Delicate Balances By Joel Poblete

in 55th Mannheim International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Joel Poblete

The influence of the parents in a child’s life, the hidden secrets that threaten to destroy a family’s harmony, the strong and intense relations among brothers, childhoods in danger — those were the themes that marked the most attractive and solid films of this year’s festival. Among them, it is impossible not to mention two films in particular: Sons (Sønner) from Norway and The Art of Crying (Kunst at graede i kor) from Denmark.

As one of the main objectives of the festival is to discover new values in debut feature films, there are usually young filmmakers to be found in the competition who use stylistic experimentation or narrative fragmentation. So it was a pleasant surprise that in these two films the filmmakers opted for traditional stories, framed in a visual style that easily allows classifying them into very distinct genres. Once more we can verify that a genre movie must not be a work less interesting or less risky.

Risk is what we find in Sons, a dynamic and captivating drama in which under the surface of a thriller, director Eric Richter Strand develops a subject always that is dangerous and delicate: pedophilia and its consequences, for the victims as for the guilty ones. The Norwegian movie stars Lars, a shy but kind pool attendant who undertakes an individual crusade to unmask a mature pedophile who regularly visits the place and even maintains a hidden relation with young Tim. The interest of Lars goes a lot beyond simple altruism, because he has hidden for a long time that he himself was one of the hundreds of adolescents that had been hounded by Hans. This is only the first of several revelations that will not cease upholding the public’s interest.

In Sons we can praise the rhythm, the editing, the intelligence and humanity of the script, co-written by the director with Thomas Seeberg Torjussen. But the greatest merit rests in the actors: the affectionate and at the same time strong interpretation of Nils Jørgen Kaalstad as Lars, the handsome Edward Schultheiss, that embodies the main character’s friend, Jørgen, and the horrifying composition that Henrik Mestad does of Hans. It’s in this role where the story is most disruptive, so the director doesn’t portray him as the classic bad guy or the pervert who deserves death, but as a sick and distressed man, one that the spectators cannot approve of, but maybe try to understand in his moral and psychological dilemma. The tender and almost fatherly worry that Hans shows for Tim furthers still more the ambiguity and depth of his perceptions. The children in the past were his sporadic lovers, now as adults they face a normal life of fear with personalities which never are totally developed. At least Lars seems interested in changing that — the friendly relation with his neighbor, a whore with a golden heart, maybe would be able to help him. And his “Anti Pedo Action” will go on revealing the darkest and most uncomfortable areas of the characters. The film is the remarkable debut by the talented director Erik Richter Strand. It tackles a difficult theme with popular leanings, including humor (the movie begins with a youthful joke in the best tradition of Porky’s!) and suspense, but always attempts his story never to lose its intensity and depth.

Danish director Peter Schønau Fog also shows a lot of talent. In The Art of Crying he develops another horrifying and strong story. Based on the novel of Erling Jepsen, it shows a family in the south of Jutland in the 70s, whose harmony rests in the possibilities to calm the emotional non-equilibrium of the father, an egotistical and hysterical individual enjoying Schubert’s lieder and suffering from crisis of crying with threats of suicide. The only one to calm him is his 14-year-old daughter, whose ingenuous younger brother always convinces her to sleep with the father, although in his innocence the boy doesn’t know that what happens between father and daughter is a crime. A terrible and raw secret, also shared by the pusillanimous mother of the children and their older brother, who has left home to study but at his return, sees with impotence how the things at home are still the same.

With a story as this, we would be able to speak of a classical Nordic melodrama, tragic and severe. But the surprising thing is how the director achieves that The Art of Crying stands always on the thin line that divides drama from comedy. He holds a delicate balance that also includes black humor, tenderness and charm. The story is shown from a child’s point of view, which is faced to complex situations (not recommendable for someone of this age) and never understands the gravity and sordidness of the situation. Although seeing the way his brothers are acting may tell him that something is not well at all. The plot develops without neglecting its literary origins, but as not many movies dare to do, is divided in chapters, each one dedicated to a character. So the events are made still clearer for the audience, leading to a powerful, captivating and sensitive human portrait in which the performances are fundamental: the two children, Jesper Asholt and Hanne Hedelund, are true revelations, and as the father Jannik Lorenzen gives a spectacular performance.

Its formal characteristics – cinematography, music and art direction are excellent — would make this film what is called a “quality film”, one that its country selects as candidate for an Academy Award in the best foreign language film’s category. It’s true that the narration is traditional and the film has classical visuals, but that does not lessen the emotions of the story, splendidly guided by Schønau Fog, who never uses easy means to move the audience, although it would have been easy doing so, knowing that he had to direct children actors in a incest and abuse story. As Erik Richter Strand in Sons, the filmmaker knows how to create a work with popular leanings, that we can call a genre piece, but it goes a lot further. These are two stimulating debuts from two filmmakers, two new names to follow.