Each month, the Indie Prof reviews a current film in the theater and a second film that is available on DVD or an instant-streaming service.
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War Witch (2012)
A 12-year old sub-Saharan African girl is captured by a rebel army and forced into the service of the rebels—a service that mandates unspeakable acts from the very beginning. She and the other group of very young conscripts are told that their guns are their new mothers and fathers, and they should never lose them. “The life of a soldier is hard,” the leader tells them, and they will fight the government. As the Canadian-produced War Witch, directed by Kim Nguyen, begins, we feel we’ve seen this story before. Yet the film, for the most part, eschews the larger political subtext and focuses on the story of young Komona. And what a fascinating story it is.
It moves quickly: early in the film and directly after Komona is captured, her rebel faction is attacked by government troops; Komona is the only one from her village to survive the onslaught. She has the ability to see ghosts who guide her, and she is rewarded with mythic status in the group and branded the War Witch.
One of the most notable aspects of the film is its cinematography, striking for its complementary nature to the thematic aspects: we do not get sweeping African vistas of jungles or deserts. The camera focuses on one or two characters for the most part, and the close-up is the shot of choice. This choice makes the film a psychological study of the personal horrors rather than some overblown political statement. The film assumes an intelligent audience, one that knows or is at least aware of the many African conflicts, but it chooses to focus on the effects of the conflicts rather than the causes. The human toll is immeasurable.
Many reviews have noted the serene tone of the film even though the subject is so violent, and I see a fairy-tale aspect to it. It is also nonjudgmental in its portrayals and consistent in its characterizations. The acting is excellent—Rachel Mwanza (a barely literate, nonprofessional actor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) is stunning as Komona, and the supporting cast is mostly sound and believable. Nguyen, the director of only four feature films, displays a steady hand and a promising future.
It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, but it lost to Michael Haneke’s Amour, and rightly so. Amour was the powerful, touching story of an elderly couple and the physical and mental decline of one of them. War Witch was a worthy competitor, however, and it deserved the nomination. Now it deserves to be seen.
Begins April 5 at the Sie Film Center.
You will like this film if you enjoyed: Blood Diamond, City of God, Cry Freetown.
Take Shelter (2011)
Trees blow in the wind. A man looks up at (strange?) cloud formations. Yellow rain falls into his hands. Cut inside to the man eating breakfast with his family. He walks outside to his truck and the clouds are gone.
So begins Take Shelter (2011), directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. The independent film was released to rave critical reviews but received little box office play. And it’s too bad—this is a film very much of its time and very much part of a national discourse about weighty issues surrounding the American middle class. It is a film that demands examination.
The story is simple, however: Curtis (Shannon) is an oil-rig worker and father of a deaf daughter who needs surgery to repair her hearing; Jessica Chastain plays his wife, Samantha. Curtis has increasingly disturbing visions during the course of the film that lead him to irrational acts and eventually, to him losing his job. He seeks mental help and after an initial reticence, tells his story to the counselor. A new counselor awaits at his next appointment, however, and he leaves, frustrated, when asked to tell his story again.
In the hands of a lesser director and lesser cast, the film could have been an empty treatise on a struggling man/family or even trite political commentary. But the steadiness of Jeff Nichols and the searing, subdued acting of Shannon and Chastain make this a disturbing, thrilling, unpredictable metaphor for the current state of our world. We are constantly challenged about the reliability of our protagonist, and because of Chastain’s strength, we are not sure what we believe.
The film speaks to mental health issues, the health insurance quagmire, degradation of the environment, and most of all the uncertainty of the modern American way of life. Short scenes take on contextual depth: a meeting with an insurance rep, the gas station meter running ever higher, or the weekend job at a local market. The American Dream has turned into the Sword of Damocles, and that feeling takes physical shape in the film. The setting is ambiguous—Anywhere, America—and the sparse music is particularly effective. The ending is sheer brilliance. This is the type of film that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it.
You will like this film if you enjoyed: Martha Marcy May Marlene, Moon, Looper.
Available on DVD, at the library, or on iTunes. And check out the “Staff Picks” kiosk at the Sam Gary Library for The Indie Prof section of films previously reviewed.
Vincent Piturro, PhD, teaches Cinema Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.