From volatile sibling relationships to House of Atreus–style depravity, traditional ideas about family were upended and replaced with a contemporary look at the complex, ever-expanding definition of the ties that bind.
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Tolstoy’s wry observation that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” has lost none of its sting, as the lineup at the 59th Thessaloniki International Film Festival makes plain. From volatile sibling relationships to House of Atreus–style depravity, traditional ideas about family were upended and replaced with a contemporary look at the complex, ever-expanding definition of the ties that bind.
Who is related to whom and does it matter are questions subtly threaded throughout Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku, Japan, 2018), winner of this year’s Palme d’Or. A gentle, mysterious film with a narrative arc that builds almost invisibly to an astonishing climax, Shoplifters is another of Kore-eda’s finely tuned domestic dramas that include Nobody Knows (2004) and Like Father, Like Son (2013).
In the improvised Shibata family, appearances are deceiving. There is a middle-aged couple, Osamu (Franky Lily) and his wife Nobuyo (a lovely turn by Sakura Andô); their probable son, 10-year-old Shota (Kairi Jyo); as well as Hatsue (Kilin Kiki), the grandmother; and Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who is maybe Nobuyo’s sister. They are an eccentric, sweet-natured group that live in a ramshackle bungalow on the outskirts of Tokyo, surviving through intermittent employment and petty theft. Into this controlled mayhem enters Juri (Miyu Sasaki), a wisp of a little girl who Osamu and Shota find shivering on an apartment balcony one cold night, her parents nowhere to be seen. Feeling sorry for her, they bring her home. When they discover signs of abuse on her body, the family decides to keep her, reasoning if no ransom is asked for it can’t be kidnapping. Juri is soon inducted into the family shoplifting enterprise, learning from Shota how to steal everything from candy to shampoo.
Juri’s arrival, however, becomes the first crack in the family’s carapace. Shortly after she is taken in, her disappearance is broadcast on television. Oddly, the family reacts nonchalantly to the news. It is a deft narrative turn by Kore-eda that forces the audience to reconsider their perceptions about the Shibatas. And as each secret is revealed – Shota doesn’t go to school, Aki performs in a soft-porn peep show, Hatsue slyly extracts money from her late husband’s second family – the more you want to know exactly who these people are. Touching scenes of mealtimes in their cramped and dilapidated home and a family trip to the seaside emphasize their emotional attachment to one another, but bring us no closer to the truth. Are they criminals or simply a lost group of people on the margins of society, trying to survive as best they can. Kore-eda gives us no clear answer, only the fleeting moments of ordinary life where we must decide for ourselves what makes a “family.”
In Meryem Benm’Barek’s Sofia (Morocco, 2018), creating a family is not so much a choice as an arrangement based on fossilized ideas about honor. Sidestepping the rules is not an option, as the opening of the film makes clear with a quote from the Moroccan penal code: the punishment for sexual relations outside of marriage is imprisonment. Enter 20-year-old Sofia (Maha Alemi), the titular heroine of the film, who is obliged to maneuver between the law and her disgrace of having a child out of wedlock.
The story begins at a family dinner held to celebrate a business deal between Sofia’s father (Faouzi Bensaidi) and a businessman named Ahmed (Mohammed Bousbaa). While in the kitchen, Sofia experiences severe stomach pains. Her cousin Lena (Sarah Perles), a medical student, quickly realizes that she is pregnant, despite Sofia’s denial of the same. Discreetly, Lena gets Sofia to a hospital and her daughter is born; however, because Sofia has no identity papers for the father they must leave quickly or the physician who helped them will be in trouble with the authorities. Lena prods an exhausted and sullen Sofia into telling the father about the birth, and she finally relents. The two venture into the narrow streets of a poor neighborhood, crying baby in tow, to find Omar (Hamza Khafif), the boy who Sofia claims is the father.
Equality and choice are nonexistent in Sofia’s world. Marriage is the only possible solution to escape prosecution and to save her family’s honor, as well as their potential financial prospects. In a telling scene, her family sits opposite Omar’s mother Zohra (Rawia) in her simple home. Omar swears he’s not the father; Sofia, expressionless, dark rings under her eyes, remains mute. Her parents are desperate to prevent a scandal. Omar’s mother has her eye on the main chance: to marry her son into a well-to-do family. In the end, the youths are sacrificed for the sake of appearances and greed.
Class differences, although never overtly mentioned, abound throughout the film. Lena speaks more French than Arabic, wears trendy clothes, studies medicine, and lives in her parents’ seaside villa. In comparison, Sofia’s family is middle class but has higher aspirations. She wears the traditional djellaba and prefers Arabic to French. Omar is decidedly working class and is well aware of his limited opportunities within the society, as his anger at the situation he finds himself in reveals. A surprising narrative twist near the end of the film only sharpens the knife held at truth’s throat.
Sofia was awarded first prize by the FIPRESCI jury.
“Group dynamics is more important to me, and I took pains to stay away from the false character explanations and resolutions offered by Hollywood,” said Swedish director Isabella Eklöf while discussing her controversial films Holiday (Denmark, 2018). This is an understatement given the nearly plotless structure of the film and the graphic, chilling rape scene at its heart – one that is comparable in its brutality to the assault scene in Gasper Noé’s Irréversible.
Set in a touristy seaside villa in Bodrum, the film’s collection of loathsome characters is juxtaposed with cinematography that has the glossy sheen and saturated hues of fashion magazines. Against the sea blues and pristine whites of the Aegean coast is Michael (Lai Yde), a successful mob boss who lords it over his criminal family of henchmen, their partners and children. There’s plenty of booze and drugs along with a swimming pool and, voilà, the perfect summer holiday. None of these louche characters are introduced; we simply watch and wonder as their inanities pile up.
Sascha (a remarkable performance by Victoria Carmen Sonne), Michael’s girl, soon arrives and joins the clan. She’s every inch the cliché of a mobster’s moll with bleached blonde hair; expensive but tacky, revealing clothes; and gaudy accessories. Michael can be sweet to her, as when he buys her an expensive pair of emerald and diamond earrings, and just as easily he is vicious, beating and insulting her when he pleases. Sascha seems to bear it with aplomb, but her vapidity makes it hard to tell whether this is from fear or it’s simply the price she’s willing to pay for material gain. On an outing to an ice cream shop, Sascha meets Tomas (Thijs Römer), a genial Dutch yachtsman, and strikes up a flirty conversation. Tomas is the opposite of Michael, and Sascha seems to enjoy his company, if only to escape life at the villa, although she never says as much. The three form a kind of romantic triangle that slowly burns toward an unexpected climax that is hard to grasp as Eklöf is determined that the three remain ciphers.
The controversial rape scene takes place on the villa’s living room floor, the harsh glare of the afternoon sun lighting up the space. The act is photographed in one long take and is violent and deeply disturbing. The still camera intensifies the voyeurism that implicates the audience in the horror. Afterward, there are no tears or angry words, Sascha simply gets up and walks away, which is almost as shocking as the event itself.
The question of whether Sascha is a victim or a co-conspirator in her own degradation is left for viewers to debate. Either way, she is forever marked by the mob family to whom she so willingly bound herself.
Fate is unalterable, as Greek tragedy has so often reminded us. In director Jaime Rosales’s Petra (Spain, 2018), it is this air of foreboding that casts its shadow over the lives of several people in search, or in avoidance, of family roots.
Petra is divided into several titled and numbered chapters shown out of sequence. As the multiple storylines are brought together, the seeming randomness begins to make sense and emphasizes the unbreakable connections between past and present. Set in contemporary Catalonia, the film features Petra (Bárbara Lennie), a painter, taking up an artist residency on the lush country estate of a famous sculptor, Jaume Navarro (Joan Botey). She meets Jaume’s wife, the aloof Marisa (Marisa Paredes), their affable adult son Lucas (Alex Brendemühl), and other household staff. We soon discover that Petra’s real reason for coming to the estate is to determine if Jaume is her father. Jaume is a tyrant extraordinaire. He torments his son, a photographer, whom he sees as weak and untalented; he is dismissive of his wife; and he tells Petra that he is not her father and that she will never be successful as an artist. Malicious to his core, he wreaks havoc because he can, and appears to enjoy it. His truths, however, eventually reveal themselves for the cynical lies they are and set into motion a series of catastrophes the group cannot escape.
Rosales’s visual style mirrors the characters’ inability to hold any one truth for long. His lengthy takes and gliding pan shots often arrive as the characters are in mid-conversation and then leave before the conversation has ended, shifting focus on an empty landscape or dark corner of a room. Permanence, family ties, even self-discovery prove elusive in this world.
Petra is Rosales’s first film with a musical score. Known for his minimalist aesthetic, he has said that he doesn’t like to “manipulate the audience’s emotions with music.” Rather than feeling contrived, however, his choice of plaintive choral music by Danish composer Kristian Eidnes Andersen adds a graceful layer to the melancholic atmosphere of the film.
A nuanced rendition of the Cain and Abel tale, Greek-South African director Etienne Kallos’s The Harvesters (Die Stropers, South Africa, 2018) is a vision of austere beauty and simmering tensions. Set in a deeply religious and patriarchal Afrikaaner farming community in South Africa’s Free State, the opening scene establishes the biblical tone of the film. We see Maria (Juliana Venter), mother of the teenage Janno (Brent Vermeulen), kneeling in a field at dawn and performing an incantatory prayer, asking god to make the boy strong in his blood and seed. The landscape is vast and shot through with a diffuse, golden light. An air of timelessness shrouds the atmosphere.
Although Janno is physically strong from working in the fields, his demeanor is gentle, and this invites danger. He is a dutiful son and follows all the rules, yet in private he is unsettled by his nascent gay desires and fearful of his difference. Janno wants very much to belong. That fear is heightened when Janno’s parents adopt Pieter (Alex van Dyk). Although the boys are about the same age, 15 or so, this is all they share. Pieter is a malnourished, streetwise hustler and sometime rent boy with a drug problem. The boys take an immediate dislike to each other. Janno is anxious about being replaced in his parents’ affections. Pieter, with his cynical but clear-eyed view of an unforgiving world, recognizes that neither of them are or will be fully accepted. It doesn’t prevent the bitter competition between them; it simply makes it all the more heartbreaking as their volatile insecurities mount.
Kallos has said that in making the film he was aiming to explore “the experience of living in fracture, of being displaced culturally and spiritually, of being a product of this postcolonial era.” With The Harvesters, he has achieved his goal and given us an insightful portrait of contemporary male Afrikaaner identity.
Notable mentions include director Gustav Möller’s The Guilty (Denmark, 2018), a riveting thriller that unfolds in real time and rearranges our assumptions of good and evil with nothing more than a single actor and a disembodied voice. Set in a dreary police emergency call center, the film features Asgar (an adroit Jakob Cedergren) as a moody officer demoted to desk duty as a reprimand for some infraction that is never spelled out. He’s judgmental and often dismissive of those asking for help. “It’s your own fault, isn’t it?” he tells a drunk caller. He quickly snaps to attention when a tearful woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) calls and insinuates that she’s been kidnapped. As the nightmare begins to unfold against a racing clock, we are drawn ever deeper into Asgar’s interpretation of what is happening. The sound of the rain, a woman’s childish voice, and the prying close-ups of a tight-lipped Asgar holds the tension until the very last moment.
Cedergren won the festival’s Best Actor award.
The biopic Mapplethorpe (US, 2018) chronicles the life of queer photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most provocative artists of the late 20th century. It is the first narrative feature by the documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner, and she plays by the classic drama rules. The film starts in the late 1960s when Mapplethorpe was an art student at Pratt in New York and then proceeds in linear fashion: his friendship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) and the move to the Chelsea Hotel, his discovery of photography, a sexual awakening, breaking into the art world, and ending with his death from AIDS-related causes at the age of 42, in 1989. British actor Matt Smith gives an assured performance of Mapplethorpe as a seductive enfant terrible, both selfish and mischievous. And there is good use of archival footage to help recreate the feel of New York in the 1970s and ’80s. However, the most intriguing element of the work is Mapplethrope’s original photos, which are intercut into the film: images of male genitalia, S&M bondage, homoerotic portraits, and his famous flowers, all show his mastery of the art of photography and how aesthetically transgressive he was. Those familiar with his work won’t learn anything new, but for the uninitiated it will serve as an eye-opener.
While this year’s festival broke no new ground, there were enough solid works to satisfy its devoted audience.