Son of Saul

A Masterpiece

When I left the mid-day screening of this film it was sunny outside. Bright rays gleamed upon the cinema and I glared at them. As I walked home there was a busker singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’. I glared at him. As I passed through a heaving farmers market I glared at the merry people chomping away. I couldn’t work out why I was reacting in this way. Ordinarily I would be thrilled by walking out of the cinema into sun. I would beam at a busker singing Katrina and the Waves 1983 seminal feel-good classic. And I’d probably only side-eye the hipsters filling the farmers market. Why was I so angry at everything? It seemed obvious that it was most likely my  response to the film and the horrors it entailed. But these were not horrors that were new to me – I hadn’t learnt anything new and the events of the film were horrifically familiar.

That’s when I fully grasped just how masterful ‘Son of Saul’ is. It’s almost a rethink of how to portray the Holocaust – by not showing it at all. Gone are any attempts at glamorization, of showy melodrama or noble heroism. Instead we are shown pieces of events – snippets of the evil that took place only feature in the side of or outside of the frame. Overt dramatization is replaced by close-up and over-the-shoulder shots with shallow focus on our central characters face. We hear the events but we don’t see them – leaving the spectator’s imagination to join the dots and fill in the gaps.  As Alfred Hitchcock said, “A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality.”.

It is 1944. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz who is part of the Sonderkommando unit. He is forced, under threat of death, to work for the Nazis in removing the “‘pieces” (the term used for bodies) from the gas chambers. Although the job delays his death it is only a temporary pardon – the job, and therefore his life, has an expiry date of five months which he is fast approaching. When clearing out the chambers post-gassing he finds a still-breathing boy that he believes to be his son. The Nazi doctors swiftly suffocate the boy and decide to have an autopost performed on him to find out how he survived. Saul desperately endeavours to stop the autopsy and find a Rabbi to lead a proper burial for the boy. 

 The events that follow are unforgettable in terms of content and portrayal – relentless and horrifying yet the carnage is skillfully implied as opposed to being explicitly shown. The two hours spent watching this film are two hours spent being a spectator in Hell. Death is not shown but instead resides off-frame – an omnipotent and omnipresent force haunting the frame. Just as one should not look directly into the sun we cannot look directly into the face of evil.

The opening sequence must be forever acknowledged in its audacity and its viscerality. We observe Saul as a sheepdog figure, one of many leading herds of bewildered people into what appears to be a changing room. An off-screen voice offers reassuring sentiments they are going for a shower and offers promises of what will follow. Our focus never leaves Saul’s face as we swiftly realise with unbearable inevitability what will happen next. We don’t see the people enter the gas chamber. We don’t see them die. But we do hear them die.

Rohrig’s performance is truly exceptional – his Saul is haunted and hollow. Grizzled by the unspeakable horror, his jaw is rigid with determination and his eyes are empty. We can only wonder how he keeps on living. The fact this is Rohrig’s first performance, as it is the director’s first feature, only adds to the remarkability of this film.

It is unbearably difficult to write this review – every word or phrase seems inadequate to fully describe the soul-altering experience of watching. It leaves you so numb you can no longer cry. Unlike any other Holocaust film there is nothing here to sweeten the devastating blow of watching this film – no beautiful musical score, no magical rescue and no story of redemption. It’s an intense and immersive experience with a the visceral immediacy it provokes that is ultimately necessary. Truly unforgettable.

five star



The Revenant

12 Oscar nominations – but just how good is it?

Leading the pack with 12 nominations from the 88th Academy Awards  is ‘The Revenant’. Often that information is not necessarily an indicator on how much the general public will like it, but how much a small committee (who may not have actually watched all the films) liked it or think it deserves mention. Happily, in this case, ‘The Revenant’ is worthy of most of the acclaim it is receiving. The film is starkly beautiful yet bitterly bleak. It’s uncompromising and devastating, leaving the audience in a state of emotional destruction. However, it’s not perfect. It’s overlong, losing much of the audience about two thirds in, more of an endurance test than entertainment and certain aspects are not as good as the film (or the awards committee) seem to think it is. To break this down further, whilst remaining spoiler free, I will divide this review into 5 sections- each guided by one of the nomination categories.

Performance by an actor in a leading role: Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant”

Poor Leo. It is a truth universally acknowledged,  then laughed at, that DiCaprio is the bridesmaid of the wedding ceremony that is the Oscar’s. Always the bridesmaid, nominated six times, yet never the bride. It’s fair to say, after watching ‘The Revenant’, that he really deserves this one. There’s not only what he clearly must have gone through behind the scenes, the below freezing weather conditions, and what was required from him, a man on the edge of death crawling back in the name of vengeance, but what he manages to achieve with the performance that surely must put his name inside that envelope.  His rage at what has been done to him and his family pours out through every pore, exposing it with every look, gesture and expression. He truly makes everything that happens to him, not matter how seemingly unbelievable it is, seem real and dragging us along with him for the bitter journey.

Performance by an actor in a supporting role: Tom Hardy in “The Revenant”

Now this is a bit of a strange one. Having known that he had been nominated I spent all of Hardy’s screen time analyzing his performance – looking for that moment or reason  that explained it. But neither moment nor reason came. He’s good, yes, but it’s Hardy in weird, strange and rambling mode. The performance is pretty one-dimensional and rather one-note, supplying little reason for the audience to care for what happens to him. Also at times his speech enters into Bane-levels of incomprehensibility. Compared to the other four candidates in this category (Christian Bale in “The Big Short”, Mark Ruffalo in “Spotlight”, Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies”, Sylvester Stallone in “Creed”) Hardy seems almost shoe-horned in. If the academy really wanted to acknowledge supporting performances in “The Revenant” it would be far better acknowledging either Domhnall Gleeson or Will Poulter, both of whom provide performances far deeper than Hardy’s.

Achievement in cinematography: “The Revenant,” Emmanuel Lubezki

Yes. What makes this film so successful, every event so brutal, is that all occurs in a manner that is oxymoronic. The camera dances across the landscape, panning, tracking and weaving across the wondrous yet terrifying unknown that is capable of much beauty and brutality. You’re lulled into a false sense, admiring the scenery, then you’re shocked back to realising just how dangerous this world is. Without this, the film would be far less memorable or emotive.

Achievement in costume design:  “The Revenant,” Jacqueline West

Whilst costume is great in this film, this award needs to go to “Carol,” Sandy Powell, for which the costume really captured the era and the mood.Through costume alone it made every character, from speaking roles to walk-ons,  feel real with an enriched back not matter how seemingly unnecessary they were . With “The Revenant”it was the cinematography over costume that created the overarching tone.

Achievement in directing: “The Revenant,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu

To bring such emotion out of a cast, as with this film, a director must be extraordinary. The power Iñárritu’s cast generate tells just how magnificent he is. My only criticism would be that the implied power and complexity of the final act is not as powerful or complex as he may have intended.

 All in all, “The Revenant” is more than worth watching. It’s an experience that needs to be experienced on the big screen. However, it’s not light-hearted entertainment or those who are easily shaken.  An impassive musing on man’s plight which does not shy away from harsh realities.


Astonishing And Devastating In Equal Measure

To begin with, an analogy. Have you ever wrung a towel, a facecloth or even just a piece of fabric in general? You put all your strength into the movement, creating enough tension to drain the cloth of the water it possesses. Are you with me? Now let’s replace a few words of that scenario – the face cloth is the viewer of ‘Room’, the water is either literal tears or just emotion in general and the source of the wringing is the film. Everything, from the cinematography, the mise-en-scene, the dialogue to the extraordinary performances , works in conjunction to drain you so brutafully (see, I made it work there too!) drain you. Never has such a thing been done so willingly, nor with such reward. ‘Room’ is otherworldly in its brilliance and ability to shatter your heart.

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives in Room. As far as Jack knows that is all there is to life as he has never left Room. As Ma (Brie Larson) has explained to Jack outside is ‘Space’ and filled with aliens. The only other person knows of is Old Nick who brings them food, necessities  and a ‘luxury item’ referred to as a ‘Sunday Treat’. When Old Nick comes to spend time with Ma, Jack must sleep in the wardrobe. Jack has just turned five and Ma has started to release that he may be old enough to know the truth. That there is a whole world outside of Room, but a world that has been closed off to Ma since Old Nick kidnapped and locked her away seven years ago. Ma was once Joy, a seventeen-year-old girl on her way home from school. Now no-one knows where Joy is. Joy comes up with a plan that involves tricking Old Nick into taking Jack outside of Room, allowing for Jack to escape and get help to rescue Ma. But will Jack be able to accept he could have a life outside of Room?

‘Room’ is a blend of true-crime and fairy-tale. It tells a story that is so abhorrent and seemingly hopeless in a way that is grippingly real, intimate yet somehow beautiful. Jack’s view of Room is fairy tale-like, where what are ordinary objects to us are the only one of their kind, have a personality and are therefore addressed with capitalisation (Table, Lamp, Bed etc.). The television is not a link to the outside world, there is no outside world, but instead images of things that do not exist. It is Joy’s view that is the true-crime, through her eyes the surroundings are depicted in their true horror. Joy is a prisoner, her child was born into captivity, and she has created this world to help them both survive. It is the blending of these two worlds that generates the film’s astonishing power.

But it’s the performances of its two leads that allow this power to land – to convince and cherish. Brie Larson presents an anguish that is so severe that at times becomes unbearable to watch.  Her raw and honest performance is miles, lightyears even, away from the many mawkish performances of exploitative ‘true movies’. Jacob Tremblay provides the kind of child performance you see once in a decade, his abundant glee at the rose-tinted life in Room through to his difficult transition at learning everything believed was a lie. Joy tells Jack these stories to keep him sane in confinement, and Jack’s job unbeknownst to him is to keep Joy sane.  The bond shown between mother-and-son is otherworldly in its believability and its depth.

‘Room’ is gut-wrenching, heart-wringing and brain-haunting. It’s not typical night-out to the movie fayre. At times it’s impossible to watch, and will haunt far longer than its two hours running time. Yet it’s a narrative journey well worth making, proving the power of cinema and the power of extraordinary performances.

‘When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know everything!’ – Jack