Wednesday, 28 March 2012

flacas vacas (d. santiago svirsky, w. verónica perrotta)

Flacas Vacas takes a formula and applies it to a local environment. The formula is three women in their thirties going away on a disastrous holiday. The environment is the Uruguayan coast. The movie is clearly billed as a comedy and features classic comedy elements such as a squashed pet turtle and the gradual destruction of the holiday cottage. The relationships between the three women evolve, if not in quite the saccharine Hollywood manner the formula might have suggested. There's a handsome stranger (played by Dario, a man I met the other night who dedicates three sessions a week to studying the theatrics of Mnouchkine. Whose work he saw once in Santiago.) The Dario character is perhaps the least interesting of the lot, doing what men do - taking cocaine and shagging the slightly prettier woman after suggesting he was going to shag the slightly less pretty woman. But the female characters are all convincing and believable. One of them is played by the writer, Veronica Perrota, whose sassy script keeps the film honest. The cinematography is astute: every time there's a wide, the film looks a bit iffy. Suggesting the camera was not top of the range. But sensibly the DOP has gone for close-ups and carefully framed shots, giving the piece a slightly clumsy artfulness which keeps the focus on the actresses and helps to recount what is essentially the story of three women's lost weekend.

The fact that the movie has been made and released is telling. This is a post-dictatorship, nascent middle class movie. The politics are kept under the table. The characters don't seem in any way 'third world': they're slightly confused women whose problems relate to relationships and men. And getting on with each other. As such, Flacas Vacas offers a convincing portrait of a new Latin American demographic. It's not the most profound of films, but like the US model it perhaps echoes, it's not trying to be. Personally, I'd have liked the film to have explored in slightly more detail the darker edges of its characters' lives, but this is a comedy first and a drama second. As such, it's an effective, intelligent piece of movie making which is fluffy enough to please its target audience without ever being gratingly fluffy; retaining the necessary hint of psychological veracity to ensure that it doesn't get lost in pursuit of a happy-ever-after conclusion.

Monday, 19 March 2012

chef [jaspreet singh]

Kashmir seems a long way away from Montevideo, but Singh's novel brought it back to life. The novel (as often seems to be the case in Indian literature) is a first person account of the trials and tribulations of a sympathetic but hapless chef in the Indian army. The twist in Singh's take on Kashmir is that he presents the conflict from the point of view of a soldier-chef, Kip Singh, a Sikh from Delhi. Who is seduced by the charms of the Himalayan province, losing his faith in the army and the Indian state in the process.

As well as offering this insight into the conflict, Chef is also a novel which explores the loss of innocence.   In fact, Kip's failure to lose his innocence and sleep with a woman becomes a tragic loss of innocence in itself. The innocence of believing that all will turn out OK, that the world is designed to bring happiness. In his frustration and his struggles to come to terms with his fate, Kip's life echoes the struggles of the place he falls in love with. The tone of the book remains dry and wistful throughout. Kip's eye remains as dispassionate as his tastebuds, which have been coached by his mentor, the older, tragic chef, to absorb and enjoy contrasting influences. There's a great deal of wonderful writing about food and its possibilities. The older chef, for example, loves Brie, and bemoans the paucity of Indian cheeses. The willingness to reach out and delight in another culture and its cuisine not only broadens the palate, it also broadens the imagination. With all the trouble that can cause, as Kip discovers when he starts to fall for a suspected female Pakistani terrorist.

Chef is an assured novel. The writer skips willingly between timelines. In Kip he has created a character who feels like he could have walked out of the pages of a novel from the 19th century: a genuinely decent, likeable hero, whose courage is revealed in the little things he does, not in grand gestures. It's sometimes said that your lead character should be riven with conflict and will not be dramatically interesting if he or she is too sympathetic. Chef shows this not to be the case, revealing a figure whose gradual understanding of the conflict he has become unwittingly caught up in makes for an unlikely but  noble hero.