Warsaw Film Festival Highlights
(plus a few stray thoughts)
1) We Are What We Are – dir. Jorge Michel Grau, Mexico
The set-up could come out of an old neorealist drama: a family with three kids in a decaying house on the outskirts of Mexico City. Dad, a watch repairman, has just fallen dead in the street. Who is going to keep the rest of them afloat? Will it be his eldest son – timid, sensitive Alberto, who looks heartbreakingly feeble in a collared shirt and faded sweater? His other son, Julian, who is so hot-headed he can’t sit at their market stall for five minutes without starting a fight? Or his wife Patricia, who already looks like she’s going to pieces? And what to do about sister Sabina, cooped up in the house, too beautiful and demanding for her own good? Never mind that this is a family of cannibals, and that unless they manage to snag a live victim soon they’ll all starve – or worse. They’re already in a fix.
Jorge Michel Grau (this is his terrifically assured debut) never explains why the family needs human meat to survive. It has something to do with a ritual – el rito – but we never get the details. What is clear is that it’s an obligation, and a burden for which they’re overmatched.
It’s hard to catch human meat. The brothers’ first attempt – by grabbing one of a gaggle of homeless children from under a bridge in broad daylight – is a fiasco. The alternative is to go after prostitutes, but that has its own problems. Dad did it, but Mom hated him for it, and it may have killed him: at his autopsy, the coroner pulls a finger covered in red nail polish out of his stomach. That, in turn, puts two cops, eager for a break in a city where “you wouldn’t believe how many people eat people,” on their trail.
As the police get closer, we root for the cannibal kids. That’s perverse enough, but Grau has other ways of playing with our expectations. The genre of the film seems to shift from moment to moment. At one point it’s a Bergmanesque family drama, then it shifts into a gay coming-of-age story, and then an expertly wielded hatchet comes down on a hooker’s head and we’re back to horror.
It’s getting harder and harder to make a horror movie without the benefit of the supernatural. Val Lewton managed it by making his pictures about the unknowable nature of female desire. Hitchcock did the same with the sickness of mother love. But no one believes in psychoanalysis anymore. We Are What We Are succeeds by shifting the terrain. It’s a movie about inheritance and tradition, and the weight of being born into more than you can bear.
The last shot (not to give too much away), with Sabina looking at a gaunt hipster in a Bowie T-shirt with a smile that all but screams ‘lunch’ turns it into something darker and funnier still.
With AdriÃ¡n Aguirre, Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, and Carmen Beato as the toughest mom since Mrs. Bates.
In the unlikely event of an American remake, I’m looking forward to seeing Rick Bayless get ground into taco filling.
2) Aurora – dir. Cristi Puiu, Romania
Three hours of anti-advertising for Bucharest in the company of a chubby, cheap sociopathic man-child. The joke is about three barely motivated murders. The punch line is that no one cares.
Makes you wish Brecht had never been born.
3) Behind Blue Skies – dir. Hannes Holm, Sweden
It’s the summer of 1975. Your friend gets you a job at a fancy yacht club off of Stockholm, which is great because it means you get to be away from your alcoholic dad.
But you get fired, and start working directly for the manager, who is a drug dealer. Now you’re packing cocaine into dime bags and making drops on deserted islands. But your boss has become a surrogate father figure, and you have the hots for his daughter. Plus you get to wear cool shades. What could possibly go wrong?
Apparently nothing. A well-made period piece that’s too tender to everyone involved.
4) Silent Souls – dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko, Russia
From Russia, a rural bowl of milk.
Miron, the manager of a paper factory asks his friend, Aist, an amateur folklorist, for help in cremating his dead wife according to the ancient rites of the Merjan people. Who are the Merjans? According to Wikipedia, a Finnish tribe that merged with the surrounding Slavs in the time of Yaroslav the Wise. According to Silent Souls, a race of Russians even more poetic and attuned to nature than regular Russians.
Aist loved his Miron’s wife, and she loved him back. For a while it seems like the two friends’ road trip is going to head into unexpected territory, and that the frozen taiga is going to be the scene of their final confrontation. But instead, Fedorchenko gives us a lot of uncomfortable male tenderness and mealy folk poetry. Did you know that a woman’s body is like a river? There’s also a song that mentions bog viburnum and cudwort. Mentally, I checked out after the burial of a typewriter under the ice, ‘so the river can have its words.’
Spoiler alert: the ending hinges on bird symbolism.
5) Lincz – dir. Krzysztof Åukaszewicz, Poland
Four men in rural Poland band together in the name of a common goal: killing a really scary old tramp. It’s based on a true story from a few years ago. Effective, frightening – WiesÅ‚aw Komasa is exceptionally intimidating as the elderly recidivist. But would four people working together for anything else have seemed too utopian?
I watched Rio Bravo afterwards at home and it felt like reading Rousseau on the goodness of natural man.
6) The Social Network – dir. David Fincher, U.S.
So I get it – it’s Citizen Kane. So, Jesse Eisenberg is Orson Welles, Andrew Garfield is Joseph Cotten, and the Facebook profile of a BU undergrad is Rosebud.
But why have a Rosebud if you can’t burn it on a pyre? And what is Xanadu going to be for a man who doesn’t care about money, music, or things?
7) How I Ended This Summer – dir. Alexei Popogrebsky, Russia
From Russia, a bowl of salt water.
Like in Silent Souls, the action revolves around a male duo. Two meteorologists man an isolated weather station on an island in the Arctic Sea. Pavel is young, bored, a little lazy and out of his element (and a dead ringer for James Franco). Sergei is old, experienced, and gruff. He seems like part of the landscape, and is about as easy to get along with.
Their only contact with the outside world is by a staticky two-way radio. One day when Sergei is out taking measurements, terrible news comes for him, but only Pavel is there to receive it.
Over the next days he tries to tell Sergei, but can’t. The film turns into a thriller about procrastination; for me, just about the worst kind of thriller to take.
Eventually, suspense turns into action, but the ingredients remain appealingly humble – smoked fish, fog, a rifle, a generator.
Strong performances by the leads: as Pavel, Grigory Dobrygin goes from puppyish to feral, while Sergei Puskepalis (as Sergei) gives nothing away. The arctic summer – rust-colored tundra under the weird glow of perpetual daylight – deserves billing in its own right.
8) Une Prophète – dir. Jacques Audiard, France
I’m late to this one. I was under the impression that this was a gritty prison drama with a little bit of mystical embroidery. No one told me it was a Horatio Alger story, of steady rise by dint of intelligence and hard work, or that after the first hour it’s about as heavy as Rififi.
Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup are both great, but the score was my favorite part. Turner Cody’s “Corner of My Room” made me want to rob banks; “Mack the Knife,” sung as a lullaby by Jimmy Dale Gilmore, made me want to raise babies.
9) Monsters – dir. Gareth Edwards, United Kingdom
Another south-of-the-border horror film, wan and brain-dead where We Are What We Are is smart and shocking.
Two attractive Americans need to get back to the U.S. from Mexico; some giant spider-squids from outer space stand in their way. But the spider-squids are only really interested in loving one another, and when they kill, they only kill people with darker skin, leaving the young couple free to reenact their favorite scenes from Lost in Translation.
One detail stood out: for reasons too baffling to go into, there is a huge Mayan pyramid right on the American border, like that Aztec temple behind the Titty Twister bar at the end of From Dusk Till Dawn.
But in that movie, the pyramid suggested that even if you made it all the way to the border you’d still fall over the edge – like the history of the Americas was this big pit out there somewhere waiting to swallow you up.
Here it’s just an occasion to camp out.
10) The American, dir. Anton Corbijn, U.S
George Clooney is an assassin holed up in a hilltop town in Abruzzo. He has to make a really fancy gun, so he pretends to enjoy the scenery. But the scenery – featuring umber mountains, a kindly priest, a hooker with a heart of gold and the riverside glade from Written on the Wind – offers him a vision of Eden that makes him want to drop out of the game.
Corbijn’s follow-up to Control, his pressure-cooker life of Ian Curtis, feels like an attempt to update the minimalist lone-gun dramas of Jean-Pierre Melville, but it doesn’t manage to replicate their precision or their cool. Melville’s films work like geometry problems: place a hit-man at one vertex A and a police inspector at vertex B, and have them intersect at nightclub X (it’s no accident that Melville spends so much time contemplating the mechanics of a pool table, or that the hero of Army of Shadows, the secret center of the Resistance, is a mathematician). The machinery is all in place from the start; everyone does what they have to, because they have to.
This kind of rigid design leaves you free to contemplate what’s going on in the corners: Lino Ventura thinking something over with a glass of pastis, Alain Delon smoking on his back in bed. The American is at its best when it leaves Clooney free to be in himself, doing pushups or working an arbor press. It flounders the rest of the time when it makes him chase down the same white-man blues he faced in Michael Clayton, and Up in the Air.
Clooney is our reigning model of male ease. No one moves like Fred Astaire or quips like Cary Grant anymore, but that’s ok. If I were him though, I’d try to leave the tender-tough guy stuff alone, pack up the villa on Lake Como and head down to El Rey.