The Melbourne International Film Festival has ended for another year, and I can say that my final weekend of films really left the best till last.
This weekend’s viewing: Broken (2012, Rufus Norris), Like Someone in Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami), Into the Abyss (2011, Werner Herzog), Italy: Love It or Leave It (2011, Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi) and The Hunt (2012, Thomas Vinterberg).
The trials of childhood have been central to a number of the films I’ve seen this year. My weekend began with Broken, theatre director Rufus Norris’ film directing debut. It’s about Skunk, a tomboyish eleven-year-old, living with her dad Archie (Tim Roth), brother Jed, and their au pair Kasia in a small close in North London where all the inhabitants are broken in one way or another. Skunk has type-1 diabetes, a crush on her school teacher, Mike (Cillian Murphy) and no mum – she ran off with an accountant from Birmingham, we learn – but despite these challenges she lives a happy life until she witnesses an act of violence that sends her entire community into chaos.
Newcomer Eloise Laurence plays Skunk, and she is remarkable and engaging, quirky without being cutesy, and entirely at ease with a seasoned performer like Roth, whose softer, more soulful side is very appealing here. Visually, the film is beautiful, and many of the scenes with Skunk and her first boyfriend, Dillon, just hanging out during the late summer holidays have a trancelike glow that make the subsequent events, which crack the veneer of innocence, even more jarring. Time is represented in a non-linear fashion, so we often see scenes from multiple points of view, and there are a lot of characters and plot strands competing for attention.
Broken’s ending is maybe less powerful than it should be (tipping, slightly, into melodrama) but I think I understand it – the idea that it’s love in its many forms that has the power to put broken things back together again. It’s a strong film debut for Norris, who is perhaps best known for the English stage production of Festen and as the co-creator of Dr Dee: An English Opera with the genius that is Damon Albarn for the Manchester International Festival in July 2011. Mr Albarn gives Broken its rather lovely score by way of his Electric Wave Bureau.
Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami’s latest film, Like Someone in Love, focuses on the relationship between an old man and young woman in Tokyo. I realize as I type this that my description makes it sound like a very particular kind of film. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a surprising film, beautifully shot and performed, contemplative, in a style reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu.
Tadashi Okuno plays Watanabe Takashi, an elderly, retired academic, whose phone, rather comically, never stops ringing with requests for translations at all hours of the day and night. Rin Takanashi is Akiko. She’s a student, working unhappily as an escort (although the reason why isn’t explored). She has a boyfriend (he calls himself her fiancé) who’s controlling and increasingly menacing. A relationship develops between Takashi and Akiko, but not the relationship you think, and it develops in a gentle and intriguing way. During a conversation between Takashi and Akiko’s boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), as they sit in a car (that intimate space that is neither public not private that Kiarostami likes to use in his films), my allegiances shifted, but not long after they shifted back again. I don’t want to say much more than that here.
Kiarostami makes films that often feature enigmatic endings – if you’ve seen his masterpiece Taste of Cherry (1997), you’ll know what I mean – and Like Someone in Love is no different. How you understand the film’s ending (and whether it frustrates you or not) will determine, I think, what you finally take away from this film. Is this a film about love? I’m not sure. I am sure it’s about much more than that – Kiarostami plays with the nature of identity (like he did in last year’s Certified Copy) and with our narrative expectations from beginning to end. The film’s title suggests we might be about to see a beautiful love story (like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love does), but it actually explores something much darker and more troubling about human nature.
Why do people kill? This is the dark and troubling question at the core of Werner Herzog’s powerful film Into the Abyss which I finally had the chance to see on Sunday morning and which kicked off a varied and extraordinary final day of films.
Subtitled ‘A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life’, Herzog’s documentary explores the events surrounding a triple homicide that took place in Conroe, Texas, in October 2001 – the two men convicted of it, the lasting impact on the family of the victims, the experience of prison workers, and the outcome for the perpetrators, Michael Perry (who was executed on July 1, 2010) and Jason Burkett (who is serving a life sentence of 40 years). Each man blames the other for two of the murders but Herzog is not interested in vindicating any one person’s point of view. The elephant in the room is why only one man received the death penalty when they were both convicted of the same crime.
Herzog’s exploration of the crimes themselves is disquieting and the pain for those left behind is palpable, but at the heart of this film is his unwavering belief in the evils of capital punishment. Herzog wants to know why the state kills its citizens as much as he meticulously dissects the tales of poverty, disadvantage, lack of education, and absent parenting. The America he uncovers is a broken society that helped create the conditions in which these murders occurred. And regardless of their experience, the dozen or so people Herzog interviews are all united by death. As Herzog explicitly tells Michael Perry he doesn’t have to like him or what he did but he will treat him with respect because he remains a human being whose life no one has the right to take.
Despite this, Into the Abyss is not a polemic, and Herzog’s narration is understated (he doesn’t make an onscreen appearance here). He functions as an observer and the interviews he obtains are startling for their honesty. As Roger Ebert says, Herzog ‘always seems to know where to look.’ The interview with Captain Fred Allen, who was for many years in charge of Huntsville’s Death Row (where Perry was executed), is especially powerful. As is the wasted life recounted by Burkett’s father, who is also incarcerated. This is both a bleak and humane film, but ultimately a very sad film that only serves to reinforce for me that killing of any kind can bring nothing but anguish and misery to all those involved.
I have Italian parents and I love Italy. But if I lived in Italy today would I be able to maintain the romantic fantasy I have about it, resembling as it does a cross between a Fellini film and a Sophia Loren-Marcello Mastroianni comedy. This is the dilemma faced by partners in film and life, Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi in their documentary film Italy: Love It or Leave It.
Disillusioned and angry at the decline of their homeland, Gustav suggests they move to progressive Berlin now that the lease on their Rome apartment is up. Luca is less inclined to go so convinces Gustav that they travel around Italy for six months to reconnect with what they love about it. Driving around in the iconic Fiat 500, Gustav and Luca take aim at Berlusconi’s Italy – not only the Italy of his Prime Ministership, but also the country that his 20 year stranglehold on the media has created. It’s a country that has lost touch with its history, that no longer seems to value art, culture or literature, that is politically disengaged, where old men and half-naked young women dominate television screens and where surface and status mean everything. Despite the beauty of its landscape and the passion of its people, things don’t look so bright.
But with Berlusconi’s resignation halfway through their trip, Luca and Gustav also discover a country on the precipice of change, and this gives them hope. I won’t tell you whether they stay or go. As Luca says in his introduction to the film (both he and Gustav were guests of MIFF), to know that you’ll need to watch. But a clue can be found in the wise words of Sicilian writer, Andrea Camilleri (the Inspector Montalbano series), who reminds the charming pair that if you run away from the things you don’t like in a country it’s those negative things that will fill the space you leave behind.
The best film I saw at MIFF this year was also the final film I saw, Thomas Vinterberg’s unsettling psychological drama The Hunt. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, After the Wedding, Open Hearts, A Royal Affair) won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance and I can see why. He is nothing short of extraordinary here, one of the finest performances in a film that I’ve seen for a long time – restrained, explosive, soulful.
Mikkelsen plays Lucas, who works in the kindergarten of a small Danish town after the school he taught at closes down. In the film’s early scenes, Vinterberg constructs a sense of the community Lucas lives in, the close ties he has with his friends, and the respect he has in his workplace. These are spaces that care for and nurture him. And we build a relationship with Lucas. He is a character I immediately felt great empathy for, as played by Mikkelsen, he is gentle, warm and compassionate, especially with the children he works with. He’s immensely likeable, which all serves to make what happens to this good, innocent man, all the more difficult to watch.
Lucas is accused of sexual abuse by one of the children and from this moment he is persecuted by those who once loved him and is powerless to stop it. Things spiral rapidly out of control. It’s significant that the child in question is Klara, the daughter of Lucas’ best friend, Theo, and also that Vinterberg shows us very clearly how she is caught up in the making of this accusation. She has a little crush on her father’s friend and feels rejected after she throws herself on him while they play at kindergarten and he tells her she mustn’t kiss him on the mouth. Our willingness to believe that children never have reason to lie is challenged just as the community fortifies itself around this belief.
The hunt is on and innuendo and gossip are all turned into fact as family and community turn inward to eat one of its own. The damage seems irreversible. Vinterberg, one of the co-founders of Dogme 95 made Festen (The Celebration) fourteen years ago, a very different film about child abuse. Here, there is never any question of Lucas’ innocence for the audience, no mystery to be solved. The Hunt is compelling from beginning to end, driven by an outstanding screenplay (co-written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm) and exceptional performances from all involved. Some scenes are so nervy and powerful (Lucas at the supermarket and then at a Christmas Eve church service) I could hardly bear to watch them. Other patrons seated next to me were having the same response.
The Hunt may be described by some as navigating well-worn ground but if this is true (and I don’t think it is) it does so with such ingenuity that I guarantee you’ll never really be sure for a minute how it’s going to end. It’s a truly brilliant film – one I don’t think I’ll stop thinking about for quite some time and one I’d like to see again as soon as I can.