At the end of the Festroia International Film Festival, someone asked me if I had a wife and kids — which is not the case. I answered “no” after a short, dreamy pause, maybe because of too much exposure to the scorching Portuguese sun. Or simply because I had trouble coping with a full week of films which invariably dealt with family difficulties, and above all, with fatherhood viewed as a dark and cursed territory — from the main competition to the sidebars.
The idea of fatherhood as failure was everywhere, spreading like a virus. Is this a worldwide phenomenon? A sign of desperate programmers? From Estonia to Israel, from Norway to America, this is the new globalization: fathers were dead, or absent, or present but useless — haunting their families, in one way or another.
Slovenia’s Estrellita (Estrellita — Pesem za domov), Estonia’s The Class (Klass), the Austria-Luxembourg co-production Black Ice (Musta Jää), Israel’s Restless, Norway’s Mirush (Blodsbånd), the Czech Republic’s Empties (Vratné Lahve), Russia’s Mermaid (Rusalka), Poland’s All Will Be Well (Wszystko bedzie dobrze) and the Netherlands-South Africa-Ireland production The Bird Can’t Fly: In these films, fathers are a memory — ghosts, as in “Hamlet”.
In Estrellita, a piano teacher is convinced her departed husband watches over her and their son. In Black Ice, a refined but perverse ménage à trois, an architecture teacher gets his mistress pregnant and disappears. In Mermaid (a cheap Amélie-style fantasy) and The Class (a chilling, possibly gay-themed rape and revenge film set in a classroom), teenagers grow up without their fathers. This disappearance, this black hole, define characters who exist without landmarks and in the worst cases, are bound to be alienated and violent: in Mirush, the title character is a blurred presence, fifteen years old, but looks younger and acts like a thug. The kid from The Bird Can’t Fly aims a rifle at his grandmother. In Restless, a son estranged from his father has become an angry sniper for the Israeli army.
From this angle, these films seem to plead for the necessity of patriarchy — except the (too) symbolic The Bird Can’t Fly, which imagines a matriarchy in the desert, where the only men are a quiet, middle-aged grocer and a crippled, rotten postman. (Flies circle him constantly, in case nobody understands the rotten metaphor.). There is, of course, an anxiety regarding the legacy fathers leave to their children, but most of the films in competition worked the issue with a twist — the idea that one cannot escape fatherhood.
It can be treated gently, as in Amos Kollek’s poignant Restless. A departure from his female-dominated filmography, the film blends neatly flawed individuals and Middle Eastern issues, with a main character who longs for stability and comfort with a divorced mother and her son. It can be absurd, as in All Will Be Well, a sensitive film where long-distance running becomes a pilgrimage, or leap of faith, and two brothers find finally a substitute father, an alcoholic teacher like their deceased father. It can be dark, as in Mirush, which finds the title character squeezing himself into the role of his AWOL dad, with disastrous consequences.
When fathers try to assume their duty, they’re desperately selfish. They fail. In Worlds Apart, the unfaithful religious-fanatic father has trouble holding his family together. In the Pakistan-produced In the Name of God, which feels like an indulgent, heavy Turkish delight, a father traps his daughter into a forced marriage. Even in the feel-good film Empties, the main character (a teacher) wants to marry off his daughter — to another teacher.
In the most powerful films in competition, fathers are pushed to kill in order to save their sons. In The Trap (Klopka) a striking snapshot of a morally bankrupt post-Milosevic Serbia, a father murders another father. Even darker (and yes, such a thing is possible) is Mirush, which echoes Eastern Promises with its family tragedies set among Eastern Europe mobsters. The film is a hellish whirlwind trip from Albania to Norway, where conscience and guilt are surprisingly and perversely Oedipal.
The tunnel was endless in Setúbal. Any screening, any film in the catalogue seemed to have an abusive father on celluloid: the closing film of the festival was Anand Tucker’s aptly titled And When Did You Last See Your Father? The short film The Replacement Child (by Justin Lerner, winner of the section “Man and his Environment”) was a neat piece of Americana, efficiently told as a Sergio-Leone-styled western without guns. Of course, there was a vicious stepfather.
Curiously, one of the most striking images came from a rather lame film, Marc Meyer’s Family Rules, which earned a special mention from the First Works Award jurors: A lonely man kidnaps and imprisons people to create his own family and to be an ideal husband and father. Even though it’s played as a comedy, Family Values can’t help but remind us of Austria’s sinister Fritzl case, where a father kept his daughter prisoner for 24 years “to protect her from drugs”. Hum. Something is definitely going wrong.
From post-communist Europe to USA — remember the murdering fathers of this year’s Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — fathers on screen are depicted as declining, disappearing or doing their duty with a vengeance, as if there was no other choice. I even think now that my brief hesitation to reply that I was single and childless speaks volumes. The king is naked, and papa’s got a brand new rag.