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    Partisan (2015): Movie Review

    "A harrowing but ambiguous tale of assassin trainees.” 

    Vincent Cassel trains pint-sized assassins in Partisan, the debut feature of Australian director and co-writer Ariel Kleiman. In this dystopian drama, a boy begins to question authorities in their cloistered cult as moral understanding dawns upon him.

    In the film’s prologue, Gregori (Cassel), a bearded chain-smoking adult with piercing eyes, is lifting woods for what seems to be a compound he is building in an unnamed dilapidated urban location. Seconds later, he is seen approaching the hospital bed where Susanna (Florence Mezzara) rests. She has just given birth to a boy and sweetly, Gregori names him Alexander.

    Eleven years later, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) is the eldest among the children living in Gregori’s isolated commune. With wide courtyard and gardens, the compound is accessible from the outside only by tunnels and a locked gate. Like Susanna and Alexander, all the other women and children in the commune are damaged and vulnerable. Gregori, the sole adult male, is the cult leader and acts as sire for the broods. He appears to have equal affection for all the children. He educates them various things like gardening and some games. Most of all, he trains them how to kill using seemingly innocent toys like paintball guns, dart blasters and balloons. He teaches them the values of co-dependence, trustworthiness, obedience, and defending themselves against the “outsiders”. Their progress is reflected on gold stars pasted on a board and those who do well get to perform during karaoke nights.

    Alexander is the most skilled of them and for several times, he has been sent outside the compound to put those lessons to practice. As to why he needs to kill those people, he does not know. Neither the mothers nor the children question Gregori. The established order in the commune is disturbed when Gregori returns one day with a young mother, Magdalena (Katalin Hegedus), her newborn child and her older son Leo (Alex Balaganskiy) who is roughly Alexander’s age. When some chickens are slaughtered in the courtyard, Leo is appalled with it and instantly protected the others. When Gregori confronts him, Leo does not listen and instead defy him. Such disobedience affects Alexander and he soon begins his own revolution.

    With distinct style and confidence, Partisan tells a very provocative material with plenty of grits and cloudiness. It is unsettling at heart as innocents are subtly corrupted by an ill-willed system and by an outwardly altruistic benefactor. It is quite inspiriting at the beginning as a kind-faced man fosters a culture built on humane values to his household of several mothers and children. But mouths will gape when children begins popping balloons and shooting paintballs with the cheers of the others on the background. It becomes frightening as these kids take violence lightly, especially when young Alexander ventures into the outside world and cold-heartedly hunts his kill.

    Such disturbing visuals are backed up with portentous music or deafening solemnity and a creepily brooding atmosphere of obscurity. There are no clear explanations and information are fed piecemeal. Hence, the mystery keeps viewers hanging. This demands for patience and attention, and mainstream audience may not find this attractive.

    In fact, the movie is filled with ambiguities. The geographical and chronological setting itself is a wonder. However, the deserted streets, abandoned buildings and rickety apartments outside the commune suggest a developing nation in an adverse economic downfall. Similarly, the physical interiors of the compound, despite its seclusion and own moral code, mirror the dehumanized and desperate conditions of the bigger world where it belongs. The mothers and children also appear to have come from different ethnicity as they speak the English language in different accents.

    Most importantly, the movie decidedly keeps Gregori in a fog. His character is a mystery at the start and that never changes throughout. He has a Messiah countenance with a sick mission, but as to why, it is not known. His motivations are never explained, and not even any political or personal beliefs, no matter how deranged, are presented to give us a better understanding of the what, who and why of his personality. No traumatic past experiences or hostile threats from the outside are depicted. In the end, Gregori is hard to comprehend; he is as isolated and dusty as his kingdom is.

    Cassel and Chabriel are the two outstanding actors in the feature. Cassel, with his wolfish features and sneaky charm, is always enigmatic and interesting. Here, he delivers a measured performance, giving a silent quality to a ruthless villain. Chabriel matches Cassel perfectly. With his feline blue-green eyes and dead gaze, he is just as menacing and surprising. 

    Partisan is proud and certain of its storytelling. It has an evocative central premise and though its socio-political context parallels many aspects of world civilization, it is too vague and abstract to leave a solid statement. 

    Production company: Warp Films Australia, in association with Protagonist Pictures, Animal Kingdom, Film Victoria, DDP Studios 
    Cast: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mezzara, Alex Balaganskiy, Frank Moylan, Katalin Hegedus 
    Director: Ariel Kleiman 
    Screenwriters: Ariel Kleiman, Sarah Cyngler 
    Producers: Sarah Shaw, Anna McLeish 
    Executive producers: Frederick W. Green, Joshua Astrachan, David Kaplan, Nigel Williams 
    Director of photography: Germain McMicking 
    Production designer: Steven Jones-Evans, Sarah Cyngler 
    Costume designer: Maria Pattison, Sarah Cyngler 
    Music: Daniel Lopatin 
    Editors: Jack Hutchings, Chris Wyatt



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