Film Reviews: NY Film Festival Closing – On-Screen Theater

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By David D’Arcy

Two divergent theatrical works for the screen were at this year’s NYFF, an adaptation of macbeth in black and white, and a hot sleeper from Romania.

NYFF opened this year with Macbeth’s Tragedydirected and scripted by Joel Coen, one half of the Coen brothers.

The film sheds blood in black and white, a tribute to the play’s history in cinema and an acknowledgment of its darkness.

The casting is led by two stars. Frances McDormand, Coen’s wife and one of the leading actresses of her generation, plays a Lady Macbeth who relentlessly pushes her husband to commit the murder that will make him a king. Denzel Washington as Macbeth is a man who learns far too early that he should have given in to his hesitation before giving in to his wife’s ambition and paying as the bodies pile up. . Killing a king is just the start.

Each of these actors is over 60, and the makeup department isn’t trying to hide it. This decision gives the play a new look (on film), and is one of the many reasons this version is worth watching. Around 1970, when critic Kenneth Tynan scripted director Roman Polanski’s film version of Macbeth (Fusion of the Arts critically), actors in their twenties were cast in the lead roles because, as Tynan reportedly put it, “he didn’t want people to be too old to be ambitious”. Or sexy. Let’s not forget that the Tynan and Polanski film was produced by Hugh Hefner. Polanski originally wanted Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

If Polanski’s Movie Looks Over This New Film’s Shoulder, So Does Orson Welles’ macbeth and Chimes at midnight.

McDormand and Washington aren’t old, nor do they play their characters as old. Yet their age frames Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, the King, as a last chance, a fatal gamble taken by a childless couple, with a particularly harsh push by a sober and calculating Lady Macbeth. (McDormand is as fatalistic at the end as she was originally determined to end the King’s life.) Washington plays Macbeth as a man who hesitates before killing a monarch, then is stricken with debilitating guilt. Fearing the inevitable, he refuses to question the witches’ prophecies that his crimes cannot be avenged.

The film is mostly set in a palace that looks like a stylistic hybrid. some of its austere rectilinear modernist spaces are hemmed in by blank walls. Rooms with peaked ceilings and windows evoke church interiors, but play areas are undefined enough — like the speaking accents of the film’s international cast — to function as theatrical stage spaces. At a press conference after the film’s New York premiere, Joel Coen explained that the film’s look may have owed more to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s cold spare interiors in The Passion of Joan of Arc than to Welles’ extensive production designs for his Shakespeare films. Critics at this screening wondered which existing modernist building had been the location of The Tragedy of Macbeth. (Edward Larrabee Barnes’ interiors came to mind.) Coen replied that the set – which looks expansive – was built for the film. Hopefully it hasn’t been demolished. Many more Shakespearean plays could be produced there.

Macbeth’s Tragedy opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

Another work that brought the theater of a show trial to the screen at the NYFF was a savage but precise satire of Romania.

Radu Jude, director of Bad Luck Bang or Loony Porninsists in interviews that the title of his film in Romanian is more obscene than it is in English.

That said, this film is a lucid condemnation of the obstacles to civility and democracy in Romania, with lessons that can be applied anywhere in the world. Best reason to see it: The film’s laughs are as unabashed as its title. It won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in March. I wrote about it here then. An update.

Jude opens No chance with a wild sex scene worthy of this title (between husband and wife, attention, which films the pleasure). Then schoolteacher Emi (Katia Pascariu), the woman, heads in a sober gray suit on foot through Bucharest, where nothing seems to be going. Men in the street approach her, ask her for sex or insult her. A guy responds lewdly when she asks him to move his car. When her marital antics earlier in the day are leaked online, she is exposed to public shame, which includes being put on trial by her school superiors in what turns out to be a circus of accusations as petty as show trials under Romanian communism. It’s a high bar, but you don’t need to know anything about Romanian communism to appreciate the film’s travesty of justice in a legal proceeding vetted by the schoolteacher’s peers.

For a real-life trial that resembles the spirit (and Grand Guignol theatrics) of the one in this film, consider Rudy Giuliani’s moralistic rant on voter fraud (as hair dye dripped down his face) at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping land in Philadelphia last November. Don’t forget the crowd of vengeful Trumpers and the sex shop and crematorium in full view right next door.

Jude is stylish and wildly funny Aferim! (a Turkish word meaning “bravo”), was a 2015 road movie inspired by westerns. His characters walked (yes, most of his characters were on foot) through the abuses and institutional absurdity of the late Ottoman period. No chance updates Jude’s ironic assessment of the corruption of mankind. The road movie takes place this time in the streets and sidewalks of Bucharest, where chance encounters and daily slights reflect a constant filth that characterizes the crushing indignity of everyday life.

Jude, 43, is prolific. As of 2018, there are about seven films he has directed I don’t care if we go down in history as barbarians, a return to the past (as is much of his work) which takes its title from a statement by a Romanian fascist leader known for his fervor in killing Jews. You will hear echoes of this irrational hatred in bad luck, coming this time from masked and socially distanced citizens during the trial every man for himself where they denounce Emi, interpreted stoically and magnificently by Katia Pascariu.

Bad Luck Bang or Loony Porn opens at the end of November.


Editor’s note: My little review of I don’t care if we go down in history as barbarians when it was screened in Boston in 2019.

“I don’t care if we go down in history as barbarians,” Romanian military dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu proclaimed during the Council of Ministers in the summer of 1941. Once the Nazis liberated Romanians from Russians, the townspeople enthusiastically began a mass slaughter. Jews. Their ferocity even antagonized the Germans, who liked things to be done in a cleaner and more systematic way. Director Radu Jude’s sardonic satire revolves around a contemporary re-enactment of the Odessa massacre orchestrated by a young theater director who finds herself (unsurprisingly) battling the city government’s attempts to censor her efforts to be ‘accurate’ . (Politicians pay for contemporary dramatization.)

It’s an overly long film with windy indulgences: an unresolved subplot about the director’s unwanted(?) pregnancy; intellectual reinforcement via heavy quotations from the work of Hannah Arendt (although a snippet of an Isaac Babel story is wonderful); and where are the romanian jewish voices? Always, Barbarics dramatizes the lingering allure of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and self-exculpatory amnesia. The dehumanization of the “other” has become second nature: to face the truth would be to reveal a moral rot that has never dissipated and continues to spread. For another look at the same issues, please read the masterful by Jan T. Gross Neighbors: the destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland.

—Bill Marx


David D’Arcywho lives in New York, writes about art for numerous publications, including the art diary. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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