TIFF 2015 Reviews: Son of Saul and Beasts of No Nation, the heavy weights

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Géza Röhrig in Saul Fia (Son of Saul)
Saul Fia  (Son of Saul, Nemes)

Briefly, the film focuses on a group of prisoners tasked with the horrifying job of herding people to their death and cleaning up the aftermath (adding insult to injury is the fact that they themselves are waiting to be on the chopping block, and they knew it). Amongst these so-called Sonderkommando is Saul, who functions as well as anyone could under the circumstances. During one of his work shifts, he discovers a boy's body who may or may not be his son (he's convinced, but his fellow mates aren't so sure). He then sets out to acquire a rabbi who's willing to help him properly bury the boy in the Jewish tradition. The rest of his Sonderkommando mates have their own agenda, and the film goes on to pitch the need of one (Saul's humanity) against the need of many (liberation, knowledge be photographed to the world, etc.).

There's much to be admired about the craftsmanship of László Nemes' holocaust film. It recalls at its best the restrained and claustrophobic feel of Robert Bresson's A man escaped. For a subject as exhaustively done in films as this one, it's to Nemes' credit that he's able to deliver something a little different. The decision to go right into what gives the holocaust its name could have turned out quite exploitative, but his camera takes care to focus on our protagonist's shell-shocked but determined face rather than lingering on the mass of bodies strewn about. Wisely, the external horror lurks within frame, but just right on the periphery, so we can fill in the blanks with what it must have been, somewhat assured by the composed man-on-a-mission's presence.

The theme of the film's critique, if one can call it that, can be summed up in a line spoken a couple of times by one of Saul's fellow Sonderkommando: "You sacrifice our future to bury the dead" (or was it "You let down the living for the dead?"). It's literally true in the film, as his mission bears an immediate cost to the greater cause. Yet, the film seems to champion our protagonist's self-motivated actions: there implies the risk of losing our self and the spiritual growth of humanity if we were to simply dispose of our dark past. In trying to hang on to tradition, preserving the last shred of humanity in a very inhumane place, Saul's seemingly futile effort gets a living witness. One can only hope the future remembers what it has seen.

Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation
Beasts of No Nation (Fukunaga)

Like Son of Saul, child soldier is not exactly what one would willingly pick to sit down to view on, say, a Friday night. Unlike Son of Saul, however, the subject doesn't get much treatment of any kind in the mainstream cinemascape, so it arrives freshly picked for its viewers.

Fukunaga does a lot of good things with the film: it's horrifying without exploitative, meditative without abandoning narrative, and it imbues humanity in its characters without turning a blind eye to the evil of their actions. He spends enough time with our child soldier pre-war to ensure the viewer knows what light is like for him before darkness envelops. The performances are natural and haunting, particularly Abraham Attah in the main role of Agu. The music knows when to leave and enter the screen. The cinematography is beautiful, if not a little overly so. Unfortunately, the film falls short of greatness when it draws from the vocabulary of previously celebrated films in the war genre, namely The Thin Red Line.

The film is narrated, almost like a good yarn, by Agu, via voice-over. He's given mature, adult-like reflections and internal dialogue as he walks us along the horror he witnesses and engages in.  Never mind that it makes the film feel unnatural (a shame, given its naturalistic context), the voice over soothingly frames the story, thereby softening the blows and inadvertently distancing its viewer even as it attempts to shed light into the internal world of Agu. For such an important, relatively rare (cinematically speaking) fictional account of very real horrors, such stylistic choice seems at best redundant, and at worst, offensive. In the final confession frame, Agu is given a line that blatantly, and unnecessarily, tips off the film's moral hand. It makes the film seem a little disrespectful of its own gravity.

It's uncertain how far Beasts could've reached if it hasn't tried to simply preach to the converted. As it is, it may contend with being admired for efforts taken, rather than gripped by the depth it could've gone.



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