26 August, 2009

Il Caimano (The Caiman) 2006

Berlusconi, gently skewered

Nanni Moretti (The Last Customer (2003), La stanza del figlio (2001)), a cult director in Italy, brings a unique perspective to this take on 'Il Caimano', the second-longest serving prime minister in the country's history (1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, 2008 onwards).

What is fascinating is how Berlusconi's story goes hand in hand with the film's other central character, cult director Bruno Bonomo (Silvio Orlando), who is struggling, after an extended absence from the silver screen, to turn the vision of young writer Teresa (Jasmine Trinca) into celluloid reality. Thus, in much the same way as Spike Jonze's excellent Adaptation (2002), we are watching both the creative process and parts of the finished product at the same time.

Orlando's performance at once captures the manic intensity of a dedicated artist who is approaching the end of his emotional tether - he is estranged from his wife and former star Paola (an excellent Margherita Buy), and the banks are getting more than a little tetchy concerning his debts. No matter - the show must go on, and the engaging, affectionate and very amusing narrative (adapted by Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Federica Pontremoli and Heidrun Schleef from Schleef's novel) takes us into the heart of the matter.

In addition, the actual scenes featuring Berlusconi (commanding performances from three diferent actors) serve very well to suggest a far more penatrating film than the personal, perhaps even autobiographical tale of a director's trials that appears to be the story's core.

One is left with the impression that Italian politics is perhaps more chaotic than even the most peculiar film about it could ever be - but Moretti's is a sure hand at the wheel.

Awards: Click here for details.

112 mins. In Italian.

20 August, 2009

Garpastum (2005)

Another country

Featured in the 2006 European Film Awards' Official Selection.

Truly, a film in which not much happens, but a great deal occurs - the director of Posledniy poezd (The Last Train) (2003), Aleksei German Jr takes us into the heart of rural life in 1914 St. Petersburg, where teen brothers Andrey (Yevgeny Pronin) and Nikolai (Danila Kozlovsky) are passionate about football - Garpatsum is its Latin name - they play on the streets, normally, but the pair hatch a scheme to buy a playing field and build a proper stadium. They start playing with workmen, seminarians and anyone else they encounter for money, but World War I and the October Revolution are set to intervene...

In the beautiful bichrome opening scenes, the murder of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo (which triggered the First World War) is referred to by manual labourers in the harbour, before an almost unnoticeable transition to muted colour photography and the world of Nikolai and Andrey, who live with their aunt and uncle in St Petersburg.

German Jr (son of the Russian director of the same name) worked on the screenplay with Alexander Vaynshteyn and Oleg Antonov, and together they have created a world that is intimately connected to late 19th century and early 20th century literature, especially German examples such as Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund).

As in those novels, Garpastum’s real purpose is not to tell a story or even portray a character, but to paint a vivid picture of young men’s relation to themselves and each other. What happens in the world beyond these bonds is only interpreted through their relationships, and as such Garpastum is not so much a historical epic as a intimate epos of two brothers set in a beautiful and not-often depicted time and place: St Petersburg during and after WWI.

Awards: Click here for details.

118 mins. In Russian, English and Serbo-Croatian.

15 August, 2009

Spoorloos (The Vanishing) (1988)

Into the darkness

We're going all the way back to the very first European Film Awards (EFA) with this one - in 1988, George Sluizer's film of Tim Krabbé's novel The Golden Egg took the cinema world by storm - rarely, if ever, has a film captured existential horror like Spoorloos (The Vanishing) (1988).

As I indicated in my earlier post concerning Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997, 2007), Sluizer made the unfortunate choice of remaking his film Stateside in 1993 - apart from an intriguing performance from Jeff Bridges, there's little to recommend the later version.

But the first film is something else again - we join Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), a young couple in love, who are on vacation. Following a row over nothing, they make up, stop at a busy service station, and Saskia disappears. Three years and, despite his extensive efforts to find out what happened to his lost love, Rex is nowhere nearer finding an answer - until, that is, he begins receiving letters from a man, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), claiming to know exactly where Saskia is. Fearing for his sanity, Rex starts to play Lemorne's games...the horror, the horror.

Central to the conceit of the film and original novel is the intriguing premise of just how far anyone would be prepared to go to find out the truth - and the terrible price that must sometimes be paid for doing so. Bervoet's performance details very well the frustration, despair and obsession of wanting to know the answer, but it is Donnadieu's utterly impassive, amoral Lemorne that truly chills the blood. Ter Steege won the first EFA Best Supporting Actress Award for her turn as the charming, whimsical Saskia - a delightful characterization that makes the revalation, when it comes, of what happened to her all the more harrowing.

And the ending? Don't even think about it - it's one to stay awake to, and I am saying no more...

Awards: Click here for details.

107 mins. In Dutch, French and English.

08 August, 2009

Funny Games (2007, 1997)

Playing the games

More than ten years ago, German director Michael Haneke gave the world Funny Games (1997), a gruelling and relentless journey into nightmare that, along with greats such as Peeping Tom (1960) and Rear Window (1954) asks direct questions of the viewer concerning the voyeurism that is at the heart of cinema as an art form.

Like George Sluizer before him, who went to the US in 1993 to remake his marvellous Spoorloos (1988) as The Vanishing, Haneke here presents an American take on his own original, with an all-new cast and in English. However, Haneke’s second effort differs from Sluizer’s in that it is (i) identical to his first film shot-for-shot and (ii) it’s infinitely better made.

So, does the director’s decision render watching the new film pointless if you’ve seen the original, or vice versa? Perhaps those who ask such a question should first check out Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho (1960) – the notable director (Good Will Hunting (1997) Elephant (2003)) also went for a near frame-for-frame homage – to find out for themselves if the approach does anything for them.

Whatever your take on the debate, this is still a rightful tenant of the genuine badlands of the human psyche – a horror film that does not mess about. Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) arrive at their vacation home ready to enjoy some golf and sailing with their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart). As Anne is unpacking groceries, she is confronted by two young men, Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt) dressed in golf clothes, wearing white gloves. At first happy to help with their request for eggs, Ann quickly realises that things are very far from normal when the two boys’ attitude turns antagonistic, then far, far worse. ‘Funny’ games are definitely not on the menu…

Unnerving calmness combined with wanton cruelty is the key characteristic of the assailants performances, with solid, terror-struck turns from Watts and Roth. The film’s real achievement, however, is the undermining of an audience’s customary complicity – in Haneke’s film, we are forced to identify not so much with the victims but rather with their all-powerful assailants. Peter and Paul are performing for us, a point underlined by the characters’ frequent questions direct to camera: they’re appeasing our blood-lust, our desire to witness the worst that can happen to other people. After all, why else would we want to see such a film? Ask yourself the same question before you watch – love it or hate it, this will not leave you unmoved.

Awards for Funny Games (1997): Click here for details.
Awards for Funny Games (2007): Click here for details.

Funny Games (1997): 108 mins. In French, German and Italian.
Funny Games (2007): 111 mins.