Consider this the “feel bad” dispatch of AFI Fest 2011. There's more revulsion, sadism, and sexual deviancy in Faust and Snowtown than the rest of the festival lineup combined. Fittingly, the levels of merit to these wildly divergent works is based on the challenging ways each filmmaker grapples with their characters' grotesque natures—or, to put it more bluntly, how they represent the evil that men (and women) do. Aleksandr Sokurov's Faust, a striking but loose adaptation of Goethe's novel, paints 19th-century Europe as an earthly hell where human bodies are wedged together, dissected for scraps, and buried underneath mountains of rot. Its characters are diseased beggars, crafty shape-shifters, and greedy bastards all pining for a momentary fix of something cruel and unusual. When Sokurov isn't filling the frame with symbols of disintegration, his characters are flooding the air with wall-to-wall dialogue. Manic facial tics and brutish outbursts of rage heighten the overt theatrics even more, resulting in a nightmare vision of impure man reveling in his own mortal toil.
Faust opens mid-free fall with a stunningly constructed CGI sequence that favors a pristine, expansive view of countryside landscapes. Sokurov's digital camera seemingly drops from the heavens, then flies above a small town like a curious bird cruising for a place to land. But the inquisitive beauty of this mise-en-scène is quickly dispatched when Sokurov quickly cuts to an unavoidable close-up of a dead man's genitalia. Dr. Faust (Johannes Zeiler) dissects the corpse with reckless abandon, his bile-drenched hands freely exploring the inner sanctum of the human body in terrible ways. But this kind of debasement doesn't make Faust flinch; he's instead flummoxed by the grander issues of entitlement, God, and fate, thoughts and judgments he's more than happy to discuss with his assistant, a walking and talking skeleton always present on the fringes of the frame. This debilitating moral uncertainty lands the gullible and arrogant Faust in the hands of a deformed moneylender (Anton Adasinsky) who promises him the love of young Margarete (Isolda Dychauk) and riches beyond his wildest dreams. Of course, this is too tempting for Faust to ignore.
Their long, taxing stroll through town feels thematically akin to Capt. Willard's descent into the heart of darkness. Sokurov gleefully spins his camera around each verbose exchange of venom, taking the manic perspective of an omniscient bystander trying to get a fresh angle on the action. With all the movement and clutter, characters crash against each other inside dank cavernous dwellings and even in the pigsty streets littered with all types of human garbage. Bits of the surreal pop up in the most dramatic moments; the moneylender stabs a stone wall, from which blood spews out of the cracks, and later a deformed baby is caught inside a bottle, maybe a message of demented clarity for an unaware Faust. Sokurov heads into Lynchian territory for the final act, which includes some hooded human creepers silently moving toward Faust and a naked Margarete draped on a bed freshly deflowered. When the inevitable downfall comes, Sokurov drops his delusional protagonist into another purgatory that completes the film's realization of complete isolation. This final descent proves just how much Faust is concerned with the horrific beauty of incurable human bodies drifting through cinematic space, perpetually stuck in moral rigor mortise.
Akin to a punch in the face, or perhaps a kick to the groin, Justin Kurzel's Snowtown makes the heinousness in Faust seem downright fun by comparison. It's an altogether horrific experience based on the real-life murders perpetrated by a group of sadists in Snowtown, Australia circa the late '90s. Kurzel's worn and infinitely gray cinematic landscape is populated by a collection of deadbeats, pedophiles, molested children, and murderers. Every front door is simply a façade for the evil deeds of friends and neighbors. Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), one of four brothers living under the iron fist of their stepfather John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), rests at the center of this storm of gruesome and salacious acts. As Jamie is swept into the procession of violence, his muted reactions range from quiet sobbing to droopy indifference, confirming him as a cipher instead of an actual character.
A rigorous and fragmented narrative perspective defines Snowtown, basically positing evil as a fabric of daily life, as predetermined as the rising and setting sun. Kurzel's grainy visuals are equally stifling, lingering on moments of violence for maximum effect even when all that's left is the deafening sound of a gunshot or an off-screen yelp. It's all very pummeling, almost to the point of numbness, and even worse, first-time filmmaker Kurzel doesn't understand when enough is enough. By its final act, Snowtown begins to recycle its sadism as if the audience needed more scenes of torture or rape to understand this was a terrible situation created by awful people. In a world this perverse and blunt, worthy characterizations are substituted for unflinching angst and menace, creating a cinematic space so uncomfortable only a masochist would feel at home. Snowtown leaves it's viewers with an endless spectrum of fatherly hate and tainted young bodies, no more, no less. I need a bath.
AFI Fest runs from November 3—10. For more information, click here.