53rd Chicago Int’l Film Fest #4: “The Line” Slovakia/Ukraine

“The Line” Slovakia/Ukraine
Directed by Peter Bebjak

1263602_The-Line-2“The Line” is a tremendously dense and captivating film. I would even be well within my rights to call it the best family crime drama since “Animal Kingdom”, but it has so much more to offer. Peter Babjak’s feature tackles family bonds, both family of origin and family of choice, illuminates a hidden piece of the world, ties in the struggles of immigrant migration in Europe, and keeps us utterly invested in the thrilling events as they happen.

How does a film give so much? It takes a director in complete control, a script that would be fascinating in any language, and a performance that will last in my mind for some time to come. It is no wonder that it has been chosen as Slovakia’s Foreign Language entry for the Oscars this year. In my estimation, it really is that good.

First, Peter Balko’s script. Taut, filled with massive stakes, packed like a suitcase bursting at the seams with ideas yet with an expert economy of dialogue. This is the kind of script that plays like Dostoevsky on amphetamine (including the the moments that make up the come down). And it has equal amounts of humor borne of real relationships. Oh, and did I mention the bit where the script sums up the horror of the immigrant experience with not one word of dialogue?

CIARA_003But without giving us an actual world crackling with both reality and poetry, even this script could easily have slipped in to melodrama. Thankfully we have both Bebjak’s eye and his restraint. The multi-generational aspects of the family history  – successes, failures, love, hate – are everywhere in the environment this film inhabits. Without them, we would lose touch…we’d care less about their world, and be mere witnesses to another caper/crime flick. And the constant presence of neighborhood children in almost every frame of the film, a Greek chorus of sorts, reminds us that the stakes of the film are part of every day life in this world…that there is a large well of joy that exists just underneath the surface at all times.

I tried to think of even one moment where a performance seemed false or pushed, and I honestly couldn’t. Tomáš Maštalír’s portrayal of a family patriarch on the edges of the EU justice system, is hypnotic. In much the same way that Matthias Schoenaerts proclaimed his arrival on the world scene in “Bullhead”, Maštalír should be able to parlay this performance in to any filmed or taped media he desires. And his brother-in-arms, Eugen Libeznuk, is no less mesmerizing. Both of them give us an emotional arc that packs more in two hours than most actors can handle in a ten-part HBO series. Phenomenal. I mention these two because of their place in the film’s story, but, truly, there are no holes in the entire cast.

And Slavomir Solovic’s music is perfectly placed and adds to the emotional arc of the film without ever telling us what to feel. And it’s really lovely music on its own.

My only tiny, tiny complaint is that certain, and abrupt, stylistic decisions made by Bebjak, not only seem out of place, but take you out of the film for microseconds. You’ll know them when you see them. I’m sure they seemed like a great idea on paper, but in execution – and in context of the whole – seem more like a gimmick. But..those moments probably account for less than a half minute of screen time.

“The Line” is exactly the reason one goes to a good film festival…to find gems like this that we might not otherwise have ever heard of. If I saw nothing else other than this film and “The Merciless”, I’d say it was a pretty good festival. Luckily I have another twenty-two films to go!

Make sure to click on the “CC” button on the bottom of the video to get English subtitles…

Written on 10/16/2017

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