Spring in Transilvania again, and here I am back in the city I’ve grown so fond of. TIFF is always particularly strong on documentaries, and this year I hope to catch several. Lots of Romanian films as ever, though sadly this year’s Cannes’ Best Screenplay and Best Actress winner by Cristian Mungiu, Beyond the Hills, is not showing here – a disappointment to organisers and audiences alike. But I know my four-films-a-day regime will be no problem to fulfil, and I’m looking forward to those as-yet-unencountered films which will, once seen, be with me forever. It always happens here.
As well as the films, though, and the ancient city of Cluj-Napoca – with its fascinating architectural mix of stately and simple, and its lively street life, this year – I’m desperate for an escape from the soggy, wintry UK. But be careful what you wish for. My arrival here was signalled by proper hill-country weather. The thunderous sultry air as I touched down soon broke, and the steep side-street outside my hotel window became briefly a streaming river as thunder rolled round the surrounding hills for a couple of hours, with heavy rain and hail. (Later I noticed the street was fortuitously named Neagră.) Walking along busy streets to my first film as the sun broke through again, the familiar game of dodge the man-high roadside spray was a familiar Cluj experience. It’s great to be back!
Germany 2012: Philip Scheffner: 106m: seen at Cinema Victoria, 5 June
Twenty years ago the bodies of two Romanian illegal immigrant workers were found, shot dead in a maize field in Eastern Germany. Philip Scheffner’s investigation into the case takes a novel form – instead of laying it out in logical forensic manner it’s more impressionistically done, with interviews with the people concerned, beginning with the men’s families – widows, grown up children – gradually painting a picture of the men and the lives they were leaving behind and accumulating details of the events. As the interviews range further out, to those concerned with the death and aftermath, a disturbing and confused picture comes together. Some of this confusion it must be said originates from the rather odd presentation of the interviews – most people are filmed listening to their own recorded accounts rather than speaking them. This does reveal extra insights at times, but the technique often doesn’t quite come off, and more than once becomes more of an irritating conceit than a meaningful method . But the picture settles and reveals itself.
The first people on the scene – farmers, police and firemen (the field appears to have been set alight very soon afterwards, destroying lots of evidence) tell a muddled and contradictory tale. What’s clear is that the huntsmen who fired the shots, claiming they thought the men were wild boar, were never made to properly answer for their actions, the case fizzling out over time. Nor did the families receive the compensation they were probably due – but of course nobody told them – instead enduring years of homelessness and poverty. One family now lives in a refugee transit camp in Germany, the target of far-right thugs, the other in dirt poor accommodation in Romania with summers spent as immigrant workers in Spain. What’s clear is that the new life for their families which the two dead men were killed seeking are as far away as ever.
Fon Tok Kuen Fah: Thailand/France: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang: 105m: seen at Casa de Cultura a Studentilor, 5 June
The title sums it up: former upstanding cop Tu (Nopachai Chaiyanam), full of a sense of vengeful injustice after being framed by a corrupt politician, is taken on as assassin by a shadowy figure who is waging war against such powerful criminals who are above the law. But after being shot in the head, he wakes from a 3-month coma to find that brain damage means he sees the world upside down. The actual narrative relevance of his disability (how quickly he’s able to run around and handle tricky situations is unfeasible, to say the least) is less important than its metaphorical power – his perspectives and moral view alter. Fears that the film might be a physically difficult watch prove groundless as the times we see things through his eyes are rare, but I’m dubious whether this whole literal business is really necessary, when the dizzying notion of ‘the world turned upside down’ of moral turnaround is conveyed perfectly well without it.
On the level of a good thriller it doesn’t disappoint, with wit, quirkiness and a plot that if anything has a few too many twists. But being Ratanaruang, of course, it’s a good deal more than that. ‘Buddhist noir’ is how director and critics have described the film, and surprisingly this combination of the most tragic and nihilistic of genres with a religion which denies death makes surprisingly good sense. Visually and thematically it’s as noir as you like: dark urban scenes shiny and treacherous with their streetlights and headlamps, ill-lit interiors around whose hidden corners the camera prowls, a damaged, self-questioning, solitary hero and not one, but two, femmes fatales… But the zen perspective, as a man reaches something like enlightenment through knowledge and suffering, makes a kind of sense of the proceedings. The more we see of the death that’s all around, blood spreading from blasted bodies, fish flapping in extremis when their tank takes collateral damage, a cow in a slaughterhouse, there comes a kind of serenity too. Everything dies, but in Tul’s world he comes to understand that the readiness is all.
HOME FOR THE WEEKEND [6/10]
Was bleibt: Germany 2012: Hans-Christian Schmid: 88m: seen at Cinema Florin Piersic 6 June 2012
Marko’s weekend off with his young son at his parents’ isn’t quite the happy family time away from his own marital problems he’s expecting, when his mother reveals, to the horror of husband and sons, that having been converted to alternative therapies she’s ditching the medication she’s been on for many years for her depression. This sets off a rapid dissolving of the slender ties holding together the family’s equilibrium: resentments accrue, his younger brother reveals how his dentistry business is failing, and father’s double life surfaces. Schmidt depicts with some skill the tensions between the desires of the self and the good of others which even caring families feel but mostly keep under wraps. Although this set of people doesn’t quite get under your skin, and a little judicious pruning might have given it more pace, there are pleasant and affecting passages, not least the spontaneous singing of Aznavour’s sorrowful ‘Tu t’laisses aller’.
Visszatérés: Hungary/Romania/Sweden 2011: Judit Elek: 98m: seen at Cinema Arta, 6 June
Fine cinematography, earnest intentions and even the fact that it is partly based on a Marguerite Duras novel sadly don’t raise this hotch-potch above the mediocre. The holocaust in Hungarian Transilvania, multiple aspects of the evil of Ceauşescu’s rule, adultery, betrayal, and the longing for one’s homeland make an indigestible dish that isn’t helped by a lame script that at times almost dies on its feet. Kathleen (Kathleen Gati), saved as a small child from extermination and brought up in Sweden travels back to her Hungarian village in the late 70s along with errant husband (an exceedingly odd performance by Philip Zanden), moany younger half sister and moppet daughter. I didn’t for a moment believe in this family. Meanwhile living in that very area of Transilvania we see the forester Sandor (Andras Demeter) and his troubled marriage, at first a more credible set of folk, until things take a melodramatic turn. The longueurs are many and the plot developments unconvincing. When the two stories come together finally with the most strained of coincidences, it never convinces, and the paramount feeling at the end is a guilty unease that one has been mostly bored and irritated by a half-baked treatment of such genuinely tragic subjects.
Szerelem: Hungary 1970: Karoly Makk: 92m: seen at Cinema Arta, 6 June
A frail but stately old lady (Lili Darvas) wanders through her apartment dreaming of her son Janos returning home from his successful life in the USA. Unfortunately her imaginings are based on a fiction. Her daughter-in-law Luca (Mari Torocsik) is concealing the fact that he is in fact a political prisoner, and she regularly brings fake letters from him that she has written herself describing an idyllic and fabulously successful life in the movie business. As the women contemplate these tall tales of grandeur, which at least one of them knows is a falsehood, black and white images of their fantasies and memories fill the screen. Mari Torocsik, special guest this year at TIFF, is just wonderful as the vivacious, modern woman who keeps up appearances for the old woman while her own life, job and home fall apart because of her husband’s imprisonment. It’s clear she needs to write the letters as much as the mother needs to hear them.
The second part of the film moves to Janos, unexpectedly released, returning home too late to see his mother alive. The reunion of the couple is a masterpiece of subtle tenderness. Few films have managed such a perfect balance of humanism, political criticism and sorrowful fragile beauty. Superb cinematography from Janos Toth captures both the faded ancient regime style of the old lady’s now shabby apartment and the harsh modern world outside inhabited by the resourceful Luca. At Cannes in 1971 Love won the Jury Prize and both Torocsik and Darvas (unbelievably only 64 at the time), gained Special Mentions. Made around the time of many very fine films such as The Conformist, Death in Venice, and Days and Nights in the Forest, and rarely seen on Best Films lists, this film deserves to stand alongside them as a masterpiece.
GONE WILD [6/10]
Romania 2012: Dan Curean: 82m: seen at Cinema Arta 6 June
In the wetlands of Romania’s Danube Delta, there live many herds of wild horses, released from collective farms in 1990 and now completely feral. They’ve prospered, and their numbers have increased, to the point that the balance of nature in the sensitive area is said by some to be under threat. The film is as interested in the local inhabitants as the animals, particularly an elderly and eccentric woman viewed locally as something of a witch, and young boy, Ivan, who has a special way with them and spends much of his time around them.
Life is hard for everyone around there, and their treatment of the horses, though they seem to admire them, is not always easy to watch, as they routinely catch and break in animals for riding, and then enthusiastically join government workers in inhumanely rounding up whole herds to be sent away to slaughter. A terrified horse is an awful thing to see. International attention meant that last minute intervention prevented this and for now the horses remain. Handsome beasts many of them, maybe romanticised, they are beautiful interlopers caught in a situation where concern for indigenous wildlife in general means some hard decisions need to be made. On the other hand it would have been good to see quite how their presence is damaging the indigenous wild-life.
TEDDY BEAR [7/10]
Denmark 2012: Mads Matthiesen: 90m: seen at Cinema Victoria, 7 June
Kim Kold, central figure in this charming film, won Best Performance Award here at TIFF for his portrayal of a gentle man who really is a teddy bear – albeit one stuffed full of muscle and sinew rather than fluff. Dennis is a body-builder, shy and inept at social communication, who lives with his possessive man-hating mother in Denmark. When his mother’s younger brother weds, much to her disgust, a girl from Thailand, Dennis is inspired to go and find a bride there for himself. Decked out in his posh suit and best manners, though he’s admired for his muscles, he finds the seedy world of Thai sex tourism harder to engage with even than ordinary dating back home. It’s only when he reverts to his comfort zone of gyms and exercise there that he finds real Thai life and meets someone who relates to him as an individual. It’s a lovely performance, revealing through inarticulate gruffness a sweet soul trapped in a monstrous body of his own making, and a delightful film, a rare art film to warm the heart…
BLOOD OF MY BLOOD [6½/10]
Sangue do meu sangue: Portugal 2011: João Canijo: 140m: seen at Cinema Florin Piersic, 7 June
… just as well I started the day with a film that made life seem not that bad a proposition. The next, a down and dirty portrait of family life in a working class area of Lisbon, while it has its moments of laughter and is full of vibrant life throughout, is a gruelling journey through plots that would not be amiss in soap opera. But superb acting, especially from Rita Blanco as Marcia, the fierce materfamilias, naturalistic direction, and a script that’s convincing and lively, lift it way above that level. The fact that the script and plot were devised by the actors themselves is both a plus and a minus – plus because it is convincingly normal. Minus because – or maybe I wasn’t concentrating – I felt in quite a muddle about the identity of various family members, and for a while imagined an extra one who didn’t exist. A steady outside hand on the tiller might have avoided this.
But, as you do, I overcame this problem, and was pretty engrossed in this sprawling family of strong mother, high-achieving daughter, slacker son and frustrated younger sister. Plotwise, coincidence and melodrama play perhaps a rather over-large part, but more impressive for me were the naturalistic scenes within the cramped flat as the camera took on multiple conversations, and sometimes multiple and overlaying dramatic turning points, when, like Marcia, the audience must take on board the two simultaneous and disparate crises of her children. This is not the polished and stately Lisbon we often see in film, but a recognisable scruffy corner of any city.
TWILIGHT PORTRAIT [7/10]
Portret v Sumerkakh: Russia 2011: Angelina Nikonova: 105m: seen at Cinema Florin Piersic, 7 June
The gloom darkened even further with this next film, as bleak a view of humanity as I’ve seen on screen for some time. Marina ((Olga Dykhovichnaya), a child psychiatrist, is raped by 3 policemen after leaving an assignation with her lover, an encounter completely bereft of affection, out in the grimy Moscow suburbs. Not that life was rosy for her before – she despises her weak husband, dislikes friends and colleagues, and spends her working life listening to children’s accounts of abuse they’re suffering and denial from their parents, a process which she knows she is becoming increasingly detached from. Only one, anonymous, person she meets after the attack shows any sign of humanity towards her. When chance brings her to one of the rapists again she makes contact with the intention of physical retribution, and a strange process of revenge/restitution begins to take place.
The world of the film is a grim and cheerless, characterised by featureless cityscapes, glowering ugly individuals and seedy housing developments, the people almost entirely without redeeming features (even the lovable mad old granddad was a bullying tyrant in his younger days), uncaring or even positively hateful, and family life is fraught and corrupted. Marina’s motives for what follows are opaque, maybe even to her, and very much entangled in her own feelings of professional and personal inadequacy. The title refers to a camera setting which adjusts to darkness; perhaps that is what she is doing. Olga Dykhovichnaya who plays Marina and also co-wrote the screen play insists the ending, actually rather a surprise, is a happy one. I find that hard to swallow, but nevertheless the film is finely made, haunting, and extremely powerful.
Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France 2012: Miguel Gomes: 110m: seen at Cinema Florin Piersic, 7 June
An odd one, this, and I’m still not at all sure if its beautiful and weird charms are really anything but a superficial nothing. Two old ladies live as neighbours in Lisbon, one a querulous grande dame (you may have seen her in a posh teashop near you) with a bolshy African maid, the other a down-to-earth and pleasant human rights campaigner (you’ve met her at your local adult education class). The former’s early life is cloaked in mystery, and when she is mortally ill, her neighbour is sent on an errand to hunt out a name from her past. Here begins Part 2, the tale of her colonial youth told in period style, one of high romance and passion. You never take these people seriously, in fact the spectre of the late lamented Ferdinand de Bargos, if not even Monty Python, occasionally tweaks the memory in the tales of adulterous passion and the high jinks of pampered colonials. Great casting provides faces as if from the strange and alien life of the 1930s White Mischief crew in Africa (though, strangely, it’s actually set in the 50s/60s) and fine cinematography makes it all a great pleasure to watch. But, showered with critical acclaim and awards as it was at Berlin, maybe there’s something I’m not getting here. Still, it’s never less than enjoyable, and very beautiful to look at, and its silly narrative, while not the slightest bit tragic, does keep you gripped.
14th June, 2012
also online : part two (includes Play, Swoon (1992), The Stone Wedding (1972), etc)