Ana, mon amour (2017): The Relationship Hive Mind

Netzer’s follow-up to the excellent Child’s Pose (2013) shares some elements with its precursor, but takes a different angle to the emotional roots and psychological ties of family life. A complex and layered film, it is framed in the present, but plays with the chronology of events to suit its thematic anchors: how relationships shape their protagonists and create inherent tension, abiding by no morality punch-card. While pertinent and polished in its construction, I found it hard to stay connected emotionally, especially as the characters evolve elliptically and the change in their dynamic feels abrupt.

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Our couple is Toma and Ana, two lovers who meet during university and, more than anything, fall into a relationship. They are both cultured individuals and complete each other well, as Ana suffers from anxiety attacks and Toma is seemingly always there to support her. The movie proceeds to take us through the usual familial meet and greets, which prove traumatic and lay the groundworks for all the ensuing/existing psychological trauma. Those scenes have a sense of caricature about them, with ‘traditional’ values of partner screening proving funny and harrowing at the same time. But they prove to be just pieces of an ambitious human puzzle, which ends up taking us down an exploratory route devoid of superfluous emotion.

As an aside, some people in the cinema were taken aback by the explicitness of a sex scene, which I would rather deem justified, due to the Freudian aspects of Netzer’s approach – and a meaningful character-building moment.

The attention to detail in fleshing out Ana and Toma provides the characters with a lot of depth. They are, as one would say, profoundly human in their imperfections and the manner in which this comes to the surface as their relationship evolves feels very true. The movie puts psychoanalysis at its core, turning it into an indirect plot device, which sometimes looks like a black box. More important though is how Ana and Toma react to change, in particular to Ana’s gradual self-empowerment (thanks to a mixture of religion and psychoanalysis), which fundamentally alters Toma’s role as ‘the saviour’. It all becomes a matter of identity, of shaping and losing it, as defined by relationship roles, rather than intrinsic traits. Quite interestingly, the first scene finds the protagonists discussing Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil – the subjugation of morality to Christian dogma and the idea that good and evil are not quite opposites. By the end of the film, the overwhelming sense of some moral misappropriation between Ana and Toma can and, perhaps, should be seen through this lens, with no clear distinctions at hand for who is in the right and who might have been wronged.

While all this is intense and fascinating stuff, the chronological structure creates a bridge I couldn’t cross. On the one hand, the technical execution of the to and fro was handled well – it’s impressive how different degrees of a receding hairline can create a sense of time. Although some nuances are lost, that ends up challenging the viewer and keeping him engaged. On the other hand, because of gaps in time, Ana is difficult to grasp. She becomes a completely different person, which goes so far as her accent changing, and due to the elliptical nature of the story, she also feels emotionally like a third character in the relationship. Whereas Toma is more consistent throughout, Ana is fractured, making her feel foreign and inauthentic.

This is part of the reason why the second half of the film lost some momentum. Upon its conclusion, which tries a little twist and then goes one mile too far by trying to explain it, I wasn’t engaged any more. It’s a shame, because there is so much pain and sacrifice in Ana, Mon Amour that it really makes love feel like penance and weaves an exquisite psychological pattern to justify the claim. For the exploration it undertakes in what drives the two lead characters, both so well portrayed by Postelnicu and Cavallioti, it is commendable.

***

Camera obscura (2016): Anachronistic Avantgarde

The last year or so has seen several Romanian documentaries about cinematic heritage and the associated resistance against the communist dictatorship, with Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015) [review] and Cinema, mon amour (2015) [review] at the forefront. Their desire to paint this picture of subversiveness is a stretch undermining some of the unique stories they
present and Camera Obscura proves a perfect companion piece in this regard.

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Starting with the sixties, many state owned companies (usually in the primary or manufacturing industries) decided to subsidize some form of cinema clubs, providing obsolete tools from before the war and facilities for those interested to partake, with the aim of fostering some sort of communal film-making endeavour. The objective was to produce mostly propagandistic material, document work procedures and provide some stock footage of day to day activities. However, a great temptation to go beyond this existed and was not rigorously discouraged, conditioned by strict monitoring and censorship.

Camera obscura is, for better and worse, a walk down memory lane. A series of talking heads are interspersed between archival footage ranging from the mundane to, honestly, the sublime. The discussion is not particularly focused, but the emphasis falls on the technical aspects conditioning production, as well as the comprehensive interest in cinematic aptitude – rather than cinematic art. It makes sense, as the people partaking in the cinema clubs mostly had a technical background. Yet, especially because of this, some of the best moments in the movie come to the fore: a sisyphic, anti-system short about a man pushing a nut with his nose; a Beckett-esque scene with three men sharing a metallic office closet; a metaphoric cartoon about going to the store and buying some (very rare) chicken wings; or a visual analysis/juxtaposition of drawings following the rhythm of a scene in traffic. In a way it’s funny, because there’s a lot of talk about a kind of experimental cinematic avantgard, when actually, due to existing limitations, most of the work looks like a rehash of the 1920s.

The filming constraints provide some perspective and they frame the idea of the amateur filmmaker – something that has since vanished, in that it has become ubiquitous. But the movie is too stuck in its reminiscences to look for such shifts, which makes it plod at times. This happens particularly in some of the lackluster anecdotes the protagonists retell, or when it offers (unnecessary) interpretation. The nostalgia effect becomes overwhelming, which in itself is not an issue. However, with better framing and contextualization, certain paradoxes and inherent compromises would have become more apparent to viewers. For example, the atmosphere described at the clubs is often romantic, with only regulators being indicated as constraints to the film-making freedom. Yet, it is an accepted truth that with the clubs organized under the unions, there would have been ‘infiltrators’ within them, ready to report on any ill-doings.

While these shortcomings could be overlooked due to the rather solid and coherent material put together by Gheorghe Preda, what I cannot abide by is the occasional lack of focus and the complete pivot made in the final scenes to connect the clubs to the 1989 Revolution. Within ten minutes, there’s a (wannabe) amusing breaking-the-documentary-wall moment, when an interviewee calls his wife and asks her to take care of their dog barking incessantly, followed by fully explicit scenes of freshly dug up bodies of people killed during the Revolution. Talking of rhythm and story, this just doesn’t work and it is not justified either, in the context of what the movie is about.

I would have loved to understand what the people involved in the film-making process ended up doing with their post-communist lives, whether all the precious time spent in understanding the process saw them practice it once they had the freedom to do so. Knowing what the landscape of Romanian cinema was like in the 90s, they probably did not, but this was something worth exploring in conclusion. It would have been more appropriate to the people who took part in this movie, mostly people who have not found artistic or, presumably, financial actualization post ’89.

I do recommend Camera obscura, especially if you have an interest in film-making, because it provides some special moments along the way. It’s just unfortunate that a certain unwillingness to prod deeper and a lack of visionary discipline undermine it over the long run.

***

P.S. When I left the cinema, the projectionist, standing in the freezing cold to have a smoke, stopped me to say that he knew one of the protagonists well, a devoted communist party member in the day. No clue if it’s true, maybe it’s just a neighbour he doesn’t like, but this is the kind of prodding I expected from the movie, with a camera being such a powerful tool during those days, that it was anything but neutral and apolitical.

Nocturnal Animals (2016): The Story Within the Story

Any follow-up to ‘A Single Man’ was bound to be challenging, with bar set so high. Expectations are a horrible thing to have. Ironically, Tom Ford puts together an intricate tale about exactly that: expectations and love and mistakes and payback. It is captivating thanks to the lead trio of Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. It works visually in spite of the occasional clichés. But it’s not an even story and the mediocre writing cannot be forgiven. Implicitly, Nocturnal Animals taints itself with the muck of pretentiousness. Yucky muck.

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Susan, unhappily wrapped in her glamorous life as director/board member of an art gallery, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward. It’s a book about a family being assaulted on a lonely country road by a bunch of aggressive do-nothings. Susan begins to read it just as her own ideal marriage cracks at a distance and we are enveloped by the story within the story. One, in the cold and sterile home/life Susan has built for herself, the other in the violent, passionate, conflicted Western-ish decor of Edward’s novel. The parallels between the two are as plentiful, as they are visceral. Which is the best thing that can be said about Nocturnal Animals.

Amy Adams is such a strong presence on screen. She is particularly adept at portraying frailty, the kind that works as an undercurrent more than a dominating trait (see Arrival for even more nuance). Jake Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, atypically provides the ‘weak’ character, the dreamer, the one who is sensitive to a fault. It is in this study of what we might desire and how elusive it all is, how hard it is to find the right amount of something at any given time in another person that Nocturnal Animals strikes an honest chord. What carries the movie beyond the procedural ‘catch-the-bad-guys’ it sets up for itself, is an unpredictable, loose and enthralling Michael Shannon, who plays the law enforcement element. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t a half bad asshole either.

The problem is there are several filler characters as well, such as some of the party faces (even if they were mightily familiar, i.e. Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough), Armie Hammer’s role as the distant husband, or Laura Linney’s domineering mother-figure. It’s particularly a problem because, to me, they are the ones supposed to be the nocturnal animals, the predators. And in this commentary on a social divide, the movie falls short, because all it does is point caricatures of fingers at it. The uninspired writing, including some awful and pedantic dialogues, kept taking me out of where I wanted to be, enjoying the drama. And some fairly random scares did little to help with it either. The movie just can’t strike a consistent tone, trying to be a lot of things at the same time and inevitably failing.

So yes, I was disappointed. Tom Ford might not have undermined his stylistic approach, as he still manages to iron over the elements that don’t work so well by applying his particular aesthetic. But if it were not for some of the performances on screen, it would be really hard to recommend Nocturnal Animals – which is pretty damning. Well, expectations and all considered.

***

Afacerea Est: That’s How It’s Done (2016)

I still recall Igor Cobileanski’s first two shorts (“Cand se stinge lumina” and “Sasa, Grisa si Ion“, video links included) with great fondness. It was the earlier days of the internet and youtube when someone recommended them to me and, to this day, every time conversations turn to movies from Moldova, I chuckle. After missing out on the first feature film directed by Cobileanski, quite different from the darkly humorous tone of his shorts, Afacerea Est (English Title: Eastern Business) promised to be more of, let’s say it, his trademark style.

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A meek and naive music teacher Marian (‘intellectual’) is forced to team up with a harsh, rudimentary, yet world-wise fellow Petro (‘entrepreneur’) in order to settle a bizarre business deal involving horseshoes. Their simple trip to complete the transaction is rocked by the theft of Marian’s bag, which contained their documents and, more importantly, a wad of cash. So they’re off the train and hustling to reach the final destination, making money however they can – playing guitar and singing for donations, enlisting as helpers to a local politician or conning farmers during the peak of an Avian flu outbreak. And all of this, of course, for love – so that Marian can afford to wed his beloved, Veronica.

It’s a road trip/buddy comedy that works hard at portraying a reasonably faithful caricature of society in Moldova. Sometimes it’s overbearing how hard. The timing of events seems set in the mid 00s, but while technology has shaped the way some things work, the undertones are not as different as they should be. Judging by how the story unfolds and the themes poked at, there isn’t that much separating Romania from Moldova, only that the geopolitics exert different gravitational forces on the two.

The force holding the story of Marian and Petro together is that of deception. Everything almost everyone does is aimed at misleading someone in one way or another. What Cobileanski points out well is that we’re not faced with good and bad characters – although one might be inclined to look at Marian for the weak but positive hero of the tale, in contrast to Petro. Yet, both of them engage in the deceits and Cobileanski’s world is only segregated by size: small time crooks, big time crooks and very big time crooks. For all the hassle the protagonists go through, dealing with sums of money that appear significant, only upon meeting with their ‘client’ does scale begin to come into perspective.

The wild, wild East we’re being shown was pretty much the transition phase after the end of communism. It’s ‘doubleplus’ surreal set in Moldova, where the past and the present appear more intertwined. Cobileanski manages, at times, to really capture the irony and the foolishness of life in situational humour. Luckily, I was alone in the cinema and could laugh as hard as I felt like doing. However, there are also several scenes that come across quite flat or overly contrived, while language isn’t used as skillfully as a tool for irony. And not to nitpick, but even a couple of fools like Marian and Petro didn’t have to get off a train leading them to certain cash for a miserly stolen pouch.

All in all though, I’m glad that Afacerea Est is more of what Cobileanski promised with his first films. It’s not perfect, yet it’s good enough and presumably plays as a crazy adventure for someone not familiar with ‘the way things are done’ here.

***

Cinema, mon amour (2015): Or Existential Limbo

As a topic for contemplation, the decay and dissolution of the Romanian landscape of movie theaters runs deep. Once a sort of burgeoning socialist arrangement for communist propaganda, less than ten percent of the theaters functional before the 1989 Revolution are still in use today. I wrote about this a while back, in my timely reflections on our local “retro” cinema, Timis. In larger cities, these have been replaced by multiplexes, a convenient mixture of commercialism and, often, more commercialism. These are, at least, solid venues to go to and enjoy a movie every now and again.

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Cinema, mon amour is an ode to times gone by, relating to multiplexes like an art-house picture to a blockbuster. It tells the tale of Cinema Dacia and its manager, Victor Purice, a seemingly passionate and expansive individual. With limited support from the owners of past state-run cinemas, Romania Film, he, alongside the staff of two (maybe three) of the cinema, do their best to keep the movies running in Piatra Neamt. The documentary doesn’t so much build a story arc, as it tries to be an exploration of need and improvisation. As such, we mostly follow Purice around in his day to day duties and musings, in somewhat too fervent of an admiration for the man to feel at ease. But the fact remains that Dacia is an exception rather than the rule, to some degree due to the personal efforts of Mr. Purice.

There are fascinating moments throughout Cinema, mon amour – usually details, more than overt exposition elements. For example, the staff of the cinema takes a lunch break at one point and you see them use movie posters as table cloth. Or as Mr. Purice is explaining one thing or another inside the projection room, the walls are filled not only with traditional posters (Speed seems to have been particularly popular), but also with playboy-esque centrefolds. Moreover, the level of improvisation required to keep the location running is equally fascinating and disturbing. It’s a matter of folklore that Romanians are great at “making whip out of crap”, but Cinema, mon amour really captures the essence of it as Mr. Purice creates a make-shift heating installation under the seating arrangement – a health and safety red flag if there ever was one. But it works, and alongside another heater, blankets and hot tea, the cinema keeps running through the harsh winters of Eastern Romania.

The documentary ultimately portrays a failing business, yet never takes the time to question this matter much. It stays romantic all the way through, not once really delving into why there is no niche in Romania for local cinemas (hell, for local culture in general). It’s something worth discussing, because there is interest in movies and there’s even interest in some less mainstream movies – this very projection took place at a festival showing such pictures and you’ll find weekly movie screenings in cafes and pubs throughout the city (all free entry, though). Looking beyond these macro-issues, I would suggest that most local cinemas like Dacia fail not only because of their decrepit infrastructure, but because they are stuck in time. The movies they show often target similar audiences to the multiplexes and the staff, as portrayed here as well, have been working in the same places for decades. Most of these cinemas don’t only feel cold, they are cold – and lifeless. Having frequently visited a local cinema in my hometown, run by the same company, the borderline untenable conditions are similar, yet I have never seen an authority figure outside the two joyless cashiers.

Mr. Purice, who seems to make some difference in Piatra Neamt, is a solitary figure. More so, while there are some endearing moments, the over-reliance on his charisma wore me out by the end of the documentary. And certain scenes feel off, like one in which he returns from a visit to a cinema in Germany, apparently ready to give up, accepting the futility of it all, only to argue himself out of it in the spirit of unity with his passive and subservient staff. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but I felt Mr. Purece to be rather condescending and overbearing, whichever his other merits might be.

My cynicism notwithstanding, Cinema, mon amour is a story I do care for very much. It does not flesh out its subject matter enough and bets the house on how its ‘lead’ will appeal to the viewer, yet it also has enough character to be authentic and relevant. The ideal meta experience, of course, is to watch the movie at Cinema Dacia – so there it is, a goal for life.

***

Ilegitim (2016): A Difficult Tread

It feels like skewering Illegitimate would be too easy at times. The gist of the movie, which is pretty clear if you’ve either read a synopsis or seen the poster, is that two siblings (twins) indulge in an intimate relationship with one another, which leads to a not quite desired pregnancy. However, this only truly unfolds in the second half of Illegitimate, as the first builds this dysfunctional family and conjures up some context for the less than traditional romantic alignment.

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The ample first scene, setting the stage, is a celebratory dinner. Romeo (Romi) has just finished his studies and the whole family is gathered: father Victor, twin sister Sasha, older siblings Gilda and Cosma, as well as the partners of the latter two, Bogdan and Julie. As the father presents an expose on how time dictates our understanding of life and everyone indulges in drink and the occasional retort, the tables are suddenly turned when Victor is asked whether, in his role as a doctor, he informed to the communist state police on women who wanted to get abortions – an illegal procedure before 1989. The answer is, in a nutshell, yes. Cue Ron Burgundy, as the situation escalates dramatically, Sasha and Romi become verbally aggressive towards Victor, he ends up fighting with Cosma, while Gilda tries meekly and helplessly to stop the madness.

It’s this kind of chaos that Illegitimate draws its energy from and tries to shape into a complicated discourse about the patriarchy, generational conflict, personal v class morality, women’s rights and abortion. While the effort can be appreciated, the movie is not disciplined enough to pull it off convincingly. You’ve got thin character development, characters whose only role is to advance the plot, a strange attempt at levity involving a hamster, your lead bearing the awful name of Romeo, some ill-timed dramatic close ups, which are all tied up with a neat little bow in a sub-par ending. Also, for a movie that deals about incest and abortion, in a country as secular as Romania, the matter barely comes up.

While this might all read rather damningly, there is enough coherence to go around and the artificial constructions are not overly intrusive; they probably just bugged me more than usual. Most of all, Alina Grigore’s portrayal of Sasha is fascinatingly convincing at times, even if the script can leave her little to work with. She’s passionate, restrained, compassionate, principled – but lost, a kind of contrast that comes across powerfully and draws you in. And the story conveys this tactfully, it allows the viewer to infer how overwhelming the recent loss of her (their) mother had been, how this is what has driven them so close together. The pace at which the movie unfolds also works in its favour, keeping it tight and eventful.

The movie’s greatest fault lies in its tonal disharmony, as the more emotionally demanding scenes tend to descend into melodrama. While this eases some of the potentially overbearing tension stemming from its heavy subject matter, it also undermines the otherwise caustic build-up. Paradoxically, Illegitimate still works in spite of its self-indulgence – it’s an entertaining story of how a family implodes. It simply fails to punch as high as it aims to do.

***

Perfetti sconosciuti (2016): The Undergrowths of Married Life

I’ve never liked truth or dare, so as soon as one of the characters suggested a truth/dare like game for a peaceful get together with friends, I knew at a personal level that the worst would come about. ‘Single room’ movies, ever so dependent on a strong script, can easily become overbearing, if wit does not overcome the wry mundaneness of life and the timing of events is not both harmonious and believable. When a theater play is the source material, you know at least that there’s a pedigree to the writing before you embark on the journey, so this blind test was something different to, let’s say, Carnage (an engrossing adaptation itself). But different good.

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A group of life-long friends gather at a dinner party, as the prologue already hints at cracks in the relationships between the couples coming together. The device meant to drive them towards unraveling is a ‘game’ wherein everyone lays their mobile phones on the table and all messages and calls are answered/viewed in public – spoiler alert, someone still has a Nokia! Well, the tension is palpable from the get-go and as two of the friends make a ‘trade’ in the hopes of mitigating fallout from an expected text, this actually proves to be the least of their problems.

As mentioned above, the first questions to answer pertain to timing and believability. The execution of the escalation scenario is convincing, in that it builds well towards a final release. However, your sense of disbelief is tested at certain points, as too much seems to be happening at once. It’s inevitable and the film deals with it in a very clever way, but the premise remains questionable – that everyone gets up to so much mischief in an exciting way.

The set-up is used to deliver some relevant arguments about the nature of relationships, the meaning of trust and the way that technology works as a filter. All lives are presumed to be defined by some sort of multiplicity, of things that happen which we don’t share with those around us because they are hard to explain, hurtful or simply duplicitous. In a way, it has never been so easy to deceive, while actually being just an unwanted glance away from one’s reveal. The movie argues that what we ultimately see is the veneer of authenticity, so intricately holding together a web of lies, even among the thickest of friends. What it does even better is point to the fact that while there are some rules of thumb to explain the behaviour of other people, really understanding which rules apply to whom is a question of context and of prejudices.

What remains difficult to obscure is the artificiality of some of the situations – related to the need for entertaining drama. Worrying too much about surprising the audience with shock after shock is damaging not only in itself, but in tearing apart the integrity of the characters. Moreover, some meek symbolism, like the mystical eclipse of the full moon acting as a trigger for ‘the unveiling’, is equally unnecessary, if harmless.

Yet, it’s fairly easy to transcend these inadequacies thanks to the sound build up of the atmosphere, the well rounded characters, and the depth the movie achieves in its existential commentary. Not sure I would label this a comedy, but it sure is a dinner date gone haywire, with some beautiful Italian flair to go with the ever so doubtful bio wine.

***

Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015): A Nostalgia Soufflé

In spite of being born towards the end of the 80s, I recall several “Margareta Nistor movies”, her trademark dubbing scarring my youth alongside the zombies of Return of the Living Dead. It’s funny, particularly because her often inflection-less voice made the humor of the movie much harder to understand at the time. Then again, maybe that had more to do with me being less than a decade old myself and thinking I might be immune to the undead.
Chuck-Norris-vs-CommunismAt its heart, CNvsC is a film about the passion of movies. During communist Romania, in the especially dire last ten years of Ceausescu’s reign, an illicit business venture involving the dubbing, copying and distributing of Western cinema spawned and spread like wildfire in what became a cultural landmark of the times. Rocky, Missing in Action, Once Upon a Time in America, Bloodsport, Dirty Dancing are just some of the many movies featured. Using current day interviews with both the protagonists of the movement (foremost Mrs. Nistor as the “localization” specialist, Mr. Zamfir as the ambivalent VHS peddler) and Romanian personalities, as well as laborious reenactments of key events, director Calugareanu portrays the dichotomous fear/love relationship of treading the anti-establishment line. At its best, the film is humorous and playful, insightful with a dark edge in exploring the oppressive machinations behind the scenes. While hyperbolizing, it sets itself up as a thoroughly enjoyable ode to a movement that played a part in empowering the Romanian people.

But the causation is forced and based on weak evidence. The urge to make such a powerful claim and even the attempts of dramatizing certain events play against what CNvsC is really strong at: highlighting the cultural impact and the adventurous affairs surrounding a seemingly banal act of translation. What it fails to do is look beyond the immediate effects of the whole process and the romance of movies as an escape from the everyday. Questions like how the exposure to a fairly homogeneous body of films affected Romanians’ world-view, especially given that most of the films were not quite paragons of Western film-making, is not tackled. Nor is the matter of how the practice of what essentially is piracy contributed to a certain cultural acceptance of digital duplication in decades to come, as seen across the Eastern block. At the screening, Nistor mentioned that she had met her counter-parts from Estonia or Russia, who were different to her only in that they were all men.

So, while on the one hand the documentary works as a look into a pretty special phenomenon, it is frustrating that it avoids going deeper into either the social ramifications, or further exploring the more personal experiences of the likes of Mrs. Nistor to let the local interpretations take hold of an otherwise too descriptive approach – aimed to a more universal audience, with little knowledge of Romanian oddities.

***

Originally posted on imdb.

Der Mann, der über Autos sprang (2010): A Soulful Escape

As the movie (English title: The Man Who Jumped Over Cars) was drawing to a close, the question of whether one could really jump over an oncoming car was nagging me. Some brief research highlighted an increase of the average car height throughout recent decades to about 1.5 meters, but one could certainly go for an aggressive sports car, which only measures about 1.2 meters. The world record for high jump stands at 2.5 meters, but that’s a running jump, so can you do it standing still, as the movie suggests?  I mean, just look at that leap:

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OK, I’ve chilled out now.

Putting my metaphorical glasses back on, I’ll admit my interest was piqued when the realization came about that this movie is inspired by Werner Herzog’s hike from Munich to Paris, in 1974, in support of his mentor, Lotte Eisner. Here, our lead Julian is a young man institutionalized for harboring said belief of car jumping, which ends up causing a tragic accident, wherein his best friend is killed. The story kicks off with Julian’s escape from the facility he was being held in, as he aims to walk over 600 km to the house where his friend’s father lives, recovering after a heart attack. The point of walking is to focus all his energy towards the father’s betterment, in the spirit of a ‘holy’ pilgrimage. Along the way, Julian meets up with Ju and Ruth, both in need of a long walk to cleanse their waywardness. All the while, Jan is on their heels, trying to find and return Julian to the asylum.

This constitutes the main theme of the movie, a paradoxical one at that: taking on a selfish/selfless journey, an escape from how the world sees you, how you see the world and how you see yourself. The great thing is that it works really well, as the characters come off stoic and (for the most part) relatable. Julian’s quest for redemption, Ju’s attempt to emote again and Ruth’s struggle to feel self-worthy, alongside Jan, ‘the jailer’, who finds himself in a purgatory of his own making, make for a soulful exploration. The gorgeous backdrop of the German countryside turns what could have otherwise been an average experience into a tactful bout of escapism. Embellished with moments of both sensitive and caricatured humour, the story is packaged tightly until the last fifteen minutes.

This brings me to the two limitations impairing my enjoyment. Firstly, the movie is guilty of romanticizing away the complexity of the story, as it needlessly and unsubtly provides outlines for both characters and themes. Secondly, the ending is drawn out and too sweet for comfort, as the mystery is shattered and the stars realign.

The reason why I would rather not dwell on these things, is because the cinematic journey managed to inspire me. Upon its conclusion, I had become all silly and was thinking about biking for days or heading out to an isolated cabin in the middle of the mountains. Director Baker- Monteys proves to be a good paysagist of the soul, if not quite the storyteller. There, everyone can be a little pretentious!

***

Originally posted on imdb.

Fúsi (2015): On Solitude and Defiance

It was fitting that on watching this film, I was almost alone in the cinema, because isolation and solitude are powerful themes throughout Fúsi (English title: Virgin Mountain). So when you’re out by yourself, in the middle of the day, to watch an obscure Icelandic movie showing at an archaic cinema that now uses a projector rather suited for private use, than public screenings, it all kind of falls into place and reinforces the emotional investment in the whole experience.

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Fúsi, a 43 year old man-child, but without the usual derogatory connotations of the term, is a tinkerer who lives with his mother, reenacts WW2 battles with his neighbour and works at a hapless job, where he is constantly bullied. Yet, what looks like a bleak and joyless existence, washes over Fúsi like a warm shower on a winter’s day. His outlook on life is inhabited by a neutral positivity informed mostly through how naive and passive Fúsi seems most of the time. And all this is tested once he meets a woman who appears to take an interest in him, enabling him to be the nurturer he is at heart.

This story really knows how to hit a nerve for anyone who has ever felt alone, or love-stricken or stranded. It is a vicious portrayal of the world, which is only redeeming because Fúsi is the kind of character that takes it all in his stride. Otherwise, it gently treads the line of tragedy, but never crosses it. And surely, Fúsi is an idealized altruist with autistic tendencies, but he’s still someone you can identify with, because you recognize the gestures, the emotions and the triggers within and around him.

However, the film does tend to be stereotypically simplistic in its bleakness. Whether it is the abuse Fúsi faces, his run in with the law, the relationship with his mother, these occasionally serve nothing more than to amplify traits in the character, respectively “the world”, which are all too apparent to begin with. Not to mention that his romantic conception of what is acceptable really pushes the suspension of disbelief to places it should never be pushed. Yet, it is in the romance that the film manages to stay true to itself and believable, hyperbolic gestures aside. Because, hey, we’ve all been there and sometimes it does play out in your mind the way it all unfolds here. Or thereabouts.

So there it is, an Icelandic experience of philosophical proportions, that is quite certain to leave you ruminating at its conclusion. And empathizing, which is always a good muscle to engage.

***

Originally posted on imdb.