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Karlovy Vary Film Fest Review Roundup: ‘Shameless,’ ‘Hay Road’ & ‘Nos Vemos Papa’

Karlovy Vary Film Fest Review Roundup: 'Shameless,' 'Hay Road' & 'Nos Vemos Papa'

This year at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, a mini-trend emerged in the form of incest movies, with films that dealt, overtly or tacitly, with the taboo liberally dotting the programme. “Shameless” (“Bez Wstydu”), the debut feature from young Polish filmmaker Filip Marczewski, is, as the title suggests, certainly on the overt end of the spectrum as regards to putting an intra-sibling affair front and center of the story. But while there is much to admire, especially for a novice filmmaker, here the film would have benefitted from spending less time on the splashy, logline-grabbing brother/sister romance, and a little more on the supporting cast and subplots that actually turn out to be a great deal more intriguing.

Tadzik (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) arrives home after a spell in college, interposing himself into the life of his emotionally unstable half-sister, Anka (Agnieszka Grochowska), with whom he has an unwholesome fascination. Anka is determined to make things work with her fiance, however, a local neo-Nazi leader who is spearheading racist attacks on gypsy settlements, just as Tadzik befriends a young gypsy girl who cherishes dreams of escaping her own proscribed future.

Tadzik’s obsession with his sister, which causes the breakdown of all of the other relationships within the film, escalates to the point of consummation, but as much as the leads both turn in excellent performances of conviction and depth, the real discovery here is Anna Próchniak, in her first film role, as Irmina, the young gypsy. Hers is a truly luminous presence and both her story and that of the local neo-Nazis feel more important and more arresting than the illicit activities of the central duo, however transgressive. With Próchniak all but offscreen for the last third of the film, interest flags considerably.

Still Marczewski is definitely a director to watch, for his deft handling of politically tricky subject matter and for his ability to get remarkable performances from his actors. Once he hones his storytelling instincts to the same degree, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with indeed. [B]

Hay Road
For any fan of the Western form, the premise of “Hay Road”(“Estrada de Palha”) sounds intriguing if familiar: deep in the Finnish countryside (OK, we had to look that up, but somewhere snowy anyway) a self-exiled loner receives word of his brother’s murder, and sets out on a journey back to his Portuguese hometown to exact revenge and claim, as his own his brother’s widow, the woman he has always loved. But as spartan as that description may be, it’s Dickensian in detail compared to what actually happens in the film, in which our hero sets out to achieve all of the above, but in defiance of narrative convention, and indeed of audience interest, actually ends up pretty much failing to Do What A Man’s Gotta Do on every level. No doubt director Rodrigo Areias is using some of the genre’s conventions and jettisoning others in pursuit of a philosophical agenda, a trick pulled off to various extents by films like “Dead Man,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” But honestly that level of sophistication, if such it is, was lost on us amid the meandering, loosely-plotted episodic feel, and the frustrating blankness of our central character, played by Vítor Correia (from some angles very Selleck-ian, so there’s that).

There’s a nice sequence in which he goes to jail and despite a mile-high language barrier an unlikely bond springs up between him and a black fellow prisoner, but even that opportunity is squandered too soon, proving only a brief point of buddy-movie action and engagement that highlights the rest of the film’s glacial pace and absence of characterisation. And the film’s potentially fascinating setting, in the politically charged period just before the Portuguese monarchy was deposed, is also frustratingly never brought into center stage: instead it haunts the fringes, providing motivations and context for a host of lesser characters which we, sans PhD in Portuguese history, can only scramble to discern.

There are some pretty shots, to be sure, and the open trek across snowy wastelands had a certain stark beauty, but with amateurish performances from the support, and one of over-earnest wordlessness from the lead (an early moment in which he looks up dramatically from a letter and gazes off into the middle distance as though THINKING was a sad signal of Acting Technique to come), create too much of a remove for any real investment to happen.

Part road movie, part western, part meditation on the nature of…we know not what, we could maybe have given the film more props if it hadn’t overtaxed our patience so much. As it is, it feels overlong at 95 minutes and will leave you not greatly enlightened at that end of that time as to what it was really trying to say.  [C-]

Nos Vemos Papa
Co-writer of 2010’s “Leap Year,” a Mexican film we reviewed at VIFF ‘10, Lucia Carreras makes her directorial debut with “Nos Vemos Papa,” an almost hermetically sealed film about grief that strays early on from thoughtfulness into ponderousness and never really returns. More’s the pity, because the performances are soulful and committed, particularly from lead Cecilia Suárez who is onscreen almost every moment and who really sells her role as Pilar, a woman so completely adoring of her father that she essentially unravels following his death (thematic comparisons to the aforementioned “Leap Year” abound.)

Unfortunately, Carreras allows that unravelling to take place at an excruciatingly slow pace, with minimal dialogue and minimal human interaction, and becomes overreliant on Suárez’s haunted, bewildered expression to communicate the inner story. And when Pilar’s monomania devolves into quasi-incestuous territory (she fantasizes about having sex with her father, only to be discovered, in flagrante, by her horrified brother), even then the opportunity for drama is ignored in favour of Pilar mooning about again, now in her brother’s house, exerting a creepy but wordless and unexplored influence over her niece. The fact is, that while the restraint demonstrated by Carreras may possibly ring more truthful than a more hysterical approach, it is not exactly cinematic, and so we get extended periods of the movie which feature nothing but Pilar moving slowly from room to room, picking things up… and… then… putting… them… down… again.

A rather bleak ending, in which her brother more or less washes his hands of her and she almost joyfully reverts to her quietly deranged former way of life, in which she simply imagines her father to still be alive and carries on conversations and plays games with him, does prompt some interesting questions about familial duty and whether you should intervene in someone’s insanity if it is the only thing keeping them content. But by that stage the film has rather overstayed its welcome anyway. Pilar seems destined for a fate as a lonely, Grey Gardens-style shut-in whose only company is a ghost animated solely by her grief. But the real mystery is how the hell we can watch and understand all that, and yet remain largely unmoved. [C]

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