Child assassin's slow escape from cult corruption

Partisan (MA). Director: Ariel Kleiman. Starring: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mezzara, Alex Balaganskiy. 98 minutes

The debut feature of Melbourne filmmaker Ariel Kleiman is nothing if not intriguing. A slow-burning, steady-handed exercise in sober atmospherics and understated psychological tension, its story of a charismatic man and the de facto family he has cultivated with care and cult-like fervour is both compelling and perplexing. It's hard to look away from, yet leaves much unanswered and unsaid.

French actor Cassel stars as Gregori, the patriarch who over some years has accumulated a throng of women and their children, whom he houses in a discrete communal bunker. Quietly authoritarian, Gregori is their oppressor as much as their protector, although in general the women, who presumably have come from abusive backgrounds, appear grateful for his guardianship.

Gregori has an agenda. He raises the children according to a system of discipline and rewards designed to keep them in his thrall, and a routine of incongruously violent games that prepare them for a sinister purpose. Slowly, with dread, we realise Gregori is raising a small army of child assassins, who conduct murderous errands to earn his good will, with the apparent blessing of their equally deluded mothers.

The film's fascinating, quiet study of this cult mentality is underpinned by a pervasive sense of geographic displacement and alienation. (It may not be a coincidence that Kleiman and co-writer Sarah Cyngler are descendants of Eastern European Jewish refugees.) Its interior scenes were shot in Australia and its externals in Georgia; but within the world of the story, the location is indeterminate.

This enhances the impression that the children, their mothers and overseer inhabit a world all their own, morally as well as geographically. They know little but the rustic textures of life inside the compound; where every Friday they paint their faces like jungle animals and sing karaoke as a reward for a good week's killing. Even during their bloody errands, the urban landscape evokes a Martian dereliction.

The film's central emotional arc comes from the relationship between Gregori and Alexander (Chabriel), the eldest of his charges. Raised from birth according to Gregori's distorted worldview, Alexander has begun to suspect their guardian is not all he seems to be. With his mother (Mezzara) newly pregnant, and new boy Leo (Balaganskiy) daring to test Gregori's authority, Alexander smells danger.

Alexander's coming-of-age story is poignant, unfolding as it does against such a troubling backdrop. Yet overall, the film's tendency towards understatement is often as confounding as it is compelling. The decision not to expound upon the motivation behind Gregori's ordered assassinations is particularly perplexing. It leaves incomplete our understanding of his, and therefore the film's, sense of moral order.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Partisan, Ariel Kleiman, Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Georgia

 

 

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