Our venerable film critic J. Hoberman is filing regular dispatches from this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s the beginning of week two and, so far, Hoberman’s rendered judgments on Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (“graphic, controversial, yucky”), Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (“eminently respectable”), and the spelling of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Now, Hoberman tells us about a film that aspires to be The Most Disturbing Movie of The 21st Century.
“Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart,” Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety, rising to the bait–but despite its derisive reviews, von Trier’s Antichrist is far from the most hated movie in Cannes. That distinction belongs to Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay–a movie in which a young prostitute is abducted, beaten, tortured, raped, sodomized, murdered, and matter-of-factly dismembered in a 45-minute more-or-less real time sequence.
Compared to Kinatay, Mendoza’s last Cannes entry–the sordid melodrama of a family and its porn theater, Serbis–is light comedy. Variety all but called the director a fraud, predicting that his supporters would dwindle in the face of so gratuitous and “vile” a movie. The Hollywood Reporter objected to the “festival darling’s” use of “forced voyeurism” and “deliberately ugly” cinematography. Screen‘s international jury awarded Antichrist a pathetic 1.6 out of a possible four stars; four of the same ten critics graded Kinatay a zero. In total, Mendoza’s film scored an unbelievably low 1.2 despite the support of two critics (one of them my colleague Scott Foundas). And journalistic gossip has it that Roger Ebert told Vincent Gallo that The Brown Bunny had been surpassed as the worst film ever shown at Cannes.
What was Mendoza’s greater sin? Von Trier is a showman. Antichrist has three indelible money shots–all focused on genital mutilation–among other quasi-pornographic or sadomasochist incidents. Mendoza offers no such thrills. Kinatay (which means “slaughter” in Tagalog) is not nearly as entertaining–nor even as explicit. The movie is shot from the perspective of a 20-year-old police trainee who, moonlighting for extra money, finds himself trapped in a hellishly fallen world, having gotten mixed up in much more than he bargained. That its atrocities are murkily rendered on HD, often heard more than seen, only amplifies the horrifying spectacle of relentless degradation.
Antichrist is a trip, a jape, a work of camp that might have been devised by the Joker; Kinatay is, as it is meant to be, an ordeal. It’s not a movie to be recommended but it is something that has to be experienced to be understood. One critic likened Kinatay to a snuff film; the most favorable notice compared it to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. A better analogy (and one Mendoza is hardly subtle in suggesting) would be The Most Disturbing Movie of The 21st Century, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The victim’s street name is Madonna, images of Jesus can be spotted in several locations (including the gangster’s abattoir). Like The Passion, Kinatay draws on the lowest horror movie tropes in its grimly experiential representation of human suffering and depraved indifference. There’s no missing the motto on the protagonist’s police academy polo shirt: “If you lose your integrity once, you lose it forever.”
Basing his movie on an actual incident, Mendoza is less gruesome than Gibson but far more naturalistic. No earthquake rocks Manila when Madonna dies in agony. One can only imagine the convulsions that would have shaken the Croisette, if Kinatay ended with her return, beautiful and whole, ascending the tapis rouge to heaven.