By Devika Girish
This month’s picks include a bizarre Mexican-Spanish thriller, a Canadian drama about immigrants, a documentary set in a Parisian dance school and more.
‘I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me’
Hard-core pornography, international drug mafias and a doctoral candidate’s literary explorations of critical gender theory: True to its title, this dark comedy, adapted from a novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos, involves such a bizarre mishmash of references and tones that it stretches plausibility — albeit to wonderfully entertaining ends.
The madness begins when Juan Pablo, a student in Mexico, is accepted into a doctoral program in Barcelona. After an unexpected call from his troublesome cousin, things take a shocking and bloody turn. Juan Pablo is still on the path to a doctorate, but now at the mercy of a murderous gangster. He is made to follow a series of strange instructions — including changing thesis topics and attempting an affair with a lesbian classmate — whose rationale remains a mystery to our unfortunate hero (and to the viewers) until the very end.
A modern, noir-infused twist on surrealist literature and cinema, “I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me” makes less sense as a narrative than as a string of expertly constructed moments with their own internal logic. Every self-contained scene or bit — be it Juan Pablo’s mother’s recurring voice messages, full of insults veiled as love, or the friendship his girlfriend develops with an Italian vagabond — is densely packed with references, gags and deadpan performances, keeping the film balanced on the razor’s edge of irony and pathos. It all adds up to a melancholy allegory about the unpredictability of life and writers’ futile ambitions to lend it order and meaning. (Stream it on Netflix.)
‘So Much Tenderness’
This gorgeous drama by Lina Rodriguez begins with two quiet, stark bits of exposition. A dark-haired woman gets into the trunk of a car, and a couple, with two toddlers in tow, drives the vehicle across a border checkpoint. Next, we see the woman, Aurora (Noëlle Schönwald), at an interview with an officer, explaining the violent circumstances that led her to flee Colombia and seek asylum in Canada, leaving her daughter temporarily behind.
After that point, “So Much Tenderness” never concerns itself with the how of Aurora and her daughter Lucia’s circumstances. The film unfolds as a series of vignettes that drop us into different points in the duo’s lives: Aurora teaches Spanish at a language class; Lucia stocks grocery items at a supermarket; they each go on dates with different men. The knotty bureaucracy of immigration — hearings, permits, the process of assimilation — is elided; instead, we are suspended in these recent immigrants’ quotidian experiences. Yet a tension is always palpable — not just in the brief flashbacks of Aurora’s memories or the mysterious figure from her past she spots around town, but also in that unspoken feeling of unsettlement that sticks like lint to the characters’ uprooted lives. (Stream it on the Criterion Channel.)
In a high school in France, teenage dancers — many of them from the banlieues — make politics and poetry with their bodies. From the very first set piece in “Rookies,” a documentary about the dance troupe at the Turgot school in Paris, the kineticism of its diverse class is palpable. The camera captures a hip-hop battle as a rush of close-ups of limbs, popping and locking and swaying energetically. But what lends gravity to these scenes of movement is the commentary from the students that the directors, Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai, weave throughout.
Turgot has removed geographical zoning restrictions for this course, meaning that kids from all over the city, from various economic and racial backgrounds, mingle together. Talking-head interviews and intimate exchanges between teachers and students bring to the fore all the meanings these young people infuse into dancing. For some, moving their bodies with confidence is a feminist awakening; for others, the classes form a utopian bubble in a deeply divided world; and for yet others, it’s outright salvation. (Stream it on Ovid.)
Be warned before you read any further that this Tamil-language thriller is best watched with minimal context; its pleasures lie in its myriad surprises and twists, deployed with precision by the director, S.U. Arun Kumar. But if you need more persuasion, here’s a tease.
In a small town in Southern India, a young man, Eeswaran (Siddharth), lives with his sister and raises his 8-year-old niece, Sundari (Sahasra Sree), with tender — and often overprotective — paternal care. The first half of “Chithha” is a sweet portrait of this uncle-niece relationship, with sparkling performances by both actors. But every now and then, smatterings of menace and suspense interrupt these charming goings-on and scramble our bearings. There’s the woman from Eeswaran’s past who has reemerged in town, and with whom he exchanges resentful glares; there’s also a specter of sordid sexual violence that eventually takes over the narrative.
If “Chithha” offers the satisfactions of the classic revenge thriller, driven by the nobly enraged hero, its strength lies in how it also undercuts these tropes to offer a sharp critique of male saviorism. Come for the chills and kills, but stay for the sobering lesson on the reality of a woman’s life in a man’s world. (Rent or buy it on Amazon Prime Video.)
‘Phases of Matter’
Documentaries about hospitals — those strange, liminal spaces poised between life and death — are having a moment. Just last year, Claire Simon’s “Our Body” and Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” offered two distinct but equally riveting portraits of medical institutions, and how they bring together the most bureaucratic and existential aspects of human life. The director Deniz Tortum adds to that oeuvre with “Phases of Matter,” an eerie portrait of a state-run hospital in Turkey.
Throughout the film, the curious camera takes several vantage points. Positioned outside the hospital, it gazes at a corridor with large glass windows that reveal moments of contemplation — like a man staring wistfully at the sky — among the harried traffic of staff and patients. Inside, it peers over the shoulders of surgeons in operating rooms as they cut open bodies, or hovers in the lunchroom, where doctors chat casually about matters of disease and mortality. In one incredible sequence, the lens careens out of an OT in crisis, and makes its way into the sinister, deserted basement, which houses the morgue. Within the four walls of the hospital, Tortum captures the entire drama of life, in all its urgency and banality. (Stream it on Mubi.)