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DVD Reviews: Farewell (2009) and Of Gods and Men (2010)

2 French language films, 2 English language reviews:

Farewell is an entertaining but unremarkable French spy thriller based on extraordinary real events – 7/10 

Dir. Christian Carion

It’s the early 1980s and the struggle for No.1 Superpower status between the USA and the USSR is still very much alive. In the heart of the KGB, however, Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) (loosely based on Vladimir Vetrov) has decided that enough is enough; the communist experiment was admirable but ultimately a failure and the Cold War has to end. Moreover, given that he is a high-ranking KGB agent he is perfectly placed to engineer that change – even if he risks everything doing it. In order to achieve his goal, the enigmatic and reckless Russian decides to hand over secrets to the French and the unwitting engineer, Pierre Froment (Guilleme Canet), becomes his accomplice and sole confident.

The plot is intriguing and the historical backdrop acts as the perfect setting for an espionage thriller. This backdrop is fully capitalised upon by director Christian Carion, who presents a coherent piece which captures the period well. Canet and Kusturica play the unlikely lead pairing brilliantly, particularly Kusturica who portrays the idealistic, Francophile Russian with some verve. The final half-hour pulls this slow burner tight, providing a suspenseful and emotionally engaging finale. This emotional engagement is, however, both the film’s downfall and achievement. Prior to this finale, Farewell spends a lot of time on Froment and Grigoriev’s character development and relationship. This allows us to sympathise with them on a personal level, but it also means the film plods along in parts. In addition, the scenes involving US President Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) and French President Francois Mitterand (Philippe Magnan) feel out-of-place and awkward.

There are many nice directorial touches in this film and the contrast between East and West is subtly but effectively shown. Farewell makes a point of being underplayed and is relatively low on thrills. Some might say it requires a little patience, but there’s much to admire and it’s well worth the watch. Also, lovely soundtrack by Clint Mansell.

Of Gods and Men

Sad, profound and beautiful in equal measure, this is not a film that you will easily forget – 8/10

Dir. Xavier Beauvois

Of Gods and Men portrays the true story of 9 Trappists monks living in the monastery of Tibhirine, Algeria, before 7 of them are taken and killed by terrorists during the Algerian Civil War in 1996. Prior to being held hostage, the monks lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbours and much of the film shows their metronomic routine of life and worship. The monks make a considerable contribution to the community, particularly in their provision of medicine. They therefore struggle to comprehend the idea of leaving Tibhirine, despite the obvious danger, and the film predominantly focuses on the monks’ decision to stay and risk their lives.

Of Gods and Men was highly acclaimed and won several awards including the 2010 Cannes ‘Grand Prix,’ and for the most part these accolades are deserved. It is – in line with the subject matter – sombre without being mawkish and considers the issue of martyrdom without having delusions of grandeur. Clearly religion is central to the narrative but the film does not try to convert the viewer. Of Gods and Men is beautifully shot; it is contemplative and restrained throughout and this tone can be sharply contrasted with the way in which the monks were treated by their captors. Christian (Lambert Wilson) and Luc (Michael Lonsdale) lead their fellow monks in discussing what is the right thing to do. However, we learn most by studying their wonderfully expressive faces and it is clear that the monks never intend to leave their post. Although it is hard not to feel that the monks’ courage, loyalty or piety lead to a tremendous waste of life, Of Gods and Men is a brilliant study of their motivations and psyche.

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) (2011) – Review

Wonderfully suspenseful and beautifully crafted – the best film of the year so far – 9/10

Dir. Pedro Almodovar

If I were to classify this film in conventional terms I suppose it is a combination of thriller and horror; or maybe a thriller with horror elements. But to break it down in these terms fails to capture the true essence of the film. It is best understood as an Almodovar film, a melodrama engorged in perverted excess; a film that only he could make, which revisits many of the themes we have seen in his previous work – identity, sexuality, familial relationships, passion, lust, obsession and madness. Almodovar also revisits an old colleague in this film – Antonio Banderas – who plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a meticulous and brilliant surgeon who is seeking to redress the perceived injustices inflicted upon his family. Writing Robert’s motives in those terms suggests sterility; however, despite the clinical nature of his actions throughout the film, I feel this may give the wrong impression. Robert’s revenge mission certainly doesn’t lack creative qualities and as we delve deeper into the surgeon’s sordid affairs, the true horror of his vengeful imagination emerges.

Early on we discover that Robert is attempting to develop an advanced form of skin – resistant to fire, but with the properties of human skin (soft, supple, sensitive to touch). The specifics of Robert’s plan remain obfuscated and we are left wondering about the mysterious past of his beautiful prisoner (Elena Anaya) for much of the film. Nevertheless, when it all becomes clear, it is difficult for our views on the nature of the crime and punishment not to become fuzzy. Throughout the film Almodovar is playing with our perceptions and intuitions. He is commenting on the nature of madness, justice and the issue of man playing god. Above all, however, Almodovar is entertaining us. Banderas plays the cool and collected Robert superbly, with an underlying menace and a nod to Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein. Anaya is also excellent as Robert’s test-subject, carrying a sorrow and fear in her eyes.

Almodovar’s direction is as meticulous and clinical as his lead character – Anaya’s porcelain skin coupled with the pristine mise-en-scène creates an eery feeling of perfection. The visual excellence demands a second look and the questions that the film asks require a second thought. This brilliantly over-the-top film shocks and thrills in equal measure and is the best film of the year so far.

Julia’s Eyes (Los ojos de Julia) (2010) – Review

Spanish domination of the horror genre continues – 8/10

Dir. Guillem Morales

Having posted some less than glowing reviews in the last few days, I was fearful that Inside Film would be garnering a reputation for negativity. But don’t fear! I watched a film which I actually liked. Be warned, however, this movie is not for the faint hearted.

Spanish newcomer Guillem Morales directs and writes this thriller-come-horror about Julia’s (Belén Rueda) attempts to solve the puzzling death of her blind sister. Both Julia and her sister  Sara have a degenerative eye disease which is worsened by stress and will eventually render Julia blind. After visiting Sara’s house with her husband Isaac (Lluis Homar) to attend the funeral, Julia becomes convinced that the police have it wrong and Sara did not commit suicide. Julia encounters strange clue after strange clue amid various meetings with weirdos, oddball neighbours and a creepy child whose face we never see.

In a rather clichéd manner, neither the police nor the husband believe Julia’s claims that Sara’s death is more than it seems. Therefore, Julia is left to solve this mystery on her own with nail-biting results as she puts herself in countless dangerous situations. Julia’s bravery derives from a strong desire to solve her sister’s death and possibly out of a deep sense of guilt at not supporting Sara as much as she could have done whilst she was alive. Resultantly, we are left with several scenes where you feel like shouting “don’t go down that dark, scary looking alley/flight of stairs/corridor.” This somewhat overplayed horror element gives the film an excellent level of suspense and Morales uses the ‘seeing less is more’ principle to good effect. The narrative moves at a good pace with slow mournful moments being combined with some plodding action sequences and staccato chase scenes.

Morales also employs the central theme of blindness and eyesight to brilliant visual effect with one particularly good scene which uses only the lighting of a camera flash. Julia’s Eyes contains plenty of twists and turns to keep you interested and culminates in a sinister truth which I personally found quite traumatic. Although some may criticise its “turned up to 11” approach I thought this made the film all the more thrilling. A good start from Morales, let’s hope there’s more where that came from.