It’s hard to watch a movie these days without knowing everything about it. It’s not just big studio releases either; having any interest in film and being active on social media means you generally get a lot of details about a lot of movies. That’s why film festivals are so cool. They’re a great way to bring microbudget films or foreign films with a small chance of finding an international audience to people who normally wouldn’t get the opportunity to see them.
For Cinepocalypse 2019, I was able to see some truly original foreign films, The Mute and The Last to See Them. Both movies are incredibly different, but they also have some striking similarities when it comes to their approach to genre filmmaking. I can see both of them getting extremely mixed receptions, with some passionate opinions on either end.
I had some thoughts of my own.
Director: Bartosz Konopka
Writers: Bartosz Konopka, Przemyslaw Nowakowski, Anna Wydra
Starring: Krzysztof Pieczynski, Karol Bernacki, Wiktoria Gorodecka, Jacek Koman
The Mute immediately grabs the audience’s attention by literally showing us the perspective of one of the main characters. This first-person sequence is fittingly disorienting, and it does a good job of showing us that this is a strange, new, possibly dangerous place for him and us.
That character is Willibrord (Pieczynski), a knight and a missionary. He washes ashore and is found by Noname (Bernacki), a younger and brasher knight living on the island from a previous mission. They find the remains of the previous missionaries and the tribe of pagan locals living in the village nearby. Willibrord’s mission is to bring them to a Christian God, or when the King comes, he’ll kill them all. The method of bringing these people to their God is where Willibrord and Noname diverge.
The Mute relies a lot on body language and natural tension due to the language barrier. All of the actors give great physical performances, especially the Donald Pleasance-esque Pieczynski. Willibrord is a determined and prideful man. He’s also a brutal man. The tension between his beliefs and what he’ll do to enact those beliefs is one of the main draws of the story. I could stomp around a forest, observe pagan rituals, or quietly stew outside of his church for at least another hour.
The other big draw is the cinematography from Jacek Podgórski. The lush forest and dank caves are damp and foreboding. The Mute makes nature look … natural. Untamed and dangerous. The knights and their church become unnatural sights against the blacks and greys and greens of the world.
The Mute is absolutely worth a watch if you’re a fan of brutal and visceral period pieces like Valhalla Rising or The Witch. It wrestles with a lot of questions about religion, faith, and colonialism, and it looks damn good while it makes you think.
THE LAST TO SEE THEM
Director: Sara Summa
Writer: Sara Summa
Starring: Canio Lancellotti, Pasquale Lioi, Barbara Verrastro, Donatella Viola
The Last to See Them opens with an ominous title card telling us about a family being found dead in 2012. We then get to see that family’s last day. It’s really as simple as that.
I found this movie to be extremely compelling if not 100% successful. Not to go against my opening screed about it being best to go into movies blind, but we never actually see the family being murdered. That’s not really a spoiler. You get a good sense that’ll happen — or won’t happen, as it were — as the movie goes on. It’s something I’ve rarely seen before: a total denial to exploit a true crime story. I don’t have a moral issue with true crime in general, or even exploitative true crime (I think we as a society probably do, but I’m not bearing that burden myself), but it’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t revel in a horrible crime. It doesn’t even scold or moralize its audience. I’m looking at you, Funny Games.
What this movie does is show us the victims’ lives before they were victims. We see them when they were just people worried about upcoming surgeries, people getting their clothes ready for a wedding they need to attend, people enjoying dinner together — just people living their lives.
The problem is that most people’s lives are boring.
The Last to See Them is well-shot, but the acting is stiff, and the movie comes close to dragging even at its remarkably short runtime. Writer/director Sara Summa tries to spice things up by occasionally moving back in time to show us a different character’s perspective. Ultimately, this choice doesn’t reveal much more about our characters because they’re just a normal family. That’s what makes the ending hit hard, but it also makes it a bit of a journey to get there.
Still, I’d recommend The Last to See Them. Like I said, it’s a brisk watch at just under 80 minutes with credits, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it over the last few days. I’m excited to read some other takes on the film, and I’m even more excited to see what else Summa has in store.