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Le confessioni (2016)
Ambitious, stylish, but ultimately confused film
After seeing Roberto Ando's previous film, "Long Live Liberty", a brilliant satire on the state of Italian, or more generally European left, I naturally had rather high expectations for his latest, "The Confessions". It was difficult to imagine that a director who made one of the wittiest political commentaries with a number of memorable and well developed interwoven characters, including the two twin brothers played by the same great Tony Servillo, could make anything much less. But sometimes unimaginable readily becomes all too real. Let me explain.
The main problem of the film is that it is unclear what exactly its script is trying to be: 1) a detective mystery story, with the fate of the world depending on the investigation of an unexpected death of the IMF chief played by Daniel Auteuil, depicting a character presumably made after the brilliant, but as of recently ill-fated Strauss-Kahn, 2) insightful satirical (again!) political film, showing how semi-secret meetings behind the closed doors make our democratic orders nothing but elaborate shams, 3) metaphysical rumination on relative irrelevance of our (and, somewhat satisfyingly, our financial ministers') everyday worries when compared with birds' songs and children's books. In fact the film clearly attempts to be all three of the above, and it is precisely in this too high an ambition where its fatal weakness lies.
As a crime thriller the film simply does not deliver, as it is almost obvious what happened to the unfortunate IMF chief from the very beginning, and in particular that the Tony Servillo's monk to whom he confessed, had nothing to do with his death. The only real mystery is what was actually confessed, but aside from being told that it is something extremely important for the entire world, we never actually learn anything about it. There is of course the elegant mathematical formula (which looked like a stochastic diffusion equation, for the experts) that we learn was divulged during their meeting, but even the ministers do not quite know what to do with it when they finally extract it from the monk, who conveniently, was a mathematician in his pre-monk life. Particularly inapt in the whole business seems the meeting's security chief, played otherwise well by one of my favourites, Moritz Bleibtreu, who together with his equally inadequate subordinates roams the hotel's corridors in eternal frustration irritating everybody, including the viewers.
As a political commentary the film fails in its depiction of the complicated and often random world of global politics as pretty much a simple conspiracy of the G8 finance ministers and their friends in the banking world. While this will probably confirm the worst fears (or hopes!) of numerous conspiracy theory zealots I guess it will leave the intelligence of better informed viewers mildly insulted. We are reminded time and time again during the film that unimaginable horrors are likely to happen if the information is leaked out of their close circle, whose preeminence therefore cannot be doubted. While after the Piketty's work the unfortunate hyper-concentration of western world's wealth is almost common knowledge, the premise is still a bit too simplistic to be taken seriously.
Finally, we come to the metaphysical, should I say religious, dimension of the film. Namely, the main character is an Italian monk, played by appropriately restrained Servillo, who is too wise, too good, and too white and dignified for the company in which he found himself. Indeed it is hard to comprehend why he would even accept an unlikely invitation to such a gathering, if not maybe out of pure curiosity. (It cannot be because of vanity, or gluttony, since he is obviously fully immune to these mortal sins.) Although his motivation may not be so clear, his role in the film is: he is nothing else but the eyes of God, who watches over even the most powerful. (Why he would not intervene in their all-important business upon which his creation so strongly depends is less clear.) What he sees he does not like or approve, and he takes the opportunity to warn the ministers to watch what they are doing to the world's poor in his final speech delivered over the coffin of the deceased IMF chief. After this, he vanishes into thin air, only to reappear in the very last scene followed by a massive black rottweiler, who apparently got disgusted with protecting the world of high finance and decided to spend the rest of his dog days following the wise monk.
In its ambition, stellar international casting, isolated beautiful location (Rostock/Germany), some of the themes, rhythm, and the overall style, the film loudly echoes Sorrentino, particularly his early "The Consequences of Love", and the latest "The Youth", but manages only to prove how dangerous such artistically ambitious film making can be. Even Sorrentino does not always succeed in it. That, of course, does not mean one should stop trying. I wish Ando better luck next time.
La loi du marché (2015)
Not much beyond what is generally known about unemployment
Is it art to simply show ordinary life as it really is, without any metaphors, generalizations, attempts of explanation, or dramatizations? I argue: no. To see the so-called real life one does not need the cinema or the literature; it is enough just to live it, or read about other real lives in the newspaper. Or at most, see a documentary, on less accessible aspects of it. In any case one does not need an artist on the other side of the medium to depict it, a mere "reporter" is enough. From "art" one, I believe rightfully, expects more.
That is why "The measure of a man", the last product from mostly French speaking film world that shows the raw and often banal reality, is simply boring, with its long, and at best, trivial, and at worst, painful scenes, of a decent person down on his luck. In fact we never even learn much about the main protagonist, except that he has been laid off some time ago from his job, that he has an invalid child at home, and that he pretty stoically deals with everything unpleasant that happens to him. Naturally we feel sympathy, and blame the impersonal forces of society for his troubles. The film makes some valid points about the absurd sides of search for work today, with all of its time-wasting unemployment services, "insightful" CV writing instructions, distressing Skype interviews, etc. These are all true and worth knowing about, but unfortunately the film does not add anything beyond what is quite generally known to almost any adult in western society. There is simply not enough dramatic material in these for a feature film. The result: boredom and detachment. Every single scene is stretched beyond its conceivable dramatic function, so that the whole film soon becomes as engaging as waiting in the doctor's office for a check up.
There was a hope of a dramatic upturn when the main character finally found a job as a security guard in a supermarket. It does not quite happen, but the film does become slightly more interesting with its depiction of the depressing distribution of wealth in today's France (or almost any other modern country): too many people are ready to risk major humiliation for ridiculously petty sums. This itself offers a plenty of material for some other filmmaker to work with. The present one, unfortunately again does not feel he needs to move beyond several long scenes, which all seem to say the same depressing thing, without offering any salvation. I understand that this may exactly be the point, but I doubt that anybody needs such a long exposure to get it.
Vincent Lindon, the single professional actor in the film indeed feels real and believable, but not obviously any more so than all other non-professional supporting actors. Nevertheless, for the present reviewer Lindon's acting was the strongest side of this otherwise rather thin film. Which just goes to say that films should, in spite of recent trends, be left to professionals.
La isla mínima (2014)
Dark thriller with political connotations and historical commentary
Two former city detectives, of rather different political persuasions, professional experiences, and ambitions for the future, are sent to a depressed Spanish provincial town to investigate a seemingly benign case of recent disappearance of two problematic teenage sisters. It soon becomes clear that their case is only a tip of a truly morbid iceberg which they slowly but inexorably start uncovering. As the ugly truth reveals itself they are forced to cooperate, battle local forces and geography, which all will put their own physical and mental limits and professional dedication under severe test.
The film is very skillfully made, with every detail being inconspicuously there in service of the story, and expertly shot in the southwest of Spain. The physical terrain, like its hardened inhabitants, is unfriendly, and it appears perfect for committing and hiding hideous crimes. The disappearance of the girls happens closely before the harvest on which the welfare of the locals crucially depends, which ads urgency to the investigation. Equally important as the place of action is its timing; it is 1980, and after decades of fascist dictatorship the Spain is in the middle of a democratic transition. Franco has been dead for five years, and the new king Juan Carlos is slowly modernizing the country's political system. The younger and somewhat less experienced detective, Pedro, is slightly over-enthusiastic about the current democratic changes; indeed, his newspaper article, the existence of which is only hinted in the film, is the very reason why he is not in Madrid, but in the god-forsaken place where we find him. The other one, Juan, is more cautious, and we slowly learn that his reserve could be there because of the dark secret from his past. The two detectives are not unlike the two poles of Spain, still existing and divided as ever, which need to learn to live together for the betterment of both. Whether, and to which degree this will prove possible is the larger theme of the film.
The character of the older detective, Juan, is a memorable one, and embodies the complexities and the compromises of life under dictatorship. He is both a wounded and a violent man, who nevertheless has a gentle side, and who seems to understand and relate to local people better than his partner. He is competent, agile, and dedicated, but there is also more to him than what we at first can see. That more the viewers maybe may even sense, but I would assume will doubt for as long into the film as they can. Juan's character ambiguity is a particularly valuable and finely crafted feature of this altogether very strong film. In its ominous atmosphere and story structure it inevitably reminds one of the American TV series "True detective", except for the political and historical dimension which is there non-existent, but here is of considerable importance. Comparisons to the Korean masterpiece "Memories of murder" and the British "Red riding" may also come to mind.
The film remains faithful to its serious tone and disturbing realism until the very end, when it offers a sort of a resolution, very much in line with the compromising nature of the "transition to democracy" of the country itself.
Le capital (2012)
Insightful, if not too original, commentary on today's state of affairs.
Basically good, sympathetic, or at least, interesting characters, you can relate to and care for, encounter obstacles, have to struggle for a while, but ultimately find their way through an unfriendly or simply indifferent world. We all love this type of films. "Capital" is emphatically not one of those, but is nevertheless worthy of attention.
There is at least one character, however, who has not lost her moral compass, and still has some, albeit minuscule weight in the film: the wife of the main protagonist, a former economics professor, and now an ambitious CEO of a leading French bank. Her pull on her husband, however, is only marginally stronger than the one that his extended family, of apparently modest means, has on him. He has feelings for her, as well as for his parents, but those simply cannot compare in intensity to the thrill of money. He is a man who understands "the way the world functions", as he is not shy to explain when questioned. It is a game, in which, typically, rich get richer and poor get poorer, but the reverse is not impossible, as we are told, only improbable. He is cool, calculated, unemotional player, consciously going for high stakes. Just like the others, towards him often inimical characters, who he does not blame for their repugnant behaviour, although certainly would not mind occasionally smashing their heads onto hard surfaces nearby. Of course, we understand that he could not have possible been any different and still belong to the top executive branches of the financial world.
Costa Gavras made his name in the genre of international political thriller, picking his subjects to be the most promising themes for such a film at a given time. It is already telling that he chose the world of high finance, and not of politics, as the most relevant field today. Indeed, the main character is addressed always as "the president", and he is treated as such by everybody he meets. He clearly lives in an entirely different world from the majority of even western, relatively well-off humanity, and his decisions, although made explicitly and exclusively for the benefit of the few, indeed affect, thousands of ordinary mortals. The bank that he directs, and pretty much all the interiors he ever dwells in do not fall far behind many European royal palaces. His world is the world of excess, but in his book it should be unapologetically so.
There is a hint in the film of a possible difference between the old European, and the new aggressive, American business attitudes, that may exist only on the surface. American bankers that we meet maybe cannot pronounce Modigliani's name correctly, but they understand perfectly that their French counterparts are just as greedy, and motivated by the same basic predatory impulses, as they are. As the main character says on one occasion, almost defending his adversaries across the Atlantic: "They are just businessman, like us". The difference seems to be only that the French operate from the high-ceiling, well decorated, old world Parisian buildings, whereas their American partners for their machinations prefer flashy yachts and skyscrapers.
The film certainly lacks the depth and the emotion of the very best Gavras' works, such as "Z" or the "Missing", but it functions well at the level of well written, competently shot, and expertly directed financial drama. It is an insightful, if not too original, commentary on today's state of affairs which to many will ring painfully true. There are also some fairly obvious flaws: the parallel thread with the "super model" that the main hero relentlessly pursues is rather stereotypical, and her attitude towards him appears far-fetched. It would have served the story's development better if the relationship with the multi-dimensional French female employee from London's office was introduced earlier and then further developed. This could have added some intellectual and emotional depth to the main character, beyond what was this way left only sketched. These comments notwithstanding, the film presents an entertaining and informative look at the dynamics of the modern world's new nobility.