Monday, October 2, 2017

"My Name Means 'Island,' You Know" - Dark Waves (2016)

As we did with The Night Shift (2016), occasionally it becomes necessary to look at a modern cinematic masterpiece in order to be reminded that cinema is not dead, buried, and entirely decomposed. With that in mind, we will now consider Dark Waves (2016) aka Bellerofonte (which is not, alas, a biopic about the beloved calypso singer).

Unusually, this film has no reviews on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes, so I will take the step of quoting reviews from the cineastes at Amazon. For example, Catpeople writes, "There plot, just random artsy scenes that didn't tie together. When I saw 'zombie pirates' I expected more." Helene Dufft writes, with charmingly arbitrary punctuation, "Boring,,no plot,,n the acting was awful !!!!" Reviewer James simply writes, "Not."

While it will no doubt be difficult to counter such incisive arguments, I will attempt to describe the work of art that is Dark Waves.

The film begins in a highly original manner: with the camera moving rapidly over the sea, toward an island. It then spends three minutes establishing the atmosphere of the island and its fishing community, as well as showing a helicopter picking up a barrel of water and nude men wading into the sea. (Audiences lamenting the inability of modern films, especially those shot on video such as this, to take the time to establish the atmosphere of a place should be made to watch Dark Waves.)

After three minutes, we are introduced to our protagonists, Jazira and Sophiane, two lovers who are moving into a tower in the island's fishing village.

Jazira climbs up the stairs to each level of the tower; each level is a single room. She reaches the top and gazes out at the village.

Meanwhile, fishermen gossip that somebody is living in the tower again, and that something terrible will happen. And that, as always, they will do nothing about it but watch.

At night, we discover many things about the couple. First, the wine they are drinking is not blood but rather a fine wine. Second, Jazira is pregnant. Third, Jazira hears the song of the sirens from the tower. "Sirens live on an island strewn with rotting corpses," she says. "My name means 'island,' you know."

"It means nothing," says the craggy-faced Sophiane, helpfully. He embraces her, but while doing so he opens his eyes and moves them left and right shiftily.

(He does not mention the fact that her name would be more symbolic if it meant 'siren,' or perhaps 'rotting corpse.')

In the morning, Jazira says she has a dream of sirens with sharp blood-stained teeth, and that she was one of them.

The filmmakers subtly emphasize the fairy tale quality of the film, and especially of Jazira, as in every scene she wears a different elaborate hairstyle and costume, each reminiscent of one or more Disney princesses.

Walking along the beach, Sophiane for a moment believes he has lost his lover. He looks around and sees a cave in the rocks. Then he sees Jazira standing about 15 feet away. She waves to him and he waves to her. The music swells.

We get more atmosphere in a three-minute scene in which Sophiane strolls through the seaside town looking at things like crates of produce, shopping carts, and model boats in storefront windows. He also sees the burned-out hull of a fishing boat in the marina.

Also in the marina, he interrupts some fisherman and asks, "Can you tell me where I can buy a small fishing boat?"

These are the fishermen who earlier gossiped about people living in the tower. They know that Sophiane moved in yesterday, and they tell him, while telling the audience for a second time, that strange things happen when people move into the tower.

The fishermen also tell him about the great Bahamut, a dangerous creature in the deep. "Do you see that fisherman out there? The one with a missing piece?" They point out a man sitting on a dock, though the man appears to be whole. "Well, he took it from him, you know? Devoured it and brought it down into the abyss."

They say the fisherman does not remember what happened to him. This is a clever way for the filmmakers to subtly highlight the subtext of the narrative. One of the men says, "Some kinds of memories are better buried in the sea of oblivion."

The other adds, "But you must be careful because the fact that you've buried them doesn't mean those thoughts don't exist."

His partner says, "Rather, they grow. In the backdrop. They feed on you. And then sometimes they emerge, bigger and more dangerous than before."

They explicitly say that the mysterious Bahamut is a sin that has been buried and growing beneath the sea.

Back at the tower, Jazira and Sophiane continue explaining the story and its symbolism. They are opposites--she loves fantasy and mystery, he is down-to-earth--and opposites attract. "We are both linked by nature and we live by its laws."

What couple has not had the exact same conversation?

Later that night, they are awakened by noises. Sophiane investigates, but finds only an open window, a tipped-over chair, and lots of fog downstairs. They conclude it was only the wind, but we see wet footsteps in the sand, leading back to the water.

In the morning, Jazira wakes up and performs her morning ablutions. The music swells.

Meanwhile, Sophiane returns to the beach and finds the cave. We hear loud breathing from inside. The music swells.

In the tower, Jazira, dressed like a high-heeled candy-striper, goes through an old trunk, where she finds what appear to be chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, a top hat, and a bridal gown.

Jazira jumps to the conclusion that the original owners of the tower were pirates--presumably pirates who dressed in wedding gowns and top hats.

Immediately, they take the little rowboat Sophiane has bought out to sea, wearing the formal clothes. Although they do not see it, the audience can see the shadow of a large fish, presumably Bahamut, nearby.

Sophiane later dreams he is in a bell tower, and then he seems to wake up, but Jazira in the bed next to him has been transformed into a monstrous mermaid.

Their lives continue peacefully, with Sophiane net-fishing from his little rowboat, and occasionally stripping and walking nude into the cave on the beach.

In a scene reminiscent of Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome (19xx), though presented as reality and not fantasy, Sophiane falls out of his rowboat and floats in the sea.

In a bar, the fishermen tell Sophiane that the town was founded by pirates who made up stories to frighten everyone else away, but nobody knows who built the tower that Sophiane and Jazira inhabit.

One day, Sophiane catches a large fish, and smoke billows from its mouth. When they prepare the fish for cooking, they find golden nuggets inside it.

When they climb up a lighthouse one day, Jazira asks, "I was wondering, do you believe in God?"

He answers in the affirmative. She says, "Me too. And in spite of all that has happened to us, despite all the evil and suffering, it's when everything is falling apart that you think that there is no God. Then something happens that surprises you and you believe again."

At this point, over an hour into the film, the audience does not know what horrible suffering they experienced before moving to the island. However, as if the film senses our questioning, a series of flashbacks provide some answers: Sophiane served in the army and had sex with, possibly raping, a woman.

In the present, he starts an affair with a barmaid, which, as is typical on Italian islands, causes zombie pirates to rise from the sea.

These zombie pirates do nothing but stand in waist-deep water for a while.

The next morning, feeling guilty about his betrayal of Jazira, Sophiane takes a walk on the beach, where he finds a white horse.

Instead of shooing off the pest, he nuzzles it and pets it.

Meanwhile, Jazira is nuzzling and petting a big moth.

Finally, after Sophiane returns to the tower with Jazira, the zombie pirates decide to perform a reenactment of John Carpenter's The Fog. The three of them stand in front of the tower door while the couple cowers in their bed on the top floor.

But the pirates prove to be slightly more threatening, as they climb the tower walls and open the unlocked windows.

Perhaps you have guessed what the pirates were after. If not, I will spoil it here: They have not come to punish the lovers, but instead to regain the gold nuggets from the trunk, which are in fact their three missing teeth, one for each pirate. Their quest completed, they vanish into the fog.

There is another shocking surprise, however, as Jazira's water breaks and she quickly gives birth to a small squid or cuttlefish that spews ink. Presumably, Sophiane was not actually the father.

The couple takes everything in stride, however, and the next day they decide to leave the island dressed in wedding clothes. (This scene serves as a reminder of something we have seen throughout the film: Sophiane never wears long pants, appropriate shoes, or an undershirt.)

In the end, they row away out into the sea.

The music swells and the scene fades to three minutes of credits. The End.

Domiziano Delvaux Christopharo's Dark Waves is a heavily symbolic film about the sins of the past invading the present to steal jewelry. Because much of the symbolism is subtle, I feel I must explain it here. Sophiane's rape and murder of a woman during the war are the sins he and Jazira, who knows all about these crimes, are trying to escape. These sins, hidden not from the couple but from the villagers, are symbolized by the large fish Bahamut, whose shadow we see but who never appears in the film. Sophiane's inability to escape the sins is symbolized by his repeated desire to strip off all his clothes and climb into a wet cave on the beach. His inability to escape the sins is also (possibly) symbolized by the smoking fish with gold nuggets inside, as well as the zombie pirates that briefly appear and collect the gold nuggets to replace their missing teeth. The white horse on the beach? Probably a symbol of purity or escape, though that makes little sense because Sophiane is not pure, does not escape, and will soon face the pirates. (I suppose my critical faculties are not up to the job of explaining Dark Waves, so I will choose to simply enjoy the attractive shot-on-video qualities of the film.)

In the end, one of the mysteries of Dark Waves is never revealed, and that is the "missing piece" that Bahamut took from the fisherman. The man appears whole on film, with no missing appendages. Perhaps the "missing piece" refers to his mind, or his soul. Or a toe? In any case, the filmmakers should be allowed to preserve some of their mysteries. A film that explains everything would be dreadfully boring, and that is one thing nobody, outside of most of the reviewers on Amazon, would attribute to this film.