War and a hard kind of peace

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

If you viewed Juanita Wil­son’s im­pres­sive de­but fea­ture with no prior knowl­edge, you would, no doubt, be sur­prised to learn that it is an Ir­ish co-pro­duc­tion. A grim, sober tale of the Bos­nian war, As If I Am Not There is supremely con­fi­dent in its grasp of place and its feel for a wretched episode in re­cent Euro­pean his­tory. Yet the film is, in­deed, di­rected by an Ir­ish­woman, pho­tographed by a do­mes­tic cin­e­matog­ra­pher and part-fi­nanced by the Ir­ish Film Board.

Natasha Petro­vic plays Samira, a


young woman from Sara­jevo who, as hos­til­i­ties fer­ment dur­ing the early 1990s, finds her­self teach­ing in a ru­ral vil­lage. A gang of armed thugs ar­rive and, af­ter shoot­ing all the men, im­prison the women in a shabby over­crowded room.

Samira’s pleas that she is an out­sider fall upon hos­tile, un­in­ter­ested ears. Be­fore long, an aw­ful ri­tual of re­peated rape be­gins.

Adapted from a book by Slavenka Drakulic, the film – short on plot, shorter still on di­a­logue – ven­tures an anal­y­sis of how such pres­sure acts upon the women. In­tense, wor­ried self-ab­sorp­tion, rather than panic, gov­erns the cap­tives. Ea­ger to re­tain her dig­nity and re­sist de­hu­man­i­sa­tion, Samira con­tin­ues to ap­ply make-up and do her best with what cloth­ing re­mains. Later, she be­gins an un­easy re­la­tion­ship with one of the cap­tors.

Wisely skip­ping past the in­tri­ca­cies of Balkan pol­i­tics, the film de­vel­ops into a dis­con­cert­ing, spooky char­ac­ter study. Fea­tur­ing sump­tu­ous, glacial pho­tog­ra­phy by Tim Flem­ing, As If I Am Not There is fault­less in its ac­cu­mu­la­tion of mood.

There are, how­ever, some prob­lems with the rape se­quence. (How could there not be?) Wil­son has been care­ful to avoid gra­tu­itous nu­dity, and her de­pic­tion of the sol­diers as un­ex­cited, rut­ting au­toma­tons rings true. The greater fo­cus is, quite un­der­stand­ably, upon Samira’s dead­ened face (hence the film’s ti­tle). But the hazy per­fec­tion of the im­ages and the scene’s very taste­ful­ness are in dan­ger of aes­theti­cis­ing the as­sault. It is, per­haps, all just a lit­tle too el­e­gantly ar­ranged.

For all that, As If I Am Not There re­mains a no­tably pow­er­ful de­but that packs a con­sid­er­able emo­tional punch. It’s the kind of film that gives in­ter­na­tional co-pro­duc­tions a good name. THE TI­TLE has both metaphor­i­cal and lit­eral mean­ings. Ar­chi­pel­ago, the lat­est film from Joanna Hogg, di­rec­tor of the abra­sive Un­re­lated, is, in­deed, set in the Scilly Is­lands. But Hogg is also alert­ing us to the ways in which the char­ac­ters, de­spite their close fam­ily ties, re­main emo­tion­ally iso­lated from one an­other. We are to­gether, but we are alone.

En­thu­si­asts for Un­re­lated will have some idea what to ex­pect. As in that film, the story hangs around a group of mid­dle-class peo­ple en­dur­ing a per­fectly ghastly hol­i­day. Pa­tri­cia (Kate Fahy), the op­pressed mater fa­mil­ias, des­per­ately at­tempts to en­gi­neer a de­gree of warmth and good will. Cyn­thia (Ly­dia Leonard), her in­ex­pli­ca­bly neu­rotic daugh­ter, picks fights with any hu­man be­ing un­for­tu­nate enough to en­ter her gaze. Ed­ward (Tom Hid­dle­ston), Pa­tri­cia’s de­cent but psy­cho­log­i­cally woolly son, pre­pares for a trip to Africa work­ing with Aids pa­tients. Mean­while, on the main­land, an unloved and un­seen dad keeps his dis­tance. One can hardly blame him.

Whereas Un­re­lated was some­thing of a slow-burner, Ar­chi­pel­ago barely reaches even damp ig­ni­tion. This is not meant as crit­i­cism. The sense of brood­ing, barely ex­plained ten­sion seems all the more suf­fo­cat­ing for never quite burst­ing above ground. The most fu­ri­ous ar­gu­ments oc­cur on the tele­phone – only one voice au­di­ble – or, vaguely com­pre­hen­si­ble, on the other side of thick English west­coun­try walls.

Ref­er­enc­ing the paint­ings of Vil­helm Ham­mer­shøi, Hogg ramps up the dread by shoot­ing in­te­ri­ors in a sepul­chral dark­ness that turns blaz­ing win­dow views into an­i­mated pic­ture post­cards. The urge to es­cape the house and savour the green­ery is fre­quently over­pow­er­ing.

For all Hogg’s skill, how­ever, the im­pen­e­tra­bil­ity of her char­ac­ters is ul­ti­mately some­what frus­trat­ing. At home to Bergmanesque am­bi­gu­ity, she surely would wel­come the fact that we don’t know quite what to make of the pain­ter, a friend of Pa­tri­cia’s, who oc­ca­sion­ally pops up to de­liver florid, pre­ten­tious med­i­ta­tions on life, the uni­verse and ev­ery­thing. Still, Hogg can’t have meant him to come across as such an un­mit­i­gated poltroon.

It is cer­tainly an achieve­ment to cre­ate this de­gree of psy­cho­log­i­cal fug. We could, how­ever, cope with a lit­tle more il­lu­mi­na­tion from Hogg’s next opus.

Dig­ni­fied: Natasha Petro­vic

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