With A Vipers’ Pit (Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi) enjoying a healthy run at Eden Cinemas, I thought I’d compile a little guide for prospective viewers before they take a chance on our political thriller-family drama-literary adaptation.
Response has been better than anything I had every hoped for: reviews ranges from ecstatic to ecstatically disappointed, but indifference was never the least bit part of the equation. For a low-budget debut based on a beloved book which attempts to treat national wounds, it’s just the kind of response you want.
So here’s a handily collated list of some previews, interviews and even reviews that the film has already amassed so far.
Starting from this Friday (6 August), those of you based in Malta can watch a film I wrote at Eden Cinemasin St Julian’s.
This is the first feature film script of mine to be produced, and suffice it to say that I’m excited about how audiences are going to react to our adaptation of Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi (literal translation: ‘The Snakes Are Venomous Again’; our translation, ‘A Vipers’ Pit’) by Alex Vella Gera, a novel whose trajectory I’ve followed from a very early stage back in 2012.
Director-producer Martin Bonnici called me up to ask if I’d be on board with adapting the novel back in late 2015, by which point the book had been established as a landmark of contemporary Maltese literature. This had partly to do with its thrilling core conceit – a group of ultra-Catholic nationalist insurgents plan the assassinaton of firebrand socialist prime minister of Malta, Dom Mintoff, in the 1980s – but also for more formal reasons.
Vella Gera’s novel is written in the bilingual register which reflects how a large part of the Maltese population speak; a linguistic schizophrenia that stands in for the binaries of social class on the island. The middle classes speak English, the working classes speak Maltese. At least, that’s the boilerplate belief, which has of course always been more nuanced on the ground than on paper. Middle-class born Noel Sammut Petri decides to break with that tradition after a move to Brussels, insisting on speaking Maltese in Maltese company.
It may seem like a small detail, but it speaks volumes. Where the English-speaking Maltese are either coded as elites or subject to gentle (and not-so-gentle) ridicule for the most part, Vella Gera chooses to depict this reality honestly, filtering some of this understandable distaste through the now liminal figure of Noel.
It’s one of the many ways in which the book resists an earnest, try-hard attempt to flaunt an idea of Malteseness that can be packaged and sold, and it’s probably the reason why it felt so refreshing to so many. Despite the attention-grabbing Mintoff plot, at its core the story is about the emotional landscape of the people trying to navigate the uncertain morass that is Malta: an infant Republic in its early segment set in the 1980s – following Noel’s father Richard as he’s pushed to serve as triggerman for the Mintoff assassination – and an EU member state at the cusp of regime change in 2012.
Vella Gera himself told me as much while we were conducting an email interview about the book prior to its publication in 20 October, 2012. Here’s a quote that didn’t make the final cut:
“I wanted to steer away from narratives dictated by the political parties. In a way, this book is a direct challenge to that bipolarism. Not that I’m propagating a “third way”, which is really conservatism by another name. However, like Noel, I too am aloof from the tug of war of local politics, so if my book were to be “unofficially boycotted” I think in a way it would be a success because it would underline that aloofness and continued lack of understanding of where I really come from
“Obviously, I have my political opinions, which to a certain extent continue to validate that aloofness, because I find very little in Maltese politics to rejoice over. I wonder who Noel would vote for. Probably [Green Party] AD, or perhaps he wouldn’t vote at all, or then again, he’d vote Labour just to spite [his property magnate friend] Roger. But I never get into these intricacies, because I find them very dull to deal with […] Personally I tried to steer away from getting too specific about anything except the gut feelings of people, which is what I’ve always felt is missing in most Maltese political fiction. That gut feeling that cannot be brushed aside or censored, or made more palatable with a joke or a witty aside, or some satirical tone.”
Despite its many changes to the source novel, I also sincerely hope that our film adaptation manages to convey a similar commitment to the complex emotional spaces the characters occupy, in favour of safely packaged assumptions, and jingoism by any other name.
When you spend a large chunk of your adult life going to the cinema during weird lonely hours as part of your job routine, something alters about the way in which you view that space. Working as a film critic for a national newspaper since I was 18 years old – albeit the nation being the micro-island state of Malta – while being blacklisted from the local distributor critics’ screenings for… reasons, meant that I got to watch films for review with a general audience, though rarely a full house.
A Friday deadline meant that I would need to get my films in by Thursday latest – leaving me little wiggle room as new films tended to make their way into cinemas on Wednesdays.
So aside from those rare occassions in which I could convince partners and/or friends to accompany me to watch a film that’s not entirely baker-fresh but which still remains reviewable after a weekend viewing, I got to spend a lot of lonely, torpid midweek afternoons in a darkened room with only a creepy trickle of strangers for company.
Looking back, it’s kind of jarring to think just how uninterrupted an activity film reviewing was for me.
There *was* a brief respite at the peak of my university years – during which I still maintained a nominal relationship with the newspaper, slotting in bits and pieces for the cultural supplement while one of Malta’s more veteran film critics took over – but I was soon back at it, penning a review for the then much-hyped Kate Winslet-starring middlebrow Oscar-courter, The Reader while starting my MA.
(How I would have loved to delve into Winslet’s richly devastating and utterly enthralling turn as the titular Mare of Easttown in HBO’s deservedly beloved recent mini-series. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe I’m finding a new appreciation for just leaving things be).
The only thing that could stop me, it turns out, was a murderous global pandemic. Between mandated cinema closures, the paper shortening its culture pages, and me opting for a return to full-time employment to stem the resultant economic haemorrage, reviewing films made for one unfeasible activity too many.
It would be romantic to say that I miss the darkened rooms, the creak and pull of the seats, the crunch of popcorn (crushed by both tooth and boot) and the promise of the possibility of total, immersive storytelling, with the auditorium as a dark womb keeping the world at bay while beautiful lies are spun across a screen as large as six or so people and accompanied by deafening sound.
The reality is of course far more prosaic – even if you’re after that level of immersion, your fellow punters are unlikely to be as committed, and the advent of the smartphone, coupled with the tendency to view the cinema as an extension of one’s living room, are just additional punctures. I don’t think I miss anything about being a regular film reviewer.
If anything, I honestly appreciate the unwitting benefits of this covid-induced break. A treadmill implies thoughtless forward motion. Now, I can finally think about what I was doing all these years. Or rather, what the process has done to me and for me.
When all is said and done (though it never, of course, truly is) what film criticism gave to me was an opportunity to work on my craft as a writer. This was hardly a pre-planned process borne out of specific ambitions and career goals (I was not too young to dream, but I was certainly too young to do so in anything resembling a structured fashion).
Yes, I did love movies as far back as I could remember. Yes, I did make a habit of leafing through Empire Magazine whenever I saw it on the shelves, sometimes even buying my own copies with pocket money. Yes, I can sheepishly confess to Marilyn Manson’s autobiography being a trigger for me here, a particularly embarrassing confession given the has-been shock-rocker has now joined the ranks of the justifiably ‘cancelled’.
But at the time, he was a gateway drug into a more flamboyant universe which openly flouted the shit-steamed sauna of the boys-only secondary school I attended. I saw something in his early forays into zine culture and freelance journalism which clicked with me. That possibly taking his path could serve as a stepping stone to more fully-fledged creative work.
Reviewing films on a weekly basis also gave me a glimpse at the inner workings behind a key truism that’s often bandied about in the general direction of so-called ’emerging’ writers: That it ‘never gets easier’, and that every subsequent project will be just as tough to think through and execute as its predecessor. But I found this truism to be both true, and not.
Certainly, it’s shocking – and hilarious – to me to think back on those early all-nighters as I desperately battled with my inner demons to churn out 800 words before deadline day. Social media as we now know it did not exist back then, so I would take to the then still-extant IMDB forums to temper my own critical insecurities by parsing through the smogasbord of public opinion: deluding myself into thinking that this is how I will get a feel for the consensus opinion so that my own review will be more far-reaching in scope… but really, I was just shit-scared to committing to my own ideas and opinions because I felt they were lackluster and inadequate.
So while the amount of required concentration and effort to execute an effective review did not diminish with time – much as I fantasised about it as some sort of romantic possibility, I never got to a stage where I could thoughtlessly churn out a review and submit it in under an hour – I did learn to quieten at least some of those demons to a whisper.
Coupled with the fact that my career path subsequently forced me to learn to juggle far more than just that one 800-word review a week – between writing other articles, curating a culture section, copy-editing commerical press releases and proofreading the entire paper, I was left with little room to be precious about *anything* – submitting one review a week over a long stretch of time meant that I learned to predict how my thoughts pan out across the process while also picking up on new tricks that would help me save time and effort.
The first of these was learning to relax into the viewing experience and doing all that I can to take it in as an audience member, not through some sort of strained ‘critical’ eye that favours a rarefied perspective.
One step at a time: first comes the viewing, then the retrospective critique. This was a crucial lesson in respecting the stages of the writing process and giving them their due. When writing a script, it’s wiser to consider the outline and treatment before jumping into the scene… in the same way, I picked up on how it’s best to just let the film unspool over you before the critical demons start puncturing through to cloud the experience. This also had to do with knowing your audience and understanding the parameters of the job.
After all, I was writing for a national newspaper, not an academic journal or a magazine that specialises in cinema, so the core purpose of my review was to give readers a full picture of what the given film is about – not just in terms of plot (and I always endeavoured to keep spoilers at a minimum) but the overall feel and tone of what they’d be experiencing if they choose to watch it.
Once I twigged to this function of my reviews, it became easier to focus on the task at hand at sentence-level, instead of worrying about how my piece will fare in some imaginary hall of fame of cuttingly perceptive analytical studies of contemporary mainstream cinema. The advent of Rotten Tomatoes and aggregator-culture in general would have plunged the knife even deeper anyway: who the hell is going to actively seek out my review when a three-second Google search will likely resolve the question of whether or not they should waste their time with any given new release? Had I let this get to me, I would be toast.
Instead, I learned to appreciate the more immediate pleasures at hand: the possibility to reverse-engineer my experience of watching a film and to assess its entrails for what’s worth cooking, what should be discarded… and what could be used to map out my own future as a writer.
I’m sure there’s tons more of my kindred spirits scattered around which I could find if I deigned to look hard enough, but so far the only prose works to make me feel a frisson of recognition when it comes to all this are Caitlin R. Kiernan’s short story ‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats‘, and Gemma Files’ haunting novel Experimental Film. Though Kiernan and Files can broadly be said to form part of the upper tiers of the international genre fiction community – with those works in particular mining a vein of elegantly disturbing horror – their approaches differ even in the works in question.
But there is something in both ‘Cats’ and Experimental Film that speaks to me: the idea of criticism as a starting point for keener existential immersion that goes beyond meta-ficitonal games. The idea that regularly putting films under the microscope means abandoning yourself to a labyrinth that could, by definition, go either way.
Looking back on it now that I am no longer in the grind and can finally afford to take a broader perspective on things… the greatest value of criticism for me lay in having to fully visualise and reverse-engineer an entire film while writing about it. It sounds like the kind of phenomenological minutae that can dovetail all-too-easily into banality. But it’s something that I think, in the end, gave me the tools I needed to help picture plot outlines and arcs for myself in a more solid and grounded manner when it came to writing my own stuff.
In many ways – and to risk banality once again – the clue is in the name: review. You are forced to run through the film once again in your head – because no, I could never spare the time or expense for an *actual* rewatch – and that does train your visualisation muscles. You begin to create a mind palace of story – reflecting somebody else’s, sure, but also adaptable to your own, eventually. It’s a retracing and remapping process, where you skim back over your memory of the film to rediscover what was notable, or to confirm or disprove and assumptions that you hold. In this way, the process is also useful to assess your own knee-jerk reactions and inbuilt prejudices.
Was that bit of dialogue really that bad? Could it have simply been functional to the story, or a reflection of the character’s state of mind at the time? Was that bravura mix of swelling soundtrack and magic-hour cinematography really great filmmaking, or does it fall apart upon reflection? But is the reflection a moot point anyway? Could it be that the reviewing process is not always the right approach to these things – that the ephemeral should be valorised as such, that its immediate experiential result is what should be placed under the microscope, and nothing else?
These are things I learned only gradually, and in small steps. ‘Learned’ is also too definitive – it implies a completed process: signed, sealed, delivered. It would be more accurate to say that I learned to internalise certain lessons by glancing at them and making a note of them for next time. But when the next time rolled around, I may or may not have forgotten what I was supposed to have learned. And the process starts again without the luxury of reflection, because the tickets have been bought, the voluminous Thursday afternoon seats are beckoning, and the Friday deadline is looming.
Film reviewing taught me to write. It could have been film reviewing, it could have been something else, but that’s what I was handed and it was a privilege in its own way. I entered in medias res – I did not start reviewing after a stint in film school (there was no such thing at the time in Malta, and there still barely is), and I only learned to pick up on film history further along the line, and in my own time. So there was no chronological development here for me – my training trenches were the early noughties releases from mainstream Hollywood, for the most part.
Truth be told, I don’t miss it terribly. Being a semi-professional opinion-haver is a thoroughly unsexy thing to be in this day and age, when social media has democratised such chatter to oblivion. (Actually, oblivion is too kind as it once again implies finality – a feverish vortex would probably make for a better fit).
But I am glad to the Hollywood behemoth for giving me a training mat on which I could jump, fall, and make a fool of myself before getting up again to fight another day. Its steely chassis will barely have registered the clinking and plinking punches from tiny Malta, so my necessary mistakes were allowed wide berth and shame was ever a stranger.
We can’t manage to catch a break in Malta, can we? It’s been at least since last November that some kind of mental stability or continuity — the latter being a repeated slogan in the party leadership campaign that was to crown the November madness — was the norm in both public and private life.
I was actually on a break of sorts when that first crisis hit. High on the freshly released fumes of success generated by our being awarded the inaugural Malta Book Council feature film fund for our feature film adaptation of Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi, I decided to go for an early, modest version of a writerly fantasy and booked a ‘writing retreat’ at the sister island of Gozo in off-season.
It was a no-brainer, at least in theory. I chose to stay at the notoriously quiet village of Gharb, with a pipe-shaft view from my typing window and grossly over-pixelated landscape printouts hanging by the bed. So, no distractions there. The breakfasts were also nice and energising — full English, with a dollop of French sweets and Gozitan cheeselets on the side — and having paid in full for room and board meant that I was internally pressured to get cracking on the reams of research and story development that needed to be done.
But the trip also coincided with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, so I could forget all about isolation and silence, in the broadest sense of the word. How could I resist checking my phone when the political status quo of the island was being dismantled right before our eyes? Not least when the project itself hardly offered a neat cutoff point: my research dealt with political violence and corruption in 1980s Malta, and if anything was to be salvaged from the distraction it was that the resonances between then and now ensured that our film will be laced with an enduring, if unfortunate, relevance.
With the fallout came the protests, and an unprecedented political crisis culminating in the resignation of then prime minister Joseph Muscat and the election of Robert Abela in his stead, with a reshuffled cabinet following suit. As alluded to above, ‘continuity’ was the watchword, and Abela — to the cynical chuckles of many — quickly declared that ‘normality’ has been restored to the island.
The onset of the global covid-19 pandemic makes short work of precisely that kind of rhetoric. We have seen how it’s served to symbolically unseat the likes of Donald Trump, whose bluff and bluster collapses ‘like a flan in a cupboard’ when faced with a threat both invisible and undeniable. Though I would caution against declaring that ‘the Trump presidency is over‘ so categorically — the orange oaf has survived a record amount of scandals — watching him scramble for some political purchase while playing the same old xenophobic tunes is just farcical at this point.
But it’s not just limited to politicians. The sight of suddenly quarantined celebrity actors deciding to make use of their newly housebound condition to splice together a group singalong of John Lennon’s Imagine — “Imagine there’s no people” is hardly the thing you want to hear while a murderous pandemic continues to spread on a murderous rampage of the elderly and otherwise vulnerable — also points to the tone-deaf nature of another privileged class.
The cluelessness of the global rich is hardly news — Best Picture winner Parasite all but rendered it into an archetype, and these elites are actually nice — but a pandemic has away of making it all come out like a particularly eye-grabbing Lovecraftian bas relief.
So yes, we’re still very much not getting a break right now: not from the bone-headed stupidity of the global hegemony, not from the callousness and stupidity of those at the top. But we’re joined in this worldwide, and while the imposition to enforce ‘social distancing’ certainly lends fuel to the fire of certain xenophobic tendencies informed by the idea of the infectious and corrupting nature of otherness, we’re also getting to see limits of our status quo.
A status quo within which, as a self-employed freelance writer, I am likely doomed to remain on the fringes of, for better or worse.
(Here’s the bit where ask anyone who’s reading this to consider making use of my services as a journalist, content writer or scriptwriter during these trying times, as existing clients start to bail and any prospective ones suddenly be).
Perhaps some would call the largely worldwide self-quarantine a break of some sorts, though of course it’s not that, not by a long stretch. But it’s certainly a break in the aggressive sense, a rupture of the old routines we’re now scrambling to become accustomed to, with varying degrees of success, and each in their own way.
I’ll try to keep chasing the resonances. Even if they’re not all pleasant ones. Because in times like these, some kind of internal coherence is what we need more than anything else.
A South American migrant whose mother is undocumented – that the Thrombey heirs and in-laws consistently getting her nationality wrong during police interrogations is one of the film’s best running gags; some say she’s from Ecuador, others from Paraguay – she does her best to placate the spoiled brood after a plot-important (and therefore spoilery) development flips the power dynamic between her and her erstwhile employers, edging the proverbial knives out of the rich family’s sheathes and placing the perennially good-hearted Marta in a thoroughly uncomfortable position.
Keen to show that she has no intention of offending or otherwise discomfiting the Thrombeys in light of this new development, Marta insists on pointing out how the family has been “good to [her]” by giving her employment and at least ostensibly making her feel part of the privileged Thrombey fold while she took care of their patriarch in his dotage.
The family takes this as a given, never for a second considering that there could have been any ‘decent’ alternative way for all of this to pan out. Being a migrant, her inherent abjection and lack of agency is the default setting she’s expected to operate under. Though nominally valued, the work she does for the family is not nearly enough to grant her anything resembling full personhood, and anything that crosses the line of that rigidly defined master and servant relationship is to be apologised for profusely, or else.
Keeping up with the Thrombeys: After Harlan Thrombey (centre) is found dead in an apparent suicide, the rest of his family decend into a not-so-petty extended squabble over the spoils
It is at this point that Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) – Johnson’s wonderfully conceived riposte to the Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot archetype, gleefully brought to life by a relaxed and game post-Bond Craig – crosses a line of his own. Lifting the veil of cold calculated deductive reasoning that has so far been his modus operandi (and that of his literary and filmic antecedents in the detective genre), he interrupts Marta by giving in to a bubbling ethical indignation:
“Excuse me. You have not been good to her. You have all treated her like shit […] You’re a pack of bloody vultures at the feast, but you’re not getting bailed out, not this time.”
We can make much out of Blanc being something of a ‘white knight’ in this situation, also pointing out that most migrants out there do not in fact have such figures bursting through to speak out in their favour when things get really tough. But within the context of the film, Blanc’s outburst serves as a welcome bit of catharsis. How much of this misguided, undeserved and disingenuous shit are we going to take, and for how long?
Disgraced former tourism and energy minister Konrad Mizzi recently evoked something of a similar reaction in local quarters after posting an incendiary Facebook post following a literally incendiary event in Marsa.
“You fled your country. We saved you from drowning. We gave you shelter in our home. We dressed you, fed you. But now learn to respect us, our culture, our religion and the Maltese population,” Konrad Mizzi wrote on Facebook on January 8th, 2019, in the wake of a fire engulfing the Marsa Open Centre, which led to the arrest of 20 people.
Like the Thrombeys, Mizzi betrays no qualms at lumping all migrants in the same basket, with an added sting of political convenience handy to local politicians – particularly ones given the chop in the wake of shady financial dealings, who are now perhaps hoping that a new party leader will allow them to once again rise in the party ranks, previous sins washed clean as they are buoyed back into the public discourse by this recent appeal to far-right sentiment.
Mizzi does indeed expect all migrants to merely shut up and take any indignity thrown at them, except perhaps when they open their mouths to intone just how “good to them” we’ve been for allowing them the privilege of taking shelter on our island.
Never mind that the true source of the fire has yet to be determined, and never mind that this rush to condemn sits uncomfortably when compared to Mizzi’s own post-Panama political trajectory, during which we were all expected to let the legalisms that have exonerated him to speak for themselves.
Never mind that, even if the fires at the Marsa open centre are proven to have been deliberately started by migrants housed there, Mizzi’s diabolically moralistic generalisation cannot even begin to hold water: it assumes that all of the migrants there would have been in full agreement with any criminal action taking place.
And in this particular case, the notion that the migrants at the open centre should be grateful to us for ‘housing’ them is also off base: by its very definition, the open centre largely serves as a transitional space in which migrants are made to wait while their paperwork is processed and before they are given the go-ahead to either stay in the country or move elsewhere.
But apart from being an obvious and cheap attempt at garnering public support from literally the most toxic of national sources, Mizzi’s attitude is also redolent of the kind of ‘logic’ and ‘common sense’ which underpins some of the same toxicity within the migration debate. ‘We will charitably do our bit to welcome third country nationals into the country, but if they dare express anything other than adulation of even consider making minor legal infringements – infringements that we’d easily forgive among ‘our own’ – the only thing they should look forward to is swift deportation’.
Ana de Armas is Marta Cabrera in Knives Out (2019)
It is a logic that is accurately, meticulously and painfully articulated in Knives Out. In an early scene – or rather, early confessional flashback – Marta is brought in as an unwitting ‘exhibit A’ of the ‘good migrant’ by Richard (Don Johnson), as a tangible closing salvo to a family debate on Donald Trump’s heinous migration border policy (Ol’ 45 is not explicitly mentioned by name, but the correlation is impossible not to make). Conceding that ‘putting children in cages’ is a bad thing, Richard clings to legalisms:
“But I blame the parents […] for breaking the law. You’re going to hate hearing this but it’s true, America is for Americans.”
It’s at this point that Richard commands a vigilant and nervous Marta to come over, as if a walking, (barely) talking illustration of his point. Making a point to wave his polished-off cake plate at the trembling girl, to be taken away later, Richard carries on,
“Marta, your family came from Uruguay but you did it right, she did it legally, I’m saying. You work hard, and you’ll earn your share from the ground up just like dad and all of us did – Marta I bet you agree with me.”
Never mind Richard obliviousness to both Marta’s own true country of origin (something the audience itself never becomes privy to either, to be fair); the fact that Richard is also ignorant of her family’s legal status is of course the deeper cut. Once that truth is revealed – by one of the supposedly more ‘woke’ members of the Thrombey family – the information gives way to blackmail, not help from this monied and influential family. Truly, they have not been, and will insist on never being, good to her.
Many arguments in favour of existing, status quo migration policies accuse the ‘other side’ of sentimentality or misdirected compassion, of refusing to consider the rational underpinnings behind arguments like ‘America is for Americans’, ‘illegal immigrants are simply breaking the law’.
But pronouncements like Mizzi’s own are also an act of obfuscation, apart from being a vulgar attempt to piggyback on racist undercurrents in an attempt to salvage some form of political capital. In framing migration policy as little more than an act of charity, Mizzi conveniently dodges the responsibility of rigour that is crucial if one is to honestly engage with issues of such complexity.
It’s a smoke-and-mirrors exercise made possible through the mechanisms of privilege – Mizzi’s own monied background, his history as a politician which, however chequered, still garners active support from a vocal contingent of Labour supporters – and it’s also the main obstacle that Benoit Blanc faces as he attempts to crack the case he’s now facing.
Because while Marta’s part in Johnson’s serpentine plot is hardly as simple as her otherwise diminished social standing would suggest, the Thrombey’s arsenal of cash and influence goes a long way towards making the case as juicy and complex as possible, as an eleventh-hour reappearance of an absent Thrombey scion makes clear as the film transitions from the second act to its third.
Somewhere over gravity’s rainbow: Daniel Craig is Benoit Blanc
Blanc uses the title of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow to describe his working method to Marta – a famously impenetrable tome that neither of them have read, but whose title Blanc is partial to because,
“It describes the path of a projectile, determined by natural law. Voila, my method. I observe the facts without biases of the head or heart, I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet.”
Mizzi and other politicians of his ilk are in the business of putting themselves precisely in the path of the projectile, blocking a thorough examination of the truth by opening the floodgates to angry, misguided sections of the electorate who will offer them their support in the wake of such toxic battle cries.
It is a self-serving move masquerading as a beacon of wider social concern, and it precisely encapsulates the paradox of figures like Konrad Mizzi: well-oiled businessmen brought into the fold of an ascendant Labour Party and asked to deploy their technocratic skills in the interest of securing continued victory.
It’s a paradox that also came undone in the wake of a murder – that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose mysteries have been unravelled somewhat, but not in their entirety.
I’ve waited for the reviews to form a satisfyingly diverse cluster before putting this together, as it’s been an interesting couple of months at the movies. But here they are; some of my recent pieces of film criticism for MaltaToday, liberally cherry-picked and in no particular order.
Which is, of course, a total lie. Cherry-picking implies selection, and selection implies intention, which implies order of some kind.
In this case, we’ve see a few glittering diamonds in the rough just about rising up for air in an atmosphere suffused by entertaining, but equally suffocating, blockbuster fare.
“Though an epic send-off may have felt like a foregone conclusion Marvel Studio’s unprecedentedly long-running superhero saga, the mammoth achievement that’s ensued is certainly no casual fluke. Carefully calibrated to give each character and sub-plot their due while never short-changing its emotional content, Avengers: Endgame gives itself the licence of sizeable running time to tell a story that is part dirge, part mind-bending time travelling heist and part meditation on friendship and power. The cinematic landscape may have been changed by these colourfully-clad supermen and women in debatable ways, but the byzantine byways of its interconnected stories clicking so satisfyingly together is certainly no mean feat.”
“More ambitious and tighter than his barnstorming Get Out in equal measure, Jordan Peele’s second stab at film-making may have some rips at its seams, but in the long run makes for a thrilling feature with something to say. Satisfyingly structured and laced with nuggets of ambiguity that will burrow through the brain, it’s offers a full-bodied experience of genre cinema that feels sorely needed in a landscape oversaturated with superheroes and remakes.”
“Expanding on its world with a tightly-focused and clever simplicity that allows more than ample room for its trademark bloodbath-balletics to shine through, the third installment of the little action franchise that could continues to plough its way through the competition with violent, witty elan. A satisfying ride from start to finish, Reeves and Stahelski’s baby has grown up and taken the world by storm, while betraying zero signs of franchise fatigue so far.”
“Though lacking polish in certain areas and never quite managing to resist the temptation to stuff every frame with ‘local colour’, Limestone Cowboy remains an engaging and effective dramedy that successfully alchemises quirky Maltese mores into a feature of universal appeal.”
“While offering an unflinching and deeply upsetting gaze into the unequal power structures of capitalism both past and present, Happy as Lazzaro also manages to be a rich and rewarding fable, limned with a magical glow that keeps cynicism and hopelessness at bay. Mixing in a team of first-time actors and non-professionals with established names, Alice Rohrwacher creates something of a minor miracle, which is likely to remain resonant for years to come.”
Easter is approaching on this once-aggressively Catholic island, which is only marginally less so nowadays, as this snap I took a couple of days back gloriously, dramatically illustrates:
Easter of course also means spring in full swing, and the twisty turny weather that it brings with it has left me feeling a bit ‘off’ on a few days here and there, where drowsiness becomes the order of the day and where you feel abandoned to the mercy of the uncontrollable climate-gods and their whims — they are in you, controlling your moods and there’s not much you can do about it. Both humbling and annoying in equal measure, but I also know it’s nowhere near the deluge that is the summer-swelter juggernaut, for which I am subconsciously preparing with no small amount of trepidation.
But come rain on shine, my penchant for the cooling moods of Gothic melodrama will remain unquelled, and it’s not just the above photo that stands as proof of this. Recently, the punk-metal band BILA (no, they’re not all that sure about their genre-configuration either — I asked) got me on board to participate in the music video for their song ‘Belliegha’, in which I was tasked to play a folk monster by the video’s director, Franco Rizzo.
The no-budget, three-day shoot ended up blossoming into a glorious display of pulpy goodness, and it was about as fun to shoot as it is to look at, I reckon. You can check out the whole thing here. For those of you on the island and keen to hear more, BILA will be performing at Rock the South on April 14.
The Belliegha’s aesthetic certainly lies on the (deliberately) crummier side of what I’ve just been talking about, but we also had a chance to once again showcase our more elegant attempt at the Mediterranean Gothic during past couple of weeks, as the National Book Council invited co-writer/director, producer Martin Bonnici and myself to speak about our short film ‘Camilla’ at the Campus Book Festival.
Flanked by Martin Bonnici (left) and Stephanie Sant (right) at the Campus Book Festival, University of Malta, March 29, 2019. Photo by Virginia Monteforte
The event was focused on adaptation, translation and subtitling, and to this end we were thankfully joined by Dr Giselle Spiteri Miggiani from the translation department, and someone with tangible experience of subtitling for television and cinema.
Despite having premiered back in November, it feels as though ‘Camilla’s journey into the world is only just beginning. Some encouraging feedback and an overall sense of enduring satisfaction with the work as a whole — bolstered by the memory of just how smooth a project it was to put together — leaves me with a decidedly un-Gothy optimism about its future.
But true to the spirit of fertility, resurrection and renewal that also characterises this season and its many associated festivals, there’s another bun in the oven that appears to be just about ready for consumption.
After some five-odd years of rumination, regurgitation and tinkering, the fifth draft of a horror feature I’ve been working on under the auspices of the aforementioned Martin Bonnici appears to be production-ready.
Of course any number of things can happen in the run up to finally getting this thing filmed, but I can’t help but let out an extended sigh of relief at finally finishing a draft of ‘Inheritance’ that’s about as smooth as I’d like it to be — with the required suspension of disbelief being dialed down to a minimum, the dialogue as lived-in as it’s ever been, and the narrative beats aligned to both character motivation and the story’s thematic underbelly.
I’ll have to keep mum on details for the time being, not least because a jinx at this stage of the film’s evolution would be particularly heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that the project marks the fulfilment of a vow made back in 2014, on national media. A vow to make the Maltese cinematic space just that little bit punkier and weirder.
This all feels like good juju, since summer is approaching. And carving out a pretty alcove of darkness feels like just the thing. Take it away, Banshees…
One of the best things to emerge out of my admittedly truncated run with an MA in Film Studies at my alma mater was being introduced to filmmakers Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia. Not just introduced, but being put under a filmmaking wringer they helped crank up with inspiration and relish.
With the help of other equally acclaimed European masters in the field, the award-winning duo — of Salvo and latterly and spectacularly, Sicilian Ghost Story fame — helped us beat a script for a short film into shape, and eventually shepherded us through its production phase.
Fabio Grassadonia (front) and Antonio Piazza (back) teaching ‘Screenwriting and the Art of Dramaturgy’ at the University of Malta (October 2015). Photo by Kenneth Scicluna
If nothing else, it made for a revealing look into the process of filmmaking. It certainly helped my writing from then onwards — their thorough, no-compromise understanding of the dynamics of story created helpful subconscious voices in my head that hammer through whenever I’m faced with a knotted plot problem or unclear character motivation.
So it was with great pleasure that I caught up with one half of that duo via Skype to talk about their compelling, harrowing and gorgeous sophomore feature, Sicilian Ghost Story, on the occasion of it finally reaching our shores on general release. Though I’d actually seen it just over a year ago when it made a ‘soft’ premiere in Malta as part of the third edition of the Valletta Film Festival, and I did not hesitate to subsequently name it the best film of that year.
Star-crossed, never lost: Julia Jedlikowska and Gaetano Fernandez in Sicilian Ghost Story
We spoke about the film’s enthusiastic perception in the “Anglo-Saxon world” and how this denotes something of a cultural divide between that region and their native European south, about how ethical responsibility plays a big part in the duo’s representation of the mafia. But most importantly and urgently — at least, as far as I’m concerned — we discussed how misunderstood and misrepresented the fantastical mode often is in contemporary cinema and perhaps Western culture in general.
“Our films are more closely connected to the world of dreams, nightmares… hidden desires and visions. They beg for a more metaphysical contemplation.”
It’s been a while since a summer blockbuster has impressed me as much as Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Fallout has, and this speaks to both my own fatigue with the Hollywood mainstream as well as the very evident mechanics which foment that fatigue.
I’m writing this literally minutes after having also enjoyed Ant Man & The Wasp, but that enjoyment was tellingly less pronounced when compared to the exhilaration I felt during particularly the latter act of the Tom Cruise-starring superspy epic, the poster for which I was left to gaze on longingly during our intermission for the latest Marvel Studios installment — yes, intermissions are still a thing here — and wishing that I was back in there with Ethan Hunt.
I’m tempted to assume that a heady confluence of factors led to the Mission Impossible franchise being the primary rallying point for action cinema this season. One of them is Tom Cruise’s sheer determination to cement his status as a still-viable action hero, as he sets out on a warpath to run, climb, punch and kick his way out of an uncomfortable whirlwind of tabloid-friendly personal eccentricity.
The other is the simple existence of the John Wick franchise, which reminded all and sundry — but most significantly, studio heads — that shaky cam should no longer be the way to make action movies, and that if you do it properly, all the money you spend on thorough choreography and lucid camerawork will be recouped by an appreciative audience.
It’s also a reminder that action is a balletic feature of any narrative, that should be taken in slowly and savoured. Unlike the Michael Bays of this world, McQuarrie seems to understand that action is not a condiment to be assaulted with. It should be an integral part of the meal — a showcase piece, to be sure, but not a murderously spicy dish that brings tears to your eyes before coming to life to punch you in the face, leaving you black-eyed and confused.
Another thing that also made Fallout so endearing is that it tapped into the vein of espionage-pulp that the Bond franchise has gone weird on, and that Bourne has reduced to a gritty sludge that nobody is biting on anymore. It comes down to a pact with the audience – an understanding that these are superhero stories where the heroes have no powers but do superheroics regardless, and where technology is effectively magic.
So yeah. Mission Impossible: Fallout. I liked it a bunch. Read my ‘official’ review of it on MaltaToday by clicking here.
Photography was generously provided by my fellow “visitor” from Laos, the filmmaker Xaisongkham Induangchanthy.
But for all these hints of mystery, it’s deliberate and clear-eyed human impositions which engulf the city, in ways that are often inspiring and beautiful but which leave little room for the imagination. And if we are to speak of dreams from the lens of one of their most famous and enduring philosophers – Sigmund Freud – contemporary Berlin stands as precisely a rigid, assertive bulwark against the kind of subconscious demons Freud wrote about.