Sydney Film Festival: Dispatch #3

A couple of Australian docos, a 140-minute one-take heist film, a film shot entirely inside a cab, and an Italian gangster flick all feature in our third Sydney Film Festival dispatch.

women he's undrsesed
Women He’s Undressed

Jessica Arman reviews.

SEE for the ending alone.

Gillian Armstrong departs from her conventional style, launching into a biography about Australia’s ‘secret’ Hollywood costume designer, Orry-Kelly. Yet, her speciality for period pieces and female roles is not lost. Armstrong’s film investigates what—and more specifically, who—created the cults of personality which made actresses such as Bette Davis and Natalie Wood cinematic legends. This is where Kelly’s significance lies—a man who acknowledged the ironic importance of superficial appearance to the authenticity of character.

The recurring motif of a gushing blowhole is perhaps the most poignant representation of Kelly’s personality. Outspoken, honest, purposeful—an uncontrollable force of nature. The film raises the questionof how a personality such as Kelly’s, receiving three Academy Awards, is largely forgotten in contemporary Australia. The answer is located in the difficulty Kelly faced as a homosexual man in Post-War America, notably his relationship with Archie Leach (later known as Carey Grant). Accordingly, the vaudeville buoyancy of the film is subtly tempered with a tragic undertone.

Armstrong’s technical background in design is the perfect fit with Kelly’s artistic genius. The film is thoroughly voyeuristic, jumping from the sweeping realism of Kelly’s origins on the Australian seaside and the glamour of the Golden Age.

The film succeeds in its versatility. Armstrong taps into multiple chords of interest, exploiting our enchantment with the glittery surface of Hollywood, and our equal fascination with the secrets of the human psyche. The eclectic mixture of classic cinema, fictional re-creation and biographical interviews can, at times, overwhelm. However, Armstrong makes a point to bring it back to its roots through Darren Gilshenan’s narration, breaking the fourth wall. The absence of a cinematic barrier between Kelly and the audience celebrates the spirit of full disclosure, and moreover, paints him as thoroughly human. Armstrong achieves this with a light-hearted wit, suggesting her main motive is to re-discover the Australian Orry-Kelly as ‘our own’.

The film has wide appeal as a testament to an Australian spirit which thrived within Hollywood. Yet, Armstrong creates a fantastical exploration into the creation of appearance without being superficial. The final twist—jubilantly uncovered—is a rewarding conclusion for Kelly’s legacy and audiences alike.



Black Souls

Jonathon Parker reviews.

On the balance of things, a reluctant DON’T SEE.

Black Souls is a drab and humourless affair. The pallid, washed-out digital palette mirrors the greying hair and facial crevices of its mostly middle-aged cast, carrying a world-weary solemnity. With respect to this tautly evoked tone, this latest offering from the gangster subgenre of ‘family tensions within the Mafia’ succeeds only aesthetically in the end, as familiarities and logical non-sequiturs start to take hold.

The film centres on the relationship between three brothers in living in Southern Italy. Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane) is a grounded goat-herder who has forged a life of atavism separate from the world of drug-trafficking his brothers Luigi (Marco Leonardi) and Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) operate within. After his son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo) becomes drawn to the criminal underground of his uncles, Luciano is forced back into the family’s affairs. As this synopsis may indicate, many familiar character archetypes are present in this film: the unhinged and arrogant show-pony, the wily intellect, and the humble man reluctantly pulled back into the world he has tried to relinquish.

Director Francesco Munzi provides very little sense of the world outside the core family, which is actually quite an interesting framework. Munzi often jettisons long landscape shots in favour of a more insular look at the dynamics within the domestic space itself. The film also lacks a totalising sense of perspective; however, the film’s shifts in perspective, with almost every character in the ensemble focused on in at least one scene, are often seamless. This allows us to observe the inciting motivations and introspections of many characters first-hand. We understand quite thoroughly what many characters want to achieve and why, which is impressive given the film’s predominant lack of clunky expository dialogue, even though the psychological toll of this milieu, and the characters’ behaviours, is rarely explored.

In the case of Luciano, actor Ferracane is quiet and sublime when eliciting his character’s sense of unease, but he’s the only character given much emotional weight. All the actors do a fine job at crystallising their character archetype through their expression, but they are given little by way of development past a superficial understanding of their initial aspirations.

Much of the film’s earlier nuance is undermined in the climax, as Munzi abandons all subtlety for clumsy bombast and misplaced grandiosity. Character arcs, where there are some, are tritely completed too suddenly without much consideration of moral consequence, undercutting the film’s prior sense of patience. I rarely say this, but perhaps the film may have benefitted from an extra ten minutes of screen-time.

This is an almost commendable film whichis let down by its own misguidances. The promise of insularity only goes so far in unravelling the titular blackness of these peoples’ souls.



Tehran Taxi

Katie Davern reviews.

SEE, especially if you’ve even once thought you had a good taxi story.

If Tehran Taxi is anything to go by, jail time for depictions of “sordid realism” and a 20-year state ban against filmmaking don’t seem to phase iconic Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who, lately, is making smuggling films into international film festivals and winning prestigious awards a bit of a habit.

Filmed from various cameras positioned in a taxi, Panahi’s own mobile phone and the video devices of passengers, the audience is privy to an 82-minute-long uninterrupted flow of director Panahi pretending to be a taxi driver and transporting an assortment of colourful characters around the beautiful, busy capital city of Iran.

The narrative’s drama is amped up a notch because, unlike in Sydney, Tehran taxis operate almost like a paying car pool with locals well accustomed to sharing their journey with others. Thus, characters’ lives and political views intersect at every turn in the film and we learn lots of things: muggers prefer the term ‘freelancers’, the Big Bang Theory is actually a highly sought-after pirated DVD in Iran, and if you’re in a rush, you should never carry goldfish in an open bowl in a taxi (just in case you ever thought that was a good idea). Sometimes the succession of such vivid characters seems a bit implausible but the measured movement of the film and Panahi’s real-life sincerity overcome any inklings of superficiality.

For each seemingly eccentric character, there’s a conversation that touches on the unexpected – things like capital punishment, women’s property rights or Iranian law and order. To its advantage, the film ultimately chooses to focus on the state’s repression of filmmakers’ creative freedom which is plainly played out with one of the highlight passengers of the film, Panahi’s young, sharp-witted aspiring filmmaker of a niece, Hana.

Tehran Taxi has been described as Panahi’s most light-hearted film to date, and while I can’t definitively agree or disagree (full disclosure: without seeing his others), I can say the film is sometimes thought provoking, often hilarious and always thoroughly captivating.




Harry Welsh reviews.

SEE for a powerful Australian doco that brings a unique perspective to well-covered subject matter.

The ultimate physical challenge. Glory. Power. Insensitive ego-wanking over sacred ground. This is the image Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa paints of the Everest summit climb, laying her focus on the inequalities and challenges faced by the obliging Sherpa community. Out of coincidence, Sherpa was filmed over a period of dramatic change in the Sherpa community, and it is this event that makes the film so unique.

At the premiere Peedom spoke of her experience as a camera operator in the Himalayas, and producer John Smithson of his role on mountaineering classic Touching the Void, so from the outset the film had promise. These filmmakers have an earnest respect for Everest (known as Chomolungma to the Sherpa), contradicting the popular Western attitude that it’s the ‘ultimate challenge’ and simply another pursuit of an adrenaline rush.

Peedom showcases every community involved in the summit climb, consisting primarily of the Sherpa, the expedition operators, the clients, and to a lesser extent the government. When the event of controversy occurs, Peedom remains unbiased in the portrayal of each party, but the opinions of certain individuals make it easy to back the minority of the Sherpa. Even without the controversial event, this film is visually stunning and Peedom gives the Everest landscape leg room to flex its aesthetically commanding muscles; another indicator of her respect as a spectator.

It’s difficult to contemplate Sherpa as simply another film, but from a critical perspective, Peedom loses focus in the aftermath of the main event, but quickly reforms itself in a satisfying, surprisingly wholesome conclusion.

Sherpa breaks the longstanding image of the friendly, obliging Sherpa, and depicts them as subjects of a well-known inequality that few have bothered to care about. But it is not only a propaganda piece for the Sherpa; it is an illustration of Everest’s spiritual significance and a critique of the egotistical Western desire to physically challenge oneself.




Andy Chalmers reviews.

A technical achievement and a solid caper, but SEE Victoria for its sociological utility.

Skim a synopsis of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were going to see a heist film. After all, the central event in the film’s narrative is a bank robbery, and pairing a naïve café worker with a group of charismatic criminals reads like a perfect recipe for chaos.

Schipper’s stylistic choices also seemingly lend themselves to a rollicking criminal adventure; filmed in a single long take, Victoria spends upwards of two hours navigating the streets and buildings of Berlin – an ideal playground for a band of crooks to work their magic. In reality, however, the heart of Victoria lies more so in its exploration of human interaction than in its depiction of a criminal act.

The story begins with a nightclub encounter between the eponymous Victoria (Laia Costa) and a group of rowdy young men, which soon spills onto the street. One of the men—Sonne (Frederick Lau)—takes a particular interest in Victoria, and for the duration of the film’s first hour, we witness these characters get to know each other in a drunken stupor across multiple Berlin locations.

Almost all of the dialogue in Victoria is improvised, affording the characters a depth of humanity that would most likely otherwise be absent. The banter between characters feels authentic, is never overtly expository, and is frequently hilarious in its stupidity—when the drunken antics of the group attract the police, one of the men assures his friends that they are safe from the law as they are “standing on a zebra crossing”.

Additionally, the improvised dialogue—in combination with the real-time depiction of events and handheld camera work—adds a unique sense of realism to the film. Much like real life, Victoria is full of the clunky passages, repetition, and awkward pauses that most films gloss over. This realism allows for full immersion in its diegetic space, the benefits of which are reaped when the film’s central heist finally plays out.

For all of its technical triumphs and rich depictions of reality, Victoria is not without its flaws, most of which lie at the core of its narrative—certain turns of events are improbable to say the least, and the decision-making of some characters is at times irrational to the point of ridiculousness. However, the brilliant direction of Schipper, along with superb performances from Costa and Lau bring the world of the film to life in a way that reveals a lot more about the way we interact with each other than it does about the logistics of a bank robbery.