Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ariel Kleiman
Stars: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mazzara.
Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman hails from a background in short films and short documentaries (his 2010 20-minute short Deeper Than Yesterday has won several awards) and this background shapes his debut feature film. The grim but flawed Partisan is a bleak coming of age tale set against the backdrop of a sinister cult run by Gregori, a charismatic Fagin-like leader (played by French actor Vincent Cassel), who is an expert at brainwashing recruits from an early age.
Gregori is the only man in this commune situated in an unnamed European country that has been torn apart by war and strife. He is surrounded by a number of women and single mothers, and many young children, some of whom he has fathered. He lays down the rules for this unique, insulated and isolated society, which seems self sufficient. The oldest children are slowly being indoctrinated into a world of violence as trained assassins who regularly leave the safe confines of the commune to venture into a nearby village and execute enemies at Gregori’s behest. Those who perform well are rewarded with their own karaoke party.
The central character here is eleven year old Alexander (superbly played by newcomer Jeremy Chabriel), who slowly begins to think for himself and eventually rebels against Gregori’s manipulation and tough love. The slowly mounting tension between Gregori and Alexander provides much of the drama.
We see most of the events from Alexander’s perspective, which brings a touch of innocence to his view of this world. There is a lack of background detail about the film’s setting, and the character of Gregori, a deliberate choice which somehow makes what we see all the more menacing and disturbing.
Cassel has an edgy screen presence that has been used to good effect in films like the recent Trance, etc. As the charismatic but sinister Gregori, he brings a mix of menace and charm, but the same time he also manages to capture a more vulnerable side to the character as well. In his first screen role Chabriel easily matches it with Cassel in some dramatic confrontations, and he delivers a wonderfully introspective performance that is both mature and nuanced, and belies his lack of experience.
Partisan was shot in Melbourne, with the exteriors filmed in Georgia, by ace cinematographer Germaine McMicking (Hail, tv series Gallipoli, etc), who captures the crumbling grandeur and hidden menace of the settings. Georgia had just been involved in a war with Russia, and the scarred landscape felt like the mythic land that Kleiman had envisaged when writing the script. McMicking’s cinematography is evocative and gives the material an almost documentary-like realism at times.
Partisan is a slow burn psychological drama that explores themes of violence, corruption, and the loss of innocence. Kleiman suffuses the material with a sense of dread and foreboding, but this is a film that will not appeal to everybody. And there is little about the film that stamps it as uniquely Australian as its cast is a mix of Australian and European actors and nonprofessionals. This moody drama feels and looks more European in sensibility.