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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+.

February 2020
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