Arrested Development

Ending amid the detritus of the shoot, The Humiliated strongly intimates that The Idiots was a failed experiment. Of course, von Trier suggests as much with his own ending. Having failed to re-enter society as idiots, the commune breaks up—only to discover, in a scene of quiet horror, that, liberated by example, their little fellow traveler is the greatest idiot of all. In the fiction of the movie, life trumps art; in the reality of the film, however, it is precisely the reverse.

If The Idiots plumbs the depths of smirky neo-primitivism, the two short features paired this week at Film Forum are exemplary instances of the sophisticated primitivism that used to be called Third Way cinema. Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety's The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun and Indian director Murali Nair's Throne of Death are both sardonic, stylized parables of underdevelopment in which vivid nonactors perform, as though partaking in village rituals, against documentary backdrops of tropical splendor.

Vow of chastity: two Idiots spass out.
photo: courtesy of October Films
Vow of chastity: two Idiots spass out.


The Idiots
Written and directed by Lars von Trier
A USA release
Opens April 28

The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun
Written and directed by Djibril Diop Mambety
A California Newsreel release
Throne of Death
Directed by Murali Nair
Written by Bharathan Narakkal

Both at Film Forum Through May 2

Throne of Death, which won the Camera d'Or for best first film last year at Cannes, is a satire of Indian politics. Caught stealing coconuts to feed his starving family, a hapless tenant farmer is jailed and falsely accused of an old, unsolved murder. Because it is an election year, his case becomes an issue. The local Communist hacks take a break from pondering the situation in Kosovo to organize a mass meeting—although once these comrades read about the new "electronic chair" imported from America (with the help of a World Bank loan), they shift from demanding the farmer's freedom to insisting on his right to enjoy a modern "blissful" death. The movie has bite, although its paradisal setting (in the southern state of Kerala) mitigates much of the pain. The village may lack electricity and running water but the palm tree beachscape exudes utter tranquility—not least in framing the farmer's grotesque apotheosis.

Considerably more affirmative, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun is framed as a marketplace legend: "This story is a hymn to the courage of street children." Sili, an indomitable crippled girl, the granddaughter of a blind street singer, reinvents herself as a vendor of the local newspaper Soleil (hence the title). To spread the news, as it were, she must prevail over mercenary cops and the bullying of jealous rivals. A live wire bent to some new design, Sili galvanizes the neighborhood. In one scene, a group of girls dance behind her, imitating her hobbled gait in a form of celebration. (The wonderful percolating score is by the filmmaker's younger brother, the singer Wasis Diop.)

A bold, vibrant, and splashy 45 minutes, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun was the last film completed by the talented Mambety before his death in Paris two summers ago. His legacy is similarly concentrated—two remarkable features, Touki Bouki and Hyenas, which will be showing as part of the Sixth African Film Festival, next month at the Walter Reade.

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