An Act of Defiance: a hard-hitting, confrontational film about personal courage and the fight for justice

Jean van de Welde, “An Act of Defiance” (2017)

Quite a hard-hitting and confrontational film this historical drama on the incidents and trial that sent political activist Nelson Mandela to prison for nearly 30 years turns out to be, with a focus on the barrister who defended Mandela and his co-defendants in the trial and how his own life was turned upside-down as a result. In 1963, Mandela and his inner circle of black African and Jewish activists in the African National Congress are arrested at Lillesleaf Farm in Rivonia, in Johannesburg, on charges of conspiring to commit sabotage. Lawyer Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller) reluctantly agrees to defend Mandela and the other activists at their trial in spite of his own connections with the African National Congress through the outlawed South African Communist Party; indeed, some of the documents seized by police at Lillesleaf Farm are actually in his own handwriting. Mandela urges his co-defendants to plead not guilty to the charges of high treason, punishable by the death penalty, and appeals to them and their legal counsel to put the South African government on trial during their trial over the system of apartheid blanketing the country’s institutions that denies non-white people the same rights, privileges and freedoms as white people have.

As the trial progresses, Bram Fischer’s sympathies with the defendants are called into question, especially when the legal counsel for the prosecution reveals his link to Mandela’s inner circle, and Fischer and his family are subjected to harassment by the police. While his wife Molly and their children support Fischer and his desire to see justice done – incidentally only two of Fischer’s three children are portrayed in the film – the Rivonia trial has a huge impact on all their lives, even after cross-examination ends, the judge delivers the verdict and the sentence, and Mandela and his fellow co-defendants are forced to return to prison; over the next few years, strange incidents suggestive of continuing government and police harassment occur in the family’s lives which result in tragedy and Fischer’s own arrest, trial, sentencing and imprisonment.

The tone of the film is very sober yet matter-of-fact. Initially it is slow and little of note happens until the trial begins. Then the pace and the tension are relentless as the trial grinds away, wearing down Fischer and his legal team. Relief at the verdict when it comes, is but very short-lived as the film details the consequences of Fischer’s involvement in the Rivonia Trial on him, Molly and other members of his family. The acting is good and consistent if fairly minimal.

While highlighting the role that members of the South African Jewish community played in fighting apartheid alongside Mandela and other black Africans, the film does little to show the support non-white people might have demonstrated for Fischer and the hostility he and his family might have faced from their own Afrikaner community. Divisions among the whites in their attitudes toward the Rivonia Trial and its participants could also have been shown. Ironically, for all the emphasis the film places on how South African Jewish individuals worked with black people to fight apartheid, most black characters in the film are basically passive bystanders. Without the overall political context that was South Africa in the early 1960s, viewers outside the country who have little knowledge of its history before the 1990s will not be able to appreciate the depth of hatred and enmity against Bram Fischer for defending Mandela and the activists from the government and its institutions, the huge risks he took in doing so and the sacrifices he was forced to make later. The film highlights how the search for justice and the advancement of society demand considerable personal courage from individuals who, all too often, end up being persecuted and suffer great personal tragedy.

The Wife: a solid film notable for its lead performances but little else

Bjorn Runge, “The Wife” (2017)

As films go, “The Wife” is enjoyable mainly for Glenn Close’s understated performance as the title character: for the most part, the plot is predictable and Runge’s direction is solid if lacking in flair. It’s best seen as a character study of a woman who had aspirations to be a writer and who ends up repressing her ambitions to support her husband’s writing career. Literary giant Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature so he and his wife Joan (Close) prepare to journey to Stockholm to receive the award. Taking their son David (Max Irons), himself an aspiring writer, with them, the Castlemans are accosted on the plane by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a creepy freelance writer who plans to pen a tell-all biography about Joseph. Finally in Stockholm, the couple and their son settle down in their hotel rooms, and from here on the Castleman marriage starts to shake as the significance of the prize, her husband’s reaction and his cantankerous behaviour towards Bone and Max, and the general fawning over Joseph (with herself being relegated to the background as the dutiful and supportive wife) gradually begin weigh heavily on Joan.

Two chance utterances between Joseph and Joan in front of David alert viewers to the possibility that perhaps Joseph’s writing over the decades hasn’t entirely been his own. While the Castlemans perform the round of parties and meet-and-greet rituals leading up to the prize-giving ceremonies, Bone gathers enough information (including talking to Joan and Max separately) to come to the same conclusion. Flashbacks to when a young Joan (Annie Starke) first met Joseph (Harry Lloyd) as a student enrolled in his creative writing classes at college in the 1950s, leading to their becoming secret lovers while Joseph is still married to his first wife, and then to early life together struggling to make ends meet (Joseph having divorced his wife and left college to pursue writing full-time), fill in the details of that particular plot strand.

Close gives a master class in minimalist acting with her eyes and expressions that hint at the emotional turmoil and suffering within. Pryce is an excellent foil with his cantankerous and crude behaviour that includes chasing a woman photographer young enough to be his daughter. Slater plays Bone a little too smoothly; he seems comfortable as an oily, sleazy opportunist, and in the role offers little else. The rest of the cast is as wallpaper.

Apart from Close and Pryce’s acting, the film doesn’t offer much beyond demonstrating how a young female writer, shy and unsure of her talent, is deterred from following her dreams by an embittered female author (Elizabeth McGovern), her teacher / lover / husband’s own self-centred immaturity, lack of insight and arrogance, and the prevailing misogynist attitudes of the literary publishing industry in the 1950s. As time passes by, and her husband’s literary star begins its rise, Joan finds herself locked into supporting his career and becomes resigned to her role. The film only really perks up at the very end when Joan tells Bone what he can and can’t do, and one realises that, for all Joan supposedly suffered over the years as The Wife, her relationship with Joseph really was symbiotic and a purely stereotypical feminist explanation of their marriage as one where one party benefited at the expense of a long-suffering other and reaps all the rewards will not do.

The film could have offered some criticism, even light criticism, of the Nobel Prize and how this institution and the awarding of literary prizes can distort writers’ ambitions and affect their reputations. Too much weight can be attached to a writer’s reputation based on what prizes s/he has won without consideration for whether literary writing itself has become nothing more than a mere genre with its own load of stereotypes living in a bubble that is divorced from reality and with nothing valuable to say to most people struggling under political, economic and social systems that have become increasingly repressive, unequal, corrupt and inhuman.

Rams: a minimal but insubstantial film on the fragility of family and community ties and traditions against the outside world

Grimur Hakonarson, “Rams / Hrutar” (2015

Forty years ago, a family rift led to two brothers in an Icelandic sheep-farming family going their separate ways, splitting the family property in half so that each brother tends to his own flock of pedigreed heritage sheep. For forty years the two brothers Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) don’t speak to each other and Kiddi’s dog Somi takes handwritten messages from one to the other if they have to communicate. And forty years after the family conflict, now long forgotten, the two brothers do have to come together and communicate: in one of the brothers’ flocks, a ram comes down with a disease feared to be scrapie. The entire valley where the brothers live becomes a scrapie disaster zone and the government in Rejkjavik decrees that all sheep farmers in the area must slaughter their animals, clean and disinfect their properties and equipment, and remain sheep-free for two calendar years. Some sheep farmers are devastated by this news and decide to give up their farms; Gummi tries to comply with the regulations but can’t bring himself to kill his beloved ram; and Kiddi refuses point-blank to comply with the law. Faced with the extinction not only of their unique breed of sheep but also of their family legacy and way of life, the sensitive Gummi and stubborn, hard-drinking Kiddi need to come together if they’re to save Gummi’s prize ram and a small set of ewes from the veterinarians and the agricultural authorities.

The film starts as a quirky eccentric comedy centred around the brothers’ personality quirks and their feud, and gradually develops into a bleak tale in which the two are driven to desperate measures and risk their lives to maintain a family / cultural tradition. The isolation of these elderly sheep-farmers in a remote part of Iceland, and the self-reliant, taciturn nature such isolation engenders (even if its flip-side is eccentric and silent stubbornness) becomes apparent; even the government inspectors and the family lawyer from the south are puzzled by the brothers’ behaviour, and talk too much (and they’re Icelanders!) for the viewers’ comfort. Audiences become very aware of the attachment farmers like Gummi and Kiddi have for their animals and for the harsh physical environment where they have lived all their lives, and of the intrusive inspectors and veterinarians from Rejkjavik who look out of place in the windswept (and, in winter, snow-laden) open landscapes.

The plot is perhaps too simple and the characters of Gummi and Kiddi a little too stereotyped to carry the film’s themes of community and family ties, and how fragile these can be, successfully. The film spends more time with Gummi (whose daily routines are on the dull side) and not much at all on Kiddi so we know little about Kiddi other than that he drinks too much and is prone to anger and even violence. At times the film does drag with long silences – but that’s probably a problem for us city people with our short attention spans and dislike of long pauses in conversation – and the family conflict that split apart the brothers is never explained so viewers remain in the dark about how it came to have such a deep effect on the two men.

The film might have been more successful had the characters of the two men been more developed, and perhaps a sub-plot included as well. Something about how the outside world increasingly encroaches on the isolated sheep-farming community in a remote part of Iceland, and the changes it brings – changes that threaten a traditional way of life and the physical environment – would have added an extra layer of interest and conflict. The two brothers’ reaction to the threat that the authorities pose to their beloved ram and ewes may seem pathetic to some viewers and heroic (in a tragic sort of way) to others.

For a movie that is not long – it’s not quite 90 minutes – “Rams” does wear out its welcome quickly.

Tom of Finland: a film of hope, sympathy for underdogs and inspiration to others suffering hardship and oppression

Dome Karukoski, “Tom of Finland” (2017)

As a general introduction to the life of gay icon Tom of Finland, real name Touko Laaksonen, for a general viewing audience, this film is adequate enough. Spanning roughly four decades, it follows Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) from his youth when he was conscripted into the Finnish army to fight the Russian enemy in the late 1930s / early 1940s, to his eventual fame as an artist specialising in drawing hyper-sexualised erotic gay pornography. Early on, Laaksonen kills a Russian pilot and this incident haunts him on and off throughout the rest of his life. After being decorated for heroism during World War II, Laaksonen finds himself isolated and marginalised socially because of his homosexuality, in a period when homosexuality was illegal and couples engaging in furtive sexual activity in parks and public toilets at night were hunted down and beaten up by police. Frustrated, Laaksonen pours his troubles out into homoerotic drawings of hyper-masculine beefcake fellows in skin-tight leather biker outfits and lumberjack clothing. In the meantime, Laaksonen’s sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) helps him get a job at her advertising agency employer and also invites a young male dancer Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen) to be their tenant to help pay the rent: Laaksonen realises he has met Nipa before and that Nipa is also gay.

Kaija had hoped Nipa would be the love of her life and for a while the two do act like a couple. Eventually though – the film does not make this too clear – Nipa and Touko become the couple and Kaija accepts and tolerates the relationship. The two men conduct their relationship clandestinely at secret underground clubs and a diplomat’s home until one evening when police raid the diplomat’s mansion and make arrests. The diplomat himself is exposed as gay, loses his job and is forced to undergo treatment to “cure” him of his homosexual tendencies.

After seeing Touko’s drawings, Nipa convinces him to send the drawings to a publisher in the United States. After publication, Touko’s work (under the Tom of Finland name) becomes popular with the gay community in California whose members use the sketches as part of their code to signal to other gay men who they are and if they are sexually available. In due time, Touko earns enough money from the drawings that he and Nipa can buy their own apartment, furnish it how they want (with yellow curtains that Touko calls “sissy”) and live fairly openly as a gay couple. Touko no longer needs to work at the advertising agency and can devote his time to drawing homoerotic pictures. He is brought to the US by two fans where he is introduced to the gay biker sub-culture which his pictures helped to inspire. By this time though, Nipa has been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer and his ailment is the precursor to the HIV – AIDS crisis that hits gay communities around the world hard. Touko is anguished that his drawings may have encouraged the promiscuity associated with the disease and with the help of his American friends resolves to help fight the disease and the politically conservative backlash against gay people.

As a film espousing hope and sympathy for the hardships that gay people have had to suffer, “Tom of Finland” probably has few equals. Unfortunately though the film gives little information about how society in Finland changes over the decades from one hostile and repressive towards homosexuality and homosexual people into one more tolerant and relaxed enough to make a film celebrating Laaksonen as a significant cultural icon. We do not learn when homosexuality was decriminalised in Finland (the year was 1971 when the law was changed) and when it was declassified as an illness (1981). The film’s narrow focus on Touko’s personal life and relationships to the exclusion of the changing social context around him robs it of a definite linear structure that would have given it more direction and made the film more relevant to a non-Finnish audience.

For a film with not much plot to work with, “Tom of Finland” is surprisingly absorbing, perhaps because its central characters are stoic yet sensitive, and need to be pushed by other people to get what is due to them. Touko needs Kaija to get him out of his post-war depression and needs Nipa to prod him to send his artwork to a publisher, setting in train the distribution of the drawings that will make his reputation. Kaija herself needs pushing but tragically rejects opinions that her own artwork is good and worthy of exhibiting. Seeing Kaija being left behind as an artist whose potential remains unrealised, and as a lonely spinster figure heavily dependent on mainstream approval and scornful of her brother’s “dick drawings”, I could not help but feel pity for her.

The film’s style for the most part is low-key and subtle: Touko’s liaisons are treated over-cautiously and even the scenes of gay life in California tend towards the tasteful side. The only exposed male genitalia are those of Touko’s drawings: even the fantasy figure Kake who sometimes appears in Touko’s dreams is always covered up. On the whole, the film is enjoyable to watch as a work of historical drama fiction portraying an individual and a subculture navigating their way through mainstream society’s limitations and testing its boundaries over the years.

The film provides no explanation as to why Touko was drawn to sketching and illustrating pictures of gay male beefcake types in working class fashions, or how and why motorcycles and the biker leather fashions that grew up around them after World War II should have become associated with gay subcultures.

The King’s Choice: best seen as a character study of people having to make unenviable choices and decisions

Erik Poppe, “Kongens Nei / The King’s Choice” (2016)

As a straight history lesson or even as a conventional war-time drama, this film doesn’t succeed: audiences outside Norway will find the narrative very fragmented and be mystified as to what actually happens between the main body of the plot and its closing scene. One also senses that director Poppe couldn’t resist in indulging in some cheap propaganda pot-shots at Denmark, the former colonial master, in shoring up Norwegian insecurities about having sold out to the Germans through the fascist Vidkun Quisling government during World War II. The action scenes are superfluous to the main body of the film and the two people at the centre of them are no more than heroic feel-good stereotypes. “Kongens Nei” works best as a fictional character study centred on the figure of King Haakon VII who through circumstances not of his making is forced to make an unenviable choice as head of state: willingly agree to surrender to Germany and avoid continuing bloodshed, or refuse and share (however indirectly) the blame for war. If we take this narrow focus, then the film becomes a lesson about moral responsibility and how it shapes one’s legacy to one’s family (and nation), but perhaps at the cost of accepting the film’s initial portrayal of the king as somewhat spineless, giving in to compromise and following the herd when he should have done otherwise. The real king may have been no such figure.

In spite of the fragmented narrative, the film does a decent job detailing the immense pressure Norway and its government are under from the attacking Nazi German forces who are hell-bent on seizing the country’s iron ore resources to feed their eventual war against the Soviet union. Holding the story together are the central characters of the King himself (Jesper Christensen), the Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who acts as the King’s conscience and the ill-fated German diplomat Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics) who arranges to meet with the King to persuade him to sign an act of surrender even as Berlin manoeuvres and pushes the envoy aside. The three actors are excellent in their roles: Christensen all but absorbs the viewer’s attention as a morally and physically frail and ageing monarch who might not have been a great father or even a very good leader in the past. How he rises – or maybe does not rise – to his nation’s greatest crisis is the crux of the film. Bräuer’s own personal journey to this point in the film parallels the King’s moral dilemma. Both men try to do the right thing by their own standards even as dark forces surround and encroach on them and their families: Bräuer insists on carrying out his duty as an envoy and the King tries to do what he believes is the right thing by the Norwegian people, to the extent of walking into what might be a potential trap. The irony is that what he and Bräuer end up doing actually makes very little difference to Norway’s eventual fate.

I feel that where the film really falls down is its failure to show how Norway’s resistance to German invasion and aggression was ultimately hopeless, and how the Norwegian royal family was forced to leave the country altogether in spite of the decisions the King and Crown Prince had made, however heroic or not these were.

The Passion of Joan of Arc: an experimental film let down by its narrow focus, story-line and characterisation

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

In itself, this silent film is remarkable for its lead actor Maria Falconetti’s acting from the neck up, portraying the anguish and suffering of the famous French heroine after she was captured by Burgundian forces who delivered her to the English for imprisonment and torture. Based on actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, the film covers the period from her incarceration to her death by burning at the stake. French clergymen loyal to the English cause try to force her to sign a confession admitting to being under Satanic influence and when that attempt fails, resort to blackmail and deception to compel her to sign. Threatened with burning, Joan allows a priest to guide her hand in signing the confession but later recants when given a life sentence. Having failed to break her resistance and spirit, the churchmen put Joan to death, and her public execution rouses the townsfolk into revolt against the religious and military authorities.

The film is noteworthy for its insistence on the use of facial close-ups of the lead character to convey her devotion to her king, her country and God, and to emphasise her spiritual purity and strength. Joan’s persecutors are filmed under harsh light that emphasises their craggy features (or soft facial padding as the case may be) and suggests that they are spiritually impoverished or corrupt. The clergy’s obsession with Joan wearing men’s clothes and the way in which they use the ritual of holy communion to trick Joan into signing the confession show the men are more interested in following empty forms of outward piety than pursuing spiritual enlightenment.

Unfortunately the film gives very little background (apart from title cards) to Joan’s imprisonment and says very little about the visions that inspired a simple peasant girl, unable to read and write, to take up arms and lead armies into battle against the English. Viewers can easily get the wrong idea about Joan’s character from watching Falconetti’s performance – there is little in her portrayal that suggests a forthright and determined character. Falconetti’s Joan makes an impression as a highly religious woman whose outward simplicity hides a fairly cunning mind. Occasionally she is given over to brief ecstatic episodes that might suggest she is hallucinating.

The film is not long but its narrow focus and minimal style can make it seem unbearably long for some viewers. Perhaps it might have worked better if several of the churchmen had been more devious and pretended to Joan that they desired to help her escape punishment – on conditions that they will make known at much, much later times. The film could have been as much an inquisition of Joan inside and outside of court, and emphasised a narrative of prison and trial as tests of Joan’s character and intelligence, as it is a portrayal of the “justice” meted out to her. We would see the qualities that made Joan an outstanding leader and a non-conformist whose very existence threatens the power hierarchy and values exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church. As an experimental film of a sort, it works well but the experimentation butts heads with a narrowly defined story-line and a heroine who turns out to be more conventional in character and portrayal than expected.

9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo: an ordinary documentary short with little to say and leaving too many unanswered questions

Floor van der Meulen, Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma, “9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo” (2016)

Filmed over nine days (hence the title) in August 2012, this 13-minute documentary short captures one witness’s view of the beginning of the war between the Syrian government and the jihadis in Aleppo that was to last over 4 years until east Aleppo’s liberation by the Syrians and their Russian, Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) allies. Photographer Issa Touma filmed scenes within his apartment and outside through his apartment window; the effect is to give a very intimate and often claustrophobic, even paranoid view of the war as it developed (rapidly as it turned out) from what appears to be a skirmish between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to a more serious conflict between the SAA and jihadi terrorists that promises to be longer and brutally violent.

While the film, chronologically ordered by day, looks interesting enough in its scenes and their details, it lacks a clear narrative: why did Touma choose to film over nine days, as opposed to, say, seven days or 14 days, and why did he decide to stop filming once the terrorists replaced the FSA? Where does his despair emanate from? Why does he refuse to take sides in the war? For that matter, why did he decide to stay in his apartment instead of leaving the apartment block with his neighbours? Why did he prefer to stay in the apartment, to stay isolated (and watch Hollywood movies on TV) and not look out for his remaining neighbours? Assuming that he spent most of his daylight hours in the apartment, I am astonished that so little film and so little monologue ended up in this documentary.

Had Touma admitted his opinion of the Syrian government, the FSA and the jihadis, viewers would have a better idea of his demoralisation at the arrival of the jihadis. However, by saying that he refuses to support one side or the other, Touma ends up appearing apathetic and passive, and this impression may turn off viewer sympathy for his plight.

For a film that won the European Short Film Award in 2016, this documentary has very little to commend it. While street scenes and the ambient background soundtrack convey the drama of escalating conflict encroaching on an individual’s neighbourhood, the film overall turns out to be an ordinary piece of workman-like quality and offers nothing new or different that most people following non-mainstream news media on events in Syria over the past several years do not already know.

Festen: a rich film skewering Danish society and social hypocrisy, and delivering redemption

Thomas Vinterberg, “Festen” (1998)

“Festen” remains the best-known and most mainstream of the various films made under Dogme 95 movement rules. Even if audiences no longer remember what the goals and restrictions of Dogme 95 are, “Festen” still remains a powerful indictment of late 20th-century Danish society with its obsessions with social conventions and rituals, which serve to suppress and deny uncomfortable truths and secrets that have the power to destroy or at least derail people’s lives and prevent them from fulfilling their potential. The wealthy Klingenfeldt family is celebrating grand patriarch Helge’s 60th birthday at his country estate, and his surviving adult children Michael, Christian and Helene dutifully turn up despite Michael not having an official invitation after the last birthday celebration during which he drunkenly misbehaved himself. Now I say “surviving adult children” because the immediate Klingenfeldt family members soon start talking about their absent sister Linda who is revealed through dialogue and a clever device (in which Christian’s secret love Pia takes a bath) that she drowned herself in a bathtub full of water.

After the entire extended family arrives, everyone is called to dinner and speeches are made during which Christian (Ullrich Thomsen) reveals a shocking family secret involving himself, Linda and their father Helge (Henning Moritzen) and from that moment the film takes ever darker turns, reflected in the steady progress of the day from morning to afternoon to night, in which the family and guests reveal ever more hypocritical and crass sides of their characters and the equally pharisaical nature of Danish society generally in which social conventions, rituals and traditions mask coldness and cruelty, distance between parents and children, and put down children and stunt their growth and development. All of the Klingenfeldt children have somehow failed to meet their father Helge’s expectations of them, and all of them are stumbling through their lives trying to find meaning and purpose. Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) has to learn discipline and control if his marriage is to survive and his children are to have a stable home environment. Helene (Paprika Steen) needs to stop waltzing from one foreign man to another and overcome her depression and pill-popping. Christian however cannot find meaning and purpose until he is able to confront his father with his crimes and his mother with her failure to protect him and Linda when they were chldren, and the film becomes as much about the way in which he grows and matures, overcoming one humiliation after another, and finally learns to take charge of his life and find love and purpose.

The adherence to Dogme 95 rules such as the use of hand-held cameras, grainy film of a particular size and various other restrictions gives “Festen” a raw immediacy that confronts audiences with the powerful emotions and the sheer enormity of Helge’s crimes and abuses against his children. The rules also throw the burden of carrying the film and its themes squarely onto the dialogue, the characters and the actors’ ability to carry everything off. The entire cast rises to the challenge and without exception performs magnificently. Thomsen is outstanding as the troubled son battling depression and other personal demons in order to stand up for Linda and himself, and to be able to go forward in life.

Minor characters in the film add to its depth and richness: the dotty elder relatives are sinister in their own ways and one feels for Helene’s African-American boyfriend who is the one sane and sensitive person in the entire birthday party debacle and who one senses will be thrown over like so many previous boyfriends. The servants are rich characters in themselves and push Christian in his endeavour to force his family to confront the truth about his father. Cleverly the film allows Helge’s wife (and the mother of Christian and his siblings) Elsie to condemn herself as an accessory to Helge’s past sins and she becomes a lonely and isolated figure scorned by family and guests alike.

While the film could have been made without Dogme 95 rules, and one does not need to know the rules to watch and appreciate the film’s power, “Festen” could have been a much lesser work without the rules. This film can be a terrifying experience with its depictions of violence, instability, depression and emotional pain, yet it unexpectedly also delivers forgiveness and redemption in amongst social criticism and black comedy. In years to come, this will be considered one of Denmark’s great films and a great film in the tradition of the comedy of manners, following films like Louis Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game”.

Breaking the Waves: a study of religious hypocrisy and oppression, and its effects on a naive woman, with a hollow heart

Lars von Trier, “Breaking the Waves” (1996)

For the most part this often nihilistic film is excruciating in its slow and exacting pace, and its drama is manipulative as well, but “Breaking the Waves” does raise very troubling questions about the nature of religious faith, Christian concepts about love, self-sacrifice and the role of women in conservative, fundamentalist Christian communities, and how Christianity offers both redemption and oppression to women if they believe in it. Its main character, Bess McNeill (Emily Watson in her film debut) is a naive young woman who has grown up in a severely authoritarian and insular Calvinist community in a remote part of Scotland. Quite how she meets Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a hard-drinking, hard-living Swede working on a North Sea oil rig, is never explained but the two end up marrying, to the disapproval of Bess’s community. Only the girl’s mother and widowed sister-in-law, nurse Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), grudgingly accept Jan. Through Jan, Bess experiences the joys and bliss of sexual intercourse and, having been starved of love and closeness all her life, becomes very needy and dependent on Jan.

Jan eventually has to return to the oil rig and Bess is thrown into despair. Her usual habit is to retreat to church or some place where no-one can observe her talking to God (in her own voice) and disputing with Him. She prays to God to return Jan and He apparently does so – by crippling Jan in an accident on the rig. Rendered paralysed from the neck down, Jan selfishly begs Bess to have affairs with other men and relay the details back to him so the couple can retain their carnal connection. Naturally Bess is repelled by Jan’s suggestion but as his condition goes from bad to worse, she starts to carry out his suggestions by masturbating men in buses and gradually whoring herself out to local men. Jan’s condition seems to improve after Bess tells him about her adventures and so she continues. Her behaviour antagonises Dodo and Dr Richardson who determine to keep her away from Jan and then to send her to a mental asylum as she appears to become more deluded about her ability to keep Jan alive and improve his condition. Needless to say, Bess’s family and church community are revolted by her activities and excommunicate her when she most needs emotional support and compassion for the arduous trials she believes God has imposed on her to demonstrate her love for Jan.

Watson’s acting as Bess is a tour-de-force that she has never been able to repeat in subsequent work and gives the character a depth that suggests the apparent naivete is a defence against the oppression and emotional coldness Bess has had to suffer all her life. It seems that only Jan is able to understand and appreciate what Bess is capable of. Dodo and Dr Richardson represent stereotypical well-meaning people who care for Bess but are blinded by the rationality drilled into them by nursing and medical school respectively. The rest of the cast pale into the background but do what they can to fill out a story that looks realistic but flies by its own Trierian logic. Von Trier milks the plot for all it can offer to create an emotional and moral dilemma for Bess: is Jan really out of his mind from all the drugs and surgical interventions? how can Bess tell if Dodo is telling her the truth about Jan’s day-to-day condition? does Jan sign the form approving Bess’s own interment into an asylum under duress from Dr Richardson?

The eventual resolution of the film’s plot sends up the central Christian belief in Jesus’ sacrifice for the love of humanity through crucifixion, his entombment, the disappearance of his body and his eventual resurrection. Significantly Dodo and Dr Richardson are converted to Bess’s cause after (spoiler alert) her agonising passion and persecution.

Love may be a mighty power indeed but at what cost to a person’s sanity and the values she lives by? The road that Bess is forced to travel and which strips her of love, support and finally God Himself is an unbelievably cruel and sadistic one. One suspects the reward she receives is not worth the degradation she is forced to undergo and the deity she worships is undeserving of her devotion. Despite the film’s excellent performances and the plot complications that enrich it, at its heart is a spiritual vacuum.

Sõda: political satire as animal fable takes on a dark tone

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer, “Sõda” (1987)

It has the look of a political satire disguised as an animal fable and I would say that the hapless little bat represents Estonia, buffeted by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Our flitter-mouse friend takes shelter in an abandoned water-mill and initially whiles away its time catching flies to eat and exploring its new surroundings. Before long though, the water-mill is invaded by crows from the sky, having found their way through a hole in the roof, and the bat is under siege from the birds which peck at it and try to dominate it. If that weren’t enough, hordes of rats from underground flood into the water-mill and attack the bat in the few refuges it can find. Soon the crows and rats start fighting over possession of the water-mill and the bat does its best to escape the crossfire and occasionally swing the battle in its favour.

The stop-motion animation has a raw and crude look which is effective for the film’s theme and plot. The puppets look cartoonish enough yet (in the case of the crows and rats) convey sinister menace. The music soundtrack is not intrusive and helps define the characters and the plot trajectory. The general look of the film is dark and grey-ish, in agreement with its sombre theme.

The film’s theme is adequate for a mainstream audience in scope though the reality is more complicated: Estonia did in fact collaborate with Nazi Germany during the Second World War, helping to round up Roma gypsies and Jewish people for incarceration and extermination. Currently Estonia finds itself losing people due in part to following an austerity program (which is eroding social services and infrastructure) and being part of the Schengen zone (meaning Estonians can travel to any part of the European Union to find work without needing visas) within the EU; and has accepted American troops in its territory on a supposedly temporary basis to defend itself against supposed Russian aggression. It seems that the bat is now up against forces more powerful and terrible than the crows and rats ever were. The film’s conclusion takes on a darker tone than the film-makers intended.