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Europe’s Crisis Finds a Solution at the Movies

"I, Daniel Blake" and other recent films provide a mirror for European society.

I, Daniel Blake

“I, Daniel Blake”

Sundance Selects

This article was produced as part of the Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, a collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival, IndieWire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of Film Comment and the Swiss Alliance of Film Journalists. 

European identity has been facing a crisis, and now the films are catching up to it. People are angrier than ever, whether they’re driven by the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium, France or Germany, by the socio-political uncertainty following the Brexit vote — and the sharp increase in racist attacks that came as a consequence of it — or even by the lingering and closely-felt effects of a mounting debt crisis. Films — acting, as they must, as a mirror of society — follow suit. Filmmakers all across the continent have attempted to understand and depict the different manifestations of this phenomenon.

Screening at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival, “Le Ciel Attendra” (“Heaven Can Wait”), a French production directed by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, centers on two teenage girls recruited by the Islamic State. Shot with a palpable sense of emergency and movement, while wrapped in a music score that is nothing short of melancholic, it focuses on an often-ignored perspective of a much discussed topic: the participation of women in terrorist groups.

The film follows Sonia (Noémie Merlant) and Mélanie (Naomi Amarger) dealing with the fallout after being recruited for terrorist attacks. What could quickly become a story about recrimination, finger-pointing and easy ways out, soon unfolds into a multilayered world with no easy fixes.

Orgon — a character from Molière’s “Tartuffo” discussed by a literature teacher in one of the film’s scene — in a need to attach himself to some sort of a religious figure, grows into his fanaticism in ways that force him to reject, attack and withdraw from society. And Mélanie — just like Sonia— believes it is her moral duty to save herself from the sins of this world, and this in turn drive her to take action.

Opposing realities and questionable, fear-driven actions are also part of “The Sun, The Sun Blinded Me,” a Swiss-Polish production directed by Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal.

Just like Mélanie and Sonia, the main character Rafał (Rafał Maćkowiak) feels he has become a stranger in his own society. Living a routine sheltered from the outside world, he faces a turning point in life. An adaptation of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” the film replaces the character of “The Arab” with a black man Rafał encounters washed ashore at a beach, in a harrowing scene that has became all-too-common in Europe.

At first, viewers may be puzzled by the choice of camera angles. We watch Rafał mostly from behind, as if peeking over his shoulder and attempting to comprehend the thoughts circling his mind. Dialogue is rare and never fully creates a connection between the characters, nor does it impact the relationship between them and the viewer.

Co-director Wilhelm is primarily a painter and a strong sense of aesthetics is central to his work. The film’s distinctive look helps to establish the isolation and lack of empathy that is so central to the story. Rafał is an obsessive runner, perhaps as a means of avoiding connections with the world that passes him by.

Some people, however, simply refuse giving in to the temptation to withdraw from the world. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is one of those people. The central character of “I, Daniel Blake” — directed by two-time Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach — stands up to the standardized voices, mechanized procedures and labyrinth-like structures of a bureaucratic state. Fifty-nine year-old Blake has a heart condition that prevents him from working, and yet is unable to renew his out-of-work sickness benefit. He is a living example of the state’s inability to protect its own citizens, victims of a system that seems to be designed not to function.

One day, he meets a single mother of two who is forced to move from London — where finding a flat is a nearly impossible task, yet another denouncement of the State’s failures — to Newcastle, a place she is unfamiliar with. They first meet at an unemployment center, where Kattie (Hayley Squires) is also struggling to be heard. As Daniel can’t help but get involved to help her out, their ensuing bond sets the stage for the rest of the story.

Although the system in “I, Daniel Blake” could easily make these characters turn against each other, they dare to look beyond that possibility and question the powers that be instead. While simple in its storytelling structure and camerawork, “I, Daniel Blake” manages to provoke and inspire in equal measures. In championing the power of human dignity, Loach celebrates the prospects of a collaborative society. As Europe changes, such idealism is in short supply — and more than welcome from this new crop of movies.

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