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Indie Focus: Around the world with 'Happy As Lazzaro,' 'Mirai' and 'Never Look Away'

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Since we put together last week’s newsletter, two major international filmmakers of the 1970s and beyond — the English director Nicolas Roeg and the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci — have died.

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After Roeg’s death, I wrote his obituary and Justin Chang wrote an appreciation. (I had conducted The Times’ final interview with Roeg in this article about his “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”) After the death of Bertolucci, Josh Rottenberg wrote his obit and Kenneth Turan an appreciation.

Bertolucci in particular is leaving behind a troubling legacy, as his status as one of the titans of international art cinema has been tarnished in recent years by a reappraisal of how he treated actress Maria Schneider in shooting his 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris.” At Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote a nuanced, considered essay on what for many has become a deeply emotional issue — in essence how to grapple with the legacy of someone like Bertolucci in a way that acknowledges both the good and the bad in their life and work without diminishing the impact of either. It is a question we have been asking ourselves recently far too often.

The L.A. Times’ The Envelope just published the first of this year’s awards season roundtables, bringing together the directors behind six of the year’s most exciting films — Ryan Coogler for “Black Panther,” Alfonso Cuarón for “Roma,” Karyn Kusama for “Destroyer,” Yorgos Lanthimos for “The Favourite,” Josie Rourke for “Mary Queen of Scots” and Spike Lee for “BlacKkKlansman.”

We have a number of screenings and events coming up this week. On Dec. 6, we’ll have a screening of the documentary “Minding the Gap” plus a Q&A with director Bing Liu (RSVP here). Then on Dec 7 we have a screening of “The Hate U Give,” followed by a Q&A with cast members Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Algee Smith and director George Tillman Jr. On Dec. 9 there will be a special panel on the year in documentaries. For info on all these events, go to events.latimes.com/screenings.

Nicoletta Braschi, left, and Luca Chikovani in "Happy as Lazzaro."
Nicoletta Braschi, left, and Luca Chikovani in "Happy as Lazzaro." (Simona Pampallona / Netflix)

‘Happy as Lazzaro’

Winner of the screenplay prize earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, “Happy as Lazzaro” is the latest from Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher, seen by many as among the most exciting voices on the contemporary international scene. The film is part magical fairy tale, part bracing examination of disparities of wealth and labor, told through the eyes of a young man named Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) simply trying to make his way through the world.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “I was worried at first that “Happy as Lazzaro” might devolve into a sanctimonious pastoral remake of ‘Forrest Gump.’ Instead, the film simply becomes curiouser and curiouser .… The final scenes are full of casual, precious miracles — a box of pastries selflessly given, strains of organ music emanating from a church — and they speak to a human impulse that this movie both cherishes and embodies: the desire to repay a cruelly indifferent world with something unfashionably, unmistakably good.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott placed the film within the tradition of Italian neorealism, writing that, “Rohrwacher isn’t borrowing from this tradition to sell picturesque nostalgia or political piety. She draws from the past (tapping into literature and folklore as well as film) to interrogate present conditions and future possibilities. This movie feels bracingly new and also like something that has been here forever. It has the urgency of a news bulletin and the authority of a classic.”

At rogerebert.com, Tomris Laffly added, “Elevated by gentle humanist touches and Hélène Louvart’s otherworldly cinematography at every turn, ‘Happy as Lazzaro’ toys with the idea and image of a wild and dangerous wolf, that stands in as a divine, fairytale-esque metaphor for power .… Easily among this year’s finest films and laced with an unapologetic social message, ‘Happy as Lazzaro’ dares one to imagine a reality where each individual would task themselves to be as selfless and morally whole as its main protagonist. If only.”

For Film Comment, Manuel Yañez-Murillo wrote an extended essay on Rohrwacher’s career and the film, noting, “Kindness and understanding: two pillars that, along with a rejection of normal modes of narrative filmmaking, are the foundations of ‘Happy as Lazzaro’s’ unreconciled soul. Indifferent to the misanthropic trend prevalent in today’s cinema, Rohrwacher’s beautiful, painful movie alerts us to the maladies of our time while also providing us with the emotional tools to defeat them.”

Japanese anime director Mamoru Hosoda of "Mirai"
Japanese anime director Mamoru Hosoda of "Mirai" (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

‘Mirai’

The latest from Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda, “Mirai” is a rare animated movie to play at Cannes and is being released in the U.S. with an English-language dub featuring the voices of John Cho, Rebecca Hall and Daniel Dae Kim. The movie is told from the point of view of a 4-year-old boy named Kun who becomes jealous upon the arrival of a baby sister, Mirai. Yet suddenly his life opens up to worlds beyond his wildest imagination.

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Reviewing for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “One of the things ’Mirai’ is especially good at is depicting the quicksilver nature of Kun’s personality at this young age, how his mood can go from happy and cooperative to complete howling rage in a Yokohama minute .… Some of the situations Kun experiences, like a nightmarish encounter in Tokyo’s enormous central train station, run the risk of being too frightening for youngish audiences, but Hosoda doesn’t have to worry about focus groups tampering with his vision. His films are his own, and we are fortunate to have them.”

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For The Times, Michael Ordoña spoke to Hosada, who spoke of the relationship to genre and reality in his work by saying, “I think of sci-fi or fantasy as a tool to figure out the truth of what really being a human is about, or a tool to find out a different side of humans. I don’t want to depict the fantasy for fantasy’s sake or sci-fi for sci-fi’s sake as entertainment. I really want to portray what you can learn about others through fantastical or sci-fi elements. So when the main character meets other people through those elements and changes — it’s not those elements that help him change; it’s really what he feels inside.”

At Vulture, Emily Yoshida added, “Like Hayao Miyazaki, whose mantle Hosoda is often considered to be on an unofficial short list to pick up, Hosoda tells this child’s story at a child’s eye level, and the diversions feel part and parcel of that point of view .… In the film’s strange, upsetting, and ultimately ravishing finale, Hosoda goes just macro enough with the concept to dazzle kids and send the adults out sobbing. Kun and Mirai go soaring through the intricacy and vastness of a single family, flitting through the ephemeral, private rooms of their ancestors’ experiences, none of which is ever quite resolved, but all of which lead to Kun and his little sister to their mother and father, and the little courtyard in their house.”

Tom Schilling in "Never Look Away."
Tom Schilling in "Never Look Away." (Caleb Deschanel / Sony Pictures Classics)

‘Never Look Away’

Germany’s entry for the foreign language Academy Award, “Never Look Away” is the latest from filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won the prize for his 2006 film “The Lives of Others.” His new film is based partly on the early life and career of acclaimed contemporary painter Gerhard Richter, and again grapples with issues of history and legacy in its story of a young artist (Tom Schilling) and a doctor (Sebastian Koch) who find their lives intertwined in unexpected ways.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “‘Never Look Away' is nothing if not classical in its approach: It is stately and composed, clear-eyed and engrossing. It contains decorous scenes of lovemaking and childbirth that might strike you as tasteful to the point of sanitized. It seems tailor-made, in many respects, for the tastes of the motion picture academy voters who handed ‘The Lives of Others’ an Oscar for best foreign-language film, and who might be hoping for this 2018 German submission to work similar wonders. They might be disappointed. Or they might find themselves hard-pressed to disobey the title.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.

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