ 9:34 pm

  4. Do you think the Loach movie at the Film Forum will have subtitles? I didn’t understand a word that was said in the trailer.

    Comment by Armand Franklin — February 17, 2020 @ 12:15 pm

  5. […] Right now, his new film “The Whistlers” is playing in major theaters everywhere. In my review, I […]

    Pingback by The Romanian New Wave – Radio Free — March 6, 2020 @ 8:12 am

  6. […] first and the last sentence of Louis Proyect’s review on SORRY WE MISSED YOU, clearly answering the question of whether or not to watch […]

    Pingback by Ken Loach’s 55th credit as a director since 1964 – English Language Film society — August 10, 2020 @ 5:04 pm


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