The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Secret in Their Eyes” was about a former criminal investigator (Ricardo Darín) attempting to write a novel based on a brutal rape and murder of a newlywed 25 years ago. The Morales case was particularly important to him because the love of the husband (Pablo Rago) for his deceased wife reminded him of his love for his former co-worker (Soledad Villamil) that never came to fruition. She was engaged and he didn’t want to get in the way of her happiness. The picture’s style was to go back and forth between the present and the past making an excellent blend of thriller and drama. Co-workers falling for each other was nothing new. In fact, it had become a formula. But one of the elements I loved about the movie was it kept romance between Benjamín and Irene fresh and challenging. Unlike most romantic movies, they didn’t have say what they felt in order for us to understand what they might be going through. It was in the small gestures such as the closing of a door, a pause mid-sentence, or a quick look to the side that revealed their expectations of each other. The tension between them reflected what we would have done if we liked someone but couldn’t find the right words to say how much we want to be with them. As for the thriller aspect, I was glued to the screen because it was unpredictable. During the most intense scenes, Benjamín’s friend (Guillermo Francella), who had a drinking problem, would appear from nowhere and could potentially ruin everything. We hated him but at the same time we couldn’t help but love him. We hated him because he appeared at the most inopportune times which could make or break the case in question. But we loved him because he made the plot that much more complicated and therefore more fun to try to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle would come together. I was highly impressed with the last thirty minutes. To even hint at what transpired, I think, would do this film an injustice. All I want to say about it is it was at the point where the past and present finally converged. Many practical questions were answered but so many more moral questions were brought up. Like the characters, I found some sense of closure but at the same time I felt as though it wasn’t the closure I was looking for. The theme of men clinging onto their past was at the forefront and I couldn’t help but feel moved (and scared) when I realized how much the past could turn into a monster if we kept leaving it on the side instead of confronting it directly. Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri and directed by Juan José Campanella, “El secreto de sus ojos” was compelling and rewarding in every way.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer and director Jacques Audiard posed a classic nature versus nurture question about a man in his late twenties (Romain Duris) who wanted to remove himself from a life of crime and to recapture his talent in playing the piano. His time was torn on two fronts: his father (Niels Arestrup) who made dishonest real-estate deals and his piano lessons with a recent immigrant (Linh Dan Pham) who taught him discipline and how to relax. This film had an exceptional use of tone. The push-and-pull forces that the character experienced were often reflected by the music that we heard (electro versus classical) and the images we saw (indoors versus outdoors, night versus day, order versus chaos). Since the film spent equal time between each forces, I understood the character’s anger because nobody believed in him. When he would tell someone of his extracurricular activities, the person would imply that he was too old and he was no longer a talented pianist that he once was. Naturally, his anger was fueled and so did his need to prove that he was good enough. I immediately related with the things he went through so I knew that his biggest enemy was ultimately himself. Since he never received approval from his distant father who only contacted him for favors, he tried to look for approval from other people which involved him sleeping with other women (Mélanie Laurent, Aure Atika) and moving on just as quickly. The reviews I encountered made a point about the movie not really going anywhere and the ideas were much larger than the final product. I disagree because Tom’s journey wasn’t about but life-changing revelations provided by those who surrounded him. Although he tried to look for answers by looking at others, the ultimate lesson was looking inwards and realizing that he had to love himself whether he still had the talent or otherwise. I thought the film was thoughtful about its arguments without spoon-feeding its audiences critical information and had a quiet power that moved me the more I thought about it afterwards. “De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté” or “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” could have easily been an obvious story of a man wanting redemption. Instead, it chose the more intelligent and sensitive path by allowing us to feel for, although not necessarily pity, the tortured protagonist. The film was also successful at asking us about our own lost potential.
Paradise Now (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
Coming into this film, I expected a typical war movie with a lot of violence because it was essentially about suicide bombers so I was surprised when it turned out to be quite low-key yet still have some sort of power that drives the story forward. Two friends named Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) were ordinary mechanics but later decided to take on a mission when a friend (Amer Hlehel) convinced them that there is a way for them to lead a meaningful life. Frustrated with the current state of things, they made their decision without putting much thought into it. However, they found themselves toying with a plethora of emotions as they had a final dinner with their families and lying about the nature of the job they’ve taken in Tel Aviv. My problem with this film was not the story or its lack of tension. It’s just that even though I felt bad for the two lead characters, I didn’t feel connected to them because I didn’t agree with the paths they’ve chosen. And I don’t think we’re supposed to agree with them. Maybe we were simply supposed to sympathize with their circumstances. The highlights of the film include the scene where they recorded messages to their families explaining why they chose to do what they did and the scene where the lady (Lubna Azabal) that Said was romantically interested in told Khaled that their idea of a paradise was only in their heads and could never be a reality. I admired this film’s intelligence. Instead of taking us to the path of the obvious (for instance, suicide bombers being total heartless monsters), it managed to offer an explanation on why they felt like they were obligated to perform such drastic actions. The characters often talked about their religion. Since I don’t identify myself with any religious group, I guess sometimes it’s difficult to understand that some people consider their religion very seriously. I can imagine that it’s also just as difficult for someone who identifies with a very different religion to relate to the characters in this film. However, I did think that sometimes this movie had moments of preachiness; I preferred it when Hany Abu-Assad, the director, let the images do the talking so it was up for the audiences to interpret what they think of the movie’s message. “Paradise Now” is a small movie with powerful moments sprinkled throughout and brilliant use of contrasting images and ideas. I just wish it had been more consistent.
The Best of Youth (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“La meglio gioventù” or “The Best of Youth,” written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli and directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, runs for six hours long but I was so invested in all of the characters so I wanted it to run longer. Its focus was on two brothers named Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) and how the choices they made back when they were young in the 1960s have impacted their respective futures all the way to the 2000s. This is one of those films where it’s difficult to describe what it’s about because it’s pretty much about everything. Let’s just say that this is about life and the beauty that comes with it–how cruel yet generous fate can be, how ironic situations are despite the sharply fluctuating sadness and comedy, and how the people we meet can help shape who we are. Yes, it’s about two brothers who are very different from each other (one became a psychiatrist and one became a cop) but what I liked about the picture is that it didn’t paint them as rivals. In fact, they genuinely loved each other even though their political views and how they interpreted situations that faced them were vastly different. I also liked the way the director effortlessly sewn in the Italian history into their lives. I didn’t find it at all distracting because the movie always worked at a personal level. There was always something going on on the surface and underneath it all was a lot of hurt, disappointment, regret and what ifs. I was also amazed with how the movie started off with the actors looking really young and look of the picture reflected that of the 1960s. But as we made our journey through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s, the same actors looked older and the look of the movie became sharper and more modern. It was fascinating to watch and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. As the movie went on, the focus shifted from the brothers to their parents, siblings, lovers, and children. I really felt like I was watching someone’s life unfold before my eyes. As the characters often reflected on a certain memory when they were younger, I actually had a picture on which memory they were talking about as well as the circumstances that surrounded that event. It’s so much more interesting than in other films where a character talks about his or her memory and we can only build from what he or she is saying. I’m so happy to have seen “The Best of Youth” because not only did it inspire me to love the people in my life more but it also gave me an idea of what I could possibly write about for my personal statement for medical school. This film is a treasure and it should not be missed by anyone who loves stories that deftly cover several decades.
Exterminating Angels (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
“Les anges exterminateurs” or “Exterminating Angels,” written and directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau, tells the story of a filmmaker (Frédéric van den Driessche) who wants to create a movie which documents what it takes for women to reach intense carnal pleasure. Two fallen angels (Margaret Zenou and Raphaële Godin) helps him on his project by whispering to other women (Lise Bellynck, Maroussia Dubreuil, Marie Allan) that they should audition and engage in sexual acts with each other. Even though the premise of the film was unconventional (to say the least), I thought it was interesting all the way through. It didn’t quite explore its emotional core but I appreciated the many ideas it had. I have no problem when it comes to full frontal nudity and even very realistic sexual acts but I thought that this film had way too many of those scenes. I thought the movie had a certain special glow whenever the characters were just talking to each other. Just like real people, each of the characters had a mask that sometimes wavered and the audiences got a peek of the characters’ true motivations and what they were really thinking and feeling instead of what they wanted the world to see. I also thought it was interesting how Driessche’ character failed to use a camera time and time again to record his supposed project about female sexuality. It then begs the question on whether he really did just use the girls for his own pleasure or if he really did care about them in some way. I admired this picture’s daring nature to tackle certain taboos head-on and that’s probably why I forgave its inconsistencies. It’s better than watching a mainstream project that puts a veil on sexuality because this one is not afraid to show the dark side of humanity and how passion sometimes blinds us and eventually might destroy us. But I should note that “Exterminating Angels” will be difficult to sit through, especially for those who are not used to foreign cinema and art-house pictures. Some may label this film as pretentious or even pointless. But what couldn’t be denied is the fact that it was raw, had some sort of brain behind it, and it transgressed may lines that most movies dare not cross.
The Return (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Vozvrashcheniye” or “The Return,” directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, was about two boys’ (Ivan Dobronravov, Vladimir Garin) response and ways of coping when their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) who abandoned them twelve years ago suddenly came back. This movie really took me by surprise because I thought it was going to be more about the siblings’ relationship: the rivalry between them, their quest to find their identities and to learn how to be secure about who they were. When the father came back, I suddenly realized that the film aimed to be so much more. Although the brothers were pretty much on the same physical journey with their father to head to a place unknown to the audiences, their emotional and psychological journeys were distinct and fascinating. The older brother (Garin) accepted his fathers return while the younger brother (Dobronravov) was more reluctant and cautious. His doubt became so strong to the point where he expressed to his brother that the man who returned might not be their father–the father that they came to recognize in an old childhood photo. This alarmed me because I wondered if he was right. After all, that gut feeling in us is sometimes right, especially when circumstances are dire. I had to question about the father’s intentions because of the way he treated his sons. Even though they were both stubborn, if I was a father who hadn’t seen his sons in over a decade, I’d be ecstatic and be more than willing to let certain things go so that my children would be able to trust and open up to me. The way the father was so dead-on into coming to a particular place made me very suspicious and I found myself constantly evaluating the situation. The last thirty minutes was impressive. The quiet moments were so painful after certain events have unfolded. I could feel what the characters were probably feeling and known what they probably were thinking. I loved the way Zvyagintsev helmed the picture because of the fact that the movie was focused from beginning to end yet it wasn’t monotonous. In fact, it was very fluid when it comes to the emotions that it wanted to get from the viewers. I also enjoyed that the title eventually had two meanings. I will remember this Russian film for a long time, despite its minimalist dialogue, because of its haunting moral conundrums.