A Weasel, Bullies, Odd Nice Men and a Moral Giant: Male Ethos as Seen in the Official Selection of the 60th International Film Festival Valladolid

in 60th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Antti Selkokari

What makes a man a man? What defines a male’s value? These questions pop up in one’s mind while watching films in Valladolid.

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years reveals an interesting hybrid case of male ethos. Upon hearing about the death of his former girlfriend Katya, Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) goes into a state of mild depression. He feels an undefined guilt and seems convinced that going to see Katya’s cadaver would somehow alleviate his anxiety and make him a better person. His logic seems to be thus: if he sacrifices his time and thoughts to Katya he might be redeemed of his possible sins against her.

All the while Geoff never gives the slightest thought to his wife, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and the effect his actions have on her. Geoff is all about himself and his emotions. He feels hurt and offended when he finds that his old job in a nearby factory has been abolished. He wants to encapsulate his life as it was.

One could think of Geoff as a softie, a tender-hearted male who is fundamentally a good person and husband, but seen from afar, as the film shows him, he is hopelessly selfish, and in a sense part of a long line of men who consider it a man’s duty to be first and foremost looking after their own interests even at the expense of their loved ones. In that way Geoff is human, rather than a saint.

A Saint from the Island of Sagas

Among the males seen in the program of the 60th International Film Festival Valladolid, the closest to a saint is Fúsi (Gunnar Jónsson) in the Icelandic film Virgin Mountain (Fúsi). The titular character is an obese fortysomething man who still lives with his mother and works as a luggage handler at the airport.

Fúsi is somewhat on the margins of so called normal life. While other men of his age have careers, families and hobbies, Fusi is content building his miniature model of the El Alamein battle. Fúsi never loses his patience, not even when his colleagues bully him and forcibly drag him to the shower.

While attending a line dance course (his mother signed him up), Fúsi meets an offbeat woman, Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir). The two start seeing each other so often that they are considered to be dating. But Sjöfn appears to have a tendency to depression – she locks herself up in her closet and rejects any approaches with hostility.

Fúsi rises to the challenge by adopting the role of a caretaker. He cooks her food, cleans her home and even takes care of her work shifts while neglecting his own. Fúsi embodies all the virtues that are expected from a man in the time when traditional ways of appearing successful are out of the question.

They Cannot Be Bullied

The traditional male ethos of appearing to be a stern upholder of the rules and behaving almost like a supreme leader of the community were most strongly present in films that dealt with either religious or cultural patterns of passing on tradition. The most extreme example of this was Tikkun by Avishai Sivan. This story of a Yeshiva student in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem shows us a father, an absolute head of his family, who would prefer to let his son die in an accident, rather than tamper with divine order.

The Turkish film Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven makes an interesting comparison point with the Israeli Tikkun. The bellowing male is also present in Mustang in the character of uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). As the lone male in the household of women – five orphaned girls and their grandmother who educates them to become obedient wives to be married off as soon as possible – Erol upholds the traditional order by inventing more and more ways to keep the inquisitive maidens jailed.

Both Tikkun and Mustang prove that the traditional male who considers it his divine duty to defend the moral of the youth by force is eventually bound to fail.

Strength is Not Only Skin Deep

In the margins of the traditional authority figure is its younger, somewhat more modern version that could be called the strong and silent type who is not motivated by obeying religious or cultural traditions but by noble principles. The strength of this male lies with authority, either moral or political. The most obvious example is seen in Invisible Artery (L’Artèria invisible) by Pere Vilà Barceló where Vicenç (Alex Brendemühl), a local politician with aspirations to become a mayor, has to deal with false allegations of sexual abuse and his wife’s obsession to have a child.

Vicenç tries to fend off these challenges, put to him by women, mostly by staying silent and looking hostile, only to realize too late that merely appearing authoritative will not cut it.

An interesting comparison point to the Spanish film comes from Romanian filmmaker Tudor Giurgiu. His film Why Me? (De Ce Eu?) tells of Panduru (Emilian Oprea), a young idealistic prosecutor who is about to start his climb on the social ladder.

While cracking a corruption case against a senior colleague, Panduru discovers he cannot afford to trust anyone in the cutthroat climate of post-Soviet Romania. He himself does not yet have authority enough to be loyal to both his career and the truth.

The strongest moral authority figure among the male characters at Seminci 2015 is the protagonist of 13 Minutes (Elser) by Oliver Hirschbiegel. The film tells the true story of Georg Elser, a German carpenter who single-handedly built a bomb to have Adolf Hitler explode to smithereens during one of his speeches in Munich in 1939. Following the explosion, Elser is caught and ends up in the cells of the security police where he is submitted to a torture so terrifying that a more fragile person would have broken. But Elser does not, because he tells the truth; he alone was the only person behind the bomb attack. Since the police does not want to hear about a lone bomber but about a conspiracy, the torture continues.

13 Minutes is very consistent in the way it describes Elser, who had to live a certain kind of life in order to become the man who defies the ire of his torturers and never lets himself out the easy way. The mountain-sized inner strength of this man leaves lesser men in the shade.

Edited by Yael Shuv