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MUNICH — Doing away with the timeworn cliches of the prison-drama genre, Danish directors Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer take us behind bars, Dogme-style, without a birdman, without a great escape and worlds away from any though of redemption. Shot in a recently shut-down penitentiary with real ex-convicts and ex-guards cast in their respective roles, “R” is not so much about a stringent plot but the experience of being in prison.
The film, which opened in Denmark on April 22, is as tough to watch as it will be to market to international audiences.
The film tells its story through the eyes of Rune (Pilou Asbaek), a new arrival at a maximum security prison. Even though the stabbing he’s in here for is his first offense, he clearly knows what the rules are: Keep your head down, watch out for dark corners and quietly take the everyday humiliation dished out by the stronger beasts in the herd.
This does not work for very long because soon after his arrival Rune is given an ultimatum: Mess up a fearsome inmate called the Albanian (and knock out all his teeth) or he’ll be messed up instead. Rune complies and even manages to do it without the guards or victim connecting him to the deed. All this does is buy him time.
Through a chance meeting with Rashid (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), an Arab inmate housed in a different part of the prison with his countrymen, Rune comes up with an idea how to transport drugs from his tract, where there are plenty, to the Arab tract, where they are wanted. He succeeds and briefly finds himself in a better cell and somewhat protected from the other prisoners.
But prison economics being what they are, others are already scheming to take over his successful pipeline. When they do, Rune learns too late that it’s not enough to reach an exalted position if one cannot defend it.
Instead of music, the soundtrack is filled with clanking doors, muffled conversations and shouted obscenities. The camera rarely leaves Runes side as it wallows in the bleakness of life behind bars.
Directors-screenwriters Lindholm and Noer are careful not to let the audience know more than their protagonist does, keeping them in the nerve-wrecking state of uncertainty and fear. Especially noteworthy is their attention to detail. Since the inmates have all the time in the world, everything untoward is well planned in advance — a vicious game of chess played not by geniuses, but by laymen who are more than aware that one false move can be deadly.
Even after the game is over, they are not content to ease up. Rather they let the film go on for another 20 minutes ending with a scene that, like this film, is impossible to forget no matter how hard one tries.
As to be expected from a film that features non-actors in roles they have played in life, the acting is real and unaffected, with leading actor Pilou Asbaek giving an enigmatic, star-making performance while still remaining inside the parameters of his rather timid character and the film’s realistic, no-nonsense style. Cinematography and sound design are aptly bleak.
Venue: Munich International Film Festival
Production companies: Nordisk Film Productions A/S Valby
Cast: Pilou Asbaek, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Roland Moller, Jacob Gredsted, Kim Winther, Omar Shargawi, Sune Norgaard
Directors: Tobias Lindholm, Michael Noer
Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Michael Noer
Producer: Rene Ezra. Thomas Radoor
Executive producer: Kim Magnusson
Director of photography: Magnus Nordenhof Jonck
Set decoration: Holger Vig
Costume designer: Lotte Stenlev
Editor: Adam Nielsen
No rating, 99 minutes
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