“Boy Eating the Bird’s Food“
For the first few minutes of “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food” (“To agori troei to fagito tou pouliou”), the feature debut from Greek director Ektoras Lygizos that premiered In Competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one could be forgiven for believing him to be heavily under the influence of his countryman Yorgos Lanthimos: the film starts with a slightly surreal sequence in which the central character, played by Yiannis Papadopoulos, goes to audition/interview for a peculiar job which requires him to sing in an oddly creepy falsetto. The bleached-out grade and handheld, close-up-heavy camera work add to the claustrophobic discomfort, but it soon becomes clear that this is not a Lanthimos-esque carefully constructed alternate universe. Instead ‘Boy’ lays claim to some sort of grim realism, in portraying in unflinching detail, the descent of its protagonist from poor, struggling loner to utterly isolated, poverty-stricken, borderline insane weirdo. It’s not exactly a barrel of laughs.
The relentlessly depressing vibe could, of course, be entirely appropriate if the film had an edifying agenda that brought the narrative out of the specific and into the general, but though some critics have managed to identify topical or allegorical elements to the film, we have to confess they passed us by. In fact, the film is so narrowly focused on the lead that almost no context is admitted, and while we know it to be set in modern-day Greece, we get very little sense of place or culture. Without this colouring round the edges, the dogged cataloguing of this young man’s miseries starts to feel almost exploitative — if not of the character then certainly of the audience.
In or around the point that we watched our hero masturbate into his hand and then, gagging, eat his own ejaculate, we did start to wonder why we were putting ourselves through this. If the desire was to shine a light on the grim reality of the disenfranchised in today’s Athens, then why do we see him leave a paying job in a telesales centre because the banal grind of the work is beneath him? There are forces at work here outside of societal failure, like his mental deterioration that leads him to make more and more erratic choices. As a result at some point the film resigns its right to make sweeping statements about the human cost of the failure of the Greek economy, in favour of wholeheartedly becoming a psychological portrait of a singularly disturbed individual.
The actor Papadopoulos, commended by the Karlovy Vary jury, does a remarkable job with the merciless material, and the film has identified an interesting, little-seen phase of devolution: the moment that deprivation and harsh circumstance cross the line into abject penury and homelessness. These elements could have combined to much greater effect, instead we get an ordeal that doesn’t really justify the unpleasantness of the watching with any kind of insight. Apparently the generic term for this sort of recession-era social realism is “povertainment”. We could wish this entry in that dubious canon was just a little more povertaining. [C]
A lovely, if tiny, little film, director Rafaël Ouellet’s “Camion,” which got its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, is the touching story of an aging trucker who is involved in an accident, and his two sons who come back to spend some time with him in the aftermath. The generous, unshowy performances, the apparent simplicity of the narrative and the specificity of its setting and milieu (small-town Canada) render it perfect festival fare, if a difficult sell outside of that rarefied circuit. But it’s the honesty and the warmth of the treatment that make it, if not essential viewing, then certainly a very absorbing, engaging, likable way to spend 95 minutes.
When widower Germain (Julien Poulin) decides to leave decades of trucking behind due to his inarticulate guilt and grief over his role in a fatal accident, his son Samuel (Patrice Dubois) worries about him, and drives back home, picking up his shiftless brother Alain (Stéphane Breton) on the way. Samuel and Alain are both responding in different ways to the challenges of adult life: Alain mostly by avoiding them, and Samuel by embracing the joyless responsibilities of his job as a night janitor. Without ever sinking into sentimentality or bathos, the film really surprises with its gentleness, and the affection with which Ouellet treats his lead trio. They talk (or they don’t), they reminisce, they occasionally drive each other mad, and that’s really about it. This is not a film that relies on devastating revelations or dramatic reveals, it’s a soft, slow burn in which a fragmented family comes back together, and very gently and not in such a way that they might acknowledge or even notice, save each other.
Again, its scope is exceptionally narrow, and if anything it could be accused of being a little unambitious. But it’s hard to stay mad at it when its truthfulness and poignancy is inarguable. And indeed there is something kind of admirable about its un-flashy, quiet optimism. At a festival especially, it’s good to be reminded that stories do not have to be bleak or without hope to feel true and resonant, and here Ouellet is brave enough to allow his characters, with their good hearts and good intentions, to learn enough about each other and themselves so that we can go into the credits on that rarest of things: an entirely earned and satisfying, “happy” ending. [B+]
“Your Beauty Is Worth Nothing“
It’s become almost a cliché: for a quick shortcut to immediate audience sympathy, tell the story of your film through the eyes of a child. But that doesn’t make it less effective, especially when the child’s performance is so wonderfully well-observed and affecting as that of Abdulkadir Tuncer in Hüseyin Tabak’s feature debut “Your Beauty Is Worth Nothing” (“Deine Schoenheit Ist Nichts Wert”), which played in competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Set among the Turkish immigrant/refugee population of modern-day Vienna, the story revolves around little Veysel, a daydreaming stutterer struggling to assimilate into his German-speaking school, who escapes the bullying in the classroom and the problems at home between his parents and his increasing wild, gang-affiliated brother, by fixating on his classmate and neighbour Ana, and by listening to the music of his namesake, Turkish poet and songwriter Asik Veysel. Indeed, the film’s title is taken from one of Veysel’s songs, which itself plays a pivotal role in the plot.
The sweetness of the little boy’s dreams is offset, though, by the gathering stormclouds of familial and societal strife. And sure enough, his Turkish nationalist brother and Kurdish ex-guerilla father mutually disown each other in a hail of recrimination, after which his brother’s arrest make the possibility of deportation a grave reality for them all.
For the most part, Tabak negotiates the segues from harsh reality to childish romance deftly, and we get a touching picture of how, for Veysel, they are so interrelated as to almost be indistinguishable, and how he can come to believe that if he works hard at one simple task, he might be able to save his family and win the girl in one fell swoop. In that effort he is abetted by the initially reluctant Cem, a macho neighbour who ends up becoming something of a surrogate parent/best friend to the little boy — a relationship totally sold by both the actors involved, and that gives yet another winning dimension to the story.
Like its protagonist, the film may be just a little too moon-eyed and slight to cut through the way it should, but as a heartfelt, goodnatured coming-of-age story, with a little melancholy political commentary in the background, it is surprisingly affecting. And as for its undeniably liberal agenda? Well, if the filmmakers wanted to give a human face to the effects of often impersonal immigration policies, they did well to choose a face as angelic and lovable as Tuncer’s. [B]