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New York Film Festival, Part 5: The White Ribbon and Broken Embraces

In Michael Haneke’s latestfilm, The White Ribbon, a series of mysteriously random acts of violence disturb a small and puritanical Northern German village on the eve of World War I. We never get a satisfying explanation of their origin because Haneke is more interested in how people react in the face of fear and uses this setting to offer a glimpse into the formative years of the generation who would grow up to form the Nazi party. For nearly two and a half hours, he demands the utmost attention from his audience, providing subtle clues hidden inside seemingly banal dialogue, long and expansively bleak shots, and acting that appears flat. Emblematic? Sure, but this Palme d’Or winner takes a toll on the viewer.

The decision to film in black-and-white sucks all color and life out of the picture. While it makes sense thematically, it distances us even further from the characters — a doctor (Rainer Bock), pastor (Burghart Klaussner), and Baron (Ulrich Tukur). These so-called pillars of society have few redeeming qualities. The doctor abuses his daughter and mistress; the preacher doles out harsh corporal punishment to his kids; and the Baron is arrogant and corrupt.

A love story between a schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) and a young girl (Leonine Benesch) provides some much needed relief. While their relationship is pretty tepid, it also provides some of the most solid acting in the film. There’s a lot to admire in Haneke’s well-observed exploration of how evil develops, but we can’t help thinking it would be more effective if tempered with a bit more kindness: the best scene involves a little boy questioning his nanny about death, unable to believe in the mortality inherent in life.

While Haneke works to actively distance us from his characters and make us struggle as they do, Pedro Almodovar welcomes us with open arms into his delightfully noirish new film, Broken Embraces. Taking place alternately in the present and fourteen years prior, the story focuses on Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), an up-and-coming filmmaker who falls in love with Lena (Penelope Cruz), his married leading lady, who struggles to free herself of her powerful husband, Jose Luis Gomez (Ernesto Martel).

We first meet Mateo in the present as his alter ego Harry Caine, a blind screenwriter. To say much more about the story would spoil the fun. Almodovar takes such pleasure in carefully unraveling this complex tale, and it’s a true joy to watch him at work, expertly in control of the world he creates. This world began to develop years ago, when he was forced to spend long periods of time in the dark. Almodovar imagined what it would be like to be blind, specifically what it would be like to be a blind man picking up women. He dreamed up a porn flick where a man follows the scent of the girl he likes best and charms the pants off her, which turns out to be a perfect introduction to Harry Caine, and an image we can’t recall seeing on screen before.

Tracing Caine back to Martel is a lot of fun as the film progresses, particularly on the set of Martel’s film Girls and Suitcases, which resembles Almodovar’s zany Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), with a set that’s evocative of Live Flesh (1997), another Almodovar flick featuring Cruz. The careful attention highlights the noirish elements that are carefully balanced with a modern storytelling sensibility that makes the two plus hours fly by.

Broken Embraces closes the festival tonight at Alice Tully Hall.

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