Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Guilty’, ‘Zama’ and ‘Prairie Trilogy’

Jakob Cedergren in The Guilty, opening at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas on Friday

When the telephone rings in a movie, expect bad news. Whether you’re sickly Barbara Stanwyck being terrorized by crossed wires in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Colin Farrell pinned down by a sniper in Phone Booth (2003), or late-night radio jock Stephen McHattie receiving word of a deadly virus in Pontypool (2007), the best cinematic advice was provided by a 1980 slasher flick bluntly entitled Don’t Answer the Phone!. In short, let the killer – sorry, caller – leave a message.

Den Skyldige (The Guilty, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 19) takes place in a Danish emergency call center, where not picking up isn’t an option and incoming calls are unlikely to bring birthday greetings or new baby announcements. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a police officer grudgingly working at the center while awaiting court proceedings to determine whether or not he’ll be allowed to return to his regular beat, and he resents the speed freaks, mugging victims, and injured bicyclists demanding his assistance.

His ears prick up, however, when a call comes in from a woman claiming her estranged husband has abducted her. Sensing an opportunity to do penance for his own mistakes (the gravity of which become clearer as the film proceeds), Asger is determined to come to her rescue, but makes matters worse by asking the wrong questions and misinterpreting the facts.

The Guilty is ninety minutes of well-acted, well-written claustrophobia that largely takes place in the cramped confines of a single darkened room. In fact, it’s a bit like going to a movie and watching someone else watching a movie, only they’re watching cell phone locations on a computer screen and talking on the phone at the same time. If Asger had a bowl of popcorn the illusion would be complete.


‘Zama:’ A satisfying period piece

Zama is screening at Pacific Film Archive.

Earlier this year, I wrote favorably of director Lucrecia Martel’s 2008 headscratcher The Headless Woman. Her most recent film, Zama, screens exclusively at Pacific Film Archive at 4 p.m. on Oct. 19 (an additional screening is scheduled on Friday, Nov. 9), and I’m happy to report it’s even better than its predecessor.

Based on a novel by Antonio di Benidetto, Zama is set in the 17th-century Spanish colonial outpost of Asuncion, where magistrate Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez-Cacho) is desperately trying to get transferred to the comforts of Buenos Aires. Playing all the cards at his disposal – including his close relationship with the treasury minister’s wife – Don Diego is willing to go to any lengths to escape the plague-ridden Paraguayan backwater.

Easier said than done, of course, and a political misstep leads to Zama being sent into exile with a group of sunburned miscreants in a remote region populated by unfriendly natives. Reminiscent of such settler-colonial nightmare dramas as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Black Robe (1991), Zama benefits from the muted palette utilized by cinematographer Rui Poças, which lends the film the look of contemporaneous oil paintings. It’s an extremely satisfying period piece that deserves wider acclaim.

‘Prairie Trilogy:’ Delightful history of American socialism

North Dakota socialist Henry Martinson

Anyone interested in the history of American socialism will want to take a trip to San Francisco’s Roxie Theater, where Prairie Trilogy (1978-80) gets two very rare screenings on Wednesday, Oct. 24 and Thursday, Oct.  25. This trio of shorts, produced by the National Endowment for the Humanities, prominently feature Henry Martinson, a nonagenarian farmer and unrepentant socialist who was still preaching the gospel in the late ‘70s.

Shot in black and white, the films provide brief, easy to digest lessons about the history of the Non-Partisan League and prairie socialism, but it’s the presence of Martinson – razor sharp and in great physical condition in his mid-90s – which render these films as delightful as they are educational.