The Romanian ‘New Wave’ which started to have a major impact on the festival circuit in 2004 has been one of the strengths of the Leeds Film Festival for several years and this was evident in the healthy audience for an afternoon screening in this year’s festival. Unfortunately it’s one of the recent film movements that I haven’t really caught up with (the unwatched DVDs are on my shelves waiting for my attention – lack of time rather than interest). As a result perhaps, I was not alert enough to spot the crucial significance of a scene early in the film and the result was that I felt slightly cheated and frustrated at the end. The fault is mine, not the film’s.
Radu Muntean is a central figure in the New Wave and this, his fifth feature, was shown at Cannes this year in the Un certain regard strand. The central character is Patrascu (Teodor Corban, an actor associated with New Wave films). Muntean presents to us the daily incidents of Patrascu’s life – taking his dog Jerry for exercise in the park, squabbling with his young teenage son who is obsessed with videogames and Facebook and then doing his job. Patrascu and his wife run a small business which provides a service to iron out the tedium and bureaucracy involved in registering motor vehicles in Romania. It took me a while to work this out since the first job appeared to involve a film production company. The important narrative incident occurs when Parascu hears shouts and bangs in the apartment below in his block. He stops to listen but then decides it’s not his business. Later it transpires that a young woman has died in the apartment. Questioned by the police, Patrascu says nothing. We presume that in Romania the legacy of Ceaușescu’s brutal repression is such that 25 years later middle-aged people like Patrescu are still careful about what they say. The bureaucracy that provides Patrescu with a living must be part of this legacy as well – as is the network of contacts that he methodically maintains. He can queue-jump on behalf of his clients mainly because of these contacts. At other times though Patrescu shows himself to be an ‘ethical man’, e.g. in his support of the girl who has died when others start to repeat gossip about her.
The narrative moves into its final phase when a young neighbour asks Patrascu to re-register his vehicle and then wheedles his way into Patrascu’s household, befriending his wife and son – offering them advice on a new computer etc. You can probably work out what eventually happens – it was because I didn’t recognise who this neighbour was that I literally ‘lost the plot’ at this point. When I realised what was happening I felt rather stupid. It occurs to me that this film has some similarities to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and that film’s mix of a police procedural and a drama about relationships in families and communities. One Floor Below doesn’t approach the epic scope and narrative complexity of Ceylan’s work, but its focus on ‘smaller’ stories is just as valid and I should have got more from this than I did. Reading other comments on the film, however, I see that I was not alone in missing aspects of the narrative and that’s going to be a risk in making films like this.
This was the first film I saw in Glasgow and a great way to start my festival viewing – with an intelligent and taut Italian crime film. Anime nere focuses on the ‘ndrangheta, the criminal families of Calabria in the deep south of Italy. The film begins on the waterfront in Amsterdam (which is not identified) where Luigi, one of three Carbone brothers is negotiating a major drugs deal with a Spanish group. Back on a mountain top near the Calabrian village of Africo, Luigi’s nephew Leo is fed up with his father Luciano who has opted out of crime to concentrate on the farm and his goats. Leo decides to head off on the long train journey north to Milan where he meets up with Luigi and the third brother, Rocco, the ‘accountant’ in the criminal business.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative turns out to be the hot-headed Leo’s piece of minor vandalism carried out in his home village. It soon becomes clear that the Carbone’s rivals have just been looking for an excuse and a full-blown turf war is about to break out.
But it doesn’t – or at least not in the way that might be expected. This is more gangster as art film than gangster as The Godfather. Francesco Munzi’s film, based on a novel by Gioacchino Criaco is quite slow and it is deadly serious. Anyone who is a fan of the Italian TV crime series Inspector Montalbano will find this film both familiar but also disturbing. The connection is first via the actor who plays Rocco – Peppino Mazzotta – and who also plays Fazio, the Inspector’s ‘go to’ Lieutenant. But it’s also in the depiction of the desolate farms and abandoned villages of Sicily and Calabria. In the TV series it is played with some humour, but not here. There are several subtexts about the rural South and the sophisticated North and about the power of family ties and codes of honour – which of course are increasingly out of place in the global crime business.
The film doesn’t end as you might expect and throughout the violence is minimal with the worst bits off screen. But the tension is great throughout and you always expect something to happen. Vertigo are listed as UK distributors so I hope this gets into cinemas. Highly recommended if you are a fan of the European crime film – but give it a miss if you just like gunfights and sharp suits.
The highlight of BIFF 2014 for me was the retrospective of films directed by Nomura Yoshitaro. Five films, all adapted from published stories by the celebrated crime fiction writer Matsumoto Seicho, were screened ranging from Stakeout (Japan 1958) to The Demon (1978). Festival director Tom Vincent worked with Nomura’s studio Shochiku and its international representative Chiaki Omori to bring prints to the UK with the assistance of the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. The five prints will also be screened in London at the ICA from 18 April.
I’ve blogged on each of the five films on our sister blog: http://globalfilmstudies.com/tag/nomura-yoshitaro/
False Trail saved the Christmas holiday for me in terms of a new film to go and see. I’m glad I saw it and I’m grateful to the National Media Museum for booking it – but disappointed that Arrow, the small distributor that seems to be acquiring most of the Nordic films and TV series reaching the UK, didn’t give it more of a push. As the Swedish title indicates, this is a sequel to a film released in 1996, which I don’t think reached the UK. The market has, of course, changed since 1996 for Swedish crime fiction films. There is a brief flashback in this film to what I presume were the events of the first, but there doesn’t seem to be any problem in making sense of this film as a standalone.
This is another film that begins with a hunt. Following the Thomas Vinterberg film, UK audiences have been reminded that we seem to be amongst the European countries with the lowest rates of gun ownership. In Swedish Lappland, where False Trail is set, virtually everyone in the film owns at least one hunting rifle. A young woman has gone missing and clues have been found during the time that a hunt is taking place. The hunt then turns into a search operation and the local police arrest a likely and seemingly obvious suspect. However, it is such a small close-knit community that individual police officers have too much history of confrontations with the suspect and the local chief decides to ask Stockholm for help. The officer who arrives from the South, actually comes from Lappland, but he has hardly been back since the events of the earlier crime (i.e. in 1996). He has a family connection to the local police but no knowledge of the suspect so he is deemed potentially objective.
The man from the South is played by Rolf Lassgård, who has already played the important fictional Swedish police inspectors Martin Beck, Kurt Wallander and Sebastian Bergman. He’s a great actor but it would be nice to see a new actor occasionally. Predictably, he is short-tempered and stubborn but a good investigator. The film is essentially a procedural, but there are strong thriller elements and the finale plays out like a family melodrama in a perfect setting – a fast-flowing river with large boulders creating turbulence. The plot and the setting are reminiscent of Insomnia (Norway 1997) (the film remade by Christopher Nolan) but the long summer evenings so far North aren’t really mentioned by the characters. It’s also the case that the film does seem like a TV film with Lassgård as Wallander. But this is only in terms of his casting and the crime fiction elements. The film looks magnificent in CinemaScope and deserves to be seen in the cinema and not on DVD where Arrow presumably expects to find the biggest audiences. It’s over two hours but I found the time whizzed by and the thriller elements worked pretty well. I won’t spoil the plot but as I’ve indicated already this is more a familiar crime melodrama rather than that critique of social policies and the breakdown of society we are familiar with from Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.
With over half a million admissions in Sweden, director Kjell Sundvall‘s film was a popular local hit. Arrow have provided a UK Facebook page for the film which lists cinemas where the film is playing later in January in the UK. I’d certainly recommend a visit – but not as some reviewers suggest as a follow-on from The Killing. This has more outdoor action and the climax is more like a classic 1950s Western. In other words it’s the kind of genre film that popular cinema needs more of. I bet it’s more fun than The Hobbit!