Saturday, August 18, 2007

2006 in Review: #5


Everyone has heard the old saying that the best way to understand someone is to walk a mile in his shoes. This is the governing principle behind two of 2006's best foreign films, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and L'Enfant. In Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, we follow the title character for almost two and a half hours, practically in real time, and while this approach doesn't allow for much knowledge into his past, it makes it up for it in eliciting sympathy for his plight. Lazarescu is anchored by its two principal performers, with Ion Fiscuteanu giving a brave performance in the title role, and Lumenita Gheorghiu as the most stable presence in his final hours, a paramedic who ferries him to several hospitals. As the night progresses, Lazarescu meets doctor after doctor, most of whom are callous to him, quick to call him out on his drinking and poor diet but reluctant to waste a bed on such a hopeless case. While their feelings might have been more understandable in a more conventional story, they seem practically monstrous here, which is a credit to how closely Puiu follows his doomed hero. Surprisingly, Puiu cuts to the credits just as Lazarescu is about to die, alone, while waiting for surgery- the perfect ending to a lonely story, in which not even the audience is around to witness the hero's death.

L'Enfant (The Child) won a second Palme d'Or for the Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. This ought to remove all doubt that, after just four fictional features, the Dardennes are among the world's greatest directors. And while I found L'Enfant to be possibly the least of their films, it's still a formidable work. The film's biggest achievement is its unsparing yet evenhanded portrait of a rather loathsome character- Bruno (Jeremie Renier), a petty criminal who will do anything for a buck, as long as it doesn't involve work. When Bruno's girlfriend Sonia brings home her newborn baby, Bruno scarcely waits before selling it to a black-market adoption ring. Much of the film's drama comes from Bruno's efforts to get the child back, not so much out of guilt as the fear of running afoul of the cops and the desire to win back Sonia, who for reasons Bruno can't understand had grown attached to the kid. All the while, the Dardennes invite us to consider what their story means- is it meant to be taken at face value, or is it symbolic? And if so, symbolic of what? Cold capitalism run amok? The dark side of our post-sexual liberation mindset? In the end, one interpretation is as good as another. The Dardennes' key theme, as always, is the possibility of redemption, which is there for Bruno as much as for anyone, although it'll take more than forgiveness to put Bruno back on track. The final scene of L'Enfant is a deliberate nod to Bresson's Pickpocket, and if anyone can hope to carry the mantle of Bresson, it's them.

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