Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2017 4:48 am 
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Portrait of an estranged loner

One should be wary of a filmmaker's expressed intentions when watching her film: so with Valeska Grisebach's Western, whose title, both explicit and playful, it's best to ignore. The main character looks a bit like a cowboy hero, and there's macho competition, even a horse, but different things are going on from what you'll find in the Hollywood genre. These are Germans working on a water system construction project in a rural part of Bulgaria. The "newbie" in the group is Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), a tall, grizzled non-actor with a moustache somewhat resembling Sam Elliott, who, despite little knowledge of Bulgarian spends a lot of his time connecting with the locals, with complicated consequences that have more to do with the European Union than with the Wild West.

In the end the genre aspects do come to life, but in a highly original, contemporary way, and without the satisfying resolutions of the traditional genre - a difference that has both good and bad aspects. There are many specific, interesting scenes here, but it might have helped to locate them within a more focused dramatic structure.Despite its several interesting characters, Western winds up feeling patchy and diffuse. It's hard to say what this is all about - it's left unresolved, but the fascination is with the joys and shortcomings of communicating without language and stuff that happens when strangers are planted in a place like this.

Meinhard is the main focus, along with several Bulgarian women he connects with (Veneta Fragnova, Viara Borisova); Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), the Bulgarian male who becomes his local "best friend;" and the boorish German crew boss Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek). Meinhard is wordlessly repelled by Vincent and his coworkers at the outset and seems to spend much of his time exploring: in fact a weakness of the film is that it conveys little sense of the actual work done by the Germans or for Meinhard's part in it.

A white horse wanders wild and free, and Meinhard manages to ride it bareback. As a sign of local conflicts and implied "colonialism" or at least condescension and economic nationalism, Vincent plants a German flag on top of a tall pole at the work site - which quickly disappears. Some of the Bulgarians harbor old resentments, while the Germans talk about finally being back "after seventy years." Meinhard emerges as a "legionnaire" who did unexplained stints in Afghanistan or Iraq, with no home to be homesick about, no family, no wife, no kids, lonely, longing for connection, his estrangement from his fellow Germans on the work crew a sign he may not be good at really connecting for long. He puts on nice shirts in the evening and goes into town, spruced up, ready to charm and make nice - for a while. In the end, Adrian gives back the knife he's gifted to his son, Wanko (Kevin Bashev) saying "He doesn't need this," and asks pointedly, "What do you want here?" (Subtitles translate both languages for us, somewhat blurring the effect of the non-verbal communications.)

The film has a documentary realism and often seems real, disturbingly so in an incident that occurs with a horse. Mostly this reads as an unusual study of how people communicate when they have hardly any language in common; or long-held national prejudices; of conflicts between outsiders and locals. And it's a somewhat enigmatic study of Meinhard, a loner searching for connection - who makes remarkable progress in making local friends that comes in handy when the Germans encounter hostilities, but winds up still a stranger to everyone, though we share with interest in his bold and intriguing little adventures.

Western 120 mins., debuted in the Un Certain Regard series of Cannes 2017. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival shown at 8:30 pm 1 Oct. 2017 at Elinor Bunin Theater, Lincoln Center. The director and actor Syuleyman Alilov Letifov were on hand for a Q&A with Programming Director Dennis Lim. The film will be released later by Cinema Guild.

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