DVD Review: Filth and Wisdom (2008)

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Aside from their ambitious drive to evolve and the benefit of geography since they all reside in the same multilevel London flat, upon first glance it doesn't appear that the primary trio of characters who comprise this film's 84 minute running time have anything in common.

Likewise because first time feature filmmaker and co-screenwriter Madonna offers no additional revelations to build the movie's plot aside from the film's transparent title of Filth and Wisdom-- which conveys both its central thesis and stylistic preoccupation-- it's fairly easy to consider both the characters and the film merely shallow. And honestly, with only one interesting character out of the three, you wouldn't be wrong in this interpretation of the vacuous leads as mere lifeless "vehicles" being solely utilized in a cinematic exercise to provoke or repel rather than evoke empathy or compassion.

For at its core, the movie is a trashy amalgam of fetishes and kinks as we follow the weak thread considering the three who venture into filth since "the road to success is paved with humiliation," where people risk their integrity by the perpetually empty feeling that exists when they "treat their bodies like a cash box."

However, while the extremely energetic cuts and cinematographic tricks along with a commanding performance by its charismatic lead Eugene Hutz keep you watching even though you're never fully engaged by the dubious trio. Yet if you consider the woman behind the film, you'll realize that all three characters represent variations of the former "Material Girl" who wanted "to rule the world"-- Madonna herself. Of course, this doesn't let the movie off the hook since it should be more than just a semi-autobiographical journey, but I found it to be a more interesting way to watch the DVD sent for review, nonetheless.

As the movie's anchor, Everything is Illuminated star Hutz portrays the aphorism spouting, Ukrainian immigrant aspiring musician A.K. who earns dollars by day as a dominatrix, cross-dresser, or sadist for hire on his quest to reach "trans-continental superstardom." With an accent that sounds exactly like the one used in Borat and complete with one horrible mustache to boot, Hutz is our unlikely narrator of the film as he tries his damndest to add meaning to the movie's mayhem. To this end, he sums up everything with succinct pretentious pieces of pseudo-philosophy either on the soundtrack or in straight-to-the-camera monologues.

A dynamic presence in a role that seems to take some of the attitudes of his Illuminated character and multiply them by a million, Hutz put a smile on my face right at the beginning and is no doubt the film's most valuable player to ensure you don't turn it off when it begins to meander into pointless, over-the-top scenes of A.K. "at work" which grow repetitive after the first few instances.

Moreover, as the frontman of the band Gogol Bordello, Hutz provides the film's pulse-quickening, infectious music that keeps things superficially upbeat even when the plights of his two female tenants and flatmates seem just as/if not more ridiculous than the plot-line of Hutz.

While A.K. could in reality be construed as "a.k.a." for Hutz's struggling musician and his real life work with Gogol Bordello, he could also be easily construed as referencing Madonna herself in her "Human Nature," "Erotica," Sex book phase where she set out to question the very nature of what is a taboo and why, identical to the way that the other characters can serve as a few degrees away from Madonna representations as well.

Similar to the way that Madonna received a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan and trained with top choreographers while pursuing a career in dance before she became a pop icon, Holly Weston plays the naive, young, classically trained beautiful blonde ballet dancer named Holly who realizes she needs to let go of her inhibitions just like Madonna did to support herself. Unable to make ends meet as a ballerina, A.K. who harbors a secret but intense crush on Holly suggests that she puts her looks and talent to good use, earning rent and food money as a stripper until she can find a more suitable position in her field.

Although her seemingly virtuous roommate Juliette (Vicky McClure) continually floats her money and tells A.K. that Holly would never resort to such a sleazy form of employment, Holly puts her integrity on hold, gets a job after a humiliating audition only to realize that the bizarre acrobatics, contortions, and work on the pole is much more difficult than she'd ever imagined.

While A.K. and Holly are far more open about the way they make a living and how they rationalize it as getting them closer to where they want to be, Vicky McClure's character of Juliette is the most conflicted of the three. Like Madonna, she's inspired and committed to the plight of the African cause and starving young children yet she takes a saint/sinner approach by exploiting the crush her leering married Indian immigrant boss has on her to raise money with donation cups and also steals needed medication when he isn't looking.

Admittedly, even for those of you who haven't seen a frame but are just reading this, it's safe to say that the movie's plot is far too broad. Likewise, with the exception of Hutz, the decision to cast actors who aren't especially convincing and struggle with the vague material hinders it greatly. Yet, with a tighter focus and perhaps dropping the Juliette character altogether since she doesn't fit in at all with the rest, Filth and Wisdom may have had some genuine experimental/art-house potential instead of being just "Madonna's movie."

Unfortunately, far too much time is spent attempting to titillate by soaking up the filth of their various storylines as Holly tirelessly trains to become an exotic dancer and A.K. humiliates and punishes his paying clients yet without an overall purpose or our feeling that Madonna had an actual reason to structure the film in this manner. Moreover, from a storytelling perspective, sadly Madonna and co-writer Dan Cadan missed out on richer opportunities to explore characters further or help engage us on a stronger level given some alarming subplots and/or wasted or more intriguing supporting characters that are woven in and out.

Since Madonna's sole focus was purely on filth and wisdom, while it would've been better had Juliette been dropped, the film makes us question her decision as a filmmaker to insert some snippets of dialogue yet not explore them further regarding incestuous abuse experienced by Juliette and her sister. This example along with the presence of a gay, blind and embittered intellectual author who lives in the same building overall just seems to be used for stereotypical dramatic oomph from time-to-time rather than a legitimate source of conflict.

Moreover, the idea of immigration and an increasingly diverse British contemporary society seems to be another subject that Madonna was hoping to work in and again, along with A.K. she and her co-writer missed the boat completely by not spending more time on what could have pushed Juliette to a supporting turn and her Indian pharmacist boss to a central role as he struggles with some bigotry while his own wife struggles to find a balance between child raising with Indian values in their adopted homeland and British culture.

After a limited art-house run and screenings at prestigious film festivals around the globe as the "Madonna Movie," the film has received DVD distribution from IFC Films, Semtex Films and MPI Media. As such the seedy low-budget daring indie gets a nice transfer to DVD with a 5.1 audio soundtrack and English and Spanish subtitles. While it's sure to be of interest to fans of Madonna and those who are curious indeed about her first cinematic opus, unfortunately it's a freewheeling misadventure that ignores the audience in favor of just presenting a uniquely personal project made by Madonna that may best be appreciated by Madonna.

Given the magnetism and charm of Hutz and some of the excellent craftsmanship in the cuts and camera work, she certainly knows how to assemble talent but I only hope that the next time around, she invites viewers to share more in the experience of an engaging film rather than maintaining her favored position as provocateur to an audience of voyeurs. Or in other words, instead of trying to hit us over the head with "filth and wisdom" as two sides of the same coin, it would've been best for Madonna to apply that ambitious nature of hers to the medium and the understanding that the aim of moviemaking is to bring us along on a story instead of just dazzle with overwhelming stimuli as is the case of a concert.

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