1945

(Hungary 2016)

Ferenc Török’s excellent 1945, which he says took over a decade to finish, doesn’t end up where it looks like it’s going. The story takes place on a hot summer Saturday in August 1945 during a transitional time in Hungary — after the Nazis surrendered but before the Soviets left.

Two men in black, one old (Iván Angelus) and the other young (Marcell Nagy), arrive at the train station of a small rural village. They have two large trunks in tote, which they are bringing into town. They walk in silence behind the wagon as the hired driver (Miklós B. Székely) and his son (György Somhegyi) lead the way.

The stationmaster (István Znamenák) alerts the town clerk, István Szentes (Péter Rudolf), who’s in the midst of preparations for his son’s (Bence Tasnádi) wedding. The two visitors are Orthodox Jews who survived the Holocaust. The villagers are thrown into a state of paranoia, fearing the purpose of this unwanted intrusion.

Based on Gábor T. Szántó’s short story “Homecoming,” Török effectively sets up the narrative using the construct of a Western: an ominous sky, strangers in black, and nervous lawmen and townsfolk all ready for a conflict to erupt.

The conflict in 1945, however, started long before this day: it started when the apparently all Catholic residents betrayed their only Jewish neighbor, the owner of the local drug store. István’s wife, Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), turned him in to the Nazis. István took over his store and moved his family into his house. Everyone, from the police to the village priest (Béla Gados), looked the other way.

Török shows the conflicted villagers struggling to rectify their personal gain with the dishonorable way they achieved it. Török’s pacing is perfect, unfolding slowly with an ever-increasing sense of unease and doom. It doesn’t hurt that the ensemble case is tops. Elemér Ragályi’s gorgeous black and white cinematography emulates the look of films from the 1930s and 1940s:

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1945 is one of the more memorable films I caught at this year’s festival.

With Tamás Szabó Kimmel, Dóra Sztarenki, Ági Szirtes, József Szarvas, Sándor Terhes, Tünde Szalontay, Mari Nagy, János Derzsi, Tibor Mertz, Bálint Adorjáni, Vivianne Bánovits, Rita Kerkay, Zsolt Dér, Gergö Mikola, Máté Novkov

Production: Katapult Films

Distribution: Menemsha Films

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Ferenc Török

91 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.menemshafilms.com/1945

Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre]

(France / Italy 1961)

When young widow Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) bursts into a confessional and tells the priest, Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” it’s pretty clear that director Jean-Pierre Melville isn’t going easy on us. For awhile, it’s not clear where he’s going at all with Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre], a moody work that percolates with repressed sexuality while it dives into religion, philosophy, and politics.

The story, based on Béatrix Beck’s novel and set in a tiny town somewhere in the French Alps during the Italian occupation right before the Nazis took over, centers on Barny as her relationship with Fr. Morin develops and intensifies. She reveals that she’s a communist militant, possibly a lesbian, and Jewish by injection (i.e., her dead husband was a Jew). She tries to provoke him with her jabs at the Catholic Church, but Fr. Morin’s responses are measured and considered. She’s seduced.

It looks like something sexual is going to happen between them: he’s young and handsome, and she’s been without a man for so long that she’s lusting after a female coworker (Nicole Mirel). Once the two are alone behind the closed door of Fr. Morin’s office in a church tower, it happens: they engage in…discourse, discussing the tenets of Catholicism.

Léon Morin, Priest is low on action and heavy on dialogue, and as a result it often feels lethargic. All of the “important” discussions — the ones that advance the plot, anyway — occur in one room, which does nothing to accelerate the pace. The discussions involve dry topics like theology and philosophy and religious dogma.

However, Melville keeps it interesting with what’s going on in the background: he’s brutally frank about the casual and pervasive anti-Semitism, the lackadaisical Italian soldiers, and the callous efficiency of the Nazis. Riva and Belmondo smoulder, though the former’s performance is far more compelling. Amid the hasty baptisms of children and the desperate hiding of neighbors is the curiously amusing subplot about Fr. Morin having all the women of the village spellbound. It’s a light touch in an otherwise heavy film.

With Irène Tunc, Gisèle Grimm, Marco Behar, Monique Bertho, Marc Heyraud, Nina Grégoire, Monique Hennessy, Edith Loria, Micheline Schererre, Renée Liques, Simone Vannier, Lucienne Marchand

Production: Georges de Beauregard, Concordia Compagnia Cinematografica, Carlo Ponti

Distribution: Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France, Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Cineriz (Italy), Eurooppalainen Filmi (Finland), Rialto Pictures (USA)

130 minutes (restored version)
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Elle

(France 2016)

Director Paul Verhoeven’s Elle doesn’t sound like a comedy: the central event of the film is a rape—a bloody, violent one at that. In fact, it’s the very first scene. Strangely, the opening credits warn us that what we are seeing is “a French comedy.” Really? I guess that explains it!

Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her dining room by a man in a ski mask while her green-eyed cat watches, detached and seemingly bored. China is smashed, furniture is toppled, blood is shed. After he leaves, Michèle cleans up the mess and resumes her life, ordering sushi delivery—a “holiday roll,” no less.

As the film proceeds, we learn a lot about Michèle. She’s the daughter of a famous mass murderer approaching parole. She’s a ballbusting owner of a video game company. Her staff, entirely young and male, either wants to sleep with her or murder her. Her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), is totally whipped by a shrew (Alice Isaaz) who’s pregnant with a baby that clearly isn’t his. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is involved with a younger yoga instructor (Vimala Pons). Her mother (Judith Magre) is a high maintenance piece of work who carries on with men a third her age. Meanwhile, Michèle is having an affair with with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her business partner (Anne Consigny).

Things get dicey when Michèle develops a thing for her neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a handsome banker married to a devout Catholic (Virginie Efira) who apparently won’t fuck him. Their flirtation messes with her head as she tries to figure out who raped her. She’s surrounded by men, and every one of them is suspect.

David Birke’s screen adaption of Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… is, in a word, warped. Elle plays with power, desire, sex, and of all things sympathy. Consistent with its character—a constant switcheroo you don’t know whether to trust or look away from—it’s not a sad affair. To the contrary, it’s daring, thrilling, irreverent, and totally fun. It shouldn’t work—I found myself questioning whether I should enjoy the film as much as I did—but it does. The execution of both the plot and the characters is clever—and Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography, which nicely illustrates the psychological drama here, is flawless. If nothing else, Elle is a visually stunning film.

Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” plays at various points in Elle, suggesting a lot of contradictory things. I took it as ironic more than anything. Elle is not for everyone, but it’s a powerful statement for those who can handle it—the perfect film for Valentine’s Day.

With Lucas Prisor, Raphaël Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Hugo Conzelmann

Production: SBS Productions, Pallas Film, France 2 Cinéma, Entre Chien et Loup, Canal+, France Télévisions, Orange Cinéma Séries, Casa Kafka Pictures, Proximus, Centre National de la Cinématographie, Filmförderungsanstalt

Distribution: SBS Distribution

130 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

http://sonyclassics.com/elle/