The 17th Annual European Union Film Festival is at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It’s one of my favorite film events of the year, and I’ll give some quick capsule reviews on the films I manage to see throughout the fest.
Markus Blunder’s Autumn Blood (Austria/USA, 2013) traffics in the same medieval moral ferocity of films like Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring or František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarova – the young and innocent will be despoiled by the corruptions of the powerful; the only questions are A) will they survive nonetheless, and B) having survived, will they then inherit the corruption of their forebears?
A rustic cottage is surrounded by the limitless mountains, valleys, streams and forests of the Austrian Alps. The family that lives there, tending to a few livestock and chopping wood by hand, is a widowed mother (Jacqueline Le Saunier) and her two children, an older teenaged girl (Sophie Lowe) and her smaller younger brother (Maximilian Harnisch). One awkward and dispiriting tragedy has already separated the family from their father, and, on one fateful day, two more tragedies visit simultaneously; the mother, having well-nigh exhausted herself with running the small farm and family by herself, quietly passes away, and the saddened brother awaits his sister’s return from her morning bath at a nearby lagoon. But unbeknownst to him, his sister’s secluded swim has been intruded upon by a young hunter from the nearby village, who brutally violates her and leaves her with the warning that there’s a bullet with her name on it if this episode is revealed.
Nursing profound physical and psychological wounds, the two kids resolve to continue their home routines while making no mention of their mother’s passing. But on an errand to the village that she has performed routinely before, the village clerk notices the girl’s disheveled demeanor, and alerts a regional social worker to her condition. The girl’s appearance in town also whets the appetites of the hunter and his two equally testosterone-fueled friends. And even though the girl and her brother are somewhat prepared for this subsequent ‘visit,’ they are nonetheless overpowered, and the girl, once again, gets the worst of it.
The social worker (Annica McCrudden) arrives in the village, makes a few inquiries, and drives out to the cottage to check on the family. The girl and her brother successfully conceal themselves, but the woman deduces enough to know there’s something dark and unpleasant simmering under the situation. The hunter and his friends, aware of the social worker's investigations, decide to eradicate the source of this outside annoyance, and, armed to the teeth, make their way to the kids’ cottage. Knowing for a fact that they’re almost completely defenseless against the malevolent three, the girl and her brother flee into the deep expanses of the surrounding forest, hotly pursued by their executioners.
Blunder’s film sounds almost unremittingly bleak, and he comes uncomfortable close to I Spit On Your Grave territory here; it’s an exceedingly fine line between the cathartic scale of mythic tragedy and the dull splat of mean-spirited exploitation and grisly payback. But Blunder’s rock-solid sense of moral rectitude never wavers, and the journey into the woods is not unlike John and Pearl's escape down the river in The Night Of The Hunter. The fact that there are no named characters here is your first indication that this specific narrative represents far larger concerns (it’s The Girl, The Boy, The Hunter, The Butcher, The Social Worker, etc.). Another is the almost complete absence of dialogue; huge stretches of the film are essentially silent, save for Robert Miller’s masterfully evocative but wholly unobtrusive musical score and the musique concrète of the Alpine forest itself – keening winds, tumbling rocks on a hillside, rushing water, the echoes of small canyons and caverns. The events of the film move away from a story being told and towards a ritual, or rite-of-passage, being enacted. I won’t tell you how that escape into the woods unfolds, or how Blunder’s (and Stephen T. Barton’s) story concludes (although a sense of things coming a-circle is practically guaranteed). But the harrowing journey that these people must make, the initiation into redemption, retribution, ruination or whatever might lie in-between, involves some of the most thrilling narrative filmmaking I’ve been lucky enough to have seen lately.
Markus Blunder (and yes, I’m sure all of the jokes have been used up…) is a pretty famous commercial and music video director, still photographer and theater veteran who has extensive credits throughout The U.S., Europe and Brazil. This is his first feature film, and, boy, was he saving this up. That extensive visual arts background, both artistic and commercial, would presume a film of no small visual expertise, and he delivers in spades. The cinematography, by the up-and-coming Reed Morano, is superb, and the few non-realist flourishes (some time-lapse landscape sequences, and a well-orchestrated sense of crystal-clarity vs. dreamlike gauziness) only convince us further of Blunder’s strong stylistic hand. This film easily makes my 2014 Top Films list. I suspect it will revisit theaters in a few months – it has a U.S. distributor, though it’s not one of the biggies – but you’ll be doing yourself a favor by making one of these EUFF screenings. Honestly, this film knocked my socks off.
‘Autumn Blood’ screens on Saturday, March 29th at 9:15 p.m. and Monday the 31st at 8:15 p.m.