Tag Archives: Melodrama

A woman in Berlin

Nelly Senff (Jšördis Triebel) and Alexej (Tristan Göšbel) have just crossed the border from East to West Berlin, with the help of Gerd (Andreas Nickl).

Nelly Senff (Jšördis Triebel) and Alexej (Tristan Göšbel) have just crossed the border from East to West Berlin, with the help of Gerd (Andreas Nickl).

The most commercially successful film set in the last years of East Germany was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) which had an enormous international impact through a story about a Stasi surveillance operator and his ‘targets’ which used many of the conventions of the thriller. Surprisingly, however, there have been rather more films about life in the old East Germany and what it meant to think about and then to move to ‘the West’ which work as forms of melodrama, exploring the emotional lives of characters rather than first as thrillers (there have also been comedies). Mostly too these have been films about women rather than men.

It’s possible to trace the development of a group of films about female characters caught up in the emotional turmoil of Germany, and Berlin in particular, between the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nelly the lead character in West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013) is one of the most recent examples of these women. We first see her in East Berlin in 1975 in what seems like a settled domestic situation but then suddenly it’s three years later and she’s entering West Berlin as a refugee with her young son. What follows is a drama about Nelly and her conflicted emotions about being held in a refugee ‘processing centre’ – an Aufnahmelager. There is an element of the thriller in what follows since Nelly finds herself being interrogated about her past in East Berlin and in particular about her partner. Rather than being ‘moved on’ and helped to find employment, Nelly is detained. Yet the thriller element seems to be there to underpin the melodrama. Is Nelly starting to imagine the threats she perceives? Can she trust anybody? Why does her son find it easier to adapt?

West is based on a novel by Julia Franck – and is based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. All three of these ‘authors’ moved from East Germany to the West and we must assume a high level of authenticity in the depiction of the refugee camps. When The Lives of Others was very successful it was heavily promoted and celebrated in the US where one commentator hailed it as ‘The Best Conservative Movie’ of the last 25 years. When West opened in North America it was marketed on the back of celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neither film deserves to be hi-jacked in this way. The attraction of a film like West is its humanity – the way it tries to deal with the personal lives of characters caught up in an ideological conflict. When Nelly answers her interrogators’ questions about why she has come to West Berlin with the response ” . . . for personal reasons” it cuts no ice. What should she say? “I want to be free!” That would be ironic since Western intelligence agents won’t let her go until she tells them something ‘useful’.

There are moments in West when Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun come to mind – although the two women are rather different. Maria fights her way through the rubble and chaos of Berlin in 1945 to succeed in the economic miracle of the 1950s. Nelly is perhaps more akin to the trio of heroines played by Nina Hoss in the films of Christian Petzold. In Phoenix (2014) another ‘Nelly’ has plastic surgery and seeks out her husband in the ruins of Berlin in 1946. In Barbara (2012) the eponymous character is a doctor in East Germany trying to get to the West in 1980 and in Yella (2007) Ms Hoss is a woman leaving the East after unification and finding the soulless capitalism of the West is not necessarily the answer. Interestingly, this film uses questions of what is ‘real’ to underline the stress on the character who moves across the border. Finally it’s important to remember Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise 1994) in which a young woman escapes to West Berlin in the 1960s but then meets her ex-boyfriend, a scientist who has stayed in the East, at various international gatherings over the next 20 years. The story ends with the wall coming down in 1989 but again this is not a triumphant ending – the burden of living in the divided Germany is too great for pat solutions to work. Perhaps that’s true for all refugee stories – which stay with the people concerned for the rest of their lives rather than just as fleeting news stories for the more fortunate majority.

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito, Spain 2011)

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in 'The Skin I Live In'

As European auteurs go, Pedro Almodóvar is arguably now the master and perhaps the only consistent performer over a long period. Ever since his 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown introduced his work to an English-speaking audience, Almodóvar has produced a non-stop stream of controversial and increasingly well-made titles. At first the new titles in the 1990s ran alongside the earlier films (getting their delayed UK/Us release) with their wild plots and equally wild presentations. The more recent films have tended to turn back towards the plot ideas of the earlier films but to present them in extremely controlled productions full of exquisite design ideas – the list of brand names at the end of this latest film is longer than the cast list.

It’s relatively rare for Almodóvar to turn to a previously published property as the basis for his narrative but here he takes a novel by a French television writer Thierry Jonquet. The original novel seems to have had a complex story which Almodóvar filleted and then reconstructed as something recognisable but quite different. The still complex plot has stimulated quite a lot of discussion about who did what to whom and for what reason, but it seems to me that the machinations of the plot are the least interesting aspect of the film. Although I was engaged throughout I wasn’t really interested in the plot which for me didn’t particularly work as a thriller or an emotional melodrama. Instead the plot simply provided a narrative framework on which to hang a set of discourses about gender, genre and the work of several great filmmakers who Almodóvar admires.  The central discourse is the mark of the auteur – a reflection by Almodóvar on his own career.

There are plenty of sites out there discussing various plot spoilers. I’d ignore them and instead read the Press Pack in which Almodóvar gives his typical statement about what lay behind his decision to make the film. (Download from this page.) I don’t really want to promote auteurism as a way of approaching films but with Almodóvar I don’t really think there is any other option. As I watched The Skin I Live In, one part of my brain was struggling to understand what I was seeing and another part was reflecting on my memories of the rest of the director’s work. The third part, concerned about what the narrative might mean in terms of contextual issues was lagging some way behind. (Though it does seem to me that Spanish films – and Almodóvar’s in particular, do seem to explore medical scenarios rather more often than might be expected.)

A young Banderas with Victoria Abril playing the woman he has kidnapped in 'Atame!'.

Let’s begin with one of the two central characters, Robert (why the English name?) Legard played by Antonio Banderas. This is Banderas’ first appearance for Almodóvar since he went to Hollywood a couple of years after starring, with Victoria Abril, in Átame! (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!) in 1990. There are elements of that film referenced in The Skin I Live In but now Banderas is the older figure. In his youth he appeared in several roles in which his sexual orientation was sometimes in doubt. Opposite him is Elena Anaya, a beautiful younger actress previously in smaller roles for Almodóvar and making up the central three is Marisa Paredes, another Almodóvar regular. In one of her earlier roles she plays a famous singer who returns to Spain from a long stint in Argentina and her daughter (played by Victoria Abril) takes her to a club where she is being impersonated by a drag queen. This is Tacones lejanos (High Heels, 1991), which offers several interesting family relationships and again seems to inform the new film in some way. Take the two older films together and we can see a discourse not only about gender difference but specifically about body modification, men controlling and restraining women and characters/stars ‘performing’ different roles.

Plots and genres

This is one of those Hitchcockian plots with twists that shouldn’t really be revealed, so I’ll stick with simply explaining the set-up. Vera (Elena Nayana) appears to be held prisoner in a tastefully-designed room. She is dressed in a ‘nude’ body stocking and doesn’t look particularly distressed as she performs yoga exercises. She receives her meals via a dumb-waiter sent up from the kitchen below by Marilia (Marisa Paredes). A title sets up the next location as ‘Toledo, 2012’ – the slightly futuristic setting suggesting a ‘speculative fiction’ of some kind. Banderas/Ledgard is addressing an academic audience on the topic of ‘artificial skin’ and the possibilities of genetic modification. Ledgard has a private operating theatre and research lab so the possibility here is that the narrative will develop in the direction of horror/science fiction. We seem to be in some form of ‘wealthy scientist with a dubious research goal’ territory. But this is an Almodóvar film and melodrama can only be a sumptously designed step away. If Vera is the laboratory subject (‘Vera’ is a name derived from the Latin ‘veritas’ – ‘truth’), Marilia is the scientist’s faithful servant, but we don’t expect Marisa Paredes to have a minor role and indeed she doesn’t. She is the link to the melodrama.

Dana Andrews in Fritz Lang's 'While the City Sleeps' (1956)

My feeling about what follows is that it is meticulously confected, both in its presentation of the melodrama through performances and mise en scène (and with a wonderful score by Alberto Inglesias) and in the twists and turns of the thriller narrative that melds horror and science fiction. I enjoyed seeing Antonio Banderas in a performance in which at times he strongly resembled Dana Andrews, the Hollywood star who appeared in Fritz Lang’s last two Hollywood films and who might be seen as representing the disturbed male characters of film noir. This isn’t too surprising since Almodóvar tells us that :

“A story of these characteristics made me think of Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, all of Fritz Lang’s films (from the gothic to the noir). I also thought of the pop aesthetic of Hammer horror, or the more psychedelic, kitsch style of the Italian giallo (Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi or Lucio Fulci . . . ) and of course the lyricism of Georges Franju in Eyes Without a Face.” (From the Press Notes)

Georges Franju on the set of 'Eyes Without a Face'

In the event, Almodóvar found himself trying to distil the essence of these influences without allowing the film to become a pastiche of any specific style. The result is a narrative so controlled that on a first viewing seems to me to have been drained of emotion with a resolution that is revealed too quickly. I suspect that many audiences are going to feel dissatisfied. Yet, there is so much going on in the mise en scène (especially in the large-scale reproductions of paintings that I thought I recognised, but the credits suggested not). There also seemed to be large holes in the complicated plot. The Skin I Live In is most definitely a melodrama in terms of its complex interrelationships of coincidence and its excessive use of colour, music and performance, but its cold and, yes, ‘clinical’ tone demands that we think carefully about the meanings that it produces. So, a beautifully executed exercise in filmmaking from a master – but not on first viewing a satisfying entertainment? What does everyone else think?

The ‘teaser’ trailer that doesn’t give too much away:

Tamara Drewe (UK 2010)

The two teenage girls, the 'chorus', wait outside Tamara Drewe's house to see what's going on.

I’m not sure what I can say about Tamara Drewe except that I enjoyed every moment. But that’s hardly surprising since I’m a fan of director Stephen Frears and the source material, Posy Simmonds’ comic strip/graphic novel from 2005-7, is one of my fondest memories. The strip ran in the Guardian‘s Saturday Review section in 110 instalments (click on the image below – the whole thing is available online) and I didn’t miss a week. The problem is, of course, that the film is being heavily promoted and released through mainstream multiplexes to audiences who have no knowledge of the strip. The result is a very mixed reception. Audiences under 40 have seemingly ignored the film and IMDB carries several outraged reviews. Interestingly, the film has done pretty well in France and I suspect that it might do well in some other territories where audiences might take it at face value as a bucolic comedy (though the ending – even though softened from the original – might be a shock).

Episode 5 of Tamara Drewe as it appeared in the Guardian

Perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to set it in context and try to explain to readers outside the UK its peculiar allure. Posy Simmonds has had a long career, much of it in the Guardian where she has maintained a gentle satire on the English middle-classes, holding a mirror up to the Guardian readership’s sense of itself as well as taking down the more conservative readers of the UK’s other broadsheets (and tabloids like the Daily Mail). During the 1980s Simmonds’ vehicle for this was a strip about a London family with generally leftist/vaguely hippy politics known as the Webbers (possibly a joke about the sociologist Max Weber). Throughout the period of Thatcher’s Britain the travails of the Webber clan offered a complement to the more vicious satire of the UK’s greatest political cartoonist, Steve Bell. Between them, Posey and Steve kept many of us sane throughout those dark years. In 1999 Posy Simmonds produced Gemma Bovery which also ran in the Guardian. That novel, set in Normandy states its source inspiration in its title. Tamara Drewe as a title is less revealing but the film adaptation lays on enough clues to reveal that we are in the world of Thomas Hardy and his novel Far From the Madding Crowd – adapted as a John Schlesinger film in 1967 with Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene, the Tamara Drewe character. If you don’t know the story, it concerns a young and very attractive woman who comes into property in a Wessex (Dorset) village and finds herself pursued by three men – a solid local farmer, a flash young blade (in the novel, a hussar, in the film a rock drummer) and an older married man. Valentine letters (emails) to the men create rather unfortunate circumstances. Simmonds’ innovation is to provide a ‘writers’ retreat’ in the village so that Hardy fan-writers, amongst others, can join the fun.

The screenwriter Moira Buffini has captured much of what was in Simmonds’ satire, but either she or the producers have chickened out with the ending and overall I would have liked the darker and more ‘Hardyesque’ ending of the original. Some of the other, nuanced changes work much better. The ‘Greek chorus’ of the two teenagers who watch all the goings-on and interfere in the narrative are slightly younger than I had imagined from the strip, but work very well and are the best bit of the satire. I don’t remember the American academic from the strip, so perhaps he is an invention. If so, it’s a great idea. He is the balance for the two girls in the ‘chorus’ offering postmodernist comments about Hardy which I enjoyed. The trump trick for all those of us who are fans of the UK radio sitcom The Archers (now in its 60th year and possibly the longest-running sitcom of all) is the casting of Tamsin Greig in the movie as the long-suffering wife of the philandering novelist. She’s there because she is one of UK stage and TV screen’s greatest comedians, but for Archers fans she is always Debbie Aldridge and part of the upper middle-class of the farming community where she is a counterbalance to her evil father, Brian Aldridge, once über-villain and now mellowing paterfamilias. In fact it’s a joy to see so much great acting talent in Tamara Drewe, including the wonderful Susan Wooldridge (Daphne Manners in The Jewel in the Crown) for once allowed into a feature film as a gun-toting cattle farmer.

Poor Stephen Frears, like Michael Winterbottom, seems to suffer from being too eclectic in his tastes and too willing to lose himself in his projects. For me, he has made some of the best British films of the last 40 years and although he doesn’t give a good interview and promote himself as an auteur, he deserves recognition. Tamara Drewe isn’t the UK film of the year, but it’s certainly worth watching and thinking about.

Here’s the best trailer – no annoying American voiceover and some nice graphics touches:

Kynodontas (Dogtooth, Greece 2009)

The 'children' perform for their parents in Dogtooth.

Not sure what to make of this film and perhaps I wasn’t in the best position to assess its merits – taking refuge on a very hot day and allowing my mind to wander at various points. This is the third feature by writer-director Giorgos Lanthimos. It won the prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2009 and has since been well received by some cinéphile audiences and dismissed by some more mainstream audiences.

The main idea is to offer a metaphor/allegory for contemporary society via a focus on an anonymous (but affluent) Greek family. The father, who owns or at least manages a nondescript factory, has placed his family in a country estate which they are not allowed to leave. His wife is complicit in an arrangement that means that his three grown-up children have never left the estate. They have been deliberately mis-educated so that they have no knowledge of the outside world. The only other person allowed into the estate (blindfolded) is Christina – a security guard from the factory who is paid to service the son sexually. This, of course, provides  the possibility for the ‘inciting incident’ that drives the narrative forward in a conventional way. In some ways this is the key to the central problem with the film – although perhaps for some audiences it also provides the means of access.

The events that inevitably follow from Christina’s presence in the household draw on several genre repertoires – prison films, psychological experiment films, family melodramas etc. These narratives promise a resolution, but the film also draws on various art cinema models such as the films of Jean Cocteau or Luis Buñuel. Meanwhile, the style of the film is quite austere with careful framing and a relatively static camera. Some critics have suggested an observational documentary style. It is certainly effective in developing a mood. This is a mood or tone that on the one hand plays to our sense of voyeurism drawing us in to speculation about the sexual activities of three young adults who will be forced to ‘discover’ their sexuality. (None of the characters are named and they have few forms of intellectual stimulus available alongside many ‘distorting’ facts that their father has provided.) The overall approach also lulls the audience so that the isolated moments of real violence are even more shocking.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the film – but I can see that it is well-made (and certainly very well performed). I don’t think I gained any particular insights into a specific critique of contemporary society but I’ve seen suggestions that there is a metaphor for the Greek position within the EU discernible in the narrative. I think younger audiences might enjoy the film more because they may not have seen so many similar films from European art cinema. The film’s title has a specific meaning which I won’t reveal, but I should warn cat-lovers that this might not be the film for them!

If you don’t mind spoilers, there is a full review here which is quite helpful.

BIFF 4: Vincere (Italy 2009)

Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida Dalser in Vincere

At the end of the first full day of the 2010 Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF) I staggered in to watch Vincere after three interesting but not world-shattering films. The Vincere screening started well with a short called Uerra (War) (Italy 2009) – a beautifully shot social comedy set in 1946 and bearing some resemblance to Norman McLaren’s famous pixilated short Neighbours. In this case a fascist and a socialist replay war as an argument over playing cards only to be emulated by the fascist’s sons and eventually sorted out by a GI (who looks about 12). After suffering three well-meant shorts from the UK and Ireland (neither country having a great shorts culture, even if we do win Oscars for some of them), this looked very good.

Vincere grabbed me after about 30 seconds of the film proper and never let me go. I’ve always known about Marco Bellocchio as a filmmaker, but never managed to see any of his films (or at least none that I remember). What a fool I’ve been if this film is representative. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and winner of several other prizes, Vincere is a stupendous melodrama cum biopic/historical drama. It tells the story of Ida Dalser, a woman from Trento, which up to 1918 was controlled by Austria-Hungary even though the majority population was ethnically Italian. Dalser was sent to Paris to train as a beautician and eventually she opened a salon in Milano. Some time around 1907-9 she met Benito Mussolini in Trento where he worked as a journalist. They met again in Milano and fell in love (or at least she fell passionately in love with him). At this time Mussolini was a socialist, but he fell into the pro-war camp in the split experienced by the Socialist Party in 1914. In short order he married Dalser (although this is disputed) and fathered her son, Benito, before marrying again and joining up. After the war he disowned Dalser and her son (she had given him her all her wealth to publish a new newspaper). When he turned to fascism and began his rise to power, Dalser and her son were first billeted on her sister and then arrested by the fascisti. Dalser ended up in an asylum and the boy in a church boarding school. The end of the story is not good.

These bare facts reveal nothing about the melodrama which is expertly crafted. This is a melodrama that expresses its excess of emotion through lighting and cinematography, wonderful music and inspired production design. The latter is built around innovative use of newsreel and feature films. I think I need to see the film again to make the most of these sequences. If it does nothing else, the film reminds us of the importance of Italian Cinema in the period up to 1918. This is more than just a few newsreel inserts. On occasion animated figures overlay the film’s action. Much of the historical narrative is delivered via visits to the cinema by the principal characters and two unusual screenings stand out. One shows a wounded Mussolini in a hospital housed in a church with the crucifixion from a 1916 Biblical epic (Christus) playing on the ceiling and another sees Ida in the asylum but brought out to watch an outdoor screening of Chaplin’s The Kid which reduces her to floods of tears (she hasn’t seen her son for several years).

Mussolini and Ida at the cinema during the early stages of the Great War.

But melodramas always depend on the combination of music, camera, mise en scène and performance and the biggest impact for me was created by the playing of Giovanna Mezzogiorno. I realise that I’m easily seduced by beautiful women in sumptuous melodramas, but Mezzogiorno delivers a performance of great depth and intense commitment. She must present to us a woman is thought to be insane but is clearly functioning with a sharp mind, yet seems so blinded by her passion that she remains stubborn beyond the point when most of us would re-think our strategies. The film is about her – not about Mussolini, who in the second half of the film appears only in newsreels. Filippo Timi, the actor playing Mussolini, then appears as Mussolini’s grown-up son in the final third. It occurred to me during the screening that Mezzogiorno’s performance reminded me of the great Alida Valli in Visconti’s Senso (1954) – an equally sumptuous melodrama set in Austrian-controlled Northern Italy at the time of Risorgimento with Valli as an Italian contesa falling in love with an Austrian officer. The melodrama was, of course, also a popular genre during the 1930s.

The film is not a realist historical drama about the unfolding of political events – it is a melodrama about the pain of losing both a lover and a son and then losing a sense of self in a swamp of self-delusion. I’ve read several very negative reviews (alongside many positive ones) and quite a few are just silly. For instance, denying sympathy with Ida because she was in love with a fascist is completely wrong-headed. She fell in love with a man she believed to be a socialist. She couldn’t then fall out of love with him. Perhaps she just refused to recognise the change? Or perhaps she just wasn’t ‘political’ in that sense? The film isn’t about Mussolini as a man – or as a shrewd political operator. It’s about the mythical romantic hero she fell for and about the iconic and powerful dictator much of Italy was in thrall to. If we want to consider the political impact of unearthing this history at such a late stage (the film followed two books and television documentary) we might see it as a metaphor for the way in which the dictator’s charisma and power was channelled through propaganda and how a nation allowed itself to be subjugated. I confess that I was a little confused by the final scenes and I do need to see it again.

Why did this film end up on a small screen on a Friday night when it is unlikely that anything else in the festival will match it as a piece of cinema? Festivals need to focus on what is ‘new’ and what can be supported by introductions, Q&As etc. So this film wasn’t introduced. With the equally fine short it made a compelling programme and as I left the cinema the people around me were discussing the history of the period and marvelling at Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s performance. The good news is that Artificial Eye are releasing the film in the UK and there is a preview in Richmond on March 28th. The blurb for the film is spot on so I hope this means that the film will get a proper release.

An excellent review of the film can be found here.

Broken Wings (Knafayim Shvurot, Israel 2002)

Dafna and Yair on the Mt Carmel underground funicular railway

Dafna and Yair on the Mt Carmel underground funicular railway

As a contrast to the overtly political films (in the sense that they directly address the Israeli-Arab conflict in some way) Waltz With Bashir and Lemon Tree in recent posts, I thought it might be a good idea to look at a different kind of Israeli film.

Broken Dreams looks at first like a familiar social realist family drama. Its distinctiveness is at first apparent only because of its setting. After a short while, however, it is clear that the film looks and feels different. Its soundtrack and cluttered mise en scène draw on the youth picture and the family melodrama as we meet the members of a dysfunctional family in the port city of Haifa. The narrative plunges straight into a series of crises involving each of the family members without feeling in any background so that we must struggle to understand the situation. 17 year-old Maya is enjoying the last night before the start of a new school year. She is scheduled to sing her own composition in a competition for young bands, but finds herself called home to look after her younger brother, Ido (10) and sister 6 year-old Bahri because her mother Dafna is on the night shift as a midwife in the local hospital. The morning is chaos as Maya tries to get the children to school. Her other brother Yair is no help at all – summoned to see the school ed psych because of his refusal to attend classes and truanting to give out leaflets for a night club dressed as a giant mouse. Dafna lurches from one missed appointment to another in her battered car that won’t start. Things can only get worse.

Eventually the audience wakes up to the fact that not only is the father missing, but that we don’t know what happened to him. Besides the two brothers there are three other males in the narrative. Maya has a classmate who thinks he is in love with her and an older boy whose band she deserted the night of her big break. Meanwhile Dafna runs into Valentin, a doctor at the hospital who has just returned from California. Valentin could be a surrogate father figure, but he is introduced as a clumsy man and doesn’t immediately impress as being able to sort out the mess.

I’ve no wish to give away plot details for what is a well-acted and affecting little melodrama (only 80 mins). For a first time writer-director, Nir Bergman does an impressive job in getting performances out of his young cast and creating an air of tension and fragile hope for a better tomorrow. Several commentators have reported that the film made them ‘blub’ and I understand this. Like most audiences, I took the film to be non-political, but I did spend time trying to think what made the film ‘Israeli’. I was struck by the physical appearance of the actors. Maya Maron is incredibly pale with raven hair and in the open scene is still wearing the angel’s gossamer wings from her abortive singing debut (a reference to Olivia Hussey in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+ Juliet?). (Presumably the film’s title refers to the difficulty the children have growing up – their wings appear to be broken.) Yair seems to be a typical young Israeli man – even down to his skill with a basketball. With his cropped hair and wire-framed glasses I can see him on Army service. Dafna and Valentin look like they might be descended from Russian immigrants (according to Wikipedia, a significant element in the population of Haifa). But apart from this there is only the tension and fragility created to a large extent by the editing that suggests the story is set in a country which might have experienced recent direct conflict. We do find out what happened to father – but his disappearance is not the result of any kind of conflict.

I might have been satisfied just to enjoy the melodrama, but I did a bit of digging and discovered the missing ‘link’. According to Jan Lisa Huttner, an American blogger who interviewed the director, the missing father is symbolic:


JLH: When Broken Wings begins, a mother and her four children are in mourning. The father is dead, but we don’t see any pictures of him, or any flashbacks that tell us who he is. I think “the father” is Yitzhak Rabin [the Israeli Prime Minister who was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish zealot in 1995]. Am I wrong about this?

Nir Bergman: No, no, you are not wrong at all. In a lot of ways this film is personal to me. It came from personal materials (about my parents divorce). But in the process of making the film, it became clear that this family can give you a picture of our world today. Since this murder, Israel is an orphaned country. Rabin’s death influenced me very strongly.

(View the whole interview here.)

I remember the Rabin assassination but I had to look up the details. Is Bergman making a political point? I think so, even if not directly. Thinking through the film and replaying it with the family as a metaphor for a secure Israel at peace is revealing. I watched the film on a UK DVD, admittedly from the bargain bin, but there must be copies around. It dates from the time when BBC4 TV in the UK was attempting to support international cinema. It should do this more often.

Lemon Tree (Israel/Fra/Ger 2008)

Salma and her lawyer are mobbed by the media outside the Supreme Court.

Salma and her lawyer are mobbed by the media outside the Supreme Court.

I had mixed emotions watching this film, especially with the Israeli bombing of Gaza as a backdrop. I wondered if I would be able to handle an Israeli film in the circumstances, especially perhaps one that purported to be ‘liberal’.

There is certainly a good deal of pleasure to be had from the film. It is well acted, nicely shot (albeit on Super 16mm with some fairly iffy inserts of documentary footage, so best suited to smaller screens) and full of interesting ideas and narrative possibilities. I enjoyed almost all of the film, but felt ultimately frustrated.

(There are some SPOILERS in what follows – if you don’t like to know any aspects of the plot before seeing the film, don’t read on.)

The plot sees a Palestinian widow in her forties (Salma) symbolically living slap bang on the so-called ‘Green Line’ that separates the West Bank (nominally under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, but in practice occupied and subject to Israeli force) from Israel. The widow’s lemon grove of fifty trees lies between her house and the new home of the Israeli Defence Minister and his wife Mira (who chose the house). His secret service agents decree that the lemon grove must be uprooted as it is a threat to the minister’s security (and, by extension, the security of the State of Israel). As if to ram home the symbolism, the minister is named Israel Navon and since he is in charge of security, the possibilities of a parable are obvious. The widow not surprisingly objects to losing her grove even though the powerful men of her community suggest that her loss is nothing compared to what many others have lost and continue to lose at the hands of the Israelis.

The main problem with the film is that it appears to combine at least three different narratives which in turn draw upon at least three genres. First, it appears that we may be being offered a familiar neo-realist story about a woman fighting for her legal rights as she finds a lawyer and then follows the case through the courts. This narrative is based on all too common events and it was stories about Palestinians fighting their way through Israeli courts that prompted the original idea for the film. Mostly, the losses are houses and access to olive groves or grazing land but the ‘bittersweetness’ of the lemon helps the parable.  

However, in a supporting narrative, the widow (played by the stunning Hiam Abbas, so good in The Visitor) gradually moves towards a close and potentially sexual liaison with the young lawyer that she hires. Such a liaison inevitably brings the possibility of community disapproval and I was reminded of the classic Hollywood melodrama All That Heaven Allows (dir Douglas Sirk 1955) and its virtual remake by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Fear Eats the Soul (Germany 1974). As in those films, the melodrama draws in the widow’s children, although they are far less concerned about their mother’s behaviour than in the Hollywood model – indeed their lack of concern/interest is the point. The melodrama also allows the filmmakers to include a number of ‘excessive’ sequences in which the general realist tone is replaced with something more expressive utilising sound effects and lighting. (The film’s title is picked up in the title song, ‘Lemon Tree’, which I remember from the Peter, Paul and Mary version in the 1960s: “Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat”. I can’t find out who sings the two main lines in the film, but you can hear them on the Israeli website.)

The third strand of the film is a form of satire on the Israeli media and political system. I found this quite difficult to follow in terms of what it was actually saying. My reading was that this was a liberal critique which nonetheless absolved the Israeli authorities of responsibility for what happened to the widow. It would be unfair to suggest that these three different strands are not connected and the main connection is via the two women, Salma and Mira (two mothers), who never speak to each other but who nonetheless exchange looks and understanding across the Green Line. This could be argued to be a classic instance of displacing the potentially national political narrative onto a ‘personal human interest story’.

Rona Lipaz-Michael plays Mira, here pensive on the 'other side' of the wire which 'protects' her from the lemon grove.

Rona Lipaz-Michael plays Mira, here pensive on the 'other side' of the wire which 'protects' her from the lemon grove.

In fact, the overall political situation is picked up in the two other narratives. The lawyer makes sure that the journey through the courts catches the attention of the international press and this in turn links to his own role in the melodrama (as a student in Russia with a small daughter still in Moscow). This also links to the general discourse about the Israeli media agencies which are pursuing the Defence Minister via his gradually disintegrating marriage. So, lots of connections – but also quite a few plot holes. For instance, Salma has two daughters according to various conversations, but we only see one – where is the other? More importantly, there is an ‘attack’ on the minister’s house which conveniently supports his case and also leads to troops invading Salma’s house. But we never hear what kind of attack or who was responsible – was it a set-up by the minister and/or the security forces? Are we supposed to work that out for ourselves?

On the plus side (at least for me) the film does not have a conventional happy ending. In this sense the director can claim to be offering a ‘realistic’ view of an impossible situation. I desperately want the widow to ‘win’, but of course the Palestinians face a no-win situation and the strongest condemnation of Israeli policy towards the occupation of Palestinian lands that the film can muster is Mira’s comment to a journalist that there are ‘no limits’ to what Israeli society will seek to do to maintain its position (or words to that effect – I can’t remember the exact line). On reflection that is quite a strong allusion to make.

I realise that there is a danger of appearing hypocritical in reviewing this film vis-a-vis our earlier discussion of Waltz With Bashir. We objected to that film’s exclusion of the voices of the Lebanese that were treated as simply ‘other’ by the Israeli soldiers. Lemon Tree offers a voice to Palestinians on at least the same level as the Israelis. It takes us into Ramallah and a 1948 refugee settlement and also shows us the difficulties Palestinians face in crossing the Green Line and getting into Jerusalem, all of which carries a sense of authenticity (even though for audiences unfamiliar with the realities of life in the occupied territories, it’s still only a partial view). Added to this, there certainly is an attempt to introduce some of the long-running issues facing Palestinians into each of the three narrative strands – the stresses of exile and migration, the spiritual bonds of land passed down through generations which are so casually broken by the ‘imperatives of Israeli military policy’, the attack on Palestinian agricultural methods and the contrast with the agricultural prowess of Israeli kibbutzim etc. I acknowledge all of this, but I think that by focusing more closely on one specific story, some of these issues might have been explored with more impact and we might have learned more about Salma (or Mira – I found her to be an interesting character who could have carried a more detailed narrative).

In institutional terms the film is a co-production with familiar partners in France and Germany. Director and co-writer Eran Riklis is an Israeli who has also lived in Brazil, Canada and the US and who studied at the National Film School in the UK. His previous films have covered similar territory and include The Syrian Bride (2004) focusing on the Druze community in the Golan Heights. Riklis was interviewed in Der Spiegel when Lemon Tree was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in January 2008 and he makes a spirited and convincing case for his approach. Perhaps I haven’t emphasised enough how carefully the film avoids making the main characters into symbolic types – and how much humour there is in many of the scenes. Riklis has an absurdist eye and he recognises how ridiculous some of the situations are – ridiculous but also frightening. Having walked under the ‘goon towers’ of the Israeli occupiers on the West Bank and waited to get through checkpoints I have some idea of what it might be like, but still no real feeling for what it’s like to live with them day in and day out. The hideous ‘separation wall’ appears in the film and Riklis uses the image very well. I was eventually able to discover that the co-writer of Lemon Tree (and The Syrian Bride) an Israeli-Arab woman, Suha Arraf, who trained at the Tel Aviv Film School and who one day hopes to direct a feature. I hope she does and I look forward to seeing it.

Lemon Tree has been released in the UK by a new distributor Unanimous Pictures (which also released The Visitor). At least we are now getting the opportunity to see these Israeli films (The Syrian Bride was not released in the UK) and I’m certainly grateful. I think I need to see more, if only to get my head around how to approach such an ideological minefield. I did feel frustrated watching the film, but the more I think about it the more I recognise the skill of the filmmakers and the potential for the film to entertain audiences and perhaps get them to think. I certainly urge more people to see it and to engage with the issues.

The Israeli website for the film includes a statement by the director and further background information.