Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Day 7: on parents and children

The really big surprise here is a theme of sorts that has thus far emerged, at least in the fourteen films I've seen.  Moreover,  I would guess that no one else would ever have guessed that this would appear so prominently.  This is, for sure, NOT a family values Festival, but the central focus of many films has been family, and very specifically the mother and child bond.  And this is pretty international, and certainly not solely an "American thing."  

The family tangle is front and center is The Three Monkeys, a Turkish film that explores the travail of a family paying the price of a boss' error, and they are already trying to recover from having lost a son.  They ward off disaster and actually hang together, though tenuously.  Walter Salles, the director of the gorgeous Central Station (1998), also about family, returns to the gritty urban terrain of San Paulo to treat the desperation of a hard-pressed single mother trying to raise four sons, different fathers all, and pregnant with still another child.  This is sociology to some extent, and given that this film features a tenacious but not especially likeable mother, it is also without sentiment, save perhaps for the haunting and very strange ending, a reprise in a way of the sort of thing he did at the end of Central Station.  Again, against all odds, that human bond in kinship, biological and relational, holds fast, though it is beset by titanic economic and cultural forces.  (There's also a not very good film from the Phillipines depicting one day in the life of an extended family that runs a porn theater.) 

The mother and child bond is there also in the French film Versailles, directed  by Pierre Schoeller.  A homeless mother, wary of the social system that might take her child, ends up in the countryside, abandoning her four year old son with another social exile who lives in the woods among others of his sort.  When she has at last procured a job, and social rehab as well, she returns to the woods to retrieve him only to find that the caretaker and boy have moved on to wherever.  The yearning of all for some deep, unfracturable bond roars through the film, in spite of some implausibility in its premise.  Something of the same scenario shapes the new film by the wonderful Dardenne brothers (La Promesse, The Son, and L'enfant, winner of the big prize here in 2005).  In The Silence of Lorna a young Albanian woman, working for a small freelance immigration mob, risks her pivotal status in their schemes in order to help another, an  extreme and dangerous error in the eyes of her cohorts. When she finds out she's pregnant and, yes, refuses to abort, things go from dire to survival.   The same happens in the Argentine film, Leonera (Lion's Den), in which a young woman ends up in prison already pregnant and living there with other women who have their families with them.  In all these film stories, that family bond is made palpable, pressing, and, really, in the final analysis, inviolate, no matter what trouble it causes.  Love in general is pain, and trial, and, strangely, very much worth it--and all the more so between mother and child.

No film emphases that more than the new Clint Eastwood release, presently titled L'Echange (the exchange), though what its eventual English title will be is still not resolved.  It is quite a remarkable film, very much of the masterly efficient and hyper-moral filmmaking the aging director Eastwood has undertaken for what is now decades.  In fact, it is fair to say that the central thematic in most all of Eastwood's late films, one after another, focuses on parents and children and guilt.  In this one, a single mother (Angelina Jolie, who really can act) in 1928 LA comes home from work to find her ten year old son missing.  And there the nightmare merely begins, for she has to deal with an unfathomably corrupt and callous police department.  In her fight for help she is aided by a wonderfully Presbyterian minister (John Malkovich) who rails on the radio against police intimidation and corruption.  And all of this then gets tangled up in the police discovery, very reluctantly, of a nearby serial killer of children.  If this sounds a bit preposterous, out-of-bounds melodrama, well, not so, for all of this is, apparently, pretty much true; parts of the film aeven coming directly, said Eastwood in his press conference here, from court testimony (google Wineville Chicken Murders).  

Eastwood is very much an old-time storyteller, eschewing fancy camera and editing, though the photography and palette are very fine, and all works here very well, the story-telling hardly ever missing a beat.  This confident graceful storytelling, even into the music, which Eastwood wrote himself and probably played (he is a longtime jazz pianist and has lately taken up composing for his films).  The film, whatever its name, offers up a relentless portrait of police chicanery, all true, and most of all, in the story of Christine Collins (Jolie), the horror of losing those creatures that become our lives.

What all these films are up to, and what they collectively might signal about this particular cultural moment in the West, is plainly anyone's guess, but it is one worth appreciating and pondering. Maybe, in the age of Brittany, we're bothering to sober up.   

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