Now Playing! The Arthouse Streams Into Your Living Room

Mark Rylance and Johnny Depp in 'Waiting for the Barbarians.' (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Hollywood studios routinely hoard movies for adults—a.k.a. Oscarbait—until the fall and winter. To fill the summer void, independent distributors typically stock the arthouses with films for thinking people. This year, the arthouse is in your living room.

Waiting for the Barbarians
Now playing
Smith Rafael Film Center

What we gain in ease and convenience by watching quality films at home, we lose in a diminished viewing experience. Films like those of the Colombian director Ciro Guerra (Birds of Passage, Embrace of the Serpent), in which the characters are inseparable from their environment, require our immersion. Sinking into one’s couch, however, isn’t the same as being swallowed up in a far-off world.

Guerra’s mesmerizing Waiting for the Barbarians, adapted by J. M. Coetzee from his prize-winning 1980 novel and photographed by the great Chris Menges (lured out of retirement, apparently), unfolds in a desert settlement on the edge of a far-flung empire. The magistrate (Mark Rylance) modestly administers his responsibilities as a representative of a colonial power with compassion and sensitivity. Comfortably assimilated into the local culture, he’ll be content if, one day, his short obituary acknowledges, “With a nudge here and a touch there, I kept the world on its course.”

Mark Rylance in 'Waiting for the Barbarians.' (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

The arrival of the chilly, cryptic Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) signals the end of this era. A pumped-up policeman who sees enemy insurgents where the magistrate sees scattered nomads, Joll launches an expedition replete with terror and torture. “Pain is truth,” he informs the magistrate. “All else is subject to doubt.”

In an eloquent performance dripping with dignity and vulnerability, Rylance plays (to use today’s parlance) a well-meaning liberal awakening to his white privilege. Depp, in a mere handful of scenes, gives an original and frightening slant to the arrogant lawman whose concept of history doesn’t extend past two seconds ago.

The irony of Coetzee’s title becomes apparent long before the end of this beautifully crafted film. To cite cartoonist Walt Kelly’s immortal line from Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Radioactive
July 24
Amazon Prime Video

As we’d expect from the director of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s new biopic of two-time Nobel Prize-winner Marie Curie teems with structural, visual and thematic ideas. But most viewers’ reaction will depend on their affection for Rosamund Pike, who plays the brilliant, intransigent scientist who discovered radium and polonium with her husband, Pierre (Sam Riley).

I find Pike, who portrayed war correspondent Marie Colvin (another relentlessly independent woman) in the little-seen A Private War, to be all surfaces; she’s technically skilled but unable to convey basic human warmth. I understand Marie Curie’s drive, sacrifice and pain from Pike’s performance, but I’m not touched by either her struggle or her successes.

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Perhaps a cold heart at the center of a story about logic-based science and deadly real-world side effects is appropriate, but I don’t think that’s what Satrapi had in mind when she chose to translate Lauren Redniss’ book to film. Yes, Satrapi wants to put all dogmatic beliefs—such as thinking provable facts good and faith (in a medium who conducts seances, for example) bad—under the microscope. But she also wants us to feel the crisis of an idealist whose work harms as well as heals.

Radioactive, which premiered as the closing night film of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, defies the polite parameters of period movies to hurtle forward to Hiroshima and Chernobyl, as well as to early radiation treatment in a U.S. hospital. The recurring motifs of a glowing green light, representing the powerful force that the Curies discover and which others unleash, and round objects, symbolizing the atom, pull us out of the lab to evoke another realm, namely the mysteries of the universe.

On its most accessible level, Radioactive is a portrait of a woman who didn’t overcome misogyny so much as ignore it. Nonetheless, it could not have been easy being ahead of her time all of the time.

John Lewis in 'John Lewis: Good Trouble.' (© Ben Arnon; Magnolia Pictures)

John Lewis: Good Trouble
Streaming via local theaters

Freedom Riders
PBS

The altogether remarkable John Lewis passed away July 17. If you only know him by what others have said, written or (God forbid) tweeted, do the right thing (to borrow a phrase) and check out Dawn Porter’s new documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble via several local virtual cinemas. If money is an issue, PBS is currently streaming Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders, which aired on American Experience in 2011, for free. This gripping historical doc recounts the courageous 1961 voter registration campaign in the South and features Rep. Lewis and fellow Civil Rights leader Rev. C. T. Vivian (who also died on July 17). Rest in power, the struggle continues.

Among his many accomplishments, John Lewis was on the planning committee for New Communities, a Georgia land trust formed in 1970 that provided communal land ownership to Black farmers. Local filmmakers Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman interviewed the congressman for their 2012 short film, Arc of Justice. It’s available to stream for free here through July 31.

Advocate
July 27
POV on KQED

I’m stirred by brave souls everywhere who march and bleed for liberty and justice for all, but I’m dismayed by the setbacks and the pace of change. Imagine the commitment and courage of Jerusalem human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, who has defended Palestinian clients in Israeli courts against Herculean odds for half a century.

We grasp Tsemel’s character in the first minute of Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche’s Advocate. Pulling her wheeled case through a crowded lobby, Tsemel reaches the elevator as it closes—and unhesitatingly shoves her hand between the doors and forces them open. This is not a woman who is easily denied.

Surprisingly, Advocate steadfastly avoids sensationalism as it follows Tsemel through a couple of cases spanning many, many months. The most wrenching involves a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who accompanied his 15-year-old cousin with the intent of threatening civilians with a decorative knife. The cousin stabbed a boy, and was shot to death by police.

An archival photo of Lea Tsemel. (Film Movement)

Tsemel’s biography comprises the documentary’s other thread, beginning with her opposition to the occupation as a law student shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967. While it’s safe to presume that the filmmakers share Tsemel’s politics and values, they portray her as neither saint nor victim. She’s too flinty and uncompromising to be the former, and too defiant and self-aware to accept the latter tag.

A Swiss-Israeli-Canadian coproduction that premiered at Sundance last year and went on to play every important international documentary festival (and the S.F. Jewish Film Festival), Advocate capped its run with a spot on the shortlist for this year’s Oscars. It isn’t an activist film, though, despite Tsemel’s assertion that Palestinians who attack Israelis receive harsher sentences than Israelis who assault Palestinians. Rather, Advocate is a Rorschach test: Its protagonist serves to reflect (or provoke) one’s sympathies and positions.

Late in the film, after the court has passed sentence on the 13-year-old, Tsemel laments the inability of many Israelis to see beyond “terrorist” to “human being.” “[It’s] as if there’s some kind of impenetrable screen, like the separation barrier, that can’t be overcome,” she says.

To Tsemel, and to Mark Rylance’s magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, there is no “other.”

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