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Review in Two Languages: Sally Potter's The Roads Not Taken

(Salma Hayek with Javier Bardem © Bleecker Street)

by LINDSAY R. BELLINGER & ZEP ARMENTANO

"Working with Sally Potter means a surprise every day," said Christopher Sheppard at the end of the animated press conference for her newest film The Roads Not Taken, which premiered in competition at Berlinale on February 26, 2020. Sheppard has produced eight of Sally Potter's feature films since their first collaboration on Orlando in 1992. For those of us familiar with Potter's films, Sheppard's statement shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Her work is never boring, rarely mainstream or geared towards the masses, always fearless and often a big departure from her previous project(s) and sometimes misunderstood by English-language critics.

 

Unfortunately, I can't speak all the languages so it's hard for me to say how critics not writing in English or German interpret or review her work. I'd be curious to see what a film critic like CA Lejeune (Caroline Alice), whose film criticisms graced the pages of The Guardian from 1922 to 1928 and then the pages of The Observer until she retired in 1960, would write about Potter's films. If more top female critics were reviewing her work would her films have higher ratings on some of the most visited film review sites? Positive film reviews can make a film, helping it get a wide release and international distribution. Negative reviews can break a film, relegating it in the past to a direct-to-DVD (or VHS) release. Who exactly has been writing the majority of the most-read reviews of Sally Potter's films? I'm curious.

 

I feel quite privileged not only to have been in the audience at the world premiere of Potter's The Roads Not Taken but even more so when I bumped into the auteur herself and asked her the question that I had wanted to ask at the press conference. That was a total lost cause as it was impossible to get the mike; the journalists were in such a frenzy, asking Bardem and Hayek many questions, some not having much at all to do with the film at hand. In the presence of such star power it was entertaining to watch the conference turn into a room full of fanboys and fangirls. Back to my question: I asked Potter if she named Salma Hayek's character Dolores because "dolor" means pain in Spanish. This made her pause and look me straight in the eye before answering me in the affirmative. That took me aback a little. Muchísimas gracias to all of my Spanish teachers in middle, high school and university; I actually remember more Spanish than I thought I did.

 

Although much of the film is heavy and might be, for some viewers, harder to follow than your average mainstream blockbuster, it's completely worth effort. Some of the audience might think that the two alternate realities that Leo (Javier Bardem) envisions are real experiences from his past. I suppose every viewer could see or read the film in a different way. I forget which filmmaker or artist said this, probably many, but it goes something along the lines of once his/her art is out in the world it belongs to the world and however you see it that's a valid reading. I suppose there are artists out there who will disagree with this, only wanting her/his vision, her/his perspective to be the one big Truth. From the title of the film and the way I read it, it seems like these are possible futures that Leo could have had had he chosen these different paths, these different roads. He might have lived a painful existence (full of dolor) with Dolores in Mexico had he stayed there, sharing in grief from a family tragedy, or he might have also grown older on a Greek island while stuck trying to finish his book and running into a young blonde girl who reminds him of his daughter. Perhaps I took this the wrong way but I didn't see it as Leo hitting on these two girls, particularly the blonde but rather longing for his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) who he, in this alternate reality, left years ago in order to pursue his writing career because he couldn't see both a family and life as an author as being mutually exclusive.

 

Despite a number of difficult and heavy moments that Leo faces during a 24-hour period his daughter Molly adds splashes of playfulness as she navigates their way through Brooklyn while visiting doctors who aren't always the most empathetic individuals. Coupled with Potter's jovial original score, which she not only composed but also played the keyboards, Fanning's performance succeeds in providing some lighter moods. This should not discount Fanning's more emotional scenes where her frustration with how people treat her father's apparent mental illness, frustration with losing a hot scoop as a journalist, stress with not being able to understand her dad's muddled speech are all realized in addition to her deep overall concern for his well-being.

 

When you zero in on Bardem's performance in The Roads Not Taken, particularly the Brooklyn storyline with Fanning and Laura Linney (Leo's ex Rita), you might be reminded of his depiction of real-life quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro in Alejandro Amenábar's Mar adentro (The Sea Inside), which won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2005. His sensitive and powerful performance in Potter's film almost feels like a continuation of his intense performance in Mar adentro, which coincidentally also uses flashbacks and imagined realities. Although these two characters, Leo and Ramón have some similarities, the delicacy of Potter's script allows Bardem to ease even more into his vulnerability as a man and as an actor, shining through in ways that I have rarely seen so honestly depicted on-screen.

 

Perhaps the added struggle of Leo's immigrant background (having moved from Mexico when he was younger), his mental illness pulling Spanish from his limited memories of speech, is one of the cues to his on-screen sensitivity. Watching the language difficulties - the Spanish language, the English language, the incomprehensible speech - not just between Leo and Molly but Leo and everyone he encounters in NYC, is not an easy watch. I empathize with Molly, Leo and Rita but that makes me wonder if it's difficult for everyone to feel that empathy, the real language barrier struggles between parents and their first generation children, especially if they themselves have never lived in a foreign country where they could not speak the language. My hope is that this film will be relatable to a broader audience who is willing to experience Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning and Salma Hayek not just as superstars but as actors, actors who were ready and willing to take this incredibly brave journey with writer, director, co-editor and composer Sally Potter.

 

Grade:  ⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 (out of five stars)

Lindsay R. Bellinger

 

(Elle Fanning © Jeong Park, Bleecker Street)

 

Mi amor, a dónde va

 

La película de Sally Potter era sin duda de las más esperadas del programa de Berlín.

Potter nos tiene acostumbrados a lo político, a lo femenino.

 

Pero Potter descubre por primera vez la ciencia-ficción para reflexionar sobre el

Alzheimer, inspirada por la muerte de un hermano mayor. Es una mujer de identidad

fuerte, cerebral, y luego impactada por esa identidad menguante. Así la teoría de los

muchos universos le permite explorar un proceso de duelo hacia el enfermo que

trayecta de la búsqueda fantástica (aunque hiper racional) a lo emocional y llano.

 

La dirección de ‘The Roads Not Taken’ tiene intenciones de chocar. Ya desde el cásting

que desnuda la autoridad de Bardem más allá (mucho más allá) que ‘Mar Adentro,’

volviéndolo un personaje maldito en el que vierte su compasión.

 

Algo parecido pasa con Elle Fanning, que mantiene a su padre a flote en el momento

más crítico. También la emoción predominante en su historia es el bochorno, una

vergonzosa vulnerabilidad de la joven trabajadora corporativa al asistir a su padre a

través de los desvaríos.

 

Bardem está conectado –metafísicamente– con otra gran actriz hispana, Salma Hayek,

también desnuda de todo artificio, representando cualquier mujer de su edad de su

país. Hayek es Dolores, una antigua amante de Bardem con un posado sincero que nos

acompaña hasta un humilde Día de los Muertos.

 

Este florido bilingüismo además de instigar la intimidad familiar, nos lleva al particular

remate político, que Potter no podía evitar: la hostilidad que sentiría un inmigrante en

EEUU. El hispano que no se puede defender por sí mismo de repente pierde sus

privilegios. Potter incide en esto algunas veces, dando muletas racistas a los

personajes de fondo.

 

Y la película transcurre en este espacio mental desarraigado de Bardem que no

reconoce su hogar en Brooklyn, que revive la vida en lugares variopintos que se

solapan a través del montaje paralelo. Deslumbra el color en la puesta en escena

pensada para el rubio de Fanning, y destaca la sensorial escena en la que llora sobre la

chaqueta de su padre, oliéndola mientras la acaricia la luz de un metro nocturno.

Huele a él. ¿Seguirá siendo él?

 

Potter reflexiona sobre los espacios que ocupan las personas en nuestro mapa de

relaciones, y los vacíos que dejan. El amor generoso tiene incontables ranuras y nunca

dejará de amar, incluso a los que se van.

 

Grade:  ⭐⭐⭐ (out of five stars)

Zep Armentano

Outlet: El Cinèfil

https://elcinefil.cat/zeparmentano

IG: @Elpamfil

Twitter: @ZArmentano

 

 (Sally Potter © Adventure Pictures)

 

CREW:

Written and directed by: Sally Potter

Cinematography: Robbie Ryan

Editing: Emilie Orsini, Sally Potter, Jason Rayton

Music: Sally Potter

Sound: Yves-Marie Omnes

Production Design: Carlos Conti

Costumes: Catherine George

Make-up: Naomi Donne

Assistant Director: Adam Lock

Casting: Irene Lamb, Heidi Levitt

Producer: Christopher Sheppard

 

CAST:

Javier Bardem (Leo)

Elle Fanning (Molly)

Salma Hayek (Dolores)

Laura Linney (Rita)

Branka Katic (Xenia)

Milena Tscharntke (Anni)

 

Produced by:

Adventure Pictures

London, United Kingdom

+44 207 6132233

mail@adventurepictures.co.uk

 

World sales:

HanWay Films

London, United Kingdom

+44 207 2900750

info@hanwayfilms.com

www.hanwayfilms.com

 

 

 

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Berlin 2019: The dailies from the Berlin Film Festival brought to you by our team of festival ambassadors. Vanessa McMahon, Alex Deleon, Laurie Gordon, Lindsay Bellinger and Bruno Chatelin...
Ambiance, film reviews, trailers and podcasts, EFM insider information, and much more.
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