Connect with us

Film

Review: The Lesson

Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s film ultimately understands poverty as a profound and often irreversible desolation of terra firma.

3.5

Published

on

The Lesson
Photo: Film Movement

The Lesson fuses the quotidian of looming poverty with the obligations of a genre film that features sleazy crime lords and bleak twists of fate. The combination works astonishingly well, as the former reinvigorates the latter, imbuing it with a sense of immediacy that renders the viewer vulnerable to tropes that might otherwise play as theoretical and preachy in less confident hands. Few tussle with gangsters, but many of us wrestle with the terror that greets the search for next month’s rent, which often encourages the circling of all sorts of bureaucratic jackals, who’re understood here to be of little difference from the less hypocritically mercenary bad guys. The film’s mixture of the everyday with the extraordinary suggests the sort of quasi-thriller that Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne were after in Lorna’s Silence, but they didn’t exhibit the flair for genre meanness that writer-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov display here. The Dardennes are major artists, but their humanism occasionally interferes with their instincts as dramatists. Grozeva and Valchanov, however, are that rarity: perverse humanists. They coax the audience’s guard down with their empathy, only to turn the narrative screws on their characters with surprising ferocity.

The scenario is fastidiously ironic. Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva) is a well-meaning, somewhat priggish schoolteacher who grows obsessed with uncovering a petty thief in her classroom, and it’s immediately apparent that she’s seeking justice, or closure, anywhere she can find it, as her life is characterized by a Kafkaesque level of symbolic unfairness and disappointment. Nadezhda’s husband, Mladen (Ivan Barnev), is a drunken ne’er-do-well who spends his time and her money fiddling with a van that will never run, and her father (Ivan Savov) is wealthy, but chilly and aloof, distanced from his daughter for reasons of generational resentment that were magnified by a death in the family. These issues are brought to a stark head when Mladen is revealed to have put his family disastrously in debt to their bank, which is about to foreclose on their house, sending Nadezhda on a journey of escalating humiliation that resembles the quest undertaken by the heroine of Two Days, One Night.

Grozeva and Valchanov have borrowed one of the Dardennes’ signature visual flourishes: long tracking shots—often centered on the protagonist’s head—that fashion a literal portal into a person’s mental realm. The audience feels as trapped in Nadezhda’s quagmire as she does, and her reactions, as communicated by a direct, expressive Gosheva, are universal mixtures of panic and resentment that are dashed with the rare flush of pride in occasional victory. The filmmakers’ visceral dialogue with their actor climaxes with a brilliant hair-trigger set piece that dramatizes the constant threat of disaster that hangs over people whose lives are warped by ruin, as well as institutional exploitation of such situations, which resembles a diluted form of slavery.

Nadezhda finds the money to pay the bank, but they made a mistake about the amount she owes, of course, and she finds that money, but now there’s an extra transaction fee. In the middle of this, Nadezhda’s car breaks down, and she hops the bus, and on and on. Watching this sequence, anyone who’s ever tried to pay a debt back to a bank, or a phone company, or a credit-card institution, may break out in hives of cold, enraged recognition. The Lesson captures not just the threat of losing your home or self-respect, but a more insidious facet of poorness: the relentless uncertainty as to whether another shakedown is coming, in the form of more interest and an endless, self-perpetuating cascade of “convenience fees.” The film ultimately understands poverty as a profound and often irreversible desolation of terra firma.

M7560o93H7pQ09L8X1t49cHY01Z5j4TT91fGfr

Cast: Margita Gosheva, Ivan Savov, Stefan Denolyubov, Ivanka Bratoeva Director: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov Screenwriter: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2014 Buy: Video

Advertisement
Comments

Blog

WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

Published

on

Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

Continue Reading

Film

Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

3

Published

on

Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

Continue Reading

Film

Review: The Invisibles Is an Awkward Combination of Fiction and Documentary

The film doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide.

2

Published

on

The Invisibles
Photo: Menemsha Films

If Schindler’s List and Shoah represent the opposite ends of a spectrum for cinematic representation of the Holocaust, The Invisibles is at the perfect midpoint between those two extremes, combining intimate interviews with cleanly composed, tightly controlled reenactments of the events discussed therein. But in seeking the precise middle ground between the dreadful beauty of Steven Spielberg’s historical melodrama and Claude Lanzmann’s radical privileging of personal testimony over visual representation of suffering, The Invisibles finds a mediated position that’s also decidedly middle-brow.

The basis of director and co-writer Claus Räfle’s film is archival interviews with Holocaust survivors Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, and Hanni Lévy, four of the 7,000 Jewish Berliners who hid within the city even after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared it “free of Jews” in 1943. Sheltered by friends, shepherded between members of the limited communist resistance, and in Cioma’s case, maintained in the basement of the Afghan embassy by a network of document forgers, all four managed not only to evade the mass deportations to death camps in Poland, but also to survive the Allies’ incessant late-war bombings of Berlin and the devastating siege of the city that brought an end to the war.

Complementing the subjects’ verbal accounts of their experiences are dramatic reenactments of their lives as “invisibles” in a hostile and dangerous city. Cioma (Max Mauff) is a talented young artist who escapes deportation with his aged parents by forging documents verifying that he’s needed in Berlin as a laborer, eventually managing to eke out a black-market salary from the forgery business. Because his stepfather is a gentile, Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is afforded a bit more time to find a place to hide, ending up masquerading as a cousin to a family of secret Nazi opponents—even occasionally donning a Nazi uniform as part of the act. Ruth and her brother huddle for months with their respective significant others in a single room. And Hanni hides mostly in the open, dying her hair blond and spending her time in the populated commercial area around the famed Kurfürstendamm boulevard.

The four individuals didn’t know each other, and while their stories correspond in certain ways—Ruth and Hanni both adopt disguises, using the omnipresence of mourning women in Berlin to their advantage, whereas Eugen and Cioma must either hide completely or come up with reasons for why they haven’t been called into service—Räfle and co-writer Alejandra López resist staging an arbitrary intersection of the subjects’ lives. While they’re all in the same city, they’re totally isolated, from their families as well as from other young Jews like themselves. “I thought I was the only one,” the real-life Hanni explains as she recounts discovering that 1,500 other young German Jews survived the war in Berlin.

Through its subjects, The Invisibles tells us much about the precarious conditions that they endured during the war, but the staged reenactments show us little that these individuals’ words haven’t already captured. The short bits of drama that Räfle and López compose out of their subjects’ testimony have a cable-documentary quality, both in terms of the excessively neat, stagy sets and the simplicity of the correspondence between the real survivors’ narration and the action depicted. The narrative loosely assembled there has affecting moments—particularly the finale to Ruth’s ordeal, which features a tense confrontation with a Russian soldier—but it never develops its own unique insights or personality.

Missing from the narrativized sections of the film is also a strong sense of environment. We see the cramped corners that the four young people must hide themselves in, but the film is limited in its ability to convey a sense of what Germany’s capital city was like under the constant bombardment that brought an end to the war. Bombings are mentioned but never depicted, except in intermittently deployed archival footage. The Battle of Berlin, when Soviet forces sieged the city and effectively ended World War II, is largely depicted through allusion. The absence of a palpable representation of these events, and of a sense of the city as a whole, is enough to make one wish that the film had simply stuck with the interviews.

The Invisibles’s combination of documentary footage with dramatic conventions doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide. The result isn’t a film that manages to craft out of its staged portions a meaningful and evocative portrait of life lived under the constant threat of death, nor one that, like Shoah, gives itself over fully to the harrowing stories of survivors.

Cast: Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, Hanni Lévy, Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras Director: Claus Räfle Screenwriter: Claus Räfle, Alejandra López Distributor: Menemsha Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Donate

Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:

Patreon

You can also make a donation via PayPal.

Newsletter

Giveaways

Advertisement

Trending