European Union Film Festival, week 1, by Aaron Pinkston
Every March, for the past 15 years, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Illinois brings a wide variety of new films from around Europe during the European Union Film Festival. This year’s festival has films from 26 countries and 61 Midwestern premiers. Each week of the festival, I will bring a few select reviews from the schedule’s diverse selections.
Stella Days (Thaddeus O’Sullivan, Ireland)
Fun fact: the opening night film of the European Union Film Festival each year is represented by the film that holds the leadership in the European Union. This year’s seat, Ireland, brought Stella Days, starring Martin Sheen as a Catholic priest in a small village rapidly reaching modernity. Stella Days is the perfect type of film to lead the European Union Film Festival in two ways — its very much about the power and importance of film while capturing a specific time and place in a European country’s history. Though it is set only 57 years ago, it shows Ireland at the crux of joining modern society, discovering the outside world, mainly through film.
With a Catholic priest at its center, the film becomes another voice in the age-old battle between religion and art. Though the film quite plainly makes light of the silly views of the church and Irish conservatives, it isn’t as necessarily anti-Catholic as it is pro-art. It makes the well-trod argument that we are all better when we can consider alternate viewpoints and let ourselves be subjected to the world. Stella Days has its heart in the right place, and is sure to work for a lot of audiences, despite its shortcomings.
The film builds the Catholic church as more interested in raising money and beautiful buildings than philosophical thought. This view is counted by Sheen’s Father Daniel Barry, who isn’t the stuffy Catholic figure we’d expect in this world. Father Daniel is like a favorite grandparent, a loving figure with a good vision of the world and sense of humor. Much of the film’s portrayal of the church and the community is seen through his eyes — we are literally shown his reaction to the confessions of his over-serious church members, whose sins may be real in the eyes of Catholicism, but are a little on the ridiculous side. Toward the end of the film there is a reveal that sheds a bit of light on his relationship with his faith, a pretty heartbreaking idea that I wish got a little more insight.
While I really enjoyed the main plotline of Father Daniel’s goal of bringing a theater to the small town, as the film goes on, the simplicity of the two viewpoints becomes a bit grating. Even more, the characters become a bit too obvious as antagonists, nearly frothing at the idea that people watching a movie would send them directly to hell. A little subtlety could have added complexity to the characters, their portrayals, and the ultimate message of the power of film. Other subplots don’t have the proper time to make them hit — instead trying to force emotion, but it doesn’t quite work.
Thankfully, the film has Martin Sheen to rely on, as he fits the role tremendously. I wouldn’t be surprised if the role was written with him in mind or that he was the first choice of the filmmakers. The accent, on the other hand… Sometimes it is slight, sometimes it is non-existent. I think the film tries to work away with it by establishing Father Daniel as a globe-trotter, having spent 20 years in the United States and his formative years studying in Rome. I don’t know if the accent problems are disastrous enough to be unredeemable, but I think there is something missing in the inauthenticity of it.
Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, United Kingdom)
Ben Wheatley made a pretty big splash a year ago with his take on the hitman’s last hit, Kill List. Though it seemed to be pretty lauded by online critics for its sheer audacity, it wasn’t a film that really worked for me. Still, when I saw that his follow-up, Sightseers, was playing at this year’s European Union Film Festival, it was one I automatically circled to see. Admittedly, seeing that the film was a comedy was what had me hooked, not exactly because that is so different a tone than the bleak Kill List, but because seeing a young filmmaker work in incredibly different styles within their first few films is pretty exciting. Sightseers is a fantastic film. It’s dark, uproariously funny, but with the same mean streak that got Wheatley so much attention in the first place.
The film follows two thirty-something Brits who, having been dating for a few months, decide to take a mobile home out on tour across the UK countryside. You know when you go on a road trip and all the little annoyances sort of build up to higher levels? That’s sort of what happens in Sightseers, but to the extreme. Because this is an incredibly shocking film, I am going to try to be as round-about as I can with the plot — if you are a person who would rather stay in the dark about this film (and I wouldn’t blame you), this is your warning.
Tina (played fearlessly by Alice Lowe) is the emotional center of the film, if the film really has an emotional center. In any case, Tina is the person the audience is expected to relate to, and I’m thinking much of your feelings on the film will be informed by how you read her character. Completely complicated, I’m not exactly sure if she is a damsel in distress, just sort of swept up in the events of the film, a woman who has been a lifelong victim of emotional abuse, mentally ill, or just plain evil. She could be any or all of these things at once, and that is a testament to Lowe’s performance, who is quite a discovery.
Her counterpart, Chris, is a man of strange morality. Litterers, the conceited and the privileged are all types of people that get under his skin, and who can blame him for that? His character shows to be similar to Frank Darrbo (aka The Crimson Bolt), from James Gunn’s Super, though Sightseers never asks you to side with Chris or ever like him. He isn’t a vigilante in the obvious right, though you may see his actions as commendable, the film never tries to manipulate you into feeling that way. In fact, the film probably goes out of its way to make sure you don’t like Chris, not for some of his more egregious actions, but for how he treats Tina.
A much more cohesive film than Kill List, Sightseers is able to hold a certain tone throughout and not simply rely on a last-act twist. You can see the creation of an auteurist vision from Wheatley, and that’s a pretty exciting prospect, because you can never have too many bold young filmmakers. What is so wonderful about Sightseers is that it feels so unrestrained, wild and unbelievable while letting itself be incredibly funny. It’s no surprise as the credits rolled that Edgar Wright was an executive producer on the film — though I don’t know how much involvement he specifically had on Sightseers, his sensibility is clearly there.
Ginger & Rosa (Sally Potter, United Kingdom)
In Ginger & Rosa, two carefree young girls find out just how serious the world can be, driving them apart. Played by newcomer Alice Englert and fast-riser Elle Fanning, these two characters make a startling transformation over the film’s 90 minutes. With the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the shadow of the bombings on London during World War II, the film is incessantly bleak, despite the figures at its center. The film’s director, Sally Potter, is an interesting figure — one who burst onto the scene with the very compelling Orlando, but really hasn’t been heard from again. I couldn’t think of any films she has made since Orlando, so I thought maybe she hadn’t made any, but it turns out they all just sort of came and went. I really hope Ginger & Rosa finds an audience, if only for Fanning, who is truly incredible.
But that’s not all to like about the film, which is incredibly beautiful from shot to shot. Potter deftly creates a nice representation of 1960s London, capturing a look that feels very authentic. The actors are beautifully clothed, beautifully lit and beautifully shot. With Fanning especially, Potter uses her pale skin and vibrant red hair to their fullest effect, contrasting the dull browns and greens that make up the rest of the film’s visual palette. Nearly every shot has something to digest. And it does this without the typical masterful cinematography — no big, sweeping shots, everything is contained in spaces that are beautifully set and staged. If it doesn’t hold up as one of the most beautiful films of the year, 2013 will certainly be a very, very good year.
Dramatically, there is a little more that could be desired, and the film’s narrative seems to be the sticking point for its early dissenters. It’s a pretty simple coming-of-age drama; even though there are very bombastic events informing the story, all of the major dramatic moments of the film are character and family based. Worse, though, is that the film tips its hand way too early, setting up the key event in a way to make it feel obvious, not at all surprising. The performers sell it well enough, but too few narrative highs do stop me from outright loving this film.
You know what I do love, though? Elle Fanning. She has already had a number of wonderful performances — her turn in Super 8 was clearly the best thing about that film and she repeats that feat here. In all of her great performances thus far, there is no way to work around the fact that she is very much a young girl. That’s not to downgrade her talents, but you could always question if she would be able to make the leap into being a full-fledged adult actress. Even though she is still only 14-years-old, her work in Ginger & Rosa is incredibly mature — in a twist on the Hollywood norm, she is actually playing older than herself. There is a big difference between 14 and 17 in terms of development, but Fanning is completely believable. Perhaps the greater accomplishment is that she runs laps around great co-stars like Annette Benning, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, Alessandro Nivola and Christina Hendricks. I think there is no doubt that she has a very bright future ahead of her.
Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
Tabu’s namesake, F.W. Murnau’s 1931 adventure-romance Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, is an obvious piece of inspiration, but really only as a jumping-off point. Where Murnau’s goal was to bring us to a brand new world through a universal story, Miguel Gomes gives us deep character studies, lightly seasoned by an exotic environment. It’s a really odd film and sometimes mind-boggling, but it becomes both a wonderful homage to silent cinema and its own original piece of art — a sort-of The Artist for the strictly arthouse crowd.
The film is broken up into two sections, giving a slightly jarring feel, but they end up complimenting each other really well. In the first section we meet Aurora, an elderly woman from a wealthy background who is restlessly living her last days. With Aurora are her maid Santa and Pilar, their middle-aged neighbor. Much of this first section is Pilar’s story, and it is filled with morose sadness emphasized by the black-and-white photography. Despite her closeness to Aurora and Santa, and a relationship she has with a painter, she is desperately lonely. Beyond her interactions with these people, there isn’t much we know about Pilar, and this openly challenges the viewer. These scenes move slowly, making any viewer hip to the title reference wonder if they stumbled into the wrong movie.
This changes when, on her deathbed, Aurora asks Pilar to track down an old friend, who guides us into the second section, entitled “Paradise.” This second section is a wonderful piece of filmmaking and a purer link to Murnau’s legacy. Told in narration by Ventura, the old friend of Aurora, it takes us to Africa when these two met as young people. The Aurora at the opening is bitter, mean, and ugly personality, a stunning contrast to the young and vivacious woman we meet in her past.
Miguel Gomes makes a very bold choice in “Paradise” — though we see characters interacting with each other on screen, we even see them talking, there is no audible dialogue heard on the soundtrack. Ventura’s narration fills in the gaps, but Gomes shows an incredible grasp of narrative storytelling and uses this crutch as a gift, becoming extremely playful with his camera and through humor. We get some great subtle gags like seeing a record player spinning, but only hearing the noises that the machine makes. All of the sound effects are heard, which is jarring at first but really kind of fun — this dissonance creates an odd tension in the scenes. It is also one of the major ways that the film plays homage to Murnau, who explored with sound effects during the transition to the talkie in Sunrise.
“Paradise” doesn’t exactly have the look and feel of a silent film, but in all fairness, neither does the work of Murnau, who always expanded the boundaries of cinema. Both film artists took what could have been major liabilities and found ways to tell great stories. Though there is certainly an abrupt shift and distinction between the film’s two sections, and while I definitely preferred the playfulness and bold choices of “Paradise,” the film does come together as a whole piece. The tragic story told to us through Ventura’s narration after the loss of his great friend wouldn’t have been so emotionally satisfying without fully exploring what became of Aurora. As I previously mentioned, Gomes is obviously very interested in looking at these characters, exploring someone’s full life. Tabu may be an homage to a certain type of film (and a very good homage, at that), but it is by no means a gimmick.