TIFF Day #5: Humanism in “Faces Places,” Anti-Humanism in “Omerta”

JR and Agnes Varda, co-directors of "Faces Places"
JR and Agnes Varda, co-directors of “Faces Places”

Let’s start with the celebratory humanist film from yesterday.  Faces Places will put a smile on your face, with its embrace of ordinary humanity.

Though, actually, the beauty of Faces Places comes from making the ordinary extraordinary.  It joins two French artists who excel at this endeavor.  Agnes Varda, one of the founding members of the French New Wave, is now perhaps best known for The Gleaners and I, the 2000 documentary that honored the lives of those subsisting on her country’s fringes.  JR is a street artist whose super-large black and white photos give prominence to those who could otherwise be forgotten:  Palestinians and Israelis across the Separation Wall, the elderly of the world, Brazilian favela dwellers.

A charming, Seussian opening sequence calibrates the tone of their film at sweet and whimsical.  A series of quick fictionalized scenes show where the co-directors didn’t meet:  for example, a patisserie where Varda orders the last two eclairs, one customer ahead of JR.

When they do meet, Varda and JR agree to journey around France in JR’s truck, to capture on film the residents of France’s villages.  In northern France, they paste aged photos of miners next to a contemporary image of the last resident of a row of brick homes slated for demolition.  In a southern village, their labor results in a massive photograph of a waitress covering the entire side of a house on the square, turning the smiling woman into a social media celebrity.

One of the artworks created in "Faces Places"
One of the artworks created in “Faces Places”

The reactions of their subjects run the emotional gamut.  Most commonly, folks are thrilled, in one case moved even to tears.  The shy waitress is embarrassed by her sudden fame, despite the playful exuberance of her two kids, who gigglingly tickle her oversized feet.  One sturdy fellow’s first response is to comment on his “ugly mug.”

Faces Places also contemplates the unbreakable link between location and memory.  Many of these spots carry an affective valence for Varda, such as a Normandy beach where she photographed a now deceased friend.

The ages of Varda (88) and JR (33) persist as counterpoints throughout Faces Places.  Often this is handled with affectionate humor, as when the co-directors recreate a classic scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande a Part, with JR speeding Varda through the galleries of the Louvre via wheelchair.

At other times, this carries an elegiac tone, as Varda clearly mourns those who have gone before her, none more than her husband, the comparably great director Jacques Demy.  Despite her unending curiosity, a part of her is fatigued at being one of the last torchbearers of her generation.

Nonetheless, Faces Places never wallows in such feelings.  JR is a perfect foil for Varda, seeing the strength that the decades impart, saying at one point that her wrinkles contain muscles.

To assert the obvious, too often Western culture and the film industry honor only the conventionally beautiful.  (To wit, each film at TIFF is preceded by a grotesque ad for L’Oreal that parades a multitude of skinny, mostly white, models before our eyes.)  By honoring the rural, the hidden workers in unglamorous yet essential professions, Faces Places is visual humanism of the highest order.  (4 out of 5 stars)

Rajkummar Rao as Omar Sheikh, in "Omerta"
Rajkummar Rao as jihadist Omar Sheikh, in “Omerta”

In stark opposition, Omerta is an object lesson in anti-humanism.  Its “based on a true story” biography of terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh shows the barbaric outcome when the Other – separated by religion and national identity – loses their humanity and right to exist.

For those who don’t recall, Omar Sheikh is the London-born jihadist best known to Americans for abducting and slaughtering journalist Daniel Pearl.  Omerta follows Sheikh’s life across 16 years, beginning with his radicalization at a British mosque and abandonment of his studies at the London School of Economics, much to the subdued horror of his father.

From here, we witness Sheikh train in Afghanistan, then attempt his first kidnappings in India that result in his capture and torture in that country.  Across these happenings, Mumbai-based director Hansal Mehta gives us a strong sense of each place, whether the chaotic bustle of New Delhi or the cold isolation of Afghanistan.

Rajkummar Rao as Omar Sheikh also does a solid job conveying the superficial charisma of a man who could easily assume false identities to lure Pearl and other westerners into his traps.  Rao convinces as someone who has fully inhaled the empathy-deadening fumes of ideological arrogance, ignoring the growing evidence of his manipulation by competing Pakistani military and intelligence factions.

Unfortunately, Omerta’s script does not give room for the other characters to achieve a similar dimensionality.  Both Sheikh’s dad and Daniel Pearl feel formulaic:  the former an archetypically concerned parent for a wayward child, the latter a clichéd zealous reporter gunning for the big break in his story.

In addition, the director’s choice to jump around chronologically does not enhance Omerta’s narrative, but instead serves to confuse.  Mehta would’ve done better to stick with a more traditional, linear format.

Nonetheless, it was valuable to gain a non-western perspective on the international horror of jihadist terrorism.  This also made Omerta a difficult film for this American to watch, as Mehta barely averts his gaze and doesn’t plug his ears to the ugly consequences for the victims of Sheikh’s ideology.  (As just one example, he did not feel compelled to honor the American media’s self-censorship of images of 9/11 casualties jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center.)

The actors who introduced Mehta’s film at TIFF made it clear that this has long been a passion project for the director, as multiple producers walked away from this political hot potato, so that he ended up using his own money to complete the film.  No doubt, the Islamist violence that has killed hundreds in his home city of Mumbai, allegedly masterminded in part by Sheikh, fuels this passion.

As such, a film centered on the life and hatred of an anti-humanist becomes in some measure a humanist film, in broadening a provincial view of religious violence and giving a glimpse of its consequences in other parts of the world.  (3 out of 5 stars)


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