I'd like to stick some exciting star sightings into my little introduction here, but sadly the only famous body part I've laid eyes on (so far) is Freida Pinto's head. Before we get to the enticing capsules -two starkly different Foreign Film Oscar contenders and one harrowing prison drama that trumps them both - a bit on one of the highlights so far:
Meek’s Cutoff feels like the natural evolution of Reichardt’s attitude towards her filmmaking – it is broader than but not indistinct from her previous films, an experiment in how starkly different elements (of plot, of acting, of character) can be understood in the low-key shooting style many admire her for.More on Meek's here.
Now about that harrowing prison drama...
It’s part of the festival experience to overload your schedule, and as a result, you sometimes find yourself barely focusing on what you’re watching because you’ve run straight from something that’s rooted itself in your head. And so it was, as I sat watching a film about ye olde French aristocracy besotted with a square-faced princess, that I spent at least half an hour musing instead on Picco. The title comes from German slang for the newest inmate, and Picco dwells entirely in a youth prison. It's inspired by a startling real life incident. First-time director Michael Koch makes oppressive use of tracking shots, circular pans, low angles and square framings to emphasise the trapped, limited existence, cemented by a more subtle use of sound to separate the youths both in sync with and against the image. Slowly but surely, as our ‘picco’ Kevin (Constantin von Jascheroff) becomes more acclimatised to prison life, Koch tightens his focus onto the film’s formidably gripping centrepiece. He coats the film with a dreadful inevitability, providing a naked, uncompromising view of people who, by their own bitter admission, are “all fucked”. (A-)
“I have no one else, anywhere,” says one of the Cistercian monks explaning why he has no reason to abandon the monastery. ‘But what about God?,’ might be the obviously facetious question. But France's Oscar submission Of Gods and Men is really about the struggle between men. The godly presence remains left unquestioned, present only in the ceremonious prayer sessions that are viewed like the clockwork mechanism they are. The kinship the film focuses on is the monks’ brotherly bond, tested in the face of confrontations with the violent fundamentalists in the North African region where they live. We see that the tension isn’t an inherently cultural one through the interactions between the monks and the locals, particularly Michael Lonsdale’s medic and his affectionate patients. Instead, Of Gods and Men questions where religion fits in a violent world, especially one where the violence is religiously motivated (the fundamentalists leave, quietly, on hearing the sacredness of the Christmas Day they have interrupted). But the brief moments outside the monastery don’t seem to exist for more than surface examples – of how the monks are accepted, or the stark violence of the fundamentalists – and the tone is, inevitably, deliberately monastic. Only in a dramatic sequence at the dinner table do we really muster any deep connection to these characters, and it runs the risk here of being done so baldly it only narrowly avoids tipping the scales in the other direction. Finally, despite the technical skill and delicate performances, you feel you would have been just have moved by reading the plot on a piece of paper. (C+)
On the other end of the spectrum completely, and not getting near Oscar with a ten foot altar cross, The Temptation of St. Tony is a twisted, darkly beautiful and morbidly funny piece of Estonian esoterica, shifting unpredictably between bourgeois Buñuelian absurdism and eccentrically dark Lynchian setpieces. A plot is dissected and strewn across the film, though we start out in fairly clear territory as Tony (a deadpan, bewildered Taavi Eelmaa), a factory middle manager, wilfully engages in a midlife crisis after the death of his father. Dinner parties devolve into drunken madness where swinging is a lifestyle, he chases a beautiful but impoverished woman into the darkness of a baroque underground, and a dead dog is dragged across an ice plain. Director Veiko Õunpuu acknowledges his debts – thanking Buñuel and Pasolini in the end credits – but there’s a uniqueness to this nightmarish comedy, making inscruitable comments on the politics, history and socio-economics of its environment and twisting the Eastern European atmosphere to deepen both the hilarity and the tension. Add a delectably discordant sound mix and you have an affront to the senses, but it tickles each one in just the right way. (B+)