Cinemania, Nov. 5: Of centenarians and Belgians

We take a look at some of today’s offerings from the English-subtitled francophone cinema fest running this week.

Gebo and the Shadow (Gebo et l’Ombre)

Every Manoel de Oliviera movie should be an event unto itself; after all, there aren’t many 103-year-old directors putting out a movie every year. But de Oliviera is a rather demure player in the international cinema scene, most likely because his films tend to be of rather limited scope. That’s certainly true about his latest effort, an adaptation of a play by Raul Brandao that embraces its stage-bound roots to a quasi-fatal degree.

Gebo (Michel Lonsdale) is an elderly accountant who lives with his long-suffering wife (Claudia Cardinale) and their daughter-in-law (Leonor Silveira), eagerly anticipating the return of their estranged son Joao (Ricardo Trêpa). Gebo has some information about Joao’s whereabouts that he chooses not to divulge, but when Joao returns out of his own volition, tensions flare up within the family and their neighbors.

As one would assume from a movie directed by a centenarian, Gebo and the Shadow isn’t exactly the most dynamic of efforts. De Oliviera uses few camera movements and limited setups, so the film resembles in its form one of those musty filmed plays you might find on PBS on a Thursday afternoon.  It’s always risky to let a filmed play be a filmed play and, while de Oliviera’s use of lighting and the superlative production design make this way more gorgeous than your average episode of Masterpiece Theatre, the film overall feels a little staid and stilted when taken outside the context of the aforementioned PBS afternoon showing.

That having been said, most filmed plays cannot boast a cast that features Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau (who plays one of the neighbors). Watching these titans at work doesn’t quite deflect from the staginess of the film, but it’s a pleasure nonetheless. As productive as de Oliviera is, Gebo and the Shadow comes across as a minor work in a major oeuvre. Imperial Cinema (1432 Bleury), 1 p.m. and Tuesday, Nov. 6, 9:15 p.m.



Dead Man Talking

Pound for pound, I don’t think there’s a country that puts forth a national cinema as bleakly humorous, weird and dark as Belgium. Simply put, some of the best black comedies ever made have come out of there; Dead Man Talking is not one of them. Comedian Patrick Ridremont’s feature debut is a rickety and sometimes portentous blend of black comedy and drama that blends Jeunet-style magical realism with a bleak fatalism that never quite gels.

William Laners (Ridremont) is on Death Row for committing several brutal murders; when asked for his last words, he begins telling his life story, thereby discovering a loophole in the law that will prevent his execution as long as he keeps talking during the allotted period. Soon, his impending death is turned into a media circus as the buffoonish governor (Jean-Luc Couchard) tries to ride Laners’ coattails into re-election, much to the concern of superhumanly irascible prison director Raven (Francois Berléand).

Like many first films, Dead Man Talking suffers from an acute case of this-may-never-happen-again syndrome: disparate bits of humour, dialogue, characters and tone are stuffed together, resulting in a film that never quite finds its footing tonally. Dark monologues and violent flashbacks are presented next to buffoonish characters who seem to have walked straight off an Abbott and Costello movie; the film can veer from disturbing to downright silly in a matter of seconds. While the initial concept is intriguing, it quickly turns into warmed-over Truman Show/Network-style satire, as it spreads itself thinner and thinner and builds to an unsatisfying conclusion.

Ridremont is a seasoned improviser and solo performance veteran; it’s impossible not to see the genesis of a terrific one-man show buried somewhere amidst the diverging plot strands and bumbling, Python-esque supporting characters that muck up the works. Despite Ridremont’s strong visual style and the fact that he impressively bypasses the stagebound nature of the story, the core of the film gets lost early on and is never quite recovered.

Dead Man Talking is a real chicken-and-egg situation: is it a one-man show idea that was (unwisely) expanded into a movie, or a movie idea that should be whittled down into a one-man show? Either way, it’s a mess. Imperial Cinema, 5 p.m. ■

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