I’ve been awful about writing up my film festival experiences from the past year. I haven’t necessarily felt a drive to do it. Maybe I’m finding other creative outlets – or corporate America is simply sucking me dry. But I do like to revisit my previous years’ recaps and I do like the idea of perhaps helping a stray Googler find some info about a rare title in a local film festival’s program (I, myself, have found film festival guidance in some far reaches of the blogosphere), so I’ll try to pick up the slack.

I rescued the following two reviews from an old file I was keeping for the AFI European Union Showcase from November, 2012. I’ll add them here and then return to do some shorter capsule reviews from the rest of that fest and a few others. Or that’s the plan, at least.

silence

The Silence (Das letzte Schweigen), Germany, dir: Baran bo Odar.

The straight crime procedural seems to be a dying cinematic form given the proliferation of TV crime dramas. It gets to the point that taking over an hour to solve a crime just feels too long. The SVU team would get this done in half the time!

21 years ago, an eleven-year-old girl was raped and murdered, her bike tossed into a field near her home and her body dumped in a lake. On the anniversary of her murder, another girl has disappeared with her bike discarded in the same spot in the same field. The copy-cat murder churns the lives of those involved in the original case: the lead detective, the victim’s mother, and a passive accomplice to the crime.

Continuing the Law & Order comparison, The Silence is the one or two episodes per season where the writers get creative and half the episode is devoted to the perpetrator rather than adhering to a strict whodunnit story line. The perpetrator of the first murder is never in doubt for the audience; Timo, an accomplice in that crime, tracks down the murderer after the second homicide and wrestles with his own demons of guilt and pedophilia.

Meanwhile, a detective on the case is recovering from a mental breakdown following the loss of his wife while the latest victim’s parents hope for good news but fall further into despair. These elements provide a bit more depth to the film beyond a straight crime tale, but not profoundly so. It’s the same Law & Order episode but with an extra hour to give the side characters back stories.

The plot doesn’t rely on sensational twists, suspense, or action sequences. In some ways it’s refreshing to see a crime drama without a car chase. But it also makes it fairly unmemorable. The victim’s parents’ grief is crushing and the tortured Timo’s attempt to repress his pedophilic tendencies is quite interesting. Beyond that, my only lasting impression is how terrible the police are at their jobs in the film. Our damaged detective hero’s superior is aggressively incompetent.

All in all a solid film but nothing special. B.

paradise love

Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe), Austria, dir: Ulrich Seidl

My interest in this film comes entirely from personal experiences and it’ll be impossible to explain without going into a haughty “when I was off traveling the world…” story, so bear with me.

One of the more interesting socio-cultural observations from a trip to Kenya a few years back was on its coast dotted with local villages and resorts full of European holidaygoers: the thriving sex trade. It is a very popular destination for European women to come and find Kenyan “boyfriends.” 50-year-old women walking down the street hand-in-hand with a muscular young Kenyan was a very common sight.

So when I saw that a film at this year’s Cannes festival followed the travails of one of these women I knew I had to check it out when I could. My personal fascination with the subject also means I may not be the most objective barometer. My suspicion is that director Ulrich Seidl’s take on the subject will be plodding to most casual viewers. But for me it was an entirely engrossing dive into an interesting subject matter, peppered with cultural touches that tickled me as someone who has been to the area.

Our protagonist is Teresa, a pudgy middle-aged Austrian who is a single mother of a moody teenager. She jets off to the Kenyan coast to get some sun and find get some local lovin’. Her sexual intentions I think are less explicitly apparent in the beginning. She clearly knows it’s a possibility from hearing about it from a more experienced friend, but she doesn’t want to really admit to herself that she’s engaging in sex tourism.

Throughout her stay, Teresa increasingly gains confidence. Her first encounter with a Kenyan boyfriend has her leaving in a self-conscious huff. By the end she is paying for private shows and dragging hotel workers to her room. The bulk of the film follows one relationship that Teresa enters into rather naively and ends similarly, with Teresa heartbroken that her beau didn’t seem to really love her. Her engagements become increasingly more businesslike afterwards.

From a practical standpoint, I am surprised that someone who came to Kenya looking for sex (even if she was initially unwilling to admit it to herself) could be so surprised about how it all works. Why should she really think she’d found love? Her beau’s constant requests for money elicit an earnest response initially. Doesn’t she – someone who has had friends who have been doing this for years and flew thousands of miles for this purpose – understand that this is how the game is played? You don’t just leave a stack of bills on the table like a man. You go through the motions as if it isn’t just a business relationship to give yourself some emotional cover, but you know what’s truly going on. There aren’t wedding bells in the future

I found a lot to like in Teresa’s evolution from naive and hesitant outsider to aggressive and self-assured predator. I also enjoyed a number of other little cultural touches. Shots peering down the beach, white sunbathers stretched out on the private portion of the sand while Africans stare at them across a barrier from the public beach brought me back to my short time there. As Teresa leaves the resort and is surrounded by locals, their requests for her to buy souvenirs and boat trips, not to mention her uncertainty of how to deal with these demands, reminded me of my own experiences. Plus everyone sings the same joyless “Jambo” song trotted out for tourists everywhere.

Beyond that, the dive into the psyche of the type of woman who undertakes such an expedition really interested me. The casual racism displayed by these women is astonishing but also strangely endearing through its naivete. The moral quandaries of the sex trade also make for good ethical mulling. Is it fair that this feels less unsavory with the typical sex industry gender roles reversed? Their drive to achieve some amount of sexual satisfaction while living in a society that would deny them that as older, less attractive women seems nearly admirable. But then they are also taking advantage of Africans’ poverty, who are in turn willing participants albeit their dire economic situations. There are no easy answers.

I’ll also note that the film veers into near pornography at points. There is plenty of nudity that might push usual American boundaries, but the scene where Teresa and friends pay a Kenyan man to strip and perform for them pushes past those boundaries into new territories all together. Maybe this isn’t a movie to see with grandma unless she’s interested in a whole lot of penis and old lady breasts in an extended 15 minute scene. B+.

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