By Christian Hamaker
Stories of courage and characters with religious conviction were plentiful among the autumnal colors and rolling hills that provided the setting for the fifth annual Middleburg Film Festival, a growing event that brings in major awards contenders alongside other films anchored by memorable performances.
The following is a rundown of the nine films I saw during the festival, from the most impressive to least.
The best film I saw at Middleburg, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s drama of marital dissolution and systemic corruption uses the story of a missing boy and his divorcing parents to demonstrate the different forms a lack of love takes. From its hard-to-shake reveal of a young boy overhearing his parents tear into each other to a conclusion that offers little comfort, Loveless is pointed about the things that nourish us and give us life (pregnancy is a major story element) and those that destroy it (abortion and suspected abduction). In a bleak, loveless world, a man described as a fundamentalist Christian seems close to joyful, relatively speaking, if only in a Ned Flanders sort of way. Zvagintsev may not see answers in faith—he’s more attuned to hypocrisies in that realm—but in diagnosing the fraying of family life and cultural norms, he’s made something simultaneously slow and gripping, driven by mysteries with no easy solutions.
A fine religious drama about a young woman’s search for spiritual significance, Novitiate stars Margaret Qualley (HBO’s The Leftovers) as Sister Cathleen, a postulant under the care of a Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) who wrestles with how or whether to implement the changes resulting from Vatican II. “We were women in love,” Sister Cathleen says of the nuns’ devotion to Christ, but they struggle under the Reverend Mother’s rigorous forms of religious discipline. Qualley’s sensitive portrayal of Sister Cathleen and the honest way in which the nuns express concerns, even doubts, about the life they believe they’re called to provide a connection even for non-Catholics to appreciate the nuns’ struggles. This is honest, brave storytelling that doesn’t celebrate doubt but allows its characters to genuinely seek the truth.
In the late 1880s, under orders of the U.S. government, Army captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) must escort the dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to his home in Montana, where he can die in peace. Blocker has seen too much bloodshed at the hands of Native Americans to want the “honor” of such an assignment, but when his pension is threatened, Blocker reluctantly agrees to the journey. Dangers from hostile natives will draw Blocker and Yellow Hawk together as they take on a common adversary. The story is violent at times and not without some pacing problems, but director Scott Cooper has made a worthy addition to the canon of revisionist Westerns with Hostiles, which includes scenes of men reading Scripture, singing spirituals and sharing heartfelt expressions of faith.
Remarkable but a bit frustrating, Ruben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is a send-up of modern art and pompous museum curators, among other things, but it’s also a film of moments and vignettes rather than a cohesive story. The plot, such as it is, has museum curator Christian trying to recover a stolen cellphone from residents at a housing complex, but his overreach leads to angry reprisals from at least one resident. Christian’s personal and professional lives suffer self-inflicted blows, but the film’s satire turns to sincerity down the stretch—a frustrating transition that doesn’t come off. Still, there’s at least one sequence—a performer who interacts in increasingly disturbing ways with a well-heeled group of diners—that stands alone as its own minimovie. I’m not sure I could sit through that sequence again—at least two audience members walked out during the scene at my screening—but it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before at the movies.
It’s the year of Churchill at the movies. So far in 2017, we’ve had Brian Cox playing the prime minister in the little-seen Churchill, and we’ve felt the man’s presence, or lack thereof, in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk this past summer. Those who want to know more about what Dunkirk left out are advised to see The Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Churchill during a several-days stretch in May of 1940. The Allied forces had been pushed to Dunkirk, and with Germany preparing to attack, Churchill struggles to hold off members of his war cabinet who want him to negotiate a peace with Hitler. The prime minister looks to “all the strength that God can give us” as he prepares to inform his colleagues and the public of his military plans. Director Joe Wright (whose depiction of the Battle of Dunkirk in Atonement is among that film’s many fine moments) overreaches at times to bring cinematic energy to what is mostly an actor’s showcase, but the historical weight of Churchill’s decision, and the man’s role in preserving the allies when defeat was palpable, comes through, thanks to Oldman’s fine performance, a nice supporting turn from a regal Kristen Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife, and Ben Mendelsohn (who attended the festival and took part in a post-screening Q&A) as King George VI.
If the name Saoirse Ronan isn’t familiar to you yet, it soon will be. In Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Ronan plays Christine, or “Lady Bird” as she prefers to be called—a Catholic high school senior desperate to flee her home state of California. Hoping to gain admittance to an East Coast college, she conspires with her father against the wishes of her mother to apply to out-of-state schools as she searches for an identity to embrace. There are pleasures along the way for viewers, but there are also familiar tropes: a gay character struggling with when to come out, and one horrible abortion joke that is so facile I was embarrassed for the audience members who laughed at it. But the ending of Lady Bird won me back to the film, suggesting that the few cheap barbs along the way may—may—be part of Christine’s journey to a more meaningful life.
Call Me by Your Name
The story of 17-year-old Elio (Timothy Chalamet) and his first homosexual encounter—with Oliver (Armie Hammer), a colleague of his father (Michael Stuhlbarg)—is more interesting for the brief exchanges between Elio and his parents than it is for the gay romance at its center. Elio’s interest in a woman who’s closer to his own age than Oliver is provides an interesting wrinkle to the story, but the film is most alive in a final scene between Elio and his father, who is anything but condemning of Elio’s relationship with Oliver. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the father’s approach to his son’s sexuality, the scene is remarkably empathetic. (That both Elio and Oliver are Jewish—they discuss their Jewish heritage twice—is more a curiosity than a substantive issue in the film. In a Q&A time after the film, screenwriter James Ivory, who was in attendance, told me that the book on which the film is based, and which he adapted for the screen, includes more details about the characters’ Jewish roots.)
In the Fade
Hostiles may have had more violence and carnage, but In the Fade, from director Fatih Akin, is the more troubling film—and not in a good way. Unlike the redemptive arc of Hostiles, Fade descends into a barbarity that feels hopeless and, ultimately, pointless. Katja (a very good Diane Kruger) is left alone when her husband and son die in a bomb blast. Two neo-Nazis are suspects, and the second of the film’s three parts follows a court case that doesn’t result in the justice Katja seeks. Taking matters into her own hands, Katja tracks down the two suspects and pursues a form of drawn-out vengeance that can only lead to sorrow. Whatever moral might be buried in the story, not much is learned along the way. In the Fade works best as a portrait of grief during its first section before descending into an ugly revenge thriller. The good performance at its center isn’t reason enough to sit through so dispiriting a story.
Todd Hayne’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s book is bolder in conception than in execution. Essentially two silent films—one set in 1977 and the other during the silent-movie era—Wonderstruck tells of the young boy Ben, who travels from Minnesota to New York in search of his father, and Rose, who in late 1920s New York longs to meet an actress she admires. Both young characters are deaf, and the film must be watched closely to follow what’s happening. There’s a sweet story about family connections at the heart of Wonderstruck, but the film simply fails to captivate viewers in the way it must to sustain interest over a nearly two-hour running time.