Film Reviews: NY Film Festival Closes — Theater on the Screen

By David D’Arcy

Two divergent works of theater for the screen were at this year’s NYFF, an adaptation of Macbeth in black-and-white, and a raunchy sleeper from Romania.

NYFF opened this year with The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed and scripted by Joel Coen, half of the Coen Brothers.

The film pours out blood in black-and-white, an homage to the play’s history on film and a recognition of its darkness.

The cast is led by two stars. Frances McDormand, Coen’s wife and one of the leading actresses of her generation, plays a Lady Macbeth who is icily relentless in pushing her husband to commit the murder that will make him king. Denzel Washington, as Macbeth, is a man who learns far too soon that he should have yielded to his hesitations before giving in to his wife’s ambition and paying for it as the bodies pile up. Killing a king is just the start.

Each of these actors is over 60, and the makeup department doesn’t try to hide that. This decision gives the play a new look (on film), and it is one of many reasons why this version is worth viewing. Back around 1970, when critic Kenneth Tynan scripted director Roman Polanski’s film version of Macbeth (Arts Fuse review), actors in their 20s were cast as the leads because, as Tynan reportedly said, “he didn’t want people who were too old to be ambitious.” Or sexy. Let’s not forget that Tynan and Polanski’s film was produced by Hugh Hefner. Polanski originally wanted Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

If Polanski’s film is looking over this new film’s shoulder, so are Orson Welles’s Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight.

McDormand and Washington are not old, nor do they play their characters as old. Yet their age frames Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, the king, as a last chance, a fatal gamble taken by a childless couple, with a particularly hard push by a sober and calculating Lady Macbeth. (McDormand is as fatalistic at the end as she was initially determined to end the king’s life.) Washington plays Macbeth as a man who hesitates before killing a monarch, and is then stricken with debilitating guilt. Fearing the inevitable, he refuses to question the witches’ prophecies that his crimes cannot be avenged.

The film is set mostly in a palace that’s something of a stylistic hybrid; some of its stark rectilinear modernist spaces are hemmed in by blank walls. Chambers with peaked ceilings and windows evoke church interiors, but the playing areas are undefined enough — like the speaking accents of the film’s international cast — to function like theatrical stage spaces. At a press conference after the film premiered in New York, Joel Coen explained that the film’s look might owe more to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s cold spare interiors in The Passion of Joan of Arc than to Welles’s expansive production designs for his Shakespeare films. Critics at that screening wondered what existing modernist building had been the location for The Tragedy of Macbeth. (The interiors of Edward Larrabee Barnes came to mind for me.) Coen responded that the set — which seems vast — was built for the film. Let’s hope it hasn’t been torn down. Plenty more Shakespeare plays could be produced there.

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

Another work that brought the theater of a show trial to the screen at the NYFF was a wild but accurate satire from Romania.

Radu Jude, director of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, insists in interviews that his film’s title in Romanian is more obscene than it is in English.

That said, this film is a clear headed condemnation of the barriers to civility and democracy in Romania, with lessons that can be applied all over the world. The best reason to see it: the film’s laughs are as shameless as its title. It won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in March. I wrote about it here then. An update.

Jude opens Bad Luck Banging with a wild sex scene worthy of that title (between husband and wife, mind you, who are filming the fun). Then schoolteacher Emi (Katia Pascariu), the wife, heads in a sober gray suit on foot across Bucharest, where nothing seems right. Men on the street accost her, asking for sex, or just curse at her. One guy responds obscenely when she asks him to move his car. When her marital romp earlier in the day is streamed online, she’s held up to public shame, which includes being put on trial by her school superiors in what turns out to be a circus of accusations that’s as petty as the show trials under Romanian communism. That’s a high bar, but you don’t need to know anything about Romanian communism to appreciate the film’s mockery of justice in a court proceeding controlled by the schoolteacher’s peers.

For a real life trial that resembles the spirit (and Grand Guignol theatricality) of the one in this film, think of Rudy Giuliani’s moralistic rant on election fraud (as hair dye flowed down his face) at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping lot in Philadelphia last November. Don’t forget the crowd of vengeful Trumpers and the sex shop and crematorium in full sight next door.

Jude’s elegant and savagely funny Aferim! (a Turkish word meaning “bravo”), was a 2015 road movie that was inspired by Westerns. Its characters walked (yes, most of its figures were on foot) through the abuses and institutional absurdity of the late Ottoman period. Bad Luck Banging brings Jude’s wry assessment of the corruption of humanity up to date. The road movie this time takes place on Bucharest’s streets and sidewalks, where chance encounters and everyday affronts reflect a constant foulness that typifies the grinding indignity of everyday life.

Jude, 43, is prolific. In 2018, seven or so films ago, he made I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians, a look back at the past (as much of his work is) that took its title from a statement made by a Romanian fascist leader known for his fervor for killing Jews. You’ll hear echoes of that irrational hatred in Bad Luck Banging, this time coming from masked and socially distanced citizens at the free-for-all trial where they denounce Emi, played stoically and magnificently by Katia Pascariu.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn opens in late November.

Editor Note: My short review of I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians when it screened in Boston in 2019.

“I do not care if we go down in history as barbarians” proclaimed Romania’s military dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu in the Council of Ministers in the summer of 1941. Once the Nazis liberated the Romanians from the Russians, the hometown folk enthusiastically began a mass slaughter of the Jews. Their ferocity even upset the Germans, who liked things done more crisply and systematically. Director Radu Jude’s sardonic satire revolves around a contemporary reenactment of the Odessa Massacre masterminded by a young theater director who finds herself (unsurprisingly) fighting  the municipal government’s attempts to censor her efforts to be “accurate.” (The politicos are paying for the contemporary dramatization.)

This is an overlong film with windy self-indulgences: an unresolved subplot about the director’s unwanted (?) pregnancy; high-brow reinforcement via hefty quotations from the work of Hannah Arendt (though an excerpt from an Isaac Babel story is marvelous); and where are the Romanian Jewish voices? Still, Barbarians dramatizes the enduring appeal of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and self-exculpatory amnesia. Dehumanization of the “other” has become second nature: confronting the truth would mean revealing a moral rot that never went away and continues to spread. For another look at the same issues, please read Jan T. Gross’s masterly Neighbors: the Destruction of the Jewish Community at Jedwabne, Poland.

— Bill Marx

David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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