Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

No One’s Son: the full impact of Post Traumatic Stress in Ostojic and Matisic’s film, Niciji sin

No one’s Son, (Niciji sin, in Croatian) is a powerful film that breaks new ground telling an old story. It is about the memory of war, and the bitter reality of post-war society. It was directed by Arsen Ostojic, with a screenplay by Mase Matisic, based on his play.

The director uses a dynamic, ticking clock style for his narrative that was perfected by masters like Hitchcock and Tarantino. Lately it has become a trademark of some very high quality films that have come out of Serbia: films like Klopka, directed by Srdan Golubovic and The Fourth Man, directed by Dejan Zecevic. Now perhaps it has become something of a regional style, with this Croatian film achieving the same level of excellence. It is a great change from the usual Croatian fare of nostalgic escapism to the land of Tito or to some Dalmatian village, on the one hand, or the nihilistic, gratuitous violence of films about skinheads and mafiosi on the other. Though at first it may look like the latter, the story quickly moves far deeper into the psychology of the characters, as the enigmatic and twisted story unravels.

It begins with a home video clip of a headbanger rock band rehearsing in the year preceding war. This is cut off abruptly by images of a soldier running away from exploding bombs. This soldier is the singer from that rock group, Ivan, played by Alen Liveric. He is next seen in the post-war present, a drunk veteran with manic eyes, singing a particularly hated Chetnik (Serbian warrior) song in a Croatian bar – an extremely provocative act. He refuses to stop, and the police are called in to take the cursing, abusive drunk to jail to sober up. Little by little the action reveals that he is in a wheelchair, that his father is a politician, that there is a dead body on the floor in his parent’s home, and that his parents drag the body out into the rain and bury it in the forest.

Then for the next hour, the story unfolds, shedding layer after layer of deception, revealing more and more of the animosity and greed that have poisoned even the best of intentions. The tension builds immediately, pushed on by the incessant droning soundtrack that has been used before so effectively in those Serbian films. It is compounded by the multiple lies that keep the story elements constantly out of sync: even the prostitutes are frauds. The tension doesn’t let up until the very last scene, when Ivan’s son opens a mysterious door, and the viewer wonders whether he will be spared the horror of war or be confronted by it in the most traumatic way.

One of the things that make this film special is the ingenious screenplay. The setting incorporates the cynicism of modern nationalistic politics with the insidious chronic infections of wartime hatreds and pre-war communist era corruption. There’s room for all kinds of villains here, Serbian and Croatian, who spread their evil with malicious vigor. Post Traumatic Stress is not only for war veterans, it is for the society as a whole, but the PSTD of the story’s protagonist, who has returned from a Serbian POW camp without legs, is especially gripping. Mate Matisic is one of the most successful playwrights in Croatia, and the depth of his writing is very evident in this work.

Arsen Ostojic

It took me over a year to see this film, so now I look forward to going even further back in time to 2004 to see Ostojic’s other film, Ta divna Splitska noc, A Wonderful Night in Split, which was written by the director. It seems that Arsen Ostojic enjoys upending the clichés of Croatian cinema, so if the title of this film makes one expect the usual bucolic escapism, this should not be taken for granted. People who have seen it have spoken of its innovative style and ironic, engaging storyline focusing on the dark side of the city’s nightlife. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been seen much outside of festivals. Hopefully, No one’s son will spark interest in this director’s work and give him the opportunity to display his talents for a wider audience.

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January 10, 2010 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ladrones: Thieves, 2007. Ballesta and Valverde try just a little too hard to steal hearts.

Film directed by Jaime Marquez, (2007). Alex is lost in plain sight. After watching, as a young boy, as his

Maria Valverde

Maria Valverde

Juan Jose Ballesta

Juan Jose Ballesta

mother is arrested before his eyes on the metro, he grows up in an orphanage. Now grown, he finds himself out, alone, with nothing but his secret skill, and the dummy in his closet. This odd element in the story lets us know that this film is striving to be something more than its timeworn formulas might suggest. The dummy is a practice dummy for keeping his pickpocketing skills sharp, but we can see from the interaction of the youthful and handsome Alex (played by Juan José Ballesta) that it is much more than that to him, it is his only link to human affection. And the only way that he can engage it is to pick its pocket.

So he goes out on the streets to use his skills. It’s an original method to pick up a girl: pick her pocket. But when you’re this good looking, even the cheesiest pickup lines will work. And he knew how to choose: the only language that he knows is the language of deception, and like hearing your native language across a crowded room, he has found his kindred spirit. He cannot stop himself from stealing and now he has no reason to stop. He gets her hooked little by little. When he feels the pockets of the dummy in the closet, as she, in a cutaway scene, feels her face and body in the clothing she has stolen, their kinship becomes clear. The film is more a play of body language than of dialog, and for the most part, the skill and physicality of these two fine young actors makes it work. When their lips graze as he teaches her to lift wallets, perhaps that’s laying it on a bit thick, but no matter, it’s good theater, and entertaining choreography.

Much film time is spent on these shadow play scenes, and while they are beautifully directed, it seems that they may have come at the expense of some needed storytelling. Alex’s quest for his mother could use more space to spread out. It seems that the dummy is also a link to his mother’s affection, and his search for her is an underlying obsession that moves the story toward an inevitable tragedy. However, the integration of this with his Sara story is a bit awkward, so that when he does find his mother, we have to remind ourselves what the connection is. She is a prostitute, and the experience gives Alex hesitation, which happens to be the kiss of death for any pick-pocket’s career. When he realizes what is happening, Alex crudely snatches a woman’s purse to fill his need, but he gets no high from this, and he goes on a self destructive binge. The plot points are a bit too formulaic to be effective, but here Ballesta saves the day, giving his character just enough expressiveness to make it real.

The sequences are dreamlike, the music smooth and ethereal, giving this moody film a feeling of narcotic tragedy. The actions play out at night or in darkened interiors, as though we are seeing vampires, and indeed when Alex finally does leave traces of blood we finally see his humanity. He breaks into Sara’s house and when he enters her bedroom there is no need for words, the seduction and the violation are one.

It’s a story of seduction, addiction, and entrapment. Now she is following him, just as he followed her, and just as he had followed his mother. But it’s not the same, they have been touched by love and that has spoiled everything.

Juan Jose Ballesta has been playing this type of character in films for several years now, and he has refined his performance to a impressive realism. Both he and Valverde are very convincing and subtle actors. The story is an imperfect parable, but movingly played, making the easily seduced in the audience, myself included, forget about the otherwise annoying gaps and borderline clichés.

See Also: 7 Virgins.

May 31, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment

While Rachel’s getting married, Anne Hathaway is running away with the film.

Thessaloniki FF

Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme, is a convincing melodrama about a family in a constant state of rebuilding and self destruction. The film has a first-feature-film quality about it, at times like a high quality home movie, at times self indulgent like a European film d’auteur and these conceits can detract from the whole. However, the stellar performance by Anne Hathaway carries the story along, and is the unrelenting focus of this work. This is a familiar premise: a far flung family comes together for the wedding of the good daughter, Rachel, all the time fearing the return of the black sheep. The latter is played by Anne Hathaway. She is Kym Buchman who has been released from rehab just in time to come home to a house bustling with happy prenuptial activity – just the kind of activity guaranteed to bring out the self-destructive and resentful instincts of the girl. Hathaway plays the character with demonic energy and spot on accuracy, sending shivers of recognition through the viewer with her first utterances. We have all known people like Kym Buchman, but if we are not related to them, we tend to push them out of our consciousness as quickly as possible. Here we are forced to look Kym in the face, hear her words and

Click image for video clip and interview

Click image for video clip and interview

understand her anguish. It is one of the great powers of cinema to make us do this, and Demme uses his skills and long years of experience to bring it out so effortlessly, in the service of an intelligent and intense script by Jenny Lumet. The film has its problems which inevitably detract from the effect. There are times that the cinema verité quality can be overbearing, the arrival at home by Kym in which the camera flows nervously from room to room becomes tiresome, as does an extended sequence later in the film centered around a dishwasher. What I found most distracting, however, were the cultural implications of what was going on. This was a film about a marriage, one of the most characteristic events in the sociological construct of a culture. Whole books of anthropology have been written about the marriage customs of various peoples around the world, because the rituals reveal so much about the relationship of individuals in the group. To be sure, there are scenes in this film where marriage customs are used to bring the story forward, for example, some toasts at the dinner table, and when Kym fights to be Maid of Honor, but in general, the marriage rituals depicted in this film are strangely alien and difficult to decipher. This is a family that is ruthlessly and maniacally multi-cultural: the bride, played masterfully by Rosemarie DeWitt, is white and blonde, the groom a dark skinned black man from Hawaii. The dresses for the bride and bridesmaids are saris, and the ceremonies are a mad pastiche of borrowed customs thrown together incoherently, including just about anything that could be dreamed up except the upper middle class Judeo-Christian rituals that one might expect. This obsessive foreignness in itself seemed to be of significance, implying some kind of self-denial, some fleeing from the self that this family is enacting, yet the strangeness of this wedding is never discussed, and is presented as though completely normal. It is as though one of the guests at the wedding had arrived dressed as Napoleon, and nobody even noticed. What’s more, the situation seemed forced at times. At one point it is revealed the bride, Kym’s absolutely-perfect older sister, is already pregnant. When this news comes out, her father breaks into immediate gleeful cheering, and rushes to embrace his daughter and prospective son-in-law, i.e., the black man whom he has just met that has knocked up his daughter. It just doesn’t ring true. These oddities seem to be a missed opportunity to give the family more depth and nuance. Yes, we just elected Obama as president, but we haven’t gotten to the Promised Land just yet, and Mr. Buchman could have at least stepped back a moment to reassess the situation. Other characterizations are also left to wither on the vine. Kym’s new love interest, the Best Man Kieran, played by Mather Zickel, is never developed satisfactorally. However, the most important element in the story is Anne Hathaway’s character, and this person is presented with great skill and nuance. I left the cinema wondering about the implications of her actions on the family, and that is a testiment to the efficacy of this performance.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , | Leave a comment

This is England. Gritty UK drama is a winner at Sarajevo, 2007

Sarajevo FF, 200

In case you think “TeenArena” means all fun and games and gyrating teenyboppers all in a row, the choice for this year’s TeenArena award will come as a wonderful surprise. The main players are young, in their teens or twenties, indeed, the lead role is played by a thirteen year old, but they have all been brutally thrown into an adult world. This film is maturely intelligent, meaningful and truly worthwhile for audiences of all ages.

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May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , | Leave a comment

Into the Wild. How to Succeed by breaking all the Rules. A film review

Into the Wild, A film by Sean Penn. 2007.
Based on the journals of a young Emory University graduate who went to live in the Alaskan wilderness only to succumb to the natural forces around him, this powerful and beautiful film succeeds in the most unusual ways.
It is long, 148 minutes, with a complicated time line that goes back and forth erratically. It has an inordinate amount of voiceover, and printover, and takes place largely on an old rusty bus sitting in a field in Alaska.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment