Victoria Film Festival 2008 Edition:
Bab 'Aziz (2005, Tunisia, Nacer Khemir)
Bab 'Aziz is a road picture that starts strongly, begins to drift in the Tunisian sands through a substantial portion of its middle section and threatens to lose its way as well as its audience, only to pull it back together in the final moments of the closing act. Regardless of its narrative hiccups, the film is never anything less than interesting to look at (forget the terrific cinematography, if all women in Tunisia are this beautiful, I see a road trip of my own in the near future.) Indeed, the film is rife with memorable imagery, from its stunning opening shots to the wonderful concluding passages, unearthly desert scapes are matched by memorable shots of the country's architecture. Accompanying this is a soundtrack that never fails to energize, something that is particularly helpful during the story's occasional lapses in pace.
Bab 'Aziz is reminiscent in some ways of David Lynch's own road epic, The Straight Story, in that both boast an ancient patriarch on a personal quest, whose moral authority is without question. Both characters move slowly through the countryside listening to the tales and woes of those they meet, and both men are prone to offering advice in the form of Buddha-like aphorisms. In Bab 'Aziz, this formula is a little problematic when the tales being told become increasingly less interesting than the characters of Bab 'Aziz and his granddaughter, and we begin to yearn for them to end so we can return to their world. Regardless, director Nacer Khemir's sense of humour and retrainted romanticism, along with the Richard Farnsworth-y performance of Parviz Shahinkhou in the title role, ultimately carry the day, resulting in a film that, while flawed, proves a journey worth taking.
The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories (2007, Bulgaria, Andrey Paounov)
First off, give director Pauonov and his acting troop full credit with Mosquito Problems. If I hadn't known better, I would have completely believed anyone who told me that this was a real documentary about an actual Bulgarian town living in the twin shadows of an unfinished nuclear power plant and a 1950's era communist-run concentration camp. The actors playing the citizenry of this fictional berg are so completely convincing, as stiff and unnatural in front of the camera as most of us would be in such a situation, and the situations played out so naturalistically, with a conscientious minimum of staging, that the film is as realistic a mockumentary on the purely technical level as any I have seen. It certainly blows the much more obviously staged works of Christopher Guest out of the water. For one thing, Guest uses recognizable actors in his films, who are always completely at ease with the camera; indeed, their self-awareness is often part of the joke, as Guest is satirizing our media awareness/manipulation and thirst for fame (however small) as much as anything else.
Unfortunately, the film is unable to build on this solid technical premise. When at its best, Paounov's film, which really tests the old saw that comedy is just tragedy plus time, has a really trenchant and biting humour, a sort of mordant Eastern European wit, that he uses to skewer the delusionally optimistic citizens of this small Bulgarian town. However, as the film progresses, it devolves into a series of unfocused and unfunny scenes that fail to engage, enlighten, and most importantly, amuse. When the film takes a final turn towards the dramatic, the tone of the film is shattered, and the effect is distracting. However, that said, the final scenes of the children playing in a cloud of insecticide are about as darkly humourous as it gets, and almost redeems the many parts of the picture that just don't quite work.
Remember, I said ALMOST.
Beauty in Trouble (2006, Czech Republic, Jan Hrebejk)
Now this film is the reel deal. While I have not seen director Jan Hrebejk's preceding film, How I Spent the End of the World, it has been lavished in critical praise, and after seeing Beauty in Trouble, it isn't hard to see why. Hrebejk is a humanist of the first order, whose confident filmaking is a constant joy to behold. Not only that, but he fills his intelligent story with characters so full of shading and nuance, so real and so heartbreakingly flawed, that it is impossible not to hang on every word, soak up every image, and cling to every scene.
The story is deceptively simple, yet slyly sophisticated and wonderfully unpredictable. After floods devastate Prague, the family of the strikingly beautiful Marcela (Anna Geislerová) and the rather brutish Jarda, who have no insurance to cover the damages, find themselves in dire economic straits. This leads mechanic Jarda into the illicit stolen car trade, which drives Marcela and their two children out of the house and into a very overcrowded apartment with her mother and Risa, her snide and petty second husband. When Jarda gets thrown in jail, Marcela is convinced to divorce him, and by happenstance, ends up in a relationship with the man whose car Jarda had stolen. When Jarda, for whom Marcela clearly has some feelings (even if most of them are between her legs. Simply put, they have great sex) is finally released from prison, the story enters a third act that manages to balance the audience's attention and concern for every one of these characters. It leaves you hoping, fearing, wondering and guessing throughout.
What Hrebejk and his frequent collaborator and writer Petr Jarchovský have accomplished here cannot be underestimated. This is a character piece that gives you not one or two characters worth investing in, but eight or nine, and manages in its 110 minute running time to give each enough nuance and depth of character to get us completely invested in their fates. Furthermore, Hrebejk and Jarchovsky give us a social context within to place these characters, and which is important to our understanding of the decisions each makes. When the working class Marcela decides to run off with the much older, debonair and very wealthy ex-patriot Evzen Benes (Josef Abrhám), you can see that she is doing this to escape from her old life as much as she is doing it out of affection for Benes. And the earthy, sexual connection she feels for Jarda provides a constant tug, drawing her back to the familiar, the comfortable, and their elementally sensual life.
Beauty in Trouble is the sort of film that sits with you days after viewing. These are characters we grow to recognize and adore, not despite their flaws, but because of them. Lastly, the film provides one of those delightful moments that you always yearn for when you go to the movies, and that is simply this: when the lights come up at film's end, you're disappointed that you will have to leave this world and its many wonderful people behind.