The European Union Film Festival opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, March 1st and runs through the month of March. 61 films will be presented, and I’ll be reviewing as many as I can throughout the month.
Most animators never think “I could film this, but I choose to animate it instead.” Rather, they decide to tell the story they choose to tell, and animation is their medium – I suppose it’s actually pretty rare for most animators to even think about photographically filming the stories they want to share – they just start drawing. That’s why rotoscoping is such an interesting process for an animator to choose – it’s a medium that, except in rare, high-budget circumstances, almost completely depends on realistic, photographically filmed images, onto which illustrated animation is then superimposed to enhance or abstract the visual information. Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly are examples you may be familiar with, or Robert Zemeckis’ Polar Express. (Some rotoscoping is also apparent in Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City, although it’s not the primary technique.) It definitely has its own look, and it’s not necessarily a technique that a lot of animators like. “Combining the Real and Fantastical in this way allows a film to flitter from reality into fantasy without obvious ‘special effects’ markers that, despite their credibility, stand outside the live-action. The technique opens up many possibilities, but it also means that a rotoscoped film is never truly realistic nor fantastical.” And Yoni Goodman, Director of Animation on Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, resents the fact that many mistake that film’s animation for rotoscoping. “Every movement in this movie was created and invented in the animator’s head, and not copied over live footage… While rotoscope is a legitimate technique, I’m not very fond of how it’s used in most cases.”
Every filmmaker wants to create content that will render the mechanics of how that content is being delivered irrelevant, and sometimes the evolution of those mechanics can take many films over many years. I’d be inclined to use A Scanner Darkly in defense of the effectiveness of rotoscoping, and would now add Tomás Lunák’s Alois Nebel (Czech Republic, 2011) as well. Like Sin City, it’s based on an existing series of graphic novels by Lunák’s fellow Czechs Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99, and, like Rodriguez with Frank Miller, Lunák wants his film to reflect the overall look of the original work. But Alois Nebel tells an entirely different kind of story. Alois (Miroslav Krobot) is a quiet, older Czech man who has been a train dispatcher at the Bílý Potok station, near the Polish border, for many years. He tries to stay distanced from the casual corruption that keeps the local economic engines of the rural area running – he just wants to do his own small job well. But his obsessiveness in the service of a job well done also masks some hard memories concerning the Russian rout of German forces from the area in World War II, and the expulsion of Germans who had settled in the Czech / German areas known as Sudentenland well before the Nazis screwed things up for them. Coinciding with Alois’ escalating episodes of depression over his burden of memory (nebel is the German word for ‘fog’) is the appearance of Nemý (Karel Roden), who has trekked for hundreds of miles, crossing borders that, at this point (1989), were still illegal to cross, all in his service towards taking revenge on the man who killed his father in 1945 during the same expulsions that haunt Alois. Alois must eventually spend time in a hospital to treat his depressive episodes, and it’s here that he meets Nemý, who has ended up here after being arrested for his flagrantly nomadic ways, and they form an unspoken but reliable friendship. Upon Alois’ release, he discovers that he no longer has his job – it’s been given to a government official’s moronic and corrupt son. After chasing the self-serving bureaucracy in Prague through a number of humiliating hoops, Alois manages to secure a much smaller, less lucrative job with the railway, living in a desolate cabin between stations in the Jeseník Mountains. But in the course of re-employing himself, he also makes the acquaintance of a friend of a friend – Kveta (Marie Ludvíková), a forthright older widow who runs a small transient’s bathhouse at the Prague railway station.
The film tends to assume that the audience is familiar with the historical context of the story, and many western audiences may have trouble putting specific pieces together. But the film is primarily about character, and the wishes of our main subjects to reconcile their lives with the burden of their memories and past experiences. The overall look is bold and blocky (and in black-and-white – all of those grey tones are actually much harder to negotiate for the animator than having the full color wheel at your disposal), but the realistic visual foundation of the film lightens things up considerably. The film is almost completely devoid of humor, but there are lots of little details and gestures that keep our main characters relatable and intriguing. Lunák’s balancing of the underlying realism, and the subtle effects that the animation affords him, is impressive. Watch how he uses contrasts and shadows, how some scenes conclude in blackout, others in a glare of white. He’s also able to accentuate compositional geometrics that realistic backgrounds might muddy. I really loved the look of the film, but the visuals serve to reinforce the story, characters and themes in the best ways. It’s one of the most interesting and involving animated films I’ve seen in a while, and I highly recommend it.
‘Alois Nebel’ screens on Saturday, March 2nd at 5:15 p.m. and Tuesday, March 5th at 8:00 p.m.
Many of the things I have to say about Ole Christian Madsen’s Superclásico (Denmark, 2011) are things I said about Hilde Van Mieghem’s Belgian comedy Madly In Love (Smoorverliefd) last year; it’s a mainstream comedy that travels over familiar ground, and feels a little fluffy, like it’s not really aspiring to much. But its general level of intelligence, the committed performances and the respect it ultimately has for its audience distinguishes it from similar, sadly lesser comedies regularly produced by Hollywood.
Christian (Anders W. Berthelsen) runs a once thriving – now failing wine shop in Copenhagen. He has a whip-smart but quirky teenaged son, Oscar (Jamie Morton), with his wife, Anna (Paprika Steen), a high-powered sports agent who left him over a year ago and settled in to Buenos Aires with her star client, a young Argentinean football hero named Juan Diaz (Sebastián Estevanez). Anna wants Christian to hurry up and sign the divorce papers so she can get on with her life, but Christian decides, in a last middle-aged hurrah, to travel to Argentina with Oscar to convince Anna to give him one last shot at husbandhood.
Of course, he’s a complete fish out of water. Of course Anna is planning to marry one of the most virile young men in the western hemisphere. Of course he meets colorful and curmudgeony locals, and has a few small but important epiphanies on the present state of his life. And, in a predictable subplot, Oscar meets the young teenaged woman that may be the love of his life. It’s all pretty formulaic, and some of it is far sillier than it is credible, but, on the whole, Madsen keeps it all engaging and agreeable. Two characters in particular, Anna’s housekeeper, Fernanda (Adriana Mascialino), and Mendoza (Miguel Dedovich), an Argentinean winemaker who holds court in a small local tavern, represent the harder comedic edge that I wish Madsen would have found other openings for throughout the story (he co-wrote the script with Anders Frithiof August), but I appreciated those characters being there at all – they’re not dependent on contrived conflicts to make an impression.
Contrivances aside, this is another comedy, I’m relieved to discover, that’s populated with real live Adults, as opposed to older people still trapped in a state of eternal adolescence. Christian does some dumb things, but his passions have a grounded maturity to them; where he ends up at the film’s conclusion is a genuinely nice surprise. Berthelsen does admirable hard work here with this character. Paprika Steen is a veteran Danish actress who did a fair amount of work with the Dogme 95 filmmakers – Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen - but she, too, displays a relaxed flair and groundedness with mainstream comedy. It’s no one’s idea of a comic masterpiece – it may not even linger much past your leaving the theater. But for a little over an hour-and-a-half, it’s a capably amusing diversion that’s been presented with admirable thought and care, and sometimes that’s a fair accomplishment in itself.
‘Superclásico’ screens on Saturday, March 2nd at 7:00 p.m. and Tuesday, March 5th at 6:00 p.m.
Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (Portugal, 2012) got a single screening at Northwestern’s Block Cinema a few months ago, and now you’ll have a few other opportunities here to catch this unique and thoughtful film. Shot in glorious black-and-white by veteran Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças within the more traditional, squarer Academy frame (1.37 : 1), Gomes’ film explores Portuguese (and, by extension, overall Western) sociocultural behaviors and attitudes in three specific episodes. The first is a short entr'acte concerning a man lamenting the loss of his wife, his soulmate. Resolving to lose himself in his sorrow, he travels on foot through the African wild with a team of natives, in khakis and a pith helmet. He seems to have no task or destination or weapons of any kind. Visited by the ghost of his lost love from time to time, he drops himself into a river where he knows a crocodile awaits. Has he committed sure suicide, or has he somehow merged his spirit with the crocodile?
In the second episode (‘Paradise Lost’) we meet Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a pleasantly self-sufficient retired middle-class single woman. She’s a devout Christian who says her prayers regularly, and tends to lead a life of enlightened altruism. She’s politically active (joining human rights demonstrations and protests of the U.N.), has an irascible artist friend who gives her paintings from time to time, and, and when we first meet her, has volunteered to house a Polish exchange student. But her primary concern is her neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral), a somewhat stylish and prepossessing elderly woman who seems to be losing the grip on her lonely life. She depends on her daughter (who we never meet) for her income and apartment, and is tended to by Santa (Isabel Cardoso), a quiet, no-nonsense African woman who serves as her au pair of sorts. Aurora likes to sneak off to the casino to lose all of her money, invite herself over to Pilar’s apartment to hold court, and lament that Santa is casting black-devil spells that keep her miserable. Pilar wants to alert the daughter to Aurora’s true condition, but Santa won’t allow it. Pilar is a genuinely good person, but her life seems to be a series of consecutive small disappointments – the Polish exchange student stands her up, the tiny protests she participates in seem inconsequential, and she feels helpless as she watches Aurora decline. But circumstances arise wherein she meets a mysterious old friend of Aurora’s, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), and he relates a tale of his acquaintances and experiences with Aurora in Portuguese-colonial Africa.
It’s these reminiscences, fifty years earlier, that comprise the third part of the film (‘Paradise’). Here, Aurora is a vibrant and beautiful young woman (Ana Moreira), an avid hunter from a well-to-do family (raised by a widower father) who marries well and entertains her other European expatriate friends. But upon meeting Gian Luca (Carloto Cotta), she’s swept into a torrid affair that threatens her idyllic marriage and Gian Luca’s deepest friendship. And, unlike the more realistic, straightforward events of the earlier section, this episode is told, almost entirely, as a silent film with Gian Luca’s voice-over narration.
Gomes’ reverse-juxtaposition – a man’s ritualized fall into a sorrow-fueled limbo, followed by the small, everyday existences of a group of people in present-day Lisbon, followed by a tale of white colonial privilege and forbidden love not too far removed from F. Scott Fitzgerald or Marguerite Duras – continuously echoes back on itself, and the final third enriches what has come before in profoundly resonant ways. All of that history, all of that money, the colonies, the empire – what has Portugal become, and who are the Portuguese, today? Has present-day Portugal been shaped by all of that, or does its past fall away, inconsequential? Does Gian Luca, or the dying Aurora, look back on it all with nostalgia, or remorse? Gomes’ film is abstractly allegorical – the bigger questions it triggered with me aren't necessarily overt concerns of the film, but Gomes is fully aware of the free-association that his approach will evoke. The whole thing can just as easily be seen, solely but still rewardingly, as a ripe romantic melodrama. Or, if you’re aware of the Portuguese Colonial Wars (between 1961 and 1974) - triggered, tangentially, by events in the third portion, with the apparent results evident in the second - then you’ll dive deeper into the film than even I know to. On a number of levels, it’s a fascinating film that’s presented in a way unlike any you've seen, perhaps save the mid-century exotica of filmmakers like Jean Renoir or Michael Powell. Enthusiastically recommended.
‘Tabu’ screens on Saturday, March 2nd at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday, March 6th at 8:00 p.m.