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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #17: Inland, Subtraction, Kanaval

Rory Alexander, Mark Rylance, Inland, Fridtjof Ryder
Rory Alexander and Mark Rylance in Inland

The bullshit-ometer beeps hard and heavy throughout Inland, yet another faux-edgy sub-Alex Garland British debut that strains to convince you it's got something meaningful to say for itself, but since it doesn't, all you can see is the strain. Layer upon layer of portent builds up and up to the point that you just know Fridtjof Ryder can't make good on all of it, and since every layer feels as phony as the next, you won't be surprised to find out that he can't make good on any of it. When this shallow, hollow movie commits to making any statements outright, they're obvious statements trussed up in dreary, derivative portent, and the rest of the time Ryder's so insistent on playing coy with his story's true purpose he fails to communicate much purpose at all. The viewer is left with half the pieces to a very simple puzzle, only some of them are the wrong pieces, and the end result of the puzzle serves no function anyway, and plus you've solved a dozen other puzzles just like this before and most of them were shite too.

Inland is all mood, all the time, with basically no content and no relief. Ryder designs testy exchanges with pat emotional payoffs, and ominous monologues heavy on trite symbolism and empty suggestion. He has a decent eye and ear for artistry, albeit a thoroughly banal artistry, but it at least ensures there's always something to see and something to hear, some reminder that this is more than just an overblown student film. But it's just vacuous sheen, slathered atop paper-thin material, so you never truly forget that this is, at heart, an overblown student film. Mark Rylance has drawn and will continue to draw undeserved plaudits for his hammy turn here - sometimes the last thing a talented actor like him needs is a meaty dramatic part like this - but the movie's sole source of quality is its lead performer, Rory Alexander. He's saddled with a very, very silly role, but you can sense how deeply he believes in it, and you can see how deep he reaches within himself to embody that belief in his performance. At first, he's convincing enough that he shares the blame for making the viewer think there might actually be something worth investing in here, but by the end it's clear that Alexander is the investment, and everything around him is just lazy, overwrought, underdeveloped trash.

Taraneh Alidoosti, Subtraction, Mani Haghighi
Taraneh Alidoosti in Subtraction

There's a lot to be said for a filmmaker who knows their movie's strengths and commits to them. Mani Haghighi's Subtraction appears to plot out a course through a high concept - a married couple discovers they have exact doppelgangers, also married, living just across Tehran - but in fact is set on a different course altogether. This isn't the metaphysical mystery it promises to be, nor the ponderous spiritual rumination it briefly, occasionally looks like it might be. It's a relatively straightforward thriller, only using its concept as a slightly left-field springboard for a tense, troubling tale of gender and class dynamics in contemporary Iran. Not the most innovative topic, no, and nor is Subtraction the most innovative thriller either, but Haghighi knows precisely the kind of movie he's making, and accordingly makes the most of it. This is an astute, nuanced examination of its sociopolitical themes, and a riveting, surprisingly unpredictable suspense story, blessed with four brilliant performances by two remarkable lead actors.

Rather than parse through fluid, difficult questions of innate identity, Haghighi and co-writer Amir Reza Koohestani focus on identity as a performance of expectation. Their movie's tension is founded on and consistently arises from the details of constructing such a performance - assessing the perceptions of others, harbouring secrets and suspicions, evaluating personal worth through signifiers of status. Subtraction, while an eloquent, sensitive and succinct movie in its dialogue, is even more eloquent in its silences, pauses, and its lingering on gazes. Taraneh Alidoosti and Navid Mohammadzadeh, each doing double duties among the four principal characters, are exquisitely expressive, both when communicating that which the movie requires the viewer to discern directly and when communicating the concealment of things we must not, or simply cannot, know about these richly detailed characters. It's in the accumulation of subtly observed details that Subtraction succeeds - a subtle, artful movie that inarguably doesn't fulfil its full potential, but it's so fulfilling otherwise you'd be a stingy stickler to care.

Kanaval: A People's History of Haiti in Six Chapters, Leah Gordon, Eddie Hutton-Mills
Kanaval: A People's History of Haiti in Six Chapters

A uniquely, quintessentially cinematic account of an event that could hardly be further from the glossy detachment of the screen. Impressively, Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton-Mills' Kanaval doesn't merely allude to the magnificent variety of artistic expression in the streets of Jacmel, Haiti in its annual celebrations, it has a fair stab at actually capturing that magnificent variety. Their portrait is swift and economical, but neither lean nor shallow - the viewer is given the chance to appreciate each new scene, each character, each story, because these people and their stories have been given the space to express themselves without slant or equivocation. Through their expression, the vitality of Kanaval as both a cultural celebration and a historical document is manifest, and one can't help marvel at the richness of a cultural identity so steeped in historical understanding. Gordon and Hutton-Mills recognize Kanaval's purpose and give it a cinematic context, their use of old film footage tying their own film to versions of this people's history steeped in historical misunderstanding. But Kanaval's purpose affords Kanaval a repurposing, and illuminates to a global audience (or perhaps just a white audience) the value of learning one's heritage not through academic study but through living, moving artistic tableaux that re-enact, resurrect, and make present what would otherwise only be past.

This is a really lovely movie, full of enthusiasm and compassion, where every turn promises more wonders for the viewer. As a simple catalogue of the various troupes participating in Kanaval, it's marvellous purely for the many marvels that are those troupes' creative accomplishments. Often humble in their materials or their construction, they're uniformly ingenious in their execution, and deeply, vividly infused with a clear, strong, essential knowledge and understanding of their genesis and their identity within this culture. Gordon and Hutton-Mills wisely refrain from editorializing excessively, though I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't feel they, as with any documentarians profiling artists and/or their art, could have at least attempted to meet those artists' creativity and innovation in their own work. But, as a straightforward, clear-eyed portrait of Jacmel's Kanaval and its fabulous participants, this remains a terrific movie.


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