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What do a French nun from the 17th century, a modern Lithuanian waitress, and a post-revolution Iranian expat living in the Netherlands have in common? At first, their sensibilities and values could not seem more different. In one simple example, the nun wears clothes that are deliberately uncomfortable, while the waitress dresses to show off her impressive tattoos. Quiet frustration, however, is their common bond, one that is borne out of a society that claims to liberate women yet ultimately stifles them in ways they dare not articulate. These women are also the protagonists in three different films at this year’s AFI European Union Film Showcase, and the commonalities among them can only be realized at a festival—seeing a series of provocative films in a short period.
The showcase, which takes place from Dec. 1 to 19, is offering in-person screenings (as of Dec. 1) for its 34th year. The lineup features more than 50 films from the 27 EU states, including Academy Award contenders, indie darlings, and up-and-coming talent, as well as a dozen North American premieres.
Benedetta, the story of the French nun, is easily the best known film among these three. After a splashy premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, director Paul Verhoeven courted controversy by depicting sex scenes between two nuns (the film has already been protested by Catholics). The irony—one that is probably not lost on Verhoeven—is that the sex scenes are not the most transgressive acts in the movie.
What is more subversive, why Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is ultimately a threat to the status quo, is that she has her own thoughts about religious devotion. Sometimes she clashes with the authorities at the covenant where she lives, while she also indulges in fantasies where a sword-wielding Jesus Christ severs heads to protect her purity. This is Verhoeven, director of Starship Troopers and Showgirls, so he dives headlong into bad taste, daring the audience not to laugh at each outrageous plot twist. If you’re on his wavelength, this film is frequently a riot.
Žygimantė Elena Jakštaitė plays Marija, the hero of the Lithuanian Runner, who is a more immediately sympathetic figure than Benedetta. Her boyfriend, Vytas (Marius Repsys), escapes their apartment in the midst of a manic episode, and Marija correctly worries he will be a danger to himself and others. Vytas does not answer his phone, so Marija pursues him on foot, even as her body starts to fail her. At first, Runner seems like it could be a riff on Run Lola Run, another film where a desperate woman tries to save her boyfriend before it is too late.
Director and co-screenwriter Andrius Blazevicius is more ambitious than that: In her singular pursuit, he shows Marija deal with one indignity after another—whether it’s her judgmental parents, an indifferent health-care system, or bystanders that are more annoyed than concerned. Ultimately, the film becomes an expression of the woman’s pure will; the tension focuses on whether she will collapse before finally convincing Vytas he needs help. Parts of the film are frustrating, and downright suspenseful, because Marija earns our respect while no one else gives her any. Thanks to Jakštaitė’s bracing performance, we know she also internalizes this hard-earned truth.
While Benedetta and Marija have immediate concerns about their present, the past haunts the hero of Mitra, a complex drama from writer-director Kaweh Modiri. It follows Haleh (Jasmin Tabatabai), an aging Iranian woman living in the Netherlands who lectures about the history of the 1978 Islamic revolution. But a voice she recognizes upends her life: Haleh hears Leyla, the woman she believes betrayed her daughter Mitra to the government—leading to her death—so Haleh decides to take justice into her own hands. It’s a thorny form of vengeance, since Haleh ingratiates herself into this woman’s life before she can spring an accusation on her.
Modiri bases this film on the experiences of his actual mother, and he does not supply her any easy answers. What right does the vigilante have? If this woman is who Haleh believes she is, what can she do about her young daughter? Mitra explores these ethically thorny questions with a slow-burn thriller that takes its time. Dialogue scenes have an edge to them, though the characters are all soft-spoken, and the film develops an unlikely kidnapping plot where everyone, even the perpetrators, are scared and confused. Like Benedetta and Runner, this is a film where a frustrated protagonist is shown again and again—either through subjugation or difference—that self-determination is the only chance to find what she desires.
None of these films are strictly didactic, or pure genre entertainment. They are something in between extremes, or maybe more than the sum of their parts. They are angry, deeply felt films by directors who understand empathy alone is not enough to make audiences care about something outside their comfort zone. The fights and negotiations among Benedetta, Marija, and Haleh are part of a European ecosystem where institutional “fairness” leaves no room for the individual, and all the frustrations that can bring.
The AFI EU Showcase takes place at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, Dec. 1–19. Benedetta opens Dec. 2 at 7 p.m., Runner screens Dec. 14 and 15 at 9:30 p.m., and Mitra screens Dec. 5 at 4:30 p.m. and Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. (Kaweh Modiri will be at both screenings for a Q&A). afisilver.afi.com. $13–$250.