The good news after a failure of a festival day (one movie on a Saturday? – I’m still ashamed) is that it can’t get much worse. Unless you just throw the day completely – which I had no intentions of doing – you’re guaranteed to be a little productive. And that’s what Day Four of AFI Fest ended up being for me. I didn’t set any records, but I got in three really well-made films that take different perspectives on the human struggle to survive.
Yann Demange’s ’71 came out of Berlin with a lot of heat. The film stars Jack O’Connell (from the incredible Starred Up) as Gary Hook, a newly-minted soldier in the British army. His unit expects to be deployed to Germany, but are sent instead to Belfast in Northern Ireland to help keep the peace in the midst of the Troubles – a bloody conflict between the Protestant loyalists and Catholic nationalists. A riot breaks out during a routine weapons search, and Gary and another soldier become separated from their unit. It is left up to him to survive in a city whose population would love nothing more than to see his brains splattered across the street.
That’s a graphic image to place in your mind, and ’71 is a graphic film. It is not quite as visceral as other recent war films like Fury, but this isn’t exactly a competition. The film conveys the brutality of the conflict, without taking a side. I mean, obviously the more violent members of the IRA are villainized, but so are certain factions of the British military. Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke craft the film into more of an ensemble than a strict character piece.
Though O’Connell is quite good. He says very little in the film, emoting instead with pained facial expressions and tense body language. The movie on the whole is pretty quiet – plot-driving dialogue is really reserved just for a few specific scenes. Unfortunately this means that the moments where the film slows down get really slow. Maybe too slow. The same could be said for the film’s conclusion, which features a Peter Jackson-number of endings. Still, ’71 is a very suspenseful and tight movie about personal survival.
What about those people who are less interested in survival? In the German drama Stations of the Cross, co-written and directed by Dietrich Brüggemann, young Christian radical Maria (Lea van Acken) becomes so concerned with living a self-sacrificing life free of sin that she decides to offer her life itself up to God.
The film is modeled after the actual “stations of the cross” from the Roman Catholic tradition. Each of the movie’s 14 scenes reflects one of the stations, which describe the time leading up to and including Jesus’s crucifixion. That’s Jesus Christ, in case you were wondering which Jesus I was talking about. It is an understandable question, as I was not very familiar with the stations myself before the film started.
Brüggemann’s interpretations of the stations range from completely literal to vaguely metaphoric (what does “Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem” even mean?), but they each consist of one (often static) shot that lasts four to twelve minutes. Because the camera is still – much like the pictographic representations of the stations found in many churches – the real work lies on the shoulders of the actors to bring the script to life. Lea van Acken is excellent in that regard, as are Franziska Weisz as her equally devout mother and Florian Stetter as Father Weber, the extremist priest at Maria’s church. The overwhelming piety of these two characters really drives home how dangerous religion can be, but Brüggemann’s ending isn’t so cut and dry. The finale doesn’t let anyone off the hook – not even the audience.
The main character in the Russian film The Fool is just as sacrificing as Maria, but for different reasons. Plumber and repair-crew chief Dima Nikitin (Artyom Bystrov) is willing to ruin his own well-being and reputation to save the lives of 800 public housing residents after discovering their building is in danger of imminent collapse. Thinking of everyone but himself and his family, Dima makes it his mission to convince mayor Nina Galaganova (Natalia Surkova) and the other public works chiefs to put aside their own wants as well.
Yuri Bykov’s film is not just an indictment of bureaucracy; it also savages the cultural divide between those in power and those with none across Russia. The poor live packed to the gills in their tenement housing, while the government higher-ups party all night to celebrate a birthday. It’s enough to turn Dima from righteous into abrasive in his quest to save so many lives. People the government may not even consider worth saving.
Some scenes in the movie are incredibly theatrical, which is to say that they would not be out of place in a stage production. Much like Stations of the Cross, most of the meat in The Fool is dialogue-driven, so the characters are talking a lot. For the most part these monologues are engaging, but every once in a while, one does not ring true. No matter though, as even a cynical ending doesn’t take away from the power of the film up to that point. It’s a shame that the high quality of the feature couldn’t survive to the end credits, but how often does that really happen?
I know that my survival skills need work, at least where film festivals are concerned. Three movies was all I could handle today before my energy waned drastically. Perhaps if I were a paid film blogger I would have been able to watch five movies today, but as it stands currently, I have to wake up at 6 am and go to work. So maybe I prioritize sleep above a movie about creepy kids trying to kill their mom. Surely that self-interest is just as reasonable a method of survival. Even if it isn’t quite so altruistic.