Our Philadelphia Film Festival coverage continues! We are excited to be able to bring you several reviews from this year’s festival. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest!
Holy Air (Dir. Shady Srour)
One of the great things about film festivals is taking a gamble on a title you were completely unaware of. It is even better when it turns out to be a delightful movie like Holy Air. Set in the literal hometown of Jesus, aka Nazareth in the state of Israel, the film is a short (81 minutes!) meditation on the place where religion, late capitalism, tourism and politics intersect. That could be an enormously heavy handed film experience, but Holy Air treats it with a light, even romantic touch.
Director Srour also stars as Adam, a Christian Arab living in one of the world’s biggest religious tourist destinations. Adam is not only a minority in a minority in a minority, but he has a pregnant wife, a sick father, and a failing business approach. In need of some dire reinvention, he takes his father’s old bottling business and begins to “bottle” holy air- the air from the mountain top of Mount Precipice, the site where Jesus did something really important one time. While he could easily just sell a bunch of empty bottles, Adam takes the time to climb the mountain and actually “fill” the bottles with the air. He is a dedicated entrepreneur, schemer, and capitalist- but he is not cutting any corners here. This is real live holy air he is selling.
The film is eased with a charming sense of humor- and with music that wouldn’t be out of place in an Israel-set Woody Allen film. I was reminded of films like Amreeka, which take a similarly relaxed approach to a serious topic like life in the burning Middle East. It made me think a lot about whether it’s possible to have any authentic religious experience anymore- or whether it’s all just been pre-packaged and sold to us. Not to mention the very idea of having a holy experience in a war ravaged land that reeks of oppression and modern day apartheid. Then there is Adam himself, who seems to have no religious life whatsoever- aside from celebrating Christmas as casually as the most casual American does. He is just a man trying to make a living- and this is the local economy.
Holy Air is required viewing for anyone who thinks often about life in Israel. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Most Beautiful Island (Dir. Ana Asensio)
First time filmmaker and star Ana Asensio brings a riveting immigrant story unlike the genre has ever seen. Starring as an undocumented Spaniard named Luciana, Asensio has done something truly original and haunting. Luciana lives in Manhattan, the titular ironically named island. The first scene of the film finds the camera following individual women walking through crowds in the city. Who knows if they know they are being filmed- but we know that they have a story. After some time the camera settles on Luciana, and we know we are going to be paying attention to her narrative. But her story is just one of many like her in this tiny island.
The first hour plays like a particularly fast paced Dardennes film, where Luciana goes from gig to gig, hustling for enough cash to pay her rent. She hustles in every aspect of her life- finding a way to see a doctor despite not having insurance, promising to pay later for a cab fare she doesn’t have, even doing the same for a couple of ice cream cones. Her backstory is brief but we know that she has some trauma she is escaping from. She wears her anxiety and frozen grief on her face, with a wide eyed stare that screams for help as much as it is tells people to approach with caution.
When a Russian immigrant friend named Olga (Natasha Romanova, a real actress, not Scarlett Johannson in the MCU) offers her a gig as a pretty background girl at a cocktail party and says it pays $2,000, there’s no way she can turn it down. She trusts Olga, and it seems like she doesn’t have many people she can trust these days. Olga promises that they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. It is just one of many threads going for Luciana at the time, and as a viewer I didn’t feel primed to follow this subplot more than any other one. In fact, so much is happening during her day, that it is hard to know what event is going to set the film’s major happenings in motion.
But things happen. Do they ever. There are hints in the first third that something is off, either in Luciana’s psyche or in the world she is inhabiting. Surprising and grotesque encounters with our bug friends occur, in a scene that brought to mind the corporeal horror of David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch specifically). Later, when Larry Fessenden shows up in a cameo, we know that something is really, really off.
The film takes a sharp left turn into unrelenting tension and terror. To the point where I began to think I couldn’t make it through the whole thing. Films such as Eyes Wide Shut or the 80’s cult horror Society came to mind. When the tension is released through the answering of some pressing questions, the film loses a little steam, only to add a whole new layer of horror that might make people with certain phobias actually have to leave the theater. These are all compliments to Anensio, believe me.
In the end, Most Beautiful Island is a story about the impossible tests that immigrants have to pass in order to convince those in power that they are good enough to stay here. Perhaps the most horrifying part is that this seems like just another day in the life for Luciana.
Let The Corpses Tan (Dir. Helene Catet, Bruno Forzani)
Featured in “The Graveyard Shift,” the section of the festival programming reserved for more genre features, Let The Corpses Tan is absolutely the craziest film playing at the festival. The latest from the Belgian directors who specialize in retro homages to the genre films of 1970’s Europe, Catet and Forzani have created something that must be seen to be believed. The first scene of the film involves a few people making a painting with paintball guns (although we think they are real guns) at first, giving us a clue for what they plan to do with this film; make an awesome looking painting with a lot of gunfire.
The story begins with an ambush of an armored car and a pile of stolen gold, which “Rhino” and his gang take back to an old villa on the beautiful Mediterranean coast. But of course, a few unexpected guests and cops who are hot on their trail disrupt their plans- and it’s not long before the corpses begin tanning in the hot summer sun.
I tried really hard to follow the plot after this basic setup- but that was a big mistake. If you’re trying to make sense of whatever story is happening, well- abandon all hope, ye who enter. I found that aspect of it a little disappointing, because I love nothing more than a tightly plotted crime caper. Fortunately, Forzani and Catet came with other plans- a cinematic experience more akin to an acid trip than anything I have ever seen. Sound, visuals, colors and timelines are gorgeously disorienting, keeping the viewer never sure what they are seeing aside from something that looks incredible. It is funny that it’s called a “retro” film- because there are things that happen here that no 70’s filmmaker would be able to pull off. Yet their deep lean into style over anything resembling substance keeps this from being the masterpiece it could so easily be.
Nevertheless, for any fans of Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, and the scores of Ennio Morricone, this is an absolute must see.