With a Little Patience (2007)

With its focus on the point of view of a single character, With a Little Patience anticipates the thematic and visual concerns of its director’s feature film début by eight years.

with-a-little-patience-turelemHungary
4.5*

Director:
László Nemes

Screenwriters:
László Nemes

Timea Varkonyi
Director of Photography:
Mátyás Erdély

Running time: 11 minutes

Original title: Türelem

László Nemes should be the only director ever allowed to tell stories of the Holocaust. Just like his feature film début, Son of Saul, released in 2015, his first short film shot in 35mm, With a Little Patience, made eight years earlier, is remarkably intense in its focus on a single character within the context of Jewish extermination during the Second World War. In this wordless, 11-minute film consisting of a single take, an anonymous office worker first appears to us when she emerges from soft focus, just as Saul Kaminski does in the opening seconds of Son of Saul.

An epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, specifically the poem’s curtain-raising “Burial of the Dead” section, figures on a black screen even before the first image: “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence. / Öd’ und leer das Meer.” These lines perfectly frame the misery and desperation that follow shortly afterwards.

Although the office worker appears in the frame almost immediately when the film opens, the first object that is in focus is the object handed to her by an unknown individual: a brooch. It takes some time before we come to realise the significance of this piece of jewellery, and in the interim, the silence takes on an air of mystery and tension that finally breaks with tremendous force, even from far away, in the closing moments.

As the narrative unspools, a nagging sense of misfortune hangs in the air, created in large part by the dark interior where most of the film is set. The setting is nondescript. The space is clearly an office of some sort, but the anonymous woman whom we follow for most of the film does not speak to anyone, and the only words spoken to her are a whisper, their meaning unknown to us. Furthermore, as Nemes would do again in Son of Saul, the focus is so shallow that the actions of all except this woman are presented as nebulous blurs of movement.

Very little happens, although it is obvious the woman is hiding something, and all along, we wonder, “Where did this brooch come from, and why is she clearly not supposed to have it?”

It is only at the very end – when the camera’s perspective changes, and in an unfortunate moment of directorial timidity, we leave the confines of the main character as the focus is racked to show events much farther away – that we grasp the spatio-temporal context of the film: a death camp somewhere on Nazi-occupied territory during the Second World War. The brooch is one of the pieces of jewellery that belonged to a Jewish prisoner, and this woman dressed in white, calmly and expressionlessly doing clerical work amid the grotesque carnage occurring just offscreen, is materially benefitting in her own small way from the subjugation, incarceration and liquidation of the Jews.

But this is but one interpretation.

While some may whimsically use the title to describe the lack of any robust dramatic development during the first two-thirds, this considerable part of the film actually works to heighten the impact of the final revelation on the viewer. By the time the chilling closing minutes roll around, the sudden shift in tone produces a visceral kick to the gut.

In With a Little Patience, Nemes offers a clear vision of his cinematic principles and a firm foundation on which he would ultimately go on to build the modern-day masterpiece that is Son of Saul. Tipping his hat to masters of the art form that include Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr, Nemes uses a carefully choreographed single take to exquisite effect and proves his is a voice that will reverberate through the industry in the years to come.

Her (2013)

Romantic drama inside a colourful science-fiction framework puts its finger on the reasons why people stay together and/or grow apart.

her-spike-jonzeUSA
4.5*

Director:
Spike Jonze

Screenwriter:
Spike Jonze

Director of Photography:
Hoyte van Hoytema

Running time: 125 minutes

It can be a constant battle for those in a relationship to remain together even as the two individuals grow in their own direction. Whatever sparked that initial euphoria may soon become nothing but a memory of two people meeting each other at a point in their lives that now seems vastly different from where they find themselves today.

This is but one very astute insight from Spike Jonze’s romantic drama Her, one of the most perceptive films about people and relationships since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s work of art that perfectly welded intelligence, emotion and comedy back in 2004. Her is similarly accomplished, as it takes a situation where a happy ending appears to be inherently impossible and makes us experience not just the emotional but also the intellectual fluctuations of its evolution by plumbing the depths of the human soul.

Set in a Los Angeles of the near future, the film examines the consequences of a decision made by the recently separated Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) to upgrade to a new operating system. Like most people, his current OS is functional but rather impersonal, and his physical and emotional isolation, along with the late-night porn, indicate that he needs more intimate interaction in his life.

The new OS, which he speaks to and which speaks back to him in a way that is cosy and understanding and with a sense of humour, has a name, and even though it doesn’t have a body, it resembles a person in most other ways. It is “Samantha”.

One of the best casting choices for this film was the voice of Samantha. It is important that we can visualise her, and that many in the audience will feel an attraction to her. The moment she starts speaking, we know it is Scarlett Johansson, and we can “see” her just as well as Theodore thinks he knows her.

In no time, it becomes obvious that this is not just going to be an OS to read back Theodore’s e-mails and proofread his online documents, but that Samantha will be an operating system for his soul – one that fills the void that was created when his wife left him. From the very first moment, we know Theodore will fall in love with Samantha. We also know that a relationship that is purely virtual, in which the couple can’t touch each other or be touched by a facial expression, is unlikely to last very long.

And yet, Her goes about its subject with the utmost understanding for why people come together, stay together or grow apart. It doesn’t frighten us with unnecessary drama, as it could so easily have done by transforming Samantha into a hysterical, mayhem-spreading virus that blackmails him to satisfy her own needs. On the contrary, Samantha remains a mostly level-headed being that is aware of its own development and is unsure how to handle the impact of change on a relationship she obviously cares about.

But while she has the world’s knowledge at the tips of her cables, she doesn’t have the same experience as Theodore when it comes to actual social interaction. No relationship is easy, but when you are used to interacting with a physical person and now you suddenly switch gears and expect the other person’s voice and intellect alone to keep the two of you together, it is going to be particularly tough. “What’s it like to be alive?” Samantha asks him.

Interestingly, as if to make herself believe that she is as real as Theodore, Samantha often uses the word “actually” in her speech. She is an artificially intelligent organism that can use its interactions and experiences to develop and adapt, and she is obviously unlike anyone Theodore has ever dated before, but the relationship can only grow to a certain point before her invisibility becomes a serious obstacle. Her artificial origins also raise questions such as whether her feelings are “real” or programmed, and whether it matters, since many of our emotions are also responses based on conditioning or context.

One of Her’s highlights is a scene in which an escort, who has been hired by Samantha to be the body while she provides the voice, arrives at Theodore’s apartment to be a surrogate for his virtual girlfriend. All at once, the problems of the relationship are crystallised, as Theodore suddenly has to confront the fact that his girlfriend will always remain just beyond his grasp.

This disconnect is visible in other ways in film, as we see busy streets and corridors filled with people, all of whom are talking to the operating systems plugged into their ears, but almost no one is talking to anyone else.

Throughout the film, the rich and deeply resonant score by Arcade Fire enriches our experience by seemingly channelling exactly what the characters are feeling with its gentle, wordless numbers. And the product is a glorious mix – just as one would expect given the theme of the story – of sounds and images, that moreover has understanding for the maturing of a relationship, from two people sharing a laugh to them meeting and getting along with each other’s friends, to making sure the other person feels like they are being heard, listened to and understood.

This emotionally intelligent film, a love story for the 21st century, marks a return for Jonze to the world of entertaining think pieces, such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, after his disappointing previous project, Where the Wild Things Are.

Citizenfour (2014)

Chilling documentary about maligned whistleblower contrasts his consistent belief in privacy, transparency with government’s wild, dishonest flip-flopping.

citizenfourUSA/Germany
4.5*

Director:
Laura Poitras

Edited by:
Mathilde Bonnefoy

Directors of Photography:
Kirsten Johnson

Trevor Paglen
Katy Scoggin

Running time: 115 minutes

One of the biggest disappointments of the Obama presidency has been that while the president has distinguished himself by seemingly approaching questions of national security with greater circumspection, or seriousness, than his predecessor, he has often arrived at the same conclusions and committed similar actions that have eroded public trust because of the seemingly sweeping power of the executive.

This administration, which has billed itself as the most transparent in history, has been equally opaque to both the press and the public, and those who criticise the government’s operations are labelled as traitors and their patriotism questioned, not only by those who did so in support of the previous administration but also by many in the current one.

Edward Snowden is not the first government whistleblower during the Obama years, but his case has certainly generated the most publicity because of the almost unimaginable reach his leaks have exposed to the public. Halfway through Laura Poitras’ chilling documentary Citizenfour, when we see President Obama for the first time, saying “I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot”, his words convey the exact opposite of what he represented when he ran for office, and he seems out of touch with reality, having become a prisoner to the greedy national security apparatus.

The title of the film refers to the name by which Snowden introduced himself when he first made contact with Poitras online. Poitras is no stranger to the government’s heavy-handedness, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have interrogated her on multiple occasions since the 2006 release of her My Country, My Country, which looked at life in Iraq after the U.S. forces invaded and occupied the country in 2003.

She shot most of Citizenfour during that exciting time in the summer of 2013 when the world did not yet know who had leaked the abundant treasure trove of National Security Agency (NSA) documents that indicated relentless, government-sanctioned spying on almost everyone. It suddenly seemed like this leak would finally cast light on the U.S. government’s invasion of privacy. For a while, that is what happened, but because the specter of terrorism still hangs over and propels every arguments from the intelligence community more than a decade after their failure to prevent the events of Sept. 11, 2001, many people at all levels of society and government are hesitant to call out the invasive nature of surveillance.

Just like those who questioned the United States–led invasion of Iraq were labelled anti-American, Snowden and those who support his selective leaks about the state’s reach into everyone’s electronic footprint are now said to be friends with America’s enemies. Although they will deny it, the people who flippantly make the latter argument seem to think that the government is their friend, when in fact it has become their enemy. Ironically, it is taking away U.S. and non-U.S. citizens’ rights while pretending to do so for their own good.

Half of the film – exactly one hour – takes place in Hong Kong, most of it inside Snowden’s room at the Mira Hotel, whither he had invited Poitras and Rio de Janeiro–based journalist Glenn Greenwald, as well as The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill. While these four people were holed up in that tiny room, Snowden’s life is on the verge of going up in flames, a fact underscored when he learns government agents have paid a visit to his girlfriend back home, even though his identity as the whistleblower was still undisclosed.

He provides documents, charts and other presentations to the journalists and helps them sift through the information that at times is almost too stunning to contemplate. Recognising the sheer scale of the revelations, Snowden confirms this is as bad as it seems. “It’s not science fiction; this is happening right now.”

This central part covers brief explanations of the meanings of multiple acronyms or other code names, such as Prism, Tempora and XKeyscore, with enough disclosure about profound overreach to keep on giving the audience goosebumps for the entire duration. This section is bookended by 20 minutes to set the stage and 40 minutes to follow the consequences of the revelations, including the infamous detention of Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport in August 2013. It is an emotional moment for the audience when Miranda arrives back in Rio de Janeiro, because the feeling of despair is palpable and truly overwhelming.

What follows Greenwald’s and MacAskill’s initial articles is a media frenzy and a clampdown on Snowden’s freedom, including the U.S. Department of State’s decision to revoke his passport, which left him in the no man’s land of one of Moscow’s international airports. We do not get to see this part of the journey, because Poitras says her own security was compromised by the leaks, and she spent much of the next year in Berlin to edit her footage.

However, one scene in Brazil is surprisingly moving and concerns a speech by Greenwald at a senate hearing to investigate NSA spying on Brazilian citizens. While Greenwald lays out some of the surveillance programs and their significance, a few people in the audience hold up paper printouts of Edward Snowden’s face. This kind of solidarity with a man on the run for illuminating the dirty truth is admirable and fortunately is free of the political shading it would be subjected to if it occurred in the United States (at the very least, the silent protesters would likely be put on a watch list immediately, curtailing their freedom of travel).

The film ends with a few big moments, but because the story is so current and still developing, it is necessarily incomplete. For now, Snowden still lives in Russia as a refugee. The film contains a single scene with WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, who is also a refugee, currently in hiding inside the Embassy of Ecuador in London, but while we see him aware of Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, it is unfortunate that we get very little other information about his involvement in the affair.

The final scene strongly hints at the knowledge of wrongdoing that time and again goes all the way to the top of the U.S. executive branch. Even just going by the Snowden documents, it seems to be clear that Obama has utterly failed to live up to the promise he made in a campaign speech in 2007, when he said, “I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens, no more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime, no more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war, no more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient.”

Citizenfour is an absolutely riveting and utterly compelling documentary that provides details about the U.S. and UK surveillance industries that only the most dedicated reader of The Guardian may have been familiar with. Snowden, dressed in a white T-shirt as he patiently explains the complex ways in which the NSA and its partners ignore people’s right to privacy, often smiles and projects a warm, friendly demeanour, far from the egomaniacal vision of self-righteousness many in government have suggested. He is calm, direct and very articulate; he also clearly measures his words when he speaks and is reluctant to become “the story”, even though he knows it is probably inevitable.

The only person less interested than Snowden in being the focus of the media spotlight is Poitras, who never appears on camera and whose voiceover is delivered dispassionately, because the information is powerful enough and does not require any emphasis for effect. Compare this approach with the bombast and the saturated onscreen presence of Michael Moore in his films, and the narcissism of the latter becomes difficult to ignore.

It is impossible to estimate what the importance of this material will be 10 or 20 years from now, and Snowden’s future (his current residence permit is valid until 2017) remains as opaque as his own movements. Poitras’ unique access to her subject has shown us the relatable man behind the revelations whom many call a traitor even though he came forward armed with the truth, while they ignore those who lied and were caught red-handed, like James Clapper and Keith Alexander, because they were allegedly doing this to protect the country. The battle for the truth and for the recognition of Snowden’s trailblazing activities continues, but Poitras’ film has gone a long way towards rightfully rehabilitating the image of one of the 21st century’s most consequential freedom fighters.

Stories We Tell (2013)

Sarah Polley’s semi-documentary seeks to tell the truth, insofar as it can be told honestly, even while openly admitting it is necessarily constructed and incomplete.

stories-we-tellCanada
4.5*

Director:
Sarah Polley

Screenwriter:
Sarah Polley

Director of Photography:
Iris Ng

Running time: 110 minutes

Not unlike the powerful 2012 Slovak film Nový život, in which documentary filmmaker Adam Oľha looked at the deterioration of his parents’ relationship with the help of archive footage from his childhood, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell builds an insightful film from the family’s Super-8 home movies.

The result is astounding, not only because of the breathtaking revelation at its core, but because the way in which it was constructed is pure genius: The film is intelligent, entertaining and informative, but we also come to realise that Polley’s decision to show how the film itself was made fits perfectly with her subject matter and in fact shields her from expected criticism, not least of which comes from the mouth of one of the main players.

Polley, a 34-year-old Canadian actress and director who has starred in My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words, among others, here traces her own life through the eyes of her father, her siblings and her parents’ friends and acquaintances. The goal is to get at the real story that involves her late mother, the only person directly implicated who does not provide her side of the events.

These events entailed a secret that became an open secret before it became a bomb shell. I can be general here without giving much away by saying that Polley was not the daughter of the man she always thought was her father. But who this other person was, and how she found him, is the domain of the film’s content, which you have to see for yourself to believe.

At first glance, it seems Polley approaches her subject matter very matter-of-factly, by interviewing all the parties who are still alive and quizzing them on what they knew and when they knew it. Their facts take the form of a story, necessarily tied to their own points of view and subjective experiences, but we get a very coherent and cohesive, allhough not entirely comprehensive, narrative that flows together and is fed by the words of all these individuals.

However, as archive footage accumulates of incidents that couldn’t possibly have been filmed at the time, or of which such footage would be incredibly hard to come by, we start asking ourselves whether Polley in fact staged some of the historical events she purports to portray with actual footage.

When Polley answers our question late in the film, it immediately becomes apparent why she shot her story in a way that is not strictly the domain of the documentary film. While her focus is always on her mother, and the strategy is to use as much material as possible, be it from the past or from her interviews in the present, Polley does eventually come around to examining her own role as storyteller.

Her parents were both actors; in fact, her mother, Diane, fell in love with Michael because the role he was playing at the time was strong and interesting. The secret Diane kept from Michael, about Sarah’s father, would also require her to play a role by pretending that her lie was the truth. But at one point a central character says his side of the story may contain elements that are misremembered but none that is a lie. That throwaway comment, as well as his objection to the director’s inclusion of other voices besides his in the story, makes us understand the film can only be the asymptote of reality (an old idea borrowed from film André Bazin), reaching toward it but never reaching it entirely faithfully.

Super 8 continues to signal reality very strongly to an audience for whom anything that resembles home video footage still evokes a robust feeling of truthfulness for the vast majority of viewers. That is, of course, what made J.J. Abrams’ monster film Super 8 both compelling and disorientating.

But when Polley starts showing us how the film was actually made, in a way that sought to enhance the storytelling potential of her work without any attempt to defraud the audience or misrepresent the story itself, it is a stunning moment of realisation that this is much more than just another documentary. It is a work that reflects on the possibility of finding truth in a work that is always already edited and therefore manipulated.

Stories We Tell has moments of fun and tremendous comedy scattered along the generally informal quest for truth, and even if we agree that no film can reproduce the past as it was, Polley has given future filmmakers a roadmap to engage the audience by deploying very sympathetic individuals and asking the questions we ask ourselves while watching the film.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Leviathan (2014)

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s fourth film is a scathing take on religion and politics in modern-day Russia.

leviathanRussia
4.5*

Director:
Andrey Zvyagintsev

Screenwriters:
Andrey Zvyagintsev

Oleg Negin
Director of Photography:
Mikhail Krichman

Running time: 140 minutes

Original title: Левиафан
Transliterated title:
 Leviafan

Towards the end of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, the long-suffering main character, Nikolai, meets an old priest in the grocery store of the small town in far northeastern Russia where the story takes place. Nikolai, or Kolya, the nickname by which almost everyone calls him, has faced hardships the past year that no hardworking man should have to deal with, and perhaps predictably the priest quotes Scripture, from the Book of Job: “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?”

The quotation doesn’t help Kolya all that much (the priest also basically encourages him to grin and bear it), but at least we have the beginning of an explanation for the title, which refers to the giant sea monster God allegedly slayed. However, Zvyagintsev’s view of present-day Russian society is very bleak, and it would seem this time Leviathan is a monster even God himself is unable to tame, much less destroy.

The film is a devastating indictment not only of the rotten core of the country’s authorities, including the police, the judicial and the political systems, but also of the role of the Orthodox Church in the business of the state. Just as Jesus looks down from his cross on the congregation during a service, so, too, does Putin’s portrait (albeit a much younger version of the man) in the office of the town’s mayor, Vadim. Vadim’s deeds, however, read like “a horror story”, according to Kolya’s brother, Dmitri, a Moscovite lawyer who has come to help him fight the system.

What makes Leviathan such a daring work of art is that the director doesn’t shy away from taking on a handful of evil foes that one would assume can get him in trouble with the authorities. After all, the infamous Pussy Riot incident (and the subsequent penalties imposed on those who publicly criticise the regime), not long before the film’s release, made the power of the Church in Russian politics inescapably clear to the world.

The plot is mainly about the town’s decision to take prime land next to the sea, where Kolya has lived for many years, in a move that would be described as eminent domain, except there is no clear reason why the town would have to do this, save perhaps its sublime location. The case has ended up in the courts, because Kolya refused to accept the puny sum of money offered to him by the town (a slap in the face, considering the size of the house and the effort he has put into it over the years), and in a breathtaking scene, the court’s judge dismisses all Kolya’s objections with a slew of legalese, siding with the town. We later see the judge and her assistants taking notes from the mayor, who assures them that their continued cooperation would mean they will be re-appointed to the bench come the next election.

This scene in the courtroom – shot almost entirely in a single take, during which the camera slowly zooms in on the judge’s face as she reads out, at the pace of a machine gun going off, the history of the case and the complete rejection of Kolya’s claims – is simply amazing. It is subtly paralleled with a later scene in the Orthodox Church, in which the priest speaks at a similar tempo for a comparable amount of time.

But the film’s most pointed criticism of the state comes during a vodka-soaked hunting trip. When the man celebrating his birthday has had enough of shooting bottles, he suggests making things more interesting, and he brings portraits of former Soviet leaders to place as the target. We see Brezhnev and Lenin and Gorbachev. But then one of those in attendance slyly asks, “And do you have anyone more recent?” Of course, the audience knows exactly whom he has in mind.

This kind of lèse-majesté, which delicately suggests Putin should be shot, or at least that he is as flawed as previous Soviet leaders, may seem entirely appropriate to a Western audience, but Zvyagintsev has to know he is walking a very fine line here between art and resistance, which Putin is not exactly known for tolerating.

Leviathan flows inexorably towards its tragic conclusion, the plot more rich and lively than we would expect from a Zvyagintsev movie. The pace is less contemplative than we are used to in his films, except for the continual reminders of the waters rhythmically and unstoppably breaking on the shore. Philip Glass’s expressive “Akhnaten”, which bookends the film, resonates with us the moment it starts and proves to be a powerful way of suggesting the almost operatically tragic aspect of the events we see unfolding. At the same time, however, the church is never far from implicated, and a brief shot of a painting on the wall of an old church, showing the head of John the Baptist on a plate, reminds us that things will not necessarily turn out well for those who live a righteous life.

In his most powerful film to date, Zvyagintsev uses the confluence of religion and politics to make a statement about the endemic corruption and the far-reaching tentacles of those in power, portrayed with his always exquisite eye for stunning imagery. This is one to see.

Viewed at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

All Is Lost (2013)

Robert Redford’s tour de force as a man lost at sea makes us realise what has been missing from single-character movies.

all-is-lostUSA
4.5*

Director:
J.C. Chandor

Screenwriter:
J.C. Chandor

Director of Photography:
Frank G. DeMarco

Running time: 105 minutes

It’s not easy to carry a film all on your own. Philip Baker Hall did it as a ranting Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, a film that unfortunately wasn’t as compelling as director Robert Altman’s other chamber film, the ensemble-driven Streamers, and to some extent Ryan Reynolds (with the help of voices on the other end of a phone line) pulled it off in the disturbing Buried.

All is Lost puts all previous lone-character efforts to shame (most notably, Tom Hanks’ talkative island man in Cast Away), as the film’s main and only character does not even have a name, and the director doesn’t take the easy way out by having him speak to himself. Played by Robert Redford, “Our Man” has a full three lines of dialogue, of which half consist only of the odd four-letter word to explain his frustration with the situation or vocalise the realisation that this may be the end.

The situation is the following: Having navigated his yacht to a point on the Indian Ocean far away from any civilization – and most significantly, 1,700 miles from the seaway all cargo ships use to transport their goods across the vast body of water – he wakes up to discover his yacht, the Virginia Jean, is taking in water. While he was asleep on the calm seas, a container filled with tiny shoes had fallen off a cargo ship, bobbed on the waves and eventually struck his boat. Fortunately, for the most part, the hole can be repaired; unfortunately, it’s not going to be calm seas all the time, and plain sailing is out of the question.

The film is about survival on open waters as much as Gravity is about survival in outer space. In both films, there is no one to help you when you need it most, and you are left to your own devices to figure out what to do and how quickly to do it, because time – or oxygen, or fresh water – is running out.

Being a seaman means being creative and prepared for anything. When you are exposed to the elements, with only yourself and a tiny boat standing between life and death, a situation can turn extremely challenging if you don’t know how to deal with potentially disastrous turns of events. You can never completely relax.

That is what Redford’s character here learns very quickly. And even though we know nothing about him – not his name, nor how long he has been on the water, nor anything about his family history – we feel entirely sympathetic towards his predicament. We can see he is doing his best, and he clearly has spent some time on the water during his lifetime, but still, the fear is always there that nature will wreak too much havoc for him to handle.

Every time we hear thunder rolling, our stomachs start to churn, and for most of the second half of the film, the tension is nearly unbearable. It is the result of many different factors that include the sharpening of our senses, because there is never any dialogue to distract us from the action; the potential that the lead character will drown; and the uncertainty of how long this ordeal will last before the sun breaks through and the enormous waves subside.

We have not seen this kind of action at sea since The Perfect Storm, and although a few shots of Redford at the helm taken in the midst of a storm don’t look entirely realistic, the rest of the production comes across flawlessly, at least in its visual presentation. I am no seaman, so I can’t judge how accurate or suitable the character’s actions are and whether they in any way made the situation better or worse. But Redford’s depiction of a man whose demeanour changes from calm, controlled and determined to dehydrated, exhausted and slightly delirious is a truly compelling job of acting, and he deserves great credit for steering the film in the right direction.

The film is only the second by director J.C. Chandor, whose 2011 début Margin Call also took place in a limited time and place: over a period of 24 hours in an investment bank, shortly before the 2008 financial crisis hit.

All is Lost has a perfectly ambiguous ending, and although one can quibble about the need for an opening voice-over that attempts to frame the film in terms of suspense rather than surprise (as if the title didn’t suffice), it is a breath-taking work of fiction that shows what single-character dramas should look like.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Wadjda (2013)

 

Saudi Arabia’s first film directed by a woman, and one of its first feature films ever, steals our hearts with a determined teenage girl in the lead.

wadjdaSaudi Arabia/Germany
4.5*

Director:
Haifa al-Mansour
Screenwriter:
Haifa al-Mansour

Director of Photography:
Lutz Reitemeier

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: وجدة

Finely balancing Western entertainment (a young girl in Saudi Arabia pursues her dreams in her conservative country, which basically amounts to an unconscious act of women’s liberation) with respect for the country’s traditional view of men and women, director Haifa al-Mansour has crafted a film that is sure to generate a lot of discussion abroad and at home.

Wadjda, which is also the name of the 12-year-old main character (played by Waad Mohammed), is a feel-good movie that doesn’t try to sugarcoat the reality of the restrictive environment for women in Saudi Arabia. And yet, even though women clearly have fewer rights than the men, the young Wadjda stands out not because of a deliberate activist streak but because of her very simple desire to speak truth whenever she is asked about her dreams.

Everything comes back to a bicycle, which Wadjda wants to ride – an act that is frowned upon in her society and her parents expressly forbid her to pursue. The reasoning goes the same as recent discussions about women driving in Saudi Arabia: It would allegedly render them infertile, because they would be doing something that only men have been doing. Even Wadjda’s mother, who is not unintelligent, believes this drivel, and when she catches Wadjda riding a bike, she is convinced her daughter has damaged herself and her reputation by somehow losing her virginity in the process.

It is no coincidence that the mother has Wadjda’s virginity on her mind, because she herself is now infertile after having had only one child. Wadjda’s father is unimpressed and is looking elsewhere for a second wife who can produce a son for him. The liberty granted by society to the men is easy to notice, as we recognise in a rather shocking scene when men are working on a roof overlooking the girls’ school that Wadjda attends, and it is up to the girls to go into hiding lest they be seen by (and therefore excite) the men, who usually only get to see the faces of the women in their own family.

Our insight into Wadjda’s state of mind regarding the bike doesn’t go as far as grasping whether she is entirely aware of the social resistance she is facing or simply decides to ignore others’ objections, but the important thing is that her determination comes across as courageous, because we know what she is up against.

The story, although rather simple, does provide a glimpse of burgeoning teenage sexuality, as Wadjda’s friendship and playful rivalry with a boy, Abdullah, makes clear: Her main goal in getting the bike for herself is so that she can race him and prove that she is actually just as good, if not better, than him. During the film, we get a firm impression that the young Abdullah is rather infatuated with Wadjda, and this relationship is a wondrous thing in a film where we see Salma, one of Wadjda’s classmates (also around 12 years of age), getting married off to an adult and Wadjda’s own mother rejected by her father because he now deems her reproductive organs useless to him.

The film does, however, have a wide array of characters, and besides Abdullah, the man who runs the toy shop that sells the bike that Wadjda yearns for is also a very important addition to the narrative, as he adds complexity to our perception of the Saudi population. Wadjda touches on a host of topics, including the pariah status that two girls incur when they seem to grow too close to each other, as well as the blatant lasciviousness expressed by adult males towards young girls.

Wadjda may be victimised by the men and even by her school principal, but she never plays the victim; on the contrary, we find her likeable because she reacts with the comebacks we want her to have, taking others to task for their hypocrisy and telling the truth when she feels passionate about her position. To make money to buy the bike, she also engages in some less than honest business, but we are on her side because she is not hurting anyone. And a very important scene in which she discovers a stash of money but doesn’t take any of it because it’s not hers affirms her good intentions and makes us admire her even more.

Wadjda is a strong character who clings to the truth and shows her mettle and her determination by taking part in a religious competition, and she may very well be one of the most likeable child characters to be onscreen in a very long time, making the film a true joy to watch.

When Saudis will be able to see the film, however, is still an open question, as the country barely has any movie theatres, and people get most of their silver-screen entertainment beamed in from abroad.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Peacock (2015)

Short film about Czech playwright Ladislav Stroupežnický is a period piece like almost no other and has a central character who almost never speaks but evokes passion beyond words.

furiant-peacockCzech Republic
4.5*

Director:
Ondřej Hudeček 

Screenwriters:
Jan Smutný

Ondřej Hudeček
Director of Photography:
Ondřej Hudeček

Running time: 27 minutes

Original title: Furiant

The early years of the 19th-century critical realist Czech playwright Ladislav Stroupežnický are vividly brought to life with a dazzling display of humour and unconventional storytelling in Ondřej Hudeček’s 25-minute short film, Peacock (Furiant). This is the story of a young rebel whose first encounter seemed to have been divinely ordained. And even though the tale also has a tragic component, a warm romanticism that is both affectionate and slightly tongue-in-cheek infuses the presentation of the material.

Borrowing liberally from the visual style of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as is to be expected in any period film worth its salt, the film has another reference that is even more pertinent in terms of eccentricity and playfulness: Tony Richardson’s 1963 classic Tom Jones, which has become regrettably underseen and underknown. Hudeček’s use of a period setting to tell a story that is every bit as energetic as a music video and filled with painterly landscapes yet almost entirely devoid of dialogue is thrilling, and the film’s glimpse of this famous playwright is as witty as it is educational.

The structure of Peacock, which comprises an introduction, three acts and an epilogue, is just about the only aspect that one might label as traditional, as the contents and the presentation of the material are dynamic. Not only does the film deploy animation, droll title cards and a side-splitting extract from a screenplay, but it even does away with dialogue altogether, replacing it with the coherent, ubiquitous and atmospheric voice-over by Lukáš Hlavica.

Book-ended by gorgeous shots of the interior of Prague’s National Theatre, a magnificent symbol of the Czech National Revival to which Stroupežnický would become an important contributor (many of his plays would also be performed here), the film covers 14 years in the author’s early life, from 1853 to 1867. We follow him on his riotous rejection of authority, especially of the Church, and his first love.

Ironically played by a German and not a Czech actor, the young Stroupežnický (Julius Feldmeier) has a tense face that almost never relaxes, except in the company of Jan Aleš, a close friend whom a title card early on introduces as “a poet and a great lover”. This unexpected meeting between the two is anticipated – even endorsed – in religious terms, as the narrator tells us that “Ladislav, rebelling against the supreme authority, was unaware that he would soon receive a great sign from above.” 

This first love very intelligently marks the end, at least for him, of romanticism. In fact, the film suggests that the disintegration of their intimacy – whose melodrama is rivalled only by the climax, in which Stroupežnický attempts to commit suicide but is seemingly (and rather hilariously) spared by divine intervention – was a turning point for the artist and somehow explains his subsequent conversion to critical realism.

The film uses the music of Antonín Dvořák, one of the most famous Czech composers of all time and a contemporary of Stroupežnický, all the way through, and his series of “Slavonic Dances”, in particular, provides a rich and sometimes thrillingly bombastic frame for the emotions at work in the story.

The Czech title appears to be somewhat ironic, too, as Furiant literally means “show-off”, even though Stroupežnický almost never utters a word. The original meaning refers to the type of movements that accompanied, among others, Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances”. Clearly, the English title is connected to the first meaning, and the attention paid to the film’s absolutely stunning visuals – especially the exterior scenes, although at least one interior shot also draws attention because of its theatrical composition – is highly commendable and helps to immerse us in the beauty of the story.

Hudeček’s work here is absolutely flawless, and his talent for producing splendid images that knock us with emotional hammer blows, often in complete silence, makes the experience of watching the film all the more intense. Filled with sly humor, bubbling with creativity and assembled as a coherent work of fiction that draws on reality for inspiration, Peacock is as colourful as its English title suggests. 

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Son of Saul (2015)

Tight focus, searing details and a wholly original approach combine to produce one of most powerful Holocaust films of all time in this début feature film of László Nemes.

son-of-saul-fiaHungary
4.5*

Director:
László Nemes 
Screenwriters:
László Nemes 
Clara Royer

Director of Photography:
Mátyás Erdély

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Saul fia

The world didn’t know it needed another Holocaust drama until Son of Saul (Saul fia) came along. Focused on one lone protagonist – the titular Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian – for its running time by blocking out almost everything around him through shallow focus and an aspect ratio that is close to a square, the film is 105 minutes of pure immersion in the tension that pervades a concentration camp (press materials state it is Auschwitz, but this is not evident to the outsider) towards the end of the Second World War.

The opening is breathtaking, as Saul approaches us in a blurred shot of a forest landscape until his face appears in a sharp close-up. For the next few minutes, we follow him, swinging from the front to the back, over his shoulders, as a train arrives, and the latest group of Jewish prisoners offload their belongings and make their way into the camp. His face does not betray a single emotion. However long he has been here, he has been hardened by his experience, and he goes about a range of unthinkable duties with the robotic dedication of a drone. And yet, there are signs that underneath the surface, he is fully aware of the savagery all around him.

In one of the film’s first scenes, we see a group of prisoners, likely the ones who arrived in the opening scene, led to the showers. Saul, wearing a coat with giant red X on the back, which means he belongs to the exclusive Sonderkommando burdened with cleaning the gas chambers after executions have taken place, among other ghastly chores, stands to one side. We see the doors closing, and soon the screaming starts. The screams become shrieks, and the shrieks turn to wails, before silence announces death. When the doors open, the bodies are dragged outside, and the victims’ clothes, neatly hung in the cloakroom, are ransacked for anything that glitters. Saul covers his nose and mouth with a thin piece of cloth to ward off the stench of the deceased.

But there is a slight groaning among the heap of corpses, and it belongs to a young boy. The doctor examines him, listens to his wheezing chest, and then grabs his head, closes his nasal passages and puts a hand over his mouth. Within seconds, the boy stops breathing. Saul sees all of this, and inside him something breaks. He desperately looks for any identification among the pile of clothes, but he finds none. Later, he asks the doctor not to dispose of the body after the autopsy.

Despite Saul’s lack of visible emotion, we learn over time that the boy is his son, or that he thinks the boy is his son. This piece of information seems utterly far-fetched, not only because the boy was serendipitously the only survivor from the group but also because the group of prisoners did not even come from Hungary. Nonetheless, Saul is determined that the boy be given a proper Jewish burial, and he spends the rest of the film trying to track down a rabbi who would say Kaddish, a prayer in honour of the dead.

Many of the scenes consist of a single take, or what feels like a single take. It bears mentioning at this point that this is director László Nemes’s début feature – a fact that seems astounding, given the obvious challenges of choreographing the actors as well as the camera as they move through a variety of spaces. Nemes’s experience with film does include, however, a stint as assistant director on The Man from London (A londoni férfi) by Béla Tarr, famous for his use of long takes.

This approach to his story is tremendously effective, and even though some of the takes include long stretches without dialogue, there is not a single dull moment in the entire film. On the contrary, the viewer becomes more and more tense as the story continues to develop. Nemes accomplishes this task by focusing on the details without showing them explicitly. The tight locus that is Saul is the point from which we glimpse the chaos around him, and while there are no real establishing shots anywhere in the film, it is clear this is hell on earth.

From piles of ash (cremated bodies) being shovelled into a lake to prisoners lining up next to a pit to be shot point-blank the one after the other, the things we see here – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly – are gruesome and will haunt many a viewer. And yet, the filmmaker never goes for spectacle, because the brief events here are always extensions of the horror that is all around Saul, and by their presence they help us to comprehend what it is from which he seeks to escape.

Son of Saul is a tour de force like few others. It keeps the viewer guessing, not only about the trajectory but about the nature of the chaos taking place in front of our very eyes, and is without question a Holocaust film that ranks among the very best ever made.

Viewed at the 2015 San Sebastián International Film Festival

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

An 18-second reconstruction of a historical event hints at the violence and invisible special effects that would ultimately become integrated into the stories told on film.

execution-mary-stuartUSA
4.5*

Director:
Alfred Clark

Screenwriter:
Alfred Clark

Director of Photography:
William Heise

Running time: 18 seconds (0.3 minutes)

It is an indisputable fact that movies as we know them today, at least as we have known them for decades, projected to dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people watching and enjoying them as a film-going community, originate with the French Lumière brothers. But the great U.S. inventor Thomas Edison does have a claim on inventing one kind of moving picture. Thanks to his Kinetoscope, which he was inspired to develop by another giant of the early moving picture industry, Eadweard Muybridge (best known for his Horses in Motion images, a series of pictures that showed for the first time exactly how horses gallop), stories could now be told with life-like movements. Many of these glimpses of real-life movement that the Kinetoscope recorded pre-dated the Lumières’ Cinematograph.

One big difference between his films and those of the French brothers was that Edison’s productions were not projected onto a screen: They could only be watched by one person at a time through a peephole on top of a large machine. Another major difference is that these early Edison films were shot (and “projected”) at an astounding rate of around 40 frames per second, nearly twice as fast as films today (24 fps) and much faster than the Lumière films (16 fps).

But what they lacked for in technical wizardry, Edison’s directors made up for in creativity, and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (also known as The Execution of Mary Stuart) is likely the first film to use the possibilities of the medium to produce a film that is not a mere recording of sights and sounds. It was recorded on 28 August 1895, after the production of some of the Lumière films but before they were screened in Paris exactly four months later. While it falls into the tradition of the “tableau”, a single unmoving frame in which all the players appear together and are nearly immobile, this special effects film uses editing to obscure an important replacement of an actor by a mannequin.

The film is not about a story but – like so many other films during the 1890s – about an event, namely the 1587 execution of the former queen of the Scots, Mary Stuart, following more than 18 years in captivity. The film does not provide any context, but to the viewer of 1895, when the film was produced, it must have been an unusual experience to peek into a Kinetoscope and see someone decapitated.

This 18-second film depicts a throng of soldiers bearing spears who have gathered around a masked executioner waiting next to the chopping block. In front of him, the berobed former queen (actually, in full Shakespearean style, played by a man, Robert Thomae) walks closer and kneels on the ground. The executioner picks up his axe and brings it down on the woman’s neck. A quick cut later, the head has been separated from the body and falls over the other side of the block. The executioner picks up the head and lifts it proudly into the air while the soldiers rush forwards to have a look for themselves.

The event has a melancholy but tense beginning, a violent middle and a triumphant, gory ending. The scene is brightly illuminated, and the focus is tight and narrow, although the soldiers standing around are something of a stand-in for the viewer and her own curiosity.

Director Alfred Clark, who was only 21 years old at the time and had replaced WK Dickson as the official photographer at Edison’s company after Dickson’s departure in April 1895, shows how even at the early stages of the film business, there was already a desire to elicit a visceral reaction from the viewer. In the case of this film, which hints at the subsequent evolution in editing and special effects, this desire compelled the director to get creative and produce one of the most interesting landmarks in early cinema.