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VESELA KAZAKOVA, MINA MILEVA: CAT IN THE WALL (2019)- SXSW ON AMAZON PRIME

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IRINA ATANASOVA AND CAT IN CAT IN THE WALL

London squalor seen from a Bulgarian point of view

Indeed this is like a Ken Loach film in its style and milieu, as described in the festival blurb, but it's unlike Loach in its focus. In a Variety interview, London resident Bulgarian filmmakers Vesela Kazakova and Mina Mileva have declared the film's subject to be a "loss of tolerance and normality in London," which used to be "one of the most culturally accepting and progressive cities in Europe." But it doesn't seem to be focused on that so much as on depicting a state of general disorder, and the roiling hostility of the lower classes that has arguably always been an undercurrent in modern English society.

The film captures speicifically the squalor of a Southeast London housing project or "Council estate" near Peckham - postal code SE14 7JN, to be exact - and the bad manners and hostility, as well as the misery, of some individuals at the lower end of the social scale. This is shot in a workmanlike documentary style. The action is keenly observed but not with a fine eye like Richard Billingham in Ray & Liz (NYFF 2018), nor his ability to grasp the beauties around the edges of a sad situation. Their subject is mess; the danger is that the film will fall into such a state itself, and you may get fed up before it's over and want to just go and lie down. There appears to be a lot of improvisation here, a naturalism that is not always convincing. The film seeks, the filmmakers attest, to highlight the absurdity of its painful situations, but the action is too authentically distressing to consider it a comedy. In fact seeking comedy in some events that are tragic and horrible seems callous.

A lost cat provides an organizing principle but is also, the filmmakers have said, a true event. Here, it's Irina (Irina Abanasova), a Bulgarian aspiring architect working in a café who lives with her little boy and her brother Vladimir (Angel Genov), trained as an historian, who takes the ginger tabby for a stray, and she and her boy adopt it. Later the cat turns out to have already belonged to a mixed-race English family, and particularly to an overweight 13-year-old girl who's had a tragic experience of which we learn later. Her mother and Irina have words - hostile words. Irina's language does not befit the mouth of an architect. But then, her struggle to be hired on in that professional capacity has not born fruit.

It's ironic in this disorderly world and chaotically rehabed building that Irina is an architect. She, or she and Vladimir, own the flat, perhaps additionally ironic - and not a good situation - given that the majority of the flat dwellers are renters on the dole, two statuses Irina seems not to approve of. She has a little boy. While she works in the café, Vladimir, in his fashion, has been minding the boy and the flat. For a while he takes a job with another Bulgarian mounting satellite dishes for 35 pounds a day.

At a certain point, the cat disappears into the wall of Irina's and Vladimir's kitchen, where Vladmir and a friend with a vague plumbing background clumsily installed a new water heater, leaving a hole near the ceiling. How this gets sorted out is never very clear.

Lots of work is being done on the building, though it may be of a shoddy nature, so it's not a guarantee the Council isn't planning to demolish, or "gentrify" the building or the area, which is defined as middle class people moving into a place and pushing out the lower class occupants. Irina learns that she as an owner will be assessed tens of thousands of pounds to share in the costs of the remodeling.

This problem leads to the film's best moment, when Irina organizes a meeting of the flat owners to discuss this and other issues, including Brexit and a multicultural world, which is a scene that's lively, interesting, and real. And a time when people are talking and not shouting at each other.

I'd like to say the cat lightens things up, but I never warmed to the cat. Faulty casting. Check out the lively white kitten in Cédric Klapisch's new film, Someone, Somewhere/Deux moi, which I've just seen. See kitty play with the male half of the film's delayed romantic couple, played by François Civil, and your blood pressure will go down and your heart will be warmed. Kazakova's and Mileva's cat is just another annoyance, if you ask me. I'm guessing Ken Loach would have had a better cat (remember the falcon and the boy in his Kes?). And I suspect he'd have included more scenes like the one of the flat owners.

This is probably a well-meaning film. But it simply does not organize its material well. It lacks coherence (despite the cat) or a clear point of view. Perhaps it will appeal more to Eastern European viewers, especially ones who have moved to London but are not in love with it.

Cat in the Wall, 92 mins., debuted at Locarno, and was included in at least four other festivals, including Warsaw and Sarajevo. And also SXSW in Apr. 2020, which was cancelled, with this among the SXSW films offered free online to Amazon Prime subscribers from Apr. 27-May 6, 2020. That is how it was screened online for this review.

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