En Passant

En Passant is the movie that everyone who entertains thoughts of making a movie thinks he should make: an examination of the private, individual stories of seemingly ordinary people gathered in a public place. As this film shows, this is a good idea in theory but extremely difficult to pull off well in practice. Why? Because the lives of ordinary people are just that – ordinary.


Netherlanders Mirjam Boelsums and Lony Scharenborg have opted for the documentary style, running through an uncredited cast which includes a middle-aged homosexual man whose maternal grandparents were Nazis and whose paternal grandparents were those who fought against them (by far the most interesting tale here, but it loads the Wagner score with undue meaning), an old woman lamenting her abandonment by her family and the inevitable death of her cancer-riddled dog, a young woman reflecting on a doomed relationship, an obese couple ruminating separately on their marriage, and so on. Few are optimistic about their futures. Most could be classed as being fatalistic or deterministic.The film is set on the Rembrandt Express, the train that runs along the Rhine from Switzerland to Amsterdam. Some of the incidental cinematography is beautiful, enabling director of photography Ruud Monster to elevate the mundane to the level of art. Too bad Boelsums and Scharenborg’s screenplay can’t do the same for the people. The stories are occasionally moving, but more frequently they are uninteresting emotional issues that beg for a few solid therapy sessions and not a cinema audience.

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Khorma, enfant du cimetière (Khorma)

Aimless and unstructured, Jilani Saadi’s Khorma is a contemporary allegory of Jesus which tries to make a martyr out of an entirely unsympathetic protagonist, the dim-witted recidivist of the title.Adopted, so to speak, by the religious town crier Bou Khaleb, the orphaned Khorma has grudgingly followed for years in his mentor’s footsteps. As Bou Khaleb begins to lose his mind and commit unpardonable blunders, the town’s makeshift council of elders calls up Khorma to replace him, albeit with much reluctance. Khorma relishes the position. But the newfound power of influence goes to his head. Claiming to be on excellent terms with God, he challenges the most powerful men in the Tunisian port town of Bizerte, who vow to bring him down.


During this potentially interesting sequence of events, we are subjected to a lot of visual nonsense. Khorma sings. Khorma dances. Khorma gets beat up (or buggered; we don’t know which). Khorma pisses on the wall through his unique two-holed penis. Khorma gives high fives to everyone he sees. Khorma watches TV. Khorma flirts with his employer’s daughter. And for what? No discernible reason, that’s what. Saadi is so intent on making his protagonist cute, such as having him spin around furiously at wedding dances and impersonate his favourite singer, that the director forgets to give reasons why we should like or dislike him, or have any but the most passing interest in his fate. The significant scenes are dispatched in seconds to make room for more singing and more dancing – without the choreographic flair of Bollywood. By the time Khorma gets his due, he is neither hero nor anti-hero, just a poorly made-up actor in a mock crucifixion.

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Viaje hacia el mar (Journey to the Sea)

Guillermo Casanova’s film of six men on a trip to see the ocean has made the rounds through a number of small festivals, scooping up countless prizes and trophies along the way. Nevertheless some critics have reacted less than favourably. One reviewer in the daily Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival newspaper bulletin went so far as to award it just one star out of five as a way of underlining his severe displeasure.


To me, this seems like unwarranted grumpiness. One watches and enjoys Journey to the Sea for its assemblage of likeable characters, many of whom could justifiably be labelled caricatures; out of amused curiosity, despite a somewhat familiar storyline; for its sumptuous camerawork, though none of it is particularly groundbreaking; and for the simple emotional truths of its story, which can at times incline toward the sentimental – in short, for its quaint, delightfully fictional world of innocence and camaraderie. In this respect it shares some qualities with Louis de Bernières’ novel Corelli’s Mandolin (not, I hasten to add, the putrid film adaptation of the same), which might help identify Journey to the Sea’s popular appeal. Only at the conclusion did de Bernières’ novel unforgivably cross the lines of stereotype and schmaltz; and the same, I suppose, could be said of Casanova’s film adaptation of the short story by the Uruguayan author Juan José Morosoli.The journey of the title would be all but insignificant were it not the reason these characters convene in the first place, largely at the request of RodrÃguez (Hugo Arana). For some, like the good-natured Siete y Tres Diez (Julio César Castro) and the curmudgeonly gravedigger Quintana (Julio Calcagno), it will likely be their first and last glimpse of the sea – no secret to them or anyone else. For Rataplán (Diego Delgrossi), the simple-minded street sweeper, the trip is a minor adventure; for RodrÃguez’s scowling brother Vasco (Héctor Guido) it’s an alternative to passing out on the curb. All except the mysterious stranger (César Troncoso) – a writer, we later learn – are comfortably and resolutely provincial, and their naïveté is largely responsible for the film’s comedy. Along the way they toss out small-town homilies about life and love, some hopelessly misguided and some remarkably clever. As they finally approach the beaches of Canelones, the men stare in wonder at the peculiar customs and low-cut fashions of contemporary (i.e., 1963) Uruguay. Even from the outset, no one can really expect that any of this would be otherwise.


To an extent, the grumbling critics have a point: Journey to the Sea is predictable, unsophisticated and finishes in a disappointingly unimaginative way. But it’s possible to like it – really like it – not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. Like its assortment of characters, Journey to the Sea is brimming with guileless charm and a sense of the just-out-of-reach familiar, effecting in the viewer a mood somewhere between nostalgia and imaginative fancy. So many movies aim to give us reasons to be dissatisfied with the world and the people in it. Journey to the Sea asks instead in a casual, non-condescending way that we fall in love with it again. If that makes it a critical flop, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate our standards.

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De arm van Jezus (The Arm of Jesus)

The arm of Jesus is the device miner Hendrik Yzermans (Huug van Tienhoven) uses to paddle away from his flooded hometown of Schinnen en route to the golden streets of America. He has had to steal 52 weeks of his colleagues’ wages to emigrate, as we are reminded on more than one occasion, but he believes the Eden across the Atlantic will be worth its weight in guilt. In a form of divine retribution, this wooden artefact will later tumble from atop a closet, mortally injuring his estranged son Jacob (Ferry Heijne) who has come from America to Rotterdam on a business trip.


A plot like this has all the makings of a black comedy, and a pretty good one at that. Instead this moody, stylised feature by the Dutchman André van der Hout is too tedious to be much of anything other than a hit with the equally tedious arthouse crowd. It flip-flops between father-son melodrama, inconsequential dialogue, folky musical interludes, and drawn-out jokes, making this pretentious, ill-used hour and eleven minutes seem like an eternity. Its sole redeeming quality is way it shifts between present-day colour and the black-and-white footage of history and memories. Little need to question why the theatre was filled with the sound of snoring.

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Sprickorna i muren (A Breach in the Wall)

It would be lazy and unfair to lump this feature by Swedish director Jimmy Karlsson together with Gus van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, though there are certainly parallels with the movie that put Ben Affleck and Matt Damon on the cinematic map back in 1997. A Breach in the Wall is about an underachiever whose mathematical genius has gone unnoticed by bureaucratic school administrators and his simple, self-interested family; and this same genius is recognised and nurtured by one frustrated samaritan. But any narrative similarities are superficial only. Karlsson uses his version as vehicle to examine some larger themes.The personal focus here falls less on the genius and more on the frustrated samaritan, supply teacher and self-professed “mediocre talent” Lars Herdin (Magnus Krepper). Bitter and suicidal from years of struggling against the unthinking status quo and trying to find the eponymous breach in society’s protective walls, his optimism is renewed when he takes Jonny (Sverrir Gudnason), his secondary school student who is multifariously gifted but knee deep in shady dealings, under his wing and sets him on the path to Upsala University. With a mix of vicarious living and genuine well-wishing, Herdin hopes that Jonny will come to revolutionise mathematics in a way that he, Herdin, could not. Jonny’s girlfriend Claire (Johanna Lazcano Osterman), a charming, attractive political ideologue, looks on to this mentor-apprentice relationship with mixed feelings, regarding Jonny with increased apprehension and Herdin with increased infatuation. Herdin senses in Claire a similarly idealistic heart and mind. He’s repeatedly tempted to brush aside both strict professional mores and his jaded criticisms of love and reciprocate physically.


Other important and competing forces are at work here too. Jonny’s parents, already having lost a bright son to the allure of the outside world, are wary of anything that might steal their second child away. Unlike Will Hunting’s support team, Jonny’s troublemaking coterie is deeply threatened by his newfound intellectual interests and his growing ego. And the rule-bound school headmaster is too blinded by his prejudices to see Jonny as anything other than a moped thief who must be punished. None of them can imagine – let alone accept – things to be other than what they seem to be. On a metaphorical level, Herdin represents ideas and ideals; all the rest is cold, indifferent reality, driven by human nature and violently averse to anything abstract or theoretical. This and not the budding of a genius is where the film’s dramatic tension lies. Compounded with the acute sexual/romantic tension between Herdin and Claire, this drama remains compelling throughout, and in places as gripping as a thriller.This clash of the real and the ideal culminates in an ending that is not as rosy as one the Hollywood studios might prefer. However, Karlsson cannot resist a few seconds of moralistic optimism to drive home the “point” of the tale. These few seconds of heavy-handedness spoil the subtlety of an otherwise excellent film. In any case, there is still much to take away from A Breach in the Wall, but one has the feeling that the “point,” no matter how obvious, will be lost on those who need it most.

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NeuFundLand (NewFoundLand)

Newfoundland is one of about ten films by up-and-coming or lesser-known veteran German directors at this year’s Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival. Just before the film, director and screenwriter Georg Maas, 43, introduced his most recent work as “ruhig und langsam” (“quiet and slow”). He wasn’t lying.


Robert’s (Jochen Nickel) wife Jule has died in circumstances that he will gradually reveal after he sees, follows, meets and is completely smitten by Christiane (Anna Loos). This new relationship, however, allows some skeletons to tumble out of Robert’s closet while helping him to lay other demons to rest: Christiane is the spitting image of Jule (actually, Loos quite obviously plays both parts, but without the clever doubling twist of Vertigo). Even Leo (Axel Prahl), Robert’s level-headed, wheelchair-bound friend (who may or may not have been in the same car as Jule at the time of the fateful accident), is unsettled by the physical similarites. Meanwhile, as all this emotional to-ing and fro-ing takes place, Christiane is plotting to steal her money back from a loan shark in order to quit her job as a photo booth repairwoman, buy back her café, and provide a better life for her five-year-old daughter.The plot – outlined here in its simplest form – relies on far too many coincidences and quirks to remain credible. Maas’ dialogue and directing either lean too heavily on the Hollywood stylebook or fall into the indie stereotype of eccentricity for its own sake. Likewise, this time devoted to amusing frivolities could have been spent on development of the characters and core plot, because the build to nearly every storyboard mile-marker is creepingly slow; and when it comes, either the action or the characters are half-realised. The acting in some of the opening scenes is like watching cardboard cut-outs being shuffled across the screen. The score is the synth-guitar mix characteristic of 1980’s cop drama. The editing is distractingly choppy. Whether in English or German, the title has almost nothing to do with the film. I could go on.


And yet it all hangs together, though just barely, with the equivalent of cinematic duct tape. There are some original comic moments. The feelings between Robert and Christiane seem genuine in spite of being much too rushed at the outset (in fact, the only part of this film that isn’t plodding). As Leo, Prahl has some excellent, unpretentious lines. There are some thoughtful visual metaphors, such as Robert towing an old trailer “like a coffin” behind his car. Plus the natural backdrops are magnificent. None of these is enough to earn NewFoundLand a five-star rating, of course, but it is an oddly enjoyable break from the Ostalgie of Good Bye, Lenin and the all-too-common German psycho-/eroto-thriller like Lola Rennt or Das Experiment. NewFoundLand’s charms manage to make at least some of its many flaws seem less glaring.

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