Rome Film Festival Capsule Reviews #3

Sebunsu Kôdo – Seventh Code  (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

A young Japanese girl (Atsuko Maeda) follows the man of her dreams (who doesn’t even remember meeting her) to Vladivostok. Despite finding out that he’s involved with the Russian mafia, the girl decides to stay in the foreign country and pursue her romantic quest with the help of two Chinese restaurant owners. As we follow her struggle to adapt to her new situation, we also gradually understand that there’s probably more to the story.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film, winner of the best direction prize here at the festival, is a tight little thriller (only 60 minutes long) that manages to build a world of intrigue in the otherwise bleak setting of crime-ridden urban Russia. It starts almost as a romantic comedy and evolves into something much darker, which not only entertains with its twists and turns, but also gives a very clear and moving image of the world of immigration in Eastern Europe. Each character, alien in a country that is not their own, is looking for something better: a fairy-tale romance, economic stability, even just the chance to matter, not to spend a meaningless life. And while the lead character’s journey is destined to be intricate and doomed, the most interesting parts of the movie are probably the secondary characters. Their narrative summarizes the essence of the movie: they want more, they want (to use an expression from the movie) “power,” an influence which is not necessarily economic or political, but just the power to decide what to make of their own lives, even if that means being uprooted from everything they’ve known and diving into the utterly unknown.

Out of the Furnace  (Scott Cooper)

altRussell (Christian Bale) is a well-balanced mill worker who divides his life between his terminally ill father and his loving girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). Rodney (Casey Affleck), Russell’s little brother, is in the army and can’t cope with the horrors he sees in Iraq: on returning home he spends all his days trying to run away from the demons of war, chasing easy money in gambling and fighting. When Russell is sent to jail for killing a whole family in a car crash, after he’s finally released he finds his life upside down: his father is dead, his girlfriend has left him for another man and his brother is off the deep end, involved with some very dangerous people.

Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace  is a film almost completely supported by its talented cast. Bale’s stoic hero is powerful and iconic, a Clint Eastwood character with strong morals and a deeply rooted sense of family. Affleck, despite being back in his comfort zone of disturbed and neurotic lost souls, proves once again that he truly is one of the most gifted actors of his generation with a performance that is fragile and hyperactive at the same time, and that doesn’t try to hide the character’s flawed perspective nor his complete and unsettling self-involvement.

The rest of the cast shines as well, especially Willem Dafoe as a good-hearted con man and Woody Harrelson as the evil drug dealer whose menacing presence is felt throughout the film.

On a purely technical level, Out of the Furnace  is striking in its dark and gritty cinematography, its dynamic direction and tight editing. The screenplay, however, is flawed, yet extremely well crafted. The moral issues of its final act are quite problematic and their intent not successfully delivered. On one hand the movie seems to immortalize a violent and mindless act of self-justice as something heroic, depicted in a style that goes back to the great American western; on the other hand, the whole first act is a slow-burning accusation against a political class that never quite understands the real struggles of the working class and can be the indirect cause of something as extreme as the characters’ actions, which are not necessarily justified but still presented as part of a bigger cause-and-effect chain. There’s confusion between the two moral positions, but what remains with the audience is certainly the bond between the characters, so wonderfully captured by some remarkable acting.

Mogura no uta – The Mole Song  (Takashi Miike)

altReiji (Tôma Ikuta) is the worst cop in Tokyo. He’s incompetent, not very bright, and a bit of a pervert. So, obviously, that makes him the perfect candidate to become a mole in a huge police operation against the yakuza to stop a major drug deal that will destroy thousands of young lives, addicted to a powerful and fatal new pill. Reiji soon finds himself involved in something even bigger, when he discovers that there’s an internal struggle within the country’s strongest yakuza family. His peculiar view on heroism and his bizarre, but not wholly unsuccessful, sense of duty make the whole operation a success. But the cool life of the mafia boss is too big an attraction for the young man…

Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song  is an insane ride of epic proportions perfectly faithful to the spirit of its source material, a manga by Noboru Takahashi. Surviving the chaotic first ten minutes, a mess of backstory narrated through cartoonish editing, is a struggle, but well worth it. The movie soon evolves into something that, while remaining just as crazy as its beginning, is less grating and hugely entertaining.

Miike’s imagination creates a world of brightly dressed criminals, singing cops, mad doctors who build cyborg legs out of nothing, and over-the-top mafia traditions. His characters become iconic in their originality, with Crazy Papillon, the butterfly-obsessed mafia boss with a heart of gold, as the truly memorable character of the whole festival.

The movie’s a colorful concentrate of pop art and film clichés, smartly mixed together with a real sense of bonding between the characters: through the excellent performances, these characters are able to maintain (most of) their humanity in the kaleidoscopic vision of the director, and their relationships are an anchor for the audience who would otherwise be lost in a welter of mental images.