There is a fine line between sordid reality and dreamy realism in the solid, tense and deeply engaging social drama Oleg by Latvian Juris Kursietis. It could be the almost otherwordly face and the lost presence of its main actor (an equally subdued performance by Valentin Novopolskij); yet overall, Oleg is this mixture of still daring to dream in post-Dublin II unified Europe, with a theological framework (overworked) to use as a framing device.
The breathtaking zoom-in shot of the opening scene, with Oleg as a dot in icy Latvian surroundings in fetal position, gives the tone for the whole story. He is the lamb to be sacrificed, as his (not to be seen) granny tells him so.
In reality, Oleg is a butcher ('cuts meat') and has arrived at Ghent, Belgium on an alien's passport (a source of joke later on in the film), and a specific job description as a reason for his staying. Mishaps, lack of solidarity that his fellow workers exhibit, and direct accusations make Oleg lose his job and staying place. In a rather frenetic camera movement which follows him closely, Oleg now seeks a new beginning.
Here comes the unreliable, with bursts of violence but seemingly helpful Polish Andrzej (a tour-de-force turn from Dawid Ogrodnik), a small-time gangster who loves his teenage daughter, but actually maltreats his new girlfriend Malgosia (Anna Próchniak). The conflict with Andrzej is actually the heart of the film and the element that keeps the Latvian drama away from an all-encompassing Dardennes territory. What matters in Oleg is never social justice, but social confusion. Ethnicities, characters and languages parade and alternate in a kind but rather powerless Belgian environment.
With a color palette that is never inviting (except for night shots and Latvian forests), there is the right amount of tension and wrong twists and turns that Oleg takes to check out of his trap. A brief excursion to the Latvian community dinner in Brussels brings a fleeting relationship, but also cements that he has no help from his compatriots. The new Europe is an unknown field, where he has to choose if he is the hunted or the hunter.
One of the best scripted scenes in Oleg comes when the main character has to learn how to shoot in the open field, under the guidance of Andrzej. It is a point of failure and of no return. Screenwriter and director Juris Kursietis makes you care for this 'sacrificial lamb', presenting him as neither too gullible nor too knowleadgeable; he could be any foreigner worker with a lot of dreams.
The theological framing of Oleg does not do the film justice, and feels forced for a character whose only real affection is his work and his granny. Yet Kursietis successfully mounts tension in a gripping drama of characters which won't stray away from its main target: to show that a European dreamer can be a contradiction in terms.
CREDITS: Oleg, 2019 (1' 48'')
Director: Juris Kursietis Latvia, Lithuania, Belgium, France | Producer: Alise Gelze, Aija Berzina | Screenwriter: Juris Kursietis | DoP: Bogumil Godfrejow | Editor: Matyas Veress | Cast: Valentin Novopolskij, Dawid Ogrodnik, Anna Próchniak, Guna Zarina, Adam Szyszkowski | Production: asse Film, Iota Production, In Script, Arizona Productions
The first film scene sets the tone. Pause (formerly called 'Menopause'), the first feature film by Cypriot film director Tonia Mishiali has her main character in the gynaecological examination chair, only to told by her doctor that she is doomed by an array of symptoms. But that's life (and menopause), and nothing can be done about it.
Pause, the sober but moving drama by Tonia Mishiali (premiered at the 2018 Karlovy Vary festival) is a bleak view of a society which still takes women subordination as a matter of fact, while the film itself presents at the same time a restless investigation of alternative possibilities. Elpida -Hope (an affective performance by Stela Fyrogeni) has everything a woman won't need. She has to bear an abusive husband (Andreas Vasiliou), who keeps her financially dependent on pocket money, while her daughter (Georgina Tatsi) and her grandchild are far away from her, unable to offer any kind of assistance. Elpida can neither spend her time on Internet surfing; she needs to satisfy her entertainment needs by using a separate TV set to watch (headphones on) her favorite TV programmes: action films and documentaries on sexual reproduction. Her husband Costas is perennially hooked on to football watching.
Moving between Almodovarian sexual fantasies and a Mike Leigh territory of tortured female characters, Mishiali and her co-writer Anna Fotiadou, eventually settle for a genre trope that is as tested as James M. Cain: the hot young painter with the foreign accent is ready to provide Elpida the solace she may need; or, again, he may not.
Elpida's husband (the marriage, we learn, was the result of a bad case of matchmaking) has few redeeming qualities in Pause; this makes it easier to empathize all the more with Elpida, who needs to get out of her own closet and her immaculately dreary surroundings -in any way she can. Her more coquettish friend Eleftheria (a much welcome comic turn by Popi Avraam) can bring relief, but can't prescribe a course of action. Even though the sun bleaches their blue-tinged flat, it still can't change Elpida's moods. And here is the point where the mind does its own tricks.
Not always successful, but still registering a strong sense of déjà vu, the 'what-if' scenes in Elpida's mind get progressively more daring, more frequent and more difficult to decipher. But Elpida is always at the center of this, whether she is framed karaoke singing a 70s disco song, or silent in her department contemplating what's next in the step of freedom. In many ways, her just being there is more important for the film as a whole than her thinking modes of revenge.
The finale is the most appropriate cathartic to Elpida's story, to bookend a life that holds its own surprises apart from own intentions. Pause is a film that carries its long held memories of female oppression (right into the present era) inside a bottle of pills ready for inspection and consumption. The film is observant, and Mishiali uses deftly its main character towards her self-regulated journey to freedom.
PAUSE (2018) | 96 min. | drama | Cyprus | Greece Written and Directed by: Tonia Mishiali Production company: A.B. Seahorse Film Productions, Produced by: Andros Achilleos | Stelana Kliris | Tonia Mishiali Co-production Company: Soul Productions, Co-produced by: Ioanna Soultani | Panos Bisdas Funded by: Ministry of Education and Culture of Cyprus | Greek Film Centre | SEE Cinema Network
Co-writer: Anna Fotiadou Production manager: Marinos Charalambous / Assistant director: Alexia Roider / Associate Producer: Polyvios Symeonide
Cast Stela Fyrogeni as ELPIDA Andreas Vasiliou as COSTAS Popi Avraam as ELEFTHERIA Marios Ioannou as the DOCTOR Prokopis Agathokleous as the YOUNG MAN Marina Mandri as the YOUNG WOMAN Georgina Tatsi as IRINI Andrey Pilipenko as the PAINTER Oriana Mantzouranou as LITTLE ELPIDA Louisa Michael as the BABY Cyan as the BIRD
Cinematography: George Rahmatoulin / Original Music by: Julian Scherle / Production design: Lydia Mandridou Editing: Emilios Avraam / Sound Design: Christos Kyriakoullis / Art Director: Marios Neocleous Costume Design: Christy Polydorou / C Casting: Danae Stylianou | Greenroom Casting Script Supervisor: Katiana Zachariou 1st Assistant Camera: Kyriacos Mosfiliotis 2nd Assistant Camera: Nikolas Stylianou Make-up Artist: Kyriaki Melidou / Hair department head: Marios Neofytou / Hair Stylist: Sotiris Finiris Additional cinematography: Kyriacos Mosfiliotis Sound post-production: Christos Kyriakoulli /Sound Mix: Costas Varibopiotis / Post production: Authorwave Colourist: Alexis Kapidakis Script consultants: Sari Turgeman, Adonis Florides, Scriptwriters Guild of Greece International Sales: Film Republic