The European Union Film Festival opened 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.
There are an impressive number of Eastern European films available for theatrical viewing these recent days; not only the wide selection here at the EUFF, but a regular theatrical run of the new film from Romanian Cristian Mungiu, Beyond The Hills (at the Landmark Century). And even the new debut German film by Swiss filmmaker Baran bo Odar, The Silence (currently on view at the Music Box), employs the slow pace, static compositions, dry humor and meditative humanism of filmmakers like Cristi Puiu, the great Bela Tarr, and the late Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky. But if I was betting on filmmaking futures, the horse I’d put my money on is Sergei Loznitsa, the Belarusian auteur responsible for 2010’s solemn and masterful My Joy (Schastye Moe), and our film here, In The Fog (В тумане) (Latvia/Germany, 2012), Loznitsa’s adaptation of a novel by Vasili Bykov.
In The Fog takes place during the Nazi occupations of the Byelorussian Republic (now Belarus) in the early 1940s, but the specifics of place aren't all that important – this story would resonate in any homeland where the forces of violent oppression generate resistance, neighbors take sides for or against their fellow neighbors, and questions of loyalty and morality are distorted in the desperate scramble to survive. Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy) has been an exemplary friend and neighbor in his rural village, a railway worker for quite a few years, with a wife and young son. The Nazis allow the workers to go on with their usual labors, but when sabotage occurs, Sushenya and his co-workers are the main suspects. His comrades are executed, but Sushenya is spared, which, ironically turns out to be a far worse fate. The Nazi commandant knows that, by letting him live, Sushenya will always be suspected of selling out, whether he actually did or not, and that Sushenya’s continued survival will be a poison pill lodged within the village culture; it’s far more manipulative, and darkly instructive, to turn his own community against him.
So, inevitably, Sushenya is taken on that long walk into the woods by two of his comrades. But things don’t develop as planned, and our three reluctant companions must travel, for reasons I won’t reveal, through the bleak and dangerous rural landscape of patrols, survivors and scavenging opportunists on both sides of the conflict.
Loznitsa’s film is shot by still-young but astonishingly talented Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu (also the DP of choice for Mungiu and Puiu), and he’s given the stark and grubby milieu of forests, dirt roads and solitary cabins an incongruous elegance. But the real strengths of the film are Loznitsa’s carefully structured pacing and the obvious depth-of-connection he enjoys with his hardworking cast. He gives his actors almost daunting expanses of time and space to fill with their characterizations – conversations are spare but aptly placed - and they return the favor for him with performances of real gravity and thoughtfulness. The ratio of really good films is high this year at the EUFF, but Loznitsa’s film is, most certainly, a top-of-the-list must-see.
‘In The Fog’ screens on Saturday, March 16th at 3:45 p.m. and Wednesday, March 20th at 7:45 p.m.
Letters To Sofija (Lithuania, 2012) chronicles the short adult life of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, a prodigious and prolific Lithuanian painter and composer from the late 1800s. All but ignored in his native country as a young man, Čiurlionis (Rokas Zubovas) traveled to St. Petersburg with his devoted partner, Sofija Kymantaitė, to promote his work, and landed patronage for both his musical works and paintings. Kymantaitė (an impressive Marija Korenkaite) was a prominent young journalist and critic, a fervent activist for Lithuanian nationalism, and a continuing champion for her husband’s work after his early death in 1910 of pneumonia. It’s a potentially rich and swoony love story set against a backdrop of artistic passion and political upheaval.
Director and writer Bob Mullan’s resumé reveals him to be an experienced documentary filmmaker; this is his first feature film. It’s artfully shot and appointed, and he gets committed performances from his capable cast. But his script isn’t very good; it’s riddled with half-hearted clichés, and the characters essentially explain the events and ideas to you verbally, rather than showing you the consequence of those events and ideas organically through their behavior. And Mullan’s visuals are merely accompaniment to the story, rather than a co-existing complementary narrative of its own. The plot proceeds in block-like fits and starts – you can almost see Mullan’s written outline as the episodes progress.
Čiurlionis is a fascinating character that more Westerners should be familiar with – the musical compositions used in the film are impressive, suggesting a heady mix of Debussy, Mahler and Shostakovich, and his symbolist paintings bring William Blake to mind as well. I suspect Mullan’s documentary work is pretty good; this film is obviously a labor of love for Mullan, and a worthy one. But his good intentions are undone by the deficiencies in his storytelling skills, and I suspect it’ll either take another feature or two for those disparities to reconcile, or he’ll simply work with another, better writer. I wish him luck, but I can’t recommend his film.
‘Letter To Sofija’ screens on Saturday, March 16th at 3:30 p.m. and Wednesday, March 20th at 7:45 p.m.