BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 13, 2011
When We Leave
If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle
The films of the French director Bruno Dumont have earned him, besides two Cannes Festival prizes, a reputation for brutality. He has often used his manifest talent to burrow into moral darkness. But the new work that he has written and directed, Hadewijch, is a spiritual odyssey—the travails of Céline, a twenty-year-old theology student, in her search for further envelopment in God. Sometimes she calls herself by the title of the picture (which is the name of a thirteenth-century mystic), and the closing credits list her with her adopted character’s name, but in the film she is called Céline. The mystic is presumably the ideal toward which she, sometimes oddly, strives.
At the start she is a novice in a convent who is expelled for excessive abstinence and mortification. The Mother Superior indicts her for self-love, for carrying requirements to an extent that verges on self-absorption. Céline returns to her parents in Paris—her father is a government minister—and to a fabulous mansion on the Île Saint-Louis. (Well, opposites do occur. Millionaires’ children sometimes become leftists.) Floating along somewhat aimlessly in her nonetheless God-seeking life, one day she encounters Yassine, an Arab-French youth, in a café. He romantically pursues her—this pursuit includes a sequence on a stolen motorbike—until she tells him that she is a virgin and intends to remain one. Immediately his attitude changes to respectful friendship.
Yassine then introduces Céline to his older brother, Nassir, who is a gentle, thoughtful Muslim lay preacher. He soon understands her spiritual lostness and sets out to fill it with Islam. (Notably, his home and mosque in a Muslim center near Paris could not be less arabesque. All the buildings are rectilinear poured concrete.) As they wander and talk—their wanderings include a visit to her former convent—he gradually slips into quiet rhapsodies about violence, its beauty and soul. This seems much less a nod to Dumont’s previous physicalities than an intrinsic rhapsody of Nassir’s that—initially at least—seems to Céline an overlooked path to godhead. We then get more than a hint that she is involved in a bombing, though we don’t actually see it.
Permutations lead her away from these views back to Christianity, and the ending connotes her wish to cleanse herself in order to be with God. She is joined at the last by a character we have glimpsed from time to time through the film, wondering why he is in it. He is a convict, a real low-life, unknown to Céline, and his appearance at the very end, his utilization in the finish, has a double implication. Possibly it implies the mysterious working of divinity, or it may indicate the sheer deviltry of a clever director who wants to tease us with suspicion of a divine plan.
Dumont’s gift as a director, along with the gifts of his colleagues, is what sustains this oddly constructed screenplay. Whenever we are puzzled by an action, the very being of the film itself reassures us. At such moments the director who controls the process so deftly, the cinematographer (Yves Cape) who lights so comprehendingly, the actors who are so genuine—all these people in themselves reassure us that this is a sound work. Eventually this assurance pays off—in a strange, corkscrew way. We cannot forget our questions about the picture; yet we cannot doubt that the cast and crew have made an exceptionally fine work.
Some of the questions. Why, when Céline is back in the world, does this consecrated virgin always wear a dress with a low neckline? (The exception is the masculine clothing she wears in the bombing bit.) Why doesn’t she object when Yassine steals the motorbike? How does she get to and from the scene of the air raid in the Middle East to which Nassir takes her as evidence of the need for violence? (Gaza or Israel or any other locale is not named.) Julie Sokolowski, as Céline, makes us believe that these questions simply don’t matter much to her as she travels along.
Dumont is clearly, despite some contradictions, an admirer of Robert Bresson. Though he is much more interested in acting than Bresson was, he too is concerned with the possibilities of spirit in the modern world. Bresson’s films are the work of a devout believer. Hadewijch is the work of a man who cannot help wondering, despite what he knows and sees today, what it would be like to believe.
Somewhat analogous to the position of Arabs in France is that of the Turks in Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish families have been living in Germany for several generations and, as has happened with the Arabs in France, have inspired numerous films about aspects of their situation. By now that situation is so integral that the German entry for the next foreign film Oscar is mostly spoken in Turkish. When We Leave was written and directed by Feo Aladag, who was born in Vienna of mixed Turkish and German antecedents, has worked extensively as an actress in Germany, and has now directed her first film—about a Turkish-German woman subject to Muslim codes in a non-Muslim country.
It opens in Istanbul, where a young mother called Umay, treated roughly by her husband, takes her small son and—understandably enough, we feel—returns to her family in Germany. But though the family is thoroughly at home in Germany, its members are strictly orthodox Muslim in their principles, and they object to Umay’s marital desertion. Her father, her brothers, and even her mother believe that a little roughness is not out of order in a husband and that a son belongs to his father. Umay’s younger sister is disturbed because she is engaged—to a Muslim, of course—and her fiancé’s family will be upset by Umay’s breach of custom. Honor is the term most frequently used by Umay’s family—the honor of males, of course, which inevitably affects the females attached to them. Story complications intensify as Umay tries to help a friend, a non-Muslim young woman.
Aladag keeps her picture alive and poignant through her actors, especially Sibel Kekilli as Umay and Settar Tanriogen as her adamant father. Kekilli often suggests a trapped and frightened bird: Tanriogen conveys, even beneath his anger, a vein of fatherliness.
Countries around the world seem to produce films in swells and sags. At any time, one or another of those countries seems especially hot. Often there is no social or economic reason for this surge: it depends on the capricious occurrence of talent along with good luck in distribution. China and South Korea are two such instances. For the last ten years or so, one of the leaders has been Romania.
No specifically Romanian reason is ascribed to this: talent has simply bloomed and been lucky. Anyway, by now it is possible to discern recurrent characteristics in Romania’s films—not all of them, but enough to be recognizable. By now we expect a Romanian film to be directed with a physicality, a force, that is a reminder of Kazan. The screenplays themselves are often concerned with a revelation of unexpected depth in an initially conventional character or story. Recently a film called Police, Adjective, directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, began with a young detective trailing a suspect, which made us think that we were about to see another police film. But soon it became (fascinatingly) clear that the film was about the young detective himself and his perception of the way he is spending his life.
Now here is If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, directed by Florin Serban, from a screenplay by him and Catalin Mitulescu. This is Serban’s first feature, but it doesn’t look it: it is immediately pungent. (Two notes: Serban had his film education at Columbia University, and he claims Bruno Dumont as one of his influences.) The scene is a prison camp for young male criminals. Its first minutes, vivid as they are, make us think that we are going to endure a Romanian version of a familiar con story—rivalries, cigarette disputes, rape, and so on. Very soon, however, the film centers on an eighteen-year-old named Silviu who is close to the end of a four-year term. The gist of the story is a moral choice that Silviu makes.
He is visited by his younger brother, who tells him that their mother—a hooker who lives and works in Italy—has come home to pick up the boy. Apparently he has been living with relatives—no father is on hand. Silviu doesn’t want his brother to go with their mother, and he finds a means to prevent it. This method, largely improvised as it goes along, contains violence and the threat of death, and we might argue that saving the boy would not be worth the extremities that are used and threatened. But Silviu is a prisoner without other resources who is willing to put his freedom and possibly his life at risk to protect his kid brother.
Silviu is played by George Pistereanu, who is still an acting student in Bucharest. He has sufficient explosive power, sufficient suggestion of complexities behind his frequently impassive mask. The one romantic moment in the picture—involving a young woman who is a social worker—has the right unexpected gentle touch. Clara Voda plays the mother as a character, not a type. Mihai Constantin, as the warden who has to deal with Silviu through a series of crises, has the air of a man who has handled a great deal of serious trouble and has learned both authority and humanity. Next, please, Romania!
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the February 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.