Family Matters?

in 27th Warsaw International Film Festival

by Aleksandra Salwa

Two films which screened at the 27th Warsaw Film Festival showed that the family is no longer held sacred.

Even though the eponymous protagonist of Martha Marcy May Marlene has four names, her identity remains vague. She’s in her early twenties, and has just run away from a cult led by Patrick (a mesmerising John Hawkes), checking into the cabin of her older sister Lucy, and Lucy’s rich architect husband Tom. The sisters have not spoken in two years and the tension between them is palpable. Lucy tries to become a mother to Martha (which is the girl’s given name) and to teach her how to adapt to life in normal society again. However the memories of the oppression and violence disguised as love and care that she was subjected to by patriarchal Patrick are still haunting Martha, and the warm bed, new dress and hot meals provided to her by biological family are not going to ‘cure’ her anytime soon. On the surface she is fine and healing, but two years of an exile have regressed Martha to the stage of a boisterous child, so that is not aware of social norms, wets her bed during sleep and refuses to obey Lucy and Ted.

Director Sean Durkin intertwines Martha’s present and past, suggesting that there is a fine line between family and a religious cult: both are built on arbitrary laws and rules, expect obedience from the followers (‘family members’) and limit their freedom. How often do children hear from their parents the line thrown at Martha by Ted: ‘As long as you are under my roof, you’ll follow my rules’? Tight, gripping directing and a haunting theme builds a mood of constant oppression, forcing the audience to step into the protagonist’s shoes. Durkin has delivered a strong family thriller about imprisonment that people may not be even aware of and can’t check out of.

A different type of incarceration is shown in Breathing (Atmen) by Austrian actor-turned-helmer Karl Markovics, who insists that a family, or rather the lack of a family, determines one’s prosperity. Nineteen-year old Roman, who grew up in an orphanage, is hoping to be granted parole, and tries to get his first job to seem more credible before a judge. He’s hired at a city morgue and, ironically, the presence of death gives him an impulse to claim his life. He tries to find his biological mother and learn who he really is. The first meeting of Roman and Margit is nothing like the tearful TV movie-of-the-week one might expect here – it turns out that the family members have nothing in common, and giving up the child for welfare was the smartest thing the mother did for her son. The coffee they have together in Ikea is a rite of passage for Roman, who is now officially grown up and decides to take up responsibility for himself. Markovics, without even a hint of being condescending in regard to his characters, shows that family ties are overrated and the true and solid value is work. Protestant-by-heart Breathing is a fresh, sympathetic voice for the underdogs without being judgmental and prejudiced.

Markovics allows himself to be slightly optimistic about his protagonist’s fate. Durkin, on the other hand, is very pessimistic about Martha and her future – she will be imprisoned for life, either by her past or her family.