My reviews of the arthouse slate:
The top 2 are in my all-time top 100.
Malmkrog / Manor House (2020, Cristi Puiu)
Daunting, dark and verbose - Manor House may just be scaring away audiences with its 201-minute runtime and promise/threat of non-stop philosophy and theology on screen. Sparse in setting and exposition, the action takes place entirely within and outside a large estate, the titular Manor House, as the residing couple and their guests - all members of the ruling class - enjoy an elaborate Christmas dinner. Throughout the evening engage in in-depth discussions of Christianity, war, politics, morals, enlightenment, good and evil.
One thing that is slowly intriguing is the quiet craft of Cristi Puiu (best known for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu). He varies the style each scene is shot with a great degree of restraint and deliberation. The changes are subtle but vary from few cuts and a moving camera of full figures to scenes composed entirely of intimate close-ups, to restrained scenes from afar, with characters suddenly removed from their previous importance. Divided into 6 sections, each bearing a character's name, and often taking place in a singular room, such as the library, lounge or dining room, this nuanced filmmaking adds an additional sense of cinematic power, urgency and dynamism - ripe, in itself, with possible interpretations and implications.
It is tempting to draw a slightly misleading, but still accurate comparison to My Dinner with Andre, as both are films that build suspense and intrigue through dialogue, stories and discussion - but the tone and purpose of these films could hardly be further apart. However, where the more light-hearted 80s offering intends to make us lose ourselves in the stories and discussion of the two main characters, Manor House wishes the opposite. It actively wants us to observe from a distance, consider what they are saying, consider why and even consider the context we are placed in, and who it is making the arguments.
There are beautiful subtle touches just in the use of language. The action takes place in Russia (note, the film is Romanian and shot in Romania) but the common language of our 5 ruling class characters is French. When they speak to their servants, the language is often German. When they quote literature, it may indeed be English. These are not everyday Russians, but the ruling class - and their morals, values and arguments are often an example of their own privileged worldview and to advance their own interests, or simply their own ego or sense of self. Few scenes speak to this clearer than their discussion of Europe, and whether or not they are European. There is a clear disdain for the majority of the population from most of the participants and in general, the discussions are purely theoretical and consists of pretentious posturing quite removed from reality.
There are a few cold wake-up calls throughout the film, and a key shift already happens in act two, which is the only act with the name of a servant, rather than one of the 5 lead characters. Here, we see them continue their discussion, but obscured, the focus now on the servants around them - performing their menial tasks. There are even moments of humour here, as we see what happens behind the scenes, and the splendour of our leads become cemented in their appropriate context. There is also another event, which I will not spoil, which changes much of what we see afterwards.
There may also be interesting contrasts between the intention of the book itself, written by 19th-century philosopher Vladimir Solovyov and released posthumously as "War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ" aka "War and Christianity". While Solovyov's work (which I have not read) has been deemed prophetic, this adaptation feels ghostly - like spectres of the old world. Talks of the future can be looked at not just in their then reality, but in what we know of the wars that would break out and the events that have happened in the 120+ years since the book was first written.
Regardless of intention, and this is indeed left very open to interpretation - the face of the old world, coupled with tense lighting, excellent and subdued performances and striking dialogue make Manor House an increasingly engrossing, if not chillingly unnerving experience. It is a dense film, possibly a difficult film, but also a thoroughly immersive experience if you are of the right mindset. Despite our protagonists often being seated or standing still, Manor House can only be described as an active film - and no, this is not a contradiction. It asks you to actively engage in what you see - to make judgments and assessments - and try to reach your own conclusions and interpretations. If this sounds like your type of film, I can not recommend it enough. If not, it may be better to let it rest. 10/10
Unrueh / Unrest (2022, Cyril Schäublin)
Anarchism is visual serenity?
"Anarchism is order", symbolised by the famous AO, has long been one of the slogans and basic premises/goals of anarchism. In what could be been a biography of one of the key anarchist theorists, Pyotr Kropotkin, this premise is taken into the form and narrative of the film itself. Composed with utter serenity and precision, and depicting, if not serenity (rather faux serenity) then certainly precision, Unrest is a dare to explore history through ideas, concepts, labour and indeed precision itself as opposed to being driven by its characters or a story. While Kropotkin, or perhaps the potential love interest in the form of Anarchist watchmaker Josephine, could take shapes of protagonists, the film spends large portions of its time away from them, painting this peculiar historical portrait with few if any equals, and it is all done through the magic of cinematic form, but before we breakdown the form, let's look at the story.
We are informed in a short text that it was while visiting a small Swiss village mainly comprising of clockmakers and farmers that Pyotr Kropotkin became convinced of anarchism, and it is this visit and the town we will spend our time within and be captivated by. The title, "Unrest", fittingly refers to just this balance device that keeps clocks ticking, with the film itself dedicating a decent portion of its runtime to the process of the unrest's creation, often with stopwatches nearby to see just how many seconds said the process takes and if they match the factory's goals of increased production. This town is special in its high composition of anarchist activity, and yet, even with the political theory clearly spread, everything, up to and including the owner of the factory and core power broker appears to be "harmonious", there is simply no "unrest", and this is where we can return to the contradictions in play, and indeed the compositions.
What is unique with the framing is how it treats people in relation to their surroundings, often placing those we may view as our key characters in the corners of the frames, presenting a visual equality and more interestingly, promoting the time, place and community/collective as more central to its storytelling. In close-ups, characters speak almost as if speaking directly to the viewers in the clearest, pure and simple fashion, while the broader compositions feel more lyrical, almost like serene paintings.
You may by this think that Unrest is a poetical, philosophical or perhaps theoretical exercise, and it may indeed be all three, but beyond beauty and serenity, Schäublin manages to introduce a great degree of humour, through contrast. Everyone is polite, and no one wants to break the serenity, even the policemen smile and wish people a good day, and get it back in return as they keep voters away from the ballot boxes. Everything is formal and everyone is obsessed with time, indeed it is a town with 4 times, each equally valid and involved in an almost ideological battle of precision - and this precision runs through every image we see and every confrontation and encounter. The power of the factory owner is supreme and merciless, but it is done with a polite smile, with everyone expected to act accordingly in any and all events. It is a rather exceptional construction for this alone.
The opening, with Kropotkin's extended family/friends in Russia discussing him and his newfound beliefs is absolutely fascinating, in part because they provide so much exposition, even direct ideological exposition to what anarchism is (federalism as opposed to nationalism/statism) is rather exceptional in how it "gets away" with such exposition, along with showcasing parts of Kropotkin's romantic nature, while still feeling fitting within the very carefully composed style - and even ties in with the photograph obsession/trading we see as a recurring motif in the Swiss village.
I would be tempted to say that Schäublin's purpose in this harmony, and serenity is to still showcase a degree of clarity for the audience to grasp and put into context. While harmonious we still see power and power imbalance based on ownership, the plight of the workers, the ideas of ararchism presented clearly and what it confronts presented clearer still. Intriguingly, at the very end we are treated to something far more dreamlike, or should we say poetically than what we have seen before, opening up new possibilities, yet still feeling so fitting with what we have seen pass before. 9.5/10
Dal pianeta degli umani / From the Planet of the Humans (2021, Giovanni Cioni)
From the Planet of the Humans stars by explaining what it is in seemingly contradictory terms. It is set in the present, and the past, it is entirely fictional, but based on true events... As the shake handheld camera starts to take us through woodland trails and the streets of a border town a narrator tells a story of refugees, be they of the era of Fascism or of present times, and the tale of a Jewish doctor experimenting on rejuvenation by implanting animal testicle on men. The contemporary photage soon starts to be intercut with archival photagh and clips from films, as the narrative builds up. The end result is a strange but intruiging fairytale, that, while the main focus of the film shys a little bit away from its most hard hitting themes, remain captivating from start to finish. A yarn for the ages, shot and presenting in the style of essayist cinema, that is simply perfect for our arthouse slate. 8/10
Dasatskisi / Beginning (2020, Dea Kulumbegashvili)
Beginning paints a very stark and bleak look at prejudice, hatred, oppression, etc. both aimed towards and from within Jehova's Witnesses - but it did feel a little unfocused and rough around the edges (it's a debut feature). The colours are beautiful, and many of the punches are extremely unnerving, but its thoughts also seemed a little scattered. All-in-all a very strong debut, with haunting long takes (every shot is static) and I'm really looking forward to seeing future efforts from Dea Kulumbegashvili. 7/10