Crime or Punishment

in 55th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Müge Turan

In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment we are taken on a moral rollercoaster ride with its conflicted protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov. After he commits murder, what Raskolnikov wants to test is whether some people are violent by nature, capable of doing bad things, and even have the right to do them. As a primal yet sophisticated musing over violence and human nature, Dostoyevsky’s journey lets us examine the interdependence between crime and punishment, with all the torment and suffering that comes with it. This interdependence was a prominent theme in the films of the 55th Thessaloniki International Film Festival’s international competition, especially the ones dealing with this plight of the human condition when placed into a fraught school setting.

The Tribe (Plemya), the feature debut by the Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytsky, takes place at a boarding school for the deaf. This school becomes a base for organized crime, where students develop their own internal laws and rules and commit illegal acts wherever and whenever they can: they steal, they mug, they pimp, they prostitute. The story focuses on a young man struggling to find his place among the social hierarchy in this underground subculture. The film’s means of communication is what makes it unique, since its narrative unfolds entirely without any spoken dialogue or subtitles or translation for the sign language. Its silence draws us into the unknown in a very realistic way. “Because of love and hatred, you don’t need translation.” Its disavowal of speech evolves into a daring statement. This statement is made bolder still when the film gets truly physical in its scenes of sex and violence. Where does the crime start and also where does it end? The Tribe delves deep into collective aggression, questioning its nature, while not forgetting the social disadvantages of that collective. The raison d’être of The Tribe could be to prove the Freudian theory of aggression: that as a basic drive it serves to motivate all thoughts, behaviour, emotions.

Another drama that deals with the conflicts built into the very essence of human nature is the Russian film Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii) by the director Ivan I. Tverdovsky. This time the setting is a special class for disabled students who, like the students in The Tribe, are isolated and neglected by the school and the society. The film explores the idea how the formation of identity can stimulate violence. Upon herarrival, Lena’s is immediately befriended by her classmates, but when she initiates a love affair with the baby-faced darling of the class, things start getting ugly. Her once-sweet friends quicklyturn into vandals who are capable of beating and raping her. On top of that, there is this school authority humiliating her in every way. It is a story in which “life [had] replaced logic”. Drawing a sharp criticism on Russian society with its xenophobic attitude and poor educational standards, the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable derivesfrom the same impulsefamously articulated by Freud.

In a similar vein, the Bulgarian drama The Lesson (Urok) is particularly striking in its intertwining swirl of crime and punishment. The film starts with a relatively “innocent” crime: a wallet gets stolen in class, and an English teacher vows to unmask the student who did it. While in the beginning the film establishes her as a principled and righteous woman, over the course of the film her standards of honesty and integrity are tested and compromised as she is pushed into an increasingly desperate financial situation. The portrayal of this despairing yet determined woman also functions as an explicit critique of a corrupted Bulgaria. While she is trapped in a corner, options gradually running out; all we can do is watch her ironic fall from grace. Yet the directors, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, maintain a fine balance throughout, imbuing their heroine withreal humanitywhile gradually revealing her as surprisingly capable of going to extremes.

Jens Östberg’s tense psychological thriller, Blowfly Park (Flugparken), is another character study. The protagonist is Kristian, whose life is filled with violence and whose mind is loaded with guilt. As the story unfolds, we get closer to his inner life, learningabout things from his past that have been haunting and tormenting him. The boundaries between guilt, crime and punishment are increasingly blurred. If there would be no punishment, would we still talk about a crime? Leading to the reign of self-punishment, this psychoanalytic question stays with us as Kristian edges towards breakdown.

In another manifestation of the relationship between guilt and punishment, the Austrian auteur horror film, Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, ich seh) is constructed on the primordial bond between twin boys and their mother. In a mysterious way, the boys think that she’s not the mother they remember. When their suspicions grow, they start torturing her physically and emotionally. The atmosphere of terror and the tension crafted in the film lies in its skillful navigation that switches between love and cruelty. The mother punishes the boys for small misdemeanors; in return, convinced that she is an impostor, they take their revenge to a creepy, menacing level. The film has a twist in the end where we apprehend the psychological dimension of the whole story, a dark hint of why the kids are so antagonistic towardthe mother. Still, what makes the film interesting is its grey zone, where there is no clear answer for the mental damage caused by feelings of guilt and self-harm.

In the Latvian film Modris, directed by Juris Kursietis, the turbulence of adolescence is depicted through the troubled life of a 17-year-old boy. As an internally conflicted, spiritually lost teen, with his perhaps not-so-grave crimes, our titular protagonistis lingering in the limbo between good and evil, between “a passive failure to do what’s right” and “an actively bad act”. Swaying back and forth between the burden of overwhelming personal responsibility and the overlooked feelings of teenage angst, it is hard for Modris to realize the consequences of passively drifting through life. Kursietis reminds us that, “it would be interesting to know what it is men are most afraid of”. A question that we all find ourselves asking at many different points in our lives — be it in a lonely, cold classroom or in a warm bed lying next to someone.

Edited by José Teodoro