The Two Popes – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Written by Anthony McCarten

With an audience of around 1.2 billion (give or take), Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, arguably has the globe’s largest draw of worshippers, certainly exceeding actors, directors and writers. Some welcome his influence in an age where many criticise the Church over its inability to ordain women, its archaic views of sexuality and failures to tackle bureaucracy within. His predecessor, disagreeing virulently with Francis, may have just been the man to recognise this ability. Now if that isn’t a sound premise for one of the industry’s esteemed biopic writers, then we don’t know what is.

Delving into a subject many would resign to niche, Anthony McCarten’s The Two Popes squeezes each ounce of enthralling drama from one of organised religion’s most frustratingly difficult modern periods. With little surprise either, given McCarten’s previous work with award-winning biopics The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. An excavator of character, McCarten is an alchemist of biographies, homing in on aspects which are enticing for audiences, offering insight at the underbelly, though never to the off-putting degree. The same is true for the lives of Pope Benedict XVI and then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would later become Pope Francis following Benedict’s resignation.

Moving from the stage, it’s evident that McCarten’s screenplay still rings of its theatrical counterpart, particularly in the staging and framework of Anthony Hopkins’ conversations with Jonathan Pryce. Much of the film is centred on dialogue, discussing world issues and individual moralities. Naturally, Pryce is in his element, and it’s clear to see in his movements that Meirelles’ has put some form of staging into his direction. Visually, the film is superb, entirely cinematic in thought-process, Mark Tildesley’s design work gorgeously reflecting the hollow emptiness of the Vatican halls.

The two stars retain the English language, for the most part, dipping into Latin or German when appropriate, but the physical transformations are spot-on. Particularly Hopkins static, open-armed frame of an ailing leader, coming to terms with his redundancy in a fast-moving world. It stretches into the comedic elements, Hopkins’ Pope Benedict XVI, a man noted for his less empathetic approach, with a profoundly German wit ricochets well against Pryce’s more conventional pun making, the two naturally flowing from one to the other.

Reliant on Pryce and Hopkins, it’s no wonder The Two Popes is in safe hands. Profound character studies, blending histories, McCarten draws parallels with Bergoglio’s history with the atrocities surrounding Pope Benedict’s time as ‘Il Papa’. A scandal to shudder the church, the concealment of child abuse sharply turned the public eye towards the secrets of organised religion. Acknowledging Pope Benedict’s involvement in the cover-ups, this is not the focus of the narrative, but instead focusing on Bergoglio’s lesser-known past, and the ‘betrayal’ he feels to have committed in South America, which feels like a side-step from controversy. 

Their flashbacks mark a tonal shift for the film, which for the most part has conducted a slower pace, reflective of the men it marks. The cardinal who once whistled ‘Dancing Queen in the Vatican bathrooms, who sought the piety of life, was of course, once a man. Juan Minujín’s performance offsets Pryce’s jolly, humble exterior for an aggressive, younger Priest who had a part to play in the ‘Dirty War’ of Argentina. 

Concealing itself behind the visage of stuffiness, try not to judge The Two Popes on subject matter alone. For while it focuses on two men standing as the pinnacle or relics of religious spiritualism, the meat of the film centres on adversaries who find harmony within one another. A striking visual splendour, humour rippling itself in the vein of the script, Pryce and Hopkins carry McCarten’s delicately humane adaptation, with meticulous direction to present a true event. It encases a playful stretch of accounts of how these two men, a progressive moderate and a conservative leader, would find a common ground, and a love for tango dancing.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/the-two-popes/

The Two Pope’s is available to stream on Netflix from December 20th

The Kingmaker – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Written & Directed by Lauren Greenfield

Lies have found their place as currency in politics, haven’t they? Well, it’s certainly no different than the past. The only difference lies in the medium in which propaganda is broadcast. One woman who appreciates the value of an image, claiming to have solved the Cold War within ‘five minutes’, and rubbed shoulders with history’s wealthiest, influential is the former First Lady of The Philippines, Imelda Marcos; A fascinating woman who may play the part of the innocent ‘Mother’ of the nation but is first and foremost The KingmakerFollowing the death of her husband, President Ferdinand Marcos, she has her eyes set on a new King, her son Bongbong, ascending to the leadership of the Philippines.

What starts as a documentary, seemingly offering a platform for Marcos, turns into a nightmarish, honest and cold-cut horror piece of reality. The Kingmaker is as repulsive as it is engrossing, without resorting to forced perspective. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield masterfully stitches the truth against Marcos as an unreliable narrator, producing an insightful documentary on the obsessive allure of power, wealth and legacy.

Refusing to maintain this platform, subverting it instead, Greenfield admits that upon meeting Marcos, she was unsure of the former First Lady’s intentions. Poised with an image in mind, it takes little time to realise that for Marcos, as with her life, this is another tapestry to weave. To paint her visage once more, to outright deny, distract and cast smoke around her history. The stories she tells, the way she feigns ignorance to the billions she and her husband robbed from the Filipino public and the attempt to control the direction of the documentary, Imelda Marcos is no ‘trophy’ first lady, but a tactician.

Refuting this, Greenfield seamlessly provides rebuttals to Marcos’ attempts at drawing her narrative. Without false pretense or unneeded pathos, brutal accounts of the martial law, the sexual assault and violence the people suffered under the Marcos’ rule are played directly after interview segments. The Kingmaker’s editing is fluid, without awkward transitions of showcasing, instead noting the importance of reporting a direct truth against the lies told. We flow from Marcos’ words of vindication for her family to the imagery of poverty, a broken nation and first-hand accounts of the brutality they suffered. 

Expanding on this unreliable nature, Greenfield’s documentary-style achieves a precise cinema verité in the construct of multiple scenes. Enabling multiple shots to have this ‘fly on the wall’ reach means that when Marcos’ pre-planned image fails, Greenfield captures the moment. It’s an open form of cinema where the camera is acknowledged, a raw documentary style which captures every motion, smile or servant bustling away with photos, portraits or bags filled with cash.

Reflecting her privilege, Lars Skree and Shana Hagan’s cinematography knows precisely where to focus in the Marcos family home, without obvious crassness. Framing Marcos near the stolen paintings she claims to have never owned, their cinematography forces nothing. Instead, it allows Marcos to fall on her opulence. Candidly walking, showcasing her prized Picassos or Michaelangelos, Skree and Hagan capture the decadence in which Marcos lives, contrasting it with wide shots of the countryside, which then crash into the reality of the surrounding slums of the Philippines.

The Kingmaker is a sublime piece of cinema verité, and moulds itself around the subject, acknowledging the attempts Marcos makes in constructing an image she can ‘sell’ to the world to reclaim former glory. Greenfield’s film is no less brave than it is insightfully smart, rather than direct opposition to the Marcos family, it humbly presents indisputable accounts to provide a balanced documentary, mesmeric in its deconstruction of dictatorial corruption and its analysis of lies.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/the-kingmaker/

Tigers Are Not Afraid

Written & Directed by Issa López

Since the involvement of the Mexican government in 2006, the war on Drug cartels and trafficking have torn apart the cultural landscape of South America, surprisingly without much focus from many Western nations. With upwards of 160,000 recorded deaths, with many children being hidden on the fatality list, ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ (2017) blends together a mixture of spiritual folklore, horror and dramatic filmmaking to highlight the atrocity of reality, and how this Halloween ghosts and spectres are far tamer than the genuine monsters this world faces.

Flirting with the fantastical, writer and director Issa López has gone on to receive tremendous respect for her piece. A story of Estrella’s (Paola Lara) quest to find her mother, who has been snatched by drug-traffickers, leads to an encounter with a group of lost boys. Here, they steal, laugh and survive in a harsh city district, hiding from the Huascas, a drug cartel, after the boy’s leader Shine (Juan Ramón López) steals a cartel’s phone containing contacts, evidence and a few photos of the both Shine and Estrella’s mothers.

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Thankfully, López has the backbone to treat this horror with the required nerve, refusing to hide behind off-screen deaths. Anyone is fair game, a testament to the callousness of Mexico’s drug-feuds. Of course, though, the one person they would never suspect to hold the key, or rather the chalk, to foiling their plans, would be a woman, or better still, a young girl. Estrella receives three ‘wishes’ by her teacher, in a tear-inducing symbolic gesture of the weapon against the drug trade, and patriarchal fear – education.

“López has the backbone to treat this horror with the required nerve, refusing to hide behind off-screen deaths. Anyone is fair game, a testament to the callousness of Mexico’s drug-feuds.”

Arming herself with these wishes, Estrella’s performance from Paolo Lara is a part of the film’s success, with others being López’s concept and the character of Shine. A generic narrative of ‘careful what you wish for’ is in lew put the background, integral but not the focal point. Lara’s wishes result in fear-inducing events; the first, to have her mother return, brings the measure of horror forward. Lara is a natural, naïve but sturdy enough to stand against the boys, becoming a mother figure, in what is a thinly veiled reference of Peter Pan. Her back and forth with Shine, who so desperately wants to be the tiger he dresses is a relationship at the core of the film.

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Symbolically, these tigers, these people who desire to move from their storybook princes into stealthy, majestic creatures are far from the animals they idolise. Splattering the streets of Mexico with graffiti, the Huascas are illustrated with claws, teeth and the slit eyes – when in reality, they are anything but. Shine’s ‘cowardice’ keeps him from earing these stripes. Shine himself, noting that as a ‘king of a fucked-up kingdom’ he cannot kill the man who stole his mother. This lack of assertive cruelty somehow equates to masculinity, communicating volumes to the film’s intention.

“Lara is a natural, naïve but sturdy enough to stand against the boys, becoming a mother figure, in what is a thinly veiled reference of Peter Pan.”

Mexico has a diverse, intense relationship with death, horror and the spiritual. Currently undergoing a renaissance of Horror movies, these films created by Latin filmmakers like López or producer Marco Polo Constandse have no fear of the genre like their American counterparts. It’s Spanish title, ‘Vuelven’ translates to ‘Return’, a rather literal, though relating title. As such, spirits exist in the between, making for superbly tense shots from Juan Jose Saravia’s cinematography. Lingering, those who have suffered the Hollywood fake-out or jump scare will be unnerved by how silent this film can be, allowing an uncomfortable unease to do the work. As we close-in on shots, empty and grim, a small movement, or perhaps the sound effect is enough to push your eyes away.

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Just as methodically unpleasant, Vicent Pope’s score is uncomfortable, but in that rare manner, only Horror can achieve. It works, you’re not put off by the design of the score, but there’s something which hazes your senses. Together, Pope and López capture the fear these children experience, just how open and vulnerable they are. Bleeding through our reality, folklore weaves around the film, keeping itself to the realm of shadowy imagination. It’s in effect how the blending of genres should work, neither takes a principle role, complimenting one another.

The fairy-tale gruesomeness never diminishes the realism, and the gritty drug-focused horror never detracts from the myth. Treating aspects of legend in reverence, similar to master of the craft Guillermo Del Torro, López’s sense of mystic is two-fold, an escape from the harsh monstrosities of reality and punishment for our antagonist. For the most part, the blending is sublime, a metaphorical sense of horror than a cheap sense of fright, but sadly one or two jump scares, and a peculiar revival of a stuffed animal draws us straight out of the immersion.

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“Bleeding through our reality, folklore weaves around the film, keeping itself to the realm of shadowy imagination. It’s in effect how the blending of genres should work, neither takes a principle role, complimenting one another.”

Generalizing a complex social-political issue, López seems unsure of where to draw her focus. Aware to place the children at the heart of the narrative, with the supernatural enveloping the surrounding darknesses, it leaves little room for physical antagonists in the form of The Huascas or Chino, though Ianis Guerrero provides a marvellous climax alongside Lara and Ramon López as the spiritual horror kicks in a gear or two, with a repulsive, somehow sickeningly satisfying punishment for the human-trafficker. ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ continues Mexico’s history of tremendous pieces of horror, an example of Hispanic – Latina cinema’s continuing trend to take the chances Hollywood fears to gamble on.

Review originally published for In Their Own League