Film 2010 #22 – Terribly Happy

Terribly Happy (2008, dir. Henrik Ruben Genz)

It’s a common plot device in literature of all kinds to tell the story of the outsider in the tight-knit community. The plot of this Danish film could easily be dropped down into the middle of any Midwestern agricultural based small town. We have a disgraced police officer, Robert, punished by being moved from Copenhagen to a small outpost in South Jutland. Once there he meets Ingerlise, a young wife and mother whose husband, Jørgen beats her daily. Robert is tries to keep things professional but is slowly but surely seduced beyond his duties as an officer of the law. Things progress until Robert finds his hands stained with blood and his destiny now tightly grasped in the hands of the townspeople who dislike having outsiders interfere in village business.
Landscape is a vitally important element of the film. The small town is surrounded by dismal bogs and we’re told in the opening voice over of how cows are swallowed up in a matter of minutes. One particular town legend tells of a cow who surface in the spring and birthed a two-headed calf (one cow, one human) and the cow was hidden away after women began having stillbirths. This story is a metaphor for the politics of the town. Horrible things may happen but they townsfolk hide them away so that they don’t contaminate the rest of the populace. The bog itself both metaphorically and literally swallows up the town secrets. A half sunken truck peers ominously above the water but it is never explained, the circumstances of its arrival there hidden away decades ago.
It would be easy to cast Robert as the hero against the townspeople and for the first 45 mins of the film it appears that will be so. But as the circumstances of the officer’s placement in the wilderness are revealed it becomes obvious that Robert hides as much as the citizenry around him. As these past indiscretions are uncovered, Robert becomes assimilated more and more into the workings of the town. When he first responds to a juvenile shoplifter and is told by the store manager the old marshal would hit the boy and that would teach the lesson, Robert is appalled and says he would never hit a child. Later in the film, when the second shoplifting incident occurs, Robert doesn’t hesitate for a second to strike the child down.
This is a very complex crime film about unspoken social contracts. As quirky and eerie as the town appears and as dark as Robert’s actions become, they are fundamentally no different than a community where a father who abuses his family goes unreported or where a young woman refrains from reporting a rape out of fear of how her social standing will be effected. Director Genz tells a very universal story in a clever and dynamic way.
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Film 2010 #11 – Gomorrah


Gomorrah (2008, dir. Mateo Garrone)

In Southern Italy there is a disease that infects the lives of many people living below the poverty line. This disease is a crime cartel known as the Camorra. The mafiosa organization has interwoven itself into the workings of both black market operations and legitimate enterprise, including investing in the construction of the rebuilding at Ground Zero in NYC. Such a concept seems too large to be real, but as director Garrone chronicles in this film, it is all too true.

Gomorrah, based on the nonfiction book by Roberto Saviano, takes an interesting direction in telling this story. The film is divided up into five separate plot strands that occasionally interweave, but more than not remain as their own isolated story. If the plots were to connect, it would cause the film to feel insular rather than expansive, which is the feeling Garrone wants to evoke. The Hollywood version of this film would seek to be sleek, refined, and would desperate to constantly try and engage the audience. Gomorrah, plays out slowly and at a pace that could be infuriating to some viewers. It is a slice of life film, showing how mundane and common these acts of violence and crime are in the lives of the people in these regions of Italy.

The main characters are Don Ciro; a man charged with distributing cash to the families of imprisoned members of the family, Toto; a 13 year old boy who seeks to join the family to gain prominence in his slum community, Roberto; a recent university graduate working with a mob boss to illegally dump toxic waste, Pasquale; a tailor who is struggling to make the order demands of the mob and moonlighting as a sewing instructor for a Chinese-Italian sweatshop, and finally Marco and Ciro; two young men who are caught up in the fantasy of being in the mob and are unaware of the real dangers of pissing off the wrong people.

Instead of focusing the top tier of the mafia and glamorizing it, the film seeks to explore the lives of the people at the bottom rung of the ladder. The lives displayed are gritty and bleak and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of rising out of the mire. The mob has so taken over every aspect of life that they have replaced the government, and in the case of Tito, his biological family. There is much this picture has in common with Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, just even less stylistic. In fact, I believe Garrone is trying to create a film without embellishment so that the every day nature of crime is the main focus. I highly recommend this as counterprogramming to the mainstream films that stylistically glorify the criminal lifestyle

Film 2009 #173 – Homicide


Homicide (1991)
Directed by David Mamet
Starring Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Rebbecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, Ving Rhames

The film starts out regular enough. A group of police officers and their higher ups discuss how they will bring in Robert Randolph, a drug dealer and cop killer who is somewhere in the city. Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), one of the homicide detectives speaks up and garners the ire of one of the officials who refers to him as a “kike”. Gold shrugs it off despite his partner’s (William H. Macy) anger. This event sets up who Bobby Gold is and how he views his ethnic heritage.

The plot diverges from our expectations when, on the way to apprehending Randolph, Gold is stopped by an officer who has responded to the murder of an elderly candy story owner. Gold learns very quickly that the old woman was a Jew and an immigrant decades earlier from Israel. Now, torn between two cases, Gold is stretched thinner and thinner. His main duty, bringing in Randolph fades, as he becomes more and more convinced that the candy store murder was anti-Semitic and that there is a conspiracy behind it.

Writer/director Mamet is still feeling himself out in the film medium with this third picture. His primary work is connected to the stage and it shows in the way he films Homicide. There are a few drawn out scenes that make use of set design and his dialogue displays his trademark sense of artifice. Paranoia is interwoven more heavily as the film progresses, and Mamet presents a riff on his con game plot by causing the audience to question if there is even a conspiracy occurring at all. I also began to note that Mamet’s dialogue and paranoiac tendencies cause his films to develop an almost fantastical sheen over their surfaces. The city is never named adding to that other worldliness and Gold induction into a secret city underworld mimics that of the archetypal adventurer becoming aware of the existence of the Other-world.

Despite all of the Mamet-ness, this stands as one of his more accessible works. The language is restrained from some of his more frenetic (see Oleanna). The film works as an engaging surface level examination of the conflict cultural heritage and duty to the society as a whole can cause.