29 September, 2009

Pranzo di ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch) (2008)

Summer’s wine

Official Selection List, European Film Awards 2009

A sort of Big Night (1996) for homebodies longing for a memorable midday meal, Pranzo di ferragosto won best film at the 2008 Venice Film Festival and other festival awards. If I told you the film features four lovely Italian ladies, you are going to start thinking (1) Monica Bellucci; (2)… If I told you that the actresses – who all appear to be first-timers in film – are at least over 80 years old, your interest might waver. But don’t succumb to ageism, for this film is, among many other things, an ode to youth, or at least remaining young at heart.

Gianni Di Gregorio’s film has another inspired casting choice: the director as the lead actor, playing Gianni, a fifty-something soft-alcoholic bachelor who takes good care of his mother, played by Valeria De Francisis, who either has a steel-reinforced blond permanent, or goes to bed in her platinum wig. Guffaws would be out of place in this comedy, but there is plenty of material for wry chuckles.

Take the storyline of this 76 minute film – Gianni and Mamma live in a pleasant old apartment block in downtown Rome, but have fallen behind – way behind – in their condo fees; they have had their keys to the elevator taken from them. “Who needs an elevator, anyway?” rationalizes Gianni to the understanding building manager, who has a plan to help the dutiful son and his mother. It involves ‘Mamma sitting’ for his octogenarian mother for the weekend of Assumption. And that’s just the beginning of Gianni’s special weekend.

Note for readers unfamiliar with European observance (especially in the nominally Catholic countries) of Assumption Day, which always falls on 15 August: in a month already known for its city-emptying tradition of mass exodus to the beach, those left behind on 15 August have to fend for themselves. Especially true when you have to prepare an impromptu feast for four (yes, the octogenarian count has risen) hungry ladies.

Di Gregario has, in a light-hearted but not silly or condescending way, combined in this short gem two bases of Italian society: the filial devotion of sons for their mothers (we are not told what the daughters-in-law think), and the unending quest to eat well – even when sharpers make the most of their mid-August monopoly on the wine supply.

See Pranzo di ferragosto for a midsummer Italian treat whenever it comes to your cinema or DVD distributor. We saw it, appropriately enough, in provincial France on Assumption Day weekend.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
75 mins. In Italian.

Un Prophète (2009)

‘Criminality, Uninterrupted’

Official Selection List, European Film Awards 2009

Prison dramas, unless they are quality films, are often simply that - prison dramas. Genre films that are quickly produced, formulaic, and easily forgotten. Not so with Jacques Audiard's Un Prophète, winner of the Cannes Grand Jury prize. For Un Prophète is, as they tend to say in France, un grand film.

No big-name actors or flashy pyrotechnics, though the special effects for the apparition of a departed cell mate - ostensibly from Hell - with little tufts of flames singing his track suit, are rather nifty. No, the special effects are all in the acting - Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup (yes, French actors are no longer just 'Alain' or 'Jean-Paul') in the principal roles of Malik and César - and in Audiard's directing.

Prisons in France are all the news these days. If it's not condemnation for overcrowding or suicide rates at ten times the non-prison population, it's spectacular breakouts with the help of hired or hijacked helicopters.

Malik and César have no need for such high-profile techniques. César, as the grey-bearded godfather of the prison's Corsicans, can order an execution as easily as he can ensure privileged treatment for his troops. Malik, a quick-learning petty criminal whose primary talent is survival, comes to serve the Corsicans, even learning their language (the film is primarily in French, but with frequent, and credible, use of Arabic and Corsu). It's hard to say exactly at what point the Corsicans come to serve Malik, but that is clearly the trajectory.

In prison films in the United States (I can see Brad Pitt trying to snap up the remake rights after his capture of the excellent French-Georgian thriller 13 Tzameti (2005)), the Corsicans would become the Crips, facing off the Bloods. In Audiard's film, the other major power brokers are 'les frères' - the brothers, referring to the bearded Muslim prisoners. They are not necessarily Islamists, but they are disciplined. Malik, himself of maghrebi origin but of no apparent religious conviction, somehow bonds with the brothers, but is also chummy with a gypsy (gitan) drug dealer who controls a deadly ring on the outside. Why have enemies when allies can come in handy, inside or out?

The Outside. If there's anything in Un Prophète that shows how prison is just 'Criminality, Uninterrupted', it is the almost sheer impunity with which prisoners continue to ply their trade. There are cell phones, of course, and special prison delivery services with packages swung between barred windows. But Malik's specialty is making the utmost out of his occasional 24-hour paroles. César thinks that he owns Malik's hours on the outside. Malik has other ideas.

I've already said more than I usually do about the content of a highly recommended film. Jacques Audiard, the latest in his family to gain cinematic glory, has made a keeper.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus

150 mins. In French, Arabic and Corsican.

24 September, 2009

Looking for Eric (2009)

Stand up, if you hate Man Utd…

Official Selection List, European Film Awards 2009

Cards-on-the-table time – your reviewer loathes with a passion (some might say with every fibre of his being, at times) a certain football club variously known as Scum, Glory Hunters Central, Manure and the Evil Empire. Oh, and they also go by the name of Manchester United, for the truly (and mercifully) unenlightened.

I won’t go into detail as to the reasons for this particular life choice, suffice to say that I picked the team I hated long before falling for the team I love (it’s West Ham United, for those who care), but director Ken Loach and myself are going to have words the next time we meet.

True, he seemed a very personable chap when our paths crossed on his last visit to Brussels (promoting his previous film, the sobering take on UK immigrant labour, It’s A Free World…(2007)), but, on the strength of his latest, Looking For Eric (2009), it would appear likely that our Ken is a United fan. Oh, dear.

What is perhaps even more irritating is that fact that his light-hearted film is mostly very enjoyable (but with a dark streak running through it – this is Loach after all) and, perhaps worst of all, does a very good job of making ‘Red Devils’ fans appear likeable. Almost.

Paul Laverty (who worked with Loach on his previous film) constructs a tale that appeals to heart and head alike – Steve Evets plays down-on-his-luck Manchester postman Eric Bishop, a life-long United fan who idolizes the one-time King of Old Trafford, Eric Cantona. He’s in the pits – burdened with two teenage stepsons from his previous marriage with whom he no longer has a relationship, and still doting on his lost love Lily (Stephanie Bishop) of 30 years ago, with whom he had a daughter, Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson) then left in the lurch, Eric is looking out on a world without hope. Or so he thinks. A plaintive plea to a poster of his hero receives an answer, amazingly enough – a visit, in person no less, from ‘Ooh-Ahh’ himself. But Eric is not here to offer soft soap – he’s taking our man in hand, and there will be fireworks.

Loach rarely makes a film with characters that are difficult to warm to, and this is no exception – while the basic premise is obviously rooted in fantasy, straightforward, gutsy performances from Evets, and particularly from Gerard Kearns and Stefan Gumbs as his stepsons Ryan and Jess, keep it grounded in working-class, football-loving realities, while the story’s darker side (Ryan’s growing allegiance to a gun-wielding local ‘psycho’ businessman, and the danger this poses to all concerned) is treated with respect and unflinching realism. A fairy story this ‘aint, but that’s not to say there isn’t room for magic.

And Cantona himself? A marvel, as you might expect – he’s already won his spurs as an actor, and he’s clearly having a great deal of fun playing himself here: ‘I am not a man. I am Cantona.’ In addition, there’s a rare chance to see just how good he was – nothing short of magic on the field. There, I’ll unclench my teeth now.

Say no more, I suppose, but you know what this means? Yes, that’s right, another squillion new ‘fans’ signing up at Old Trafford. Still, it might also mean that a few people who actually come from Manchester will start supporting the club. What do you think?

Awards: Click here for details.

116 mins. In English and a bit of French(!)

Antichrist (2009)

The nature of evil, the evil of nature

Official Selection List, European Film Awards 2009

It’s rare, for me, to find a film that very nearly defies my capacity to describe it – and that’s not meant to be a self-aggrandising statement on my skills as a film reviewer, even if it sounds like it.

I have loved film since I was very small, and feel very lucky to have the opportunity to write about it for a living, which is why I hope you will believe me when I say that, should you take the risk (and believe me, that’s what it is) of seeing Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) for yourself, as opposed to merely reading hyperbolic reviews such as this one, you will leave safe in the knowledge that you will NEVER see its like again.

The bravery displayed by the director, but more, a thousand times more, by his stars Willem Dafoe (’He’) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (’She’) is breathtaking – Björk, the star of von Trier’s Palme D’Or winner Dancer in the Dark (2000), is apocryphally said to have eaten a dress in frustration and rage, such were the hoops that her director made her jump through.

One can only guess how Dafoe and Gainsbourg (and, for that matter Von Trier) made it off this shoot alive…

Attempts at definition, as previously stated, are near-redundant, but God hates a coward, right? At a base level, the story (which is divided into five chapters, Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), Despair (Gynocide), The Three Beggars and Epilogue) concerns grief – for this reviewer, who lost someone very dear to him recently, the film’s opening chapter provides a near-flawless examination of the pain for which there is no salve but time, and it is this that provides the foundation for the rest of the film, the characters’ motivations, and the horror that overtake two people who are very much in love, in spite of themselves and their circumstances.

He and She are busy making (very graphic) love at the film’s outset, while their little boy, Nic, is sleeping, or so they think.

Tragedy unfolds in beautifully filmed, monochrome slow motion – Nic wakes up, climbs on top of a table, opens the window, and falls to his death in the snow from six storeys up.

Dafoe’s character, a respected psychotherapist, does all he can to bring his wife through her grief, but realises that she is struggling with fears and anxieties beyond the simple agony of loss.

A trip into the woods (which ‘She’ states as being her greatest fear) is taken…and hell follows.

Von Trier plays his customary games with narrative, and the undermining of narrative, and it is for this reason that some will find this very hard going.

But that would be the point. It’s also all about trust and the evil that’s inherent in nature (and, therefore, mankind), but some experiences, you have to undergo yourself.

And trust me, this is one of them…

Awards: Click here for details.

109 mins.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Top dog

Official Selection List, European Film Awards 2009

Remarkable, isn’t it? I mean, talk about a critical sleeper – Danny Boyle’s genuinely harrowing, touching and life-affirming story about rites of passage, undying love and a 20 million rupee jackpot scooped Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s OscarsSlumdog Millionaire (based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup) also won Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay (for Simon Beaufoy) and Best Score (A.R. Rahman) at the Golden Globes on 11 January, as well as Best Film and Best Director at the 2009 BAFTA awards.

So, what’s the big fuss? Well, the story concerns young man Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), who’s on the brink of becoming the first 20 million rupee winner of the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But there are those dead set against him, led by host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), who are convinced that he is a cheat, and have him arrested before he has a chance to answer the big question. How, they wonder, can a poor, uneducated kid from the slums get further in a show that has already defeated professors, doctors and lawyers?

As viewers, we learn how over the course of the film – and, as the answers are the answer, it would be unfair to go into detail here. Suffice to say that director Danny Boyle (whose previous film was the really rather rubbish Sunshine (2007), and on which this is a great improvement) and his Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan ingeniously unfold the revelation in a way that is cerebrally, viscerally and visually dazzling. Really – you can believe the hype.

Awards: Click here for details.

120 mins. In English, Hindi and Urdu.

The Reader (2008)

Between the lies

Official Selection List, European Film Awards 2009

Objectively assessing a film that’s drawn from Bernhard Schlink’s book about how reading changes lives, for good and ill? An interesting situation.

Given the theme of The Reader, and the frequency with which cinema been cited as a medium that is so different from print as to make comparisons invidious (but, as everyone knows, it’s the points on which they cross that make both art forms what they are), director Stephen Daldry’s well-used filmic mode of flashback to assess the emotional distance between a Germany barely a decade past the Second World War, and a society living in an almost universal sense of disillusionment and in many cases ignorance, is a fascinating device.

What the film in fact shows is not just the Holocaust, and its myriad of well-documented victims, but rather how they are memorialized by the passing of time.

Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (a younger Ralph Fiennes, very well played by the determinedly boyish David Kross) collapses, sickly and pain-stricken, from a trolley into the pouring rain of a cold afternoon. Here, he (and we) first encounter Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a 35-year-old tram attendant, played with dignified solemnity by the Oscar and BAFTA-winning star.

Hanna takes Berg in and nurses him back to health – the pair become lovers, with Berg becoming a man via Hanna’s sexual maturity and Hanna coming to know true love, as well as becoming obsessed with Michael reading to her – anything from Ulysses to Lady Chatterley's Lover to Tintin (she had good taste for Belgian literature, obviously). The affair is not just about sex, but the act of reading too – it ends abruptly when Hanna vanishes from Michael’s life. Flash forward eight years – Michael, now a law student, finds Hanna again, but now on trial for war crimes. Michael’s lost feelings of love are twisted as he asks if he can still love the woman who is now cast as a Nazi monster. But, as we are to discover, secrets held on both sides are to prove pivotal, and destructive…

Daldry’s film has been vilified for its rather sympathetic view of an unrepentant Nazi war criminal who, even in old age, shows no remorse. However, where it actually succeeds, is to give a human face to ‘evil’ – the main thrust of The Reader is not so much what Hannah did in her past, or why she did it, but how a generation of people could sit back and watch it happen, how they could allow such atrocities to take place. A point for all nationalities to consider, for all time.

Awards: Click here for details.

124mins. In English, German and Greek.

23 September, 2009

The Time That Remains (2009)

Arab-Israelis, Israeli-Arabs

Official Selection List, European Film Awards 2009

Had Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh (Palestinian Walks) written the screenplay of The Time That Remains (2009), the dwindling time might refer to the chance to hike the hills of Palestine before the Israelis completely cover them in concrete. Or maybe the time remaining before Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman succeeds in expelling Arab Israelis from the land of their birth.

But the title of Israeli-Arab director/screenwriter Elia Suleiman’s highly personal view of being an Arab in Israel may apply to family relations as much as Palestinian-Israeli relations, as in ‘appreciate your parents while they are still around’, the theme so touchingly sketched in the recent Japanese film Aruitemo aruitemo (Still Walking) (2008). In Suleiman’s Nazareth of 1948 to the present, we see the Arab-Israeli conflict as experienced by and recounted to a boy growing up in a Palestinian family that has stayed on – in what has become part of Israel.

When I first saw the film’s poster, I imagined that the little boy was getting a scolding from his father (it’s actually the school headmaster; little Elia, it seems, is developing a reputation as a political dissident). No, Suleiman’s father Fuad (actor Saleh Bakri dominates the first third of the film as the young resistance fighter) is portrayed as a strong, silent type, who is left for dead after his capture in the 1948 fighting, and who spends the rest of his life under a cloud of Israeli suspicion that he hasn’t abandoned his Palestinian nationalism.

We never see Suleiman-père old and frail. He’s the reliable go-to man for family and neighbors in a Nazareth left adrift, cut off from their cousins across the Green Line. At the local school, children sing patriotic songs (but for which country?) in Hebrew and Arabic.

Though political themes are ever present (what honest film on the subject could avoid politics?), The Time That Remains is at times black comedic, and more than one reviewer (including Suleiman himself) has seen shades of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati in the absurdity of Israeli-Jewish and Israeli-Arab relations.

The cinema in France where we saw the film distributed a very helpful flyer with a reprint from the Nouvel Observateur interview with Elia Suleiman, where he explains to Pascal Mérigeau that his novel view of the last sixty-plus years is his alone – and is not a documentary. We read that “at 17 years old, I was accused of being a Communist sympathizer, and had 24 hours to make up my mind”, which is how the young Suleiman ended up in London, which led to New York, which led to Paris… This episode is alluded to in the film, when we see a teenaged Elia getting caught up in the first ‘Land Day’ demonstrations to protest Israeli expropriation of its Arab citizens’ land.

For objective students of the Arab-Israel conflict, The Time That Remains should stand up well to scrutiny. For connoisseurs of the absurd, the film will show a collection of war and post-war situations that could be fodder for Ari Folman should Waltz With Bashir (2008) ever get a prequel.

In keeping with Suleiman’s ambivalence over matters of nationality, statelessness, and patriotism, The Time That Remains was presented at Cannes 2009 as neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian film, but a product of France, Belgium, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Suleiman, the ‘present absentee’ Israeli/Palestinian/Expatriate and on-camera narrator of his own film, looks on silently at his life and gives us a rare look at the conflicted world of Arab-Israelis.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
109 mins. In Hebrew, Arabic and English.

European Film Awards 2009

It's looking like a mixture of Cannes 2009 and Oscars 2008 will dominate, with Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) and Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces (2009) joining Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and forty-one other films in the running for the 2009 European Film Awards. Twenty-five countries are represented between the films, and, in the weeks ahead, the 2,000 members of the European Film Academy will vote for the nominations in the different award categories, with the nods to be announced on 7 November at the Sevilla European Film Festival in Spain. The awards ceremony will take place at Germany’s Ruhr Metropolis on 12 December.

So, without further ado, the finalists for the European Film Awards are:

33 Scenes From Life
Poland/Germany, Mapigoeka Szumowska

Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces)
Spain, Pedro Almodóvar

Alle Anderen (Everyone Else)
Germany, Maren Ade

Denmark, Lars Von Trier

Apafoeld (Father’s Acre)
Hungary, Viktor Oszkar Nagy

The Baader Meinhof Complex
Germany, Uli Edel

Aiaaeuecoa Eeanaei (Paper Soldier)
Russia, Alexey German Jr.

Spain, Javier Fesser

Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel)
France, Anne Fontaine

Eastern Plays
Bulgaria, Fredrik Zander, Stefan Piriyov & Kamen Kalev

Fish Tank
UK, Andrea Arnold

Frygtelig Lykkelig (Terribly Happy)
Denmark, Henrik Ruben Genz

Hakol Mathil Bayam (It All Begins At Sea)
Israel, Eitan Green

Germany, Christian Petzold

Kalat Hayam (Jaffa)
France/Israel/Germany, Keren Yedaya

Kaesky (Tears Of April)
Finland, Aku Louhimies

Ireland, Lance Daly

Der Knochenmann (The Bone Man)
Austria, Wolfgang Murnberger

Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In)
Sweden, Tomas Alfredson

Lille Soldat (Little Soldier)
Denmark, Annette K. Olesen

Belgium, Erik Van Looy

Looking For Eric
UK/France, Ken Loach

Maen Som Hatar Kvinnor (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)
Sweden, Niels Arden Oplev

Maria Larssons Eviga Oegonblick (Everlasting Moments)

Denmark / Sweden, Jan Troell

Max Manus
Norway, Espen Sandberg & Joachim Ronning

Niciji Sin (No One’s Son)
Croatia, Arsen Anton Ostojic

Nord (North)
Norway, Rune Denstad Langlo

Oorlogswinter (Winter In Wartime)
The Netherlands, Martin Koolhoven

Pandoranin Kutusu (Pandora’s Box)
Turkey / France / Germany / Belgium, Yes,Im Ustaog’lu

Politist, Adjectiv (Police, Adjective)
Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu

Pranzo Di Ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch)
Italy, Gianni Di Gregorio

Un Prophete (A Prophet)
France, Jacques Audiard

Questione Di Cuore (A Matter Of Heart)
Italy, Francesca Archibugi

The Reader
Germany, Stephen Daldry

Retorno A Hansala (Return To Hansala)
Spain, Chus Gutierrez

France, Martin Provost

Slumdog Millionaire
UK, Danny Boyle

Greece, Panos H. Koutras

Tatarak (Sweet Rush)
Poland, Andrzej Wajda

The Time That Remains
France, Elia Suleiman

Czech Republic, Vaclav Marhoul

Turneja (The Tour)
Serbia / Bosnia & Herzegovina / Croatia / Slovenia, Goran Markovic

Uzak I’hti’mal (Wrong Rosary)
Turkey, Mahmut Fazil Cos,Kun

Italy, Marco Bellocchio

Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)
Germany/Austria/France/Italy, Michael Haneke

So, see you on 12 December!

17 September, 2009

Festen (The Celebration) (1998)

Party time?

A real surprise this one - a family get-together that goes horribly wrong but at the same time provides redemption, Thomas Vinterberg's film (he went uncredited as director, as per Lars Von Trier's 'Dogma' rules), with an electrifying screenplay by Winterburg and Mogens Rukov, has more than a few nods to Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, with its sense of impending doom and menace that grips early and holds until very near the end.

However, unlike Pinter's play, the narrative is not circuitous or vague - it is the 60th birthday of Danish hotelier patriarch (Faderen-Father) Helge (Henning Moritzen). From far and wide, his friends gather to pay tribute, while his sons Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) (a doting, angry young man) and Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) (a seemingly placid, quiet individual) arrive and begin the preparations for the party. The brothers are very close - but Christian has plans in store for the celebration (Festen) that will change the lives of everyone around the table. A few details that he wants to share concerning his 'relationship' with the old man, and the fun begins when he clinks his glass to make a 'tribute' speech...

Singularly disturbing, moving, in places hysterically funny despite its dark heart and ultimately uplifting, Festen is very much a one-off. Perhaps surprising that, to the best of this reviewer's knowledge, an American remake has not yet been mooted but one supposes, unfortunately, that there is still time.

The brothers' performances take centre stage, but, in fact it is Moritzen as the father who knows far more than he lets on, and Birthe Neumann as his wife, Else, who has been complicit in the evils of the past, that make the most enduring impression - and the whole is a simply unforgettable account of a party you'll be 'glad' you were invited to, for all the wrong reasons.

Awards: Click here for details.

105 mins. In Danish, German and English.

13 September, 2009

Revanche (2008)

Sinned against or sinning?

EFA Official Selection, 2008

It's definitely a film of two halves, is Revanche (2008) by writer-director Götz Spielmann (Antares (2004)).

The opening section sees likeable neer-do-well ex-con Alex (Johanes Krisch) struggling to hold it together with his beautiful prostitute girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko) - although the owner Aleksander (Reljic-Bohigas) of the 'Cinderella' brothel in Vienna where Tamara works is offering her a flat and more upmarket clients, Alex believes that he can pull off one last bank job and flee South with his love, sorting all their financial problems out at a stroke.

But tragedy strikes - policeman Robert (Andreas Lust) unwittingly disturbs Alex and Tamara's heist, with terrible consequences. Tamara is left dead, and Alex heads for the house of his Grandfather Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser), where he works to help the old man and take his mind off his own personal hell. But, as chance would have it, the next-door neighbours are the policeman (who did not see Alex's face during the robbery) and his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), who is herself getting over a recent miscarriage and desperately wants a baby.

Only Alex knows who's who - is revenge his only option?

The film works on many levels, and is primarily a credible study of the interaction between post-modern Central European human trafficking and pre-industrial Austrian 'Bauern' culture. Alex and his recently widowed grandfather's relationship, which forms a central tenet of the story, makes perfect sense - Hausner believes Alex to be good-for-nothing at first, but changes his mind gradually when he sees just how hard his grandosn is prepared to work, knowing nothing of what is actually driving him.

In German, the word 'revanche' has a double meaning, signifying both the obvious 'revenge' but also a second chance, and the implications of both are well developed throughout the story, as characters juggle their need to get even with their desire to secure their own futures. In short, if it is fate that controls the characters' destinies, it is also strength of will that ultimately decides who survives.

Slow but sure - a worthy watch.

Awards: Click here for details.


121 mins. In German and Russian.

07 September, 2009

Blóðbönd (Thicker Than Water) (2006)

Blood bonds

Official Selection, European Film Awards 2006

An interesting if somewhat brooding feature-length directorial debut from Icelandic director Árni Ásgeirsson - a graduate of the Polish National Film School (which also produced one Roman Polanski), he is also jointly responsible for the screenplay, with Denijal Hasanovic and Jón Atli Jónasson.

The story is set in Reykjavik, where we find successful optometrist Pétur (Hilmir Jonsson) and his wife Asta (Margrét Vilhjálmsótter) about to have their second child. But things are set to change forever, when their 10-year-old son Örn (Aaron Brink) suffers a fainting spell during a game of football. A routine blood test is conducted, which reveals, in fact, that Pétur is not Örn's biological father. He subsequently walks out on his family, checks into a hotel room and takes to heavy drinking, at the same time beginning an affair with his secretary Anna (Laufey Elíasdóttir), who is almost 20 years his junior.

A strong cast and story with (a little) comic relief to offset the doom and gloom, with excellent cinematography from Tuomo Hutri. A director to watch.

Awards: Click here for details.

90 mins. In Icelandic.

04 September, 2009

Princesas (2005)

Tough tricks

Official Selection, European Film Awards 2006

Writer-director:Fernando León de Aranoa (Los lunes al sol (2002), Caminantes (2001)) here turns his gaze towards a world far removed from that of Pretty Woman (1990) - the grubby, frequently sickening lives inhabited by sex workers, where hope is a truly precious commodity, a different currency from the prices that women haggle for their own bodies.

Set on the mean streets of Madrid, the 'princesses' of the title are Caye (Candela Peña) and Zulema (Micaela Nevárez in a striking first role), two prostitutes drawn together in friendship, love even, as they battle against the worst that modern life can throw at them - the chemistry etched between the two young women - Spanish and Dominican - marks this as very much more than another tale of 'tarts with hearts'.

One begins to feel, very quickly, for their situation, their loves, desires and hopes. Both are desperate to quit the life - Caye believes she has found the man for her life, Manuel (Luis Callejo) while Zulema simply wants to get back to her child in the Dominican Republic.

Despite its obviously hard-edged nature, León de Aranoa treats the subject matter with real delicacy and sensitivity, even if the music, by Manu Chao and Gato Pérez, is ocassionally a little excessive, and would have benefited from more of the subtlety on display elsewhere. In addition, Ramiro Civita's hand-held photography (while sometimes deliberately chaotic) is superb, particularly in the close-ups, which bring out the very essence of the characters' torments.

A dark look at the realities of 'street life'.

Awards: Click here for details.

113 mins. In Spanish.

01 September, 2009

Salvador (Puig Antich) (2006)

A life (and death) less ordinary

Official Selection, European Film Awards 2006

Spanish director Manuel Huerga (Diario de un astronauta (2008)) is brave enough to provide a frank and unflinching account of one of his country's darkest periods, namely the 1970s dictatorship of Francisco Franco and the life and times of anarchist and bank-robber Salvador Puig Antich (Daniel Brühl), whose execution in 1974 (based on distinctly dubious evidence provided by the Spanish police after one of their number dies (accidentally?) in a shoot-out involving Antich) ushered in a period of extended civil unrest that brought Spain to democracy.

For myself, I knew nothing of the young firebrand's story - in fact, the truth behind the narrative is barely known outside Spain. As written by Lluís Arcarazo, from Francesc Escribano's novel, Brühl as Salvador is cast as both likeable and irrresponsible in roughly equal measure but, as with the similarly oppressed members of his gang, he is a man passionate for change and that the shackles of oppression be removed.

The film opens, dynamically, with the police ambushing Salvador and beating him up - fearing for his life, Antich fires at random, and the detective who takes the bullet dies in hospital. The anarchist's wounds are not so serious - after recovering in hospital, he is transferred to prison, where he awaits trial and punishment, accompanied by a prison guard, Jesús (Leonardo Sbaraglia), with whom he slowly but surely bonds and his faithful lawyer Oriol Arau (Tristán Ulloa) to whom he recounts his life story. A life that looks set to end only too soon...

Brühl, the star of German gems such as Goodbye Lenin! (2003) and The Edukators (2004) (both of which were EFA nominees and winners) is excellent as Antich, and the film as a whole is a more than competent examination of how wrong things can go under totalitarianism, as well as, in its final reel (which, truly, will stay with you forever) a harrowing indictment of capital punishment. Salvador Puig Antich was only 24 when he died, the last man to be executed in Spain.

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134 mins. In Catalan, Spanish and French.