When I started writing the View From Home column for this website in 2010, it was single-focused on physical media — the Blu-rays and DVDs that had yet to be usurped by the streaming juggernauts.
Times have changed, and while I too have integrated streaming for the majority of home viewing, exciting physical media still drops every week, and for certain titles it remains the best and only way to view them.
So, when I was offered a batch of new titles from Kino Lorber and its subsidiaries while still in quasi-quarantine, I jumped at the chance to take the View From Home back to its roots. Here’s what I viewed on good-old fashioned disc in the past week.
Young Ahmed ($19.99 Blu-ray, $13.99 DVD): The ninth feature from Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is easily the brothers’ finest work since 2011’s The Kid With a Bike; it’s a devastating account of religious fanaticism’s iron grip on pliable young minds.
When we meet the title character (Idir Ben Addi), a formerly mild-mannered biracial teenager raised by a white single mother, he has recently begun his radicalization by the neighborhood imam (Othmane Moumen). “A month ago you were playing video games,” says his mother, exasperated. Now he’s chastising her alcohol intake, berating his sister for dressing like a “slut,” and refusing to shake his “apostate” teacher’s hand.
That instructor, Madam Ines (Myriem Akheddiou), becomes the singular focus of Ahmed’s fundamentalist wrath, leading to his consignment to a youth correctional facility whose compassionate rehabilitation methods seem to have little effect on his warped motivations. What’s so tragic about Young Ahmed is that the character’s targets are the very people that most care about him, and have his best interests at heart — Madam Ines; his mother, who tearfully wishes he could “be like before”; a romantic interest (Victoria Bluck) he meets on farm duty at juvie.
Filmed, as always, in rigorous, unbroken takes, with the Dardennes’ cameras hovering invasively over their actors’ every move, the directors craft scenes of unbearable tension, a mood that does not subside until the end credits. Ben Addi’s heartbreaking performance anchors the film, projecting a sense of glassy-eyed, calculated sociopathy with faint glimmers of doubt and kindness — enough to suggest that redemption is not impossible. But the movie’s refusal to offer a tidy resolution is fully in line with the Dardennes’ unshakable veritas.
Red Cow ($24.34 Blu-ray, $19.95 DVD): This sensitive and highly personal debut feature from Israel’s Tsivia Barkai Yacov mines its story from the filmmaker’s own experience growing up, and finding forbidden love, in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Avigail Kovari plays 17-year-old Benni, whose mother died during childbirth, and who is being raised by her father Yehoshua (Gal Toren), a far-right fundamentalist in a controversial settlement in East Jerusalem. With a planned holy war on the not-too-distant horizon, it’s an inconvenient time for Benni to discover her sexuality — with a fellow teenage girl, no less, a diabetic self-harmer named Yael, who works as a national service teacher under the tutelage of Yehoshua.
The movie’s title derives from the russet heifer Yehoshua discovers and promptly pens on their property for a coming ritual slaughter, seeing its unusual color as a biblically ordained omen of the Third Temple. In the film’s most powerful symbolism, Benni’s bountiful red locks inescapably suggest her own entrapment and sacrifice — psychologically and mentally, if not physically.
But, while Yacov strives for authenticity in her semibiographical debut, there’s a sense of both familiarity and shapelessness to Red Cow, which quietly builds toward a catharsis that fails to satisfy on a visceral dramatic level. As tender same-sex Bildungsromans go, its impact falls short of, say, Celine Sciamma’s Water Lilies. It doesn’t help that I had just finished Netflix’s four-part series Unorthodox, about a teenage girl escaping her oppressive Jewish community, which contained more emotional swells and character insights in any of its hour-long segments than Red Cow achieves in its duration.
The Booksellers ($13.99 DVD): According to this commodious documentary about antiquarian booksellers and the collectors who support them, their business/hobby is either on the brink of existential collapse or enjoying a new wave of engagement from millennials and people of color. Opening on the teeming cluster that is the annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair — with its 200 sellers offering rare first-editions and literary ephemera housed under glass like precious jewels — director D.W. Young proceeds to narrow his focus, visiting some of its most prominent vendors at their book-filled homes and exploring the various avenues of this niche industry: author archives, book auctions, the benefit/scourge of the internet, private libraries. Collectors of any stripe are a rare but passionate and single-focused breed; as one seller puts it, they’d “sell out their grandmother for an Elvis plate.” Another remarks that he’s owned at least “two books bound in human skin.”
With its soundtrack of pleasant cocktail-hour jazz and placid PBS-style formalism, The Booksellers is not as adventurous as some of the people it chronicles, let alone the titles they collect, but it’s a generous introduction into an insular world. While a lesser filmmaker might milk its denizens for their eccentricity, Young appears to be a fellow traveler, and treats everyone, from the old guard to the young turks, with respect and curiosity.