A Last Wish (2008)

Una ultima voluntadArgentina

3.5*
Director:
Marco Berger
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 9 minutes

Original title: Una última voluntad

Argentine filmmaker Marco Berger’s very first short film has as much ambiguity as anything he would make in the future, and unlike so-called gay cinema in general, but exactly like the rest of Berger’s oeuvre, this film lacks any kind of overt anguish over sexuality.

In A Last Wish (Una última voluntad), set deep in a forest at an unknown time in history, we find a soldier, already captured by a foreign army, about to be executed by a firing squad. He is granted one last wish, and we learn this wish has to be executed as a final courtesy to a man who is about to die, as long as it is possible, takes less than five minutes to complete, and does not nullify his imminent  execution.

The final wish of the man, credited as The Condemned (Manuel Vignau), who is never named, is very simple: a kiss. Besides the unusual request that he makes (we surmise it is unusual, because the general doesn’t understand how such a request can be granted if the company consists exclusively of men), he also has a sense of mystery about him because we never hear him speak. He conveys his wish to an officer in charge, who shares it with the others.

Initially, there is some confusion, but when a thorough examination of the manual reveals there is no legal reason to deny the request, a solution must be found. Who will kiss him? The officers decide to draw straws, or matches, to be more precise, and thereby determine the other participant in the execution of this act, credited as The Chosen Soldier (played by Lucas Ferraro, who also starred opposite Vignau in Berger’s début feature, Plan B).

The short is barely 7 minutes long, and its cinematography does not exactly elicit enthusiasm, but there is a moment towards the end, once the man has been executed, that we get a pensive 360-degree pan that reveals the true purpose of the film: It is not about what happens (whether the prisoner is executed or not, whether he is kissed or not) what about the effect these events, and in particular that kiss, have on the officer who likely did not expect to share such an intimate moment with his enemy that day.

The 360-degree pan reveals The Condemned and The Chosen Soldier, both entirely still, and the relationship between the two in this scene is striking on Ferraro’s face. He doesn’t quite know what to make of everything that has happened, and neither do we, but we know that one instant had an effect on him, and that sometimes love can hit you harder than violence.

Berger’s film is about a moment of discovery, not of sexuality but of intimacy, and although the setup is terribly contrived and the visuals are mostly uninteresting, his story as a framing device for a powerful moment that is sure to linger with you.

I Killed My Mother (2009)

J'ai tue ma mereCanada

4*
Director:
Xavier Dolan
Screenwriter:
Xavier Dolan
Director of Photography:
Stéphanie Weber-Biron
Running time: 96 minutes

Original title: J’ai tué ma mère

If Antoine Doinel was bipolar and gay, perhaps his story would have looked a little like that of Hubert Minel.

His French counterpart — and particularly his actions in Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) —  is indirectly referenced at many turns in the film, the interview with a psychologist in Truffaut’s film here becoming a self-shot black-and-white confessional that is repeated throughout.

Hubert is in his late teens and lives with his mother, whom he obviously despises. Over time, we get the impression this is not just everyday conflict between a teenager and his parent(s), but Hubert has other issues, some related to him not having told his mother he is gay, others perhaps having more to do with his mental health.

This début film of Dolan, who plays Hubert and was only 19 years old when he directed this self-written screenplay in the autumn of 2008, is as artistic as it is intense. The mother-son couple spend much of their time either engaged in passive-aggressive interaction or screaming at each other (sometimes Dolan starts speaking and doesn’t stop, while the camera stays on him for an extended period of time), but while the mother, played by television actress Anne Dorval, often tries to shrug her shoulders at her child’s behaviour, the petulant Hubert goes from one extreme to the other in hopes of manipulating his mother into letting him do his own thing.

That approach is not bearing much fruit, and one day at school when he receives an assignment to question his mother about the family’s financial situation, he tells the teacher his mother has died. This is a line taken directly from Truffaut’s directorial début, The 400 Blows, which was also about a single child, although Truffaut’s Antoine had a much friendlier school environment.

Dolan’s use of his camera is striking, although there are moments when it crosses the threshold of pretension, as in his character’s supposedly self-shot confessional tapes — which nonetheless are not entirely static, proving someone else was behind the lens — which have his face cut off at the nose, showing us only his bottom half of his face, sometimes for an extended period of time.

What is truly amazing to watch is the one scene of intimacy, which takes place one day when Hubert and his boyfriend Antonin go to paint Antonin’s mother’s office by dripping paint on the walls à la Jackson Pollock. Noir désir’s “Vive la Fête” pulses on the soundtrack while the scene itself is constructed in many parts that include close-ups of paint added in many colours onto the wall, dripping, running from top to bottom in various patterns, shots of Hubert and Antonin eagerly throwing paint on the wall, a beautiful close-up of the colourful cans of paint, shot vertically from above, and ultimately the action of the two boys making out and having sex, their arms stained in different colours, sometimes accelerated, sometimes slowed down.

 The jump cuts of the paint dripping down the walls are reminiscent of Clouzot’s Le mystère Picasso (The Mystery of Picasso), in which the master’s artwork grows in front of our eyes from one separate artwork to the next. But Dolan, not interested in the final product, has his eye on the beautiful, artistic mobility of the paint in motion.

The transition between scenes is where the pretension sometimes sneaks in to fragment the film into more pieces than necessary, given the division established early on between scenes taking place in black-and-white and colour, respectively. Shots without any motion, a kind of photographic still life,  are inserted instead of a cut or a dissolve in order to add rhythm where none is actually needed, even though the exercise of create motion with static images is admittedly fundamental to the cinematic art form.

Dolan’s sense for visual creativity, thinking outside the box, is breathtaking, from adding text onscreen instead of cutting to a close-up or a voice-over, to using a deliberate continuity error (faux raccord) when he puts a cigarette in his mouth in his bedroom before we cut to his face and he is in black-and-white — confessing in the bathroom that the doesn’t love his mother the way a son should love his mother.

He also makes the world his own, not unlike Tarantino, by actually changing the opening quotation from the original. Even before the opening credits, we see a quotation from Guy de Maupassant, from his novel Fort comme la mort (Strong as Death), from which he excises Maupassant’s contention that love for one’s mother is as natural as it is to live, and he changes “on ne s’aperçoit de toute la profondeur des racines de cet amour qu’au moment de la séparation dernière” to “on ne prend conscience de toute la profondeur des racines de cet amour qu’au moment de la séparation dernière.” The change is subtle and doesn’t change the meaning to any degree, but it is interesting nonetheless and suggests that Dolan, while respecting the conventions (many other authors, from de Musset to Choderlos de Laclos, are cited throughout the film by means of their works), also allows himself to make them his own.

But while the relationship at first seems toxic, unsalvageable, we slowly recognise that Dolan focuses on some particularly hurtful moments for the mother, and treats them with the respect they deserve. What is equally interesting is the framing of the two individuals: Whether in the car or at the dinner table, they are very often framed in a two-shot, sitting next to each other instead of opposite each other. While this pretends they are on the same level, equally vulnerable to our gaze, it also shows they are not making eye contact and therefore communication is obstructed.

Hubert’s confessions about his feelings and his mother’s true feelings about her situation, whether silently whispered to herself or in a moment of unleashing pent-up anger of years over the phone, we get a good sense for both of these characters and learn to accept the difficulty they face getting to know and accept each other. In this way, Dolan shows an acute sense for showing us the many sides of his characters and giving human drama a human face, and makes his entry onto the world stage with elegance and insight.

The Watch (2008)

El reloj / The WatchArgentina
3.5*

Director:
Marco Berger
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 14 minutes

Original title: El reloj

Argentinian director Marco Berger’s very first short film has so much ambiguous sexual tension it is surprising the film wasn’t remade and included in the anthology film in which he participated with fellow countryman Marcelo Mónaco, Sexual Tension: Volatile.

Two teenagers meet on a curb at sunset, waiting for a bus that never comes. It’s a wonderful image that sums up the rest of the film very well. The one, Juan Pablo, is talkative and very sure of himself, looking straight at the other, so much so he makes the already-shy boy even more nervous. Juan Pablo says he’s sure they know each other from school, but they don’t. Then he says the other boy is called Maxi, but he’s not. He’s Javier.

In a flashback it is revealed they went on a double date once, but only for the sake of their former girlfriends, and they didn’t really talk to each other.

Juan Pablo invites Javier home, where Javier meets Juan Pablo’s cousin (this moment is repeated in Berger’s own El Primo episode in Sexual Tension: Volatile, in a way that shows how much the director’s sense for visual tension has developed in four years). The boys watch television before going to bed, where they lie next to each other in their underwear without doing anything.

In the end, there is no big spark or moment of realisation, but there are short glances, and it seems obvious the boys are curious, even if not necessarily in each other.

Although the cast is small, the action minimal and the locations few, the film is a treat, as we get suggestions of depth in these characters whose intentions are elusive without they themselves being distant or unreadable. The chatty Juan Pablo, in particular, played by Nahuel Viale,  is a very interesting figure as he tries his best to attract the handsome but timid Javier without really knowing what all of this is leading to. Every time he suggests they do something (go home with him, have something to drink, go to bed), Javier simply goes along. That says as much about Javier’s intentions or curiosities as it does about Juan Pablo’s interest.

The short interaction has no real meat to it, and the appearance of Juan Pablo’s mother feels out of place because of it is so brief, but the film doesn’t leave us unsatisfied. It may not be transparent, and even the meaning of its title is not particularly self-evident (nor is that of the hot-air balloon in the opening shot), but the hesitation of making a fantasy a reality and the implicit but silent acquiescence that is visible to the viewer but not so obvious to the characters themselves speak to a very human quality that is highly commendable; it also informs nearly all of Berger’s subsequent films.

Games of Love and Chance (2003)

L'esquiveFrance

4.5*
Director:
Abdellatif Kechiche
Screenwriter:
Ghalia Lacroix
Director of Photography:
Lubomir Bakchev

Running time: 119 minutes

Original title: L‘esquive

Taking a place among the most moving and insightful films about the lower-income suburbs, known as la banlieue, that surround the French capital, together with Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film la Haine and Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs from 2008, this is a remarkable film shot on a very small budget with few if any professional actors.

Thematically close to Games of Love and Chance, the three-act play by Marivaux that is explicitly cited at many turns in the film, the story is set among a group of teenagers who come face to face with very real emotions as friendships are tested and they deal with the problems that separate them from the innocence of childhood. 

Abdelkrim (“Krimo”) is a quiet boy around 15 years old. His father is in prison, and he lives alone in a small apartment with his mother. In one of the first scenes of the film, his girlfriend Magali breaks up with him because she says he isn’t paying enough attention to her. Not one with words, Krimo stays mute in the face of this rejection, and focuses on one of his longtime friends instead: Lydia, who has the starring role in a school production of Marivaux’s play.

Lydia, played by Sara Forestier, is a girl who has the gift for the gab, and the talented cast, without whom this project would have been impossible, engage in a number of lengthy verbal exchanges that will test the skills of even the most fluent of French speakers. With a rapid-fire delivery of combinations of swear words and verlan (the “inverted” speech of the suburbs) that is as colourful and creative as it is offensive to whomever it is directed at, the aggressive interactions keep our exchange by virtue of the passion of the actors and actresses alone.

Lydia is one who often engages in this kind of behaviour, and an early scene between her and her good friend Frida, who feels threatened by Krimo’s presence at an outdoor but private rehearsal of the play, is the first of many similar scenes that nonetheless never lose their tension. We keep wondering whether acting out with words will lead to more violent reactions.

Although not single takes, the takes in these scenes are sometimes shot in a way that the camera has to constantly pan between two faces, each taking up the whole screen in close-up, which emphasises the speakers’ importance and fully directs our attention towards the particular speaker instead of the (temporarily) silent party.

The audience cannot escape these shouting matches, and although we get a false sense of security sometimes that things won’t get worse than words, the threat of violence and the assumption of authority that goes along with it sometimes pops up to ensure some stomach-churning moments — including one that involves the police patrolling the low-income suburbs constantly on the lookout for trouble they assume to be ubiquitous. While la Haine treated the threat of the police much more aggressively, Games of Love and Chance uses it with great success to underline the potential for one’s life to suddenly be turned upside down, simply because of living in one of these neighbourhoods.

Although there is little development in Krimo’s character (as opposed to the crises faced by Lydia and Frida — of whom the latter arguably has the hardest job confronting not only a threat on her life, but also theft, as well as some personal issues she has to resolve), we are glued to him perhaps because he says so little yet is not inscrutable. As Krimo, Osman Elkharraz delivers a wonderful performance that, like his interpretation of the character of Arlequin, which he plays when he decides to get closer to Lydia, says too little to be fully engaging, and never really seems to enjoy his life or the emotions that go along with being alive.

The film is edited together so there is no padding: Everything that happens is necessary and we get no dead space in between the important points.

A work of immense interest for anyone who wishes to see the Parisian suburbs as a vibrant hub of emotions rather than simply la banlieue, Games of Love and Chance benefits from the talented cast, including theatre actress Carole Franck as the teacher who tries her best to get Krimo to crawl out of his shell, express his emotions and enjoy the feeling of being in love. The language of the characters is one of the most interesting and impressive aspects of the production, as it becomes a part of the very fabric of the film. But while it admirably refuses to develop in the same way a film with a bigger budget would, it doesn’t thoroughly take advantage of some themes it raises through its intertextual use of Marivaux’s play either.

*The original title, l’Esquive, refers to a line in the play and translates as the action of shying away from something, or dodging it, instead of submitting to it. The connection with the material should be obvious.

Polytechnique (2009)

PolytechniqueCanada

4.5*
Director:
Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter:
Jacques Davidts
Director of Photography:
Pierre Gill

Running time: 77 minutes

It would be inappropriate to call a film about a mass shooting “lyrical”, but Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique comes as close as possible to such a description without undercutting the horror and the human impact of the events it depicts.

A recreation of the 1989 shooting at the Montréal Polytechnique university that left 14 students dead, another 14 injured, and a dead gunman, the film is shot in black and white and is intimate in its portrayal of three individuals deeply affected by the events.

At first, it’s unclear what the filmmaker’s approach is to the telling of his story. The opening scene shows a very immediately recognisable university environment: the copy room, where students are making photocopies of notes. Suddenly, piercing shots ring out from a hunting rifle and the two girls in the foreground fall to the floor, before the rest of the students in the room realise what has happened and start to panic.

We then cut to that same morning, in the apartment of the killer, where he is packing up his gun and bullets. He is behaving lifelessly, stares off into space and speaks but one word to his housemate. On the voiceover, we hear him speak his suicide note, in which he rants about women and the rights they demand and how they should be at home rather than stealing jobs that belong to men.

We don’t get a clear sense of this man, who doesn’t have a name in the film but whose real-life counterpart was Marc Lépine. But as the film plays out, it becomes clear how cleverly it was put together, as the film’s “present” (the shooting) seeps into its past and its future, not firmly connecting the threads but leaving us with a sense of coherence that is at once satisfactory and poignant.

There are many brief instances of the killer shooting the girls on campus, but there are even more moments of silence, almost never for the sake of tension (with the exception of the moment when the killer waits, rifle in hand, outside the first classroom where the victims would be his first), but because it is in tune with our minds going blank at the shock of the events unfolding before our eyes. When there is chaos, during a shooting or when a student named Jean-François rushes to inform security of the massacre, we are in the moment, but every second of silence makes us acutely aware of the spectre of death that hangs over this institution of higher learning on that snowy day in early December.

The killer’s actions are treated mostly as senseless, and his suicide note is the only insight we get into his act and his personality. Rather than focus on the events that brought him to this point, as done by the best film ever about a school shooting, the Estonian Klass, this film looks at two characters — one boy, Jean-François, and one girl, Valérie, both engineering students — whose lives changed forever on that day. Polytechnique is much more similar to Elephant, although Gus van Sant’s film spends more time with the killers, hinting at their reasons for feeling excluded by their peers; on the other hand, Villeneuve directs with a firm hand that produces a stylish work of art that is intellectually and emotionally mature. Jean-François’s consideration of Picasso’s Guernica in the copy room is proof of Villeneuve’s mastery of the medium of film, as this moment has nothing exaggerated or self-conscious about it.

But then, Villeneuve is one of Canada’s best directors. In his short film Next Floor, a group of people eat an impossibly rich meal until they are so heavy that the floor gives way and they fall onto the floor below, only to continue eating until the floor crumbles and they fall onto the next one. It is a surreal, heavily metaphoric work that is incredibly stylish and is both ominous and funny, using only visuals and minute audio cues. 

And in the widely acclaimed Incendies, his characters travel back to the country their mother came from — Lebanon — to eventually uncover a terrible tragedy that haunts them and us right until the very end.

Polytechnique has numerous seemingly insignificant moments that are later revealed from a different angle to give emotional resonance to the journey of the characters, especially Jean-François, and they are all well spaced out and never feel rushed or contrived. At key moments, Villeneuve cuts away from the massacre to show us an empty apartment, or a snow-covered landscape that break the tension but in retrospect add a great deal of depth to the events in the present.

The killings are senseless to those who have to live with the consequences of such a tragedy, and this message is the most important reference point for the viewer of this remarkable film.

Czech Dream (2004)

Cesky senCzech Republic

3.5*
Directors:
Vít Klusák
Filip Remunda
Screenwriters:
Vít Klusák
Filip Remunda
Directors of Photography:
Vít Klusák
Filip Remunda

Original title: Český sen

Running time: 90 minutes

Vít and Filip are documentary filmmakers from the prestigious Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), who will use their documentary skills over the course of the film to examine the gullibility of the average Czech citizen in 2003 by using an approach with a wholly unreal central object.

In the run-up to the Czech Republic’s decision to join the European Union, the country was inundated by a very well-funded government campaign to nudge (or push) Czechs in the direction of voting “yes” in the referendum. The glossy campaign led Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, final-year film students, to consider the impact such marketing has on a population, especially when the goal (joining the European Union) is more or less intangible.

They decided to use money from the Ministry of Culture to fund a project that would see them advertise a new hypermarket in Prague. The hypermarket would be called “Český sen” (Czech Dream) and the prices would be a small fraction of those paid in other hypermarkets. This happened around the time the country was first introduced to big shopping malls and chain supermarkets with reduced prices where customers could buy everyday groceries in bulk and find everything they looked for in one store, under one roof.

Using one of the top advertising agencies in the capital, the filmmaking duo proceed as if the hypermarket is real, even constructing an enormous scaffold on an open field outside the city. For the duration of the campaign, the location of the shop is kept a secret, and the marketing approach is playful and unconventional, touting a big surprise for everyone who comes on the opening day and telling potential shoppers everywhere not to spend, not to come, not to bother. So, reverse psychology. 

But the approach is surprisingly effective, and the whole city goes into quite a frenzy about the ridiculously low prices on the advertising pamphlets, including an offer of a colour television set for $25. If things are too good to be true, they usually are, but it’s difficult to kill a dream before reality hits you in the face. The hypermarket also has television spots and even an official jingle, complete with violins and a children’s choir.

We know this can’t end well, with people necessarily being disappointed, but the film’s interviews with a wide range of people, all of whom pitched up one sunny May 31 to witness the opening of, well, not a shopping mall, shows the expected mixture of anger and disillusionment. Walking from the holding area across a large open field to the scaffolding behind which the new mall supposedly lies, one individual already questions whether this is what the country’s future looks like if it joins the European Union, with malls like these, in the middle of nowhere, sprouting up.

Introduced by the filmmakers on the empty space in the suburb of Letňany that would be the location of their prank, we are in on the joke from the beginning, but as we spend very little time with them when they are portraying themselves (rather than acting the parts of the managers of the new mega shop), it is difficult to judge their attitude towards the people they are duping. Do they consider themselves superior? Do they think they are smart and the average Czech is a stupid fool? Or do they ever realise that their marketing campaign was good enough to pique the interest of even the most sceptical potential shopper?

We don’t know, but the opening shot showing Czechoslovaks in 1972 queuing for groceries, which eerily resembles the hordes rushing towards the scaffolding on May 31, 2003, is an indication that the filmmakers themselves don’t think much has changed, although that would be a terrible simplification of the situation.

The film is funny and certainly succeeds in pushing the envelope while it peeks behind the scenes of the advertising business (with those working in the industry memorably claiming that they never lie, and have terrible moral qualms with the filmmakers’ empty promises). Their fellow cameramen are determined to get answers from their interviewees and deserve a lot of credit for their persistence, though ultimately we don’t learn much from this material.

Czech Dream is a film that made a big splash upon its release, because it changed reality in order to be filmed, which can be risky terrain for a filmmaker, and the film’s directors fail by not being more visible in their own work or explaining their motivations. During a final question-and-answer session with furious would-be shoppers, they try to justify their actions, but we are not convinced. The film is based on a clever idea with some nifty details that may be inspired by the production of a fake war in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, but suffers greatly from the underinvolvement of its central characters. At one point, a mother in a parking lot sings “Hey, ho, nobody home”, a very serendipitous moment caught on film by Klusák and Remunda, and one that is bound to stick in your head as you watch both the crowds walking across an empty field and the filmmakers speaking to the angry mob.

From Beginning to End (2009)

 Brazil

4*
Director:
Aluizio Abranches
Screenwriter:
Aluizio Abranches
Director of Photography:
Ueli Steiger

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Do Começo ao Fim

From Beginning to End is a brave film from Brazil that handles not only the issue of incest, but of same-sex incest, with unbelievable grace and beauty, and were it not for some awkward moments of acting and an overuse of its poetic approach, this could have been a truly breathtaking film.

At times, the events as presented are depicted with such love and tenderness it is difficult not to be moved to tears, despite any misgivings one might have about the makeup of the relationship at the core.

The film, narrated by an adult Thomás, tells of the first few weeks after his birth, during which he didn’t open his eyes until he felt ready. That moment when he decides it is time coincides with a visit by his slightly older half-brother, Francisco, to the hospital, and when Thomás opens his eyes, he looks straight at Francisco.

Six years later, the young boys show a remarkable bond. Although they are stepbrothers and live in Rio de Janeiro with their radiant mother and the younger Thomás’s youthful father, Alexandre, everyone gets along very well, and there is great friendliness between these two parents and Francisco’s father, Pedro, who lives in Buenos Aires.

Luckily for them, such an open and friendly environment does not reject or question their intimate relationship, despite the parents’ suspicions that their sons’ behavior is not something they are used to seeing. But it has to be said that this behavior is heartrendingly beautiful.

Francisco takes on the role not only of older brother, but of caretaker to his brother, whom he showers with love and attention. As Thomás admits on the voice-over, his brother always made sure he was happy, as we can see in a scene where Francisco receives a present and then asks his father whether he brought Thomás a present as well.

We never see the two of them fight and they seem to share not only a bond but a heart and a soul. There is a scene where the 11-year-old Francisco falls asleep on his bed holding the 6-year-old Thomás in his arms that has more emotional resonance than most films about love and intimacy.

The film’s opening shots are long, unedited tracking shots and Aluizio Abranches should be highly commended for his direction of the two boys’ movements in these scenes, as they run through the house playing, being followed by the Steadicam. It’s an approach that is also very effectively repeated during a trip to Buenos Aires during adulthood.

While it is no surprise that the relationship between the two brothers turns physical when they become young men, this physical attraction isn’t always presented on-screen with the same careful approach as during the earlier scenes, and we get some awkward images that resemble soft-core porn and a transition from childhood to adulthood that is anything but smooth. However, this awkwardness is redeemed by numerous moments of endearing delicacy that join Thomás and Francisco over time, and we realise that there lies beauty in a relationship not born out of sex but born out love built up over a lifetime of shared memories.

When two partners are the same age and engage in acts that are pure and consensual, anyone with the faintest of libertarian streaks would agree that there is nothing wrong with them continuing their committed relationship with each other. Incest too often calls up the abhorrent crudeness of young girls and boys raped by their own father, which is something light years removed from the feelings of mutual love, respect and responsibility made evident in From Beginning to End.

Abranches acknowledges that his characters live in a kind of bubble, removed from the rest of the world, by having them mostly interact with each other whenever they are not speaking to their parents, and we start to wonder whether they have any other friends. In a particularly striking scene, when the bubble is about to break, they sit on a rocky wall high up on a hilltop with the Carioca coastline behind them, but it seems like the world behind them is cold, completely blue, filtered off from the contours of their immediate setting.

It is unheard of for a film of this nature to deal with its problematic central issue in this way, and while it steers clear of confronting some of the larger problems this relationship is likely to generate if more people became aware of it, its decision to immerse the viewer in a world of acceptance and understanding is understandable as it succeeds in communicating the strength of the feelings at play and the depth of emotion these characters share.

Hunger (2008)

UK
5*

Director:
Steve McQueen

Screenwriters: 
Enda Welsh
Steve McQueen
Director of Photography:
Sean Bobbitt

Running time: 90 minutes

There is greatness behind every shot in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. This film marks the début of a remarkable talent that does not come round very often and demonstrates what is still possible within the realm of so-called alternative cinema. All the conventional tricks have been avoided, and they have been replaced by new approaches to representation and produced a work that is poetic yet immediate, at times subjective yet never silly, has gritty realism yet shines with an amazingly distinct visual style and is never drab. And despite its minimal use of the spoken word, it rolls along fluidly.

At the end of 1980, after more than four years of a “blanket protest”, during which prisoners refused to don the prison uniforms, since they considered themselves a different kind of prisoner (i.e. a political prisoner), and a “no-wash protest”, which is self-explanatory, an Irish republican named Bobby Sands decided to go on hunger strike in protest against the British government.

Bobby Sands is played here by Michael Fassbender, and his performance strips him down to the bone, both physically and emotionally. The word that jumps to mind is “visceral”, and it covers much of the film, which contains many scenes of prisoners being beaten with many different kinds of weapons – hands and handheld.

In the film’s first 15 minutes, barely a word is spoken, as we follow a prison guard, whose knuckles always seem to be raw, from his home where he looks under his car before puling out of the driveway every morning to the prison where he works. A new boy has just been admitted, and immediately upon arrival, he sides with the rest of the prisoners at the prison (it is Maze prison, which used to be located just south-west of Belfast, in Northern Ireland) in refusing to wear the prison uniform. He is taken to his cell, where the walls are covered in faeces and food.

In one scene, urine streams down a corridor, cascading from mashed potato embankments inside the cells. In another, maggots crawl next to a sleeping inmate inside his cell. To this scene, shot with from a stationary viewpoint, McQueen brings the same beauty as when the prison guard smokes outside in the snow and a close-up of his hands (often repeated throughout the film) shows a snowflake melting on his reddened knuckles.

McQueen fully engages both image and sound, and he stages his action in a way that pushes his film towards a kind of transcendentalism. In another scene, the prisoners are subjected to a cavity search. Scores of guards, in riot gear, line a corridor while a naked prisoner faces the onslaught of batons, fists and feet, until he reaches a central area and is rectally searched in the most violent manner possible. The camera swerves to mirror the energy of the moment, and yet the effect is not confusion but rather inspirational empathy with the prisoners. Then, towards the end of the scene, we realise, with great surprise, that one of the prison guards has been reduced to tears and is standing behind a wall, sobbing.

This brief moment, perhaps more than the technical and visual dexterity of the director, shows his compassion for the whole spectrum of characters in his film and made me think of those few seconds, at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, when the vicious monster that was unleashed on Luke is destroyed and this monster’s keeper is similarly heartbroken. So few film makers realise that it is always more interesting to have characters do the unexpected than the expected actions of their narrative peers.

But it is the film’s much-commented scene at its midpoint, an unbroken take 16½ minutes in length featuring Sands and a priest, that pushes it into the upper echelons of film making and underscores the genius of the filmmaker. Though very different in tone from the aforementioned scene of the full cavity search and some truly violent interactions between the prisoners and their guards, our attention is kept rapt thanks to both the performances and the courage of McQueen, which deliver a breathtaking moment of stasis at the centre of physical chaos.

Even as the film turns towards a more spiritual perspective, while Sands is suffering from the physical effects of being on a hunger strike, the film elegantly switches between direct point of view and oblique point of view, which affects the camera’s movement while still regarding him from the outside. The addition of superimposed birds swarming over his face while the camera hovers menacingly over his hospital bed is no simple-minded Gus van Sant-inspired gimmick but a perfectly distilled, truly magnificent expression of a state of mind.

One minor flaw is the introduction of Bobby Sands’s character – he simply appears, as if from nowhere, to take centre stage. The characters we meet in the faeces-covered cell give a human perspective to the material, and when they are replaced by Bobby’s plot thread, the connection to the story is retained despite the lack of a back story for Sands. So, while McQueen handles this transition very well, the balancing act does not completely make up for the fact that an important part of the story is missing. Perhaps McQueen assumed we would forgive him this oversight since Sands has some messianic status, an argument underlined by a moment in which he is carried, Pieta-like (or Marat-like?), from a bathtub back to his bed.

North (2008)

Norway

4*
Director:
Rune Denstad Langlo
Screenwriter:
Erlend Loe
Director of Photography:
Philip Øgaard
Running time: 78 minutes

Original title: Nord

Jomar Henriksen is feeling blue, but he has decided to strike while the iron is hot – the iron being the gas stove in the little wooden structure, somewhere close to Trondheim, that functions as living quarters for this 30-year old who has been depressed since his wife and young son abandoned him following an accident he had on the slopes. He has panic attacks, spends most days lying in bed, popping pills and drinking spirits (often at the same time), and watching the National Geographic Channel on television, which is currently focused on tunnel disasters. But an unexpected visit by Lars, the man his wife left him for, makes Jomar reconsider the static trajectory of his existence, and so he goes on a trip up north (passing through a tunnel when he takes this decision), to bridge the abyss of the accident and stretch back into the past to reconnect with his family, and with other members of society.

This is a Scandinavian film, so you should expect a fair amount of deadpan behaviour from the characters, though the film seems positively action-packed compared to other well-known ventures such as the Norwegian The Bothersome Man, or the work of Swedish director Roy Andersson, not to mention the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. The fine observation of Jomar’s awkward road-trip and his gradual recognition that he must (and can) regain some sense of existence are made possible, in large part, by the very perceptive screenplay written by acclaimed author Erlend Loe.

Nord has a very small cast: scenes rarely, if ever, consist of more than three characters. Norway’s desolate, snowswept, winter landscape is beautiful and as it becomes ever more prominent towards the end of the film – including the gorgeous shots of either a snowmobile or a skier on the clean, white mountainsides – the film finds direct influences or indirect commentary on the events on the ground. A particularly striking moment occurs when the northern lights appear above a lonely shack in the snow while Jomar recounts the day of his skiing accident.

These characters that Jomar encounters on his journey up north prepare him, in subtle ways, to face the rest of the journey and also demonstrates that he has a good heart that has been numbed but not broken by recent experiences. He meets a teenage girl, Lotte, who is slightly abrasive in the way that most teenage girls are, but never annoying; she has her own problems of isolation. When Jomar’s snowmobile breaks down he is saved by Ulrik, barely out of his teens, who is always suspicious that Jomar might be gay – a sign that Ulrik might be a little confused about himself. And finally, close to his destination of Tamok Valley, he finds an old Sami man who spends his days in a big tent, having chained himself to his snowmobile.

The film consistently ensures that the viewers have a smile on their faces, and the cinematography does an admirable job of capturing the beauty of Norway. I was somewhat disappointed that the meeting between Jomar and Lotte, the teenage girl, was omitted, and we do not share much of Jomar’s perspective on the bleak wilderness around him, but the sad music (mostly strings, though one memorable moment is provided thanks to the Norwegian band “Kaizers Orchestra”) sets exactly the right tone for the story.

Videocracy (2009)

Italy / Sweden

3*
Director: Erik Gandini
Screenwriter: Erik Gandini
Directors of Photography:
Manuel Claro
Lukas Eisenhauer
Running time: 85 minutes

Videocracy, a documentary by the Italian-born filmmaker Erik Gandini, looks at the extent to which Italian television culture has become Italian culture tout court: it is a culture based on the most extreme kind of artifice and ignores the strides women around the world have made for their rights in the past century. In short, the current Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has shaped a culture that applauds the debasement of women – relegating them to the kitchen and rendering them mute and big-breasted – and he has used his many television stations to promote this idea over the past few decades.

Of course, this is not the first time Berlusconi serves as inspiration for a film – in 2006 Nanni Moretti memorably depicted him in Il Caimano – but Videocracy uses people close to Berlusconi, such as talent scout Lele Mora and celebrity Fabrizio Corona, to present us with a very good idea of the vast media empire that Berlusconi controls, and the power he exerts – not only politically, but ideologically and even culturally.

Italian television systematically presents women as objects of desire – no more, no less. Young Italian women want to conform to this figure of the silent mannequin, so that they might become objects of desire and (the dream!) marry a footballer. The apex of such stardom is the figure of the “Velina”: the silent blonde, who appears onstage during a talk show or a game show always hosted by a male presenter. From time to time she might break out into a 30-second dance routine called a “Staccheto”, before returning to her pose. The film paints a very tragic picture of the extremes of a heteronormative society in which there is no gender equality.

Director Erik Gandini has collected a great deal of material to show us this artifice in all its gaudy glory, but he does not dig much deeper. For example, I thought the character of Lele Mora, an old talent scout who invites young male celebrities to his house so that they can lounge around the pool and he can spy on them from his bedroom window, had great potential as a counterbalance (or at least a contradiction) to the very explicitly heterosexual foundations of Italian society. The fact that such an influential figure has what amounts to a harem at his house in Sardinia presented a wonderful opportunity to Erik Gandini, but rather than pursue this avenue, Gandini gives us Mora’s comparison of Berlusconi with Mora’s own idol, Mussolini. It is a silly moment that lasts much longer than it should (Mora has a Mussolini ring tone on his mobile phone), but Gandini picks up this train of thought again later in the film during a scene of a military parade, with the expected close-ups of boots marching and Berlusconi looking on as the artillery passes in slow motion.

Neither does Gandini succeed in tying his different threads together. Berlusconi is certainly at the centre of events, but in this 85-minute film we get a story of sad idealism in this society, where a 25-year-old mechanic named Ricky wants to impress the girls by singing Ricky Martin songs while performing karate, but he fails (because of Berlusconi’s television society, the film would have us believe, but it’s actually because he is bad at what he does). He has a firm belief that television ensures “that you’ll be remembered forever” and that an appearance on television puts you “10 steps above everyone else”, making it possible for you to compete with the football players for the hearts and bodies of those sought-after Italian women, i.e. the Veline.

We also get a glimpse of the sad life of Fabrizio Corona, an oversexed narcissist whose business dealing with the powerful elite in Italy is the stuff of gangster films. He memorably refers to himself as a modern-day Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself, but the storylines of Corona, Ricky, Lele Mora and Berlusconi are never really properly tied together.

Gandini also provides a very awkward voice-over that is annoying because Gandini speaks in English, which is not his native language, and there is no apparent reason why a better trained English speaker could not have delivered the narration.

The film lacks a tight focus on its subject and is happy to make us laugh at the madness of this television society, whenever the film is not relying on our admiration of its access to a forbidden world. One moment that does stand out is Berlusconi’s campaign video, a karaoke song about the excellence – nay, godliness – of this man who calls himself President (a label perpetuated by Gandini himself, who never calls the man “Prime Minister”).

Viewed at the Jihlava International Film Festival 2011