Serving on the jury for debut films at last year's Montreal World Film Festival, I was reminded how often evaluating films revolves around disagreement. Yet while our small, intensely opinionated jury disagreed about most of the awards we had to decide, we were surprised to find that we were in instant accord about what should win First Prize—a disarmingly revelatory Filipino film called THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS.
The prize's awarding on the festival's closing night occasioned a scene I shall never forget. Auraeus Solito, the film's young director, bounded onstage in tears, thanked the jury "on behalf of filmmakers across the Third World," and kissed our hands. I promise you that I've never had my hand kissed on a brightly lit stage before, but this epiphany for one first-time director was also one for the audience: Everyone in Montreal, it seemed, was cheering for Solito's low-budget wonder to take the top award.
Audience passion for Maximo Oliveros has a lot do with its self-evident authenticity and conviction. The film concerns the denizens of a slum called Gulpit Street in the Sampaloc neighborhood of Manila, where some of the filmmakers live (they used their apartments for sets). The place is conjured with a specificity and a flavor that you almost never see this side of ethnographic filmmaking. Ten minutes in, you've not only entered a story but a world of indelible images, rituals, textures, eccentricities.
At once gritty and lyrical, Solito's knowing depiction of this world introduces us to a number of vivid individual residents of Gulpit Street, most notably the film's unforgettable title character. Maxi (Nathan Lopez), as he's called, is a lithe, bright-eyed, boundlessly personable 12-year-old gay boy who no one would mistake for straight. Sashaying through the slums with his inimitable hip-swinging stride, he occasions a lot of passing smiles, yet nothing more negative. At home, he rules the roost, cooking and mending for a rough-hewn masculine household that, since the death of his mother, includes his father Paco (Soliman Cruz) and big brothers Boy (Neil Ryan Sese) and Bogs (Ping Medina).
The grown-ups in the Oliveros clan are all petty criminals, but that doesn't make Maxi an outcast within his own home. Though the others kid his swishy ways, they clearly love him and depend on his ministrations as a kind of surrogate mom.
The film's portrayal of one very "out" gay kid is striking, largely because Maxi himself is striking (Solito did a remarkable job with young Lopez, a non-effeminate boy who imitated his sister's mannerisms in creating the character). Even more fascinating, though, is the degree of nonplussed acceptance with which Maxi is regarded by virtually everyone in his world, beginning with his own dodgy, macho family.
This tolerance doesn't reflect any kind of politically correct viewpoint on the filmmakers' part, I think. Rather, it's a snapshot of one culture that's valuable for its accuracy and currency: Anyone who's traveled in the developing world—especially, it sometimes seems, in Catholic cultures—knows that there are kids like Maxi (if maybe not quite so flamboyant) everywhere now, and that they tend to be more easily woven into the social fabric in poor neighborhoods rather than in more well-off precincts.
For viewers living in the privileged cultures of the West, the reality just described offers a useful challenge to the unthinking assumption that tolerance is more natural to "us" than to "them," and to rich rather than to poor. And when it comes to sexual assumptions, Solito and screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto prove even more thought-provoking.
The crux of Maximo Oliveros' drama comes when Maxi develops a crush on a young cop named Victor (a strong performance by J.R. Valentin) who's just started working the neighborhood. This is where the film's difference of cultural viewpoint really comes to the fore. American movies can't seem to deal with desire on the part of the young—who are generally assumed to be its objects rather than its subjects—in any fashion, and adding in the gay element would only invite a meltdown of hysteria.
Solito and company succeed in this tricky area, however, not only because they are subtle and insightful, although they certainly are both: The unfolding pas de deux between the boy and the policeman is played out with just the right notes of awkwardness, yearning and solicitude. Yet what's really distinctive here is how skillfully and inexorably a tale of two individuals is woven into larger narratives of family, community, class and culture.
Some will regard the film's final plot machinations as too raw and melodramatic, and I suppose that's true. But Maximo Oliveros is not the kind of film that impresses with its sleek flawlessness. It's a film of tremendous heart, spirit and originality—the kind that wins awards in competitions where everything around it cost ten times as much to make.
The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros opens Friday at the Galaxy in Cary.
Despite what you might assume, the title of Kevin Macdonald's THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND does not refer to Bonnie Prince Charlie, or even Sean Connery. It refers to Gen. Idi Amin, the brutal dictator of Uganda during the 1970s, when he was responsible for an estimated 300,000 deaths.
Though perhaps misleading, the film's title is witty and apt in more ways than one. Besides being a big fan of most things British, especially the Scots, the larger-than-life Amin was an inheritor of the colonial structures of the British Empire, which created Uganda in the late 19th century and ruled it until granting it independence in 1962. If one were inclined to give the bloodthirsty tyrant a compliment, it might be allowed that he was a good student of his erstwhile masters; to their oh-so-civilized brutalities, he added a number of more stark and candid ones of his own.
To give Macdonald's enthralling film a compliment of its own, after seeing its initial assertion of being "inspired" by real events, I assumed I was watching a dramatization of an actual memoir by a witness to Amin's reign. Turns out, though, that the movie is based on an acclaimed novel by British journalist Giles Foden, who presumably can be credited with its dramatic ingenuity and flavorful evocation of Uganda in the '70s. Foden's book was adapted for the screen by Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan, the latter the writer of The Queen, another portrait of a shaky monarchy that for my money's as wooden in its writing as Last King is supple and subtle.
Foden's adroit conceit is to give us a tour of Amin's hell through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan (the excellent James McAvoy), a young doctor who comes to Uganda after medical school to escape a cramped life with his parents in Scotland. Initially working at a clinic in the bush, he treats Amin (Forest Whitaker, nominated for an Oscar this week) for a roadside injury and is soon summoned to Kampala and given the unrefusable offer of becoming personal physician to the great man.
When we first see Amin, he's just come to power and seems charismatic, confident and capable. It takes a while before his murderous ways become manifest. But then, Garrigan has reasons not to see what's going on. Good-looking and full of the cocksure idealism of youth, the callow doctor is charmed by Amin and seduced by his own growing role as advisor to one of the most powerful men in Africa. As the dramatic engine that drives Last King, the process of Garrigan's disillusionment proves relentless and indelibly harrowing (though, thankfully, it's more dramatically disquieting than overtly gruesome).
Formerly known as a documentary filmmaker, Macdonald (a grandson of the great Hungarian-British filmmaker Emeric Pressburger) makes an extraordinarily impressive dramatic debut here. Together with the gifted cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, he creates a richly atmospheric, beautifully textured vision of Uganda that bears comparison to various great films of the era it depicts.
Whitaker's performance as Amin may well be headed for an Oscar, and as a longtime fan of the actor, I would be happy to see him win that recognition. Yet the second time I saw Last King, I found his work a bit soft-edged, missing both the outrageous wit and obvious psychosis that Amin displayed in news footage. The same might be said of the movie's overall depiction of the tyrant and the historical situation he embodied: It's plentifully atmospheric but not as penetrating as it might be.
That, however, ends up being a roundabout compliment to Macdonald. While his film may not offer an especially profound exploration of British imperialism and one of the most surreal monsters it unloosed on the Third World, the brilliance of his direction alone makes this one of the most fascinating and accomplished British films of recent years.
The Last King of Scotland is now playing in select theaters.