Sunday, January 31, 2021

International Oscar Submissions: Exile '20 and Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

An hour or so left to rent Exile from The Coolidge, although I wouldn't be surprised if, like a lot of the Goethe-Institut films, it comes back for a second weekend. That's doubly the case since there were some issues with playback on Friday, although you'll at least have plenty of time to watch it after if the window on my screen was typical. So, potentially plenty of time to pair it with Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, which make a nice bloc as Oscar submissions from central/eastern Europe (Kosovo and Hungary) that have their emigre protagonists up against mostly-unspoken prejudices and end at what can seem like odd places.

I liked them both a lot, though, even if I might have liked Exile a little less if technical issues hadn't broken my viewing up over two nights. Both are movies without a whole lot in the way of trajectory-altering events, but I suspect that one can feel the 30-minute difference in their lengths a bit if it wasn't broken up. It's fun contemplation, with just enough weird stuff going on to grab your attention.

Anyway - it's a good pair, and today I learned that they speak Albanian in Kosovo and that Hungarian puts the family name before the given name, which isn't something I recall any other European languages doing.

Exil (Exile '20)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29-30 January 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Goethe-Institut/Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening room, internet)

It takes Exile quite a while to get around to a question that viewers may be asking from the start, and though the answer is not trivial, the audience has likely been worn down enough by that point to consider it somewhat secondary. That trick is more impressive than it sounds; a film that plays out on as individual a scale as this one can often lose track of the larger point as it focuses on one character, but writer/director Visar Morina mostly avoids that.

Xhafer Kryeziu (Misel Maticevic) is a Kosovar chemical engineer who has lived in Germany long enough to seem more or less completely assimilated; he's got a good job that supports wife Nora (Sandra Hüller) as she works on her PhD and looks after their three children. But there are things that never let him forget that he's an outsider to some, such as how colleagues like Urs (Rainer Bock) always seem to slow-walk his requests and find ways to undermine him... or the rat he finds tied to his front gate when arriving home one afternoon.

Xhafer isn't always easy to like; he's carrying on an affair with an Albanian-speaking cleaning lady (Flonja Kodheli) but bristles at helping to translate things she must write for immigration authorities into German, for instance, and there's something seemingly off about him even in seemingly ordinary situations. Morina and star Misel Maticevic walk a fine line there, careful to let the audience clearly see the uglier side of his personality while not losing sympathy. Maticevic captures how Xhafer often (but not always) handles things badly rather than maliciously, and when the end approaches and he's both feeling more pressure and having more dredged up, it's never anything that hits just one side of the character. There's this continuing, human loop of "yeah, but..." where he's concerned, urging the audience to both understand and hold him accountable.

The same goes with the people around him; as much as Morina more or less acknowledges within the film that Urs is a very familiar sort of antagonist for this sort of story, one has to kind admire how much Rainer Bock seems to make a study of that sort of unctuousness, what sort of miserable creature he is without being a cartoon villain. Between him, Xhafer, and Uwe Preuss as Xhafer's boss Koch, I spent a fair amount of time marveling at how familiarly dysfunctional this organization was in ways that may or may not have much to do with the sort of prejudice Xhafer is keyed to notice. Sandra Hüller is also given license to be prickly and annoyed as Nora, both to show that this isn't anything new with Xhafer and that she's got her own issues to push against. One wonders, at times, whether frustration is about to overwhelm the rest of their bond.

There's not a whole lot of story there, and Morina pointedly denies the audience much resolution, but all of that plays into showing how oppressive living with that sort of prejudice is. Occasionally it's visual, like how Xhafer never quite seems to fit in his brightly-colored suburban neighborhood, or how the camera will seemingly detach from the action and go looking for something, but mostly it's the placing things in slightly higher relief. It's not just the fact of it, but the seeming impossibility of communicating it to those who don't face it and are invested in thinking of themselves as better than that; the closest thing to obvious bigotry is Koch trying to praise the team's differences and having it come off as a tremendously backhanded compliment. There's a steady background hum here that merges with the foreground, so that the fact that Xhafer, Urs, and Nora are all flawed people makes it harder - how do you know where the line is between something one can maybe do better oneself and something you can't fix about the world?

It feels exhausting in ways that movies with more plot-intensive structures more focused on specific goals often don't, and it may be a larger, more intensive dose than some may want. It seems worth disclosing that tech issues forced me to watch it in two hour-long chunks, so I don't know what the intended effect of taking the film in for two hours straight is. Then again, I'm fortunate enough to not know what it's like to live with this for one's entire life, though I suspect that the film has at least given me a somewhat better idea of it.

Also at eFilmCritic

Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre (Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 January 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening room, internet)

The hook for Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time hints at something more broadly paranoid or sinister, and while that would have been an interesting way to go, writer/director Lili Horvát doesn't necessarily see the need to exaggerate what's going on here. It's not the noir-ish thriller it initially looks like, but is in some ways more engaging for it.

Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) was born in Hungary but has spent most of her adult life in the United States, becoming a top neurosurgeon over the past eighteen or twenty years. A month ago, he clicked with János Drexler at a conference like she had never connected with anyone before, not even realizing he was also from Buda-Pest at first. They made a date to meet on the Pest side of the Liberty bridge a month later, but when Márta arrives, he's not there; she seeks him out, but János (Viktor Bodó) says they've never met. Literally stunned, Márta decides not to return to New Jersey, but instead takes a job at her old teaching hospital and finds an apartment - both of them well below her status - to try and figure out what's going on.

It's hard to blame Márta for being suspicious when someone doesn't remember her - she's striking on top of being at the top of her field to the point where everyone asks her why she would come back - and what makes the film work is that she's also smart enough and familiar enough with how brains work to interrogate this idea. Conversations with a therapist (Péter Tóth) that might otherwise be a framing device or meant to move things along do something else: They get both Márta and the audience thinking in a certain way rather than offering answers. Horvát never offers any sort of conspiracy or hints that János is some sort of supervillain, so instead we've got to figure out what's going on without easy genre solutions.

It's an intriguingly interconnected mess. One thing that's striking, early on, is how Márta defaults to English before Hungarian and is taken for a foreigner, and though this part of her identity is never addressed directly, one wonders how much it is motivating her actions. Did she read more into János's words because she never truly felt at home in America and wanted an excuse to come back? Does she choose a crappy apartment because it has an obstructed view of her favorite spot rather than a far nicer one despite being able to afford the latter? The way her old professors and friends question her desire to return has some logic to it, especially when one takes the more rampant sexism of the place into account. Preparations often seems like it's a movie about a woman being gaslit because men are intimidated by her being so formidable, but I wonder to what extent the latter is a screen for the first, a way to tell that story without it being over-sentimental, and to what extent they're the two opposing influences Márta must wrestle with.

Either way, it's a real pleasure to watch Natasa Stork work the contrast; she and Horvát never seem to use Márta's confidence as a cover for her uncertainty, or as things that easily fit into different categories of her life. Her certainty in her own capability lets her charge headlong into areas where she is otherwise confused in some spots and tempers that impulse in others, and it's tremendously fun to watch her be so self-possessed in her probing in spots where other characters often seem helpless. She's got nice chemistry with Viktor Bodó in the moments when the story lets Márta and János get close, and Bodó himself has the sort of charisma that can override the way János can often seem like the sort of puffed-up fellow who's not really in Márta's league on more than just her say-so, when the need arises. It's useful (and fun) to have Benett Vilmányi there as a contrast - Horvát is well-aware that his med student eventually pursuing Márta is a flip on convention, and they make sure that there's a little bit of him knowing it and maybe thinking she should be grateful under his mostly-earnest admiration.

Preparations doesn't quite make it all the way through without stopping to hash things out, but the filmmakers are good enough at doing so in a way that still lets the audience play with it on their own and plays up that these are smart people who like to figure things out. It exists in an intriguing place between a mystery and a conventional romance, and makes it work without abandoning either.

Also at eFilmCritic

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