Soviet cinema often depicts war from the viewpoint of a young man. Think masterpieces such as Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood or Klimov’s Come and See. A Russian Youth, deploying the technicolour aesthetic of 40s and 50s Soviet melodramas, joins this fine tradition, providing a unique take on the war genre. An experimental production that scores the horrors of World War I to an orchestra rehearsing two pieces by Rachmaninoff, it’s a bold and risky film that nonetheless doesn’t quite pay off.
The film starts in the thick of war, with a plucky-yet-useless young boy rushing to join his friends at the Eastern front. During his first encounter with death, he is blinded by a gas attack. He refuses to go home, leading his comrades to think of another use for him: he is quickly tasked with listening for enemy planes, plugged into a huge telescope-looking machine that can pick up sounds from very far away.
These plot developments are intercut with an orchestra rehearsing both Rachmaninoff’s “Third Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” and “Symphonic Dances” — replete with the conductor’s comments on individual performers. The effect is something like the opening sequence of Moonrise Kingdom, narrated by Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra.” Sadly, it never quite settles into an enjoyable rhythm. The film would’ve been better off if the orchestral cuts were constant, creating a kind of Vertovian silent film montage — or if it didn’t feature them at all, simply allowing the narrative to speak for itself.
Perhaps these breaks are made to stress the artificiality of war narratives themselves, the way they are created like music to manipulate the heartstrings. Or perhaps more knowledge of the context of Rachmaninoff’s pieces — “Third Concerto” was made before WWI, “Symphonic Dances” before WWII — is needed to appreciate the mixture of music and image here; it’s hard to say. This is no pro-war film, but it can’t quite be described as anti-war either, considering the Brechtian orchestral breaks that stall the narrative. There are some strong metaphors swelling around. Seeing as Russia lost heavily in WWI and capitulated to a communist takeover, the hero being a blind young boy determined to fight no matter the odds actually makes a lot of sense. Additionally, there is a strong homoerotic undertow, including the very touchy friendship the blind boy and his helper enjoy, as well as other nude frolicking in bathhouses and lakes. This queer playfulness is at odds with the serious story matter, seemingly satirising the very nature of war in favour of uber-comradely behaviour.
A Russian Youth marks the debut of Alexander Zolotukhin, supported by legendary director Alexander Sukurov’s own non-commercial film fund. It was shot at the legendary Lenfilm studio, home of over 1,500 Soviet productions. For fans of Soviet aesthetics (such as Academy Ratio), bold colour palettes, strong anti-Church themes, and the glorification of Communism, the studied nature of these images is pretty impressive. If only the two disparate elements were better reconciled, then A Russian Youth could’ve really been sublime.
Berlinale 2019: ‘Greta’ Is an Important Tale, Turgidly Told
‘Greta’, inspired by the famous performance by Garbo in ‘The Grand Hotel,’ shares its inspiration’s lifeless quality.
An old nurse and a criminal strike up an unorthodox relationship in Greta, a moody queer drama from Brazil. Coming at a time when the full ugliness of homophobia has reared its head in the Latin American country, it’s a gentle reminder of the humanity of LGBT people just when they need it most. Still, its repetitive dramatic conflict, uninvolved dialogue, and stagey camerawork render the subject matter rather inert, delivering a film ultimately lacking in hard-hitting emotion.
Pedro (Marco Nanini) is a man desperately in need of human contact; he’s old and irascible, but cares deeply for his friends. His transgender girlfriend, Daniela (Denise Weinberg), is in the hospital, but the doctors won’t put her in the women’s unit, and Daniela refuses to go in the men’s unit. Yet, after finally convincing her to take a room in the men’s section, Pedro finds that the bed has been taken by Jean (Demick Lopes), a wounded criminal awaiting the police. Pedro helps him escape in exchange for giving Daniela a bed, and later, Daniela refuses to seek medical help for her terminal condition while the police are hot on the tail of Jean. Pedro, stung by the rejection from his girlfriend, builds a new relationship with Jean, in the process coming to terms with his own life.
The key to his character is his fascination with Greta Garbo, especially her legendary performance as a reluctant ballerina in Grand Hotel (1932). Her famous line from the movie — “I just want to be left alone” — spoke to Greta Garbo’s own dissatisfaction with Hollywood, especially after the sound era reduced her immense fame. Pedro even gets turned on by associating himself with the star, asking lovers to call him by her name. The irony of Garbo is that she doesn’t really want to be left alone in Grand Hotel, and neither does Pedro, who believes that Jean may be the one to repair his broken heart. It’s a fitting reference; Grand Hotel is a so-so movie elevated by a great Greta Garbo performance, while Greta is a so-so movie with only one thing worth really celebrating.
Greta deserves credit for its explicit homosexual sex, which, with the exception of one scene in a brothel, is always tethered to the plot. Director Amrando Praca reveals so much vulnerability and strength through body language alone here, his long takes really absorbing us into the sexual lives of our characters. My issue is that these long takes are also deployed for nearly every other scene, and talky one-take arguments quickly lose their power as they drag on too long. While the initial scenes between Pedro and Jean haunt us in their seductive dance, later confrontations veer too much into conventional crook-on-the-run territory.
Additionally, considering that Pedro falls for a literal criminal, it would have been interesting to see the film explore the context of homosexuality in Brazil and its current issues a little bit more. We do see sweaty dark rooms and glittering bars, but outside of these moments Greta feels rather thin on the ground. Sweet, but underwhelming.
Berlinale 2019: ‘The Awakening of the Ants’ is a Fine Study of Personal Change
‘The Awakening of the Ants’ subtly critiques Costa Rican gender relations through one woman’s personal change.
Isa’s hair is very long. She braids it to stop tangling, and washes it outside with a large bucket of water. Despite her best efforts, however, her hair still finds its way into the unlikeliest of places, such as her sewing machine and her familial bed.
Her approach to hair is somewhat like her approach to life: constantly organising, cutting, and shaping things to her desire. Balancing looking after two kids with her job as a seamstress, Isa has to do a million things at once, while couching her wishes within a framework that is respectable for a woman in Costa Rican society. Suffering from exhaustion, Isa faces a crisis when her husband expresses a desire for another child.
He is not a stereotypically toxic man. He is not a brute, neither is he a layabout. He is a product of a patriarchal environment, simply expecting his wife to provide for him. The point the film makes is that any man can be like this if he doesn’t listen to his wife’s needs. Shaping herself to his comfort in the economic, gastronomic, and the reproductive departments is too much for Isa, who finds a novel way to undercut her husband’s best efforts to conceive.
The Awakening of the Ants is a fine study of personal struggle that doubles up as a critique of a society that expects women to have as many children as God can allow. One early scene tells us the way the film is going: after Alcida’s family constantly pressure Isa to have another baby, she imagines herself destroying the family cake, aptly decorated with the shape of a cross. It’s undeniably heavy-handed, but nonetheless effective.
This is one of many metaphors used to illuminate both personal and political change. Hair is one of them, as are the different fabrics Isa weaves together to create beautiful dresses. The ants of the title, which creep into Isa’s house against her wish, seem to suggest the incremental movement of progress while hinting at the broader struggle all women must contend against. Ants may not be powerful by themselves, but together they can achieve almost anything.
Much of the movie’s power resides in the quiet conversations between Isa and Alcida. Director Antonella Sudasassi has a great knack of framing these conflicts within the domestic space. Rarely is there a two-shot scene of the two bickering, but instead the director centres these arguments around broken lamps, money in the pot, and raising the children, all with the little ones constantly breaking into the scene. Like the Netflix show Tidying up With Marie Kondo, it reveals the extent some women go to in order to ensure a perfect household, while men are unable to acknowledge the physical and mental efforts expended. With a strong focus on objects and metaphor itself, the conflicts in Ants lead to very satisfying pay-offs later on.
The film’s success rests upon Valenciano’s performance. She does a great job of embodying this internal change, one that doesn’t even manifest at first in any obvious way. She is not a perfect domestic goddess — simply a woman trying to do her best for the man she loves. Coupled with the confident and calm direction of Sudassassi, The Awakening of the Ants is a strong portrait of womanhood undergoing fundamental change.
Berlinale 2019: Settlements are Suicide in Israeli Drama ‘The Day After I’m Gone’
A quiet bereavement drama with international overtones, The Day After I’m Gone uses the theme of suicide as a metaphor for the state of Israel. Slowly peeling layer after layer to reveal the darkened heart underneath, it argues that inaction can often be the worst sin of all. Smart and complex right up until the final act, its power lies in the strength of its two central performances.
Yoram (Menashe Noy) is a veterinarian at a safari park. An early scene indicates his non-committal approach to life: driving along the park, he notices a man standing outside his car. He tries to convince him to get back inside, considering the obvious dangers of hanging around wild rhinos. He talks in vain until a park ranger arrives, shouts angrily, and gets the man back to safety. This scene displays Yoram’s inability to convince anyone to do anything, especially his daughter, Roni (Zohar Meidan), who has been missing for two days.
Yoram files a police report, and they ask him if he knows any of her social media log ins. He does not. He seems concerned, yet she comes home the next day and he doesn’t bother trying to speak to her. The next day, she tries to kill herself, and is saved only by the intervention of the police monitoring online messaging boards. Yoram has no idea how to deal with any of this; he can’t ask his wife for help, as she is already dead — a possible reason why Roni feels so low. A call from his mother-in-law, however, gives him an idea for a road trip and a potential place to bond. They drive across the desert towards one of the most controversial places in the world: a Jewish settlement in Palestinian land.
It quickly becomes evident that first-time writer-director Nimrod Eldar has bigger things on his mind than mere family drama. He doesn’t use the occupation as a direct metaphor for Yoram’s inability to connect with Roni, yet the tension with Palestine creates a source of permanent sense of unease for the residents in the settlement, as well as their tense relationship with Yoram. If only it was incorporated into the plot in a more satisfying way.
A magician they meet on the way says that he can bend spoons, but when Yoram presses him, he refuses to show his trick. This is symptomatic of the film of the whole, which steadfastly refuses to reveal what it’s really about. Is it trying to make a deep statement about problematic elements of the Isreali state, or simply leaving things open to interpretation? This central mystery drives the movie right up until the point that it doesn’t, refusing to commit one way or another. The broader thematic elements eventually serve as a distraction from the serious issue of suicide, depression, and bereavement that The Day After I’m Gone is trying to tackle.
Menashe Noy is suitably subtle as the indecisive father, a man who evidently loves his daughter but cannot find the energy to figure out why she wants to die, and Zohar Meidan complements this performance excellently, digging deep to find real resentment and sadness behind the self-hatred. They make the film worth watching, even if it can’t quite figure out what it wants to say. No one would expect the filmmaker to make an outright criticism of these settlements, yet a little more confrontation seems to be in order.
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