Clemency

Alfre Woodard

 

We’ve all seen prison dramas – the tough lives of inmates in a heartless system patrolled by brutes, policed by sadists and presided over by a martinet. Clemency isn’t that sort of film. Nor is it film-as-entertainment, be warned, but a grim and sobering look at US prison life from an unusual angle, the warden’s.

Opening up with a pre-credits scene that follows an execution on death row, which ends up being a botched, messy and gruelling one, for the man who’s being killed, the people watching and the warden supervising the whole thing, the film proper then concerns itself with the preparations for the execution of another man, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) again supervised by the same warden, who’s seen too much of this sort of thing.

Bernardine Williams is a woman just doing her job, running a well ordered and humane prison efficiently and with as much kindness as she can show without compromising herself, which is to say not very much. Other representatives of “the establishment” include the condemned man’s sad-eyed lawyer (Richard Schiff), who’s decided that this will be his last execution, the similarly strung-out chaplain (Michael O’Neill), the warden’s careworn but attentive deputy (Richard Gunn) and a seen-too-much officer (LaMonica Garrett) whose exposure to state-sanctioned execution also takes its toll.

These people are not beasts, they’re decent human beings doing a tough job. Nor have they developed tough carapaces to protect them from what they’ve seeen. Rather, the exposure to automated death has made them fragile, liable to snap at any moment. They’re the walking wounded. It’s far from the usual take.

Alfre Woodard, a boss of the ambiguous gesture – is she waving or drowning? – is the star of this unusually angled drama conducted in the quietest of tones and often in semi-darkness. The bar where the warden drinks-to-forget after work is a pit of gloom. The lights are never on at home, where her husband (Wendell Pierce) questions their continuing life together. There is not one single glint of sunshine in the 112 minutes of running time. Nor any laughs. If there is any of the gallows humour you might expect in people doing this sort of work, it’s not on this screen.

 

Aldis Hodge as Anthony Woods
Aldis Hodge as Death Row inmate Anthony Woods

 

A slo-mo tale of the death of the warden’s soul is what we’re watching, but also the death of the body of an inmate. The film isn’t initially about death row inmate Anthony Woods, though as it progresses he edges more into view, and Aldis Hodge becomes more impressive the more he’s asked to do. Even so, writer/director Chinonye Chukwu holds off going too far into questions of Woods’s guilt or innocence. That’s not what Clemency is about.

An exercise in mood control packed with actors who know that holding back can be dramatic in its own way, as in the little scene where Bernardine talks Anthony through “the procedure” – how he’ll be walked to the execution chamber, strapped to a gurney and will then be injected with three separate drugs. She is matter of fact, stone-faced. He says nothing but his head vibrates slowly as if in shock. It’s a carefully and brilliantly under-written scene that’s also played as such.

Outside, meanwhile, protestors chant against the death sentence, overt displays of emotion coming only from people who are essentially impotent.

It’s no Shawshank Redemption, Escape from Alcatraz, or Papillon. There are no jokes about dropping the soap in the shower, no escape plans, no light relief. It is grim and this relentlessness of mood is what makes it so compelling. Catharsis is what films like this are supposed to deliver. I must have missed that bit.

 

 

 

Clemency – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

The Infidel

Richard Schiff and Omid Djalili

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 March

 

New Year’s Day, Bahá’í calendar

If you’re a member of the Bahá’í faith, today is the first day of the new year. A religion that believes in one god, one spiritual source for all religions – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, whatever – and the equality of mankind, Bahá’í was only founded in the 19th century but has around five- to seven-million followers worldwide, spreading outwards from its foundational source in Iran. The largest grouping of Bahá’ís is in India. Right now it is probably the fastest growing religion in the world. It uses a solar calendar of 19 months of 19 days each, with four or five days extra between month 18 and 19 (the difference doing what leap-year days do in the Gregorian calendar used in most of the world) mopping up the leftover. New Year’s Day always occurs on the vernal equinox, when the sun is directly over the equator, and coincides with the Iranian new year. It is celebrated with music, dancing and feasting, though Bahá’ís vary exactly how they mark it depending on where they live, the faith being not particularly prescriptive.

 

 

 

The Infidel (2010, dir: Josh Appignanesi)

Britain’s most famous Bahá’í, and regular Hollywood villain, Omid Djalili plays Mahmud, the entirely secular Muslim having to pretend he’s really devout in order to impress his son’s prospective father-in-law. A fact that is made about a zillion times harder when he suddenly discovers that he was in fact adopted and that his birth parents were, in fact, Jewish. Cue a film about identity in the modern world that draws a lot of the same conclusions as did Chris Morris’s film Four Lions – place means more than race or religion – but does it a lot less confrontationally. The plot then follows Mahmud – real name Solomon “Solly” Shimshillewitz – on a voyage of ethnic discovery. Starting with a bit of soul searching, his casual anti-Semitism being a particular sticking point in his transition from Mahmud to Solly. We’re introduced to his neighbour, Lenny Goldberg (Richard Schiff, so good he threatens to destabilise the film) who agrees to school the Muslim in Jewish ways, so that when Mahmud visits the very old man he now believes is his biological father the shock of a Muslim son won’t kill him. Director Josh Appignanesi and writer David Baddiel then pretend that what follows isn’t a series of comedy sketches with only the limpest links – an American film would have brought in a writer to smooth out the transitions, create an emotional arc and all that. But it doesn’t matter much because Baddiel’s jokes are actually very funny, some of them in the Woody Allen/Mel Brooks tradition of twitting the Holocaust, many more in the style of stereotype music-hall Jewry – Fiddler on the Roof, a bagel, a shrug of the shoulders and an “oy”. There’s also a more measured, thoughtful film trying to struggle out between the jokes as The Infidel picks its way carefully through the cultural minefield, one that is struggling to assert an “and” version of notions of culture, religion and identity rather than an “either/or”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Good jokes, written by one stand-up, delivered brilliantly by another
  • Soundtrack by Erran Baron Cohen, brother of Sacha
  • A comic handling of a delicate subject
  • The performance of Richard Schiff, hot from The West Wing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Infidel – at Amazon