The Children Are Watching Us

in 27th Reykjavik International Film Festival

by Tadeusz Szczepanski

The name of Vittorio De Sica’s classic film The Children Are Watching Us (I bambini ci guardano) could serve as the title of a section of this year’s festival in Reykjavik, where films devoted to children were among the most interesting works. Children at different ages, in different countries, confronted with the adult world, appeared in different social, psychological and moral contexts, as well as in different genres.

If De Sica could be a juror on this festival, he would certainly award the Italian/Austrian coproduction Little Girl (La Pivellina) by Tizzo Covi and Rainer Frimmel. The story of a two year old girl, found on a swing by a circus woman, takes place in a suburb of a big city, among poor people who show a lot of heart and affection for the little foundling, while waiting for her mysterious mother. The film has a neorealist background and emotional atmosphere reminiscent of The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette), with a touch of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale such as “Thumbelina”.

A completely different image of childhood is found in Kira Muratova’s Melody For a Street Organ (Melodiya dlya sharmanki), though it also bears traces of the neorealist leaning of the Italian director and the spirit of the Danish storyteller. It tells of two orphaned siblings who look for unknown fathers at the railway station and in the big city streets, but what they often encounter is the cynicism and heartlessness of the adult world. Muratova is as interested in the fate of the lost boy and “the little match girl” on Christmas Eve, as she is in the ruthlessly critical image of a child within the moral chaos of today’s Russian society – just like in The Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskiy sindrom).

Eamon, Margaret Cockery’s first film, was much lighter in tone, as the child’s confrontation with adults is of comic nature. This Irish film focuses on the amusing tension between the little hero and his mother’s new sexual partner, who is very frustrated by the constant intrusive presence of the boy.

The tragic, yet not devoid of humour, situation of a child in a broken family is the subject of the Norwegian film Together (Sammen) by first time director Matias Armand Jordal. After the death of the mother who was the head of the family, we follow the moral decay of the father who is not able to cope with life, new tasks and responsibility. In desperation, he resigns from fatherhood and leaves his twelve year old son in a children’s home. However, the boy refuses to resign himself to this desperate decision and flees back home where he shows more fortitude than his father whom he tries to save.

Another family drama with a humorous tone is Patrik Age 1.5 (Patrik 1.5) by the Swedish director Ellen Lemhagen. The child in the title is the dream of a gay couple who want to adopt him. But due to a clerical punctuation error, when they finally manage to get through the burdensome adoption process, instead of a sweet fifteen month old tot they end up with a fifteen year old demoralised criminal and homophobe. His arrival at his adoptive parents’ home leads to the breakup of their relationship, although the film ends on a carefully optimistic note.

The best film on the subject of children came also from Sweden; it was The Girl (Flickan) by a first time director Fredrik Edfeldt. Based on an autobiographical script by Karin Arrhenius, the film draws a subtle portrait of a ten year old girl at the beginning of the 1980’s. The hero of the film – played by the very weird Blanka Engström who gave a sensational performance – is left by her parents in the care of an irresponsible aunt whom she cleverly gets rid of. The girl then spends long weeks alone in a house in the Swedish provinces. The idyll landscape is contrasted with the dark drama of the girl’s hastened maturation and her feeling of alienation and solitude, as she discovers the secrets of sexuality and the unexpected confrontation with supposed death. The outstanding artistic values of the film are a result of the deeply psychological script, sophisticated direction, extraordinary title role and perfect camerawork by Hoyte van Hoytema.

We awarded The Girl with the FIPRESCI prize. I hope and believe Vittorio De Sica would have agreed with this verdict.

Edited by Yael Shuv