#274: Alois Nebel (2011)

Based on a graphic novel trilogy from Czech artists Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99 (who also write the screenplay), filmmaker Tomáš Luňák’s debut movie Alois Nebel is an existential rotoscopy animation about identity and disconnect. Film noir mystique filtered through Buñuel-like surrealism, it’s narrative problems don’t stop you from being compelled by the lusciously rich visuals.

Alois Nebel is the name of our dour hero, voiced and embodied on screen by Miroslav Krobot (who previously delighted in Béla Tarr’s The Man From London). Alois is a decoy protagonist, with his significance in the film’s overarching narrative being incidental; yet it is through his fractured perspective that the story unfolds.

An ageing guard at a baron train station, his life is as routine as the locomotives that pass him. At least, that’s what his stoney-faced exterior leads the people around him to think. Behind it all, he is tormented by hallucinations of his childhood: stripped from the clutches of his mother in Nazi-occupied Prague.

Back in the present day, the only tangible narrative thread is the story of ‘The Mute’ (Karel Roden), a silenced man who is chased over the Polish border carrying an axe, an old photograph, and skeletons in the proverbial closet. When Alois’ nightmares start to become more vivid, and his co-worker wants to steal his job, he is thrown into a local mental asylum. Bunking with ‘The Mute’, the pair form a taciturn relationship which will suffer grave consequences once they escape the ward.

Although there are further plot developments that help, I found Alois Nebel a difficult, confusing film to engage with. There are so many ways that director Luňák obfuscates the plot. Firstly, it’s already an illusory story – filled with contextual flashbacks and flash forwards, and two central characters (one an actual mute) who barely speak a word between them. Even when they are dominating the screen, the rotoscoped animation makes it incredibly difficult to register any facial expression or emotion (a problem that Linklater got around by making his actors exacerbate their movements in his rotscopic animation movie A Scanner Darkly). If you really want to ‘get’ Alois Nebel, having an extensive knowledge of the Czech Republic slang, rural locations, folklore and the relationship with Nazi Germany in WW2 may come as an advantage, as Luňák certainly isn’t giving us any expository tips.

Regardless of these plotting and cognition problems, Alois Nebel is a stunning mood piece. That mood may be glum, but the beautiful, Waltz With Bashir style rotoscopy is alluring from the very opening scene of a train sluggishly approaching the screen, right through to the unyielding shots of an inmate being lobotomised in the asylum. It’s pure aesthetic vision, and Petr Kruzík’s moody score often helps lay on some emotional attachment to it all, even if we fail to understand what the hell is going on.

I should clarify, my problems aren’t in being confused with the plot, but confused by the point or directorial message of the whole thing. Is it style over substance? Looking at individual sequences in the film, I’d disagree- the visuals really are that breathtaking. As a whole film, however, Alois Nebel coasts on the comic book-like design, and in the process deals with it’s war-time story a little too impersonally, or unjustly. In the end, at a slight 84 minutes running time,  Alois Nebel’s canvas will certainly draw you in.

Yes, that was a pun. Fuck you, pun haters.

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#215: Bernie (2011)


A blurred amalgam between documentary, fiction and re-enactment, indie-icon Richard Linklater’s Bernie subverts the tropes of crime drama and black comedy to amplify the transcendent straight-faced hilarity of Jack Black’s performance.

Set in Carthage, Texas, Black plays the town’s beloved, effeminate mortician’s assistant Bernie (Jack Black). Adored by all for his generosity and benevolence, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with the town’s cantankerous and extremely wealthy widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine). With round-the-world holidays, fancy meals and pampered salon sessions, their peculiar relationship turns even more absurd when Marjorie grows extremely and psychotically possessive, pushing the good-natured Bernie into doing the unthinkable. What follows is a fascinating, bizarre and agonisingly funny reaction to a seemingly heinous act.

Bernie is ostensibly a stranger than fiction tale about forgiveness. When the community’s most generous, courteous, sincere, and valuable member does something wrong, how willing is everyone to forgive and forget the crime and debunk their moral compass?

Pairing up for the first time since 2003 smash hit comedy School of Rock, Linklater has managed to unfurl a career-defining performance from Jack Black in the titular role. There’s little of the mania that Black churns out on the big screen; he’s barely even playing for laughs. Instead what emerges is a perfectly poised exploration of a mysterious character of ambiguous motivation. There’s a ‘straight-faced’ sincerity that guises Bernie’s overt showmanship to the conservative town’s people that made him excruciatingly funny. Bernie certainly stands out as an oddity and yet Black convinces the audience the Bernie was able to seduce the locals despite being so relatively unusual.

The secondary performances come close to stealing Black’s thunder, with Shirley MacLaine perfectly cast as the fiery and contemptible widow Marjorie Nugent. Then there’s regular Linklater actor/man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey, stealing scenes as the narcissistic district attorney Danny Buck Davidson,  a lone figure trying to pursue justice in the face of overbearing community sentiment on Bernie’s side. Matthew McConaughey steals scenes as the town’s D.A Danny Buck – the logical and lone moral barometer in a town committed to Bernie.

Best of all, Linklater brings some veridicality to the proceedings by casting real-life inhabitants of Carthage to give frank accounts on the trial and local legend Bernie. The commentary works partly like a expressionistic Greek Chorus, but also as would-be footage from a mockumentary. Combined with the scripted drama, the result is an unconventional exercise in factual fiction that is as informative as it is entertaining.

Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth – who brought this exceptional tale to public attention with a hysteric newspaper article back in the nineties – never attempt to demystify Bernie’s fatal slip-up and question it’s premeditation. Instead, they present a character who desperately craved love and understanding in his community. If anything, it is a film about the selective application of moral judgement based on personal prejudices. Although it’s lack of authoritative voice may eventually become it’s narrative downfall, Bernie is a gripping and often hilarious black satire on an extraordinary American crime case.

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Criminally, Bernie is still waiting to be snatched up for general cinema release. It’s available on Region 1 DVD in the states and further afield. Pick it up, wherever you can.