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Films I Neglected To Review: "She Makes A Beautiful Zombie, Doesn't She?"
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Citizen K" and "Zombi Child."

As one of the most prolific documentary filmmakers working today, Alex Gibney has covered any number of complicated subjects, including the Enron implosion ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"), the life and legacy of Hunter S. Thompson ("Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson"), the war in Afghanistan ("Taxi to the Dark Side"), Steve Bartman ("Catching Hell"), the Catholic church pedophilia scandal ("Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God"), Scientology ("Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief") and the Theranos scandal ("The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley"). With his latest work, "Citizen K," he tackles no less of a subject than the history of Russia in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union as it went from its tentative stabs at democracy to the current rule by Vladimir Putin, who seems determined to remain in control for as long as he lives. Gibney's guide to all of this is Mikhail Khordorkovsky, who rose from poverty to become one of the seven oligarchs who took advantage of Boris Yeltsin's flawed efforts to introduce capitalism to the country in order to amass incredible wealth and power for themselves. In terms of money and influence, Khorodorkovsky seemed unstoppable until a mayor in a remote Siberian oil town was murdered and it was rumored that Khorodorkovsky ordered the killing to prevent the victim from exposing his company's rampant tax evasion. When Putin came to power, he soon turned against the very same oligarchs who put him there, leading Khorodorkovsky, whose oil business was seized by the state, to publicly accuse him of corruption, a charge which led to years of imprisonment and exile in London, where he has become a leading figure in the anti-Putin movement.

Even if you have been ardently following Russian current events over the last couple of decades, there is a lot of material to digest here and it is therefore all the more impressive that Gibney and editor Michael Palmer have managed to lay out the tale--a twisty narrative that even John Le Carre might have found to be too complex for his blood--in a manner that is both relatively easy to understand and undeniably gripping. As the key witness to the events recounted here, Khorodorkovsky is a captivating and compelling figure but Gibney wisely doesn't try to shy away from his own dubious dealings in order to make him seem more heroic--the murder accusation is never definitively answered and he does not exactly deny the tax evasion charges either. Admittedly, some of Gibney’s recent work, specifically his films on Lance Armstrong ("The Armstrong Lie") and Rolling Stone magazine ("Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge"), has given the impression that he has just been going through the motions but with "Citizen K," he is clearly dealing with a subject that fascinates him on a personal level and the result is the best and most impassioned work that he has done in a while.

If I was forced to place it under the heading of a single identifiable screen genre, I suppose that I would grudgingly refer to "Zombi Child" as a horror movie. However, anyone going to it expecting the kind of gut-crunching thrills vaguely hinted at in the title are likely to be taken aback by the strange, audacious and ultimately unclassifiable work offered up by French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello here. Much of the action takes place at an all-girls school founded by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte and focuses on the friendship between two students--Fanny (Louise Labeque), who spends much of her time composing love notes to her far-off boyfriend, and Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a Haitian refugee who appear to be the only black student at a school where everything from the walls to the lesson plans (including a teacher lecturing on how liberalism is really an imposition of freedom, at least by his definition) are as lily-white as can be. The two bond over a shared love of horror fiction and Fanny invites Melissa to join the secret “literary society” she has formed with some friends. It turns out that Melissa's only living relative, an aunt, is a voodoo priestess and that her grandfather, as we discover in a parallel storyline, was himself the victim of a voodoo curse that put him in a trance-like state--the traditional definition of a zombie before it mutated into the undead flesh-munchers popularized by George Romero--in order to serve as labor on a plantation. While Melissa labors to keep her past hidden in an attempt to fit in with her new friends (although the odd noises she makes at night suggests that she cannot pack it away that easily), Fanny, who has just been cruelly dumped by her boyfriend, delves deeper into her friend's past and decides to use what she learns in a misguided attempt to make her heartbreak disappear.

Although the film does touch on aspects of the horror genre (though it is telling that the scene featuring the most obvious quote from an older classic is one that borrows from "Carrie" rather than part of the "Living Dead" franchise), Bonello takes those elements and mixes them together with meditations on history, assimilation, cultural appropriation and the sometimes quixotic nature of female friendships in ways that are constantly surprising and intriguing. (Suffice it to say, the narrative involving Melissa's grandfather does not unfold in the expected manner.) As I said, those looking for straight-up horror thrills may be disappointed (although Bonello proves to be quite adept at conjuring up strikingly creepy imagery when he sees fit) but those who go into it with more of an open mind will find it to be one of Bonello's more interesting depictions of young people grappling with the personal and political (certainly with more success than in his controversial misfire "Nocturama") and will hopefully also be taken with the unusual and unexpected ways in which the story develops as well, culminating in a knockout final sequence that intercuts Melissa and Fanny both coming to terms with the former's family history in ways that veer between the cathartic and the horrifying. Yes, "Zombi Child" is a bit of a slow burn and even those in the mood for an art house freak-out may find themselves getting a little frustrated with it at times. However, those with a certain degree of patience and a willingness to embrace something that so overtly defies most narrative and generic expectations are likely to find it fascinating.

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originally posted: 01/25/20 02:58:02
last updated: 01/25/20 02:59:25
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