Thursday, May 8, 2014

Everybody Has A Plan (Todos Tenemus un Plan)

True confessions time.  I have a thing for Viggo Mortensen.  My husband and friends know about it.  Viggo doesn’t, as far as I know.  It’s not a crazed stalker sort of thing, just being intrigued.   It started in 2009 when I saw him at the Telluride Film Festival . . . I know, I know, you don’t care.  

More confessions: Quality English-language films can be hard to come by here in rural southwestern France.   During a recent film drought, I got antsy. “Well, gee, I haven’t seen Viggo* in a while.”  My husband would challenge whether there was an actual drought.  Anyway, what better choice than to stream Everybody Has a Plan, where Viggo plays twins?!  Turns out that I could have made any number of far better choices.    

This is Argentine director Ana Piterbarg’s first feature-length film.  Piterbarg seems eager to tell us a moving, multi-dimensional story yet she loses her way.  We’re left perplexed and unsatisfied by a plot that touches fleetingly on betrayal, childhood abuse, familial and marital estrangement, existential crises, crime, mystery, and a sweet love story.  No single thread loops its way through the disparate themes of the screenplay to evolve into a sustained, weight-bearing knot.  I feel disappointed for her!  I wanted to love the film.  

Argentina was Viggo’s homeland for a decade of his childhood, and this film marks his acting debut there.  He was involved in the film’s production, and rumors have it that the multi-lingual Viggo personally developed the English subtitles, to ascertain their accuracy.   What a guy!  I wonder if this is a passion project for him and Piterbarg.  A problem with such multi-disciplinary projects is that the creators can lose objectivity and miss the dangling threads.  Or so it seems here.

Viggo’s performance is the reason to see this film, and I’m pretty sure that’s not a statement of my blind devotion.  The cinematographer, Lucio Bonelli, makes some terrific, inspired contributions, too.

As Agustín, the physician who has recoiled from his existing life, Viggo is remote, silent, passive, tender and occasionally erupts with unforeseen strength.  As Pedro, the twin, a beekeeper and sometime corrupt smuggler, he is threatening, beguiling, physically disheveled and ever so slightly more loquacious, words often delivered as grunts. Only the most assured, masterful actor could so effortlessly slide between these two divergent, yet occasionally intersecting, characterizations.  I was transfixed by his performances and ceased to care about the story (which I won’t flesh out completely). 

In a set of scenes when Pedro confronts his estranged brother and the two appear together, we’re treated to the virtuoso’s greatness and breadth. He seems to shape-shift, his two characters having little in common but a straggly beard. There’s a reason Viggo is respectfully celebrated as an actor, and it’s not because of those soulful blue eyes.   Though I must say, he uses his eyes very effectively for a silent form of language.  In these scenes, Pedro is dying and “asks” Agustín to kill him.  During the moment when we least expect it, Agustín does the deed.  This scene is quite nicely done. 

For the remainder of the film, Agustín, assumes the bleak life of his brother.  He leaves Buenos Aires for his childhood home, the Argentine Tigre Delta, where the deceased Pedro kept his bees and made a crime-riddled muck of his life.  Viggo magnificently maintains Agustín’s persona while pretending to be Pedro.  We actually see his struggle; he can’t quite not be himself while trying to assume the posture of his brother.   The subtle obviousness of the struggle is extraordinary.  So fine, in fact, that it’s an embarrassment to the film that supporting characters don’t immediately suspect something is rotten in the state of Denmark.   (The actor, of course, is part Danish, and in 2010 was knighted by the queen.)  

The understated double performances of the film’s star are finely tuned and nuanced, making the highly impassioned performances of other characters, such as Soledad Villamil as Agustín’s wife, and Daniel Fanego as Pedro’s partner in nefarious activities, seem misplaced and overdone.  Only Sofia Gala as Rosa, the much-too-young-to-be-believable love interest of both brothers, conveys convincing, appropriate shades of subtlety.   And still, her part in the film seems incomplete.

For the future, I wouldn’t dismiss Ana Piterbarg.  She has terrific insight into the human condition, specifically the nature of emotional pain and yearning.   She’s sure to give us a winner when her screenplays and directorial skills mature.

I’d hoped that Everybody Has a Plan would be as rich and abhorrently compelling as director David Cronenberg’s excellent 1988 twins escapade, Dead Ringers.  Viggo is every bit as effective as Jeremy Irons was playing the “dead ringer” twins, but the films don’t exist on the same plane of expertise.  To see what Viggo can do with a great screenplay, watch him under maestro Cronenberg’s direction in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method. 

For we Viggo fans, disappointment needn’t linger.  I invite you to impatiently await the release of his next film, The Two Faces of January, slated for this year.

*Forgive my use of the more personal “Viggo” throughout, eschewing the more formal surname.  Viggo is an original.  Could there be another?

Directed by Ana Piterbarg – Argentina 2012
Written by Ana Piterbarg and Ana Cohan

Reviewed by Suz

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Believer

The Believer may be one of the most unsettling and inflammatory films ever made.  Not because of its eye-averting gratuitous violence – and there’s plenty of it -- but for its chutzpah in taking a subject that makes us squeamish and forcing us to face it.  Director Henry Bean’s film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2002 for this tale of a Jew who, in his 20’s, ostensibly transforms himself into a raging anti-Semite.   The based-on-truth story is potent, and the film also has its strength in the questions it ignites.

Capturing the central psychological theme of the film, words from ancient Catullus flash on the screen barely long enough to register: 
“I hate and I love 
Who can tell me why?”

Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling, at 20 years old), the film’s “believer,” is fierce and seething in his hate and love.   Danny is a former Yeshiva student who has an axe to grind with God and the Jews; he loathes the Jews for what he perceives as their weakness and willful powerlessness.   In flashbacks, young Danny challenges his theology teacher:  “Why must Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac? What kind of God would require such an act?!” (Indeed!) And then he finds his own answer:  “A conceited bully.”  After Danny is banished from the classroom for his impassioned conceit, he chooses “power” over weakness and becomes that bully.   And in his mind, a powerful man cannot also be a Jew.

However, because he accepts and loves Judaism in the very depth of his being, Danny the Jewish anti-Semite roils in a fight within himself.   He externalizes the battle by inciting conflict in his life.  Bean uses many devices – flashbacks, dreams, Danny’s visualizations, and overt action and violence  -- to strengthen this point.   They emphasize Danny’s total absorption in his plight (as does Gosling’s appearance in every scene) and create visions that are simultaneously unbearable and captivating to watch. 

Bean demands that we confront out attitudes about Jews, anti-Semitism, and the continuing existence of ethnic hatred:  as when Danny stalks and, unprovoked, beats up a Jewish student; when he wears a t-shirt sporting a black swastika encircled in blood red; and, when he spits “kike” at loved ones who challenge him.

Taken to an extreme, isn’t this film highlighting the existential conflicts that exist inside each of us?  Aren’t we repelled by some truths about ourselves yet know they’re indelible parts of self? Don’t we all make difficult choices based upon our individual moral imperatives and beliefs?

Most of us are capable of sanely integrating our hates and loves, beliefs and uncertainties.  The Danny we meet cannot.   Psychologically damaged, he has devolved into one with an obsessive hatred so strong that it appears to define him. 

Danny makes our heads swim with his twisted, thoughtful arguments.  As when, acting as the voice of fascism, he challenges an audience to contemplate the notion that the Jews seek out their oppressors: If Hitler did not exist, they would have found another destroyer.   (The concept made this viewer pale.) Danny will become the next destroyer.  He will kill Jews.

Gosling embodies fury so completely that often he looks like he could physically explode.  His nostrils flare, lips snarl, and his body twitches.  He releases his tension through eloquent verbal rampages, the words hitting us like bullets.  It’s very disturbing to experience such eloquence used as a means of disseminating and inciting hatred and rage.  Gosling’s performance is incomparable!

Danny’s desire to annihilate Jews drives the plot:  Seeking a forum to support his contempt for Jews, Danny joins a neo-fascist group led by Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane).   They’re intrigued by his intelligence and powerful, articulate presence, but consider the Jews a bygone concern.   Still, Danny and neo-fascists join forces, each hoping to gain more exposure by using the other.  Disdain, shrouded as community, multiplies in Danny’s life.  He becomes sexually involved with Lina’s masochistic daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix).  Further, he bands with a volatile neo-Nazi group. 

In one particularly ugly scene, Danny and the neo-Nazis taunt kosher deli owners. Both groups are arrested and forced to attend “sensitivity training” which involves hearing stories from Holocaust survivors.  Who would not be touched to tears by these stories of inhumanity – such as a bestial impaling of a baby in front of his father?  Who would not understand the impossibility of fighting against an infinite battalion of destroyers?  A tear forms in the corner of Danny’s eye, however he overcomes this emotion by using the weapon of his hateful words.  To their faces, he denounces these survivors as weak, unwilling to fight for their lives and their children’s lives.

Danny and the neo-Nazi group set out to bomb a synagogue.  The group – though not Danny -- savagely desecrates the synagogue.  They trample and rip the most sacred of Jewish texts, the Torah.  (I literally writhed watching this barbaric scene.)  Viscerally, Danny reacts.  He protects the Torah, revealing his core beliefs.  At this moment, I finally felt tenderness and empathy for a deeply troubled Danny.  

Danny’s internal barrier of hate becomes frayed after this incident.  He delicately fixes the Torah and hides it in his apartment, but not before a contorted moment:  He chants a Hebrew prayer while raising his fist to Hitler.  With this unexpected clash of his passions, Danny’s life splinters into two distinct parts.  He re-establishes contact with Jewish friends and Judaic customs and hesitatingly teaches Carla Hebrew while acting as a neo-Nazi. 

The worlds collide when Danny plants a bomb in his own synagogue, set to explode during Yom Kippur services.   Bean directs a series of climactic closing shots that tick slowly, with the pace of the synagogue’s clock as it nears the moment of the bomb’s intended detonation.  In these scenes, we witness Danny emotionally resolve his inner conflict, act on it . . . and we are left with more questions.  

The Believer is an extraordinary film.  Despite its laudatory entrance at Sundance, and receiving the Independent Spirit awards for best screenplay, best first feature, best actor (Ryan Gosling) and best supporting actress (Summer Phoenix), the film was deemed so controversial and dangerous by the Simon Weisenthal Center that no major distributor would pick it up.  It’s that kind of film, politically incorrect and likely to arouse anger, while challenging viewers to think.

A film as unsettling as this doesn’t end when the credits roll.  Its controversial subject matter and its unusual and ambiguous ending beg for deep, prolonged discussion and internal wrangling with personal core beliefs and motives.  And, as it did for me, it may also lead to wild and evocative dreams.  

Directed by Henry Bean, 2001
Written by Henry Bean and Mark Jacobson
Reviewed by Suz