Eleven-year-old Alexander lives in a blasted landscape of old, concrete buildings with a Soviet feel. There is the occasional person living in shacks or small shops, but this land feels depopulated and broken after some unknown disaster or perhaps war. It transpires that young Alexander lives in a small enclave with his extended family. This secure compound is filled with other children and their mothers. Alexander’s parents Gregori (Vincent Cassel) and Sussana (Florence Mezzara) also live there. Alexander has returned on a scavenger mission. The compound is filled with second-hand objects that have obviously been gleaned from similar missions.
It is Alexander’s birthday and it is clear his parents love him very much. His mother still sees him as something of a boy, but Gregori has greater expectations for his eldest son. The man is something of an auto-didact and he wants to pass on what he has learnt to his son. Much of his interaction with the boy is learning disguised as games. As time passes we see that all the children in the compound play games with a more serious future purpose in mind. They are being trained by Grigori.
Grigori is so involved in the lives of the children and so attentive to who they are, that at first he seems to be a good and involved parent. It is not until the bigger picture develops that we begin to question the man and his motives. Is he a good, yet somewhat controlling man who wishes the best for the children or is something darker going on?
Vincent Cassell takes centre stage in this unusual father and son tale. The charismatic Gregori believes he is doing right. He is not a man to be trifled with. This is despite his mostly reasonable actions and way of communication. At the heart of this quiet, magnetic figure lurks something that his civilized gestures cannot fully disguise. Young Alexander wants to impress his father as much as any boy does, but in his eleventh year he is beginning to see beyond the narrow margins of Gregori’s world and teachings.
Director Ariel Kleiman wrote the screenplay with Sarah Cyngler and the duo have done an extraordinary job of creating a tale that connects with real life, but is its own thing. They were first inspired by an article on child soldiers in Colombia, however the completed film has travelled far from this starting point. It is a drama about parenting, education and finding oneself. How violence affects children is a thematic concern, yet it is hardly depicted. The audience will feel itself getting more and more tense as nuanced scenes showing the interactions of the family and the activities in the compound unfold over the course of 98 minutes.
Cassell is an obvious stand-out in this movie but Kleiman gets an amazing performance from the untrained Jeremy Chabriel. Alex Balagansky’s performance of a seemingly autistic child called Leo is also excellent. This is Kleiman’s first Australian feature. It feels like a European film and it has a hard-to-pin-down international feel about it. This would normally be the kiss-of-death for a movie. It has no specific time or location, what it does have instead is a thoughtful story, well-acted by committed performers.
PARTISAN is an engaging indie drama that has a strong identity and doesn’t use any of the stereotypes of Australian cinema. Ariel Kleiman is definitely a director to watch The film is on Australian screens now in limited release. (8/10)
Read our short interview with Ariel Kleiman here: