The Taqwacores is based around a subculture that I had no idea existed – the world of Punk Muslims. It was an invention that lay at the heart of Michael Muhammad Knight's novel, and one that struck a deep chord with young Muslims, to the extent that a number of Muslim punk rock bands were created in its wake. Many of those bands now appear in Eyad Zahra's film adaptation, which has a lot of energy and sincerity but often comes off as unconvincing and trite. The edginess of Zahra's direction feels overly forced and some of the performances from his cast fail to carry the necessary weight. One of those is Bobby Naderi as the lead character Yusef, a devout young Muslim who moves into an Islamic house and has his eyes opened to a side of his religion that he had never seen before, largely by the charismatic Jehangir (Dominic Rains). There are compelling issues laying at the heart of The Taqwacores, with the story depicting a generation of Muslims who are adapting and reshaping the teachings of the Qur'an to fit their own lives, and this approach throws up some fascinating contradictions. Rebellious feminist Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf), for example, crosses out a page from the Qur'an that condones wife-beating, but she does so while wearing a burqa that she refuses to remove for the duration of the film. The tension between the conflicting worlds of Punk and Islam is only occasionally explored in any kind of satisfying way, however, and The Taqwacores is at its least interesting when it focuses on its central narrative, which is brought to a close in a depressingly predictable fashion.
Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)
There's a lovely sense of stillness about Of Gods and Men, as Xavier Beauvois quietly observes a group of Cistercian monks at work and at prayer. Their monastery is based in Algeria, and while they bring great comfort and medical assistance to the poor local populace, the growing fundamentalist violence in the hills surrounding them forces the monks to reconsider their position. As their leader Brother Christian, Lambert Wilson gives a wonderfully nuanced and sensitive performance, stubbornly refusing to yield to outside pressures and run from danger, but each of his fellow men must face their own fears and doubts. Based on a true story, Of Gods and Men is a perceptive study of men in the midst of moral and spiritual crises. Many of them, like Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) are elderly and willing to accept whatever fate God has in store for them, while others like Christophe (a very touching Olivier Rabourdin) are torn asunder by the choice of whether to stay or go. Beauvois often allows us to read this emotional tumult in close-ups of the actors' faces, and throughout the film his direction is measured and stately. There are times when Of Gods and Men is a little heavy-handed and periods when its pace could have been tightened slightly by the director, but this is still a fine, mature and moving film, which pays off with a haunting final shot.
Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing makes her film debut with this frustrating cinematic experiment. In conjunction with method acting teacher Sam Rumbelow, Wearing invited a group of ordinary people to take part in a method workshop, to learn techniques that will help them unlock hidden emotions and prepare for a final performance as either themselves or an assumed character. Each of the participants has some deep-rooted pain, some insecurities or something missing from their lives; James is still scarred by the bullying he experienced as a child, Lian wants to reconcile with her estranged father, and Dave has cut himself off from all friends and loved ones. As Rumbelow coaxes them through a series of exercises, the film is often deeply moving, with the participants revealing sides of themselves that they have rarely, if ever, confronted before, but Self Made loses much of its power when it begins putting together each person's finished film. Lian confronts her father issues by playing Cordelia in King Lear, lonely Lesley re-enacts a wartime romance, while Dave – bafflingly – hangs upside-down as a dead Mussolini. While some of these sequences do carry an impact (wait until you see Ash's final sequence...blimey), they mostly feel like pat and unsatisfying conclusions to stories that have frequently been harrowing to watch. I'm sure Self Made was a very cathartic and worthwhile exercise for those involved in it, but I couldn't see much value there for those of us watching.
Having given one of the best performances of the past year in Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, María Onetto displays a different side to her character in Puzzle, giving a warm and thoroughly engaging turn as bored housewife María del Carmen. Taken for granted by her family, María finds a new lease of life when she idly begins putting together a jigsaw puzzle she received as a birthday gift. She finds she has a knack for completing these puzzles, and her hobby becomes a fixation, opening up the possibility of competing in an international tournament alongside jigsaw-mad lothario Roberto (Arturo Goetz). Natalia Smirnoff's charming debut film is a gentle drama about a repressed woman gradually blossoming in the most unexpected manner, and her screenplay is full of perceptive, witty touches. The director draws natural performances from her cast, creating a lovely dynamic between the del Carmen family members, and the intimate handheld camerawork slowly pulls us into the story. Perhaps the film's gentle rhythm leaves it lacking in a true sense of dramatic impact, but it's a modest, generous and beautifully acted piece of work nonetheless.
Andrea Dunbar had a short but extraordinary life. The Arbor, the play she wrote at the age of 15, was performed at the Royal Court when she was 18, and her second play Rita, Sue and Bob Too was adapted for the big screen in 1986. But while she became a theatrical success, her personal life was full of pain; she had three children by three different fathers, suffered through abusive relationships, developed a severe drinking problem, and died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29. Dunbar's life story is told in an imaginative fashion in Clio Barnard's directorial debut The Arbor, in which actors lip-synch to recordings of the people involved in the playwright's life. The technique initially feels affected and distracting – and I laughed inappropriately at one point, when a scene reminded me of Creature Comforts – but once you've settled into Barnard's approach, the benefits of her inventive direction and the compelling nature of the story become apparent. The actors are excellent, somehow managing to inject a real sense of emotion into performances that could easily have felt artificial, and Barnard blends these straight-to-camera reminiscences with archive footage and stylised performances of The Arbor in the middle of a council estate. Only the first half of the picture actually focuses on Andrea Dunbar, however, and after her death, the narrative follows her mixed-race daughter Lorraine (Manjinder Virk), whose life was marked by even more tragedy. Some of the final scenes in The Arbor are unbearably sad, but Barnard finds the perfect pitch in her storytelling throughout. This is a daring and hugely accomplished debut.
Stylistically and thematically, Archipelago is very much of a piece with Joanna Hogg's excellent debut Unrelated, and it once again displays this director's considerable strengths. The film is set on the Scilly Isles, where middle-class siblings Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and Edward (Tom Hiddleston) are holidaying with their mother (Kate Fahey), with their father expected to join them in a few days. Hogg uses this setup to explore the simmering resentments and tensions that exist between family members and so often go unsaid, and she has a wonderful sense of how to utilise scenes of silence, with the unsettling effect of some sequences reminding me of Michael Haneke. The director also has a keen eye for composition, and Ed Rutherford's cinematography captures both the spectacular landscape and the dimly lit interiors to equally striking effect. There are a number of superbly constructed and perfectly acted sequences here, notably an excruciating dinner in a near-empty restaurant, and an amusing sequence in which Edward offers to help the hired cook (Amy Lloyd) clear the table, much to his sister's disdain; but perhaps Archipelago is finally a little too restrained and formal for its own good. There's a certain distance in Hogg's approach that never allows the characters' emotions to cut loose despite frequently threatening to, and instead of building up a head of steam, the film settles for a low-key and rather underwhelming final twenty minutes. Still, it's fascinating and artfully crafted, and an impressive second film for Hogg, although I'll hope to see more advancement in her next feature.
Read my interview with Joanna Hogg here
Why are the press screenings all being held in NFT2 and NFT3 this year? This week, only It's Kind of a Funny Story took place in the more spacious NFT1, whereas almost all of the NFT press screenings I attended last year were in the main screen. Not only does this mean less leg-room and more uncomfortable seats all week, but it has led to huge scrums for places at some screenings, notably last week's showing of The American at which a number of frustrated people were turned away. A second press screening for that film has been arranged for next week, but it surely could have been avoided in the first place. At this rate, it'll be a relief when the focus shifts to Leicester Square next week.
Some late additions to the festival have just been announced: LENNONYC, Attenberg and The Trip. LENNONYC is a documentary about John Lennon, but I already feel I've seen and read enough about Lennon and I can't get particularly excited about this one. The Trip is an improvisational Michael Winterbottom comedy starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (who were very funny together in A Cock and Bull Story), while Attenberg has drawn comparisons with Dogtooth (one of my favourites from LFF 2009), so I'm more enthusiastic about those.
The other late addition to the schedule is Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. On one level, this is a film I couldn't be less interested in, but its late inclusion does show up all of those idiots who predicted it as the Surprise Film (i.e. me). With that slot now wide open again, it's time to put my money on another horse, and as my back-up prediction The Trip has also suddenly appeared in the schedule, I'm going to go for the latest Woody Allen film You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. I think that's a good bet...or maybe I'm just hoping it's that because I haven't secured my Surprise Film ticket yet...