The Snake Brothers (2015)

Two brothers – one addicted to drugs, the other yearning to be his own boss – make the most of their limited means in the bleak Czech countryside.

snake-brothers-kobry-uzovkyCzech Republic
4*

Director:
Jan Prušinovský
Screenwriter:
Jaroslav Žváček

Director of Photography:
Petr Koblovský

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Kobry a užovky

Petr, aka “Cobra”, is in his 20s and unemployed in Kralupy nad Vltavou, a town just north of Prague in Central Bohemia. He dyes his short hair purple, and in the opening scene we find him walking down an empty street with bolt cutters on his back. He notices a semi-abandoned wooden house and decides to empty it of its electrical appliances. Shamelessly, he piles them into a trolley – in full view of the gobsmacked neighbour – before heading back out.

His older brother, Vojtěch, aka “Viper”, is working in a factory but often arrives late because he so frequently has to deal with the police who phone him up at night when Cobra causes a public disturbance, yelling from the rooftops about his latest “plan”. Viper is tired of the factory work, exhausted because he is not sleeping enough and fed up with being told he is not pulling his weight. He tells his employer to go jump in a lake and makes his way to the nearest pub.

The Snake Brothers was directed by Jan Prušinovský and stars real-life brothers Kryštof and Matěj Hádek as the two fictional siblings. The characters in Prušinovský’s film have little chance or ambition to escape the closed cycle of existence in their small town, but the director is never too hard nor too soft on them, and sometimes their desperate acts can be simultaneously heartbreaking and humorous.

The main thrust of the narrative concerns Viper’s steady trajectory towards control, as he opens a clothing store and works hard to make it successful. His evolution into a master of his own destiny is helped, in no small part, by his unexpected decision to seize the moment and address a group of German businessmen in German, a language he hasn’t spoken since his East German father left the family years ago.

At the same time, Viper has to contend with Cobra’s ever-fried mental state and proclivity toward kleptomania in order to finance his cocaine habit. He also has to deal with his lazy shop assistant, Zuzana, who is unfortunately the wife of his best friend, Tomáš.

Although the relationship between the brothers is obviously front and centre in the film, Tomáš is easily one of its most interesting characters. Actor Jan Hájek channels a man who is focused, sensitive and patient, and he is perhaps the only person in the story whom the viewer can truly admire, although Viper has by far the most complex personality. 

Dialogue tumbles like a dirty river out of the characters’ mouths. In fact, they might just be the most foul-mouthed of any film this year (unfortunately, the English subtitles don’t fully convey the power and the unfailing filth of the original Czech), but our attention always remains riveted to what they are saying, and how they are saying it.

The language, sometimes comical but often used by people in desperate situations, is complemented by actions that are similar in kind and work wonders to prevent the audience from feeling like they are falling into the characters’ abyss of desperation. In one scene, for example, Cobra steals a phone from someone’s handbag at a party. The victim sees him, but instead of assaulting him in response, the lady merely takes back her phone and returns it to the handbag.

It is a small moment that elicits a big laugh and shows that the people around Cobra have understanding for him. He is not a threat to their existence, and while he is utterly irresponsible, there is no need for trumped-up drama to entertain us. In this case, on the contrary, it is the unexpected lack of drama that sometimes provokes our amusement.

What sets this film apart from other similar depictions of desperation in the Czech countryside (Zdeněk Jiráský’s incredibly affecting 2011 feature film Flower Buds / Poupata comes to mind) is that while it has many moments that appear to suggest a future of near-hopelessness for its central characters, the filmmaker does not put them through hell just to make a point or to stun us with despair. The scenes of Cobra getting wasted or going to the local gambling den to waste the money he has stolen from a vulnerable member of his family remind us of the constant monotony and melancholy in which he finds himself.

The final scene brings with it a shocking revelation that we don’t see coming, as we realise one of the central characters has become the replacement for one of the most despicable individuals in the film. To some extent, we are happy there has been development but mournful over the direction in which this has occurred for this person.

The Snake Brothers is presented very tightly with some highly commendable decisions made in the editing room, especially one late-night act of larceny that involves a television set.

Far from being the gloomy and/or uneventful work that similar features often want to be (like Flower Buds and Nowhere in Moravia / Díra u Hanušovic, respectively), this is a strong tale told by a storyteller in total control of his material, complemented by a wonderful soundtrack.

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 

The Verdict (2013)

Belgian director Jan Verheyen takes on the fundamental absurdity of country’s acquittals by ‘procedural error’.

het-vonnis-verdictBelgium
4*

Director:
Jan Verheyen

Screenwriter:
Jan Verheyen

Director of Photography:
Frank van den Eeden

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Het vonnis

It is always much more fun when a film asks us to sympathise with a murderer – to see the murderer as the victim rather than an aggressor – rather than the actual victim. Not only does this strategy keep us on our toes, because we continually ask ourselves whether we may allow ourselves to form such a counterintuitive opinion, but also whether, as a character in the Belgian The Verdict suggests, such an argument would “open the floodgates to barbarism” by undermining the rule of law and creating a slippery slope for anyone to commit heinous crimes for any reason and get away with it.

It is not an easy terrain to navigate, but armed with a script that simultaneously gives the impression of being both comprehensive and activist, director Jan Verheyen asks a very fundamental question about one of his country’s most debated legal issues – one that continues to wreck lives, if we are to believe a final title card, for the sake of maintaining the house of cards that would allegedly collapse if any of its parts were removed or ignored.

Verheyen makes no secret of the fact where his sensibilities lie. The film opens with the loving couple Luc Segers and his wife, Ella, at a fancy corporate gala event where it is rather obvious the CEO has handpicked him as his successor and is about to ask him to accept the offer. Luc and Ella leave with their 6-year-old daughter, Anna, and stop for gas on the way home. Ella goes across the road to buy bread, but at the vending machine, she is assaulted and left unconscious. When Luc finds her, he confronts the assailant, but when he is also attacked, his daughter runs across the road and is hit by a car. Luc wakes up three weeks later from a coma to find he has missed the funerals of both his wife and his daughter.

However, the worst is yet to come. Luc recognises the murderer, but he is set free after a “procedural error,” a missing signature on an important document, is discovered. It is easy to imagine where the story goes from here, and it is a lot of fun, especially because the director has chosen a few comical faces, like the dry prosecutor-general (brilliantly played by Jappe Claes) with the enormous bat ears who inadvertently helps the defense, and the bumbling justice minister who repeats the same stock lines of written statements every time something terrifying happens on his watch.

Once Luc’s trial gets under way, things really start to heat up, as legal experts on television explain the gravity of getting to the bottom of this question about “procedural errors” and whether anyone may ever be pronounced “not guilty” if they have admitted to the crime, just because they had their reasons for acting the way they did. And what if the man who murdered Luc’s wife in cold blood by beating and kicking her countless times also had his reasons for doing what he did?

The Verdict skirts this grey area in the advocates’ closing arguments, although our questions about just where the line may be drawn are left unanswered. This may very well have been the intention of the filmmaker, who wanted to start a conversation rather than provide us with all the answers. These procedural errors, that final title card tells us, are a well-known problem in Belgium today, and yet they have remained unaddressed.

A bit like The Life of David Gale, this film proudly wears its intentions regarding questionable practices in the legal system of the real world on its sleeve (in the case of the 2003 film by Alan Parker, the issue was the problem of the death penalty). However, while it may be regarded as activist, it is also difficult to deny the power such a topic has to convince us that things are not as black and white (or as “factual”, as the film’s prosecutor-general puts it) as we would like them to be for the sake of simplicity.

There are many shots at the beginning, looking straight down from a great distance, that seem to imitate God’s point of view, but they also create enormous tension because they give the impression of a bad omen rather than any kind of comfort. For the rest of the film, these shots are absent, perhaps as a nudge toward the importance that people deal with their problems themselves rather than expect a higher authority, whether on earth or in heaven, to intervene.

Such creativity is also at work in a few unexpected flashbacks that occur during the trial, but a recurring image, which also opens the film, is a closeup on Luc’s trembling hand after he committed the act. We see the same shot at least three times throughout the film, which is frankly unnecessary as there is no real doubt that he committed it as a last resort, almost despite his own moral values.

But the film’s greatest flaw is one it just barely makes. The viewer wonders how everything will turn out in the end, because it seems there are only two possible outcomes, and we would see either of them right before the end credits. The film doesn’t do this but instead gives us a firm closing that is not at all unlike a television episode, whereas it would have been much more effective to leave the ending open and ambiguous and confront the viewer with the aggressive but factual title card immediately afterwards.

As a work by a filmmaker with evident passion for his subject, The Verdict is a powerful mixture of message and execution.

Viewed at the Festroia International Film Festival 2014.

Family Film (2015)

A family is torn apart, a dog fends for itself, and the director proves his filmmaking chops with an unexpectedly affecting work of dramatic fiction.

family-filmCzech Republic/Slovenia
4*

Director:
Olmo Omerzu 

Screenwriters:
Olmo Omerzu

Nebojša Pop-Tasić
Director of Photography:
Lukáš Milota

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Rodinný film

Following up on his widely hailed début, A Night Too Young (Příliš mladá noc), Slovenian-born FAMU graduate Olmo Omerzu’s sophomore feature – shot once again in his second language – is yet further proof of the young director’s (he turned 30 during production) talent for storytelling: He manages to tackle a theme as serious as the crumbling family unit with a mixture of short, powerful revelations in a snow-swept Prague and lyrical, wordless snippets on a tropical island in the eastern Indian Ocean.

In a deceptively simple but well-chosen opening scene, which takes place inside the family sedan of Igor Kubín, his son and daughter are watching a nature documentary on the television embedded on the back of his headrest. Igor’s wife, Irena, asks him whether he took their sheepdog, a Border Collie named Otto, to get vaccinated. Igor sheepishly admits he forgot. In the meantime on the documentary, a frog unceremoniously meets its end.

Igor and Irena leave for a yachting expedition around Christmas Island and expect everything back home to go well as they will keep in touch with their teenage son, Erik, and his elder sister, Anna, via Skype. But when the cat’s away, the mice will play, and they do so no sooner than on the way back from dropping their parents off at the airport, when they pick up Anna’s friend Kristýna.

Omerzu is cautious to show too much too quickly, and he uses small but striking hints that things are headed south, for example by ending many a scene on a slightly awkward facial expression that firmly indicates the situations are not as innocent as they seem at first. The day after his parents leave, Erik arrives back home to find the doors to the building’s elevator closing shut, and we briefly spot Kristýna, stark-naked, inside.

She later explains to him that she plays this game because she is bored, and before long she turns her sights and her wiles on the naïve Erik, whom his father had playfully advised to enjoy himself in moderation. The calculating Kristýna moves in with Anna and Erik, and even when the children’s uncle Martin eventually turns up, she stays put, sometimes snuggling up next to Erik in bed, at other times stroking his hand or licking his ear.

All the while, there are glimpses of sun-kissed beaches, palm trees and turquoise waters half a world away, where Igor and Irena are blissfully ignoring any possibility their children would get into trouble. It is only when Anna receives an unexpected phone call about her brother’s fortnight-long absence from school that she is compelled to convene a Skype intervention between her, her parents and a teacher from school. Irena wants to go home at once, but Igor insists there is nothing they can do but bide their time.

At first, it is challenging to understand what Omerzu is getting at, or why he wants to tell us this story. But everything changes in the final third, which in formal terms is also by far his most ambitious act, as all the pieces suddenly come together in a stunning contrast of wrenching heartache and serene tranquillity, as revelations about the family structure in Prague play off against scenes of perseverance in a tropical wilderness, with Otto stranded on a deserted island.

Although there is little development in his character, the story of Otto the dog unexpectedly turns out to be one of the most impressive additions to the screenplay. His arrival on the island is a gorgeous example of Omerzu’s talents, as the camera follows the dog slowly swimming ashore, time and time again briefly disappearing from view behind the crest of the wave before re-emerging, snout in the air. The scene will be sure to leave many a viewer breathless, thanks to the visual dynamics we are made witness to.

Other scenes with or around Otto are equally mesmerising, from a palm tree hit by lightning to crabs scurrying surreptitiously behind the dog while it takes shelter from the rain. The film’s final scene is another astonishing triumph, and Omerzu’s decision to let it play out with barely a word of dialogue demonstrates his eye for cinematic intensity.

Family Film is a rich, satisfying experience of a minimalist story line that includes a handful of unforeseen developments, all presented with a firm hand and no desire to shock. The director is in complete control of his material, and while a few characters lack depth or motivation, the last act of the film is a wonderful display of a range of feelings, from passive aggression to love and forgiveness.

Viewed at the 2015 San Sebastián International Film Festival

Rams (2015)

Two elderly, taciturn sheep farmers who are also brothers have to work together in the face of a plague that hits their remote valley in northern Iceland.

hrutar-ramsIceland
4*

Director:
Grímur Hákonarson
Screenwriter:
Grímur Hákonarson
Director of Photography:
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Hrútar

The first scene of Rams, a film from Iceland that falls squarely within the country’s canon of beautiful and always-eccentric films of late, tells it all: In a valley called Bárðardalur, in the north Icelandic countryside, Gudmundur (“Gummi”), an old, bearded farmer, finds a ram among his sheep that is not his. It has clearly strayed across the fence that separates his flock from that of his neighbour. He calls one of them by name, strokes its face and then proceeds to take a ram into his neighbour’s house in silent protest at the transgression that occurred.

The neighbour turns out to be his brother, the similarly bearded, equally aged Kristinn (“Kiddi”). The two have not spoken for 40 years, and although the reason for this is never explicitly stated, the resentment from both sides is clear as day. Their tense silence could very well have to do with the fact that Gummi’s father did not want Kiddi to inherit the farm, but he has stayed on because their mother insisted on it.

They are also big rivals, as their respective flocks share an esteemed bloodline, and at this year’s edition of the annual competition, Kiddi’s ram prevails by half a point over Gummi’s prized tup. Gummi is naturally crestfallen, but after closer inspection, he comes to believe that Kiddi’s ram, and therefore his flock and all other flocks in the area, might be suffering from scrapie, which would be fatal to both the sheep and the entire valley’s livelihood.

It is to be expected that the two brothers, facing the worst crisis in their extensive time on this Earth, will be pushed together to tackle this problem, but their distrust and general dislike of each other certainly makes this a protacted call to collaboration, whence the film’s running but subtle comedy. Despite their differences – Gummi is the serious one, while Kiddi is prone to hit the bottle on frequent occasions and more likely to behave like a fool – they are also dedicated to their sheep, which for these two lifelong bachelors are just like their own flesh and blood. When tragedy strikes their animals, it is like they see their own bloodline vanish in front of their eyes.

Their attachment to the animals also extends into a very warm relationship with Kiddi’s sheepdog, Sómi, which steals every scene in which he appears. Gummi uses him as a carrier pigeon to deliver handwritten messages to his brother whenever the rare occasion arises for them to communicate, and Sómi is almost giddy with anticipation to oblige.

This anthropomorphism is the logical extension of the affection afforded to the ovine creatures, and screenwriter-director Grímur Hákonarson’s decision to imbue his animals with just as much humanity as his two-legged characters adds enormous warmth to the film. And warmth is certainly welcome in this desolate valley that has been hit by disease and remains exposed to the rigours of the island’s thick white winters. The final scenes, set during a blizzard unleashed on the surroundings of Gummi and Kiddi’s farm, is particularly harsh, and at a screening I attended the wailing gusts of wind ont he soundtrack literally caused the ground in the theatre to vibrate. 

As a final point, even though it does not shed much light on our interpretation of the film, it is worth pointing out that the title can equally refer to the two brothers. The men’s interaction and communication at the very end are intimate and more related to instinct than purely rational thought.

Rams is about silence and a secret shared with a combination of naughty subversion of the rules and a determined desire to uphold to the status quo, even when the course of life cannot be turned back, and life itself can barely be resurrected. The two main characters, offbeat as they are, have affection for their animals and even for each other, and their presence in the story brings out both the comedy and the drama of the unexpected situation they are confronted with.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Amour (2012)

This film about death is all about hanging on to one’s better half and reminds us what intimate cinema is capable of.

AmourFrance
4.5*

Director:
Michael Haneke
Screenwriter:
Michael Haneke
Director of Photography:
Darius Khondji

Running time: 127 minutes

For most of Amour, the viewer feels absolutely confident she is in the presence of greatness. This is what a film looks like that takes its subject seriously and tries to present it in all its complexity through small moments that all have a very human dimension to them. The human dimension is born out of an intimacy that depends on the chemistry between and very likely also the life experience of the lead actors. And yet, these moments are immediately accessible to those of us who have only had a taste of the life depicted onscreen.

Jean-Louis Trintignant basically came out of retirement to take the role of the octogenarian Georges, whose wife, Anne, played by Emmanuelle Riva, has had a stroke but refuses to be hospitalised. They are both former music teachers and live in a comfortable apartment in the middle of Paris. In one of their first conversations, after attending a music concert, they speak passionately and with erudition about the music they heard.

At first, Georges cares for her and helps her to get into her wheelchair. But gradually her condition worsens, until she has another stroke and becomes nearly incapacitated.

How does a lifelong partner deal with this sudden change? The question is made all the more urgent and unnerving by Haneke’s sudden acceleration of the timeline in unannounced fashion. There are no supertitles to indicate the passage of time: Again and again, Anne’s condition has suddenly deteriorated again, and we are shocked every single time we become aware how much farther down the slope of mortality she has slid once more, and that there is no way back up.

Haneke shoots many of his scenes in single takes and all but eschews the use of close-ups. The film’s characters are thoroughly respected, with two small exceptions. In one of the film’s first scenes, at the breakfast table in the kitchen, at the moment when we realise what will be the beginning of the end, Haneke is a little too rough in his treatment of Anne. The moment itself, the first revelation that something is wrong (we later learn something was obstructing her carotid artery, causing her to switch off for a moment), is perfectly controlled, balanced between tenderness and tension, but the scene could have done without a final pouring of the tea into the saucer rather than the cup — something that emphasises without a shadow of a doubt that things will soon go downhill very quickly.

There is also the matter of a character not properly developed, only to serve as a vessel to elicit our emotion for Anne and her plight: the second nurse who comes to take care of her. She quickly shows her true colours as an arrogant uncaring little snip; her brief appearance and a particularly hurtful exchange with Georges feels like a typical Haneke moment in which evil is revealed to be embedded in society, and he obviously enjoys pushing the knife just that little bit more into our stomachs, though frankly this was quite unnecessary. His subject matter is already powerful enough.

But the film is magnificent. It is a restrained piece of work that is set almost entirely inside the old couple’s flat and unwinds at Haneke’s leisurely pace inside scenes but frighteningly quickly from one scene to the next. Despite a feeling the film may at times be slightly jumpy, there is no disputing that it is consistently effective.

Amour does not venture into the generalities of the care of the elderly, but it does address a number of pertinent issues, including the unspoken pity the world has for this kind of situation, a pity that Haneke himself was probably banking on while making this film.

But there is a complete lack of cheap tricks to tug at our heart strings. Trintignant and Riva bring with them many decades of experience not only in acting but in living; their characters’ gentle interaction, their frustration with the limitations of old age and the steadfast determination to still have a say in their own lives despite the intervention of different kinds of unexpected forces on their lives make them both strong and fragile at the same time. This kind of complexity is what the cinema often lacks, and what Haneke, Trintignant and Riva have brought to the screen with care and commitment.

Only towards the end does Haneke’s evident fear of a straightforward conclusion or an easy explanation strain the experience a little, but it is a very minor flaw in an otherwise first-rate film about perseverance in love and coping with the inevitability of death

Amour is personal, intimate and, together with The White Ribbon, one of Haneke’s least intellectual and most accessible films to date.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.