FILM

Reviewed by
Tricia Youlden

Belle & Sebastian ★★★★ PG

Although film-maker Nicolas Vanier has based the screenplay for Belle & Sebastian on Cecile Aubry’s television series, he has chosen to set his film in World War 2 in a small Alpine village, close to the border between France and Switzerland. From the opening scene where gnarled old Cesar (Tcheky Karyo) lowers young Sebastian (Felix Bossuet) over a cliff to rescue a little lamb whose mother has been shot by a careless hunter, it is clear that the boy not only trusts his grandfather but is brave, resourceful and independent.

Contrary to the villagers’ belief that a large rogue dog has been killing their sheep, Sebastian knows that the big dog is as gentle and loyal as she is beautiful. Accordingly, he names her Belle. Sebastian also knows that the local doctor (Dimitri Storoge) is secretly leading Jewish refugees across the border, a fact that comes in handy when Belle is wounded and in need of penicillin. Sebastian does not attend school but is astute enough to appreciate that formal education is necessary if he is to achieve his goals. This little message is nicely embedded in the plot, as Sebastian becomes involved in outwitting the Nazi soldiers stationed outside his village, specifically to prevent illicit border crossings. From the beautiful colours of the early summer scenes the ruggedly beautiful terrain changes through autumn to winter, becoming a carpet of deep, white snow.

Through this snow Sebastian and Belle must lead a Jewish family to safety in neutral Switzerland. As well as the story of Sebastian and Belle, the film contains sub-plots involving Cesar, Angelina (Margaux Chatelier) and the German Lieutenant Peter (Andreas Pietschmann), all fully-developed, three-dimensional characters.

Eric Guichard’s cinematography deftly captures the beauty of the scenery and the nuanced performances of the human actors, while Laurent Charbonnier’s animal shots are amazing. Armand Amar’s score provides the perfect accompaniment to the story throughout.

The Two Faces of January ★★★★ M

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst star in this gripping thriller.

In adapting a rather obscure novel by Patricia Highsmith, writer-director Hossein Amini has created a gripping psychological thriller. Filmed in Greece and Turkey, the film exudes style and establishes an exotic mood that evokes the excitement of travelling abroad in 1962. It also highlights the fashions of the time. For all of this, production designer Michael Carlin and costume designer Steven Noble deserve credit.

Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are an eye-catching couple, him with his tanned, rugged sophistication and her with her perfectly-groomed, blonde coquettish demeanour. No wonder young American tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) notices them as they explore the ruins of the Acropolis.

Greek-speaking Rydal is on a working holiday, supplementing his income by subtly scamming other tourists, especially wealthy young women. He has a good nose for money. Yet it is not merely their apparent wealth that attracts him to the MacFarlands. Chester bears a distinct resemblance to Rydal’s late father, from whom he was estranged and whose funeral he did not attend. Having made their acquaintance Rydal becomes the MacFarlands’ guide until they leave for Paris. On the evening of their planned departure, however, he finds himself implicated in the accidental death of a private detective who has been tracking Chester on behalf of some very unhappy mobsters from whom Chester had conned a considerable amount of money. Forced into helping Chester and Colette evade the authorities, Rydal becomes further and further embroiled in their messy situation.

As they travel from Athens to Crete then on to Turkey, the flaws in their characters become more apparent. Chester drinks himself into a hazy rage of abusive jealousy that pushes Colette’s loyalty to the brink. Caught up in this crisis of their own making, desperation destroys mutual trust with tragic results.

The scenes in the ruins of Knossos are as truly scary as the final chase scene through the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is thrilling. Skilfully shot by Marcel Zyskind, with a great score by Alberto Iglesias, The Two Faces of January explores not only the cost of greed and the flaws in human nature but the complexity and ambiguity of the bonds that bind one individual to another. Can one love and hate a person simultaneously? Can one admire someone, yet also despise him or her? This conundrum is possibly the most disturbing aspect of the film.

Once My Mother ★★★★★ PG

In 1984, Silver City, directed and co-written by Sophia Turkiewicz, won three of the ten AFI awards for which it was nominated. Like her previous films, Letters from Poland (1977) and the unfinished documentary Helen (1976), Silver City was inspired by the experiences of Sophia’s mother, Helen. Yet for Sophia as a child, the stories of her mother’s past “became a burden”, possibly because she was ashamed that her mother was illiterate and could not read books to her. As revealed in Once My Mother, it is only as an adult that Sophia appreciates not only her mother’s story-telling, but realises just how much Helen loved her.

This beautifully-crafted documentary introduces us to a very old Helen suffering from dementia. Referencing her 1976 Helen footage, Sophia sets out to reconstruct her mother’s journey from her Polish birthplace to Adelaide, where they had settled post World War 2. Trips to Poland in 2007 and 2012 provided more facts and footage as the documentary slowly took shape.

Orphaned at six and homeless by 10, Helen grew up on the streets of Stanislawow. With the Russian invasion of September 1939 she fled to Lvov, where she was gaoled and subsequently transported to Siberia with thousands of other Poles. Freezing and starving, Helen somehow managed to survive the nightmare of the concentration camp. When Hitler turned on Russia, she and her fellow countrymen had to make their way 2000 miles south to Buzuluk. From here, Polish General Wladislaw Anders had his emaciated charges transported via Persia to Tashkent, where they were to be trained as soldiers to fight for the Allied cause. After almost dying from typhoid fever, Helen ended up in Lusaka (then capital of Northern Rhodesia, now capital of Zambia), where she met Valdiero Trufferelli, an Italian prisoner of war. Ten days after his repatriation to Italy, their daughter Sophia was born.

Mother and daughter eventually migrated to Adelaide where Helen found it hard to get employment because not only did she speak minimal English, she was an unmarried mother. In desperation, Helen handed her young daughter into the care of the nuns at Goodwood Orphanage. For many decades, Sophia remained angry and resentful at what she saw as her mother’s betrayal. “You abandoned me. Mothers don’t do what you did.” It was through the process of making this documentary that Sophia was able to finally understand why her mother had acted as she did.

Painstakingly inter-cutting her own early film footage with recreated scenes and archival World War 2 footage, Sophia also sheds light upon the appalling treatment of the Poles by Britain and her Allies. Not only was the role of the Polish Army in the defeat of Nazi Germany airbrushed from history in order to appease Stalin, the country was given to Russia in the post-war carve-up of Eastern Europe. Already the recipient of various awards in Australia, Once My Mother won the Audience Award at the Krakow Film Festival earlier this month. Equally as educational as it is engaging and affecting, this film is an excellent resource for the senior classroom. As well as having a cinema release, Once My Mother will be available on DVD with a study guide and extra features. (www.oncemymother.com)

Helen, “the woman who was sent to hell and came out with love in her heart”, died a few months after Sophia shot the film's last scene.

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby Girls High School. Unfortunately marking and report-writing meant that she saw very few pictures at the recent Sydney Film Festival.