Monday, December 11, 2017

The Other Side of Hope

The whole project of the so-called art cinema, which can represent anything from the French New Wave of the 50’s and 60’s to Bergman, Italian neo-realism and the films of directors like Wenders and Haneke today can make one question why one goes to the movies in the first place. Is a film like Amour, about a dying old woman, really enjoyable or even enlightening? Is the experience of watching Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest entertaining or is it merely a kind of esthetic workout—with pleasure deriving from the edification or creation of a certain sensibility? Certainly many films in the canon of so-called high art cinema are an acquired taste.The Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope, currently completing a run at Film Forum, exemplifies this problem. With it’s title and an opening shot of a soot faced Syrian refugee (a survivor of the destruction of Aleppo) escaping from a ship’s hold it almost seems like a parody of art cinema. Furthermore if the scene of Finnish culture that unfolds is any reflection of life in that land, you might opt for Norway, Denmark or Sweden--unless you’re interested in penal colonies of which Finland boasts some of the most advanced. However, even given the grim scenario, The Other Side of Hope presents a countervailingly challenging narrative strategy, a cocktail of existential and esthetic issues (the Syrian refugee crisis viewed in the context of aleatory action) that make you come away with at the very least an admiration for the filmmaker’s intellect. The Other Side of Hope presents an almost surrealist premise in presenting two seemingly incongruous characters, a businessman named Waldemar Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen) who's trying to reinvent himself as restaurateur and the refugee, Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji), who gratuitously cross paths. Khaled has fled Syria by way of Turkey and Greece and is in danger of being deported back to his country. His object is to find his sister Miriam. There are little kindnesses in the film amongst them Waldemar’s sympathy for Khaled, a ton of sly wit and satire in otherwise improbable situations (one of the most laudable aspects of the production) and lots of evil (the local skinhead population doesn’t take kindly to the influx of strangers who they sometimes mistake for Jews). However, the universe that Kaurismaki creates is fundamentally indifferent. Even when there’s good news, nothing particularly good happens. Ingmar Bergman’s films were dark and challenging but cathartically enjoyable. The Other Side of Hope is competitive with the Swedish director’s despair and yet is steadfast in its refusal not just in offering hope, but solace too.

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