Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Mar 02, 2017 2:13 pm 
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NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2017 - SANAL KUMAR SASIDHARAN: SEXY DURGA (2017)

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Long ride

This rough but visually lush and successfully disquieting film rubs some usually open-minded film critics the wrong way. Jay Weissberg of Variety its "Unremitting sadism," which he said "is the hallmark of this unpleasant impressionistic mood piece meant to draw attention to the degradation of women and man’s cruelty to man." Neil Young reviewed in in Hollywood Reporter with little more enthusiasm. He said "Sexy Durga is in the end just another exasperatingly elaborate illustration of Jean-Paul Sartre's timeless dictum, 'Hell is other people'." Maybe so. But Sexy Durga delivers a vivid and persistent and occasionally beautiful nightmare that will etch a little place on your brain. The use of improvisation without a script leads to a grating monotony that's all too real.

Sexy Durga starts out and is briefly bookended by an (actual, filmed) Indian folk ritual event where young men, observed by a big crowd (some filming with their smart phones) go into trances and are hoisted up above the people by hooks through the flesh of their backs and legs. It begins in daylight just as the sun's setting and goes on into the night. Later there are fires and running over hot coals.

While this is going on, a young couple hit the road hitchhiking to a railway station to go to Madras, so they say (we never quite know who they are or what their plan really is). They are picked up by two men in a van who become their psychological tormenters, mocking them and playing with them. All through the night they try to escape and get out briefly only to be picked up again. They cannot get away for long. Early on the van is stopped by cops - or are they? - who turn out to be more abusive to the abusers than the abusers are to the innocent couple.

It's a nightmare, a variation of one many of us have had where we keep trying to get somewhere but continually are frustrated. The tension is unrelenting and the couple is more and more helpless and frightened, especially the young woman (who can't speak the local language, adding to her helplessness). Toward the end, the van comes back once more and picks up the couple (who can't get a ride at this hour from anybody else: they keep getting in because it's even more frightening to be out on the dark road). This time, the van lights up inside and out like a flashing pinball machine while loud heavy metal music plays, and the men are wearing wild full-head masks. The eye candy of this sequence matches the exoticism and shock value of the men with hooks in their flesh. The critics call this flesh-piercing ritual masochism. But that's a simplification, because it's a traditional ritual. If they're in a trance, aren't they feeling no pain? The greater masochism may be the couple's reentering the van.

Sasidharan's cinematographer Prathap Joseph is skillful, seeming to fly through the air, riding on top of the van, staring down the luminous dividing line along the rural highway, flipping into the van from above. Some of the tricks he performs are mystifying. Those who describe this picture as directred in social or political terms toward mistreatment of women (or hooliganism or male sexual predators) doubtless are right, have a point but they risk missing its overriding nature as direct experience and transfixing dream.

This film debuted at Rotterdam, where it won the $43,000 Tiger Award. It was screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (FSLC-MoMA series, NYC, Feb. 2017).

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