Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 21, 2005 6:31 pm 
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A new neorealism?

In Lilja 4-Ever, Lukas Moodysson presents a grim new reality: human trafficking in young women in Eastern Europe. Depending on their luck, these hapless females can be turned into slaves, or prostitutes, or wives. In Ira Sach's recent Forty Shades of Blue a Memphis music producer (Rip Torn) has a beautiful young Russian wife (Dina Korzun) -- we never learn how he got her. Moodysson focuses on pretty blonde Russian sixteen-year-old Lilja (Oksana Akinshina), whose parents horribly and inexplicably choose to go to America leaving her behind. She is quickly swept up and shipped to Sweden to be a prostitute, cheerful and completely innocent of what is going to happen to her.

We begin in a bleak contemporary Russia where people talk in telegraphic sentences and the only hint of value and belief is a chromo Lilja keeps on the wall and says the Lord's Prayer to. Her only friend is a childish fourteen-year-old boy, Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), himself an outcast, who's plain and sweet and cares only for her. In leaving the country she abandons him as her mother had abandoned her. In both cases the child left behind pretends indifference and then is devastated. Volodya commits suicide with two bottles of pills he had found in the destitute apartment Lilya was forced into by her aunt when her mother left.

The point is clearly made: nobody cares about these kids.

Hoberman wrote that this pushed out Gaspar Noë's Irréversible for the most downbeat movie of the year. But these are two very different kinds of work. Moodysson isn't playing events for their shock value as Noë plays his -- not quite, anyway. There are two elements that balance out the relentless sadness of Lilja's little tale. In addition to being very pretty, she has a lightness about her. And when Volodya reappears as an angel with wings in sequences that comfort the girl, the director introduces an air of grace and purity -- a dream of the real childhood these kids never had -- that offsets some of the nastiness. Otherwise there would be a danger that the filmmaking might seem as brutal as the actions of the human traffickers. In fact, that danger lingers anyway.

Someone has said that Lilja shouldn't be so pretty, that it's hard to believe her mother would leave behind such a good-looking girl. This is odd logic, and in fact the girl's beauty is what makes her ultimate fate believable, if not inevitable. Those who have a lovely exterior are doomed to a certain amount of objectification under the best of circumstances. Here, Lilja never gets a chance to show what's inside.

Moodysson's style is linked with the minimalist, defiant Dogme school of filmmaking. It's a long long way from the humanistic visions of post-WWII Italian neorealismo, which also dealt with the downtrodden and the hopeless, but in films that sang and made one weep. As one saw in his cheerful Seventies commune comedy Together, Moodysson is great with children, and Akinshina and Bogucharsky are wonderful in this film. He might have found more beauty and richer human detail in Lilja's story. For me it went by too quickly, and it almost left one wondering if it really matters. That can't be what the director has in mind. But others say that Lilja 4-ever can sing and make them weep, too. If that's possible, it must be the angel-Volodya who makes it so.

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