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AFI Fest 2013: In Bloom, The Fake, & Bethlehem

AFI Fest 2013: In Bloom, The Fake, & Bethlehem

In Bloom is constructed in part from writer-director Nana Ekvtimishvili’s memories of childhood life in 1990s post-Soviet Georgia; she and co-director Simon Groß capture the essence of those memories not only in what we see and hear, but in other sense registers. It’s in the texture of dirt scraped off hard-crust bread and in the smell of tobacco from an absent father’s cigarette box. It’s in the muscle memory of a wedding dance performed by a girl not because she’s happy, but because in that moment movement feels like a necessity. The girl in question is Eka (Lika Babluani), and the film charts her adolescent friendship and bond with Natia (Mariam Bokeria) as they grow up in a moment that, from our historical vantage point, we know is marked by grand change. But in the daily lives of these Tbilisi girls, so much seems to remain the same: We witness the quotidian details of scrambling bread lines and dreary school days with draconian teachers before following the characters home to their embattled and dysfunctional families.

References to war and events in Abkhazia point toward a distant conflict that hovers just beyond the edges of the film; the threat of violence becomes palpable when Natia is given a handgun for self-defense by a male admirer. “He wants you to be strong,” Eka tells her friend, and the quality of that strength is tested in the vignettes and encounters that structure the story. The claustrophobic interiors of apartments and houses might be stages for anguished personal drama, but the streets of the city are something else. With their winding alleys and shadowy tunnels, a simple walk from one place to another seems fraught with peril. Ekvtimishvili and Groß craft the film with a long-take realism that both conveys a sense of the rhythm of everyday life while also ratcheting the tension in situations from which there is little escape.

The foreclosure of possibilities provided by the use of the long take assists in the indictment of chauvinism and patriarchal brutality that underpin, directly and indirectly, many moments in the film. The practice of bride kidnapping, in which a woman is abducted by a man and married to him under threat of shame, dishonor, and violence, is one of the most salient examples. With such a threat in play, even the repartee and conflict between teenage boys and girls is far from benign, but tinged with the possibility of sliding toward something else, something darker. The film follows the outline of a coming-of-age story, but as Natia and Eka look at all the adults in their lives, such a coming of age seems only possible to comprehend in a tragic light. When a man calls for a toast to “Bless all women,” that statement is mined for all its irony.

We’re carried through all these moments by the strength of the two leads; their friendship feels genuine in every aspect, from the broad gestures and banter down to the tiny details. Lika Babluani’s performance as Eka is the highlight, however; as with any good neorealist protagonist, her gaze is like a dagger. She appears perpetually pensive, and the impassive qualities of her expression mean that both flashes of anger and genuine smiles stand out. She’s a witness: Throughout the film she seems to be holding something back, something which is expressed in that centerpiece of a dance that communicates what words cannot. That dance hints at the texture of an interior life, and of wrestling with a moment in which everything is changing yet everything remains the same.

Yeon Sang-ho’s quasi-allegorical animated film The Fake starts with a cute dog taking a hammer blow to the skull, which pretty much sets the tone for the film’s exploration of hypocrisy, truthful cruelty, and the delusions of the desperate masses. A Korean village slated for annihilation under the floodwaters of a dam construction project becomes the field on which antithetical figures clash: Pastor Sung, a charismatic and humble man of God who finds himself the pawn of an amoral huckster; and Min-chul, a barbaric, abusive boor who’s nevertheless the only villager that recognizes Sung’s faith revival as a charlatan’s con designed to extract cash from a rudderless populace. The tension here, then, is between an odious man and an odious idea.

Yeon pushes that tension to its limit by rendering Min-chul’s monstrous misanthropy in grotesque detail; he steals his daughter’s tuition money to gamble with and beats her when she has the temerity to ask about it, and his dialogue is a flurry of misogynist profanity-laden insults to everyone in his vicinity, successful only in inspiring loathing in the people he’s trying to persuade. As a follow-up to The King of Pigs, his debut feature on schoolyard bullying, Yeon traces the contours of a world similar to the work of his fellow countryman Kim Ki-duk, one in which society’s brutal hypocrisy can be met only with either delusional submission or violent nihilism. Similarly, Yeon is unflinching in his depiction of casual violence and the theatrical gnashing of teeth that accompanies the deconstruction of a guilty conscience. Min-chul embarks on a brutal quest, while Sung secretly battles his own internal demons; but whoever prevails, the people of the village suffer nonetheless.

The didacticism of that message seems to go down smoother in animated form. There isn’t the sting of sympathy that comes from seeing violence (simulated or not) inflicted on real bodies, but the layer of abstraction provided by the drawn image comes with its own advantages. The sparse animation amplifies the significance of subtle movements, and its style of crude, forceful lines has a way of communicating that these specific characters are also emblematic of general types. The characters’ expressions are etched in black lines on their faces like masks, which makes the theatre of cruelty we see all the more theatrical. Scenes play out with the villagers arrayed as an audience as Sung and Min-chul make spectacles of themselves; though one plays with the exalted promises of a world to come and one is covered in the grit and muck of the fallible world in front of them, each holds the audience in a similar state of enthrallment.

In this way the film is an unabashed morality play, as unsubtle as the hammer that opens it—though it comes to us less in black and white and more in splashes of red, and there are moments in which the film seems to revel in its own brutality. Yet in other moments, in the shock and the grotesque and the cruel, Yeon invites us toward some kind of empathy with those who suffer and an understanding of the people who bring suffering upon them.

In Bethlehem, Israeli director Yuval Adler grapples with the Costa-Gavras dilemma—that is, with the challenge of taking an ongoing political conflict and processing it into something that fits the action-and-suspense mold of the thriller. In this film, the danger comes from equivocation: Because it’s inspired by real conflict, it requests the charge and import that comes from speaking to current events, but because it’s not actually about those events, it also has a tendency to play fast and loose with the material for entertainment’s sake while disclaiming a responsibility to actually “say” anything. Of course, that refusal of responsibility speaks loudly all the same. There are certainly thrilling moments, and hints of an incisive conversation to be had; it’s just that this film won’t be a part of it.

The story tracks Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli intelligence agent handling a Palestinian asset named Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), codenamed “Esau,” who’s younger brother of a reclusive terrorist. There’s a ticking clock as Razi and his compatriots race to stop another attack before it happens, and the connection between Sanfur and Razi is the key, though both sides are clouded by the fog of war. Razi is obviously manipulating his asset, but the semblance of a father-son bond doesn’t seem to be entirely manufactured. Likewise, Sanfur comes across as a kid looking for guidance and in need of support, but there remains the question of whether he’s more complicit in the violence than he lets on.

Adler takes a procedural approach to the material, mapping the issuing and execution of orders on all sides and drawing clear factional lines. On the Palestinian side, the major players fall into categories that, while not exactly caricatured, are clearly defined types: the aid-funded PLO are corrupt and double-dealing, Hamas makes an appearance as a hivemind of religious fanatics, while the Al-Aqsa Brigades wear the blackest hats. It speaks to what the film’s aiming for when one of their members, Bardawi (Hitham Omari), is given the most to do and seems to have the most fun doing it. He may be a brutal gun-wielding thug, but he issues his threats and ultimatums with a chilling authority, most notably in a tense armed standoff against Hamas over the body of a fallen fighter.

Bardawi presents a credible adversary to the Israeli security apparatus, which comes on the scene as a high-tech, highly organized force that punches through walls and gets their man; when they wrestle with dilemmas they tend to take the form of “airstrike or ground assault.” The film’s major set piece, an assault operation in a Bethlehem marketplace, is certainly well-crafted and punches up the tension, yet weaving through those thrills is a frisson of uncanny recognition for anyone familiar with Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. The fact that so many aspects, down to specific shots, echo that earlier film—whether a direct allusion or simply a nod to the exigencies of filming counterinsurgency operations—cast the whole thing in a certain colonialist light. The film tries to balance that with quiet moments of Palestinian life and Razi reaching across cultural barriers; at times those moments feel genuine yet others are rather transparent in their hedging function. In the end, the film’s misstep isn’t some failure at being sufficiently morally gray. In being the thriller that it is, it smudges the palette beyond recognition.

AFI Fest runs from November 7—14.

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