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One of the biggest and most baffling disappointments at this year’s Berlinale, Babak Jalali’s Land sees the Iran-born, U.K.-educated writer-director vainly struggling to confirm the considerable achievement and promise of his delightful 2016 Rotterdam breakout Radio Dreams. While evidently made with the most earnest good intentions, this humanistic study of life in and around an underpopulated Native American reservation is gratuitously slow, ponderous and performed with awkward stiffness by its unfortunate cast. Warm memories of Jalali’s Tiger-winning sophomore outing and the presence of the esteemed Agnes Godard as cinematographer may yet yield further festival bookings for this Italy-France-Netherlands-Mexico-Qatar co-production.
Reportedly delayed at crucial stages of preproduction — one such holdup allowing Jalali to quickly complete the likewise uninspiringly titled Radio Dreams — Land introduces storylines of considerable potential but develops them in frustratingly half-hearted ways. The main focus is on two middle-aged brothers in the large Denetclaw family: Wesley (James Coleman), a loafing alcoholic, and the long-sober Raymond (Rod Rondeaux). Wesley spends his days sipping beer outside the liquor store just beyond the limits of the (dry) reservation, run by no-nonsense widow Sally (Florence C M Klein). Minor frictions between Wesley and local whites tip over into violence — abruptly, implausibly and offscreen — leaving the hapless, harmless Wesley hospitalized.
This adds further woe to the lot of his stoic, aged mother Mary (Wilma Pelly), who has only just learned that her youngest son Floyd has been found dead while on active service in Afghanistan. The repatriation of Floyd’s body sees the inflexibility of military bureaucracy, as represented by straight-arrow Major Robertson (Mark Mahoney), come up against the traditional ways of the Lakota Sioux. There’s also the controversial matter of the family’s compensation, the amount of which depends on the circumstances of Floyd’s demise: $12,420, rising to $100,000 if it can be proved he was killed in action. Complications ensue.
Though his film is clearly not lacking in dramatic incident, plot mechanics are evidently not paramount in Jalali’s mind here, as he seeks to foreground atmosphere and character. The former is pulled off chiefly via Godard’s dusty visuals, which emphasize the desolation of the reservation and its featureless environs. But any such achievements are heavily outbalanced by the pic’s sluggishly torpid pace, the one-dimensional dialogue and the stilted, deliberate manner in which it is delivered (when it can be heard, that is, amid Stefano Grosso’s over-busy sound design.)
One would be forgiven for presuming that these thespian shortcomings are a result of the cast being comprised of non-pro performers. In fact, most of them have quite extensive experience in film and television, with Rondeaux having compiled an especially impressive résumé of appearances as an actor (Meek’s Cutoff) and stunt-performer (The Revenant.) Having the actors give their lines as if hypnotized or dazed is clearly a directorial choice by Jalali, who is perhaps aiming for some kind of Brechtian distancing by way of Robert Bresson.
Scene after scene has the actors blocked like waxworks, and it’s to the considerable credit of Pelly and Mahoney (best known as Los Angeles’ tattooist to the stars) that they’re able to deliver compelling characterizations within such stifling limitations. Everything feels so weighted and freighted with significance and dignity that the film never gets the chance to breathe.
There’s nothing wrong with eschewing naturalism, of course, but something is amiss when scene after protracted scene lands with such a dull thud. A subplot involving cock-fighting, for example, culminates in a bizarrely low-key sequence of rooster-on-rooster combat observed in stony silence and seemingly blank indifference by the trainers and spectators. Even the cocks seem bored.
Production companies: Asmara Films, The Cup of Tea (with Topkapi Films, Piano, To Be Continued, RAI Cinema)
Cast: James Coleman, Rod Rondeaux, Wilma Pelly, Florence C M Klein, Georgina Lightning, Mark Mahoney, Antonia Steinberg
Director-screenwriter: Babak Jalali
Producers: Ginevra Elkann, Christophe Audeguis
Executive producers: Frans van Gestel, Arnold Heslenfeld, Laurette Schillings, Julio Chavezmontes, Gabriel Stavenhagen, Dominique Marzotto
Cinematographer: Agnes Godard
Production designer: Dimitri Capuani
Costume designer: Carolina Olcese
Editor: Nico Leunen
Composer: Jozef van Wissem
Casting director: Orlette Ruiz
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: BAC Films Distribution, Paris