Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Days 8 & 9: Two Political Comedies and an Evening with Mel Gibson

For reasons too banal to get into, I've fallen way behind on my reporting from the Sydney Film Festival. As of the time of this writing, the festival has been officially closed for almost 24 hours. I'll do my best to accelerate the pace of these posts so that they'll be as timely as possible.

Before I discuss the films, however, I had the pleasure (of sorts) of attending a special event, "An Evening with Mel Gibson."

More after the jump.

The infamous actor/director of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ visited the Sydney Film Festival for the first time in his long career to discuss his new acting role in Blood Father, a thriller directed by Jean-Fran├žois Richet, and his upcoming directing effort, a WWII film called Hacksaw Ridge about the first conscientious objector to win a Medal of Honor in American military history. As expected, Gibson came off as a bit unhinged - the moderator wisely avoided most of the touchy subjects, though a discussion of American politics did end in a quasi-endorsement of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson - but remains a charismatic presence. The conversation didn't reveal much about his process as either an actor or a director, but Gibson was engaging, particularly when telling stories about his amateur tattooing and driving around with convicted murderers. You know, the sort of edge-of-danger stuff you expect from the man who originated the role of Mad Max.

Speaking of edge of danger: Australian filmmaker Abe Forsythe's pitch-black comedy Down Under (grade: A) pushes buttons while being enormously entertaining. The film takes place one day after the  Cronulla riots of 2005, where white beachgoers clashed with the Middle Eastern community on Australia Day. The film opens with actual footage of the intense race riots before transitioning to two groups of lunkheads: Nick (Rahel Romahn) and D-Mac (Fayssal Bazzi) convince Hassim (Lincoln Youres) and his uncle Ibrahim (Michael Denkha) to seek vengeance for the presumed beating of Hassim's missing brother, while Jason (Damon Herriman) and Ditch (Justin Rosinak) push Shit-Stick (Alexander England) and his disabled cousin Evan (Chris Bunton) to patrol their neighborhood with them to "protect" it from anyone seeking revenge.

It sounds like the set-up for a tense thriller, but the comedy works because every one of these characters is an idiot in one way or another, with the exception of Evan. This isn't to say that there aren't serious moments: each character is humanized in some way, and there are bursts of violence that are especially jarring and graphic. But the film's strongest asset is its sense of humor. Two memorable chase sequences - one through a suburban neighborhood, the other a low-speed pursuit - are easy highlights, but other bits - including a fantastic breakdown of bureaucratic procedure and a hysterical Vin Diesel reference - soar purely on their absurdity. The cast is phenomenal in selling these characters, making every line and action feel natural rather than forced, and they balance the film's thin line of outrageous humor and brutal violence.

Forsythe, however, delivers the film's finest performance from behind the camera. The Cronulla riots are still a very touchy subject in Australia, so to make any film, especially a comedy, about them is a risky proposition. But Forsythe brilliantly balances the film's tricky tones, staging excellent comedic set pieces without making the racial violence a joke. He's also great at setting up great punchlines, including a terrific gag involving Ditch's bandage. Yet Forsythe's greatest strength is stealth: the film's thematic message on viral hatred and ignorance sneaks up on you, particularly in the sucker-punch finale. Forsythe is a real talent, and hopefully the film will get a Stateside release.

Blending comedy and politics is especially difficult in a society that strictly regulates the arts. This is what makes Barakah Meets Barakah (grade: A-) a small miracle of a film. A rare film from Saudi Arabia, this romantic comedy follows municipal policeman Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) as he pursues Bibi (Fatima AlBanawi), a fashion boutique model and Instagram celebrity. It is illegal, however, for single men and women to be seen together in public, so the two have to sneak around just to be together. But Bibi's parents are arranging a marriage for her, meaning that she and Barakah have to figure out their relationship before it's too late.

Director Mahmoud Sabbagh presents an engaging portrait of Jeddah, a city that has rarely appeared on film (films are rarely made in Saudi Arabia, as cinema-going is against the law). Fageeh and AlBanawi both deliver terrific performances, selling their romance while playing the rough edges that come with any budding relationship. The cultural context, however, is the main draw: watching the two navigate the social constrictions of their relationship is fascinating, and Sabbagh intelligently comments on their hurdles without making them painfully obvious.

If there's one major flaw in the film, it's that the intricacies of proper behavior in Saudi society can be confusing to anyone not familiar with them. Sabbagh includes two monologues where Barakah reminisces on how Saudi Arabia was before religious conservatism dictated social decency, but neither makes sense without knowledge of the nation's 20th century history. This isn't necessarily a fault of the film: it was clearly made for a Saudi audience, and Sabbagh has said in interviews that he would like for his film to be shown in his home country. But to a foreign audience, these elements may mystify. Regardless, the film works as a politically-charged romantic comedy. That's a feat that anyone can appreciate.

Tomorrow: a pair of ostensibly family-oriented films.

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