Grimm re-edit (Alex van Warmerdam)

By Gary M. Kramer.

The AFI European Union Film Showcase, being held virtually at December 2-20, offers an eclectic assortment of nearly 50 films. Here is rundown of a half dozen impressive features screening at this year’s fest.

Writer/director Jurgis Matulevicius’s auspicious debut, Isaac, opens with a horrific pre-credit sequence in whichthe title character (Dainius Kazlauskas) is killed during the Lietukis Garage massacre in 1941 Lithuania. Strikingly shot – in black and white and in a continuous take – this riveting episode echoes throughout the rest of this intense, disturbing drama. The story picks up in 1964 with Gediminas (Dainius Gavenonis), a film director, returning to Lithuania after more than 20 years abroad. He is preparing to shoot a script based on the massacre and he hires his friend Andrius’ (Aleksas Kazanavicius) partner, Elena (Severija Janusauskaite), as his assistant at her prodding. Gediminas, however, also is being secretly followed by Major Kazimieras (Martynas Nedzinskas), who has concerns about the director and his script; Kazimieras often calls him in for interrogations during filming. What transpires is a dense, affecting story about trauma and memory as Andrius, Elena, and Gediminus are all haunted by their past and facing an uncertain future. Yet it is Matulevicius’s superb command of the storytelling that distinguishes this visually spellbinding film. His frequent tracking shots pull viewers into the action making them accessories to the drama that unfolds as lives are changed forever.

Likewise, the Slovakian import, Servants, written and directed by Ivan Ostrochovký, is shot in luminous black and white. And like Isaac, it too, plays like a thriller. The opening sequence is incredibly sinister with a man later identified as Fero (Vlad Ivanov) cleaning his shoes in a sink after dealing with a corpse and a car under a bridge at night. Cut to 143 days earlier when two young friends, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) enter a Seminary School. It is 1980 Czechoslovakia. The (real-life) organization “Pacem in Terris” is enforcing the church to fall in step with Communism – despite the insistence that the seminary is apolitical. As Juraj befriends one of his teachers, he becomes one of Fero’s targets because of his activities (and his reluctance to collaborate with the Communist regime). Meanwhile, Michal tries to find his own path, and encounters a different set of problems. The drama – which includes a hunger strike in protest to the politics – is as compelling as the artfully composed shots. One gorgeous and heavily symbolic image has the young men framed in a window by the shadow of the church cupola and steeple. Servants is rigorously made and Ostrochovký’s precision is why the film is so dazzling. Newcomer Samuel Skyva is a standout in the all-male cast.

Another highlight from the program is the sly import, Never Gonna Snow Again, Poland’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar. A pre-title sequence has Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a Ukrainian masseur, laying hands on a man and hypnotizing him. It shows the kind of magic Zhenia is capable of, and why he is soon in demand in a gated suburban Polish community. Writers/directors Malgorzata Szumowska (The Other Lamb) and Michal Englert follow Zhenia as he pays visits to various clients – the matriarch of a bourgeoisie family (Maja Ostaszewska), a man with cancer (Lukasz Simlat), a widow (Agata Kuleska), and a bulldog lover (Katarzyna Figura), among others. He “takes away their misery, their suffering, and their sickness,” and when they awaken from an induced hypnotic state, they have renewed energy. But at what cost? Each client’s jealousies and insecurities are heightened the more they depend on him, and they all have self-destructive moments. Is Zhenia a Christ-like figure? Is he planning something sinister? The filmmakers are slow to reveal their hand, letting Zhenia’s stony expressions or his dancing in one client’s house, silently reflect what he feels. Never Gonna Snow Again is more about mood that action, but there is a subplot about two men looking for Zhenia. The filmmakers exact a hypnotic pull over viewers complete with amusing shots of the gated community and some gorgeous dreamscape imagery. One scene has Zhenia literally evaporating. The film may be ambiguous, but the satire stings.

Mare, by director Andrea Staka,offers kitchen sink realism, Croatian style. Mare (Marija Skaricic) is first seen getting her three kids off to school, hanging the washing, and cleaning the house. It is clear that she loves her family, but it is also clear she wants to escape. Even when she’s in the bathroom, Mare cannot get a moment of privacy or respect. She would like to have a job – she sells herbs as a pastime – but her husband, a security guard at the airport in the shadow of their house, prefers she care for the kids. “They still need you,” he tells her. Mare, however, needs some freedom. Then she meets Peter (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz), a young Polish man who is working at the airport; they begin a hot and heavy affair. Watching Mare experiencing pleasure with Peter and the illicit thrill of sex is palpable – but can this fling last? Mare is hardly a novel entry in the genre, but it is distinguished by Skaricic’s incandescent turn in the title role. She makes viewers root for her throughout this engaging, likeable character study.

The immersive documentary Vienna Symphony – Inside the Wiener Symphoniker, gives viewers a glimpse into the rehearsals and performances by the acclaimed Vienna Symphony as well as the lives of some of its musicians. Codirectors Iva Svarcová and Malte Ludin include interviews with a handful of performers and conductors who talk about their careers – how they got started, their love of music, their fear of failure, and perfection vs. expression, among other topics. Vienna Symphony, however, is a bit all over the place. The filmmakers do not identify the musicians (except by instrument) and discussions – such as one two musicians have about being involved in a romantic relationship – do not yield many insights. Moreover, the focus on the performers gets sidetracked when there is a search for a new concertmaster. While glimpse the behind-the-scenes is fascinating, and most of the personalities on screen are engaging, it is the power of the music that comes across best.

The European Union Showcase is also offering viewers the opportunity to screen writer/director Alex van Warmerdam’s Grimm re-edit, the filmmaker’s own reworking of his peculiar 2003 feature; he tightened it by ten minutes and provided a new score and sound mix. Adult siblings Jacob (Jacob Derwig) and Marie (Halina Reijn) are left in the woods by their father (Johan Leysen) with a hidden note from their mother to go find their uncle in Spain. When they are rescued by a farmer (Frank Lammers), however, it is hardly a blessing. Jacob is forced against his will to sleep with the man’s wife (Annet Malherbe), which prompts him to exact deadly comic revenge. They soon get involved in more criminal activity – murder, robbery – until Marie meets Diego (Carmelo Gómez), a surgeon, whom she quickly marries. Alas, more trouble ensues. Grimm is an intriguing picaresque designed to keep viewers as off-kilter as the characters. The plot twists and meanders, but this fractured fairy tale remains intriguing even when it strains credibility. Director van Warmerdam is especially strong in creating atmosphere, from the dark forest to the wide-open stretches of highways to rocky landscapes and empty city streets. Diego’s house is inviting yet sinister, and the finale is set in a dusty Wild West town. Grimm has some darkly funny moments and compelling performances by the leads, but it somehow all feels muted.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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