Even though we live in ridiculously political times, few filmmakers have the guts to comment on the decline of civilization as blatantly and distinctly as the Taub Brothers do in their film EXTERNO. It’s a daring, clever, passionate, and scalding work about the frailties of man, the destruction of our planet, and the idea that everything comes with a price, and a negotiable one at that. That may be true for commodities, and perhaps even souls, but EXTERNO showcases such transactions as fool’s bargains. In a deft 83 minutes, the film indicts the almighty buck and the devils we know and have yet to dance with who treat everything as if it comes with a sales tag. It’s a clever and searing film that recalls everything from THE BIG SHORT to David Lynch’s work to the films of the French New Wave.
The Taub Brothers, Leonardo, and Jonathan, have made a film that, in many ways, defies categorization. The story has little real plot, there are only a handful of characters, and the film cheekily employs artsy-fartsy tropes like title cards, metaphors, and representational imagery that might make Terrence Malick blush. (Okay, probably not.) But EXTERNO is a film that has a strong POV, and the brothers incorporate unconventional means to draw attention to their concern for the planet.
Screenwriter Leonardo also plays Joseph, the main character in the piece, and his portrayal is as potent as his writing and the direction he did with his brother. Joseph is a businessman, lean and precise, going about his work with a long, pointy beard and full, Eurotrash hair. That head of his is also filled with evil thoughts. Joseph wants to accumulate power and money and with minimal investment and he inundates his prey through cajoling, bullying, and playing upon one’s lesser angels. Joseph loves the sound of his own voice and is convinced that his way is the only way. He seems all knowing, explaining how there are no real powers like China or the UK or America, but only just a series of strings to be pulled, all leading to him.
So, who is this string-puller? Lucifer, the head of the Illuminati (is there such a thing?), the sins of man? In some ways, it could be any or all of them, but he knows how to play up dark truths and uglier instincts. He relentlessly ruminates on power, seeming to enjoy walking around scenes of decay and dilapidation that he may have caused.
It’s both horrifying and almost humorous how Joseph breaks down finance, the stock market, and how political back-scratching works. In some ways, the dialogue could almost be a primer on how to destroy governments, the environment, and man’s will. Leonardo Taub makes Joseph sound like a thick-accented Bond villain, giving him a whiff of playfulness, perhaps to con man all the easier?
The film shows a lot of scenes of a bereft world, but it also shows some strong counterpoints. There are numerous shots of majestic trees and various landscapes, as if nature is still hanging in there. Even more so, the film gives Joseph a formidable sparring partner in a character known in the credits as She. She (Elizabeth Ehrlich) could be Mother Nature, or perhaps an arch angel, maybe even God herself. Joseph likes to argue with her and even toss her about some, but she’s a strong foe. No matter, She persists, and she constantly defies him and revels in her substantial powers. Ehrlich too makes her metaphorical character into something recognizably human and even entertaining.
If you’re a filmgoer who doesn’t like arthouse fare, EXTERNO may not be for you. But for those who’ve been hungering for something more thoughtful and substantive than typical Cineplex fare, this film may be the perfect elixir. It’s sly and sleek, but it’s done to provoke and cause a reaction too. It will push your buttons, for certain, but the question is whether it will wake us up to the malfeasance we’ve all gotten far too used to in this world. If we don’t, the film argues, we may be little more than the rubble that Joseph loves traipsing through.