This month’s picks include a Ukrainian documentary, a Mexican thriller and a French-Arab drama about poetry and young love.
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Stream it on the Criterion Channel.
Early in this documentary from Ukraine, a family in the war-torn region of Donbass sets up a makeshift studio in their living room to shoot some scenes for a film. Against a wall draped with black cloth, each family member — the single mother, Anna, her two teenage daughters and two little boys — takes turns speaking to the camera. When one of the boys slams the clapperboard to start a new scene, we hear, instead of the clap, the sound of a bomb: The screen cuts to Anna and her sons crouched in their basement as a neighbor’s house is shelled by Russian forces. Is this reality? Or another scene from the movie-within-the-movie?
“The Earth Is Blue as an Orange” dwells in this ambiguity, balancing gently between hope and harsh truths. The director, Iryna Tsilyk, mentored Anna’s older daughter, Myroslava, in a youth film workshop, inspiring the enterprising teenager to become a cinematographer and make a short film about her household’s experiences of the war. The family members throw themselves into this project, as cinema becomes their means of exercising (or feigning to exercise, for sanity’s sake) control over circumstances that render them helpless. As Tsilyk captures their everyday moments and filmmaking adventures, she crafts a bracing portrait of a family fighting to preserve the ordinary joys of life — dreams, ambitions, creative pursuits — in extraordinary times.
Stream it on HBO Max.
This Mexican thriller from the writer-director Andrés Clariond Rangel ensnares its three characters in the best kind of love triangle: a queer one, where every leg is charged with sexual possibility. As the film opens, Manuel (José Pescina) and Lupe (Paulina Gaitán), a handsome young middle-class couple, have just received news that their attempts to conceive have failed yet again — and the reason is Manuel’s infertility. A sperm donor is the only way Lupe can carry a biological child of her own, but Manuel struggles with the idea of fathering what he perceives as another man’s child. Enter Ruben (Jorge A. Jiménez), Manuel’s new subordinate at his factory job, whose rough, seemingly guileless charms exert an irresistible sway on both Manuel and Lupe.
“Territorio” is a taut, taciturn drama where little is said out loud, but much transpires in gazes heavy with longing and menace. Manuel’s motives with Ruben are never quite clear, and on a drunken night with Lupe, their transactional arrangement turns into something far messier. I won’t give away this delicious twist, but it’s a testament to the film’s keen understanding of desire as something powerful yet slippery, eluding us even as it brings out our truest selves.
Rent it on Amazon.
A welcome contrast to the dozens of films about repressed young women and their sexual awakenings, Leyla Bouzid’s dreamy drama charts the coming of age of an inhibited young man in Paris, whose small world blooms as he falls for a headstrong classmate. The Algerian-born Ahmed (Sami Outalbali), a freshman at the Sorbonne, is instantly enamored by the Tunisian immigrant Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor) when they meet on the first day of class. They’re both taking a course on medieval Arab poetry, and the erotic content of the poems, with their frank visions of intoxication and lovemaking, envelop Ahmed in a reverie of desire. In close-ups, Bouzid captures how these verses electrify Ahmed’s everyday life: When he looks at Farah, his eyes seem to caress her, and any stray touch between them threatens to explode with sexual tension.
Ahmed’s encounter with the poetry and with the brazen Farah is as much a history lesson for him as it is a confrontation with his own impulses. Grappling with narrow but deep-set ideas about propriety and masculinity, he discovers that there’s a lot more to his culture than he ever knew, and that there are multiple ways to be Arab. Bouzid’s strength is that she makes this point without any moralistic judgments. Instead, laced with excerpts from 15th-century books like “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight” (which speaks sweetly of kisses between the vulva and penis, among other themes), the film unfolds as a heady haze of lust and literature.
Stream it on Mubi.
Taking cues from the films of Asghar Farhadi and Ken Loach, Selman Nacar’s feature embroils its protagonist in a moral thriller that doubles as a searing social critique, taking to task capitalist exploitation in Turkey and beyond. Kadir (Mucahit Kocak), the youngest son of an industrialist, assists his older brother in running day-to-day operations at their textile factory. One day, a worker suffers a critical accident, and Kadir is tasked with getting the man’s family to sign a statement absolving the company of any responsibility.
Kadir is initially convinced that the company is in the right — the worker was an alcoholic, his brother claims, and negligent about safety precautions. But slowly, he discovers that the truth is much more complicated, and that his family is far less innocent than he’d imagined. The plot of “Between Two Dawns” is simple and stark, but Nacar builds accumulating intensity by rooting us in Kadir’s perspective, so that the character’s gradual, often shocking disillusionment is also ours. The film avoids convenient or black-and-white answers but embodies a striking moral clarity, taking aim at systemic failures rather than individual actions.
Stream it on Hulu.
In this stylish period horror by the British director Sean Ellis, a colonial sin festers into a gory werewolf saga. In an estate somewhere in Europe in the 19th century, the baron Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) lords over lands that belong to the Roma people. When they dispute the settlers’ claims, Seamus has them massacred — but right before she’s slain, a Roma woman curses the estate, leaving behind a skeletal memento. Soon, the residents of the estate are plagued by nightmares, their children begin to disappear one by one, and a gnarled, bloodthirsty creature starts prowling the woods.
Enter John McBride (Boyd Holbrook), a pathologist who promises to hunt down the creature. “The Cursed” is a patchwork of familiar horror tropes, but Ellis crafts a riveting spectacle of jump scares and spooky kills in his wintry, fog-swept setting. What sets the film apart from other variants of the genre are the little details, strewn throughout, that reinforce the narrative’s commentary on colonial and class exploitation. At one point, McBride asks Seamus and his family if anyone is missing from the dining room. His wife quickly says, “Everyone’s here,” forgetting all about the maid who just left with a pallid, pained face. When the woman comes back, transformed with fangs and a thirst for vengeance, you can’t help but cheer just a little bit.