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Atash (2004) Tawfik Abu-Wael

This felt as close to pure cinema as cinema seems capable of these days. It reminded me of recent Iranian/Afghani cinema – Stray Dogs particularly – in that it was the cinema of people living in extremities.

The title of the film translates as Thirst, a perhaps ambiguous title considering the protagonists are, for a short time only, deprived of water. Abu-Wael has other preoccupations, however, that he plays out through the family drama at the centre of the film.

The story is of a family living on a remote farm. They are there, we surmise from hints dropped, because the oldest daughter committed a sexual iniquity (the details of which are not revealed) and because of her shame the whole family is shamed whenever they visit the nearby town. On this farm they have no running water, and so steal from the water company (who do not seem to care). The father of this family is a brutal patriarch. He rules with an iron fist, which sometimes he is not afraid of using. From this simple premise Abu-Wael constructs a film of such devastating power. The screen seems literally to burn with the charcoal fires that conflagrate regularly on this family farm.

Abu-Wael, in what is his first feature film (following the award winning short Diary of a Male Whore), directs with such verve and dexterity, it feels like we are watching the film of a much more experienced hand. He has a poet’s eye for the visual.

The cast also deserve mention, being as they all are, non-professional and acting for the very first time.

Perhaps the most powerful point about this film is that it is the first Israeli-Palestinian co-production. Cinema, it seems, has the power to unite.

This is just some quickly jotted thoughts regarding this film whose images are still bubbling in my mind a day later. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Please, if you get a chance, check it out.

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Redbelt (2008) David Mamet

Redbelt (2008)

Dir. David Mamet

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer, Alice Braga, Rodrigo Santoro, Joe Mantegna, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, John Machado, Max Martini

The cinema of David Mamet is often populated by rogues, crooks out to make a fast buck, and they play intricate games that confound and dazzle the audience in their trickery – see The Spanish Prisoner (1997) or House of Games (1987). Redbelt, his latest film, takes place in the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu transplanted to Los Angeles and infused with a noir-spirit.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the quiet centre of this film, playing Mike Terry, owner of a Jiu-Jitsu club in a rundown quarter of the city. His apprentice pupil, Joe Ryan (Max Martini showing more versatility than he does in the Mamet produced television series The Unit) is a police officer. Following a difficult training session, an accidental encounter with a lawyer, played by Emily Mortimer, kick-starts the narrative proper. To attempt to sum up the twists and contortions of Mamet’s tale that will bring Mike Terry into contact with a movie star (Tim Allen, utterly convincing for perhaps the first time in his career) crooked sports promoters and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legends. At times it seems as if the contrivances of the script are about to overwhelm the narrative, but Mamet holds it together quite successfully.

Mamet is helped by his cast, many of them regulars from his previous work, and many his stock company – including wife Rebecca Pidgeon, and the ever irascible Ricky Jay – and these players speak Mamet’s lines better than anybody. They instinctively understand his rhythms, the cadence of his writing. Not a beat feels wasted.

Some critics have said that they feel the ending is weak, that Mamet fails to resolve many of the story stands that have been juggled. I feel those critics have missed the deeper resonances in his work – by accepting the red belt at the end Mike Terry is taking the money, admitting defeat, realising that the codes by which he has lived his life have not worked. It is a bleak ending, and perhaps not the one many would expect from the genre – Rocky must always win, the sports team must triumph, this is the formula – but Mamet is a writer who confounds the formula, and that makes him a great writer. And though there are a few strands that remain open ended, the construction of drama allows for this – and I think perhaps those same critics would have been negative against the film even if he had resolved them all, and would accuse him of being too neat.

At times in this film I was reminded of that other great noir-sports film – Jules Dassin’s masterly Night and the City (1950). That filmed used wrestling as its background, and through the codes of the sport one was revealed the characters and their mistakes. Mamet pulls the same trick and in doing so manages to make some intriguing comments on sport and its heroes.

Redbelt has also been criticised for its handling of the fight sequences – that they seem poorly edited or do not deliver the expected impact – but again I feel this maybe a misunderstanding of the reviewer who has been misled into thinking Redbelt is a sports film. It is not, it simply has sports as its background, in much the same way as Million Dollar Baby (2004) is not really about boxing.

Redbelt has a beautiful colour palette as well, photographed by Paul Thomas Anderson regular Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood (2007)). Elswit knows how to light a scene, and in the final series of conflicts that end the movie light and darkness collide, the colours vibrate and Redbelt really comes to life. One can even see Ejiofor’s training (reputedly 12 hours a day), as he throws his whole body into fight. This physical collision is a beautiful counterpoint to the intellectual conflict of the previous hour.

Redbelt is not a great film, but it is a good one while it lasts, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is its beating heart. More and more this actor impresses, and he just maybe the best British actor of his generation. Ejiofor is why one should watch Redbelt, and to enjoy the verbal fireworks from a playwright, who even on an off day, sounds better than most.

Redbelt is in UK cinemas from 26 September.