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Cannes 2021: Rehana Maryam Noor, Evolution, The Story of Film: A New Generation

Despite the differences this year at the Cannes Film Festival, one thing remains the same: it is one of the most diverse film events anywhere in the world. Take three movies that I was lucky enough to see without leaving the relative comfort of the Midwest or spitting in a vial to prove that I’m COVID free. While two of them could accurately be called depressing in terms of storytelling, they approach their characters in such different ways that they have entirely unique tones. The third is a documentary from one of the most beloved film historians alive. One wonders if either of the first two could find their way into one of his future projects. Other films that premiered at Cannes this year certainly will.

The best of the three by some stretch is Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s powerful “Rehana Maryam Noor,” an exercise in craft and limited POV that’s given a strong emotional core by Azmeri Haque Badhon as the title character. An assistant professor at a medical college and a single mother to a delightful young girl named Emu (Afia Jahin Jaima, giving an incredibly natural performance), Rehana is a taskmaster even though her superior (Kazi Sami Hassan) encourages her to let some small slights slide when it comes to managing her students. One night, Rehana is staying late at the school when she hears a young woman being assaulted in her superior’s office next door. A student named Annie (Afia Tabassum Borno) emerges, knowing that Rehana is aware of what just happened, but she refuses her teacher’s pleas to report the assault. Rehana can’t let it go, becoming increasingly obsessed with what she knows, eaten alive by the knowledge that a horrible crime might go unpunished.

“Rehana Maryam Noor” is a fascinating study in how we define allyship and how easy it is for bad men to continue unchecked. The truth is that Annie’s life will be destroyed if she files charges against her professor—everything she’s worked for in her tough education thrown away. She understandably doesn’t want this to happen, and so Rehana devises an ingenious plan. She will tell her superiors that it was she, not Annie, who was raped. As Rehana digs in deeper and becomes more reckless, Saad’s film almost becomes a thriller. He employs an unstable camera, always moving and shifting, reflecting the uncertainty about what’s happening, both on the part of the viewer and the protagonist.

Saad also brilliantly locks us into the POV of his title character, not only placing her in every scene, but never leaving the offices, classrooms, and corridors of the hospital. The setting adds to the claustrophobia, enhanced even further by a striking blue color palette. We often see Rehana through windows and reflected on surfaces, as if she’s turning into something less than three-dimensional in this nightmare scenario, fading into a system that denies justice. After an intense scene at around the hour mark wherein Rehana takes action against a student, the film kind of retreats right when it should be pushing forward, but a final scene echoes the first one in a way that’s very rewarding. The first Bangladeshi film at Cannes, this is one to watch for when it finds its way off the Croisette.

More likely to get a wide release simply because of the success of the work of the last project from its filmmakers is writer Kata Weber and director Kornel Mundruczo’s “Evolution,” a quick follow-up the couple’s Oscar-nominated “Pieces of a Woman.” Once again, the pair play with unbroken takes and intense tragedy but in a manner here that constantly calls attention to their pretentious filmmaking and miserablist storytelling. “Pieces” got a lot of press for its heartbreaking open sequence, an unbroken shot that ended in unimaginable tragedy. This is a whole movie of that, the sequence multiplied by three in a triptych structure that’s meant to unpack generations of pain but never breaks through its experimental style to strike a single emotional chord.

“Evolution” opens with a wordless sequence as three men enter a gas chamber to clean it. In an unbroken take—all three chapters are largely unbroken with the exception of one very obvious cut in the third one—the men start to splash water on the walls and floors of the chamber, eventually pulling clumps of hair from cracks in walls and out of drains. The scene becomes increasingly surreal as the hair multiplies and then a child’s wails can be heard, sending the silent men into gasping panic. It’s a horrific segment that becomes more interesting as it becomes more and more surreal, playing more like a nightmare one would have after reading about the gas chambers than something that’s meant to be taken literal. “Evolution” is at its best when it finds these surreal tones.

Sadly, that’s nowhere near often enough. A second segment jumps forward decades to a Holocaust survivor named Eva (Lili Monori) talking about her past and heritage with her daughter Lena (Annamaria Lang). Lena struggles with her mother’s increasing dementia, but Mundruczo and Weber allow her to monologue about her birth in the concentration camps and legacy of hiding her Judaism. The monologue goes on for so long that the camera itself almost seems to lose interest, moving to a pigeon on the windowsill and almost staring jealously at kids playing on the sidewalk below.

Finally, the film switches to the POV of Lena’s son Jonas (Goya Rego), who is dealing with the modern prevalence of discrimination as he becomes interested in another outsider, a Turkish girl named Yasmine (Padme Hamdemir). The final segment of “Evolution” feels designed to clarify how hatred and evil hasn’t left Europe since World War II but merely shifted into new forms—evolved, if you will—but it’s all handled in such a blunt manner, lacking any sort of storytelling grace, that the whole project ends up feeling like an incomplete artistic experiment.

Finally, there’s the latest from the beloved Mark Cousins, an Irish film expert who already made a 15-hour project called “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” He brought a sequel to Cannes this year in the opening night offering, “The Story of Film: A New Generation,” which focuses on the artists and films released in the decade since that first odyssey. It’s another engaging documentary, a journey around the cinematic world over 160 minutes that’s clever and informative. I’m not sure all of the story has been told here but Cousins’ approach is consistently refreshing when so many similar projects are merely clip reels. His love for film comes through particularly in the way he structures his film, moving organically from project to project, sometimes making incredibly unexpected choices (he seems to value “Us” more than “Get Out,” for example) but always defending them.

Cousins opens with “Joker” and “Frozen,” and I have to admit I was nervous, but he makes the connection between two films about outsiders that turned into icons for fans. He’s interested most of all in the movies from around the world that pushed convention, asking repeatedly about what “renewed” the medium of film. I love his transitions, moving in a very intuitive, excited way from film to film. For example, he goes from the action genre to the musical one using “Mad Max: Fury Road” as the connective tissue because, well, it has elements of both. He digs deep, challenging a chronological or geographical structure. And he’s consistently surprising. Who else would include “Zama” in their action section? Who else would devote so much time to “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”? Even if one doesn’t agree with half of his decisions, it’s impossible to dismiss his love for the form, a love that places like Cannes have been designed to amplify.  

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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