By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 12, 2011 at 12:12PM
"A Screaming Man," Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's tale of an aging father at war with his son, also invokes the political realities of Chad, a country overrun by civil war. However, the movie delivers its strongest impact when it keeps things simple.
At last year's Cannes Film Festival, "A Screaming Man" won the Jury Prize. It's an appropriate trophy for a film that makes grand statements about the human condition, and the it does an extraordinary job in conveying the timeless themes of generational conflict and family bonds. When it tries to expand to the wider political environment, the film loses some of its power.
Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) is a 60-year-old former swimming champion living a comfortable life in Chad as the manager of a local hotel's pool. His teenage son, Abdel (Diouc Koma), stays close to his side. Writer-director Haroun outlines their serene existence with a patient eye, capturing a delicate scene of Adam at home with his wife, willfully oblivious to the reports of wartime strife playing in the background. Later, he looks at his growing son with a loving gaze, relishing the self-appointed role as personal and professional mentor.
This dynamic proves tenuous when hotel management demotes Adam to gatekeeper and appoints his son as the pool's sole attendant. From that point, the tone of "A Screaming Man" shifts from tranquility to extreme sadness.
Viewing his demotion as symbolic, Adam becomes a ticking time bomb. Haroun's camera watches the stone-faced man sit silently as the hours drift past him, creating a startlingly profound tension. Adam's dormant competitive spirit, implied by passing references to his athletic past, returns with a vengeance.
Here, "A Screaming Man" takes a succession of dark turns and the political merges with the personal. Adam enlists his son, thereby waging a useless private war that mirrors the greater one surrounding them. This extreme action suggests a previously unseen cruelty in Adam that works against the movie's more credible tensions. The story also grows complicated with extensive plot details that distract from the main father-son conflict. But it eventually reaches a magnificent finale that renders the earlier, misguided twists forgivable.
At its core, "A Screaming Man" emphasizes the strength of family bonds. It's a sad, moving portrait that has nothing to do with its chaotic setting. A film that avoids dialogue-based exposition in favor of displaying themes with gorgeous visuals, it opens and closes with Adam and his son submerged in water, a quasi-religious statement about the purity of their relationship and the problems that ensue when they drift apart. In these moments, "A Screaming Man" is divine.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening on one screen at New York's Film Forum, "A Screaming Man" won't attract waves of audiences given its grave topic and low-key story, but strong reviews should propel its life on DVD.
criticWIRE grade: B+
"A Screaming Man" will have its U.S. theatrical premiere Wednesday at Film Forum.