Credit: Film at Lincoln Center
by Steven Warner Featured Film Streaming Scene

Kala azar | Janis Rafa

June 2, 2021

Kala azar is an obvious, stultifying, and facile lecture masquerading as art cinema. 

Kala-azar is the Indian name for Black Fever, a potentially fatal parasitic disease, and according to the official synopsis for the new Greco-Dutch co-production Kala azar, the feature debut of writer-director Janis Rafa, the title “describes a place that cannot sustain animal life any longer.” Kala azar also refers to a film so pretentious that even its press materials can barely hide a contempt for the finished product, one that in fact has its head so firmly planted in its own ass that to describe it as the work of a particularly precious first-year film major with a minor in philosophy would be generous. So, okay, the plot: in a nameless European city, a nameless hipster couple travels to the homes of bereaved pet owners and offers cremation services to those who have recently lost their furry friends. The female half of this pair is especially sensitive to the fragile life of animals, a point hammered home when she goes so far as to pick up a bit of roadkill in order to give it a respectable send-off. From here, it doesn’t take long to figure out what Rafa is up to, which amounts to both comparing and contrasting the lives of her human and animal subjects. 

A scene of dogs playfully frolicking in the mud precedes a graphic sex scene between our protagonists, who are of course animalistic in their passion and abandon. In another scene, a shot of a dog getting its teeth cleaned is paired with a moment where said female hipster digs at her own gums and asks male hipster if he sees anything out of the ordinary. And when an elderly pet owner dies, his dogs briefly licking his lifeless corpse before losing interest, female hipster is shown crying over an unknown animal they accidentally ran over with their hipster van. Not enough? Well, there’s also the scene where an older woman applies a salve to the open wound of her dog, which whimpers in pain, while the same woman later applies the same salve to the wounded knee of female hipster, who is brought to tears by the moment of human tenderness and connection. Meanwhile, male hipster pisses on his own open wound in a graphic medium-shot, naked genitalia exposed in all its glory. It’s almost like…we’re all animals, you know? Or, is human empathy what separates us from the beasts that surround us? Perhaps we are the real beasts, with nary a care for anyone but ourselves, and certainly not for any four-legged friend. After all, isn’t existence nothing if not a never-ending cycle of death and renewal? 

This constitutes the would-be profundity of the film’s making, and it’s at roughly the 20-minute mark of this nonsense that viewers’ eyes may be lost in the back of their heads. Perhaps some of this obviousness could be forgiven if the filmmaking was more than merely competent, a series of long takes and static shots that are supposed to enhance the film’s ostensible naturalism, but which only manages to feel rote calculation in service of its facile messaging. There is little dialogue present, a decision made to presumably further emphasize the connection between beast and man, save for female hipster’s repeated rehearsal of their cremation pitch, because what is language if not mutually agreed-upon empty repetition? Female hipster does get an extended monologue at one point, the only one in the film, where she talks about how a childhood dog dragged her father into the middle of traffic, causing him to injure his face when he fell to the ground. “The cat didn’t even recognize him when he came back,” she severely intones, which is of course one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines I’ve heard in ages, and one I will most certainly work into future conversations. So, I guess thanks for that, Kala azar; you at least mustered one moment of pleasure in your stultifying 90 minutes.

You can currently stream Janis Rafa’s Kala azar on Mubi.

Originally published as part of New Directors/New Films 2020 — Dispatch 3.