Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Directed by Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

New Zealand/ 2019/ 103 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We’re halfway through 2020, a peculiar pandemic year which hosts a variety of elections, consequences, narcissistic reaches, and exposure of the toxic systems in place in a way which bathes inequalities – particularly economic – in a floodlight. As the first generation projected to earn less than their parents since the second world war, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century encompasses everything you claimed to know on Twitter into a malleable chunk of text. Now, Justin Pemberton has re-parcelled Piketty’s book into a documentary which shows how the world has been shaped, and that how if we fail to strike a balance we are, in the politest way possible, screwed.

From French 18th century aristocracy, to the English gentry’s modern-day reproduction of wealth into the UK’s 1%, and the inherited privilege of the “rich kids” of Asia or the US, Pemberton plunges into the depths of commerce, and how capital(ism) has donned various visages over the decades. But it equally recognises the naivety of revolution or forced change and the necessity for organised institutions of education, business and yes, even government. Remarkably, in an era of cancel culture and the tantalising ease of drawing in a radical crowd, hungry to tear down a faceless giant of multinational conglomerations, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tries to present history. The fact is, as much as some regret to admit, the system is flawed, but not quite as those who circumvent it to their selfish gains.

Less a procedural expansion, more an entry point into the powerhouse, influential book, this documentary supplement to the mammoth literary counterpart condenses the source material, and offers ease of access to a wider range for those curious about the behemoth that is capitalism’s secrets. For those who prefer side-cuts and cultural references to embellish their exposition, enter director Justin Pemberton who portions the timescale into landmark film examples. From an explanation of the reality of capital’s foundations in landownership and commerce, and our acceptance of this using Pride & Prejudice, to a wider analogy with Elysium or A Tale of Two Cities, or a trivialisation, such as the French Revolution’s (attempted) abolishment of the aristocracy being boiled down to Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables.

Stepping beyond the works of Austen, much of Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s ease of access is down to its aesthetic structure, with both academics who are not only well versed in their respective fields but equally capable on camera, and enjoyable bite-sized chunks of animation and graphics. With on the nose introductions to the film with Lorde’s ‘Royals’, Pemberton again infuses the importance of cultural substances into how regularly changes or tactics in capitalism are imposed on a general populace.

Tying the knots together, albeit loosely, the documentary takes on an obvious form of narrative as we enter a present era. There’s a horrific harkening to the downtrodden who are vulnerable to the rise of fascism, racism or inward hatred of immigration similar, to the delusional influence of nationalism and prejudice in the spark of the second world war. Sound familiar yet? And while the empty, spiteful tones of Trump and Farage are only heard briefly, Pemberton designs the film in such a way as to allow the audience the grace of beating him to the punch.

Sadistically affable and engaging, though expectedly irksome, Pemberton finds no solution – but did we expect one? The answer to the world’s financial inequalities and wealth distribution will likely not come from the hands of filmmakers. But frustratingly, rather than questioning options or attempts, Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s focus lies squarely on the ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, yet isn’t keen on investigating the ‘what now?’. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Corpus Christi – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed by Jan Komasa

Written by Mateusz Pacewicz

Taking inspiration from real events, Corpus Christi, named after the Christian feast the film builds towards, centres around the spiritual awakening Daniel receives while serving time in a Polish detention centre for youths. Upon release, Daniel wishes to repent; in search of absolution, he desires to become a priest but is unable to do so due to his criminal record. Unwilling to work in a sawmill for the rest of his days and stumbling upon a chance encounter with an ailing vicar, Daniel takes on the name of the prison chaplain, performing sacramental rights in the vicar’s absence and he begins to find a sense of forgiveness in a village suffering from a tragedy.

As fragile and unsettling as he is charming, Bartosz Bielenia carries Corpus Christi, there is no question about this. Side characters play their part, but all receive a lift in scenes they share with Bielenia. Closer to the start of his career than the end, Bielenia commands a measure of emotions which is enviable to even seasoned experts. Using a concoction of troubled confusion, anxiety and lashings of aggression, he still achieves Pacewichz’s humour in the script in a natural way with co-star Eliza Rycembel.

The film is a rare piece which communicates much by saying little; few issues are drawn out or laid bare to the audience. The symbolic struggle of political over religious influence or power is not spelt out, but rather proffered up for our interpretation. A crucial idea is that no matter the influence office possesses, only one form of authority can force the other to, quite literally, bend the knee. Power-play, particularly masculine, is intrinsic to the plotline. In recognising Daniel’s influence over the community, Leszek Lichota’s Mayor of the town gives a subdued performance, resonating with Komasa’s stringent realism in direction. There are multiple opportunities for melodrama, for exaggeration and outright antagonists, but thankfully we never fall into these pitfalls.

With reverence, even while acknowledging the declining faith in Europe and that many churchgoers do so out of habit rather than belief, Mateusz Pacewichz’s script refrains from petty jabs at religion. Instead, it allows commentary of the church’s apparent confusion over redemption, confession and forgiveness. Sexton for the vicarage – Aleksandra Konieczna as Lidia – is the representative of the judgement which dictates these communities, with a sense of self-conflicting authority, which hinders future generations’ opportunities to grow in this brutal coming-of-age drama.

Corpus Christi is a quiet film, unafraid of holding both the moment and indeed the shot. It paces itself to the beat of the audience’s breath, stilling in the poignant moments of death or reflection, with cuts occurring in quick succession via the introduction of club-anthems, drug abuse and strobe lighting. Piotr Sobocinski Jr’s cinematography works, but struggles to find a reflective vision for the film, unsure of how to stylise the aesthetic. In aiming for realism, the film has choice moments of spectacle, usually at the hand of effects, lighting or performance, rather than editing or camera work. There’s a blur, which complements interior shots of smoke or incense, but one can’t help feel the hollow coldness of the blues and greys aren’t being used to full effect, excluding, of course, an uncomfortably brutal climax.

Viscerally, the conclusion absconds from the perverse silence which has set the pace before it. A gut-punch, this finale is a shattering of the illusory happy ending, a reminder of the film’s subcutaneous message that the young are the ones paying for the attitudes of established communities. Following his previous feature film Warsaw 44, Corpus Christi is principal evidence of Jan Komasa’s spectacular ability as a filmmaker, in and outside of Poland. The elements are there, and further collaboration with Bartosz Bielenia is hopefully on the cards as the two evolve together.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: