Trapped in the Moral Maze

in 52nd Gijón International Film Festival

by Amber Wilkinson

Sometimes it’s not so much the moral of the story that offers the key to a film but the way that each character’s own moral landscape is shifted by events. These sorts of ethical dilemmas and quandries lay at the heart of several of the films in competition at this year’s Gijón International Film Festival.

Ethics were perhaps at their most obvious in Thomas Lilti’s French film Hippoctrates (Hippocrate), the very title of which refers to the Hippocratic Oath, that contains the line in respect to the sick, “I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage”. While never specifically mentioned in the course of the film, it is this ethical stance that is challenged by the tale of young hospital intern Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste) and his relationship on the wards with his father (Jacques Gamblin), who is in charge of the facility where his is training, and a fully fledged Algerian doctor (Reda Kateb), who is having to retake his internship in order for his qualification to be recognised in France.

This is healthcare driven by the balance sheet, where easing the budget takes precedence over easing pain and Lilti — a qualified doctor himself — sets the microcosmic dilemma of Benjamin after he commits an error against the larger ethically grey area of the French care system itself. Although the direction is workmanlike and the ending conventional, Lilti uses his own experience to ask searching questions about how we treat the sick and the elderly.

Kanu Behl’s Titli (Butterfly) — which won both Gijón’s international competition prize and saw its female lead Shivali Raghuvanshi named best actress — also focuses on an individual dilemma, this time in the face of family where morals come last. The title character (Shashank Arora) is the youngest of a trio of criminal brothers, whose main source of income comes from brutal carjackings. He is desperate to find a way out of his violent situation by any means but finds himself morally challenged after his family enter him into an arranged marriage with young Neela (Raghuvanshi). Behl’s film has pace and grit and despite anchoring it firmly in the world of the Dehli slums, the ideas of the cyclical nature of violence and the difficulties of breaking free from moral bankruptcy are universal. Shying away from stereotypes — and in the case of Neelu, using them to twist expectations — Behl takes his characters on individual journeys within the framework of the bigger picture and isn’t afraid to let silence speak volumes.

A moral mire also threatens the characters in Nima Javidi’s Tehran-set Melbourne, as a couple prepare to emigrate to Australia. An unexpected tragedy — details of which it would be wrong to go into — sees them caught in a conflict between the right thing to do in ethical terms and the right thing for themselves. Like Titli, despite its firm setting in Iran, the theme is universal and Javidi makes the most of the confined spaces of the couple’s flat, where almost all the action is set, using them to mount tension as a secret only they are privvy to is threatened by a succession of visitors.

The film is also notable for its nimble set-up, with Javidi using a census taker to economically establish the couple’s relationship and to suggest a State that is watchful, making their later concerns about justice all the more credible. Actors Peyman Moaadi and Negar Javaherian dig deep into their characters, vacillating between anger, despair and frustration at their predicament. Although a little overlong, Navidi has crafted a claustrophobic drama that, providing the audience is willing to go with the idea that authorities are not to be trusted, urges them to consider what they would do in a similar predicament.

Amber Wilkinson