Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 4 — A Centurion in Scotland and an Angel at Sea (Week Three)

Centurion (UK, dir/scr: Neil Marshall) — “My name is Quintus Dias and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.” With Michael Fassbender (crisply stalwart in Inglorious Basterds and hauntingly resolute in Hunger) as a loyal and valiant Roman Centurion and Neil Marshall (the once and future hope of savagely smart British genre cinema, thanks to Dog Soldiers and The Descent) writing and directing, I had great expectations for this Romans versus Barbarians warrior epic turned survival thriller. Set on 117 A.D., twenty years into the Roman invasion of Britain, as the guerrilla tactics of the Picts have stymied the Roman incursion into the northern highlands, it’s basically a lost platoon adventure with Fessbender as a bloodied but unbowed soldier trying to lead a small group of survivors from a brutally effective ambush back to safety. In other words, a classic Marshall set-up: a handful of professionals fighting off an attack from greater numbers or overwhelming power. Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko glowers and slinks as a mute Pict scout and tracker who relentlessly hunts them through the dramatic landscape, looking less like a warrior queen than a 1st century cover girl, and Dominic West is the macho General Virilus (Marshall’s tribute to Life of Brian‘s Biggus Dickus?) who gets to be all tortured martyr as he passes the torch to Quintus: “Get them home!”

Based on a 2,000-year-old legend (according the disclaimer at the end of the film), it’s brawny stuff, part The Naked Prey and part ancient The Lost Patrol, with great use of fog and dramatic landscapes and lots of bloody, brutal combat. Would that it had characters to match, or a story as interesting as its inspiration. Fessbender is all soldier and stalwart dignity—he even says “Fuck” with class (and he does so a lot)—but doesn’t have a personality to speak of, and while the obligatory scene when the men all swap names and backstories may have been Marshall’s tribute to the scores of platoon movies before it, it simply plays as lazy exposition. The men get lost in the muddy palette of earth tones (which in this case are brown, green and fog… lots of fog) and the staccato strobe-vision of battle scenes that simply confuses the action, and the story along with it.

Michael Fassbender is the half-naked prey in "Centurion"
Michael Fassbender is the half-naked prey in "Centurion"

Angel at Sea (Belgium), the narrative feature debut of Frédéric Dumont, is as devastating as anything you’ll see at SIFF. The emotionally teetering Bruno (Olivier Gourmet), a French bureaucrat straining to keep a failing international food program afloat in Morocco, pulls his youngest son Louis, a bright, sensitive lad, close for a secret. “I’m going to kill myself,” he confides in the boy and he expects the Lou to keep the secret. “Just you and me.” To paraphrase James Dean, the responsibility is tearing Lou apart. Gourmet’s childlike face, open and sad, and seesawing emotional instability give this portrait of a mental and emotional breakdown in a fragile adult a stab of tragedy, not just in his own vulnerability but the inhuman pressure that drags his son into his downward spiral into depression and helplessness. Unable to break his father’s trust, he becomes Bruno’s keeper, keeping watch on the study window from atop the lonely lemon tree in the front yard while his mother (Anne Consigny), preoccupied by her own distractions, slowly realizes the symbiotic connection between the two incommunicative men. It makes for a wrenching experience, made all the more poignant and painful by the criticism heaped on Lou as he holds his tongue rather than betray his secret. While it can be seen as a metaphor for the confusion and misunderstandings of adolescence, his turmoil is evocative enough on its own immediate terms.

The title of I Killed My Mother (Canada), the feature debut of 19-year-old writer/director/star Xavier Dolan, is not literal but it is accurate. Gay high-school teen Hubert (Dolan), in full rebellion of everything his middle-class mother (Anne Dorval) stands for, especially her middlebrow taste in fashion and furniture (which surrounds his hipster lifestyle in the trapping of a seventies sitcom), tells his classmates that his mother died. It’s not just some laugh line; it hurts when the lie works it way back to her, just as all his lies eventually do. Dolan’s perceptive portrait isn’t particularly nuanced but it does have the slap of honesty in its portrait of both the sneering arrogance and haughty exasperation of youth that knows it all and the emotional fragility under the caricature of middle class garishness that is his mother. And while the numerous awards it has gather on the festival circuit surely have as much to do with the young director’s age as it does his talent, that doesn’t detract from his accomplishment. It’s a promising first film from anyone, let alone a 19-year-old.

Centurion – Friday, June 4, 10:00pm, Neptune
Angel at Sea – Saturday, June 5, 7:00pm, Pacific Place; Sunday, June 6, 1:00pm, Pacific Place; Sunday, June 13, 3:30pm
I Killed My Mother – Sunday, June 6, 7pm at Egyptian