Rebecca Daly's first feature film The Other Side of Sleep is the haunting journey of Arlene (Antonia Campell Hughes). Arlene is a ghost in her own life. She lives in a small town in the ... See full summary »
Rewarding if you have the patience (but don't expect easy answers)
Essentially a parable about the nature of religious extremism and, to a lesser extent, the perils of self-imposed isolationism, Good Favour, Rebecca Daly's third feature, is far more interested in asking questions than answering them. Functioning as a kind of blank canvas onto which viewers can project their own interpretation, a cinematic Rorschach image, if you will, the film is not especially concerned with either standard character arcs or narrative beats (indeed, it makes latter-day Terrence Malick seem densely plotted). Instead, it works primarily as a pseudo-allegorical examination of the possibility for hermetic religious groups to see the miraculous in scientifically explainable phenomena and pure coincidence. For many, the slow pace culminating in a highly ambiguous ending will prove too alienating, but for me, the deliberate narrative style is perfectly matched to the unsettling and studied story Daly wishes to tell, and the dénouement is as well-handled a piece of cinematic ambiguity as I've seen in a long while.
Set in an ethnoreligious Christian community of goods in "the forests of Central Europe", prior to the beginning of the film, the community's faith has been shaken - newly born cattle have been dying without reason, and a young boy named Isaac has gone missing. The film begins when 17-year-old Tom (Vincent Romeo) confusedly emerges from the forest. Wounded and exhausted, he wanders into the commune and collapses. Mikkel (Lars Brygmann), the group's leader, elects to interpret Tom's arrival as a blessing, touting him as the possible solution to their recent problems, and encouraging his followers to accept him as one of their own. Either unwilling or unable to speak about his past, Tom agrees to live by their rules and work in the commune. As time passes, however, the local children, and soon some of the adults, begin to attribute Messianic characteristics to Tom, who slowly starts to assume a more central role in the community.
The genesis for the film was when Daly's regular writing partner, Glenn Montgomery, saw a newspaper article about "Forest Boy" (aka Robin van Helsum). Speaking to RTÉ.ie, Daly explains, "I got an email into my inbox one morning from my co-writer Glenn Montgomery with a link to an article about a young man who walked out of the Black Forest into Berlin, presented himself to social services and told them he had no idea who he was or where he came from. I was immediately intrigued by this setup. What is the potential of an individual with no identity?" At the same time, Daly had become fascinated by her grandmother's adherence to her Catholicism, despite the revelations in Ireland regarding clerical sexual abuse and the Magdalene Laundries. As Daly tells RTÉ, "I was particularly fascinated by faith, specifically my grandmother's faith. It was so ingrained in her that it could acknowledge the many abuses that had happened within the Catholic Church and still endure. We asked ourselves what beliefs might someone persevere with in order to preserve their idea of the world, and then pushed this idea to its most extreme point." These two separate issues, the person without an identity and the notion of enduring faith, came together to form Good Favour.
The film signals it's part-esoteric, part-allegorical status almost immediately - when Tom stumbles into the commune, there are holes in both of his wrists and a large gash on his side. Does he bear the Stigmata or is it a coincidence? This is the first of the many, many (many) questions the film poses which could be addressed via either an ecclesiastical-based supernatural interpretation or a scientific explanation. For example, a central question throughout the film, and perhaps the narrative's main driving-force, is whether Tom is a Christ-figure capable of performing miracles, or simply a flesh-and-blood human who shows up at the right time, and whose "miracles" are nothing of the sort. He is seen by some as a non-corporeal visitor, the possible saviour of the community, and by others as an interloper and possible charlatan, but which group is correct? The film is in no hurry to answer any of these questions, or even foreground them, leaving it up to the viewer to notice, to question, and, more often than not, to answer.
Built upon a foundation of magic realism, the film's milieu is presented realistically, but there is definitely something intangible in the air. For example, when a young girl is drowning and Tom saves her life, is it because he has healing hands, or simply because he knew how to treat her medically in the circumstances? The scene is shot in such a way as to suggest both, without committing to either. Tony Cranstoun's editing and Tibor Dingelstad's cinematography are such that definitive interpretation is often occluded, with the viewer in the role of final arbiter.
What is especially interesting is that the film itself sees Tom in a non-definitive manner - he is depicted as both a young man, enjoying playing in a lake with some children, aware of his sexual awakening, disgusted by a large container full of rotting calf carcasses, and as someone who strikes a messianic pose whilst standing on a hillside. His role as possible saviour receives its most sustained analysis in the brilliantly conceived and executed finale. Relying on the viewer's perception, ambiguous camera blocking, and fascinating editing rhythms, the scene is as ambivalent as the rest of the film, whilst also directly addressing the mystery at the heart of the narrative.
Within all of this, an important theme (as it was in both The Other Side of Sleep (2011) and Mammal (2016)) is surrogacy, particularly the notion of starting as an outsider, and moving into a position of belonging. With this in mind, the film obviously deals with the concept of the "Other", with Tom depicted as both the protagonist trying to find acceptance, and the antagonist bringing chaos and disruption with him. According to Daly, "I was interested in exploring the condition of the outsider [...] this idea of belonging, of being inside or outside of a social group, or the centre of power, seems more relevant now than ever with the migrant and refugee crises and Trump's disturbing rhetoric. Terrifyingly our world seems to be divided into those who belong and those who may or may not be let in, and we wanted our story to reflect that and to explore the very natural human drives to want to be included."
From an aesthetic point of view, the depiction of the community itself is exceptionally well-handled by Daly. Based on the Hutterites, a semi-isolated Anabaptist group founded on the basis of the Schleitheim Confession, the unnamed group in the film (whose actual belief system is never explicitly revealed) are not there to provide Daly with an easy target for derision and social commentary. Instead, the depiction is one of respect, with Daly emphasising many of the communities more beneficent qualities. However, there can be no denying that something is not quite right. The deaths of the cattle and the missing child are simply narrative manifestations, the results of which are a subtle challenge to Mikkel's leadership, a challenge spearheaded by Anne (Helena Coppejans), Isaac's mother, who up to now has been urged to "believe in God's plan".
The film features lines such as, "We should not be afraid to suffer" and, "We must put our trust in God", but one gets the distinct impression that such sentiments are on the brink of becoming meaningless, with the piety behind them in danger of being rebelled against. Indeed, the tone of the film is one of barely-contained explosiveness, as if the group, with all their buttoned-down communal good, and advocation of Christian morality, is just one bad day away from going full-Waco. When they speak to one another, what they say is never as important, or as interesting, as they what they seem to be withholding. When they look at something, they always seem to be more interested in whatever is in the periphery. It's to Daly's credit that this sense of palpable strangeness and combustion is so apparent on screen. Directing what isn't happening can't be easy. This is helped immeasurably by Dingelstad's murky photography and its muted colours; when a policeman visits the commune, the colours on his car seem garish when compared with the palette used to up to that point. The cinematography is also used to make an important thematic point. Employing shallow focus when in the village, the image is flattened, with background details difficult to discern. When outside the village, however, Dingelstad uses a much deeper focus and a wider depth of field. This has the effect of making the village seem dull and lifeless, whilst the forest is vibrant and endless.
As with both of Daly's previous films, Good Favour is not interested in providing (easy or otherwise) answers. Instead, it directly encourages the audience to speculate, with its mise en scène specifically built so as to create maximum ambiguity. It's Daly's most complete artistic statement thus far, combining the centrality of mood and tone from The Other Side of Sleep with the uncomfortable issues raised in Mammal. The slow pace and ambiguous ending will put many viewers off, but, for me, both work to help establish theme and tone, as Daly slowly builds up a disquieting worldview, before examining what happens when that view is fundamentally disrupted. Beautifully shot, excellently edited, superbly written, and brilliantly directed, it's definitely not for everyone, but there is undeniable craft on display here.
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