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|4 reviews in total|
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Äideistä Parhain is a satisfying film that almost (but not quite)
avoids the saccharine pitfalls that accompany mixing children, war and
melodrama. It focuses on an event that, surprisingly, has been untapped
as the subject for a feature film, the world's largest evacuation of
children from a war zone. During World War II, over 70,000 Finnish
children were taken away from their homes and families and were
relocated to Sweden, to be watched over by adoptive families for the
duration of the war. The protagonist of Äideistä Parhain is a young boy
named Eero who, after his father is killed, is sent away by his grief
stricken mother for his own protection. His adoptive Swedish family
proves enigmatic however, as the father is welcoming and accommodating
while his new mother, Signe, is mysteriously cold and aloof. The film
is framed by an aging adult Eero confronting his birth mother and
reconciling abandonment and identity issues that have plagued him as a
result of his childhood experiences. The film, though straightforward
on surface, subtextually deals with the importance of communication and
the effects of war on children; not to mention the beautiful
photography that evocatively uses light that contrast emotion with
The dramatic core of Äideistä Parhain lies in its character's struggles with both verbal and emotional communication. As a child unexpectedly transposed into a new country, Eero's difficulties are compounded by his inability to speak Swedish (at first he can only speak a single phrase consisting of his name and country of origin). The language barrier alienates Eero from his new Swedish family and neighbors; enhancing his feelings of isolation and preventing him from forming strong emotional bonds. As a child in his formative years, his identity is being shaped as that of an outsider (the result of which can be seen in the frame story; more on that later). This divide is naturally symbolized in the auxiliary language Eero eventually comes to speak, Finlandssvenska. This hybrid dialogue between Swedish and Finnish speaks (sorry) to Eero as a child torn not only between two cultures but his two mothers as well. In this regard, Topi Majaniemi as Eero gives a fantastic and naturalistic performance that perfectly captures the difficulties of a displaced and vulnerable child. Though Eero eventually picks up the language, he still has trouble emotionally connecting and communicating with Signe who does everything in her power to shut him out.
Initially, Signe is peculiarly cold and distant when confronted with Eero. Beyond being unable to communicate with him, he easily frustrates her and she goes out of her way to avoid dealing with him. This disaffection climaxes when she attempts to get Eero taken back by the rescue agency (only to change her mind). None too subtle hints are dropped throughout the film as to a past tragedy which is eventually revealed to be the loss of her daughter at six years old. Not wanting to grow attached to, and then lose another child; the emotional distance she puts between her and Eero is exposed to be a selfish defense mechanism. When Signe is finally able to accept him, the shift is too sudden to have much of an impact, rendering much of the third act's dramaturgy less effectual than it is intended to be.
The director Klaus Härö and his cinematographer Jarkko Laine use color and light to expressionistically convey character's inner states and the gamut of emotions they undergo. Early scene of Eero with his mother and father living happily together are filmed in the warm glow of a magic hour sunset which gives way to cold, gray light after Eero's father dies, highlighting their isolation and loneliness. Finland's gray, forested landscape is replaced with the sunny, bucolic hills of Sweden, reflecting the safety and freedom that Sweden offers. However, the interiors of the farmhouse, Signe's domain, are initially dark are cramped: growing lighter only when she is able to accept Eero and move beyond her tragic past. Finally, Eero's return to Finland is filmed during a sunset/rise; aesthetically bookending the film and suggesting the premature end of Eero's childhood.
In an unusual reversal, the present day scenes of an adult Eero and his elderly mother are in black and white, in contrast to the vibrant color of the events of his past; suggesting that the proceedings being portrayed had a profoundly negative effect on his life. It's evident in these scenes that Eero has had a poor relationship with his mother who is stoically unsympathetic. His recounting of his childhood thus becomes a way for him to move on with his life and find closure with his mother.
Though Äideistä Parhain does occasionally turn manipulative and cloying (the stroke victim grandfather saying "don't go" stands out) it is, nevertheless, a compelling exploration of the effects of war on children. It moves at a good pace, has gorgeous, expressionistic cinematography, and is elevated further by a great cast who all turn in excellent performances. Most importantly, the film conveys the message that war, beyond the deaths, tragically scars all involved.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A film that defies simple analysis, You, The Living finds humor and
pathos in examining the absurdity of life and the human community.
Through 50-some loosely connected vignettes, Swedish filmmaker Roy
Andersson creates an off-kilter tableau in which disaffected souls
search for meaning in the banality of existence. You, The Living has
the logic and profundity of a half-remembered dream. Its world is
populated with normal, nondescript and long-suffering individuals meant
to be reflective of the audience and examine the human condition.
Andersson's sly, sardonic view of life is enhanced by his static,
carefully staged and beautifully lit scenes which compliment his skewed
view of the quotidian. Despite the film's existential and bleak subject
matter, Andersson finds humor in this dreary quagmire suggesting that,
maybe we (read: humanity) shouldn't take ourselves so seriously.
You, The Living does not have a main characters, instead, the protagonist is humanity itself. The film's structure, much like a dream, is fragmented. Throughout the film's myriad vignettes, characters appear and reappear, some are seen only once and, in the same way, some stories are connected and some stand alone. Many characters directly address the viewer and, considering the film's title, Andersson seems to be implying that the people in this world are not so different from us, the audience. Furthermore, for a film called You, The Living, the characters do not seem to be very alive. Most, like the heavyset biker woman who appears on and off throughout the film bemoaning that, "No one understands me," are glum, full of dissatisfaction and longing for understanding and love. In a very Swedish way, Andersson's views humanity as disconnected from one another and fouled by fate, like in a scene in which a disgruntled barber whose wife has left him take his anger out on a businessman by shaving his head before an important meeting. In the end, all these dispirited characters and their emotional baggage are brought together by the film apocalyptic conclusion which suggests that life is one big cosmic joke.
Perhaps the most impressive element of You, The Living is Andersson's distinct visual style. Like an inverse Norman Rockwell, Andersson portrays life not as he would like it to be but how he sees it under the surface. His exquisitely staged and composed scenes are done entirely in long shots and recorded from the perspective of a (mostly) stationary camera which portrays the world as a hyperrealist caricature. To borrow a phrase from Paul Schrader's "Notes on Film Noir," the theme (of You, The Living) is in the style. The drab gray-green dioramas that Andersson constructs give the audience a distant and objective view of the people on screen. The Andersson's morose aesthetic world is reflective of his character's pessimistic outlooks. His deep focus cinematography and bleak/unforgiving lighting solicits the audience to take in the frame's mise-en-scène and interpret the scenes as they see fit.
Despite the film's bleak subject matter, You, The Living is in fact funny. The film cultivates a tricky tone that swings between comedy and tragedy (though it always errs on the side of comedy). Andersson delights in the humor, pathos and often ridiculousness of humanities problems and dissatisfactions. The comedy ranges from simple sight gags (a man dragging a dog) to slowly built-up scenes (such as when a man tries to do the "tablecloth trick" at a party only to be arrested and executed for breaking the antique china). Much of the humor is derived simply from recognition of how much of our lives we see on screen. By taking a humorous approach to the dreariness of life, Andersson is suggesting that perhaps humanity takes itself a little too seriously. A key scene in this regard is one in which a man is having sex and, while the woman is enjoying it, he is complaining to the audience how he was "screwed" in a business deal, seemingly oblivious to what is happening around him. If we would just take a step back and contemplate the absurd and silly thing we do perhaps we could find a bit of joy and actually live life instead of incessantly complaining about it.
You, The Living is a wakeup call to the audience. The film's unique style of story telling and seemingly dreary existential themes may be off-putting to many viewers hoping for a tidy narrative and obvious meanings. Like the best art, You, The Living appeals to our senses and emotions to derive meaning both intended by the creator and personal to us. However, despite the film's complexities one thing is clear; we need to find the moments of bliss in our lives and hang on to them as long as we can.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"To err is human, to forgive divine," (Alexander Pope) is a sentiment
that deftly sums up DeUsynlige (Troubled Water). The film, directed by
Norwegian auteur Erik Poppe, is a humanist meditation on forgiveness,
atonement and reformation in light of terrible loss and grief. The film
examines these themes by depicting the story of a child's death from
both the perspective of the perpetrator (Jan) and the victim's mother
(Agnes). Recently released from prison after serving eight years for
the murder of Isak, Jan finds work as an organist at a neighborhood
church where he struggles to move forward with his life. He finds
solace in a relationship with Anna (the pastor) and her son who bears
an uncomfortable resemblance to Isak. Just when his life begins to
stabilize, Agnes (Isak's mother) sees him and wants Jan to answer for
Isak's death. This chance meeting begins a spiral of events that
explores and transforms the characters lives. The story may be small in
scope but it explores big, ambitious themes with the most prominent
DeUsynlige is, at its heart, about the struggle of a perpetrator to seek forgiveness and of a victim to forgive. Though he would never admit it, Jan needs forgiveness. His inability to seek it stems from his belief that he did not kill Isak. An example of this is a confrontation between Jan and Agnes's husband in which Jan is unwilling to concede even the slightest bit of responsibility or remorse. Flashbacks throughout the film eventually reveal this conviction as mere cognitive dissonance. Jan's character is haunted by the past and is characterized as erratic and torpid throughout the film as a result. Without owning up to his mistakes, Jan cannot move forward with his life in any meaningful way no matter how hard he tries to atone. Much in the same way, Agnes is stuck and remains a victim as long as she is unable to forgive Jan. She lives her life in fear as indicated by her overprotective behavior towards her own children. Agnes's extreme reaction to Jan's release and her eventual confrontation with Jan wherein both characters find closure is shown to be part of the healing process. In the end, Agnes finally learns the truth about her son as Jan finally admits that he knowingly let the boy drown. Jan can finally ask for forgiveness and Agnes can now, perhaps, offer it. It is a testament to the filmmaker that the resolution is left somewhat ambiguous. Though the importance of forgiveness is heavily stressed, it is not possible without atonement.
Though Anna says to Jan that atonement is more important than forgiveness, it is the combination of forgiveness and atonement that gives Jan and Agnes absolution at the end of the film. From the very beginning, Jan is established as someone who has reformed. He was released early from prison (he only served 2/3s of his term) and immediately got a job at the church. His relationship with Anna and her son gave him stability and the chance to prove that he has changed. Yet, this is not enough. Without forgiveness, Jan is still stuck in the past.
The religious setting of the film allows Poppe to explore the role of religion in modern society. The film takes a positive though somewhat ambivalent view of the church. Human forgiveness is given precedence over divine forgiveness and religion is used in a precursory and symbolic way. The church gives Jan a second chance and, though he does not believe in God, spurs him to seek forgiveness.
DeUsynlige is a very humanist film and treats the issue of criminal reformation in a very positive way. By getting Jan's side first, the audience is made to understand his character as someone who wants to reform/atone and move on with their life after what (as far as the audience knows at this point) was a horrible accident. Thus, when the film shifts to Agnes's viewpoint her actions seem (plausibly) unreasonable and lacking in understanding until the final reveal in which it is exposed that Jan knowingly let Isak die. This final revelation forces the viewer to reconsider what has come before and decide whether or not Jan has reformed or even if he is worthy of a second chance. This could be troublesome for viewers who see the crime of murdering a child as unforgivable. Jan's character is not helped by Pål Hagen's performance which is so underplayed that Jan comes off as shallow and unsympathetic. A final complaint is that the film fails to answer the question of why Jan kidnapped Isak in the first place and furthermore, why he let him die.
DeUsynlige is a technically polished and thematically ambitious film that is let down only by a weak lead performance and muddled motivation. The film's somewhat unique (or at the very least unusual) narrative structure and its heavy thematic concerns make it film worth watching and one that will linger in the mind.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Celebration (aka Dogme 1: Festen) is a solicitous Danish film that
successfully marries smart content with the unique form of the "Dogma
95" movement in a way that is complimentary instead of intrusive. The
film concerns three siblings who, along with their extended family and
friends, get together at their father's country estate to celebrate his
60th birthday (think The Rules of the Game meets Fanny and Alexander).
The celebration, though haunted by the recent suicide of the man's
daughter, goes as anticipated until Christian, the eldest son, is asked
to give a speech. His declamation, which contains the startling
accusation that his father repeatedly raped him and his (recently
deceased) twin sister when they were children, sparks a series of
revelations, accusations, and intrigues that transforms the benign
evening into a darkly humorous farce. Supported by a strong cast and
the naked Dogma ascetic the film deals with themes of abuse, denial and
repression in a way that is intelligent and wholly absorbing.
Spearheaded by Danish director/provocateur Lars Von Trier and cosigned by The Celebration director Thomas Vinterberg as a reaction against Hollywood; the "Dogma 95" movement rejects all things superficial in film-making including but not limited to artificial lighting, non-diegetic music/sound, tripods, and post-production image manipulation. The Celebration was the first film released that met the Dogma criteria and is, surprisingly, better off for it. The film's shaky, grainy, hand-held camera work and natural lighting (intrinsic to the Dogma movement) lends the film the intimate feeling of a "home movie" though the camera work is anything but amateurish. The camera intrusively views the action from a variety of angles both distant (high angle shots from the ceiling) and intimate (among those at the dinner table). The overall effect of this vérité style is an immediacy and rawness that magnifies the film's amalgam of emotions. As a result, the characters and their dilemmas become uncomfortably real and affecting. However, it is not solely the film's aesthetic that engenders a strong emotional reaction, it is also the intelligent script populated with well drawn characters and turbulent themes.
The screenplay of The Celebration unfolds like a thriller with each new (often drunken) revelation introducing a new theme or expanding on another. The main theme is obviously abuse which permeates the film beyond the aforementioned central conflict between Christian and Helge, (the father). Michael, the younger brother, is verbally and sexually abusive towards his wife, berating her for not packing his shoes then having violent (read: abusive) sex with her. The party guests are (perhaps unintentionally) verbally abusive towards the black boyfriend of Helene, Christian's younger sister, singing a drinking song about a "Black Sambo whose face was black as pitch." Events like these can be understood as a critique of Danish society by Vinterberg who uses The Celebration to reflect upon the petty minded rudeness and audacity he sees in the people of Denmark. Abuse is also noticeable in the families' reaction to Michael's revelation as they violently eject him from the party, going so far as to tie him to a tree. It is this denial of abuse which is, perhaps, more shocking in the film than the overt abusiveness of the family.
The theme of denial is perhaps the most affecting theme in The Celebration as it extends through all the characters in the film and even into the audience. In life, people are often predisposed to side with the accused rather than the victim and this is certainly evident in the film. Michael's revelation of his father's abuse at the party is met with silence and disbelief from his extended family. Vinterberg extends these feelings of uncertainty into the audience by continually bringing into question both the truth of Michael's accusation and his character. The seeds of doubt are sown in conversations between Michael and his father who, up until he was accused of rape, seemed like a congenial and benevolent man. In one conversation, the father threatens to tell everyone how "sick" Michael was as a child, how he had to ruin everything for others, and even that he was committed at a sanatorium in France. Michael meets these accusations with silence and the way he hangs his head suggests that there is truth to them. Much of the suspense of The Celebration is derived simply from the dilemma of who is telling the truth. Once the truth is known, the theme of denial is also manifest in Christian and his mother's implied repression of the abuse.
It can be understood that the abuse Christian endured as a child has had long reaching repercussions on his life. He has repressed those memories and has been unable to move on with his life or have any kind of lasting relationships. The only person who seems to be aware of Christian's situation is Kim, the chef at the estate, who was friends with Christian as a child. He encourages Christian to come out with the truth saying that this is "his time." The events of the film can be understood as a catharsis for Christian as, at the end of the film, he asks Pia (one of the servants at the estate) to go to Paris with him. Another case of repression is seen in Christian's mother, Else, who witnessed him being abused as a child and did nothing about it. She is perhaps the most despicable character in the film (barring the father) and does not deserve her place at the breakfast table at the film's end.
Despite the bleak and serious subject matter of the film its tone is darkly humorous as the film plays up awkwardness for laughs. The dark and grainy Dogma aesthetic lends the proceedings verisimilitude and lays bare the characters and their emotions as they deal with themes of abuse, denial, and repression. The Celebration is a perfect marriage of form and content to create a film that lingers in the mind.