By BRUCE DENNILL
The European Film Festival in South Africa runs from 12-22 November and features a number of fantastic films. Here are reviews of three selected highlights.
Curveball / Directed by Johannes Naber / 16
A drama that tempers the despair it invokes with a streak of dark humour, Curveball tells the story of a real-life Iraqi asylum seeker named Rafid Alwan (Dar Salim), who claimed to have worked on a biological weapons programme for Saddam Hussein and promised information about it to the German secret service in exchange for safety and a new passport. In this version of the story, Alwan is assigned to dour German agent Dr Arndt Wolf (Sebastian Blomberg), which is a less than ideal situation, as he’s long been a believer that such a weapons programme exists and as such has at least an emotional investment in what Alwan says being the truth. On this platform, the script builds up a satisfying mesh of threads about who benefits from which outcomes – and how much they are willing to obscure the truth to make sure the narrative fits their personal goals. Knowing that this and other similar interactions led to an actual war makes this uncomfortable viewing, but the film is well-paced and well-acted and it feels genuine – far more so than a mainstream Hollywood-style offering dealing with the same subject matter would. A slightly sickening reminder of how much of a mess the greed and arrogance of just a few individuals can land entire countries in.
Proxima / Directed by Alice Winocour / PG13
Eva Green – known to English-speaking audiences for playing characters who could only exist onscreen (Bond girls, witches and others) – impresses enormously in this French-made but multi-lingual film in a role that shows that an apparently glamorous job (her character Sarah is an astronaut) requires tension, pain and sacrifice behind the scenes. The story covers the period leading up to the launch, when Sarah and her colleagues go through the rigorous training – mental and physical – required for a year-long working stint on the International Space Station. The focus is on relationships – between single mom Sarah and her young daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle); between Sarah and boorish American astronaut Mike (Matt Dillon, who makes the most of a beautifully written character arc); and others – with the mission as a looming shadow over their security and happiness rather than the focus, as in many space-themed films. Through excellent dialogue and interaction, the film slowly builds tension and audience connection with its characters, making themes like sexism even more upsetting in such a rarified atmosphere (pun sadly intended). Elegant and sophisticated.
Becoming Mona / Directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels Van Koevorden / 16
This drama examines the growing pains – literally, the challenges involved in a Dutch girl becoming a woman – of the titular character (Tanya Zabarylo). Growing up in a flawed but not unfamiliar household in which her overbearing mother passes away, to be replaced by an apparently much more benign stepmother, Mona becomes accustomed to being emotionally repressed, a trait that affects all of her relationships as she ages. Mona’s different phases of life are cleverly announced by a recurring Christmas scene, with the irony of such a context’s supposed happiness and joy not lost on the viewer. Perhaps the most impressive onscreen presence is Mona’s stepmother Marie. Actress Wine Dierickx does a sublime job portraying a woman whose own emotional fragility plays a constant role in her young charge, an influence Mona’s relatively timid father (Tom Vermeir) is powerless to counter. Watching Mona make repeated bad decisions is difficult, mostly because the probable reasons for her lack of wisdom are the same factors that have shaped the lives of many viewers who have experienced their own loneliness or frustration. An affecting, sad film, but with a whisper of redemption.