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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘A Chiara,’ ‘Benediction,’ and ‘Watcher’

Cronenberg's newest in hiding? A trio of tales steps up, including a Calabrian mob story, a look at the life and times of poet Siegfried Sassoon, and a terse little terror.

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Swamy Rotolo in “A Chiara.”

The most hotly anticipated new movie this weekend, at least in my bubble, is David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, in which the Canadian auteur returns to the extreme body horror with which he made his name. Unfortunately, perhaps because the film had its world premiere at Cannes only a couple of weeks ago, the powers that be have opted not to make it available for review in this neck of the woods, so the scoop on it will have to wait. Fortunately, though, that allows a greater opportunity to appreciate a trio of less star- (and scar-)studded offerings.

We’ve grown familiar with stories about the intertwining of crime families and real families, thanks to The Godfather, The Sopranos, and many more. But that relationship has rarely been explored with more immediacy and intimacy than in A Chiara, the third feature from Italian director Jonas Carpignano. It’s also the rare story in this subgenre that’s told from a female perspective.

Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) is a typical upper-middle-class fifteen-year-old who has a warm relationship with her father, Claudio. On the day after the 18th birthday party for her older sister Giulia, though, the family car explodes on the street outside their home, and her father goes missing. It seems obvious that he has survived an assassination attempt that’s somehow tied to organized crime and has gone into hiding, but none of Chiara’s relatives will tell her anything.

She persists, in the way that only a spoiled teenager can, and slowly answers are revealed, most notably the existence of a secret bunker underneath their house with a separate exit to a back alley. She finds herself at one point in a Romani-populated slum, where she’s unnerved to realize that she is recognized as her father’s daughter. And, eventually, she’s able to confront her father directly, with a surprising outcome.

All three of Carpignano’s films have been set in Calabria, focusing in turn on the migrant population, the Romani community, and, here, the ’Ndrangheta, a syndicate that, unlike the Mafia, restricts recruitment to blood relatives of members, making it uniquely resistant to infiltration. In response to this, the Calabrian government has instituted a program to remove children from ‘Ndrangheta families and place them in foster care, but that can be more easily said than done, as A Chiara shows.

Rotolo, a newcomer who was cast as an extra in Carpignano’s previous film, give a remarkably self-assured yet unforced performance. The interactions between Chiara and her family feel utterly genuine, likely because they’re all played by members of Rotolo’s family. Handheld cinematography encourages this sense of realism, as does the almost documentary-style methods Carpignano used during production. (Opens Friday, June 3, at Living Room Theaters; also screens June 25 & 26 at PAM CUT’s Whitsell Auditorium)

***

THERE’S NO BETTER FILMMAKER ALIVE to tell the story of British poet Siegfried Sassoon than Terence Davies. For decades Davies has been telling stories, gently but pointedly, about life in 20th century Britain from the perspectives of those who, by inclination or preference, find themselves isolated from the world around them. His films are suffused with rueful nostalgia, an appreciation for the manners and taste of a bygone era mingled with a sadness for the ways the era’s morals led to so many empty lives, especially gay men’s.

Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lawson in “Benediction.”

(For a healthy serving of his particular genius, check out The Criterion Channel’s new program of his films, which includes three rarely screened short films as well as his early autobiographical efforts Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes.)

This elegiac bent serves the now-76-year-old Davies well in Benediction, his biography of Sassoon, best known for his scathing anti-war sentiment, which he publicly aired after earning honors fighting in World War I. This disobedience got him committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he met and encouraged fellow poet and eventual battlefield casualty Wilfred Owen.

These events comprise only about the first third of Benediction, before Davies turns his gaze to the web of affairs that Sassoon engaged in during the 1920s and ’30s as he moved in and around the circle of aristocrats and theater folk who came to be known as the “Bright Young People.” There’s Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), the vapidly square-jawed narcissist and popular actor; Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth), Novello’s ex-lover; Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), the flamboyant socialite who becomes Sassoon’s longest-lasting lover, and others.

Sassoon himself is played by Jack Lawson, who can also be seen currently in the Apple TV+ series Slow Horses. Lawson fits in seamlessly with the rest of the attractive, dark-haired, urbane cast, giving off an almost Hiddlestonian vibe. (Peter Capaldi appears in an early flash-forward and in the film’s final scenes as an older Sassoon.) These men, economically and culturally privileged while remaining–if sometimes only barely—closeted, trade sexual partners and bon mots with the sophistication that comes from a lifetime of practice.

Despite this, the tone is never that of a bedroom farce or a witty romp. Rather, the dialogue is at its most dangerously diamond-tipped when it’s being used to wound a betrayer or cruelly puncture a pretender. Nobody comes out of this incestuous roundelay with a smile on his face, least of all Sassoon, who ends up a bitter old man, cruel to the woman he ultimately marries and to his adult son.

Davies’ visual style has never been complex, and Benediction is dutifully directed, with somewhat flat imagery and a stately pace. But hearing his impeccably crafted, theatrical lines batted back and forth by a capable group of actors makes up for some of that, as does Davies’ heartfelt effort to bring the life of this war poet and gay icon to the screen. (Opens Friday, June 3, at the Regal Fox Tower and Bridgeport Village)

Sponsor
Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

***

THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF GASLIGHTING going on these days, from Watergate-era docudramas to televised civil trials, but you can hang a pretty good horror film on the concept too. Watcher, the debut feature from Chloe Okuno, tosses some chunks of Rosemary’s Baby and Rear Window into a Gaslight-based broth to come up with an intriguing, if ultimately disappointing, thriller.

Maike Monroe in “Watcher.”

Julie (Maike Monroe) and Francis (Karl Glusman) are an American couple who’ve just arrived in Bucharest, Romania, where Francis has a new job. He speaks the language, while she doesn’t, a fact that enhances her sense of isolation while spending hours alone in their apartment. Turns out, though, that she might not be so alone: a barely visible figure seems to be watching her through the place’s floor-to-ceiling windows from a neighboring high-rise.

While thick curtains might seem like an adequate solution to this problem, Julie continues to have unnerving experiences, including being followed by a strange man from a movie theater (which is, for some reason, showing the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn film Charade) into a grocery store. In classic gaslighting fashion, all of her suspicions meet with patient skepticism from Francis. Julie’s English-speaking neighbor, who works in an underground strip club, is her only truly sympathetic audience.

Monroe is solid in the lead, and Okuno does a great job setting up genuine ambiguity as to whether this is all in Julie’s head or not. That is, until the last fifteen or so minutes of the film, when she abruptly shifts gears to deliver an overly literal ending. In real life, we should always believe women. In the movies, though, sometimes it’s better if we’re not sure we can. (Opens Friday, June 3, at Cinema 21)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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