BERLINALE SIGNIS REVIEWS
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
BETTER ANGELS, THE
BLACK COAL, THIN ICE
GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, The
HISTORIA DO MEIDA/ HISTORY OF FEAR
IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE/ KRAFTIDIOTEN
KREUZWEG/ STATIONS OF THE CROSS
LITTLE HOUSE/ CHOIISAI OUCHI
LOVE IS STRANGE
MO JING/ THAT DEMON WITHIN
MONUMENTS’ MEN, THE
N – THE MADNESS OF REASON
NO MAN’S LAND
NYMPHOMANIAC, VOLUME 1
PRAIRA DO FUTURO/ BEACH OF THE FUTURE
STRATOS/ THE STORM WITHIN
THINGS PEOPLE DO
THIRD SIDE OF THE RIVER, The
TO SINGAPORE, WITH LOVE
TWO FACES OF JANUARY, The
TWO MEN IN TOWN
VIHARSAROK/ LAND OF STORMS
ZWISCHEN WELTEN/ INBETWEEN WORLDS
UK, 2014, 100 minutes, Colour.
Jack O’ Connell, Paul Anderson, Sean Harris.
Directed by Yann Demange.
The title indicates the year, 1971.
The location is Belfast, the times of the Troubles. At one stage, a map is shown of the city, indicating the dividing lines, especially the Falls Road, between Catholics and Protestants. The sympathies of this film are not with the militants on either side of the divide.
In fact, the focus is on the British soldiers who occupy Northern Ireland. We are immediately drawn into their training, the young men away from home who have to have military expertise if they are to keep the peace and if they are to keep the enemies away from each other. There is very little judgement made about the fact that the British are in Ireland. It is considered a fact and the men have to do their duty.
Along with the British troops, there are special branches who work somewhat undercover, making contacts with locals on both sides to get information – and can tend to be unscrupulous as to how they get in the information and protect it, even to being willing to kill British troops to save their contacts. Sean Harris is convincing as Browning, the head of this agency.
On an ordinary morning, aware that there are militias on both sides, the British decide to search for weapons amongst the Catholic streets, the men protesting, the mothers and sisters pounding the foot paths with garbage tins in protest. The treatment of the Catholics is very rough.
What happens is that two of the British, very young men, are separated after they hold the line against protesters. And one of them is shot, the other, Hook (Jack O’ Connell) has to make his way back to headquarters, a very difficult journey during the day and into the night, eluding capture, hiding in a lavatory, high finding a pullover to disguise himself, trusting himself to a young boy who seems to have some kind of command, wounded in a pub explosion and cared for by a Catholic doctor and his daughter – ultimately having to escape when the provisional IRA are in pursuit.
This creates a lot of tension, even for audiences who have seen several of these Troubles films including Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and Pete Travis’s Omagh.
The film was made by French-born director, resident in England, Yann Demange, maker of documentaries. This is his first feature film.
‘71 was awarded a commendation by the ecumenical jury at the 2014 Berlinale.
Canada, 2014, 112 minutes, Colour.
Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, Melanie Laurent, Oona Chaplin, Peter Mc Robbie.
Directed by Claudia Llossa.
Aloft is the work of Peruvian director, Claudia Llossa, who achieved some international and festival fame with her film La Teta Asustada, winner of the golden Golden Bear in Berlin, 2009, and the Academy award nominee for Peru. This time she moves to Canada.
Filmed in English, with settings in Manitoba, it stars Jennifer Connelly. At the opening of the film, she is a mother with two sons, one who is terminally ill. The two boys seem to get on well together. She has night shifts at work and boards, she and her children with her father-in-law.
The screenplay shift ground when the mother takes her two sons to see a healer in the forest, a crowd gathering, taking stones with numbers on as a lottery to get in to see the healer. The older boy, an expert with falcons, has taken the falcon without his mother’s permission and it gets loose and flies into the grove where the healer is operating. The mother hurries in and, by chance, touches the forehead of the boy who needs to be healed – and he recovers. The healer, part charlatan, partly sincere, part alcoholic, tells the woman that she has a gift and that she should use it for healing.
At one moment in her work, the two boys are sitting in the car, the older boy becoming more resentful of his mother and his brother, and drives the car with tragic consequences.
The film moves forward 20 years, focusing on the older boy, still working with the falcons and a renowned expert, married with a child. However, he still seems morose and angry. He is played by Cillian Murphy.
The forward drive of the plot is the arrival of a journalist, Melanie Laurent, who wants to interview the son but also wants to track down the mother who now works in a very remote part of Manitoba. It is winter, they fly to the north, travel by bus but are prevented from going further because of the lake which is iced over. Nevertheless, the journalist perseveres and gets permission to see the mother. And it will be a moment of truth as the mother meets her son for the first time in decades.
The title of the film obviously refers to the falcons but audiences will be trying to apply it to the experience of the mother and the son.
It can certainly be said that the film creates quite a wintry atmosphere, and the isolation of the northern town. But, with the intense performances, audiences will be drawn into this drama of strained relationships, of anger and resentment, of healing and forgiveness.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST Special screening
France, 2014, 112 minutes, Colour.
Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel, Andre Dusollier, Eduardo Noriega.
Directed by Christoph Ganz.
Beauty and the Beast has been seen in many film versions.
The classic version is that by Jean Cocteau. There have been television versions with stars like George C.Scott. For the general public, the Disney version of 1992 is probably the best known.
Director Christoph Ganz (Brotherhood of the Wolf) has decided to make an adult version – even though the context is a mother telling children a bedtime story. He has relied on special effects and the film was made on the sound stages of Germany’s Babelsberg Studios. And it is quite a lavish production, in its period settings, costumes and decor. There is a sea port, taverns, homes in the country, and a huge castle on a mountain in the woods.
The film focuses on a merchant, Andre Dusollier, a merchant, whose ships are wrecked, although one survives and he has to use it to pay his debts. In the meantime he has a reckless son who is squandering his money. He searches for him in the port and comes up against a dangerous adventurer, Perducas, played by Eduardo Noriega.
On his way home, the merchant is lost in the snow, comes across a castle and finds lavish food there for him to eat. He also takes a rose for his youngest daughter, something which enrages the owner of the Castle, the Beast.
Allowed to return home, the merchant finds his children dissatisfied with their home in the country, except for Belle, who tends the garden. She returns in her father’s place to confront the Beast. What follows is the familiar material of Belle beginning to understand the Beast, discover a great deal of his story, find compassion for him. As he allows her to return home for a day, she promises to come – or else, he will die.
Complications set in. Perducas is pursuing the extravagant brother for him to pay his debts. The brother takes Belle’s horse and rides towards the castle in order to get more jewels such as the one he found on his sister’s dress. But Perducas, who relies on a friend who is an expert tarot cards but has not revealed the full truth, goes in pursuit.
The finale consists of an attack on the Castle, its defence by two huge statues and the mysterious growths of tree limbs which can envelop people, especially Perducas. Belle is able to make her way into the castle on time, the Beast comes back to his normal appearance – which the audience has often seen in flashbacks where he is in love with his wife, goes to hunt the golden deer which his wife urges him not to because, when he kills, it it is revealed that she is the golden deer, a nymph of the forest. Hence his becoming the Beast.
The film actually ends with a happy ever after, the reader of the story being Belle with her husband outside working in the garden. Lea Seydoux is charming as Belle and Vincent Cassel is a strong beast.
THE BETTER ANGELS Panorama
US, 2014, 85 minutes, Black and white.
Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Robert Vincent Smith.
Directed by A.J. Edwards.
Most definitely, an arthouse film release.
The writer-director, A.J.Edwards worked as an editor on some of the films by Terence Mallick. Obviously he found those films congenial with their strong visuals while not caring so much about plot development. This is particularly the case here, a story of Abraham Lincoln when he was a teenager, back in Indiana, working hard and living in a log cabin.
The angels of the title are Lincoln’s birthmother and his stepmother, both having a strong influence on him in the film suggesting ways in which his character was developed by each of the women. His birthmother, who died when Lincoln was nine, is played by Brit Marling, his stepmother played by Diane Kruger, a woman who helped the boy who had taught himself to read and write to find more knowledge. Both have a strong screen presence but they are presented more as icons rather than developed characters. Lincoln’s father is played by Jason Clarke, something of a rough and hard man, making demands on his son and on his wives.
There are also a number of characters throughout the town, particularly Wes Bentley as a teacher. This Illinois community is quite small, isolated, the children gathering for some education, some religious meetings, but most of the work is hard. It would seem very difficult to imagine that a president of the United States, let alone Abraham Lincoln, could emerge from this kind of background.
One suggestion about his future is a sequence where a group of slaves, chained, marched through this isolated community.
Filmed in black and white, with artful angles on people, on the many trees, on the huts and buildings, the film is often quite beautiful to look at.
Which means that the film is something of an essay on Lincoln’s youth, a poetic portrait of a place and people, but not a narrative that audiences might be looking for.
BLACK COAL, THIN ICE/ BAI RI YAN HUO Competition
China, 2014, 106 minutes, Colour.
Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei.
Directed by Diao Yinan.
Black Coal, Thin Ice, unexpectedly the winner of the Golden Bear at the 2014 Berlinale. The lead actor, Liao Fan, won the best actor award.
Audiences do not see many Chinese films of this kind. While there is a sense of social realism, it is basically a police and detective film, using the conventions of the genre in a Chinese context.
The film takes place in two eras. It opens in 1999 in a provincial city where a policeman is trying to reconcile with his wife but she chooses to divorce him. Then a dismembered limb is discovered in a coal truck in an assembly line. Police think that they have some suspects, go to arrest them but are shot by the suspects. One of the policeman dies, the other is wounded and withdraws from the police force, taking up a security job while he heals physically and psychologically. There are no more clues except a connection with a laundry and a woman who manages it.
There is a transition to 2004 and a similar case appears. The former policeman wants to rehabilitate himself as a person as well as a detective and takes on the case despite warnings from a colleague. Once again, the woman at the laundry is involved. The detective makes her acquaintance, draws her out, then finds himself attracted to her. She has been seen burying ashes in the sand at the base of the tree, questions are raised about her dead husband, and it all becomes quite complicated.
An important scene takes place at a skating rink, one of the skaters moving off and murdering with his skate. The detective follows, get some clues as to the identity of the murderer, the woman is arrested and interrogated.
At the end, there is a fireworks display, giving rise to the Chinese title of the film, Fireworks in Daylight, although the English title indicates both periods of the plot, the limb found in the coal as well as the skating and the allusion to thin ice.
Audiences used to detective thrillers, especially American versions, will find this film very interesting for comparisons.
Ireland, 2014, 100 minutes, Colour.
Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’ Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Isaach de Bankole, Dylan Moran, Marie- Josee Croze, M. Emmet Walsh, Orla O’ Rourke, Domnhall Gleeson, Pat Shortt,
Directed by John Michael Mc Donagh.
As can be seen from the title, this is a film rooted in the gospel story and in Catholic faith. It is one of the best films on priests in recent years. It was written and directed by John Michael Mc Donagh, whose screenplay reveals quite detailed knowledge of the church in Ireland and which brings the plot to contemporary life – even though, one hopes, that the principal events of the film would not happen in real life.
A key film on the life of a parish priest was Robert Bresson’s version of the novel by Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest. Calvary is the diary of an Irish country priest of the 21st century. It can be noted that Brendan Gleeson gives a totally persuasive performance as the priest. And the setting is on the Irish Atlantic coast, 38 km from Sligo according to a road sign.
With the focus of the title, it is clear that this will be a film about suffering, or that the priest will be a significant Christ-figure, a victim of his own Calvary, an innocent victim, atoning for the sins of others.
This is made very clear from the opening sequence, the priest sitting in the confessional, a man coming into the box and declaring that he has been a victim of a priest’s sexual abuse, that it happened over many years, that it has ruined his life. And then he makes a threat that he will kill this priest on the following Sunday, not because he is a guilty man, but because he is innocent and that will make his death more significant.
Since the initial theme is that of clerical sexual abuse, Calvary has to be seen in the context of the revelations of recent decades, of the government enquiry, of sentences for guilty clergy, and the criticism of church officials for not understanding the crisis and for not acting on it well. This gives a powerful framework for this week in the life of the parish priest, considering what he has been told, preparing for his possible death. The accuser could be anyone in the village, although the priest has recognised his voice.
While this is the framework, the rest of the film shows the priest going about his ordinary ministry in this parish. He is a late vocation, a widower who decided on priesthood after his wife’s death. We are introduced to his daughter, who has attempted suicide, but has come to visit her father and talk things over with him. Which means he is a priest of some life experience, of family life, even though he reflects that he was something of a failure – and a drinker.
The action of the film is basically the priest visiting different people in the parish, a woman who does his washing, is separated from her husband, the local butcher, and is having an affair with the local garage man. She is not averse to other relationships, especially to the atheist and mocking doctor in the local hospital. But, as with the other characters, she is able to speak frankly to the priest and he is able to speak frankly with her. It is the same with her husband, the butcher. There is a young man in the village, rather prim and proper, awkward in his manner, who comes to the priest to discuss his ambitions, his personality, his sexual problems, his future. Other people he visits include the man from the garage, the local policeman and his rather exhibitionist son, a local landowner who is alienated from his family, drinks a great deal, and confesses that he cares for nothing and no one. On the lighter side, there is an old American author who welcomes the priest, getting food from him, but wanting a gun just in case he gets ill and needs to leave this world.
A significant accident occurs with the death of a foreign visitor. The priest anoints the dead man, comforts his widow, encounters her at the airport when he is inclined to leave the village and avoid his imminent death. It is the words of the widow as well as his watching two workers slouching over the dead man’s coffin, that indicate that he should go back face to face what will come.
The priest is very fond of his pet dog and is devastated when he finds the dog’s throat slit. And this follows his church being burnt down by the accuser. It is clear that the priest is moving towards Calvary. In moments of agony, he takes to drinking, returning alone to his spartan room.
This statement will not reveal who the would-be killer is or whether he goes through with his threats or not – it is the priest’s preparation and readiness which is more important than what might happen. However, one significant question for the priest is whether he wept at his dog’s death – and whether he wept at the plight of the victims of sex abuse. A key question for the church, hierarchy and laity.
John Michael Mc Donagh does have a key idea, revealed early in the film, when his daughter asks the priest about virtues. He replies that forgiveness has been underrated – something which pervades the ending of the film.
Calvary is well worth seeing, the story of a priest and his own agony and Calvary in a contemporary situation, showing contemporary problems, illustrating the response of contemporary parishioners and non-believers. The writer-director has intelligently combined problems with a portrait of a genuine, if struggling, 21st-century parish priest.
Australia, 2013, 94 minutes, Colour.
Deborah Mailman, Aaron Pederson, Claudia Karvan, Bryan Brown, Marcia Langton.
Directed by Warwick Thornton.
Cinematographer-director, Warwick Thornton, and his production company, asked aboriginal people to send in their experiences in the form of ghost stories. Over 100 were submitted, and a dozen or more were chosen to be filmed.
A number of the stories used prominent actors to speak the words of the stories that had been sent. Amongst them were aboriginal actors including Deborah Mailman (with Marcia Langton in the background) and Aaron Pederson. Their powerful simplicity keeps our attention.
Non- Aboriginal actors also recount some stories the stories, Claudia Karvan, Bryan Brown, Sasha Horler.
The focus is on straightforward storytelling, though some of the stories have action, for instance a family driving along the road in the Northern Territory seeing a little girl, going back to her, finding that she had disappeared.
Quite a number of the stories are single takes, some of them quite long, with the storyteller simply speaking to camera. One of the most effective is the final story where a young woman in a hospital corridor recounts her experiences both with calm and with emotion.
In one sense to call these stories ghost stories is a misnomer, at least for Western audiences who are used to hauntings and spooky stuff. These stories are ‘spooky’ in a different sense, more along the lines of ESP or a sense of presence which cannot be explained rationally. They also raise questions about the nature of body – spirit – soul.
Aboriginal people, with the centuries-old understanding of the world and of human beings, lead more rational people into questions about this world, this life, the afterlife.
One of the more exotic stories is that with Claudia Karvan, a white woman drawn into an aboriginal experience, the playing of the didgeridoo, the invitation to dance, a whirling imaginative experience, a sense of aboriginal presence, of elders.
Western audiences are invited to reflect on the past with a story where the researcher goes to the National Film and Sound Archives where she finds that this was previously the Institute of Anatomy, where the bones of aboriginal men and women were kept as specimens and studied. Her field of investigation changes and she delves into this eerie reality of a correlation between film and bones.
But, most of the stories are not told in this exotic way. Rather, the audience is invited to listen, to look, to feel, to share, to puzzle.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Festival Opening, Competition
US, 2014, 100 minutes, Colour.
Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Soairse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Matthieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Baliban.
Directed by Wes Anderson.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite an entertainment. It is the work of writer-director, Wes Anderson, who has developed a strong reputation since the 1990s and his initial films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. This reviewer has not found his films in recent years quite to his liking, especially The Darjeeling Limited. A past favourite has been The Royal Tenenbaums.
But, here is a film which should entertain most audiences. Specialists will enjoy the Wes Anderson imagination. Audiences coming in unawares may well be taken up by its humour and its quirkiness. The quirkiness can be seen even in the construction of the film: starting with a young woman going into a cemetery and sitting by the monument to a famous author and reading the book which is the title of the film; the narrative then recedes to the 1980s with the famous author doing an interview straight to camera but interrupted by his little boy; there is a further receding in time, a younger version of the author going to the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 for his health and meeting the owner and spending time listening to his telling the story of the hotel and his own involvement; further receding to 1932 where most of the action takes place, the vitality of the hotel in its time, the clientele, and, particularly, the concierge, Gustave H.
Anderson also uses different cameras and different ratios to present these different times, the 1932 stories using the traditional box screen.
There is quite an eclectic cast for the film, many of whom have work with Anderson in his previous films. But the centre is Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H. It one of his best performances, tightly controlled, a concierge who knows all the rules and all the manners – but also knows how to manipulate the rules for the whims of the guests while keeping his dignity (except when he surprisingly bursts into some swearing).
The other central character is young refugee from the Middle East, Tony Revelori in a very fine performance, as Zero Moustafa who becomes an apprentice to the concierge. He also shares in many of the adventures – which include getting mixed up with the rapacious son of an elderly woman who was devoted to Gustave, as well as the son’s murderous assistant, and the stealing of a painting which was bequeathed to him. This leads to police chases, arrests, and Gustave’s time in jail as well as arranging an escape.
Part of the entertainment is that the audience has no idea where all this is leading, entertaining episodes building on each other without predictability.
It is difficult, sometimes, even to recognise some of the cast, especially Tilda Swinton made up to be the 84 year old benefactress, Jeff Goldblum as the lawyer, Harvey Keitel as the prison leader. Other actors are easier to recognise and more quickly, sometimes with very brief appearances like those of Bill Murray, Owen Wilson. And Willem Dafoe proves that he can be one of the most sinister villains on screen. On the more gentle side is Saiorse Ronan is young chocolate maker who falls in love with Zero. Tom Wilkinson is the older author, Jude Law the younger. And F.Murray Abraham is excellent as the older Zero who is narrating the story.
It all takes place in a fictional central European country, reminiscent of The Prisoner of Zenda. It also has a fictitious parallels to the Nazis and the SS, led by Edward Norton, which gives some sinister tones to the proceedings.
Come to think of it, it might be well worth sitting through The Grand Budapest Hotel again.
HISTORIA DO MEIDA/HISTORY OF FEAR Competition
Argentina/Germany, 2014, 80 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Benjamin Naishtat.
The History of Fear perhaps would be better titled The History of Phobias.
This brief film is set in a gated area in Buenos Aires, a helicopter flying over the site at the opening of the film warning people of something impending. Then there are glimpses of people doing ordinary things in their homes, the old and the young, the married, children out in the park.
Gradually the atmosphere changes, the power goes out, there seem to be weird sounds.
The interpretation of the people in this community is that there is something threatening. Their wariness and phobias increase. They fear the sounds and think that there are animals threatening them. They are wary of young people and their behaviour.
The film builds up an atmosphere of tension, partly in the dark, older people with some emotional collapse, the puzzle about what the nature of this menace to them and their way of life actually is.
The film is exploring the detached middle-class of Argentinian cities, separating themselves by having gated communities. Their barriers are self-made – especially in fear of disruption of their lives and, of course, of their possessions.
The director notes that several years earlier during the Argentinian economic crisis, politicians actually exploited people’s fears in order to foster a general feeling of insecurity.
The film might have some impact in Argentina and Latin American countries which have similar experiences. But, the film will not travel well outside its country of origin except for festivals and, perhaps, some art-house cinema release.
Germany, 2014, 103 minutes, Colour.
Ivo Piertzker, Georg Arms, Luise Heyer.
Directed by Edward Berger.
Jack is a plain name for a fairly straightforward German slice of life.
Ivo Piertzker is excellent as Jack, a 10-year-old boy who takes a lot of responsibility for his younger brother. He has to because their mother, although she has great love for her children, is quite self-centred and irresponsible, leaving her children for days on end while they have to fend for themselves – or Jack has to fend for both.
The film shows some very happy times. However, the little boy scalds himself in a hot bath while Jack is making him a meal, the result being that they have to go to social services and it is decided that Jack should go into an institution for young children. It is very hard for him and he suffers considerable bullying, despite the warmth of many of the staff. When he is involved in hitting his opponent, he decides to run away. There is no sign of his mother, although she speaks with affection on the phone. He collect his little brother and the rest of the film is about their trying to cope, wandering around the city, Jack involved in trying to steal some binoculars from a store to give to a boy at the home. They sleep in cars until ousted by security. They go to a friend of their mother but decide that they have to fend for themselves. Ultimately, they find their mother at home and are overjoyed. She, however, is full of excitement about a man she has met and whom she could marry.
Jack has to decide whether they should stay with her leave.
The film is plainly made, emphasis given to realism, and the performances are most persuasive in this context. And, of course, the film is a plea for concern about wayward parents and the effects on their children.
KRAFTIDIOTEN/IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE Competition
Norway,2013,105 minutes, Colour.
Stellan Skaarsgard, Pal Sverre Hagan, Bruno Ganz, Peter Andersson.
Directed by Hanns Petter Moland.
Ironic title? An unusual for a film from Scandinavia, especially from Norway. This is a further collaboration between Stellan Skarsgaard and director Hans Petter Moland.
The title is to be taken literally because there is a rather high body count and each time someone, or a group, dies, the death notice comes up on the screen. So, this is a thriller with touches of a black comedy.
It is winter in Norway and there are vivid scenes of snow and ice, with the central character, declared that the opening of the film as citizen of the year, driving the snow ploughs to clear the roads. In the meantime, down at the airport, a group of drug dealers accost two of the workers, including the son of the citizen of the year. He gets the news to come to the morgue with his wife and identify his son who was found dead on a street bench in the city, allegedly dead from a drug-overdose. The parents deny that this was the case.
The film then turns into something of a vigilante-pursuit of the criminals – with a verbal reference in the film to Dirty Harry, but the plot is more in the line of Charles Bronson and Death Wish.
The father proves himself to be something of a detective, finding out one piece of information, attacking the person referred to and killing him, but getting another name before the death and so on.
In the meantime, the drug chief, a rather crazed young man who goes by the name of Count and who has inherited this business from his father, is bewildered by the deaths and disappearances of his henchmen. It is suggested that this is the work of a group from Serbia who are challenging the Count. This leads to another subplot, the clash between the Serbs and the Count’s men, and several deaths and death notices. The father goes to see his brother who formerly worked for the Count’s father but who is now married to an Asian wife who insists that he move out of the world of crime. The Count does get some information about the surname of the killer, Dickman, and assumes that it is the brother, has a talk with him – and another death notice.
Which means that the father has to do something drastic as regards the Count. The Count is a estranged from his wife but devoted to his young son – and the father decides that he will abduct the boy. The trouble is that the Serbs decide to do the very same thing. This leads to a showdown, a big shootout, but with the old Serb leader (Bruno Ganz), the father triumphs. The Count (who looks something like a Scandinavian version of Richard E. Grant) is still raving at the end.
Had this been an American film, many European critics would have dismissed it as typical. But, since it is a Norwegian film working the genre, they responded to it very favourably.
Serious, comic – and often tongue-in-cheek.
KREUZWEG/ STATIONS OF THE CROSS Competition
Germany, 2014, 107 minutes, Colour.
Lea Van Acken, Franziska Weisz.
Directed by Dietrich Bruggermann.
The title refers to the traditional devotion to the passion of Jesus, the Way of the Cross, 14 steps of contemplation from Jesus being condemned to death by Pontius Pilate to his burial.
This German film, screened at the 2014 Berlinale, winning the main jury prize for screenplay and the ecumenical award in the main Competition.
The film opens with a priest, young, clerically dressed, teaching five children about the sacrament of Confirmation which they are about to receive. His words are plain and clear. He then says to them that the church has had 2000 years of tradition – and then asserts that along came the Second Vatican Council which ruined everything. He is critical of such things as Communion in the hand, female altar servers, music, a worldly spirituality.
We are being taken into the life of a group which resembles the Society of St Pius X, followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, here called the Society of St Paul. What the film has to offer is a portrait, according to the writer-directors, of a traditionalist Catholic Church, often extreme in its attitudes, fostering an austere spirituality, an isolation from the mainstream which it fears and condemns.
At the centre of the film is the young girl, Maria, part of the Confirmation class. She is urged by the priest to greater holiness, her hoping that she could be a saint. But this requires a great deal of asceticism on her part, not protecting herself against the cold, not eating, much praying – with the motivation that her little brother, who has not spoken, will be able to speak because of her mortification. Maria becomes the character who goes on her own stations of the cross. This is emphasised by the priest who points out that the children are now to become warriors of Christ, warriors for Christ, battling themselves and evil in the world. To be fair, he does point out that the children’s battle is also for good in the world.
Maria is an intelligent girl and makes friends with a boy at her school who invites her to sing in the choir at his own church. She is tempted, but his choir includes some rock music and her mother is horrified. In fact, the film’s focus on Maria’s mother shows us a woman who is extremely rigid in her perspectives, fearful of temptations in her daughter’s life, very critical of her when they walk in the mountains, go shopping, buy a dress for her Confirmation, humiliating her at the table after Maria pretends that her friend is a girl and then confesses and admits this to the family.
This means that the audience is very sympathetic to Maria while not understanding the devotion in her motivations. It also means that the audience is quite unsympathetic to the mother, even at the end when she is so haughtily hostile to the doctors and nurses, but decides that her little girl is a saint and should be beatified. In these days of awareness of abuse of children, psychologically as well as sexual, it appears that the training of Maria, the encouraging of her penances, assuming that she understands these matters as an adult, is a warning against spiritual abuse.
Mainstream Catholics and mainstream Christians will be dismayed at this particular portrait of Catholicism, its joylessness, its awareness of God as punishing more than loving, its focus on the sufferings of Jesus without looking to the resurrection, its rigidity of belief, intellectual understanding of faith without a personal pastoral dimension. Life is governed by puritanical attitudes in the Jansenist tradition in the Catholic church.
There is one friendly character in the film, the au pair from France, Bernadette, who brings to the household something of a more humane and sympathetic perspective on life, a support for Maria, offering some alternative way of looking at life, Maria relying on her more than the mother that she strictly obeys.
There is a Spanish film of 2010, Camino, which has some similarities to Kreuzweg, the story of a little girl who is ill, a member of Opus Dei as is her family, who are unrealistic in her medical treatment, even brutal in their devout approach to religion, wanting her to be a saint.
Members of the society of St Pius X may find the film too critical, but mainstream viewers will find that this particular community, its beliefs and its spiritual practices are brought to life.
THE LITTLE HOUSE/CHIISIAI OUOCHI Competition
Japan, 2014, 137 minutes, Colour.
Haru Kiroki, Takako Matsi, Hidetaka Yoshiaka.
Directed by Yoji Yamada.
The Little House sounds a rather twee title for a film about Japan in the 1930s and 40s. Yet, it is a quiet and rather restrained film about people who lived during that era.
The film opens in the present, a funeral for an elderly lady. Her relatives, especially a grand-nephew, go through her things and find her diary which the nephew had urged her to write. There are flashbacks to the events in the diary, often with a return to the sequences where the lady is writing and the nephew is working with her.
From a provincial town, rather plain, not expected to marry without effort, she goes as a maid to a family in Tokyo where she is were very well received, becoming part of the family. On the surface, all is well. However, the wife of the family is attracted to a young man, a worker in her husband’s company. She begins an affair with him, noticed by some of the neighbours, but not by her husband. The family have plans to find a wife him as well as for the maid. The maid herself is attracted to the young man who is unable to go for war service because of his eyes. As the war grows more severe, not seen on screen until the final firebombings of Tokyo, he is drafted for service.
When the Japanese suffer privations during the war, it seems inappropriate for a family to have a maid, and she returns to her family.
The nephew and his girlfriend discover that the young man had written a book and that there is a museum in his honour, 20 years after his death. They investigate and discover the old man who is the young boy of the family and who knew the maid well. They give him an unopened letter that his mother wrote at the instigation of the maid to the young man - but it was never delivered.
There is a beauty and gentleness in the presentation of these themes, and some self-criticism of the Japanese and their warlike attitudes and presumptions for World War II.
Haru Kiroki won the best actress award in Berlin, 2014.
LOVE IS STRANGE Panorama
US, 2014, 94 minutes, Colour.
Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, Marisa Tomei, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahen.
Directed by Ira Sachs.
A rather unfortunate title for a very gentle film. The love presented here is not accepted by many individuals, communities, even countries. It is same-sex love. However, this description does not quite do justice to the treatment of the theme in this film. It is a film that can be watched, calmly and with emotional interest, by most adult audiences. The emphasis is on loving emotion and commitment and does not dwell on the sexual behaviour of men in this kind of commitment.
The film does open with a same-sex marriage ceremony. The two participants have been together for 40 years. They are played, with energetic verve, by John Lithgow and with a gentle honesty by Alfred Molina. It is to the credit of these two actors that the film is emotionally persuasive, no matter what the moral stances of the audience. The other credit is to the writing by director Ira Sachs and his cowriter, Daniel .
The film takes for granted the relationship of the two men, Ben (Lithgow) a gallery manager and a painter, and George (Molina) a music teacher and choir conductor at a local Catholic school. As regards George and his presence in the school, the principal and staff, including priests, are aware of his relational situation. However, once he participates in the public union, the diocese feels that this public statement is not compatible with his role in the school and he is dismissed. The scene where he discusses the situation with one of the priests, a friend, does raise the issues of governments accepting same-sex ceremonies and the witness that that this gives to students in the school.
George’s losing his job changes the situation for both men, their not being able to afford their apartment. There is a meeting of their relatives and friends who all have an idea of what they should do for both men. The upshot is that Ben goes to live with his sympathetic nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), the nephew’s wife, a writer, Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son, Joe (Charlie Tahen). George goes to stay with two gay friends, both policemen.
Much of the film shows, sometimes with humour, sometimes with wry feeling, the joys as well as the difficulties of these arrangements. In fact, Ben talks incessantly, shares a room with Joe much to Joe’s chagrin, especially when he wants privacy and working with a fellow-student on projects from school. Kate is sometimes driven demented by Ben’s incessant talk. On the other hand, George, a more simple and introverted soul, is content with his lot, even when his hosts put on a noisy party.
There is some solution for the two, even as they have to make arrangements to meet, coming from their different homes. There is a fine scene after they attend a concert where they reminisce about their past, Ben confesses to some failures in the relationship, George exercises his good-nature and patience.
There is a pleasing conclusion to the film, with some sadness, especially with Joe who has found dealing with Ben rather difficult, coming to George and treating him as a confidant for his questions about life.
Love is Strange is a very wide-audience friendly film about two gay men.
Austria, 2014, 98 minutes, Colour.
Ramasan Minkailov, Aslan Elbiev, Kheda Gazieva.
Directed by Sudabeh Mortezai.
Macondo is an impressive and often moving film. It is set in the Simmering district of Vienna, near the airport, the motorway and the river, Danube. Within it is the district of Macondol, with 3000 inhabitants from 22 different countries. The characters in this film are from Chechnya, war refugees, and from Somalia.
The documentary director Sudabah Mortezai (Children of the Prophet) moved into the district and had auditions for the central role, opting for amateurs rather than professional actors. 11 year old Ramasan Minkailov is completely credible in the central role of the boy who has to support his mother, idolises his father killed in the war, having to care for his two rowdy sisters.
One of the problems for the refugees is that the authorities advise that they should have evidence of the father’s death so that they can receive benefits from the state. There is no death certificate. Another difficulty is that Ramasan gets involved with some of the rougher boys in the district, going out at night, entering into a construction site, being pursued by the police.
Yet, Ramasan is a fine boy, if only he had the support and the opportunities. These come with a man who claims to have been a friend of his father, bringing the father’s watch for Ramasan. At first he is like a father-figure to the boy, but the boy is still wary and becomes more alienated from the man. When Ramasan is caught by the police and interrogated, the man offers an alibi but Ramasan turns on him and calls him a liar.
In a final interview, a supervisor approves the state of the apartment, is satisfied with the family’s behaviour and it seems they will be allowed to stay. After this, Ramasan goes to the man’s house but is ignored. He later returns again while the man is fixing the radio and he begins to help him… Good ending to the film, a happy ending, but not emphasising or over-emphasising it.
The film offers interesting insights into the plight of refugees, difficulties with authorities, the pressures on them to conform so that they will be able to stay in a country.
MO JING /THAT DEMON WITHIN Panorama
China, 2013, 112 minutes, Colour.
Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung.
Directed by Dante Lam.
That Demon Within is an arresting police drama from veteran director, Dante Lam. Lam directed several police dramas, using the tradition that was established in the Hong Kong action thrillers from the 1980s.
This thriller is one with a difference, indicated by the title.It opens with a focus on demonic masks, a group of thieves wearing the masks and reciting a ritual to the Demons and stating that they would confront the police. And attempted robbery ensues but the police have surveillance and one of the criminals, after killing some police, is wounded himself and goes to hospital.
He is in need of blood and one of the officers knows that he has the same type and offers help. When the chief of police arrives, he is upset at the collaboration of the policeman.
The film is then the story of this policeman, a rigid personality, sometimes causing upsets in the areas where he works, being questioned by internal affairs and by psychologists. He becomes obsessed with pursuing the criminal that he helped, and suddenly finds himself in surveillance on the other members of the group. It follows with some dire results.
The internal affairs officer asks her sister, a psychologist, to treat the policeman and she hypnotises him. This leads back to his grandmother, his harsh police father, an episode where someone is burnt alive and he feels responsible. The psychologist comes to the conclusion that he is schizophrenic, hears voices, is dealing with the criminal he helped – but in his imagination.
Ultimately, the film reaches a climax with the policeman himself, the internal affairs officer, the corrupt policeman, police in pursuit as well as some of the criminal gang.
It ends with a fiery apocalyptic climax. However, there is a postscript in which there is a flashback to the childhood of the policeman, the work that he did, kindly, but there is the dramatic, fiery and explosive ending.
THE MONUMENTS MEN Special screening
US, 2014, 120 minutes, Colour.
George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Desjardins, Cate Blanchett.
Directed by George Clooney.
The Monuments’ Men is very much a George Clooney film. Not only did he co-write it, he directed it and is the star. And he has gathered round him a very strong cast including Matt Damon who has worked with him many times and Cate Blanchett who worked with him in The Good German. Along with the stars, he also has some comic actors including Bill Murray and John Goodman. And, for good measure, he has the Oscar-winner for Best Actor of 2011, Jean Desjardins. There is a nod to the popularity in the United States of Downton Abbey with the presence of Hugh Bonneville.
The plot is interesting, a variation on war films, a more polite and well-mannered Dirty Dozen, for instance. The focus is on the art treasures that the Nazis were stealing all over Europe, especially those from France and Belgium, including the famous altarpiece in the Cathedral in Ghent and Michelangelo’s Madonna from to Bruges. German soldiers are invading the sacred places, interrupting the clergy, even killing them when they find that they are hiding the art treasures.
A concerned group approach President Roosevelt for permission to track down and recover the art treasures. He makes the important point of asking whether the saving of these treasures is worth a human life – with the answer that this is the historical and cultural heritage that is important for recovery after the war and for people’s cultural identity. It is interesting to note that President Truman asks the same question at the end of the war.
George Clooney portrays Stokes, the officer in charge of the operation and he has permission to recruit art experts, who are eager to enter into war action since they have been rejected because of physical disabilities. Matt Damon is Granger, who works at the Met in New York. Bill Murray is an architect. John Goodman another expert. They are put through some rigorous physical training, a bit difficult for people of John Goodman’s build and age! But this is a good opportunity for them to bond. They are joined by Hugh Bonneville, who has had his own personal difficulties in England, but is considered indispensable for the project. Once in Europe they are divided into teams of two except for Granger who goes to liberated Paris to track down a woman who worked in the Jeu des Paumes during the war years and is now considered a collaborator. She is played by Cate Blanchett.
There are several war action sequences, involving snipers, landmines, working undercover, and discovering that a lot of the art has been saved in a variety of mine shafts in Germany. With the approaching end of the war, some German squads are destroying the treasures. So, it is a race against time with some tension as the war ends, the Russians advance in Germany and the American group has to track down the most famous of the famous treasures.
While the film is quite serious in its theme, the writing is often quite humorous, American-style jokes, deadpan quips that give a kind of jaunty air to the film. For most audiences it will be a quite acceptable blend of action, adventure, with comic touches.
N – MADNESS OF REASON Forum
Belgium, 2014, 102 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Peter Kruger.
This is an arty and artful documentary, focusing on the life of Raymond Borremans, 1906 – 1988. He was a Frenchman who left Europe in the 1920s and made Africa his home. After exploring a great deal of Africa, he settled in Ivory Coast as his second home.
Flemish director, Peter Kruger, has explored Borremans’ life, not merely a biography, but a study and a portrait.
The film employs a double narrative, the French narrative by veteran actor, Michael Lonsdale, the African commentary and narrative by Wendyam some Adele girl. The French narrative offers information but raises many questions, many issues, many of them quite abstract and seemingly portentous (with a touch of the pretentious-sounding).
However, there are beautiful vistas of several African countries and of the Ivory Coast.
Borremans studied butterflies and other elements of nature, and these are visualised. He also wrote songs, one of which is presented in a luxury hotel lounge with a local singer and ensemble. He also wrote an encyclopaedia of the Ivory Coast and there are details of his compiling it, writing it and publication eventually in his later life.
All the way through, there are ruminations about the meaning of life and life in the context of the African continent.
Of the, there is a focus on the history of Ivory Coast, its establishment and its prosperity, the exploitation and the poverty. Symbolic of this is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace at Yamoussoukro. It is a metre higher than St Peter’s in Rome on which it is based. The narrative asks questions of the Ivory Coast President who created this – and his seated memorial is in the foyer of the basilica.
This leads to the realities of the civil wars at the beginning of the 21st century, the sides, refugees from other countries, security borders, the destruction, the effect on the people and their poverty.
It also leads to considerations of global sameness, capitalism and consumerism in the 21st century, as well as the hedonism that has developed everywhere, clubs – and pornography.
The portrait of Borremans is interesting and challenging, the film is very interesting as a portrait of Ivory Coast as seen by an expatriate of the 20th century.
NYMPHOMANIAC, VOLUME 1 Special screening
Denmark, 2014, 150 minutes, Colour.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skaarsgard, Shia La Bouef, Stacey Martin, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Uma Thurman, Saskia Reeves.
Directed by Lars von Trier.
An enormous amount of word-of-mouth about this film. A lot of it veering towards the scandalous as well as the sexually prurient. After all, just look at the title. And then there is the factor of the writer-director, the extraordinarily eccentric but creative Danish director, Lars von Trier. Over the decades he has made a wide range of films, at one stage focusing on his Dogme principles of filming with cinematic purity and not relying on effects, lighting… This phase seems to have passed, although the different film styles that von Trier uses indicate his history of experimentation.
This is the first volume of the two-part Nymphomaniac. This first part was screened at the 2014 Berlinale. The second volume was promised for an occasion like the Cannes Film Festival. However, the two parts were screening together in special events soon after the screening in Berlin. In the months prior, an abridged version of the two parts was screened commercially.
One of the most controversial of von Trier’s films was the Antichrist, 2009. Many considered it too confronting with his treatment of the death of a child, the tensions between husband and wife and some sadistic and gruesome behaviour. However, the film could be seen as a psychological, psychosexual study and judged accordingly.
Nymphomaniac is definitely a psychological study, a study of sexual condition that has dire consequences for the nymphomaniac herself as well as the people with whom she comes in contact. This is very clear from the first volume.
The film opens with a dark screen, some noises of water falling, gradually shows us a dark street in a Scandinavian town and a man going to the local store who then discovers a woman lying on the street. He offers an ambulance but she refuses and he takes her to his home, allows her to shower and gives her a cup of tea. He, like the audience, wants to ask questions and she agrees.
What follows is an over two hour interchange between the man and the woman, flashbacks as she tells her story, starting from her infancy and sexual awareness, playing with a companion, her love for her doctor father and aware of the seeming indifference of her mother. Then with a close friend, she begins her nymphomaniac behaviour, the two of them trying to seduce as many men as they come across, having a bet about how many they can seduce during a train journey.
One of the key things is that one of the girls realises that love can be involved, whereas the nymphomaniac herself has no experience of love, no real emotions at all, a cerebral understanding of her condition and the compulsion to act out. This is visualised as she goes to work, is fired from her job, takes up with a married man and clashes with his wife, meet up again with the young man who, indifferently, took her virginity and is now an executive.
A brief synopsis does not do justice to how all this is presented on screen. A great deal of it is presented as realism. However, as von Trier has done in other films, he introduces diagrams and formulas represented on screen, details for parking a car which detach the audience in some ways from what is going on, or makes them think about the meaning.
In the abridged version there are some graphic sequences, but in the full versions, some explicit sexual activity is presented, sometimes in brief close-up. Information during the final credits indicate that the professional actors did not participate in these sequences but body doubles were used.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, who appeared in Antichrist and Melancholia, is Joe, the young woman who is telling her story. Stacey Martin appears as the younger Joel in the flashbacks. Stellan Skarsgaard is the man listening to the story.
Shia la Boeuf is the young businessman. But two key performances are impressive: Christian Slater as the doctor-father of Joe, especially in the sequence where he is dying in hospital; and the other is the wife of the executive who leaves her for Joe. She is played expertly by Uma Thurman who gives a performance of ‘hell hath no fury…’, bringing her two children to confront her husband and Joe, acting in an extraordinarily demented and moody fashion, a show-stopping performance, to be welcomed amongst all the sexual behaviour.
This review is only of Nymphomaniac Volume 1, some of the advertised cast have not yet appeared and the plot will lead us up to the point where Joe is confiding in the listener, exercising a kind of therapy for herself and for the audience.
NO MAN’S LAND/WU REN QU Competition
China, 2014, 117 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Ning Hao.
This is one of those films that has to be seen to be believed!
As the credits begin, we are in a desert, a bird-handler pursuing falcons – to the accompaniment of the musical score which obviously pays homage to spaghetti westerns. In fact, spaghetti westerns is the clue. The look, the colour grading, the musical score, the stances of the characters, the dangers and the violence are all reminiscent of the classic spaghetti westerns.
After the capture of the falcon, there is a car crash and a pursuing policeman is killed. Then we are in court, with a young, quite arrogant lawyer making the defence of the poachers. He is dressed in suit and tie, quite a contrast to the look of these people in the north-west of China, at the edge of the Gobi desert. But this does not last long!
The smart lawyer, persuades the poachers to give him their car as part of his payment. Which is what they wanted, because they have concealed the falcon in the car and plan a hold-up to get the bird and then to sell it on to the international dealers. Great plan, but, of course, it does not work out this way – at all.
Part of the disaster for the lawyer occurs early on, when he irritatedly overtakes a truck with two local drivers who do not take kindly to his behaviour, spit on his windshield and then break it. The consequence of the break means that the plan about the falcon goes completely awry.
The film-makers and we, the audience, all have our tongues placed firmly in our cheek for the further adventures of the lawyer who finishes up being an absolute wreck and dishevelled. He tries to get help at a local service station, managed by isolated eccentrics, who have a young woman imprisoned for sexual purposes. Doesn’t spoil the plot to say that she gets away and hides in the lawyer’s car.
In the meantime, the drivers of the truck are in pursuit, the main poacher is in pursuit, the man who caught the bird in the first place has been injured and thought to be dead – but, of course, he is not, and so on the action on the highway continues.
The film would not be a tribute to the spaghetti westerns unless there was a kind of good, bad and ugly finale, the shootout, with explosions and fire, all spectacularly done.
The plot is complicated, there are quite a number of twists, and there are also quite a number of deaths. But, to let the audience out of the cinema a bit more gently, there is an epilogue that is rather sweet considering all that we have watched beforehand.
This is one of those films which will get something of a cult reputation as people enjoy it and make the Italian-Chinese? connections.
PRAIRA DO FUTURO/ BEACH OF THE FUTURE Competition
Brazil/Germany, 2014, 106 minutes, Colour.
Wagner Moura, Clemens Schick, Jesuita Barbosa.
Directed by Karim Anouiz.
This film featured in the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. It was well received by Brazilian critics and some locals but did not have a strong impact on wider audiences.
In theory, it should have made a better impression. The film opens strikingly with motorcyclists on the coast of Brazil, driving through the roads and sand, the two riders then going into the ocean for a swim, one getting into difficulties and drowning, the other rescued, and the film focusing on the lifesaver.
Very quickly, the gay theme is introduced as the lifesaver and the survivor have a sexual encounter. One of the main difficulties for the film is that there seems to be very little, almost no chemistry between the two central characters, so that their sudden relationship does not convince – and this is true of the later sequences, even though they are meant to be quite intimate and the two falling in love. Brazilian actor Wagner Moura plays the lifeguard and German actor, Clemens Schick plays the survivor, (the two Germans had served together in Afghanistan and were returning home after travels to work together in a garage, the man who died having a wife and child).
The German calls the Brazilian a coward for not leaving his family and coming with him to Germany. The lifesaver has strong family bonds, with his devoted mother and with his younger brother who is introduced to the German and is attracted by the cars. He goes to Germany and, when challenged, does not go to the airport.
Germany seems very cold to the lifesaver – and there is no beach to hand. While the two maintain their relationship for some time, it is clear that the Brazilian is uncomfortable, has some regrets in leaving his family, but has decided to make a new life away from them all.
Years pass. The relationship has broken though the two men see each other. What makes a difference for the last part of the film is the arrival of the younger brother from Brazil, now a late teenager, spending two weeks searching for his brother and eventually finding him, attacking him for leaving home, and missing the death of their mother.
There is some reconciliation between the younger brother and the older brother who now works in an aquarium, cleaning the glass for the exhibits. He also meets the German who takes him under his wing after a clash and a rough sexual encounter with a girlfriend.
We presume that, eventually, the three will become friends, the Brazilian will revive something of his life, the German will continue the friendship and the young man, actually following the example of his brother, leaves Brazil and finds a new home.
STRATOS/ THE STORM WITHIN/ TO MIKRO SPIRA Competition
Greece, 2014, 137 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Yannis Economidis.
As the film opens, we see a man hiding and being provided with food by someone from a village. He returns to his hiding place and then we see a nondescript man sitting there – who then shoots the man. He is Stratos.
Stratos works as a baker by day but takes on a number of hit contracts, his contact being an anonymous man called The Painter. During the film we see a number of these hits. But then, the motivation becomes clearer as Stratos wants to raise money to free from prison Leonidas, who had saved his life previously. However, he is betrayed by the wife of the prisoner and his close friend to whom he gives the money.
This embitters Stratos who continues his work but moves towards vengeance on those who betray him. He has a kindly touch for the young daughter of a friend whom he takes for a special meal, along with his disabled contact. They enjoy themselves – and then he takes them into a tunnel where he kills them as well.
What is left? We see The Painter getting some young men, obviously setting up a contract for the killing of Stratos – which happens as he sits alone on the bench. While the beauty of the Greek countryside and mountains is apparent, this is, indeed, a pessimistic film.
THINGS PEOPLE DO Panorama
US, 2014, 109 minutes, Colour.
Wes Bentley, Vinessa Shaw, Jason Isaacs, Keith Carradine.
Directed by Saaar Klein.
Things People Do is a variation on the American dream story – which, so often, turns into a nightmare.
The setting is New Mexico, Albuquerque and its outskirts, dry environment in desert surroundings.
Bill (Wes Bentley) is in insurance man and we see him making his living, talking persuasively to clients. He seems to have a happy home, a devoted wife, a loving son. His in-laws are another matter, his father-in-law (Keith Carradine) continually putting him down, talking critically about his work. This exasperates him and he appeals to his wife, but she says that her father is the only family she has.
A recreation that Bill enjoys is bowling, joining a group of friends, letting their hair down. When one has a slight accident, a man who has been watching offers his help. He turns out to be a detective, separated from his wife and family, with a drinking problem. He is played with some geniality as well seriousness by Jason Isaac.
But the dream is not what it seems. Bill is fired from his job because he is not making sufficient money. He is unable to pay his mortgage and the bank officials are severe on him.
Back in the 1930s, the response to the failure of the American dream was for men and women to become criminals, especially robbing banks. But it is the 21st century and Bill decides to rob some of his clients, some of the people whose private lives are somewhat disedifying. He builds up some financial resources.
In the meantime, the detective is working on the case, getting information, able to build up something of a portrait of the robber – whom he recognises. Because he likes Bill, he talks with him about his situation, empathetic because he is losing his wife and family, alerting Bill that he needs to stop the robberies and find a safer and surer path for his life.
The director worked as editor for some of Terence Mallick’s films, Israel-born but with a career in the United States.
THE THIRD SIDE OF THE RIVER Competition
Argentina, 2014, 98 minutes, Colour.
Alian Devetac, Daniel Veronese.
Directed by Celina Murga.
Where is the third side of the river? An island in the middle? An island of uncertainty?
This film shows an Argentinian family, which turns out to be a second family while the father has another wife and child. But this child is at home in the second family, playing with the children, helped by the older brother when he is bullied at school.
The film focuses on the older brother, Nicolas, played by Alian Devetac, a non-professional performer who is very convincing in the role of a 16-year-old, devoted to his family, but very suspicious of his father. He experiences a number of dilemmas, his father wanting him to take an apprenticeship in his clinic so that he will have access to studies and a career. The father also owns a ranch and takes his son to see it, hoping that he will manage it.
The film also shows the mother, loving her husband but aware of his fickleness. A teenage daughter is about to turn 15 and all her hopes and attention is focused on her party.
Nicholas is an introvert so it is not immediately evident what is going inside his mind and his heart – but, at the end, when he sets the barn of the ranch alight and jumps on the back of a truck to go to…, the film has proven itself an emotional and psychological exploration of a teenager.
TO SINGAPORE, WITH LOVE Forum
Singapore, 2013, 70 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Tan Pin Pin.
To Singapore, With Love is not one of those omnibus films with many directors telling stories about the city that they love. Rather, this is the sentiment of a number of political exiles, some since the 1960s, some since the 1970s, who still wish to go back to their home, where they grew up, Where they fought for political freedom before their exile.
Documentary maker, Tan Pin Pin interviews a number of these exiles who live in London, in Malaysia, in Thailand.
Her interviews are very telling and the interviewees come across very powerfully, as characters in themselves, in their memories of their protests and their arrests in the past decades, and as peaceful persons in the present, still longing to go home.
One particular focus is on activist, Francis Khoo, with footage of his activities, often exuberant, devout Catholic, writer of songs, protest leader who married his fiancee a few weeks before his internment. And she was to follow. She is one of the most impressive presences on screen, Ang Swee Chai, a physician who went into exile in London with her husband, at times finding things very difficult, but eventually winning respect and becoming a surgeon. She has been particularly active since in setting up a medical aid foundation for Palestinians. She is interviewed several times, is seen with her family, and makes a deep impression by the integrity of her life and witness to her beliefs.
Another character, rather lively, is the Tan Wah Piow. He interviews well and there is footage and imagery of his protests as well. Again, he lives in exile in London. He is the author of several books and a launch in Kuala Lumpur is a feature of the film.
The third central character is Ho Juan Thai, another activist, older than the others, who remembers the days of the past, has a great desire to go back to Singapore, and can only visit with his elderly mother when she crosses the Causeway into Malaysia.
While there are not many scenes of Singapore, except looking across from Malaysia into the city, the impression of Singapore is very strong, its history, the strict legislation under Lee Kwan Yew, and the repressive measures on protesters, especially in 1963 when a number were exiled, in the mid 1970s and again in the 1980s.
The film has as its focus Singapore, but could easily be the same story for many other repressive countries, far more repressive than Singapore itself.
This is a timely film for remembering the developments in Singapore as well as the repression in the latter part of the 20th century.
THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY Panorama
UK/US, 2014, 96 minutes, Colour.
Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst, Daisy Bevan.
Directed by Hossein Amini.
The Will Faces of January is based on a thriller by novelist, Patricia Highsmith. Instant film circles, she is best known for the adaptations of her novel, strangers on a train, by Alfred Hitchcock, and the various versions of the Tom Ripley story, a talented The Talented Mr Ripley, the René Clement version, Purple Noon, with Alain corrected all Delon and Anthony Minghella’s, The talented Talented Mr Ripley, with Matt Damon.
The screenplay has been written by its first-time director, Hossein Amini, whose screenplays are as diverse as Jude, The Wings of the Dove, Drive.
The settings are quite exotic, Athens, the Parthenon and the market, Crete and the historical site of Colossus, and Turkey. And the cast is quite significant, Viggo Mortensen as a financier from New York, Kirsten Dunst as his much younger wife travelling with him, Oscar Isaac as an American to a guide in Athens.
The film takes place over only a few days, starting with people wandering the Acropolis, the suspicions of the financier about the guide and his wife checking him out, finding him credible and their joining him for a tour of the market as well as dinner. The audience knows that the guide has worked a financial trick in the buying of a bangle, so he is the first one under suspicion.
When the couple returned to the hotel, a private detective accosts the financial financier and reveals that he has been involved in very shady deals and, with another name, his spending the money on the continent. When difficulties follow, and the guide appears at the hotel to return the lost bangle, the plot becomes quite complicated, and the 3 to get false passport and go to Crete. While there, the financiers hold on life is lessened by his continued drinking, suspicious of his wife and her relationship with the guide, leading to violence.
The action culminates in Turkey, the final words of the financier altering the direction in which the film seem to be going.
An interesting entertainment but, with its narrow focus, does not have quite the punch that are more popularised version would have.
TWO MEN IN TOWN Competition
US, 2014, 115 minutes, Colour.
Forrest Whitaker, Brenda Blethyn, Harvey Keitel, Ellen Burstyn.
Directed by Rachid Bouchareb.
To Men In Town is from Paris-born director, Rachid Buchareb. He has made some fine films, including two with SIGNIS and Ecumenical awards: Little Senegal and London River. However, this film is not as good, even though the director does create an interesting New Mexico environment.
The film is an American adaptation of the 1973 thriller, Two Men in The Town, based on the work of novelist and director, Jose Giovanni, who had himself experienced French prisons. The original starred Alain Delon, Jean Gabin, Michel Bouquet, with Gerard Depardieu in a supporting role.
It is difficult to pin down who the two men of the title are. One should be thea central character William Garnett, played with his usual Intensity by Forrest Whitaker. On the other hand, he interacts with two men in the town: the sheriff, played by Harvey Keitel, and the Mexican who trades on the illegal refugees, played by Luiz Guzman.
For most of the film, Whitaker wears a suit and tie, shedding them only when he goes to work with cattle on a farm. This means that he always looks dignified, reinforced by his conversion to Islam and his continual prayer after he is released from jail. He had difficulties as a youth, dealing in drugs and petty crime. But he has gone to jail for the murder of a deputy, something for which the sheriff cannot forgive him. In himself, a sometimes kindly man, the sheriff is angry that Barnett is free while his deputy is still dead, and he takes the opportunity to harass the ex-prisoner.
The part for Luis Guzman, or the way it is written, is very irritating. During the past, he worked closely with Garnett. Now, after 18 years, he wants to hire him again to control his operatives in Mexico. Garnett refuses because he wants to live a decent life, have a family – reinforced by his encounter at a bank with a teller, Teresa (Delores Heredia).
The other central character is the parole officer, an excellent people performance by Brenda Blethyn, both down-to-earth and sympathetic. She had worked with Bouchareb on London River.
The film is strong with the performances and with the re-creation of the New Mexico environment. However, the screenplay is all is not always credible in its charting the interactions of all the characters. Yet, given the director and the cast, the film was not without interest.
Philippines, 2014, 93 minutes, Colour.
Sandino Martin, Angelo Llagan.
Directed by Joselito Altarejos.
This film was directed by Joselito Altajeros who has developed a reputation in his home country, the Philippines, for directing dramas which focus on homosexuality and gay relationships. The film has been produced by the Philippines most famous contemporary director, Brillante Mendoza, many of whose films also focus on homosexuality and gay relationships. And this is definitely the case with Unfriend.
The central character is David, a 15-year-old, whose mother has migrated to the United States and he lives with his caring grandmother – although she spends most of her time watching religious programs on television, cooking and going to church. The film takes place over only a few days but we realise that David is an intense teenager, sexually aware, and passionately infatuated with an older friend.
The friend leaves David, wanting to give him some space. That is not what David wants at all. He talks was mother on Skype for Christmas, thanking her for the money that she has sent which he uses on Internet connections, one of his passions, especially Facebook. His grandmother wants him to go to mass with her for Christmas, but he is reluctant. And even more reluctant when he actually goes, listens to the sermon which offers conventional comments about Christmas, but begins to use his iPad to his grandmother’s annoyance. He then wants to go to the toilet – and makes his escape the mass. Back at home, there are Christmas songs and a Christmas meal.
However, David’s obsession grows. He goes out to a club, picks up a young man at the club and goes to the roof for a sexual encounter. Then he goes to buy a gun.
He contact his friend and they agree to meet in a mall. He seems somewhat demented, playing with his drink and a straw, the friend seeming calm even casual.
With no communication in sight, except for the huge screens all around the mall where people can watch one another, David takes the gun, stands at a screen where he can see his friend, a camera on him, and he shoots himself. In a comment, the director suggested that one of his main themes was the obsession with social media, and exhibitionism, even to killing oneself on screen.
In one sense, this film is visually more restrained than the other films of the director. In another sense, it is far more intense in this portrait of obsessive relationships than his other films.
VIHARSOROK/LAND OF STORMS Panorama
Andras Suto, Adam Varga, Sebastian Urzendowski.
Hungary, 2014, 106 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Adam Csaszi.
Land of Storms begins like a sports film, a coach with the pep talk for his team, playing in Germany. They train, they communicate in the dressing room, in the showers, they watch pornography in the dressing room… The focus is on the Hungarian player who is good at football, but it is later revealed that the reason that he is playing is because of his father and his father’s big career.
In a shower sequence, the player begins a fight with his roommate, alleging that he is looking at him. This suggests that there will be sexuality themes in the film. And, indeed, they become the main subject.
The player goes home to Hungary, sets up in a farm that he has inherited, trying to manage by himself and thinking to repair it and to keep bees. One night, his motorbike is stolen but he pursues the thief and confronts him. The thief is a young man from the village, doing a trade apprenticeship, living with his mother and caring for her. He returns and offers to work on the repairs with the footballer.
The audience is not thinking that the footballer has a homosexual orientation but it manifests itself in his encounters with the young man. And the young man is bewildered, liking what he has experienced, but finding it, in the context of his very religious village, something that he cannot deal with. In a moment frankness, he tells his mother who actually informs the young men of the village with whom he plays football. The young man is a churchgoer, devoted to his mother, but when he is beaten up and burnt by his friends, he leaves his mother and goes to live with the footballer.
In the meantime, the footballer has communicated with his friend in Germany who then comes to visit. This makes for emotional complications, the visitor wanting to stay with the footballer, the footballer feeling that he should stay with his workmate because of what he has suffered. For a while, it seems that the three manage together but eventually the visitor returns to Germany.
Up till the final moments of the film, we assume that it is a sympathetic look at two men, their attraction, the relationship, gay sexuality. But in the final moments, there is a hugely melodramatic turn and we realise that this is a film against homophobia, as manifested by the mother, by the friends in the village, and by the young man himself who cannot deal with his own sexual orientation and attacks the man he loves. This means that the audience leaves the theatre jolted by these realities of homophobia.
ZWISCHEN WELTEN/INBETWEEN WORLDS Competition
Germany, 2014, 98 minutes, Colour.
Ronald Zehrfeldt, Mohsin Ahmady.
Directed by Feo Aladag.
Audiences have seen many films about the American presence in Afghanistan after 9/11, the search for Osama Bin Laden, but few films about soldiers from other countries serving in Afghanistan. The Danish film, Brothers, is something of an exception (and was remade with the plot transferred to the United States). Audiences have not seen many films about German soldiers serving in Afghanistan. So this makes Inbetween Worlds distinctive.
We are immediately introduced to a runner on the beach who turns out to be Jesper, who has served already a term in Afghanistan, but is still grieving the death of his brother there. He has been asked to return by the authorities to take command of a small group.
The Afghanistan sequences are quite striking in the beauty of the mountains as well as of the desert. We see the army base with all its equipment. But we go out on an expedition with Jesper, trying to liaise with a local tribe against the Taliban. The German group does quite well, although it has some colonialist attitudes of which it is not aware, but which are made clear by the local leadership. The Germans are also restricted in what they can do in terms of helping the locals, especially when they are attacked.
The other central character is a young man from the city, a translator who can be relied on for his work – although, according to the subtitles, he makes very smooth and diplomatic a lot of the conversations. He is concerned about his sister who is studying at the University but subject to criticisms and attack, having to wear the Burka when she goes to her studies. The young man wants to rescue her and bring her to the camp where she can act as a cook. Riding on the motorbike, they are attacked, and the sister is shot.
This raises another dilemma for Jesper, headquarters urging him not to bring the woman in for medical attention, his focusing on the more personal aspects of the war and defying the commands.
The film was directed by female director, Feo Aladag, who made an impression with her film Die Fremde, a Turkish- German drama. While she brings to life the battles in contemporary Afghanistan, she brings a great deal of feeling to the characters and the situations, especially with Jesper and his being caught-martialled.
The final image of the film is a Stop sign at a railway crossing – and a surprisingly jolting ending.