SIFF REVIEW: THE WALL

2013 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
108 minutes 

**

An apocalypse movie comes in many forms. Some are of the action-packed, Will Smith variety, and some are quiet intellectual horror films like Julian Roman Pölsler’s film “The Wall.” Though I do consider the latter style superior to the former – seeing a real person experience apocalyptic solitude is so much more interesting than when it happens to a borderline superhero – I would rate “The Wall” and “I Am Legend” about the same. This is due entirely to Pölsler’s excessive use of voiceover.

Pölsler adapted “The Wall” from the 1962 identically titled book by Marlen Haushofer. While it may be necessary in a novel to have your character narrate every second of the story it is not the case with a movie. It’s not that Pölsler should have eliminated Haushofer’s words altogether. Some of her sentiments are florid and insightful. But he should have kept it to abstract thoughts not evident from the action or lead actress Martina Gedeck’s (“The Lives of Others”) incredibly effective performance. That would have been a 4 or 5 star film.

The story concerns a nameless woman on vacation in an Alpine hunting lodge who awakens one morning to find her companions not yet returned from their previous day’s excursion into town. When she, along with her friend’s dog Lynx, goes looking for them, she discovers that she is trapped behind a vast transparent barrier. The woman makes a cursory attempt to figure out what’s going on, but gives up once she spots some neighbors on the other side of the wall seemingly frozen in time. Whatever has happened out there, she assumes, has left no survivors. So rather than to try and find a way around the wall or search for another person on her side, she accepts what she believes is her fate and sets about living off the land.

An urban gal, it takes her some time to find her agricultural groove. But she is fortunate enough to find a pregnant cow, stocked pantry, and basic farming and hunting gear. Eventually, the woman settles in to her approximation of civilization along with Lynx (now utterly devoted to her), the expecting cow, and a couple of cats. She insists on keeping track of the days, despite noting that it no longer means all that much. We know from the narration, which comes from a “report” she is writing several years into the future, that Lynx eventually succumbs to a horrific end. But that information is just one example of many such unnecessary or redundant passages blanketing the film from start to finish.

I find it incredibly frustrating when I see a film that is so close to touching greatness but for one or two egregious errors. The voiceover does such a disservice that I’m tempted to recommend watching the film on mute. Pölsler should have had more faith in Gedeck and his own ability to tell a visual story. The type of audience who would be interested in seeing “The Wall” is not stupid. They can tell from the woman’s changing face that the story flashes forward and backward in the timeline. The woman from the beginning of the story is frail and fair skinned, wrestling with the morality of the food chain. The woman from the voiceover is the one with the short hair, confident gait, utilitarian wardrobe and steely expression. They don’t need her to tell them when she is having an emotional breakdown because they can see it in her body language and the tears streaming down her face. They certainly don’t need her pointing out when the stars are out or a hawk circles above her. For someone leading such a solitary life, she sure does go on.

The voiceover isn’t completely unwelcome. Some of her philosophical musings are intriguingly insightful. Toward the end of the film, one passage in particular seems to suggest that she finally knows where she stands.

“I pity animals and I pity people, because they are thrown into this life without being consulted. Maybe people are more deserving of pity, because they have just enough intelligence to resist the natural course of things.”

Lines like that are likely what inspired Pölsler to make the film in the first place. That she’s keeping a record at all does serve as a bit of unspoken characterization. This is a woman who claims to have lost all hope, yet addresses a reader other than herself. She is a poet and philosopher who wants to remain connected to her humanity through her self-aware accounts. She occasionally theorizes about what may have happened beyond the confines of her pastoral prison, convincing herself that it’s as simple as everyone being dead, despite having seen evidence of something more puzzling. To follow the wall would require more courage and survival skills than staying put in an attempt to keep things as normal as possible until things resolve themselves one way or another.

Of course, there’s always another solution. She admits that she considered suicide but for the animals. She writes about being humble, but it takes a tremendous ego to think these creatures couldn’t survive without her. They are more equipped to deal with a back-to-nature scenario than she is. Sure, dogs love people, but it may have a lot to do with how much people love dogs.

With a cerebral premise, stunning cinematography, a punch-in-the-gut performance from the Gedeck, and some of the most suspenseful miming ever put to celluloid, “The Wall” has such tremendous potential. I hope Pölsler comes to realize that less is more and gets it right next time.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF REVIEW: IL VOLTO DI UN’ALTRA (ANOTHER WOMAN’S FACE)

2013 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
84 minutes

**

My experience with Italian cinema is mostly limited to the U.S. crossover titles of Fellini, Argento, Bertolucci, and Benigni. But among those examples is one unifying tone: high camp. As far as I know, Italians are cinematically incapable of a light touch. Even in a film about the holocaust things tend to get pretty bonkers.

Director Pappi Corsicato brings not only the Italian flare for camp to his film “Il Volto di Un’altra (Another Woman’s Face),” but also a hint of heavy-handed allegory. There’s not a sympathetic character in the bunch. Also, I’m pretty sure the entire script is built around the idea of spraying a dazzling white room, filled with alabaster-garbed narcissists, in liquid shit.

The story, by Corsicato and Daniele Orland, concerns a famous television couple who share the limelight on a plastic surgery makeover show: Bella (Laura Chiatti) is the hostess and René (Alessandro Preziosi) is the doctor who performs the surgeries out of his remotely located clinic, where his patients wander around the grounds, mummified and bruised from their alterations. The appearance of the residents is just one of the many heavy-handed examples of the film’s thesis surrounding superficiality.

One day, the show’s producers give Bella the ax because the show’s numbers suggest that the country is ”tired of her face.” René does nothing to help her, and she storms out, only to have a fateful encounter with the wrong end of a toilet (although I suppose there is no “right” end).

Tru Tru (Lino Guanciale), a grimily handsome maintenance worker at the clinic, is the man responsible for dropping the wayward toilet through Bella’s windshield and directly onto her face (where the bowl creates a perfect, blood-filled frame around her – I’ll let you work out the physics on that one). At first, he’s guilt-stricken about the accident and “rescues” her from the wreck. But then he overhears René and an unharmed Bella formulate a plot to collect a big insurance payoff and re-boot her career with televised facial reconstruction surgery. At this discovery, Tru Tru’s remorse melts away and he uses the privileged information to bribe the nefarious couple in an attempt to further his aspiring music career.

Since the public thinks Bella is disfigured, she wears a full-face mask under the guise that she’s too horrible to look at. In order to keep up the ruse, Bella stays in her suite at the clinic, lounging around in silk and fur coats. This isn’t the only plot that moves forward at a snail’s pace. Corsicato jumps around quite a bit, but rarely imparts any new information.

There’s the straining septic tank in the basement coupled with the brown stain on Bella’s ceiling that can only mean an impending shit storm. I’m pretty sure it’s the same shot of the septic tank every time.

There’s also the growing crowd of fans camping outside the compound, eagerly anticipating Bella’s makeover episode. Apparently this plastic surgery show is one of the most popular programs in Italy, beloved by the whole family. Regardless, that’s no reason why these people would drive to the middle of nowhere only to watch the episode on a screen. I’m sure Corsicato would like us to believe it’s some sort of commentary on the public’s obsession with fame, but it seems more likely that he was consolidating shooting locations.

And then there’s my favorite over-hyped subplot, which involves an asteroid called Tony that is headed for Earth. We check in on Tony via radio news reports that basically boil down to “It’s probably going to be fine, but maybe not?” The best thing about this is the name, which makes me wonder if, within the world of the film, other countries gave the asteroid their own colloquial moniker (e.g. Asteroid Francois, Asteroid Klaus, Asteroid Dave).

There are some delightfully irreverent moments in “Another Woman’s Face” that continue to put a smile on my face. Bella and René do an impromptu Fosse-esque celebratory dance number after they think they’ve got the insurance company fooled. When we finally see Tru Tru perform, his act involves his entire crew of supermodel repairmen and ventriloquist dummies. The three leads deliver their lines with the appropriate amount of soap opera seriousness.

But there are also some painfully on-the-nose bits that wear thin, such as the antics of the “nurses” at the clinic who do little more than run around Benny Hill-style and the nuns who constantly pass out laxatives (again with the fecal humor) to patients. I realize that Corsicato was going for broad, but somehow it all feels far-fetched even for a cartoon.

For a high-fashion bunch, the Italians sure keep their minds firmly planted in the gutter. Corsicato can’t go five minutes without dropping innuendo that’s so conspicuous; it may as well be an outuendo. You can also bet on plenty of ass grabbing. And not light squeezes either. The Italian flag should just be a woman’s ass in a mini dress with a man’s hand pressing his fingers deep into her flesh.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the film is the resolution to the impending shit bath. Given the amount foreshadowing, I was expecting a lot more than just a couple of spewing hoses. I wanted a Kubrickian elevator shit tsunami. Corsicato sure picked a strange time to exercise restraint.

Despite it’s myriad problems, “Another Woman’s Face” isn’t a bad way to spend an evening. But at the end of the day, it’s too much like the characters it admonishes. It’s attractive and will show you a good time but there’s not much under the surface and you won’t be calling again.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).