By William Wolf

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2019  Send This Review to a Friend

Thirty-five films from 29 countries are included in this year’s 48th annual New Films/New Directors series (March 27-April 7) presented by the Museum of Modern Art and he Film Society of Lincoln Center. A sampling was selected for previewing to the press in advance of the event.

Of those, there is only one about which I am completely enthusiastic. That is the American film “Clemency,” directed by Chinonye Chukwu, which arrives with the credential of having won the Jury Prize in the U.S. dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is a wrenching drama dealing with capital punishment from a two-pronged perspective.

Alfre Woodard gives a memorable, deeply felt performance as Bernadine, a prison warden who has been overseeing executions on death row in an unidentified state. First, it is unusual to have an African-American woman warden in a prison yarn. This one is told from the perspective of both the warden and a prisoner who is scheduled to die for a crime he insists he did not commit. The film is more concerned with the issue of capital punishment than with the alleged crime itself or the guilt or innocence question. Anthony (Aldis Hodge) has admitted taking part in a robbery but denies having fired the gun that led to a fatality.

“Clemency” opens with a harrowing botched execution in which a condemned man suffers greatly before he can be pronounced dead. Bernadine is sickened by it, and has become increasingly upset with the responsibility of putting people to death. However, she is committed to work scrupulously by the book and do her job professionally no matter what.

The drama intensifies when Bernadine becomes closer to Anthony, the next prisoner set to be killed. He is given a powerful performance by Hodge, who veers from stoicism to an attempt at suicide. One becomes deeply involved in Anthony’s plight in response to Hodge’s mesmerizing acting. His lawyer is desperately trying hard to save his life, and Bernadine clearly would like that to happen, but she has to go through with the execution if clemency is not granted.

The build-up is extremely intense, and there are complications, as a woman with whom Anthony has had a son comes forward to talk with him after keeping a low profile to protect the boy and herself from the stigma. Meanwhile, widespread protests have been taking place, and they are described to Anthony to make him feel that he is not alone and will at least be remembered if he is denied clemency.

While we are led to feel sympathy for Anthony, we are also induced to sympathize with Bernadine as she gets more and more upset about the idea of the state putting people to death and her role in the process. The job takes a toll on relations between her and her husband Jonathan, well-played by Wendell Pierce.

“Clemency” emerges as one of the important films of this year as capital punishment is increasingly debated, as evidenced, for example, by the temporary moratorium on executions declared by the governor of California. The film is extremely well done and lands like a punch in the gut.

I somewhat like “Genesis,” a Canadian film by Philippe Lesage that examines the lives of young people experiencing the pangs of growing up and forging relationships. Part occurs in a boys’ boarding school in which there are cruel complications.

A portion involves students at a Quebec summer camp, and there is an especially tender scene between a boy and girl silently expressing affection for one another. Lesage is observant in following characters who reflect various personality characteristics and surveying them in defining situations.

“Monos,” directed by Alejandro Landes, seemingly inspired by “Lord of the Flies” and taking place in the jungle of an unnamed South American country, is an ambitious attempt to follow young rebels in their battle for survival. However, the group is such an oddball entourage that one is hard-pressed to be sympathetic.

A captured American woman engineer escapes and is hunted down. Despite harsh training by the group’s leader, the youths are ill-equipped for the challenges they encounter, and one knows matters will not end well.

“MS Slavic 7,” directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell, has an interesting premise, but is more suited to an essay than the static film that emerges. The story involves a young woman (Campbell), who is executor of her great-grandmother’s estate. She goes to Harvard to research correspondence between her great-grandmother, who was a Polish poet, and another poet suspected of being her lover.

Much of the film is occupied with letters, as well as with rights of their ownership, and while the subject is worth exploring, it is hard to create a strong film out of correspondence and the scholarly pursuit of the truth.

“Bait,” directed by Mark Jenkin, is a British film set in a Cornish fishing village. It follows characters and their relationships, as well as the effect of tourists on the locality. The story is less interesting than Jenkin’s method of shooting. He uses 16mm black and white and has a mania for shooting objects in close-ups.

Thus Jenkin treats objects as importantly as faces, sometimes seemingly more so, and there is an endless pattern of zeroing on in things. Enough already. But the style is surely distinctive.

The most exasperating film screened in advance is “Present.Perfect,” director Shengze Zhu’s exploration of live streaming that has taken hold in China and brought fame to participants. Most of those babbling away into the camera are utterly boring, whether a woman factory worker, a street dancer or a young man who utters a stream of nonsense.

The one interesting person is a malformed man with a great face who has interesting things to say and shows intelligence above some of the others. The film was constructed from some 800 hours of footage, and running a little over two hours, the barrage mostly tries one’s patience.

“Manta Ray,” set in Thailand and directed by Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, is a delicate story of a friendship between a fisherman and the man he rescues from a swamp, a refugee who is mute. Although the film can seem long, there is an underlying feeling of a bond that can develop between people, and we follow what happens in the wake of tragedy.

“End of the Century,” an Argentine film directed by Lucio Castro, is primarily a gay relationship story. It is marked by absorbing conversation when two men, one who is Spanish and the other from Berlin, get together while in Barcelona. The dialogue is interesting, the sex provocative. The director flips back and forth in time as the film examines what happens in the future, not only with respect to the men, but concerning a woman as well. At the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street. Posted March 28, 2019.


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