Today I saw two films about tragic events, one terrible and the other very good.
"After Lucia" (1) won a significant prize at the Cannes Film Festival--and as far as I am concerned, Cannes has a lot of explaining to do. The film follows a high school aged girl, Alejandra, who moves to Mexico City with her chef father after her mother is killed in a car accident. The two seem to love each other but don't communicate at all, possibly because he is so shell-shocked from his wife's death. Alejandra seems to be transitioning fine, until she becomes a target of vicious bullying at school. Possibly because she doesn't want to add stress to her father, who seems to be barely holding together, she doesn't tell him what's going on, but that does not stop the filmmaker from forcing us to witness kids abusing her physically, emotionally, and even sexually. Eventually things take a more tragic turn--but the whole thing is just offensive and voyeuristic. The only takeaway I could find was that people can be brutal--which, frankly, isn't news, and doesn't justify making me watch all of this. It plays again on February 21, and I suggest avoiding it.
"Our Children" (7), on the other hand, tells a tragic story well and with purpose. This Belgian film's opening scene reveals a desperate young woman reacting to the death of her four children, and we suspect from the outset that they have died at her hand. The film then returns to happier days, when the woman, Murielle, and the children's Moroccan father, Mounir, are madly in love and decide to marry. Even those happier days are overshadowed by the presence of Pinget, a wealthy doctor whom Mounir refers to as his foster father. Before long, Pinget's influence on Mounir is revealed to be quite insidious; all his kindness and generosity are at his own instigation and serve his own ends, which are to keep Mounir (and Murielle) forever in his debt. All of this is recreated with great care, in a way that makes as much sense of Murielle's actions as one could imagine. I can handle watching a story about brutality if new insight is gained; this film deconstructs this story in a way that illuminates the motives and dynamics that led to tragedy, and keeps the brutality towards the children off-screen, consequently avoiding the exploitative effect of a film like "After Lucia."
My favorite film of the day, though, was "No" (7.5), a very intriguing account of the referendum that led to the ouster of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Apparently Pinochet set up the referendum election (in which Chileans were to vote "yes" or "no" to whether Pinochet should continue as president for another eight years) as a way of garnering international support for his government after 15 years in power. However, most people did not have much hope that anything would come of it. In this retelling, a successful ad-man, who is hardly a political fireband, is put in charge of the "no" campaign, and we watch as he participates in strategy meetings about the challenge of getting people even to come out for the vote itself. Their discussions provide a good sense of the politics of the time and also convey the reasoning behind the campaign's choice to use a very vanilla, up-with-people approach for the ads they ran, which led to ousting Pinochet! It's a complex story told well, and includes some of the actual ads that were used at the time.