Film Review | Sunday, 11 October 2009

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I’m not there

So it has come. The very first Maltese feature-length film. Well, maybe not the very first, but one you wouldn’t be embarrassed to show to a foreign friend; a film that looks good, sounds good and that has some emotional poignancy. Mark Dingli’s Kont Digà – an independent debut feature by his production company Sekwenza – proves the old cliché that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
That harping on about a lack of funding, the lack of anything resembling a stable film industry or – this is the most dubious ‘factoid’ trawling the Maltese meme-ways – the lack of talent won’t really get you anywhere in the long run. Whinging about what an unsuitable place Malta is for the arts, and doing nothing to change that (or at least to make it slightly more tolerable for yourself) is not only counterproductive, it also makes you complicit in the very passive mediocrity that you would claim to despise and, ultimately, nobody wins. Naturally, whinging is one of the key tools in a reviewer’s kit, and it can be ever-so-handy when the deadlines encroach upon us and when the inspiration is dry (read: most of the time). But with such milestone feature such as this one, I also feel the need to deliver up something slightly more even-handed, something that would match the film’s tenderness – both in terms of its subject matter and its status as an as-yet stand-alone feature in the Maltese cinematic canon. That said, we can’t remain oblivious to the film’s flaws. Why should we? Being able to withstand critique helps to separate the wheat from the chaff, and we should be able to learn from the very first example of the genre. Because the overwhelming feeling of simply wanting more Maltese cinema is what took over me when the final reel of Kont Digà rolled its way across the screen.
The story – written by Dingli and Sascha Sammut (the latter also produced) tells of Karl (Karl Consiglio) a young Gozitan artist who returns to Malta after many years abroad, seeking a connection to his roots. Through childhood friends and old haunts, shared memories and a former love, he realises he is no longer the person he once was and wonders whether he can truly return to the place he once called home. Then Karl meets Anna (Annabelle Galea), an unfamiliar face in a familiar land, and a new bond is forged. Their friendship gives Karl the freedom to see both Malta and himself from a fresh perspective with renewed hope, and a possible future begins to unfold.
One of the film’s strengths is its modest story, because it allows Dingli and co. to unfurl a portrait of Malta at the peak of summer which, with its lumbering but undeniably idyllic pace, serves as a perfect correlative to Karl’s own existential crises. But it also one of the film’s key weaknesses, as too little happens for us to develop any strong emotional ties to the characters – save perhaps Karl himself. The dialogue is largely contrived – almost tokenistic – throughout. While this doesn’t help the film as a whole, it is fortunate that Dingli is a highly atmospheric director and, crucially, allows the islands themselves (the latter half of the film takes place in Gozo) to do most of the ‘talking’. And indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the film is almost worth seeing for the thrill of watching a beautifully photographed portrayal of our islands, filtered to a story that attempts to articulate that difficult angst they bring about, the feeling of wanting to both stay and leave, all the time (much like Ulysses in Calypso’s cave). The inclusion of Chris Galea’s Pawlu – a friend of Anna’s visiting from Brussels for the summer – is a shrewd move. In a finely acted mini-monologue, he tries to put the very tug-and-pull feeling an expat is going to feel into words. But while Pawlu simply explains his plight, we are made to witness Karl’s struggles, and as a protagonist, he remains taciturn, in contrast to Annabelle Galea’s more fiery Anna, who is an assertive force, and who gives a notable performance throughout, culminating in a final coda that is surely the film’s strongest scene.
Some pruning would have been welcome. The Gozo scenes are by far the weakest, burdened as they are with a spate of supporting characters we never really get to meet and with long stretches of moody exposition that threatens to veer into postcard territory, making it seem as if Dingli is eager to play ambassador and showcase as many facets/traditions of the island as possible in, presumably, the interests of a foreign audience. But one should remember that we have never really seen our islands on the screen in this way before, and that this is a new thing for us too. Now that Sekwenza have laid down the groundwork, the only way is up.

Kont Digà will be showing at the St James Cavalier Cinema tonight and on October 14, 15, 16 and 18 at 19:00 and 21:00. Tickets are at €5. Bookings: 2122 3200


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