“There is always hope.” Such ended one of our most recent posts. But is there? The next three reviews are not about mainstream movies. If that adds to the perception that any blockbuster will get a bad review and there’s nothing but praise for other movies, then that’s a shame. Maybe I’m having better luck picking old and arthouse movies these days. That’s what in store for the next ten days, by the way. Two arthouse movies and a silent classic. There’s still time to run away if you want to.
Let’s start with one of the two movies I watched in The Hague. It wasn’t a holiday in the strictest sense of the word: there was a visit to the literary museum (for a retrospective on a writer I admired) and as a result, it sort of became a literary weekend, a chance for me to reload my batteries and continue working on my upcoming novella. On top of that, it was the warmest weekend of the year and someone had the audacity to build my hotel next to an arthouse cinema. Should I mention it had airconditioned rooms? And that everyone was doing something to avoid being in the scorching sun?
Dom (The House) was the first movie I watched. Fair enough, as it had jumped to my attention when I was still at home, googling to see if The Hague had any interesting theatres slash movies. For any readers who never got used to what’s been happening in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall became a bit of rubble, Dom is also a blessing. It’s a Czech movie with Slovakian funding (hence an alternative title and the Slovakian dubbers being mentioned on the end credits). So basically, you can name any country in “that area” and there’s a fair chance it was involved in the making of this film. Dom (which apparently rhymes with ‘Tom’) is the sort of movie people think of when you throw the label “arthouse” at them. You could expect the Dardenne brothers or Ken Loach to make something like this. To be honest, I find myself skipping this sort of movie more and more: hundreds of similar films are made every year and they’re more often than not quite predictable. You know the story, a young girl has a strenuous relationship with her father. The protagonist is either an outcast or the belle of the town (check the latter option here) and things happen that will either repair or completely destroy the relationship. Oh, and in case the movie is set in a poor area or a village in Eastern Europe, there’s always the hope of a better life, often in London, Paris or the US. In Dom‘s case, we have a girl, Eva (Judit Bárdos), who’s skipping school with the help of a doctor’s son. She uses her time to write papers for the other students and the money she earns goes into a hidden envelope. One day it will be enough to afford a trip to London and become an au pair there. Unaware of his daughter’s dream, her father is building a house for her in the backyard.
All this doesn’t sound too original, but the details count. The trailer won me over because it included the scene right after her father discovers the envelope and steals the money in order to buy more bricks for the house. There’s a wonderful ambivalance there: the same money she’s keeping to fulfill her dream is being used to get her the dream her father wants her to have. What happens next is that the family goes to church and you’ll never guess who’s playing the organ. She takes up the role everyone’s expecting of her (the beautiful, pious player) but then she doesn’t take her finger off the key for the final tone. In a most subtle way, this shows a gigantic rebellion between father and daughter in which everyone gets involved.
By everyone, we also include the nice young man who gives Eva a lift when she’s missed the bus. It turns out the man is an English teacher and translator. As readers of the Avenue, you’re all aware of how untrustworthy that sort of type is, but Eva is young (we’ll gloss over “fictional” and “heroine in a movie so something needs to happen”) and she falls for the one person who’s really nice to her for no obvious reason. Of course, we can tell that Eva won’t be able to pretend she’s sick forever, so one day she has to return to school and you’ll never guess who the new substitute teacher is. (Between you and me, the English books used in the movie are at least ten years old. One can only hope it’s a prop and not the genuine classroom material the Czech kids in 2010 still had to use.)
Finding out her lover is suddenly her teacher isn’t too much of a problem for Eva (in her own words), so how could we make the situation worse? Is it by a) letting someone barge in on them fooling around or b) having Eva find out he’s married? You guessed it, it’s both a and b.
And while Eva is trying to cope, there’s more happiness lurking around the corner. Eva’s older sister, who’s married a no-good guy, moves back to the area. Eva’s father isn’t too happy. That he cut off all the connections to her, is evident because he’s using bricks from the house he was building for her to make the house for Eva. And thus we get lots of conflicts, between father and daughters, between the father and his reluctant son-in-law, between Eva and her classmates, between Eva and her lover. With a film made in such a remote area, you wonder how they could squeeze so many arguments into the plot.
That Dom works, is thanks to a great cast and the direction skills of Zuzana Liová, but the location works in the movie’s favour too: the remote area helps you imagine how a young girl wants to dream of a live abroad. The characters are well developped as well. Despite all the far from sympathetic things he does (bursting into the bathroom to turn off the taps while Eva is taking a bath is another example), you cannot hate him. Despite of his shortcomings and very much in his own way, he wants the best for his daughter. He just can’t see that his plans may be different from his daughter’s. Smack in the middle of all these conflicts, is Eva’s mother who has to deal with all this passive aggression. Does all of this sound like something Loach or the Dardennes might have made? Then don’t forget that the difference here is that Dom isn’t set in an ugly part of a city, but in a remote area of Eastern Europe. An area that is like the film’s characters, at the same time beautiful but desolate. And because it all fits and manages to avoid being heavy-handed, the film is successful.