From Netflix’s Outlaw King, Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to Amazon’s Life Itself and Suspiria, the big VOD players are all rolling into town for the London Film Festival this October. We head to Leicester Square to round up the highlights from this year’s event:
The always-excellent Gael García Bernal stars in this YouTube Original film, which tells the true story of a museum heist that took place in the 1980s. It’s an unlikely event, but that only makes it all the more intriguing, as we follow the two friends – Juan and Benjamin – who are behind the coup.
The plan? To break into Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology and sell its most valuable artefacts, including the jade death mask of Mayan ruler King Pakal. The actual job is executed with gripping precision and filmed by director Alonso Ruizpalacios with thrilling tension and a fun attention to detail, taking up a good chunk of the first act. By placing the heist at the front, though, Museum then struggles to paint a sympathetic portrait of those committing the robbery – a drug-addled interlude halfway though doesn’t help matters. But Bernal and his co-star being real chemistry to their believable and entertaining friendship, and a key encounter with Simon Russell Beale (always a delight) as an arts and antiquities dealer provides a fantastic blow to their childish fantasy, as he brings home the weight of their actions with all the shock and surprise that this unpredictable tale deserves.
Every now and then, a film comes along that breaks your heart. Capernaum is one of them. Zain Al Raffea is remarkable as Zain, a 12 year old who grows up on the streets, after he flees his family. Driven by a love for his sister, Sahar, he’s a deeply altruistic child, a boy pushed to the limit to keep himself alive, but only because he cares so much about someone else’s life. Along the way, he finds himself an unlikely friend in an Ethiopian maid who’s working illegally in the city – and, to a greater extent, in her young child, whom he helps to raise. It’s a role he takes on with compassion and a steely determination, and Zain delivers an open and intimate performance that’s wholly convincing, with a documentary-like realistic clout.
Nadine Labaki, who impressed with Caramel, does a sensational job of capturing life in the city, with its buzzing energy, cruel ambivalence and endless crowded roads – a vibrant but brutal chaos that is contrasted by quiet courtroom scenes that flash-forward to where Zain ends up. The reveal of why comes early, but hits hard, and the result is a masterfully told, hugely moving story about the impossibility of justice for those living in poverty without legal rights.
Birds of Passage
Colombia. 1960s. The birth of the drug trade. These are events we think we know, thanks to Netflix’s Narcos and countless gangster dramas, but you’ve never seen a crime thriller like this. Set in the wilds of North Colombia, Birds of Passage swaps gangs for tribes, and uses that as its lens through which to explore tensions of family, money and power. Themes of respect are a staple of the genre, but it takes on a spiritual note here, as we see rising male Rapayet marry Zaida, the daughter of Ursula, the head of the Wayuu tribe. In doing so, he ties himself to traditions and rituals that go beyond his own morals, and clash with the means of money-making that the tribe’s nascent drugs trade grows into. Over years, directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent) chart an epic saga of betrayal, of values as much as relatives, and doomed destiny – a war that goes beyond territory and control, and is overshadowed by the symbolic bird of death that stalks through the sparse landscapes and over the bloodied bodies of intruders and innocents that pile up. Stunningly shot and epic in scope, this is an utterly unique piece of genre cinema that looks nothing like it.
Jessica Hynes steps behind the camera for this delicate, but hard-hitting drama, which takes us into the tough world of Tina, a mother of three who keeps getting getting served tough knocks. And so she takes up boxing in a move to let out her frustration and prepare for what might be coming her way. Hynes swings blows and demands to be trained with convincing aggression, but the moving blow behind it all is the truth that she’s already fighting every day to stay on top of everything – whether that’s dealing with her arguing parents, her well-meaning but often absent nightshifting husband, or the fact that her eldest daughter is being bullied at school. Hynes directs with strength, tenderness and warmth, creating a well acted domestic drama that rings with authenticity in its portrait of everyday rage. The bully in question ultimately takes Tina back to her own past, and the resulting conflict is a powerful reminder that letting off steam is healthy and important – and communication and compassion are often the best way to do it.