The Art of Self-Defense, Alessandro Nivola, and Toxic Masculinity - VRGyani News and Media

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Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Art of Self-Defense, Alessandro Nivola, and Toxic Masculinity

While his role as Tony Soprano’s mentor Dickie Moltisanti in this weekend’s The Many Saints of Newark could be hailed as a “breakout,” Alessandro Nivola has consistently been a versatile working actor. Between regular appearances in major blockbusters (Face/Off, Jurassic Park III) and acclaimed indies (Disobedience, You Were Never Really Here, A Most Violent Year) alike, Nivola is hardly an unfamiliar face whenever he pops up. He’s just rarely granted sizable roles that showcase the versatility of his talent.

However, in 2019 Nivola delivered the performance of his career in the idiosyncratic dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense, a role that required him to flesh out the stages of toxic masculinity through the guise of martial arts. The film is never subtle about its underlying themes; the shock comes from the bluntness with which writer/director Riley Stearns treats the issue. Nivola is called upon to be comically hyper-masculine, and gradually reveals how a seemingly parodoxical character is able to goad apathetic men into unleashing their inner violence.

The film follows shy accountant Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), whose underlying anxieties are accentuated after he’s beaten by a masked motorcycle gang. Obviously Eisenberg isn’t being cast against type as a perpetually nervous character, but the circumstances surrounding Casey’s beating are particularly alarming. The wordless assault wasn’t a robbery, and Casey naturally looks for protection. He’s drawn to a local dojo, led by an enigmatic “Sensei” (Nivola) that refuses to go by any other name.

Nivola embodies a caricature of an overconfident “alpha male.” He tells Casey that in order to fully participate in his dojo’s training program, he must replace every aspect of his personality. Casey’s favorite genre of music is adult contemporary, but Sensei demands he listen to metal, because it's “the toughest music there is.” He communicates to his students with his fists, elaborately performing karate moves as he answers routine questions. The humor is dry; Casey is obviously uncomfortable, yet Sensei takes his eventual intense commitment as a given.

What’s fascinating isn’t the performative nature of Sensei’s teachings, but how his ridiculous practices are blindly followed by the other trainees. There’s no questioning of Sensei’s authority, and Casey awkwardly follows suit just to fit in. In a controlled environment under the grasp of one authoritative figure, Sensei can be the only topic of conversation. Nivola does a great job at being commanding without needing to make specific threats.

RELATED: ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ Review: For Those Who Like Their Comedies on the Darker Side

It's humorous to see the awkward Eisenberg try to emulate his new mentor, but The Art of Self-Defense doesn’t delegitimize the serious issue of violent indoctrination. With Nivola amping his behavior to an absurd degree as the starting point, he’s free to push his students to whatever extreme he needs in order to fulfill his personal goals. Nivola never winks at the camera, and maintains the same level of intensity asking the most ridiculous of questions just to prove his dominance. He demands Casey tell him his age in months when he’s unable to calculate for himself, but the delivery is not in jest.

While everything about Sensei is blatant, Nivola masks the underlying prejudice within his charade. During an early exhibition match, Casey is easily bested by fellow trainee Anna (Imogen Poots). She frequently outperforms Sensei’s other students who hold higher “belts,” but he refuses to advance her beyond a basic level. Nivola never focuses on the discrepancy, and his followers blindly accept it just as they do everything else. This allows him to weaponize a toxicity within Casey. He suggests that he surely must be weak if he can’t defeat a simple woman, and Casey’s desire to advance into the Sensei’s inner circle only fuels his bigotry.

Nivola embodies how this desire to please begins the indoctrination process. In an attempt to emulate Sensei’s confidence, Casey decides to begin wearing his karate belt outside of his normal clothes just to “feel” like he’s in the karate mindset. He looks goofy, but as the entire class adopts the same identifying markers, the comparison to dictatorial regimes grows unsettling. They define themselves purely by the “rank” they hold in their idol’s mind.

The film’s “twist” feels like an inevitability given how well fleshed-out Nivola’s performance is, and how clueless Casey has become to the obvious warning signs. Sensei goes to great lengths explaining how a “punch from a foot” is his favored move, and the fact that Casey was initially attacked with the same technique never strikes him as odd. It’s only when Casey returns to find his shabby apartment ransacked and his dog killed in the same manner that he finally realizes the scheme, but Sensei knows he has enough blackmail material to leverage over Casey.

What’s tragic is that even after rejecting his Sensei, Casey’s nature has already been altered. He’s only able to defeat Sensei in combat through the use of a gun, a weapon his master had long avoided as a “coward’s” weapon. Even if he uses the gun as an act of defiance alone, it's an extreme Casey never would’ve thought of before. He has a newfound aptitude for violence, with or without Sensei’s guidance.

The strategy of creating a sense of paranoia and offering a solution is common among extremist sects. Nivola brilliantly explores the danger behind following someone who may initially seem too zany to ever pose a threat. It’s not easy to make the transition between funny and threatening, but it's a fine line that Nivola executes perfectly.

KEEP READING: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots and Riley Sterns on ‘The Art of Self-Defense’



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