Aferim! [2015] – A Riotously Funny Journey into the Roots of Racial Inequality

                                          There is a certain kind of authenticity and outspoken nature to the Romanian new generation movies. Their new wave film-makers (Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean, Calin Peter Netzer, Corneliu Porumboiu) lack the egotistic or judgmental characteristics that plague many film-makers around the world, who want to tell truth or take a hit at prevailing hypocrisy. Films either tend to twist our worsening social reality or shine a light on it. Radu Jude and his fellow Romanian film-makers take projects that belong to later category; one where films become a social necessity rather than to create a despicable allure. “Aferim!” (2015) is Radu Jude’s third feature film (I haven’t seen his first two films), which critics see it as Jude’s tonal & thematic departure. “Aferim” flawlessly contextualizes the historical roots of European racism on socially disadvantaged ethnic groups, whose descendants we now see migrating in masses to different Western European countries. The film’s pivotal design is a hardscrabble journey, but unlike the one witnessed in McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”, Jude’s nuanced commentary gives us one darkly jovial history lesson (and, of course the film is starkly cruel at right times).

                                       “Aferim” is set in the 1830’s Wallachia, a period when the Roma (not to be confused with Romanians) ethnic minorities lived in slavery (in places now collectively called as “Romania”). The Roma people were back then called with slang terms like “Crow” or “Gypsy”. The continuing levels of discrimination against Roma people are considered to be serious concern (as per EU report) and the contemporary inequality is said to have made the Roma’s to migrate in masses. So, director Jude and writer Florin Lazarescu handling the subject of social repression of Roma slaves, is naturally diffused with allegorical tones (which is only expressed in subtle tones). However, this isn’t a film that solely provides a scathing critique on just the Romanian social order. Jude also astoundingly dissects the other forms of subjugation or exploitation, like the anti-Semitic, xenophobic, homo-phobic and brutally patriarchal rants, which is almost encountered in every other society around the world, past or present.

                                          The opening titles and the opening shot of a cactus framed against a dry land, brightly lit sky gives an emotional atmosphere that is akin to ‘Western’ genre films. The attractive black and white aesthetics, deliberately distant frames do convey that the film could be a revisionist medieval period drama. The sight of an old man atop a horse in this particular landscape screams “Don Quixote!”. “Aferim” is an evolution from all these immortalized tales since the central quest here is drenched in immorality, unlike the journeys made by principled bounty hunters or esteemed knights.  Constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) is our guide to this morally parched land. He is an aging old, accompanied by his inexperienced son & protege Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). Costandin is the kind of silver-tongued protagonist we come across in Western films. He boasts a wellspring of rural wisdom that is both vilely racist and darkly humorous.

                                       The father and son’s mission is simple: to hunt down the gypsy Carfin Pandolean (Toma Cuzin), who is said to have stolen from his Boyar (master or lord). The duos journey puts them through various bracing encounters in which Costandin or the opposite parties exhibit their hatred for everything, from women, gypsies, Jews, Englishmen, Russians, etc. “The butcher doesn’t fear thousands of sheep” he explains to his son on how to treat the gypsies. Thanks to a betrayal, Carfin is soon caught, but the reason for his alleged crime seems to be different than the one stated by Boyar. Throughout the return journey, Carfin has an effect on his captors’ conscience, but this isn’t a tale of reckoning, because in Costandin’s world, moral corruption and ignorance veils the human emotions as much as the thick fog that obscure the land.

Spoilers Ahead

                                         The script by Radu Jude and Florin Lazarescu is supposed to have drawn a lot of dialogues from historical documents and folklore literature of those times (19th century). For examples, at the fair, a Roma family begs: “Buy us! Save us from hunger!” and then there’s a reference of how gypsies are traded as dowries. Florin and Jude had perfectly found places to stuff the folk-wit. There are some excellent sayings that seem appropriate to come out of Costandin’s mouth (“Fear is shameful but healthy. It is God’s gift). Some of Costandin’s linguistic verve is also highly offensive and morally reprehensible. “Tight of cunt and hard of butt, makes the cock crack like a nut”; “The country’s torn apart with prongs and the cunt sings merry songs”; “In the ass of the humble, devil-sits cross-legged”; “Woman shall be less castigated than men, as they are dimmer of wit and weaker before sin”, and such misogynistic, lewd remarks keeps on pouring, which at one point makes you think that the dialogues are not just a way to look at the racist mentality of the period, but also becomes a fitting introspection into primary character itself. Costandin’s boorish jokes, bigotry and drunken merriment sort of become a defense mechanism to prevent the heavily weighing thoughts about moral putrefaction. Costandin’s brand of archaic humor only shows us that there is a sense of moral decency within him which only wants to hide behind those remarks. If we get to the core of whats haunting Costandin, then we could express a twisted affability to his character nature. Florin or Jude doesn’t excuse Costandin’s behavior, but they are providing us a window to study the flawed nature of this individual.

                                           The protagonist’s self-importance, self-pity and a rare streak of decency could easily be drawn parallels in our contemporary society, where men caught in the mid-level bureaucracy or in societal hierarchy tend to take a morally wrong stand, simply citing that ‘it is not their place to question’. Nevertheless, the script isn’t a scathing attack on those mid-level, ‘following orders’ people; it surprisingly a subjective approach and displays how their souls are lost by doing the assigned duties. In the end, when Costandin talks to his shocked son about how “the world will stay as it is, you can’t change it try as you might”, it seems Costandin is talking to his stalking conscience. “Aferim” raises some vital questions about personal responsibility and the moral judgment of future societies. Priest bargain over the price of a child slave, a priest’s racist rant based on Hamitic myth are all brief, hilarious sequences that easily digs into the corrupted society, and when the full force of all these vile remarks are seen in action (in the end), its hard not to flinch. Costandin, at one point asks to his son, “a hundred years from now, will folks say a good word about us?” Both the priests’ rants and Costandin’s question are inextricably tied to central queries involving individual responsibility and moral judgment.

                                          There are obvious allegorical notes behind the scenarios designed. But, director Radu Jude allows us to fully immerse into the atmosphere on-screen (Jude won ‘Best Director Award’ in Berlin Film Festival). On a plain visceral level, viewers are able to take in the simple narrative trajectories or the resplendent images, without the need to possess knowledge about contemporary Romanian society. The paths, where Costandin and Ionita journey through are tangible and there are some excellently staged recreations the period, particularly the festival fair setting. DoP Marius Panduru and director Jude fill their frames with little details and subtle dramas. The proclivities of drunken revelry in the tavern brims with details and in the morning, when Carfin uses some gypsy healing method to dispel Ionita’s hangover, the frame is littered with prone bodies and vomiting men, while Costandin exclaims “O treacherous world, first sweet, then bitter!” Director Radu never feeds us any emotional cues by keeping the camera at a great distance. The rare occasions when the camera goes closer, Costandin himself is persecuted by ones higher than him. Radu’s distanced shots at many times slowly moves, waiting for their arrival & departure from the frames as if imbuing the feeling on us that they are mere passersby of the vast history (or as Costandin says “we’re like spark from these embers"). From these shots, we can understand that their emotional as well as societal progresses are too slow (not only theirs, in a way ours too). 

                                         “Aferim” (106 minutes) is a vigorous, timeless and comprehensive exploration of regressive ideals that keeps us and our society in an impassive state. As a cinephile, all I could say in the end is: “Bravo! Radu Jude”


Once Upon a Time in America, a Telephone Rang Incessantly!

Spoilers Ahead……….

                                            Legendary film-maker Sergio Leone’s final film “Once upon a Time in America” (1984) is arguably one of the most ambitious works in cinema. Starring great performers Robert De Niro and James Woods, the movie was drastically cut for its theatrical release (139 minutes), and a saddened Leone died five years later without making another movie. A 229 minute version played at Cannes in 1984, but only last year, a digitally restored 251 minute version, dubbed as ‘Extended Director’s Cut’ (supervised by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation), gave the best look yet at this masterpiece. Nevertheless, simply calling it as a quintessential work of the gangster cinema would be like limiting its achievements. “Once Upon a Time in America” recalls many of the 1930’s gangster cinemas, the era when ‘gangsters’ became a staple of American genre cinema.  As Leone himself has stated: “My movie was to be an homage to the American films I love, and to America itself”. But, the reason for the film’s unprecedented distinguished status, owes a lot to Leone’s telling of this epic story, in a manner which surpasses the limitations of a storyteller.

                                               Narrative-wise, the film is about the rise and fall of two Jewish, New York gangsters (based on Harry Grey’s novel “The Hoods”) – David ‘Noodles’ Aronson (De Niro) and Maximillian Berkowitz (James Woods). A large part of the narrative is set in the prohibition era (in the 1930’s), while there’s also a narrative strand set in the 1960’s, which has the suspense elements of a thriller genre. The film possesses both a linear narrative structure as well as confusingly fractured non-linear structure that jump back and forth in time (especially in the first half-hour or so). One of the most vital moments in “Once Upon a Time in America” that impressed many movie-lovers is its audacious opening, disorienting montage sequence that first commences in an opium den. An opium reverie soothes Noodles (De Niro), but he is soon woken up by the buzzing in his mind. A newspaper article shows the charred dead bodies of some gangsters and gradually this buzzing turns into a telephone ring.

                                                The reason for Noodles’ rendezvous in the opium den is simple: he has betrayed his lifelong friends by giving some information to police that have resulted in their gruesome deaths. This telephone rings over a succession of sequences taking us back in time, although at times we couldn’t even see a telephone in the frames. Through the loud rings, a montage cuts through the whiskey ambush, a celebration of the end to prohibition (a cake-topped coffin is inscribed with the words ‘prohibition’). At one point, a hand picks up the receiver, but still the phone keeps on ringing in the background. Eventually, the phone is picked up by a Sergeant named P.Halloran (after ringing for exactly 24 times).

                                              Leone, in fact shows many other phones in this opening sequence, but the one that’s ringing couldn’t be easily found because what’s ringing is Noodles’ guilt of betraying his best friends. Roger Ebert says it better: “A ceaselessly ringing telephone, ringing forever in the conscience of a man who called the cops on his friends”. It not only puts the viewer on the fragmented mind-set of Noodles, but also desperately makes them to search for a meaning in these images. As the film disentangles all its narrative strands in the 4-hour running time and ends by focusing on the gleeful face of Noodles, we can feel that the initial telephone rings were not Leone’s way of stretching Noodles’ guilt. The whole film is about how certain things (or events) and people are not like as we perceive them. By displaying the disjointed images that moves between time and space, in the opening sequence (where even sound sometimes doesn’t match that of the on-screen visuals), Leone hints at how Noodles (and ours') gained perceptions are going to be played at throughout the film’s course.

                                             In the book ‘CrimeWave: Hollywood Crime Cinema’, it is stated that the opening sequences were Leone’s way of transferring his trademark slow, poetic Western film beginnings to a more modern ‘gangster era’ setting. This is evident when Eve enters into her dimmed apartment and finds bullet-holes in the bed, and then gradually three gun-men become visible. This sequence along with the phone-ringing setting makes it an equivalent to gunslingers waiting for the arrival of train or the squeaking of windmills in “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968). The resonant backdrop the phone creates in order to display guilt or disorientation or to imbue a tension on viewers’ mind, is of course, couldn’t be created in our contemporary era (as ringtones & voice-mails would only annoy rather than create a brooding sense of dread). “Once Upon a Time in America” is one of the unique films, where everything from direction to production design is engaged in perfect, balletic movement. And, that ‘ringing of phone’ (along with the ‘doped up’ look in the end) is one of the most equivocal moments in cinematic history. 


Sicario [2015] – A Formidable Descent into Moral Chaos

                                          Cycles of male violence is one of the very important themes Canadian film-maker Dennis Villeneuve likes to explore. And women are either at the receiving end or forced to stand with calm grace as violence hovers around. Villeneuve’s first two movies, “August 32nd on Earth” (1998) & “Maelstrom” (2000) were about the psychological abuse (or violence) underwent by his women protagonists. Guns were pointed at female engineering students in the film “Polytechnique” (2009) (based on Montreal students massacre of 1989), while Oscar-nominated “Incendies” (2010) had distressingly poetic visions, which gazed at the roots of war from the perspective of two adult women. The oblique tale “Enemy” (2013), among many other themes, inquired on men’s treatment of women. Even though Villeneuve didn’t write the script for “Prisoners” (2013), he chose one, which was all about women thrown into despair by male violence. With “Sicario” (2015), by using the label ‘drug-war thriller’, Villeneuve once again chosen a tale about a woman, contemplating as well as fighting for her place in the ‘wolf’ traversing land.

                                         Director Villeneuve also has this fascination with ‘doppelganger’ element that drove the works of some legendary film-makers like David Lynch, David Cronenberg, etc. A dichotomy either geographically lays side by side or the dichotomy resides inside a disturbed human mind. In “Sicario”, there is a wonderful, brooding aerial shots that shows how one of the peaceful cities (El Paso, Texas) stands close to one of the most violent city in the world, Ciudad Juarez. And, let’s not forget Villeneuve’s likeness to portray the poetic calmness that is brutally uprooted in a moment by the nauseating violence. In fact, Sicario's one such poetic, brooding sense of silence is suddenly bulldozed by a SWAT vehicle, carrying FBI Kidnap Response Team.

                                        The calmness of an Arizona suburb is disturbed and there our fearless/vulnerable by-the-books FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) witnesses the ripple effects of Mexican drug war. She and her team respond to a hostage situation, gunning down two perpetrators. They also make a horrendous discovery of dozens of bodies, lining the walls of the derelict house. Soon, the agents are surprised by an explosive device, rigged in the basement and two men are killed. Kate is obsessed with getting the men who are really behind what she saw. She is chosen by an elusive, sandals-wearing official Matt (Josh Brolin), who promises to cut the head of the cartel snake by getting through the cartel’s American connection Manuel Diaz. Matt says his job is to ‘dramatically overreact’ and that’s what he has planned to do, by bringing in a shadowy colleague named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). Kate isn’t sure what’s her job is, but she tags along hoping to get the bad guys. Matt, of course has a hidden agenda, but it isn’t that hidden. If only she was wise enough, she could have predicted that only a vortex of darkness remains within.

                                      If you are going to watch “Sicario” expecting an original plot or a fresh take on America’s war of drug, you would be grossly disappointed. But, first time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan unwraps the layers of simple story with an ingenuity that also works as a wonderful character study of two morally opposed persons. The question Sheridan raises is something the movies have always risen (“Should one transform into a monster to kill a monster?”), but the script gets to that point in an organic way rather than pedantic manner. The dialogues flows freely (“You’re asking me how a watch works”……”Nothing will make sense to your American ears”……”This is the land of wolves”…... etc) and elegantly hints at the turmoil that waits for them. But, “Sicario” wouldn’t have brooded long enough in our mind, if not for the indelible sense of dread, injected by Director Villeneuve.

Director Villeneuve and Cinematographer Roger Deakins

                                        Villeneuve and the masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins concoct pulse-pounding images that are rich in poetry too. Each frames exhibit layers of visual complexity, yet there is a cumulative effect to the flow of images. The slow-steady camera movements, the spectacular aerial shots and perfectly calibrated visuals are interspersed to give that agitating tone – the one that digs under our skin (composer Johann Johannson also heavily assists to set the tone) – which makes our subconscious to think: ‘isn’t this as close as to reality’.  It’s amazing how much tension and pressure the visual approach diffuses on us, especially after considering the film’s limited budget of $32 million. At various points, we are made to wait for the arrival of violence, although nothing happens. Take the scene, when Alejandro investigates the arrested migrants of Nogales about the tunnel. It’s a fairly simple scene, but the way it’s performed and the means by which it is staged doesn’t wear off the emotional strain we felt in the previous sequences. While Villeneuve shows the piled-up bodies on the wall like an art of high-horror, he also perfectly makes use of the power of suggestion (like the torture sequence).

                                        Deakins once again employs natural modes of light and shadows to create the world, whose inhabitants and landscape showcase inherent duality. One of my favorite scenes that beautifully notes the dichotomy involved in visuals is when Alejandro pays an unannounced visit to distressed Kate to sign a paper. Alejandro’s face is clouded with darkness on one side, brightly lit on the other side; he places the gun under Kate’s jaw, while his other hand wipes her tears. It is a fairly predictable scene, but once again the staging makes it to be a poem on Alejandro’s nature. There are many such visual hints in the narrative, which is what makes “Sicario”, not another drug-war thriller. Villeneuve impeccably brings out other important duality in the script: idealism vs realism. There’s a conflict between the American fantasies of bringing in an order (called as ‘end justifies the means’), while its activities only spawns more chaos or disorder. The director repeatedly refers to the strain of family sentimentality among cartel leaders and corrupt cops, whose urge to protect & provide their families makes them to live oblivious of the sufferings they cause. There’s a sub-plot in the script to give us a victim’s standpoint, which could easily be turned into a clumsy, attention-gaining thing. But, the director precisely makes the point on the cyclic nature of violence with limited visuals.

                                        And as I mentioned earlier, Villeneuve brings in his often repeated theme of ‘female condition’. In the end, it could be read as a character study of a young, resilient woman, who is displaced by the senseless male violence. There are also other unseen or unspoken women in the movie’s frames who are vanquished by cyclical nature of male violence. However, one thing that bothered is the ‘wolf’ quote. Does is say that the women don’t have a killer instinct? Villenvue in his interview to ‘The Playlist’ clearly states that the reference to ‘wolf’ is not about gender; it is more about the individual’s human quality and generation (as always ‘younger generation’ represents hope than those wolfish, old-fashioned idealism). Emily Blunt plays Kate with vulnerability and intensity which doesn’t push her into the standard female action characters. Del Toro plays Alejandro with sad eyes, only to shock the viewers with his rapid, brutal transformations. The tacit chemistry between these two adds a reflective facet to the narrative.

                                     “Sicario” (121 minutes) is a cartel-busting thriller which is set in the murky atmosphere of uncertain allegiances and spiraling violence. Although its message is simple, the, poetic beauty of its vileness gives us an astounding viewing experience.


The Farewell Party [2014] – An Invigorating Tragicomedy

                                               If you google the word ‘Euthanasia’ and look for its definition, it is said: “The intentional putting to death of a person with an incurable or painful disease intended as an act of mercy”. So, it a very grim subject and film-makers seldom touch a subject that is about the slow, painful death of the old. Nevertheless,  Israeli writer/director duos Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon’s “The Farewell Party” (2014) aka “Mita Tova” (translates to “A Good Death”), have not only brooded on the subject of euthanasia, but also concocted sequences, infused with a warm, darkly comic energy. It might be tempting to call it with a disputable tag ‘Euthanasia comedy’. But, don’t worry; it isn’t a mocking, comedy of errors about the concept of assisted suicide. The film, more or less, achieves an improbable balance of tone and never loses its focus in asking the big questions about the haunting aspect of all lives, i.e., death.

                                           “The Farewell Party” can be best described as a feature that evenly diffuses the vision of Michael Haneke (in “Amour”) and John Madden (in “Marigold Hotel”). Movies that discusses such a serious subject would usually enamor a niche audiences as it jumps out of the award-season floodgates, but “Farewell Party” also said to have gained the attention of Israeli mainstream viewers (declared a smash-hit and also nominated for 14 Israeli academy awards). Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) is a septuagenarian prankster and sharp-minded innovator. When we first see him, sunlight shines with effervescence into his retirement home room (situated in Jerusalem). Without words, that image tells us Yehezkel is playing ‘God’. He is using a computer mic to distort his voice and talking to a senile, cancer-afflicted old woman, Zelda (Ruth Geller) as God, and instructs her to continue her treatment. He simply says ‘heaven has no vacancies for now’.

                                          But, Yehezkel isn’t always having fun in the retirement home. He and his wife Levana (Finkelstein) are forced to witness the gradual death of a dear friend, Max (Shmuel Wolf). The terminally afflicted man’s wife Yana (Aliza Rosen) asks Yehezkel to put her husband out of his misery. Yehezkel is rattled by the suggestion and Levana asks him to not even think of considering Yana’s request. However, the desperate Yana enlists fellow retirement home inhabitants – Dr. Daniel (Ilan Dar), a former veterinarian and ex-police chief Raffi Segal (Rafael Tavor). Daniel and Segal are closeted (literally) homosexuals. Although Levana is disturbed by the idea of assisted suicide, Yehezkel offers to build a machine that will allow Max to push a button give himself a fatal dose of tranquilizers.

                                        As a note of Irony, this device is connected to Max’s Sabbath timer, which is a vital gizmo for orthodox Jews (see Wikipedia’s ‘Electricity on Shabbat’ for details). Max peacefully dies, but the word passes around about the existence of Yehezkel’s device. A bereaved old man asks the crew to visit his wife or that he would visit the law officials. Levana is more troubled by this and her little memory losses gradually turns into a full-blown dementia. She even asks the retirement home’s director to find her a different place, fearing that her own husband & friends would put her to sleep. Yehezkel wishes that he never played around with death after witnessing his wife’s worsening condition and as more offers for using the device pours in.
                                     The plot details may sound a little crass or too somber, but except for s few mis-construed sequences, it is astoundingly balanced. The gathering of these elderly men to perform their deadly job was given a healthy dose of dead-pan, dark comedy. Writer/directors Maymon and Granit imbue the sweetness of an American comedy and mix it with the earnest emotions of European films. The humor in lot of ways tries to push the cinematic boundaries related with the discussion of age, terminal illness and death. The laughs and chuckles that come out of our heart also provoke some deep thoughts in our mind. But, I think the directors stumbled a little, when they had to adopt a totally grim tone in the film’s third act. The moral dilemma regarding Levana’s illness is clearly portrayed and so the ending is anything, but predictable. But, still the events that led to ending seemed a little too mundane, when compared with the inventive first two acts. The ending appeared to give us some answers or strong opinion. I would have only preferred the big questions.

                                   The presence of muted color schemes and clear interior spaces conveys how grim the atmosphere of assisted living is. One of the often repeated quotes about old age is “growing old isn’t for sissies”. The elderly ensemble cast and the manner with which they showcase their inner conflicts makes us remember that quote. The close-up shots of Revach’s face (plays Yehezkel) speak about the battles going inside him, which the words couldn’t. Finkelstein as Levana is my most favorite performer of the cast. She gracefully expresses the fear, embarrassment, and painful sadness through her eyes.

                                     Barring few flaws, “The Farewell Party” (95 minutes) turns out to be a vital work that discusses themes often omitted in visual medium: old age and death. It should be watched for its low-key humor and perfect, nuanced acting.



Requiem [2006] – A Sober-Minded ‘Possession’ Movie

                                          A majority of commercial films exorcises empathy, turning individual personalities into types. Audiences tend to expect for a distinct good and evil paths, so that they can be solaced by the filmmakers’ judgmental vision. The presence of such paths plagues all genres, especially the Horror films. The possession sub-genre in ‘horror’ repeatedly wishes to present the glory of divine beings through the arduous fight with Lucifer or Old Nick or simply devil. The naive, innocent, virginal girl who is usually possessed becomes merely a vessel through which God quenches his enemies. The green slime, self-inflicted wounds and the profane words becomes vital elements for us to see persons on-screen as ‘types’. Although Friedkin’s unsettling masterpiece “Exorcist” (1973) diffused layers of social elements into its narrative, it only reached its undiminished fame through the head-turning, spider-walk or green slime sequences. From then on, Hollywood has increasingly clinged on to certain elements that treats the so-called ‘possessed’ as mere pawns for providing entertainment.

                                      The 2005 horror-thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, based on the true story of West German girl Anneliese Michel, uses the standard Hollywood ideas to showcase the struggles of a girl in strictly supernatural terms. Anneliese Michel’s death (1952-76) gained wide-spread media attention, which lashed at Church-approved old-fashioned exorcism rite (her parents & priest were proven to be guilty parties in court). It was seen as a vital case about misidentification of mental illness and religious hysteria. German film-maker Hans-Christian Schmid’s “Requiem” (2006) tries to rationally understand the conflicts that infested Anneliese. It may not have accurately followed the real-life tale, but displays unbridled empathy for its central character. “Requiem” is not a horror movie and stays away lousy sensationalism of American possession movies.

                                        Michaela (Sandra Huller) is an intelligent 21 year old girl, who lives with her devoutly Catholic parents – Karl (Burghart Klaussner) & Marianne (Imogen Kogge) – and a younger sister in a small German town. She has dreams of going to a university and to become a teacher. Michaela is so happy to show her father the letter that confirms her place in university. But, her mother asks “How can you go with that ‘thing’? The ‘THING’ is referred to Michaela’s history of mental and physical breakdowns (epileptic seizures, grim visions). The god-fearing mother also thinks that nothing good would come out of a university education. However, with the support of her father, Michaela takes a dorm room and focuses on her course on Pedagogy.

                                       Michaela’s social life in the city revolves around smart friend Hanna (Anna Blomeier) and a clumsy boyfriend Stefan (Nicholas Reinke). Michaela excels in studies, improves her looks and develops her dressing sense. She parties and likes the warmth of her boyfriends’ kiss. But, soon this sexual and rational awakenings negatively affects her, as she once again starts to have seizures and sees visions that calls her a ‘slut’. Michaela states that something is stopping her from touching the rosary and seeks the local priest’s (Walter Schmidlinger) advice, whose sane reply is “Who’s stopping you? The devil? We believe in him and in God too, but they are symbols, not literal things”. Nevertheless, a young clergyman (Jens Harzer) believes in the girl’s religious fear. There’s no uncertainty in what happens to Michaela from then on, but the girl’s downward spiral raises thought-provoking questions on religious faith and human reasoning.

Spoilers Ahead

                                         The film’s narrative has been exclusively presented from Michaela point of view, which could have fizzled out, if not for powerful, incredible performance of Sandra Huller (her first movie role). Unlike the typical possession movies, we never get to see the vision that affects Michaela, so as to clear-away the supernatural underpinning of the tale. The intense suffering and uncontrolled energy must only be portrayed through emotions and Huller excels in this aspect. She not only captures the rage that stems from the disapproval of her god-fearing mother, but also displays the warm emotional core that really clouds our eyes with tears in the end. That final shot of Huller’s small smile & long gaze really gets at you and made me think that her portrayal is truly a ‘requiem’ to Anneliese’s memory. Two of my most favorite scenes, elevated by Huller are: the wildly erratic behavior she displays towards the end; over-excited dance movements in the club, which hauntingly exhibited the character’s need to cling to an identity or freedom.

                                      Director Schmid’s unsensational approach to the story puts us in the head of Michaela rather than anticipating a head-spinning moment. The narrative is not only devoid of supernatural presence, but also extinguishes far-fetched metaphors or symbols of evil. There’s no metaphysical vision or a subtly loaded film-maker’s opinion on religious beliefs. There are potential villains in the tale, but Schmid’s isn’t pointing out fingers; he remains staunchly subjective till the last shot. Apart from the lack of ‘visions’ Schmid even stays away from showing the exorcism sessions. The film’s chief objective is to show how compassion, the most significant element in all religions, is replaced by archaic thoughts. It condemns the acerbic judgmental attitude of the believers. So, if Schmid tried to extend the narrative till the girl’s death, he might have been accused for the same thing, he is condemning, i.e. being judgmental. Even though, Michaela’s mother disapproves her daughter in various instances, she is also shown as an individual capable of love. The muted tones and the hand-held cinematography may not satisfy those expecting visceral impulses. Schmid’s directorial signatures reminded me of Von Trier’s early low-budget works like “Breaking the Waves”, “Dancer in the Dark”, etc.

                               “Requiem” (90 minutes) is a brilliant character-driven film that depicts the agonies inflicted by dysfunctional religious and familial systems. It is a contemplative cinephile’s possession movie.