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By Joe Bendel. The 1970’s really were swinging for Sweden, especially for the government. At the time, Olof Palme’s Minister of Justice, Lennart Geijer, was pushing a measure to largely emasculate laws against pedophilia, until he was caught up in the prostitution scandal that would subsequently carry his name. As it happens, under-aged girls were involved. It was a sordid but bipartisan national scandal that makes great fodder for Mikael Marcimain’s real life political thriller Call Girl, which screens as a selection of Film Comment Selects 2013.

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Mere days before what is expected to be a close election, an American actress suspiciously resembling Jane Fonda sings the praises of the progressive PM never specifically identified as Palme on television. Meanwhile, crusading vice cop John Sandberg types his report with a purpose. At every step, the state security service has interfered with his investigation, as viewers soon learn via flashback.

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Iris Dahl is too much for her mother to handle, assuming she ever tried. Fortunately, in liberal Sweden she can simply deposit her problem child in a juvenile home that looks more like a hippy commune. Sneaking out is a snap, especially when her cousin Sonja Hansson arrives to mutually reinforce their delinquency. Unfortunately, in the course of their partying, they encounter Dagmar Glans. A madam with a powerful clientele, Glans recruits the fourteen year-old girls for her stable.

At first, the cousins are seduced by the easy money and flashy lifestyle Glans provides. Inevitably though, the work takes a toll on them, physically and emotionally. Any ideas they might have about quitting are quickly dispelled by the procurer and her enforcer, Glenn. After all, the girls could recognize some rather powerful politicians. Initially, Sandberg is oblivious to Glans’ young working girls and the notoriety of her clients. He is simply trying to bust a vice queen with apparent connections. However, when his wiretaps come in with conspicuous gaps, Sandberg and his hours-from-retirement partner start to suspect the scope of the conspiracy afoot.

Call Girl resembles a 1970’s film in more ways than just soundtrack and décor. In an icily detached manner, it presents a deeply cynical view of the Swedish government, definitely including St. Olof’s administration. Nor does it take leering pleasure from Glans’ dirty business. Marcimain leaves little doubt Dahl and Hansson are grossly exploited by just about everyone – and the state social welfare establishment simply looked the other way, for fear of “stigmatizing” them. We even witness a strategy session for Geijer’s proposal to effectively normalize sexual relations with minors.

With credits including television miniseries and second unit work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Marcimain was well prepared to tell an intricately plotted, richly detailed, multi-character tale of intrigue. Despite the very specifically Swedish circumstances, it is always easy to follow. Somehow he also clearly conveys the unsavory acts the cousins are forced to participate in, without reveling in the luridness.

Frighteningly seductive in a weird, matronly way, Pernilla August’s Glans vividly shows how the devious exploit others and insinuate themselves with the powerful. It is a big, bravura portrayal of a user. As the used, Sofia Karemyr is shockingly powerful portraying Dahl’s wilted innocence. Risking type-casting (having appeared as Machiavellian game-players in A Royal Affair and Tinker Tailor), Danish-Swedish actor David Dencik again turns up as government fixer, Aspen Thorin.

Call Girl is a great period production that never romanticizes its era. Smart, tense, and unexpectedly pointed in its critique of the Swedish justice system, Call Girl is highly recommended for fans of complex political drama. It screens this today (2/20) and tomorrow (2/21) at the Howard Gilman Theater as part of Film Comment Selects 2013.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on February 20th, 2013 at 1:17pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Assad’s Syria is not exactly a family friendly tourist spot. Unfortunately, a former secret policeman’s reticence only intrigued his grown daughter. When she disappears in Damascus under mysterious circumstances, he must temporarily return to his former homeland and life of deception in Ruba Nadda’s Inescapable, which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

While the Assads are never mentioned by name, their portraits are everywhere in Inescapable’s Damascus. The current civil war never intrudes into the narrative, but the oppressive atmosphere is unmistakable. Once a promising young operative, Adib Abdel Kareem had to leave Syria in a hurry, for reasons he and his ex-comrade Sayid Abd Al-Aziz understand only too well. That is why the senior intelligence officer is slightly surprised when Kareem shows up in his office, demanding he help the convicted traitor find his daughter.

Kareem already has the reluctant help of Fatima, the former teammate and lover Kareem was forced to abandon, for whom Al-Aziz has long carried a torch. While the desperate father checks in with the Canadian embassy simply so his presence in Syria will be officially recorded, he soon discovers that the smarmy consular officer Paul Ridge is actually well acquainted with his daughter. It will become a rather tricky affair, involving a high ranking pedophile in the Syrian government and Kareem’s old Soviet spymaster colleague.

Born in Canada, the half-Syrian Nadda obviously has an affinity for the country’s culture and people, but no affection for the current government. As in the unusually elegant Cairo Time, she sets the mood well. Unfortunately, she is not a master of grabby thriller pacing. As much as viewers will want to embrace Inescapable as an art-house Taken, there is simply too much back-tracking and narrative down time. Frankly, Nadda’s screenplay probably would have benefited from some input from a genre hack. The power struggles going on in the upper echelons of power are potentially juicy stuff, but the film tends to lose momentum in rather workaday sequences.

Alexander Siddig is a charismatic screen presence, who does a credible slow burn as Kareem. In contrast, Marisa Tomei’s Fatima just does not have the right edginess for a femme fatale or the purposefulness of woman conspiring against a despotic regime. In truth, it is not really clear what she is there for, besides picking up Kareem at the border. However, Israeli Oded Fehr (a veteran of the Israeli Navy, El-Al security, and The Mummy franchise) brings some roguish style points to the film as Al-Aziz.

Largely shot in South Africa instead of Syria and its neighbors, for obvious reasons, Nadda and cinematographer Luc Montpellier still make it feels like it was filmed in the bazaars and back alleys of Damascus. Indeed, the look and vibe of the picture are right on target, but the tension is sometimes lacking. Still, Inescapable is certainly topical, earning Nadda credit for essentially scooping Hollywood. For those hungry for Middle East intrigue, Inescapable opens this Friday (2/22) in New York at the IFC Center.

LFM GRADE: C+

Posted on February 20th, 2013 at 1:15pm.

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From "Dormant Beauty."

By Joe Bendel. Don’t call Eluana Englaro the Italian Terri Schiavo.  The latter case was scandalously misreported by the drive-by media, as civil libertarian Nat Hentoff passionately decried at the time. At least Englaro’s medical decisions were made by a loved one with no conflicts of interest. That certainly did not stop Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from getting involved, thereby guaranteeing considerable drama. Director-co-writer Marco Bellocchio portrays the resulting media feeding frenzy through the eyes of three sets of fictional characters in Dormant Beauty (trailer here), which screens as a selection of Film Comment Selects 2013.

After a prolonged legal battle, Englaro’s father has transferred her to a private clinic in Udine, where her feeding will be discontinued. She really is in a persistent vegetative state. Berlusconi is not taking this lying down. Legislation has been introduced to save Englaro. Senator Uliano Beffardi intends to buck his party and vote against it. His reasons are personal. He once had to make a similar choice for his late wife, but his relationship with his pro-life daughter Maria has been strained ever since.

The Englaro case also hits close to home for the retired actress known simply as “Divine Mother.” She has preserved her beloved comatose daughter for years in hopes she will eventually wake-up. Meanwhile, Dr. Padillo is not following the case nearly as closely as his colleagues, but he is determined to prevent a recently admitted drug addict from killing herself.

Bellocchio applies a dramatic fairness doctrine to partisans on both sides, except the former PM. Did he really say Englaro looks healthy enough to “give birth to a son?” Afraid so. Look, say what you will about Berlusconi, but the man is never dull. Frankly, if Bellocchio had anything nice to say about him, he would probably be drummed out of every directors’ guild. In contrast, his depiction of the senator and his daughter is far from simplistic.

In fact, Maria is a wholly sympathetic character, who strikes up an unlikely romance with Roberto, the long-suffering brother of a wildly unstable pro-euthanasia demonstrator. Their bipartisan connection is one of the most appealing courtships seen on film in years. Likewise, her relationship with her father evolves in ways that are mature, believable, and satisfying.

From "Dormant Beauty."

Unfortunately, the other two story arcs are not nearly as rewarding. Divine Mother mainly seems to be in the film to compensate for Roberto’s creepy brother. Granted, she is played by the film’s biggest star, Isabelle Huppert, and valid reasons are established for cartoonish Catholicism. Nonetheless, the deck is clearly stacked against her. While her sequences are a tonal mishmash, they still most closely approach the operatic sweep of Bellocchio’s kind of awesome Vincere.

Considerably more engaging, the scenes shared by the doctor and his suicidal patient are well acted (by Bellocchio’s brother Pier Gregorio and Maya Sansa) and ring with honesty. They just feel like they were spliced in to further obscure Bellocchio’s personal position. That is a worthy impulse, but it would be unnecessary had he just focused on the Beffardis, whom most viewers will consider the primary subjects anyway.

Toni Servillo is absolutely fantastic as Beffardi, a decent man totally befuddled by the modest importance bestowed on him late in life. He never plays the part as a mouthpiece for a certain position, but as a world weary widower father. By the same token, Alba Rohrwacher demonstrates perfect pitch as the rebelliously devout Maria. She develops some palpable opposites-attract chemistry with Michele Riondino’s Roberto and gives the audience hope we can all grow and develop.

Dormant Beauty is sometimes a great film. There is some wickedly funny satire of the Italian senators that does not necessarily skew left or right, simply skewering the political class instead. Arguably, this is a case where less would have been more. Recommended for Servillo, Rohrwacher, and the compelling vibe of the Udine protests, Dormant Beauty is recommended for fans of Italian cinema and political drama when it screens today (2/20), Friday (2/22), and Sunday (2/24) at the Howard Gilman Theater as part of Film Comment Selects 2013.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on February 20th, 2013 at 1:14pm.

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