SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 6

December 7, 2008 at 4:52 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 1 Comment

Day 6: Wednesday 11/19

The Pope’s Toilet and Stranded

Title: The Pope’s Toilet
Director: Cesar Chalone and Enrique Fernandez
Country: Uruguay
Score: 6.0
Review:
Beto is a smalltime border smuggler just this side of Uruguay from Brazil. His “work” consists of heart-pounding 60 mile bicycle trips across the open countryside with the risk of raids and financial ruin on any voyage. He lives in a small shack with his devout wife and unhappy daughter, who longs to become a reporter. When news comes out that the Pope will be stopping in their remote village to give a speech, everyone in town plans to pull themselves out of poverty by selling food to the tens of thousands of projected visitors. Beto plans to capitalize on the situation from the opposite end: by charging for use of a homemade restroom.

The simple setup allows plenty of time to get to know the family and to witness the humor and pain they cause each other. The film’s greatest success is its honest, unsentimental portrayal of poverty, where limited resources cause harsh competition and families are so desperate to escape their conditions that they will risk everything on inflated hopes. The casting of non-actors works beautifully and each of the central three characters gives fresh, realistic performances.

However, I was annoyed at the directors’ decisions in how they portrayed this based-on-a-real-life story. Whether it’s intentional dramatic irony or not, I never for a moment believed that a happy ending was possible. The tension and buildup for the inevitable disappointment felt hallow and manipulative to me. Ill-advised music rubs the disaster in our face. I found that I was holding myself back from emotionally connecting with the characters because I was conscious of the directors’ intentions from very early on.

Title: Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains
Director: Gonzalo Arijon
Country: Uruguay
Score: 5.0
Review:
Arijon’s much-hailed documentary revisits a headline that captured international attention in 1972. A rugby team from Uruguay crash-landed on a snow-covered Andean mountain and survived for 72 days before they were able to contact civilization. Untreated injuries, starvation, extreme-cold and depression plague the stranded boys. Two-thirds of the passengers die and the remainder resorted to cannibalism to survive.

I’m occasionally accused of being too tough on documentaries, and I’m likely to draw that complaint once again. Let me first say, though, that the story of these survivors is absolutely captivating and inspiring. When I rate a documentary, however, only a small amount of the score is based on the topic chosen while the primary thing I try to judge is the presentation of the subject. For that reason, I was not much impressed by “Stranded,” which looks and feels like a routine television special.

Arijon’s re-enactments are particularly uninspired. He uses vague, shaky clips where you can’t really see any details and grainy filters try to convince us the footage is old or damaged. This material doesn’t capture anything of the reality, not even the atmosphere or terror, and serves very little purpose except as filler. I’m sure the idea was to temper the talking heads syndrome that is brought on by trying to tell the story through interviews decades after the fact. The most interesting visual moments, notably, are the authentic photographs and the news footage near the end.

I think a full-scale paid-actor/set-recreation treatment would have been worthwhile and compelling. In fact, I’d have probably liked a film adaptation more than any documentary version, but that’s purely personal taste. As a documentary, I felt it relied too heavily on the emotional emphasis and didn’t give enough facts to really appreciate the situation. Despite the film’s totally unnecessary 126 minute run-time, I was left still fairly clueless and curious at the end:

How cold did it get at night? How much battery power was in the radio? Did they build snow-shoes or sleds to travel over the snow drifts? Were they able to build fires? How did they decide which direction to head off in? What was the decision hierarchy like? Did they converse or invent games to pass the time or sit in silence? How far away were they from the nearest village? Do they keep in touch today? Etc, etc, etc.

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