Sunday, March 30, 2008

Izgnanie (The Banishment)

Dir: Andre Zvyaginstev

Viewed From: Le Balcon

You have to love a director who will tell a reporter with no trace of irony that his movies are about "the pain and suffering of existence." In a wide ranging interview in the Brussels Daily Le Soir, the Russian-born Andre Zvyaginstev explained how his most recent film The Banishment (or, Izgnanie) worked as a meditation on life, death, and coming to terms with the unalterable realities of both. It was a pretty astonishing interview in that it read more like a conversation with a Noble Prize winning novelist in a literary magazine than a feature for the entertainment section of a newspaper. While some of this is due to a much more serious and, intellectually speaking, fawning European media, the the tone of conversation owes as much to Zvyaginstev's perspective. He is an auteur unashamedly interested in making audiences think about what they do not want to think about rather than entertainment. In other words, he is an artist. And as a two-and-a-half hour exercise in making people think about subjects they don't want to think about - including, but not limited too, infidelity, fratricide, abortion, the prison of family, madness, death, infanticide, loneliness, eternity - it is unquestionably successful.

First, think Malick, except without all the swirling. Zvyaginstev has his own voice, but there are two or three scenes that capture Malick's gift for finding the strange beauty in nature, such as a long scene which breaks up the second and third acts where we follow a stream of water running down a hillside as a storm begins. It is one of probably ten or so shots in this movie that other filmmakers would be happy to get once in a career.

But lest you think he is just another long-shot master, Zvyaginstev also has the talent to create tense conversation and even (perish the thought!) drama. Based on a novel by William Saroyan, The Banishment has the basic elements of drama but there are enough tricks in editing and sound to make M. Night Shyamalan proud. I obviously won't give away any of the good stuff, but there is a startling reversal as what you think will be a depiction of Hollywood madness (say, The Shining) gives way to a much darker and deeper madness that (I think) comes pretty close to capturing the real thing.

Here is the basic story I can give: a seemingly normal family (aren't they all) heads out of the city to spend some time at an ancestral home in the country. Before they leave with their two children, the husband Alex is forced to treat his brother Mark for a gunshot wound that he will not take to the hospital. Whether the trip and Mark's visit are related isn't made clear (by the end you realize that Alex received his wound from the area near the country home), but it's clear that there are dark secrets in the family. However, after a few bucolic days in the countryside, it turns out that wife Vera is holding out on the biggest secret of all, and the drama begins.

What makes the setup so perfect is that Zvyagninstev plays on the typical ideas of the hidden past, and takes a movie that initially looks like a Russian History of Violence and turns it into Bergman. This might sound like a bad thing (it does get pretty heavy), but the trick is when you realize you care more about the psychological drama of Vera and Alex than the possible criminal family or any of Mark's shenanigans.

In fact, the only problem I had with this movie was circumstance, as one of the most tense moments of the film was interrupted by a cell phone call in the theater. Now, I don't mean a ring, but an actual call, in which one of the audience members proceeded to answer his phone and chat for a few minutes. I had ssshhhed two people in the library that day and I was on the other side of the theater, so I waited for someone else to quiet the man. But almost as amazing as the man answering the call was the full two to three minutes before anyone got up and walked over to the man to tell him to shut up. Finally, a very large man got up to quiet him and we all went back to watching the movie. Truth be told, with all the heavyosity of The Banishment, I probably wasn't the only one who welcomed the break.

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