Film reviews: Partisan | A War | Bolshoi Babylon

A War

A War

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ALISTAIR Harkness reviews the latest film releases, including Ariel Kleiman’s dystopian father-son drama Partisan and a documentary on an acid attack that rocked the world-famous Bolshoi

Partisan (15) | Rating: ** | Directed by Ariel Kleiman | Starring Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mezzara

The opening minutes of Partisan are so strange and unsettling it takes a while to realise that debut Australian director Ariel Kleiman doesn’t have the filmmaking chops to make the most of his intriguing premise. Set in a never-named city that seems halfway between an industrial ghost town and a post-apocalyptic dystopia, the film begins with Vincent Cassel lugging a telegraph pole and cables to a secluded enclave within the city. He’s in the process of constructing a makeshift compound that’s part concrete oasis, part underground warren. His character, Gregori, seems to have the run of the latter: a network of tunnels that extends from the compound across the city, including up into the local hospital. It’s here where we’re introduced to him properly. Cleaned up and mysterious, he befriends a young woman (Florence Mezzara) on the maternity ward who’s just given birth to a baby boy. There are no flowers on her bedside, a detail Klieman uses as an elegant signifier of her single-mother status: she’s alone in the world and thus vulnerable/open – we’re not sure which yet – to Gregori’s hard-to-read charms.

The retro-synth score adds a further layer of disorientation and Kleiman is in no rush to clue us in to what is going on, continuing the world-building by flashing forward to the 11th birthday of the aforementioned baby, whom Gregori now claims as his son. This is Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), a wide-eyed child who now shares this compound with many other children and their mothers – a growing cult or refuge, with Gregori as its benevolent patriarch, ruling the roost with a persuasive – but hardly fearsome – manner.

He schools the kids on the geography of the city and keeps them entertained with karaoke nights, limiting their knowledge of the outside world and giving them the illusion of freedom with lots of positive reinforcement conditioning. But just as the film starts to resemble a less weird version of Yorgos Lanthimos’s oddball family satire Dogtooth, Kleiman reveals the purpose of Gregori’s mission: he’s a Fagin-esque overlord, raising an army of pre-teen assassins that can be sent out into the world to carry out hits on unsuspecting targets. It’s here that the film starts to lose its way.

Though apparently inspired by real life stories of the Colombian drug cartels’ use of child assassins, Kleiman can’t quite convey the shock of this development in the story in effective cinematic terms. What should be chilling has no real impact and his decision to focus the ensuing drama on the slow dissolution of the father-son bond between Gregori and Alexander, particularly as the latter instinctively begins to challenge the dogmatic outlook of the former, becomes fairly tedious thanks to some ropey performances from kids and adults alike.

A War (15) | Rating: **** | Directed by Tobias Lindholm | Starring Tuva Novotny, Pilou Asbæk, Dar Salim, Søren Malling

Having written Thomas Vinterberg’s film The Hunt (about a respected teacher falsely accused of child abuse) and written and directed A Hijacking (about the complexities of a hostage situation involving Somali pirates, a cargo ship and its corporate owners), Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm has proved he can guide audiences through the moral maze of modern life in dramatically engaging fashion. With his latest film he’s set himself another tough task: exploring whether a war criminal can also be a decent man. Set in Afghanistan and Denmark, the film revolves around Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbæk), a soldier and commander in charge of a small patrol assigned to keep Afghani locals safe from the Taliban. Pederson seems like a good man: he takes care of his men and is trying to hold his unit together following an IED attack that has killed one of his troops and left the others emotionally fraught. He also has a young family at home who aren’t doing too well in his absence: his wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), is lonely and there are problems with school and medical emergencies to contend with.

The film cuts between these two worlds, with Lindholm treating both in the same unflinchingly naturalistic way to illustrate how stress and pressure is all relative and can’t be compartmentalised: what Claus is fighting for in Afghanistan is what his own family need from him at home and thus when a bad decision in the field results in him being sent back to Denmark pending an investigation into the fatalities it causes, his prescribed role as a father and a husband is inextricably bound up with how he conducts himself in the ensuing enquiry.

Lindholm is good at quietly tightening the screws without resorting to melodrama here. The first half of the film delivers plenty of war-is-hell tension by embedding us in the action with his protagonists and keeping the camera in tight focus to give us a sense of their personal experience of conflict. This helps elicit sympathy for Claus in the second half of the film, particularly as his actions are looked at more objectively during the subsequent investigation. Impeccable performances from Asbæk and Novotny add further shading, showing how difficult it is to do the right thing in a world that never operates in clear-cut fashion.

Bolshoi Babylon (PG) | Rating: *** | Directed by Nick Read

According to one of the interviewees in Nick Read’s documentary about the 2013 acid attack on the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, the art institution is such an enduring symbol of Russia that the attacks themselves signified a sickness in the country as a whole. It’s almost a shame, then, that the subsequent film never quite gets to the root of what, exactly, is causing that sickness. Corruption, jealousy, political infighting and intense competition are all mooted as systemic problems that have created a culture of mistrust and malevolence in the company, but as the film joins the Bolshoi for the season following the shocking attack on Sergei Filin – a former star of the ballet who made a lot of enemies when he took up his management position – it only really succeeds in uncovering parts of the story and doesn’t make forceful enough connections with the wider political culture with which the Bolshoi is indelibly linked.

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