Tuesday, November 16, 2010

European Union Film Showcase reviews

So far, I have seen four films in this year's European Union Film Showcase at AFI Silver Theatre. One recurring theme I have noticed is the rise, disillusionment with and fall of communism in Europe. Three of the four films I saw dealt with this theme, either indirectly or as a central theme.
The Dark House, from Poland, the communist theme is only tangential, a way of setting the scene of the larger theme of police corruption. In this story of a man, Srodon, who, while leaving his old home after the death of his wife, stops for the night at the home of an arguing couple, finds himself as a witness to a brutal crime. A few years later, police are investigating the crime, and, under pressure to solve the case, accuse Srodon, the only witness. The police also drink at the scene of the crime, an amusing mark of their corruption, and engage in various small subplots, which drag the film away from the simple, but compelling and well acted main story. Subplots also drag down the narrative of the night of the crime, but both stories come together to make for a strong ending, with a memorable final scene. I apologize for the brief review, but I was quite tired when I saw this movie, and could not give it the proper attention.
With Heart and Soul is a war film from Greece, set during the Greek civil war between the government and a communist rebellion. The story, focusing on two brothers fighting on different sides, is a bit thin, but director Pantelis Voulgaris offers some absolutely stunning visuals; the Greek country smoky and burned from the remnants of war, and the communist rebel leader standing alone in the mist firing shots to signal the end of the battle. One scene in an army hospital is brutal, as 17-year-old Anestis, a messenger for the Greek army, walks through, he sees soldiers screaming and doctors cutting open the wounded. The war scenes are equally graphic, but not too gory. Anestis has some moving moments with his brother Vlasis, a 14-year-old fighting for the communists. The two brothers still have secret meetings, with the love between them visible, even while fighting for different causes. In one moving scene, the brothers communicate with bird calls across the battle lines. At times, the family drama combined with the war has the feel of ancient Greek tragedy, but the tragic also veers into the maudlin, like the excessively expository and emotional voice-over "letters" from the boys' mother that appear throughout the film. The portrayal of one American military official (the Americans assisting the Greek government in fighting against the communists) trying to talk a reluctant Greek army into an extreme solution, is overly stilted and away from the intended effect. While the closing shot is satisfying, it takes a long time to get there, and the effect is lost. An earlier scene would have made a far stronger ending. In this scene, the brothers have been separated for good, and Anestis breaks down while the proud Vlasis remains stoic in the face of danger. Here, the film serves as an fittingly tragic end to the story of a family torn apart.
3 Seasons in Hell, from the Czech Republic, also carries the theme of the communist regime, but this film is at its weakest when exploring politics and the disillusionment with communism. It works best as a coming of age story, thanks to the subtle charisma of lead actor Krystof Hadek, who plays Ivan, an idealistic aspiring poet, who at first adheres to the Marxism of the revolution but later feels trapped by the repressive government. Ivan is self-absorbed, pretentious and naive, in other words, a typical adolescent. But, as he takes the advice of his mentor, a writer and concentration camp survivor, who tells him to stop being so stylized in the mode of his surrealistic idols and "just write what comes to mind," he gradually reveals his own poet's voice. In one of Hadek's best scenes, he drops the "poet" act and, looking at his reflection in the mirror, he takes his mentor's advice and simply describes his reflection and, ultimately, himself, revealing the early seeds of his artistic gift. Ivan goes through all of the milestones of emerging into adulthood; his first love and sexual awakening, with a free-spirited woman who also encourages his developing artistry (and with whom he shares genuinely erotic but not too graphic love scenes), a complex but ultimately healed relationship with his father, and the realization that his old ideals of the Marxist revolution have turned sour. Ivan says, “I wanted equality, but to maintain noble qualities,” possibly the most succinct expression of the ideals of the Marxists versus the totalitarian reality ever expressed. But when the politics come into the story, with the exception of an intriguing twist of Ivan's fate at the end, the film itself turns sour; a smuggling plot to gain money for an escape feels contrived, with cliched interrogation scenes saved only by the strength of Hadek's performance. And Krystof Hadek truly carries the film, taking the audience through Ivan's early naivete through his journey into slightly wiser near-adulthood, and is believable and magnetic at every step.
Although it was the first film I saw in the festival, my last review is of The Temptation of St. Tony, from Estonia. Though from a former communist bloc country, the film has nothing to do with communism. It really defies any attempt at categorization or definition. Highly surreal, it could best be described as a blend of Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch, with a sinister edge all its own. As for the theme, it's either about man's fall, desire to do good in a bad world, the need for escape, all or none of the above. Whatever it's about, it keeps the viewer's attention. It all begins when Tony, a middle-class drone, goes to his father's funeral and, after a car crash disrupts the funeral procession, is driving home, and, distracted by the bizarre events of the day, drives into the woods. There, he finds a pile of severed limbs. After reporting the incident at a desolate police station, he sees a girl escape from the jail, and gives the seemingly troubled girl a ride. From then on, he goes back to his bourgeois life, with its own problems. The film drags in this section, excessively showcasing the banal absurdity of Tony's day to day life. It isn't until Tony sees the girl from the police station again that the film goes into its dark and highly memorable direction. Following a sinister scene in what looks like an abandoned church (featuring the creepiest crucifix ever depicted on film or anywhere else), Tony finds the girl and follows her to a cabaret, where she and other women are placed for sale. The scenes in this club, heightened with music, camerawork and the presence of a demonic figure, are truly disturbing. As Tony runs away in the snow from this scary place, the music builds and builds, combined with an interesting visual technique where different scenes are layered over each other to show different legs of Tony's journey, to create a genuine, palpable sense of dread. It immediately shifts into silence in the next scene, with the viewer's stomach still in knots from the scene before. The final scene has an oddly calm feel, especially given the grotesque imagery. One of the most memorable experiences I have ever had at the movies. Any description I offer does not do this strange and truly unique film justice.