The Reviewing the Arts course at UNSW allows students to explore a variety of writing modes in arts journalism, including interviews, previews and reviews. The following film review was written by current UNSW student Ezekiel Rodofili as part of our partnership with the 2019 Sydney Film Festival.
A thief is by a car. He takes a bag up to the top of a hill, buries the bag in a way that makes it look like a grave, then goes back to his car. It's not long before he's arrested, then not much longer before the film skips to his release.
The thief heads to where he buried that money many years ago only to find that in the interim, a shrine dedicated to an unknown person was built at the spot. He decides to stay in a nearby town and work out how he can get his money back.
It's not long before the plot brings in a young man dealing with members of the community leaving the town. He works with his father trying to grow food in the area, but it has been a long time since it last rained. The young man is growing tired of what he percieves to be his father's foolishness, and urges him to leave together in order to settle elsewhere. His father refuses and blames the unknown saint (of the aforementioned grave) for their misfortune.
The story also includes a doctor new to the area who is coming to terms with how things operate, as well as a guard and his dog. These four stories run alongside each other and intertwine, forming the plot of director Alaa Eddine Aljem's The Unknown Saint.
The plot itself is quite straightforward. Just about everything progresses as would be expected, and there are no bells and whistles to worry about. Whilst some parts could have been trimmed at certain points, plot is handled nicely overall. There's enough given away about each character to get an idea of key personality traits, as well as their goals. Whilst there are points where the film lingers a little too long on a character, often you get just enough to make someone's inclusion feel worthwhile.
The Unknown Saint has been billed as a black comedy, however it's much more on the comedy side than the dark. There certainly are moments where the film dips into darker subject matter, but often the comedy keeps things pretty light. On top of this, often the comedy slips neatly into the narrative rather than having the film stop to deliver something humorous. The times the film does stop for comedy feel a little forced, but it's uncommon, so it doesn't harm the overall flow of the scenes.
Whilst there is some music, often the score is as dry as the setting's surrounds. Too often music is used to tell people how to feel, so it was nice that the score was used sparingly and kept instrumentation light. The music does do a little directing, but its main focus is on underscoring the scene rather than forcing our response. In this way more of the ambient sounds get to come through, which helps to sell the landscape and the characters as real.
Dialogue is also kept minimal, so you're often left with sounds and actions to carry a scene. Both the actors and the director handle this well. The characters feel more believable as they aren't always talking. Dialogue, when used, isn't always important but it comes at the right times to help give that little bit more insight into who we are following.
Where The Unknown Saint really shines is in its cinematography. The framing makes use of space really well and helps to impress a sense of smallness and isolation in the setting. Often there are shots featuring great amounts of landscape that keep subjects a small part in the frame, reinforcing the scale of the area. The people and the town are somewhat-isolated; only a dirt road leads to other places. A few establishing shots could have set this up, but the use of space goes a long way towards selling the setting as believable.
At times flat angle shots are used to give focus to brief interactions and help develop characterisation through body language, or follow a joke through visual language. At others, two-shots help to build spatial relationships between characters whilst also giving a sense of depth to the scene. Often the film feels much like a series of great phorographs.
Coming into The Unknown Saint from the viewpoint of the thief helps to give a sense of the outsider's perspective looking into an undesirable situation. However, as the film includes other characters' viewpoints, it looks at the situation from varying perspectives. It's a believable world with believable characters in it. Not everything hits the mark, but otherwise the film makes for pleasant viewing.