The first feature we screened last Friday night at Carbon Arc was the France/Switzerland co-production Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as a Zucchini). We screened the original French version, which, according to our projectionist Kenny, is better than the English dubbed. Ma Vie de Courgette was first presented at the 2016 Cannes film festival and was nominated for Best Animated Feature and made the nine-film shortlist for Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Oscars. The film, an adaptation of Gilles Paris’ novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette, was directed by Claude Barras and written by Céline Sciamma, whom you might remember from her coming-of age dramas Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood.
Ma Vie de Courgette is a stop motion animation that features a band of orphan puppets, lovable despite their belief that they’ve come together only because there’s nobody out there to love them. The puppet-protagonist insists on being called Zucchini, a pet name his mother gave him. Ma Vie de Courgette may be written in beginner French, but this only serves to fool me into thinking I’m better at speaking the language than I really am. Courgette is not exactly a children’s movie, but its difficult narrative is heartwarming as told through children’s eyes. Zucchini is sent to a foster home for accidently causing his alcoholic mother to fall down a set of stairs to her death after she threatens to beat him. The children he meets there have equally horrifying reasons for being sent to the home.
Ma Vie De Courgette captures that strange combination of naivety and trauma, following films like Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows in a tradition of growing up too fast. Truffaut was an influence on the film and traces of his Antoine Doinel alter ego appear in Zucchini. Zucchini especially evokes Antoine Doinel in the short after the film’s credits where the candid puppet auditions for the lead role of the film. Equally cheeky as it is charming, Ma Vie De Courgette offers a puppet-world miniature of real-life problems, and wrapping them up in just over 60 minutes, the film ends with a sinking sense of being too good to be true.
Last Friday's second screening, A House on 41st Street, was our Iranian film fare for April. Directed by Hamid Reza Ghorbani and led by a strong female cast, this crime drama kept in thematic step with the evening's first screening. Once again we explore sudden family disintegration and its effects on the youngest ones. Unlike Ma Vie..., A House... offers us no comic relief nor redemptive closure. What we get instead is a complex, realistic portrayal of individuals with conflicting emotional needs and shifting ideas of justice, vengeance, and acceptance.
We start the film with the silhouettes of two men in a darkened shop with a counter of glass between them. Their disagreement over a financial mishandling becomes a shouting match, grows violent, and abruptly halts in total blackness and silence, which can only mean one thing. After the murder of Morteza by his enraged brother, Mohsen (Ali Mosaffa), the guilty man disappears. From here we follow the remaining family as a fly on the wall, our views framed through open windows and half-shut doorways with the camera's shake bringing us smack into the tense claustrophobia of their home. Fittingly, the house's ceilings crumble above the occupants. The plumbing leaks and is torn from the walls. As one side struggles with no heat and the other with no water, they enact a tug-o-war between retribution and forgiveness.
The film's impetus is not just in these competing positions, but in the extent to which they are realized within the legal context of present-day Iran. Under Sharia law, crimes such as Mohsen's (classified as qesas or qisas, “eye-for-an-eye”) are punishable by execution. However, there is a catch. Iranian law puts the onus of judgement on the victim's heirs. Should they choose, the guilty can be eventually released, “forgiven” with a diya, a blood money payment. So, how does this idea of justice look when those who judge and are judged, who might benefit from and suffer from this judgement are the same? This is the question Ghorbani poses.
This film is extremely dialogue driven. The initial build-up is slow with many quickly cut exchanges, the most interesting of these being unreliable stand-ins for the characters' unsaid concerns and motives. Through these we jump between and explore diverging sets of needs and psychologies. At the social and legal centre of it all is one surprisingly composed matriarch, Mrs. Shokhou (Soheila Razavi). She's grandmother to the emotionally lost children, mother-in-law to the opposing wives, and mother to killer and killed. Perhaps this social territory she occupies should make her composure less surprising. After all, we know her as someone who is no stranger to grief. Within this context, Razavi's portrayal of her character as more action than emotion, mostly expressionless while her remaining family disappears is perhaps the strongest implication of loss shown in the film.
Razavi may be the family's foundation, but, of course, foundation alone is no shelter. As the consequences of one generation's actions ripple to the next, the slain man's 12-year-old son struggles to find an outlet for his rage. Unbeknownst to him, the man at the centre of his hate is no longer behind bars and is determined to atone for the lost brother and father, now personified in the boy. This will lead all involved toward their inevitable confrontation. Ghorbani may ask questions of judgement and its effects, but he builds a tension that accumulates in a messy and bleak portrait of individuals at their most desperate and irreconcilable, when redemption or closure is what they need most and what they, like their audience, won't find.
Join us this week at Carbon Arc Friday April 14th at 7pm for David Lynch: The Art Life, a critically acclaimed portrait of the world renowned auteur and artist that promises to take you inside of one cinema's strangest minds. Then, return on April 21st at 7pm for another documentary portrait, this time of author, activist, and cultural critic Jane Jacobs, with Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. Those of you who enjoyed Ma Vie may want to get your tickets for the 18th Annual Animation Show of Shows, a program of award-winning international animated short films, carefully curated by Ron Diamond, and including this year's Oscar winner, and another nominee. Finally, our programmers are hard at work selecting the best film to end this season on April 28th; keep your eyes glued to our events page, subscribe to our mailing list on our home page, and like us on Facebook for updates on this and our future seasons! See you at the cinema!