SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS BERLINALE 2019
BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND, The
DAY AFTER I’M GONE
ELISA AND MARCELLA
FAREWELL TO THE NIGHT
GOLDEN GLOVE, The
GOD EXISTS, AND HER NAME IS PETRUNIJA
GRACE A DIEU/ BY THE GRACE OF GOD
GROUND BENEATH MY FEET, The
I WAS AT HOME, BUT…
KINDNESS OF STRANGERS, The
NUITS FAUVES, Les
OUT STEALING HORSES
SO LONG, MY SON
VARDA PAR AGNES
WHAT SHE SAID: THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL
WHO YOU THINK I AM/ CELLE QUE VOUS CROYEZ
ACID/ KITLOSA Panorama
Russia, 2019, 97 minutes, Colour.
Filipp Avdeev, Aleksander Kuznetsov.
Directed by Alekxander Gorchilin.
There are different kinds of acid in this Russian film, the work of young actor turned director.
Central characters of the film are young, a group of friends, bonding together, sharing in drugs and drink, issues of sexuality. One young man is found naked, in a distressed state, not getting all the sympathy he might want – and then, standing on a balcony, one of his friends actually taunting him to jump. He does.
This leads to a focus on two of the friends. One, Sasha, seems a rather more quiet type, scenes at home with his family, going to the dead man’s funeral. However, attention is drawn to him because he has had a circumcision operation’ there is a certain curiosity amongst his associates with his being reluctant to communicate about it. The other friend, Petya, is quite different, attends the funeral but opens with an outburst, critical of the dead man, criticising his reputation, letting people know about his personal behaviour.
After spending the night at an artist’s studio, Petya drinks some of the acid that the artist uses for uses for his work. This brash behaviour leads to damage to his vocal chords and to his face, his having to go to hospital, being bandaged. Sasha has an opposite experience leading to antagonism with Petya, a collapse in his own private life and values.
Ultimately, there is a confrontation, not in a place where one might expect it in this Russian film and with these young characters. Some her other, Petya has something of a conversion and agrees to attend a baptism in the church. This has a damaging effect on Sasha who, angry, gets the acid and wants to put it in the baptismal font. There is prayer, the celebration of the sacrament – and the audience attention as to what will happen to the young baby as it goes to the font.
In many ways this is an angry film, the film observant of young people and their behaviour, their moral confusion, the potential for devastating effects.
THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND Berlin Special
2019, 115 minutes, Colour.
Maxwell Simba, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Aissa Maiga, Lily Banda, Joseph Marcell.
Directed by Chiwitel Ejiofor.
This is a story from Malawi, 2001. It is a true story – with photos and comments from the central character during the final credits. And, speaking of credits, the story is a credit to William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind.
The film also seems to be a labour of love for actor turned director, Chiwitel Ejiofor, very well known for his work on the London stage as well is a range of films from Amistad to 12 Years a Slave. He has written the screenplay as well as directing and has taken on the role of William’s father, a good man, a farmer in Malawi, and bewildered by changes in society, holding to traditions and challenged in time of drought and poverty.
The film was photographed in Malawi, giving it authentic feel, the landscapes, some gentle countryside, some desert and drought locations, fields with crops and tobacco, with corn.
This picture of Malawi society is quite multi-cultural, multi-religious. The central family is Christian and the film opens with a Christian burial with preaching. However, highly-masked and decorated mourners also come to attend – and are welcomed, representatives of traditional religions. However, the majority religion in this part of the country is Islam, a Muslim chief, is also buried at the end of the film and the local traditional mourners arriving again.
The focus is on the Kamkwamba family, Trywell the father, Agnes the devoted mother, Annie, an older teenager, into some kind of rebellion and in love with a local teacher, faced with the dilemma of staying at home or going off with the teacher to a safer place, especially as the drought and famine increase. There is also a baby but there is William, the young teenager, eager for education, delighted when his father buys the school uniform, attending class with his friend, Gilbert, the son of the chief.
Education is fairly basic and depends on the principal’s demands that fees be paid in advance. Trywell is unable to pay, given the poor wages for the tobacco crop, given the increasing drought and the meagre corn crop. However, he is allowed to work in the library and his intellectual capacities are excited by studies on energy, on pumps and batteries, on the possibility of supplying water from the well in the village for maintaining the crops. He sets up a small windmill to test his theories. He gets his friends to help him build a large windmill and install it. However, he needs some wheels and rotation for the windmill to work and asks his father for his bike.
This brings a striking confrontation between father and son, the father not understanding what his son is able to do, wants him simply to work in the fields to support the family. Ultimately, rebuked by his wife, Trywell gives over the bike – and the windmill is a success, vegetables are planted as a temporary resource, the famine is overcome.
The film is also political in its presentation of a visit by the campaigning president to the village, the fanfare for him, the attending military, a defiant and challenging speech by the chief which leads to him being beaten and, ultimately, to his death. More African political corruption.
This is a film which is interesting in itself, has good performances but also is most worthy in its intentions, portrait of African poverty and famine, the possibility for bettering themselves, an image of achievement for the 21st century.
THE DAY AFTER I’M GONE Panorama
Israel, 2019, 98 minutes, Colour.
Menashe Noy, Zohar Maidan.
Directed by Nimrod Elder.
This is a first film by the director. It is an accomplished piece of work, a portrait of a family in Tel Aviv, entry into the professional world of a veterinary surgeon, an attempted suicide and his response, the support of the extended family.
There is a symbol, photographed at length at the opening, a large hurdy-gurdy in the night, the people on the seat swinging around. This recurs later in the film. It then moves to veterinary work, a leopard brought in for surgery. This is the introduction to the central character, Yoram, a doctor skilled as a vet.
His wife has died a year earlier and he is living with his 17-year-old daughter, a largish girl, upset, not communicating with her father, disappearing for some days, attempting suicide. The police get information from social media and enter the house, taking the girl, her father giving an analysis, her stomach pumped, her being able to leave – with the father having a long conversation with the social worker and her concerns.
The latter part of the film has father and daughter travelling to the town where the extended family live, a factory site, the building of a war memorial which has been attacked by Arabs and the racist comments of the builder, the more sensitive sympathetic members of the family and a meeting where they all say their piece, the father bursting out in desperation.
There is some hope because of the communication, the daughter driving home which she had previously not been allowed to, her being more at home with her father at the end.
A perceptive look at father daughter relationships, death and grief, low self-image and suicide attempts.
DIVINO AMOR Panorama
Brazil, 2019, 101 minutes, Colour.
Dira Paaes, Julio Machado, Teca Pereira, Emelio de Mello.
Directed by Gabriel Mascaro.
What might the future like be in Brazil, in 2027? While there is an emphasis on developments in technology, there is also an emphasis on a changing religious perspective. There is an announcement that Carnival has been replaced by the celebration of Divine Love.
In recent decades, Catholicism has declined in many areas of Brazil, Protestant denominations, Pentecostal communities on the rise. This film follows this line, no mention of Catholicism, but the prevailing of Divine Love, quoting the Scriptures, especially 1 Corinthians 13, with its personal gurus, with a drive-through consultation of pastors for advice, baptisms of immersion…
This film focuses on sexuality in the context of Divine Love.
Joana, the central character, works for the bureaucracy especially in terms of interviewing those wanting to be divorced. With her complete commitment to Divine Love, her specific God language, her earnestness in intervening, she sometimes alienates applicants for a divorce but also becomes involved in experiences that are meant for reconciliation. There are some explicit moments in the film illustrating these experiences, naked spouses washing each other, scenes of copulation and changing of partners…
Joana has wanted to humanise the bureaucracy with the officials explaining that this cannot be.
The bureaucracy is strong, follows everyone, surveillance on everyone, and information readily available and publicised. This is particularly true for Joana. She and her husband, Danilo, have not been able to have a child, he going for medical inspections, their sometimes desperate attempts to procreate. But, when she goes into a department store, information comes up on the notice that she has an unregistered fetus. She is filled with joy at her pregnancy.
While had been talk in Divine Love of the coming Messiah, the screenplay seems to indicate that he is about to come, Joana pregnant but not by her husband. When she tells him, he is in dismay and files for divorce.
There has been a voice-over throughout the film, questions by a child – and, after a difficult birth sequence, it emerges that it is this child who has done the narration, who is to be the new Messiah…
Provocative and evocative.
ELISA Y MARCELLA
Spain, 2019, 113 minutes, Black and white.
Natalia De Molina, Greta Fernandez.
Directed by Isabel Coixet.
This film, strikingly photographed in black and white, takes us back to Spain at the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century. However, its topic is very much one for the 21st century. The focus is on same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage. And its director has moved comfortable in her career with films in Spanish and in English.
This film is based on a true story – with photographs backing it up.
The film opens with a girls’ school, housed in a convent. Elisa is one of the principal students, at home at school, but highly critical of the nuns. A new arrival, Marcella, is a bit awkward at first but Elisa helps her and they become friends.
The early part of the film establishes their friendship and the basis for their future relationship.
The action then moves on to their lives and career after school, their going to a town, teaching, setting up house together, realising their love for each other, a domestic partnership. They are quiet, discrete, but are caught up in some of the life of the town, especially a social and a dance – although they are seen dancing together quietly out and away from the hall. Given Spanish society at the time, given same-sex relationships at the time, there is a great deal of gossip and criticism.
One of the key elements of the film is the fact that Elisa assumes the identity of her cousin, a young man. She takes on male dress, a false moustache, comes to visit. She also approaches the parish priest to explain the situation and the proposal that the cousin and Marcella should marry. There is a celebratory ceremony.
However, the film also shows the tension that this makes for the couple, especially since Marcella has become pregnant. It doesn’t take very long for Elisa to be exposed, the threat of examination from another priest, the intervention of the local authorities.
With such a scandal, and with the birth of the child, decisions have to be made and separations seems to be the answer, including migration to Argentina. Which takes us back to the opening of the film in Argentina where Elisa arrives at Marcella’s house, some recriminations about what has happened, but a reconciliation.
As with social and moral issues, well there can be discussion at a cerebral level, it is stories which dramatise the issues and are important for nuances in decision-making.
EYNAYIM SHELI/ CHAINED Panorama
Israel, 2019, 112 minutes, Colour.
Ezra Naim, Stav Almagor.
Directed by Yaron Shani.
While watching this film, the audience will have a strong impression that it is a deeply felt film. That the writer-director is not only concerned about his characters but also the social situations in which they find themselves.
The setting is Tel Aviv. The central character is a veteran policeman, getting older, putting on weight, getting exasperated.
At home, his wife, who has a teenage daughter causing all kinds of emotional problems for herself in the family, is undergoing processes to become pregnant. But this leads in a direction that the audience was not anticipating, and not happy directions.
At work, the policeman is on night shifts, has to do some substitute work, is asked to investigate a group of adolescents in a park as to whether they are doing drugs and doing drug deals. In the process of interrogation, following the book, there is something of a strip search which leads to the father of one of the boys, prominent in government, to complain to Internal Affairs, leading to interrogations of the policeman, his having to stand down for some time, rather tough treatment from the investigators.
The director has used non-professional actors to portray these characters – who are immediately and strongly believable. This is all the more important as we watch the policeman, love his wife yet becoming alienated because of her manner of dealing with the daughter’s problems, trying to deal with the daughter herself, the policeman moving out of the house to give his wife free rein but this all turning against him.
While all this has been dramatically challenging, there is a finale, even more shocking and challenging.
FAREWELL TO THE NIGHT Competition
France, 2019, 98 minutes, Colour.
Catherine Deneuve, Kacey Mottet Klein, Oulaya Amamra, Stephane Bak, Kamel Labroudi.
Directed by Andre Techine.
For many decades, French writer and director, Andre Techine, has made a great number of French dramas, typically French one might say. He focuses on families. He focuses on relationships. He offers contemporary interpretations. He also goes back to World War II situations.
And, in so many ways, this is a typically French drama.
The setting is, in fact, 2015, the early days of spring, captions coming up on screen to remind us of this. The setting is a farm as well as a training school for horse riding. The location photography is attractive, the scope of the farm, the cherry trees, as well as scenes of riding and training.
And the farm is controlled by a matriarch. And, there she is, Catherine Deneuve turning 75, still headlining films 55 years after The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She has been a constant film presence, nationally and internationally, and was one of the images of French symbol, Marianne.
And so, we feel that we are settling into familiar enough material and wondering what Techine will do to make a difference.
The grandson returns home from travels, meeting the girl that he grew up with and intends to marry. But, there is a difference, a 2015 difference: ISIS. But during his being away, he has converted to Islam, is very serious about its doctrines, and very serious about prayer practice, taking his mat out into the farm fields for his worship, and discovered by his grandmother. The family has a Catholic background but, his grandmother is not a believer but is tolerant with her grandson.
At the end of the film there is a reference to the killings of the cartoonists in the Charlie Hebdo office massacre. The setting of this film precedes the terrible mass killings that took place in Paris, the truck driver in Nice…. Once our attention is heightened because of the Islamic themes, there is much more to see, the fiance absolutely committed to causes but, while she works genially at a home for the elderly, she is working online recruiting jihadists.
The grandson and his fiancee are preparing with another friend to leave France for Syria and active involvement, pretending that they are going to Canada. They attend some rallies and the audience gets the opportunity to be reminded of jihadi indoctrination and the intellectual and emotional bitterness to harsh and hostile teaching and action.
The grandmother does not want to denounce her grandson but wants to prevent him going after she discovers the truth and that he has forged a cheque to steal from her at the bank. She goes to visit a former fighter for ISIS, still under government suspicion and with an ankle bracelet, his trying to explain how indoctrination can take place in the French community.
And so, a Techine family drama becomes very topical, an opportunity to consider radical indoctrination in what might be called ordinary French society and to contemplate the dire consequences – and the emotional effect on close family.
What might have been anticipated as material, familiar enough over the years, turns out to have much more substance and challenge.
FLATLAND Panorama, Opening Film
South Africa, 2019, 97 minutes, Colour.
Nicole Fortuin, Faith Baloyi, Izel Bezuidenhout, De Klerk Oelofse, Brendon Daniels.
Directed by Jenna Cato Bass.
A challenging film from South Africa.
The screenplay recognises the diverse racial backgrounds in South Africa, the main action taking place in Afrikaaner territory, an acknowledgement of the British influence (police organisation as well as television soap operas), the indigenous African background.
The film focuses on the stories of two women. The first is Natalie, a young woman, brought up by her mother, fond of an easily handing horses, with the opening of the film gets married to a young policeman, Bakkies. She moves away from the ceremony to be with her horse and, later, when her husband forces himself on her on the wedding night, she flees again to the stable, encountering the pastor who did the ceremony who lectures her then takes a whip to her. She has a gun. She shoots.
The other story focuses on a policewoman, Beauty (Faith Baloyi, accomplished in her first major film role). Her former fiance rings her after 15 years in prison and she goes to meet him. He has confessed to the killing of the pastor while drunk – but really wants to return to the security of prison.
The two stories come together when Beauty visits her old police partner whose son is Bakkies. Beauty does not think that her former fiance killed the pastor and is determined to use her detective skills to find out what happened.
A major climax of the film takes place at a truck stop. Natalie and her young friend, Poppy, escape and try to find the father of Poppy’s coming child, a truck driver. The truck stop is very rough. Poppy is upset when the father of the child dances with Natalie and there is a sexual encounter. In the meantime, she is threatened by the bartender at the stop, forcing her to strip at gunpoint.
Fortunately, Beauty arrives at this moment and the film moves towards some unexpected climactic moments. Natalie confronts her husband who expresses love but is again brutal and she escapes from him, taking Beauty’s car. Beauty in the meantime had a plan to rescue her ex-fiance and leave the country with her savings in cash – but that is the car that Natalie takes. In the meantime, Poppy is rescued and declares that her ambition is to appear on television.
GOD EXISTS, AND HER NAME IS PETRUNIJA ok
Macedonia, 2019, 100 minutes, Colour.
Zorica Nusheva, Labina Mitevska, Stefan Vijisic.
Directed by Tiena Strugar Mitevska.
One doesn’t see too many films coming from Macedonia. This one alerts the audience to the country, countryside, the people, traditions, the role of the Orthodox Church.
The title is certainly provocative – which makes the audience wonder who is this Petrunuiya! And what claims does she have on God!
Well, it is clear by the end of the film that she is not God – but, she is a good stand-in when old religious traditions are challenged, especially by rigid and misogynist men. How could this come about?
Petrunija is in her early 30s, seemingly idle at first, strongly criticised by her dominating mother, loved by her more passive father. She wakes, eats, is a bit on the heavy side, gets a special dress from a friend and goes to a job interview for sewing but gets the male treatment from the boss, critical, touches of sexual harassment.
Disappointed, she wanders home and encounters an Orthodox tradition, the casting of a cross into the sea and the local men, already stripped to the waist, bored with all the prayers, ready to jump into the water and retrieve the cross. She jumps and wins.
While all hell doesn’t necessarily break loose, something akin certainly does. The police take her in and interrogate her. But, it is revealed that she has a degree in history (and hence no employment) and his astute in answering questions. She is also interrogated by the priest and takes her stance. There is a television reporter, a feminist herself, who takes up the cause, does interviews, especially with the mother, and these are seen on television. Her cameraman doesn’t want to continue, she is called back by the studio, but decides to defy them and remain on the job.
The film is strong in dramatising the misogyny of the men, the insults, the verbal abuse with its prostitution overtones, the presumption that a woman has no right to participate in such an activity…
The film builds up its momentum, more audience empathy for Petrunija, and a realisation of the churches’ male dominance and lack of appreciation for the role of women, respect for them. Which may have been some of the motivations for the Ecumenical Jury in Berlin, 2019, to give this film its prize.
THE GOLDEN GLOVE/ DER GOLDENE HANDSCHUH Competition
Germany, 2019, 115 minutes, Colour.
Jonas Dassler, Margarete Tiesel.
Directed by Fatih Akin.
While there is a great deal to commend in the technical aspects of this film, performance, photography, editing, direction, it will be for most audiences a horrible experience. The horror is in the basic story. The horror is in the ways in which brutality is visualised.
Fatih Akin has a strong international reputation and has directed many films, often with harsh and violent themes. He has written the screenplay as well as directed this film, based on the story of a brutal killer in Hamburg, 1970-1974, around the time that the director was actually born in that city of Turkish ancestry, 1973. So, he knows the situations well.
The killer in the film, portrayed as a monster, visually ugly, broken teeth, a stoop when standing and in his walking gait, is a tour de force performance by Jonas Dassler. In the prologue, there is graphic sexual behaviour and violence for quite some minutes, the threat of the killer, Fritz Honka, sawing the limbs of his victim after his anger outburst and killing – but finally, the sawing beginning off-screen. However, there are several murders later presented far more explicitly and graphically, an old woman with her head continually bashed on a table in his room, a large prostitute being strangled by him with a scarf, the scene protracted for quite some time.
So, the question is raised about the limits for the “how” in the presentation of such violence. The scenes can be presented, but the discretion and taste of the director is the issue as well as how it affects its audience.
The initial action takes place in 1970, Honka getting rid of the body parts in the rubbish dump, but some of the missing, wrapped and stored in a sealed space in his attic apartment.
1974 focuses on students coming from school, young girl, Petra, being urged to better things by teachers but her complete ignoring of them, impassive. She gets into conversation with a new student, Willie, has a cola with him and he asks if he can take her out. Honka sees her and she becomes a kind of vision for him as well as for his lust. He will imagine her in various circumstances. In fact, Willie does go to the red light area, venturing into The Golden Glove, with its seedy and drunken characters, later bringing Petra but falling foul of a former SS officer who humiliates him in the urinal, urinating on him, Petra trying to find him but his urging her to go home. She is seen by Honka who follows her out of The Golden Glove only to find when he gets into his street that the building is on fire. He has explained to the police that he lives in the attic – and, when the body parts are discovered, he is arrested and confesses.
Another subsidiary character is Honka’s brother, his marriage failed, his drinking, his range of aphorisms which his brother admires.
There are also the habitues of The Golden Glove, the 79-year-old who drinks gin and tonic and comments, various other old men who have all kinds of nicknames, as well as the men at the bar who are used to the clientele, keep the blind shut because people don’t drink in sunlight, and managers everyone well, even when the cleaning lady comes in. Then, there are other prostitutes, especially the older women, gone to seed, alcoholic, drinking all day, ready for a client if they get the offer.
The most significant of these is an old lady who has no money but is given a drink by Honka and taken back to his house, his trying to force himself on her sexually, in a seedy bedroom, with his main room adorned with photos of naked women. He asks about her daughter and makes a contract that she brings her daughter to see him, but the daughter has gone to Vienna, which enrages Honka. However, surprisingly, she cleans the house, tidying everything, stays on to cook for Honka and his brother. She escapes death because the Salvation Army woman officer who visits The Golden Glove, spurned by a lot of the women, denouncing nuns and their education, takes the old woman to a shelter – one moment of grace in the film.
Other women are not so successful, one escaping after Honka forcing himself on her, her companion being bashed to death, and, later, the big woman who is strangled.
The range of actresses portraying these women is quite extensive, most persuasive performances.
A one stage, Honka is knocked down by a car, comes back from hospital prepared to give up all alcohol, even having a night at home, cold turkey. He gets a job as a security guard in a business firm, proud of his uniform, very conscientious (a touch of the German orderliness). He encounters the cleaning lady and later is invited by her to have a party for her birthday with her husband in the building. This has such an effect on Honka that he feels he is in love with her. She has a conversation about her sad life and he violently approaches her, drinking, all his plans undone.
It is in this context, more drinking at The Golden Glove, that he does have the vision of Petra but is thwarted because of the fire.
Ironically, there is the terrible smell in his apartment of the limbs that are hidden away, people often commenting on the stink but his explaining that it is the Greeks downstairs (and an outpost of hatred towards foreigners) and the continued special cooking. On the night of the fire, the Greek family has assembled and is celebrating when, from the roof, maggots start falling on to them and the family gets out of the house, forgetting to turn off the stove which then sets the fire.
Of course, there is much to intrigue in this portrait of the killer – but the audience left to work out his sanity and madness, his violence and sexual preoccupations by observing him in action rather than and psychological explanations offered.
In the opening prologue, audiences may be reminded of Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s 1931 portrait of a serial killer, M. The visuals resemble mad characters in this silent era. When the action is explained as taking place in Hamburg in its seedier aspects, the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder come to mind – with Akin offering some kind of homage to Fassbender’s films. And this is confirmed when the audience who know Fassbender’s work see Hark Bohm as the 79-year-old gin and tonic drinker in The Golden Glove.
(Deborah Young is a respected reviewer. Her review in The Hollywood Reporter is perceptive, articulate and stylishly written, with such observations:
The film detailed without too many scruples or explanations;
A determinedly seamy reconstruction, unremitting bleakness;
Likely to be too much for most viewers to take – unless they are willing to pay for gruesome slumming.)
GRACE A DIEU Competition
France, 2019, 137 minutes, Colour.
Melville Poupaud, Denis Menochet, Swann Arlaud, Eric Caravaca, Francois Marthouret, Bernard Verley, Marine Erhel, Josiane Balasko, Helene Vincent.
Directed by François Ozon.
The first thing to say about François Ozon’s contribution to the cinema focusing on clerical sexual abuse is that it is quite a significant contribution. It is based on real-life characters, an abusive priest, Father Bernard Preynat, the Cardinal-Archbishops? of Lyon, Barberin, lay assistants, and a number of men who raised issues from their past, their experiences of abuse, leading to criminal investigations into the priest. An epilogue indicates that no date for the trial has been set, although there has been work on the investigation for several years, and that the Cardinal and one of his lay assistants have been on trial for not passing on information about the abuse – this film premiering during the 2019 Berlinale with a verdict to be announced on March 7, before the film will go into worldwide release.
Catholic consciousness about clerical sexual abuse has undergone quite some transformation in the last three decades, in some cultures much more developed than in others. The word used by many is that the Catholic response is evolving. And this film will contribute to the evolution. There are early references to Pope Francis and his stances about abuse, investigations by Cardinal O’Malley? for the Vatican, protocols changing concerning trials, priests being laicised, penalties, civil cases and imprisonment. This film, with its focus on serious misdeeds, insufficient response from hierarchy and authorities, is a helpful opportunity for Catholics (and members of other denominations who have experienced abuse as well as other institutions) to acknowledge the realities of the past, express regrets, move towards greater openness.
While Ozon focuses on one diocese and one priest, he highlights the events presented as something local and solitary, in comparison with many of the cases that have occurred in France. The screenplay scarcely acknowledges that there have been cases right throughout the world and for so long. We could be reminded that many other countries have been pursuing the issues of abuse, attempts to rectify situations honestly, acknowledge guilt since the 1990s.
Cases were raised in Canada in the 1980s and 1990s. The first protocols from the official church in Australia were published in 1996. In fact, Ireland has had a national investigation into abuse, Australia had a governmental Royal Commission into institutional abuse, with a thorough examination of the Catholic Church, from 2013 to 2018, with extensive airing by the media. Although the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, 2015, almost seems to indicate that the Americans discovered abuse and dealt with it in the media, their focus was on the years up to 2002. So, for outsiders to France, to see this case coming up in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century seems comparatively late – and it would have been interesting had the men in Lyon had contact with organisations in other countries.
This can be confirmed by the cinema history of films about clerical sexual abuse, the American film, Judgement, 1990, about cases in Louisiana, The Boys of St Vincent, 1992, quite forthright about Canadian cases, and a number of British and Irish films since 2000, and the miniseries from Australia, The Devil’s Playground, 2014. In fact, the film Our Fathers, 2005, was quite explicit in basing the screenplay on actual characters, survivors, lawyers, clergy, and quite specifically naming the Cardinal-Archbishop? of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law.
A note about the screenplay’s use of the word, ‘victim’. Another development over recent years, especially in some English-speaking countries, is the substitution of the word ‘survivor’ for ‘victim’. Victim highlights the perpetrator as well as the abused, while survivor highlights the life of the abused person (acknowledging that so many abused have committed suicide), a more positive perspective on going ahead with life.
As regards the film itself, it is very much a verbal film, voice-overs describing experiences, the texts of letters and emails, words of interviews, reports to the police, family discussions. This means that the director is able to be less detailed in visual representations of abuse situations, relying on the flashbacks, on the age and innocence of the child, the child being selected by the abuser, his taking the child away from the group. In this way, the director is able to avoid any prurient response to the story.
The film is also an effective in its principal focus being on the particular survivors, four of them, one, devoutly Catholic, wife and five children, discovering the offending priest is still in ministry, wanting to act, communicating with the archdiocese, going to interviews, even a meeting with the offending priest. But, with ecclesiastical delays, his growing more concerned and, approaching the police, setting a criminal investigation in process. Another man, now atheist, wife and children, has been moved into action because his mother wrote to the then Cardinal and other clergy in the early 1990s and has kept a file which the police use. This man has another friend who remembers abuse in the past, at the scout camp sponsored by the priest. The fourth man, high IQ but not able to fit into society so well, also joins the group which establishes a website, and an association as more and more survivors emerge.
Again, it would be interesting to compare the networks of survivors in other countries and how they operate, cooperate, and have been significant in giving witness into investigations, especially government investigations as in Ireland and Australia, for instance. This film gives the (perhaps unintended) impression that this website and network was a first in dealing with abusive clergy.
Ozon takes a fair perspective on the events and the characters. There is certainly criticism of the Cardinal, his hesitations, some contradictions in his testimony in press conferences. Worthy of note, is the Cardinal’s faux pas in responding to issues concerning the ending of statutes of limitations, God be thanked (Grace de Dieu), the title of the film. The Cardinal is challenged, acknowledges his loose use of words, apologises (and mistakes like this, unthought-out comments by the hierarchy, have plagued investigations and stirred media upset, flowing over for the public).
In fact, there has been great rage in many of the survivors, the years-long hurt and wounding, the disastrous effect on life, relationships, ability to cope and lead a fruitful life. However, this film has its protagonists angry but more objective, less raging but earnest for justice to be seen and justice to be done, possibilities for reparation, hesitations concerning forgiveness of the offender.
It is interesting that in this film, while there are some lawyers, they play subsidiary roles, different from lawyers’ work in more litigious cultures, with a focus on financial compensation, and a criticism of the church in using lawyers, legal action before expressions of compassion.
One of the directions for another film would be to take up the presentation of Father Preynat (for English-speaking audiences it is ominous that his surname begins with ’prey’, a man who was a prolific predator), his admitting his guilt and responsibility, his apologies to the survivors, but his acknowledgement of his psychological condition which needed much more attention, his attraction towards children, even seen in his emotional response to meeting the survivors, wanting their support and forgiveness, speaking affectionately (until reprimanded by the lawyer), his willingness to pray with the survivors, his affectionate smiles as he left the meetings. We need more probing of the characters, motivations, mental and emotional conditions of the abusers.
This is not a review of the film. That would go into the quality of the screenplay and the direction, the fine performances of the central characters, the relying on strong dialogue to communicate perspectives.
But, for audiences from other cultures, it is a dramatisation of historical and contemporary events, issues for survivors, challenges to churches, which must continue.
THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET Competition
Austria, 2019, 108 minutes, Colour.
Valerie Pachner, Pia Hierzegger, Mavie Horbiger, Michelle Barthel, Marc Benjamin.
Directed by Marie Kreutzer.
A strong Austrian psychodrama, focusing on women, written and directed by Marie Kreutzer.
There are two settings. Central character, Lola (Valerie Pachner) is a young business consultant from Vienna, competent, almost completely involved in work. However, she is on constant call for her sister, Conny, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, in and out of institutions.
On the one hand, the film is a portrait of Conny’s mental illnesses, and demands on her sister, her erratic behaviour, believing the medical staff are conspiring against her, even hallucinations about their treatment. She is Lola’s older sister and, after the death of their mother, was her legal guardian. However, with the illness, Lola is now Conny’s legal guardian and takes the responsibilities very seriously, interrupting her work with phone calls, flying back to Vienna to see her sister and consult with the doctors.
In the meantime, there is restructuring going on in the company and she has the task of preparing programs to explain what could happen in the various departments as well as attempts to save the greatest number of jobs possible. Her boss, Elise, is a strong minded businesswoman as well – and the audience discovers that the two are in a sexual relationship.
There are various intrigues and plotting is going on in the company, about who will be members of committees, who will do consultations, promotions…
While things get worse for Lola, she fears that she is having hallucinations, phone calls from her sister, a phone call which seems to know all about her behaviour in the situation with Elise. She goes to a doctor but does not continue with the consultation.
The climax is the restructuring, the plan for Lola to go to Sydney for some years, the macho attitudes of one of her co-workers (sexually harassing Lola as does one of the clients).
While Conny seems to be getting better and is released under Lola’s care, there is drama with Conny falling to her death and Lola not getting the promotion that she expected.
A drama exploring the behaviour of paranoid schizophrenics as well as compulsive businesswoman and nervous breakdowns.
GULLY BOY Panorama
India, 2019, 155 minutes, Colour.
Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Siddant Chaturverdi, Vijay Varma, Kalki Koechlin.
Directed by Zoya Akhtar.
The title refers to the central character, Marud (Ranveer Singh) who has a talent for creating rap lyrics and performing. What holds him back is that he belongs to the lower class, possibly the lowest cast, lives in an impoverished area of the city where it is taken for granted that the inhabitants will never rise to anything in their lives, are servants, and need to know their place.
This is Mumbai USA! Although, perhaps, some American audiences might be rather envious of the talent of these Indian rappers and the opportunities they create for themselves and search for. In fact, the screenplay is very American, a story parallel to rappers in the city neighbourhoods – with English subtitles always referring to homies, bro, the hood. And there ae drugs and drug dealers in the area.
As for many Indian films, this one runs for over 2 ½ hours. It is in Hindi. It is set in Mumbai. Although the central characters are all Muslim. Interesting to see that the director taking on these themes and male characters is a woman.
The film opens with three friends at a carjacking, a theme that will recur during the film, an episode of desperation that will jolt the consciences of the men.
Murad is doing some studies, financed by his father who is strongly of the opinion that his son must seize any opportunity, working in an office, because that is the most he will achieve in life. The father is a very harsh and physically brutal man towards his son and towards his wife. This harshness of parents is a strong theme of the film, occurring also in the family of the rather tough young woman, Safeena, studying medicine, ambitions to be a surgeon, who has been in love with Murad since they were 13. In her case, the mother is the one who is rather demanding, more than demanding, also physically brutal at moments, wanting to arrange a marriage and only then to allow her daughter to continue studies.
There is a very genial rapper, Sher, who befriends Murad, with friends, speculate on a name for him – it turns out to be Gully Boy. He records for YouTube? and continues to get many hits, many fans. Included is an American-Indian? young woman who has the money to do a project for the University of Music in Boston, working with Sher, lyrics, rhythms, working in a studio, but a very elaborate and entertaining video of one of the songs filmed in the music-video style, right throughout the streets of the neighbourhood – and everyone in the neighbourhood enthusiastically applauding.
So, many emotional problems, confrontations, Safeena being particularly brutal towards women that she feels Threatened her relationship with Marud. In fact, she has a surprisingly short fuse which does not do her any credit and gets her into trouble.
And, as with this kind of film, there has to be a competition. An American rapper is about to visit Mumbai and the call goes out for auditions amongst rappers to be part of his supporting show. Gully Boy walks out on his office job, performs (a competition of pairs sparking off each other with insults galore) and, of course, well, we know what will happen.
In the last part of the film there is a final performance, everybody in Marud’s life present, including his father, and the possibility that he and Safeena will have a future together, he rapping and she as a doctor
So, a blend of Indian contemporary urban problems as well as an enthusiastic embracing of rap music – a different entree into music and dancing in the home of Bollywood.
I WAS AT HOME, BUT…/ ICH WAR ZUHAUS, ABER… Competition
Germany, 2019, 105 minutes, Colour.
Maren Eggert, Jacob Lasalle, Clara Moller, Franz Rogowski.
Directed by Angela Schanelec.
The director won the Berlinale 2019 director award for this film. It is personal for her, a reflection of her own life and marriage, her husband having been a theatre director like the husband in this screenplay.
While there is an overall narrative to the film, the disappearance of the 13-year-old Philip and his mysterious return a week later and the mother having to cope with new situations in her life with her son and daughter, there is much more philosophical reflection in the screenplay.
In fact, this is an existential questioning of the meaning of life, of relationships, of trying to cope with life. Which means quite an amount of intellectual dialogue in the screenplay.
There are some other narrative elements, the young son developing an illness, poisoning, his time in hospital and recovery, the impact on the little girl and her place in the family, the mother and sibling an advertisement to buy a bike, testing it, but later finding it breaking down and taking it back to be fixed by the seller.
Interspersed throughout the film are rehearsals by the school students with quite a number of scenes from Hamlet.
Not a film for those who want a straightforward narrative – but rather for those who like story elements but also provocative questions, existential angst, reflections on the meaning of life.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS Opening film
Denmark, 2019 , 112 minutes, Colour.
Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Taha Rahim, Jack Fulton, Finlay Wojtig Hissong, Jay Baruschel, Caleb Landry Jones, David Dencik, Esben Smed.
Directed by The Lone Scherfig.
The title has become a classic quotation from Tennessee Williams, Blanche Dubois telling her relatives how she had benefited from the kindness of strangers. This is an apt title for a film of warmth (not always literal for the characters), a film about the need for kindness and kind people who render it, often without question, just from natural goodness.
This is a film about a brutal husband who is a policeman, preoccupied with Internet images of brutality, who has made his wife and two sons suffer, so the film opens with them getting in a car and escaping their house, driving to New York City, the mother, Clara (Zoe Kazan), a housewife with little experience of the world, and the boys, Anthony (Jack Fulton very effective) and Jude (Finlay Wojtik Hissong). The drama of the film is a very distressing reminder of the ordinariness of male brutality in the home and the consequences for mother and children who have to flee the home and are not sure where to go.
A great variety of characters is introduced but, gradually, all of them become interlinked. The most significant is a dedicated nurse, Alice (Andrea Riseborough) who is also based at a church, has organised a soup kitchen, office space for a children’s choir – and she runs a help group whose theme is forgiveness. She certainly embodies the kindness to strangers. In the Forgive group (quite a random selection of rather prickly participants) is a defence lawyer who is depressed because he usually loses his cases, John Peter (Jay Baruchel), and one of his clients who has just emerged from four years in prison, taking the blame for his addicted brother Marc, (very sympathetic Tahar Rahim). Also drawn into the group is a young man, Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), clumsy by nature, lacking in good practical judgement, forever fired from all jobs but meeting Alice who sees him as a volunteer for the soup kitchen (even though he uses the wrong utensil to pick up the bread rolls), but, with the response of the strangers in his life, he finds some permanence (though not necessarily any greater skills).
Most of the characters at one stage or another converge on a Russian restaurant in New York City, owned by an American who inherited it from his grandfather but who is also not the greatest manager but a kindly host, Bill Nighy with a strange accent and an amusing explanation about it). Marc becomes the manager.
So, quite a mixture. The main focus, of course, is the young mother trying to manage her children, scrounging food, shoplifting, sleeping in the car, taking refuge in a public library, getting more desperate, especially when they are tracked down by her policeman husband, causing them to flee again.
Most audiences will like this film, a good reminder of outreach of justice and kindness (with a salutary scene where an old homeless man speaks to the mother and then accuses her of looking down on him, even of not looking at him, not her intention but, in fact, what she does). This is the kind of film that many reviewers and audiences who like tough dramas sometimes dismiss as too nice (do they really want the film to end with the mother and children out on the street again!).
MARIGHELLA Out of Competition
Brazil, 2019, 155 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Wagner Moura.
The name Carlos Marighella would be familiar to Brazilians, especially older Brazilians. However, his name would not be well known outside the country.
This portrait of Marighella has been written and directed, his first directed film, by popular Brazilian actor, Wagner Moura. A labour of love, a tribute to Marighella, a criticism of the dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 – and possible critique of the 2018 elected government and its move to the far right.
Marighella was the grandson of Sudanese slaves coming to Brazil. He was well educated, lectured, wrote books which were translated, was active in government and opposition.
The film opens with a raid on a train, 1968, Marighella and his group taking government arms from the train, and storing them in a church with the help of Dominican friars. The government has been targeting Marighella but is more intent on destroying him and his rebel movement.
The film moves back to 1964 with the takeover by the fascist government. Marighella has made the option to go into opposition and work on the philosophy of an eye for an eye. He is concerned about his son who goes to school in the north but, by 1968, is kept under surveillance by the government, using him as a bait to tempt Marighella to come so that he might be arrested.
Seu Jorge is intense as Marighella, engaging in many ways, fully committed to his movement, drawing quite a number of followers who are seen in action in 1968, robbing a bank with some fatalities, and the assassination of an American military advisor, a very strong anti-Communist stance who has been brought in to support the government. The media is censored.
The film shows that Marighella could not quickly organise his rebel group and that there were always people ready to betray the rebels.
Of particular interest to a Catholic audience is that this is the period of the emergence of Liberation Theology, especially in Latin America, later to fall under the disapproval of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger and the office for the Doctrine of the Faith. There were conferences in Paublo and Medillin. There are Dominican friars in this film, willing to hide the arms in the church, one friar particularly friendly with Marighella, discussing issues with him, supportive, instrumental in arranging the appointment to meet his son – but, caught and tortured and giving up Marighella.
In more recent decades, cinema history of Latin America has tended to concentrate on Argentina, the period of the generals, the experience of the Disappeared. Here is a very interesting companion film.
US, 2018, 85 minutes, Colour.
Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenayy, Gio Galicia, Ryder Mc Laughlin.
ed by Jonah Hill.
This is the first feature film written and directed by Jonah Hill, very well known for his early comedies and later moving into more serious roles, including The Wolf of Wall Street.
Hill was born in 1983 which makes him 12 to 13 in the mid-90s. He was also born in Los Angeles.
This is a very American story, very Los Angeles, about young boys and about adolescence. It has its parallels, of course, with growing up in other cities, especially in the United States, but also around the world. It also has its parallels with what life was like for adolescents in the middle of any decade.
The focus of the film is on the young lad, Stevie (Sunny Sujik), rather quiet at home, living with his mother, Katherine Waterston, and his older brother, turning 18 (and reference made to his mother giving birth to him at eight). Lucas Hedges (Ben is Back, Boy Erased, Three Billboards) plays Ian, the older brother, a taciturn young man.
Most of the film shows Stevie becoming more and more involved with the older group who hang around, expert in skateboarding (and Stevie is definitely not), but of smoking, issues with drugs, sexual encounters – and plenty of the kind of adolescents boasting. The range of friends is varied, some very gung ho (though they do have some moments), Na-kel Smith, a more sympathetic African- American friend who takes notice of. Then the ups and downs in friendships, and his, some jealousy is. There are also the girls, especially older girls, sympathetic, but interested in initiating the young boys in sexual behaviour – which has quite an effect on Stevie.
His mother intervenes at various times, laying down the law on the young men.
Stevie has an accident, is hospitalised, his mother concerned but also inviting the group into the hospital room to be with Stevie.
The film is most likely to appeal to the age range of the central characters. It may have some appeal to parents who are concerned about their adolescent children and trying to understand them. Larry Clarke did a similar thing for the Kids of his time, the film coming out in the mid-90s, a far more stark film than Mid90s with the behaviour of the characters and the seeming absence of their parents.
MR JONES Competition
Poland/UK/Ukraine, 2019, 141 minutes, Colour.
James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Joseph Mawle, Kenneth Cranham, Febella Woolgar.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland.
Mr Jones seems an innocuously generic title (and there was a thriller some years ago with the same title, featuring Richard Gere). However, this is a historical drama, taking the audience back to the 1930s, introducing an actual character, the young Welshman, Gareth Jones, a political advisor to Lloyd George and seen giving advice to the British cabinet. As those familiar with Winston Churchill’s campaigns against the Nazis during the 1930s, there is no surprise that the cabinet does not welcome the advice from Gareth Jones. On the contrary, Lloyd George has to dismiss him.
This film is been directed by the Polish director with quite an international repertoire, Agnieszka Holland. It continues her interest in stories about World War II in the years leading up to it, especially for some of her Polish films including Angry Harvest and In Darkness,
However, the narrative of Mr Jones ranges far more widely.
Gareth Jones’ mother had worked in Ukraine and Gareth himself was familiar with the Russian language. An earnest man, he is at first put off by his treatment from the British government but then decides to go to Russia and to the Ukrainian to investigate Stalin’s then claims of successful five-year plans, of prosperity, of grain crops. Jones is of the opinion that there is no evidence for the success and wants to prove it.
After eventually getting his visa to visit Russia, he travels to Moscow by train, immediately experiences difficulties with the bureaucracy, the hotel he has to stay at, the limited time there… But, in the meantime, he makes contact with other journalists (one of whom warning him about Stalin and the news coming that he had been killed in an accident), especially the Americans, the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), who lives a comfortably decadent life in Moscow and is a significant spokesperson for Stalin’s regime.
At the core of the film is Gareth Jones’ slipping away from the authorities during the train trip to Ukraine and, in scenes of shock and poverty and famine, the truth of what was happening in the Ukrainian winter, the devastating famine for which Stalin was responsible.
This is a rather long film, the filmmakers certainly wanting to make some devastating points about Stalin’s regime, the public image, the behind-the-scenes devastating realities. On his return to Wales, Jones had to make the decision whether he should publish articles on not (the Russians have taken Mobil businessmen hostage and threatening them if anti-Soviet material were printed).
And, one of the main reasons why we have not heard much about Gareth Jones is that on a journalistic mission to Africa, where there were Soviet authorities, he was killed.
James Norton, best known for Grantchester, is an effective young enthusiast as Gareth Jones. Peter Sarsgaard has both charming and sinister moments as Duranty. Later, an interesting character is introduced into the narrative, Eric Blair (Joseph Mawle), with quotations throughout from his novel, Animal Farm; he is better known as the novelist, George Orwell.
LES NUITS FAUVES/SAVAGE NIGHTS Panorama, Retrospective
France, 1992, 126 minutes, Colour.
Cyril Collard, Romane Bohringer, Carlos Lopez, Corine Blue, Maria Schneider.
Directed by Cyril Collard.
This is a film which emerged at the end of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, released in the early 1990s. It is very much the work of the writer-director, Cyril Collard, who had written a novel, adapted for the screen, composed music and songs for his film seeing them), directed and took the central role of Jean. He has a genial presence, engaging the audience.
The film was nominated for a number of Cesar awards, winning four. However, Collard, as his character in the film, was HIV positive and, in fact, died four days before the award ceremony. Which makes the film have even more impact, a sadly true story.
Jean works in the media, photographer, opening with scenes in Morocco. In Paris, he keeps in touch with his parents, his father having had a stroke. But he also indulges in quick sexual encounters in the underpasses and under the bridges in Paris. He visits the doctor and acknowledges the diagnosis, often cheerful, sometimes beginning to be overwhelmed.
He has some photos of a young woman, 17 years old turning 18, Laura, Romane Bohringer, who comes from audition, is attracted towards Jean, beginning a tempestuous (to say the least) sexual relationship, he impotent but in love with her.
Romane Bohringer gives an intense performance, love moving into obsession, bursting out of times in rage. Her mother tries to intervene, Laura ultimately having to agree to go to an institution for treatment after her incessant phone calls to Jean, stalking him, absolutely besotted.
In some ways, the story is inconclusive, Laura somewhat improving and able to be away from Jean, but Jean having to face the reality of his illness.
Aorigelatu, Dulamjav Enkhtaivan, Norovsambuu.
Directed by Quan’an Wang.
While there is a murder at the centre of this story, a dead woman found naked in the open plains, alignment policeman guarding her body until reinforcements return the next day, a suspect and interrogation, autopsy for the woman, the murder and the investigation then go into the background.
The Chinese director offers a perspective on Mongolia, its vast landscapes, the inhabitants and their herding, their tents for their dwellings, some adaptations for the 21st century, a particular way of life in this part of the world. The director has also assembled a number of local performers for his film.
However, the film becomes an anthropological study, long visuals of the open landscapes, of the wild horses, of the sheep, camels and a focus on the herdswoman who lives alone, does a man’s work although she needs her neighbour to help her when a sheep is butchered and a cow experiences a difficult birth. There are discussions about marriage and the traditions. There is a modern focus for testing the woman for her pregnancy, explaining this to the man, her being offered an abortion pill. The mobile phone is also the present in this Mongolian world.
The film offers an opportunity for audiences not familiar with Mongolia to enter into this world, see it, hear it, interpret it, understand and empathise with it.
THE OPERATIVE Out of Competition
US, Israel, 2019, 115 minutes, Colour.
Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, Cass Anvar.
Directed by Yuval Adler.
Audiences fond of international espionage may have memories of John Le Carre’s novels and of the film versions as they watch The Operative. It is the same territory. There are many of the same issues. There is the role of the operative, the role of the control, the role of the authorities – and the planning of missions, undercover, secrecy, and dangers.
This is a film from Israel with an Israeli director. However, there is quite a lot of British background, especially in the character played by Martin Freeman, a British operative in Mossad, based in Germany.
So, this is a film about Mossad and its activities and, surprisingly, the main location for the operative in question here is, in fact, Tehran and Iran.
The operative in question is a woman with international background, ranging from Britain to Australia to Vancouver. Her father was a British academic. However, it emerges that she wanted to do something more significant with her life and approaches Mossad in Germany. The operative is played by Diane Kruger, credible as an undercover agent, controlled by Martin Freeman, becoming more personally involved in her mission than is safe for her.
So, the film has strong Le Carre overtones.
As the film opens, the operative has disappeared and her controller is summoned by the authorities to explain. Dramatically, this gives the opportunity for the audience to learn about the operative, the background, her character, interpretation of what she has done.
After serving with background tasks, she becomes involved with what is really a political assassination in an elevator – which leads to her being considered for undercover work, a stronger job. She is assigned to Tehran as an English teacher and she fits in well into Iranian society, making friends, teaching children. However, she is commissioned to target a wealthy businessman who will then become an unknowing tool in a Mossad plan to destabilise the Iranian nuclear developments.
It is not necessarily giving away anything of the plot to indicate that the couple will fall in love and that there will be extreme complications.
While the film does have some exciting moments, these are not at the centre of the action. Rather, this is a psychological study of the operative, her response to getting a mission and trying to fulfil it, her trying to deal with the psychological and emotional implications, as well as a picture of her controller and his having to make decisions to be personally involved or not.
While the material could be considered somewhat familiar and the treatment of the story workmanlike, The Operative is successfully interesting and entertaining.
OUT STEALING HORSES Competition
Norway, 2019, 122 minutes, Colour.
Stellan Skarsgaard, Tobias Santelmann, Jon Ranes, Bjorn Floberg, Danica Curcic, Sjur Vatne Brean, Gard B. Eisdvold.
Directed by Hans Petter Molland.
This is the story of an elderly man, Trond, played by Stellen Skarsgaard, who retires to a hut in the Norwegian countryside after the death of his wife. He prefers to be alone, managing, but encounters and neighbour with whom he begins discussions – and finds that he is someone he knew when he was young.
In fact, the main action takes place in 1958 (with some flashbacks to the war period as well as some flash forwards). At this stage, the old man is 15, on a summer holiday with his father with whom he is bonding. They have activities together, go fishing. His father is also involved in logging, cutting down the trees, stripping the bark, loading the logs onto the water to carry them to their destination.
He goes on and outing, to steal horses, with a friend and neighbour, Jon, who is rather taciturn. It emerges that the day before Jon was supervising his younger brothers when there was an accident, one of them dying. The survivor was Lars – and suspicions that he was responsible for the death of his brother, not just an accident. This brings the boy’s mother back for the funeral, the audience seeing the tension between her and her husband, discovering that she had a relationship with Trond’s father. Trond himself becomes infatuated with her – distracting his father’s attention leading to the injury of the woman’s husband and his disappearance.
There are complications from the war and shielding Resistance members and getting them to Sweden.
Trond is upset as his father never returns home although he leaves money for he is wife and son.
A complex Scandinavian drama exploring relationships and Lars is the neighbour in the 1999 sequences.
The director also made the thriller, In Order of Disappearance, which he remade in the United States with Liam Neeson, Cold Pursuit.
PHOTOGRAPH Berlin Special
India, 2019, 110 minutes, Colour.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra.
Directed by Ritesh Batra.
Ritesh Batra made a popular romantic story about mistaken identities, The Lunchbox. It was an Indian story, especially with orders for lunches going out, mixups in orders, the consequences for the woman sending out for lunch and the man receiving it. This film, Photograph is basically the same story in another guise.
In the meantime, the director had made the film version of Julian Barnes novel, The Sense of an Ending, in the UK and a romantic film in the US, two of the little only people comforting each other, Our Souls at Night, reuniting Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
With Photograph, he is back in India, is in Mumbai. For overseas audiences, especially if they have visited Mumbai in the past, it is an opportunity to see the modern city, the blend of the old and the new, the new beginning to dominate. The scenes at the Gateway show tourists and photographers urging passers-by to capture the moment otherwise it will be gone.
The audience is introduced to two unlikely characters to be the focus of this. The first is a middle-aged photographer, trying to eke out a living with his friends, who has come from the country, wants to pay off his father’s debts, and is the main concern of his grandmother who really want him to get married (and threatens to stop taking her medication until he does). He is something of a morose man, living in a community of fellow workers, who talk, joke, trick, play cards – and talking about his not being married and his grandmother’s threats.
The other is a young student, from a wealthy family, seemed to shop with the family wanting to choose colours for her clothes, her past thoughts of being an actress but her studying to be a chartered accountant. At the Gateway, Rafi urges her for a photo. She agrees but, as he turns away, she is called and disappears.
And the audience is wondering how they will come again, whether she is the answer to Rafi’s dreams and his grandmother’s hopes, whether she will meet Rafi again.
Of course, they do.
The device is that Rafi sends Miloni’s photo to his grandmother who very quickly agrees to come to Mumbai to meet the young woman. Which puts Rafi into something of a panic, going around the city in a van search for the young woman, by chance seeing her in a poster advertising chartered accountant courses, following her, sitting next to her on a bus…
There are touches of wry comedy with the grandmother’s arrival, her summing up of the young woman, not wanting to at first, changing her mind, the two women bonding – even though Miloni has set up a completely false background story.
The film has a great deal of charm, although an impatient audience might want them to hurry up and resolve the situation. Otherwise, there is great pleasure in being in the company of Rafi and Miloni, the tensions for the young woman at home but good advice from the family servant about life in the country, Rafi and dealing with his grandmother.
There is a pleasant twist to the plot when it emerges that Miloni does not drink Coca Cola, remembering the Cola of the past, Campa Cola, which has stopped production. However, there is a story about an older man who had a factory because his wife love to drink Campa Cola. Can this have an influence on bringing about the romance between Rafi and Miloni?
The couple have been to see a film and she has been startled by rats scurrying across the floor of the cinema! However, they go again. She walks out and the couple sit on a park bench, he telling her about how the film will end up, about them getting to know each other, falling in love, a future together so that they did not have to see the rest of the film. And, of course, that is where Photograph ends as well!
US, 2019, 110 minutes, Colour.
Jamie Bell, Bill Camp, Vera Farmiga, Danielle Macdonald, Mary Stuart Masterson, Russell Posner.
Directed by Guy Nattiv.
This is a film about races in the United States. It is a tough film to watch.
It is also based on a true story, the central character, a young man who is imbued with racist attitudes and violence, adopted into a family who belong to a white supremacist group. The settings are in the American midwest, Ohio, Indiana and down to Tennessee.
The director is originally from Israel and became interested in this story through the influence of his American wife, the producer of this film. He went to New Mexico to interview the man and his wife who were living in witness protection.
20 years ago Jamie Bell was Billy Elliot and made a great impression on moviegoers. Since then he has had quite a significant career and a variety of roles. Here, he plays Babs, covered in tattoos, including his face, all having a symbolic racist significance. He goes along to rallies led by his adoptive father, a grim performance from Bill Camp, supported by his adoptive mother, Vera Farmiga, both caring and sinister. And there are a whole lot of other young men along for the protest, along for the bashings, the film opening with one of these rallies on a bridge in Columbus Ohio.
Of course, the title, Skin, refers to racial differences but also keeps reminding us of the skinhead, which Babs is, as well as his skin covered in tattoos.
By chance, a mother and her two daughters are hired to sing at the rally, and get some boos and insults for their efforts. For some reason, Babs defends them, even physically. And, talking with Julie, the mother, they promise to keep in contact. Julia is played by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald.
There is also a black leader of an organisation against racism, a man whose purpose it is to contact individual racists, discuss with them, try to open their eyes, change them, convert them. At his office, there is a wall full of photos of men who have turned.
Which means and that the drama of this film is focused on Babs and the different struggles he has. There is his love for Julie and her family, his moving out of his own family and living with her. There is the approach from his father and mother, pressurising him to return to the group. And there is the man working hard to try to turn him.
Skin offers an opportunity to look at images of white supremacist demonstrations and race riots, often seen in clips on television news, but here part of a narrative which draws the audience in. The film also offers an opportunity for audiences to assess their stances, any innate prejudices they may have, the challenge to understand those who are particularly vocal and violent.
Not easy watching but seriously worthwhile and challenging.
SO LONG, MY SON Competition
China, 2019, 180 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Xiaoshuai Wang.
This is something of an epic Chinese film, focusing on a family, but focusing on a group of friends and their contacts over the decades, from the young days, the Cultural Revolution, the one-child policy, the modernisation of China into the 21st century.
The structure of the film is shifting, moving (often without notice) from one time period to another, the audience having to gauge which period is being shown, from the look and locations, the age of the central characters.
The film opens with a key episode where the son of the central couple does not want to go and play in the water but is urged to do so by his friend who also pushes him into the water, leading to the death of the boy, the parents hurrying to take their son to hospital, his death. As part of this theme, the surviving boy grows up with a sense of guilt, becomes a doctor and very successful professional man but has the need to confess to the parents what he has done – and, at the end, he is so and receives their forgiveness.
The couple adopted another boy who is rather rebellious, resents his father who treats him severely, wants an identity card and leaves. Later in the film he too will return and there will be some kind of reconciliation.
In the meantime, there is also a focus on the friends of the parents, somewhat carefree and singing and dancing at the time of the Cultural Revolution, being imprisoned and indoctrinated, the group meeting again over the years, the effects of age, some deaths, adapting to a China that sometimes they do not recognise.
The actors portraying the parents won the acting awards at the Berlinale 2019.
France, 2019, 122 minutes, Colour.
Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte.
Directed by Nadav Lapid.
A strange film by a Jewish director, allegedly based on his own experiences in Israel and in his coming to France. In some ways it is off-putting. In some ways it is engaging. It was certainly engaging for the international jury at the 2019 Berlinale where it won the Golden Bear.
Tom Mercier, in his first film, quite an exposure of character, body and soul, plays a young man who arrives in Paris, goes to a building, finds a large empty apartment, goes to sleep in a sleeping bag, freezing, gets up to go to the bathroom, returns to find the sleeping bag gone and his being exposed, cold, racing throughout the building, trying to get help.
A young couple upstairs find him in the morning and tend to him.
The young man’s story is that he is angry with his father especially back in Israel, upset at his military service, resenting Israel itself, leaving, hoping to find some kind of future and salvation in Paris, rejecting his own language, fascinated by the French language, buying a dictionary, playing with words, their meanings and synonyms.
The two friends are supportive while he tries to get some security work, visits the Israeli Embassy which he does not want to do, tries to get jobs, answers an advertisement for some modelling which turns out to be an episode of sexual exploitation, pornographic photos. He goes from one event to another, giving over his life stories to the man who helped him and wants to be a writer, becoming more involved emotionally with the young woman who has had a promiscuous background.
So, the series of episodes, trying to find himself, a man trying to find himself in a new country, in a new culture, in a new language – eventually wanting to become a French citizen, going to classes in preparation for citizenship, with a range of men and women from other cultures, especially from Asia, professing loyalty to France and singing the Marseillaise.
An experience of much disillusionment, conflict with his benefactors – and a visit from his father which also continues the conflict. It is the kind of story which one might add: to be continued.
SYSTEM CRASHER/ SYSTEMSPRENGER Competition
Germany, 2019, 118 minutes, Colour.
Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriella Maria Schmeide, Lisa Hasmeister.
Directed by Nora Fingscheidt.
This is a strong drama, and drama about a young girl who cannot be controlled – she seemed to continually fall through the structures of the system for childcare.
The film is worth seeing because of the performance by Helena Zengel as Benny, a girl at nine turning ten, hyperactive, narcissistic, prone to rage and tantrums. The actress is completely convincing.
The film shows how various organisations within Germany try to cope with such difficult children. The little girl is unable to live with her mother who cannot cope, is in a variety of relationships, has two younger children whom she cares for and does not want them to go the way of her older daughter, though the young son seems to be moving in that direction. While she collaborates with authorities, she is unable to keep the promises she makes about her daughter (who is absolutely devoted to her) and literally runs away, although she does come to her daughter’s hospital bedside after she suffers exposure to the weather.
There is a sympathetic official who tries to place her in foster homes, only temporally successful, who listens to her and offers her support. The other members of the staff move from the sympathetic to the hard-headed, the doctor concerned about her mental health, and ideas that she should go on a program for such children which is held in Kenya.
The most significant person in her life is the official who is designated to accompany her to school. He bonds with her, is able to deal with her tantrums, gets permission to take her away for a holiday to his hut in the countryside, a hut without any amenities. Commentators note that this would not be lawful in Germany for a man to take a child away on such an excursion.
For a while, this is successful, but again tantrums ensue. The man takes her to his home for a night where she meets his pregnant wife. This is significant because after other outbursts, she runs away to the house, seeing the man as a father-figure, but taking the newborn baby, holding it and becoming possessive – which leads to disaster.
There is no solution to the problems leaving it to the audience to assess their reactions to the girl, her character, situations, and the ways that the authorities have tried to deal with her.
VARDA PAR AGNES Out of Competition
France, 2019, 115 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Agnes Varda.
At the age of 90, photographer and director, Agnes Varda, participated in an illustrated lecture for an audience as well as opening it out to a documentary overview of her long and prolific career.
She is a genial presence, short and a little stout, multi-colours in her hair. And she speaks with some affection to the audience – but is not afraid to be a bit sharp in her comments.
The film takes us back to her early years and upbringing, her becoming a photographer with some success. In the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, she became involved with a variety of directors, many of those contributing to the French New Wave. She became a photographer for some of them, including Jean-Luc? Godard.
While the film shows her work for other directors, it also concentrates on the films that she made, some features, some documentaries. There is her personal analysis of her celebrated first fiction film, Cleo from 5 to 7. However, there are many more clips from her variety of documentaries over the decades as well as her detailed explanation of why she was interested in documentary, observant in details, concerned about the people who were the subject of her films.
She was also devoted to her director-husband, Jacques Demy, working with him in his films, travelling to California when he had worked there, tending him during his illness, devoted to her children.
This is an interesting and entertaining documentary, an introduction to Agnes herself, a retrospective on her life and work, a perspective on her various films and her approach to photography and film-making.
VICE Out of Competition
US, 2018, 132 minutes, Colour.
Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Eddie Marson, Alison Pill, Shea Wigham, Lilly Rabe, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk, Bill Camp, Fay Masterson, Lisa Gay Hamilton.
Directed by Adam Mc Kay.
With an ambiguous title that suggests evil, here is a film about Dick Cheney. It is not a love letter to Cheney, not a skerrick of fan mail except for one skerrick, his supportive stance for his gay daughter, Mary. On the one hand, this is very serious subject. On the other hand, it has many moments of Saturday Night Live sendup and satire, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and very often, a tongue poked out.
Whether audiences will enjoy the film or not will depend on two things. One will be how old they are and how much of this 50 years of American political history they lived through and remember, moments that are vivid in their memories but which are now part of sometimes ancient history for those who are younger. Even the impact of 9/11, powerfully presented here, occurred 17 years ago.
The other factor will be the political perspective of the audience. The film has not been made for those who lean to the right (except to provoke them often enough). It is obviously a “left-leaning” film – reinforced by a sequence for those who stay for the credits with a think-tank discussing this very issue, almost coming to blows about liberal prejudice.
While there is a linear thread throughout the film, from seeing the young Dick Cheney in his old alcoholic days in the mid-1960s, to his being taken in hand by his demanding wife, Lynne (Amy Adams in a very strong performance), going to Washington and beginning a career in politics leading to almost absolute power before downfall, under the mentorship of a gung-ho Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell completely opposite to his sympathetic father in Beautiful Boy), Seeing doubled over with laughter at Cheney’s suggestion that there were moral issues to consider.
And Cheney himself? While the film opens with the anxiety of the politicians as the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, a greying, heavy Cheney, the early flashbacks help us to see Christian Bale as we recognise him, preparing us to accept him as an unrecognisable Cheney (except for some verbal reminders of Bale).
Writer-director Adam Mc Kay began his career in comedy, especially with Will Ferrell (one of the producers of this film). So, he draws on many comic devices of editing, flashbacks, the credits rolling in the middle film and then suddenly stopping because there is more to Cheney’s career!
Also compelling is Sam Rockwell as George W Bush, seen first drinking, then boyishly with the Republican nomination, munching chicken and discussing the possibility for Cheney to be Vice- President, trying to come to grips with issues about Iraq, ordering the invasion after whispers from Cheney.
Cheney takes for granted his significant political career, Chief of Staff at the White House, Secretary for Defence, easily hobnobbing with all the powers that be, CEO of Haliburton and unashamed about Iraq contracts. He reshapes the role of the Vice President from ornamental to all-powerful, George Bush happy and rather relieved. And, all the time, Lynne Cheney is by his side.
In many ways, there is almost too much to take in. We are immersed in the Nixon era, Watergate and the resignation. We are briefly immersed in Gerald Ford’s losing the election and Jimmy Carter winning. Then there is the Reagan era, the election of the first George Bush (but no mention, to all intents and purposes, Clinton and his era). For those who lived through these events, there is plenty of ticking off memories, perceptions, re-appraisals. For those for whom this is all history, they may need to go to references books (or Wikipedia) to check on numerous details.
Ultimately, the film focuses on 9/11 and consequences, Cheney taking an opportunity to promote war, to promote oil interests, to shape public opinion linking Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, controlling information and intelligence data.
And, comparatively great was the fall thereof, heart attacks, heart transplant (and a narrative by an odd character played by Jesse Plemons, an ordinary worker, soldier in Vietnam, knocked over in an accident who tells us that he is related to Cheney in a different kind of way, his new heart!).
History has not been kind to Cheney. But, here is a powerful performance, strong cast dramatising influential political and legal characters of the period, questions raised about politicians, competence, using and abusing power, consequences for the public – and only a mention about the present incumbent of the White House, a reference to his orange hair which might be missed, although there are moments of the real Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence seen speaking in Congress.
Probably worth seeing again to absorb all the questions and all the challenges (and to enjoy the satire, for those who are “left-leaning”).
WHAT SHE SAID: THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL Panorama
US, 2018, 95 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Rob Garver.
For audiences who have read Pauline Kael’s books and her film reviews, noted over the decades with her very strong opinions, forthrightly given, this is an opportunity to get to know something of the person herself, her background, her journey into film reviewing and comment, devotees and those who are hostile. For those who do not know her, the film opens up the period of film reviewing in the United States from the 1960s to the end of the century.
Pauline Kael was a very strong character. She came from a farming community in California (the film showing scenes of Hud to illustrate this). She watched films from a very young age and decided that this was to be her area – although she did try to write some plays which were not so successful. She had a daughter by an artist, James Broughton, and marriage, briefly to a New Yorker executive. However, she tended to be her own woman – although her daughter was devoted to her, spending a lot of time typing her material because Pauline Kael always wrote in long hand.
She wrote an essay very critical of Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight and that led to further writing, a variety of magazines, losing her job at times because editorial judgements that she was not responding to the current tastes. Eventually, she went to the New Yorker, doing six-month stint with the other six months of the year left to British writer, Penelope Gilliat. At one stage, she went to California to work on a film with Warren Beatty, pulled out, stayed as a consultant. She was also very popular on the lecture circuit.
She was very strong on the role of women in society, commenting how males assume that women could not think as intellectually as they did. She was very strong on the intellectual approach to films, enjoying them, but also analysing how they were made, what they were saying, and the context in which they were made and released. While she was very critical of Andrew’s Sarris and his Auteur Theory, she did take up some favourite directors, taking some credit for their success, especially during the 1970s, including Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola, but could be very critical about others, taking apart the metaphysics and transcendence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.
The film has a great number of talking heads, fellow critics, especially some devoted to her, nicknamed the Paulettes, although one says he was a Paulinista. There are commentaries from the business perspective as well as distribution. There are comments from a number of actors but there are even more comments from directors, especially analysis from Paul Schrader who knew her before he became a film director. Once again, some in favour, some hurt by her criticisms, especially interview sections with David Lean and his reaction to her carving him up at a public meeting.
In some ways, the film is outdated, because Pauline Kael was published in magazines, published critic. The 21st century has seen a proliferation of reviewers as well as anyone having an opinion and having free scope with blogging on particular sites. However, she raises many issues about how a person sees a film, enjoys it, appreciated, criticises it, analyses issues.
WHO YOU THINK I AM/ CELLE QUE VOUS CROYEZ Berlin Special
France, 2019, 101 minutes, Colour.
Juliette Binoche, Nicole Garcia, François Civil, Guillaume Gouix.
Directed by Safy Nebbou.
Juliette Binoche has made a number of films about women in midlife crisis. This was true of Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In where the central character drifts from one relationship to another – and, finally, consults a clairvoyant played by Gerard Depardieu, a strange 15 minutes conclusion to the film as she listens patiently, absorbing his advice which does not sound particularly insightful or helpful.
In fact, it is a pity that she did not consult the psychologist in this film, a sensible woman played by Nicole Garcia, seen attentively listening and not trying to influence her client with ideas or modes of behaviour.
This time Juliette Binoche is an academic, separated from her husband, in a relationship with a younger man who is rather casual while she is much smitten with him. When she tries to contact him by phone, she encounters his associate who behaves in a dismissive manner. She is upset, does some research on him, that he is a photographer and that he is travelling with her lover.
The gist of the film is that she sets up a character online and communicates with the photographer, sending photos of her niece, creating a young character, a model. He falls for the attractive character online and they began a correspondence. Both of them become rather obsessed. (There is a surprising twist about the niece at the end.)
The question is will she tell him the truth, what will be his response?
The woman is actually recounting her story to the psychologist, building up through flashbacks – and, eventually, with several possible solutions which are also dramatised, including the young man’s disillusionment and suicide, including the woman’s becoming more infatuated and beginning a new and direct relationship with the young man without revealing who she is, or the young man not dying, the former lover having lied about this, and his marrying and having a family.
So, the question is not just to the woman who she thinks she is but who other people think she is.