By Anne Brodie
Vadim Perelman’s WWII slow-burn Persian Lessons looks at an event that couldn’t possibly be true. Set in 1942 in a Nazi Germany concentration camp and based on real events it’s the story of a rabbi’s son who goes to dizzying extremes to save his life; every moment that passes without the truth being discovered is agonising. Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) swaps a sandwich for a Persian hardcover book on a prisoner transport train en route to the camp. He can’t read Farsi but is assured the book is valuable; it was stolen from a wealthy Persian family. Gilles’ life in the camp is brutal, of course, but he creates a secret identity based on the book. He says he is not Jewish, he’s Persian. Koch, a sadistic mid-level Nazi officer (Lars Eidinger) picks him to teach him Farsi as he hopes to open a restaurant in Teheran after the war. Gilles’ brilliant lie is built on cards, though. He invents a language by scrambling words and names and passes them off as Farsi. He must memorise each word and phrase which now number in the thousands. Gilles miraculously escapes death on many occasions even as he becomes Koch’ trusted ally; if he finds out he’s being taught gibberish by a Jew and rewarding him, Gilles is a dead man. The ever-present tension we feel, like rabbits about to be killed and skinned, is shockingly visceral. Awkwardly handled moments and unnecessary superficial sentiments occasionally break the tension spell, but overall, it’s a gut punch of a film and another in the endless chapters of fact-based brutality at the hands of Nazi Germany. Based on the story “Erfindung einer Sprache” by Wolfgang Kohlhaase. In theatres in Toronto and Vancouver.
Barnabás Tóth’s Those Who Remained, a Hungary / France co-production, sheds light on the human cost of the Holocaust and the trauma for those who decided not to flee their country. Teenaged Klára (Abigél Szõke) lost both parents in the war but refuses to acknowledge that they have died; she’s under great emotional strain at school, home, and with her aunt who took her in. She’s angry. She’s begun her period and a trip to the gynecologist Körner Aladár (Károly Hajduk) raises the possibility that she now has someone to talk to who may help her manage her feelings. She follows “Aldo” and intrudes on him repeatedly. He realises she needs help, just as he does. He lost his wife and two sons in the war and so two broken spirits find each other. Klára moves in with him because her aunt can no longer manage her; their bond of victimhood becomes something else, a chance to talk, share and heal. Seems odd as their bond becomes intense and the age difference is significant, but Aunt Olga (Mari Nagy) shares custody and the three begin to feel optimistic about the future. Eventually, Körner is reliant on Aldo and confuses the nature of their relationship – he keeps the ship on course but understands her feelings. The three begin to heal; in this lovely story of fortitude and love. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and has been shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best International Feature. In theatres.
CBC launches a provocative new series from writer-director and star Jonathan Lawrence. Alter Boys is extraordinarily timely considering the rise of anti-queer/homo/trans-phobia sentiment not just in the US (Florida we’re looking at you) but also here at home in Canada. A fire has swept through a wooded camp in Manitoba’s far north, injuring a group of young men. They’re beginning to gather in the aftermath and learn that Camp Director Gibson may die. They had been driven in a sealed van to the camp, and have no idea where they are, or how to get help. But there’s more. These are gay men and they were participating in a conversion exercise, most against their will. They’re psychologically traumatised by Gibson and Counsellor Harris as well as physically abused and humiliated in this misguided but profitable promise to their parents to ungay them. It’s hard to imagine in 2023 that there are places like this, but Lawrence’s film is based on fact. Symbolically, Cedar Ridge camp has burned to the ground and a reckoning is coming. Lawrence, a Winnipeg-based LGBTQ2S+, Indigenous filmmaker has created a keen sense of psychological distress leaning into horror. These kids didn’t know what hit them but Lawrence’s character Scotty did but returned for a second summer. Why? The emotional and psychological elements in the script are strong with a philosophical bent. Interesting, multi-faceted, disturbing, and timely. Alter Boys is free on CBC Gem.
Clean Sweep June 22 on Sundance Now and AMC+ is a dense and twisty murder mystery series following Shelly (Charlene McKenna) an Irish housewife and her detective husband Jason (Barry Ward). It opens as a harried housewife scrubs fabric, looking closer, it’s a badly blood-stained shirt. She’s just shot a man to death. A man with ties back to a different life she led as an addict and criminal. People would never guess – she’s now raising three children in a busy middle-class home, she volunteers at the school, a model of good behaviour. Her husband and his partner, with whom Shelly believes he’s having an affair, land the case. It’s not just any case, it’s Shelly’s fellow former druggie and crook, now a fundamentalist preacher, thought to have been murdered along with Shelly 20 years earlier. He found her and they argued. Shelly has a Teflon side that allows her to function in daily life with kids, husband, and responsibilities while fending off horrific memories, and fears of being discovered. She swept clean the hotel room where they met and is confident there is no link. But a housemaid comes forward to say she saw and can ID the woman who came from the murdered man’s room. From there, the case becomes extraordinarily far-reaching, concerning a human trafficking ring, and the reopening of cold cases in order to solve the preacher’s murder. Shelly’s nerves of steel, quick wit, and hones survival instincts she once relied on. Clean Sweep’s an intriguing fast-paced psychological drama and police procedural in which we root for the baddie.
Netflix‘ documentary Call Me Kate is a remarkable and new collection of archival footage that surprised even me, a diehard Katharine Hepburn fan who thought she’d seen all the footage out there via various documentaries and interviews. Filmmaker Director Lorna Tucker has assembled a treasure trove of home movies, letters, photos, and Hollywood footage from the earliest days – her first audition – to her last, family treasures, via her descendants. There is a wealth of audio archives, much of it like the film footage, rare, intimate, and casually confessional. Raised by her gynecologist father and suffragette mother, there were few rules, and Kathy was allowed to do as she pleased- a lifelong trademark. She was considered, eccentric, odd, an outsider, and kind of weird, dressing in menswear, and speaking openly about her lesbian and hetero lovers, her opinions, declarations, with that fiery self-determination. In Hollywood, following her first-ever screen test, John Barrymore told her she would be a star! Her first role was opposite Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) two years before winning the Oscar for Morning Glory and becoming just what he predicted. Her career ups and downs included being labelled Box Office Poison. But she was indefatigable, working until 1994, and winning four Oscars, a record still unbeaten today. Kate talks about her decades-long romance with married Catholic Spencer Tracy, her brief marriage, and her relationship with Laura Harding, nothing is off the table. Call Me Kate is essential viewing for KB fans, outsiders, nonconformists and free spirits everywhere.