Fifth day coverage of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival with reviews of French film The Prayer and the Swedish The Real Estate

The Prayer (La Prière)

68th Berlin International Film Festival

Thomas (An­tho­ny Ba­jon) is a young man who joins an iso­lat­ed re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ty of for­mer drug ad­dicts liv­ing in a re­mote house in the French moun­tains. When we see him for the first time, he has a bruise around his left eye and looks like he is go­ing to hell — a place where he won’t have any ac­cess to al­co­hol, drugs or women, and where the days con­sist main­ly of reg­u­lar prayer and hard la­bor in the fields. This can be quite dif­fi­cult for new­com­ers, but each per­son gets to have a “guardian an­gel” — or a clos­er friend — to guide them in mo­ments of hard­ship. Friend­ship is very im­por­tant in this place, and we no­tice that when Pierre (Damien Chapelle) sits by Thomas’ bed and prays for him as the boy strug­gles with ab­sti­nence.

Al­though ini­tial­ly ag­gres­sive and re­luc­tant to be part of the com­mu­ni­ty and ac­cept the rules (like when he is told he must apol­o­gize for not fol­low­ing them), Thomas soon be­gins to adapt and be­comes in­te­grat­ed in their way of liv­ing, lat­er help­ing the oth­ers pre­pare a stag­ing of Lazarus in sum­mer. While it would be easy to imag­ine that these guys are a bunch of fa­nat­ic ex-junkies, this is ac­tu­al­ly not the case, since we see them singing, hav­ing fun and even mak­ing jokes in­volv­ing Je­sus (right be­fore pray­ing). The lin­ear struc­ture is lu­cid in the way it care­ful­ly lets us in on what life at this place is like while ex­plor­ing Thomas’ mo­ti­va­tions for try­ing to be­lieve in what he is told about God and Je­sus.

And try­ing is the word here, for no mat­ter how hard it is for some, their hearts may sim­ply not be there. Even as Thomas learns all psalms and is en­cour­aged like his com­pan­ions to ex­press his feel­ings, he is held back. People’s paths are not just one, and it takes a lot of faith (not only re­li­gious) to em­brace a monas­tic life — es­pe­cial­ly when you per­form tasks that can be seen as com­plete­ly point­less, such as dig­ging a hole in the snow in the mid­dle of win­ter only to fill it up right af­ter. But be­ing lost is too scary, and Ba­jon is a great ac­tor who con­veys with full com­mit­ment the pangs of fear and doubt, as well as the guilt of not be­ing able to de­vote your­self. We feel a strong urge to hug him and tell him every­thing is go­ing to be fine.

For oth­ers, like Pierre, it’s dif­fi­cult not to lose con­vic­tion — and his new life has be­come a safe haven and a prison, since he doesn’t want to leave (back to his wife and child who wait out­side) for fear of go­ing back to the drugs. Some of them talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences in touch­ing speech­es that re­veal a lot about the com­fort they seek in this Catholic com­mu­ni­ty — and the fact that the guys and girls are kept apart and must re­ceive per­mis­sion for courtship be­fore mar­riage shows how con­ser­v­a­tive this place is. It takes love to em­brace it, and Thomas must choose.

With a won­der­ful ap­pear­ance of Han­na Schygul­la as a nun who seems to read what Thomas hides in his heart, The Prayer also pays at­ten­tion to de­tails that make it feel even more re­al­is­tic (like some­one yelling “Loud­er!” dur­ing a speech). And the film’s beau­ti­ful con­clu­sion — to the sound of sa­cred mu­sic — is per­fect in the way it shows that the sa­cred can also be found in life.

The Real Estate (Toppen av ingenting)

Swedish hu­mor tends to be quite pe­cu­liar and cen­tered on char­ac­ters that make no ef­fort to be lik­able, in­spir­ing or re­lat­able. The Real Es­tate is one of those films, with a wacky, mis­an­throp­ic pro­tag­o­nist who em­barks on a per­son­al cru­sade of mad­ness af­ter her life spi­rals out of con­trol. This is def­i­nite­ly not your typ­i­cal char­ac­ter study, much less a tale of re­demp­tion (hell, no way), rather a strange com­e­dy that wants to fol­low a woman go­ing nuts against the world and those around her. Does that sound like your cup of tea? I’m pret­ty sure a lot of peo­ple will hate it, but if seen as the un­pre­ten­tious nut­case job it wants to be, it can be en­joy­able.

The pro­tag­o­nist in ques­tion is No­jet (Léonore Ek­strand), a 68-year-old woman who re­turns from Spain to Stock­holm af­ter she in­her­its from her fa­ther one of his apart­ment build­ings in the city. Used to a life of lux­u­ry, she finds the build­ing com­plete­ly run down and poor­ly man­aged by her de­ment­ed half-broth­er and his lu­natic son, who have been sub­let­ting the en­tire sev­enth floor to im­mi­grants who have no le­gal con­tract. Des­per­ate to sell the build­ing as soon as pos­si­ble be­fore the ten­ants form a co-op, she asks ad­vice from her father’s lawyer, who is also a mu­sic pro­duc­er and is or­ga­niz­ing some sort of gala for home­less peo­ple (yeah, I know).

With a plot that plays like an in­vert­ed Aquar­ius (2016), The Real Es­tate is able to make us laugh at Nojet’s lack of tact to­ward peo­ple, which is also a mer­it of the ac­tress, who can be very fun­ny play­ing a bitch. No­jet re­hears­es speak­ing to those ten­ants and en­ters their apart­ments with­out giv­ing a damn whether they like it or not. It is ob­vi­ous that di­rec­tors Axel Pe­ter­sén and Måns Måns­son want to make this film com­plete­ly sur­re­al, in­vest­ing con­stant­ly in close-ups, shal­low fo­cus, a ner­vous cam­era that keeps mov­ing in and out of fo­cus, blue lights, and un­com­fort­able sounds like night­club beats, whistling nois­es and mud­dled voic­es.

In its sec­ond half, the film em­braces a Taran­ti­no-es­que vengeance turn with the char­ac­ter out of town try­ing to come up with an idea to get even and take back what is hers. She de­cides to put into prac­tice an “an­ar­chy cook­book” and be­comes some­thing like Ram­bo (even wear­ing a white “ban­dana”). Af­ter build­ing in a crescen­do (and with great mu­sic, by the way), it reach­es an end­ing that may feel stu­pid and dis­ap­point­ing (and to be hon­est, it is), but the di­rec­tors don’t seem in­ter­est­ed in con­se­quences. The ex­plo­sion is in­side, where she must take it or leave it. And that’s all about it.

Feb­ru­ary 21, 2018

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