Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning
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Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning

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Perhaps one of the most difficult topics to tackle is that of the holocaust. Millions of human beings were imprisoned, tortured and murdered for no other reason than they did not meet the arbitrary standards of the ruling dictatorship. One of the latest to take on this task is ‘Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning’. At least this is the DVD release name in the theater it was known as Emotional Arithmetic. Although it has the tendency towards the melodramatic it does successful work as a mature emotional journey concerning people older than most films dare to consider. It may seem strange for many people, especially those who were born since the inception of MTV, but people over the age of fifty enjoy movies. There are some many youth oriented flicks out there that even though this movie has some flaws it is refreshing to see one targeted towards those of us awaiting their AARP application in the mail. Instead of the usual hot young twenty somethings this film relies on people who have lived long enough to see the best and worse that mankind has to offer. This is an emotional film that will captivate the audience while relating a deeply human story. It is a somewhat sad commentary on our culture that a film of this type did not receive a theatrical release here in the States. It made the rounds with international film festivals and theatrical showings but this country seems unwilling to give a film with an older demographic a chance.

The film was scripted by Jefferson Lewis based on the novel by Canadian writer Matt Cohen. Despite its valiant attempt the script is riddled with cliques and ultimately predictable. It meanders a bit too much losing the focus that is obtainable in a novel. It is basically a solid story that needed some editing to streamline the emotional impact. What does work here is the emotional honesty instilled in the characters. They are well written painted with fine, detailed brush. The characters are fully fleshed out human beings with all the honor and foibles that encompasses. If only the story gave the story a more direct road to the emotional insights provided here. The conflicts that arise seem forced and artificial. There is enough true drama afforded by the basic story so that this was completely unnecessary. All of this leads to an ending that the audience could predict from the first reel.

What goes a long way to save this film is the excellent direction by Paolo Barzman. Most of his work has been in episodic television but this is a man who also knows his way around a feature film. He sets the drama in the most simplistic of locations; mostly around a little wooden table. The look and feel is more of a stage production than a film. This is reinforced by the fantastic who are all experienced in but stage and screen. Barzman doesn’t need to pull fancy camera work out of his bag or play tricks with fancy, ultimately distracting lighting; He places the cast in front of the camera and just captures the magic that ensues. The greatness of details like the lighting is it is so perfectly set that you don’t notice it at all. It is there illuminating the scene and engendering the mood but never overwhelming. There is a wonderful economy to his direction. It is straight from the heart and relates allows the emotions to come about as naturally as possible. In his early career Barzman studied painting. This is obvious in the fashion that each scene is set. There is a balance and even poetry to it. Every shot looks as if it was taken from an old school master hanging in a museum. You don’t often see such quite attention to detail anymore and when it shows up as it does here it is simply beautiful to behold. Adding to this is the expertise of the cinematographer, Luc Montpellier. He breathes life into the vision held by Barzman. His choice of lens, angles and shadowing is incredible. There is a texture to this film that comes from such a collaboration that is rare and breathtaking.

When Melanie (Susan Sarandon) was a little girl during World War II she was interred in the Nazi camp, Drancy, just north of Paris. It was a temporary facility that held prisoners until their final destination at one of the concentration camps. One man Jakob Bronski (Max von Sydow) took it upon himself to look after Melanie and another boy Christopher (Gabriel Byrne) and keep them as safe as possible. Christopher was an Irish child interred by mistake. In their youth he had a large crush on Melanie. As the film opens it has been several decades since Melanie has been in the facility and seen her friends. She is now married to David Winters (Christopher Plummer) and the pair has a young son, Timmy (Dakota Goyo). They also have a grown son, Benjamin (Roy Dupuis). David is a professor of history and the couple is experiencing much stress and strain in their relationship. Some of this is due to the affair David had with a student of his. They now live on a little farm outside Quebec, Canada. Melanie learns that Jakob is still alive. He was a poet and is currently in a Russian mental hospital. Benjamin is all in favor of the reunion his mother plans. He is a sensitive man who needs to better understand just what his mother endured in her youth. This is in stark contrast to how David views things. For him history, even personal history, is something dead in the past. He teaches history which has made him content to be the retrospective observer. This reunion is stirring up the past and he is openly opposed to it. When the group is assembled there is a mixture of the joy of seeing old friends once again with the strain that the years has had on them. Christopher has never fully gotten over Melanie; she was his first love and he never forgot. Jakob has had to suffer through not only the camps but then the Russian psychiatric hospital. He is a poet that finds life in the bleakest of circumstances. They may be decades removed from the horrible situations that brought them together but the emotional scars are still fresh.

This is film to see because of the way it was shot and the talent of the cast; it more than makes up for the weaknesses in the script. As always Sarandon is incredible to watch. She has such a command of her character it is easy to forget you are watching an actress plying her craft. She gives such a rich performance that she will sweep you into the story. Von Sydow is also excellent. He has such a long and varied career that he is able to take on a difficult role like this with skill and grace. Byrne is the type of actor that few may place on their top ten lists but that is only because of his understated methods. He is a quite man where the emotions run deep and fast.

This is just another example of the films that Image Entertainment brings to DVD. They uncover these little festival favorites and turn your living room into an art house theater. While the story is melodramatic you will be fascinated by the way it is presented.

Posted 06/02/08

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