by Peter Wong on March 19, 2013

Family meals may be both bonding territory and supposedly neutral ground for discussing familial concerns. But in Dana Budisavljevic’s short personal documentary “Family Meals,” the lunches and dinners captured on film are stages for chronicling the various dysfunctions plaguing her family. These dysfunctions include divorce, sibling rivalry, and the filmmaker’s own strained coming out to her parents.

What makes this dysfunction particularly painful is learning that the filmmaker’s parents were well-educated and living an unconventional lifestyle. Yet their intellectual openness didn’t necessarily translate into emotional maturity. Child visitation arrangements had the tension of Cold War crossings between East and West Berlin. The coldness with which Dana’s parents greeted their daughter’s revelation still remained an emotional scar.

Nobody comes out of Budisavljevic’s film having won favorable resolution of their particular emotional grievance. But, like learning the cultural significance of being served eggs for a meal, finding a way to accept life’s shortcomings is a victory in itself.


David Ondricek”s period thriller “in the Shadow” offers a riveting portrait of one man’s battle for the truth in a country slowly poisoned by the lies of the politically powerful.
Czechoslovakia’s Oscar submission is set in Prague 1953. While fears of monetary devaluation grip the populace, the Communist Party consolidates control of law enforcement through its new State Security Bureau. Captain Jarda Hakl (an always gripping Ivan Trojan) has little time for politics, as he simply wants to solve a jewelry store burglary. But his investigation clashes with the State Security Bureau’s interest in exploiting the burglary for political gain.

What one doesn’t see onscreen proves as chilling as what the film shows. Insinuations of an obviously tortured confession and the methodical removal of police opponents to the State Security Bureau both hint at the arrival of a fearsome new order.
In this environment, one wonders how much of Hakl’s actions are denials of the changes being brought by tightening Communist control. His denial that monetary devaluation will happen may reassure his wife. Yet even if he solves the case, what can he do with the knowledge? Hakl’s answer, as Ondricek shows, may be found in a Jules Verne novel.


Tudor Giurgui’s Romanian short “Another Christmas” touchingly tells the story of a boy whose loss of belief in Santa Claus winds up making him better equipped to move past self-delusion. Ironically, the boy’s parents demonstrate you’re never too old to believe deluding fantasies.


Watching Ana-Felicia Scutelnicu’s drama “Panihida” is admittedly hard going. Its simple plot concerns a rural Moldovan village marking the passing of one of its citizens, from mourning period to funeral procession. The film relies on sometimes minutely detailed vignettes of the villagers’ mourning process, from wailing over the corpse of a lost friend to drinking into the night to dull the pain of grief.
Yet “Panihida”’s images of the villagers’ grieving process offers something valuable to American viewers. Marking a person’s death has generally been rendered in our culture an antiseptic and private affair. Ileana’s death, by contrast, is definitely something her husband grieves over through his blank unseeing stares. But the loss expressed by Ileana’s friends and neighbors act as a testament to how her death becomes a permanent severance of connections to the other villagers. Also welcome is Scutelnicu’s decision to keep her young protagonist Anihoara a visually distinct but generally silent observer instead of a main actor in the procession.

Despite the serious occasion depicted, Scutelnicu also manages to gently work in some surprises. Comedy comes from the frequent calls for Anihoara’s wine-bearing services during the procession. Sightings of a truck and even a plane jar the viewer into realizing just how old the villagers’ ceremony is. The last surprise is the film’s final image, lit to suggest Ileana has achieved a state of grace.

Fans of pensive Taiwanese and Iranian films will handle “Panihida” well.


Why is Marek Najbrt’s Czech comedy called “Polish Film?” The answer to that question provides part of the charm of this anarchically accomplished film.

Pavel Liska, Tomas Matonoha, Marek Daniel, and Josef Polasek are Czech actors playing “themselves.” They’re doing a cinematic adaptation of Matonoha’s old comedy show script. But problems soon arise ranging from a faked life-threatening illness to a humorless Polish producer to near-psychotic insult humor.
Despite ignorance of Czech cultural references, viewers can still immerse themselves in the weird comedy of Najbrt’s film. Much of the film’s humor is grounded in such comic character staples as jealousy, backfiring hustling, and lying for sex.

Yet that accessibility does not mean “Polish Film” becomes a typical farce based on behind the scenes chaos. Najbrt smartly mixes in pointed jabs at faux on-location filming with absurdities taking a baseball bat to the viewer’s sense of reality. Daniel delivers quite a few such weird moments, especially in his Emil Havlat persona.

One can appreciate “Polish Film” by regularly ingesting aspirin while trying to sort script from strangeness. The more entertaining alternative is to call this off-kilter entertainment the love child of David Lynch and Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People.”


“Oh Boy!” could sum up the Day From Hell storyline of Jan Ole Gerster’s entertainingly jazzy debut film. This award-winning film follows slacker Niko as his life unravels around him courtesy of such minor disasters as a surprise psych test and his inability to get a cup of coffee.

Niko’s questionable qualities, such as his referenced bullying of a fat student, tempt the viewer to enjoy a large slice of schadenfreude pie at his expense. Yet the oddball characters he meets during this day, such as an obnoxious unemployed actor or a weird upstairs neighbor, balance the film’s emotional darkness with absurd levity.

For those who considered effective German comedies rarer than unicorns, Gerster provides an entertaining rebuke. Get this film American distribution!

(The previously reviewed “Wampler’s Ascent” won both the Knight Foundation Audience Favorite Documentary Award and the Kaiser Thrive Award.)

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