Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 03, 2020 1:09 pm 
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Mo Scarpelli's documentary chronicles the production of a narrative film that's set in the Venezuelan Amazon and directed by a young filmmaker who casts his nonactor father in the lead role playing a version of himself of years past.
Mo Scarpelli, a director and cinematographer with a knack for hybrid cinema, likes to turn her camera on people wielding cameras

Mo Scarpelli slyly spies on the making of a movie in the wilderness, the Venezuelan Amazon, that's a very self-reflective kind of thing: a young man making a feature about a version of his wild, raucous father that stars his actual wild, raucous father. And what is this woman director doing shooting with her own camera all these men, particularly these two very attractive men, the bushy-haired, light grey bearded father and the handsome young twenty-something son with the pretty eyes and the impossibly stylish haircut at the center?

But Roque (Jorge Roque Thielen), the father, is an alcoholic. Is director son Jorge (Jorge Thielen Armand) one two? He lets Roque get drunk on rum for a drunken scene and that goes on, and he gets drunk with him. Is this reciprocal embarrassment? Yet while we may be embarrassed, they don't seem to be. The only point of conflict comes when one of the crew points out that Roque might derail the whole shoot by objecting to how the film depicts him and refusing to continue.

The idea that this is some kind of "Heart of Darkness" situation seems trumped up to me, if the director intends to plant it in our minds. Roque has sudden explosions when he's drunk (used in Jorge's film) but then quickly subsides and much of the time seems quite cooperative and mild. The cycle starts to feel familiar, and the tension dissipates. Indeed the question arises: how do we know this isn't all made up, a fiction film that's a film-within-a-film? We don't know what Roque is really like. How much of an actor is he? Is that even ever real rum? What does seem enduringly credible is that, as Jonathan Romney says in his
Unfortunately - the film's major flaw - Mo doesn't fill us in on anything but the gross outline of the film Jorge is directing, which, by the way, he seems to be making up as he goes along, or at least only revealing to his father scene by scene, just before the next one, day-by-day. But we do know that Roque lived in the Amazon for a time when, among other things, he was involved in illegal gold mining, and that is depicted here, including some violence during the shooting of which Roque damages a finger.

But isn't this all too incestuous? Obviously Mo is at least in some sense part of the crew. Once when Jorge (in Roque's opinion, apparently) takes too long setting up a shot and ruins the mood, Roque says, "Mo's probably got all the shots you wanted, ask Mo!" and one of the people who's constantly present, wither a cast member, as appears, or/and also one of the essential crew, Rodrigo Michelangeli, is listed as one of this documentary film's producers. This is an interesting, juicy situation, but I just can never altogether quite buy into it. But you may like it if you like watching handsome Latin American men of different ages contemplating their navels in wild landscapes.

As can happen, it's several clips of archival home movie footage that are the most haunting thing in the film. They show little boy Jorge with young father Roque, playing with a dog, and in a hammock, and cute little Jorge looking at the camera and delighting in being photographed, looking forward to being on the other side of the camera as he is now - but while now still being photographed, as he's working, by this camera-voyeur . And in the hammock, with the cat, perhaps the one Roque recounts his son sneaking in past customs, and Roque just as cute as his son is now. The switching around of roles does give one teasing, pleasant pause. As does the final shot, of Jorge standing with suitcase in a beautiful sun-drenched room, apparently waiting to go off on this very adventure. Sly indeed. Nice one, Mo. Or should I say Juan (Soto, the editor)? I also liked the sound design, and the lack of music and the strange little recurrent beeping sound in the closing credits.

El Father Plays Himself, 105 mins., debuted at Nyon, Switzerland (Visions du Réel) Apr. 2020, also Wilmington, NC (Cucalorus Festival) Nov. 11, 2020. Screened for this reviEw as part of DOCNYC, NOV. 11-19, 2020, New York.

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