Caribbean Screenshots (September/October 2016) | Film Reviews

This month’s film-watching picks

Still from Play the DevilStill from Ayiti Mon AmourStill from Before the Rooster Crows

Play the Devil

Directed by Maria Govan, 89 minutes

“How did you come to be who you are?” a wealthy businessman asks a much younger man early on in Maria Govan’s Play the Devil. There’s an immediate reason for this personal inquiry — the businessman is trying to get the younger man to sleep with him — but the question has a deeper significance, pointing as it does to issues of identity and being that are at the heart of this beautifully crafted film, an absorbing and darkly disturbing study of sexuality and obsession that establishes Govan, from the Bahamas, as one of the foremost filmmakers at work in the region today.

The young man, eighteen-year-old Gregory (an excellent Petrice Jones), lives with his devout housekeeper grandmother (Penelope Spencer) in Paramin, a Trinidadian mountain village known for its annual Carnival ritual of the jabs, in which men cover their bodies with blue paint, dress like demons, and parade the streets, breathing fire and demanding money of bystanders. Gregory is bright and artistically inclined. His grandmother hopes he’ll win a scholarship to study medicine abroad. Adoring grandson that he is, Gregory doesn’t dream of disappointing her.

When married construction magnate James Young (Gareth Jenkins) meets Gregory at a play, he immediately sets out to seduce him, indulging the sensitive teenager’s passion for photography. Gregory is neither blind nor unwilling, and Govan — who already has a feature under her belt — sagely refuses to reduce the conflict to that of the exploiter and the merely exploited. For James too is a victim, in a society where sex between men remains a crime, and shame and reproach can lead people to engage in dangerous, sometimes deadly behaviour.

After a delicately handled scene in which Gregory and James make love, things takes a grim turn, and here the plotting becomes a bit diffuse. In a denouement that’s both foreshadowed and shocking, however, the dance of the blue devils is powerfully invoked, while the film’s final, wordless sequence approaches transcendence. Play the Devil is a landmark achievement in Caribbean cinema.

 

Ayiti Mon Amour

Directed by Guetty Felin, 82 minutes

In her previous film, the poetic, personal documentary Broken Stones, Haitian-born Guetty Felin contemplated the 2010 earthquake that devastated her country. Ayiti Mon Amour, her ambitious new feature, sees the filmmaker return to the aftermath of that catastrophic event. This time Felin blends the factual mode of inquiry with fiction, neorealism with magic realism, to create a beguiling hybrid, a compelling cinematic experience featuring overlapping tales of love and loss, of search and survival.

Ayiti Mon Amour takes French New Wave auteur Alain Resnais’s love-among-the-ruins classic Hiroshima Mon Amour as one of its sources of inspiration — a character even intersperses his Creole with Japanese. Yet Felin’s film is completely her own, the frames full of life and colour. This is a world where mermaids exist alongside fishermen leading hardscrabble, dignified lives, and a swim in the sea fills a person’s body with electric current, which is then used to charge mobile phones for free: an ingenious metaphor for Haitian resourcefulness and generosity.

 

Before the Rooster Crows

Directed by Arí Maniel Cruz, 97 minutes

Thirteen-year-old Carmín is the definition of the problem teenager. She skips school, smokes, and lashes out at her grandmother, Gloria, with whom she lives in the picturesque rural region of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Along comes Reubén, Carmín’s father. Handsome, suave, and out of prison after twelve years, Reubén’s sudden entry into the life of a girl on the verge of puberty who is desperate to be loved can only signal trouble, even tragedy.

Before the Rooster Crows is Arí Maniel Cruz’s second feature film, a confident and clear-eyed coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of sexual permissiveness, unchecked machismo, and religious hypocrisy. Working from a solid script by Kisha Tikina Burgos, Maniel Cruz shoots effectively in hand-held, often uncomfortable close-up; he also displays laudable restraint in not allowing the (at times violent) action to descend into sudsy theatrics or cheap sentimentality. The director’s greatest achievement, however, is in the memorably roiling lead performance he elicits from Miranda Purcell, who leaves you convinced that despite everything she’s been through, the tenacious Carmín’s going to be alright.

 

For information about upcoming screenings, visit the films’ Facebook pages