One of the joys of festivalgoing is that you can arrive only vaguely familiar with a filmmaker’s name and depart fully versed in their entire oeuvre. Festival retrospectives and tributes are often daunting because they consume many precious movie-viewing hours, but the options at Thessaloniki’s 52nd edition, which ran November 4-13, were too good to pass up. The complete works of Sara Driver and Paolo Sorrentino, as well as generous samples of Erden Kiral and Ulrich Seidl, were on offer, but for a number of reasons Denmark’s Ole Christian Madsen won the draw, most simply because I was pleasantly caught off guard by his delightful latest work, SuperClásico, at the Reykjavik Film Festival in September.
Only two of Madsen’s seven features have been distributed in the U.S.—Kira’s Reason: A Love Story (01) and Flame & Citron (08)—and somehow I managed to miss both. As I dove in fresh, it quickly became apparent that Madsen has little interest in making the same film twice. Each is tonally and stylistically distinctive. SuperClásico, the third in his “marriage” trilogy, is an old-fashioned screwball comedy about one man’s efforts to woo his wife back after the couple’s separation. The first in the trilogy, Kira’s Reason: A Love Story, about a woman (Stine Stengade, Madsen’s wife) who suffers a breakdown after the loss of her baby girl, is ultra-raw, Dogme-style. The action takes up as she is released from a hospital after two years of treatment, faced with the overwhelming task of reconnecting with her two young sons and her husband, Mads (Lars Mikkelsen), a philanderer who even stoops to having a fling with her sister in Kira’s absence. The film’s subtitle is strictly ironic because husband and wife are actually verging on parting ways, much like the couple in the second of the trilogy, Prague (06).
In that film, Maja (Stengade again) is married to Christoffer, played by the other Mikkelsen, Mads. Christoffer’s father, whom he barely knew, has died and he must go to Prague to claim the body. Maja comes along but the couple has grown perilously apart, and it’s here that their differences come to a head. Prague, my personal favorite of Madsen’s films, is one of the most searing portraits of failing marriage that I’ve ever seen. But despite the pain it depicts, it is also extremely entertaining in a voyeuristic way, with some blackly comic, appropriately Kafka-esque touches.
Madsen’s first two films were atypical amid the prevailing trends of Danish cinema because they dared to tell immigrant stories. His debut, Sinan’s Wedding (96), which clocks in at just over an hour, focuses on a second-generation Turk who is much more interested in the ladies than holding down a job. His father’s efforts to get him to marry and take over the family restaurant look to be in vain because Sinan isn’t quite ready to be tamed. He’s a frustrating protagonist, yet sympathetic too—which could describe pretty much all Madsen characters to come. Madsen’s second effort, Pizza King (99), broadened the horizon, depicting a tight-knit group of young guys with Islamic roots and the hardships they face in making a living and surviving in general. It’s a story about love, crime, and, above all, a friendship that’s very much in the Mean Streets mold. And as in Scorsese’s film, the vibrancy of the performances and the directorial energy were no fluke—they have continued to imbue all of Madsen’s subsequent works.
In between the marriage trilogy came Angels in Fast Motion (05, released as Nordkraft), a multi-stranded tale of drug users. And then Flame & Citron, a beautifully shot, vivid, fact-based account of two Danish resistance fighters during World War II, heroes to some, villains to others—a dichotomy, indeed, that plagues the two protagonists. In his most ambitious work to date, Madsen yet again shed light on another little-seen facet of Danish life and history.
I should have taken my own advice out of Reykjavik and rewatched SuperClásico to provide some relief from the relentless parade of misery that followed in one film after another—most memorably in two stunning stories of injustice.
Vincent Garenq’s Guilty (shortened from the much more appropriate French title Présumé coupable) is based on actual events that took place in suburban France only a decade ago, in which a lower-class woman accused 18 people of pedophilia, and of raping her little boy. Inexplicably the court believes her and convicts some of the accused; years pass and lives are destroyed. The tragic events are monumentally wrenching, but the action concentrates mainly on the imprisonment and suffering of Alain Marécaux (the film is based in large part on his memoirs). As Marécaux, Philippe Torreton gives a stunning, transformative performance that rivals any from the past year.
And while it was all too easy to declare those 18 people “guilty,” in Brigitte Bertele’s The Fire a woman, Judith (Maja Schöne), is raped and beaten by a respectable doctor and family man, but the physical evidence left on her body is not enough to secure a conviction. She is so haunted by the incident and frustrated by the ineffectual legal proceedings that she takes matters into her own hands, doing whatever it takes to find her attacker’s breaking point. Viewers will likely feel just as helpless and uneasy as Judith’s achingly supportive boyfriend does.
There was further suffering to be found in Michale Boganim’s Land of Oblivion, an insightful, intermittently fascinating before-and-after account of the Chernobyl disaster. The film’s heroine (Olga Kurylenko, who can’t look bad, try as she might) is in the middle of her wedding celebration when the fateful fire breaks out. Years later, still trapped in the past, she works as a tour guide, showing sightseers around the barren radioactive district. Meanwhile, in Rolando Colla’s well-made but tiresome domestic-abuse drama Summer Games, two kids react to their father’s cruel mistreatment of their mother by playing torture-based games with friends during a seaside vacation. And in Montxo Armendáriz’s harrowing Don’t Be Afraid, in order to move on and pursue romantic relationships of her own, a young woman must come to terms with the harsh reality that her father has been sexually abusing her since she childhood, and the disbelief of her self-involved mother.
Perhaps the all-around best film I caught at the festival was made 10 years ago: tributee Paolo Sorrentino’s debut feature, One Man Up, which has only screened in the U.S. a handful of times and remains unavailable on region 1 DVD. It tracks the parallel stories of two almost identically named men, Tony Pisapia, a coked-up lounge singer (the amazing Toni Servillo) and Antonio Pisapia, a star soccer player (Andrea Renzi, equally impressive). In the wake of career highs, both experience simultaneous downturns, and their paths eventually cross. It’s an exhilarating experience, both funny and sad, heartbreaking and life-affirming.
Greece, as everyone knows, has also been experiencing a downturn of its own so naturally it’s a little surreal to be gorging on movies there and losing track of what’s going on in the world around you. But it also makes being there all the more vital, witnessing one of the oldest festivals in the world thrive while fighting to stay alive.
© 2012 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center