Telluride 44: “Wonderstruck”

“Wonderstruck” was shown at the Telluride Film Festival as part of a Tribute to its cinematographer Ed Lachman. Like other collaborations of Lachman with the film’s director Todd Haynes, “Far from Heaven” (2002) and “Carol” (2015), “Wonderstruck”, one of the finest selections at Telluride, has a distinctive period look.

The film is based on the novel by Brian Selznick, who wrote the screenplay. Another Selznick work was also the source of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”. “Wonderstruck” intercuts compelling stories of 2 hearing-impaired 12 year-olds in different eras and their personal quests in New York City. For each sequence, the film impressively recreates the style of films of the era.

Todd Haynes at Telluride

In 1977 Minnesota, Ben (Oaks Fegley) has been orphaned after his mother (Michelle Williams in flashbacks) died in a car accident. Ben’s mother had never responded to his questions about the identity of his father. Ben loses his hearing after being struck by lightning. Among his mother’s things, he comes across a book and the address of a book store in New York City. Ben secretly travels to New York City, hoping his findings will offer clues to his father.

In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a deaf girl, leaves New Jersey to find a famous actress (Julianne Moore). Her section of the film is in the style of a black & white silent.

Millicent Simmonds in “Wonderstruck”

Ben’s story, particularly In New York City, has the deep color of 1970s films, emphasizing the intensity of the change in Ben’s environment.

Both Rose and Ben will discover the Museum of Natural History. Ben’s search is aided by Jamie (Jaden Michael) whose father works at the Museum. The film captures the wonderment and adventure of new discoveries.

Julianne Moore and Oaks Fegley in “Wonderstruck”

Todd Haynes has made “Wonderstruck” with a deep sensitivity to the emotions of the youthful characters. Julianne Moore portrays a different character in the modern section who connects the two stories. The young actors give notable performances as do Moore (Haynes’ “Safe” and “Far From Heaven”) and the adult cast.

“Wonderstruck” continues Haynes’ interest in the search for connection and affection. The film ends at the location of the 1965 Words Fair as characters poignantly deal with memory and loss.

Jaden Michael, Oaks Fegley, and Julianne Moore in “Wonderstruck”


Telluride 43: “Graduation”

“Graduation” is a gripping depiction of pervasive corruption in contemporary Romania. Cristian Mungiu, who also wrote the screenplay, received the Best Director Award at Cannes. This film is even stronger than Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”.

Cristian Mungiu at Telluride

Before the film’s screening at Telluride, Mungiu said the inspiration of the film was the process of his “being a father”. While some of his fellow citizens have left Romania, Mungiu believes it is better to stay and attempt to change conditions.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a rare doctor who has remained honest in a system where even doctors are bribed for service. He is hopeful that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) will receive a scholarship for the UK, and thus have options unavailable to him and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar). A violent act against Eliza may affect her performance on the examination that determines if she will be able to study outside Romania.

Adrian Titieni and Maria-Victoria Dragus in “Graduation”

As a father, Romeo is determined to do whatever is necessary for his daughter to have an education abroad. There is also family discord as Eliza begins to develop an independence from her father. Adrian Titieni gives a powerful performance as the highly conflicted father. Mungiu builds an acute tension as Romeo becomes involved in a web of complications and he must face the choice of compromising his integrity by making secret deals to give his daughter a better life. “What does all we taught her count?” is asked.

Maria-Victoria Dragus and Adrian Titieni and in “Graduation”

Telluride 42: “Son of Saul” with director and actor

“Son of Saul” is a powerful and often shattering Hungarian film about a Saul, a sonderkommando, responsible for cleaning out the concentration camp showers. This film which received the runner-up Grand Prix at Cannes, is a remarkable debut for director Laszlo Nemes who co-write the screenplay.

Géza Röhrig in "Son of Saul"

Géza Röhrig in “Son of Saul”

The film has a unique visual style. Often the images behind Saul (Géza Röhrig) are blurred, reflecting how he has had to block out what’s happening around him in order to survive. Saul’s actions in cleaning out the camp showers are shown to devastating effect. The focus of the film remains on Saul.

Géza Röhrig gives a masterful and often intense performance as Saul. Saul sees the body of a boy he may remember and desperately tries to have a rabbi give funeral prayers. Someone says “We’re already dead.” “Son of Saul” remains an indelible experience.

At the Telluride Film Fesival, director Laszlo Nemes and Géza Röhrig, lead actor of “Son of Saul”, appeared at a wide-ranging outdoor discussion with Meryl Streep and representatives from “Spotlight”. Röhrig was introduced as a poet.

Laszlo Nemes and  Géza Röhrig  at Telluride

Laszlo Nemes and Géza Röhrig at Telluride

Nemes said that he did not want to “show too much” in “Son of Saul”, to “give something to view” of “a visceral experience not common in cinematic form” that would be “at the heart of human experience.”

He added that he wanted the film to be “immersive” and “hypnotic”, by keeping the camera “so close to the main character.”

Röhrig described “mainstream” films on the Holocaust as a “falsification, at worst melodramatic”. He added that most of these films center on “survival tales” which were “an anomaly.” He said these films are “so stereotypical” and full of clichés that he called “Holocaust trash”.

Lazlo Nemes and  Géza Röhrig  at Telluride

Lazlo Nemes and Géza Röhrig at Telluride

Röhrig said that most sonderkommandos like Saul would clean the gas chamber and burn the bodies of the victims for a “better food ratio” and to be able to wear their hair long. He said that every 3 or 4 months these sonderkommando were liquidated.

He spoke about “genocide happening in Yemen, Syria, northwest Iraq” from ISIS, adding that “70 years pass and we haven’t learned a bit, governments condemn and can’t stop” the mass killing.

Nemes described cinema as an “intense medium to speak to the subject of what it means to be a human being in the middle of” the tragedy of the concentration camp. He wanted to “explore the subjectivity of it”, adding that “to create empathy was our hope.”