FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead
Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s brand of filmmaking has been aptly described as “Hitchcock without the melodrama.” He also avoids neat conclusions, preferring ambiguity and the provocation of uncertainty so that his films clatter endlessly around your brain afterward. You may remember the eerie Hidden (Caché) where he depicted the increasingly taut relationship between a Parisian couple secretly being videoed at home by someone unknown, who then sends them copies of the tapes.
Haneke’s latest, The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte), out in Vancouver on January 15, is again deep in tense mystery, this time in a small village in North Germany just before the start of World War One.
On the surface, the staunchly religious village seems peaceful and orderly, but a series of ugly and inexplicable crimes shake the community: a doctor falls off his horse, apparently tripped by a rigged wire. The son of the local baron is found beaten. A barn is burned down. With no indication as to who is behind these disturbing incidents, a cloud of suspicion begins to permeate the village.
The film is narrated by a mild-mannered village schoolteacher who, as an old man, remembers the events as the war approached. His narration provides a welcome warmth of tone, capturing the day-to-day tempo of rural life as well as his young romance with a nanny at the baron’s estate. But Haneke’s major thematic pre-occupation here is with subtly rooting out unsettling aspects of human nature. As the film delves deeper into the nature of the community, there is the suggestion that this is how seeds of fascism are sown.
The White Ribbon won the Palme D’Or, top prize at Cannes, this past summer and has since picked up many more awards and nominations. It’s an impressive looking film, with its fastidious attention to period detail and its crisp black and white cinematography; it was actually shot in colour and then converted to black and white in post-production to create its super-sharp look. The film is in German with English subtitles.
Director Jon Amiel’s Creation, opening in Vancouver on January 22, is another film with an untypical take on a major historical landmark – the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin is played by British actor Paul Bettany (the botanically-minded ship’s doctor inMaster and Commander: The Far Side of the World), who, racked with grief and guilt after losing his nine-year-old daughter to illness, is struggling to complete his seminal work. He is also intimately aware of the consequences of unleashing a theory that will “kill God.” The clash of evolutionist and creationist worldviews are framed within Darwin’s relationship with his God-fearing and increasingly estranged wife, played by Jennifer Connelly (Bettany’s real-life wife).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the subject, Creation has received mixed reviews thus far: praise for the performances and the tone of the drama; criticism for the lack of hard philosophical and scientific ideas and for suggesting that the death of his daughter had held him back.
The Sundance Film Festival kicks off on January 21. Among this year’s shorts line-up are three National Film Board of Canada animations:Runaway, Vive la Rose and Rains. So far, only trailers are on the NFB site (nfb.ca), but the archive has two entertaining earlier works by one of the filmmakers, Cordell Barker. The Cat Came Back (1988, 7 min.) and Strange Invaders (2001, 8 min.) were both Oscar-nominated and may have you laughing in recognition at what it’s like when a cat or baby turns your life upside-down.