Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

11 April, 2008

WI Film Fest 2008 – The Slavic Edition

Being a member of the Polish Heritage Club of Madison, it should not surprise anyone that I attended the screening of Pora umierać (Time to Die). There were a few of us PHC members in the audience and I also said hello to Szymon Wozniczka while I was standing in line. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon yet many folks spent their time at the Majestic watching a film whose title promised a less-than happy ending. My companion for the showing, a fellow PHC member, remarked to me that she was keen on seeing the film, not only because it was Polish, but also because her 82 year-old father was in ill health.

Having seen the film, however, I can honestly say don't let the title fool you - Pora umierać wasn't quite the terminal experience that it lets on. It revolves around Aniela as played by Danuta Szaflarska, who is apparently an icon of Polish cinema. In the opening scene, Aniela is at the hospital and sheepishly pokes her head into a nurse's office. The nurse could have starred in a Macintosh commercial back in 1984 with her cold demeanor and mechanical directive for Aniela to come in and undress. Frustrated, she tells the nurse to kiss her ass and storms off.



The gorgeous black & white cinematography steps into its own as the scene moves to Aniela's beautiful old house nestled amongst trees. From hereon out, the action would take place in her home. There are visitors such as the rich next-door neighbor who wants to buy the place to tear it down as well as Aniela's good-for-nothing son and her whiny granddaughter. However, the remarkable thing is that Szaflarska mostly interacts with her co-star who can only whine, whimper, and bark - a Collie named Phila. To my knowledge, an old woman and a dog haven't been the stars of a buddy film before but it works very well here. The feisty Aniela complains to the pooch like a DVD commentary track about the children next door who wander onto her property while Phila can only look wide-eyed at her.

Although the film almost wholly takes place in Aniela's home, the filmmakers do a great job of dispelling an overly cramped atmosphere from settling in. Bob Richardson and Oliver Stone did this in Talk Radio by keep the camera in constant motion. Here, cinematographer Artur Reinhart and director Dorota Kedzierzawska accomplish this through judicious cutting between medium shots and close-ups and, while we never really leave the house, we do get glimpses of the outside world as Aniela peers out her windows. Indeed, they put as much glass as they possibly could in the mise en scène. We see Aniela looking out her window with the camera in the room as well as just outside. Other times she grabs her binoculars and voyeuristically gazes into her neighbor's windows. When we get a POV shot, there is a pane of glass in front of us, so old that it has dripped down and distorts our view.

While the title gives away the ending, we see Aniela pass away as happy as one can. She has given her house to the neighboring music school for kids. As the young students run in, the house seems much larger as empty rooms are filled with their instruments and is suddenly alive with laughter.

Walking into the theatre to see Aleksandr Sokurov's Aleksandra, my familiarity with his work extended to Russkiy kovcheg (Russian Ark) and no further. And so my points of comparison are very limited. Russian Ark was a grand exploration of Russian history and the Russian psyche. Aleksandra too sought the grand but did so via intimate and down-to-earth means. Instead of a visitor walking through a vast museum and meeting historical figures, we have the title character journeying to Chechnya to visit her grandson. The film shows Aleksandra as she boards a train to Chechnya where her grandson Denis, who is in the army, is stationed. A Hollywood film would have condenses the train ride to a couple minutes – tops – but here it takes several. At the station she boards an APC for the final leg to Denis' camp.

Upon the pair being reunited, Denis began to alternate between being a grandson and a military man. In the guise of the latter, he would go on missions which left Aleksandra to wander the town alone where she strikes up friendships with a Chechnyan woman her age. But this isn't a simple anti-war film. There's no bloodshed here, for instance. The conflict is really a backdrop for something else. One of the most revealing scenes is when Denis complains to Aleksandra that she let her husband dominate her and that she did the same to his mother who, in turn, did the same to him. The soldier involved in a conflict between nations is seen to have personal demons as well. And the kindly grandmother is revealed as having been the victim and cause of family violence.



While I'd love to simply say that Aleksandra is an anti-war film that juxtaposes personal and international violence, I cannot. This is because I don't see how one could possibly see it that way. Sure, there are a couple lines of dialogue about how the Chechnyans just want peace, but there's too much going on here for such a simplistic reading. For one, the idea of a grandmother being shuttled to the front lines of a war is patently absurd. And so is the portrayal of the Chechnyans as being passive with aggressors in their midst. There's more than meets the eye here and I just can't grasp it because of my ignorance of Russia and my unfamiliarity with Sokurov's oeuvre.

Aleksandra had the most simple narrative of all the films I saw at the festival this year yet it was also by far the most complex. I left the theatre wishing that there had been a pre-show lecture on Russian archetypes or on Sokurov as auteur. If nothing else, more of his films show in tandem with Aleksandra would have been handy. The austere plot and unassuming style means that you have to connect disparate details – there are no larger than life historical figures staring you in the face.

I draw two things from my experience:

1) The film fest needs more movies like this. It was my hope that the arrival of the Sundance Cinema would make available more such challenging films. It hasn't. Instead they're screening 21 and now a foreign film dubbed into English (which is pathetic).

2) Once I have my ticket, I need to get my ass to Four Star Video and prepare.
|| Palmer, 11:40 AM

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