31 October, 2008

La Sconosciuta (The Unknown) (2006)

Dark masterpiece

As part of EFA’s ongoing commitment to the cream of European cinema, a passion that we share with our sister site Picturenose, Colin offers his thoughts on a modern Italian classic…

The main problem with Italian cinema is that most of it stays in Italy. A nation that is happy to share its cuisine, culture, style and general all-round dolce vita with the wider world is remarkably reluctant to export anything but a small percentage of its huge celluloid output to the global viewership. As a result of this, my experience of Italian cinema has been, up to now, either political polemic or Fellini-style “let’s fall in love and have some linguini vongole and a bit of a dance”.

La Sconosciuta (2006), written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso (1988)), not only opened my eyes to just how powerful and torrid Italian films could be, but also moves me to say something I have never put in print: This is the best film I have seen this year, by a long way.

I am also rarely moved to describe a film as ‘flawless’. La Sconosciuta is, save for one very minor gripe, more of which later. The story centres around Irena (Kseniya Rappoport), a Ukranian immigrant, and her struggle to escape her past - a past that simply won’t go away, and is personified quite horrifically by a figure named Muffa (Michele Placido). Tornatore’s direction is extremely tight and very well measured. He takes a fairly non-linear format at the outset, making it difficult to see where it might be going. Only when he has sucked you into Irena’s world and totally hooked you, does he reveal, piece by piece, the full horror of her situation. Many aspects of her story are not revealed until much later in the film, and this serves as your ‘reward’ for paying close attention.

Irena’s story begins as she is forced into prostitution by the cruel and sadistic Muffa, the gangmaster of numerous unfortunate Eastern European girls forced into the sex trade. In flashback, we learn of happier times with her husband, and just how her life descended into hell. She arrives in the city of Verlachi, rents a surprisingly expensive apartment, and seeks work as a domestic help in the building across the street. Eventually, her hard work is noticed by the residents and she manages to secure a better position as housekeeper for the Adacher family, then finally as a nanny to their daughter Tea (Clara Dossena). Watching this progress, you could be forgiven for thinking that she is finally coming out the other side of her harsh and difficult life but, in reality, the true horror is only just beginning. The plot twists and sidesteps in many places, sometimes taking you by surprise completely. It would be impossible to give examples, as to even divulge one would spoil this complex and mesmerizing tale.

Rappoport really does give an outstanding performance, one that is thoroughly believable and displays a range of emotion many actors could study as a masterclass in the art. Calculated but fluid, beautiful, touching and thoroughly haunting. In fact, there’s not a duff performance from anyone involved. Irena, Muffa, Claudia Gerini as the aloof but kindly Mrs Adacher - they’re all so perfectly drawn and directed, but not forced. Every performance is individual and genuine. The most remarkable effort for me was how Tornatore coaxed such a superb performance from Clara Dossena, who can’t have been more than five years old. Truly wonderful.

As I mentioned at the start, there is one thing that I felt was not quite right. The score was provided by Ennio Morricone, the now-legendary composer. The problem lay not in the score itself, which, as you might imagine, was a superb piece of original orchestration, but that it sometimes overpowered the action and dialogue. Rather than being a backdrop, it was too often in the foreground - somthing I found a little unsettling. It’s entirely possible that this was done for dramatic effect, but I think it was slightly over-done in some places.

OK, so one very minor gripe in an otherwise fantastic and moving story. I’m not sure about the distribution of this film, but it’s won a good few awards now, including the 2007 European Film Awards Audience Award for Best Film, so maybe we’ll get lucky and the Italians will decide to share this gem with the rest of the world. If you can buy or rent it, do so - you will not be disappointed.

Awards: Click here for more details.

118 mins. In Italian.

22 October, 2008

LUX Cinema Prize: Winner announced

And, guess what? Our man (James Drew) got it wrong, of course, a fact that will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read any of his Oscars predictions...

The film Le Silence de Lorna (2008), by Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is the winner of the European Parliament LUX Cinema Prize 2008. EP President, Hans-Gert Pöttering handed over the trophy to Luc Dardennne in a ceremony in front of MEPs and representatives of the three competing films in the final on 22 October. The aim of the LUX Prize is to facilitate the circulation of European films within Europe.

In awarding the prize, Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering said: "The European Parliament has always recognised the pivotal role culture plays in our society and the award of the second LUX Prize reflects this. One of the objectives of the prize is to experience cultural and language differences within the EU. With this year's winner, a major social issue affecting Europe can be brought to cinemas in all European countries."

Director Luc Dardenne said, on receiving the prize: "We don't see enough of each other's films in different countries of the European Union. I think this prize is the first step in remedying this problem."

The stated aim of the LUX Prize, awarded for the first time in 2007, is to break down the language barriers that prevent European films from circulating in the EU and give a boost to cinematic work within the Union. The winner of the LUX Prize will have his film subtitled in the EU's 23 languages and one copy will be produced per member state in 35mm format. The prize also includes an adaptation for the deaf and hard of hearing, and eventually an adaptation for the blind and visually impaired.

Le Silence de Lorna was selected by the MEPs, with Delta (2008) (Kornél Mundruczo) and Občan Havel (2008) (our man's nomination and personal favourite) (Miroslav Janek and Pavel Koutecky) its competitors for the big prize.

The three films were part of a ten-strong official selection, chosen by a 17-member independent panel drawn from the highest levels of the cinema profession - producers, distributors, cinema operators, festival directors and critics.

And our 'pundit' says: Yah, boo, sucks - les freres Dardennes win yet another award they don't quite deserve. That's not to say Le Silence de Lorna wasn't well made or worth watching but, as far as entertainment value is concerned (as well as adhering to the remit of the competition), Občan Havel beats it hands down. Nothing like grace in defeat, is there? See you next year...

15 October, 2008

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Songs in the darkness

Here's a simple question for you - did anyone NOT cry at this film, which won the EFA Best Film award in 2000 (as well as the trifling matter of the Palme D'Or and Best Actress at Cannes)? Lars von Trier, together with a performance from Björk that simply defines pathos, takes us into the heart of emotion and reworks the concept of the musical, to boot.

The plot has the simplicity of a fable - Selma Jezkova (Björk) is a Czech immigrant who lives in rural America with her young son Samuel (Vincent Paterson), eking out a bare existence as a factory worker, desperately trying to save enough money to allow her son to have an operation that will save his eyesight, as he has the same genetic, degenerative condition as Selma, whose sight has all but gone.

A lover of musicals - 'In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens' - Selma lives largely in her own mind, finding music in the mundanity of everyday life. And it is this device that is Von Trier's stroke of genius - the fantastical, 'let's do the show right here' nature of the classic musical is thus avoided, because all the song and dance numbers are taking place only in Selma's inner world.

Catherine Deneuve provides stellar support as Selma's true friend Kathy, who wants only to protect her gentle, ragamuffin-like innocence from the harsh realities of life, while David Morse, too, is excellent as the caring, compassionate but desperate neighbour whose dishonesty brings tragedy.

Musicals always divide audiences - some people simply cannot stand them, while for others, they are joyous examples of cinematic creativity. There are lessons to be learned in Dancer in the Dark for both sides of the argument - this is nothing less than a towering achievement.

Awards: Click here for more details.

140 mins.

08 October, 2008

Delta (2008)

Following our recent article on the European Parliament LUX Cinema Prize, EFA and Picturenose, as promised, present a review of each of the three films up for the big prize on 22 October, beginning with Delta (2008), a Hungarian-German examination of 'unnatural' relationships...

Already the recipient of an award from the International Federation of Film Critics at Cannes, as well as a nominee for this year's Palme D'Or, Kornél Mundruczó's film examines the tragic consequences of a judgemental society. Mihail (Félix Lajkó) returns to the remote village of his birth (located on the Danube Delta), where he meets his sister Fauna (Orsolya Tóth), seemingly for the first time. Their new-found affection for each other (she moves in and helps him build a riverside house) embarrasses the tight-knit community, who condemn the relationship as unnatural and begin jumping to all the wrong conclusions. The couple are ostracized, and worse is to follow...

Mundruczo, whose previous work (also starring Orsolya Tóth) was the gripping, dark, sound-and-fury musical Johanna (2005), embraces a more intimate style here, in presenting a small-town malaise that is drifting inexorably towards vioence.

Kornel brings out another fine performance from Tóth, makes very effective use of his languid, violin-heavy soundtrack, and his firm compositional prowess brings truly beautiful imagery to the screen. However, the result is unfortunately rather less than the sum of these parts - seemingly happy only for his film to look striking, Kornel (and his screenplay, co-written with Yvette Biro) fails to probe any of its characters' motivation or behaviour to any significant depth, leaving an end result that feels slight, inconsequential even.

To be fair, Delta had to be reshot from the start when its original Mihail (Lajos Bertók) died half-way through the production, but the lack of content makes the whole seem distinctly pretentious, rather than portentous. It will be a surprise if this one grabs the gong.

Awards: Click here for more details.

92 mins. In Hungarian.

07 October, 2008

La Noche De Los Girasoles (The Night of the Sunflowers) (2006)

Spanish lies

Spain's reputation as a leading film-producing nation continues to grow, particularly in the dark fantasy, horror/thriller genre. In recent years, directors such as Jaume Balagueró (Los sin nombre (1999), Darkness (2002) Fragile (2005)), Alejandro Amenabar (The Others (2001)) and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later (2007)) have established their artistic credentials - now, Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo joins the list, with his taut, suspenseful thriller exploring the evil under the surface of small-town Spanish life.

Estaban (Carmelo Gomez) and his wife Gabi (Judith Diakhate) are looking for a cave of historic interest, when a random attack takes places, things turn strange very quickly, as revenge, misidentification and Machiavellian manoeuvres from the local police all come into play....

Sorry to be so vague, but revealing much more of the narrative would be a mistake. The acting is near-enough perfect, particularly from Diakhate, with her unsettling, credible take on confused hysterics. Small-town Spain is also imbued with its own distinct character. Showing remarkable assurance for a first-time feature director, Sánchez-Cabezudo takes the audience on a circular tour (somewhat akin to Memento (2000)), returning again and again to events, each time from a slightly different perspective - an interesting, involving technique, but strangely one that has the effect at times of diminishing the tension, rather than enhancing it.

No matter - ultimately, this is a morally ambiguous and very competently made curio - perhaps its overt intellectualism slows the pace a little, in the final analysis, but the first-class performances, plus marvellous music from Krishna Levy, more than compensate.

Awards: Click here for more details.

123 mins. In Spanish.

01 October, 2008

Börn (Children) (2006)

Suffer the children...

Börn (Children), certainly starts as it means to go on - two young troublemakers break into an older man’s home after he unwittingly answers the door. Laying his DVDs to waste, one of the pair (wonderfully acted by Gísli Örn Gardarsson) shouts: “What's this? Black and white arty-farty shit?” A referential nod...

Ragnar Bragason, who made Fíaskó/Fiasco in 2000, once again uses actors from Vesturport, a Dogma-esque theatre group that employs stylistic techniques that take their inspiration from Mike Leigh, Luc Godard and John Cassavetes. There is a revitalizing zing and sense of genuine characterizations here that's often lacking in more contrived, narrative-driven dramas.

Karítas (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) is a single mother of four struggling to keep her head above the water, but who has to make sideline money by stealing and selling drugs from the hospital where she works as a nurse. But her own concerns blind her to the problems of her own children, especially her oldest son Gudmundur ( the excellentAndri Snaer Helgason), who lacks a strong male role-model and is being bullied at school. The 12-year-old’s only friend is Marino (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who lives in the same building with his single mother, loves to play football, but who is nearly 40.

Börn offers a fresh approach to parent-child relations, with characters that are not always likeable, but definitely credible and, in addition, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson's superb, crisp black-and-white cinematography gives a rarely seen perspective on Iceland.

Awards: Click here for more details.

93 mins. In Icelandic. Black & White/Colour.