Cuties (aka Mignonnes)

Year of Release: 2020      Directed by Maïmouna Doucouré.  Starring Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, and Myriam Hamma.

At this point, it is probably impossible to review Cuties without reviewing the controversy that has emerged around it. Unless, of course, there’s been a new outrage for the internet to move on to, but that seems unlikely before I publish this. A large part of the controversy surrounding Cuties is definitely the mob mentality of the internet, but well-meaning people have been caught up in it, so it is worth taking seriously.

I will state upfront: Cuties is a film about cultural sexualization of children, but it depicts that sexualization without engaging in it. There are shocking scenes obviously meant to make the viewer uncomfortable and question their complicity in a culture that presents sex to children too young to understand it, but as the eleven-year-old girls attempt dance moves that they think make them “grown-up,” it’s not sexual at all, just pathetic and tragic.

I must admit that I am surprised by the controversy. While the scenes in Cuties are certainly provocative, they are hardly exploiting the young actresses, and they are unquestionably tamer than scenes in films such as Walkabout, Ratcatcher, Birth, The Squid and the Whale, Little Miss Sunshine, Moonrise Kingdom, and even last year’s Good Boys. While part of me wonders where the controversy was when those films were released, and then that part of me thinks the world has lost its collective mind—which after seven months of a pandemic, it probably has—another part of me acknowledges that those films did not engage the issue of child sexualization as directly as Cuties does. And that grappling with such a serious issue makes the childhood forays into sex much more discomforting to watch.

And we’re not a society that handles discomfort well, if at all. For instance, when an execution goes horrifically wrong, we don’t condemn the death penalty, just its alleged misapplication. Or when the first cut of The Avengers showed too much blood after Loki stabbed someone, it was rated R because the violence was too realistic. In other words, we focus on aesthetics. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise when a film that confronts an upsetting issue head on is accused of doing the thing it condemns. Once again, we ignore context and subtext in favor of surface reactions.

For Amy (Fathia Youssouf), she is caught between two worlds, and she doesn’t understand the context of either. It’s the lack of understanding which the film thoughtfully explores as she comes of age in her own very misguided way. She has her strict Muslim upbringing on one side and the seemingly liberated world of dance on the other. Both of them insist on control over the female body, in both cases through an unhealthy obsession over sex. One side mysteriously veils it as a woman’s only worth, and the other recklessly pursues it. Both are shown to be harmful. For a film drawing such ire from conservatives, this is honestly a fairly conservative film.

Amy’s running back and forth between her new found friends, the titular “Cuties,” and her family has all the impulse of a rebellious eleven-year-old, and while her final decision seemingly comes out of left field, it is consistent with her desire for inclusion and love. That is how sexuality is so often portrayed to children: as something they must do to be liked, and the cultural preying upon that is what is so horrific in the film.

Director Maïmouna Doucouré exercises incredible restraint in filming the girls’ choreography and using their woeful misunderstanding of sex to get what they want. She also brilliantly stages crucial scenes in Amy’s development, such as when Amy hides under her mom’s bed and hears of her father’s second marriage. Once again, it’s something the eleven-year-old does not fully understand, even as she knows it’s wrong. (As I said, this film has a surprisingly conservative attitude toward sexuality.)

My biggest complaint with the film is that there seem to be too many reaction shots missing. However, with the film being solely from Amy’s perspective, the lack of adult perspective shows a child lost between two worlds as she navigates growing up without guidance. More accurately, Amy begins this period of her life with the guidance that her culture offers her as she abandons one frying pan for another. It’s unquestionably uncomfortable, but it’s a mirror to a society that teaches girls their only worth is their sexuality.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

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Gather

Year of release: 2020      Directed by Sanjay Rawal.

I love to cook. I love to plan meals, try new foods, and share my cooking with others. My Facebook and Instagram have mostly been taken over by food posts. A documentary about the relation of a culture to its food and the first hand witnessing of that food’s preparation is a treat not just visually, but also for the way it addresses past wrongs.

What we consume shapes who we are. This is true not only for entertainment, but more literally for food as well. It’s a truth that the new documentary Gather explores through several American Indians who all deeply care about their culture and their culture’s food.

Elsie DuBray takes that passion and applies it to her high school science project examining whether buffalo meet, a traditional source of protein for the Lakota tribe, is less likely to cause diabetes than beef. Samuel Gensaw III advocates for the health of the Klamath river to preserve the salmon population, which the Yurok tribe relies on. Chef Nephi Craig teaches courses about Indigenous Food Sovereignty and opens his own restaurant Café Gozhóó to encourage healthier eating of Apache cuisine.

Gather freely cuts between all three of these people, their work, their families, and their communities. One thing that beautifully comes across is how intertwined their work is with caring for their communities. Towards the end of the documentary Elsie’s father Fred says, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” Elsie responds, “I’m not sure country is the right word.” Indeed, there is something far more important than just the location from which one comes. For all the people in the film, their work is a vocation that helps preserve their heritage.

That preservation and restoration of heritage forms the focus of the documentary. As Nephi Craig tells one of his classes, we need to “understand violence in all its forms.” One form is the destruction of a people’s food sources, which was one example of colonial violence against indigenous Americans. With higher rates of alcoholism, diabetes, and suicide among American Indians the consequences of that violence are still being felt today.

Gather raises awareness not only of past wrongs but the attempts to address and correct them. While that awareness remains mostly at a surface level throughout the film, the passion with which the various people work to address them is wonderful to see. The triumphs for Elsie and Nephi are not only triumphs for them, but for their tribes and communities as well. That is what the film captures beautifully, and the bond that connects all of it is indigenous food.

 

Gather premieres on iTunes and Amazon beginning September 8.  For more information visit www.GatherFilm.com

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Yes, God, Yes

Year of Release: 2020      Directed by Karen Maine.  Staring Natalia Dyer, Francesca Reale, Parker Wierling, Timothy Simons, and Donna Lynne Champlin.

When the theology of a gay bar is sounder than the theology of a Catholic youth retreat, it’s one example of the deficiency of the Church’s ministry in recent years. In the case of Yes, God, Yes, a new coming of age comedy from writer/director Karen Maine, such a scene forms not only a pivotal moment in teenage Alice’s (Natalia Dyer) journey but also a welcome reprieve from the holier-than-thou competition from her fellow high schoolers.

After a sexist rumor starts circulating about Alice, she’s essentially knocked out of any holiness competition before one even starts. Making matters worse, she has no idea what the term her classmates are tossing around about her means. Worse still, the two school authority figures, Mrs. Veda (Donna Lynne Champlin) and Fr. Murphy, (Timothy Simons) seemingly accept the rumors at face value.

It goes without saying that the rumors are false, but as an insecure teenagers wrestling with sexual feelings for the first time in her life, Alice doesn’t know who to turn to for advice. Once again, to make matters worse, the sex-ed class taught by Fr. Murphy at her Catholic high school has a severely overly simplistic explanation of arousal that’s insulting to both sexes, but the obviously misogynistic qualities make Alice understandably reluctant to seek advice there.

What follows are Alice’s hilariously misguided attempts to learn about the type of sex act she was falsely accused of committing and her worry that she’s irreversibly hell-bound for having hormones. Most of this happens over a weekend retreat that her best friend (Francesca Reale) convinces her to go on so they can score holiness points.

If this sounds like a cruel over-exaggeration of Catholicism and youth group mentality, it isn’t. From the sexist bullying moments before a photo is taken in which everyone smiles and says, “Jesus Christ!” to the assumption that any sexual misconduct, if true, is all Alice’s fault and not the male classmate with whom she did (not do) it, it all conveys the dangers of a purity culture that treats women as commodities whose only worth is their sexual innocence.

The critique of Catholicism is unquestionably harsh, and while the sex-ed class grossly oversimplifies Church teaching on sexuality for the purpose of critiquing purity culture, the other details are spot on. The off-key singing of “City of God” is painful and hilarious. The use of a retreat to be in close proximity to one’s crush is too accurate. And most importantly, the worrying about eternal damnation from a legalistic and overly literal understanding of mortal sin, which despairs of God’s mercy, comes across perfectly.

When I was younger, I spent quite a bit of time at Catholic youth groups, and the details of Karen Maine’s script, loosely based on some of her own experiences, make it feel so familiar. For instance, there is a moment of sharing personal stories about feeling God’s presence during a difficult time. Alice makes something up, because she can’t think of something applicable to share. As an introvert, I hated those moments not only having to talk about something potentially highly personal, but also for the way so many of the stories reduced prayer to a magic spell that when said fervently enough caused God to wave his magic wand and fix all of one’s problems. When I tried to talk about Two Days, One Night being a reminder of God’s presence through the way everything turns out and how most of the characters are doing their best, it was not well received.

I share that anecdote to explain why Yes, God, Yes resonated so deeply with me. Ultimately, this is a film about saying yes to God and saying no to the ways that religion is perverted. Does it get every detail right? No, and I would have liked to have seen Alice take a little more responsibility for some of her actions. However, it makes it perfectly understandable why she would feel unsafe doing so given the sexist authority figures. The film also provides an authentic example of teenage insecurities and struggling toward the right path. And whatever path Alice chooses, God will be walking it with her.

 

Personal recommendation: A

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The Red Shoes

Year of release: 1948               Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.     Starring Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, and Marius Goring.

Originally published as part of the Arts & Faith top 100.

The most famous line in The Red Shoes is probably an early exchange between Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). The director of a prestigious ballet company asks the aspiring ballerina why she wants to dance. Her reply: “Why do you want to live?”

The answer impresses Lermontov enough to earn her a small part in the company, but it also reveals the two most important themes of the film—the importance of vocation and the danger of allowing that vocation to become an idol.

Probably one of the least commented on scenes is when aspiring composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) plays through his rewrite of the titular ballet for Lermontov. At one point, he replaces a pedestrian hymn with a Lutheran chorale. The chorale is Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Savior of the Heathen). It’s a fascinating choice of music to pair with a setting of a Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale, but one that emphasizes the theme of idolizing art and the necessity of salvation from that.

For Vicky and Julian that hope of salvation comes in the form of their love, to the consternation of Lermontov. However, it may not be enough to save them from the slavish devotion to their art that Lermontov expects and requires of everyone in his company. An early dismissal of his prima ballerina because she got married causes the fired dancer to exclaim, “He has no heart.” Ballet for Lermontov is a jealous and merciless god that will allow for no other loves.

Lermontov embodies the red shoes of the titular fairy tale and ballet. As he relates the story of the ballet to Craster, he says with palpable exhilaration, “At the end of the evening she gets tired and wants to go home, but the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired…Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.” When Craster inquires how the story ends, Lermontov nonchalantly says, “In the end, she dies,” as if that’s the natural outcome once someone can no longer create their art.

Obviously, Vicky is the young girl and how her story ends is a fait accompli, foreshadowed through the settings of two of her major interactions with Lermontov and the place where she first meets Julian. Both men represent two vocations, and both of them make one incompatible with the other. That is the tragedy of the film, and it is from that which all the characters need salvation.

In a scene towards the end, there is an acknowledgment of that need for salvation, but it is too little too late. The conflict between the two vocations can be seen in Vicky and Julian’s bedroom. Not only does the allegedly blissfully married couple sleep in separate beds, but the lighting creates a dark chasm between them, showing that need for reconciliation. The scene turns into both of them pursuing their art, making it even clearer that their two loves are too envious to allow a competing force.

Importantly, the film allows the viewer to be swept up in the grandeur of the art and romance, wishing for both to work out with a happy ending, without acknowledging how toxic the idolization of a vocation is. Brian Easdale’s gorgeous score, Robert Helpmann’s stunning choreography, and Moira Shearer’s flawless execution make the ballet of The Red Shoes come alive as it needs to. It indicts the viewer’s own desires, making them culpable for any time they’ve idolized a love of theirs excessively.

The more I think about it, the more perfect that chorale choice is. It matches the perfection of the dancing, the acting, the scoring, the directing, the costume design, and it does so in a way that reminds the viewer that any art or the need to create art cannot be the only reason to live. Art for art’s sake is not necessarily a bad thing, but as beautiful and enriching as great art is, it becomes even greater when it exists for something beyond itself as well. That’s a realization that all the characters eventually have, and it’s one that the final scene hauntingly and tragically depicts.

 

Personal recommendation: A+

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Amadeus

Year of release: 1984        Directed by Milos Forman.         Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, and Jeffrey Jones.

Originally published as part of the Arts & Faith Top 100 Spiritually significant films.

There is little, if any, historical accuracy in Amadeus. The portrayal of Mozart (Tom Hulce) as vulgar libertine is certainly based in much historical fact, but as seen through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), the film’s antihero protagonist and unreliable narrator, even the extent of the genius’ crassness can be called into question.

More importantly, Mozart’s genius—as portrayed by the film—can be called into question, since it is equally tainted by Salieri’s envy-saturated vision. The notion that Mozart wrote note perfect first drafts of his compositions is ludicrous and factually wrong. Naturally, it’s how Salieri remembers the composer he wished he could have been.

That merely summarizes the film’s inaccuracies in regards to the portrayal of Mozart, to say nothing of the fictious account of Salieri, consumed by a murderous envy toward a rival composer. Nonetheless, the historical fiction of Peter Shaffer’s play adaptation under the direction of Milos Forman creates not only a brilliant cautionary tale about the danger of envy and pride, but also a stunning testament about how God’s love manifests itself in the most unexpected ways.

One of the most important aspects of the film is its title, a word which the aged Salieri lingers over in his mockery of confession that frames the film. “I didn’t [write Eine kleine Nachtmusik],” he tells the priest pathetically trying to counsel him. “That was Mozart. Wolfgang…Amadeus…Mozart.” Abraham’s delivery of that one word summarizes the tragedy of the film more than anything else. Salieri cannot accept a loving God who bestows His gifts freely on humankind with all their imperfections and mediocrities.

In Salieri’s mind, love is something that is earned, which obviously means it is not love. In many ways, Salieri believes the same heresy as the prosperity gospel: if one is pious and prayerful enough, God will grant them a life of success and fame. In the case of Amadeus, that success and fame is music, which is why even in death Mozart’s genius continues to haunt Salieri.

As perfectly cast as Abraham is, the flippancy and crudity of Tom Hulce’s Mozart is an essential thorn in Salieri’s side. The earthiness of Mozart’s introduction as he plays a vulgar word game with his future wife Stanzi (Elizabeth Berridge), while unknowingly spied on by Salieri sets up the contrast between his personality and his music, which Salieri cannot reconcile.

However, Mozart’s real introduction comes in the first scene of the film when Salieri slashes his throat underscored by the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G Minor. The gravitas and darkness of the syncopated rhythms and minor arpeggios expresses Salieri’s despair and his lifelong obsession, once again making him subservient to his self-created rival. In that choice of underscoring, the film itself comments on the tragic and pathetic nature of Salieri’s decision to take revenge against God for making Mozart more talented than he was.

Obviously, there is no need to reconcile the profundity of Mozart’s music and the coarseness of his conduct except in Salieri’s poisoned worldview that God only loves the deserving, and that love only manifests itself through worldly success. Thus, Salieri’s envy gave way to pride. Since God obviously loved Mozart, as can be seen through his impeccable talent, Salieri decided to destroy God’s beloved as revenge against God. It’s a tragedy of Greek proportions, and the horror of watching it is seeing a man knowingly accept his own damnation.

The priest is rendered speechless by Salieri’s unrepentant admission of his hatred for Mozart and God, but the film is a perfect inversion of St. John’s admission, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

That Salieri’s attempted revenge concludes with his plot to steal Mozart’s Requiem and pass it off as his own is yet another perversion of something sacred, in addition to his rejection of repentance or absolution. That arrogance is carried through to the famous final lines of the film. Unable to realize that success and talent are not metrics of God’s love, Salieri sets himself up as the arbitrator of forgiveness and absolution, proclaiming his own judgments of everyone’s abilities.

In my mind, Amadeus is one of the most terrible tragedies ever filmed. And also one of the most perfect ones. The ability to recognize God’s goodness and love in music is a great gift. Salieri’s choice to let it inspire uncontrollable envy makes his corruption of that gift all the greater. The contrast between that corruption and the beauty of Mozart’s music highlights Salieri’s pathetic revenge, which doesn’t destroy Mozart or God, but only makes him more of a mediocrity that he so despises.

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