Thursday, April 8, 2021

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/9/21 -- 'Moffie,’ 'In the Earth,’ and ‘The Truffle Hunters’


When we think of South African injustice, we naturally (and appropriately) gravitate toward the apartheid era's cruel oppression of black South Africans. Moffie, a movie about a young gay man trying to survive the brutalities of South African military life, takes a harsh look at part of the system that supported apartheid, the military. It's not easy to look at the film without wondering why we should care about the struggles of one white man in a country that committed so many larger sins. But as the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that the two oppressions (hatred and fear of blacks and hatred of gays), though hardly equivalent, are bred from some of the same wellsprings of intolerance. Director Oliver Hermanus's carefully directed feature focuses on Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), a gay man who's been inducted into the army during a time when South Africa fears of communist aggression and potential black uprisings was especially heightened. The sergeant who trains the recruits (Jacques Theron) specializes in humiliation and makes his beliefs clear: The recruits are the final barrier between civilization (white) and barbarism (black). During his training, Nicholas befriends a recruit named Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) who's also gay but whose unwillingness to conceal his sexuality lands him in a mental institution. Hermanus explores the meaning of manhood in South Africa’s military culture in revealing ways, all the while reminding us that we're watching kids being asked to risk and possibly lose their lives or suffer the lingering consequences of taking the life of another. 

In the Earth

British director Ben Wheatley mixes eerie atmospherics, graphic jolts, and a pandemic backdrop to create In the Earth, a story about researchers who encounter a variety of horrors as they conduct their work deep in a remote forest. Wheatley doesn't make much of the pandemic, opting instead to concentrate on what happens in the woods. Martin (Joel Fry) and Alma (Ellora Torchia) set about their business, which involves trying to find a fellow researcher who has gone missing -- or some such. They do this after being told about an inhospitable creature called Parnag Fegg that's part of the forest's lore. It doesn't take long for the duo to run into trouble when a mysterious force ransacks their camp. A reclusive loner named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who lives in the woods offers help but eventually proves as big a danger as any paranormal forest phenomenon. The whole business feels a bit forced with Wheatley serving up some wince-inducing images, one involving amputated toes. In an escape attempt, Martin and Alma encounter the missing researcher (Hayley Squires). She also seems helpful and unlike Zach, appears to be sane. Or is she? Wheatley effectively sustains a menacing mood and the soundtrack echoes with spooky blasts and moans. But when In the Earth concludes, we’re left wondering whether we've  watched anything more than another "midnight" movie that’s better at creating a world than in finding something telling to do with it. 

The Truffle Hunters

I've always been a sucker for narrowly focused movies that bring us into worlds governed by obsession -- or something close to it. Such is the case with The Truffle Hunters, an engaging documentary from directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. The truffles referred to in the movie's title grow in northern Italy. They are sniffed out by dogs that lead their human partners to their bounty. These white truffles, by the way,  sell for lots of money and are part of a trade governed by merchants and connoisseurs who seem far removed from the rough rural life lived by the truffle hunters. One hunter -- an angry poet -- has given up the hunt because of the greed that he says has consumed a once noble pursuit. Consider him a truffle purist. Dweck and Kershaw introduce us to a group of idiosyncratic elders, men whose strongest relationships seem to be with their beloved dogs. Aurelio, for example, treats his dog Birba like a real partner, the companion that keeps him from solitary loneliness. Another hunter ignores his wife's admonitions and goes truffle hunting at night, a presumably risky endeavor. Without forcing any conclusions, Dweck and Kershaw explore the conflict that can arise between traditionalism and commercialism. Those with favored hunting spots don't share them with others, but their lives take us off the beaten track of familiarity, as much a source of the movie's pleasure as the contemplation of having one’s pasta enhanced by expensive slivers carved from rare truffles. 

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