As with so many other events, the 2021 Hong Kong International Film and Television Market (Filmart) moved online and so I was able to attend this year. Along with Noir City International / the 18th Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival, the New York Asian Film Festival and Detroit’s Trinity International Film Festival, it’s the fourth film festival I’ve attended because it moved online in this our plague year. I had to walk my own red carpet and set my bedroom up like a press lounge that I stumbled into late with my soy matcha latte. The only thing I really missed was the big screen and a lanyard with a press pass dangling around my neck*. Filmart is more an annual industry market and convention than a festival, but there are screenings. And so I watched some industry videos and panel discussions and read interviews and analyses of trends. I was, however, fortunate enough to see three movies that were screened this week: The Black Stain / La Mancha Negra (2020), Caliber 9 / Calibro 9 (2020) and Rose: A Love Story (2020).
While I like to go into more depth, particularly with The Black Stain and Rose A Love Story, these films haven’t had wide international distribution as of this writing, so I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers. Any plot points I mention are things you learn very quickly. And, as always, plot is nice but execution is where it’s at.
The Black Stain / La Mancha Negra (2020) written and directed by Enrique García
As Doña Matilde Cisneros (María Alfonsa Rosso) lies dying, her daughter Mercedes (Noemí Ruíz) sees death at the doña’s window. Mercedes laughs, claiming Death and their mother will fly away like witches. After Matilde dies, her daughters plan her wake, funeral service and burial. Well, Modesta (Natalia Roig) and Manuela (Virginia De Morata) do. Mercedes is not well and suffers from what appears to be a psychotic disorder. The sisters haven’t seen their brother, Eugenio (Pablo Puyol) in 16 years. But despite this estrangement, Eugenio drives to his family home in rural Andalucía. He tells his wife, Emilia (Virginia Muñoz), that he is there to bury his mother and sign some papers. He tells her that it will take a day and no more. Eugenio seems remarkably distant from Emilia. As they stop for gas and for Eugenio to make a call, Emilia discovers a shotgun in the trunk. Eugenio tells her it’s to protect a property, but it doesn’t feel like that. And while all grief is different, Eugenio radiates tension that seems about something other than seeing his family or burying his mother. Even the local priest, Don Andrés (Juanma Lara), is focused on something other than laying Matilde to rest and consoling her family.
The Cisneros family was once wealthy and respectable, but now no one will work their olive fields for fear of Don Andrés. Don Andrés is a landowner himself and he has something very much against the Cisneros family. He uses his homily at the funeral for more than the succor of the bereaved and the enlightenment of the congregation.
Emilia experiences horrifying sights that first night in the Cisneros house, including a toilet I will not spoil and the very 19th Century treatment of Eugenio’s “mad” sister, Mercedes. In fact, there is something very 19th Century about the life the Cisneros sisters lead. Meanwhile, Eugenio brings 1971 home with him. There are some excellent early 1970s period details—especially Emilia’s chic hair and make-up and Eugenio’s mustache. But the Cisneros home feels like a much earlier time. The second floor has no electricity or plumbing. It is all candle light and thick shadows, pitchers and chamber pots, sepia and chiaroscuro. The house has been barely modernized—the visible light switches are from the beginning of the 20th Century—and all the modern conveniences have been stripped away from the second floor. While The Black Stain doesn’t have the comedic elements of movies like The Old Dark House (1932), The Cat and the Canary (1927), and even Cold Comfort Farm (1995), it has some of the same Gothic feel of an old dark house film. It does have the leering Juaneque (Ignacio Nacho), who helps out the family and lusts after Manuela–reminding me very much of Lon Chaney, Jr. and Boris Karloff in their various sinister servant roles. And there is a very dry, very dark sense of humor in the film. The Black Stain blends Gothic and noir as grief and greed make people crazed and ruthless. The violence that explodes as the family secrets converge is much more modern and neo-noir in its conventions. There is no more hiding in the shadows, sneaking in barns and peering in windows. There is a lot of blood in the light.
I appreciated the care in The Black Stain‘s filmmaking—the soundtrack of cicadas and shivery strings like insect wings themselves, the beautifully distressed letters, photographs and pasetas, the severe styling of the Cisneros sisters that strongly implies their toilette in mourning is not all that different from their look other times. The acting is impeccable, from the local men who wordlessly express both their desire to be left out of the conflict and their desire to work; to Don Andrés, who is absolutely out to get his; to Emilia’s transformation from a relatable outsider to someone who is absolutely in it; to the Cisneros family and their secrets, anger, desperation, remorse and greed. And while I personally had some trouble following all the twists and turns as they happened, I like a beautifully crafted, ambitious film that seamlessly combines Gothic and noir elements.
Caliber 9 / Calibro 9 (2020) directed by Toni D’Angelo; written by Gianluca Curti, Marco Martani, Luca Poldelmengo
Though set in the modern day, Tony D’Angelo’s Caliber 9 also hearkens back to the early 1970s of Fernando Di Leo‘s Milano Calibro 9 (1971), aka, Caliber 9 (1972). Caliber 9 (2020) is both a sequal and an affectionate homage to the earlier film. The original Caliber 9 is an Italian crime film that follows Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin), a man who’s just been released from jail and everyone believes has $300,000 not rightfully his. Ugo says he wants to go straight, but the mafia wants their money back and the police want to use him to bring down “L’Americano” / “The Mikado” (Lionel Stander). Meanwhile, his friend Rocco Musco (Mario Adorf) and the woman he likes and might love, Nelly Borden** (Barbara Bouchet), flat out don’t believe him. Caliber 9 (1972) is a twisty movie with a lot of energy and atmosphere, shot fast and on the cheap compared to today and the first film of Fernando Di Leo’s Milieu Trilogy.
Caliber 9 (2020) picks up the Piazza family story decades after Ugo’s death. Ugo and Nelly’s son, Fernando Piazza (Marco Bocci) gets into trouble when he and a hacker named Roberta (Jessica Cressey) make $100 million dollars of the mob’s money disappear. Ugo was killed before Fernando was born, but Rocco Musco is back, delightfully played this time by Michele Placido. Rocco is just out of prison and eager to meet his best friend’s kid . Fernando has heard about his father from his mother (Barbara Bouchet reprising her role as Nelly) and wants nothing to do with Rocco. But after his little trick with the money, Fernando’s stuck now between two warring families, the Corapis and the Scarfos, and there’s an obsessed and rumpled cop (Alessio Boni) who offers to help if Fernando will help him take down the families. It doesn’t look good for Fernando, but he does have the help of Maia Corapi (Kseniya Rappaport), a lawyer, granddaughter of Don Mimmo of the Corapi family and a damn good getaway driver.
Caliber 9 (1972) was very much of its time—J & B, fuzz guitar, faux fur carpeting, faux fur bedspreads, fur coats, wide lapels, blue eye shadow, silencers, machine guns, airline bags full of money, pinkish brown suits and all. And Caliber 9 (2020) is very much of ours—file transfers, hackers, flash drives, drone shots, slim silhouetted suits with some give for action scenes, SUVs, more female characters, blue glass skyscrapers, investigative white boards, a whole new generation of table dancing and all. Caliber 9 (2020) doesn’t have the feel or the atmosphere of the original, but it has nice homages to it, including footage of Barbara Bouchet dancing in the original, the glass sculpture by her bed, some parallel plot elements and scratches on Fernando’s cheek. You can find a lot of traces of the original. But it seems like any movie that tries to capture the feeling of a 1970s poliziottesco might end up feeling like a parody of one, no matter how much love there was. And there is a lot of love for Fernando Di Leo in Caliber 9 (2020). Caliber 9 (2020) shows its pedigree with pride, but it is its own film. It is a sleek and glossy contemporary thriller–a solid one with good pacing and well-controlled twistiness.
Caliber 9 and The Black Stain are very different kinds of movies, but they have these little overlaps. From women opening car trunks and revealing guns to some very parallel funerary business during the end credits. Of the two movies, The Black Stain was my favorite, but really it’s a matter of taste. You might want some Andalusian Gothic noir or you might want glossy contemporary thrillers every day of the week. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose.
Rose: A Love Story (2020) directed by Jennifer Sheridan; written by Matt Stokoe
I saw Jennifer Sheridan’s Rose: A Love Story after viewing the trailer and reading a description. I’m not sure how much of a difference it makes in the experience of the film, but if you like to go into movies cold, Rose is a good candidate for that. It’s a sad and lovely look at a tragic relationship—with horror elements. It’s more a horror, pity and dread movie than a jump scare one. And everyone knows, I’m fond of leisurely paced movies that present serious issues with genre elements. It’s the best. I also very much appreciated the film’s use of saturated colors to capture the subtle colors of the forest in winter. Trees in winter have always been something I loved, but rarely see loved in film. If you’re okay with knowing things that you can know from the trailer, the film description and the first bit of the movie, read on after the image.
Rose (Sophie Rundle) and Sam (Matt Stokoe) live in a isolated cabin in the forest, possibly in the Lake District National Park in Cumbria, UK. (Sam tells Rose that Keswick*** isn’t far). They are deliberately isolated and Sam takes great care to make sure that no one knows where they live, not even the man who regularly delivers their petrol and post. During the day, Rose works on her book while Sam does chores outside. They have dinner together every night. Sam and Rose obviously love each other, but they have some typical relationship issues and there is an extra layer of resonance in discussions like, what it means when Sam says Rose looks lovely “today.” Rose has body image issues. And Rose is sick, more than sick. She’s worried that Sam is monitoring her symptoms. And he would be foolish not to because whatever has happened to Rose has left her growling, and possibly echolocating, in the presence of blood. When Rose’s symptoms flare up and she asks for help but feels guilty and ashamed, Sam tells her, “It’s good you tell me things,” as people who love each other do when they are dealing with something difficult together. Rose only leaves the house once for a date night. They take a walk in the woods and Sam tells her all the different things they would eat together and about what a day at the beach would be like for them. At home, what Rose eats is blood provided to her by Sam. His attitude towards it is as a mundane act of love—something that needs to be done and that he does because he loves Rose, the same as fixing the sink or cleaning the bathroom.
Sam and Rose want to protect each other. And they want to save each other. But however carefully Sam plans Rose’s safety and tries to keep her secure and free from worry, the equilibrium they have created is tenuous. And because the world is imperfect and people are finite, things go wrong. At first, the outside world encroaches on theirs in small ways. As the film begins, Sam’s outdoor gear aside, they could be living at almost any time in the last 60 years. The cabin is largely lit by candlelight. Rose works on a vintage 1960s Smith Corona portable typewriter. Their coffee pot is similarly vintage. But gradually there are signs from outside world–Sam’s travel mug and an airplane. Then a delivery goes wrong and pulls Sam into the outside world. And we get a glimpse of what Sam is capable of. And finally, one night, a teenage girl gets caught in one of their rabbit traps. Her name is Amber (Olive Gray) and Sam brings her home.
I’m going to spoil something that is implied (deliberately or not) in the trailer because it is not in the film. Amber is a Black teenage girl and the trailer can be read as implying that Sam brings her home for nefarious purposes. He does not. I get the implication creates suspense, but I think Black people who like slow burn horror and tragic love might be put off and don’t need to worry about that. That’s not saying everything is great for Amber. And that’s not saying that there’s nothing involving race in the film. An interesting analysis of whiteness and gender in Rose can be done. Just like there’s interesting things about love, commitment and chronic possibly terminal illness in the film. But as much as I want get into it now, all of that is something for a different review at another time. I’d like to write about Rose in more depth in a future essay and I cannot wait to read Angela Englert‘s thoughts on it.
For what I can write about now, Sophie Rundle does a fine job portraying Rose’s struggle with her illness and her desire for Sam to be happy. And Rundle is suitably eerie when she is overcome by her illness. Matt Stokoe conveys Sam’s utter commitment to Rose and all the ways his idea of what a man does for his beloved is both sweet and dangerous. Olive Gray gives a layered performance of Amber’s defiance, her desperation, her acceptance of what she’s seeing on one hand and her calling out the obvious on the other. And Gray’s performance of Amber reminds the audience that what we’ve become invested in and possibly begun to view as a tragic love story is also someone else’s horror movie about crazy white people in a cabin in the woods.
*I have a Fox Spirit Books lanyard, but no pass.
This post was updated on Mar. 19 to include Rose: A Love Story. With that , Carol Borden picks up her latte, grabs her keys , and, with her lanyard gently swinging, moves on to the next town.
This piece was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Mar. 18, 2020.