Susan Stone, writing for 24 Frames (Los Angeles Times), said, “The inmates-turned-actors find resonance in Caesar’s ancient capital reflected in their own corrupt cities, be it Naples or contemporary Rome.”
Most of the film is shot in black and white, with color coming in for the energetic stage performance. Along with Cavalli, the Tavianis developed a guiding screenplay for the filming, leaving ample room for chance and improvisation. The action feels at times stagy, but it’s hard to fault the characters for playing larger than life when they are serving life sentences.
David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Leaving aside the constipated costume dramas and literary adaptations that have long been their fusty domain, the Taviani Brothers return closer here to the docudrama hybrid territory of their 1977 international breakthrough, PADRE PADRONE.”
By far the best part of the film is the audition process, during which inmates are asked to supply personal data – name, date and place of birth, pre-incarceration residence – the first time in an emotionally distraught state and then again in defiant anger. Subtitles reveal their convictions (ranging from drug trafficking to Mafia affiliations) and the length of their sentences while they fire up, seemingly at the flick of a switch, into fiercely committed histrionics.
Another film gaining a lot of attention out of Berlin is Kevin Macdonald’s MARLEY, a look at legendary Jamaican musician Bob Marley’s life. Macdonald parallels Marley’s emergence from Kingston’s slums by following Jamaica’s violent political strife, and Marley’s attempts to quell it.
Writing for Variety, Guy Lodge said, “The time has long been ripe for a large-scale cinematic tribute to Marley, among the most generationally transferable of 1970s musical icons.”
Macdonald, returning to traditional docu territory after last year’s interactive experiment LIFE IN A DAY, possesses the right blend of stylistic muscularity and pop sensibility for the project, indulging mythology to some extent while mining just enough tangy sociopolitical context to steer the proceedings clear of hagiography. Linear in structure but knotty with detail, courtesy of a broad array of talking, occasionally conflicting, heads, MARLEY should be thorough enough to stimulate both the uninformed and the devoted.
At Time Out, Tom Huddleston said, “The fact that this expansive documentary was produced by Marley’s own record company could have resulted in a simplistic hagiography, a film which celebrated the legend and not the far more interesting and divisive character behind it. Mercifully, this is not that film.”
The big flaw in the film – and it’s perhaps unavoidable – is that, despite interviews with many of Marley’s closest family, including wife Rita, son Ziggy and longtime girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare, we never truly get a sense of his personality. Memories of him are conflicting and contradictory: to some he was a holy man, to others a scoundrel, and so the portrait which emerges shifts and fragments, reshaped with each new piece of information. By the film’s end, Marley remains as much of an enigma as when it began.
At Indiewire, Eric Kohn questioned whether the film’s 144-minute running time was necessary. “Despite its breadth, MARLEY delivers little more than a well-crafted overview sure to please diehard fans while leaving others unmoved.”
Some of Macdonald’s passionate subjects hint at the complexities of Marley’s fame bearing down on him—passing references to his countless children with different mothers and the stress of touring point to deeper possibilities—but primarily “Marley” operates in a mode of implicit reverence. When the narrative delves into his political influence, documenting his triumphant return to Kingston for the One Love Peace Concert in 1978 to help resolve tensions between opposing political parties, Macdonald’s subjects talk in generalities. There’s no room for analysis when the man’s predetermined overwhelming cultural value dominates.
Dennis Lim of the New York Times summed up the Berlinale’s documentary selections thusly:
Many of the hot-button documentaries had their own limitations, having chosen speed over scope and complexity. Documentaries on the continuing saga of the Arab Spring filtered events through the perspectives of a Yemeni tour guide (THE RELUCTANT REVOLUTIONARY) and an Egyptian journalist (WORDS OF WITNESS). Not even a year after the devastating tsunami in Japan that caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, three films about the aftermath were screened here. The most nuanced of them, Toshi Fujiwara’s NO MAN’S ZONE, is also the most self-reflexive, questioning our morbid attraction to images of destruction.
Stranger Than Fiction Artistic Director will soon be migrating south to fulfill his duties as a programmer at the Miami International Film Festival, set to run from March 2-11. The festival will feature a few DOC NYC prize winners, among them Bess Kargman’s FIRST POSITION (Audience) and Laura Brownson and Beth Levison’s LEMON (special jury prize, Metropolis). Art will feature as a prominent theme, with screenings of Alison Klayman’s AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY and Dominic Allen’s CALVET (film subject Jean Marc Calvet will also be in attendance with an exhibition of his work). The festival will also feature a retrospective screening of the Maylses Brothers short ISLANDS (1986), about artists Christo and Jean-Claude’s Surrounded Islands art installation.
Those suffering from Fashion Week withdrawal can get their fix with Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s film DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL, about the fashion editor. Also screening will be ABOUT FACE by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a look at the fashion world’s former cover girls.
The festival will train its gaze even further south than Florida, featuring Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s THE STRAWBERRY TREE, about one of Cuba’s last remaining fishing villages. The directing team of Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jonathan Paley examine the challenges faced by baseball players chasing their dreams in the Dominican Republic in PELOTERO.
Music fans can check out Joe Berlinger’s UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, about the Paul Simon classic Graceland. Or they can check out BEN LEE: CATCH MY DISEASE, Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s look at the Australian indie musician.
In non-festival news, Hot Docs this week launched their own crowdfunding site, Docignite. The site’s model is, of course, based on that of Kickstarter, but with some significant differences. First, Docignite is accepting only documentaries for its site. Also, filmmakers need not hit their fundraising goals in order to receive pledged funds; all of the money will eventually end up in their hands. Docignite says filmmakers will also receive from Hot Docs film, trailer, treatment and outreach plan consultation; consultation on campaign goals and incentives provided by filmmakers; and direct incentives for donations separate from those offered by filmmakers.
Asif Kapadia’s SENNA this week picked up a British Acadamy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for best documentary, and scored a coup in also snagging the award for best editing, beating out a number of fictional narrative films in that category. Editors Gregers Sall and Chris King took home the honors.
The Tribeca Film Institute in a recent blog post provided some tips for filmmakers looking to make the jump into interactive documentary. Number one on their list? Always stay in service of story. Seems like good advice for documentarians no matter what their chosen storytelling medium.
There’s still no sign that the debate over Oscar rule changes is going to abate any time soon. This week, Nina Seavey, Director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University and founding director of Silverdocs, spoke with NPR about her concerns about the new documentary rules for Oscars. Michael Moore on his personal website addressed ongoing concerns with his own Q&A on voting and eligibility. And Slate’s Eric Hynes also joined the ranks of scribes to have taken a shot at the Academy for failing to properly honor documentaries in a recent piece:
Of the more than 800 feature films released theatrically in America last year, more than 300 were documentaries. (At premiere marketplace festivals like Sundance and Toronto, the ratio is similar.) Yet at the Academy Awards, where the film industry lavishly celebrates itself, all of those films compete for one measly award: best documentary. By comparison, dramatic features get 20 chances for an Oscar. While it’s technically possible (and eminently justifiable) for documentaries to receive nods for technical categories like editing, cinematography, and sound, in practice it hardly ever happens. And in 84 years, no documentary has even been nominated for best picture.
PBS made an interesting distribution move this week, allowing users of portable Apple devices to get an early look at its new American Experience doc, CLINTON, a full week before its February 20-21 air date through a PBS app. The early content made available to iPad and iPod users consists of the first hour of the program.
Christopher Campbell at the Documentary Channel has this week’s theatrical releases, which include Oscar nominee UNDEFEATED.
This week Stranger Than Fiction is hosting TOOTIE’S LAST SUIT and a Q&A with director Lisa Katzman. Fans of David Simon’s “Treme” are right to rejoice. The film explores the complex relationships, rituals, history, and music of New Orleans’ vibrant Mardi Gras Indian culture while telling the story of Allison “Tootie” Montana, former Chief of Yellow Pocahontas Hunters. Celebrated throughout the New Orleans as “the prettiest,” for the beauty and inventiveness of his elaborately beaded Mardi Gras costumes, Tootie Montana masked for 52 years, longer than any other Mardi Gras Indian. You can get more info and buy tickets here.