The Nice Guys

Shane Black

Tedious, overlong, unfunny, distasteful, lazy. Why should I waste my time writing about this film? Sorry Shane, but trying to recapture the heights of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang means more than putting two seemingly mis-matched stars, throwing in lots of crashing action, bad style (cos it’s the 70s, geddit?), porn, and a sassy kid. And just because Chandler writes plots that don’t hold together but triumphantly succeed it doesn’t mean just anyone can. This tale of two hapless private eyes stumbling their way through some cockamemie plot about a missing girl, a porn star called Misty Mountains (for lots of the film I thought they were one and the same person) and a dastardly scheme by the all-powerful motor moguls of Detroit (ha ha, funny one that) cascades between several stools, bruising itself badly at each one.

It could have been a daft comedy à la Crosby and Hope; it could have been genuinely thrilling amid the funniness. It could have been more outrageously, satirically, 70s – as it is because the characters are all such foul people you kind of forget about its periodness all together and think they’ve just got bad taste. It could have made the plot a bit more intriguing so we were actually interested in seeing what happened next. Or it could have got us onside with these two blokes so we actually cared a bit about their never-convincing bromance, or feel our hearts warming to the soppy stuff about Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and his smart daughter.

As it is, Ryan’s shady looking spiv of a gumshoe just gets tedious with his running joke of always falling off things, and the somewhat portly Russell Crowe’s languid hitman, Jackson Healey, always looking a bit too intelligent for a man who lives by his violence, breaks far too little sweat, except when picking up silly old Ryan when he’s fallen off yet another balcony, rooftop, or cliff, or the unedifying moment when he’s throttling an already mortally wounded baddy. Or it could just have been a lot sharper and slicker – because, though it obviously thinks it is, it isn’t even that. A half laugh might have crept to my lips perhaps twice. And I did kind of admire the way they got rid of a key character unexpectedly in Janet Leigh/Psycho fashion. But that’s about it.

But mostly – aren’t we all a bit weary of watching things and bodies breaking in the name of excitement?

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Transilvania International Film Festival 2016, Cluj: Part 3

Of course TIFF is a chance for Romanians to see not only the best of the country’s own output but also a vast range of films from round the world, with this year special strands dedicated to films from Lebanon, Lithuania and Croatia, as well as animal themes, horror and several directors’ retrospectives. Their cheap ticketing policy, the screenings outside the city centre, the social spaces in and around the cinemas, the Q&As following many screenings, mean this particular audience – lots and lots of students but ordinary townsfolk too – is very well-informed and perceptive. They might laugh more than I did at a popular comedy like Eastern Business, but they are also attentive and full of questions at hard-hitting documentaries and demanding features from all over the world. And how good it is at this festival to be able to watch the films as a member of real audience rather than in the sometimes artificial and loaded atmosphere of a press screening.

The sobering Hungarian documentary CAIN’s CHILDREN (KAIN GYERMEKEI) appears in the Educatiff strand, which is usually aimed at young people. But this is a very grown up theme indeed. Thirty years ago several young teenagers who had committed murder were featured in interviews in a documentary, FAILED. Now Marcell Gerő has traced three of them and followed their days a little, unobtrusively coaxing them, and their relatives, to talk about their lives and eventually about their crimes. The new material is intercut with the murky black and white footage of them as youths, mostly looking more embarrassed by what they had done than ashamed, and strangely alike. Their fresh-faced younger selves give often wavering, sometimes altering versions of their crimes, with occasional glimpses of the nightmarishly chaotic young offenders’ institution they are in. It’s hard to make out the unexceptional teenagers as the worn middle-aged men, so much are their experiences carved into their faces.

All the killings were explosive, spontaneous, though it emerges that much was already seething away beneath. Pali, who killed his violent father, seems to have had a lifetime of being told he’s no good. Now he longs for a proper relationship with his own children, as if to heal the past. Joszef killed an abusive teacher, and has become a mild, drunken vagrant with a professorial look who lives on what he can get for bottles he collects from bins. And yet he has a warm and affectionate relationship with his ex-partner, also an alcoholic, by whom he has a child. If only… they both say, even while knowing a normal family life could never have happened for them. Most complex and disturbing is Zsoll, who killed a friend he found with his mother, the village prostitute. He is intelligent, well-read and politically aware, and crystal clear about his crime, and the only one with decent accommodation – but you soon realise it is a bed in an institution. And that he’s murdered again. The dark mystery of a life destroyed by one almost casual yet inescapable deed, growing out of backgrounds of abuse and horrific poverty, is what they have in common, and it’s hard too not to be shocked by their current deprived and squalid surroundings in today’s ‘modern’ Europe. There’s little redemption here. This is a very impressive debut.

From Austria comes the contemplative documentary BROTHERS OF THE NIGHT (BRUDER DER NACHT) by Patric Chiha, a visually fine portrait of a group of young Bulgarian Roma men who inhabit Vienna’s underworld, making what living they can, mostly by hustling in gay bars. The director has won impressive honesty from the boys as they talk about their lives and their hopes, and it’s a sometimes surprising view of an existence spent, despite its dark side, in a kind of lighthearted camaraderie. More of the same in similar vein does become a little monotonous after a while, though, and a shorter version might have been more powerful.

Canada has produced some very exciting directors in these last few years, but I don’t think Guy Edoin will be joining my list of must-watches. Admired by some, his VILLE-MARIE stars Monica Bellucci, glowing and emoting as an actress performing in a film made by her ex-partner and mirroring her own life. It’s a strong performance by Bellucci, who’s beginning to have the mournful and damaged look of the mature Jeanne Moreau, night-time Montreal looks ravishing, and the film begins impressively with a young man casually walking to a bus stop where something momentous and shocking happens. But sadly the whole thing soon becomes almost as contrived and formulaic as the film we observe being shot, which is a dreary and melodramatic tale of the travails of a wealthy wife with a stereotype brutish husband. It’s particularly irritating, or did I miss something cleverly ironic here, that the action of the film within the film is presented to us in its final glossy edited form, close-ups and different camera angles and all, only to draw back and reveal it being shot from a single camera on set. A preposterous, semi-pornographic, abortion scene is especially crass, particularly when seen here in the country of 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, and its mawkish role in the plot leaves a nasty taste. Add an artily shot gay threesome, a guy with PTSD, crashing ambulances, and possibly the most unflattering bra ever to be seen onscreen and – enough already! The interweaving with tales of the hospital staff who are tangentially involved feels forced, and the only successfully achieved character is that of the emergency room nurse. Comparisons with All About My Mother are not flattering.

LOST IN MUNICH (ZTRACENI V MNICHOVE) by Petr Zelenka (Czech Republic) is an odd one. During the Munich peace conference in 1938, at which Daladier, the French premier, Chamberlain, Hitler and Mussolini discussed the question of Hitler’s claims on parts of Czechoslovakia, Daladier’s very attentive and articulate pet parrot, we are told, was present. Now at the age of 90, he’s a guest of the Czech French Cultural Institute, and begins to repeat things he heard there, most controversially insults made by Deladier during the negotiations. But just when I began to feel the comic possibilities of this scenario were running out, it turned into a very different film. If I’d had doubts about the authenticity of the parrot story, I was now invited to have doubts about everything I was seeing. A large poster of Truffaut’s La Nuit Americaine which makes more than one appearance is a nudge in the direction of the way this film is going, as it sets us up with various layers of possible realities and intentions, even taking us wrily into the murky waters of international film funding. It’s a touch too long, but a brave and sparky conundrum on what to believe and what not to believe when we watch a film, or indeed judge a political figure. Concentrate!

One of the last events of the festival was a treat. FROM THE SEA TO THE LAND BEYOND is a powerful, emotional, spectacular and enlightening compilation from over a hundred years of BFI archive by film-maker and alternative theatre director Penny Woolcock, about all aspects of the UK as a maritime community. Work – shipbuilding, fishing, including one of my favourite pieces of British archive, the independent Scottish herring girls who followed the fishing fleet down the East Coast; leisure, from the Sunday-best-clad crowds flocking down the promenade to sandcastle-building kids to 50s holiday camp jollities; the drama and beauty of the sea – destructive storms, wartime damage, lifeboat rescues, come together in a loosely chronological way to make a stunning montage. It’s full of moments of powerful meaning, such as when knockabout beach frolics morph into military training with bayonets. The band who wrote and performed its pumping, atmospheric soundtrack, British Sea Power, were here to perform it live in the majestic acoustics of the Student Hall.

The uproarious reception that the mainly Romanian audience, innocent of childhood memories of very British seaside holidays, battles against a wild and unpredictable ocean, or even the poignancy of those smiling pre-World War One crowds laughing and larking about, was striking. And it underlined once more the enormous value, emotional, informative and aesthetic that a film festival can bring to its location, perhaps even more importantly than to its well-travelled and experienced guests and critics.

A post script on the Romanian shorts, always a must-see because of the chance to test the water of upcoming talent. Sadly I only got to 11 of the 18 this year.

Winner was A NIGHT IN TOKORIKI (O NOAPTE I TOKORIKI) by Roxana Stroe, the exhilarating tale of a trip to a village party by a group of country boys, told with such zip and zing that you hardly notice there is no real dialogue, only music, dizzying movement and a whirling camera to carry the story along. The opening sequence of the cartful of lads driven by Alin, his face full of expectation -of what? – is a joy to behold. Special mention went to MY NAME IS COSTIN (MA CHEAMA COSTIN) by Radu Potcoava, a beautifully acted, creepy little film based on true events, which offers a profound mystery without answers. Notable others included NINEL, a story of a town girl who travels to meet her internet date knowing nothing about him but his occupation. It’s a journey from smart city centre of bars and plate glass to scruffy suburban bus stops and down-at-heel flats, sophistication meeting a distinctly un-smart, unreconstituted maleness. WALL presents a pair of young people waiting in a hospital, a beautifully framed depiction of the oddity of what important decisions on life are made by people we don’t know in these sterile places, slyly enlivened by the banal routines of the security man in his cabin. In SECOND LOOK (TE MAI UITI SI LA OM) by Ana-Maria Comanescu a rather iritatingly lovey-dovey couple find their relationship becoming unravelled when they pick up a hitchhiker. And elliptical story-teller Andrei Creţulescu has, in contrast to his last year’s uncompromisingly harsh and shocking winner, produced a warm and intriguing domestic tale, SEVEN MONTHS LATER (SAPTE LUNI MAI TARZU), bearing his trademark witty and subtle dialogue and precise camerawork.

June 2016

 

Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj, 2016: Part 2

Unbelievably, when one witnesses the appetite for film here in Cluj, two years ago Romania had only 30 cinemas still in existence.TIFF took the problem to its heart, in particular acquiring and starting to restore the old state Film Depository on the outskirts of the city, where thousands of metres of film lay abandoned in and around the vandalised derelict building. Snails crawled over the celluloid and grass and weeds had begun to close over its images. Currently used for outdoor screenings, the plan is to create a new community film and arts centre and eventually create a Cinema Museum. As part of the move to highlight the plight of the closure and neglect of small cinemas, the festival now has a strand, ‘Cinema mon Amour’, and this year a film of that name made a powerful and emotional argument for the importance of local independent cinemas, something that even the multiplex-crammed UK could well learn from.

CINEMA MON AMOUR by Alexandru Belc is a poignant documentary about the struggles of Victor Purice, manager of the decrepit Cinema Dacia in the small town of Piatra Neamţ. With the unflagging help of his loyal assistants Cornelia and Lorena he is shown keeping the struggling cinema afloat. When the heating goes he offers blankets and hot drinks, when the sign needs repainting he does it (very expertly) himself, and teenagers are beguiled into attending with offers of two tickets for the price of one and the chance to choose their own films. He sadly recalls the old days of collecting reels from the station and cycling with them to the cinema, but this is no mere trip into nostalgia – a visit to a successful small independent cinema in Germany (‘to see how the civilised world does it’) shows him what could be done with a little financial help and state encouragement, including, somewhat sadly for a real film enthusiast, going properly digital. As it is he can’t even accept the German offer of some unwanted free seats to take back because of the cost of transport. It’s a beautiful film without sentimentality – Victor’s a fighter, and not for nothing is he filmed in front of the Gladiator poster in the foyer. So when he seems ready to give up, it’s a truly sad and affecting moment. A late offer of help from Romanian Film, the very people who have closed down so many cinemas, may mean a hope that things may be starting to be seen differently, but the happiest note for the Dacia, revealed in a Q&A at the end, was that the showing of the film there has brought back audiences and ensured its financial viabililty – for a while at least. Victor won the Cultural Resistance Award at Trieste this year, and I’m proud to have shaken his hand.

Also enjoyable among the Romanian films on offer was Paul Negoescu’s TWO LOTTERY TICKETS (DOA LOZURI), a well-made, snappy and inventive comedy featuring three hapless friends who lose their winning ticket and pursue the two heavies who have stolen it through various adventures, produced by and featuring Dragoş Bucur (also seen in DOGS), revealing a real comic talent after all the melancholy, troubled or romantic characters usually associated with him. In contrast EASTERN BUSINESS (AFACEREA EST) by Igor Cobileanski, which has another trio of losers this time pursuing absurd attempts to make money, has its moments but mostly trails along through its almost identical 80 odd minutes feeling far longer and more ponderous, squeezing every last drop from each situation and never approaching the meaningfulness it clearly aspires to.

ORIZONT (Marian Crişan), set in the forests not far from Cluj, is a worthy attempt at a gloomy doomy thriller, set in a modern hotel recently acquired by a city family with hopeful ideas about making a new start in a healthy environment. But the fresh air soon starts to pall when the local heavies who control illegal wood trade make their presence felt. It’s a foresty, non-existential variation on the ideas in DOGS, but loses its grip somewhere halfway, when a kind of torpor sets in, and the melodramatic finish doesn’t quite get the drama it’s aiming for, partly because we’ve never truly engaged with this family.

But for me the most disappointing Romanian film was THE LAST DAY (ULTIMA ZI), by Gabriel Achim, responsible for the chirpy but very darkly-streaked comedy ADALBERT’S DREAM a few years ago that promised much. Here Adrian, wearing a neck brace and mournful expression throughout, has set off to join a monastery some distance away from the town where he lives. He’s driven there by his old friend the Mayor, and their car is accompanied by another bearing the local police chief and the leader of the Christian Youth Association – it’s a proud day for their community, and the mayor insists on filming it as Adrian’s ‘last day’. But some kind of cock-up means the abbot’s away so Adrian cannot be received, and they have to return home through the night, the mayor still filming. Claustrophobically shot inside the cars, the men discuss religion, life, morality, society, but for me this elicited impatience rather than engagement, and finally, sad to say, boredom. The Mayor soon emerges as a bullying egoist, with some kind of hold over each man.

They reach the Mayor’s place, where he will treat them to a barbecue lunch. Adrian is increasingly glum, while the other men’s sycophancy reaches epic proportions, and we start to see what it is exactly that the mayor has on each of them. His behaviour becomes more frenetic, getting out his hunting rifle, a rather too strong indicator of the way things might go. Whether the long wait for climax, which begins well, is a masterpiece of suspense or a dragging of the feet is a moot point. I wanted to like this film, made on a low budget by a kind of cooperative, but for me it was at first too opaque (the business of going to the monastery, for example, was never made very clear), and then too repetitive and obvious. Others clearly found it more striking than I did, however, as it won the Romania Days prize.

More to come…

Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj, 2016

The 2016 edition of TIFF is its 15th year, it’s my 10th year of attending, and we’re still both as youthfully exuberant as ever! But what changes there’ve been over those 10  years. In 2006 three cinemas and one outdoor screening space were used. Now the city is teeming with screening and event spaces, and not just in the city centre, 15 in all, including three open air screenings each night, weather permitting – and mostly it did, despite ominous forecasts. Sometimes it feels like you’re never out of sight of a TIFF logo. Bars and pavement cafes have sprouted, decrepit buildings have been saved, but not at the expense of their character. Food too – Where once there was not a lot of choice outside the top restaurants beyond mici and pizzas with ketchup, there are now excellent varied restaurants and bistros everywhere using wonderful fresh local produce, yet the varzarie with its traditional dishes, the self-service café offering great çiorba for less than £1 per bowl, and the countless hole-in-the-wall street-food joints to keep you going as you dash between screens, are still thriving. it’s a very special Romanian city that also feels increasingly like an exciting European one, a city for living in, with a future – the word that springs to mind as you step out from the hotel every morning into the thronged streets is purposeful. And in tune with the place TIFF buzzes with energy, attracting not just film specialists, but an intelligent local public avid to see good movies.

And many hundreds of this mixture were lucky enough to be present at the Romanian premiere of a new Romanian masterpiece, fresh from Cannes. Cristi Puiu’s SIERANEVADA, a few minutes short of a daunting 3 hours, is a finely crafted, totally absorbing ensemble piece, set in real time in a small apartment during a family wake. Our entrée into this world is Lary, a son of the deceased, whom we first meet in the family car having a testy argument about a Snow White costume with his wife. She’s much preoccupied with getting to Carrefour before it closes; also, one picks up, pretty keen not to spend too much of the afternoon with the in-laws. And we soon see why. Once inside the flat the camera does marvellous things, long takes ducking in and out of the small rooms, following then leaving the many characters and conversations, or pirouetting in the hall with views through doorways of rooms and dialogues we shall never hear, utterly breathtaking choreography.

The people are both ordinary and mysterious, and it’s up to us to pick up who they are and what their relationships might be, a process that itself holds some satisfaction. Puiu certainly makes us work, but the effort is extremely satisfying and the effect total immersion in this world, so that when Lary, who has become our representative in this party from hell, gets the giggles over the absurdity of it all, we don’t just laugh with him, we’re actually viscerally catching the giggles ourselves. Some take centre stage, like the sparky Auntie in a rather capitalist-looking white fur hat, a staunch communist still, constantly arguing the toss about how good things were in the old days. Some we never do really get to know at all – there’s a particular lady of a certain age with a bohemian look sporting a cap who might have been interesting, but then we spot her leaving. A huge meal has been prepared but we’re waiting for the priest who will perform a blessing on the house, then for the dead granddad’s enormous suit to be taken in so his skinny grandson can wear it as part of the tradition. A granddaughter brings in and dumps a retching drunk Croatian girl she hardly knows, the baby keeps getting woken up, then another drunken uncle arrives and creates a crisis as his marriage unpicks before our eyes. Meanwhile the men discuss politics and make fun of young Sebi, the famiy conspiracy theorist, who believes the Charlie Hebdo massacre (which has just happened) is some kind of establishment plot. The idea of authenticity (even the Snow White argument brought this up, you realise in retrospect, with the Disney version now being seen as stealing the authenticity of the original Grimm story) becomes a theme, or maybe, troublingly, it’s the impossibility of authenticity and truth, the fact that there are always at least two sides to every question.

There are echoes of Visconti’s finely choreographed family set pieces, from Rocco to The Leopard, and Chekhov’s warm messiness of life’s absurdities and tragedies. Bunuel’s teasing frustrations are here too, not only from the never-to-be-eaten meal of Discreet Charm but also The Exterminating Angel’s existential trap of the flat and what it contains as people lurk about on the stairs outside seemingly unable to leave. Under the dark humour and entertaining observations there’s a bleakness that sometimes bobs to the surface to float around with all the rest of the debris of human existence.

The other stand-out new Romanian film here was DOGS (CAINI), a debut feature by Bogdan Mirica, a chilling and nail-biting thriller with a western feel and one of the most striking openings I’ve seen for some time, as the camera sweeps over a landscape of prairies and then descends across weed-covered water, all of the greenish-khaki shades which are to become a keynote of the entire film, to come to a stop with a horror we shrink from even though we can’t quite make out what it is. City boy Roman (Dragoş Bucur) has come to sort out the sale of his dead grandfather’s house in the country, only to discover the old man, known as Uncle Alecu, didn’t farm the land but used its vastness as a territory for illegal dealings of an unspecified and violent nature. Black humour prevails for a while, as the drily sardonic country cop who seems pretty powerless to set things right investigates the aforementioned ‘thing’ from the water, examining it with his knife and fork on the plate he has just finished eating from. Hereafter it gets carried round in a plastic carrier bag and unceremoniously pulled out  to show to various locals and the police doctor.

But there’s not much else to smile about, as Uncle Alecu’s trusty lieutenant, who has taken over leadership of the business, arrives with an offer Roman isn’t expected to refuse – keep the house and turn a blind eye. That this character is played by the wonderful Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist from 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, and many another tight-lipped amoralist, means this bloke is a complex figure, terrifically frightening; coldly logical yet full of reckless violence.

The arrival of Roman’s girlfriend from the city, half-expecting some kind of rural idyll, points up the film’s theme of unyielding masculinity – she’s sidelined and her ultimate fate is unknown, while Roman’s city facade is sloughed off, against his better judgement,  and he is dragged along with the old-style machismo to make a deadly decision which can only end one way. Tense night scenes and the silent brooding landscape where the only sounds are those of barking dogs and unknown vehicles driving through the dark create an atmosphere of dread. You know things won’t end well, but you’re afraid of quite how bad it can be. Pretty bad.

CAINI won the Transilvania Trophy, the top prize of the Festival, awarded for a first or second feature fim.

More to come…

Documentary of the week -The Second Game (Al doilea joc)

Corneliu Porumboiu

About half way through his film THE SECOND GAME, Corneliu Porumboiu jokes to his father Adrian that the 25-year-old football game they’re watching on scratchy TV video recording is like one of his own films: ‘it’s long, and nothing happens’. And so they watch (unseen), along with us, this dour goalless derby played out in the almost constant blizzard that renders it near black and white, and we’re often inclined to agree. Porumboiu père, who refereed the match, is in general unimpressed. No one wants to look at an old game, any more than an old film. It’s done, it’s over. Corneliu is more romantic. A football nut, he appeared in full strip as cover boy of the 2009 TIFF programme, and he’s always looking for the skill, the meaningfulness, the heroic angle. Meanwhile Adrian reminisces without sentimentality about the way football was then, a year before the fall of Ceauşescu, the corruption, the absurdities, how two out of three referees were informers, how the camera never showed fights on the pitch, because ‘Communists always played fair’, but turned discreetly away onto the crowd instead, how the rules, of football as well as Romanian society, have changed.

That the two teams involved, Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest, were respectively the teams of the Army – Ceauşescu’s favourite team – and the Securitate – his son Valentin’s – must have made refereeing this the trickiest of tricky tasks, but Adrian views it all with equanimity. And so we go on watching alongside them from our cosy present. Conversation lags, it’s often really boring, making our wandering minds try to focus on the action on the pitch – look, there’s a very young Dan Petrescu – or even on the bleak abstract beauty of the thing, and soon, somehow, you get drawn in almost against your better judgement into this irrelevant event of so long ago that is meaningless (yes, maybe Adrian’s right) to you.

But gradually it starts to mean something, and like Corneliu you start to realise there’s an enormous heroism in there, to battle on in this awful situation, the referee always running his tight ship, the players never slackening, even the dogged soaked crowd in their thick uniforms or with skimpy coats and plastic bags on their heads admirable, somehow. Like the muddy fight in Pintilie’s masterpiece Re-enactment, also witnessed by a football crowd leaving a match, it’s both absurd and desperately serious. About sport, but about people coping with the society they’re in as well.  And, almost magically, you care, and the film becomes a moving testimony to survival.

Seen at Transilvania International Film Festival 2014

Classic of the week – Satantango

Bela Tarr 1994

It’s a sunny warm Saturday at the end of September, a day best spent outdoors enjoying what may be the last of our Indian summer. Not really the day to spend watching a 7hr 15min black and white Hungarian film, yet that’s what I’m heading for, on the bus to Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema to watch Bela Tarr’s Satantango. I’m already a fan of Tarr, having seen his Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse, both staggeringly beautiful and powerful, both very demanding. So I have great and fearful expectations. I’ve got my bag packed with supplies – drinks, sandwiches, grapes, mini tomatoes picked this morning from my garden, some raw cauliflower florets (weird, I know) polo mints, paracetamols, Rennies, and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer.

The audience gather -mostly male, a respectable 20-odd, not bad at all, and we ruefully acknowledge each other with nods and sympathetic grimaces, like soldiers preparing for battle, we happy band of brothers. Elisabetta Fabrizi, Curator of screen-based media at the Tyneside, gives an excellent introduction. It’s informative, but more importantly communicates genuine personal enthusiasm and delight. And off we go. According to Elisabetta, Tarr asks that audiences don’t try too much to intellectualise his films, to think too much about them, but to respond viscerally, emotionally. I don’t intend here to attempt a ‘review’ of this amazing work of art, but here are my gut feelings.

Opening in a village that’s hardly big enough to warrant the name, we awake with the inhabitants to a wet dark morning at the beginning of the winter rainy season. Cows leave their byre, trampling through mud, with the occasional attempt to mount one another, making their way to their pasture as aimless and dispirited as the villagers are to turn out to be. An air of dread hangs over the place, as they await the arrival of two men, reported to be nearing the village. Should they leave before the pair arrive? Gradually we meet the various individuals, seeing the same events from different standpoints, as they start to make some sort of sense. Bundled up against the cold and wet, morose, afraid, flirtatious, drink-sodden – oh yes lots of that – we watch them relentlessly in tracking shots or unforgiving close-ups, trudging in their wellies along muddy lanes, through wind-lashed, litter-blown streets and dark woods see them slouching towards their uncertain futures across the landscape.

Despite how this may sound, it’s amazingly beautiful, even though not conventionally so at all, the flat central European plain mostly splodgy field-edge paths and rutted tracks, the buildings scrappy, even where there was once grandeur and aspiration, homes grimy and run down, packed with worn household stuff, papers, dirt-encrusted vessels and remains of food long forgotten. And the ubiquitous drink, consumed either in miserable solitude or the raucous pub, where the dancing is sometimes lyrical but mostly menacingly on the edge of violence. And it does go on. You can almost smell the drink coming off them. Like the Ancient Romans, the locals vomit it up to start again, in the way they never learn, or just don’t care, about their life experiences. But spending so long with the people and in the locality it’s impossible not to become immersed and totally taken up by the place, the textures of it. I came out during the first interval into sunny, busy city streets, and felt alienated from my own world, so deeply had I entered the vision inside.

So I did survive. And it didn’t even seem a strain, even though my eyelids drooped during my traditionally weak point in the early afternoon. A sugar rush of caramel wafer soon got me on track again. By the end I was weary and battered. And while it didn’t provide the absolute fix of exhilarating bleakness of The Turin Horse, or the intellectual fizz of Werckmeister, and I did feel, on the whole, it was a little too long, it was a staggering experience that will stay around in my heart as well as my brain for a very long time.

Outside the sun’s gone in, and it’s half way through the weekend already. Resume normal life.

September 2014