Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Son of Saul" and "The Second Mother"

Closing out my reviews of the films of 2015 with some very late entries, but I finally saw "Son of Saul" and thought I'd pair it up with another foreign language film I wanted to highlight from last year, "The Second Mother."

"Saul" is the one that's gotten all the attention, and rightly so, because it's such a daring, instantly compelling story told in such a memorable way.  In the waning days of WWII, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), is a member of a sonderkommando, a unit of workers made up of recruited prisoners, at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Saul's unit works in the gas chambers, and one day he comes across the body of a boy who he believes to be his son.  He wants to bury him properly, but has to find a way to both secure the corpse, and find a rabbi who will help him with the proper funeral rites.  Other workers, Abraham (Levente Molnár) and Biedermann (Urs Rechn), are planning a rebellion and Saul becomes involved in their efforts to help further his own goals. 

Due to the subject matter alone, "Son of Saul" is an intense experience.  The opening scene systematically shows Jewish prisoners arriving at the camp and being sent to their deaths in the gas chambers.  However, we almost never see any of the deaths or the other atrocities directly.  The camera stays with Saul, who waits outside of the gas chambers and carefully keeps his distance from the Nazi soldiers.  The framing is very tight and our field of vision is often limited to whatever Saul sees, creating this little bubble of relative safety in the midst of all the horror.  It feels a little gimmicky at first, but the approach makes many of the worst scenes of violence and cruelty more bearable for the viewer, and creates just enough emotional distance from the killings so that the viewer can keep their focus on what Saul is doing.

This is director László Nemes' first film, and an extremely assured piece of work.  Though the story seems small in scope, it's structured in such a way that it lets the viewer see the ins and outs of life in the concentration camp in great detail.  You can appreciate how much work was involved in keeping the operation going, and the stresses on everyone involved on multiple levels.  Géza Röhrig's tense, haunted performance is so important here, because it keeps everything grounded and immediate.  I like that there's also such an ambiguity an anonymity to Saul.  He's almost constantly onscreen but we learn very little about him beyond his foolhardy quest and his reactions in the moment.  Yet in the end, it's impossible not to become invested in his story, and to cheer on his minor victories in the face of so much tragedy.

"The Second Mother" is a much easier watch, a light Brazilian dramedy about a housekeeper named Val (Regina Casé).  She works for a wealthy family in urban São Paulo, made up of mother Barbara (Karine Teles), father Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), and teenage son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), who Val has played a large part in raising.  It's been years since Val has seen her own daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila), who is the same age as Fabinho and lives with relatives.  One day, Jessica calls to ask if she can come stay with her mother while she studies for her university exams.  This arrangement that initially seems harmless enough, but fiercely independent, strong-minded Jessica's arrival upends the usual dynamics of the household, and tests all the social and familial tensions between Val and her employers.

Regina Casé's Val is the center of the film, and a constant source of enjoyment.  Watching her fret over Jessica's impropriety, and trying to keep everyone's feathers from getting ruffled, it's clear that while Barbara may be the boss of the household, it's Val who is the heart.  The film is so easy to get caught up in because we care so much about Val, and Val cares so much about everyone else.  And watching her realize how important she is, and slowly letting go of her dogged adherence to the established hierarchy, is an absolute joy.  Karine Teles and Camila Márdila are also excellent, warily circling each other and inevitably stepping on each other's toes.  Never has the act of eating ice cream been so nerve wracking to behold.

"The Second Mother" was written and directed by  Anna Muylaert specifically to bring attention to women like Val, who she has claimed to be far too unappreciated.  I love how confrontational Muylaert's approach to the material is, how it isn't afraid to provoke and antagonize while still retaining sympathy for all of its characters.  Even Barbara, who is the clearest antagonist, is a concerned, protective mother above all else.  The film aims barbs at Brazil's social ills specifically, but the themes and the relationships are wonderfully universal.  And the film overall turns out to be a pleasantly accessible, unfussy crowd-pleaser. 


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