You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘AFI EU Film Showcase’ tag.

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.


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+.

Let’s finish up this review of the 2011 AFI European Union Showcase. And it may even be relevant if one of these films pops up in the Oscar discussion.

Bullhead (Rundskop), Belgium, dir: Michael R Roskam

Going in this looked like a crime thriller with an unusual setting: black market bovine hormone dealers in Belgium. How can such a premise be ignored? But it turns out our ‘roided-up bull is no cow but Jacky, a pumped up enforcer in the hormone mafia. The film ends up being a thoughtful and stylish rumination on manhood.

A childhood incident left Jacky with a mangled set of male equipment. He uses steroids to become seriously bulky but the side effects of the steroids and his intense feelings of inadequacy combine to cause some major inner turmoil. He’s emotionally and socially stunted, which doesn’t help when some hormone deals go wrong leading to the police and some rival dealers closing in.

Matthias Schoenaerts won the Best Actor award at the AFI Fest in LA a few months back and it’s very well deserved. He’s a muscled ball of rage and indecision. Belgium also chose to submit this film for the Foreign Language Oscar over the Dardenne-helmed festival darling The Kid with a Bike which is certainly the correct choice. I’m not a raging fan of the film. It has a great character and some interesting ideas, plus it can be oddly funny (boy do the Flemish and Walloon halves of Belgium hate each other). But the story is less compelling than hoped and it sort of peters out. I’m not expecting it to score an Oscar nod. Still, it’s an interesting and thoughtful ride. B+.

Black Thursday (Czarny Czwartek), Poland, dir: Antoni Krauze

In December 1970, Polish workers in Gdansk and the surrounding areas went on strike to protest rising prices and stagnant wages. When the Communist government demanded they return to work, shipbuilders were met at the shipyard gates with tanks and machine guns which subsequently opened fire. This led to several days of riots.

Maybe to a Polish audience a film about Black Thursday makes perfect sense as a major event in the country’s recent history. For an outsider that knows little about the specifics of the incident, the film as structured is an effective warning of authoritarian government. Some of the details didn’t quite connect for me, particularly the political wrangling, but the film still makes a powerful statement. It centers its narrative around one worker and his family then zooms out to events as a whole when warranted. As the violence progresses and his family sits at home worried about his fate, we worry with them. And when workers pile a body of a slain comrade onto a door and carry him around town as a martyr while the police take shots at the crowd from a hovering helicopter, we’re down in the chaos with them.

I think the filmmakers set out to make a film about an event in their nation’s collective consciousness. But for the rest of us we can look past the specifics (and ignore the confusing bits) and feel the terror of what it’s like to oppressed. Poland didn’t submit this film for the Oscars, choosing instead a Holocaust drama that is supposed to be terrific. But if it had gone with Black Thursday I think it would have had the chance to do well in the competition. A-.

Tales of the Night (Les Contes de la Nuit), France, dir: Michel Ocelot

We’ll finish with the last film I saw during the festival, an animated film I tacked on at the end because I’m a sucker for animated films. And this one came with an interesting looking animation style from a director who’d made a mini-splash a few years back with Azur and Asmar.

Alas, that style is not interesting enough to overcome a boring narrative. The film tells six short stories, each set in a different historical period and geography (Medieval times, Ancient Egypt). They are simple fables or fairy tales set around a framing device of a young acting troupe bringing the tales to life on a stage in Paris. Each of the stories is quick. The bad ones therefore pass quickly, but none of them get enough time to develop into something interesting.

Ocelot’s animation style turns the characters into black silhouettes set against layered backdrops. It’s interesting enough, but doesn’t provide enough visual stimulation when the narrative falters. I believe the film was released in 3D in France, which may have helped by giving the picture some depth via each flat layer of background. D+.

As I move on to part two of my AFI European Union Showcase round-up, I come to three films where I struggle to understand the point. I suppose this is something I ponder a lot. I’m never sure it’s a fair question since I don’t find myself thinking this during an entertaining action flick. But, to some extent, all of these left me wondering, “why?”

The Poll Diaries (Poll), Estonia/ Germany/ Austria, dir: Chris Kraus

This coming of age story, which I actually enjoyed, left me wondering what the young heroine has learned, save that sometimes people are shitty. Oda von Siering – who would group up to become poet Oda Schaefer – lives in Estonian Russia with her father and step-mother on the verge of World War I. Her step-mother comes from old German money that is mostly gone and the family lives in a dilapidated mansion on stilts over the water. Her father is a doctor and keeps hundreds of gruesome samples. When she arrives at the mansion from Germany she brings him a gift of some Siamese twin fetuses in a jar.

Over the course of the film, her parents’ relationship becomes strained, Russia and Germany move ever closer to war, her father works to achieve some sort of recognition from other doctors, and Oda hides an Estonian rebel in her father’s workshop. It’s an eventful year, but not one that seems to be full of lessons, except that life can kinda suck, maybe? It doesn’t even really set up Oda’s future as a poet, though the Estonian rebel does encourage her to write. Maybe someone more familiar with her work will draw some parallels.

At least it’s a fairly interesting story set in a fascinating time period. The relationship between the German family and the local Russian soldiers is interesting. A review I read claimed it would be a shoo-in for an Art Direction Oscar, which I dismiss because generally to win an Oscar your movie must be released in the US and people have to actually see it. But beyond those minor details, I see what the reviewer means. The crumbling sea-straddling mansion and the laboratory filled with gross specimens are a production designer’s delight. B.

We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam), Italy, dir: Nanni Moretti

I was much less forgiving with the pointlessness of this next film. At Cannes this got the reputation as the Papal King’s Speech with good reason as it follows the plight of a reluctant Cardinal elected Pope. When he has a crisis of confidence a psychiatrist is brought in to try to help him out and convince him to accept the position.

The early parts of the film are quite strong. The opening scenes portraying the dramatic election are engrossing. The tone turns lighter as the psychiatrist comes in and the film is a laugh riot for about twenty minutes. But soon the new Pope has escaped the Vatican where he wanders around and has aimless discussions with regular folk. The psychiatrist is left to hang out with the rest of the Cardinals. In one particularly pointless sequence he organizes a volleyball tournament.

Early on it seems like it will be a humorous film with a powerful explanation of a crisis of faith. But by the end it’s totally run out of steam and we barely know any more about any of the main characters. D+.

Innocence (Nevinnost), Czech Republic, dir: Jan Hřebejk

In this film the existential question doesn’t arrive until the end. For the vast majority of the film it’s an interesting story about an accusation of sexual abuse. When respected doctor Tomás is accused of forcing himself upon a teenage patient, his family and the police (and the audience) are unsure of what to believe. It’s one of those stories where the truth is a malleable concept and it does it pretty well. It’s been done better in other films, but it’s still pretty interesting.

But once that mystery gets resolved in a surprisingly definitive manner considering the ambiguities earlier in the film, the plot totally goes off the rails with further revelations that are neither interesting nor particularly related to the rest of the film. The final twenty or so minutes are awful and killed any of the goodwill I had for the film. D+.

Goodness, the 24th AFI European Union Film Showcase in Washington, DC flew right by and I fell way behind on my comments. But maybe that’s appropriate as I found little that either struck me strongly positively or negatively. Mostly good stuff, but nothing really great.

Some of the films in the festival are in the hunt for the Foreign Language Oscar. Others may receive commercial releases or have been hitting the festival circuit. Some we’ve been hearing about since Cannes. And maybe someone will stumble upon my thoughts and I can steer them towards a good film or away from a bad one.

The Jewel (Il Gioiellino), Italy/France, dir: Andrea Molaioli

The first film I saw at the fest was also one of my favorites. The Jewel is a telling of the fall of Parmalat, the Italian food multinational that collapsed amidst widespread fraud a few years back. The company’s name and specific details were changed for the film but there can be no doubt of the inspiration.

The film is rather disjointed. The first half or so focuses on CFO Ernesto Botta, a loyal but cranky servant to the family-run firm even as his status as a non-relative limits his rise and forces him to share an office with a young ruling family niece just out of business school. His increasingly bizarre dealings with the company’s bosses reveal something is going wrong with the firm while he becomes personally entangled with the niece. It all leads up to Botta needing to decide if he is going to go off the cliff with the firm or blow the whistle.

But once Botta chooses his path he becomes a secondary character as the film morphs into a slick montage of the company’s further descent into fraud and the bosses continuously double down on their involvement. Both parts are quite good but the shift in the middle is a bit jarring. I could see the film choosing one style and sticking to it or concurrently focusing on both Botta and the firm as a whole, but the abrupt shift in the middle doesn’t work.

Still, it’s quite entertaining. Toni Servillo is excellent as Botta and Teho Teardo’s score of strings mixed with electronic elements is a knockout. I stayed through the credits to hear it all. Teho also composed for 2009 Best Makeup nominee, the incomprehensible Il Divo, and I loved the music there too. I guess this guy is talented. B+.

Long Live the Family (Rodina je základ státu), Czech Republic, dir: Robert Sedláček

Now we move into the part of the program about Eastern European families on the run from the law. In Long Live the Family, the police are closing in on Libor for embezzling from his Prague financial firm. He packs up his family and makes a break for it all the while telling them they’re going on vacation.

He’s guilty and he knows the police will catch up. But he flees out of shame, out of a desire for one last burst of freedom, and, strangely, out of desperation borne out of a mid-life crisis. The film has nice enough family moments and introspective looks into Libor’s character. His wife’s growing understanding that something has gone awry develops nicely. But most of the film indulges Libor’s middle aged whining. A visit to family friends devolves into him and his friend drunkenly discussing their affairs and fairly pathetic regrets about how their lives didn’t pan out like they had hoped when they were younger. Libor has a great family and a successful career (supplemented by his embezzlement proceeds). The fact that he committed a crime and is now fleeing from the law takes a backseat. Things may have turned out better for you if you didn’t steal a bunch of money, pal. D+.

Outbound (Periferic), Romania, dir: Bogdan George Apetri

I think I’m just in the bag for new Romanian cinema. There’s no great reason I should have liked Outbound except that I enjoyed its aesthetic.

Matilda gets a day pass from jail to attend her mother’s funeral. Instead, she embarks on a series of errands meant to culminate with her fleeing the country with her son. The result is an episodically structured film with each segment focusing on her meeting with someone: family, exes, bosses, and her son. Truth be told I can’t claim any of these episodes are entirely compelling from a plot perspective, but they do elicit a conflicted portrait of Matilda. She’s our protagonist but she’s quite unlikeable, spitefully sparring with good and bad acquaintances alike.

While the camera does linger on its subjects, the shots do not last an especially long time like in other Romanian new wave films (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days). The strong visuals help bring us into Matilda’s world, enough that I didn’t entirely mind the meandering plot. C+.

The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au Vélo), Belgium/France/Italy, dir: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The Dardenne brothers are Cannes darlings but I think they’re just not for me. I’ve only seen two: The Kid with a Bike, which has been hitting the festival circuit since this year’s Cannes, and L’Enfant, which won the Palme d’Or in 2005. Both are inconsequential tales of lower-class life in Belgium that left me disinterested.

11-year-old Cyril lives in a group home. His father has abandoned him, though he has yet to accept it. He meets Samantha, who agrees to take him in on weekends. But he’s not an angelic kid. His heart is mostly in the right place but he yearns for affection (understandable given his background) and is prone to lashing out. He rides his bike a lot and makes some mistakes. To me, it kind of pointlessly meanders. Cécile De France, who I enjoyed in Hereafter, is also good here as Samantha. C-.

July 2020