An alternative, female call to prayer - or is it a call to action? - opens Feras Fayyad's harrowing documentary The Cave, an immersive and horrifying real-life portrait of life and death in Eastern Ghouta under siege. As a call to attention, its brutal power achieves maximum impact as the seeming calm of the city's skyline is, in the very first shot, disturbed irreparably by bombardment, destruction raining down from above in a violent display of truly alarming cruelty. What an astonishing opening to a picture that succeeds in astonishing further throughout, in regular sequences of panic, despair, and the simple physical ruin that falls upon a city and its inhabitants when it undergoes such incessant pulverizing. Even to those well acquainted with the details of the protracted Syrian conflict as reported upon in news media, The Cave is a remarkable document of not only the remarkable bravery and tenacity of those targeted in Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin's mass-murderous scheme, but also of the increasingly unremarkable savagery of life under these conditions. Barely a two-minute stretch passes here without at least the sound of nearby aircraft penetrating the basement bunker fashioned by residents as a shelter and hospital facility.
The reality of getting by under such incredible duress comprises the bulk of Fayyad's thorough, sympathetic portrait of those who have made this network of tunnels and rooms their home, only venturing up to the surface for necessary purposes, and often at considerable risk. That reality, however, is by no means mundane: there are the intermittent comforts of petty, light-hearted squabbles about dinner, there is the banality of working out shifts and routines for the health workers so nobly undertaking this dangerous duty, but then there is the reliable interruption of the carnage that has become Ghouta's new reality. If we, the audience, don't see the bombs land, we do hear them, we see how they hollow out a once-bustling urban environment, and we bear witness to how they've hollowed out a population too. Body after blood-stained body descends to 'the cave' for the makeshift medical intervention that, in too few cases, and not for want of effort on behalf of the extraordinary staff, proves sufficient. The Cave occasionally indulges in dramatic content that feels just a touch staged for narrative purposes, but there's nothing staged about its scenes of destruction. They're utterly real, utterly terrifying and utterly riveting. This is one of 2019's best and most vital pictures.
A wholly constructed reality, though rooted in historical fact, is rendered startlingly unreal in Vaclav Marhoul's The Painted Bird. This is as confident a complete milieu as you're likely to see in cinema, a vision of unholy, merciless totality pervading every element of its construction. Marhoul recreates the horrors of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe in vivid, graphic detail, situating his deranged conceptions in a work designed to function like an apathetic litany of misery and pain. Poetic flourishes aside (and, arguably, they should have been set entirely aside), this is a boldly prosaic view on death and discrimination, a casual catalogue of brutality without purpose nor consequence. Plain, monochrome, mostly wordless, its artistry exists in Marhoul's lack of overt aestheticization, its peculiar interest in how sporadically unfaithful it is to this objective. He tips his head toward conventions of the historical epic, albeit fundamentally perverted, in evocations of beauty and emotional earnestness that somehow both negate the numbing impact of all the nastiness and yet reaffirm its disturbing power.
How Marhoul navigates the stark depravity and classical, novelistic narrative drive (indeed, inherited from Jerzy Kosinski's novel) provides the bulk of The Painted Bird's central stylistic tension, and thus the bulk of its essential interest. Just when you believe you've gotten a handle on where he intends to take the movie next, or what he intends to say with it overall, it embarks on a strange, unexpected detour in one direction or another, although always to the same destination of ignominious suffering. It's not quite relentless, nor even especially explicit; rather, it's repeated, a sense soon becoming established that we're going to have to endure much the same kind of thing over and over before, eventually, the movie makes an apparently arbitrary decision to stop. What an odd, ambitious movie, deliberately unsatisfying, though undeniably the work of someone in imperious control over their art.
Far from the grand European sprawl of The Painted Bird, Jayro Bustamante's La Llorona exists in its own little cloister, a hearing on a real country's real history related in enclosed, isolated objectivity by those on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum it has created. A real history intermingles with the unreal, however, as Bustamante's reckoning of Guatemala's social character examines its spiritual character too, integrating it into this stunning, unsettling, stylistically rich chamber drama. The whole picture seems shrouded, under the oppressive shadow of the lingering influence of historical pain, its traumatic nature manifesting itself in different ways on different sections of society. An upper-class apartment is itself surrounded by the pressure that the past brings to bear on villains now bereft of their power, as light and open space shine the clear beam of truth down upon the legacy of their genocidal acts. Bustamante reconfigures La Llorona as a figure of national trauma in this extraordinary movie, placing Guatemala's whole recent history within one household, the whole of society staring in, demanding resolution from those least inclined to offer it. In scenes of escalating intensity, almost always in the same interior spaces, he crafts a work of dramatic heft akin to the finest works of theatre and surpassing that of his other, also excellent, 2019 feature Tremors. An entrancing, primal wail of long-suppressed agony, searing through the screen! Brilliant stuff!
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