Two Features in Tough Terrain

At the Movies - August 2019

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From left, Hatidze Murarova tends to her mother, Nazife, in “Honeyland.” Photo: Ljubomir Stefanov. Courtesy of NEON

Honeyland
From the Republic of Macedonia, comes an enthralling documentary that, as the best documentaries can, transports us into a realm we can barely imagine (Unrated, the film is in old Turkish with subtitles and runs 87 minutes.).

Hatidze Muratova lives with her ailing mother, Nazife, a dog and two cats in the northern mountains of Macedonia, making a living collecting honey using ancient beekeeping traditions. Part of that tradition is an equal-share premise that dictates that “half of the honey” collected goes to the bees’ themselves to maintain their colonies and ensure future product. Her world, which she has never left, is a barren, unforgiving land—made of little but rocks–to which she has adapted utterly, though she is close enough to the city of Skopje to sell her superior honey in the market. Her world is also circumscribed by the state of her mother who, at 85, is blind and paralyzed and totally dependent on her daughter.

Her onerous, but serene, life changes when Hatidze sees a van rumble onto her valley floor. The new neighbors are Turkish, like her. They are the Sams, a family headed by Hussein and Ljutvie, a rough-hewn couple and their seven children, who move in with a herd of cattle. At first, the presence of the family, full of rowdy kids and lively exchanges, is a balm to her solitude. She is charmed by the kids and is happy to engage them to fill her loneliness.

She also, fatefully, introduces the couple to beekeeping, and the Sams, eager to supplement their income, develop their own honey-collecting as a cash crop. They, however, disregard her advice and eschew the equal-share idea. Tensions emerge, the competition reaching to the level where ancient Nazife intones: “May God burn their livers.” The ecological message of the conflict between proven ancient practices and raw capitalist fervor is clear but understated.

This simple story is told in austere but telling strokes, with stunning views of a sternly ravishing landscape through which Hatidze moves like a lissome bird. The Macedonian co-directors, Tamara Katevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, took three years and shot 400 hours of footage to film their story, but it is pieced together so adroitly (running a swift 87 minutes), that it carries the weight of a fable.

Hatidze, who appears in most of the film’s frames, is a wonder. In her mid-fifties and sporting gnarled teeth and a weathered visage, she is both her inimitable self and an icon of the poor everywoman who has seen little but hardship. She is also smart, touching, and caustic, revealed mostly in the low-light reflections in her hut, with her mom as witness and target. One indelible scene has her fiddling with an old transistor radio, where she picks up the tune “You’re So Beautiful.” As an old movie nut, I early on saw her as a Macedonian version of the great Hollywood character actress Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”). Hatidze is, however, no witch but a craggy angel of the mountains.

Co-director Tamara Katevska summed up their relationship with Hatdize: “She said her biggest wish was that one day some journalist would come from some TV station and shoot her story–walking on the mountainside, working with the honey. For her, we were fulfilling this dream and she was totally open to us. She wanted to tell her story because she realized she was the last generation to live this way.” We should be grateful for having them as our witnesses.

Seen from behind, (from left) Arian Montgomery, Berenice Bejo, and Alexander Fehling star in “Three Peaks.” Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Three Peaks
Making a new family from a broken one, and the trials that can bring, is the theme of writer/director Jan Zabeil’s unnerving German drama “Three Peaks” (the film is in German, French, and English with subtitles, is unrated, and runs 94 minutes).

The film opens on a young boy, struggling to swim in a waterpark and aided by a kindly, handsome man. Switch to an isolated vacation spot in the soaring Italian Dolomite mountains, where we find rugged German Aaron (Alexander Fehling, the lead in “Labyrinth of Lies”) who has found the woman of his dreams in his divorced French girlfriend, Lea (Bérénice Bejo, from “The Artist”). That boy is Lea’s eight-year-old son Tristan (Arian Montgomery) who seems to accept Aaron but still hopes his mother will reconcile with his American father. The hope for the couple is that this sojourn together, in a primitive cabin retreat in spectacular terrain, will cement their bond as a future family.

Aaron, stoic and sincere, works hard to win over Tristan, though he is tested when the young boy insists on getting in bed with his mom while they have amorous intentions. Further, when Aaron demonstrates to Tristan how to saw up a tree, the boy ungenerously grazes his saw blade over Aaron’s arm. There are other little irritations by the boy, while Lea wrestles with conflicting loyalties to her son and her lover.

In the crucial bonding exercise, Aaron takes Tristan on a mountain walk, part of it past the signature Three Peaks of the Dolomite range as the film heads into its finale.

“Three Peaks” is both a chamber film and a slow-burn film, and both elements contribute to its impact. The chamber element is the focus on the threesome (think of a violin, a cello, and a flute combination) and their relationships, often related in whispers and asides or with no dialogue at all, all within a landscape that dwarfs them. The slow-burn is the accretions of tiny cracks in the idyll they are trying to live, the unresolved moments that test the trio.

This gradual straining by the three to forge familial links could be tedious, but it feels necessary in retrospect to achieve what is a shattering climax. Besides, the film is not long, and the director has clearly used a technique of small, gradual incident to build the tension of the story. As director Zabeil has stated: “I have placed my characters in a landscape where nature plays a major part: away from the securities of the civilized world, my characters become less deliberate, more emotionally truthful and are likely to lose control over their actions.”

At the very least, his film, both compressed and expansive, will give you much to chew on with respect to his watchful protagonists and their fates.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.