The official selection in the 54 th edition of the Gijón International Film Festival was a striking opportunity to see films that address major topics of discussion in contemporary Europe. Although their political undertones were numerous, one theme hit the surface repeatedly, and it was related to the current stance of Europe as an imagined entity: Is the idea of a unified Europe, a so called “European dream” still valid? If it is already dead, how is it possible to revive it?
The most obvious example of such contemplation was to be seen in Danis Tanovic’s multi- layered allegory Death in Sarajevo (Smrt u Sarajevo). Tanovic brilliantly makes use of an old and dilapidated hotel, which is appropriately named Hotel Europe, to discuss both the past and future of the continent. Tanovic’s characters talk about the atrocities of the First World War, as well as the most recent massacre in the history of Europe, namely the Bosnian War, and they ask directly: How can one talk about the humanistic ideals of Europe, if it just witnessed millions of people die?
Another master, Andrei Konchalovsky tells his beautifully shot black-and- white story Paradise (Ray) through three characters who played different roles in Second World War. The trio are interrogated at the gates of the heaven, waiting for their deeds to be judged. This seemingly naive idea gives way to a masterfully told threefold story with enormously detailed characters. Konchalovsky’s look at the idea of Europe is the grimmest, with various scenes of inhumane behaviour from Nazi concentration camps, but interestingly, it is also the most hopeful one about the future of Europe, with the belief in the power of sacrifice and solidarity.
The Italian master Marco Bellocchio’s latest feature Sweet Dreams (Fai bei sogni ) is the story of a child who refuses to accept the death of his mother. But this refusal does not stay on a personal level. Bellocchio’s intriguing story takes this apathetic man through the massacres of Europe as a journalist and the protagonist’s short visits to the warzones of the continent diminish his belief in humanity even further. Ultimately, his letting go of his late mother does not solve the collective spiritual degeneration that Bellocchio pinpoints, but at least, solves his persistent melancholia.
The most controversial films in the competition were the ones who touched the hottest topic in Europe: the young jihadists who join the ranks of ISIS from the cultural capitals of Europe such as Paris or Amsterdam. Mijke de Jong’s Layla M. tells the story from the perspective of a Morroccan-Dutch teenage girl. Layla, a very intelligent, sociable and sensitive girl, is full of rage about the injustices against the Muslim community. But this gets out of hand once she is drawn into a fundamentalist circle because of her love of a man. De Jong portraits Layla’s teenage rage with a dynamic style, but the movie loses its strength and starts to become didactic once the story leaves Amsterdam and reaches Middle Eastern soil. Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s Heaven Can Wait (Le ciel attendra) looks at the same topic, but this time the spotlight is not on the Muslims who are attracted from Europe to ISIS camps, but young middle-class European women who are brainwashed into going to Syria as suicide-bombers. At some points, Heaven Can Wait’s approach can be criticised as too pedagogical, but the film’s nuanced observations about a topic that is still a puzzle for many are definitely worth a watch. These two movies, seen together, give a good critical sense of what is going on the minds of young people joining such radical movements that are dedicated to undertake modernity with all its premises.
The Teacher, the Czech director Jan Hrebejk’s satirical look at the communist-regime in Bratislava in 1983 focuses on a caricaturised school mistress who has unconventional ways of assessing her students. A typical parody of the abuse of power in Soviet Bloc, the film has a good sense of humour with precise directing and mise-en- scène. Perhaps the most touching story in the competition also comes from a former Soviet Bloc country, Bulgaria. Glory (Slava), directed by the talented duo Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov tells a simple but powerful story that everyone can easily relate to. A poor, stammering railway worker finds a big pile of cash, and instead of taking it, he reports it to the ministry of transportation. This modest man who hardly has any social bonds, is introduced as a hero by the PR team of the ministry. However, once his watch is lost during the award ceremony that is organized in his honor, the man turns an enemy of ministry and state. With a keen eye for the different behaviours related to social classes, this well-written story explores many issues that pertain to bureaucratic degeneration in former Soviet Bloc countries, as well as universal issues related to class conflict. Awarded with both FIPRESCI and main jury prizes, hopefully, this hidden gem will attract many audiences.
Edited by Amber Wilkinson
© FIPRESCI 2016