Mixed Media: Films

Suburra film still

Politicians, drug-dealers and the Vatican all link up in Suburra.

Suburra

directed by Stefano Sollima (130 minutes)

Co-written by a journalist and a crime writer, this is a pacey, brutal, compelling thriller, set in Rome at the time of Berlusconi’s and Pope Benedict’s resignations from office in 2011. In incessant rain, the Tiber threatens to flood, the city’s drains are overflowing, and Roman politics, and business, is swamped in dirty money.

‘Southern families’ are planning the redevelopment of Ostia, Rome’s popular waterfront area, as a hotel, entertainment and casino quarter, a new Las Vegas. They have bought up local property, forcing through property transfers with threats – and violence. Suburra, a hostelry and brothel area of Imperial Rome, offered senators and wealthy men diversion and business opportunities. Sollima’s film convincingly brings it up to date, linking politicians and the Vatican, to the street thugs and dope dealers, via the money men – the ‘families’ whose money is now in property, and ‘development’.

It’s a universe of facades, escapist drugs and sex, obsession with money and status. But amid the chaos, violence and posturing there is real connection, and an unlikely heroine.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Heaven Knows What

directed by Ben and Joshua Safdie (94 minutes)

Arielle Holmes is Harley in this gritty autobiography.

In this raw, astonishing feature, Arielle Holmes plays Harley, the main character in her autobiographical novel about her life on the streets of New York. She ‘spanges’ for money. Alone and with others she steals things to sell, hangs around in diners, finds floors to sleep on, shoots up. She has a relationship of sorts with Ilya. Then with Mike.

Much of the time they’re in another world, and when in this one, the men around her are cheating, bullshitting and fighting to be top dog. We learn nothing about how Harley got where she is, but she whimpers, sobs, howls, is rawly human, doesn’t cover up. There are scenes of spectacular cruelty and degradation, but all through, the conscious Harley has an astonishing, resilience and drive, or patent vulnerability and wariness.

Never indulgent or exploitative, this is a film with pathos – and, surprisingly, spark.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Mustang

co-written and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven (97 minutes)

Simple girlish behaviour, dire consequences in Mustang.

A bunch of schoolgirls, on the last day of summer term, meet a bunch of boys on the local beach. They mess about, splash in the sea in their uniforms, two of the girls perched on boys’ shoulders. An elderly neighbour sees the girls – five sisters – and reports their immorality to the grandmother and uncle the orphaned girls live with.

What else can decent folk do but bar the windows, confine the girls to the house, and arrange, after virginity examinations at the nearby town’s medical centre, to marry them off? The eldest agrees, but only to the boy she’s already secretly in love with. The next agrees, but has the indignity, although she is ‘intact’, of bloodless sheets on her wedding night. For the others, including the youngest aged 10, it’s all too much.

Ergüven and co-writer Alice Winocour’s script contrives a collision between values, and generations, secularism and rural Turkish conservatism. There are missteps, there’s an eye on the wider art-house audience, and the final scenes perhaps don’t fully get over what’s at stake. But it’s a moving, tragi-comedy with real verve and vitality.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

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