The Wild Pear Tree (2018)
Written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, & Akın Aksu
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The word “epic” is often associated with films & stories that span the globe and put the character up against a cosmic conflict. However, I argue that writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree is an epic, but one about humanity and specifically finding meaning in one’s life. The film is just over three hours long, and it does feel lengthy while watching it. But what happens on screen is not some dour contemplative proceeding, but a genuinely funny while emotionally charged experience. The cinematography is glorious, the director knowing how to frame mundane details with profundity.
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Woman at War (2018)
Written by Benedikt Erlingsson and Ólafur Egilsson
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
One of the biggest challenges of modernity is figuring out how to live a life while still fighting against an increasingly insidious and destructive system that is breaking down our environment. It’s becoming impossible to deny that the planet is under extreme duress and that environmental collapse is imminent in the next few decades if drastic changes aren’t implemented soon. How do we function in our jobs, with our families, and as part of communities while this grim specter of species doom hangs over our heads? Halla is a woman who has taken the defense of the environment to an extreme but now faces a choice that challenges who she has become.
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Birds of Passage (2018)
Written by Maria Camila Arias & Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, Cristina Gallego, and Ciro Guerra
Directed by Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra
Colombia is a Central American country that has sadly come to be associated with the cocaine industry of the 1980s. Lost in the greed and violence that came out of the black market drug trade were diverse and vibrant cultures. Birds of Passage follows a family of Wayuu, an indigenous people, who get caught up in the first sprouts of that brutal blight that came to Colombia because of wealthier countries’ desire for drugs. While this story takes place on the dusty plains and humid jungles, the core of the tale is something that is timeless and has been popping up in literature for centuries. Birds of Passage is in many ways Shakespearean, a tragedy fueled by greed with no foresight.
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Oslo, August 31st (2011)
Written & Directed by Joachim Trier
Anders is recovering from years of drug addiction. He’s two weeks out from finishing treatment and then having to leave the rehab center. To help him make this transition, he’s granted a trip out for the night which ends with him hooking up with an old flame. On the way back to the center he unsuccessfully tries to drown himself. In the light of the new day, he prepares to head into Oslo for a job interview. Before succumbing to drugs, Anders was a writer for newspapers and magazines but doesn’t feel a strong desire to return to that. He stops by the house of some old friends before the interview, ends up calling a lost love’s phone only to get voicemail, and is ghosted by his sister when she sends her girlfriend to talk with him at a cafe. Despite the strides he’s made, Anders feels the past traps him.
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Written by Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
The Alps are a secret society of four weirdos who provide a strange service for people. If someone has lost a loved one a member of the Alps will learn everything they can about the deceased and recreate them for a fee, acting out moments from their life. One member, The Nurse has been spending time playing the role of a lighting shop owner’s wife and has crossed a line of intimacy while still playing her part. At her day job, she meets a young girl who was injured in a car accident. Eventually, the young girl dies and The Nurse volunteers to play her for her parents, while not informing the rest of the Alps of what she is doing. The Nurse becomes absorbed in this life, experiencing a kind of family she did not have and even becoming intimate with the dead girl’s boyfriend.
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A Separation (2011)
Written & Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Simin and Nader’s marriage has reached a turning point. Simin wants to leave Iran while her husband wants to stay because of his ailing father, suffering from Alzheimer’s. Simin is adamant that their daughter Termeh be given opportunities that cannot be provided for her in Iran. As an act of protest, Simin separates herself and lives with her family waiting for Nader to at least allow Termeh to leave with her. Nader is forced to hire a housekeeper and nurse for his father during the days and settles on Razieh, a deeply religious young woman with a daughter. Razieh becomes distressed when she must change Nader’s father after he soils himself but keeps coming into work because her husband is in significant amounts of debt. One day a series of events transpire that lead Nader to believe Razieh stole money from his bedroom and left his father tied to a bed. An argument ensues with tragic consequences that will resonant within the lives of all people involved.
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Written by Eskil Vogt & Joachim Trier
Directed by Joachim Trier
Thelma grew up in a fiercely sheltered and religious home. Now she’s eighteen and attending university, out on her own for the first time. Most of her days are spent trekking from class to class and then in her apartment alone, eating dinner. This changes when she meets Anja, a fellow student that has concerns for Thelma after witnessing one of her seizures. The women begin an intense friendship which suddenly takes a turn for the serious after some wishful thinking on the part of Thelma. Questions arise about what is causing Thelma’s headaches and seizures and what happened in her childhood home years prior. The revelation of these things will shake the foundation of this woman’s life forever.
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The Untamed (2016)
Written & Directed by Amat Escalante
In a cabin in the woods, far from the city, live an old scientist and his wife. Inside their barn, they house something fantastic and terrific. But if that’s where you think the film will spend most of its time, then you are wrong. After a teasing opening sequence, shot with beautiful horror, we follow Veronica, a young woman enthralled with the thing in the barn. Veronica is injured after an encounter and meets nurse Fabian. She introduces Fabian to this same object of pleasure and revulsion. Fabian’s sister, Alejandra is married and dealing with the increasing drudgery of domestic life and the distance of her husband Angel. Angel is secretly having an affair with Fabian behind his wife’s back, but the latter breaks it off after feeling his devotion grow to the thing. It becomes very apparent that this story will only end tragically.
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While Mustang takes place in modern day Turkey it is a story that could happen at any time and almost any place. Five adolescent sisters suddenly have their lives changes when their guardians: their grandmother and uncle, decide they are becoming corrupted by secularism. They have everything that could provide them contact with the larger world taken away, from cell phones to laptops to clothes considered improper to makeup. They begin to seek out arranged marriages for the older girls and the imprisonment takes its toll on the girls.
Told from the perspective of the youngest, Lale, the film is made with a lot of confidence and skill. The camera is mostly handheld and conveys the youthful energy of its characters. Sunlight is also used quite effectively to act as a force that still connects the girls to the world. The subject matter could very easily lead to a bleak, hopeless film but director Erguven is able to sustain a sense of hope at the end of this nightmare. Each of the girls experiences the loss of their freedom in different and interesting ways.
When questioned on her wedding night on why she didn’t bleed after sex with her husband, the eldest sister finds it easier to just confess to having slept around with boys when no one listens to her explain she was a virgin. Another sister, seeing that an arranged marriage is inevitable, convinces her boyfriend to ask for her hand as a way to reclaim some of her freedom and choices. Choosing this story to be told through Lale’s eyes is perfect because it puts us at a disadvantage as it relates to the details. Like Lale, we have to try and figure out what is happening in the world as we go.
There have been some comparisons to the Sofia Coppola directed The Virgin Suicides, but beyond the very basics of the story, there is very little similarity. While The Virgin Suicides is told exclusively from the male perspective, Mustang a very intimate look at these young women’s lives. You gain a greater understanding of how each character is processing the experience rather than the broad strokes of Suicides.
The film must maintain a fine balance between the realism of its situation and refraining from despondency. There are moments in the latter half that are a shocking jolt in the midst of Lale’s dreams of escape. If there is a central message here it would be about the power of determination and will. Lale never resigns herself to the loss of her freedom. From the minute the girls are locked away, she is shaking the bars on windows, spying on locations of keys, and plotting an escape. The film has a quite a bit in common with films like The Shawshank Redemption and Escape from Alcatraz.
Filled with humor and joy, Mustang is a timeless story. It transcends any particular religious or geographic specifics and conveys an experience that is felt by women across the globe at varying levels of intensity. Societies seem to have a preoccupation with controlling the will of their female citizens, based on a fear of loss of control. Director Erguven states firmly that this type of energy is impossible to contain and through Lale she tells a story that gives hope to those who may feel like they have no more freedom.
Revanche (2008, dir. Götz Spielmann)
Starring Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Johannes Thanheiser, Hanno Pöschl
The desire to lash out in revenge against those you believe have wronged you is a deep and powerful urge in humanity. Particularly when the actions of another have caused great loss in your life. The issue of the death penalty bring up the philosophical questions of what we are entitled to when wronged in horrendous ways, and the fact that there is no end in sight to such a debate is proof of how nuanced and complex it is. Revanche, a 2008 Austrian film, takes on this debate and provides many more questions.
Alex is an ex-con, who has gotten romantically involved with Tamara, a Ukranian prostitute that works at the brothel where Alex is a handyman. The must keep their relationship secret from the brothel owner who has designs on turning Tamara into a sex slave for his higher end clients. Alex devises a plan to run away with Tamara, rob a bank, and live their days out in Ibiza. He has a perfect plan. Paul is a police officer who is uncomfortable with his sidearm and the way his fellow officers talk casually about shooting and killing perps. He happens to end up in front of a bank one morning and finds a woman sitting nervously in a car and praying to herself. Paul asks some questions and a tragedy occurs.
Revanche is about two men living in their personal Hells. Alex is torn apart by the loss in life following the bank robbery and Paul is equally shattered by the results of his actions. The two men’s lives become more and more entwined until the film’s climax which is surprisingly redemptive. The heart of the film is Alex’s grandfather, Hausner, a man living on a farm in the deep woods. He has just lost his wife and has not allowed it to crush his spirit. Hausner seeks out the simplicity of life, finding enjoyment a meal of bread and sausage and picking up his old accordion and remembering his youth. Hausner starts out as a convenience for Alex, a place to hideout but goes on to inform Alex on how he can cope with his loss.
Also central to the story is Susanne, Paul’s wife. She miscarried three months before the start of the film and even before Paul’s incident at the bank there is a distance between the two. Susanne ends up being an unofficial caretaker of Hausner, visiting with him in his home and accompanying him to church on Sundays. She develops a friendship with Alex that plays out in a very unlikely way and ends up binding Alex and Paul together forever. The way Revanche comes to its finale, a meeting between Alex and Paul by a pond in the woods, felt very atypical compared to what an American-ized version of this film would do. Despite its bleak and violent world, the film leaves us on a note of hope that we don’t have to be shackled to the pain of our pasts.