Parky At the Pictures (21/1/2022)
(Reviews of Natural Light; Never Gonna Snow Again; Memory Box; Boiling Point; and Torn)
Cinema-going may not be the most straightforward pastime at the moment. But it's possible to see the latest releases on the big screen, providing you meet the venue's admission criteria and have your mask and vaccination status at the ready.
If you prefer to avoid this rigmarole, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained. Whatever choice you make, think of others to make sure everyone stays safe.
Hungarian documentarist Dénes Nagy makes a distinctive feature debut with Natural Light, which draws on the events that took place on three days of the 20 years chronicled in Pal Zavada's 2014 novel of the same name. Filmed in Latvia after a two-year search for the non-professional leads, this harrowing rumination on the grotesque realities of warfare may offer few fresh insights into humanity's ability to deal with the banality of evil, but its disconcerting visual style invites potent comparisons with the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, Elem Klimov, Sharunas Bartas and Sergei Loznitsa.
Between 1941-44, 100,000 Hungarians soldiers served as occupiers in Nazi-controlled areas of the Soviet Union. In addition to maintaining order, they were also tasked with rooting out partisans. Part of a unit patrolling an unspecified part of Ukraine in 1943 is Corporal István Semetka (Ferenc Szabó). His men are seen confiscating and butchering an elk that a couple of wizened locals have rafted down a misty river before they are required to put their backs into pushing horse carts through thick forest mud.
On reaching a remote settlement, the Hungarians interrogate the starosta elder, Sergei Alexandrovich (Aivars Kuzmins), who insists that the partisans stole the village animals before retreating to their hideout. The old man is ordered to drink a mug of well water to prove it hasn't been poisoned, while families are forced to feed and billet the troops.
Semetka is grateful to be able to wash and let his uniform dry. But his superiors require him to punish a pair who fell asleep on guard duty and take a picture of a young villager who is caught stealing food from his neighbours. Ever watchful, Semetka notices how the officers leer after the young girl who is serving their meal and sees the pride, fear and contempt of peasants who are exploited by friend and foe alike. When she slips out of the hut, Semetka follows and sees her deliver some bread to a bedridden man. He tells her to offer the Hungarian a jug full of berries. While he accepts them, he tips them into the mud, as he return to his unit.
Detailed to make a horseback recce of the woods, Semetka runs across some woodcutters. A woman warns them about the patrol, but Semetka avoids confrontation, even though the younger of the two men hurls abuse at the soldiers for taking the little they have. On returning to the village, Semetka is told to lead a march out of the village. However, they are ambushed in the darkness and the sergeant is killed. Realising that someone must have informed the partisans about the route, the troops return to the village to inflict reprisals. As they approach, however, they see the starosta hanging from a tree with a `traitor' sign around his neck.
As one of the women has a pail of milk, the Hungarians realise that they have been collaborating with the partisans and they are herded into the barn while Semetka works out what to do. Decisions are taken out of his hands, however, when reinforcements arrive under Sergeant Major Matyas Koleszár (László Bajkó), who knows Semetka from home. His greeting is cut short, when some of the villagers burrow under the barn wall (just as the sergeant is being buried nearby) and Koleszár is furious that seven of the thirty-three managed to escape.
When a woman with an ailing baby asks Semetka for water, he brings some from the well. But Koleszár places Sergeant Ilés (Ilés Pál) in charge and sends Semetka to look for fugitives in the swamp. He sees a face peeking up from the reeds and continues smoking, as though he has become immune to the horrors of combat. However, he stands in appalled silence when he returns from the patrol to find the barn ablaze, with the screaming villagers trapped inside.
That night, the Hungarians sleep in the empty huts. The next morning, Semetka is gazing at the smouldering shell of the barn when he is summoned by Koleszár. He tells him how his dog tore a hole in his tent in order to protect him from a bear in the forest, when his groom did nothing to defend him. Koleszár confides that he sent Semetka to the swamp to spare him the duty and warns him that the evil lurking behind every door has to be controlled. Outside, he asks Semetka to take a photograph and orders him to accompany the wounded back to base.
Arriving in the small town, Semetka has his boots cleaned by a street kid and looks up when he hears the sound of a baby crying, which reminds him of the nursing mother for whom he had fetched water in the barn. Despite Koleszár's exhortation, it's clear that Semetka cannot forget what has happened. Yet, when he submits his report to a superior officer, he makes no mention of the atrocity and is rewarded with a fortnight's leave so that he can see his family. As the train trundles along, Saltanovka shows no sign of a troubled conscience, as he eats from a tin with his knife and looks impassively at the fellow passengers, who all their hardships without having been subjected to anything close to what he has witnessed and endured.
Unrelentingly sombre and photographed by Tamás Dobos to make the forest look both mysterious and forbidding, this is a gruelling reflection on what Hannah Arendt would call `the banality of evil'. Although such war crimes were grotesquely common in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s, the barn burning will feel somewhat inevitable to those familiar with Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985). Nevertheless, Dénes Nagy chillingly conveys the flagrant disregard for human life that was anything but an exclusively Nazi trait during the Second World War.
Chosen after a lengthy search of Hungarian livestock farms, Ferenc Szabó is highly effective as the reluctant conscript who has become so inured by the brutality he has witnessed that he barely changes expression whether he is facing danger on patrol, rounding up hostages or making a report to a high-ranking officer.
Similarly cast according typage, Szabó's fellow troopers and the peasants they massacre (who are all Latvian non-actors) are equally impassive, as they almost sleepwalk through the nightmare they are all enduring. Yet Nature is markedly more expressive, as birch trees loom out of the mist and murk, dense mud slurries seem to suck the life out of man and beast, and the daylight can scarcely rouse itself above an ominous gloom before surrendering to an enveloping darkness that is made all the more oppressive
by the suffocating silence that is sparingly complemented by the unsettling intrusion of Santa Ratniece's eerie score.
Some might find this meticulous attention to atmospheric detail alienating, as the Bressonian Nagy keeps his characters at an emotional distance. Semetka is a family man, who is hundreds of miles away from home. Such is his stoic inscrutablity, however, that we learn little of his personality or his politics until he reaches headquarters and makes no mention of the murderous blaze in reporting on his friend Koleszár's actions. One suspects Nagy is inviting viewers to compare wartime attitudes with those that are currently being exploited by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. But nothing is made explicit in a film that cleaves to the perspective of an image maker who has been reduced to taking vanity shots of comrades wishing to appear heroic in dispatches when they are actually as trapped and helpless as the vanquished civilians who despise them.
NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN.
Having missed her step with the English-language debut, The Other Lamb (2020), Polish auteur Malgorzata Szumowska returns to surer ground with Never Gonna Snow Again, on which she shares the directorial credit with longtime co-scenarist and cinematographer, Michal Englert. Surrealism and satire blur into one other in this teasing progress report on the varying strata of the insular bourgeoisie in post-Communist Warsaw.
Emerging from the forest on the border between Ukraine and Poland like a silhouetted figure in a silent Expressionist fairytale, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff) strides through a rusting industrial landscape to arrives at the office of a fusty civil servant. He divines from his file that Zhenia was born in Pripyat seven years to the day before the Chernobyl disaster. However, he is distracted by the unsettling aura that Zhenia gives off and allows himself to be cajoled into a trance, as the stranger with a massage table slung across his shoulder stamps his own residency papers.
Finding his way to a gated community on the outskirts of the capital, Zhenia calls on bibulous housewife Maria (Maja Ostaszewska), who is hungover from her son's birthday party and gets grief from her forthright young daughter, Blanka (Blanka Burzynska), as she succumbs to the balming serenity that comes from Zhenia's fingertips. He wanders round her luxurious home, as Maria sleeps and watches her neighbours through the window. When she wakes, guzzles down a glass of wine and lights a cigarette, he stands silently, as she asks whether hypnosis would help her conquer her demons.
A cancer-stricken client (Lukasz Simlat) makes the same inquiry while reeling off the alternative therapies he has tried to combat his condition. Wika (Weronika Rosati) smokes with aggressive disapproval, as Zhenia encourages her husband to feel the disease leaving his body.
Dodging barking dogs, Zhenia makes his way along manicured streets to his appointments. He receives the same reassurance that the fierce dogs are merely saying hello from a female neighbour on the high-rise estate where he has a poky apartment. But he's hardly ever there, as he is so much in demand in the little piece of paradise, where everyone has a problem that needs caressing away.
Among them is Ewa (Agata Kulesza), an eco-conscious, drug-dependent widow, who lives with her chemist son, Jan (Maciej Drosio). She tries to elicit emotional responses from Zhenia using the art on her walls and Wika's husband also tries to make a connection by asking what Zhenia is doing for Christmas and inviting him to the concert at the French school his son attends.
But Zhenia keeps his distance, while also remaining vigilant after hearing that two men have been to his flat. As he sits at his table, he thinks back to his childhood and repeats the trick he learned to move a glass across a table top using the power of his mind.
Arriving at the estate, Zhenia is greeted by bulldog-owning Valery (Katarzyna Figura), who asks him to rub the belly of her ailing Hugo. As his clothes are wet, Zhenia works in his underwear and recoils when the animal lets rip with a ripe fart. Valery is so grateful that she insists on sharing a glass with Zhenia, only for Maria to see them through the window and feel a pang of jealousy.
Ewa flies at some loggers cutting down fir trees behind her property and Zhenia tries to hide a smile. However, she gives him a lecture on deforestation before confiding that Jan helped her compost her late husband and we glimpse her vision of communing with him in the midst of a half-grown tree that is being nurtured by his remains. Kneeling beside a tree in his garden, Wika's husband tries to get his tweenage son to join him in relishing the feel of the soil and Zhenia looks on from across the road, as the dying man fights the dreadful realisation that this could be his last Christmas.
Having dreamt of his mother, Zhenia is surprised by a knock at his door in the middle of the night. He hears a woman's footsteps retreating down the corridor, but there's no one there when he looks out. Wika's husband agrees to try hypnosis and feels energised by a reverie when he wakes in a forest clearing.
Ewa informs Zhenia that she finds him attractive and give him permission to be more intimate than usual. He clicks his fingers to render her unconscious and is performing ballet moves around the house when Jan returns unexpectedly. Maria asks Zhenia if he fancies Valery, who is in a state because Hugo, Boris and Filip have gone missing (we later see them relishing their freedom by yomping through the woods).
Wika informs Zhenia that her husband has died and he hugs her in turning down a final payment. He massages Maria's husband (Krzysztof Czeczot), who tries to coax him into discussing his sex life and we see him at a peep show. Zhenia also tends to a grumpy newcomer (Andrzej Chyra), who turns out to have been a UN soldier, who has clearly been traumatised by what he has witnessed. As he leaves the compound at the end of an emotionally demanding day, he gets drunk with the Russian-speaking gatekeeper (Roman Goncarzyk) and speeds past the darkened houses on a Segue, proclaiming at the top of his voice that he will save them all.
He had been unable to save his mother, however, and he thinks back to his promise to become a superhero to protect her. In this spirit, he agrees to wear Wika's husband's purple spangled jumpsuit to appear at the school concert. As he tries it on, she kisses him and they have sex. On the night of the show (which everyone from the estate attends), Wika wears a gold lamé dress and makes Zhenia disappear from a locked trunk on the stage. But this wasn't part of her act and Maria blames her for losing him.
A few days later, she is visited by immigration agents asking after Zhenia. They refuse to answer when she asks if he has done anything wrong. As snow begins to fall, we see Wika put her house up for sale, Ewa mark the last burial place of her spouse, Valery taking her new dog for a walk and Maria kissing Blanka.
Closing with a caption reckoning that the last snow will fall in 2025, this is a melancholic, but cryptic rumination on modern society and the fads and foibles in which we invest to distract ourselves from inescapable reality. Despite their reliance on Zhenia, however, none of his clients know the first thing about him. Indeed, Maria has to rein in her dislike of Ukrainians, while becoming possessively obsessed with him.
Notwithstanding his Chernobyl flashbacks, Zhenia seems to be escaping, from his mother's ghost, as well as himself. But his sudden disappearance in a puff of purple dust owes more to a sense of self-preservation (as the immigration squad closes in) than to any more romantic connotations.
Played with charismatic, but imposing impassivity by British-Ukrainian actor Alec Utgoff, Zhenia withholds any overt opinions of his clientele and their pampered lifestyles. But he's more a ministering angel than Terence Stamp's transformative stranger in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Theorem (1968). Indeed, he appears sympathetic to the anxieties, insecurities and sufferings that the residents of his tower block don't have the time, let alone the luxury in which to indulge.
Szumowska and Englert are less forgiving of the prejudices and peccadilloes, but there's nothing judgemental about the depiction of the clients, who endure their private hells inside detached houses that insulate them from the rest of society and isolate them from each other. Maja Ostaszewska is particularly pitiable, as she drinks to cope with the indifference of her husband and the hostility of her children. Her quiet desperation compares to the life-clinging hope of Lukasz Simlat's unnamed cancer patient, who is willing to give anything a try in order to secure a little more precious time.
As the wife resigned to the inevitable, Weronika Rosati only comes alive after her spouse's death, but her character is as sketchily drawn as Agata Kulesza's fellow widow and Katarzyna Figura's lonely dog lady. This tendency to shorthand extends to the vignettish film's themes, as Szumowska and Englert have so many socio-political ideas and mood shifts to accommodate that some feel under-explored, particularly in the case of some of the more eccentric cutaways.
Englert's visuals are superbly realised and hold proceedings in a dream-state suspension that gives the viewer the impression of peering through the glass of a snow globe (especially in the closing sequence). Jagna Janicka's production design is equally beguiling, as it contrasts the sparseness of Zhenia's childhood and migrant lodgings with the ostentatious comfort of the McMansions (which come with their own classical music door chimes and bring to mind the setting for Lorcan Finnegan's 2019 allegory, Vivarium). At times, things teeter on the enigmatically oblique, as the co-directors strain for stylised effect. But this remains a mesmerisingly sly treatise on creeping conformity and millennial modes of repression.
Joana Hadjithomas turns to her own teenage letters and diaries for this fourth collaboration with co-direcor Khalil Joreige following Around the Pink House (1999), A Perfect Day (2005) and Je veux voir (2008).
The action divides between a 1980s Beirut in the middle of a civil war and a Montreal present, in which teenager Alex (Paloma Vauthier) can't understand why both her mother, Maia (Rim Turki), and grandmother, Téta (Clémence Sabbagh), are so reluctant to deal with a delivery that arrives before Christmas. Key to the flashbacks are the fact that Téta (Nisrine Abi Samra) risked alienating Maia (Manal Issa) by trying to protect her after the death of her brother, especially when she takes up with the handsome and seemingly apolitical Raja (Hassan Akil).
Superbly photographed by Josee Deshales and edited by Tina Baz, this is a deeply personal memoir that reflects on the difficulties of trying to live normally at a time of conflict and the time it takes for wounds to heal (if, indeed, they ever do). A well-chosen soundtrack reinforces the 80s vibe, as do the cassette recordings and the shifting textures of the Super-8 and 16mm stock. The performances are heartfelt, although the Canadian sequences can err towards melodrama.
The latest in the lengthening line of features expanded from shorts sees Stephen Graham reuniting with director Philip Barantini after their 2019 teaming on the 22-minuter, Boiling Point. The feature version is a bravura outing that utilises a single continuous take to chronicle events during a sitting at an East London restaurant. Several themes have been reheated from previous kitchen sagas like Peter Graham Scott's The Pot Carriers (1962). But Graham and Barantini (an actor who made his directorial bow with the superior 2020 BritCrime effort, Villain) wisely steer clear of the antics seen in foodie reality shows like Kitchen Nightmares.
Christmas is in the air, but Andy Jones (Stephen Graham) isn't in a seasonal mood. Stressed at not seeing his son after recently having been thrown out by his wife, he arrives late at Jones & Sons in Dalston to find a hygiene inspection in full swing. Needing a swig from his special drinks bottle to steel himself for the night ahead, Andy reassures the jobsworthy Mr Lovejoy (Thomas Coombes) that his recommendations will be implemented. But he is quickly distracted when sous-chef Carly (Vinette Robinson) informs him that he has forgotten to place a major meat order.
No wonder she is considering a job offer at another restaurant and commis chef Freeman (Ray Panthaki) is also near the end of his tether. But Andy manages to pull himself together to give the staff a pep talk, even as he rides the gripes of maitre d' Beth (Alice Feetham), who incurs his wrath by promising a free meal to a trio of likely lads promising to feature the eaterie on their Instagram account.
As the evening wears on, Andy discovers that celebrity chef and former boss Alastair Skye (Jason Flemyng) has booked a table with leading food critic, Sara Southworth (Lourdes Fabares). Despite his fame, Alastair is facing a financial crisis and he wants Andy to either repay a loan or sell him a share in the restaurant to save his bacon.
The focus of the roving camera doesn't always stay on Andy, however. We also slip behind the scenes to discover that young trainee Ollie (Alex Heath) is cutting himself and follow skivvy Jake (Daniel Larkai) outside for a crafty rendezvous with his drug dealer while he empties the bins. But we also get to mingle with the customers, including a bigoted family man (Rob Parker) who resents the fact that black waitress Andrea (Lauren Ajufo) has taken over his table from Robin (Áine Rose Daly), and Frank (Robbie O'Neill) and Mary (Rosa Escoda), who winds up in an ambulance after her nut allergy is overlooked.
This denouement isn't the only melodramatic detour the action takes, with Alastair's bid to tap Andy for money being the clumsiest. But Barantini and co-scenarist James A. Cummings ensure that Matthew Lewis has plenty to keep him occupied, as he notes the snobbery, chauvinism and racism that the staff have to endure while weaving his camera through the narrow dining area and into the cramped kitchen.
Given the pressure they are under to hit their marks and deliver their lines to avoid ruining a take, the ensemble members capably suggest that chopping and stirring comes second nature. Vinette Robinson particularly excels, as the loyal lieutenant wondering how much more she can take. But this is very much Stephen Graham's show, as he juggles off-screen crises and inner demons with keeping an eye on juniors preparing oysters and temperamental dishwashers. It's just a shame that Barantini runs out of ideas and undercuts the hard-earned sense of authenticity by
succumbing to contrivance.
A week after the release of Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen's The Alpinist comes another film about a climber who died too young. Unlike twentysomething Canadian free spirit, Marc-André Leclerc, however, 40 year-old Alex Lowe had a wife and family when he went on an expedition to Tibet in 1999. Now, one of his children, Max Lowe, seeks to understand why his father put his passion and ambition before his responsibilities in Torn, the latest climbing documentary to reach UK screens.
Renowned for his strength and commitment, Alex Lowe was considered the finest climber of his generation. A master of rock and ice climbing, as well as ski descent, he was among the superstars when mountaineering started to attract lucrative sponsorship deals. Yet, having married artist Jennifer Daly, Lowe found himself increasingly reluctant to leave behind sons Max, Sam and Isaac when he went off on expeditions.
Unable to resist the chance to ski down Shishapangma in 1999, Lowe went on a route recce with climbing partner Conrad Anker and photographer David Bridges. However, they were caught in an avalanche and the badly injured Anker had the unenviable task of calling Jennifer to break the news that her husband had been killed.
Already devoted to the boys, Anker found himself drawn to Jennifer, as the new family unit set up home in Bozeman, Montana. As Sam and Isaac had been seven and three when Alex died, they readily accepted Conrad as their new father. But 10 year-old Max found it harder to accept Alex's loss, especially as late-arriving letters from the Himalayan base-camp reinforced his hope that he might return.
Now, having forged a reputation as a commercial and travel photographer, Max Lowe has decided to follow shorts like Adventure Not War, Slacker (both 2017) and Bare Existence (2020) with a study of the family dynamic. The focus is firmly on Alex in a first half that is filled with spectacular climbing footage that confirms him as a fearless challenge seeker who was having too much fun to consider the effect his daredevilry was having on a wife who wasn't always as impressed with Alex as his sons and peers.
However, Max and editor Michael Harte unearth clips of Alex in more introspective mood, as well as home movie snippets showing him striving hard to be a good dad by instilling a love of life and adventure into his sons. Yet, when he comes to examining Conrad's relationship with the clan, Max seems unwilling to dig as deeply within himself as he expects others to do.
Both Jennifer and Conrad are frank about the gossip they had to endure, as they overcame grief and guilt to honour Alex's legacy by giving his sons a loving home. Sam and Isaac are more guarded, but their gratitude to Conrad is evident and even Max eventually wraps him up in a manly hug.
Yet, he evades passing judgement on the need for risk and excitement that cost Alex his life. Consequently, despite the manipulatively emotive music by Saunder Jurrians and Danny Bensi, this winds up being less a soul-searching piece of therapeutic cinema than a poignant record of practical affection in action, which reaches a fitting conclusion when the Lowe-Ankers travel to Asia to pay their respects shortly after Lowe and Bridges's bodies were finally recovered.