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October 6, 2022

The TIFF culture (II)

Political thriller or horror comedy, tragicomedy or retro melodrama – one can have all kind of polemics with actuality. With an often surprising inventiveness. Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado thought at an unconventional satire of the Israeli society: an intelligence officer, his father with military experience and a policeman bestially torture, in their ‘spare time,’ a suspected paedophile, a banal religion professor. Between two sessions of breaking bones or extracting nails, they behave normally, even tenderly, caught in the habits of everyday life. The scenes of torture are hard to watch, but apart that there is laughter like at a great comedy of behaviour (hyper-protective parents even at old age, small escapades, glutton passions, family tensions).
But `Big Bad Wolves` succeeds in being convincing through the allusion to a society marked by the long-lasting experience of violence, the anguish of unforeseeable threats, the obsession of preventing, even by the taste of vengeance.

The military experience (which is subtly alluded to on several occasion, such as hinting to the Lebanon conflict) and its methods seem to expand their presence in an apparently peaceful society, eroded not only by small dramas (like neglecting the child because of a conjectural adultery), but especially by a hyperbolised suspicion. Not by chance, the police chief is an obese, sign of a hypertrophy that is not only institutional. The ‘state tortures’ can be also evoked in a more classical manner, like in ‘The Attorney’ of Korean director Woo-seok Yang. A cupid lawyer disinterested by politics becomes involved, for the sake of friendship, in a trial set up by authorities in order to legitimise the anticommunist hysteria. An unexpected interior transformation turns him from a self-content profiteer into a civic militant that stands in the first ranks at protests. There are some comforting examples of heroism (beyond the emotional recourse to cliches) in relation to the overwhelming strength of a dictatorship, but the accent specific to the movie is the importance granted to the ‘normal’ mechanisms of conscience: gratitude, friendship, indignation, regret. When they weaken, the impact of politics changes too.
Closer to our political culture is the atmosphere of `Viva la liberta`, directed by Roberto Ando with a refined Toni Servillo in double role. The chief of a political party runs away as elections were closing in, prey to depression and a vocational crisis. He is replaced by his twin brother, a brilliant intellectual, but also a patient of mental institutions. At the antipode of the wooden rhetoric of his brother, but also of prudent self-censorship, the latter rapidly gains a surprising popularity, by using at rallies quotes from famous authors and conversing with his party colleagues through enigmatic haikus. Overtly criticising a general political failure, using a delicious philosophy in his public speeches, along with pretentious – but fresh – cultural references, the makeshift politician achieves a miracle of enthusiasm where his brother only saw political and interior tepidity. Beyond the obvious metaphor of politics that lost any appeal, with a detrimental autonomy from its cultural roots, the film raises the stake: what if, instead of tasteless speeches, politicians recited poems? What if they commented books, instead of opinion polls? What if they hummed a classic song instead of electoral anthems? Culture seems evicted to the level of a marginal consumption, of a luxury suitable for the spare time. And everything in the name of adaptability and mature responsibility. Because it remains ‘crazy’ to take culture much too seriously. Even if the scenario of the film is not always convincing, excessively relying on a continuous competition (also erotic) between twins and bringing on table too many existential plans (past loves and present ambiguities), the idea is seductive: replacing the political habits with cultural habits. In other words, once again taking culture seriously, not ideologically, but forging another everyday life.
But one can talk much more tragically about politics, although with a remarkable damper, in line of the recourse to the anachronism of black-white image. `Ida` by Pawel Pawlikowski is not only an exercise of plastic virtuosity, fit for a Vermeer of grey nuances, but also a unique way of speaking about a tragic history: Polish anti-Semitism in the context of the last world war. Some simply took profit from the German policy of hunting and exterminating Jews in order to get their homes and wealth. `Ida` is an artistic pendant to the book of Jan T. Groos,
`Neighbors`, a historic reconstruction of a massacre committed precisely by the Polish neighbours of the Jews. Ida is a survivor, raised at a nunnery, who completely ignores her past. And who discovers her identity due to an aunt, a remarkable character of communist magistrate without complexes. Her son had been killed together with Ida’s parents by a ‘neighbour’ whose father initially sheltered and fed them in the forest. The film superimposes this incursion in the past (through a visit to the old house) with a (dampened) one in the realities of communist Poland, but especially with a voyage of initiation, which precedes an existential act of renunciation (in favour of becoming a nun). If the aunt, torn by the failure of her political option and by the trauma of her son who died in such conditions (the peasant will unearth the bodies of those whom he had killed years ago), young Ida will accept the erotic experience before religiously renouncing an existence threatened to sink in the derisory. The well-tempered tragic mood of the film comes from this juxtaposition of the pale sense of life to the radical vulnerability of human relations.

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