Sense of place versus sense of purpose in two EU Film Festival titles

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The railway station in Alois Nebel, which screens again tomorrow night
  • The railway station in Alois Nebel, which screens again tomorrow night.
I could recommend the Czech feature Alois Nebel (screening again at the Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival tomorrow at 8 PM) for its distinctive animation, which recalls early rotoscoping experiments as well as Bob Sabiston's more recent work on Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. But I most enjoyed the film for its primary setting, a small railway station somewhere in the woods of the Czech Republic. At turns peaceful and ominous, it seems a perfect fit for the title character, a train dispatcher frozen in time by his memories of World War II atrocities. In fact, I found the train station more interesting the character.

Writing about Neighboring Sounds last month, J.R. Jones praised the Brazilian drama for its "sure grasp of how people try to define—and are more often defined by—the spaces they inhabit." That movie builds on a fully realized sense of place to say something universal, but what of those films that simply take you somewhere new without saying anything? More than any other medium, cinema excels at providing spectators with flashes of what it's like to live in another place. With a few shots, any competent filmmaker can capture the tenor of a town's working life, traffic, diners, or alleys—areas of life you don't learn about from travel guides or international news.

This phenomenon doesn't make any given movie better, as much as it ennobles movies on the whole. Flicker, a Swedish comedy that plays at the EU Film Festival next Saturday and a week from tonight, has a vivid small-town setting just like Alois Nebel, though its characters are all sitcom-ready archetypes and the farcical complications aren't any more interesting. And yet I'd sooner rewatch it over any number of generic American comedies because of the passing insights into Swedish society that it offers me. The main characters include a janitor and the president of the company who employs her, and the movie makes them equally relatable; the humor isn't driven by the sort of class-based identification that would likely enter into an American workplace comedy.

One gets the sense from Flicker—with its middle-of-the-road, unobtrusive filmmaking that defines baseline cinematic realism pretty much everywhere—that social differences between upper-level managers and unskilled laborers aren't as pronounced in Sweden as they are here. Or if that's not the case, the movie at least presents the scenario in such a way that it doesn't seem that outlandish. Flicker shows the janitor character engaging in activities you wouldn't see a janitor doing in an American movie, such as seeing a psychologist about her fear of insects (and not worrying about the cost of the visit!) and going on a blind date at an upscale restaurant. Her date turns out to be a middle manager who works at her building, and the filmmakers don't make an issue of their different backgrounds. Working in Flicker seems like a means to end, allowing everyone to live comfortably enough to obsess over their unfunny neuroses.

Perhaps it's because I haven't traveled much abroad that I enjoy certain films as substitutes for tourism when they fail to impress me as art. It's for this reason I try to see a few random titles at each of Chicago's large international film festivals. They let me put aside my usual expectations and picture what it's like to live in Montevideo or Riga or western Turkey. Regardless of their overall quality, they tend to linger in my imagination, their exotic settings returning who knows when in a daydream or in the thoughts inspired by a purely fact-based news report.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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