2017 Women's Cinema Festival, Women's Cinema

2017 Women’s Cinema Festival – Day 3: Summer 1993 & Novitiate

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Day 3 into the 2007’s Women Cinema edition, we have 2 debut films but it couldn’t be more different. On the one hand, Carla Simon’s debut is another fine extension to the two films of Day 1, about young girl who faces harsh reality of life, this time with slice-of-life tone. Putting those three films in that context, however, Summer 1993 stands out as the best. On the other hand, we get to the lives of several young girl in America in training in order to become real nuns. One intentionally hides its emotional core, the other overflows with shouting and confessing their dark inner sides. As different as their approach, however, both films are fine example of films that focus on the grow of young girls, from kids well into their teens. As usual, click on the titles for the individual reviews (which basically more pictures, those reviews will appear in the Review Index section) or just read on. Here I present you, Day 3.

Summer 1993

Carla Simón: Enrolled at the London Film School where she directed Born Positive and Lipstick, both screening at numerous international film festivals. Las Pequeñas Cosas (Those Little Things) is her graduation film for which she received a Distinction.

 “It’s my history. My mother died of AIDS when I was six years old. My father had died before. And the summer of 1993 was the first that I spent with my new family. And it was also important to keep the context because of all that happened with AIDS in Spain. It is also the time of my childhood and I have sweet memories of it and I wanted to translate them. We shot in the area where I was raised. There is a moment when I don’t know what is memory and what I have invented”


I approached Summer 1993 thinking it’s a movie about a 5 year old kid coping with the death of her parents, and in parts the film deals with it, it was never the main focus of this Catalan-set film. It’s a film that more concern about her adjusting with the new life, while at the same time never forgets that Frida (played marvouslly by Laia Artigas) was still a child who still tries to make sense of what’s going on around her. The movie approaches this tale in a slice-of-life format, and those raw emotions and heavy topic are purposely buried underneath the ground. The cause of her Mother’s death, for example, is never addressed directly, as if it’s a taboo subject that better left unmentioned. It’s a remarkable way to approach this story, considered how autobiographical tale usually dips into soapiness and self-indulgent. In fact, this is Carla Simon’s own story down to the T, not only this was exactly what happened to her when she was 5. The shooting location is the place she lived at the time as well. You can see the love and the eye for extra details in the setting, from their own festival to her secret place that has Mary statue.

Summer 1993 is ultimately a story through the perspective of a child, but with the understand and empathy of an adult. You can consistently see these two qualities running simultaneously during its runtime. The tone is that of a children’s show, with Frida is always on the centre of the screen. Then we have her foster family compose of her uncle, his wife and their toddler girl who do everything they can to live in harmony with Frida. And that goes for both side. Like every kid, her concern is not about grieving; she’s too young to know any of that. Instead, it’s about her enjoying her days and behaving as a kid, while at the same time these deeper emotions still seep through her like an oil sinks through a plain paper. She misses her mother, but she’s incapable of expressing that. Sometimes she let her frustration out to her sister, sometimes she feels like a stranger to the new family. Those scenes play out subtly, it’s more of a suggestion through their look and gestures than being a central of emotional conflicts. In fact, if there’s a usual complain of this feature, it’s the lack if heightened drama. That’s a criticism I don’t agree with, however, given that this film is designed (but not constructed) like a memory from a young girl’s point of view. There’s a sense of wonder everywhere in that world.

Carla Simon asserts that her main message for Summer 1993 is that the adults need to talk to the kid about death, because as cruel as it is, they can still able to understand death. The adults in the picture, likewise, treat this issue with total respect. Most notably is her uncle (David Verdaguer) and his wife (Bruna Cusi), who go through many different troubles of raising her as their own child, yet never give up or let out their frustration. There’s a key scene near the end of the movie, when Frida confronts her aunt about her own Mom and she handles those questions in the best possible way. This scene marks the first time Frida tackles those feeling bottled inside her and she’s clearly struggle to make sense of it, and it could be as easily for an adult to just dismisses those questions with “you’ll understand when you get older”. Yet, her aunt takes her struggle seriously and it’s the best way to let their kid experiencing it instead of locking it away. The respect for the kid’s perspective isn’t restricted only to the story, but also in the way Simon believes in her child actresses. There are many long, unbroken scenes with the two kids as the center, and it doesn’t feel like they’re acting at all. The adults are all fine by all mean but it’s the children (Laia Artigas and Paula Robles as Anna) who are the heart and soul and they carry the movie wonderfully. Summer 1993 draws a right balance between the wonderful time of a kid who coping with the death of her parents by refusing to go to the usual melodramatic route, but always respect their innocent point of view. I know that this film is the one that I’ll keep thinking back for months to come.

Note: If you want a companion piece to Summer 1993 (I might make “Double Companion” a whole section in the future), I’d recommend you try out Ponette (1996), another tale about young kid coping with the death of her mother. While Summer 1993 has a playful tone, Ponette goes full drama and contains what I consider the most heartfelt child performance ever committed on screen. The then-4-year old Victoire Thivisol eventually won the Best Actress of 1996 Venice Film Festival.

Novitiate

Maggie Betts: an American filmmaker and screenwriter. In 2010 Maggie made the award winning documentary THE CARRIER. Through her work on THE CARRIER, Maggie remains involved with numerous charities relating to the plight of HIV/AIDS in Africa. She is also a strong supporter of women’s rights everywhere and the continued advancement of gender equality.  

 ““[] I picked up a biography of Mother Theresa, which I thought was going to be this generic overview. It ended up being a compilation of all these letters that she’d written during the course of her life. And they were to family, friends and intimate people in her life. And they were so obsessively consumed with her relationship with God and her love. I was mesmerized that her life was filled with the same sort of relationship dramas like mine and other women’s.


Set in the backdrop of Vatican II, where during 3 years the Pope released dozen documents in order to innovate the Church’s roles, the story takes place in the far side of America where the nuns (which is called the Sisters of Beloved Rose) at the last period of the conservative and extreme devotion to God, Novitiate is at heart an exploration to the romantic love with Jesus Christ, their lifelong sacrifice in the name of that love and draw a proper picture of the girls’ condition as they learn to become real nuns. Although a bit overlong and as subtle as a brick through the window, the film succeed on drawing a fascinating picture regarding why young girls would devote their whole life exclusively to God, and that love is not only from admiration, but a romantic one (they see themselves as God’s brides). While it’s an intriguing idea, Novitiate sometimes can be a tad bit obvious and loud, for example how the film handles Cathleen’s (Margaret Qualley) family situation. Secondly, for a film where Grand Silence becomes an important part of their lives, there’s too much shouting, laying bare the “truth” which for me doesn’t add up much to their central idea of love and sacrifice. Novitiate has many intriguing ideas, but it loses the impact while it tries to addresses too many themes, resulting in an ending that rather inconclusive and many plot threads that don’t reach full potential.

Novitiate is at its best when it explores the love regarding these young girls to God, the sacrifice they prepare themselves to and ultimately, the belief that love is ultimately a sacrifice. These lines of ideas are conveyed through the characters Cathleen and Reverent Mother Marie (played by Melissa Leo), respectively. Cathleen character explores that “love” theme. She doesn’t have a devoted Christian background, but she finds a special relationship with Jesus that she decides to become a nun, despite her mother dismays. For her and many girls that young age, the idea of an ultimate love, the love where she can devote her whole life into, is something beautiful and pure. But as a case where someone gives so much without having anything concrete but faith in return, she seeks for something more, something “physical” both in the existence of God, and in physical intimate and comfort.

Melissa Leo’s character, on the other spectrum, represents the figure who sacrifices her whole life devoted to strict life and be a worthy servant of God, just so that the very belief is shaken with the intervention of Vatican II. What if for everything she done in service of God, He turns his eyes away from her? Ultimately, it’s the sisters’ belief of love is sacrifice (that line is spoken vocally in one sequence), that through their own physical sacrifice in the name of Christ: be it live the rest of their lives in reclusive area and cut off from the whole world; or Cathleen’s refusal to eat that they believe they form a special connection to Him. The film, quite appropriately, refuses to give their stand on the issue, as it provides the idea through both side of the arguments: the sisters and ordinary people through the eyes of Cathleen’s mother.

At other times, Novitiate stumbles when it tries to show other girls’ perspective, especially those who later question their faith in God or what they originally believe in. While it’s an interesting topic on to itself, put it into this story make Novitiate loses its focus and lessens the impact of the main storyline. Likewise, the final statement about the change in Vatican II has so little to do with the main development of Cathleen that it feels more like a misstep. The performances, however, are pretty solid all around. Melissa Leo deserves special mention as she embraces herself in such difficult role and her character hits all the right note as being scary, ruthless but at times vulnerable. Margaret (the daughter of Andie MacDowell) holds her screen well and Julianne Nicholson plays her role emotionally as Cathleen’s mother who sees her daughter getting farther away from her. With women-exclusive settings, and the production team consist of mainly women (the editor and cinematographer for instance), Novitiate has some neat ideas behind the lives of nuns that usually unrealistically saturated in Hollywood (prime example is Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story), but its heavy-handed approach, along with its trying to handle too many different themes, make it a well-acted but bumpy ride.

On the next post (Day 4), I’ll be reviewing another Netflix original Mudbound about the racial issues and PTSD by two soldiers in America after the WWII and the Chinese-set Angels Wear White, about the aftermath of an sexual assault of two 12-year-old girls by a middle-aged man. Both winning rave receptions but it’s my job to view and judge them for myself. You can check out the progress in the sidebar.

While at that topic, the picture you see right in the sidebar is the 2017’s Women Cinema main page. The idea is that you can access all the links and reviews through that page. Hopefully I’ll get it done by the end of this week, but this gonna be a very busy weekend for me cinema-wise. I’ll try the best I can. See ya folks then.

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