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FilmWatch Weekly: From fantasy to reality with ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ and ‘The Territory’

Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton play the genie-in-a-bottle game in George Miller's newest; a documentary reveals a battle between cultures in the Amazon rainforest.

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Idris Elba stars as The Djinn and Tilda Swinton as Alithea Binnie in director George Miller’s film “Three Thousand Years of Longing.” Photo: Elise Lockwood © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved

The Australian director George Miller has one of the most whiplash-inducing filmographies of all time. His output over the last forty-plus years has consisted almost entirely of two strands: the post-apocalyptic vehicular mayhem of the Mad Max films and the pigs-and-penguins family films in the Babe and Happy Feet series.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is the first feature he’s directed outside those confines since Lorenzo’s Oil back in 1992, and it’s a curious choice. The film’s marketing (particularly its trailer) promises a hyperkinetic, psychedelic experience, presumably in an effort to convince Mad Max: Fury Road fans to give it a go. In fact, while it has its share of visual splendor, the movie is basically a two-hander between a pair of marvelous actors, set primarily in an Istanbul hotel room.

That’s where Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) uncorks a mysterious glass bottle she’s acquired earlier in her visit to the Turkish city, freeing an imprisoned Djinn (Idris Elba) who promptly offers her the traditional three wishes. Alithea, however, is no ordinary rube. She’s a narratologist, i.e., one who studies the structure and role of stories throughout history, and so she’s wise to the ways these setups often backfire on the wisher.

She’s also a supremely rational, middle-aged woman who seems to feel that her own story is hardly worth the telling. Confronted with irrefutable evidence of the supernatural, she eventually takes it in stride and engages the Djinn is conversation. He proceeds to relate the tales of how he ended up trapped in a bottle three times previously over the last three millennia.

These flashbacks are where Miller gets to let his cinematic freak flag fly. In the first, the Djinn is hopelessly besotted with the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum); in the second, he encounters a slave girl (Megan Gale) in the court of Suleiman the Magnificent; in the third, he falls for a young woman who’s an unrecognized genius (Burcu Gölgedar). You can see why our Djinn confesses to a weakness for conversation with women. Each sumptuously rendered mini-saga illustrates the perils of love, and cumulatively they reveal the humanity and vulnerability of this all-powerful, immortal being.

Meanwhile, back in Istanbul, the topic becomes the primacy and universality of Story in the human condition. Alithea is in the perfect position to educate us on the subject, which seems an au courant one. You can’t swing a literary cat these days without hitting someone expounding on the idea that “We’re All Just the Stories We Tell About Ourselves” or “Stories Are How We Make Sense of a Senseless Existence” or something similar.

It’s not that these sentiments are invalid, but they often come off as pretentious attempts to elevate storytellers into some sort of priestly class. (And, yet, what are priests but storytellers who expect us to believe everything they tell us? But I digress.) Sometimes the best way to demonstrate how we’re all hard-wired for Story is to just tell a really good story.

Despite that, both Elba and Swinton are equally believable and empathetic, and I’m not sure which is the biggest stretch: Idris Elba as a 3,000-year-old creature of undying energy or Tilda Swinton as a buttoned-down, ordinary woman. And the “Arabian Nights”-style tales-within-tales are alternately poignant and amusing. But, eventually, the Story demands that Alithea make her wish, and when she does, it ends up robbing Three Thousand Years of much of what made it compelling thus far.

The movie is based on A.S. Byatt’s novella The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, which devotes much more time and space to fleshing out Alithea’s past–her own Story, if you will. By eliding most of that backstory, Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore rob of its context the developing relationship between this mismatched pair. Ordinarily, this might be chalked up to a desire to keep the film to a tolerable running time, but since it’s less than two hours now, I would would have liked to have seen more of it.

Considering the talent involved, it’s tempting to think of Three Thousand Years of Longing as a disappointment, especially if one comes to it with the expectations created by that trailer. Taken on its own terms, however, it’s a curious, imperfect, but nonetheless fascinating piece of work. (Opens Friday, August 26, at theaters everywhere.)

***

FROM BAROQUE FANTASY TO HARROWING REALITY: The documentary The Territory is an immersive journey along the literal front lines of the war to save the Amazon rainforest. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending.

The few hundred remaining indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people occupy a small, protected reserve in the western Brazilian state of Rodonia, which abuts Bolivia and contains some of the most remote stretches of the Amazonian rainforest. Nonetheless, clearcutting has reached its borders, making the reserve look something like Las Vegas from the air, with foliage instead of neon.

Since the tribe made first contact with the Brazilian government in 1981, their land has been protected from agricultural development. But, as Alex Pritz’s film shows, that all changes with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as the country’s president in 2018. His vow to end indigenous reserves empowers a band of wannabe farmers to begin a series of invasions into Uru-eu-wau-wau land, confident (correctly) that their actions will go unpunished.

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We’ve all seen documentaries on this topic before, but Pritz takes his cameras closer to the action on the ground that ever before. We meet Bitate, the tribe’s newly elected, nineteen-year-old leader; Neidinha Bandeira, a nontribal environmental activist who works with the Uru-eu-wau-wau; and a few of the encroachers, who, while remaining unsympathetic, seem to be acting out of legitimate economic desperation.

In capturing the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s daily way of life, and the Edenic environment they inhabit, Pritz avoids the pitfall of idealizing them. Still, they are the victims here. When law enforcement demands proof of these incursions before acting, they use Pritz’s cameras to obtain it. And when that still doesn’t do the trick, they resort to stricter measures, burning down one of the farmer’s camps and tracking them down while armed with bows and arrows.

Shot over a period of several years, including the period when Covid-19 threatened to decimate the tribe, The Territory is a grim portrait of what amounts to a small-scale war for the fate of a small pocket of untainted nature. I’m not sure if it’ll change anyone’s mind on anything, but it will at least stand as witness to a small group that tried to stand up for its rights and its very existence. (Opens Friday, August 26, at the Living Room Theaters)

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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