Thursday, August 06, 2009

MIFF 2009 Day 12 - 4/8/09

Due to illness, I dropped Yuri's Day and The Nun from my schedule but watched Morphia in the comfort of my own lounge-room, thanks to a preview screener for the Russian Resurrection Film Festival. As for The Nun, I generally love Rivette, though I heard the print was at best ordinary. I finally ventured out for the 9:15PM screening of The White Ribbon and was questioning my sanity - sick as a dog and staying up to midnight for the screening. But I'm glad I did - it remains my favourite film of the festival so far. Coincidentally, both films I saw are set in the same period.
  • Morfiy (Morphia, Aleksey Balabanov, Russia, 2008)
  • Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, Austria, 2009)
Morphia is a technically impressive film – the period reproduction in particular is awesome. Set in Siberia at the outset of the Russian Revolution, a talented young doctor is sent on his first assignment to a small provincial hospital in which he is the sole doctor. After an allergic reaction to a diphtheria vaccination, he is given morphine, to which he gradually becomes addicted.

Despite obvious strengths, the film may be a challenge for some audiences. An amputation and a tracheotomy are particularly gruesome. The constant snow and blizzards also have a chilling effect. Perhaps most significant is that there are virtually no redeemable characters and the main protagonist is a lying drug addict, and we never really get insights into his inner world. The director seems intent on keeping us out in the cold, in more ways that one. I couldn't warm to it, I found it disturbing and had to watch something light afterwards.

The White Ribbon
The White Ribbon is perhaps Michael Haneke's most mature and entrancing film. That's quite some claim, given the awesome body of work he has created (in my mind, there is no such thing as a bad Haneke film). It encompasses or flirts with a number of themes and genres already covered in his earlier films (such as social realism, horror, crime, thriller, supernatural), perhaps playing with our expectations and yet subverting them, but never in a cheap, contrived manner. Haneke plays it straight with the audience, but you never really know where he's going. What's important with this film is to focus not on the destination, but the journey.

This is a film in which you really need to concentrate, take note of who is who (and there's a lot of people to keep a track of) and which children belong to who. There's also a lot of children, who play some stunning roles. Some of them may be victims, some of them innocent bystanders and some of them something more sinister. If evil exists, can you blame the children? Or the often well-meant but deluded parents. Some of the imagery used is amazing, in particular the chastised boy with the simple cross on the wall behind him. Many times the camera takes a point of view shot to very good effect. The characterisations, period detail and reproduction of mannerisms and social mores are all at the very highest levels of achievement and it's not hard to see why this film was awarded Cannes' highest honour.

The story is superficially much more conventional than one associates with Haneke. At first it seems a slightly rambling, rustic, rural tale. A subversion of expectations? Maybe.

Eventually, like Hidden, the film has something to say about politics, and more besides. There are broadsides at religion and society in general. At the outset of the start of World War I, Haneke seems to suggest that the brutality of the next two wars over thirty years could perhaps be traced to the cruel ways that humans treat each other on the micro level: within villages, communities and families. The film is shot in black and white, a bold choice by Haneke, but it works very well. It resembles a Carl Dreyer film (think Gertrude) or even Bergman.


Glenn Dunks said...

I found "Morphia" to be nothing more than a routine drug addict story gussied up in period costumes and sets.

"The White Ribbon"... I'm not sure. I know I'm meant to see something "there", but I'm not sure I do. Do you know what I mean? Like... I get ambiguity, but sometimes I think directors use that as a cheap way of actually getting out of saying something.

Although I'm not sure if that is the specific case with "Ribbon", it's just something I felt.

Paul Martin said...

Fair comments about Morphia, Glenn. The problem with the story is we never get close to the doctor, no insights into his personality, no redeeming qualities. The film keeps us on the outside.

I know what you mean about The White Ribbon. Hidden is a little the same. I don't think there's anything cheap about what Haneke is doing. I find it one of his most skillful films that really has a lot to say, without saying it. And I love it for doing it that way.