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The 33rd AFI European Showcase is a terrific opportunity to see what is happening across the pond. Their arthouse films are often more challenging than ours, drawing from centuries of painful history. This year’s festival includes films from Ireland, France, Italy, Czech Republic, Denmark, and several others, bringing together a lot of star directors (they’re familiar, at least, if you’re the sort that used to go to independent theaters when they were open). Since we cannot gather in a dark room and watch together, the AFI is offering a virtual festival experience. Most of these films are available from December 4 until December 20, but click on an individual film link for streaming options.

Another Round

In Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, four teachers tired of the monotony of their lives decide to change up their daily routine by staying slightly drunk throughout the day. Following a study that says the average human’s blood alcohol level is naturally too low, the quartet uses this “scientific study” as an excuse to escape the  problems that weigh them down.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Martin, a history teacher whose disinterest in his classes has caused concern with his students and their parents. His two children barely listen to him, and his wife hardly even notices he’s there. Yet with a few shots in him, Martin becomes an engaged teacher, a more active husband, and a man reliving the youth he felt that he had lost years ago. The same is true of his three friends, who find new freedom in their constant inebriation, believing they might have found a brilliant new way of living.

Despite the film’s constant assertions that Danish culture is more open to recreational drinking, with Martin even having class discussions about student’s alcohol consumption, Another Round still heads in the direction one would imagine considering the subject matter. But the script by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm and the four lead performances still make this journey engaging, especially the further we see these men have relied on alcohol to solve their problems.

It is because of these fleshed out characters that Another Round becomes more than just a story of four borderline alcoholics. Vinterberg and Lindholm’s script makes these men’s actions understandable, showing that their drinking does actually solve some of their problems while crippling them in other ways. Another Round isn’t criticizing as much as it is showing the pros and cons of the experiment, which is a stand-in for the benefits of moderation in all of life’s facets. –Ross

Isaac

Isaac seems built around long shots where director Jurgis Matulevicius makes his audience uncomfortable by making them bear witness. We almost feel implicit in the actions of Andrius Gluosnis (Aleksas Kazanavicius), as we watch him in 1941, killing a Jewish man during a garage massacre in Lithuania. From this impressive but haunting opening, Isaac jumps ahead over twenty years, as Gluosnis still frets over what happened, especially when his friend and popular director Gediminas Gutauskas (Dainius Gavenonis) comes back to Lithuania to film a story that seems too close for comfort to Gluosnis’ own past.

Isaac is Matulevicius’ debut as director, and it’s certainly an impressive one. Matulevicius consistently makes his audience voyeurs in this world, whether it’s watching an unsettling argument between Gluosnis and his wife, Elena (Severija Janusauskaite), or a rock show at a secret bar, Matulevicius gives the feeling that we shouldn’t be privy to what we see.

Matulevicius is aided with gorgeous cinematography from Narvydas Naujails (Defiance), who moves back-and-forth from a nostalgic black-and-white to the vibrant colors of the modern-day. The black-and-white segments tend to be more urgent, which leaves everything after the initial shift to color trying in earnest to keep up with the film’s tremendous opening, and the film just can’t quite manage such lofty expectations.

But Matulevicius’ debut is a stark reminder of how our past can completely alter our present and future, and how obsession with our history can mean eventual destruction. Isaac is an affecting look at the atrocities of the German invasion during World War II through a personal lens that shows its long-lasting impact. –Ross

The Predators (I Predatori)

Directed with dispassionate irony by Pietro Castellitto, The Predators is exactly the sort of dark comedy you might expect from a twenty-eight year old. No characters are likable, none of the social commentary is subtle, and the film uses offensive imagery without giving it the moral weight it deserves.

Broadly speaking, The Predators is a drama that looks two different families, and how they intersect in unexpected ways. There are the Vismaras, a lower-middle-class mix of gangsters and working class stiffs. The patriarch and his underlings sell weapons on the black market to make ends meet. Then there are Pavones, an upper crust family of academics, doctors, and artists. Nonstop bickering is their common ground, along with an unlikely car accident. As they find themselves in each other’s lives, Castellitto makes grandiose observations about life in modern Italy.

The most important thing you should know about The Predators is that the Vismaras are fascists. They openly listen to pro-Mussolini music, and their family gatherings are under a mix of historical and modern fascist imagery. Maybe this kind of detail plays differently in Italy, but Castellitto equivocates in a way that leaves a nasty aftertaste. This is a misanthropic film, with obnoxious snobs given equal critique as violent fascists, and that is exactly the problem. One group is significantly worse than the others, and when The Predators cannot find that difference, patience starts to run thin.

All the actors in The Predators are prickly, ferocious, and bizarre. They are filmed in a stylized way (Castellitto’s formal impulses fits along nicely with fellow Italian filmmakers Paolo Sorrentino and Matteo Garrone). The key difference is those filmmakers have real intellectual rigor behind their desire for provocation. –Alan

Summer of 85 (Été 85)

This sunny drama is clearly director François Ozon’s answer to Call Me by Your Name. The opening credits play over shots of the French Riviera, while The Cure’s ”In Between Days” plays in the background. Our hero Alex (Félix Lefebvre), an achingly serious adolescent, talks about forbidden love. You probably sense where this is going.

But Ozon has little interest in the idyll of Call Me by Your Name. Few young men had nurturing parents like the ones in that film, for one thing, and there was real risk with same-sex relationships. Ozon bases his film on “Dance on My Grave,” an English novel from 1982 that was one of the first to depict love between two young men in an open way. By being one of the first, there is a broad approach to the central relationship. When Alex meets David (Benjamin Voisin), their romantic arc will arrive with a sting of universality. It always hurts when your partner gets bored with you. For Alex, the pain is even more acute.

Ozon films all this with his usual mix of humanity and sexual frankness. After the foreshadowed tragic climax, Alex reels through melancholy, with his only assist from Kate (Philippine Velge), an English au pair who ingratiates herself with the two young men. By the time it’s over, Summer of 85 has more in common with The 400 Blows than anything else. Adults may see Alex’s behavior as frivolous, but it comes from a genuine emotional place. Summer of 85 is like that, too: slight and ultimately poignant. –Alan

Undine

Christian Petzold is arguably Germany’s greatest filmmaker. In dramas like Phoenix and Transit, his repeated themes of quiet yearning and mistaken identity lead to cinematic treasures. Undine is a departure for Petzold because this film is set in the present, and deals with the supernatural. Nonetheless, his characters and understated style serve the material by drawing us into a story full of tragedy, murder, and forgiveness.

Paula Beer plays Undine, a Berlin historian who specialize in the city’s architectural developments. After an unexpected breakup, she meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who is immediately smitten. Petzold follows their delicate growth of their relationships – time passes quickly – and a serious of disasters threaten to undo it.

The force driving Undine is beyond logic, although it has a sense of karmic justice. In a lesser film, Petzold would play up each unlikely twist, except here he focuses on the immediate emotional reality of his characters. There is a long, painful sequence where an anguished Christoph fights through despair, and Rogowski – an actor poised for international stardom – resists easy choices. Still, Beer is the star of the show. There is a passionate, wordless scene late in the film where Undine, left with no recourse, makes melodramatic choices in the most calculated way available to her.

Architectural lectures notwithstanding, Undine unfolds like a modern fairy tale. Petzold understands that real emotions inform those supernatural stories, and by putting them in the context of twenty-first century Berlin, he helps recall their genuine power. –Alan

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