TALE OF THE SEA – movie review

TALE OF THE SEA (Hekayat-e Darya)
Reviewed for Shockya.com and BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bahman Farmanara
Screenwriter: Bahman Farmanara
Cast: Bahman Farmanara, Fatemeh Motemad Arya, Leila Hatami, Saber Abar, Ali Nassirian
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/
Opens: January 10, 2019 at the First Iranian International Film Festival in NY: At IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue, NY NY.

Leila Hatami and Saber Abar in Hekayat-e darya (2018)

You would not be surprised at the similarity of “Tale of the Sea” to previous works from the Iranian filmmaker, Bahman Farmanara. Farmanara deals with momentous subjects in previous works. In “Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine,” for example, the writer-director envelops his principal character with thoughts of death, plot items evoking thoughts of the final exit. The principal character wonders why his niece’s husband fails to return home. He searches hospitals for an unclaimed body while his own heart is giving out. In “A Separation,” a married couple runs into conflict as one partner wants to leave Iran while the other needs to care for an ailing mother. A heart (one breaking, the other physically fragile), marital conflict, illnesses including a budding schizophrenia and depression, and once again thoughts of leaving Iran, crop up again. This new film may remind literate moviegoers of the works of Ingmar Bergman, particularly his 1957 film “Wild Strawberries”(an aging man confronts the emptiness of his existence)—while Peyman Yazdanian’s score at times recalls Hitchcockian tones.

“Tale of the Sea,” which takes place in a writer’s spacious home overlooking the ocean, is a theatrical piece, with most scenes involving one or two people with the occasional presence of a trio. Taher Mohebi (Bahman Farmanara), the principal character, is played by the filmmaker, who is 77 years old, a large man made up to look as though he is approaching his mid-80s. Conversations take place between drinks of tea that his wife Jaleh (Fatemeh Motamed-Arya) often prepares and a cup of Turkish coffee brewed by Paraveneh, a surprise guest in his home who will radically change the married couple’s life.

For his part Taher, a writer known by his former students as Maestro, has spent three years in an institution for the emotionally disturbed, longing to remain there though prodded by his doctor (Ali Mosaffa) to go out and face reality. Taher continues to look like Job, years of woe yielding a face whose perpetual sadness belies the pale blue eyes that we assume should connote joy. We don’t wonder why his wife wants a divorce, though she will wait until her husband gets better lest an announcement of separation now lead to the poor man’s death.

A few scenes on the beach take us temporarily away from the purely theatrical. Taher meets people from his past, including a hallucinatory friend (Ali Nassirian) who had been “assigned to eternity” years earlier, and an emotional political activist (Saber Abar) who would like to relive the best years of his life—which were back in college when Maestro was his favorite teacher. All this Proustian remembrance of past memories is not unlike the situation faced by Dr. Eberhard Isak Borg in “Wild Strawberries,” whose “visits” to past people in his life remind him of the emptiness of his existence.

If you are not familiar with Ingmar Bergman—though if you read commentary on this film you surely must be—then think of Katherine Hepburn who, when asked about the value of old age to provide wisdom to youth replies that old age has not a single redeeming feature. You would expect that in his better days, Taher, active as a teacher and a celebrity author as well, was a different person, and you would probably be right. By the time you exit the theater, you may be more fearful of growing old (yes, of course, it’s better than the alternative), than ever. The melancholia of age and the way the brilliant director, producer, screenwriter and principal actor work to make you feel the mournful emotions, are what make “Tale of a Sea” a downer, if you will, but one that will leave you absorbed for its full 97 minutes while respecting that this filmmaker is at the top of his game.

97 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

MADELINE’S MADELINE – movie review

MADELINE’S MADELINE

Oscilloscope
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Josephine Decker
Screenwriter:  Josephine Decker
Cast:  Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 7/10/18
Opens: August 10 in NY; August 17 in L.A.
Poster
Josephine Decker’s latest film is emotionally explosive to such an extent that “Madeline’s Madeline” could be called a stab at expressionism.  Expressionism, which is better known in painting and theater than in the cinema, is the practice of revealing an emotional inner life rather than an objective impression of the world, and has been used most effectively on stage in such works as Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine.”  As the taut bundle of inner turmoil, Decker’s “Madeline” is played by a newcomer, Helena Howard), who lets loose with all her inner demons, a role reversal in which she plays her mother, Regina (Miranda July) during a rehearsal by a New York theater group under the direction of Evangeline (Molly Parker).

Decker is in her mystical métier, having made the film “Butter on the Latch,” wherein fantasy plays with reality at a California camp as a camper sings about dragons who entwine themselves in women’s hair and carry them off through the forest, burning the trees as they go.

At base, the film is about the theater director’s use of a mentally ill title figure—seen in the opening when a blurred figure of a nurse talks to the 16-year-old.  Since her prescription for possible schizophrenia has run out, there’s no stopping Madeline from expressing her demons during a rehearsal where she is utilized by director Evangeline as her principal performer.  Madeline uses her own paranoia with touches of anorexia to give her all to the part during the improvisations attempted by the theater group.  Like other members of the troupe, she acts out the part of a turtle.  She also dons pig’s masks as though rehearsing for Greek tragedy.  In the most excoriating scene she gives her mother hell, the middle-aged now single woman having to walk out despite the congratulations that the young actress receives from the director and the troupe.  Her acting is so dramatic—both within the stage rehearsal and in the film itself—that the director invites her home, where she declares to the director’s husband that she is determined on her 17th birthday to lose her virginity.  She makes it fairly clear that the husband George (Curtiss Cook) is her choice to be the lucky guy.

Race plays a role as well.  Madeline’s mother is white; her daughter is black.  At one point the teenager, hearing the mother tell her that the young woman is “different,” wonders whether she is honing in on the girl’s race.  This becomes part of the tension released by the girl in her role reversal, contributing mightily to Madeline’s explosion of theatrical emotion.  Joys of motherhood indeed.  As for the two older women, Evangeline and Regina, particularly involving is the former’s attempts to pull her star student away from her mother’s influence and into her own inner circle.

One would not be surprised if members of the audience, particularly critics, would find Helena Howard’s performance among the great débuts of recent years—which could catapult her into notice by awards organizations voting breakthrough performance at the end of this year.  Nonetheless, “Madeline’s Madeline” is so experimental, so non-linear, with photography often deliberately blurred, that a positive reception by a majority of ordinary film-goers is hardly guaranteed.

Unrated.  93 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+