WORLD CINEMA GRAB-BAG: Graduation, Frantz, El Pastor, and After The Storm

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
A rundown estate; shabby, grey blue tower blocks; a cement roadways; a patch of grass; off-screen someone digs.

We never discover who is digging or why, nor who’s responsible for the rock that flies through a living room window that same grey morning. Dad Romeo (Adrien Titieni), heavyset and rumpled, can march out into the street still in his dressing gown, mouth full of toothpaste, toothbrush still in hand, but sometimes there are no answer.

This is the first, and probably least, of a few crimes that befall the Aldeni family in Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation: another rock, this time through a car window; an assault on their student daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus). The police, if not exactly casual in their approach, do seem to have more pressing concerns. It just so happens that Romeo, a well-regarded doctor, is a position to address some of those concerns, and he too needs a favour.

Eliza has underperformed on a crucial exam, which could cost her a bursary to study abroad. It sounds like an easy enough problem to fix, but how far is he willing to go; like securing a kidney transplant for the Deputy Mayor, who may be able to bend the rules in her favour.

It’s a tragic irony that, in order to get his daughter out of Romania, Romeo becomes part of the same low-level corruption that makes her escape to the UK so desirable to him; the same insidious, informal, interpersonal quid pro quo that led he and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) to leave the country in their youth; the same sort of go-along-to-get-along attitude they hoped would be swept away with the death of Ceaușescu.

Magda is careworn – always ill, always smoking, depressed; a situation with which Romeo stolidly puts up with. That being said, he’s not quite as uncompromised as his reputation might suggest. For one, he’s in the midst of a long-term affair with one of Eliza’s teachers; a former patient to boot. How do you keep your integrity, though, in a land where the police first learn about road fatalities third-hand, from an officer’s funeral director relative who pays the ambulance service for tip-offs, and who do you blame when everyone is in on the act?

Mungiu’s film shows us how even the best of us can gradually surrender our principles in the face of injustice and indifference. The title refers as much as his graduation towards corruption as his daughter’s impending departure – a state of affairs about which she is deeply ambivalent. As Romeo’s ailing mother points out, if all the idealistic young people leave then who will be left to change things?

Mungiu captures all the shadings of this state in decay – both moral and, in the case of the urban degradation, quite literal – with clarity, detailing how even the best of us can gradually surrender our principles in the face of an unfair world. There’s always a humane reason to make an exception or bend a rule. After all, if everyone’s guilty then no one is.

Both tragic and mundane, Graduation offers no easy answers to difficult social problems and, in the end, isn’t that sort of the point?

Graduation is available now on DVD and BluRay and for rental


3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)
A small pink flower on a delicate green bough, sat atop a mountain; behind it, the grey townscape in rural Germany.

The year is 1919. The bell has scarcely tolled on the end of the First World War and the whole nation is in mourning for the dead.

Among the victims, the eponymous Frantz. His fiancée Anna (Paula Beer) travels the pleasant cobbled streets of Quedlinburg each morning to lay flowers on his grave. One day she arrives to find that flowers have already been lain. It’s then she learns of the Frenchman, Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Ninney), who claims to have known Frantz in Paris.

A loose remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-war drama Broken LullabyFrantz is a story of absence: absence of one young man among a generation of young men; absence of joy, absence of colour. French auteur François Ozon’s film is shot in crisp yet subtle black and white into which colour – deep, sumptuous, heartbreaking colour – sometimes seeps.

It’s there in the stories that Adrien tells to Anna and to Frantz’s parents – the plump, careworn housewife Magda (Marie Gruber) and wary, hollow-cheeked physician Hans (Ernst Stötzner). We see in flashback, vivid as fantasy, Adrien and Frantz wandering the halls of the Louvre, whose cream walls, even if not bedecked with masterpieces, would be worthy of comment under Pascal Marti’s César Award-winning cinematography .

Later, dancing in close proximity – Andre in a sumptuous blue suit; Frantz in a razor-sharp check – they can’t seem to take their eyes off each other. The subtext is obvious; the actual truth is more complex.

The monochrome present, meanwhile, seems to hold no such promise. The lovelorn Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), ginger and balding, with his wounded leg, presents himself to Anna as a replacement for Frantz; promising to help her forget. But forgetting is not on anyone’s mind – not the black-garbed, white-bearded old men who sit in the beer halls and curse the French for the loss of their sons, nor the drunk that, even while being lent a helping hand, pushes Adrien away and spits at him.

It’s only away from the city, in memory or in dreams, or on the rare occasion that Adrien can bring himself to pick up his violin, that colour seeps slowly back into frame. It’s in these moments, away from the quiet, painterly, grey, that Frantz truly comes alive.

Yves Saint Lauren, with his youthful, androgynous beauty – high cheekbones and wide, haunted eyes – has an almost comically tragic cast to his features. Paul Beer, meanwhile, with her thin, pale face, freckled nose, and full lips, has a touch of Virginia Cherrill about her. There’s the mechanical, almost Chaplinesque with which she operates a water pump, the request she makes for white flowers (a joke in itself in a film whose palette offers few options); which I can’t help but remember, inaccurately I’m sure, as being printed on an inter-title.

A far cry from the transgressive cinema du corps in which Ozon built his reputation, here in the end the moral seems to be that, away from such grand themes as death, redemption, and moral culpability, there’s the simple hope that, if we can’t recapture the happiness that once we had under different circumstances, that maybe we can find it anew.

Frantz is now showing in cinemas around the UK


El Pastor
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
Is there any genre seemingly bound to so particular landscape that’s proven as versatile as the Western?

In the case of El Pastor, the battle of individualism against greed is transferred to the rugged pastoral countryside of modern-day Spain.

Anselmo (Miguel Martin) is a shepherd; indeed the shepherd of the title. Ruddy and strong-featured, he lives in the middle of a field outside of town, in a large stone shed with a corrugated roof. His only source of warmth is the wood-burning stove. His only constant companion is his shepherd dog Pillo. It’s a hard life – waking at dawn, not returning home till dusk – but one full of beauty.  The rocky, seeming inhospitable scrubland is utterly dwarfed by a vast expanse of sky.

Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s film – which he wrote, directed, edited, and on which he also served as DOP – locates in these images of unexpected natural grandeur exactly why Anselmo might spurn an easier life; such as the one offered to him, unexpectedly, by two developers, who want to buy him out and build a “community project” on the land.

They offer to pay him far more than his land is practically worth, but Anselmo has no use for the money. His expenses are almost non-existent; apart from his habitual evening drink at the local bar – more a living room – and the occasional purchase of shotgun shells.

While in more typical genre fare the would-be land barons might hire a gang of black-hats to drive Anselmo off, El Pastor instead focuses on the impact of his refusal on the local community. None of them get paid unless the recalcitrant shepherd agrees to sell up.

Gentle nudging quickly gives way to frustration. The vulgar Paco (Juan Luis Sara) dismisses him as “a retard”; though the friendly local librarian Concha (Maribel Iglesias), from who Anselmo collects his diet of Dickens and artist’s biographies, would no doubt disagree. In his defence, Paco is under pressure from wife, whose demands for a new stove – presumably a far difference appliance from the one on which Anselmo heats his morning coffee – suggest more fundamental problems in their marriage.

The seemingly more collected Julian (Alfonso Mendiguchia) is, despite shows of munificence, on the verge of losing his slaughterhouse. A series of inserts of hanging meat-hooks and other gleaming, antiseptic equipment during a guided tour he gives to Anselmo contrasts with similar shots of the shepherd’s bucolic homestead with its hanging onions and cafetière. While he concedes to Julian’s persuasive points about his age and future wellbeing, his promises to buy up the flock at cost – if only to turn them into dog food – Anselmo is an immovable object; and so frustration in turn gives way to anger.

When Anselmo himself finds a billboard has been erected nearby, promising “Fields of tranquillity and beauty for you and your family”, even he is stirred to act. The fields, with their lemon-yellow grass or deep ochre earth, and all that accompanies them, the cacophony of sheep bells, the rising dust and buttercup, are, after all is. You cannot help but realise, though, that Anselmo, driving his flock across freeway bridges, is a man out of time, and so anger leads inevitably on to violence.

It’s only its climax that El Pastor surrenders to the tropes of the genre that inspired it; socioeconomic fable giving way to something far less dramatically satisfying. The Old West was plenty bleak and bloody. Is it wrong to hope for more from the enlightened new one?

El Pastor is now showing in cinemas across the UK


After The Storm
4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)
Are any of us precisely who we dreamed of being?

When we are young and naive, it can all seem like plain sailing ahead. That is until life buffets in, driving us slowly, inexorably, off course.

In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After The Storm, the storm is a literal presence whose gradual approach towards suburban Tokyo is periodically mentioned on the radio or else evident in the perennial heat.

The elderly Yoshiko Shinoda (Kirin Kiki), however, is not one to complain. Living in a cramped housing complex, she’s more or less resigned to her lot in life; having long since given up on her dream of spending her declining years in more upmarket accommodation.

The blame for this falls, fairly or not, on her grownup son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe); a onetime prize-winning novelist turned seedy private investigator.

Tanned and rangy, with dark eyes and an evasive smile, his infrequent returns home are only partly motivated by a sense of duty. No sooner is he in the door – and admittedly having rooted through the drawers in search of tickets, pawn and lottery alike – than Yoshiko, without pausing in unpacking her shopping, asks offhandedly if he needs money.

He does, of course; not that he’d ever admit it to her.

A former child prodigy, Ryota it seems has spent his adult life distractedly chasing a dream. No sooner does he have the money to pay his demure, distant ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) child support than he’s risking it down the cycle track, screaming through the chain-link fence that “You gotta go for it!”. It inevitably ends with him “borrowing” money from his bemused younger associate. An all-or-nothing guy who’s ended up with closer to nothing, Ryota hates frugality – like the home-made “ice cream” his mother keeps in the freezer – and refuses to compromise.

No discounted, damaged rice cakes for him and only the most expensive cleats for his pragmatic young son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa) – when he can afford it, that is. Unable to pay child support, yet again, he’s left with no other option than to spy on Shingo’s Little League game from the neighbouring car park with a pair of binoculars.

To get any face-time he’s forced to follow him into a restaurant toilet, having stalked Kyoko to a dinner with her new boyfriend. Just as the boyfriend sees Ryoto as untrustworthy – and whom Ryoto in turn sees a gauche, salad-scoffing interloper – so too does Ryoto’s sister Chinatsu (Satobi Kobayashi), who sees in him the shadow of their shyster father.

Ryoto’s reckless lifestyle, meanwhile – his belief in lottery tickets, for instance, as a possible solution to all life’s problems – threatens to rub off on the otherwise pragmatic Shingo. Buoyed by Ryota’s stories of childhood adventures, it’s suggested this could lead to tragedy.

Kore-eda’s script is so detailed and subtle, however, that you empathise with Ryota – or at least understand him; even when he’s shaking down cheating wives or defiant students. Yutaka Yamasaki’s cinematography, both washed-out and shadowy, is evocative of film noir; though Hanaregumi’s whistling score has a winningly aimless quality.

After The Storm is a paean to coming to terms with life’s disappointments and with it your own limitations. Sometimes you don’t get to hit a home run. Sometimes you just have to walk it.

After The Storm is now showing in cinemas across the UK


Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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