Surprise Endings

2012 Academy Short Films

Among the five live-action short films nominated for the 2012 Oscars, there is no masterpiece like last year’s Na Wewe from Belgium, and there are two duds. But the three others are of high quality. While the 2011 nominees had in common a concern with the spiritual life, the current ones share only a dramatic device: the surprise ending or (in the case of Raju) a mid-film discovery that changes the course of the story.

First, the duds. One of the two Irish entries, Pentecost, is nothing but a joke with a lame punchline. Because of his overly enthusiastic wielding of a censer during Mass, Damian has lost the honor of being an altar boy, an honor he could well dispense with since his sole passion is for watching soccer on TV. But when an archbishop comes to celebrate Pentecost Sunday at his parish, Damian is called back to service because, as one priest puts it, he’s “the only trained incense burner” around. Filmmakers Peter McDonald and Eimear O’Kane have a gift for comic monologue: the pre-Mass pep talk the altar boys get on the big day is a hilarious parody of a Knute Rockne locker-room rouser (“You’re a natural bell ringer, son, don’t let us down”). But the build-up is ruined by a surprise finale that contradicts all we’ve been shown of Damian’s character. McDonald and O’Kane may have a future in stand-up, but they can’t sustain eleven minutes of screen time.

Tuba Atlantic is a Norwegian effort at black comedy that’s all too effortful. A seventy-year-old curmudgeon, Oskar, is told he has six days to live, and a hospice worker, calling herself a “death angel,” arrives to make sure the codger works through the classic stages of grief before he croaks. Hallvar Witzo surely intended his story as a satire of the welfare state’s compulsion to micromanage its charges even unto the grave. Fine, but the tempo he imposes is so grindingly slow that our laughter dies in the middle of each joke, and an attempt at fantasy (involving a giant tuba) is painfully whimsical. Perhaps this is the sort of thing that plays well to Scandinavian audiences, but it made me think of Ingmar Bergman with a lampshade on his head.

By contrast, Time Freak, the American entry by Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey, is truly funny. A neurotic (the excellent Michael Nathenson) builds a time machine. Does he travel back to the creation of the pyramids or forward to the conquest of the solar system? Hey, I said he was neurotic! All he does is travel back to yesterday over and over again to readjust his altercation with a dry cleaner and spiff up a brief flirtation with a pretty girl. The neurotic’s roommate (John Conor Brooke) learns of his temporal ditherings and does something drastic that provides a satisfying surprise ending.

Looming over this pleasurable trifle is the Harold Ramis–Bill Murray masterpiece Groundhog Day, which said the last comic word about making one’s crooked past come out straight. But the difference between the two stories is instructive. In Groundhog Murray changes the last twenty-four hours by changing himself, exchanging his mean wit for generous humor, abandoning opportunism. But Time Freak’s hero tries to improve yesterday’s events without changing himself, and therefore keeps making different but equally damaging mistakes. Groundhog is a comedy of conversion, while Time Freak taps into the nervous humor of anal retention. That’s why Groundhog’s plot needs two hours to unfold and Time Freak is just right at eleven minutes. The two comedies would make a great double bill.

If a film runs a mere twenty-four minutes, shouldn’t one be able to assume that its story will stay within the confines of its genre, sustain a single mood, employ only a few subtle shifts of tempo, and head toward its dramatic climax with maximum economy? Why would a twenty-four-minute movie dare to ramify?

But that’s exactly what Raju—a German entry made in India—tries to do. And, against all odds, it succeeds. In its opening five minutes, it’s a heart-warming semi-documentary about a German couple traveling to a Calcutta orphanage to pick up Raju, the child they’ve adopted. The four-year-old boy is all wide-eyed wonder and the orphanage administrators all smiling assurance. All is well, all is wonderful. After a day of successful bonding, the wife stays in a hotel room to rest while the new father takes Raju out for a stroll. But a stroll in the streets of Calcutta means a swim in overlapping, buffeting streams of humanity, and when man and boy pause to look up at some kites being flown by street kids, the musical soundtrack turns ominous. Sure enough, when just a few seconds later the man looks down, Raju is gone. This tearjerker has become a thriller.

And director Max Zähle, with cinematographer Sin Huh’s crucial aid, makes it an unforgettable one. To lose a child in a crowd under any circumstances is a horror, but to lose one in the swarm of bodies and the urban chaos that is Calcutta is to fall into the nethermost region of hell. Shunted into the father’s panic by the superb hand-held camerawork and the heart-squeezing editing, we run with him, dodge, wheel about, scan the mass of bodies blocking his way. Bystanders are as sympathetic as bystanders always are, and as helpless. The police promise to investigate but they seem to have a thousand similar cases on file.

Then, by chance, the father contacts an NGO that specializes in locating lost children. The organization turns out to be both the salvation and undoing of the distraught parents. For when one of its workers leaves the office to make a call, the father notices a file marked “kidnapped” on a desk. He flips through it, notices something, freezes. And so our thriller shifts to yet another level, turning into a clash of civilizations, a crisis of conscience, and a test of marital love. Raju is an example of how O. Henryesque narrative twists, minus O. Henry’s sentimentality, can wring our hearts without dishonestly manipulating us.

And now the Oscar winner. The Shore, another Irish short, has the richest professional pedigree of the entries, since its lead, Ciarán Hinds, is a world-class actor. (You may remember him from Persuasion, The Eclipse, or The Debt, or as Julius Caesar in HBO’s Rome.) The Shore’s creator, Terry George, wrote and/or directed the much-honored movies In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, Hotel Rwanda, and Some Mother’s Son. In this case, the credentials don’t lie: The Shore is an unpredictable comedy-drama whose every quirk is rooted in a rich humanity.

Its theme is the way misperception can entail both misery and relief from misery. Jim Mahon (Hinds) returns to Belfast after twenty-five years in America with a grown daughter in tow and a sad reunion (so he believes) awaiting him. He had promised a sweetheart he would return but jilted her for a rich American girl. Now wealthy—partly through his own efforts—and divorced, he begins to renew old friendships but puts off visiting his lost love, especially because he knows she’s married and living in poverty with his best friend and foster brother, Paddy, a man who lost an arm in the political troubles that exiled Jim. Mahon has been on a guilt-trip for a quarter-century, but, though his loved ones’ poverty is real enough, they have been getting on with their lives and are not about to live up (or down) to the picture of misery Jim has painted in his mind. Our hero has been bracing himself for a Eugene O’Neill drama of accusations and counter-accusations. Instead, he winds up in the middle of a Mack Sennett farce.

Terry George’s staging is exemplary, but what really holds the pratfalls and pathos together is Ciarán Hinds, whose face, an odd blend of almost thuggish toughness and fine-grained sensitivity, brings all of Jim’s melancholy past into the present-tense high jinks. When melancholy bumps up against bumptious reality, the result is comedy of an oddly poignant flavor.

Published in the 2012-03-23 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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