Friday, February 25, 2011

Gab for the Border!

Werth: Hola, Wise!

Wise: Hola, Werth. Why are you wearing a sombrero?

Werth: Because, dear film friend, I want to go South of the Border!

Wise: Did you OD on your Lupe Velez pills again?

Werth: No. Tuesday was National Margarita Day so I’m dreaming of Mexico—land of endless beaches, shady palms, and—

Wise: —bottomless drinks.

Werth: —bottomless cheap drinks.

Wise: You know, when I hear “Mexico” and “bottomless” in the same sentence, I’m usually hoping that it refers to nachos—

Werth: No comment.

Wise: —but lately I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite movies from Mexico that features bottomless despair.  

Werth: I take it then you are not going to be talking about Dolores del Rio doing the samba on the wing of a bi-plane.  

Wise: The film’s called Silent Light, or Stellet Licht, directed by Carlos Reygadas, and it stars Cornelio Wall as Johan a Mennonite farmer in Northern Mexico trapped between the wife and children he loves and the woman he feels is a spiritual gift from God.  He agonizes over what he’s going to do, discussing the situation with both his father and his steadfast wife.  Most of the cast members are non-professional actors and they speak a dialect of German particular to the Amish and Mennonite emigres who came to North America for religious freedom and continue to eschew most of the technological advances of the 20th century.  To Reygadas, this lack of training is an asset because he doesn’t have to contend with any actor-y mannerisms.  Instead he allows the camera to linger on faces, allowing the scenes to build toward an emotional crescendo.  

Werth: Subtle acting, visual storytelling.  I’m in! Tell me more.

Wise: As you can probably guess from the title, Reygadas uses light to either illuminate his characters or to shroud them in darkness.  There’s an amazing scene of Johan and his family bathing in a stream.  There’s not much dialogue, but the way Reygadas captures the sun’s rays shimmering on the water and the sound of the children laughing is simply heartbreaking.  Later, in a scene between Johan and his mistress, the light is amber and golden and also heartbreaking because the audience realizes just how crushing it would be for Johan to surrender either.  

It’s a wrenching examination of a man as he struggles to decide whether this other woman is a wicked temptation or a boon from heaven destined to deepen his faith.  I know it sounds like the kind of pompous self-torture typical to a certain breed of art house flick, but Silent Light is truly mesmerizing from the opening shot of the mute night sky receding to reveal the cacophonous day to the final shot of the inky twilight shrouding the world in silence again.  

Werth: I think you’re just partial to Mennonite fashion.

Wise: Sure, that has something to do with it, but I think anyone can recognize the agonies faced by these characters and can celebrate how they’re transformed.  

Werth: My favorite Mexican cinematic treat doesn’t have any Amish people, but it does have two donkeys. Picture it—1860’s French-ruled Mexico. A lone gunman in the desert comes across a group of nasty outlaws raping and pillaging a defenseless, naked lady. Knowing the effects of sun-damage on the skin, our hero dispatches these curs with his trusty gun, his trademark grimace and a world-weary bon mot. He saves the grateful girl, who, it turns out, is a sassy nun. Yes, I’m talking about 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine. In this clever convergence of the Italian spaghetti western and a Hollywood battle-of-the-sexes, Eastwood and MacLaine take on Native Americans, banditos, the French army, one awful rattlesnake and each other.

Wise: You watched a rattlesnake scene?

Werth: Please, I can barely type the words without passing out. Popular director Don Siegel shot most of the film in Morelos, Mexico, so the set is designed by God. The arid, sparse desert is beautiful in its seemingly endless bleakness and the rough charm of Clint Eastwood’s iconic loner character feels like an outgrowth of the sagebrush and rocky buttes. MacLaine’s Sister Sara is a pale and beautiful misfit, horribly out of place in the middle of this godforsaken wasteland. But with her righteous piety and typical pluck, MacLaine proves she is an able match for Eastwood and the desert. 

Wise: Does she sing “I’m Still Here” to Clint and the cacti?

Werth: No. Apparently she didn’t feel much like singing because she didn’t get along with either Eastwood or Siegel. Nonetheless, she adds a touch of class and humor to a genre that was characterized by abject poverty, senseless violence and sparse dialogue.

Wise: What about the two mules?

Werth: They’re adorable plus the always brilliant Ennio Morricone gives them a musical theme that you won’t be able to stop eee-yaw-ing.

Wise: So does this mean we’re going on a Mexican vacation to visit the Amish and some donkeys?

Werth: Only if I get a large sun hat... and they get rid of all of the rattlesnakes.

Wise: I guess that means we’ll see everyone next week North of the Border for our Film Gab with Werth and Wise Post-Oscar Wrap-up!

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