MSPIFF42 Dispatch #1: Tori and Lokita, Cairo Conspiracy, The Beasts
This review is part of a series of reviews for the 2023 Minneapolis St. Paul Film Festival. You can read more reviews from the festival, along with other reviews from international festivals, here
The Minneapolis St. Paul Film Festival (MSPIFF, or “Ms. Piff” as it’s said here) is one of the most highly anticipated events in the Midwest for movie enthusiasts and cinephiles. With a rich history spanning over three decades, the festival has become a premier platform for showcasing independent and international cinema, featuring an extensive lineup of thought-provoking, entertaining, and boundary-pushing films from around the world. Every year, the festival attracts a diverse audience, including filmmakers, actors, critics, and moviegoers of all ages and backgrounds, all united in their love for the art of filmmaking.
Because there are so many movies to be watched and covered, I’ve condensed a few titles into these dispatches. This first festival dispatch is comprised of three films that received high acclaim from last year’s Cannes Film Festival: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Tori and Lokita, Tarika Saleh’s Cairo Conspiracy, and Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s The Beasts.
Once I see Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N. at the end of the festival, I will have seen 14/20 films in the Official Competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. You can read all my thoughts on those special films in the Festival Reviews section of the website. And, of course, I’ll be bringing exclusive coverage of the 2023 edition next month!
Tori and Lokita
The newest film from the Belgian brotherly duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Tori and Lokita finds them once again examining the miscarriages of social justice within their native country. The titular characters, aged 12 and 17, are two illegal African immigrants who pretend to be siblings to better their chances of being given permanent residency. They’re forced to sell drugs for an uncaring chef to make money and are trained to always have a valid alibi whenever questioned.
Along with the equally Cannes-beloved Ken Loach, the Dardennes are the biggest proponents of social realism within European cinema. Their handheld long takes and lack of score capture the harsh reality of society. A shot reminiscent of the titular moment within Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always acts as an exceptional opening. There is a propulsive energy to the film, with the semi-criminal elements keeping the 85-minute feature (a staple length for the brothers) moving at a brisk pace.
But the realism of the situation and themes are slightly undone by the script, which paints everything in such mutually exclusive strokes. Tori and Lokita are nearly perfect individuals being exploited by purely evil functionaries, with the final moments leading to a face-the-camera finger-wagging message. Still, there is power in those overbearing moments, and you’re left with another stark reminder of how the laws of the Western world provide little aid to those that need them the most.
Winner of the award for Best Screenplay at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Cairo Conspiracy tells an overlapping story of politics and religion. Writer/director Tarik Saleh centers his story on Adam, a bright and naive student who has just been offered a scholarship to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the power epicenter of Sunni Islam. Upon his arrival, the Grand Imam mysteriously dies, opening a power vacuum that pits Adam in the middle of a powerful game of chess between Egypt’s political and religious elite.
Egypt has very strict censorship over its filmmakers, a fact Saleh knows firsthand as he was exiled from the country for his work on 2017’s The Nile Hilton Incident. That banishment has only bolstered Saleh’s critical resolve, as Cairo Conspiracy pulls no punches for either side. Corruption runs rampant in the holiest of places, as faith is used to broker further advances of power.
Saleh molds his messages within the old-fashioned espionage thriller genre to fantastic results. Paranoia and fear control Adam’s life, with the true motives of those above him never being clear. It’s both entertaining and enlightening, leaving you with something to ponder long after the credits roll.
A French couple (Denis Ménochet and Marina Fois) immigrate to a rural farming village in the hills of Galicia, Spain. The peaceful and simple life they hoped for themselves is continually interrupted by the xenophobia of their neighbors. Tensions boil over time, with the difficulties leading to a point of no return.
The central themes within The Beasts are both specific to its setting and universal within every country on Earth. It’s what makes it both compelling to a worldwide audience, and also why it lacks depth below the surface. The back-and-forth arguing and vitriol pads out most of the runtime until the expected climactic moment, where writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen allows himself to flourish with a creative perspective shift.
The production values and directorial skill are always abundant, with the actors relishing in the extended scenes and long takes. If only there was more meat on this skeleton of a story.