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last update 7.Apr.18
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A Gentle Creature
dir-scr Sergei Loznitsa
prd Marianne Slot
with Vasilina Makovtseva, Marina Kleshcheva, Lia Akhedzhakova, Valeriu Andriuta, Boris Kamorzin, Sergey Kolesov, Larisa Simonova, Piotr Plecken, Wanda Labinska, Sofia Lozovskaja, Pavel Vorozhtsov, Pavel Chukreev
release US Oct.17 nyiff,
UK 13.Apr.18
17/Latvia 2h23

A Gentle Creature An absurd tone undercuts this relentlessly grim film, as Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa takes the audience on a spiralling odyssey into the most hopeless aspects of Russian society. It's not an easy film to watch, packed with symbolism and references that will be lost on most Western viewers. But it's still fascinating, anchored by a wrenching performance by Vasilina Makovtseva in the title role.

In a small Russian village, a woman (Makovtseva) lives a quiet life while her husband serves a prison sentence on an unknown charge. Then one day, a parcel she has sent to him is returned unopened, with no explanation. Since she has no other recourse, she travels to the prison to find out what has happened. But the town around the prison feels like various levels of bureaucratic hell, only lightened by a too-helpful hostel owner (Kleshcheva) and a frazzled human rights activist (Akhedzhakova). Everyone seems to want something, and the facts are maddeningly elusive.

As this gentle woman falls deeper into her bureaucratic nightmare, the film combines a strong sense of irony with yearning outrage over the loss of a nation's soul. People are reduced to grasping manipulators, getting whatever they can in a system that will never be remotely fair. Although it's set in the present day, Loznitsa and cinematographer Oleg Mutu shoot this like a particularly artful period film, with a gorgeously detailed sense of desolation in the various settings and a cast of vividly expressive actors.

Makovtseva delivers a staggeringly understated performance, expressing emotion and humour with the most minimal facial movements imaginable. Her character is always frustrated, sometimes furiously so, but remains passively observant, quietly pushing forward as she attempts to keep her true feelings hidden. It's the people around her who get to chomp merrily on the scenery, expressing a blustering emptiness at every strata of society, from the smarmy politicians to callous officials to free-spirited people who couldn't care less what the rules are anymore.

Woven into Loznitsa's filmmaking approach are a range of references from Kafka to Kaurismaki. And the final sequence has a Pythonesque tone to it, playing on the hammy pomposity of a truly corrupt system that as drained the soul from its populace. Much of this is so specifically Russian that it struggles to resonate outside those borders, but the sense of injustice and hopelessness strikes a universal chord. And the film is so bold and offbeat that it can't help but linger in the memory.

18 themes, language, violence
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I Got Life!
4/5   Aurore
dir Blandine Lenoir
prd Fabrice Goldstein, Antoine Rein
scr Blandine Lenoir, Jean-Luc Gaget
with Agnes Jaoui, Thibault de Montalembert, Pascale Arbillot, Sarah Suco, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Eric Viellard, Philippe Rebbot, Samir Guesmi, Nicolas Chupin, Theo Cholbi, Pierre Giafferi, Nanou Garcia
konarske and diehl release Fr 26.Apr.17,
UK 23.Mar.18
17/France 1h29
I Got Life! With a sparky, chatty tone, this French comedy takes a witty dig at a culture that puts women on the shelf when they reach a certain age. The terrific Agnes Jaoui is hugely engaging in the lead role as a woman who knows she has a lot of life still to live, and she doesn't intend to miss any of it. And the film as a whole has a lot to say about Western society, provoking the audience with a wry smile.

Feeling the indignities of middle age, Aurore (Jaoui) is struggling with hot flashes. Her eldest daughter Marina (Suco) is pregnant, while younger Lucie (Roy-Lecollinet) regularly has her boyfriend (Cholbi) over. And then there's her lively pal Mano (Arbillot), who doesn't take any rubbish from men. Aurore is delighted to reconnect with her first love Christophe (de Montalembert), but she's heartbroken when Lucie follows her boyfriend to Spain. Meanwhile, having quit as a waitress due to a boorish new boss (Chupin), Aurore goes through a series of trial jobs to find her niche.

The script has a lovely stream of parallel relationships, with some beautiful touches along the way. For example, Aurore's hormonal upheaval coincides with Marina's, which nicely highlights their mother-daughter connections and tensions. Conversations with a range of people along the way are hilariously astute, raising laughter while making solid points. Aurore still feels as sexy and alive as ever, and she can't understand why just getting on with things isn't easier than this.

Jaoui is radiant in the role, playing Aurore as a woman who is fully engaged with the people around her, even as she's amusingly overheating. Despite her challenges, she never gives in to the fact that she's being nudged to the fringe of society. Her interaction is both barbed and warm, and often surprising, as is the journey she takes. Each actor around her brings a well-rounded sense of personality and history with them; these are people who each have a full life, and they're intersecting in clever ways.

"It could be worse," one coworker says about the indignity Aurore feels about being marginalised. "You could be black, disabled, lesbian and Muslim!" Conversations throughout the movie veer into areas that make people nervous, topics most would prefer not to discuss. And yet filmmaker Lenoir faces these things head-on, spinning what could have been a fluffy rom-com into a vitally important film, as well as a deeply entertaining one.

15 themes, language

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The Night of the Virgin
2/5   La Noche del Virgen
dir Roberto San Sebastian
scr Guillermo Guerrero
prd Kevin Iglesias
with Javier Bodalo, Miriam Martin, Victor Amilibia, Rocio Suarez, Ignatius Farray, Ernesto Fernandez, Errapel Arrieta, Javi Alaiza, Javi Canon, Mikel Martin, Leidy Jhoana Villalba, Aritz Elguezabal
bodalo release US Oct.16,
Sp Nov.16, UK 6.Apr.18
16/Spain 1h56
The Night of the Virgin Utterly bonkers, this trashy Spanish horror romp has a pitch-black sense of humour as it sends a young man into a blood-soaked freak-out. Director Roberto San Sebastian creates an outrageous tone, with cluttered sets and characters who are full of attitude. And there's a creeping sense of horror rising up through the outrageous comical mayhem. All of this is so far over the top than none of the excessive visuals are that surprising. But it's oddly watchable.

As 2016 dawns, awkward 20-year-old Nico (Bodalo) is hopefully prowling the dance floor at an epic party, but having no luck until the older Medea (Martin) invites him home. Her flat is crawling with bugs, but he's determined to finally lose his virginity. Medea seems willing, so Nico tries to flirt and show interest in her obsession with Nepalese culture. But her stories are frightening, and the evening doesn't go as he thought it would. Then her boyfriend Spider (Amilibia) turns up and things get far crazier.

The film opens with two TV presenters (Farray and Suarez) hilariously announcing their pregnancy during an unscripted New Year's Eve programme, a freewheeling ramble that includes the hope that David Bowie, Prince and George Michael won't die in 2016 (a line that couldn't have been in the movie's original cut). From here, the film is a barrage of noisy chaos, with shouted insults that continually reveal aggressive, endemic homophobia. And while the excessive gore will please genre fans, it feels more than a little indulgent.

Understandably, in these nonsensically heightened settings and situations, the performances need to be broad. But even in the most wildly hysterical moments, Bodalo manages to keep Nico grounded as a young man who can't acknowledge his inexperience. Unnerved by Medea and terrified by Spider, his predicament is both amusing and scary, and also surprisingly sympathetic. Martin's role is deliberately enigmatic, but she has some fun with it.

The narrative is so nutty that it's impossible to predict where it is heading next, and it's also so long that pretty much anything could happen. On the other hand, the pacing is frantic, with everyone screaming, so nothing comes into focus. No one answers a question before being interrupted, which is more than a little exhausting. Thankfully, there are clever touches throughout the movie, both in the story and the increasingly grotesque visuals. It's a grisly mess, but it has its moments.

18 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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dir-scr Eran Riklis
prd Bettina Brokemper, Michael Eckelt, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Eran Riklis
with Neta Riskin, Golshifteh Farahani, Yehuda Almagor, Doraid Liddawi, Lior Ashkenazi, Mark Waschke, Haluk Bilginer, David Hamade, August Wittgenstein, Dagmar von Kurmin, Ronald Kukulies, Nikolai Knackmuss
farahani and riskin release US 6.Apr.18
17/Germany 1h33

shelter With churning suspense, visual style and riveting performances, this humane slow-burn espionage thriller gets deep under the skin as it follows an Israeli spy on what seems like a simple assignment in Germany. The tone shifts from wary drama to full-on suspense and back again, continually unsettling us with the deeper ideas that circle around the characters. The final twist might be one too many, but by then we're fully committed.

After a mission in Beirut turns violent, Mossad agent Naomi (Riskin) takes some time off before being assigned by her boss (Ashkenazi) to "babysit" Mona (Farahani), a Lebanese informant recuperating in a Hamburg safe-house after facial surgery to alter her identity. Mona is understandably surly towards her minder, but a bond grows between them over their two weeks together. Naomi is startled to discover Mona was the mistress of Hezbollah leader Naim (Liddawi), who now wants to silence her. Both women are certainly wise not to trust anyone, but can they trust each other?

Writer-director Riklis cleverly adds layers of intrigue and irony, knowingly touching on tensions between Israel, Lebanon and Germany. The film looks terrific, sharply using colours in sets and costumes to continually hint at things going on under the surface. The camerawork is particularly strong, swirling the viewer right into Naomi's worried thoughts as she tries to stay one step ahead of an army of assassins she has no idea is on its way.

Riskin offers continually shifting textures to Naomi, whose past and present are a continual revelation. And Farahani also brings unusual shades to the more diva-like Mona, who has also known deep pain and desire over the years. As they get to know each other, the actresses add subtle touches to their scenes together, revealing subdued emotions and suspicions without ever overstating the fact that this is an Israeli and an Arab. So the connection between these smart, likeable women feels like a nice surprise.

This is a remarkably astute film that never simplifies a hugely complicated situation. The nuanced approach to the Middle East conflict adds extra weight to the drama, and therefore makes the suspense that much more gripping. Meanwhile, the characters feel like fully formed people who make decisions based on their deeper understanding, often against logic. Which of course makes it almost unnervingly easy to identify with them as their situation shifts and spins. So the final 20 minutes has heart-pounding urgency.

15 themes, language, violence

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