Spoiler alert: I'm going to give away lots of key plot moments in this piece.
A little while ago I mentioned that of all the new Oz films coming up, including a bunch at the Sydney Film Festival, the one I most looked forward to was Ariel Kleiman's debut feature Partisan. Mostly I did so because Kleiman had set minds racing with his short film Deeper Than Yesterday (2010) a supremely smart little drama set inside a doomed Russian submarine. That film played festivals and gathered prizes around the world. I think most of the smart people who saw it thought that the film represented one of the better calling cards for the chance to make a feature. Four years later that has finally been fulfilled. You have to wonder just how those four years were spent because it seems a somewhat wasted time but that's another story and not relevant here.
Working this time with a co-writer, Sarah Cyngler (who also gets credits for design and for the titles) Kleiman has set his film somewhere in a vaguely European landscape. The adult characters all speak with variations of foreign accents doing English. Wherever the exteriors were shot, somewhere in Eastern Europe I assume, the urban landscape consists of concrete grey housing towers. There is almost no sign of any living person in any of the exteriors. The interiors are mostly set in a strange compound populated by a solitary dominant male Gregory (Vincent Cassell) and a dozen or so females and their children. Gregory has rescued the females, all single mothers and brought them and their children to a hiding place inside a cave, with a variety of entrances, inside the mountain that sits above the anonymous city.
Gregory is a cult leader and his word is law and thoughhe’s mostly sweet tempered and kind and doesn’t seem at all assertive where it comes to the attaractive group of young women he has cajoled into his cave, he can get violent, most notably in the scene when he forces Alex to eat a piece of chicken. He makes his money and supports this extended family by carrying out contract killings. For these he uses the oldest, smartest, gentlest and most sweet-faced child in the group, Alexander, to actually pull the trigger. Alex is tender, affectionate, loves his mother (whom Gregory during the course of the film impregnates) and carries out Gregory's instructions with ruthless efficiency. Needless to say towards the end there are some game changing moments and the film ends on an enigmatic will-he wont-he kill.
The model for the movie would seem to be some vaguely European art movie experience - Wim Wenders on one of his flights of fancy or a less violent Werner Herzog and I have no doubt that Kleiman has watched a lot of Tarkovsky, Sukourov and maybe others of the visionary school. I hope you get the drift of that. At the film’s heart is a conundrum. It seems to be trying to make sense of children so affected by cult membership that despite the essential sweetness and kindness of their nature they can, with hardly a moment's thought, and certainly without conscience, do terrible things. You can believe the charisma of the cult leader, the potency of his romantic attraction to women and the subjugation into one big happy family. That is rendered with considerable skill. You cant believe that that the kids, especially those sent out to commit horrendous crimes on seemingly very small time victims (one is car mechanic, the other some sort of sweat-soaked recluse), have no sense of their own evil and the state, the apparent trance, into which they have been seduced.
The reaction of the critics would suggest they didn't buy the argument and I assume the selectors at the Sydney Film Festival, a logical place for this film to get its kickstart into the Australian market, didn't either. So the film has been released/dumped a week before the festival opens and has been a monumental box office failure. The anticipation of failure would seem to have weighed heavily on the distributor. Only fourteen screens were availed of and the princely sum of $39, 561 was all that was collected from the punters.
I still hope that someone from Screen Australia is on the phone to Kleiman saying let’s get the next one going quickly and let’s not frig around for another four years or so.