- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (21/5/2021)
(Reviews of Servants; Once Upon a River; and The Human Factor)
Cinemas are open again, then. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is following the social distancing guidelines as strictly as they are.
Consequently, the streaming platforms who have done rather well out of lockdown are going to keep up their good work for the time being at least. Therefore, 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 will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.
Having helped Pawel Pawlikowski win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, esteemed British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz moves on from the Polish nuns of Ida (2013) to the Czechoslovakian priests under scrutiny in Slovakian sophomore Ivan Ostrochovský's Servants. Set in 1980 and photographed in an austere Academy ratio monochrome, this account of the tensions between church and state behind the Iron Curtain veers towards film noir territory. But it's also a timely study of the extent to which a ruling party is prepared to enforce compliance in order to stifle opposition.
Following an inky nocturnal sequence, in which a corpse is left under a railway arch, the action rewinds 143 days to show best friends Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) arriving at the Bratislava seminary run by the Dean (Vladimír Strnisko), who is a member of Pacem in Terris, an organisation founded by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1971 to recalibrate its relationship with the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Prague Spring.
The Spiritual (Milan Mikulcík) welcomes the newcomers, as he studied with their parish priest. But, otherwise, they are given clipped instructions before being reminded of their duties by the Dean, who addresses the intake under the watchful eye of Dr František Ivan (Vlad Ivanov), a Party apparatchik who is receiving treatment from the in-house physician (Martin Šulík) for a skin rash that is spreading from his left elbow.
Between classes, the students are allowed to play table tennis and football (in a small courtyard), while Juraj and Michal find time for accordion practice. However, the daily routine is disrupted when a notice is posted about resisting the restrictions imposed on the Church and every resident of the seminary is required to load their typewriters on to a flatbed truck so that the secret police can discover the culprit. One of the younger staff members, the Prefect (Tomáš Turek), recognises Juraj's sympathy to the cause of the underground group and asks him to stand watch while he telephones information to Radio Free Europe about the arrest of one of the students and the growing interference of the authorities in the running of the seminary.
Meanwhile, Dr Ivanov informs the Spiritual that the Dean has lost control of the faculty and that his own hushed-up hit-and-run case will be re-opened unless he co-operates with the Party. Shortly afterwards, Michal and Juraj take a risk in attending a prayer meeting hosted by Father Coufar (Vladimír Obsil), a leading figure in the underground church, whose body is deposited under the railway bridge after being beaten to death by Ivanov's henchmen (Zvonko Lakcevic and Peter Zálesnák). The radio reports that Coufar was hit by a truck, but the Prefect is keen for the truth to come out and Juraj types the report late at night.
The Spiritual begins drinking again because of the pressure he is under and he struggles to conduct Coufar's sparsely attended funeral. He asks Juraj why he hasn't seen him in confession, but he explains that he already has a confessor. Indeed, after the Prefect is drafted into the army, he takes Michal into his confidence. But Michal disappoints one of the underground cabal when he refuses to smuggle out a message because it would be too dangerous.
When Juraj comes under suspicion and is sent before the draft board, he protests that he had been designated medically unfit for military service. Ivanov reminds him, however, that miracles can happen and urges him to think how dismayed his proud mother will be if he is barred from pursuing his vocation.
A hunger strike is organised and the Spiritual speaks to the students in the refectory. He warns them that such reckless actions might lead to the closure of the seminary and he pleads with them to go along with Pacis in Terrem because they alone are protecting the Catholic Church from extinction. A few heed his words and start eating, but Juraj and Michal hold firm and it comes as a surprise to the former when the latter admits that he had issued the call for the fast.
Shortly after the Spiritual imposes silence upon the students, Juraj is brought before the Dean and Ivanov. He is slapped around the head by one of the henchmen when he refuses to answer questions about Coufar. But he quickly succumbs and the pen hovers over the dotted line after Ivanov presents him with a form giving his consent to becoming an informant. Unable to cope with the guilt, Juraj slashes his wrists in the night and the traumatised Michal reports his death to the Spiritual. He also confesses to being behind the hunger strike. But his mentor encourages him to tell no one and persuades him to continue with his training by showing him the secret file that means his options outside the priesthood would be severely limited.
Since the collapse of Communism, the majority of the films that have been made about life in the Warsaw Pact zone have examined the legacy of Stalinism on the Kremlin's satellite states. But this sobering drama takes place just nine years before the Velvet Revolution and chillingly conveys the dark before the dawn. Together with Lenkiewicz and fellow scribe Marek Lescak, Ostrochovský feels no need to provide any context for his story and similarly avoids any backstories for the characters. Instead, he plunges the audience straight into the middle of a sinister conspiracy, as a cadaver is dumped by the side of a road, as a shadowy cargo train rumbles over the bridge that provides any light on the midnight scene.
The date and setting alone should clue most viewers with a smattering of recent history that Czechoslovakia is in the grip of a paranoid and repressive regime whose Lateran-style deal with the Catholic Church works very much to its own advantage, as it gives the semblance of religious freedom while keeping it under a tight rein and round-the-clock surveillance.
Despite the clandestine gatherings of true believers at which clerics speak in ecclesiastical code, the extent of the Party's control is emphasised by the periodic cutaways to delegates voting at a congress for motions that would be imposed without their consent. However, the fact that Dr Ivanov is suffering from a disease that is spreading across his torso suggests that all is not well and will get worse as the forces of the covert resistance gain strength.
Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov plays the martinet with a measured menace that contrasts with the world-weary acquiescence of Vladimír Strnisko's Dean and the capitulating dread of Milan Mikulcík's Spiritual. Debutants Samuel Skyva and Samuel Polakovic do well enough as the young seminarians, but they serve a Bressonian usefulness and only reveal a hint of their personality when they are playing music together (in scenes that linger longer than is usually allowed in the elliptical editorial strategy).
Cinematographer Juraj Chipik shoots these scenes with an unforced intimacy that contrasts with the claustrophobic close-ups used for the interrogation sequences. Chipik also makes telling use of top shots into the cramped courtyard to show the students furiously kicking a football or passing through the sheets hanging on washing lines. The detached shot of the cassocked youths shuffling through a crowded game of table tennis and the use of lattices and other obstructions in Katarina Holiá's Dreyeresque production design reinforces the enclosed nature of seminary life and the fact that everyone is being so closely watched that sins are known long before they are revealed in the confessional.
The enveloping nature of the chants and clangs in Miroslav Toth and Cristian Lolea's disconcerting score adds to this is less a House of God than a hellhole from which attempts to escape end in ignominy or death. Such is the chill in this Cold War bastion that words seem to hang on the speaker's breath and whispers become acts of visible courage. There seems to be no hope, but over the ensuing decade, murmurs would become a clamour. Many sacrifices would have to be made, however, before the day of salvation.
ONCE UPON A RIVER.
A year after her mother ran away from home, 15 year-old Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) lives with her father, Bernard (Tatanka Means), outside Murrayville, Michigan on the bank of the Stark River. It's 1977 and mixed-race girls are not expected to fish and shoot like Margo. But her half-uncle, Cal Murray (Coburn Goss), takes a shine to her, much to the annoyance of his bigotted sons, Junior (Arie Thompson) and Billy (Sam Straley).
When he takes advantage of her in the toolshed during a family gathering, however, Margo takes a vengeful pot shot while he is urinating in the garden. Mistakenly believing that Bernard pulled the trigger, Junior guns him down and is appalled to learn why Margo had taken aim at his father. Despite knowing he faces punishment if the truth emerges, Junior refuses to let Margo leave in their grandfather's rowing boat and she is forced to seek shelter with backwoods poachers Paul (Evan Linder) and Brian (Dominic Bogart) to avoid facing questions from the sheriff.
They give her some money when she discovers that mother Luane (Lindsay Pulsipher) has left town. But she is wary of hitching in case she is spotted by the police and keeps to woodlands and waterways until she runs into Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), a Cherokee graduate student who prompts Margo into contemplating her indigenous heritage while on their travels. They make love on their last night together and, with the winter coming in, Margo is grateful when an old man named Smoke (John Ashton) offers her a place to stay. He is suffering from emphysema and is glad to have Margo run errands so he can resist his daughter's attempts to move him into care.
Smoke's poker pal, Fishbone (Kenn E. Head) also disapproves of the friendship. But he agrees to drive Margo to Luane's place. She is surprised to see her daughter and agrees to let her spend the night because her fiancée is away. However, Margo is unimpressed by the fact that Luane has lied about her past and only confides the fact that she is pregnant because she has nowhere else to turn. Luane makes an appointment at the abortion clinic in town, but Margo escapes through a backdoor and hitches back to Smoke, who is pleased to see her. His condition has deteriorated, however, and Margo is distraught when he drowns himself. But the film ends with her floating in the water in order to introduce her to the river that is so central to her life.
Adapted from a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Haroula Rose's debut feature meanders along through some striking country. But the plotting and characterisation are less impressive, as Margo makes her journey of discovery exclusively in the company of men who either exploit or take pity on her. Hawaiian debutant Kenadi DelaCerna plays the resourcefully taciturn teenager with a self-possession that prevents her from seeming like the helpless waif of yore. But once the first person narration tails off after the first few scenes, the imbalance victimhood and naiveté makes some of Margo's choices seem unpersuasively contrived.
The supporting cast is solid enough, but only John Ashton lingers long enough to become much more than a cipher. Consequently, the most effective co-star is the countryside, which is evocatively photographed in the rain, snow and sunshine by Charlotte Hornsby. Zac Rae's score also proves pleasingly decorative. But the film lacks emotional depth and any sort of socio-political curiosity or criticism.
THE HUMAN FACTOR.
If ever a film release was well timed, it's Dror Moreh's The Human Factor. In fact, this documentary was completed in 2019 and it's more by luck than judgement that it goes live in the UK just as the Israelis and Palestinians agree a ceasefire at the end of a tragically tumultuous week. As in The Gatekeepers (2012), Moreh restricts his focus to the perspective of six interviewees. But, while their insights into the difficulties of bringing these implacable enemies to the negotiation table are intriguing, the film-makers miss many opportunities themselves and, consequently, provide a skewed overview of a fraught and deeply flawed process.
Five of the six speakers are Jewish: special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross; two-term US Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk; former Israeli and Egyptian Ambassador, Daniel Kurtzer; State Department analyst Aaron Miller; and President Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs, Robert Malley. The exception is Gamal Helal, who served as a senior interpreter and as a special Middle East envoy.
All had ringside seats at the various summits sponsored by the United States between 1992-2000. Each speaks with clarity and an excellent sense of recall between the archive clips and still photographs that break up the prevalent talking-head shots, which suggest that all of the speakers have been taught how to give little away through their body language. Only Ross shows any emotion, as he recalls how the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin robbed Secretary of State James Baker of the chance to make a significant breakthrough at Oslo in 1993 after getting nowhere with predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir.
Much of the discussion centres on the personalities of the Israeli prime ministers who sought to do business (essentially on their own terms) with the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat. These prove insightful, especially in the case of the exiled Arafat and his sternest opponents, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. But what seems readily evident is that successive American administrations misread the basic situation, as well as the perceptions of the egotistical, but committed men they were trying to manipulate into compromises that were never really feasible.
Moreover, the Americans fundamentally misunderstood their own role in the proceedings and how, as the world's sole superpower, they was being played by doughty operators who had a greater appreciation of the highness of the stakes. As Helal points out, the Americans kept pushing towards a future that the Palestinians refused to contemplate before they had righted the wrongs of the past. Indeed, they has so little understanding of Arafat's position that they offered him a deal on Jerusalem at Camp David that would have left the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Israeli hands.
In hindsight, the speakers recognise the mistakes that they had made and the extent to which they had misread the game plans of both Arafat and Barak when they came together for Clinton's last post-Lewinsky tilt at securing his place in diplomatic history. But the narrowness of Moreh's approach means that we only hear one third of a story that has become increasingly complicated because Barak's failure emboldened Netanyahu to become more aggressive in both ring-fencing the West Bank and Gaza and in land-grabbing to establish the new settlements that have all but put paid to the two-state solution.
The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, once declared: `Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it.' Something similar could be said about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and it's clear from Moreh's concluding montage that he doesn't believe that George W. Bush, Barack Obama or Donald Trump did much to alleviate the situation by allowing the United States to continue to act as Israel's lawyer. That said, he makes no mention of the fraying of Palestinian unity after Arafat's death and says little about impinging developments in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria after the Arab Spring.
In fairness, these events in this rushed coda are tangential to Moreh's main thesis. But they expose the weakness of his decision to concentrate on the American angle. The depiction of Chairman Arafat also proves problematic, as he is made out to be bellicose and tinpot when he was actually striving to gain respect for his cause and its supporters. Doubts are expressed about Barak and Netanyahu's temperaments and tactics, but the level of analysis is frustratingly superficial and no one addresses the ongoing assumption that the White House is the only logical arbiter of a situation that would have been solved long ago if the countries of the Middle East hadn't foolishly insisted in pursuing policies of their own.
What isn't at issue is that the existing status quo is untenable and that more blood will be shed before anything like a workable way forward is found. Until then, blame will continue to be apportioned and the US will continue to make the error summed up by Aaron Miller: `We saw the world the way we wanted it to be. We did not see the world as it was.'