Saturday, November 13, 2010
Note: Times have been revised to reflect the EU’s current thinking, but based on past experience you might be wise to get there an additional ten minutes earlier for the second film of the evening, and twenty minutes for the third. The authorities are saying the sound of the movies is too loud and runs too late into the night.
Title/Original Title/Country/Category/Director/Length/Festival Synopsis/My Comments
Letters to Father Jacob (2009)
Original Title: Postia pappi Jaakob
Director: Klaus Härö
Principal Cast: Kaarina Hazard, Heikki Nousiainen, Jukka Keinonen, Esko Roine.
Awards: 2009 - Nordic Film Days, Lübeck, Germany Interfilm Church Prize,Audience Award
2009 - International Film festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, Germany,Main Award
2009 - 33rd Cairo International Film Festival, Egypt
The Golden Pyramid for the Best Film
The Prize for the Best Screenwriter (Klaus Härö)
2009 - Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn, Estonia, Jury Prize for the Best Director
2010 - Santa Barbara International Film Festival, USA, The Best International Film Award
2010 - Festival du Cinéma Nordique, Rouen, France
Best Actress Award (Kaarina Hazard)
Best Actor Award (Heikki Nousiainen)
2010 - 33rd Göteborg International Film Festival, Sweden, Nordic Film Music Prize (composer Dan Strömbäck)
Length: 75 mins
Leila, a life sentence prisoner, has just been pardoned. When she is released from prison, she is offered a job at a parsonage where she moves against her will. Leila is used to taking care only of herself, so trouble ensues when she is made to help a blind priest with answering letters, something she considers a waste of time. Leila has already decided to leave when the letters suddenly stop coming. Two completely different lives are intertwined, and the roles of the helper and the helped are turned upside down
Spirituality and Practice: A lean and intensely focused spiritual drama about faith, the dark night of the soul, and the redemptive power of love.
Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey: It's a story of faith expressed with simple grace and the small deeds of a pardoned sinner still searching for forgiveness. It is like a minimalist stage play -- three acts, two characters, quietly redemptive.
IMDb viewer: don't miss this film!
Now here is a movie that everybody should see. A sad story, though not sentimental. The optimistic ending leaves you in a comfortable feeling that even the worst situation can turn to better.
The Finnish landscape is beautifully pictured. Postcard like sceneries. Two brilliant actors, the directing is what you may expect from Härö: simply brilliant, as true as life.
The filmmakers have shared a very strong trust in humanity. The most warmhearted priest meets a woman whose fate has been to suffer a jail sentence that should never have been judged.
Do yourself a favor, watch this film.
Original Title: Wenecja
Director: Jan Jakub Kolski
Principal Cast: Marcin Walewski, Grażyna Błęcka-Kolska, Magdalena Cielecka, Julia Kijowska, Agnieszka Grochowska, Teresa Budzisz - Krzyżanowska, Michał Kwieciński.
Awards: 2010 – 34th Montreal World Film Festival; Special Jury Prize for Best Artistic Contribution
Length: 110 mins
Eleven-year-old Marek loves Venice. He knows the names of all the squares and streets of Venice by heart, but he has never actually seen his beloved city in person, but this is about to change. This summer his dream will come true; he will finally visit Venice. This summer, however, happens to be the summer of 1939. War with Germany looms and Marek’s father enters the army. Instead of St. Mark’s Square, Marek ends up with his mother in a large villa belonging to Aunt Veronica. Down in the flooded cellar of the mansion, Marek still has dreams. If he can’t go to Venice, Venice will come to him....
Denver Film Festival, Juliet Sherwood: When the outbreak of war in Poland in 1939 crushes 11-year-old Marek’s dream of a summer trip to Venice, he tries to escape the frightening reality into which he’s suddenly been thrown by hiding in his aunt’s basement—until it’s flooded by a violent storm. Devising a plan to distract her nephew from the horrors outside, she helps him undertake his journey after all as they construct a replica of Venice, its islands rising out of the water. Together they enter into a subterranean dream world—which begins to seem more real than the one aboveground.
Original Title: Tesis
Category: Horror/ Mystery/Thriller
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Principal Cast: Ana Torrent, Fele Martínez, Eduardo Noriega, Xabier Elorriaga, Miguel Picazo, Nieves Herranz, Rosa Campillo.
Awards: 1997 – Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film: Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver
1997 – Cinema Writers Circle Awards, Spain: CEC Award; Best New Artist (Premio Revelacion)
1997 – Goya Awards: Best Editing, Best Film, Best New Actor, Best New Director, Best Production Supervision, Best Screenplay-Original, Best Sound
1996 – Gramado Film Festival: Golden Kikito; Latin Competition: Best Actress
1996 – Ondas Awards: Film Award; Best Director
1997 – Premios ACE: Cinema – Best actress
1997 – Sant Jordi Awards: Audience Award; Best Film
1997 – Valdivia International Film Festival; Audience Award
Length: 125 mins
Ángela is a film student at Madrid University's Complutense. Searching for research material for her thesis on audio-visual violence, she befriends Chema, a fellow student and introvert with an encyclopedic collection of violent and pornographic films. After Ángela's professor dies while watching a film, she steals the videotape, discovering that it is a snuff film featuring a girl whom she and Chema recognize as another student at the university. Investigating the origins of the tape, they are drawn into the operations of a chilling snuff ring.
Note: Rated R in the US for strong and perverse violent content, brief strong sexuality, and strong language.
Variety, Joe Leydon: Snuff movies, true-crime TV shows and other forms of violent entertainment figure heavily in the plot of "Thesis," a surprisingly restrained thriller about a film student who becomes the star in her own life-or-death drama. Newcomer Alejandro Amenábar provides an inventive plot and a sufficient supply of red herrings.
Ana Torrent is well cast as Angela, a Madrid film student who wants to write her thesis on violence in movies. Her faculty adviser offers to help by searching the university's archives for violent videos. Unfortunately, he wanders into a secret storage room and picks up an unmarked videocassette, and he's shocked into a fatal heart attack while viewing the tape.
Angela discovers her mentor dead in a university screening room. Impulsively, she steals the tape he was watching. At home, she discovers the video is a recording of the torture-murder of a co-ed who disappeared three years earlier.
Rather than alert the police, Angela decides to investigate on her own. She seeks info about violent video from an eccentric classmate, Chema (Fele Martinez), an avid fan of porno and splatter movies. He looks at the snuff video and immediately recognizes that it was shot with a special model of video camera. Just a few days later, Angela spots one of those cameras in the hands of a handsome student, Bosco (Eduardo Noriega), who just happens to know the long-missing co-ed.
Amenábar effectively develops a slow-simmering attraction between Angela and Bosco, slyly hinting that she may be drawn to him because of the danger he possibly represents. Meanwhile, Chema fumes jealously and does a great deal to arouse audience suspicion.
Despite some whopping improbabilities Thesis generates genuine tension. Film also manages a few pointed comments about the relationship between violence and voyeurism, particularly in a final scene that has the host of a Spanish tabloid TV show warning viewers that they're about to see a clip from a snuff movie. The viewers appear to be raptly attentive.
Letters to Father Jacob (2009)
IMDb viewer: They're not kidding: this is excellent!
Careful, finely-honed directing by Klaus Härö features wonderful performances by Heikki Nousiainen and Kaarina Hazard. Brilliant casting. Small, tiny, luminous inventions are everywhere; nothing is heavy-handed. The story, first written by Jaana Makkonen, is austere, moving; the film ends just where it needs to in order for the story resonate. In any other person's hands besides Härö's, the result could have been disastrous. Why? Because the story does not appear to be overtly exceptional; and the visuals of the film need to be composed with the actors in natural, country surroundings and among existing buildings and a church. Härö, a cinematic poet, transmutes the physical materials he has on hand into gold. See this film if you dislike badly made movies and yearn for outstanding quality.
Monsters and Critics, Ron Wilkinson: A most sensitive and accomplished portrayal of self-discovery and acceptance. Emerging director Klaus Härö has three solid films behind him and this, his fourth, may be the best one yet. This is a man on a roll.
Kaarina Hazard plays Leila, a woman imprisoned for life for an unstated, horrific, crime. As the warden reads her the statement of her conditional release she is impassive as the Stonehenge. This is the face of a woman who has lost all hope in humanity. The world has done the worst it could do to her and her release from prison has the same impact on her as the tasteless prison oatmeal she ate that morning. She lived her life sometime in the past and all that remains is to wait for the physical end. Kaarina Hazard’s performance in this film is fantastic. Her story is one of redemption at the threshold of despair.
Upon her release from prison she has no place to go, having been alienated from her sister, who appears to be the only living person she ever knew. With no other choice, she moves in with Father Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen) a blind priest living out his last days at his deserted outpost of a church. Father Jacob lives alone and needs someone to read him the letters he receives from those in need of his prayers. An exceedingly comical mail carrier (Jukka Keinonen) who is the only person either Leila or the Father will see for almost the entire film brings the letters to him.
In the first half of the film the two simply sink lower and lower into a miasma of hopelessness. They are sad enough for themselves, but even sadder for the other, for whom they seem helpless to raise out of their misery. In time the letters themselves disappear, suggesting there was some kind of trickery behind them. On the other hand, maybe it was that headlock chokehold Leila put on the poor postal worker. For one reason or another things are not looking up.
Leila’s face and her very few words (there are few words throughout this script) express her amazement regarding just exactly what the Father thinks he is doing out in the wilderness with no congregation, answering ridiculous letters from people he has never even met. His response is that his place in the world is to remind everybody in need of reminding that everybody has a place and a purpose. No one is marginalized in the eyes of God. Leila’s reaction is to insult him in the most disgusting terms and declare that she will not another of his charity cases. She does not need his love, or anybody else’s. She has her own way of defining her identity. She declares she is meaningful to herself and that is all that matters. The Father knows there is more to it than that.
This is a film of redemption and self-discovery done in an extremely accomplished manner by an emerging director. Härö’s method is to use as few words as possible. The landscape surround the country parish is a bleak, gray and wet as it gets. The sky is somber and flat. There is less color in the entire set than in the Father’s sightless eyes. Nevertheless, behind his blindness Jacob sees things that others miss. He knows the story of all his correspondents by heart and he helps then as he is asked, whenever he is asked. The beautiful part of the story is that he is helping Leila as well and she does not know it. She cannot know it because it is not Jacob’s place to tell. What is to be revealed will be revealed in its own time.
A charming and heartwarming film by one the new stars in filmmaking. A bit slow for many Americans, no doubt, but there is great talent here for those with the patience, understanding and just plain curiosity to wait and see the ending.
Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey: Letters to Father Jacob is religion without the rhetoric. It's a story of faith expressed with simple grace and the small deeds of a pardoned sinner still searching for forgiveness. It is like a minimalist stage play — three acts, two characters, quietly redemptive.
Working with Tuomo Hutri as director of photography, Härö has stripped everything down to the bare essentials. Rooms contain only the necessary furniture. Meals are made of bread and tea, taken in silence. The camera lingers on small tasks, boiling a kettle of water, hanging a coat on a peg, the stuff of real life.
The actors use an equal restraint. Hazard wields the silence Härö has built into the piece like a weapon. Her eyes are almost impossible to read, though there is a hint of menace, and nearly always impatience. With that, she creates an impenetrable wall between Leila and the rest of humanity. Though Father Jacob is blind, he can sense the barrier, and Nousiainen is masterful in using the slightest shift in his face, hands, shoulders to register and react to the emotional currents around him.
The filmmakers use deep shadows and what feels like natural lighting to frame each scene as if it were a still portrait required to tell its story without words. The words we do get mostly come from the letters that arrive for Father Jacob each day. They ask for his guidance, his prayers. In the reading and replying, Leila slowly begins to find a new understanding.
But since this is real life, there are temptations, complications and conflicts for both priest and penitent. Bits of Leila's past come in flashback, the crime she committed, the damage it caused. For the priest, it is memories of the weddings he used to preside over, the dinners he once hosted.
The world begins to change around them after the letter carrier (Jukka Keinonen) breaks into the parsonage, convinced Leila has done away with the priest. After that, the letters stop coming, setting up a day of reckoning for our two lost souls.
Popular on the festival circuit, the movie was Finland's Oscar submission last year, and the third of Härö's films to represent the country. The director is probably best known for 2005's "Mother of Mine," his World War II look at the emotional difficulties for Finnish children sent to foster homes in Sweden for the duration of the war. It was a denser story than this one, but like Letters is infused with a sense of empathy for the human condition that has come to define Härö's work.
Venice (2010) / Wenecja (2010)
Variety, Dennis Harvey: Handsome but somewhat dramatically inert, Jan Jakub Kolski's "Venice" follows an upper-class Polish family's fortunes as they try to ride out the worst of effects of WWII by repairing to a country estate. Landscapes and lyrical lensing make more of an impression than the director’s diffuse script (based on two stories by Nobel-nominated local literary celeb Wlodzimierz Odojewski), which fails to develop much narrative sweep or emotional impact. Winner of Montreal's "Best Artistic Contribution" nod -- no doubt for its lush visual charms -- the film is unlikely to prove a prestige export item, with offshore prospects skewing toward DVD.
Eleven-year-old Marek (Marcin Walewski) wants nothing more than to visit fabled Venice, which everyone else in his family has already done. Instead he's deposited in 1939 at the family's crumbling rural manse already occupied by a grandmother and two aunts and whatever other relatives are fleeing eventual Warsaw air raids. Among the clan's four adult sisters, permanent residents Veronika (Kolski's spouse Grazyna Blecka-Kolska) and Barbara (Agnieszka Grochowska) are industrious and content youthful spinsters; by contrast, Marek's mother Joanna (Magdalena Cielecka) and youngest sib Lilian (Dana Batulkowa) are flighty socialites reluctant to let children or other dull obligations weigh them down.
As the war years fitfully pass -- our protagonist's officer father first on the front lines, then in a Soviet POW camp -- isolated boredom and typical growing pains are goosed by the occasional notable event. Basement flooding allows Marek to create his own miniature Venice of "canals" and makeshift "bridges," lending the film a recurring fanciful touch. The protagonist witnesses the strafing of a Polish regiment; his elder brother Victor (Filip Piotrowicz) disappears for days on end to help the local resistance; Nazis passing through shoot a Jewish child simply because they can; dad (Mariusz Bonaszewski) finally shows up, alive but badly traumatized.
Though it all, the clan's shabby-genteel lifestyle remains intact, their deprivations modest compared with what most of the country is doubtless going through.
There are poetical aesthetics aplenty here -- the film's palate is awash in Artur Reinhart's delicate photography, the river-like flow of Witold Chominski's editing, and numerous Chopin piano excerpts.
But despite the narrative's six-year time span and a few vivid sequences, the ably played characters never deepen enough to move us. Sometimes their return to the estate is heralded when we hadn't noticed they'd left. The ironic, final tragedy is diminished by fact that an older actor is practically unrecognizable as the same character played earlier by a younger one.
The more serious historical themes here, while just glancingly treated, nonetheless tend to undercut Kolski's trademark magical realism. Result is a pretty patchwork that is first-rate in all tech/design departments yet ultimately seems too unfocused and flyweight to do justice to the period portrayed.
Film Festivals, James McNally:
Wenecja (Venice) (Director: Jan Jakub Kolski): Based on either a novel or a series of short stories by Włodzimierz Odojewski (I can’t seem to find out which), Wenecja’s reach exceeds its grasp in the end, but it’s a feast for the senses nonetheless. It begins with a tantalizing synopsis: 11-year-old Marek is the child of aristocratic parents. Although everyone else in his family has seen Venice, he has yet to have the experience, and it’s become a bit of an obsession for him. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war in 1939 dashes his plans, for Venice and a whole lot more. He is sent to stay with his aunt at the family’s old manor house in the country, where a motley collection of female cousins and other aunts has assembled, along with his grandmother. His father and older brother have gone off to fight, while his spoiled mother claims to have been called up by the White Cross, a relief organization, but has instead run off with one of her lovers. When the manor house’s basement is flooded one night during a storm, Marek and his aunts decide to recreate the canals of Venice. It’s a powerful piece of imagination and a defense mechanism against the encroaching violence of the German invasion.
But as the film continues to add potentially interesting characters, it becomes evident that it’s not quite the coming-of-age story that we expected. Although there are bits of romance with Marek and his female cousins and the young maid, he brushes them off, retreating instead to the basement where he repeats “I don’t want to be here” like an incantation. The film then follows some of the other characters, including Marek’s mother and her sisters, each of whom has a potentially interesting back-story. There is also the local Jewish family, whom the film is at great pains to point out are treated very well by the aristocrats. Marek’s brother Victor turns up after a while, but his character isn’t really explored, even when Marek follows him one day on one of his mysterious excursions.
Wenecja seems to want us to mourn the passing away of the Polish aristocratic class even as their suffering seems more like inconvenience. Anyone familiar with European history will know that most Poles were suffering far more than this family, and that thought clouds any goodwill we may develop toward this group of refined and attractive people. It doesn’t help that the cinematography is uniformly gorgeous, making even the one attempt at grit (a German fighter plane strafing a column of Polish troops) an exercise in high style instead.
When the family’s hideout is finally discovered by the Germans, it’s their good fortune that the soldiers are part of a propaganda unit, who film their mock-Venetian carnival and then go away. While there’s a sense of foreboding afterward, the film ends abruptly by skipping ahead to the end of the war, and showing us not Marek but another character. It’s a conclusion that’s both confusing and unsatisfying.
I got the sense that Kolski’s film could have gone on in several directions. There were more than enough interesting characters and plotlines introduced. Instead, the film leaves us hanging, wishing for more. Though many of the images in Wenecja are unforgettable, in the end it is only a beautiful fantasy, covering over the ugly reality of what was going on elsewhere in Poland. Thus it fails to have the sort of emotional impact that it should, which is a real pity.
Thesis / Tesis (1996)
By Alejandro Amenábar
Why is death and violence so fascinating? Is it morally correct to show violence in movies? If so, is there a limit to what we should show? That's the subject of Ángela's examination paper. She is a young student at a film school in Madrid. Together with the student Chema (who is totally obsessed with violent movies) they find a snuff movie in which a young girl is tortured and killed. Soon they discover that the girl was a former student at their school...
Rated R in the US for strong and perverse violent content, brief strong sexuality, and strong language. Generally favorable reviews: 68 out of 100 – based on seven reviews.
Nitrate online, Eddie Cockrell: Director Alejandro Amenábar’s tangibly European psychological thriller has often been compared to the work of Hitchcock, and it’d be fair to throw a bit of Roman Polanski in the mix as well. Vastly better than that strange Nicolas Cage movie 8mm at exploring the seamier side of moviemaking and possessed of an audacious, finely calibrated black humor, Thesis heralds the arrival of an exciting new talent in Amenábar and is indicative of the kind of bold genre filmmaking currently emerging from Spain.
DVD Talk, Holly E. Ordway: Spanish director and scriptwriter Alejandro Amenábar has gotten a fair amount of attention in the English-speaking world of late, and well-deserved it is. At the moment, he is probably best known for directing The Others, as well as directing and writing Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos), the outstanding film that spawned a totally unnecessary remake in Vanilla Sky. Amenábar's film Thesis (original title: Tesis) takes us back to 1996, where we can see that his success is no fluke: it has been in the cards from the beginning.
Thesis was director/writer Alejandro Amenábar's first feature film, made when he was only 23 after deciding to stop studying film and start making it. The film Thesis begins with Ángela (Ana Torrent), a film student at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (as Amenábar was) who is working on a thesis on audiovisual violence in the media. Her research leads her toward more and more extreme examples of media violence, putting her in contact with a fellow student, Chema (Fele Martínez), who has an extensive collection of gory videos. But the real horror starts when she stumbles across evidence that behind the urban legend of "snuff" films there lies a horrifying reality... and that the murderous filmmakers involved know that she knows too much.
Though it is in fact a very entertaining, tension-filled thriller, Thesis is more than that; the film is self-reflective and critical, both of the film industry and of viewers themselves, even as they watch the movie. Throughout the film, Thesis circles around a dark dichotomy in human behavior: we don't want to look, but we are compelled to anyway; we want to reject violence, but it draws us in. The opening scene of the film encapsulates this theme, hinting at the greater development of it in the film: Ángela is coming home on the Madrid subway when the train halts unexpectedly; the conductor informs them that a man has just committed suicide by throwing himself in front of the train. "Don't look," he says, but can't help adding, "he's been cut in two." The faces of the disembarking passengers are filled with horror and disgust, yet they crowd around trying to get a look at the gruesome scene before they are herded away.
The character of Ángela is a perfect stand-in for the viewer in this way. Unlike the more openly voyeuristic Chema, she claims that her interest in violence is strictly academic: for her thesis. Yet we can't help but realize that she is secretly drawn to it as well; realizing this, it disgusts her, but still compels her. Both Torrent and Martínez give us believable characters who also manage to break stereotyped "thriller" conventions about the behavior of male and female characters; they are, and remain, well-rounded and interesting characters who develop as the story unfolds. Thesis also features a young-looking Eduardo Noriega as Bosco; he appears in the protagonist's role in Amenábar's next film, Open Your Eyes.
From beginning to end, Thesis takes a hard look at "violence as entertainment," pushing the viewer to be more self-aware, to recognize the potential for violence that exists within all of us and the possible consequences of satisfying some of our darker desires. The film asks, is "what the public wants" always right? Where should a filmmaker draw the line? Is there a hidden hypocrisy in the fact that we are both repelled and attracted by scenes of violence?
Thesis is an outstanding film: it draws viewers in to its dark and chilling world, challenging them to recognize the omnipresence of violence in our media, and, also, our complicity in creating violence, as we both deplore it (in real life) and demand it (in our entertainment).