Penelope: film’s beauty can’t compensate for static plot and characters

Ben Ferris, “Penelopa” aka “Penelope”  (2009)

Lovely to look at but beautiful, almost abstract scenes of nature and long circular panning shots that lovingly savour the object of their focus can’t compensate for a nothing story about a faithful wife moping for a long-lost husband who went off to the wars years ago. “Penelopa” imagines the interior life of Penelope, wife of Odysseus the king of Ithaca, who supported King Menelaus of Sparta in the Trojan wars. The wars last 10 years and for another 10 years Odysseus and his armies wander lost among the lands around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas. During this time Penelope puts up with loneliness, worry, bringing up any children she and Odysseus may have had and fending off a horde of suitors – in ancient Greek legend, there were 108 of them – vying for her hand in marriage so they can get theirs on her wealth and properties.

Of course in real life Penelope would’ve been busy enough managing her household and assets, acting as regent for an absent king and beating off the suitors with cunning, guile and a suite of bodyguards but “Penelopa” makes no reference to the life a noble woman might have led in the Age of Homer. Penelope (Natalie Finderle) spends her time lost in memories of the past and dreams about the future as represented by various rooms in her mansion. In one memory, Odysseus (Frano Maskovic) s is about to leave to journey to Troy. In one dream, Penelope finds the suitors have abused and killed all her ladies-in-waiting; in another dream, she strings her husband’s bow and kills off the suitors. The boundary between reality and Penelope’s inner world dissolved, our heroine resumes her patient wait for her husband.

The sense of isolation in the mansion’s gloomy rooms, the feeling of being trapped, memories of happier times, the desolation, longing and unfulfilled desires … all hang heavy throughout the film. A powerful sense of being marginal is conveyed by the costumes: the white draped robes of the women suggest funeral garb as opposed to the men’s colourful peasant costumes. A strict separation of the genders exists here though that might not have been the original intention: the women inhabit the world of home, the interior and seem not of this planet; the men are comfortable in their world of war, physical lusts and activity.

Long left-to-right panning shots that circle various characters, very little editing and a music soundtrack dominated by slow solo piano melodies create a languid pace and maintain a sense of introversion and contemplation. Passing of time is indicated by changes in nature: summer storms that occur early on are replaced by piles of autumn leaves over the forest floor. A dream-like quality is emphasised by characters fading in and out of scenes that might have come straight out of paintings.

In spite of its visual beauty, “Penelopa” leaves this viewer unimpressed: on the assumption that the climax is a dream, the plot cycles about with its characters remaining much the same at the end as at the beginning. Penelope will have her good days full of hope for Odysseus’s return and her bad days when she can barely get out of bed. Odysseus will continue to fade in and out of her dreams. The ladies-in-waiting continue to serve her loyally and the suitors to gorge on her hospitality. If the climax is interpreted as real then viewers may be relieved that Penelope has acted in a decisive way but then this passage becomes the only part of the film that departs from legend and the question may be asked why the rest of the film doesn’t. Penelope could be shown berating her absent spouse for abandoning her to life and holding conversations with the gods to demand why they’ve let Odysseus die and her live. In this way Penelope becomes a more active figure who can decide how she can spend her time without Odysseus: she can wait for him by moping or she can create an independent life for herself. Then we might have a great work of art that engages the mind in an enquiry on fate and the purpose of life, especially for women and children left behind by dead husbands and fathers. In ancient Greek society, such unfortunates suffered loss of status and faced an uncertain future if they didn’t belong to powerful families. Assumptions about the lives of men and women and their separate worlds, their different status and how they deal with their differences could have been challenged.

Additional questions about Penelope’s loyalty, her motivation for remaining faithful to Odysseus and whether viewers can learn something from her about faith, hope and inner resources when you are under siege from patriarchal social, economic and political institutions that allow intolerable situations such as the 108 lovestruck twats eating you out of house and home must remain unanswered.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days: intelligent look at friendships under strain in a brutal mercenary society

Crisitan Mungiu, “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” (2007)

A bleak and often heartbreaking offering from young Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, this movie about a young woman who helps her friend arrange an illegal abortion is an intelligent examination of friendships under the strain of an oppressive and inhumane political regime. The film is set in Romania in the waning years of President Nicolae Ceausescu who together with his wife Elena ruled Romania for over 2 decades as though the country was their personal fiefdom: the Ceausescu government forbade imports of nearly everything (which explains the all-pervasive poverty in the film) and pursued a population growth policy which among other things made birth control and abortions illegal.

Two college students, Ottilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), are room-mates in a students’ dormitory in Bucharest: for the movie’s first half-hour, the two girls are making arrangements for something the audience is kept in suspense about. Gabita fusses over a plastic sheet and sends Ottilia on various errands to get money or cigarettes. Ottilia drops in on her boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean) briefly and reluctantly agrees to come to his mother’s birthday party in the evening. She trudges around different hotels to find a room and book it for 2 – 3 days. As the movie progresses and Ottilia meets a mysterious man, Dr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), it becomes apparent that she is organising a secret and possibly dangerous abortion for Gabita who is at least three months pregnant.

The characters of the two girls become clear-cut in the film’s first ten minutes just from their dialogue and the camera’s constant tracking of Ottilia’s movements alone: Gabita presents as shy and retiring but the shyness masks self-centredness and lack of consideration for others; Ottilia is an uncomplaining, obliging work-horse who spends more time than she should looking after Gabita’s interests. Marinca puts in a brave and stoic virtuoso performance as Ottilia who over the course of the film comes to question the nature of her friendship with Gabita and the sacrifices she makes for her. There are many scenes where the camera is still and focusses on Ottilia’s face as she smokes or stares down at the floor, her face a study in conflicting emotions and suppressed anger at Gabita’s constant lies and lack of responsibility; or follows her as she stumbles about in the midnight dark, her breathing audible and close to hyperventilating in fear, as she tries to find a place in the city to dispose of the aborted foetus. One highlight of the film which illustrates the existential trap Ottilia finds herself in is the 10-minute dinner party scene where, surrounded by her boyfriend’s parents and family friends who gossip about the “good old times” and the uselessness of modern Romanian youth, she is forced to sit, say hello and try to eat and drink. Viewers get a real sense from seeing the trapped expression on Ottilia’s face of how stuck she is between her boyfriend and his demands, and her friend Gabita and her demands.

Ivanov as the ironically named Bebe is a suitably creepy abortionist who exacts his pound of flesh when the girls are unable to fulfill his changing and manipulative demands. Vasiliu is good as the thoughtless Gabita who gets herself and Ottilia in strife over the abortion arrangements – and that’s not even considering the consequences both girls face if the hotel staff discover what they and Dr Bebe have done. The sullen staff in the various hotels, all concentrating on the minutiae of their jobs and behaving like petty nit-picking bureaucrats, give the film the air of a spy thriller and help ratchet up the tension that becomes ever more overwhelming as Ottilia passes in and out of the hotel constantly and remains even when the end credits start to roll.

The use of bleached film stock suits the oppressive, grinding nature of Romanian society in the late 1980’s. Camera shots are steady and often very long, apart from the scene where Ottilia looks for somewhere to get rid of the foetus late at night and then the camera movements are jerky to emphasise the girl’s panic and fear at being caught. My understanding is that electricity was severely rationed at the time and all streetlights were out at night; there may have been night curfews as well which would explain Ottilia’s fear. Mungiu artfully sets up tableau-like shots in which Ottilia is trapped (the dinner table scene) or to suggest that Ottilia and Gabita’s friendship has changed for the worse (the restaurant table scene which emphasises the physical space between the two girls). In the latter half of the film there are scenes of long silences in which the actors’ facial expressions become very important and it’s in these scenes that Marinca and Vasiliu do their best if hardest work. The look of the film is naturalistic, the acting is minimal and driven by the plot so the film has the feel of a TV news crew following real people engaged in doing something illegal.

Romania in the late 1980’s is portrayed as a society where social capital has become ground down and exhausted by the state: people no longer care for one another, they live in their own world obsessed with status and material things, and there’s a mercenary “what’s in it for me?” attitude prevalent. Bebe takes advantage of the girls’ naivety and Gabita’s lies to get as much out of them as he wants; what he wants isn’t limited to money. The guests at the dinner table gabble about the past and find Ottilia quaint because her parents are working-class and she is the first person in her family to go on to higher education. Ottilia finds herself wondering whether other people will care for her as much as she has for selfish Gabita should she (Ottilia) fall pregnant. Perhaps this is the most devastating message of the film, that people’s compassion and sense of community can easily be eroded by ideology and relentless enforced poverty by the whims of a few.

Love and Other Crimes: romantic comedy deals with love and change in a society caught between Communism and corporatism

Stefan Arsenijevic, “Love and other Crimes” (2008)

For a romantic comedy, this film sure looks bleak with a bleary run-down urban setting of endless grey residential towers in a large city and a cast that includes a suicidal teenager, her dad facing a terminal illness and a couple who’ve known each other for over 10 years yet acknowledge their love very briefly before immediately leaving each other forever. Where in the world would such a film get made? Perhaps it would be made only in Serbia which, in spite of ditching President Milosevic and handing him over to the International Court of Crimes and trying to round up other designated war criminals, still finds itself shunned by other Western and European nations. The large city is New Belgrade, part of Serbia’s capital Belgrade, though it may be hard to believe from seeing the film: the place as pictured has the air of a town fast depopulating, its better days behind it, and all you see are generic concrete tower blocks filled with tiny apartments where people down on their luck or dissatisfied with their lives and not knowing why or how they got that way spend their days staring blankly at TV soap operas, at themselves in the mirror or at the dismal weather through the windows.

Structurally the film reflects a society adrift: it flits from one character to another at first but over the course of a day from sunrise to midnight, the film connects all its characters into a network surrounding Anica (Anica Dobra) and Stanislav (Vuk Kostic). Anica makes a living tutoring in Russian and Stanislav is an enforcer for a protection racket headed by Milutin (Fedya Stojanovic) who uses a solarium as a front to collect money from small shop-owners. Anica is fed up with her life as tutor and Milutin’s mistress, and is preparing to leave Belgrade and Serbia. Milutin has just received bad news from his doctor that he hasn’t long to live; his solarium business has no customers; and his racket will be wiped out when a new shopping mall opens in the city close by. Already the kiosks and other businesses Stanislav and his fellow mobsters prey on have closed up. In the meantime, Milutin’s daughter Ivana (Hanna Schwamborn) goes up to the top of the apartment bloc each day to contemplate taking her last step off the edge. Stanislav, living with his dotty mum (Milena Dravic) who performs the same tired singing routine in a restaurant frequented by equally tired middle-aged customers each evening, has been invited by a friend to work as a magician in Switzerland but isn’t sure he wants to go.

The sense that life is passing by the city and its residents whose knowledge, talents and experience might not be valuable in a new cut-throat capitalist world thrust upon Serbia, is strong. The old world that’s gone had its faults: rival gangs led by Milutin and Radovan (Josef Tatic) bicker over which parts of the city they control, leading to arson and murder; there’s little communication between parents and children which perhaps explains why Ivana feels suicidal and relations between Stanislav and his mother seem strained; and technology, though usually human-scaled, is unreliable or defiant – the sunbeds in Milutin’s solarium work intermittently, someone’s TV is always malfunctioning or has fuzzy pictures, and the airport metal scanner gets stuck after Anica passes through it. Few people are unhappy that the old world of Communist economic mismanagement, buck-passing, under-the-table transactions and political corruption is fading away. But no-one’s looking forward to the new world with its new impersonal and coldly efficient machines and values based on the profit motive and consumerism controlled by corporations.

In such a bleak world, caught in a shadow zone between Communism and corporatism, it’s no wonder that the actors spend most of their time walking around or doing very minimal activity, with only Dobra’s face doing much acting at all, mostly in the gloomy zone of facial expressions. Only false values survive in such a place and love, based on honesty and true sharing of feelings and emotions, is unable to exist here in spite of scenes of slapstick humour and some hilarious dialogue that soften the overall gloom. The film instead offers a merry-go-round of affairs that involve Anica, Milutin and at least one other woman whom Milutin is unable to face so Stanislav must act as a go-between; needless to say, Ivana’s long-deceased mother was not one of the women Milutin “loved”.

The cinematography compensates for the glum looks, blank faces and constant walking around with almost lyrical background shots of the grey buildings, the grey staircases and streets, and the pale pastel colours of the sky and grass. Some scenes are very artfully set up, such as a long take in which Dobra and Kostic takes turns stopping and then passing each other along a street with the camera panning from right to left, to illustrate the hesitant nature of their close friendship.

No easy solutions are offered in the film: Anica leaves Serbia for a new and uncertain life abroad while the other characters, unable or unwilling to make drastic changes or adjust to change around them, must suffer major consequences for not acting. Themes of love and the difficulty of change in a poor city whose inhabitants are unwilling or frightened of change, combined with inter-linked stories spiked with humour and warmth in a tight screenplay, and urban images that can be very poetic and lovely, make “Love and Other Crimes” a worthwhile film to watch.