Cinema Junkie On Truffle Hunting, Guantanamo Detainees, And Getting Off The Grid
A trio of new films cover diverse subjects
Friday, March 5, 2021
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Truffle sniffing dogs, the lingering legacy of Guantanamo Bay detentions, and going off the grid are the subjects of the latest group of film releases.
'The Truffle Hunters'
A darkened alley late at night: two men negotiate a price for the small items in a brown paper bag. The buyer scoffs at the cost of four thousand Euros but eventually succumbs. It plays out like a drug deal but such is the truffle trade in Northern Italy, a secretive world that filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw won entry to for their fabulous and bittersweet documentary "The Truffle Hunters."
The film is basically about old men, their dogs and the search for truffles. Filmmakers Dweck and Kershaw spent years winning the trust of these truffle hunters who are essentially searching and finding truffles as people have done for hundreds of years. But these old men (they are all men and all seniors) don't seem to have anyone to pass their trade onto and they are witnessing changes to the truffle trade itself, so their world seems on the brink of disappearing. But that's not the main focus of the documentary.
The film relies on shots that are framed wide and uninterrupted by edits so that we can savor these delightful, vibrant characters in their environment and often with their beloved dogs. Some shots give us a sense of the work it takes to find these truffles. Other shots just perfectly capture one of the men as when we see one outraged truffle hunter, tightly framed between what seems to be piles of books and angrily typing out a letter on a typewriter where every single-fingered punching of a key is emphasized with verbal exclamations. We know so much about that man from that shot: his resistance to new technology, his passion to the way things have been done and his disgust at those who have no respect for those traditions. It is a film that celebrates tradition, dedication, and most of all passion. Whether it is the passion of these truffle hunters for their work and their canine co-workers or the passion of gourmets for the truffles themselves.
This documentary is as rare and delicious as the white gold these men seek. Oh, and did I mention there is a doggie cam in this film too?
"The Mauritanian" is not a documentary but it is based on the real life of Mohamedou Ould Slahi who was tortured and held without charge in Guantánamo for more than a decade. The film is based on Slahi's memoir "Guantánamo Diary," which was the first and only diary written by a Guantánamo detainee during imprisonment,
In 2002, Slahi (played in the film by Tahar Rahim) was taken to Guantánamo Bay where he was subjected to months of some of the worst Pentagon-approved interrogation techniques — sensory deprivation, sleep depravation, beatings, torture and even threatened with the arrest of his mother. Eventually a lawyer, Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) takes on his case and for years fights to get him a trial and get him released.
"The Mauritanian" is not a flashy or particularly artful film but it is one fueled by outrage, and rooted in a deep sense of humanity and empathy. Director Kevin MacDonald does make some smart choices. The footage at Guantánamo is shot in a boxier aspect ratio that visually reduces the screen image and helps to convey the sense of confinement Slahi endured. But the real strength of the film lies in Rahim's performance that anchors the film. Rahim captures Slahi's remarkable resiliency and inspirational sense of forgiveness. Foster's performance is also outstanding and conveys both a moral and personal sense of outrage at what she discovers about her client's case.
"The Mauritanian" is a reminder not only of the horrific injustices the U.S. government has committed in its war on terrorism but also that there are still men being held at Guantánamo to this day.
"Land" deals with Edie (Robin Wright), a woman who decides to take herself off the grid in the Wyoming mountains as a means of dealing with grief over the death of her husband and son. A story about self-imposed isolation takes on new layers as we watch from quarantine during a pandemic. I think one's ability to identify with that isolation is heightened at this time and we may perhaps better understand how that isolation can give us time to think.
Produced and directed by its star Robin Wright, the film is a beautiful contemplation on grief and reconnecting with others. Damien Bichir plays Miguel, a man who is also suffering from grief and loss and who happens to find Edie near death in her cabin. He has a wonderful scene where she asks him why he helped her and he simply replies, "you crossed my path."
"Land" feels familiar in much of the terrain it covers so there is nothing wildly fresh or innovation. But the performances are honest and compelling, and the journey feels intimately rendered even if the script falls into some tropes about the city person trying to make it on her own in the wilds.
So you have some diverse film choices waiting for you. Enjoy!
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