By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
The selections for the second week of the European Film Festival featured 14 films from 13 countries. The films traverse the dusty roads in Guadalajara, luxuriate in the warmth of Paris, wend through a small village in Switzerland, go through the unforgiving plains of a fictitious Hell and wind up on the banks of the Meuse River in Belgium.
A review of the screened films is presented below.
– A busload of women arrives in Guadalajara to start both Spain’s Flowers from another Country and the second week of the film festival. The women come to the depopulated village seeking stability, security, and where possible, love. The men want companionship, help, and naturally sex. This difference in expectation means there is no chance for romance, but everyone here plays the fool: the adventurous young woman in love with clubs and dancing gets an old man who needs her in the farm and in bed; the lady in love with big city Bilbao falls for the man whose roots are firmly in the village; the lady desirous of normal, noisy sex with her husband has to share a home with her disapproving mother-in-law. One after another, the romantic, and economic, illusions of the characters are shattered. In this cynical film about immigrant problems in Europe, told in language as colorful as a Junot Diaz story, only one couple\thrive; others fail. In this way, Flowers from another Country achieves a keen verisimilitude in its portrayal of the difficulty of romance across countries.
Fathers are an overwhelming, often overbearing presence in several films at the festival this year. The films of the second week show errant fathers, grumpy fathers, guilty fathers, and violent fathers.
Switzerland’s Sternenberg and Italy’s Scialla have returnee fathers. In Sternenberg, Franz Engi returns to the village of his childhood to learn the village school is to close because of a lack of enrolment, and the schoolteacher, Eva, is the product of an affair he had in his youth. He enrols as a student while looking for an opportunity to tell of his misdeed. On her own, Eva is in a troubled relationship with a married man— “they never had a clever hand with men in that family”— who becomes vindictive when she summons leaves him. Like Flowers from another Country it brings up love across borders: Eva falls for an Asian immigrant, but it glosses over the niggling issues. The film, like the Swiss village, is not ambitious and it is unsurprising when Eva packs her bags and travels with her lover into the sunset.
In Scialla, the father is a retired teacher saddled with a teenager when his mother embarks on a journey. In a brief, unbelievable scene, she informs him the boy is his, forcing him to give up his freedom as he looks after the boy. It is an incredulous revelation; one the film redeems with a funny script and some heartening drama. The boy, in throes of youth, engages in several stunts in and out of class, which leads to a theft from a drug dealer. This theft results in another unbelievable sequence; and again the script charms the viewer into forgiving its excesses through humour. No matter what the viewer thinks of coincidences in narratives, it makes a case for being a teacher, especially in climes, like ours, where the tribe is beleaguered— somewhere in that classroom is a future drug dealer who might be inclined to excusing your son’s excesses over a memory of a Primo Levi (or Chinua Achebe) quote you taught him.
In Not Here to be Loved, the second feature from France, Jean Claude, a lonely bailiff, with an uneasy relationship with his father, falls for Francoise, a young woman he meets at a dance class; only she is attending the dance class in preparation for her wedding. Jean Claude’s anger is aroused when he finds out, but surely, as is the case in romance films, love would find a way; thus there is reconciliation. But the wedding looms. This charming, but slight film ends inconclusively with no one quite sure what becomes of the unusual couple leaving the audience to decide.
There are no such ambiguities in Balls, Sweden’s only film at the festival. It examines the different perceptions of masculinity through the relationship three mechanics have with women and particularly the complexities of this difference from generation to generation. Aziz is a prototype of old world masculinity: he cheats customers, he beats up a karate bully; he gives his boss, the younger Jorgen, lessons in manhood¬— tying him to a moving car and pushing him off a hill¬— when the younger man gets an idea his wife wants him more manly. Aziz’s contemporary and colleague, Juan sleeps with two hookers but has an emotional attachment to his sick dog. Meanwhile, Aziz’s son¬— played by a relatively effeminate actor¬— has his wife tie a baby bump to fool his dad while he tries to adopt a child. The conflict, and laughs, comes from the difference between the rabid masculinity of Aziz and the effete failings of all of the other males in the film (including Juan’s dog.) It is a very funny film firmly on the side of present day perceptions of manhood which lies, mainly, in being oneself and, perhaps, standing up to age-old beliefs of manhood.
My Father and My Son and Man at Sea, the first from Turkey and the latter from Greece, have vastly different fathers. In My Father and My Son, Sadik returns to an indignant father having defied the older man by becoming a journalist rather than agriculturist. He returns from prison following a coup, determined to give his own son a home; but the grandfather, still bitter, rejects the boy. The most touching family drama at the festival, it is often sentimental but director Cagan Irmak adeptly cuts melodramatic scenes with deadpan humour, like he intends the audience to focus on the drama of an estranged son insisting on a home for his offspring, than swayed by easy emotions. When Sadik says, “Homeland, Home- I have been reviewing the meaning.” He could be speaking for anyone living in this shrinking world.
In Man at Sea, Alex, a captain, harbouring guilt from his son’s death, comes to pieces when he rescues a group of teenage immigrants who have fled their homelands after a breakout of violence. Plans to deliver them safely to various shores— including Lagos, where some kids are abducted for organ donor racket by a malevolent scripture quoting Nigerian— fail repeatedly. The kids have to stay aboard and it becomes clear they are trouble— one has oedipal tendencies, some fight the crew, the lot try to takeover the ship— but Alex’s remorse from his son’s death prevents him from drastic action. This inaction steers the man, his crew and his ship to dire consequences. It is a disturbing film with claustrophobic cinematography; a deep, dark exploration of guilt that comes off as a teenage Lord of the Flies with elements of Treasure Island.
The second Spanish film, Cousinhood, is a comedy following three young men, one of whom has been stood up on his wedding day; his cousins comfort him as they stumble drunkenly into their childhood home where an ex-girlfriend now lives with her son. It is filled with uproarious scenes, and several great Hollywood pictures are referenced in the dialogue. But it is more reminiscent of a relatively recent Hollywood picture, The Hangover, with its portrayal of young men behaving badly in the shadow of a wedding.
The Romanian film The Rest is Silence presents a semi fictional account of the making of a cinematic adaptation of the Independence War fought in the country. It follows the son of a popular actor in his attempts to film a close to life version of that war. Although it has several comic scenes, it asks pertinent questions about cinema: some of the early questions about it being art, its relationship with capitalism, and even its fidelity to patriotic zeal¬— during filming, the handsome members of cast are asked to don the country’s colours while the not so attractive wear the oppositions outfit. Not quite as experimental and intimate as that other European incursion into the making of a film, Fellini’s 8½, it is considerably more entertaining and less self-absorbed.
The second German film at the festival, Sun Alley, is a coming to age story of teenagers living on the east side of the eponymous alley, which is a stretch of road between West and East Germany in the 1970’s. Micha and friends spend their leisure listening to banned music¬— “they like to ban things,” Micha says¬— and fantasising about girls. The period covered doesn’t go as far as the fall of the wall in 1989, rather it is the wall of innocence that falls as a friend becomes a father and joins the army for stability, a move that breaks the idealism of Micha’s existence, another friend is shot but is saved by a Rolling Stones double album in his jacket. In the face of all that happens, the young Micha turns to music as escape, but the audience knows that the cynical reality of adulthood is encroaching on the dreams of youth, and there is only one outcome. But by the end of the film, the boys indulge themselves energetically playing air guitars, and the audience allows itself be seduced by the manic exuberance of boys inebriated by rock music. In Hollywood terms, with its use of rock music, Sun Alley is a cross between Almost Famous and High Fidelity.
Gang of Oss and Valhalla Rising both second offerings from the Netherlands and Denmark feature marked violence. Based on real events, Gang of Oss is the story of the rise and fall of a powerful mob in pre-war Oss, a city in Holland told by Johanna the tramp, a young woman caught in the violence of her surroundings. The violence is predicated on the Catholic and Protestant division of the state which leads to grave political consequences for the country and upheavals in the small lives of all involved. Often violent, it comes out like a ragtag version of The Godfather, lacking the sophistication of Coppola’s film but coming out intense in spite of, or perhaps, because of, it.
In the first few scenes of the perplexing parable that is Valhalla Rising, there are various violent acts: a skull is smashed, a man is beheaded, and another disembowelled. The man responsible for these extreme acts of violence is a nameless warrior who violently escapes from his captors and comes across Christian crusaders who are aiming to reach the New World; he is persuaded to join their ship where a violent adventure takes place over an unforgiving land akin to Hell. Slow, repetitive and not particularly enamoured of plot, the charm of Valhalla Rising is its high powered cinematography; and the silent, physically riveting performance of Mads Mikkelsen as the warrior. Viewers who saw Ryan Gosling in Drive would readily recognise the cinematic style of director Nicolas Winding Refn¬— a style refined in the Hollywood picture but here is little more than rapturous cinematography bookended by excessive blood and gore.
The festival ends with the singular film from Belgium, The Boat Race. It is a melancholy drama about a teenager, Alex, who has to withstand several bouts of physical violence from his belligerent father. He has a dream to win the Belgian Rowing Championship and spends time practising under his coach defying his father where he gets into fights with his teammate. On the eve of the Championship an episode happens which changes the life of Alex. The Boat Race is a heartbreaking drama of domestic abuse with clear intentions and allowing no compromise and no happy endings.
The film ends with a feeling of despair hanging over the cinema hall, unlike last year, where it ended on a happy note with the Spanish animated feature on love regained, Chico and Rita¬. The Boat Race is no less compelling for this reason, and neither is the European Film Festival, which screened films more crowd-pleasing and less cinematically challenging than last year’s selections.
–– Aigbokhaevbolo writes from Abuja.