The Despotic Mongol, the Animated Iranian and the Abducted Child

When I’m in London I become a cineaste first, gallery viewer second and eater, third. Theatre has drifted down my list. of priorities. I find it harder than ever to suspend my disbelief, except on first nights when the adrenaline is burning through the actors. But, then, tickets are at a premium and I don’t organise myself that far ahead. The opportunity of choosing from so many screens, pandering to every taste from art house to gross-pop, always makes a trip to the capital, inviting. Usually. Also, there is an opportunity to catch up on something that you may have missed, embedded as I normally am, in the Pyrenean mountains. So, I thought I’d mention three films I have seen over the last few days here. These are Persepolis, an animated autobiography of a young woman’s life in Iran (including her escape to Vienna); Gone Baby Gone, a child abduction drama; and Mongol, an epic about Genghis Khan.

Despite the adulatory reviews, Persepolis seemed to me to have neither a mould-breaking approach to its animation nor a gripping narrative, exacerbated by its somewhat pedestrian black and white format. Whilst it dealt with revolution and war, the bizarre, horrific and cruel Islamic and Shah regimes remained so broad brushed that I came away no more informed than from watching the daily news. I know people’s lives in such circumstances are appalling, degrading and almost without hope. Art should have the power to tear away the bandaged wounds of my heavily doctored response to the bestial, in new ways and open them up again.

Gone Baby Gone explores an alternative, grim underbelly to the McCannesque abduction scenario. We are all aware and, to different degrees, (unless we are emotionally crippled) affected by what happened to Madeleine. It is a parent’s worse nightmare. In this film there are no articulate middle class advocates. The milieu of this abducted child is seedy and indefensible in any society. The plot line is so labyrinthine it takes you a while, afterwards, to tease out the strands. It is tense and well acted, using down at heel, mouth and spirit locals to grit out the textures. Casey Affleck is a fine actor and produces a compellingly nuanced but entirely different performance from his Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James, one of my favourite films of recent times. However, the production suffers somewhat from too much plot and not enough backfill on character – but it’s worth a look.

Mongol was a disappointment. If you have a look around my website you’ll find the first couple of chapters of a trilogy I am undertaking, set in Central Asia in some indeterminate past and drawing heavily on the notion of the shaman-warrior, the beginning of ethical codes and the unification of clans into tribes and their belief-constructions of Gods and Fate. In effect, it is also an agnostics’ guide to spiritual experience for our current times. I have a vested interest, therefore, in depictions of similar periods in history. Having spent time in Samarkand and Tashkent, I am aware that Genghis Khan is revered as a hero in bringing together warring factions and introducing a code of loyalty to the Khan and country. At the same time there was an uncritical acceptance of his violent, heartless and inhuman capacity for mayhem. But the film is episodically free from an underlying rationale for his rise to power and purpose. In fact, it struck me that there was little of his life, as highlighted in the narrative, to substantiate the claim that he would mature into that most terrible of the Khans. In those days, threat was dealt with as summarily as in a fundamentalist Islamic court in Persepolis, yet on at least three occasions, the young but hardly formidable loner, Genghis, is allowed to fester in stocks or prison, rather than be impaled, minus his body, on a pike. The film looks good some of the time but the script is barely competent and doesn’t know how to engage with the dangerously chaotic borders between the prophetic and the psychotic.

Afterwards, in my hotel room, I watched A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s brilliant foray into the dark mainstream. Now that’s a film!

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