A Vipers' Pit

A Vipers' Pit ★★★

The press has just released its umpteenth news article with the same generic title: ‘film/TV show from X country is currently being shot in Malta!’. The IMDb pages of said film/TV show only have Ċirkewwa, Valletta, Imdina, Birgu and Kalkara to link the film to the Maltese islands; with the exception of an established Maltese cast or crew member buried somewhere in there. Some weeks have gone by, and we hear of the film’s premiere on the news, but because of the geo-restrictions usually imposed on such productions, never get to see the finished product (unless resorting to piracy). We refresh our browsers, and sure enough...

Every year or so, a Maltese film (made by the Maltese, for the Maltese) manages to slip through the cracks and land in our cinemas. Sure, its trailer won’t come up in your YouTube recommended page. Its budget will be practically next to nothing compared to the other films ‘currently being shot in Malta’. Most probably, you’ll have to scroll down a bit until you find it’s listing on your favourite cinema’s website. But hopefully, it’ll be there. You’ll watch it, scratch your head, go home, and wait another 12 months or so for the cycle to repeat itself.

To end this preamble, and summarise the review which will follow, I will say this: Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi is a step in the right direction. A small step, but a definite ‘step’ nonetheless. In my eyes, it has become the film which all Maltese filmmakers now have to beat (finally de-crowning Simshar and Limestone Cowboy). The standards have been raised... but definitely not set. Malta’s indigenous film industry has a long way to go, but Sriep is proof that there are souls in Malta who want it to improve. And that’s incredibly reassuring.

Spoilers ahead, naturallment.

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Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi starts with a title sequence that divides the frame into two: on the right, stock footage predominantly featuring Dom Mintoff, and on the left, title design which I’ve seen many Maltese TV shows do much better (F'Ġieħ L-Imħabba comes to mind). The first 10 minutes serve to slowly introduce some major characters, give the audience a taste of the beautiful mise-en-scene of the 80s, and then juxtapose it with the present day (or more accurately, 2012). We learn that Richard’s wife, Maureen, is pregnant, and that Roger reeeally hates the Socialist Party. It’s a very safe opening, but it gets the job done.

The film moves very slowly in its first half, dragging out its setup to excruciating length, with little character development occurring in the process. A lot of dialogue is exchanged, but up until the first 50 minutes or so, we neither love nor hate anyone or anything in the film; we’re just given information about the setting and the characters to be able to understand the film’s motivations. The only time where I felt I could start to ‘root’ for a character was when Richard’s kid was beaten up. But even then, Richard’s sudden certainty to assassinate Mintoff still felt a bit too farfetched.

On the whole, the second half of the film felt much better executed. The introduction of Roger Jr and Sr, and Noel and Frances now becoming expecting parents, finally gave way to some sentimentality toward the film’s characters. Now, I could sympathise with Frances (which I couldn’t with Maureen), I could (momentarily) hate Noel for bailing on his wife (which I couldn’t with Richard); I could finally say “miskina xi ġralha” and “kemm hu ipokrita!”. The story, the acting, the choice of camera shots, the music, the climax... to me, much of the second hour was a drastic improvement over the first.

I say ‘much of the second hour’ because of the killings that Roger Tabone Sr commits. Both killings seem incredibly illogical, unwarranted and plain stupid. If Roger Sr is such a heartless killer, why not kill Mintoff himself? If Richard wasn’t spotted, why kill him? If the man which his daughter plans to make a family with doesn’t know the whole story, why tell it to him and proceed to kill him? And worst of all, why don’t I feel the least bit sad about Noel’s death? Why do I feel stupefied instead?

Alongside the ending, there were some technical faults throughout the film which were too noticeable for myself to brush off, taking me out of the film’s immersion. To list a few: colour grading didn’t seem to carry over properly between some shots at the beginning; eye movement across the frame was not very well guided; lighting was hit or miss, at times feeling either too theatrical or too lacking on the actors faces; the camera shake in Noel’s nightmares felt very computerised; frame rate issues with certain slowed down footage.

Coming to the end of this lengthy review, I believe that the unsung hero of this film is its production designer, who (to the best of my knowledge) is Francesca Mercieca. The film’s set design, and more notably, its props, were as close to perfection as a film with a 250k budget can ever really get. Props also need to go to whoever’s responsible for the film’s poster design; in my eyes, it’s the most beautiful Maltese film poster to date. And, naturally, to the rest of the cast and crew involved. ❤