Berlin International Film Festival — Day 5

68th Berlin International Film Festival — Day 5

The Prayer

6) The Prayer, or La Prière (France, 2018)

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, which we no­tice when Pierre (Damien Chapelle) sits by Thomas’ bed and prays for him as the boy strug­gles with a painful ab­sti­nence cri­sis.

Al­though ini­tial­ly ag­gres­sive and re­luc­tant to be part of the com­mu­ni­ty, or sing the hymns 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 is like there while ex­plor­ing Thomas’ mo­ti­va­tions for try­ing to start anew and be­lieve in what he is told about God and Je­sus.

And try­ing is the word here, for no mat­ter how hard some would like to be­long, 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, and the guilt of not be­ing able to de­vote one­self. It is hard not to feel a strong urge to hug him and tell him that every­thing will 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) lest he goes 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 all this is. It takes love to em­brace it, and Thomas must choose.

With a won­der­ful ap­pear­ance of Han­nah 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.

7) The Real Es­tate, or Top­pen av in­gent­ing (Sweden/UK, 2018)

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 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 Taran­ti­noesque vengeance turn with the char­ac­ter out of town try­ing to come up with an idea to get re­venge 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 a fric­tion with cer­tain rel­a­tives). Af­ter build­ing in a crescen­do (and with great mu­sic, by the way), it all reach­es an end­ing that may feel stu­pid and dis­ap­point­ing (and to be hon­est, it is), but to the di­rec­tors’ cred­it, they don’t seem in­ter­est­ed in con­se­quences. The ex­plo­sion is in­side, where she needs to take it or leave it. That’s all about it.

Feb­ru­ary 21, 2018

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