SIGNIS Argentina awards a short film on tolerance at the 2017 Hacelo Corto Festival
The XIV Spiritual Film Festival of Catalonia will dedicate a cycle to Terrence Malick
International recognition for Across the Crescent Moon, a Philippine film that bridges the gap between Muslims and Christians
Melbourne, May, 12th, 2017 (Peter Malone).
Below, find reviews done by Peter Malone on the films:
- INNOCENTES, Les/ THE INNOCENTS
- PERSONAL SHOPPER
- QUIET PASSION, A
- TABLE 19
- THEIR FINEST
- VICEROY’S HOUSE
- ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, The
France, 2016, 116 minutes, Colour.
Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata, Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig.
Directed by Anne Fontaine.
It is very significant that 2016 saw two films which explored Catholic themes in a profound way. There was Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the story of the Jesuits in Japan in the 17th century and the fidelity of the laity, even to martyrdom, as well as issues of challenges to faith. There was also Les Innocentes, directed by Anne Fontaine, the harrowing story of a convent of Polish sisters who were abused and raped by invading Russian soldiers during World War II and have to deal with the aftermath in terms of location and faith.
Les Innocentes is a French/Polish production, a French director and two inch actors but production and the rest of the cast will Polish. This is a stark picture of Poland and the Polish countryside in the post-war winter of 1945.
An interesting comparison is the 2014 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language film, Ida, a story about a Polish nun, a child during the war, her adoption and the discovery of her Jewish background and her later having to deal with this in terms of vocation.
Silence and Les Innocentes are powerful reminders of Catholic sensibilities, Catholic sensitivities and the depth of Catholic themes.
Audiences who remember the 1959 film, The Nuns’ Story, will remember the similarities in the life of the nuns in the convent, contemplative, enclosed, austere, penitential, an emphasis on obedience, of the vows, the dominating role of the superior. This kind of religious life is only memory for older audiences, a surprise for younger audiences – although there are pockets of religious communities like this around the world today. The stone convent looks grim, the main action takes place in winter, the audience is taken into the chapel frequently for the chanting of the Office, to the corridors, the cells, the refectory. It is interesting to remember that in exactly 20 years, the sessions of the Second Vatican Council would be completed and changes in convent life were in the offing.
Of key importance for the audience is the impact of the rape story, the horror for innocent women, nuns, virgins, with the physical experience of the assault, with the psychological impact of the violation. The nuns are reticent about their condition, embarrassed, some mystified by their experience, a sense of shame, a sense of self-blame, the concealing of pregnancy beneath ample habits, moral issues with which the sisters have to cope.
Of significance is the perspective of the superior, wanting to keep the reputation of the convent respectable, concealing what had happened.
One of the sisters leaves the convent to find some medical help, from the French doctors and nurses present in the Polish village to tend to French wounded before they are repatriated. The focus is on a French nurse (and the film based on a memoir of these events before she died, prematurely, in 1946). She has a Communist background and so the convent tends to be alien territory. As portrayed by Lou de Laage, she is a fine woman, a volunteer, a woman of concern and compassion, engaging with the liaison Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who speaks French and becomes more and more frank in her discussions with the nurse.
She learns a great deal of medical skills as well as compassion from the nurse and begins to confide in her, even more sympathetic with the sisters when she herself is attacked and threatened by a Russian convoy. She enlists the help of the Red Cross doctor who is Jewish, his family killed in Auschwitz and who interprets the reaction of the superior as anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, he assists with the births.
As the time comes to give birth, many of the sisters are fearful, ashamed, prudish and ignorant. Each of the sisters reacts in her own way, some avoiding the reality, others conscious of their becoming mothers. (In later decades, issues of the appropriateness of abortion in such circumstances were raised in moral and theological discussions. In the last 20 years there have also been quite a number of films about women who were raped in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, questions of abortion, issues of raising the children and the consequences for the children and their origins and legitimacy in Balkan society)
It is important to note that the nuns have to deal with situations themselves, the chaplain not being present, no explanation given but the audience presumes his arrest or his death. These are women’s issues and are dealt with by women assisted by the doctor.
It is the nurse herself who comes up with a solution which is positive for the sisters as mothers and for the local orphans who have been seen playing in and wandering the streets.
In fact, this is a film of faith but, ultimately of hope and charity, symbolised by a charming group photo of the sisters, the children, and the visitors who have been able to come, at last, for the profession of vows by the novices.
The experience of Les Innocentes (the innocents being the sisters as well as the babies) is, at times, emotionally harrowing, always morally challenging, probing the meaning of innocence suffering and the place and role of God, of faith.
MEDECIN DE CAMPAGNE/ COUNTRY DOCTOR
France, 2016, 102 minutes, Colour.
Francois Cluzet, Marianne Denicourt.
Directed by Thomas Lilti.
Stories about country doctors and country practices have been very popular on film and, especially, television series. Those for whom the idea of a country doctor and his country practice seems appealing will find a lot to like in this French version.
There is a sobering moment right at the beginning. The country doctor, played by popular and versatile French actor François Cluzet, is something of a loner, his wife having left him, his son living in the city. He goes to see a doctor friend and the diagnosis is not good. The friend urges him to ease off from the pressures of his work.
Of course, he does not.
Audiences who feel that there is an authentic atmosphere about this film and its characters, the various visits, the treatments, then this is because the writer-director, Thomas Lilti, was actually a country doctor himself before he began making films for a living.
His practice is fairly wide-ranging and we soon see glimpses of several of his patients, his kindly dealing with an old man who finds it difficult to dress, a friend involved on a building site… Somehow or other, his continuing with his practice seems rather to invigorate him.
His friend sends along a doctor assistant, a woman in her 40s who has spent some time being a nurse but has studied medicine and has a good sense of how to deal with people – except that the doctor sits in on his assistant’s interviews, is rather critical, is not particularly gracious or helpful. But, life goes on.
One night he is called out to the friend on the building site who has had a severe accident. The doctor himself stumbles and falls in the dark and needs x-rays for his shoulder, something which his assistant sees but does not let him know she is aware of his condition. They continue with their work.
There are some moments of relaxation, especially a country dance, some very enthusiastic line dancing. There are also local committees who are trying to assess improvements to medical services. And the doctor himself organises a group to take care of the old man whom he has abducted from the hospital for personal home care.
Familiar material, more or less, but with the strength of the performers and the humanity of the anecdotal stories as well as the challenge to the doctor about his health, his life, some toning down of his unfriendliness and having regards for his assistant, this is an interesting and enjoyable film.
Chile, 2016, 106 minutes, Colour.
Luis Gneccho, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mercedes Moran.
Directed by Pablo Larain.
For a Chilean audience this would be a significant film. Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1971, was the nation’s significant literary personality, was a politician, had ambassadorial duties, but also had a lifelong commitment to the Communist Party and suffered periods of being hunted and exiled.
For a worldwide audience, with, perhaps, limited knowledge about Pablo Neruda, a googling of his name, seeing the biography in Wikipedia, would be a fruitful exercise.
The film is directed by Pablo Larain who is emerging as one of Chile’s most significant directors, Tony Manero, The Club, No, Jackie. It is interesting to note that his 2013 drama, No, focused on the 1988 election which challenged the authority of General Pinochet. At one moment in this film, showing the prisons and the political prisoners in 1948, the man in charge of the camp is Pinochet.
The action of this film takes place in 1948, corresponding to the time when Neruda (Luis Gneccho) had been a successful Communist Senator in the Parliament, had been critical of the US, pro the Soviet Union with and Communist principles, but was criticised by fellow senators and then exiled by the President and hunted, a number of escapes from the police, moving from place to place with the help of Communist security guards and drivers, ultimately escaping to Argentina across the Andes.
While the film seems to play like a historical narrative, establishing the character of Neruda, his politics, his staunch Communist stances and sympathetic approach to ordinary people and workers, his marriage to his French mentor, Delia, and her accompanying him in hiding, the fact that he was also a womaniser, but, above all, in the mind of the Chilean people, he was a great poet.
However, the screenplay is something of a fantasy, a blend of fiction and reality. The voice-over narrative is that of the police officer in charge of the pursuit, Oscar Peluchennau (Gael Garcia Bernal), whose mother was a prostitute and whose putative father was the establisher of a strong police force. Oscar has a commission from the authorities to hunt down Neruda, searching from house to house, place to place, almost catching up with him, Neruda leaving copies of detective stories with messages for him.
In fact, this is a fictitious character, giving a symbolic meaning to the hunted and the hunter. Neruda seems to flirt with being caught, going out against the wishes of his minders, leaving the messages for Oscar. There is a significant scene in a brothel, where a transgender prostitute sings, encourages Neruda to recite his poems, and pledges his loyalty to Neruda while interrogated by Oscar.
Ultimately, there is a confrontation in Argentina, Neruda escaping by car, then on horseback, into the snow. Oscar’s motorbike breaks down, he also rides a horse into the snow for an ultimate confrontation with Neruda.
For a non-Chilean audience, the narrative and the fiction are interesting but the audience still might feel somewhat detached from the situations and Neruda’s character. For a Chilean audience, the film is an exploration of a significant historical era, the eventual emergence of Allende as president, with the support of Neruda, followed by Allende’s assassination and the oppression of General Pinochet.
France, 2015, 105 minutes, Colour.
Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielson Lie, Ty Olwin, Nora von Waldstatten.
Directed by Olivier Assayas.
Strongly divided opinions about this one. It was greeted by boos at the critics’ screening at the Cannes film Festival, but then it did win the Best Director award for Olivier Assayas and has received warm reviews.
Kristin Stewart, who had previously worked successfully with Assayas in Clouds of Sils Maria, is Maureen, the personal shopper of the title. She works for a temperamental actress, at her beck and call, but seemingly willing to do this work. There are quite a number of sequences where she goes to shops to pick up a range of clothes for her employer – and revealing a growing interest in the clothes and the possibilities of trying them on, of wearing them.
But, this is not the main focus of the film. she has some psychic powers, the sense of the presence of powers from the beyond, the possibility of ghosts. We see her spending the night in a house trying to get a sense of whether there are mysterious persons present – which brings her in contact with a number of celebrities who are interested in her powers. There is also a murder.
While Maureen herself has something of a personal life and relationships, she spends a lot of her time alone, going on trips, even to London, for personal shopping. Gradually, there are eerie aspects of her life, sensing of other people, much of it centring on the experience of the death of her brother – and something of his restlessness in the afterlife.
In the meantime, she goes to visit her boyfriend who is working in Morocco in IT.
Over the running time, so much of film action time is taken up with people on the phone. In this film, Maureen spends an inordinate amount of time with her smart phone, receiving mysterious texts, puzzling over them, communicating by text, the camera often in close-up on the messages, on the texts. This seems to be a very frustrating way of taking up film time, communicating message, and having the central character so dependent on text.
And, by the end, with the beyond-this-world suggestions, many who are sceptical audience will find these developments too much to take, not quite credible – which makes the booing at the Cannes Film Festival quite understandable.
A QUIET PASSION
UK, 2016, 125 minutes, Colour.
Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Annette Badland.
Directed by Terence Davies.
This is a portrait of the 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson.
It is a film written and directed by Terence Davies, who made an impression in the past with his classic Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 as well as The Long Day Closes in 1992. Davies also made a screen version of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and a very telling remake of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.
Davies might be called a fastidious director, great attention to detail, a great sensitivity to human feelings, and setting them within a historic and cultural context. A Quiet Passion is set between the 1840s and the 1880s and Davies re-creates the period, its look, its feel, costumes and decor, sensibilities meticulously. The period covers the lives of very proper Bostonians with a Protestant and evangelical religious outlook, the challenge of the Civil War, the unsettled aftermath. It also covers the media of the period, the newspapers and magazines, especially for outlets for the publication of poetry.
The film opens with Emily asserting herself at the religious school for young ladies, some in the group choosing to be women of faith and Christianity, others choosing to be women of faith but not committed to Christianity, with Edith standing in the middle, her own woman, defying the threats of hell from the prim women in charge. She feels it necessary that her family come to rescue her, her patrician father and her younger sister and brother. She returns to their quiet, comfortable and settled life in Boston. She is skilled in writing poetry but it is not the done thing for young women to be published – especially when they go to a concert and her father disapproves exceedingly of a woman singing in public. Despite the objections of her aunt, the father does make contact with an editor and a problem is published.
Externally, nothing very much happens in Emily Dickinson’s life, though there is an intensity in her inner life. She is played, very effectively, as a traditional spinster by Cynthia Nixon (a long way away from Sex and the City). Her sister is played by Jennifer Ehle, one of those smiling, kind and gentle performances at which Jennifer Ehle is expert. The patriarchal father is played by Keith Carradine.
Edith and her sister stay at home, with some views on slavery and the Civil War, religious in outlook but Edith, especially, refusing her father’s invitation to actually go to church. Their mother is loving but is sickly and dies.
Edith is self-contained, has no desire to marry, is happy and secure in her home life, with some women friends who pass in and out of her life. There is quite a moral crisis when she finds that her brother is unfaithful to his wife with whom Edith is friendly, sharing books and other matters of taste. She emerges as quite intolerant, unforgiving, despite efforts by her sister and brother to mollify her outlook – and she does, at times, admit that she can be far too harsh.
As she grows older, she becomes unwell – and the scenes of her illness and treatment are quite forthright.
On paper, it might be said that the life of Emily Dickinson is not a subject for a feature film. Rather, it might have been effective as a piece of theatre. As it is, it is a film of words with many of the Emily Dickinson’s problems being recited by Cynthia Nixon – although, poems which require more than one reading to grasp their meaning and tone, something not possible with the film. It is a film of tableaux. To that extent, A Quiet Passion is quite theatrical but, with Davies’ sensitivity and sensibility, it does offer an audience an opportunity to get to know and appreciate Emily Dickinson.
France, 2016, 99 minutes, Colour.
Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joanna Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux.
Directed by Julia Ducournau.
The Australian distributors of this film are Monster Pictures. And, indeed, some of the characters are monstrous in their behaviour but not in the world of fantasy but in the real world.
The basic narrative is fairly straightforward: the younger daughter of a family goes to begin her veterinary studies and is immediately forced into the hazing that goes on for many days in “Rush Week”, a period of humiliations and ultra-raucous behaviour (showing extreme amount of controlling peer group pressure). She is a vegetarian and is forced to eat a piece of raw rapid liver – with dire consequences, starting with shingles, her feeling unwell, and then developing an appetite which is certainly not vegetarian. The people involved with this changing her are her older sister, also studying to be a vet, and her gay friend.
This is a first film by young French director, Julia Ducournau, was obviously interested in psychological allegory with more than a touch of horror, with quite an emphasis on blood and gore. That is, in itself, a warning for those who have different tastes (actually that serves as a pun on the themes of the film).
Searching around for her to describe the allegory, the following description came up: the emergence from the vegetarian of a subconscious increasingly voracious carnivorous compensation. This means that the film is definitely a psychological drama with effects that are both psycho and somatic.
Justine, the younger sister, resists the emergence from the subconscious, is exceedingly puzzled by it, shocked at the various episodes with herself and her sister, and not dealing with them well at all. Another drive that emerges is the sexual.
Just as we might be puzzling about the final episodes, there is a vivid reminder that the influences on a person’s life both nature and nurture, and that it is wise to find out what has been inherited from parents.
In recent years, the French have made a number of films like this, psychological dramas but moving into areas that remind audiences of the drives that are seen in vampire, zombie and living dead films.
US, 2017, 87 minutes, Colour.
Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, Tony Revolori, Margo Martindale, Stephen Merchant, June Squibb, Wyatt Russell.
Directed by Jeffrey Blitz.
There won’t be any great indent in your life, any emptiness, if you don’t manage to see Table 19. On the other hand, if you do happen to see it, it is a reasonable enough 90 minutes looking at human nature and many of its troubles.
The action of the film takes place mainly over one day, a wedding. We are introduced to Eloise (Anna Kendrick) debating over whether she will accept the invitation to the wedding: yes, no, attempting to burn the invitation, changing her mind and going. We assume that there is some kind of romantic barrier hindering her going to the wedding.
In fact, she has broken off her relationship with the Best Man, Teddy (Wyatt Russell) who was taken up with an old and now new girlfriend. Eloise has helped with the table placements but, after the breakup, she has withdrawn as maid of honour and is now at the outpost table, 19.
We are shown the other guests at this table receiving their invitations, debating whether to go or not. The most eager is the very elderly former nanny, June Squibb (so good in the film, Nebraska), an awkward young man preoccupied with sexual matters (Tony Revolori, so good in The Grand Budapest Hotel), the owners of a diner whose rather long marriage has become rather brittle (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson) and, finally, a very awkward and gawky guest, the very tall Stephen Merchant (The Office).
There are many awkward moments at the table, very many awkward moments. Eloise absents herself at times, arguing with Teddy, dancing with a good-looking seeming-guest (Australian Tom Cocquerell, accent and all) who, in fact, it is rather two-timing. Things come to a head when Eloise is upset, the nanny quickly discerning that she is pregnant, and there is an upset to the wedding cake with them all repairing to the nanny’s room, some pot, some mutual help. They then go for a walk, an opportunity for everybody to have a good talk and attempt to sort things out.
Problems, problems. On the whole, we probably don’t mind being in the company of these characters with their eccentricities and hope that things will turn out for them.
UK, 2016, 117 minutes, Colour.
Gemma Atherton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nigh, Jack Huston, Paul Ritter, Rachel Sterling, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Jake Lacey, Eddie Marsan, Jeremy Irons, Lily Knight, Francesca Knight.
Directed by Lone Scherfig.
This is the kind of British entertainment that suggests itself for a collection of The Best of Britain.
While it has been made in the present, and some of the dialogue is more 21st-century than the dialogue that appeared in the films of 1940 to 1941, in fact, this is a film about films and filmmaking in that particular war period.
It is very British in tone, characters, situations, some underplayed interactions, low-key humour – which does worry the Ministry for War and the Ministry for Information at the time because they want the film that they are making to make an impact on American audiences so that America will consider entering World War II and not just think that Britain has caved in after the Battle of Britain. The ending that was originally intended for the film the Brits are making gets feedback from the American distributors – not enough oomph!
Which is probably how Australians will like Their Finest, especially older cinemagoers who would seem to be the intended audience.
The central character is a young woman from Wales, Catrin, a very good starring role for Gemma Arterton. Catrin has come to London from Wales with her artist husband, Jack Huston, who has been wounded in the Spanish Civil War and so has to serve as an air raid warden. She thinks she is going for a job as secretary but, as she presents herself, especially to a committee who are making propaganda films (with scenes of audiences laughing at the kind of British rah-rah film of the time), she makes a good impression and is hired as a screenwriter, first of all for little fillers which are morale boosters shown between the supporting feature and the main feature.
The Ministries are after stories which are authentic and optimistic. Catrin goes to investigate a Dunkirk story, twins, Rose and Lily, who take their alcoholic father’s boat, sail across to the French coast to help with the rescue of the British soldiers at Dunkirk. Well, it didn’t quite happen like that in fact, but the story seems to be too good to pass up and so Catrin, her co-writers, especially the sardonic Buckley (Sam Claflin) who thinks that Catrin can do the ‘soppy stuff’ (the dialogue for the women), begin to work on writing the screenplay.
The film is very interesting showing the writers, their whiteboard, the stickers with key characters and events, the spaces between, the way that they invent more material to flesh out the story, sometimes inventive, sometimes hackneyed, always with an eye on what the Ministries were expecting (they react at the story of a boat breaking down which would denigrate British shipbuilding), on the effect on the audience, on the box office and, when they are forced, to introduce an American character and try to work out how on earth he was a Dunkirk.
There are many scenes of the filming, on the Devon coast and later in the studio. Key to all of this is a self-important actor, played with his usual sardonic aplomb by Bill Nighy, who expects to be the hero, that finds that he is to be the alcoholic uncle Frank. Eventually, he is charmed by Catrin, and relies on her completely for his character, not wanting any dialogue except hers. He also has an agent, Eddie Marsan, who is killed in a raid and he has to deal with the agent’s sister, a haughty Helen McCrory.
At times one can imagine the screenplay meetings about scenes for this film, especially in terms of Catrin and her husband, her breaking down the hostility of Buckley, and where this might lead. Actually, it does not lead in the directions that we might have been anticipating.
Scenes of the Blitz, the bombings, taking refuge in the Tube, lots of ordinary London people in the streets, the air raid wardens, the technical crew and the difficulties of making a film during wartime – and, ultimately, Catrin going to see the film with an ordinary audience who respond perfectly, laughs, fears, anticipation, tears, enthusiastic morale.
Interestingly, the film was directed by Lone Scherfig, a Danish director who has made a number of films in the UK including Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and An Education.
UK/India, 2017, 106 minutes, Colour.
Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Manish Dayal, Huma Quereshi, David Heyman, Om Puri, Simon Callow.
Directed by Gurinda Chanda.
Where is the Viceroy’s House? It is in Delhi, and it is 1947, the year for Britain’s solving its role in India’s move for independence, which led to Partition into India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim.
For those interested in British history, especially in India, this is a film which recreates the atmosphere and dramatises the personalities and events of the time. The viceroy is Lord Mountbatten, who had achieved significantly during World War II in Burma. He is accompanied by his wife, Lady Edwina Mountbatten.
The task that Mountbatten was given by the British Parliament was to move India towards the independence that it for and which had been fostered by Mahatma Gandhi. This independence was not to be an easy task because of Hindu traditions, of the Muslim traditions, the cultural and religious clashes, in 1947 turning into local massacres, uprisings and a general sense of unease. Hindus were led by Nehru and the Muslims by Jinna. It was very difficult times to arrange meetings between leaders.
As a way of bringing the audience into the thinking of the issues, there is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story underlying the political activity. Jeet (Manish Daval) is a Hindu who has worked in prisons but is now promoted as a personal servant to the Viceroy. Also promoted in the Viceroy’s House is a young Muslim woman, Aalia (Huma Quereshi). Jeet is in love with her since he looked after her father in prison. She has been promised to someone else and it would seem that their love has no future.
Hugh Bonneville portrays Mountbatten, an excellent choice, bringing dignity and status as well as some compassion to the role trying with his wife (Gillian Anderson) to move amongst the people, meeting with the governors, the political leaders, facing the reality of a low Partition for many, including Gandhi, are against it.
An expert, who had actually never visited in, is called in to determine the borders between India and Pakistan, as well as establishing East Pakistan, later Bangladesh. He is played by Simon Callow. One of the main advisors to the Viceroy Is General Ismay (Michael Gambon), who eventually reveals to the border expert that there had been a long plan for Partition, sponsored by Winston Churchill, no longer Prime Minister, a plan that had not been shown to Mountbatten who had reported well to the Parliament which decreed that the solution was to be named after him.
In the meantime, the romance between the two young people does blossoms, the girl’s father (Om Puri) appreciates Jeet. At the same time, as the riots and massacres break out, the intense differences are manifest amongst the clashing servants who eventually, when Partition is to have to make a decision whether they want to stay in Pakistan or in India. This leads to an enormous migration throughout the subcontinent.
Audiences interested in British politics in 1947 should see a United Kingdom, the story of the King of Bechuanaland and and his marrying an English woman and the consequent racial difficulties and decisions of the British Parliament under Atlee under Churchill to preserve links with South Africa where apartheid was officially emerging. During the final credits, there is a note that the director’s grandmother was caught up in the searches at the time of Partition so that there is great personal investment in the film as a memoir.
Beautifully photographed, an excellent re-creation of the period, a very watchable political and social film.
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
Czech Republic/UK/US, 2017, 127 minutes, Colour.
Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl.
Directed by Niki Caro.
A film about Warsaw, 1939 to 1946, a film about the Jews in the ghetto, a film about gentiles and their hiding the Jews in their homes and helping them to escape. In many ways, the story of Anne Frank and her diary became the archetypal story of the concealment of the Jews. Schindler’s List was also an archetypal story on gentiles saving the Jews. At the end of that film, Oskar Schindler is honoured in Jerusalem as being a righteous citizen. At the end of The Zookeeper’s Wife, we learn that Antonina and Jan Zabinski were also honoured honoured in this way.
It is significant for the style and impact of the film that it is based on the work of women, Diane Ackerman as the author of the bestselling story, Angela Workman as the writer of the screenplay and Niki Caro as the director. There are many touching scenes in the film, and frequent tenderness in the treatment of the characters and their hardships.
Jessica Chastain has emerged as a significant actress in recent years and contributes another fine performance. She is Antonina, who works in the Warsaw zoo with her husband, Jan (Jan Heldenbergh). They have a young son. The range of animals in the zoo is displayed during the opening credits and there are many sequences with the animals, the difficult birth of a baby elephant, a pet cub in the house, a young camel running through the zoo with Antonina as she rides her bike.
This, course, makes the German invasion of Poland and the bombing of the zoo all the more harrowing, the frightening noises for the animals, the destruction of their precincts, their running wild, their deaths.
While the summer of 1939 was quite sunny in Warsaw, everything changed on September 1 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
The citizens were bewildered, the Zabinski family having to deal with how they could cope with the destruction of the zoo – and coming up with an ingenious solution to present to the Germans, especially to the world-renowned zoologist, Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who has been friendly with the family but is now Hitler’s zoologist. The suggestion is that the plant of the zoo be used as a pig farm to provide food for the German soldiers – using the garbage from the ghetto to feed the pigs and a cover, in the truck under the garbage, for the rescuing of many Jews and negotiating their escape while others continued to live in the zoo residence for years.
While these stories have been seen frequently over the many decades, it is important to keep the memories alive, to appreciate the plight of the Jews, in the hardships of the ghetto with people hungry and dying in the streets, the brutality of the German soldiers (even to the rape of a young girl), the strict silences to be observed by those hiding in the house so they would not be discovered during the day, getting some moments in the early hours of the morning for getting out into the air.
While Antonina covers everything at home, Jan drives the truck and is instrumental in the escapes, especially when the man in charge of the ghetto approaches him to countenance further escapes. There is a touching character, an old man, the teacher, who is offered the possibilities for getting out of the ghetto but who always refuses, staying with the children, even accompanying them on the trains to Auschwitz.
And, there are complications with Heck and his attraction towards Antonina, his experimenting with bison in the zoo, his loyalty to Hitler, his confrontation with the Zabinski son, his reaction to Jan being in the Warsaw uprising, Antonina and her appeal to him to find her husband.
It seems a bit churlish to say that the ending is rather emotional – emotions being important in real life but, somehow other, sometimes seeming a bit too much in the dramatic telling of the story. Nevertheless, this film is quite a vivid recreation of the era and what the citizens of Warsaw, Jewish and Gentile, experienced.