European Union Film Festival, week 4, 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.
The Angels’ Share (Ken Loach, United Kingdom)
In the opening scenes of The Angels’ Share, we see a wonderfully edited sequence of a number of young people awaiting punishment in court. All we see are unfamiliar faces and a disembodied voice talking through the crimes they committed. Without knowing anything about the film, I thought maybe this would be some sort of docu-drama taking place in the Scottish petty crimes division. Instead, director Ken Loach includes this sequence as an introduction to the characters we’ll be spending the next 100 minutes with, as they fulfill their mandatory community service. It’s a calculated risk on Loach’s part to introduce nearly the entire cast as criminals and ask the audience to be on their side. Though most of these characters aren’t serious criminals, our main subject, Robbie (Paul Brannigan), has already spent time in jail and was again popped for a vicious assault. Loach is not only able to make the cast feel like genuinely well-rounded people, but also makes it easy to root for them, despite the illegal shenanigans they get caught up in.
Ken Loach has always been known as a champion for the working poor in Britain, and his authenticity helps The Angels’ Share at every angle. The ways the characters speak, dress, and react feel real. Loach also understands the problems that these people have to face and how hard it is to break away from their pasts. At its heart, Robbie’s story is quite tragic — even when the birth of his first child helps him focus to change his life, the enemies he’s made won’t let him. He’s stuck in a cycle created by years of family feuding. Because his father would fight with another man, he’s destined to clash with this man’s son — it’s a cycle that could very easily be handed down to his newborn son. Loach’s story decides to give Robbie a chance, though, and his journey is well worth it.
The film’s title comes from an old British saying related to the natural loss of whiskey through evaporation during its production. After the group’s community service counselor takes them out on a distillery tour, whiskey becomes an instant interest. This introduction shifts the film to be a bit of a Sideways for hard liquor lovers, with a number of comical scenes centered around the ridiculous flavor classifications and rules to tasting — as a whiskey man myself, I can’t complain too much.
The Angels’ Share is a wonderful mix of humor and drama. Though most would probably classify it as a comedy first, the emotional resonance is what stands out for me — the stakes at the center of Robbie’s story are incredibly great and Loach brilliantly sets them with a hopelessness you don’t see in films with any comedic sense. Its humor is so casually played, mostly in conversations, and simply because the characters feel so authentic. In the film’s final act, it does ramp up the comedic tone, with a bit of a madcap heist-of-sorts, sadly, mostly to disagreeable results, but it is able to rebound to a conclusion that caps the progress of the characters. Even as they turn to crime to solve their problems, and you can’t exactly say that there is a “good things come to good people” lesson (though one particular character’s gain is a beautifully emotional beat), it becomes quite uplifting.
Dormant Beauty (Marco Bellocchio, Italy)
Anyone who has seen one of Marco Bellocchio’s films (at least the ones I’ve seen) knows they are incredibly beautiful but incredibly bleak. In that way, Dormant Beauty is perhaps the flag-bearer for a Marco Bellocchio film. Set in Rome, it examines euthanasia through a number of characters personally dealing with the topic in some way. In the narrative’s background is a high profile case which has seemed to spark the entire city, forcing everyone to confront the incredibly painful subject. If you are in the mood to spend two hours solemnly analyzing euthanasia, this is as good a way as possible.
Working with this emotionally loaded hot-button issue, Dormant Beauty takes the responsibility seriously. The film is often unflinching and brutal in the emotional experiences it portrays. Thankfully, it doesn’t evangelize the issue — though each character has a stance, the film treats the viewer with respect by never becoming preachy. Likewise, it treats each character with respect, never compromising the beliefs that are true to the characters and never pointing at someone as strictly a villain. In many ways, Dormant Beauty is more of a personal look at the subject than a political one. With the backdrop of a famous case in the news, there is an ever-present debate going on in the background, but the foreground is filled with real people dealing with real problems. Strangely enough, one of the major characters is actually a politician — a man whose political party goes against his own beliefs, putting him in a tricky situation. Like the film, he choses to put his personal story ahead of the political one and his storyline is especially touching. Rome is perhaps the most contentious locale to explore this particular issue; in the shadow of the Vatican, religious iconography and thought are everywhere. Though the Church is an obvious force in the film, even their ideologies aren’t vilified, which would certainly be easy to do if Bellocchio didn’t intentionally set this table.
The film is paced and guarded like a thriller, despite not having any of the narrative trappings. Every action and conversation has weight, spurring the story forward. Dormant Beauty is also incredibly dense, which, coupled with the unrelentingly draining subject matter, doesn’t do the audience any favors. Through the first half of the film I struggled putting together who all of these characters were and where they stood in the plot. By the time I got caught up, it became even clearer just how complex and devastating the issue can be when it is shown in the personal light. No matter where the characters stand in the argument, everyone who is involved is completely tormented by their circumstances. If there is anything the film gets at, it is that there are no easy answers in this debate.
Though certainly about euthanasia, Dormant Beauty isn’t exactly a “topic” film as we’ve seen in the many schlocky, melodramatic films trying to win an argument. You will surely bring in your own beliefs to the film, and the great strength of Dormant Beauty is that it allows you to sympathize with and begin to understand the characters you may not agree with. It’s an incredibly difficult watch, no doubt, but one with an amazing amount of depth.
Alois Nebel (Tomás Lunák, Czech Republic)
Whenever I evaluate animated films that shy away from fantastical stories about talking animals, usually ones that are intended for adult audiences, a question I tend to come back to is whether the film would be interesting or worthwhile had it not been animated. Alois Nebel is certainly a film that does not beg to be made with rotoscope animation — the story of a train dispatcher dealing with the tormented past and troubling future of the Czech Republic near the end of the USSR is a deep, dower film. Could you imagine The Shop on Main Street fully animated? That’s an easy comparison in that the are both from the Czech Republic, but you will find a similar tone here. While its narrative might not be particularly innovative or invigorating, story and style mesh well together. Alois Nebel is definitely a film worth checking out, especially for anyone who has an interest in adult animation.
Make no mistake, Alois Nebel is certainly enhanced by the film’s animation techniques — its vibrant look is certainly the most interesting thing about the film and alone a reason to seek this film out (conveniently on Netflix Streaming). Unlike any rotoscoped films I’ve seen (few, admittedly), Alois Nebel makes an interesting choice to limit its presentation to black and white. Undoubtedly, this stays consistent with the grim tone of the film’s narrative, but it’s quite striking. The contrast of the colors really pop and are incredibly deep — you get the whitest of whites and the blackest of blacks brought together. Mostly because of the color selection, I found myself reminded more of Sin City than Waking Life, though if you are struck by either films’ look, you will be similarly entranced by Alois Nebel. Lunák also goes a step further than many rotoscoped films in its animated expression, doing a lot of work with lighting effects during dream and flashback sequences that provide a whirlwind feeling. There is also a wonderful moment blending live-action footage. The film certainly uses its animated technique to its fullest, and Lunák shows us that we haven’t seen the extent of what rotoscope animation can do.
As for the film’s narrative, it is almost contemplative to a fault. There is certainly a full plot here, but it takes its time getting there, really about halfway through before most of the story elements are in place. This patience expresses the dread, sadness and anger of its characters. I never found myself bored, perhaps thanks to the glorious look of the film, but it will likely test those without strong attention. The acting is similarly metered, especially the main performance. The title character is quiet and stern in a mesmerizing space — a contrast that strangely works, each emphasizing the other. Miroslav Krobot, who plays Alois, has worked with Béla Tarr, so that should give some insight on his look and demeanor.
The Door (István Szabó, Hungary)
The Door is a quirky little film that I can’t quite wrap my head around. It’s mysterious without any real mystery, both grim and light, a bit of an anomaly. Helen Mirren stars as Emerenc, a maid hired by a writer to take care of her and her husband’s household. Really, it is a simple film about these two women and their strange relationship, and especially something of an exploration of Emerenc, one of the odder characters I’ve encountered in a while. Though it is at times charming and mostly entertaining, it ultimately feels massively incomplete.
The casting of Helen Mirren as Emerenc is almost enough to recommend the film — Mirren is always good if given a chance to have fun, and she is certainly having fun here. At the start of the film, she plays like the stereotypical stern old maid, very blunt and dreadfully serious. Near our introduction to the character, she recites a story from when she was young, when her twin siblings and mother died — though the story is incredibly dark, the way Emerenc tells it, with a strange straight-faced flair, seems incredibly realistic coming from a nine-year-old girl, but not the aging maid she has become. After this point, as Emerenc and Magda begin to become closer, the maid becomes more and more kooky. She has this mystical aura about her that is hinted at but never really verified, giving her abilities of connecting with animals and identifying the sick before they know they are sick.
She is also a very secretive character, and much of the film’s narrative is spent mulling over what secrets she could be hiding. The title door, I assume, is of Emerenc’s little house, which remains closed to all visitors. One of the film’s most climactic moments comes when Magda (along with the audience) is finally invited in, which unfortunately reveals nothing. This is descriptive of the entire film — there always seems to be an unexplored reason for why characters act in particular ways or events unravel, but there aren’t really explanations to be had.
The character relationships seem to change from scene to scene for no particular reason. In one moment Magda and Emerenc are closer than ever and in the next, Magda claims to be too busy to check on Emerenc, who supposedly hasn’t left her house in two weeks. The film jumps forward in time without any real indication, which helps jumble these character dynamics. There is much less drama when we are told about a passage in time instead of making us feel the time pass.
The Door is a strange, but unsuccessful film. There are plenty of sequences and characters that will entertain, but it seems slightly off. Not helping is the choice to dub the cast in English — though we see many of the supporting characters mouthing the English words, their voices seem disconnected. With its overall strangeness, it’s hard to take any of the dramatic elements seriously, every moment is second-guessed on its tone. Though Mirren is great and her character has a level of enjoyable complexity, I feel like I’m asking the wrong questions by the end, wondering if Emerenc might be seriously mentally ill. Her quirky nature is certainly something to be laughed at, but it all feels troubling in the end.