When the director of an arthouse horror film about supernatural children readily admits he was inspired by his own experiences of first-time parenthood, audiences know they’re in for a treat. Which isn’t to say, of course, that Norwegian director Eskil Vogt is harboring Rosemary’s Baby-like progeny, fictional or otherwise. The four children, aged roughly 7-11, that feature in his sophomore film The Innocents aren’t necessarily evil — the film’s title should make that clear — but are instead caught in the crosshairs of a particularly traumatic moral education.
When 7-year old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her 11-year sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) move into a sprawling apartment block surrounded by woods, Ida petulantly observes that most of their peers are already away on summer vacation. In the logic of childhood, where proximity is the best determinant for friendship, this leaves two playmates — soft-spoken Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) and older, bullied Ben (Sam Ashraf), both raised by immigrant single mothers. Anna, who is autistic and nonverbal, seems content to gaze at the sky or play with an erasable drawing pad; the question of whether she feels pain is raised throughout the film, with increasingly high stakes. Restless, resentful Ida seems to take spiteful pleasure in pinching her sister’s leg when their mother isn’t watching, or leaving her alone when she clearly shouldn’t (although, to be fair, Norwegian parents customarily leave strollers, complete with sleeping infant, outside for hours; the latitude these children are given is probably unthinkable for most American parents.)
Vogt, who is perhaps best known as the frequent collaborator of director Joachim Trier, isn’t interested in creating a Scandinavian X-Men universe, where precocious youngsters are whisked to a state-of-the-art facility and carefully trained in judicious restraint. This particular foursome is much scrappier: Ben’s telekinesis is first tested on bottle caps and pebbles, and Aisha’s ability to hear other people’s thoughts manifests through light-hearted jabs at Ben’s expense. It isn’t long before their powers — particularly Ben’s — progress at rapid and then horrifying speed (be warned: an early scene involving an ill-fated housecat presages much, much worse.) Ida, for her part, is the only one of the group without obvious powers, notwithstanding double-jointed elbows.
But they are all connected through Anna, who acts as a conduit for the others; through Aisha, she tentatively regains her ability to talk. Vogt and sound designer Gustaf Berger deftly convey their groupthink through layered, multi-sensory cues: clear, bell-like tones carry thoughts and emotions through walls and stairwells, while reverberating echoes convey the empty, insular space the children occupy. The only hint of more mainstream superpower movies is when Vogt and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen indulge in Marvel-esque flourishes like rippling water and trembling leaves underfoot; it’s a little contrived, but nonetheless effective.
It’s a mark of childhood that the children treat their newfound abilities with unblinking acceptance; why wouldn’t a boy with a treehouse also move objects with his mind? Another characteristic is the intensity of their emotions, something we’re quickly taught to squash in adulthood. Each child actor is uniformly excellent, whether they’re bursting with bubbling, joyful glee or crushed by explosive, all-consuming rage. If Ben’s arc takes him deeper into darkness, using his abilities to settle scores and one-up his friends, it’s Ida who exhibits the most growth by embracing the values that are prized by conventional society — above all, empathy. The film is strongest and most harrowing when the characters come face-to-face with the irreversible consequences of their actions: in terms of pure atmosphere and tension, watching The Innocents is like experiencing a two-hour long sinking feeling.
Vogt sets the film in and immediately around the children’s shared apartment complex, trapping them in an increasingly convoluted physical and metaphysical web. The complex is huge, but as in The Shining, the scale is off; we never know which stairs lead where, or the exact location of each apartment. The Norwegian summer’s endless sun adds another layer of uncanny claustrophobia, as do the tightly twisting staircases and surrounding woods. It’s perhaps a uniquely Scandinavian version of the more familiar suburban gothic horror subgenre, in which various evil forces are set upon hapless individuals in identical single-family houses. Here, audiences can glean socio-economic differences between the families, but Vogt doesn’t offer the sort of pointed commentary we might expect from an American director. Instead, he focuses on the universal struggle of all children, despite ethnicity or social status, to shed their inherent solipsism and decipher right from wrong — with, hopefully, the bare minimum of collateral damage along the way. Above all, he unflinchingly explores the central paradox of childhood, the only period of life in which we’re guilty of cruelty but — for a brief, magical moment — innocent to the consequences.
Writer: Selina Lee
The African Desperate
The first few minutes of Martine Syms’ The African Desperate seem designed to give art school survivors a flush of Proustian remembrance by way of sheer panic. Graduate student Palace (Diamond Stingily) is prepping for her final thesis critique, her last act before graduating with a master’s. She’s putting the final touches on her work as a quartet of professors make their way into her studio and proceed to interrogate, talk over, and otherwise mis-characterize Palace’s art, asking invasive questions and bandying about obtuse jargon. It’s a dense sequence, with overlapping dialogue and a mix of perspectives punctuated by shots of Palace’s confused, sometimes angry reactions. One professor reads a ludicrous prepared statement, while another insists on constantly referencing Edouard Glissant like a cudgel (there’s a remarkable moment when Palace finally corrects the professor with a different, more pertinent interpretation of Glissant, asserting her own intellectual bona fides).
For veterans of this process, it’s both darkly comedic and startlingly realistic. Syms certainly knows it well, having attended both SAIC in Chicago and Bard College in upstate New York, where this film is set and shot. Stingily is also an artist, having collaborated with Syms on multiple projects and so too presumably well aware of the peculiar aura of excitement and dread that comes with presenting work for critique. What’s most impressive about The African Desperate is that it finds uncomfortable truths and dark humor in an otherwise realistic milieu — this isn’t the overblown, ludicrous histrionics of Terry Zwigoff’s awful Art School Confidential adaptation, nor a simplistic denunciation of pretentious fine art clichés. Syms and Stingily don’t doubt the importance of art, or the process of making it, but as Black women are carefully attuned to the subtle and not-so-subtle power struggles that can infiltrate a competitive space, as well as the ways that people politicize words, gestures, and objects. While this sequence only takes up a few minutes at the beginning of the film, it colors all that comes after it; Palace ends the critique in tears, an image that suggests more pain and suffering than her otherwise brash, outgoing demeanor lets on.
The rest of The African Desperate transpires over the remainder of this day and late into the night, as Palace begins packing to leave the next morning and tries to see friends, roommates, and a potential paramour before her departure. She’s also hemming and hawing over whether or not to attend the big graduation bash to close out the semester. The structure bears some resemblance to Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, albeit on a smaller scale and centered on a different generation. But some things remain the same regardless of era — namely sex and drugs.
A veteran of video productions, Syms does a lot of interesting things here in her fiction film debut, allowing the movie and its narrative to gradually break down and become more diffuse as Palace progressively gets drunker and higher while en route to and during the party. Call it a movement from a relatively realistic objectivity to a more interiorized subjectivity, culminating in a woozy, disorienting series of encounters with her equally intoxicated peers. Syms also tries her hand at more overt stabs at stylization; FaceTime calls are presented in a kind of ‘”glamour shots’” portraiture, and Palace’s inner voice is occasionally represented via random internet symbols, memes, and gifs that appear in rapid, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them flash cuts. It’s all fascinating, anchored by a star-making turn from Stingily. Her Blackness is only occasionally remarked upon, but she’s one of only a couple of persons of color seen in the film, and her large frame and shock of orange hair make her the center of attention no matter who she’s sharing a scene with. There’s also class concerns that hover around the margins, which, like matters of race, aren’t hammered home but instead act as a steady undercurrent of potential conflict. Palace ends the film back in downtown Chicago, lugging suitcases to and from a CTA Blue Line train. It’s a stark contrast to the bucolic environs of the Bard campus, and not-so-subtly suggests that Palace’s time at school was an escape from a harsher day-to-day existence. The question, then, becomes a philosophical quandary that has dogged many young artists: are the intellectual pursuits of higher education simply a narcissistic, frivolous bubble within which to ensconce oneself, this in opposition to a more quotidian existence? Should one’s art reflect and make meaning of that same existence? Thankfully, Syms has the good sense to leave it as an open question. What a remarkably assured film this is.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
The City & the City
There’s something to be said for the narrative and structural principles of incoherence, attempting to evoke a fractured place, culture, or time through a jumble of stories. The results can certainly be mixed, suffering from a surfeit of complications, or otherwise failing to link together its strands with anything more than the faintest of ideas. But in the right hands, it can be a revelation, little pieces adding up to a grand portrait that continually surprises as it digs deeper and deeper into the unknown.
The City and the City, the first directorial collaboration between Syllas Tzoumerkas (The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea) and Christos Passalis (an actor known for Dogtooth and his appearances in Tzoumerkas’s past films, making his directorial debut here), falls somewhere in the middle of these two polarities in its chronicling of the Greek Jewish community in Thessaloniki and its severe persecution by Nazi invaders in 1943. Across six chapters, something of a vague narrative develops as characters, including a Jewish family, drift in and out of the stories told, but many moments initially seem random or disconnected, linked only by the shared air of unease and dislocation in both narrative and presentation.
Tzoumerkas and Passalis’s directorial presentation ascribes to a similar level of free mixing. While The City and the City appears to all be set in the 20th-century, stretching from World War II to somewhere in the 1980s, at least several scenes make no efforts to hide the present state of the city, with modern cars and bright lights rushing by these people clad in period garb. Even the scenes more visibly set in the 1940s have a slippery relationship: the first chapter cuts between an impoverished clothes seller filmed in black-and-white — surrounded by a cascade of languages including Turkish, Armenian, and Ladino — and a richer Greek family filmed in color; the ordinary implication would be that these take place in separate times, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The City and the City finds more of a focal point when it deals directly with the horrors of the Nazi occupation. An especially striking sequence depicts forced physical exercises run by the soldiers, where they torment men in extended takes whose camera focus seems to only capture a small circle in a different part of the frame with each shot. Such devices, along with the use of archival footage and explanatory intertitles, creates a more vivid sense of history and direct effects than many of the more deliberately obscure episodes.
Perhaps The City and the City’s most incisive element comes in its chapter title cards: each one shows a particular government organization who forms the principal aggressor for the part. Crucially, this extends both before and after the Nazi occupation; while the penultimate scene, appearing to be either a flashback to or a revelation of a secret backroom where fascist torture is still taking place, muddles things too much, the central message becomes clear in these indicting moments: oppression will always threaten those not in power, especially the people of a specific community.
Writer: Ryan Swen
Children of the Mist
Properly encircling modern spheres of film analysis and critical study, documentary ethics are unfurling through heated dialectical discourses, which seek to question the materialist functions of cinema’s ontology. Historical studies are being placed at the forefront of these debates, critically surveying the development of the camera: its position as an arbiter of violence guided by colonial and imperial gazes. Recently, a wave of neo-ethnographic films have been celebrated as actively reconfiguring the relationship between colonizer and colonized, the cameras now in the hands of those artists coming from within the communities they are representing. It’s not entirely convincing, however, that this exchange of whose hands the camera sits in fully contests the objectifying processes that such forms of documentary filmmaking (mostly taking root in observational/poetic methods) enact. Diem Ha Le’s Children of the Mist doesn’t do much to dissuade from this particular skepticism.
Diem’s film observes a family belonging to the Hmong people, an Indigenous ethnic minority local to southwestern China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. The family we are engaged with resides in the mountains of north Vietnam, close to the Chinese border, but the focal point of the documentary is the youngest child, Di. She’s a 12-year-old girl in the midst of exploring her current and future relationship with sexuality and autonomy, for the practice of “bride-napping” becomes an increasingly dominant subject of discussion as she involves herself with another boy from school. What’s conflicting here, then, is Diem’s positionality through the film as it plays out for an audience. Di, on multiple occasions, asks for the camera to be put away. This request goes either ignored or momentarily consented to, a cut transitioning us back into the scene, perhaps a few minutes later. A rather harrowing sequence close to the end of the film further accentuates the dual role of witness and invader that the camera must play, where Di is in the midst of a screaming match as she is forcibly dragged away by the family of the boy who has taken her for his bride. Diem seems intent on observing the events as they unfold, contemplating in real-time if she should intervene or not. In these moments of participation for Diem, where the situation no longer allows her to be comfortably set behind the camera, that it becomes most difficult to contend with the work and reconcile with these very clearly crossed and progressively blurred ethical lines. What is being presented persists in the othering of the film’s subjects — the camera remains as a material breach into the lives it takes as subject. A reflexivity in Diem’s double role as filmmaker/onlooker and our role — solely as onlooker — is not present here, and so these utilized forms feel merely like an echo to the ethnography of yesteryear. While Diem’s disconcerted eye protrudes sporadically through the majority of the silent observation, it doesn’t quite seem enough to trouble the faculties of a camera and its intrusive place within a community where the filmmaker, regardless of shared nationality, remains an outsider.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind
Once the purview of Dateline NBC, 20/20, and 48 Hours, the surge of true-crime podcasts and Netflix documentaries has led to an explosion of amateur sleuths and Internet investigators. It’s tempting to read the new Lithuanian film Pilgrims through this particular lens, although Laurynas Bareisa‘s spare, cryptic drama gradually reveals itself to be something altogether darker, and more singular. Pilgrims begins with a young woman, Indre (Gabija Bargailaite), arriving at the home of Paulius (Gieddrius Kiela). His foot is in a cast, and she’s been tasked with driving him in his car on a trip. It’s clear that the two know each other and have some sort of shared history; she inquires about his parents, while he asks if she is “seeing anybody new,” but Bareisa plays coy about the exact nature of their relationship. The duo travel to a small town and begin what appears to be an investigation of some sort. Paulius has detailed, intimate knowledge of a very specific crime, and walks Indre through reams of forensic information. In due time it becomes clear that the pair are not, in fact, former lovers. Instead, Indre was once engaged to Paulius’ brother, Matas, who was murdered in the place they are visiting. Indre and Paulius have decided to retrace the steps that led to Matas’ death, albeit for reasons unknown (perhaps even to themselves). Indre and Paulius make stops at a restaurant, then pose as a couple to gain entry to the home of an elderly woman. Along the way, Paulius asks invasive questions of people they meet, demanding everything they know about the murder of his brother.
It’s all very ominous, everything lathered with the patina of a horror film. But as Bareisa reveals more and more information, Indres and Paulius’ pilgrimage makes less sense. Not only is the murderer already known, they have been arrested and convicted. This has all transpired well in the past. Everyone in the town acknowledges the crime, even if they aren’t particularly thrilled to keep talking about it with these interlopers. So what are our intrepid detectives hoping to find? Catharsis, perhaps, or the ultimate question — why? Bareisa allows details to gradually accumulate to form a disturbing portrait of not only murder, but abduction and torture. As is de rigueur for this kind of European art film, Bareisa shoots mainly in carefully composed, largely static master shots. It’s a familiar aesthetic, but he toys with it in interesting ways. Periodically, the camera will slowly pan away from our main characters to take in an empty road or deserted space. It’s as if Bareisa is trying to find something just beyond the borders of the frame, something intangible and elusive.
There’s a scene late in the film that further clarifies Bareisa’s intentions; in it, a young man who knew the murderer takes Indre to a deserted spot in the woods and proceeds to point out all the atrocities that have happened in the town. In one direction, a mass grave discovered after WWII, in another the home of a man who murdered his family, and so on. The implications are clear, and terrifying: it takes a village to foster these kinds of monsters, and Indre and Paulius’ attempts to wrestle with the existential stakes of this realization lead to a kind of breakdown. There’s no way for an individual to face the generational terror of our modern era. Bareisa allows his narrative to ultimately end with an opaque rebirth, or baptism. He doesn’t force the symbolism, and there’s no grand theme about forgiveness, only a grim understanding that sometimes we simply can’t comprehend the why of an event. Nothing is learned in the end, except that there are no easy answers, and the world is a worse place than one could ever imagine.
Writer: Daniel Gorman