A few days ago, I wrote about my experience with the movie Mustang, Turkey’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I was a little disconcerted by the hearty laughter from the audience at our local Bytowne cinema at the battle of wits between a little girl and her mean (and probably violent) uncle. Even though the film’s director takes a hopeful and sometimes humorous approach to some tough material, I was way too nervous for this girl to laugh. I was reminded that night how differently two people can experience the same film.
Competing with Mustang for the Oscar is a film that even the Bytowne crowd can’t (and didn’t) find funny. Son of Saul is set in a Concentration Camp but is unlike any Holocaust movie I’ve ever seen.
There’s so much going on around Saul as he navigates his way through the camp in search of a rabbi who can help him give his son a proper Jewish burial. But we rarely see any of it. First-time feature director Laszlo Nemes used the Academy aspect ratio of 1.375:1, which I’d be lying if I claimed to understand exactly what it means but I gather that it produces an unusually narrow field of vision. The camera is usually either right in his face or right over his shoulder so we can see the camp only from his point of view. We have only the off-camera cries of anguish to remind us of the atrocities in the background. Through the eyes of Saul, there are no Oskar Schindlers, no Roberto Benignis to pretend for us that this is all a game.
This is some bleak material that is expertly shot by Nemes. With a technical prowess that occasionally reminded me of Alfonso Cuarón, I would have expected Son of Saul to move me more than it did. Mustang, for example, may not have the same flawless attention to detail but still managed to elicit an emotional response from me that I just couldn’t seem to manage with son of Saul. I was more impressed with the filmmaking than I was captivated by the story.