Graduation (Bacalaureat , Romania-France-Belgium, 2016)

The sins of the fathers

I really enjoyed Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and his later film as a director, Graduation, is also excellent. Both deal with post-Ceausescu Romania but its theme of corruption is obviously not unique to that country. Adrian Titieni plays Romeo (no ‘lover boy’ associations intended I think) whose daughter is about to sit exams that may seal her place at a UK university. As most parents do, he’s strained every sinew to do ‘best’ by his child but a sexual assault, just before the first exam, on Eliza (Maria Dragus) puts his dream at risk. As he attempts to get justice for his daughter, both in capturing the assailant and getting her ‘consideration’ in the exams, he finds himself drawn into a web of ‘favours’ that, the film suggests, dog Romania in its post-‘communist’ present.

Romeo is clearly a decent man but finds himself morally compromised and Mungiu (and Titieni) brilliantly portray the ‘easy’ slide into corruption. As in 4 Months, the camera often sits as an observer, watching the dialogue in long takes but Mungiu overlays this ‘simplicity’ with ‘arthouse’ symbolism. The first shot of the film, a drab estate where the successful doctor (who has a reputation for honesty) lives, shows a hole being dug; on one level it is obvious symbolism but actually works as an incidental detail. Similarly, the dialogue sometimes contains symbolism such as when he talks about the view, to his childhood friend (a police inspector), from a ski-lift : Romeo states he preferred the view from the other direction but you can’t see it now because of the trees. It’s a wonderful statement that reflects the disillusionment of adulthood.

There’s a touch of Michael Haneke in the random and unexplained attacks on Romeo’s house and car (fortunately worn a lot lighter than in the portentous Austrian director’s films) and the narrative has a Kafkaesque quality as the attempts to help his daughter suck him into more ever so slightly absurd situations (such as refusing cake at the wife of his daughter’s school’s headmaster’s party). The absurdity, however, isn’t institutional but inter-personal though the state is present in the public prosecutors’ investigators who are an equal mix of friend and intimidators.

Although it is about Romania, there’s a ‘universality’ about Romeo’s dilemmas; in the UK the ‘old boy’ network is similarly riven with favouritism. Although I’ve focused on the protagonist, women are also important: his estranged wife and lover, not to mention his daughter. Romeo is a complex character for whom first impressions are often altered as we learn more about him. A superb film.

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The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Communist-bourgeoisie at play

The western translation of O slavnosti a hostech, (also known as A Report on the Party and Guests) made Jan Němec’s film’s allegorical intention obvious; Němec co-wrote the story with Ester Krumbachová who wrote the screenplay. It’s likely that the satire of the film would have been obvious to the censors of the time anyway even if the original title is better translated as Of Celebration and Guests (according to Michael Brooke’s excellent notes in the Second Run DVD). The film was ‘banned forever’ in 1973 and not seen in Czechoslovakia until 1989’s Velvet Revolution.

The seven characters we meet having a picnic find themselves dragooned into joining a wedding party (although it was possible they were meant to be guests anyway otherwise why would the women change into smart dress?) after being interrogated by a bullying, and slightly unhinged, character with accompanying ‘heavies’.

Creepily slightly unhinged

The picnickers respond differently to the bullying ranging from resistance (he gets beaten up – see above) to appeasement; the woman tend to respond passively. They seem to be saved when the host insists they join the party but the banquet in the forest is an obvious manifestation of a world out of joint. Whilst Němec was no doubt satirising ‘communist’ Czechoslovakia, the dinner party is strikingly bourgeois with its fancy trimmings and Luis Buñuel’s influence is apparent. Buñuel saved his bile for capitalist bourgeoisie: Němec is likely to have been familiar with The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, Mexico, 1962); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, France, 1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (Le fantôme de la liberté, France 1974), all featuring dinner parties, came later. Western critics usually viewed Cold War art as being critical of the ‘communist’ system (often accurately) but ignored the potential for critique of the west. There’s no doubt to me that Němec and Krumbachová were having a pop at the bourgeoisie in general. Krumbachová also co-wrote the brilliant Daisies and was a costume designer on the Němec directed Diamonds of the Night.

The comedy is based both on the surreal absurdity of the situation and bourgeois manners that seek to accommodate rather than challenge repressive forces. The latter is obvious in the UK at the moment in the BBC’s coverage of the resurgent right as it insists on giving a platform to deranged scumbags like Carl Benjamin and Stephan Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) in the belief that this is a public service; in reality platforming fascists isn’t funny.

The Party and the Guests is funny, it shows Němec’s brilliance and retrospectively we can mourn his inability to make the films he wanted after being ‘disgraced’ by this wonderful example of the Czech New Wave.

Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, Czechoslovakia, 1964)

On the run

One of the few things you can be sure about in Jan Němec’s debut film, and contribution to the then nascent Czech new wave, is that the protagonists are on the run from the Nazis. Co-scripted by Němec and Arnošt Lustig, based on the latter’s novel, the film strips the source material almost bare. here’s very little dialogue and the film is littered with might be flashbacks but also might be dreams.

Němec was in his early 20s when he went to FAMU, the film school in Prague, and apparently hadn’t seen any western art cinema to that date. It’s clear from Diamonds of the Night that he left the school admiring Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There’s even close-ups of ants on a hand, an obvious nod to Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (France, 1929), but there’s nothing in Němec’s film that feels derivative. The Robbe-Grillet influence is particularly from Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961) where the same events are seen over and over again but with differences. It’s this play of memories that Němec draws on but in his film it seems to be about events that have just happened, or are about to happen, or maybe never happen. This ambiguity situates the film firmly in surrealism, a favourite of Czech cinema, though the dreamlike narrative is rooted in genuine fear of capture. In a bravura opening shot, the boys run from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The long take rushes up the hillside with them; the camerawork throughout is superb. The prime cinematographer is Jaroslav Kucera, who was married to Věra Chytilová; Miroslav Ondříček is also credited. Both went on to make significant contributions to the Czech New Wave.

You could read the boys’ (or is it just one of them?) dreamlike state as being a result of exhaustion. In one scene they spit out bread even though they are starving because it makes their dry mouths bleed. In another a farmer’s wife may be assaulted, sexually or otherwise, as different possibilities are shown. The stark black and white cinematography, sometimes over-exposed, adds a gritty feel to the dreamlike imagery. In one scene, the boys’ seem to spend an age clambering up a scree slope; in another, one of them seems to be chatting up a girl. As to their fate, I can’t spoil it because I don’t know.

Němec apparently ended up making wedding videos in California during the 1970s after being forced from Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Prague Spring; I doubt he brought his artistic sensibility to them but it was no surprise that he couldn’t find work in Hollywood as a director. He was a consultant on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Europe and has continued to make films that, unfortunately, don’t seem to be available in the UK.

In Between (Bar Bahar, Israel-France, 2016)

Stuck in the middle together

Maysaloun Hamoud’s fabulous feature debut (she wrote and directed) pitches three culturally different women into a flat share: Arab-Christian; devout Muslim; secular Muslim. Set in Tel Aviv, the film received some flack for using Israeli money; the director is of Palestinian descent. I like her argument that it is Palestinian money too! I understand the hatred of Israeli institutions, given how Palestinians are oppressed, however as long as the narrative isn’t compromised, such ‘supping with the enemy’ is pragmatic.

Mouna Hawa plays Leila (above right) a lawyer who takes no shit from men; she is a really empowering character. However Hamoud doesn’t downplay the difficulties of going against the grain and the final shot of the film makes it clear that battles will continue. Newcomer Sana Jammelieh is Salma (left) who schleps between jobs to support her DJing and Shaden Kanboura plays Noor, a computer student. Obviously the narrative drama comes from the culture clash between Noor and the ‘modern’ women but all three are embattled by patriarchy.

I try and check in my white male privilege in life but know that I’m forever tainted by self-serving ideology and I would appreciate Hamoud’s film even if all it did is present the lives of others who are strangers to me; it does more than that as it’s a thoroughly gripping film. Occasionally the narrative seems a little fragmented, as the film switches between the three lives on show, leaving ‘enigmas’ dangling maybe a little too long before being resolved. In addition, for one narrative strand, the resolution seems a little forced even if it is emotionally satisfying. These could be the peccadilloes of a neophyte filmmaker and shouldn’t get in the way of the fabulous achievement.

The performances are convincing and the direction never distracting. One particularly disturbing scene is superbly done as is its aftermath. Like Mustang and Our Little SisterIn Between is a celebration of sisterhood in the face of male stupidity.

Mustang (France-Germany-Turkey-Qatar, 2015)

In the shit

Not long after enjoying Kore-eda Hirokazi’s pean to sisterly love I came across another sister-centric film, this time directed by a woman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven. She grew up and was educated in France (her father was a Turkish diplomat) and was 37 by the time this, her first feature, was released. Hopefully, it will be the first of many however her second, Kings (France-Belgium-China-US, 2017) starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, hasn’t been released in the UK and scores 4.8 on imdb. Although the title Mustang refers to the North American horse, the film is firmly rooted in the conservative culture of Anatolia, Turkey.

The opening portrays the euphoria of the ‘school’s out for the summer’ moment and the five orphaned sisters, all brilliantly played, enjoy play-fighting with boys in the sea. A gossip tells their grandma and their house increasingly becomes a fortress to keep them away from boys before they are married off. The scenes of betrothal, in full view of the families who comment how the couple like one another (a version of fake news), are excruciating. The girls of forced to wear ‘shit coloured’, the youngest Lale’s term, clothes to cover themselves. What can’t be hidden, particularly in Lale’s case, is the girls’ life force that contrasts forcefully with the hidebound adults (with the exception of a friendly truck driver).

As a westerner it is easy to sympathise with the girls and in Turkey the film hit a discordant note with the forces of reaction, fuelled as they are by President Erdoğan. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Turkey where, in a tourist backwoods, I was struck by how many women toiled in the fields whilst the blokes put their feet up in the coffee houses: patriarchy feathering its comfort zone at the expense of women.

Mustang is a great rallying call for the oppressed and a lesson for the oppressors, if they’ll listen. It’s also a heart-filling portrayal of determination, through Lale’s character, that will not let the bastards get her down and she keeps on keeping on. I loved the last shot of the film suggesting that women can only save themselves.

The Ear (Ucho, Czechoslovakia, 1970) – LIFF9

What price freedom?

Like A Squandered Sunday, The Ear wasn’t released until the after end of the Cold War, in 1989, as its portrayal of Czechoslovakian political life, in the ‘Normalisation’ post-’68 period, is damningly satirical. When those in power can’t stand criticism you know you’re in trouble (see Trump). This is another of the Time Frames strand at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Ear narrates the squabbles of a government minister and his wife in the aftermath of an official reception at Prague Castle, which is shown in flashback.

The Ear’s writer, last films as he died of cancer in 1971. Procházka had done well to survive as a filmmaker for so long because he constantly pushed against official censorship. Director Karel Kachyňa continued to have a fruitful career (despite having made several films with the ‘frowned upon’ Procházka). Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave, suggests that Kachyňa successfully portrayed Procházka as the ‘ideas man’ whilst he was merely a metteur en scene (he ‘just’ shot the script). Whether this was a betrayal I don’t know; it was just as likely to have been a pragmatic position to take against repression. Whatever the case, Kachyňa’s direction is perfect in its portrayal of Ludvik’s (the minister) growing conviction his days are numbered. 

He and his wife return from the party to find things aren’t as they should be at home. Doors are locked; then unlocked. Things have been moved and there are men in the garden (it is the middle of the night). Ludvik thinks back to the evening, using ‘subjective’ shots (we are Ludvik), trying to find clues that may signify his fall from favour. His wife, Anna, is both pissed (drunk) and pissed off because Ludvik has forgotten their wedding anniversary again. Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová are superb as the warring couple and their collapsing marriage mirrors the political paranoia of the time. The political is personal as Ludvik had only married her for convenience and all his actions as a government minister – and by extension true of all government ministers – are about self-survival.

The titular ‘ear’ are bugs the secret police have placed to listen for sedition. The couple even have to have sex in the kitchen to get some privacy. In the absurdist tradition of Czechoslovakian cinema, there are a number of batty scenes, including a toilet that won’t flush and an invasion by goons who want some booze.

The Ear is another example of the brilliant ‘new waves’ of eastern Europe during the ’50s and ’60s.

 

The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura, Finland, 1952) – LIFF5

Vampiric lust in a cold climate

The White Reindeer is a weird amalgam of Finnish folklore and what appears to my untutored eyes to be ethnographic filmmaking. However, a quick glance along the casts’ filmographies shows that most of the cast are actors and their adeptness in the frozen north with reindeer and skis is obviously born of their culture. The glimpses of Sami life are probably the most fascinating aspect of the film from the reindeer races, the weddings and reindeer herding. Director Erik Blomberg (who also coproduced, co-wrote and photographed!) brings visual flare to what must have been a tough shoot. Only occasionally is the mise en scene compromised; for example, at the climax there are already ski-tracks visible – presumably from previous takes.

The narrative, a mythic tale designed to demonise (literally) sexually voracious women, is less than gripping. The startling images make up for the lack and Bergstrom seemed to me to use the top of the frame for more action than is usual. This gave a sense of the immense landscape; one exceptionally spectacular shot was of a herd of reindeer flowing into the distance (below).

Eyes are drawn to the top of the frame by the flowing reindeer

In addition, the transition scene – the cursed woman turns into a white reindeer – uses negative effectively. The soundtrack, which I take to be Finnish/Sami folksongs, adds to the eerie otherworldliness of the images though the sound was compromised by distortion in the bass (cinema’s fault – the Vue, Leeds – not the film’s). The White Reindeer was, for me, eye-opening drama in which the milieux is more important than the narrative.