Look Around You, What Beauty! Long Live Kazakhstan

By John Gorick

four-nights-with-anna-jerzy-skolimowski.jpgFour Nights with Anna, 2008

I thought I saw Mr Bean at the Trieste Film Festival this year. No, Rowan Atkinson was not on the Competition Jury but a Polish actor called Artur Steranko was doing a very passable impersonation of him in the film Cztery Noce z Anna (Four Nights with Anna, 2008), directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, his first film in 17 years. Steranko plays Leon Okrasa, the slightly cretinous stoker at a hospital crematorium who becomes obsessed with Anna, a woman whose rape he witnessed or perhaps perpetrated. He scuttles around in true Bean-esque fashion secretly fixing things in her dingy flat while she sleeps, doped by him. It’s obviously not really a comedy and Skolimowski ratchets up the tension with atmospheric music but it’s difficult to engage with the characters and the film soon starts to feel far-fetched.

The competition winner was Wolke 9 (Cloud 9, 2008), the powerful new film by German director Andreas Dresen. It’s a frank portrayal of a married woman in her 60s beginning a passionate physical affair with a man in his 70s, the consequent break-up of her 30 year marriage and all its harrowing consequences. The film is famous for its candid scenes of geriatric sex, so to speak, but Dresen does well by getting these scenes out of the way quite quickly. The real impact comes from the terrific performance of Ursula Werner as Inge as she brilliantly evokes the emotional maelstrom of a woman taken over by desire, love and guilt against all expectation. The film is redolent of the naturalism of Mike Leigh at his best and is only really let down by Dresen’s rather self-conscious use of a “chorus” (Inge belongs to a singing group) to emphasise the Hellenic nature of the tragedy.

cloud-9-andreas-dresen.jpgCloud 9, 2008

Diorthosi (Correction, 2008) by Thanos Anastopoulos, is a slow but well-executed film about modern Greece and the problems of integration for the Albanian minority there. A man is released from prison and he seems drawn to a child and the child’s mother, a woman who seems to know him, but we are not told why. Ultimately we discover that the man is an Albanian who has tried to pass himself off as a Greek, even going so far as to take part in the beating-up of another Albanian after an international football match between Greece and Albania. He is rejected by both sides, not least by a Greece intent on equating its nationhood with its Christian Orthodoxy. It’s a subtle film that poses more questions than it answers.

Favoured by the Trieste audiences, Aida Begic’s Snijeg (Snow, 2008) is notable for giving voice to the experiences of Bosnian women in the aftermath of the Bosnian war. A small mountain village has lost nearly all its men in the war and only widows are left behind, unsure whether to rebuild their lives through small-scale agriculture, to flee to the West or to sell out to the Serbs who want to buy and develop their land. The film brings proper attention to the plight of women left with nothing after a conflict made by men and for whom it is almost impossible to move on because no-one knows what happened to their husbands and brothers. Unusually, the film is a co-production from Bosnia, Germany, France and Iran but this helps to deliver a perspective perhaps impossible to find elsewhere in Europe. The film is richly colourful, reflecting the intense emotions constantly lurking beneath the surface.

snow-aida-begic.jpgSnow, 2008

Emotion is lurking rather close to the surface of the Danube delta in Kornel Mundruczo’s Delta (2008). An estranged brother and sister fall in love amongst the reed beds and the film follows their attempt to establish a home together amidst the violent hostility of the disapproving local population. The film heads in a predictably tragic direction but is beautifully shot by Matyas Erdely, contrasting the natural idyll of the siblings’ delta hideaway with the grim decay of the village further inland. Villagers in traditional black boats like giant water-boatmen row ominously down the river and you know that this story will not end happily, a feeling only re-enforced when the brother asks his sister rather too meaningfully “Do you want me to make a fire?” The central relationship is handled tastefully though, their first sexual embrace conveyed by a close-up of the sister’s feet, standing on tiptoe as she begins to kiss her brother more passionately. The film does not attempt to delve deeper into the psychology behind the incestuous relationship and seems content to remain a mood piece, calling simply for tolerance and understanding.

delta-kornel-mundruczo.jpgDelta, 2008

The most satisfying film in the Feature Competition was Tulpan (2008), directed by Kazakh director Sergej Dvorcevoj. A gentle and sometimes very comic film, it functions as a lament for the rapidly disappearing traditional life of the Kazakh steppe. The hero, Asa, returns home from military service in the Russian Navy and, aided by his tough-act brother, goes in search of a bride. But the woman he wants, Tulpan, won’t have him, supposedly because his ears are too big. Asa tries not to give up but is discouraged both by his brother, who think he’s a wimp and his Boney M-loving friend, who wants them both to go to the big city, Almaty, to live a playboy lifestyle. But he is supported by the love of his sister-in-law and her children, who all appreciate his more sensitive nature. The children are utterly adorable - the eldest daughter constantly sings, the elder son listens to the radio and reports back to his father and the youngest goofs around on a stick “horse”, supposedly riding to Almaty. Ultimately, the film ends surprisingly positively but not sentimentally and is unfashionably pro-family and pro-tradition. What makes this all the more remarkable is that the photography of Jola Dylewska, as well as Dvorcevoj’s direction, contrive to make the brutal Kazakh steppe seem like one of the most beautiful places you could imagine with huge skies everywhere. For one delirious moment I found myself almost wanting to go and live there and herd sheep. It’s no wonder Asa shouts out on his return “Look around you, what beauty! Long live Kazakhstan!” It’s Dvorcevoj’s call on the national Kazakh soul, not to sell out.

It’s unusual to find a film festival competition that manages to bring together incest, shepherding and sex for the over 60s but in 2009, Trieste did just that.

John Gorick is an actor, freelance journalist and Japanese translator living in London.