Film Review by Salome Sulaberidze
Social issues and poor life conditions have more than once been used as the setting or the theme of the film medium before. The recent feature film Anna’s Life by a Georgian film director Nino Basilia also addresses the unbearable social conditions as the main background to tell the story of a young single mother Anna who desires to have a better life for her and her son.
Anna’s Life (2016) opens with a very pale and tired face of a young woman-Anna (Ekaterine Demetradze) sitting at the table and opening a letter. As she finishes reading, it becomes evident that something in the content distressed her. Later when she speaks on the phone with her former husband It becomes clear that her son, who suffers from autism, got a rejection to the free place at a special school. Angry and desperate Anna argues with her ex-husband on the phone, explaining that she can’t afford the school that her son needs. Anna is overwhelmed by emotions as she speaks out loud but her former husband hangs the phone.
From this very opening scene to the last image of the film the director maintains this descriptive way of cinematic narration that leaves almost nothing to the viewer’s imagination. Whatever Anna feels is directly revealed to the audience. For example, when she reads a letter Basilia immediately explains what the reason of her disturbance was and she does it with the easiest possible way in the cinematic narration-vocal words. The usage of this vocal articulation almost in any scene (when people directly say what’s bothering them) not only makes the characters predictable, but also harms the overall cinematic experience. The viewer is not given the opportunity to understand the story and the pain of the characters primarily with visual images and not the words they speak.
To give you a sense of the film here is a quick synopsis: The central character Anna is a single mother. She has four jobs in order to live and support her autistic child who is placed at a children care house probably because Anna works all the time. However, this is not her only problem. She also has a single grandmother who suffers from amnesia and does not even remember that Anna’s mom, her daughter, has long died. What is more, Anna’s former husband has another family. He also suffers from the poor life conditions and can’t deal with his child, not financially nor psychologically. Anna is left alone but she is often visited by the beggar who asks her for money or a drink. As a story develops Anna tries to go to America to get the proper treatment for her son, however her Visa request is declined. She tries to get the visa illegally through the friend of her friend. Because of this she sells her own house, but the dealer does not deliver her Visa to America and nor returns her money. Desperate Anna kidnaps the dealer’s daughter with the help of her young admirer and tries to get her money or visa back. However, this plan also backfires. In the end we learn that she is pregnant in the result of one night intercourse with her teen admirer. In spite of all her problems she decides to keep the child.
The film director, who is also the author of the script, made sure to throw every possible social problem on Anna’s shoulders. This might seem as a good idea for a TV series where Anna could deal with one problem in each series but it’s a recipe for disaster in a feature film. The reason is simple, packed with so many social issues the character herself can’t develop and therefore becomes flat for the viewer. What we see is just a mere reaction of Anna to her problems not the real psychological unrest and inner protest to the social conditions or her life.
To make my point and critic clear I will refer to social dramas that manage to escape the frame of social issues and highlight the personality of a protagonist.
Two very distinctive dramas come to my mind. Firstly, Rosetta(1999) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and secondly Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967). Both of this dramas, one from Belgium and another from France, orientate on young girls who live in an utterly unbearable social conditions. Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) is a young girl who lives with her alcoholic mother, she does not even have a proper house, she lives in the van. The film starts with action-no words, no articulation of Rosetta’s problems, the audience reads everything that they have to know from the scenes. The very first scene is a fight scene. Rosetta is running. Her trial period at the factory is over and she is protesting the fact that she is sacked from the factory and is left jobless. Unlike Anna’s life brother Dardenne don’t start with Rosetta complaining, not verbally, in fact we never see her articulate her problems. What we see is a conflict: a protest of Rosetta who wants to remain at the factory but is forced to leave. Throughout the film young and impulsive Rosetta is trying everything to get a job. From her quest we learn that having a job equals to happiness for her. On her way she meets Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione) who has a job. He sells Belgian waffles. There is a scene in the film, where without even one word the viewer senses the despair of Rosetta: Riquet falls into a pond and can’t get out, what does Rosetta do? She does not help him, she turns her back to him and waits. In these moments all of her inner struggle come out without over articulation or exceeding emotions that we find so frequently in Anna’s Life. Right there in the waiting moments we are with her, inside Rosetta’s mind who thinks that she will get Riquet’s job if he dies. Eventually she decides to help him, but those moments were more than enough to meet Rosetta with all of her dark thoughts and understand her feeling. Now where is Anna’s darkness? Situated in such horrible conditions she never really shows her anger towards others. Even when she decides to kidnap the dealer’s daughter, she does not intend to hurt anyone, she just wants to get her money back. Right when she realizes that the daughter might be in danger she heroically saves her. These kinds of actions do not persuade me to believe in Anna’s despair. On the contrary, Anna is portrayed as the pure kindness who takes care of her child, her grandma, sleeps with a teen admirer, saves the daughter of the dealer and no matter what trouble life suggest she continues to live. If she is really upset she just makes a scene out of emotions time to time. Where is the real conflict?
Film still from Rosetta(1999)
Mouchette a film by Robert Bresson tells a story of a teen girl Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) who lives in a village with a sick mother who is in her bed and a father who does not care for her. She also has a baby brother who is lying in the corner of a tiny room and if not Mouchette nobody would even feed him. Throughout the film Mouchette undergoes the humiliation and ignorance of the whole village. But not once she tries to arise pity in them or in the viewer. Like in Rosetta, Mouchette shows off her personality by her protest. She is throwing things at this society. For example, when her mother dies she is invited to have a coffee and croissant by a villager. However, the same woman insults her and calls her a slut, because she spent a night with a man during a heavy rain in the forest. When the woman insults her, Mouchette does not say anything, all of her anger is in her glance, she turns back and throws the croissant back to this lady. Why would Mouchette or Rosetta say anything when their character and personally is perfectly portrayed in their attitude towards the world they live in. For instance, when Mouchete is among her classmate girls, all of them sing but she remains silent with her face down. Again no words or emotions necessary, we clearly see her position in the society and her protest because she refuses to sing with them, she is left out. (The final scene of Mouchette, her final protest- a suicide is a cinematic masterpiece, a young girl who rolls down towards her death.)
Film stills from Mouchette(1967)
Why did I use these two films in relation to Anna’s Life? All these three films suggest young women facing poorest life conditions. However, the cinematic storytelling and the overall sense of the character is fundamentally different. If Basilia prefers descriptive style both Bresson and Dardenne refer to the performative film. Now what do I mean? Basilia describes and tells us a story of how difficult Anna’s life actually is, the film is full of articulated and emotional scenes. For instance, the scene when Anna brings new shoes to her son she tries to put the shoes on his feet but fails, because Sandro’s feet have grown. When she realizes that Sandro has grown she starts to cry asking her son: “When did your feet grow?” In one word she makes a scene, that, to say the least, is very weak. First of all, young boy who plays Sandro is clearly not ill and the whole role of an autistic child was simply a great lie on screen (for me personally) and then on top Anna shouting and crying over him was just too excessive. There is no such emotional breakthrough in Mouchette or Rosetta, not even a scream. However, not once during the film I wanted to turn my eyes away from their conflict, while I could barely stand the scene with Sandro’s shoes in Anna’s Life.
Film still from Anna’s Life(2016)
Ekaterine Demetradze (Anna) is a talented actress, because she delivers exactly what the director has asked her to do. However, why could not Basilia create a more complex character is a mystery for me. Anna is a very predictable protagonist. She does not have layers, inner conflict or some kind of twist that would make her unforgettable. What I mean is that, she does exactly what a “good woman” would do-she undergoes all of the troubles maintaining her moral values and even in the last scene she refuses to get the abortion. This kind of character might perfectly satisfy me as a viewer 20-30 years ago. But today, in the context of world cinema, next to Rosetta and Mouchette Anna’s Life is a very flat straightforward picture with no real twist.
What is more, there is no depth of the personality of Anna, there is just one layer, connected to her social problems. All that Basilia shows is that she works at different places, she helps her grandma, she tries to go to US, she helps the beggar, but where is real Anna? What does she do when she is alone in her house? Does she like music? Maybe she masturbates… no real personal touch is revealed. In Rosetta, for instance, we see much more than her social drama, we see that she can’t dance, that she has stomachaches. These little details add depth to her character and make her unique in viewer’s mind.
I will never forget the glance of Mouchette, her expression towards the people around her, nor I will forget Rosetta’s red jacket, her fast pace, her shoes in the forest and stomachaches, but I will not remember Anna. Why should I? What is distinctive in her? I went to the cinema to see Anna’s Life but I was deceived because what I saw was a number of external social issues that every other Georgian woman can have and every other Georgian woman can be poor Anna, hence Anna is not interesting for me, because she is not unique. The biggest lie in the film is that it promises what it does not deliver. It promises to show me Anna, a unique person and her life, but in reality the character gets lost in the social problems. I see social drama and not the person herself, while it should be the other way around.
I know that many critics might say that the picture is stunning and that’s why it travels to many festivals and wins awards. I do acknowledge that the cinematography is descent, the film really has a potential, but it does not deliver. The main question remains in my mind-Where is Anna?