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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Asghar Farhadi's THE PAST and THE SELFISH GIANT!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

One of the best films out right now—and one of the best of 2013 (technically, although its wider release is happening now)—is the newest adult drama from writer-director Asghar Farhadi (the Oscar-winning Iranian film A SEPARATION). Certainly a thematic follow-up to that film about a divorcing couple, THE PAST is set in Paris and concerns the return of Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) to see his wife Marie (THE ARTIST's Bérénice Bejo) after four years back in his native Iran. The reason for the visit is to finalize their divorce and get some closure on their life together, which includes two children of hers from a previous marriage.

But Farhadi is a masterful storyteller who allows the details of their previous life together and what has transpired in their lives since their breakup to come of the surface gradually, as it would in life. He doesn't feel the need to spell out every detail. In the first few scenes of her picking him up at the airport, we're not even sure what their relationship is. Not surprisingly, this bit of paperwork that could have been handled via email is simply an excuse on Marie's part to allow Ahmad to see what her life has become, both good and bad. She has a new man (Tahar Rahim), and her relationship with her oldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is fractured for unknown reasons (until they aren't so unknown, naturally). Since Ahmad and Lucie had always been close, Marie was hoping he could step in to help mend things between hem.

With each new, beautifully written and acted scene, we acquire another small piece of the total picture. Some of the revelations are small, but others border on earth-shattering. In some cases, a revelation is undone and proven not to be true. It sounds complicated but it's actually extremely straight-forward and clear. As the title would suggest, the film spend a great deal of time dealing with issues from the recent past, but it doesn't bother to confuse the situation with flashbacks. Ashgar believes in the power of words and dialogue, and allows them to be our conduit to unlocking one secret after another.

Without even realizing it for quite some time, THE PAST is a fantastic mystery about a terrible action and the reason behind it, and we get about three or four different accounts of said event before we discover just what the hell led to this tragedy. The acting is top notch from beginning to end, but it's Bejo (who won Best Actress at last year's Cannes Film Festival for the role) who truly stands out as a woman is not still pining for her ex-husband, but still respects his opinion and his status as a father figure. In a strange way, she is seeking his approval of this new man (who brings his own young son as part of the package) from the old one.

It makes more sense than you might think, and the film is a sign from the movie gods that strong, serious films made for grown-ups can be just as smart and tricky and thrilling as the ones made for a younger demographic. For reasons I cannot comprehend, THE PAST did not make the short list for this year's Foreign Language Film Academy Award (it was Iran's submission), but that should in no way stop you from checking it out. This is one of those movies that simply enriches you soul for having seen it.

Loosely reworked from the Oscar Wilde children's story of the same name, THE SELFISH GIANT substitutes the giant's lush garden for a scrapyard, where two local children—Arbor and best friend Swifty (the remarkable Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas, also quite good as the "dim" one, both first-time actors)—bring collected and sometimes stolen metal to owner Kitten (Sean Gilder) for cash. The boys are looked down upon by their fellow school mates because of their social status in this UK working-class area in the Midlands, with accents so thick, the film has subtitles. But to call Arbor and Swifty's families working class doesn't quite cut it; they are flat-out poor, scrambling and scheming every day to keep the power on, food on the table, the police off their front step, and their debt just manageable enough that they don't get thrown out of their homes.

Writer-director Clio Barnard (who directed the heart-shattering 2010 documentary THE ARBOR) has not eased up on the sense of misery and desperation in her subjects. These are the folks who Ken Loach used to champion in film after film, and Barnard picks up the mantle quite skillfully. Besides being a scrapdealer, Kitten also has a small stable of horses, mainly for hauling carts of scrap, but he also occasionally indulges in horse-and-buggy races using one of his stronger horses. It just so happens that Swifty is a bit of a horse whisperer, and before long, Kitten has hired him for the next race, something that makes Arbor irrationally envious.

Chapman's portrayal of Arbor is like watching a starving, mangey wildcat pumped full of speed. He's a hyperactive, often violent kid whose older brother is stealing his medication to pay off his own debts, leaving Arbor a destructive force of nature anytime anyone tries so much as to change the direction he's walking, let alone behave in school or at home. He's a foul-mouthed, anti-authority 13-year-old who we still feel for because we know if his family had any money, he wouldn't be the lost cause that he'll forever be.

Their relationship with Kitten drives a wedge between the boys, and it doesn't take long before that inevitable sense of creeping dread sets in that something terrible is going to happen to someone. Not that there are any clues as to what, since it's established fairly early that about a half-dozen people or groups of people in their town would love to do the kids harm for any number of petty crimes. A side note, for fans of "Downton Abbey," keep an eye out for the recently departed O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) as Swifty's down-trodden mother, one of the few truly decent people in the film.

THE SELFISH GIANT is a rough film to watch, but thanks to some absolutely undaunted performances and Barnard's unflinching eye for the ugliest details of this life, the resulting film comes across as a ragged and unrelenting, yet graceful piece of performance art. One could also view the film as a thesis on the link between extreme poverty and crime, but I'm guessing that wasn't the intention; nonetheless, that idea permeates every frame of this incredibly gripping little film.

-- Steve Prokopy
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