Sometimes I wish short films had more market value in world cinema so filmmakers who come up with story ideas for a bunch of shorts instead of one idea for a feature, or that they didn’t have to cram those shorts into an anthology film (like the recent “Wild Tales”), or a fates-collide movie like “Magnolia” or “Short Cuts.”
Writer/director Joost van Ginkel’s “The Paradise Suite”, Netherland’s entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, falls into the latter category, boldly attempting to squeeze in multiple serious and complex themes into a two-hour feature using the “fates collide” approach, only to completely crumble under its own ambition. Many of the shorts don’t gel with the other stories, thematically and in a narrative sense, which makes them feel more like a bunch of filler in order to reach a feature runtime.
The stories themselves are not executed with much originality. Only two of the five work, but they still lack the depth and development needed to let them breathe within their own narratives due to the lack of screen time. Let’s take a look at the individual shorts, all of which take place in Amsterdam, in descending order of quality:
Yaya (Isaka Sawadogo) is an illegal immigrant from an undisclosed African country, struggling to make ends meet while doing anything he can to avoid immigration authorities. He’s a deeply religious man with a seemingly unshakable moral center, but he ends up having to consider doing something he finds despicable in order to pay the rent of his next-door neighbor, an African woman with two little boys. This section doesn’t really bring anything new to the table as far as depictions of the immigrant experience in contemporary Europe is concerned, but Sawadogo’s soulful performance more than makes up for the lack of a unique take on the subject matter.
Next we have Jenya (Anjela Nadyalkova), a beautiful and naïve Bulgarian teenager who’s tricked by promises of a modeling career, only to be kidnapped and forced into prostitution. This section of “The Paradise Suite” not only lacks a new approach to the serious issue of human trafficking, it suffers from some overtly melodramatic touches. Just like the Yaya story, this section is mostly saved by a strong performance from the lead.
Seka (Jasna Djuricic) is a survivor of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict, whose son was executed by the Serbian forces. She tries to move on with her life in Amsterdam, which includes perhaps beginning a romantic relationship with a co-worker, but can’t bring herself to forget about the atrocities of the past. Her desire to let go is not helped by the fact that the man who murdered her son lives close by, and that the authorities are taking their sweet time bringing him to justice. This part has an introspective and meditative quality to it, but all possible feelings of goodwill towards it is ruined by a baffling decision Seka makes during the third act, a decision that’s also not resolved as clearly as it should have been.
Lukas (Erik Adelow) is a child piano prodigy who suffers from peeing his pants at a grade school age, mainly due to stress brought on by his draconian orchestra conductor father. In his new school in Amsterdam, Lukas is predictably bullied by other kids and has trouble fitting in. This strand doesn’t add much to existing narratives about bullied children, and it’s also the one that’s the least necessary as it sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the other stories. His only connection to the other characters takes place during a crucial moment with Seka, and even then anything we know about Lukas has no bearing on this climactic scene. In fact, it would have been more effective if Lukas’ section was completely excised and Seka interacted with a random, indiscriminate child during such a tense, life-changing moment.
The most groan-inducing section is about Ivica (Boris Isakovic), the Serbian war criminal who killed Seka’s son, as well as the head of the human trafficking operation that kidnapped Jenya. Even though Ivica is the puppet master in Jenya, Seka, and eventually Yaya’s stories, the scenes that deal with him exclusively as a character are devoid of plot and character development, and exist only to show him as a loving father to his infant son.
Not only is the way this character is shown wholly contrived and stale, it’s also completely ineffective since people much more despicable than Ivica already exist in real life: the banality of evil certainly exists, but it’s not exactly new territory for cinema. Since the Ivica family scenes don’t add anything new to the overall narrative, it would have been a better idea to get rid of them along with Lukas’ story and simply depict Ivica as a cartoonish villain, which is the way he comes off during scenes with Jenya and Yaya anyway.
The screen time gained from getting rid of a couple of stories could have been used to further develop the relationship between Yaya and Jenya, who provide “The Paradise Suite” with the only fateful connection that make sense. The story of Yaya’s redemption via his dangerous yet noble decision regarding Jenya’s plight is interesting, but this sub-plot can’t get enough room to breathe.
“The Paradise Suite” is an admirable attempt to tackle many grave issues that plague our society today, but ends up as a muddled mishmash of short films that would have worked better separately. [C-]