I lied about the year 2008 being not a great year for performances from women. It was half-truth in any case, because it was indeed a great year for women if I had counted the films not shown officially in wide or limited release. To honour the true memorable performances of 2008 for me, here is a list that accounts for performances I really loved this past year from films I did not see 'officially' in theatre. And I'm happy to say that the passionate woman folks make the most of their appearances here.
Laura Baquela & Nassim Amrabt (representing the cast of Entre les murs, or The Class);
Gianfelice Imparato, Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone (representing the cast of Gomorra)
These two films brought together some of the best cast that I've seen last year. Entre les murs (or The Class) cast consisted of mostly non-actors (or more accurately, people who weren't acting professionally up until this picture), including the film's actor/writer François Bégaudeau. Maybe that was how they were able to re-create such a dynamic environment. The kids especially seemed at ease within themselves - it was as if their instruction was: "act like how you'd act in class." If there was a script, it was hardly presented as so on the screen, which was a real credit to the fantastic cast. Gomorra's electrifying cast was as equally dynamic and complex. I couldn't begin to imagine what it was like living in such an environment but the cast just sucked me right in. I had a hard time deciding which performance to single out because it was a true ensemble picture and it felt like everybody went the extra mile for his/her role. A list consisting of only the cast members of these two films could be made - the talent was that thick.
Her character, Micaela, did not take 'no' for an answer, even if she had to be pay the price for willfulness. Eileen Yañez was raw and ferocious in her defiance against the madness of her father. She was all flesh, desire, and a searing reminder of how repression could stoke the very fire it was meant to eradicate. So much unchecked passion in one performance, and yet Yanez was able to reign it in when necessary and kept it from becoming a one-note character. She held her own nicely against Mario Zaragoza as well.
Bégaudeau wrote the book, then the screenplay for the film based on this book, bringing his own experience teaching at an inner city middle school in Paris to the script as well as his own role. Previous credits to his name included being a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma and the French version of Playboy, so one could assume the intellectual pain written on his face was unavoidable. In some ways, it benefited the role of François Marin, a teacher struggling to grasp the divide between what and how he taught with the changing structure of the receiving medium of this knowledge. He looked and behaved as if he'd been at the job for a while (which he had been), lending a certain kind of authenticity to the role that acting alone may not have given him (good thing too, considering his non-existing acting career up until now). It was one of the most measured and yet natural performances I've seen this past year.
Salvatore Cantalupo's character, the haute couture tailor Pasquale, stood out the most from the cast for me (who was all so equally great). To come up with the much needed cash, Pasquale risked his life to train his boss' competitors in secret. There was a certain awareness to Cantalupo's choices that somehow made them even more painful to watch as they unfolded. Sometimes, neither the noble things in life - loyalty, doing the right thing - nor even death could dissuade someone from the path that would lead to the pot of gold, at times the only assurance to survival or the promise thereof. Cantalupo's weary, intelligent, restrained performance gave a much needed centering effect in this often chaotic but gutsy film.
One could feel Bingol's character steaming and seething in the washed out frames, as he tried to stay dignified while the situation and his beloved made a mockery of him. His pride threatened to kill what was left of his family. Here was a betrayed man who knew he was as much to blame as anyone in the picture, but couldn't quite convince himself to forgive. Bingol transformed from being the victim to the aggressor with much ease (that scene in which he tried to regain his sense of a domineering man over his wife was truly difficult to watch, because he was so good at it). It was a complicated, emotionally draining performance in one of two pictures I saw at the Vancouver Film Fest with a cast worthy of a comparison to Bergman's chamber drama casting (the other one being Wolke Neun, also on this list).
What made Inge's choice particularly difficult, beyond the fact that she had already made so many life-anchoring choices that could not simply be undo at the flick of passion, was that there was no lesser man amongst them. Westphal's Karl was the 'other man,' the 'seducer'; he was obviously the making of what Inge needed at the time - a lighting jolt to remind her how she had buried that live-in-the-moment Inge that her husband knew too well of (and seemed to have helped tame it). Westphal played him with much humour and sincerity, and never once made him a caricature of a dream. Rehberg was equally adept at bringing out the humanity in his character. Even when it was implied that Rehberg's Werner was the less lively of the two men (there were scattered laughter amongst the audience when Inge and Werner listened to his records of audio sound of trains entering a station), Rehberg's dignified, honest, distraught performance evoked more empathy than pity. Luckily, unlike the film, for this list, there was no need to choose between the two. Both men can stay here, as they are.
Elías was crazy. There was no way around it - nobody could've put his family through so much non-sense in the name of faith. But Desierto adentro was not a film to be taken literally, and neither was Zaragoza's Elías. A non-believer at heart, Elías took refuge in religion as his loved ones were taken from him one by one, at a seemingly unfair and terrifying pace. I wrote in my review of the film: "Mario Zaragoza won Best Actor prize at the Guadalajara Film Festival for his incredibly human portrayal of a frightening father figure. Dictatorship never felt more tender and loving, if such a thing was possible at all."
At the heart of Üç maymun (Three Monkeys) was Aslan's Hacer, a hot potato of sort, a woman who would kiss her captors' hands. Halfway through her affair, Hacer raised the stake and fell for the same man who exploited her and knowingly put her family through hell by being a complete coward. Why, Hacer, why? Perhaps she was seduced by the promise of someone who could 'take care' of her, however naively that belief was. Perhaps she just wanted someone to hold while her husband toiled away elsewhere with no obvious consideration for her loneliness. Perhaps he made her feel, as Meg White sang in 'In the Cold, cold night,' "like a full grown woman might." The audience may never know the exact reason for Hacer's uncertain virtues, but there was no mistaking Aslan's brave, heartbreaking performance. The trick for her character was to sustain the audience's sympathy while being an accomplice to the crimes committed by the men in her life. It was a difficult role, unusually complex both emotionally and morally, and Aslan smartly committed to the screen a Hacer that was both naked and unknowable.
Li Mi was one crazy ex girlfriend, the kind that would hunt you down and wait on you forever because, well, because she was just the kind of girl who knew exactly what she wanted and baby, she desperately wanted you, even if you disappeared into thin air and left no trace behind. She bullheaded her way through the film, but Zhou Xun never denied her character a break from being the strong, independent woman. I haven't seen Zhou Xun in anything else before, and this was a star-making turn that unfortunately didn't materialize to more notice in North America. Yet. There will be more opportunities, one would hope, for such a bright young star.
Inge was a woman in her 60s, going about the routine of old age, waiting on the second hand to count down the numbered years left in her life. The years had given her a loving husband, a daughter who understood her, and rambunctious grand children. She had a happy marriage - everything was as it should have been. Then one day she slept with one customer, a man also in his 60s whom she had been providing tailoring services to. What was she thinking? Impulsiveness was the province of youth, wasn't it? What was all this ... lust? At what point in life would one stop being seduced by passion and all its promises? For Inge, she wasn't about to stop then. Ursula Werner gave an impassioned, heartbreaking, courageous, naked (in more ways than one) performance that stayed with me days and days afterward. And it's difficult to think of another performance that could top this one this past year.