MIFF 2012: Reviews of Bully and Faust

Welcome to day eight of my coverage of the Melbourne International Film Festival. You can read previous entries here: Day One / Day Two / Day ThreeDay Four / Day Five / Day Six / Day Seven. Enjoy.

Bully

Bully Poster

It is quite easy to see a film (especially a documentary) that features a topical social issue and prescribe it as mandatory viewing. Many have had such a reaction after watching Lee Hirsch’s moving documentary Bully. Bully’s themes are so universal that this is not a ridiculous request. That being said, Bully is not a perfect film. It is quite narrow in its scope and it offers no tangible answers to this insurmountable problem. What Bully hopes to achieve is to start a dialogue. For this, it should be commended.

Bully follows a series of tormented children though a single school year. The reasons for their ordeals are different – unusual features, sexual orientation, social ineptitude — but their treatment is all too similar. Also disturbingly similar is the reaction of their parents and teachers: most are unaware of the magnitude or intensity of the bullying. After seventeen year-old Tyler Long takes his life, his parents David and Tina set out to raise awareness and bring bullying out of the shadows and into the public eye.

Hirsh’s documentary style is quite arty and impressionistic. He (wisely) lets his subjects tell their own stories. Despite being a victim of bullying himself, Hirsh never injects himself (or his experiences) into the film. He has captured some alarming footage in this film, including the physical abuse of one of his subjects en route to school. Hirsh was at my screening and I got to ask him how he acquired this footage; I assumed that he had a child on the inside helping him.  Alarmingly, he told me he shot it himself. ‘After a week, they completely ignored me’ he told me. This anecdote seems to be indicative of the larger problem – bullying is becoming more brazen.

Bullying is a complex problem, one that is universal and timeless. Is it character building rite of passage? Is it perpetrated by problem children? Do some kids ask for it? Should it be a crime? This documentary asks more questions than it answers, but what Bully clearly demonstrates is that no one should suffer in silence. Like many recent documentaries, the last act of this film falls heavily in ‘activism mode’, but if this push stops one child from taking their life, it’s impossible to begrudge the film this choice.

Four Stars

 

 ***

Faust

Faust Poster

This (loose) adaptation of  Goethe’s Faust contains murder, demonic mentors and existential crises. Unfortunately, all of these ingredients add up to a film that is as dull and leaden as a rock.

The scholarly Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is supremely dissatisfied with life. His existential yearning strangles all joy from his life. Under the tutelage of the repulsive Mauricius (Anton Adassinsky standing in for Mephistopheles), Faust begins to see the world differently. Amongst his many conversations with Mauricius, Faust becomes enraptured by a local beauty named Margarete (Isolda Dychauk). As Faust’s yearning for Margarete grows, so does the corrupting influence of Mauricius.

This is a downright plodding film: Faust feels at least twice as long as its considerable (134 minutes) running time. This is mainly due to the film’s mind-numbing, repetitious plotting. Faust and Mauricius find a nook of the town and then wander around sprouting lyrical on the nature of things. Rinse. Repeat. Proceedings briefly perk up near the end of the film (pubic hair!), but by then it is already too late, your mind is saving energy and has gone into standby mode.

Despite my blatant dislike of the pacing, this is a handsome production. Director Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark) is adept at making lush-looking films. The period details, including costumes and sets, are immaculate and suitably filthy. This film has an almost sensory level of uncleanliness, not unlike Tom Twyker’s Perfume (yet nowhere near as good). Sokurov frequently distorts the frame giving this film a queasy shaplessness that almost looks like a projection fault. Yes, I know it is meant to symbolise Faust’s moral uncertainty, but it looks more like an acid trip.

The acting in Faust is capable, but it is hampered by the oppressive script. Johannes Zeiler does little but scowl and moan as Faust (he looks strikingly like a downtrodden Ralph Fiennes) and only shows versatility when he’s acting opposite the beautiful Isolda Dychauk. Zeiler’s frequent scene partner, Anton Adassinsky, is having fun as Faust’s demonic tempter, but it would seem that he was primarily cast for his angular, reptilian features and his dead, soulless eyes, and not his thespian qualities.

Bafflingly, Faust won best film at the Venice Film Festival. Jury President, director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) said:  ‘There are some films that make you cry, there are some films that make you laugh, there are some films that change you forever after you see them; and this is one of them.’ I could easily apply that quote to numerous Aronofsy films, but I wholeheartedly disagree in relation to Faust. This is a stunningly inert film that no amount of set-dressing can save. I find MIFF audiences to be hugely receptive – almost every screening (whether it deserves it or not) is met with an ovation. It would appear that my feelings on this film were not alone, as Faust failed to generate a solitary clap.

One Star

 

Tomorrow’s films: Paranorman, Make Hummus Not War and Maniac.

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