CIFF Diary: Day 13 - Of Oedipus and Insects

10/19 - Zaida Bergroth's feature The Good Son was featured in both the "Reel Women" and "New Directors" programming at the 47th annual CIFF, and I was fortunate enough to catch an encore screening of it during my final day at the festival, which gave fest goers an opportunity to see some of the award winning and best loved films of the fest.  The Golden Hugo award winner in the "New Directors" category was Bergroth's debut Finnish "thriller" The Good Son (or possibly, as Google translated for the film's site, Good Boy).  The film stars Elina Knihtila (Leila) and Samuli Niittymaki (Ilmari) as an aging actress and her teenage son who travel to their lakeside retreat, the primary location of the film, as a way to escape the tabloid rumors that have been recently spread about Leila.  Also in tow is the actual "good boy" in the film, Leila's youngest son, Unto (played with quiet perfection by Eetu Julin).  We are introduced to the protective relationship Ilmari has with his mother in one of the opening scenes where Ilmari spots a customer snapping photos of his mother in a diner.  With a seething anger that Niittymaki maintains perfectly throughout the film, we are introduced to the first lashing out of Ilmari, as he takes the patron's phone and drops it into a glass of water.  Soon after, we see Leila sharing a cigarette with Ilmari as she drives them toward their isolated destination.  The gesture of Leila passing the cigarette to her blond son, mop-headed and stoic in the backseat, is charged with an energy that defines the unique character of their connection and permeates the entire film.

Leila and Ilmari - The Good Son
The odd bond between these two, which definitely leads the viewer subtly toward Oedipal interpretations, is essential to the narrative arc of the story, as Ilmari and Leila's relationship is disturbed by two characters that infiltrate their quiet retreat (Eero Aho as Leila's literate but boring suitor, Aimo, and Anna Paavilainen as Ilmari's sparkle-eyed mix-cd making pursuant, Karita).  The film then puts at stake the extent to which we buy their relationship, as it introduces the threat of outsiders.  And threat is pervasive in The Good Son, which is essentially a film of suspense, with occasional touches of the horror genre.  This sense of danger and repressed violence is held aloft most impressively by Niittymaki, who, if this is a horror movie, is playing the monster.  As Ilmari becomes desperately devoted to Karita, and increasingly jealous of Aimo, we feel the Oedipal arc creeping toward it's conclusion in a plot that, without giving anything away, is told with simple, believable clarity.

Leila meets Ilmari's new girlfriend Karita for the first time - The Good Son
The Good Son uses a preoccupation with the natural, rural setting of the film as a constant reflector of the horrific, naturalistic view the film takes of Ilmari.  As I said before, Ilmari is violent and seething in the face of he and his mother's changing and threatened relationship, but what makes The Good Son so ultimately frightening at it's core is the fact that it presents Ilmari's tendencies as parallel to the natural landscape; as natural as the water, the grass, and the dragonflies.  In an early scene, when Leila and the boys arrive at the house, Leila begins to start a fire in the wood burning stove, only to hear that nature has taken it's course in the time they have been away, as a chirping nest of birds lodged in the chimney audibly begin to reveal themselves.  As the fire burns, and she an Ilmari try negotiate this tense dilemma, we realize that this family is existing within their own suffocating circumstances, and even though it is unclear where the story is going at that point, that it will probably not end well.  It's a remarkable, subtle piece of foreshadowing that is exemplary of the finest touches of Bergroth's ability as a storyteller.

Leila and Ilmari - The Good Son
Bergroth's direction is superb, and deserving of recognition, especially in the way in which she visually contrasts the main narrative to what is, essentially, a "parallel narrative" in the film, that of Leila's youngest son, Unto.  Unto lives on the outskirts of this film, only occasionally entering the story, mostly in conversation with Ilmari, who is too busy for Unto's creative pursuits which involve the ongoing video capture of the insects that inhabit their rural surroundings.  We get the sense that Unto's fascination with the insects, which keeps him away from the family drama, may have something to do with the conflict arising between his mother and his brother, but mostly Unto is presented as having a sincere passion for documenting the natural world, editing together the footage he captures and creating voice-over to accompany his collection of insect world close-ups.  It is an image of Unto that Bergroth leaves us with, after the violence of Ilmari has erupted.  The consequences of Ilmari's actions at this point are ambiguous, as we leave the primary narrative to see Unto in a beautiful final image (a bit reminiscent of Malick's Days of Heaven), quietly observing the nature of the world in front of him.

Unto records the natural world - The Good Son
Although I didn't have an overwhelming reaction to The Good Son at the time of the screening, which may have had to do with it's position at the end my thirteen day festival journey, in retrospect it's hard to come up with anything I object to about the film.  Expertly directed and acted, and very possibly a fringe, art-house horror/thriller classic, The Good Son definitely deserves the recognition it got a this year's fest.

Up Next:  A Surprise!

No comments: