43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam: Report Two

Starred Up (David Mackenzie)

Being 'starred up' is a term from the British penal system, meaning a juvenile delinquent is moved up to the regular prison system before the standard age of 21. Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is such a juvenile delinquent. Only 19 years old, this bundle of pent-up rage does not beat around the bush once he's transferred to his new home, and he immediately establishes a name for himself as a violent, volatile inmate who's not afraid to take on the big shots. One of these big shots, however, turns out to be his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). Even if he was never around to see his son grow up, he still wants to protect him, in the hope that Eric will lay low and get out after serving his time, an opportunity Neville himself with a life sentence doesn't have. So when Eric gets a chance to join a program run by social worker Oliver (Rupert Friend), Neville wants him to grab that chance with both hands. If only Eric's penchant for violence could be reined in….

To be fair, Starred Up  does not escape the prison drama clichés: the corrupt guards, the top dog inmate running the prison wing, the social worker with good intentions. But a few aspects raise this film above your average prison fare, most notably the well handled father-son dynamics between Neville and Eric. Especially Mendelsohn gives a lot of depth to a man torn between fatherly love, even after all these years, and the rage and violence that is both a part of his being, but also required if you want to come out on top in prison. O'Connell struggles with the transformation Eric goes through, yet he pulls off the feat of creating a character that's at once repulsive and endearing.

And then there's the brutality. The film really is very, very violent, but none of it is gratuitous, and it gives the film a rawer edge than most prison flicks. The film is certainly not for the squeamish, but it does not wallow in its violence, creating a realistic representation of a community in which violence is often the only way to survive. The Oliver character is a bit mishandled, as we never get a real idea of what makes him tick, but his sessions with Eric and other inmates are the breathing points of the film, and show both a determination and a naivete in the character and the process, which even in its earnestness is somewhat quixotic.

Starred Up  got eight nominations at the British Independent Film Awards (with a win for Mendelsohn), and those are all well earned. It is an exhilarating, raw genre film, but within its genre it's an instant classic.

Gare du Nord (Claire Simon)alt

Gare du Nord, Paris' largest railway station, is a global village, says one of the characters in Claire Simon's eponymous film. Being a major European transportation hub, it makes sense that this film set in and around the station is playing in The State of Europe section of the festival, and for a while it seems as though Simon wants to draw parallels between the microcosm around the train tracks and Europe at large. The film touches themes like immigration, unemployment, and multiculturalism, often explored through two of its main characters, Ismaël (the always engaging Reda Kateb) and Mathilde (Nicole Garcia), a sociology student and a history professor, respectively. He is conducting a study of the small society that is the station for his thesis, and draws her into his interviews with the people who work there or just travel through. Their meetings become more frequent and warm, and something blossoms between them.

And this is where the film starts losing its focus on the social issues and the role of Gare du Nord, and becomes more about Ismaël and Mathilde, as well as the other two key characters: Joan (Monia Chokri), a former student of Mathilde who is now a real estate agent, and Sacha (François Damiens), the host of a candid camera show who is searching for his runaway daughter. The lives of these four characters intermingle on the platform and in the halls of the station, in vignettes that only intermittently touch upon the cultural and societal crossroads that run through Gare du Nord. The film loses its edge, and while parallels between the characters' situations and Europe at large can be drawn, the melodrama starts to take precedence over the social commentary, and what started out well becomes a drag to sit through. A shame, because there is certainly something to be said about Gare du Nord being a metaphor for current-day Europe. Simon also shot the documentary Human Geography  at the station in conjunction with the feature film, and perhaps as one half of a pair this film would have more impact. As a stand-alone film, however, it lacks in vision and commitment to its issues.

Viktoria (Maya Vitkova)alt

If there is one thing you can say of debuting director Maya Vitkova, it's that she is ambitious. Her first film, already reviewed in Sundance Round-Up: Part 2 last week by Jonathan Boehle, is an epic look at two decades not only in the life and relationship of a mother and daughter, but also in the history of Eastern Europe and its struggle to regain an identity after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The relationship is a metaphor for the turmoil of the East after the fall of Communism.

The film actually starts about ten years before these big changes, when Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) has her hopes of fleeing to the West dashed by an unwanted pregnancy, and her resentment and frustration are strengthened when her baby Viktoria, born with the unusual condition of not having a belly button, is chosen as Bulgarian child of the decade, with all the celebrity and regard this brings. Vitkova plays a neat trick here, as she juxtaposes a feeling the audience can identify with (the longing to escape the totalitarian state in search of individual freedom) early on, with one the audience cannot (the resentment of a mother towards her child) as the film progresses. This makes Boryana a conflicting character who elicits both sympathy and scorn. And as the film jumps nine years ahead, Vitkova pulls the same trick again, but in reverse, when she starts to focus on young Viktoria, now a spoiled brat. The young girl at first deserves the audience's scorn for her diva behaviour, but when the political system collapses, Viktoria becomes withdrawn and searches for a connection, one that she can't find with her mother. Suddenly our scorn turns into sympathy, and it is somewhere down the middle of these conflicting feelings for mother and daughter that both the audience and the two characters need to go to come closer to understanding each other.

Vitkova not only juxtaposes the characters' motives, she does the same with her representation of late Socialist society, which at once is presented as bleak and as infused with a colorful magic realism that at times ventures into surrealism. Sometimes a bit over-stylized (Vitkova sure loves overhead shots), and peppered with symbolism (no belly button, get it?), the film doesn't manage to grab hold of the viewer for its entire running time, but the director has to be commended for taking on such an ambitious project, and the end result is a film that fascinates and is a visual feast. Added to that are two very strong performances by Chichikova and by Kalina Vitkova as a teenage Viktoria (the 9-year-old version is played by Daria Vitkova; the family relations are unknown to this reviewer, but they can hardly be a coincidence), the latter being very well cast based on her physical likeness to her 'film mother' as well as her talent. The film plays in the Tiger Awards competition, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is one of the three winners come Sunday.

Mein blindes Herz (Peter Brunner)alt

Mein blindes Herz (My Blind Heart) is one of the more impenetrable films at IFFR this year. First-time director Peter Brunner is a former student of Michael Haneke at the Vienna Film Academy, and the influences are certainly there in the formalist flourishes of some scenes, yet in other scenes there is a lyricism and poetry that is far removed from the work of the Austrian master and countryman of the young Brunner. Shot in stark black and white, the film loosely follows a period in the life of Kurt, a young man suffering from Marfan syndrome (a genetic disorder that affects the skeletal structure as well as the heart and eyes, hence the title). After he kills the mother who suffocates him, this restless soul in a restless body goes from care home to abandoned home, befriending but also betraying other people on the fringes of society, whether they be people with Down syndrome or a 13-year-old runaway. In the latter, Conny, Kurt recognizes a rebellious streak that he shares, as he rebels against his own body. The viewer is torn between pity and compassion for a man who is in constant conflict with his own body, and anger and annoyance at a man who at times seems to care little about other people.

If this all sounds reasonably straightforward, make no mistake: there is very little in terms of actual plot, as Mein blindes Herz  is a fragmentary film that relies as much on impressions as it does on a storyline. Laced with philosophical voice-overs, this film is an existentialist rumination on life, will and morality, seen through the eyes of a conflicted protagonist that bucks the trend of other disabled people in film: he is not just a pitiful person (Jean-Do from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly  probably comes closest to the fully realized disabled character that Kurt is).

Lead actor Christos Haas himself also suffers from Marfan syndrome, and one has to wonder how close this character hits home for the actor. It's a bravura performance in which Haas lays himself bare completely, but it is also a once-in-a-lifetime performance because of his condition. It is as much a document about the pitfalls in his life, as it is a film about a fictional character. Brunner treats his subject with utmost respect by not putting Kurt in the pity-corner, instead showing a disturbed character who cannot come to peace with his condition. The manner in which he does this can come off as too studied, and the director's ambition overtakes him at times, but Mein blindes Herz  is a remarkable experience that gives the viewer a lot to chew on.

The Hope Factory (Natalia Meschaninova)alt

Norilsk isn't exactly the greatest place on earth to live. This industrial town (mining, mostly) is located in the Siberian north, and a cold and dire place if we're to believe Natalia Meschaninova's debut feature The Hope Factory, screening in the Hivos Tiger Awards competition. What does life have to offer youngsters who have to live there? Not much but hanging around and drinking, as the film shows. A future? Hardly. Some are content with that, but not the two girls in the group of friends this film focuses on. They are rivals, but both dream of leaving this place, and each in her own way tries to achieve that goal in this coming-of-age drama filmed against a harsh Siberian backdrop. The film shows the hardship of life in the Russian hinterland, especially for young women in a still very traditional, male-dominated society.

The film is not only Meschaninova's debut, but that of most of the crew as well (the cast is made up of professional actors though). It is a marvel that it turned out a very mature effort, often shot in a handheld documentary style (Meschaninova has a history as a documentary maker) that creates a fly-on-the-wall experience, and gives good insight into daily life in one of Russia's many industrial towns, and how such an environment influences the mood and state of mind of its occupants. The lengths it makes both girls go to to escape this environment are at times gut-wrenching and degrading, and both actresses (Daria Savelieva and Polina Shanina) employ naturalistic acting that fits the film's style. A bleak film with only a glimmer of hope, this is an assured and encouraging debut by the young director, also co-author of the script, and marks her as a talent to be watched.