Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Check out the Czechs and Greeks

Two more excellent dvds from Europe, via our beleaguered but still splendid city Library. First, though it hardly needs recommendation, especially after its initial, huge international success, an absolute milestone of Czech cinema – Milos Forman's superb picture from 1965, A Blonde In Love. Don't be put off by the iffy UK title: this modest, 81-minute B&W masterpiece is an unforgettable movie, so humane, quirkily funny and bitter-sweet about the thwarted dreams and expectations of young lovers. It proved a favourite with Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, Tom Milne and many other estimable cineastes and critics. As for director Forman, he progressed of course to Hollywood and a glittering career as an 'American' filmmaker, scooping in the process various Oscars for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. His colleague on ABIL, Ivan Passer, didn't do so badly either (see my earlier comments on Passer's terrific thriller Cutter's Way).

All in all, ABIL, a small-scale, perfectly realised and observant piece proved highly revealing and slyly satirical about Czech life under a repressive regime. (This was several years before the shortlived Prague Spring gave the ordinary unprivileged citizens a welcome glimmer of hope and temporary relief from their everyday struggle to exist.) If the film had not been such a prizewinner and runaway success both critically and commercially worldwide, Forman and his team might have found themselves in trouble with the homeland authorities.

But joyous subversion apart, there's just so much to enjoy: the eponymous teenage blonde Hana Brejchova (Forman's ex-sister-in-law) whose debut this was, gives a quite delightful performance, although performance is perhaps the wrong word for such a natural, poignant and attractive on-screen presence. Most of the amazingly well chosen cast were non-professionals, while the best-known actor, the male lead Vladimir Pucholt (another perfectly judged character) eventually moved to the UK, assisted by Lindsay Anderson and others. Pucholt, who had not been allowed to study medicine, his first love – apparently because of his suspect bourgeois background, or some such strange authoritarian pretext – moved again to Canada and became a paediatrician in Toronto. What a star, eh?! This sort of unusual honesty, a decent, anti-heroic, gently humane and good-humoured view of life suffuses the film: it's a touching, uplifting and at times hilarious work.

Not in this league, but very original and strangely affecting too, as well as humorous and unexpected, is Attenberg (dir. Athina Rachel Tsingari, 2010). As in ABIL, there's a stunning young actress, Ariane Labed, who won an award for her performance at the Venice Festival of 2010. Yorgos Lanthimos, director of an even odder, also recent Greek film called Dogtooth, plays one of the main roles, but it's all impeccably acted and directed. (In colour, almost inevitably these days – though as with the late great Angelopoulos, there's often mud, rain, factories, cheap hotels, dereliction and ugly concrete buildings – so sundrenched beaches etc don't actually get much of a look-in.)

Never mind, though: this weird, downbeat little tale of a virginal young woman trying to come to terms both with her father's terminal illness and her own inexperience confronting sex and mortality – let alone her own reclusiveness and problem with living in the 'real' world – has considerable fascination. It's eccentric and intriguing, but never boring… Labed's obsession with David Attenborough/'Attenberg' and his tv. studies of different species makes a strange and rather funny counterpoint to the glum confusion and manic girly behaviour depicted. Viewers may also learn, and perhaps be as outraged as we were, that the Greek Orthodox church does not allow cremation! Director Tsingari herself is very intelligent, and her comments (see the interview in the Extras) on this sort of social hypocrisy, and about her individual approach to directing the picture – referencing screwball comedy, buddy movies, rites of adulthood and much else, suggest she's a talent to watch. But… given the current Greek crisis… who will step forward to finance her next film? Fingers crossed.

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