TIFF 2018 Dispatch #2: Indian Liberation, Russian Nihilism

TIFF 2018 Dispatch #2: Indian Liberation, Russian Nihilism September 9, 2018
Dev Patel, in “The Wedding Guest”

One of my favorite things about cinema is how it takes you to places you’d never visit otherwise.  I don’t foresee ever traveling to India, Pakistan, or Russia, but two world premieres in Toronto took me to these locales.

Director Michael Winterbottom clearly loves to take viewers around the world.  While his résumé includes films as diverse as adaptations of Tristram Shandy and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, he is most beloved by me for his profoundly humanistic 2002 film In This World, which followed a pair of Afghan refugees from Pakistan to Iran, and onwards to Europe.

Winterbottom’s latest work, The Wedding Guest, deposits us instead in South Asia, to observe the intersecting lives of two enigmatic characters.  It opens with Dev Patel’s unnamed British Muslim, as he departs London and arrives in Pakistan.  With scarce dialogue, Patel prays in a couple of mosques, switches rental cars, and buys a pair of guns.  Soon enough, he’s abducting Salima, a fellow Brit who’s in Pakistan for an arranged marriage, and hustling her across the border into India.

The reason for Salima’s abduction only emerges gradually and unexpectedly.  In the meantime, the country of India becomes the third main character of this film, but not in a manner that could be mistaken for a vacation brochure.  Along with Patel and Salima, courtesy of Giles Nuttgen’s intimate cinematography, we experience police stops, bustling bazaars, and claustrophobic trains.  We get a taste of regional distinctives, seeing the Punjab’s Golden Palace at a distance, then later the small-scale Christian iconography of Goa.

During the course of their travels, the relationship between Salima and Patel’s mystery man slowly evolves.  Both actors handle this with a pleasing subtlety, and it’s especially interesting to observe Salima’s transition from a kidnapped piece of baggage to an assertive woman.

Patel is fairly well-known to Western audiences, through his fine work in films like Slumdog Millionaire, Lion, and The Man Who Knew Infinity.  Radhika Apte, the actress playing Salima, has been prolific in Indian cinema, but if she’s interested, I suspect The Wedding Guest will open doors for more roles in European and American movies.

Greyhair (Denis Shvedov) and Kalugin (Andrey Smolyakov), in “The Factory”

I liked Winterbottom’s film well enough, but The Factory was thematically denser and far more engrossing, giving viewers a taste of the political and economic tensions currently troubling Russia.  It’s one thing to read about the income gap between the richest and poorest in this country (the largest in the world!), yet another thing altogether to see this disparity play out in a film, even one with some action movie trappings.

In this fifth feature by director Yuriy Bykov, nearly all of its drama takes place at a grungy, decrepit cement-making plant.  As the film opens, its owner – local oligarch Konstantin Kalugin – announces to his workers that he will be closing the plant at the end of the month.  The employees are frantic and despondent at the news, given the dearth of other work opportunities in their region.  In desperation, six workers, led by a grizzled war vet nicknamed Greyhair, hatch a plot to kidnap Kalugin and demand enough ransom to sustain them and their families.

These reluctant criminals are a varied crew of old men and naïve youngsters, but incredibly, their plan initially succeeds.  However, outside the plant, Kalugin’s personal security force, local police, a TV camera crew, and criminal prosecutors are at loggerheads with each other, heightening the danger for the kidnappers inside.

As The Factory proceeds, there are plot elements that reminded me of Seven Samurai and (dare I say it) Die Hard.  To its immense credit, and unlike the adventures of John McClane and Hans Gruber, The Factory doesn’t revel in its violence and plausibly backs away from any winner-takes-all showdowns.

If the story feels familiar in places, it’s overlaid with elements particular to contemporary Russia.  The local police are subordinate to Kalugin’s security detail; the oligarch is untouchable by the prosecutors; and it’s doubtful the TV station will broadcast a story that is unflattering to him either.

Bykov’s film milks these elements for flashes of dark humor.  Kalugin is such a forceful figure that, even abducted, the kidnappers reflexively obey his barked orders.  More than the kidnappers, Kalugin fears that negative publicity could make him disposable, and thus a dead man, to his unnamed boss (I’m gonna go out on a limb here and posit that this boss is a certain Vladimir Putin).

However, the lingering aftertaste at the end of The Factory is one of nihilism.  With the collapse of communism, workers of the world are no longer reliably staying united; and the cultural cards are so stacked against them, that even the smallest revolution feels doomed.  With an affecting symmetry at the open and close of The Factory, writer/director Yuriy Bykov seems to say that the only recourse left to a person of principle in today’s Russia is a stance of lonely misanthropy.

3.5 out of 5 stars for both films

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