On the Morality of Fathers: Between Cynicism and Good Old Family Values
by Nino Kovacic
“There is no justice, only limits.” This is the quote from Camus that Jan Verheyen’s Belgian thriller The Verdict (Het vonnis) opens with. With this existentialist premise, we are from the very beginning brutally immersed in a justice thriller par excellence, a film that can be hailed for its directorial skills as well as reaching the high points of the genre. What hooks the passions and intellectual engagement of the viewer throughout the film is the familiar scenario of “justice” being delivered in the form of individual vengeance. Luc Segers, the protagonist who has “lost everything”, embodies the everyman who suffers from everyday injustice committed by other individuals or by the system – in this case, the state, which he fights head on, just as we might all like to. The fact that we may be prone to this kind of wishful thinking creates strong sympathy for the main character. When Segers’ family is murdered, the killer is freed due to a “procedural mistake.” This Belgian vengeance film is quite elegant in its depiction of “taking justice into one’s own hands”, as it playfully details some of the main issues associated with modern legislative systems. The cast is excellent: no weak links here.
A film which contrasts with The Verdict on the issue of taking sides with the protagonist is the Dutch psychological thriller The Dinner (Het diner). This film foregrounds moral ambiguity and cynicism as the dominant issues of society. Paul, the narrator and protagonist, tends to confront the audience, even by directly looking into the camera. He is an unlikeable man with anger issues, who is faced with deciding what to do when his sons kills a homeless person. The film is a psychological twister based on individual interpretations of morality. An interesting tension is created between the main characters, as their personalities change rapidly under the effects of severe disbelief and insecurity. Although the exaggerated camera movements sometimes disrupt the tension created by the plot and dialogue, Meno Meyjes’ film has a good rhythm, and more importantly, the ability to shake up our notions of the limits of morality when one’s own family is at stake.
The Finnish drama Heart of a Lion, by Dome Karukoski, presents a very unusual family setting. Skinhead leader Teppo is asked by his new girlfriend to take care of her son. The only problem for Teppo is that the child is black. The film plays with our emotions in investigating the idea of overcoming ideological oppositions for the sake of love, as the characters try to coexist in the same space. This bittersweet drama with occasional humorous touches is quite successful, and doesn’t forget to point out some of the important issues of racism which affect contemporary Finnish society. The emphasis is on parenthood as an internal obligation of unconditional love which can encourage people to have courage and move beyond their prejudices. This is a positive and humane story: it is more than a simple crowd-pleaser, since it deals with themes in a manner which is relaxed but not simplistic.
The theme of avenging one’s family is again seen in the Norwegian dark comedy In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten). Nils, a modern “citizen of the year” is yet another father figure let down by the state authorities, who decides to take matters into his own hands. This film, directed by Hans Petter Moland, is a true pan-Scandinavian production; it features Stellan Skarsgård and Bruno Ganz, who are almost unrecognizable in their roles. If you last saw Skarsgård in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, it will take some time to adjust to his portrayal of the tough Nils, while Austrian actor Ganz atypically plays an aging Serbian mafia boss. For these two fathers, their sons were “everything”, and they will stop at nothing to avenge their deaths. Starting off as a gloomy crime drama, this film becomes more of an absurdist comedy with every scene. However, this means that its ethical issues are treated less seriously, and so the film undermines its own potential to be an insightful satire.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2014