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Belgian director Bas Devos’ 2014 debut feature Violet, which scored a spot in the prestigious New Directors/New Films showcase jointly programmed by MoMA and Film Society of Lincoln Center, was a boldly stylized depiction of a teenager’s stages of grieving dislocation after losing his best friend in a senseless murder. Devos returns five years later with Hellhole, another work driven to a large degree by the essential contribution of gifted cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, this time clocking the shell-shocked response of the entire city of Brussels to the terrorist attacks of March 22, 2016.
Composed of elliptical fragments that only occasionally interconnect, this is a challenging experimental tone poem that’s almost as much an art installation as a narrative feature. But the tightly controlled use of voyeuristic camera movement, sound and light to convey collective trauma commands attention and should ensure some exposure in specialized forums.
Devos begins with an urban noisescape — indistinct voices, a subway train, the flutter of a bird’s wings — playing over a blank screen, signaling from the start his intention to break down our standard modes of observation. He follows with initial glimpses of three different people. Mehdi (Hamza Belarbi) is a youth of Algerian descent, suffering from persistent headaches. Alba (Alba Rohrwacher) is a chronically exhausted Italian translator working at the European Parliament, who admits only to her sister back home how afraid she’s become. Wannes (Willy Thomas) is a Flemish doctor whose son is a military fighter pilot, on a tour of duty in the Middle East.
While Wannes moves among the city’s various social strata and ethnic communities, what’s striking is how alone all these figures appear. A school classmate of Mehdi’s notes that Brussels has been dubbed “the jihadi capital of Europe,” while in a park that serves as a refugee camp, anyone speaking Arabic is assumed to be potential Taliban, even by others who know how such discrimination feels.
Mehdi’s shady but charismatic older brother, who is estranged from their father, asks for his sibling’s help to steal his grandmother’s jewelry box to pay off a debt, placing Mehdi in a difficult situation of torn loyalties. Alba loses herself amid the laser lights and trance-inducing beats of a dance club, hooking up with a stranger for casual sex. Wannes deals with a death in the family and accepts an invitation to dinner at the home of a colleague (Lubna Azabal).
It’s with this latter character that Devos stumbles a little, over-articulating his themes when she says things like, “Violence for me used to be pixels on TV, now I feel like I can touch it.” The more scripted scenes tend to share that problem. Mostly, however, visual language is all the filmmakers require, such as a daringly extended static shot of Mehdi and his younger siblings on the couch at home, the lights from a combat videogame reflected on their hypnotized faces. Or the odd mix of tension and numbness in the eyes of subway passengers as military guards armed with automatic weapons enter the car on a routine check.
Karakatsanis’ camera constantly crawls along walls or around corners, navigating the spatial divides and architectural faces of the city as much as those of its people, who are frequently watched from outside buildings. In one especially mesmerizing sequence, he follows Wannes onto a terrace and veers off on a complete circuit of the house, peering into windows as anticipated sorrow arrives inside. Another more unsettling 360-degree slow pan closes the film, circling a stationary fighter plane in a darkened hangar.
There’s definitely a studied, perhaps overly mannered aspect to all this, and the film withholds as much as it divulges. But it also contains surprising moments of raw feeling, and not just through the actors, all of whom are fully committed to Devos’ indirect approach. While Hellhole is a bleak snapshot of a city searching its soul at a dark time, it also suggests that people will find a way to move forward, for instance in a sweet vignette with Mehdi’s fellow Middle Eastern pals dreaming about how they’d spend their EuroMillions lottery win. Or in full-screen shots of clear sky that punctuate the film, a device both prosaic and eloquent.
Production companies: Minds Meet, in association with Phanta Film, Shelter Prod
Cast: Hamza Belarbi, Alba Rohrwacher, Willy Thomas, Lubna Azabal, Jeroen Vander Ven
Director-screenwriter: Bas Devos
Producers: Tomas Leyers, Marc Goyens
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Elsje de Bruijn
Costume designer: Manon Blom
Music: James Layland Kirby
Editor: Dieter Diependaele
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Les Films du Losange
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