Questions of guilt and innocence, of people's actions under pressure,
mark the three films here. In the first two cases, political pressures
intensify the usual struggles of life; in the last, it is precisely
the lack of political pressure that creates struggle.
In Divided We Fall, a Czech town has been occupied by the Nazis
after Munich, and the previous social order has been overthrown. The
town's wealthiest family, Jewish but not intensely religious, is gradually
ousted from their business and home and eventually shipped off to Terezin,
the "showcase" concentration camp that was really just a way station
the meantime, Horst, the socially despised former family chauffeur,
has become the local Nazi Party authority and an important figure in
the town. He uses his access to to privileges like food, liquor and
cigarettes to insinuate himself into the lives of Josef and Marie Cizek,
a childless couple. Josef, an intellectual living on disability, sneers
at the Nazis and berates Horst but accepts his favors just the same,
more from fear than greed.
couple's limits are tested, though, when David, the only surviving member
of the Jewish family, returns to town looking for a place to hide. The
Cizeks have a hiding hole, a small hidden pantry that is just right
for a fugitive. But now they both need and fear Horst more than ever.
He is their safeguard from suspicion, yet his mere presence is a continuous
danger as well, all the more so when his desire for Marie finally takes
control of him.
partial retaliation for Marie's rejection, Horst also wants the couple
to cache a Czech: another local Nazi who had suffered a stroke after
he lost his son. With the threat of discovery and death hanging over
them, Josef resorts to a desperate lie: His wife, he announces, is pregnant,
even though he has just returned from a visit to the German doctor that
confirmed his own sterility. Marie needs to become pregnant - and fast.
The only solution is to turn to David.
Often comical, the film thankfully avoids Roberto Benigni's slapstick
approach to the Holocaust in Life is Beautiful, evoking fear
and pity as often as laughter. Gorgeously shot in digital format, the
film emphasizes key emotional moments by slowing down the action - not
quite the same as cinematic slow motion, and all the more startling
main actors are all very good. Anna Sisková's Marie displays
genuine humor and pleasure at Horst's flattery while still loathing
his advances toward her. Bolek Polívka, as Josef, is a delicate
balance of nervous energy and slothful resignation, reminiscent in his
looks and voice of Alan Rickman. The most taxing demands are met by
Jaroslav Dusek's Horst, who must inspire dislike but not hatred.
are certainly allegorical overtones to a story whose main characters
are named "Josef" and "Marie," who pray to the Virgin Mary, and who
have what appears to be a miraculous pregnancy, but those elements are
not overplayed. Revelations are eventually made, identities shift, and
new alliances form in surprising ways. The enemy, it ultimately seems,
is neither fascism or communism but the fears and desires that separate
one human being from another. "United we stand" is Horst's exhortation
for Nazi unity; the response, "Divided we fall," is a plea for common
humanity. Born in 1967, the "Prague Spring" that would be crushed by
the Soviet Union, director Jan Hrebejk recalls the work of such humanists
as Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, and Idressa Ouedraogo. Not bad company
is more than one kind of death; there is more than one way to be buried.
In the Iranian film Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, film
director Bahman Farjami (played by the film's actual director, Bahman
Farmanara) has been buried alive, not allowed to work, for nearly a
quarter of a century. Now he has an assignment, to make a documentary
for Japanese TV on Iranian funeral practices. His real goal, though,
is to make a film about his own death.
start badly, though. In Iran's sexually repressive religious culture,
Bahman takes a risk by giving a ride to a woman hitchhiker, who turns
out to be carrying her own child, born dead as the result of her husband's
beatings. A family friend has disappeared and no one knows if he is
in a jail, a hospital, or a morgue. To top it all off, Bahman's own
grave, next to his dead wife's, has been taken by somebody else.
film is often grimly funny about rules and bureaucracies. (Trying to
find his friend, Bahman even speaks to a "Mr. Kafka"!) But cultural
paralysis, political and physical abuse, the ravages of time and Alzheimer's,
and Bahman's own precarious health - a chainsmoker, he seems deliberately
determined to ignore doctor's orders - all make death a constant hovering
presence. There are intercuts of a Muslim cleric reciting Islamic law
regarding burial, and Bahman sometimes has visions of his dead wife
walking nearby. Although amateurish and lumbering as an actor, Bahman
makes himself his own symbol of mortality with his smoking, his weak
heart, and his cynical resignation.
all his justified bitterness, the director knows that hope survives.
A stone thrown into a pond, he notes, creates ripples that spread. This
film, it seems, is meant to be a stone in the pond and a life's final
testament. If you look beyond the cultural differences and the lack
of technique, you will find another testament about what it ought to
mean to be human in this life, hard enough without the burdens that
governments and systems add.
light of the real suffering that characters like those in the previous
two films endure, it is easy to despise almost everyone in The Anniversary
Party, another digital low-budget film, and the creation of co-stars
Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. In those other films, human faultlines
are exposed and ruptured by political and social tensions. Here, the
faultines are the characters' own creations, the result of their intense
novelist Joe (Cumming) and American actress Sally (Leigh) are a couple
who seem determined to exemplify and even reinvent the lifestyle that
used to be called "Yuppie." They wake on designer sheets with perfect
smiles, eating a healthful breakfast prepared by their valuable Hispanic
housekeeper (named "America"!), whom they treat with facile love and
perfect condescension. They begin their morning with a yoga session
led by a personal coach, next to the pool, which is next to their designer
home (tastefully arranged by Sally herself). It is to be a landmark
day: their sixth anniversary and a celebration of their having ended
a mutual separation of several months. Joe is going to direct his first
film, an adaptation of his most recent novel; Sally is making a new
movie herself; and the couple is planning to move back to London and
start a family.
poor things, they are constantly plagued by interruptions. The caterers
are bringing in the food; guests are calling for directions; the dog
wants attention; and the first guests, the couple's accountant and his
wife, arrive with tax forms to be signed. Banter as crisp as the wine
and empty as air kisses fills the house as more guests arrive, but the
placid surface reveals more cracks: the couple bicker when Sally discovers
that one of the invited guests is to be an actress (Gwyneth Paltrow)
who will star in Joe's movie, playing a character based on herself,
and is none too pleased to have the young upstart "bitch" in her home.
(Later, one guest even sets off an embarrassing silence when she congratulates
Sally for having that role.)
guests arrive, including Sally's director and co-stars in her current
movie (apparently a remake of My Man Godfrey!), and it seems
that things are not going all that well on the set. Joe keeps referring
to his months without Sally; Sally doesn't seem all that set on motherhood.
all of the guests are terminally self-obsessed. There is the young mother,
nervous to have left her child with a sitter; there is the glum film
director; there is the actress wife who gave up her stardom for motherhood
and there is that flighty young star. Worst of all, the object of glances
and snickers by everyone else, there are the uptight neighbors, invited
in a goodwill gesture to soothe a running quarrel about Joe and Sally's
dog. It's always barking! they complain. No, it's not - and besides,
that's what dogs do, Joe and Sally respond. The problems never really
rise above that level.
melange of egos and superficiality grates at the nerves as the party
continues and the characters become thoroughly unlikable. The calm accountant
explodes in a fit of misogynistic fury when his wife flubs playing charades.
Joe hits on the neighbor's wife. And then the young star offers a gift
of tabs of Ecstasy. You know you need a better set of friends when the
most stable person in the bunch is Kevin Kline.
then, just as you are thinking of striking out of the theater for some
fresh air, the faultlines open wide enough to expose some depths. The
glittery surfaces slip away and reveal some real pains and feelings.
Even the obnoxious neighbors turn out to have their own reasons for
acting the way that they do. Life intrudes once more with a final phone
call that ends the party. Thankfully, there is no neat resolution to
all the tangles, and not all of them are thoroughly explained. Finally,
it seems, you don't have to live in a repressive regime to suffer the
same pains of living that afflict everyone else. It is not at all clear
if there will be a seventh anniversary party, but it will certainly
not be the same.
©2001 Don Larsson