Captain Hagen’s Bed & Breakfast, written and directed by Rafael Friedan

In Captain Hagen’s Bed & Breakfast, which I caught this past weekend at the New York Indie Film Festival, writer/director Rafael Friedan accomplishes the considerable feat of creating a truly laugh out-loud comedy that also offers a few poignant moments. Shot over a little more than two weeks in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in a rambling house whose nooks and crannies practically make it a supporting character, the story follows a disparate group of four couples spending what they expect to be an uneventful weekend at a B&B run by Captain Hagen (William Beckwith, Scent of a Woman), an eccentric retired German sailor who enjoys doling out free advice. That this all doesn’t devolve into ridiculousness or a dull attempt at farce is due largely to Friedan’s writing, whose witty dialogue often gives surprising lift to situations that might otherwise feel cliché. Yes, various guests sleep with various guests but often in unexpected pairings, such as the sultry Kate (Bri Oglu) who takes the virginity of the Captain’s hyperactive and very naïve son, Felix (Dino Petrera). Later, when at last sad-sack Jared (Tyler Bellmon), who pines for long-time friend Kate who loves him “like a brother” ends up in bed with the knock-out Sandra (Jessamine Kelley) who just broke off her engagement to the frustrated Preston (Andrew J. Cornelius, Just Eat It), the scene feels right and satisfying, thanks to Friedan’s bold decision to film with the actors in the nude and daylight streaming in through the windows. It’s a hot and sexy scene but its realistic manner gives it a refreshing frankness.

Similarly, two scenes that could have easily gone awry are presented with a simplicity that gives them an unexpected resonance: the Captain emptying an urn of his dead wife’s ashes into the bay, finally attempting to free himself of hanging on to the past, and a scene involving a long-married couple with children (Rhonda Ayers and Lynn Berg) who admit to each other that when they made love (after several attempts at finding themselves no longer connecting sexually) they were each thinking of other people. That Friedan doesn’t belabor this mutual confession allows the humor to become affecting.

It’s often small moments that make a film linger for days after seeing it and two such moments worth mentioning are especially memorable for one being dramatic and the other comedic. After the Captain has disposed of his dead wife’s ashes, he moves a framed photo of her from its prominent place on a mantelpiece to a side table; he is ready to emerge from the shadow of her memory but not abandon her presence in his daily life. In another scene, goofy surfer dude Darren (Zach Wegner) barges in on Sandra and Preston in bed; an exasperated Preston orders him out of the room and Darren leaves, but then pops back in to wish Preston a good night. It’s a completely frivolous joke, fitting for the flighty Darren, but one of many moments throughout the film where Friedan admirably gives a funny situation a little extra room to breath and become funnier than expected. The film itself is a great example of independent filmmaking where limited resources are creatively mined; kudos to cast member Chris Wandell (who plays Rico, Darren’s studly fellow surfer-dude) who also handled production and costume design, crucial elements for a film set mostly in the single location of the house.

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The Last Movie Star, written and directed by Adam Rifkin

Review written by Mike Fishman

I saw this film at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and happy to see it is getting some well-deserved attention. The latest film written and directed by Adam Rifkin and starring Burt Reynolds as Vic Edwards, an octogenarian actor who travels to the International Nashville Film Festival to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award. The problem is, this is the (fictional) International Nashville Film Festival, not the much-admired and very real Nashville Film Festival and Edwards finds himself facing a mixed crowd of about 40 people (to their credit enthusiastic fans) in the backroom of a bar with a projector and a make-shift film screen. Some expected clichés are in evidence: the rundown motel room the festival booked for him; a drunken Edwards lashing out at at the festival staff; the protagonist in need of saving doing some saving himself; even a reconciliation with an old lover who has Alzheimer’s but who peers out clear-eyed from her cloudy mind at the right moments. But the quality of acting and the level of commitment from Burt Reynolds and co-star Ariel Winter as Lil, his reluctant, nose-ring wearing caretaker/chauffeur for the duration of the festival, bring to their roles make most scenes utterly believable and the film as a whole ultimately moving.

Rifkin (whose previous work ranges from the comedy Detroit Rock City to the gritty Night at the Golden Eagle) wrote the screenplay specifically for Reynolds. And one can see why the actor, reportedly looking for one last great role, would be game for boring deeply into the semi-autobiographical storyline. The film embraces the aging process with Reynolds, 81 years old himself, staring directly into the camera, and then humorously yet pointedly engaging his younger self in conversation in scenes from his actual films Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, generally to warn him about the quick passage of time. It makes for a fascinating unveiling of a fictional life reflected by the actor’s real life. Shot differently, the film could have been a mockumentary.

Along the way we are treated to snapshots of Reynolds in his prime: spraying a can of whipped cream down Johnny Carson’s pants; conducting interviews in his trademark winking, self-deprecating style; and even his infamous nude pose for Cosmopolitan magazine, which the director interestingly utilizes onscreen while Lil soaks in a huge bathtub. Happily, the film goes nowhere near a romantic entanglement between the two, saving the real relationship complexities for a reunion with Claudia, his first of five wives (!), played by Kathleen Nolan. Vic and Lil “rescue” his now wheel-chair bound ex-lover from her nursing home, hurriedly wheeling her out to freedom with the staff nearly chasing after them. They take her to the picturesque spot where Vic had proposed to her decades and a lifetime ago. If this particular sequence sounds predictable, it is to a degree, but Reynolds’ palpable regret and Nolan’s unadorned responses make for a truly poignant and affecting scene. That such a powerful moment can occur within such a familiar framework is part of the magic of movies and the film gains impressive momentum and succeeds beyond expectation at ruefully portraying a man nearing the end of his road, lamenting the passage of time.

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The Seventh Seal, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

It is a rare pleasure to see The Seventh Seal on the big screen with an audience, as I was fortunate enough to do last weekend at New York City’s Film Forum. Playing as part of their Ingmar Bergman Centennial Celebration, The Seventh Seal (1958) stands apart from Bergman’s other films, not for its themes of the search for meaning in our lives and the existence of God and an afterlife, which permeate much of his oeuvre, but for its Middle Ages medieval setting. Taking place when the plague was spreading in Europe, the film follows Antonius Block (the formidable Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (the irrepressible Gunnar Björnstrand) as they make their way across a bleak Swedish landscape to Block’s home, having returned from fighting in the Crusades for six years. The world-weary knight is confronted by Death, famously personified by actor Bengt Ekerot in black robes and wielding a grim sense of humor along with his scythe. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, knowing the Grim Reaper’s pride will not allow him to resist. The stakes? Block’s soul until he (inevitably) loses, in exchange for enough time to do one last meaningful act and to be reunited with his long-suffering wife, living alone in their abandoned castle, tending to a fire with what can only be described as little enthusiasm for her existence.

Along the way, Block and Jöns encounter a young woman accused of being a witch burned at the stake, plague sufferers, self-flagellating religious fanatics, and the theologian who first convinced Block to go off and fight in the Crusades. Most crucially they meet a small group of traveling actors: Jof, the juggler who has mystical visions, his wife Mia, played tenderly with occasional bursts of boldness by Bibi Andersson, their infant child Mikael, and Jonas, the puffed-up leader of the amateur troupe. This chance meeting allows Block to perform the one last meaningful act he longs for when he diverts Death’s attention away from Mia, Jof and their child long enough for them to escape his grasp, at least for the time being. For those unfamiliar with Bergman’s comedies, the director’s playful humor most evident in scenes featuring Jonas should be a welcome surprise, as the traveling player hams it up on stage and flirts with the local blacksmith’s saucy wife. One remarkable scene finds Jonas hiding in a tree after getting caught by the blacksmith; hearing the sound of a saw, Jonas looks down to see Death sawing away at the tree trunk. Jonas tries to bluff his way out as Death admonishes his deceptive ways, then pleads for mercy asking for special dispensation as an actor (typical Bergmanesque humor), all the while Death working away at the tree, amused with Jonas’s cunning efforts.

The scene is absurd and wryly funny and yet resolves with a moment of true profundity: the tree cracks and breaks, hurling Jonas to the forest floor, leaving a clean tree stump; after a moment, a squirrel hops onto the stump and scurries around, then runs off. The indifference of nature to man and a reminder that we share this planet with creatures who exist on a very different level of consciousness. And who is to say which is more noble? The civilized man, who would burn women as witches, or the more elemental animal? One might even say the animal’s actions show more integrity, foraging for food, than the greedy Jonas who tried to con Death into sparing his frivolous existence.

And what about those whose existence is perhaps not as frivolous, yet empty in its own way? Bergman notes the suffering seeking men are prone to when Mia muses to Block, “I often wonder why we torment ourselves as soon as we have the chance.” Their conversation, during one of the film’s iconic scenes, takes place as they sit in a clearing in the countryside, Block sipping fresh milk from a bowl he holds in both hands, carefully cupping it, almost as if it were a religious rite. “I shall remember this moment,“ he says, referring at once to the milk, the innocent Mia next him offering him wild strawberries (the title of another classic Bergman film starring Andersson), her toddler son playing on the grass. Block knows this may well be his last moment of peace, one final respite from his journey to death, drawing ever closer. As is often the case with Bergman, the tone of the scene skates the line between touching and sentimental and is remarkably devoid of irony. There is the beginning of the road and the end of the road. The potential of a child as pure as wild strawberries and fresh milk, and the journey’s end, the snuffing out of life’s candle, a passing into…what? A Heaven or a Hell? Any kind of afterlife? Or is it just nothingness, as the young woman tied to the stake, flames growing around her, seems to confirm by the confused, lost look in her eyes?

And yet later, in one of the film’s final scenes, as Death enters the castle to call on Block and his entourage, a mute girl Jöns saved from death suddenly sees a tunnel filled with light opening on the stone wall; she slowly, blissfully, smiles. Is she glimpsing the afterlife? Are we to trust her vision? Earlier in the film, Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus walking in a field and we, the audience, see it as well. Is Bergman, by letting the audience share the visions (along with the image of Death, visible only to Block and Jof) suggesting that there is a God but that He can only be seen by a blessed few and for the rest of us, the vast majority of us, we must rely on blind faith? For Bergman, the son of a strict Lutheran minster but agnostic from a young age, the question is one of silence. Why does God remain silent? The title of the film itself refers to a great silence: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” (Revelation 8:1). That silence has been interpreted in many ways, but whatever the interpretation, it suggests an image of man under God, waiting for something momentous to happen. A moment of judgment? For some of us, such words are relied upon and deeply invested in, while for others, they are merely words written by men for other men. What’s remarkable about The Seventh Seal, aside from its startling imagery, is the very direct way in which it addresses such questions.

Written by Mike Fishman.

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Napping Princess, written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama

In Napping Princess the year is 2020, three days before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. While she should be studying for her exams, Kokone Morikawa is often dozing off, stuck between reality and a dream-world full of fantastic motorized contraptions. But after her father, a talented but mysterious mechanic, is arrested for stealing technology from a powerful corporation, it’s up to Kokone and her childhood friend Morio to save him. Together they realize that Kokone’s dream-world holds the answers to the mystery behind the stolen tech, and they embark on a journey that traverses dreams and reality, city and country, and past and present. Their mission uncovers a trail of clues to her father’s disappearance and ultimately a surprising revelation about Kokone’s family. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Calista B. comments, “This film is very creative and entertaining. It reminds me a lot of Studio Ghibli films, which I love and I found myself completely immersed in this movie.” See her full review below.

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Paa Joe and The Lion, directed by Benjamin Wigley

Paa Joe & The Lion Trailer from Benjamin Wigley on Vimeo.

Review written by Mike Fishman

We are all of us going to die at some point. If we are lucky and have the foresight, we can determine and dictate how our funerals will be conducted and in what state our bodies laid to rest (or scattered to the winds, placed in an urn, donated to medical science, etc.). For those choosing to be buried, there is the obvious question of the casket. While most people planning to be buried have already picked out or inherited their final resting spot, a far lesser number of individuals flip through the dreaded catalog at their neighborhood undertaker to select the ideal casket, leaving that depressing bit of business to their surviving loved ones. For those with money and resources, some very fine caskets can be selected, indeed even customized based on a personality trait or a particular obsession. In Benjamin Wigley’s extraordinary documentary Paa Joe and The Lion (which screened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in 2017) we get to see a number of so-called “fantasy” coffins, created by Paa Joe, a carpenter in Ghana, who has been carving unique caskets for some 40 years, with examples of his handiwork displayed in museums around the world including the British Museum.

When we first meet Paa Joe (Joseph Ashong), he is working on his latest creation, a wooden coffin in the form of a woman’s body, perhaps destined to be a mermaid. A lively montage highlights a handful of his creations, coffins in the forms of chili peppers, cars, fish, even a soda bottle. As Paa Joe amusingly points out, film director Wigley might choose a coffin in the shape of a camera while Paa Joe may ultimately decide on a hammer. For some, fantasy coffins allow for a moment, albeit brief, to be identified with something that defined them in life, before they and the casket are lowered into the ground. For others, the shapes may speak of an ideal: the freedom of a bird, for example.

The director displays a sure hand as he guides viewers through a portrait of this unusual carpenter, giving a good sense of Paa Joe’s surroundings and daily routine of what appears to be dedicated and joyful toil. The film follows Paa Joe as he and son/apprentice Jacob travel to the UK after receiving a commission from the Arts Council in England for a month long residency, where the father and son carpenters set about creating Paa Joe’s final masterwork, a coffin in the shape of a great lion. The work is done in an outdoor shed so that the process can be observed by passersby, a handful of whom reflect on what kind of fantasy coffin they might choose while others hold to the tradition of an unremarkable casket.

Mr. Wigley cuts between Paa Joe in England and back home in Ghana, highlighting a period of time just after his elderly mother dies and he is focused on making her coffin. As Paa Joe explains, his mother was a devout Christian who would have wanted a simple coffin and so he sets about creating a traditional casket, but one clearly carved with great care and attention to detail and with a sumptuous interior lining. Thus Paa Joe sends off his mother in a relatively modest style she would have approved of and made possible by the skills her son learned at her own urging, Paa Joe expressing heartfelt appreciation for his mother having pushed him as a young man to learn a trade. And throughout the film we see Paa Joe wielding that skill, working the wood with his bare hands, practically breathing in the sawdust and exhaling it back out, as if using his very being to give shape to unique creations that will mean so much to people far removed from his own reality. There is irony, of course, in a carpenter from Ghana creating exquisite works of art for wealthy patrons to purchase and be buried in, but the film does not swell on such issues. It offers instead a humorous, entertaining and insightful portrait of the man as artist while leading viewers inevitably to considerations of mortality.

Visit the website to find out about watching the film online at:

Photos courtesy of Benjamin Wigley.

Review written by Mike Fishman.

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Tango on the Balcony, written and directed by Minos Papas

Tango on the Balcony from Minos Papas on Vimeo.

Review written by Mike Fishman

There have been a number of feature films dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder well before the term was coined, but in Tango on the Balcony, writer/director Minos Papas admirably creates a compelling portrait of a soldier dealing with the debilitating after effects of a wartime experience in a mere 19 minutes. Across that brief time, we watch as Johnny (Aristotle Stamat), a sniper who served in Iraq, wrestles with his demons or rather a very particular demon in the form of Abdullah, a teenage boy Johnny shot dead. Abdullah (Giuseppe Bausilio) is given very real form as an apparition who appears in Johnny’s disheveled apartment (with its notably lonely twin size bed) and the two of them perform a (second) dance of back and forth discussion as Johnny tries to work out in his mind whether the boy was an innocent bystander or a young terrorist. Their first dance? The tango on the balcony, the five seconds or so it took Johnny to hone in and take out with one bullet a suspicious boy on a cell phone standing on a balcony hundreds of yards away. As Abdullah’s ghost rightly tells him, Johnny will never know if the boy was guilty or innocent or even how old he was. What Johnny does know, what he is painfully aware of every second of every day, what eats at him even as he tries to sleep, is that he took the life of a boy, one who seems increasingly likely to have been innocent.

It would hardly be possible to give a full portrait of an individual in such a short running time and indeed we get little in the way of Johnny’s background or relationships. What we do get is a brief snippet of time from the war in Iraq: the moments leading up to and the climactic moment when he took that shot, seen through video-cam footage shot from the soldier’s point-of-view. As Johnny watches the scene over and over, his finger hovers over the delete button but each time he’s unable to delete the file, instead lashing out at the footage and himself by hurling the computer against the wall. Thus do we get a full picture of his current life, a life in turmoil, through past and present moments, the moment of execution and the moments that follow as Johnny struggles through everyday life, fighting paranoia on the New York City streets, feeling suspicion at the Middle Eastern man selling coffee from a food truck and who gives him a free coffee one morning, thanking him for his service.

The irony of the man thanking the ex-soldier for his service is etched on Johnny’s face as he pauses in the street, coffee in hand, the city swirling around him. The intended honor of serving in the military, the now-ingrained suspicion of anyone from the Middle East, the “service” he performed with a bullet from hundreds of yards away. Papas adds a further ironic touch as we see in the foreground a sign for a shop offering Tango Lessons, the lettering necessarily backwards from the viewer’s point of view. How can Johnny (his very name conjuring up Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun”) get back to a normal life in a world that is unaware of his struggles and colored in primary colors, not the blacks and whites and sometimes grays of war? Such is the question we are left to ponder in the remarkable Tango on the Balcony.

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“The Snowman” and “The Snowman & the Snowdog,” reviewed by Sahiba K., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 15

Film review courtesy of KIDS FIRST!

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Dark Meridian, written directed by Rankin Hickman

It has been said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Suspenseful and engaging, Rankin Hickman’s film, Dark Meridian creeps up on you and keeps you in its grip for the entire journey. Set in New Orleans, the world is one of crime and not so neatly defined roles, because even criminals have rules and “codes of honor.” This criminal world is predictably karmic but not as clearly polarized as it may seem. One can easily be led to believe most things are black or white without the benefit of all the necessary details. We first see a man who has been injured dragging himself across the floor. This man is Detective Spencer Solano (James Moses Black) a crooked cop connected to Tevi Merek’s family (Dave Davis) and the underbelly of the crime world. Tevi and his father’s henchmen have been working towards finding the murderer of Tevi’s brother and his brother’s wife and daughters. We are switched back and forth and in flashbacks placed exactly where the filmmaker wants us. The journey is focused mainly on Tevi, Det. Solano and the alleged murderer Patrick (Billy Slaughter). Patrick’s encounter with a homeless woman, Dot (Deneen Tyler) foreshadows what we come to learn of Patrick. the others and resulting events. Dot may seem crazy but she is streetwise, observant and not to be messed with.

A great supporting cast and cinematography add immensely to the mood, the seedier side of New Orleans and the French Quarter playing as important a role as the characters. Gritty and sublime, it allows the viewer to marinate in the performances. Even though there is plenty of violence, the movie was not a constant assault of the senses. There were notes and influences of directors Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, David Fincher and Michael Mann, while remaining thoroughly fresh and original. There are quieter moments, but still the constant undercurrent of tension, the feeling that you have a moment to catch your breath at the top of the roller coaster before the big drop. The pace slows and quickens, but never lags. Just when you think you know, you don’t. I went for the ride and didn’t regret it.

Review by Shirley Rodriguez

Dark Meridian screened at the Kew Gardens Film Festival on August 9, 2017.

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The Lost Idea, directed by Amartya Bhattacharyya

Who is in control of your life?
What is most important to you?
What is reality? Perception?
Is it easier to follow and be passive?
Are most problems self-imposed?

So many more questions to be asked, but so necessary if you wish to move forward. The idea is to keep moving and asking and learning. Humanity and its complexities are examined in Amartya Bhattacharyya’s at times surreal film, The Lost Idea.

Our first image is of a young woman in a field seemingly giving birth. She is the embodiment the idea and Idea (Amrita Choudhury) is her name. She is the muse chased by many looking to birth their personal dreams and creations.

Two men, one older and one younger who seem to be on very different wavelengths converge. The older man (Lazy Man played by Susant Misra) who is married, sits daily doing nothing but reading his newspaper and being nagged by his frustrated wife. His frame of reference is external from whatever the news feeds him. His wife complains he is useless, but she is suspicious, jealous and unsupportive of anything that may come between them. She does not like his laziness, but does not want him to succeed either. It is as if some part of her prefers the routine of him sitting around and her nagging him to actually accomplishing something and possibly leaving her behind. In a few of the Lazy Man’s news article “visions”, he sees a well dressed woman rambling on about celebrity headlines, young women protesting the mistreatment of women and a belligerent political protester speaking against the effects of industrialization, colonization and its perpetrators. The serious and important matters of humanity, dignity and a better life take a backseat and backpages to the fluff and nonsense.

The younger man (Swastik Choudhury), is a self-described poet who sends his poems via village messenger to his girlfriend in London. He lives in a romantic, dreamy state in which he fancies himself the great poet and is seen communicating with the girlfriend about his aspirations in dreamlike sequences. He assumes she is having them published and mailing compensation back to him. We see that he has entrusted and handed over his poems (dreams) to someone who cares nothing about them in the messenger. No one will give your creation the same care and priority that you can. Inspiration is personal and trying to live another person’s life, dream or ideology is like wearing shoes not your size. If you wait to be inspired, you will keep waiting. The key is to search inside yourself, not someone else’s idea which can feel inauthentic and empty.

The subjects of Fear, Loneliness, Apathy, Envy, with the concepts of Good and Evil are expressed. How much do we question and do we follow blindly? The “mob mentality” no one dares veer from for fear of reprisals is detrimental to free thinking and contributions to make things better. One haunting vision is of a young woman wearing a red mask and a sackcloth dress with bloodstains. The film is set in India, where terrible acts towards women are not unique but well documented. This young woman represents the shame carried by the victim and guilt for being born a “weak” female. Any shame brought on families at times just by even talking to a boy or man regardless of how benign may be met with acid attacks or murder to “rectify” the situation.

As humans we are assaulted daily with what we “should” and “should not” be doing. Any deviation from the set norms of society are cause for derision and/or alienation. Even if results are detrimental, as long as the majority have decided on an approved action, common sense goes out the window. Humanity and compassion can be seen as weak because the goal is to crush, conquer and control. The town Mad Man (Choudhury Bikash Das) as labeled by his fellow residents, actually knows more than he is given credit for. But his fate is decided by the mob mentality and their disapproval and anger towards his actions of following his dream.

The movie is mostly set outdoors and lends itself to show the unpredictability and instability of life, humans are always looking to have power over. We love the feeling of control whether with our environments and/or purpose. There is a freedom and enlightenment to letting go and realizing the more we hold onto the less free we are. You make yourself a prisoner of your desires and obsessions instead of nurturing and letting it evolve naturally. Yes, an order is necessary in the world, but holding too tightly and squeezing the life out of something and perverting or destroying it is a tragedy. An interesting choice of music for a montage was The Prayer of Saint Francis: “Make Me A Channel of Your Peace”. I have sung that prayer many times and it is a message for everyone. The message of being a conduit for good, helping and having compassion towards each other.

The Lazy Man and The Poet compete for ownership of the Idea as if there is only one, not recognizing it is infinite. They ask a scary looking man representing Fate (played by Hrushikesh Bhoi) to be granted ownership of said Idea. He orders them to come back with proof expressed in a creation of their making, to see who deserves it. They each desperately try to find a way to top each other, but soon realize cooperation is a better solution. There is room for all expression, not that one is better than the other, which is subjective.

Children possess the ability to be in the moment and have that natural non-conformist attitude. It is after being continually indoctrinated that those innate feelings become clouded by doubt. In the end each of us must decide for ourselves the choices and the consequences for those choices. It makes you question plenty and that is something I enjoy. Life is never tied into a neat little package, but requires constant vigilance and evaluation. Even though the film might feel scattered, it actually flows and comes together. It has its heaviness and humor in balance and humanity throughout.

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Pecore in Erba (Burning Love), directed by Alberto Caviglia

Trailer: BURNING LOVE – PECORE in ERBA from Gaetano Maiorino on Vimeo.

Review by Mike Fishman

Went to a screening of the 2015 Italian comedy Pecore in Erba (Burning Love) at the beautiful Casa Italiana at NYU on West 12th Street. Standing room only for the film screening and a Q&A with the writer/director Alberto Caviglia and co-writer Benedetta Grasso. The film, set in Rome, is a mockumentary in the style of such classics examples of the genre as Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration, and especially Woody Allen’s Zelig, 1983, which the director pointed to as a particular influence during the discussion after the screening. Pecore in Erba relates the life story of Leonardo Zulliania, an infamous if satirically popular anti-Semite who we learn at the start of the film is mysteriously missing. Through “home movies,” the film traces the life of the notorious Jew-hater from his very odd and troubled childhood to maturity as a wildly popular cartoonist, writer and speaker. Along the way, we see a priest congratulating his very young students when they “correctly” answer who killed Jesus (the Jews, of course) and young Leonardo suffering a hives attack when he finds out, to this horror, that Jesus was a Jew.

It all unfolds in classic mockumentary style, swiftly moving along its realistic timeline, every scene punctuated by a wink, followed often enough by a laugh from the audience. A smart satire, the film broadens its themes beyond anti-Semitism to the very topical issue of of fake news and the oppressor claiming oppression, with an anti-anti-anti-Semitic movement springing up to defend those anti-Semites being persecuted by the larger public and to defend their freedom of expression. If that sounds outrageous, it is, and mostly outrageously funny, Caviglia’s directorial pen like a sword slicing open some of the darkest corners of society.

The mystery of Leonardo’s disappearance is made subtly clear at the end (I’d rather not spoil it for those who have not seen the film) and proves to be a bit of an ironic comeuppance. But the meat of the film is the life journey of Leonardo, the plot really just there as a framework to support the absurd situations, pointed dialogue and deeply ironic humor. It’s a fascinating accomplishment of the director, an Italian Jewish man himself, to articulate the painful and very sensitive topic of anti-Semitism in a mockumentary format. As one audience member wondered during the Q&A, where will the film, which screened in 2015 at the Venice Film Festival, play in the U.S? Perhaps on the two coasts? At least hopefully, but it is doubtful very much in between, but certainly hopefully on some widely available streaming platform. Which means it will be a challenge to find its audience, a pity because it’s a film well-worth seeing for the discussion it might generate, not just specifically about anti-Semitism but about the nature of bigotry and racism as experienced in this day and age of Facebook, Twitter and Fox news.

It’s also very funny, a fact attested to by the audience members’ reactions, with the notable exception of one individual who proclaimed to not find the film funny at all. Whether this was due to her particular sense of humor or that she felt it demeaning to the issue to make a satirical film about it was not clear. It was perhaps reminiscent of some of the reactions people had to Tropic Thunder, 2008, not a great film and certainly not as serious in intent as Pecore in Erba. But that film also, albeit with a broader stroke, touched upon racism in an interesting way by having Robert Downey, Jr.’s character, an actor, sport black face in an effort to be “more black” for a role he is playing in the film . Controversial, perhaps, but thought-provoking at least to some degree. Pecore in Erba is certainly more thought-provoking and that makes it well-worth seeking out for those who can appreciate a good laugh, and serious glance, at the underbelly of society.

See this page for a fascinating Director’s Note about the film:

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