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Film Fest 919 Reviews: ‘Women Talking,’ ‘Bardo’ and ‘Close’

Michelle McLeod as Mejal, Sheila McCarthy as Greta, Liv McNeil as Neitje, Jessie Buckley as Mariche, Claire Foy as Salome, Kate Hallett as Autje, Rooney Mara as Ona and Judith Ivey as Agata in “Women Talking.” (Orion Pictures)

I had the pleasure of once again attending Film Fest 919 in Chapel Hill, and 2022’s programming somehow lived up to the high bar set by previous years.

Three of the five films I got to catch include Lukas Dhont’s “Close,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” and Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” – all of which will be in the award season conversation this year.

“Close”

“Close” came out of its premiere at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year as one of A24’s buzziest 2022 titles, winning the Grand Prix, the festival’s second-highest honor. Thankfully, this is an example of the hype being well-deserved, and the film is easily one of the best coming-of-age stories in recent memory. The story focuses on the adolescent intimacy of Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele), two schoolboys who have their affectionate relationship put to the test at the start of a new school year. 

Director Lukas Dhont does a nigh miraculous job of replicating the innocence and simplicity of childhood life and relationships. The first act is a slice of perfection and could be an award-winning short film in its own right, giving us a window into the summertime playfulness between the two boys, playing outside with their imaginations alone, snuggling with Rémi’s mother on the grass and biking through the countryside. Their chemistry is pure warmth, with Dhont focusing on the glances and smiles between them, with close-ups on Dambrine and de Waele telling more than any dialogue could.

Once the school year starts and the affection between the two comes under scrutiny from their classmates, the weight of the film falls on the shoulders of Dambrine, who delivers one of the best performances I have ever seen from a child actor. He navigates extreme emotional highs and lows effortlessly, always working subtlety and never in danger of overplaying the moment. “Close” is a heart-wrenching film but one that ultimately highlights the necessity of compassion, understanding and staying true to yourself, even when it isn’t easy.

Star Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Close” releases January 23, 2023 in select theaters.

“BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”

“Bardo” is not just a return to the big screen for four-time Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu after a six-year hiatus, but it’s a homecoming to his cultural roots. It is the filmmaker’s first film to shoot in his native Mexico since “Babel” in 2006, and his first film in the Spanish language since “Biutiful” in 2010. This fact is not lost on the auteur, as the film is crafted entirely around Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Mexican documentary filmmaker who returns to Mexico after spending years working and raising his family in the United States. Silverio thus faces an identity crisis, trying to reconcile his success and life outside of Mexico with his family roots.

Cacho, who functions as a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Iñárritu, does an exceptional job carrying the weight of the 2.5-hour film on his shoulders. There is rarely a scene that Cacho does not appear in, whether it’s commanding a long-take monologue, bringing beautiful subtleties to close-ups or performing one of the standout dance sequences of 2022. The inner conflicts that Gama is grappling with – memory vs. reality and inherited identity vs. adopted identity, to name a few – are always kept focused and urgent by Cacho.

These conflicts are also made abundantly clear with the increasingly surreal visuals of the film. Iñárritu has dabbled in surreality before, particularly in “Birdman” – another surrealist dramedy about an aging artist struggling with his identity. The elements here are cranked up to 11, however, even without his usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. DP Darius Khondji delivers some of the best work of his illustrious career and deserves to be in the conversation to win the Oscar. His wide-angle lenses, complex camera moves and dynamic lighting combined with Eugenio Caballero’s varied production design coalesce into a perfectly dream-like world. Like Iñárritu’s other works, “Bardo” is a lot to digest and perhaps bites off more than it can chew at times, but it is a clearly personal vision on a grand scale, and that alone makes it one of the most engaging and singular films of the year.

Star Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” releases December 16, 2022 on Netflix.

“Women Talking”

“Women Talking” was ordained as one of the award contenders to watch at the beginning of 2022, and it’s not hard to see why. The film comes from Oscar-nominee Sarah Polley (“Away from Her,” “Take This Waltz”) and boasts one of the year’s most-impressive casts, which includes Oscar-nominee Rooney Mara, Emmy-winner Claire Foy, Oscar-nominee Jessie Buckley, Oscar-winner Frances McDormand and Emmy-winner Ben Whishaw. All this talent was brought together to turn a chamber piece about sexual assault and patriarchal oppression into a captivating cinematic experience. So, did they succeed? Yes, for the most part.

The film quickly drops you into the world of the Mennonites and the situation these women find themselves in. Their colony is isolated and has no modern technology, not even electricity or machine farming. It is ultimately revealed to be set in 2010, but it could just as easily be 1710 or 1910 or 2022, which effectively underscores the pervasiveness of violence against women and subjugation by men. After an assault that leads to the women identifying one of their attackers and most of the men leaving the colony for a day, the women of the colony come together to vote and debate their fate. It plays out mostly in a barn loft, the women gathered and baring their souls to justify their position. If the film was called “12 Angry Women,” you wouldn’t be far off.

Polley has great command of her actors, who provide a wealth of perspectives and experiences that they have to bring to life for each other and the audience. Ona (Mara) leads the ensemble as a shining beacon of calm, pregnant with the child of her assailant but choosing to remain optimistic about the potential of life and motherhood outside the colony. Her relationship with August (Whishaw) is an especially strong point of warmth within the story. He left the colony to go to college and come back as a teacher for the colony’s boys, and he is entrusted with taking the minutes of the meeting. Whishaw is a proper symbol of healthy masculinity and quiet strength, standing out as the only male character in a position of power that we see in the film. Meanwhile, Salome (Foy) and Mariche (Buckley) provide the more explosive moments, with grief and anger both boiling over as Salome argues to fight back against the men instead of running, while Mariche hits back at the idea of being able to thrive outside of the colony.

While the varied viewpoints keep the momentum of the film from stalling too much, there is a feeling of repetition that begins to set in about halfway through the film. Polley does well to mix in flashbacks and exterior scenes to shake things up, but there is a sense that the weight of their back-and-forth dialogue and the impact of their ultimate decision would have been just as effective, or even more so, if some of the minor beats were streamlined.

The film is also efficiently shot and edited, and the depictions of the violence against these women are well-handled, but the compositions and blocking leave a little to be desired, especially when the setting is so static. As for the color-grading of the film, the less that’s said the better. The score from Oscar-winner Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Joker”) is a major boon and underlines the film’s emotional peaks and valleys without being overpowering. “Women Talking” will be a constant presence with awards bodies this season, and it’s not hard to see why a film this urgent and powerful would be so resonant.

Star Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“Women Talking” releases December 23, 2022 in select theaters.

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Johnny Sobczak View All

Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."

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