Ida

A young Polish woman, brought up in a Catholic orphanage right after the war, is about to become a nun.  Just before she takes her final vows, she gets two astonishing revelations — she has an aunt, and she was born Jewish.  She contacts the aunt, and after some initial reluctance the two women decide to visit their erstwhile village to find out what happened to the rest of their family.

You may think that everything important to say about the Holocaust has already been said — but then a movie like this comes along and punches you in the gut, by making you really feel the pain of a single family’s losses.  It also addresses, unusually, the plight of the survivors, who have lost not only their relatives but their entire world.

Shot in black and white, this film takes a quiet approach to its momentous subject, and is all the more effective for that. Highly recommended.

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Nobel

This is one of a group of Norwegian TV series now available in subtitled form on Netflix.  Unlike Occupied, a political thriller set in a dystopian near future (which I also liked), this series is set firmly in the present.  The protagonist is a member of a Norwegian special forces team deployed to Afghanistan.  Home on leave, he finds himself in the middle of a political firestorm, pitting Norway’s image of itself as a liberal, peace-loving democracy against the realities of a war zone.  (The title refers to the Nobel Peace Prize, which unlike the other awards is administered in Norway; the politics of the award form a minor subplot in the storyline).  The acting and writing quality of this show is pretty high. I particularly liked the scene in which the protagonist tells his 10-year old son what his job really is, and how that squares with his Norwegian liberal values — it had an emotional honesty that is rare in any movie or TV production, no matter what the country. The Norwegian scenery is pretty cool, too.

Call the Midwife (PBS)

It may seem strange to recommend a show about midwives in London’s East End in the late 1950s to a group of guys.  There are a lot of stories about pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for newborns.  But over the course of its five seasons, this extraordinarily well-written series finds a way to cover a whole range of other kinds of issues,, not just those related to childbirth — unwanted pregnancies, forced adoptions, domestic violence, childhood illnesses — but also more general social issues, like substance abuse, racial and class prejudice, PTSD, the social problems of urban renewal, and even the rewards (and difficulties) of a religious vocation.  These issues are examined in a realistic, remarkably non-judgmental way.  Things don’t always work out, but the midwives (and the nuns they live with) try to do their best for the women they care for, however difficult the situation.

The show is particularly good at depicting the problems of the aging poor.  There were many civilian deaths in the East End during WWII, which means that many lost, not just fighting-age sons, but spouses and young children in the war, leaving many to grow old alone. In this show about birth, it’s noteworthy that some of the best episodes are about death.

Most interesting, to me at least, is what I would call the “medical sociology” aspects.  Whatever you think of government-run health care, it is undeniable that, in this poor part of London, the NHS brought first-world quality medical care to a population that had traditionally received charity care, or none at all.  (Indeed, some of the services, including frequent pre- and post-natal home visits, is probably better than a lot of women sometimes get today in the US). That dramatic improvement in access to medical care changed the relationship of people in these neighborhoods with their government, in ways not always easy to foresee.

Although the show was originally based on the memoirs of one young nurse, starting in Season 4, they ran out of source material and developed fictional storylines.  The later seasons remain well-written, but are perhaps a bit more political than the early ones (a doctor, faced with a measles epidemic, sighs, “If only we had a vaccine.”). But the “thalidomide” episodes, following the local medical practitioners as they slowly realize that the unprecedented birth defects they are seeing in newborns are actually the result of drugs they themselves have prescribed, are some of the best they’ve ever done.  All the same, the later episodes lack some of the quirkiness of the earlier “real-life” ones, like the story of identical twins who apparently share a husband — no scriptwriter would dare to make that up.

Parental advisory:  This is a show about childbirth.  There is at least one birth scene per episode, sometimes more.   The realities of childbirth are clearly presented, but are not overly explicit– e.g., you might see blood on a newborn’s head, and the occasional nipple as a newborn latches on.  But you won’t see any female genitalia..  No child over 12 will be traumatized.  Can’t promise the same for queasy adult males, though.

Theeb

A British officer, during WWI, hires some Bedouin guides to take him across the Arabian desert.  Theeb, a boy of about 10 and the younger brother of one of the guides, decides to tag along.  After a series of unfortunate incidents, Theeb finds himself alone in the desert with a man he has no reason to trust, but on whom he must depend if he is going to stay alive.  Readers of Dune will recognize the problem.

The movie is billed as an adventure story, but it is more of an ethnographic study, in the tradition of silent films Nanook of the North and Grass, each of which sought to document a way of life that was rapidly disappearing.  The film-makers spent a year with the Bedouin tribe they eventually used as the basis for the film, and several of the characters (Theeb and his older brother) are played by actual Bedouins, not professional actors.  The difficulties of negotiating life in an unforgiving environment — with the war being in many ways the least of those problems — is vividly demonstrated.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film — the first nomination for Jordan.

I was a little surprised at the high quality of the cinematography, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.  While Jordan has no internationally recognized directors or film stars, it has been a favored location for high-profile Hollywood films for decades, from Lawrence of Arabia to The Martian.  Since those films usually hire local crews, it makes perfect sense that their film-making standards would be pretty high.

A fascinating film, and well worth your time.  No s&x or graphic violence, but the scenes involving the little boy completely alone (as he thinks) in the desert might be too intense for younger children.

Labyrinth of Lies

A young German prosecutor in the late 1950s discovers that a former Auschwitz camp guard is teaching in his local elementary school, which is supposed to be illegal.  He decides to prosecute, and quickly runs into a wall of opposition, in his own office.  Germany in that era was well into denialism —  most Germans preferred to believe that Nazis had been a small minority, and virtually all of them were prosecuted at Nuremberg. Why open that can of worms again?  But the young prosecutor finds he has an unexpected ally — the country’s Attorney General, who is himself Jewish, and wants very much to open that can of worms, preferably spearheaded by someone too young to be implicated in the crimes of the Nazi era.

The prosecutor’s single investigation ultimately morphed into a successful class action against several hundred mid-level Nazis, hiding in plain sight in postwar Germany.  More importantly, the testimony of German Jewish survivors forced ordinary Germans to come to terms with their own history — a salutary exercise.

The basic outlines of the story are true, although the personal details of the young prosecutor have been fictionalized to make him more of a German “everyman.”  The Jewish AG, Bauer, was very real, as were his backchannel contacts with Mossad.

Highly recommended.

Occupied (Netflix)

Three episodes in, and I’m already ready to call this Norwegian political thriller the best thing on television right now.

The scene — the near future.  The US has become self-sufficient in energy, and has withdrawn from NATO.  Norway has elected a Green Party PM, who decides to immediately shut down Norway’s oil industry in favor of an unproven alternative.  The EU is not amused, and looks the other way when the Russians move in, ostensibly to “offer their assistance” in restarting the Norwegian oil industry.  That’s pretty much the first 10 minutes.

The rest of the show is devoted to how various people react to the “non-occupation occupation.”  We see things from three characters’ viewpoints — the PM’s; a member of the PM’s security team who by virtue of his position sees and hears a lot more than he should; and a journalist who smells a rat.  There are a bunch of minor characters who are interesting too.

A stereotyped version of Scandinavia is a feature of our political discourse, on both sides of the aisle.  It’s nice to see a more nuanced version which is probably closer to what Norwegian society is actually like.  My favorite scene along these lines — a senior Justice Department official, female, wants the security guy to undertake a special mission.  She tracks him down in the security team’s locker room, where guys are in various stages of undress and there are no curtains on the showers.   Nobody bats an eye.  Well, maybe 1/2 an eye.  😈

Highly recommended.

Currently only available on Netflix streaming; hopefully will become more broadly accessible at some point.

The Jewel in the Crown

I recently rewatched this mini-series, which first aired 30 years ago, and was surprised not only at how good it was but at how modern it still seemed.  The subject is the last 5 years of the British Raj in India,  Most of the story lines concerns the English community there.  Many have been born in India or spent much of their lives there, and now have to face return to a country they may know little about.  The show handles some tough topics along the way: interracial romance in a racist community, abortion, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and appalling social snobbery.  Like most TV productions of the 1980s, much of the violence occurs off-screen, but is no less effective for that.

The bloody denouement of partition eventually intrudes even on the entitled bubble of English society, affecting characters we have grown to understand and care about.  The last episode, in particular, will stay with you for a long time.

The acting is outstanding throughout, and even the minor characters are complex and interesting.

GOT Watch:  A very young Charles Dance has an important role in the later episodes, smooth of skin and tight of buns, but already sporting the deep-set eyes and prominent nose of Tywin Lannister.

Available on DVD

Even the Rain

Spanish film-makers arrive in Bolivia to shoot a picture about Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and his war on the native inhabitants. Midway through the film-making, a water war breaks out, and the film-makers discover to their horror that some of the locals they have hired to portray the Indians are ringleaders of the water protests.  Panic ensues. The oh so-liberal film guys accuse the local government of exploiting the Indians just like Columbus did.  “Oh,” says the local government official, “how much are you paying your actors?”  No easy answers here. The locals endure, as they always have.

The film is fictional, but the water war portrayed here actually occurred in Cochabamba, Bolivia, about 15 years ago.  The foreign consortium building a water delivery system tried to create a water monopoly, going so far as to even prohibit private collection of rain water — hence the title.

The cast of Spanish and Latin American actors is fantastic throughout, although only Gael Garcia Bernal will be familiar to American audiences.

Some violence, but most occurs offscreen.  This is really a political film, and a thought-provoking one.

Available on DVD.

Sapienza

In the middle of his life, a successful French architect realizes he hates his most well-regarded work. Realizing that he has lost his way, he decides to go down to Italy to reconnect with the work of Borromini, which had inspired him as a young man.  Along the way, he meets a young Italian architectural student, a pure soul who helps him rediscover himself.

Architecture, Italy, what’s not to like?

Borromini was a genius architect of the 17th C, whose reputation has long been overshadowed by his contemporary, the more flamboyant genius Bernini.  The title of the movie (which means, roughly, “wisdom” in Italian) refers to the chapel of Sant’Ivo de Sapienza, widely regarded as Borromini’s masterwork.  Working with a small pre-existing building, Borromini somehow created an illusion of space and light, through the use of “fool the eye” architectural elements and the brilliant use of natural light — techniques largely abandoned by modern architects.  (The chapel is part of a private university in Rome, and is famously hard to access, being open to the public only a few hours a week.  It’s well worth a visit, if you’re ever in Rome.)

I’ve been told that I like small movies where not much happens.  This is definitely one of those.  Conversations between characters are weirdly stylized, almost theatrical, particularly at the beginning of the film.  I think this is intentional – the guy’s facial expressions become more human as he starts to reconnect with the idealistic young man he once was.  So stick with it.

In French and Italian with English subtitles.  Available on Netflix DVD, and streaming on Netflix and Amazon instant video.

Extra Credit — Shroud of  Turin

In one of the scenes in the movie, the architect notes that the photographs of the Shroud of Turin are more interesting than the artifact itself.  I did a little research after, and it turns out he’s correct.

The Shroud of Turin is notionally the burial shroud of Jesus Christ.   From the time the Shroud was first mentioned in the 14th C, until the late 19th C, viewers saw little more than a series of brown smudges vaguely outlining a human form.  Imagine the surprise, therefore, when in 1898 a reverse negative by an amateur photographer unexpectedly revealed a detailed figure of a human body, complete with marks of torture consistent with crucifixion.

The Shroud is generally believed to be a medieval forgery, albeit a high quality one.  But why would a medieval forger create an image with more detail than contemporary viewers could discern?  Even more intriguingly, how did they create the image?  It remains a mystery.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150417-shroud-turin-relics-jesus-catholic-church-religion-science/

Woman in Gold

The story of a protracted legal battle in two countries to recover a piece of Nazi-looted art doesn’t sound like a very promising subject for a movie.  But it’s a surprisingly absorbing tale.

Maria Altmann fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1937 with her husband and lived the rest of her life in Los Angeles.  In the late 1990s, she decided to seek recovery of Klimt’s painting of her aunt Adele, which the rest of the world knows as the Woman in Gold.  Much of the art misappropriated by the Nazis during the war was not returned to its rightful owners — this painting was hanging at the Austrian national gallery in Vienna.  At the time Altmann began her suit, there wasn’t much precedent for suing to recover such art.  It wasn’t even clear that a private citizen had standing to pursue such a suit against a foreign government — Altmann’s attorney had to fight that issue all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Although the legal part of the tale is well told (and Helen Mirren does her usual fine job as the old Maria), the most interesting parts of the movie are the flashbacks to the early days of the Anschluss, featuring the wonderful Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black!) as the young Maria.  The Nazis held very wealthy families like Maria’s under a form of house arrest, while they inventoried their assets and forced them to sign away their property.  The looting of the apartment itself, which the family witnessed, was almost an afterthought to the systematic theft of their entire fortune.

The movie benefits from staying pretty close to the historical record, including some of the odd details which would be unbelievable if they hadn’t actually been true.  Maria’s American lawyer really was the grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg (another refugee from the Nazis).  Adele’s famous diamond choker really did wind up on the neck of Goering’s wife.  And Maria and her husband really did begin their successful escape from Nazi-occupied Austria by flying into Germany (they later crossed the border into what was then still unoccupied Holland, thence to America).

Highly recommended.