Corpus Christi: impostor priest story explores redemption, healing and religious hypocrisy

Jan Komasa, “Corpus Christi” (2019)

For some odd reason, Poland has many fake Roman Catholic priests, many of whom must be doing a good job, and maybe even better, of ministering to their unsuspecting flocks as real qualified priests do, and this phenomenon comes under scrutiny in Komasa’s “Corpus Christi”. In another country – France or Italy perhaps – the story of an ex-convict pretending to be a priest, and not only being a very good impersonator but also helping to heal ongoing pain and trauma that are tearing a community apart, bringing people together, encouraging love and forgiveness, and helping people go forward in their lives as a result, might be treated as gentle comedy with themes of redemption, finding purpose and hope, and galvanising others with hope and new energy as well. The resolution might be messy and not turn out too well but nearly everyone becomes a better person. The Polish film however not only addresses the issues of redemption, love and forgiveness, and healing people and communities, it also investigates the nature of morality and spirituality and asks whether people who deceive others by masking their true identities are necessarily less moral and genuine than those who don’t, and whether such impostors’ actions are less genuine and constructive than the actions of others who are genuine. Do we place too much emphasis on people being properly “qualified” for the job they are doing and not enough on their actions while doing that job? Should people not be judged by what they actually do, what the results of their actions are, and what benefits or not those results bring to people and communities? Does the Church in Poland spend too much time insisting that people follow rules that may not be relevant to their lives, does the Church neglect people’s spiritual needs?

Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), serving time for murder, is released on parole to work at a sawmill in a remote rural part of Poland. He eschews the work and goes to a small village where a church stands empty. He insinuates himself into the villagers’ lives by pretending to be a priest: he gets away with the ruse, having become religious while in juvenile detention and serving as an altar boy for the prison chaplain whose identity he adopts in the village. By working as a priest, hearing confession and officiating at Mass, baptisms, funerals and blessing new ventures, Daniel discovers the village has been traumatised by a car-crash accident that killed seven villagers: six of the villagers are remembered at a sidewalk shrine but the seventh villager, the one who caused the accident, is not only shunned by the villagers but has never been given a religious burial and his widow is ostracised by the village.

Thanks to this mystery and a number of other sub-plots that include a developing romance between Daniel and local girl Marta (Eliza Rycembel), a possible conflict with local village mayor and power broker who owns the sawmill where Daniel was supposed to work, and Daniel’s past coming back to reclaim and expose him as a fraud when a fellow parolee at the sawmill sees him and tries to blackmail him, the film is very brisk and maintains tension right up to the devastating climax and its denouement. The conclusion is very bleak and ambiguous. One expects that while the village, now healed of its trauma, can proceed and progress in a spirit of reconciliation, Daniel will not be shown the same mercy and spirit of forgiveness by society at large that he showed to the villagers.

Bielenia is unforgettable as the young ex-con who fools an entire village with his soulful eyes and a face at once angelic, stoic, expressive and yet hiding a nature capable of brutal violence. Several close-ups concentrate on his face, at times blank yet in deep thought and occasionally expressing tics. Bielenia is ably abetted by a good cast that includes Rycembel as the love interest Eliza, Alexandra Koniecna as Eliza’s dour mother who is also the sexton suspicious of Daniel and who nurses bitterness towards the banished widow (Barbara Kurzaj), and Leszek Lichota as the power-hungry village mayor. The grey-green colouring of the village and the film’s minimal presentation emphasise the isolation and poverty of its inhabitants, which make them vulnerable to imposter priests.

While some subplots such as the budding romance are not well developed and could have been jettisoned, the film is very compelling with good acting, a brisk pace and a mystery to solve. It asks questions about the nature of hypocrisy and where spiritual redemption might come from, and poses a challenge to the Church and other institutions in Polish culture and society.

The 2014 American Coup in Ukraine: textbook example of how the US invades and makes over other nations

Carlton Meyer, “The 2014 American Coup in Ukraine” (Tales of the American Empire, 21 August 2020)

A very timely release in Carlton Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire series of short videos on US imperialism around the globe, this film reminds viewers of the history of Ukraine in the 20th century and how after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 Ukraine became a new battleground between the West and Russia in a new Cold War as the US and NATO sought to absorb Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics into their spheres of neoliberal political and economic influence, and extend their military power right up to (and beyond) Russian borders. A very brief account of how Ukraine acquired its territory and borders in the 20th century, with Crimea being added in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, supposedly to demonstrate Soviet solidarity, and a short ethno-demographic survey of Ukraine are given to set the historical context. In the 1990s, the US established various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Eastern European nations and Ukraine, many of them funded by US billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundation or by the National Endowment for Democracy among other donors. In Ukraine, these NGOs became instrumental during the Maidan Revolution that took place in late 2013 / early 2014, culminating in the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

A US government official, Victoria Nuland, the Under-Secretary of State for Europe under Secretary of State John Kerry, is singled out in the video for her role in fomenting unrest, rebellion and even the violence of the Maidan Revolution. The core of the video is given over to a speech she gave at a press conference in Washington DC in December 2013 in which she happily admits that US$5 billion was spent backing the Maidan Revolution. A phone call she made to US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt in which she expresses her preference for Arseny Yatsenyuk to be Prime Minister in a post-Yanukovych government (“Yatso is our guy”) and pours scorn on the European Union (“Fuck the EU”) later became public.

The February 2014 overthrow of Yanukovych’s government led to political and economic difficulties for Ukraine. Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk fought for the right to use the Russian language in public forums, leading to the Ukrainian government invading their regions and starting a civil war that resulted in Kiev’s military humiliation some months later (and the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in July 2014). Crimea voted to become independent of Ukraine and to apply to rejoin Russia. Narrator Meyer mentions that the 23,000 Russian troops present in Crimea at the time of its referendum were there as part of a treaty signed by Russia and Ukraine in 1997 allowing up to 25,000 Russian troops to be stationed in Sevastopol and other parts of Crimea as the Crimean Parliament saw fit. Since civil war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russia has steadily decreased the amount of natural gas transiting Ukraine to Western Europe and built alternate pipeline networks elsewhere (such as Nordstream I and II in the Baltic Sea) to supply gas to Germany; at the same time, Ukraine is being forced to pay market prices for natural gas from Russia, prices the country can ill afford to pay. Meyer could have said that under President Petro Poroshenko (2014 – 2019), political and economic corruption has increased in Ukraine at the same time that living standards have fallen to the extent that Ukraine has now become the second poorest nation in Europe.

The general information given is accurate and blame can be laid fairly and squarely on Victoria Nuland, John Kerry and others within the US government under President Barack Obama (2008 – 2016) for the instability and continuing crisis and plundering of Ukraine’s wealth by US and Ukrainian elites alike. Special mention is made of former US Senator John McCain and his role in talking up war against Russia. (Fortunate it is indeed that brain cancer finished off McCain in August 2018 before he could live to see his dream come true, even though he escaped justice for all the harm he has done to the world.)

As an introduction to the troubled history of post-1991 Ukraine, this video is good though already it is turning out quite dated: it makes no mention of Poroshenko’s presidency or of his replacement by Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor and comedian. Curiously nothing is said about US Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his ties to Ukraine through his son Hunter who used to be a Board Director of Burisma Holdings, an energy company with a licence to drill for oil and natural gas in parts of eastern Ukraine. That perhaps is a story to be told another time. What is clear though is that, not for the first time or the last, the US has intervened in another country’s affairs to the extent of throwing out a legitimately elected (if incompetent) government and replacing it with one of its own choosing opposed by the victim country’s citizens, with the result of political instability and chaos, and economic ruin.

Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria: where the mundane becomes exotic in a real country not supposed to exist

“Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria” (Bald and Bankrupt, 2019)

During his travels in Moldova in early 2019, the English vlogger known as Bald and Bankrupt (Arthur Chichester to his bank manager) is intrigued that apparent breakaway state Transnistria (known as Pridnestrovie to its people) boasts its own government, armed forces and national emblems, yet is unrecognised by the United Nations and the European Union. BB drives off to Tiraspol and Bendery where he finds both cities rather dowdy and a bit quaint and eccentric in appearance and presentation, but certainly nowhere near as decrepit and dejected as Kishinev. He steps into various shops, cafes and restaurants to chat to people and finds that not only are they happy to talk about their lives, they also take pride in being part of a nation that everyone else in the world politely ignores. Moreover, they revel in their Soviet heritage even though they know that that part of their history will never return.

In his quest to imagine the Soviet past, BB goes out of his way to visit a forlorn and derelict fairground where he goes for a pendulum-type ride on one of the aged and rusty fairground rides. Simulating the machines on which Soviet cosmonauts trained for trips into space, the contraption spins him round and round on an axle that also turns upright, spinning BB on a vertical plane. Good thing BB is bald or his hair would have transformed into a brilliant shock of white! After the ride, our host is all smarmy “it didn’t scare me” and thanks the elderly woman who sent him on the wildest ride of his life.

For quieter stimulation, BB goes into a worker’s cafe that has barely changed over the last half-century or so and eats a homely lunch of borsch, salad and fruit juice. Feeling well nourished, he trots off to a bookshop where he is amazed to see the lady in charge use an abacus instead of a cash register or a calculator to work out his change.

Armed with his selfie stick and mobile phone, filming as he goes, BB’s film, like his other films on Moldova that I have seen so far, immerses the viewer in ordinary everyday incidents that together make up an exotic adventure in the places where he travels. The mundane becomes unique and coming across ordinary babushkas shopping for groceries to prepare paskha cakes for Easter with wonky carriers turns into an opportunity to broaden and educate one’s mind on foreign culture and customs. Every time BB takes a step somewhere, a new adventure seems to beckon. Along the way, BB treats his hosts with dignity and respect and they readily warm to him and open up with personal stories, information and recommendations on where to go next.

Abandoned Europe | Road To Ratus: even searching for past Soviet-era reality ends in disappointment

“Abandoned Europe / Road to Ratus” (Bald and Bankrupt, April 2019)

“Could be awesome, could be shit” … well, going to Ratus couldn’t be any worse than what we saw in Kishinev, so our hero Bald and Bankrupt (we’ll call him BB for convenience) sets off in his little sedan for the village of Ratush in Teleneshty district, central Moldova. Driving down the road, BB sees a couple of guys travelling with a horse and cart so he goes for a ride with them. They advise him to drive to the town of Teleneshty which he does. He finds Soviet-era buildings, many abandoned during mid-construction and left to moulder along the side of the road in the middle of vast rural landscapes where villages and hamlets are emptying as young people migrate elsewhere in search of work. He sits at a derelict bus stop, where seats have been ripped out and only the framework remains, and imagines what life must have been like when Moldova had been under Soviet rule.

While travelling to Ratush, BB comes across two local men driving a 30-year-old Lada that has seen better days. His interest piqued, BB wants a ride in the car and the elderly driver obliges. The windscreen may be cracked and a couple of clothes-pegs are hanging off the driver’s mirror in case something in the car needs to be clipped together – but golly, the car still works! After the joy-ride, the driver offers BB a look at the engine – not only is it in good nick but BB spies the year the engine was made: it was made in 1987!

Finally arriving in Ratush, BB discovers the streets are very quiet and the only real activity is in the town’s Orthodox church (well-maintained) where a choir is rehearsing. Though the streets are little more than muddy dirt tracks, they are clean and BB talks to a couple of labourers are clearing rubbish with their tractor (of Belarusian-Chinese manufacture, BB discovers) . Though BB does not refer to the houses in the village, viewers can see many of them are in fairly good condition. Finding little action in the village, BB decides not to hang about for long and off he goes in his sedan, singing along loudly with songs blaring from a local Moldovan radio station, to another destination.

While the local Moldovan people are polite and obliging – perhaps even humouring BB, seeing that he is a stranger with a camera – what is most obvious to this viewer is what BB does not appear to notice: there are no children running or riding bikes in the empty streets, nearly everyone seems to be middle-aged or older and Ratush lacks facilities for children and families like playgrounds, schools, a medical centre or community centre. There are not even any Soviet-era war memorials dedicated to local World War II heroes where BB can imagine Victory Day parades taking place in the town and schoolchildren solemnly placing garlands at the memorial and singing patriotic songs. Ratush could be any abandoned post-industrial town in post-Communist eastern Europe whose usefulness to the West is only as a giant military buffer / NATO base against Russia and a treasure-chest of oil, natural gas and mineral resources to be raided by Western corporations.

Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why: a UK tourist finds out why in the ruin and decay of Kishinev

“Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why” (Bald and Bankrupt, April 2019)

Bald and Bankrupt is the nom de plume of an English traveller who makes short videos of his travels to little-known and neglected parts of the world for his Youtube channel of the same name. The fellow certainly is bald but bankrupt in generosity and conviviality he most certainly is not. This video which he filmed himself on his mobile phone was taken during a trip to Chishinau (I prefer using the old Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, a country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine in southeastern Europe bordering the Balkan region. Initially Bald and Bankrupt – we’ll call him BB for the sake of convenience – visited Moldova on a jokey trip as he had heard that the country was the least visited place in Europe and that fewer people visit Moldova in a year than visit his local Tesco store every day!

In the space of just over 16 minutes of edited footage taken on his mobile phone, BB reveals the alarming extent of the neglect of public facilities in Kishinev: stairs leading from the street into the graffiti-covered tunnels to the subway are broken and dangerous to use, the wheelchair access is unusable; a large hotel is derelict and its fountain is empty save for rubbish; an observatory is falling into ruin. BB talks to pensioners in the streets and all independently agree that life under the Soviet Union before 1991 was better and cheaper.

Walking around city neighbourhoods, BB sees some election posters and reels off the names of various politicians and describes them as thieves or embezzlers. He sees pensioners selling personal possessions on the street and is shocked to see an advertisement from someone willing to buy people’s hair: a sure sign that people are desperate and will sell anything of theirs to supplement meagre incomes and buy food. BB mentions that pensioners are paid 40 euros every month.

At the end of his video, BB tells viewers something of what Moldova was like when it was part of the USSR: it was a holiday destination for Soviet tourists, it offered a good life for its citizens. Since independence, the country has been ruled by corrupt oligarch politicians who have looted the national wealth and impoverished the citizenry, even though it is supposedly moving closer to the European Union which is dangling the prospect of EU membership and a surefire path to the sort of prosperity that countries like Latvia and Lithuania are currently enjoying … not.

BB is a likeable narrator, very knowledgeable about Moldova’s politics and history, who resembles fellow Brit, the journalist Graham Phillips who himself fearlessly sallies into countries that mainstream Western news media would rather not know about, in appearance and open manner. His video on Kishinev is the first of a number of videos on life in Moldova.

Altimir: a village representing in microcosm the impact of neoliberal capitalism on post-Communist nations

Kay Hannahan, “Altimir” (2016)

Since 1989 when they left the sphere of Soviet political / economic / cultural influence, and particularly since 2004 when they joined the European Union, the post-Communist / post-Soviet nations of central and eastern Europe have seen their economies shrink and die for lack of investment (public or private, local or foreign) in industry and agriculture. Correspondingly jobs have also been disappearing, unemployment is rising and more people need social welfare at a time when taxation revenue is shrinking and governments (some of which are dominated by diaspora politicians connected to the US government directly or indirectly through marriage and the US State Department) refuse to increase public spending because … public spending is socialist! The result in many of these nations, from Bulgaria in southeast Europe to Latvia and Lithuania in the northern Baltic Sea region, is the phenomenon of young people voting with their feet to wealthier parts of the European Union to find work, never to return.

In this documentary, Kay Hannahan travels to Altimir, a tiny village in northwest Bulgaria near the Danube River border with Romania, where she stays with an elderly couple, Yordan and Malinka, their daughter Iva and granddaughter Ioana. The family makes do with the few possessions it has in its ramshackle house where clothes are put out to dry on a dryer next to the heater in the tiny kitchen. Yordan takes Kay on a bicycle trip around the village, showing her various deserted buildings including a church whose grounds are now overrun with foraging chickens, a derelict schoolhouse and several factory buildings where (during Communist rule) upwards of 20 or 50 people used to be busy working at machines and equipment that have since disappeared or degenerated into scrap. They pass by the town hall and the village government building and Yordan tells Kay to film away (the implication is that under Communist rule when the building was in use, people were forbidden to film or take photos of it). While pay cheques were not great, workers were still able to take holidays in mountain areas or go down to the beaches on the Bulgarian coast. Yordan remarks that under capitalism, pay is better but pay cheques fewer and nearly all young people have left the village in search of work and money.

They visit some friends of Yordan’s, Gosho and his wife, and the three of them reminisce about the old Communist-era times when Gosho could visit Cuba and bring back gifts, and when people could make their own brandy at home. In present-day Bulgaria, people can no longer make brandy or other wines at home due to European Union restrictions. Despite their poverty, Gosho and his wife are generous hosts, making enough brandy to feed a football team, along with lunch made from whatever they can afford from their small fridge.

Everywhere they travel in the village, Kay and Yordan come across quiet and empty streets, overgrown parks, abandoned buildings in various states of decay, and few signs of life. Kay’s skilful use of cinematography, relying heavily on static or slowly moving hand camera, portrays the stillness of an emptying village. The villagers talk about their lives and the life of Altimir under Communism, how there was plenty of factory work to support a population of some 3,500 people, and how things have now changed dramatically under the EU and capitalism. There is no sense of despair or hopelessness however; the elderly folk shrug their shoulders, talk of things as they used to be under Communism, complain about the EU strictures and get on with business as usual. Where the money comes from to buy food for themselves and their animals – Kay’s hosts keep pigs and some cows – is not said in the documentary, but it’s likely that Yordan and Malinka get meagre pension cheques from the Bulgarian government, and their children working in the cities or overseas may send regular remittances as well.

In spite of the village’s dereliction, Kay’s hosts and their neighbours are proud representatives of Altimir, detailing the life that used to exist and showing off its history and war-time monuments. It seems a great tragedy that eventually when the elderly go, the entire village will become a ghost town ripe for the wrecking ball and a politician’s ambition to build a superhighway or a mine for foreign corporations to exploit.

The sense of the villagers’ attachment to Altimir and its past history and identity is strong and the villagers’ hospitality to a stranger whose intentions and background they do not know is very touching. Viewers are left with the sour feeling that life under Communism, while restricted and lacking in freedom, was better for the villagers than what they now have under the EU and neoliberal capitalism.

NYC to Donetsk & back: an American visitor discovers a new nation in the making in eastern Ukraine

Alexander Korobko, “NYC to Donetsk & back” (Russian Hour, 2018)

Made in 2017 or 2018, or some time after the death of Mikhail Tolstykh aka Givi in February 2017 (his death in his office is mentioned early on in the film), this remarkable documentary follows the travels of Russian-American actor Peter von Berg in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to discover the truth ignored by Western mainstream news media (MSM) about the experiences of the people living in the region, as opposed to what is reported by the Western MSM. Before 2014, the DPR was an oblast or province of Ukraine, predominantly Russian in ethnicity and language, and one of the most industrialised and prosperous parts of that country. After the Maidan Revolution in February 2014, the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, and Crimea’s own escape from Ukraine and reunion with the Russian Federation, Donetsk Oblast held a referendum in May 2014, the result of which led to the establishment of the DPR. Ukraine then invaded the DPR and its fellow rebel republic the Lugansk People’s Republic (also a majority-Russian area in Ukraine) and the three fought a brief hot war from May to early September, 2014. At the time von Berg visited the DPR, it was recognised as a state only by South Ossetia and was still claimed by Ukraine along with the LPR as part of its territory.

With political scientist Alexander Kazakov as his guide, von Berg tours areas that were part of the front-line in the DPR’s fight for survival in the summer of 2014 and is introduced to various people including DPR head of state Alexander Zakharchenko and at least one of his ministers, Alexander Timofeyev, who takes von Berg on a trip to a greenhouse farm growing tomatoes. The actor visits a specialist surgical hospital and talks to the head administrator and medical staff there; he also visits a steel-making factory, an Orthodox church, and a theatre and its cast of actors.  He even meets a Texan, Russell Bentley, who decided in 2014 to throw in his lot with the DPR and help the republic fight the post-Maidan regime in Kiev. The discussions he has with Zakharchenko and others about the society they are building in the DPR are very revealing: the people intend to create a socialist society in which primary and secondary education and healthcare are provided for free by the government, and cultural pursuits and enrichment are taken for granted and are the right of the people to enjoy.

Von Berg is very moved by many of the sights – in particular, the bombed remains of houses and other buildings near the front-line, and a Soviet-era memorial on a hill outside Donetsk city that was deliberately targeted and ruined by Ukrainian tanks – and marvels at the resilience and determination of DPR residents. They are highly educated and cultured and are mindful of their long history and traditions. Zakharchenko reminds von Berg of the significance of the Boston Tea Party in American revolutionary history and Timofeyev quotes the Roman poet Virgil; theatre director Natalia Volkova tells von Berg that the first play her theatre performed after the cessation of war in 2014 or early 2015 was Nikolai Gogol’s “Marriage”, in which a civil servant tries to find a suitable bride through a match-maker. (The travails of the civil servant and the bride might well mirror the DPR’s attempt to urge a federal style of government to Kiev and then its later attempt to become an autonomous republic, then form a federal union with the LPR, and then finally become more or less independent.) The fact that von Berg finds such friendly and cultured people, irrespective of their vocations, will surprise many Western audiences accustomed to societies where everyone knows only enough from his / her own school and college education to perform his / her chosen vocation and little else apart from what s/he picks up from news media and social media. Strangely though, after visiting a medical centre, a factory, a cultural centre and a politician’s office, von Berg does not visit a school, a university or a technical college to find out how the DPR produces people with such a rich and varied education.

In many questions that von Berg asks of his gracious hosts, there is implied criticism of the neoliberal capitalist system as it operates in his home country. Von Berg is impressed with the DPR’s ability to provide medical care (including specialist surgery) for free and education for free up to a certain level as well. Zakharchenko explains to von Berg that the state will fund particular university students’ studies in full if the young people are studying in an area where the government has a shortage of qualified people, on the condition that upon graduation the students agree to work for the government for a given period, otherwise the students are expected to pay for part of their studies. No doubt, on hearing of what students in the US must pay for their studies, Zakharchenko and others must have fallen over backwards at the sheer insanity of a system that bankrupts young people just so they can gain qualifications for jobs that are unlikely ever to pay off their tuition loans over a lifetime of work. What von Berg discovers as he travels around the DPR is also an indictment of the Western MSM’s failure to report the reality of the war in eastern Ukraine and the support that the West gives to fascist, even neo-Nazi regimes to repress their own citizens and to use violence against them where such governments and such actions advance Western political and economic elite goals of seizing other people’s lands and natural resources.

Von Berg comes away with new respect and admiration for a people who, under conditions of war and political and economic uncertainty, have created a thriving society and a rich and layered culture where people have the opportunity not only to fulfill their potential in particular fields but blossom in other areas. At the same time, the threat of a renewed hot war against the DPR by Ukraine, rent by political corruption, economic decline and extreme neo-Nazi terror, and encouraged by the West to recover what it considers to be its territory in the DPR, the LPR and Crimea, is never far away.

The Final Journey: a formulaic road movie about hope and reconciliation in the Ukrainian civil war

Nick Baker-Monteys, “The Final Journey / Leanders Letzte Reise” (2017)

The plot may be a familiar one – aged pensioner Eduard Leander (Jurgen Prochnow), recently widowed, resolves to return to a distant land he fought a war in over 70 years ago, to find a woman he once knew, and his estranged slacker grand-daughter Adele (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) is forced to follow him to keep an eye on him – but the historical and political context in which their odyssey takes place is a contemporary and highly controversial one, one that takes them to uncomfortable and dark places, psychologically as well as physically, that test their character, their beliefs and ultimately their relationship and feelings for and about each other.

In early 2014, after the death of his wife, whom he has never really loved, Leander suddenly decides to go on a train trip to Kiev in Ukraine. Adele’s mother Uli (Susanne von Borsody) persuades her to try to talk to him to stay home – the older woman has never got on well with her dad – but Leander resolutely stays on the train and Adele is compelled to stay with him. On the train they meet Lew (Tambet Tuisk), a Russian-Ukrainian man who helps them evade train guards because Adele does not have her passport with her. Once in Kiev, Lew takes the two under his wing as they are unable to get hotel accommodation without Adele’s passport and they stay with his family. During the midday meal, Lew’s relatives come to blows over the troubled situation in eastern Ukraine: Lew has a grandmother and a brother living in Lugansk, and the brother (to the approval of the older relatives but not Lew’s) is fighting with the Donbass side against the new (and illegal) Kiev government.

Through contact with a historian specialising in World War II history, Leander determines that the woman he wants to meet, Svetlana Agafonova, lives in Lugansk so he, Adele and Lew travel by car there. There, they come in contact with the Donbass fighters and Lew’s brother and babushka. On further enquiry, the three discover they must cross the river border under cover of night to Russia to the village where Svetlana was resettled after the war. Bit by bit, Adele learns of the history of her father’s participation in the war as the leader of a Cossack regiment fighting under Nazi command against Soviet forces and Russian partisans, and realises that he may have committed atrocities grave enough to make him a war criminal.

In the meantime, Adele tries to stay in contact with her mother and relays some of what Leander and she get up to. As the pair go farther into eastern Ukraine and Russia, and war breaks out in Lugansk province, Uli decides to travel to Kiev and then to eastern Ukraine to find the two.

Schmidt-Schaller and Tuisk give very good performances as the two young party-goers who develop a genuine friendship and romance under unusual and trying circumstances. Prochnow maintains a surly old git outlook, at least until he arrives in the Russian village and discovers a few surprises. Through their journey together, Leander and his grand-daughter discover things about one another they had not known or suspected before: somewhat to her surprise, Adele develops a real warmth and affection for old Opa as she sees that he is truly capable of love and care for others, that he would risk his health and life to reconnect with a woman he knew 70+ years ago and whose current whereabouts he has no idea of; and Leander, to his regret, realises that his true family had always cared about him and for him. The tragedy is that he is unable to last long enough to truly reconcile with the people who care for him.

The cinematography is quite good (in a minimal way) at portraying the countryside in eastern Europe and the poverty of rural areas in Ukraine and Russia.

The script gingerly tiptoes around the current politics of Ukraine and the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and attempts to treat the two sides evenly as though the civil war were just like any other civil war with one brother disagreeing with another brother and families being split over the conflict. The nationalists marching through the streets of Kiev are shorn of their Nazi regalia and Western audiences are likely to be lulled into thinking these people are no more harmful than nationalist thug gangs in other countries and have no place in the Ukrainian government. (Perhaps the Leanders and Lew should have detoured a while in Lvov in western Ukraine, to watch torchlight parades carrying swastika banners and portraits of notorious Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and chanting anti-Jewish slogans through the city streets.) A scene in which the Leanders and Lew are being driven through the Russian countryside at night and pass by a strange convoy of tanks and army trucks going towards the Ukrainian border, at which Lew exclaims, “This is not normal!”, gives a clue as to whose propaganda the film-makers prefer to follow.

In exploring how two characters find redemption and connection through learning about their place in history (and at last finding some direction instead of drifting aimlessly through memory or pleasure), the film brings a message of hope and reconciliation with the past. Unfortunately (and ironically) its attempt to make sense of the civil war in Ukraine is shallow, because the film-makers are ignorant of the West’s involvement in overthrowing the legitimate if ineffective and corrupt Yanukovych government and that government’s replacement with a more criminal and vicious regime.

 

On Body and Soul: a quiet and quirky character study / romance drama founders on a thin and manipulative plot

Ildiko Endelyi, “On Body and Soul / Teströl és lélekröl ” (2017)

A quirky romance drama on the universal human desire for connection with others, and the struggles that must be overcome due to the interplay of individual disadvantages and the realities of everyday life in a machine-like society, this film starts with much creative potential, two unusual main characters and beautiful cinematography but founders on an insubstantial story that borders on being manipulative and creepiness. Much of the film is a character study revolving around two people who are socially isolated and/or crippled in their communication. Endre (Geza Morcsanyi) is chief financial officer and Maria (Alexandra Borbely) a newly appointed quality inspector at an abattoir when a theft occurs and the incident is reported to police. The police recommend that the staff be psychologically evaluated in order to find the culprit and a psychologist is hired to question everyone and create personality profiles for all employees. She discovers that Endre and Maria have been having the same dream every night – the two have been dreaming about two deer (a stag and a doe) sharing the same small territory around a pond during winter – and suspects them of playing a joke on her.

The psychologist’s suspicions bring Endre and Maria together and the two begin to develop a relationship. However the psychological baggage each brings to the friendship – while highly intelligent and imaginative, Maria appears to have Asperger’s syndrome, and Endre himself has been through various failed relationships with women that have left him alone and cynical, and his crippled left arm is something of an embarrassment – drives them apart with almost devastating results. Endre is not sure if he really loves Maria and Maria, endeavouring to learn what love and physical contact are, is on the verge of committing suicide when Endre rejects her.

The graceful, poetic scenes of the two deer meeting and touching each other’s nose and close-ups of often gory slaughterhouse scenes balance one another and drive home the contrast between what two isolated individuals aspire to and the reality in which they are forced to live, where they may be socially rejected, bullied or forced to tolerate other people’s gossip, infidelities and cynicism about human relationships. There may be a subtle comment on how humans are trapped within a brutal, repetitive, machine-like society (epitomised by the daily routine of the abattoir) where gentle creatures closely related to the deer are slaughtered and cut into pieces: in such a society, is it not natural that only those who are autistic, like Maria with her infallible memory and extreme exactitude, can function so well? Only when humans reconnect with their souls’ desires as expressed in their dreams can they overcome the limitations that their machine worlds place on them and join with one another at last.

The plot is very thin and moves slowly and repetitively towards a predictable if forced climax in which Endre and Maria finally come together emotionally and physically, and their shared dream, in which the two deer (representing their souls and aspirations) finally disappear and winter (representing their obstacles) begins to thaw, can fade away. Endre and Maria’s behaviour towards each other near the end strikes this viewer as out of character (for Maria anyway) and not a little manipulative of audience sympathies. The suicide attempt brings unwanted forced drama; there is no need for Maria to physically emulate Endre in having a crippled left arm. A sub-plot involving a newly hired butcher Sanyi (Ervin Nagy), who may represent a threat to Maria, dissipates very quickly and a running gag about Endre’s fellow manager Jeno (Zoltan Schneider) and his relationship with an unfaithful wife goes nowhere.

The acting is good and restrained, and the domestic settings of the main characters (which reflect their characters) are tasteful and well done. The film does seem very insular and hermetic with its narrow focus on the two characters. Director Endelyi seems uninterested in portraying a wider view of Hungarian society and how the public might view abattoirs and the people who work in them. In a film where metaphors about how dreams might reflect aspects of reality and can be used to influence reality are already quite overburdened, the metaphor of the abattoir as representing society in miniature, and how public opinion of abattoir and abattoir workers might be reflected in the workers’ attitudes toward Maria, would have been no extra baggage.

The Teacher: classroom and parents’ meeting as microcosm of political corruption and social stagnation

Jan Hrebejk, “The Teacher / Ucitel’ka” (2016)

Billed as a comedy drama, Hrebejk’s “The Teacher” is a character study of how an individual uses her political status and links to exert and abuse power, and ends up corrupting the institutions and structures in which she works. The film is set in a generic town in Slovakia during the 1980s, a period when it was part of Communist Czechoslovakia and Communism as a governing political and economic ideology was at its most stagnant there and in other Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. The local junior high school hires new teacher Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Mauréry) who also happens to be the chairwoman of the local Communist Party chapter. She takes charge of a class of young teenagers and immediately asks all the students, one by one, to declare what their parents do for a living. She soon starts to demand from the students’ parents various services for free, on which the students’ grades depend: if the parents cannot or will not do what she wants, their children’s grades will suffer. Very quickly two students, Danka Kucera and Filip Binder, are in the teacher’s target sights as their parents recognise the teacher’s manipulative behaviour for what it is and refuse to do what she wants. A sub-plot develops when a third student, Karol, whose mother has gone abroad and whose astro-physicist father, Vaclav Littman (Peter Bebjak), has been demoted to washing windows, enrolls at the school and the teacher latches onto Vaclav in the hope that Karol’s parents will divorce. There is a suggestion in the film, and it is only a suggestion as the film does not elaborate further, that Karol’s mother may have defected from Czechoslovakia in order to find work deserving of her talents, and Vaclav and Karol are being punished as a result.

Fed up with the teacher’s behaviour, Danka and Filip’s parents bring their concerns to the school administrators who themselves also have concerns about her students’ performances in exams. The administrators call the parents of Drazdechova’s students for an evening meeting and this meeting is actually the core of the plot. The parents’ reactions and interactions reveal the extent to which, in the wider society, people are willing to tolerate political corruption and abuse of power because they derive short-term personal benefits along the way. They believe also that their children will benefit in the long-term; the notion that instead society will be led by mediocre bureaucrats promoted through favours, bribes and blackmail instead of through merit and achievement, with the result that the stagnation Czechoslovakia is living through comes about, would be lost on them. Confronted by the stories from Danka and Filip’s parents about the teacher’s treatment of the two children, the other parents resort to denial, suggest that Danka should see a psychiatrist and drag in Mr Binder’s criminal past, his use of physical violence against his son and the Binder family’s working-class background to belittle him and his complaints.

The film works surprisingly well and briskly in structuring the story around the parents’ meeting and bringing in flashback examples of the teacher’s manipulations of the children and their parents to make its point. Maurery excels in the role of the teacher and Bebjak as the sheepish, tongue-tied Vaclav Littman, at a loss as to how to deal with Drazdechova throwing herself all over him, makes a deep hang-dog impression. Cinematography is kept to the minimum necessary to push the plot along or to record characters’ reactions, and scenes in the film have a diorama-like quality. The colours of the film have a grey, drab quality and one notices that interior furnishings in people’s apartments have a retro-sixties look even though the film is set in the early 1980s: this may indicate how society in Communist Slovakia has become stagnant and lacking in dynamism and energy.

Subtle hints of class warfare and snobbery in the treatment of Binder during the parents’ meeting add an intriguing layer that flavours Drazdechova’s predation on the children and their parents. The sub-plot revolving around Karol has rich comedy as well as heart-breaking pathos. The film’s climax contains equal amounts of despair and hope as (spoiler alert) initially the reasons for the meeting come to naught – but then the teacher-administrators who called the meeting find unexpected support that starts small and then grows. This part of the film, more or less soundless, underlines the message that to overcome great obstacles, one needs to start small and over time a movement may gradually develop and grow. However this is followed by an anti-climax that reminds us that the kind of manipulative, predatory behaviour demonstrated by Drazdechova is not limited to Communist totalitarian police-state societies, and we must be ever vigilant against its appearance in our own societies.