The Beasts (dir. Rodrigo Sorogoyen, 2022)
Although set in the twenty-first century, and in rural Spain, The Beasts bears a family resemblance to the Westerns of Anthony Mann – to The Man from Laramie (1955), say, or The Naked Spur (1953) – in which crazed, ignoble men seek vengeance or money, in compensation for a previous humiliation. As in those pictures, Sorogoyen’s film trails over monumental landscapes that would be mesmerising were it not for the spite-bitten, atavistic conflicts they harbour, which rapidly consume the screen. His portrait of a dispute between a French couple, who have moved to a village in the Galician mountains, and their toiling neighbours, a pair of local brothers starved of intimacy or prospects, burns with a slow ferocity impossible to forget. Weeks after seeing this film, I was still thinking of the visceral monologue Xan (Luis Zahera) delivers mid-way through, expressing the sad bitterness and devouring fury he feels in curt, rhythmic sentences, as the former school-teacher Antoine (Denis Ménochet) listens, fearing the wrath even as he admires the intelligence of his seething antagonist. Gasp-inducing as the later physical showdown is, this scene of verbal assault and self-examination hits with all the brutality of a massacre. Refreshingly, however, scriptwriter Isabel Peña rejects the absolute dominance of such drives and concerns, allowing the narrative to pivot, so that by the close Olga (Marina Foïs) and her daughter (Marie Colomb) have become the main protagonists, their grief and fortitude filling the final act like a new season, altering the tone and atmosphere of everything preceding it. As a genre-piece, it may perhaps be inevitable that there are segments of The Beasts that feel conventional or overly borrowed, but for its superb performances and mounting, almost chthonic sense of human conflict and endurance, this is a film as alert and piercing as a gunshot in the woods.
Harka (dir. Lofty Nathan, 2022)
I’m told that in Tunisian Arabic, the word “harka” evokes both “burning” and “taking flight” (or “seeking refuge”), and so seems the perfect title for this tensely hunched study of private desperation in a post-colonial society broken by inequality and bogged down by corruption. Ali, played with steely force by Adam Bessa, attempts to eke out a living and support his recently orphaned younger sisters by selling petrol on the black market, a smugglers’ trade rife with risks, which leaves him physically exhausted and mentally spent. Hampered by bank officials, corrupt police officers, and inept public servants, often Ali resorts to drinking at a local dive for respite, and sleeping out-of-doors. When he travels to the coast to ask an estranged family member for money, we glance the affluence and comfort enjoyed by European tourists, who spend their time tanning and fine-dining in luxury resorts, and the precariousness of Ali’s life seems all the more painful: we understand his rage, and recognise its righteousness. In his vivid, emotionally nuanced observation of Ali’s plight, director Lofty Nathan has some of the controlled anger of Vittorio De Sica, whose Bicycle Thieves (1948) likewise portrayed a man ill-served by society and trapped in his own crisis, in the aftermath of a prolonged national trauma. Nathan, an Egyptian-American, had originally intended to make a documentary about the life and fate of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street-vendor who set himself on fire in 2011 in response to his repeated harassment and mistreatment by local officials, an act that helped to spark what became known as the Arab Spring. By setting Ali’s struggle ten years after that event, and in the scorching shadow of revolutionary failure across the region, the fictionalised film Nathan eventually made instead offers a bleak, if astute, assessment of contemporary politics in Tunisia and North Africa more widely – where millions once marched, fists in the air, chanting for a new tomorrow.
Rodeo (dir. Lola Quivoron, 2022)
If Mad Max (1979) had been a neorealist thriller with a feminist edge, it might have looked something like Rodeo, the first full-length feature by French director Lola Quivoron. Whereas George Miller’s post-apocalyptic franchise-to-be centred on a righteous law-man in an anarchic world, Quivoron, tellingly, takes the side of the despised and dispossessed, honing in on the tribulations of young people condemned by a society in which they have no place. Playing Julia, a courageous and vulnerable outcast attempting to make her name in a gang of (male) bikers, newcomer Julie Ledru has a feist, intensity, and authentic tenderness on-screen that mark her out as a truly gifted actor: she turns what could have been a mere archetype into a living, and unforgettable, character. That we feel Julia’s hunger to survive so sharply is, in part, due to the naturalness of Quivoron’s direction, lingering in close-up on the expressions and interactions of her crew of “asphalt-pirates”, while capturing the explosive rebellion of the gang’s exploits in a series of captivating set-pieces, reminiscent of the heist sequences in Michael Mann’s films, as well as Andrea Arnold’s grainy, free-roaming portrayal of youth-in-revolt in American Honey (2016). The softness and caution of Julia’s relationship with Ophélie (Antonia Buresi) and Kylian (Cody Schroeder), the closely surveilled family of an imprisoned gang-leader, throw into stark relief the abusive aggression she encounters elsewhere in the same underworld, providing a kernel of gentleness in an otherwise blood-thrumming crime drama. The dream sequences, likewise, add psychological depth and a number of entrancing visual motifs to the adrenaline-amping saga as it unfolds, building to a haunting cinematic finale that stays in the mind long after the credits have rolled: proof, if any were needed, of the strange poetry to be found in this tale of gasoline-fuelled renegades, blazing on the margins of a world on fire.