A Prophet (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
19-year-old Arab named Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) was sentenced up to six years in prison. Taken under César Luciani’s wing (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican, Malik slowly gained power in prison as he learned the politics and economics among each group of inmates. I liked that the plot was relatively simple. We had a chance to observe a vulnerable man evolve into someone who was cunning and capable of deceit yet the story was able to hang onto the core of the lead character’s being. That is, despite the difficult decisions he had to make, he was still capable of being sympathetic to those that helped turn him into a kind of person he had become. Those individuals did not always deserve his sympathy but he hung onto them anyway perhaps because he respected them in some way. His relationships with the other prisoners was always at the forefront and the “favors” he had to do were secondary but both are just as gripping. Jacques Audiard, the director, could have easily turned this film into a typical prison movie about a man hardened by hatred over the years but it chose the more insightful and elegant path. It begged the question how far a person was willing to go in order to survive and eventually flourish in a very dangerous environment, it challenged the effectiveness of rehabilitation centers, and it questioned whether a person, when given a chance, could leave behind his criminal life. Rahim was fantastic in portraying lead character. At times the movie would jump forward in time and I found myself unable to recognize Malik at first glance. Surely there were some physical changes but the way he carried himself such as his posture and the manner in which he conversed with another were more interesting to watch. Despite the film not showing us certain periods of time, we still got the sense that the hardships that Malik had to face did not stop. I did, however, have a problem with its running time of more than two-and-a-half hours. I saw no reason for it to last that long. In fact, I thought the last twenty minutes, except for the final scene, were weak and more typical compared the rest of the picture. It became redundant instead of ending it in a place where it left us wondering whether or not he would choose to risk losing everything he worked for over the years. Nevertheless, I believe “A Prophet” is worth seeing because it did not lose its heart despite the violence and drugs. It really made me question what I would have done (assuming I survived in the first place) if I was in Malik’s position. I certainly could not imagine hiding razor blades in my mouth.
Kings & Queen (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rois et reine” or “Kings and Queen” tells the story of a man and a woman who were going through their own problems in life. Initially, the two camps seemed to be unconnected because of their predominantly disparate tones–one comedic and one tragic. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), who lives with her third husband-to-be, visited her son Elias (Valentin Lelong) and father (Maurice Garrel). After Nora’s father confessed to her that he has been having some stomach problems, she took him to the hospital and found out that he was terminally ill. This caused a great interruption on the life she desperately wanted to believe was going great because she now had to deal with where to put her son because he and the third husband do not get along. She also had to deal with her sister who only used their father for money and what the father really thought of Nora. On the other hand, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) was sent back to the mental hospital against his will. In there, he found amusing ways to cope such as finding romance and discussing his psychology with a psychiatrist. Although this film was about a many things at once, it impressed me because in a span of about two hours and thirty minutes, it was able to balance comedy and drama throughout. What’s more impressive was Arnaud Desplechin’s, the director, ability to cut to one genre to another when things began to feel suffocating. So, in a way, it worked as two different but good films but the connections that the two had made it that much more enjoyable. Just when I thought everything was going to wrap up in a neat little package when Devos and Amalric finally had a scene together, more problems began to appear because two had a history. Many questions were then brought up such as when one’s responsibility should end when a relationship has been mutually agreed upon as over, whether the mother is doing the right thing by indirectly choosing her third husband over her only child, and the pros and cons of keeping a certain knowledge a secret when the burden is too much to bear. There was a certain organic feel in the film which made me believe that the events portrayed could have happened in real life. I thought one of the strongest scenes in the movie was its ending–the conversation between Amalric and Lelong–because it remained true to itself: with every negative comes a positive (and vice-versa). “Rois et reine” is the perfect film for those who love character studies of individuals who have many imperfections but still have certain reedeming qualities.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, “Red” was about a man’s (Brian Cox) quest to find justice for the meaningless murder of his dog by three teenagers (Noel Fisher, Kyle Gallner, Shiloh Fernandez), each with varying responsibilities regarding the crime. This little indie gem was a pleasure to watch because it was able to play around with characters who chose to do things that were sometimes morally gray. The question about where to draw the line after seeking justice but not getting it was constantly at the forefront. While I was immediately against the teenager who pulled the trigger and caused the death of the old dog, Cox’ (eventual) thirst for vengeance left me questioning whether he was still capable of logical thinking. I was interested to see what would happen next because the lead character was very multidimensional. He was the kind of character that I could empathize with right away but he was not the kind of character that I necessarily understood right off the bat because of the wall he put around himself. But when he finally opened up about how angry, sad, lonely and tormented he was regarding what happened to his family and the event that changed their lives forever, I felt where he was coming from: why he couldn’t let go of the dog’s death, why he wanted the boys (and their father) to own up to their responsibilities, and why the concept of justice was so important to him. The way he told the story of what really happened to his family left strong images in my head to the point where I felt like I was watching something incredibly horrific. I also liked the fact that there were a lot of unsaid and untackled issues but such things were simply implied. It made me want to read the novel because most adaptations to film do not really get the chance to paint the entire picture. I must commend Brian Cox for his excellent performance. The way he quickly juggled dealing with his character’s physical limitations and inner demons left me nothing short of impressed. “Red” is not your typical revenge film so if you’re expecting a “Kill Bill” sort of movie, this may not be for you. However, if you’re more into character studies, exploring the way the justice system (and humans in general) treats animals, and judging how much particular characters should be punished, this film should be quite enjoyable.
Wild Reeds (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Wild Reeds,” directed by André Téchiné impressed me in every way. In under two hours, the film was able to efficiently describe the complexity of four characters in the middle of adolescence. While all of them attend the same boarding school, they cannot be any more different. François Forestier (Gaël Morel) realizes that he’s gay due to his attraction to Serge Bartolo (Stéphane Rideau), a working-class French-Italian whose brother died in a war. François’ worst enemy is himself: he doesn’t know what to do with his recent realization so he constantly tries to look for support because not even his closest friend Maïté Alvarez (Élodie Bouchez from “Alias”) can help him out due to her initial attraction to him. Even though François and Serge slept together once, Stéphane is not gay and this bothered François to his core. Things get even more complicated when Henri Mariani (Frédéric Gorny) comes into the picture; being a French-Algerian, his passion toward his support for France’ colonization of Algeria created tension among his teachers, classmates, and even himself. Being an outcast, François sees something in him, the two become friends, yet their relationship does not become predictable. All those elements made the story fascinating and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
This is no doubt a coming-of-age film but it’s more organic than American films of the same subgenre. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t watching a movie at all. It felt like a story that could’ve happened back in the 1960’s because of how affected the characters are by the war. Not one of them is not affected by the politics and it was interesting to explore their psychologies. Although I was particularly touched by François’ struggles when it comes to self-acceptance versus self-rejection (that mirror scene was both brilliant and heartbreaking), I was very interested in Maïté’s mother (Michèle Moretti), who happens to be the three boys’ teacher. She felt so guilty about not helping Serge’s brother evade the war, she pretty much went crazy after his death. That one scene when she was at the hospital was so haunting, it gave me serious goosebumps. Just one small scene of less than three minutes was enough to truly paint how tortured she was by her guilt so I was very impressed. Moreover, I was satisfied with how Téchiné divided the time between the four lead characters. When each of them was under the spotlight, we truly get to know why they ended up the way they were because they talk about their past and their current thoughts on the matter. Yet at the same time, it does not result to the usual melodrama where they cry so that the audiences will feel sorry for them. In fact, they do the opposite: they try to be so strong but an outsider can (or should be able to) tell that they’re on the verge of breaking down. I was highly impressed with the acting from the four leads because I felt like they had subtlety and they always had something going on behind their eyes. In a nutshell, these are the type of characters I’d like to be friends with because they do not thrive on superficiality.
“Wild Reeds” is truly one of the best coming-of-age films I’ve seen. The characters have a certain emotional intelligence that one rarely sees in such a subgenre, especially in American coming-of-age pictures. Being released in 1994, it goes to show that a thoughtful coming-of-age movie does not need to feature excesses of alcohol, sex and loud music. It sets up an argument that self-discovery can happen right in our own small towns with people who we care about, the books that we love rereading and the current politics that we hear in the radio. This is the kind of movie that I want to add to my collection because of its many underlying themes that require multiple viewings. In my opinion, both fans of character studies and cinéphiles should not miss this gem.
The Edge of Heaven (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though I did hear a lot of critical acclaim about this motion picture, I didn’t expect much coming into it. However, after finally watching it, I must say that I was absolutely blown away because of the way Fatih Akin, the writer and director, told such a human story about devastating losses and partial recoveries. The first part was about an aging father (Tuncel Kurtiz) making a deal with a prostitute (Nursel Köse) to live with him and only sleep with him while paying her the same amount of money she would make in one month. I saw the father’s situation as a way to gain control of someone because of his own frustration with his son (Baki Davrak) even though it’s apparent that they genuinely love each other. The second part was about Köse’s daughter (Nurgül Yesilçay) escaping to Germany because she’s wanted by her country’s officials for “terrorism.” She meets Patrycia Ziolkowska and the two become friends and lovers. Eventually, Yesilçay pushes Ziolkowska’s mother (Hanna Schygulla) to the edge because the mother believes that Yesilçay is preventing the daughter from achieving her education. The third part is the most powerful because the film shows that all of the six characters have impacted each other more than they ever thought possible. Although this film does intersect the six lives, it’s not one of those preachy movies with a twist in the end in order to accomplish some dramatic irony. Everything is naturalistic yet bizarre but it never lets go of the fact that it’s grounded in reality. It has enough coincidences to show that life is still magical despite the political battles, strained relationships between children and their parents, and lovers that are never meant to be. To me, the most powerful scene in the movie (among many) was when Schygulla and Yesilçay finally settle their differences. I found it beautiful that, despite all the anger and sadness, a person can look past all those negative emotions and embrace forgiveness. I was also impressed with Davrak as the son who pretty much has nobody even though his father is still around. Their interactions are somewhat cold (but as I said before I think they do love each other) but he still manages to radiate this warmth and craving for knowledge. This is not a simple film that ties up all the loose ends by the time the credits start rolling. This is, in a way, a slice-of-life picture designed for audiences who want to see fascinating characters dealing with realistic situations and deeply affecting outcomes.