Wednesday, October 23, 2019

From Iceland, Germany and Britain, three amazing films

Doubtful these films will see the light of day locally but I saw them this month at Montreal’s Festival of New Cinema (Festival du Nouveau Cinema) and thought them so good they’re worth writing about.

The first film was Echo by Icelandic director Runar Runarsson. It’s like nothing I’ve quite seen before. It’s a 79-minute film containing 56 vignettes of life in largely the city of Reykjavik leading up to and through the Christmas and New Year’s season. The film opens with a scene of stationary brushes at a car wash that seem like towering tropical plants; they come to life like swamp creatures as a car moves through them. The film's scenes are totally distinct from one another and each one carries a story in itself - snippets of life. A barn burns as the owner remembers good times that took place there. A janitor gets a phone call from her estranged spouse saying he’s taking the kids away for the holidays, despite it being her turn to have them; she breaks down in tears. A piano student smilingly rehearses a piece only to be upstaged by another child. A man with dementia in a nursing home, all dressed up, cannot understand what’s taking place around him. Butchers carving carcasses break into a joyful dance. Apartment dwellers take to the courtyard to set off a stream of fireworks. The director, present after the screening, said the vignettes were a combination of documentary and staging, and we could guess which were which! The shot of a live birth was very real, however. The score, hardly Christmas kitschy, helps maintain a meditative quality as we’re engrossed in every joyous and not so joyous scene, wishing the parade of them would never end.

The next film was System Crasher, by Nora Fingscheidt, Germany’s entry for best international film for the upcoming Oscars. It’s a portrait of Benni, a nine-year-old girl who was traumatized and has become an enfant terrible. Her mother refuses to take her in and the child welfare system can’t find a suitable home for her behavioral problems. The title comes from the fact the child can’t be placed in any proper facility. Benni is smart, witty but has an unpredictable temper and the smallest thing, from a look to a laugh from another person, can set her off in a violent torrent. A girl in her class mocks her trying to read a poem, Benni swiftly takes the girl’s head and bashes it into the desk. Benni must travel with an adult escort (Albrecht Schurch), a working-class guy who seems to make a breakthrough with her when social workers can’t. Fingscheidt took seven years to make this film and comprehensively studied the child welfare system; Benni is a composite of several problem children she encountered. What’s astonishing is that this film is not a documentary but drama, and Benni is played by child actor Helena Zengel, so good she’s now working in a film with Tom Hanks.

The third film was the British film Bait by Mark Jenkin. Wow, is this terrific! Totally unexpected, the film is shot in 16 mm black and white with a scratchy overlay, as though it was a film made decades ago and just found in an old beat-up trunk. As well, the shots are almost all close up or oblique, where we just catch a partial view, sometimes at an angle, of the subject matter – wine and cheese being deposited in a fridge, a fishing bucket dropped on a pier, bits of rope, the eyes and cheeks of a strained face. The story pits a vanishing breed of Cornish fishermen against upscale urban tourists (complete with Land Rover), who’ve bought up houses and rent them out for charming seaside idylls. Class conflict ensues between the two groups, all captured by bits of speech, grunts, and facial expressions. Jenkin provides no resolution to the clash though the film depicts the seething contempt under the surface of people whose way of life is threatened.

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