July 2006

Dellamorte Dellamore

Cemetary Man DVD Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) works in a cemetery. With the aid of his assistant, Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), he digs graves, buries the dead, and shoots them in the head when they come back as zombies.

Well, it’s a job.

At this point I would normally try to provide a quick synopsis of the film, but it isn’t really possible with a film such as this where a more traditional narrative has been eschewed in favour of a series of episodes revolving around Dellamorte’s circumstances and how he deals with them.

The opening scene sets the tone of the film perfectly. While chatting on the phone there is a knock at Dellamorte’s door. He answers it to find a briefcase wielding zombie standing before him, which he calmly dispatches before returning to his phone conversation. And from here on in, we’re treated to a script that starts off by looking like an above average horror spoof but slowly becomes something much more interesting.

Much of this centres on Dellamorte’s idea woman (Anna Falchi) who comes into his life, briefly, before dying. And she keeps coming into his life in incarnations, only to disappoint him and leave him even more embittered than he already was.

Even Gnaghi manages to enjoy a (necessarily brief) romantic interlude which is both funny and fully in keeping with the situation in which he and Dellamorte have found themselves.

There are, of course, many other vignettes and scenes, all of which build upon each other to create a growing sense of understanding of Dellamorte’s situation, his moods and his frustrations. And, as the film progresses, it’s the absurdity of Dellamorte’s situation as well as his increasing bitterness that shifts the tone from the initial gory slapstick towards something that is both much darker and much more satisfying.

That said, the film never loses its sense of humour and there is a wonderfully macabre streak of dark comedy apparent throughout.

Visually, the film is gorgeous. Not only is it stunning to look at, but Soavi also successfully manages to work his themes and ideas into the – often surreal – look of the film without feeling the need to batter the audience over the head with what he’s trying to say. It’s an approach that both looks great and makes for a film that is well worth coming back to.

Rupert Everett does a great job of carrying the film along with a very dry and slightly sardonic wit. Kudos should also go to François Hadji-Lazaro who manages to invest what is essentially a comedy sidekick with some real emotional pathos.

That said, the film does drag in places and could probably have done with being about 15 minutes shorter – especially as it approaches the (admittedly excellent) ending.

Now released on DVD (as Cemetery Man), Dellamorte Dellamore really does stand the test of time as an intelligent. Surreal and often funny view of the Human condition (and I don’t believe that I just used that phrase) that happens to have zombies in it.

There is gore aplenty, but this really is a film for people that like a bit of brains with their splatter.

Heavy Soul

Heavy Soul Set in 1959, Heavy Soul is the tale of Dakota Thompson (Sally Conway), the good girl who is corrupted by the twisted morals of the time and begins her descent into addiction and promiscuity.

Starting with a portentous voice over, the film goes on to show how the sheltered Dakota is talked into going to a party. Once there, local bad boy, Hal Grover (Joe Cabatit), takes an interest in her leading her by steps into ever greater dangers so that by the end of the party she is… an ADDICT.

With Heavy Soul, director, Oren Shai takes his cues from the paranoid and exploitative ‘social guidance films’ of the era, but does a very stylish job of bringing them right up to date. Alternating between richly coloured scenes and heavily narrated black and white footage, and driven by an excellent – and always appropriate – rock and roll score, the film has a slightly surreal air and a gorgeous visual style.

Of course, all the visuals in the world are not enough if the characters don’t keep you engaged. And here Sally Conway does an incredible job with a consistently convincing and wholly sympathetic performance. Even when the dialogue becomes deeply corny – as it must, given the source of this film’s inspiration – Conway manages to remain both believable and sympathetic.

I’ve briefly mentioned the soundtrack already, but since this makes up such a major part of the film it’s worth mentioning again. A well selected collection of rockabilly songs is played throughout the film – including a solo performance from Pete Ludovico as heart-throb singer Johnny B - giving it a strong feeling of having been transposed directly from the fifties. But this is not a music film and, far form being intrusive, the soundtrack works with the plot perfectly, striking just the right note (often literally) at just the right time to keep things moving forwards.

With Heavy Soul, Oren Shai walks the fine line between parody and homage, and does so to great effect. He clearly has a great deal of affection for the teen culture of the time, as well as for the period’s exploitation films, but this doesn’t stop him from mercilessly sending up the cultural paranoia that was also very much in evidence at the time.

Heavy Soul, then, is a tribute to 1950s teen culture and to the exploitation films and drive-in movies that emerged around them. It’s also a spot on satire of the sort of moral panic that these films both fed on and encouraged and which, in not too dissimilar a form, still exists today.

Lilja 4-ever

Lilja 4-ever poster Lilja 4-Ever opens with a bruised and battered Lilja (Oksana Akinshina) ready to jump from a road bridge, and then jumps back three months to explain how she reached this situation.

It all starts off so positively. Lilja’s mother (Lyubov Agapova) has met an American through a dating agency and Lilja is looking forward to travelling with her to the US to start a new life away from the grinding poverty of her native post-communist Russia.

Then her mother drops her bombshell. She and Lilja’s stepfather to be have decided that it would be better all round if Lilja stays in Russia for now, to be sent for at a later date. Abandoned, humiliate and betrayed things only get worse for Lilja from here on in.

16 year old Lilja has been left, ostensibly, in the care of her Aunt Anna (Liliya Shinkaryova) who promptly turfs Lilja out of her home, insisting that it’s too big for her, and moves her into a much smaller – and frankly disgusting – flat that has become vacant following the death of the previous occupant.

After her mother disowns her, Lilja finds herself alone – abandoned by most of the people she knows - with no money, no food, no heating and no electricity. The only friend who has stayed loyal to her is Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), an eleven year old boy who has been kicked out of his home by an abusive father and winds up staying with Lilja.

Eventually, inevitably, she drifts into prostitution to make ends meet

The environment in which Lilja’s finds herself is both grim and violent and the film is a very downbeat one, so much so that it could easily have become an unwatchably nihilistic experience. What raises it from this, and keeps you involved throughout, is the character of Lilja herself.

Oksana Akinshina does a fantastic job of drawing you into Lilja’s world and communicating her strength of character throughout. Although the vast majority of the characters that Lilja encounters are at best uncaring and at worst deliberately cruel, the film, by siding so clearly with the main character, never comes across as being either cruel or exploitative. Even when you can see the mistakes that Lilja is making and even when you can see the inevitable consequences of those mistakes, you can also understand exactly how she reached those decisions and, still, you find yourself desperately wanting things to come right.

Lilja 4-Ever is, however, a bleak film and one that is, ultimately, about people trafficking and an exploration of the sort of desperation that leads people to believe in obviously empty promises. As such, it is a film that had much to say about the issues and debates surrounding illegal immigration when it was released in 2002. It probably has even more to say about these issues today.