As can happen, numbers and general audience buzz swelled beyond expectations for Saturday’s afternoon first showing of the Croatian film The Constitution, one of this year’s films co-sponsored by the ADL, packing one of the small Metro theaters to breaking point. But it was a happy problem, immediately inspiring the festival to book an added screening (watch those TBA slots: they will start filling up with popular and/or view-worthy titles).
In the enjoyable comedy-speckled drama, the critical balance of characters includes a gay professor struggling against homophobia, who is taking care of his dying father — a member of the notorious Croatian fascist movement during WWII, deemed brutal even by the Nazis — and a police officer downstairs in his building whose Serbian heritage and barely hidden sympathies potentially chafe against Croation pride and culture. Mediating the frictional forces is a kindly nurse character, wife to the policeman, and peacekeeping friend to all.
Director Rajko Grlic was on hand for a Q&A afterward, and he spoke about the elaborate process of taking the initially clichéd ideas of the characters and building a three-dimensional tale and set of people. Mission accomplished, although the character/narrative construction process was perhaps too intensive, with a resulting film that, while affecting on many levels, can seem sentimental and manipulative.
Trump Age ripples continued in this film and the post-screening discussion, as when the director answered a question about the ongoing legacy of hate in the region — and the world. “We made this movie with hope,” he commented. “For politicians, it’s easy to get elected by hating someone. In the Balkans, politicians have known this for a long time. This film is about giving a little hope. Let’s see the human beings inside of someone you think you hate.”
Asked whether the turmoil in the Balkans over the past 25 years (and deeper) has helped inspire a wave of inspired new cinema, Grlic cited a quotation, that “‘the Balkans have made too much history.’ It has produced amazing stories.” He added, with a sly smirk, “you’ll see. In five years, American will have a lot of stories, too.” It was a funny quip, and, of course, sobering in its potential truth.
Denmark’s powerful Oscar nominated film Land of Mines contains, among other things, an unusually loaded title, so to speak. Literally, director Martin Zanvliet’s tale of German soldiers in 1945 detained in Denmark to find and defuse the vast number of landmines left on Danish beaches and fields takes on a particular emotional power from the fact of one group being ex-Nazi soldiers’ youth — as teenagers, some barely out of boyhood. They go about their volatile, patient yet potential explosive task on deceptively tranquil land, but we’re made aware that these young lives could go up in puff of smoke. The metaphorical potential of the symbol of hidden mines — echoes of the horrors of Hitler’s war, emotional flash points, tensions brewing beneath calm surfaces — abound, even as the film’s well-told story goes about its steadily handed business.
There are a million more stories to be told and filmed about WWII, and one can’t go to Europe without running into vivid reminders of its still-lingering after-effects. This is a poignant small slice of post-war aftermath, which also triggers both our revulsion over things Nazi-connected and as a requiem for the innocence of youth.
Those lured into the Taiwanese film Godspeed on the assumption of taking in some good new-fashioned comedy-action kinetics might be disappointed. Comedy arrives in droll, sneak attack ways and action — and gangster-style ultra-violence — shows up only occasionally, like grisly relief. What director Mong-Hong Chung has concocted is a weirdly mesmerizing, slow-brew diabolical charmer, with seemingly digressional tactics and conversation, ala Quentin Tarantino’s devious graces in Inglorious Basterds and The Hateful Eight. A “delivery” boy slithers in the margins and the backroads with a wise Old Xu cabbie, while drug deals turn bloody and gangsterism ploys include a saw through a helmet, and philosophical asides hum distractedly as we go, fast and slow, fast and slower.
Random SBIFF Housekeeping and Notes: You may have noticed that festgoers, at least the hopelessly addictive type, seem more rested this year compared to the past. This may have something to do with the jettisoning of the long-standing late night slot of films bumping up against midnight, resulting in some filmgoers to stay up late and get up early to catch the 8 a.m. “Breakfast Club” meetings — which have become an evermore popular slot in the program. What we lose in nocturnal cinema missions, often of the more cultish, edgy, or offbeat sort, we gain in sleep. So goes the trade-off equation.
Even so, fest fatigue can set in by about this point in the 11-day festival. Beware and don’t become dismayed. Second winds are just around the corner. I noticed, for instance, being unreasonably perturbed by the recurring typo gaffes in the Czech film Tiger Theory last night, but a good(ish) night sleep was just the thing. Line ’em up, Joe projection personage/robot: A sizable group of people are ready to soak in the cinema today, Super Bowl notwithstanding. (Who was playing again?)
What to See File: Swedish films Sami Blood and Strawberry Days, The Constitution, The Teacher, the feel good soufflé Soof 2, a visit at the Arlington, with Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, from the sad wonder of a film, Manchester by the Sea.