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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