Melbourne International Film Festival – Day 10. By Simon Miraudo.
Only yesterday I was lamenting the fact that I had hit the proverbial wall in my attempt to watch 60 films during the 17 days of the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival. Well, like a bolt from the blue, my singular brand of melancholia was lifted, not by Mr. Lars Von Trier (whose film, Melancholia I will see later in the fest), but by a combination of excellent films and unique cinema experiences. I consider it a pretty good day when you get to sit through two (2!) of the best films of the year so far, a lovely little dramedy, and also witness one of the most spectacular theatrical mishaps I’ve ever seen. The latter took place in the final screening of the day – The Turin Horse – where the film’s drab climax was destroyed (or improved?) by a series of technical difficulties, including faulty projection, a popcorn-styled flashing-light symphony and an orange spotlight intermittently appearing on the screen, drowning out all vision of the film’s miserable protagonists. It was like living inside the opening credits of Enter the Void. The last few moments of the film were ruined … but the memory, well, that’s going to be a priceless one.
33) A Separation
Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation takes us on a complex emotional journey, as we watch decent, well-meaning people get tangled up in their little white lies with disastrous results. The film begins with Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) pleading their case for divorce before a judge. Well, only Simin is pleading. She wants to move away from Iran, yet he wants to remain to care for his Alzheimer’s ridden father. Slicing the marriage in half is the only reasonable solution they can come to – even if it breaks their hearts. It’s one of those cases where neither party is wrong, making the ordeal all the more painful to watch. The biggest victim is their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), who is continually asked to choose between her two parents. Simin moves in with her folks, leaving Nader to hire someone to come care for his father while he’s at work. The successful applicant is Razieh (Sareh Bayat) – although the pay is low and the commute far, she needs the money for her debt-ridden husband, young daughter and new baby on the way. The exhausting requirements of the job take a physical toll on the devout Islam woman (she phones an elder to advise her whether or not it is a sin to clean the old man’s private parts). Off camera, she makes a poor decision that sets off a chain of events fraught with tragedy, leading Razieh and her husband (Shahab Hosseini) to take on Nader and Simin in a legal battle (the details of which I won’t spoil). Through it all, the kids begin to see their parents in a new, unpleasant light. Won’t somebody think of the children?!
I want to compare the film to Woody Allen’s Manhattan; another ensemble relationship drama where the setting is as integral to their interactions as the very actions they take. Of course, this is no satire or even a comedy (although writer/director Farhadi’s screenplay is deeply felt and tender enough to indulge in the occasional comic moment). It is a drama, but it’s never overwrought or melodramatic. It’s tender, and real, yet the conflicts still have massive implications for all involved. It resonates deeply thanks to its universality, which it miraculously achieves without ever once selling out the social mores of its location. Profoundly affecting, wonderfully performed and endlessly surprising, A Separation is not just one of the best films of the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival, but of 2011.
Terri is a broken-hearted dramedy about what it really means to be a misfit (and not the actually-a-smoking-hottie kind of misfit seen in Glee). It also puts in the spotlight a talented young director (Azazel Jacobs) and heralds a new screenwriting talent (Patrick DeWitt) who we can look forward to refining their craft and delivering even more affecting films in the future. But in the meantime, Terri will do. Jacob Wysocki stars as the titular character; an overweight 15-year-old who lives alone with – and cares for – his mentally ill uncle (Creed Bratton; yes that Creed Bratton). Terri has taken to wearing his pyjamas to school, and his tardiness has caught the attention of his school’s Assistant Principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly, reminding us that he still has a little Mr. Cellophane in him at this post-Apatow stage of his career). Fitzgerald, ever thoughtful, if a little manipulative, takes Terri under his wing and invites him into his club of “good-hearted” school outsiders. So begins a friendship – born out of pity – that eventually offers both parties insight and comfort as they deal with their individual pains. It might not be the quirky coming-of-age comedy that the premise promises, but there are some very funny moments amidst the picture’s deep sadness. More bitter than sweet, but at least it feels real.
Writer/director Mike Mills was on hand to introduce the screening of his latest film Beginners … which I will discuss in a separate review at a different time. Just know that I loved it. (UPDATE: And here it is!)
36) The Turin Horse
Surely no one in the screening of Béla Tarr’s Hungarian-language feature The Turin Horse was surprised by the depths of its bleakness and almost hilariously drawn-out nature, but still, of all the sessions I’ve attended at MIFF 2011, this one enjoyed the most walkouts (and only half of those were thanks to the lighting mishap in the final half-hour that turned the cinema into a blue-light discotech). Tarr and co-screenwriter László Krasznahorkai suggest in the film’s epilogue that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche went mad in the late 1880s after witnessing a hansom cab driver whipping a horse. Rather than focusing on Nietzsche’s subsequent descent into insanity, it considers the horse’s final days. Over the course of a week, we see the hansom cab driver, his daughter, and the eponymous horse living in strained conditions on their farm, during an apocalyptically devastating wind storm. Even that sentence feels like a generous depiction of the events (or perhaps, “action”) that takes place in the film. Rather, they wake, they get dressed, they toil, they repeat. The flick’s most action-packed sequence involves the man hurriedly peeling, smashing and gobbling a potato for tea; this riveting set-piece recurs two more times. The daughter, when she isn’t cleaning or caring for her pa, sits in front of the window and peers out into the desolate landscape for what seems like an eternity, as if it were a torturous TV that played only The Turin Horse on loop (meta!). There are moments that are actually quite stirring, where I found myself transfixed by Tarr’s unshakable camera. In the opening sequence, as we watch the horse trot for almost ten minutes, the beast seems to take another form; it seems to move differently. Of course, it doesn’t, but our brain seems to think so, as if we’ve been staring too long at one of those 3D puzzles. His hypnotic four-bar score also occasionally transfixed me. But to what end? If Tarr merely wanted to express to the audience just how austere and unpleasant the lives of these farmers are, well, mission absolutely accomplished. Ultimately, I’m not sure there’s all that much to take away from the film beyond an onslaught of depression.
Nietzsche, whose work has been wildly misinterpreted over the years, seemed to have conflicting feelings about the lower class, or peasants, or “slaves”, as he occasionally referred to them. Although the extent of his hatred towards them has been exaggerated, he certainly looked down upon what he called “slave morality”; those who subscribed to the idea of being owed, rather than those who went out and took what they deserved. The subjects of The Turin Horse are stoic, but certainly unambitious, and their desire to even live is questionable. Did Nietzsche hate poor people? Well, as someone who wrote a thesis on Nietzsche’s concept of “slave morality”, I say, ‘yeah, little bit’, but the point is certainly open for debate. If you hate poor people however, you’ll LOVE watching them suffer in The Turin Horse. (Fun fact: The word ‘day’ in Hungarian is ‘nap’. So, when the subtitles come up proclaiming it ‘The First Day’ or ‘The Second Day’, the original Hungarian text gives you a gentle reminder to nod off.)