(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival.)
Imagine this: it’s in the mid-40s and it’s cloudy, the wind chill approaching the high 30s. The humidity is giving way to drizzling. It feels raw but not quite cold, but you know you’ll be going into a heated building after a 10-minute walk from the train to a movie theater. No relief for you, though; the movie you’re about to see feels like three hours of that weather, only you’re sitting in the dark as well.
An adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel, The Painted Bird is a three-hour tour through the abattoir of human suffering through the eyes of a child (Petr Kotlar). He has no name, knowledge of his parent’s whereabouts. He instead lives with a woman he calls his aunt (Nina Sunevic), and when he finds her dead, he begins to drift through Eastern Europe during World War II, coming across a number of people. Some rape, some kill, some abuse, and some kill themselves, and to call the film daunting would be something of an understatement.
With its barrage of cruelty and 169-minute runtime, Václav Marhoul’s adaptation risks pure misery porn. Does it have its moments of excess? Of course, and the worst bits veer towards feeling like if the “chaos reigns” fox from Antichrist made a movie. And yet, there’s a distance here that’s crucial. The brutality plays like a half-remembered dream. It can feel distractingly indebted to Tarkovsky, but the 35mm work from Vladimír Smutný combined with Marhoul’s attention to tone makes for an unsparing watch. It just isn’t the masterpiece it thinks it is.
So what does it say about me that I found The Painted Bird to be pretty well-paced, but I had quite a few issues with the pacing of Just 6.5? Saeed Roustayi’s crime drama has proved to be a major hit in its native Iran. It’s easy to see why too; its characters are a swirl of contradictions that don’t conform to any black-or-white morality. Its themes are accessible in the body of a hard-boiled story, and although it’s not as deep as it proclaims to be, the supporting characters get more to do than you might expect at first glance. It just doesn’t totally pay off.
One problem is that it’s episodic, its rhetoric exaggerating the switches between most scenes. We follow Samad (Payman Maadi), an officer who captures drug kingpin Nasser (Navid Mohammadzadeh) all too easily. That’s not what the movie’s about, though. Rather, it’s Nasser attempting to reconnect with his family as Samad tries to keep him in his place with the help of his partner, Hamid (Hooman Kiaie). The difference between Just 6.5 and other movies of the ilk is its sociological bent, the script dissecting left- and right-wing ethics in prison reform.
That all should work, but Roustayi’s script has a number of diversions. Some work whereas some are too baggy, and while another director could elevate the material, Roustayi lacks the sense of place to give the locations much personality. (Suffice it to say that Hooman Behmanesh’s compositions and lighting don’t help much either.) Rather, Mohammadzadeh’s performance is the picture’s greatest asset. It’s just that its shortcomings—and its 134-minute runtime—force it to play much rougher than it ought to.
Next came François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, a dramatized retelling of yet another Catholic Church sex scandal. Starting in October 2015 and covering 14 months, it begins with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a dad of five who was repeatedly molested by Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) as a child. But this isn’t about the trauma itself; it’s about reconciliation, and as Alexandre comes forward to the Church and the press, he comes across two more of Preynat’s victims (Denis Ménochet and Swann Arlaud).
The three, as well as some of their respective family members, are largely past with suffering. It’s always in the past tense—“what he did to me,” “experienced trauma.” Ozon, however, doesn’t equate being past something with having healed from it, and on that level, it’s refreshing. But in spite of how it congeals overall, part of me was worried about the film partway through. Will everything wrap up in a bow? It ultimately doesn’t, thank God, and while several aspects are too sanitizes to make for a great film, its maneuvers are effortless.
Ozon also wrote the script, which is easily the weakest link here. Scenes with more than three people show how interchangeable the dialogue is at times, and the depiction of PTSD doesn’t use filmmaking to convey psychology. That said, it’s deeply respectful and aware of institutionalized power in both gender and religion, and pacing remains a strong suit for the director. There’s a power to By the Grace of God that could have been less overt—I’m looking at you, Spotlight poster in the background of one scene—but it by and large sticks the landing.
Last but not quite least for the day was a documentary, this time in the form of The Hypnotist. And it should have been a much better one, too: director Arthur Franck bobs through the life of Olavi Hakasalo, a Finnish hypnotist who went by Olliver Hawk. He was the kind of guy who, you know… believed that the biggest leaders in history, including Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler, hypnotized their followers whether they intended to or not. He also claimed that his work was medicinal, faked being a doctor, and illegally treated patients—ahem, “clients.”
He sounds, uh, fascinating, right? Because while the movie is very well done from a technical perspective from music to visuals, its detail is sorely lacking, playing half like a completed documentary and half like the bullet points that’d come from an hour of research. At first, this is possible to look over. Then it gets into its real meat: that Hawk apparently worked to overthrow Finland’s then-President, Urho Kekkonen, via sheer will. Hawk’s worldviews get some time and his personal life a bit more, but in the end, he just seems like another weird dude.
A large part of this has to do with the movie barely hitting 70 minutes. It’s as if entire portions were exorcised and rearranged, and with a structure that decides to be non-chronological whenever it sees fit, Franck’s own points come off as moot. Maybe there are parallels between gods and men, between politicians and actors. And when I say “maybe,” I mean, “… maybe… sure?” The Hypnotist could have shined a light on these ideas with more connective tissue and another half hour, but as it stands, Franck wants you to know Hawk is stiiillll a mystery.