Small moments define Oscar-nominated documentary

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Beekeeper Hatidze Muratova tends to one of her hives while a young neighbor watches in a scene from Honeyland.

By Marilyn Fais and Richard Ades

Note: Guest critic Marilyn Fais helps review Honeyland, a film from North Macedonia that has been nominated for Academy Awards in two categories: Documentary and International Feature. Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the film originally was meant to be a short documentary about the land surrounding a river in the country’s central region. Then the filmmakers met Hatidze Muratova, a 50-something woman eking out a living as a beekeeper, and they ultimately decided to focus their lens on her unusual life.

If you decide to see Honeyland, don’t expect any big moments, but expect to be captivated by many small moments. Taking place in a remote area of North Macedonia, the film follows one woman, Hatidze Muratova, as she goes about her subsistence life as a beekeeper.

She’s in her mid-50s and lives with her ailing mother. They have no neighbors, and it appears they’re the only people around for miles.

Then they get neighbors—a large nomadic family led by Hussein and Ljutve Sam—and the interactions that follow add new complications to Hatidze’s difficult existence. Between her reactions to these newcomers and her brief but poignant talks with her mother, viewers gain new insights into Hatidze’s life and philosophy.

In the process, they also gain insights into the challenges faced by anyone attempting to live in harmony with the natural world. These make this unusual film both intensely personal and sadly universal.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Honeyland opens Feb. 7 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Different century, same misery

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Three plain-clothes cops (Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga, from left) patrol a poor Parisian neighborhood in Les Misérables. (SRAB Films/Rectangle Productions/Lyly Films)

By Richard Ades

As Les Misérables opens, a group of dark-skinned youths joyfully celebrate France’s 2018 World Cup championship by taking part in a public event that includes a mass rendition of “La Marseillaise.” Director Ladj Ly’s apparent message: Despite being immigrants or the children of immigrants, the boys consider themselves just as French as those around them.

As Ly’s camera follows them back to their segregated Parisian neighborhood, however, we realize they don’t enjoy the same opportunities as their countrymen. This isn’t Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—there’s no Jean Valjean, no Javert, no idealistic revolutionaries. But there’s more than enough injustice to light the fuse of revolt, just as it did in Hugo’s tale.

The question is: Will it? Leading up to the answer is a harrowing dive into the lives of modern-day immigrants.

The Malian-born Ly, directing and co-writing his first full-length film, doesn’t create a one-sided portrait of discrimination. Those who take advantage of the local residents include a racist white cop named Chris (Alexis Manenti), but they also include the neighborhood’s black “Mayor” (Steve Tientchev), who uses his power to line his own pockets. There’s also a group of thugs who consort with the police to further their illegal activities.

We’re introduced to the resulting cauldron of resentment through the eyes of newcomer Stephane (Damien Bonnard), a divorced cop who’s moved to Paris to be closer to his young son. He’s assigned to ride along with Chris and his Malian-French partner, Gwada (Djibril Zonga), and soon becomes appalled by the liberties Chris takes with residents—for example, finding excuses to body-search teenage girls.

But before he can decide how to respond, Stephane and the others are thrown into the middle of potentially explosive situation brought on by a seemingly small crime: the theft of a lion cub from a traveling circus. This brings them into contact with two local boys—the trouble-prone Issa (Issa Perica) and the drone-flying Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly)—as well as a devout Muslim restaurateur named Salah (Almamy Kanoute). Thus begins a chain of events that results in unforeseen consequences for all concerned.

Why name this contemporary tale Les Misérables? That’s spelled out when the film ends with a quote from Hugo: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

Viewers may quibble about whether Ly has proved the maxim, just as they may differ on whether it should win the “International Feature Film” Oscar for which it’s been nominated. (Probably not, as South Korea’s Parasite seems a worthy shoo-in.) But they’re likely to agree that Ly has created an exciting cautionary tale and an impressive full-length debut.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Les Misérables (rated R) opens Jan. 24 at the Drexel Theatre and Gateway Film Center.

Like a less curmudgeonly, more Scandinavian version of Doc Martin

Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove
Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove

By Richard Ades

Fans of the British TV series Doc Martin know grumpy heroes can be both endearing and entertaining. Now we have a Swedish movie, A Man Called Ove, that aims to prove they can be just as endearing and entertaining in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road.

If the flick doesn’t succeed quite as brilliantly, it’s because director/screenwriter Hannes Holm doesn’t have the series’ knack for tickling us with quirky comedy before surprising us with heart-stopping suspense or heartwarming drama. The film, adapted from Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel, takes a more direct route to our emotions.

We first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgard) when he’s haggling with a store clerk over the price of a bouquet of flowers. He comes off as an unreasonable, disagreeable curmudgeon. Then, in the next scene, we realize he bought the flowers to take to his late wife’s grave. Oops. I guess we should give the old guy a break.

Another reason for pitying him arrives when his young bosses call him into their office and pretend they’re doing him a favor by laying him off from the company where he’s worked for 43 years. Little wonder that Ove—wifeless, friendless and now jobless—is soon attempting suicide. The only thing that stops him is the arrival of a new family of neighbors led by Parvanah (Bahar Pars), a pregnant Iranian immigrant who immediately begins inserting herself into Ove’s lonely existence.

From this point on, the film revolves on the question of whether the friendly Parvanah will succeed in renewing Ove’s interest in the world and those who share it. Though he continues trying to join his wife in the great beyond, the film gives us little reason for pessimism. For one thing, Parvanah is such a bubbly force of nature that it’s impossible to believe he can resist her for long. For another, numerous episodes reveal that Ove is far less misanthropic than he pretends to be.

One such incident involves another Doc Martin parallel: Just as Martin is bedeviled by a homeless dog that refuses to leave him alone, Ove is bedeviled by a fluffy homeless cat. Yet as soon as the cat is threatened, he comes to its rescue.

Other scenes depict Ove as downright heroic. At times, when he alone steps forward to prevent a tragedy, he appears to be the only heroic person in Sweden.

Through much of the film, incidents from Ove’s current life are interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood and young adulthood. The most charming of these depict how he met Sonja (Ida Engvoll), the outgoing woman who became his wife. The most puzzling involves an encounter with one of the dictatorial officials he refers to as “whiteshirts.”

The flashbacks show the developments that helped to turn Ove into the sad individual he’s become, but in the process they give the film an episodic structure. They also reinforce the flick’s tendency toward heavy-handed melodrama.

Though flawed, A Man Called Ove paints a warm portrait of an aging individual who’s given a well-deserved second chance at life. As a popular example of modern Swedish cinema—it’s the country’s nominee for a Foreign Language Film Oscar—it may come as a pleasant surprise to those more familiar with the dour works of Ingmar Bergman.

As for fans of Doc Martin who are looking for an emergency dose of curmudgeonhood, they’ll probably be less satisfied. Fortunately for them, an eighth (and supposedly last) season is set to air next year.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

A Man Called Ove, rated PG-13, opens Friday (Oct. 21) at the Drexel Theatre, 2254 E. Main St., Bexley.