A thrilling biopic about a 1980s era cardiologist bringing heart transplants to Poland, Gods is often riveting. Start with director Lukasz Palkowski’s opening, when he montages the fallout from the first ever (failed) attempt by a Polish doctor to transplant a heart from one patient to another. Here the director immediately and powerfully sets tone.
After the terrific opening montage, Palkowski settles into a more traditional biopic, focusing on protagonist Zbigniew Religa (Tomas Kotz), first as he operates to save a life, and then as he navigates the political realities of trying to be progressive in a country that doesn’t invite the innovations he embraces. Impressively, even though we immediately know the picture’s resolution, Palkowski and writer Krzystztof Rak, make the story tautly suspenseful, filled with requisite moments of joy and other moments of equal sorrow.
Partially, Palkowski and Rak are successful because they wisely limit Gods’ purview to a relatively short time span (just several years). Moreover, they do not herofy Religa; they make him a multi-faceted, real human being. Here Religa is brilliant, effective and determined to help, but he is also quick-tempered, emotionally withdrawn, manipulative, sometimes cruel, and a glory-hound. His complexity makes him interesting. It also means we relate to him.
Unfortunately, the writer and director barely develop any of the minor characters. The doctors who join Religa’s clinic are interchangeable ciphers. Ditto that for other medical professionals who oppose the protagonist. Even Religa’s wife, who could have been a marvelous character, is almost personality-less. In other words, we know Religa intimately, but we barely know anyone else here, a fact that limits the movie’s impact, at least to some degree.
To Life! (Auf Das Lieben)
Odd couples often form the basis for compelling narrative, and the protagonists of To Life!, a German film, are an example thereof. Ruth (Hannelore Elsner) and Jonas (Max Riemelt) have little in common, except that both are in crisis and both are lonely. When Ruth is evicted from her flat and her possessions are seized, Jonas is one of the men the bank has move her things into a smaller residence. Ruth is immediately interested in Jonas, if only because he closely resembles a man she once knew well, and he, being a good Samaritan, offers to perform a favor for her. When the task proves more complicated than Jonas expects, he returns to Ruth’s residence, only to find she has attempted suicide. So begins a relationship drama that shows us how Ruth copes with depression while Jonas lives through physical illness.
And it is a good drama, indeed. Both Elsner and Riemelt are terrific. Plus, writer Thorston Wettcke and director Uwe Janson craft Ruth and Jonas as deeply complex and equally compelling people. Most of the other characters are minor enough that sparse development doesn’t prove a flaw.
Moreover, Janson edits his film such that transitions from the modern day to an earlier period in Ruth’s life are always seamless and engrossing. Ditto that for the ways he foreshadows Jonas’ condition, ensuring we know what’s coming long before anyone speaks of it.
To Life’s!, biggest issue is its ending. While Ruth’s story is cleverly completed, Jonas’ feels unfinished and thereby a little emotionally flat. It is not a major issue, however, and so, in the end, To Life! succeeds.
A Brilliant Young Mind (aka X Plus Y)
A heartwarming little indie drama about a math genius with Autism, but one doesn’t have to know much about the subject to appreciate it. For those like me who’s not familiar with Autism, it’s a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior.
‘I think I see the world differently to others’ Nathan (Asa Butterfield) says early in the film and we follow his journey from his childhood marked by personal tragedy to being chosen to compete on the British team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. The film did a wonderful job in giving us a glimpse into what it’s like growing up with Autism, from the point of view of the person with the disorder as well as those close to him, especially his mother. Nathan’s relationship with his mother is heartbreaking and you truly feel for both sides. The flashbacks of Nathan’s early life with his beloved dad is interspersed throughout that helps us see why Nathan behaves the way he does, but it doesn’t overwhelm or drags the film.
A large part of the film takes place in Taipei, which gives this film a richer International flair as the characters explore a different culture halfway being paired up with a student from that region. The young romance aspect doesn’t work quite as well at times as I feel that the dialog is a bit too corny and over-sentimental for my liking. It could be due to the fact that Jo Yang, the actress playing Nathan’s friend/love interest Zhang Mei, has never acted before this film. Some of the scenes between Nathan and the rest of his Math teams are also uneven, there are parts that work and some that I think miss the mark.
Thankfully they didn’t derail the film and the mostly British supporting cast are excellent. I really like Rafe Spall as Nathan’s teacher who also deals with a debilitating disease. His scenes with Butterfield are my favorite parts of the film because they feel so natural, as well as genuinely funny and heartfelt. There’s a subplot of a little romance between him and Nathan’s mother played by Sally Hawkins that could’ve been irksome if it’s not handled well, but the actors made me care about their characters. There’s also Eddie Marsan as the lead Math teacher, I seem to always see him playing a henchman or some lowlife bad guy so nice to see him play a ‘normal’ character for once.
The star here is truly Asa Butterfield who at 18 is surely one of the brightest young actors working today. There’s a certain sensitivity and earnest-ness about him that makes you sympathize with him right away, but I think he’s versatile enough where he could also play someone truly dark and conflicted. This is the first film I’ve seen him in since HUGO in 2011 and he’s certainly developed into a compelling lead actor. He’s truly believable in the role due to his ability to express his emotion without any words being spoken. Whilst watching this he reminds me a lot of Cillian Murphy!
This is Morgan Matthew‘s first feature film debut after doing mostly documentaries. All things considered, it’s an impressive debut as he infuses the film with a nice mix of drama and humor. I enjoy the cinematography and music, it’s beautiful without overwhelming the story. The ending is a bit predictable, but there’s one emotionally-engaging scene between Nathan & his mother that really tugs my heartstrings. This is more than just a film about Autism or about Math, as much as The Theory of Everything is more about the relationships in the protagonist’s life that defines that person more than the circumstance one might find him/herself in. I highly recommend this if you’re looking for a delightful family drama that will make you see your own life and life’s priorities in a whole new light.
Thoughts on any of these films?