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last update 25.Apr.17
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4.5/5   MUST must see SEE   Bacalaureat
dir-scr-prd Cristian Mungiu
with Adrian Titieni, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Lia Bugnar, Malina Manovici, Rares Andrici, Vlad Ivanov, Orsolya Moldovan, Tudor Smoleanu, Alexandra Davidescu, David Hodorog, Petre Ciubotaru, Gheorghe Ifrim
ivanov and dragus release Rom 20.May.16,
UK 31.Mar.17, US 7.Apr.17
16/Romania 2h08

london film fest
Graduation Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu tells a grounded story that's packed to the brim with details about characters, situations and culture - so much so that it never feels like a scripted movie. Even as it deals with big themes, the film is never pushy or melodramatic, letting events unfold to gently convey a powerfully challenging message.

Eliza (Dragus) is a top student with a scholarship to a British university. The day before her final exams, she's attacked by a stranger, which leaves her badly shaken. Her concerned father Romeo (Titieni) doesn't want her trauma to derail her future, so he speaks to well-connected friends, each of whom owes someone a favour and could use one from a top doctor like Romeo. Meanwhile, his wife Magda (Bugnar) clearly knows about his mistress Sandra (Manovici). And Romeo worries that Eliza's older boyfriend Marius (Andrici) will talk her out of moving to the UK.

Yes, there's rather a lot going on in this normal family, and everything converges at the same time around Romeo. Intriguingly, he never panics, continuing to try to do the best he can in every situation. But in this case that means bending his ethics, which are already wobbling due to his infidelity. The camera follows him tightly through every scene, watching him come up with each idea as he investigates Eliza's attack and confronts each person in turn.

These are exceptionally well-drawn characters, beautifully they're written and played. Each has his or her own personal issues that inform their actions and opinions, so watching them try to come together on anything is riveting. It's impossible to predict where each encounter might go, although as we get to know each person we begin to have an idea. Titieni creates an astonishing tightly wound stillness at the centre. And Dragus, Bugnar and Manovici find extra depth in their roles.

Essentially, the film is exploring the soul of a nation straining to emerge from decades of corruption. Owing someone a favour is a way of life here, so you help others because someday it will come back to you. The film is packed with layered conversations about how this affects everything from personal interaction to top politicians. And everyone seems aware of both the need to clean up the mess and the fact that sometimes it the wrong action is the only way to do the right thing. It's also a rare film that never shouts these things, merely telling a gripping story that leaves our heads spinning.

12 themes
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The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
4/5   Hymyilevä Mies
dir Juho Kuosmanen
prd Jussi Rantamaki
scr Mikko Myllylahti, Juho Kuosmanen
with Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, Joanna Haartti, John Bosco Jr, Deogracias Masomi, Shamuel Kohen, Pia Andersson, Henri Waltter Rehnstrom, Petri Hytonen, Nelly Nilsson, Carl Lyback
lahti and milonoff
release Fin 2.Sep.16,
UK/US 21.Apr.17
16/Finland 1h32

london film fest
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki A true story, this Finnish film looks like a movie from its period but is shot and performed with doc-style realism. The combination is breathtakingly original, as it feels like we are time-travelling to watch the events unfold. And director Juho Kuosmanen fills every scene with beautifully observed details that are often wickedly funny.

As he prepares to challenge the American world champion (Bosco) in 1962, young featherweight boxer Olli (Lahti) and his girlfriend Raija (Airola) move in with his trainer Elis (Milonoff) in Helsinki. With the nation's hopes on his shoulders, Olli is followed by a documentary crew, meets sponsors and poses for pictures with beauty queens. But Elis thinks Olli is distracted because his feelings for Raija are getting serious at just the wrong time for his career. While his main focus should be on dropping the needed weight, he's thinking about his future with Raija.

Shot in vintage black and white, the realism is underscored with wry comedy. For example, in the opening sequence Olli and his friends discuss his boxing career in whispers during a wedding ceremony, before rain washes out the reception. The story unfolds at an easy pace, getting deep under Olli's skin as everyone reminds him that his big match will be the happiest day of his life. Even though he has the nagging feeling that something else might be even better.

Performances are offhanded and almost startlingly natural. Lahti gives Olli a complex emotional life. He refuses to take the expected triumphant approach to the big fight; instead, Olli is consumed with his blossoming romance, develops terrific camaraderie with his gym-mates and refuses to trash-talk his opponent. Opposite him, Airola has a relaxed intelligent charm, taking their relationship through twists and turns that are sweet and strikingly realistic. Meanwhile, Milonoff gives Elis a driving ambition that makes everyone wonder who wants this championship more.

As as cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi dexterously follows Olli, the film echoes the style of the Dardenne brothers, whose approach was also mimicked by Aronofski for the The Wrestler, which takes a different approach to a similar setting. Kuosmanen's bravura filmmaking results in a stunningly inventive biopic, as well as a sports-themed film that brilliantly captures the surfaces but digs much deeper to find the real story. It's also a rare movie that undermines its complexity with a bracingly simple theme that resonates crisply and clearly.

12 themes, nudity

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The Other Side of Hope
4/5   MUST must see SEE   Toivon Tuolla Puolen
dir-scr-prd Aki Kaurismaki
with Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Janne Hyytiainen, Ilkka Koivula, Nuppu Koivu, Simon Al-Bazoon, Niroz Haji, Kaija Pakarinen, Varpu, Tommi Korpela, Puntti Valtonen, Kati Outinen
haji and haji release Fin 3.Feb.17,
UK 26.May.17
17/Finland 1h38

The Other Side of Hope With his deadpan sense of humour and infusion of folk-rock musicians, Aki Kaurismaki tells the story of a Syrian refugee in Finland. And while the plot takes a journey that would normally be associated with a dark, harrowing drama, the film's light tone and breezy humour give it an unexpected kick. Even within this heightened filmmaking style, these are people we recognise and sympathise with.

After a gruelling journey across Europe, refugee mechanic Khaled (Haji) arrives in Helsinki in the coal hold of a cargo ship, then immediately claims asylum. He is housed in a reception centre, where he befriends Iraqi refugee Mazdak (Al-Bazoon). And his big worry is for his sister (Niroz Haji), who was separated from him in Hungary. Meanwhile, businessman Wikstrom (Kuosmanen) leaves his wife (Pakarinen) to restart his life, investing in a restaurant and hiring the now illegal Khaled to join his staff (Hyytiainen, Koivula and Koivu) as they rebrand to attract more customers.

Yes, new starts are the theme, as everyone makes a series of major life changes. The topicality of Middle Eastern refugees adds a jolt of resonance, as does the film's wry title. And it's refreshing that Kaurismaki refuses to get earnest about this, finding witty angles on each character, even when things turn briefly violent. Scenes are played with an eye for the absurd, including the paintings on the wall and the music in the background. It's an approach that helps us smile even when things get serious.

Performances are open-faced, with actors nicely underplaying their roles to convey precisely how none of them are quite in control of their circumstances. Understandable, nobody says very much, and the wide-eyed Haji anchors the film with open curiosity and vulnerable physicality. By contrast, Kuosmanen plays Wikstrom as a man driven by his need to make sense out of his pointless life. Both men are proactive in very different ways.

Kaurismaki expertly creates fantastic-looking movies that tap into deep, earthy truths. Each scene here is expertly staged to cut through surfaces and expectations, for example drawing out the emotional back-stories without giving them too much power. The poker game at which Wikstrom earns his seed money is a mini-masterpiece. Muslim migrants decide to go out and "drink like the unbelievers". Japanese tourists are served sushi made from pickled herring with a dollop of wasabi. In other words, every moment in this movie is pure heaven. And what it has to say is urgent.

15 themes, language, violence
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The Student
4/5   (M)uchenik
dir-scr Kirill Serebrennikov
prd Yuriy Kozyrev, Diana Safarova, Ilya Stewart
with Pyotr Skvortsov, Viktoriya Isakova, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Yuliya Aug, Svetlana Bragarnik, Irina Rudniktskaya, Aleksandra Revenko, Anton Vasilev, Nikolay Roshchin, Marina Kleshcheva, Maria Altovskaya, Nikita Blokhin
gorchilin and skvortsov release Rus 13.Oct.16,
UK 3.Mar.17, US 28.Apr.17
16/Russia 1h58

london film fest
The Student Big ideas and razor-sharp wit combine in this pointed high school drama from Russia. This is a complex exploration of belief systems, sharply positioning religious fanaticism against science, politics and human instinct. Even as it devolves into psychological chaos, this is a challenging and important film, shot and edited with impressive skill, and played with an earthy, raw honesty.

In Kaliningrad, surly teen Venya (Skvortsov) is in trouble with his over-worked single mother (Aug) for skipping swimming practice. He claims that it's for religious reasons, quoting passages from the Bible in his defence. So the traditional principal (Bragarnik) begins to wonder if he has a point about girls swimming lustily in bikinis. Venya also helps defend the disabled Grisha (Gorchilin) from bullies, turning him into a perhaps too-faithful disciple. And as he clashes with biology teacher Lena (Isakova), who dares to teach about sex and evolution, his messianic complex only grows more rabid.

The film's Russian title is a conflation of the words for martyr and student. Director-cowriter Serebrennikov plays with this idea, using clever filmmaking to throw the audience right into the sometimes bewildering swirl of dogma and bursting emotion. Intriguingly, the adults all think Venya is just another angry teen, as if constantly quoting scripture is merely a sign of adolescent angst. Meanwhile, there are also smart scenes with an orthodox priest (Roshchin), offering an intriguing counterpoint. And it's impossible to predict where the plot is heading, although the possibilities are worrying.

As the unapologetic Venya, Skvortsov has an eerie confidence that knowingly blurs the lines between a true believer and an expert manipulator, quoting "the Lord" to bolster his Old Testament views. So he's both annoying and magnetic. The amazing Aug plays his exhausted mother as a woman perpetually at wit's end. And Isakova is superb as the frazzled voice of reason. The surrounding cast is so believable that the film becomes genuinely unnerving as Venya's mania increases, taking the story in some bleak directions.

Serebrennikov shoots scenes in complex long takes that are often dazzlingly intense. The film is making a series of striking observations on the conflict between old-world ideas and a deeper modern understanding of sexuality and social responsibility. In its final act, the theme shifts to Venya's need to force others to believe. In other words, terrorism. This feels a little too on-the-nose, especially as things turn darker, but the drama and what it suggests is utterly riveting.

15 themes, language, violence, nudity

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