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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Inside his mind : Iago in the midst

This is a review of Othello (Otel.lo) (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

19 August (corrected 20 August)

This is a review of Othello (Otel.lo) (2012)

Chances to see during Cambridge Film Festival (#CamFF) 2014:

Only one screening presently scheduled (please see the note on screenings below), at 1.00 p.m. on Sunday 7 September (Screen 2)

The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so;
And will as tenderly be led by th’nose
As asses are.

Act I, Scene iii, 390–393

Sometimes the strength of a film lies in the resonance with which it reminds you of your other viewing – and reading.

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, composing a story, in essay form, that touches on the life of the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (Pierre Menard, ‘Author of the Quixote’ (‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’)), imagined how someone (in this case, the fictional Pierre Menard) becomes as Cervantes, partly, at first, by living in exactly the same circumstances as Cervantes and then ends up recreating, word for word, parts of his most famous oeuvre (so, maybe, Borges mocking - amongst literary and intellectual fashions and factions - the Laplacean theory of determinism (as well as the writer(s) whom academics consider the model(s) for Menard) ?) :

In a similar way, this film invites us to consider whether Othello is a flawed tragic character, distant from our lives as a character in a play by Shakespeare (whose fictionality is celebratedly emphasized by claims that it relies too heavily on a stolen handkerchief*) – or whether the pressures that cause Othello to believe Desdemona unfaithful (and kill her) can be made to act on a Moroccan amateur actor (Youcef), who has been cast in that role for the film that we see being shot (though nothing explains the manner of the direction).

Yet it is no mere framing device, nor no piece of Brechtian alienation technique (Verfremdungseffekt, in the original German), to have cast and crew alike visible to us, but, rather, something that enables us to feel inside the depths of the Shakespeare story : seeing what happens to Ann (Desdemona) and Youcef, a real-life couple for two years, as they play the lead roles is enhanced by seeing how constructed film is as a medium, where, say, the people who hold the sound-booms must also play their part, and this approach is at the centre of why the film has been made. (Otherwise, it would be a much longer Othello, shot on the black, curtained stage-set, and looking like a filmed play (please see below).)

The direction that we see of Youcef, Ann and Kike (as Michael Cassio) on camera may not exactly be Peter Brook (or the play’s adaptation that of Steven Berkoff, or Charles Marowitz), but it is experimenting with the actors and their performances, seeking the life in the latter, trying to find engagement with the text (a word that we see so often in the sub-titles, signifying Action !) : unlike this dynamic process (which is also at the much lighter heart of another Catalan film shown at Cambridge Film Festival, V.O.S. (2009)), we are also reminded that, when we watch a film, it is a finished, duplicated artefact, which will be the same to-morrow as next week (if we choose to watch it again after this evening’s screening).

Otel.lo is, at times, painful to watch, because it goes beyond the stories that we hear about how directors get the take that they want (such as were circulating about the love-scenes had been shot in Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)) and into the immoral manipulation and lies of Dangerous Liaisons (1988), yet it is worth doing so because of how immensely it enriches our sense of the operation of jealousy, flirtation, attraction – as real, living feelings and behaviours.

However, as the film develops, and the cast is being put upon, one is in mind of Gloucester, sightless on the heath in King Lear, saying ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport’ (Act IV, Scene i)**. Or of Samuel Beckettt’s ironic mimes Act Without Words I and II, with their characters being prompted from without, as well as tempted, seduced, and disappointed.

Linking with texts such as these, and entering into the world of the film, actually widens our appreciation of what happens on screen : scenes with the actors in character become as real as, or more real than, when Ann and Youcef talk singly to camera, with the director asking them questions. Here, unlike the effect of Polanski’s Venus in Furs (2013) (whose ‘staginess’ seemed to negate one’s interest, and to make one question the purpose of the film over the original play), laying bare the artifice heightens the drama.

It may be, as the title’s rendering suggests, a low-budget production that is depicted (for it is a modest team), but, as those who experiment with their cinema- or theatre-going will know, a big budget is not a guarantee of greater satisfaction. For example, another Catalan film that screened at last year’s Cambridge Film Festival, The Redemption of the Fish (La redempciĆ³ dels peixos) (2013), was made on almost no budget, but the film is beautiful, using natural light wherever possible, and without no compromise over quality.

Though running at just over an hour, Otel.lo is complete in itself and not (unlike last year’s micro-budget film The Cherry Orchard (2013)) one that shows preparation for a performance that we do not see : performance and the production are integrated, at all levels, and one simply could not desire the intensity of Otel.lo for longer. As has been suggested, it is meta-textual in a way that is highly thoughtful, and it is sure both to arouse interest, and to provoke differences of opinions about what its core-values are.

Othello :
Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body ?

Iago :
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Act V, Scene ii, 297–300

This is just one of six Catalan films (Camera Catalonia) that can be seen at Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (@camfilmfest / #CamFF) - Thursday 28 August to Sunday 7 September (both inclusive). Three others are reviewed here, and What is Catalan cinema ? is also about the Catalan strand at the Festivals in 2012 and 2013...

Note on screenings, etc. :

NB The allocation of films between the three screens at Festival Central can always change (as can, if one is coming from a distance for a specific film, the programme as a whole) : if the audience for a film scheduled for Screen 3 (the smallest screen, around half the capacity of the largest, Screen 1) proves greater than expected, it may end up being swapped, so there could be a change in the exact time of the screening, too

In the programme (for which that is a link to the where the PDF file can be downloaded - printed copies are available at Festival Central and all good local outlets), some slots are also marked 'TBC', and popular screenings may be repeated : announcements are on Cambridge Film Festival 2014's (@camfilmfest's) web-site (please see link, above), as they are of alterations to the programme or the allocation between screens


* E.g. Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy (1693).

** Yet, later in the play, Edgar (who had providentially met Gloucester) feigns other identities to lead his father to what the other thinks is the edge of the cliffs at Dover – Gloucester is persuaded to believe that he has survived pushing himself off the edge, and that his life thus has a meaning.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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