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2013 Film Festival: Teens, Ali, Bosnia and Nazis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 17, 2013 - TEENAGE, 6:45 p.m., Monday, Nov. 18, Plaza Frontenac

The modern concept of "teenager" -- young people with a little time on their hands, a little money in their pockets and a little trouble on their minds -- didn't really exist until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when child labor laws freed adolescents from laboring 12 hours a day in a factory. Among the institutions that emerged in the early 1900s to occupy the mischievous hands of the newly emancipated young were the Boy Scouts, founded in England.

"Teenage," from Jon Savage's book of the same name, shows us the Boy Scouts and then, in a neat twist, suggests that teaching young men to wear uniforms signifying hierarchy and to camp outdoors in the first decade of the century was not a bad preparation for what lay in store for them in the second decade of the century: World War I.

Siegel does a good job of combining sometimes lighthearted cultural history, focusing on the United States, England and Germany, with political analysis. As he traces the development of teenagers to the 1950s, when teenage culture really flourished, he gives equal treatment to flappers and Nazi Youth, comradeship and racism. The movie is surprising, entertaining and instructive.  (Harper Barnes)


7 p.m., Monday, Nov. 18, Tivoli

"The Trials of Muhammad Ali," a passionate portrait of an exceptional young man growing up in the spotlight, grips us from the very beginning with two scenes that seem to have come from different universes. In the first one, from 1968, theoretically liberal TV host David Susskind berates the young Ali for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. He calls the boxer "a simplistic fool" and "a disgrace to his country and his race."

In the second scene, from 2005, at the White House, President George W. Bush presents Ali -- now partially trapped inside a body wracked with Parkinson's disease -- with the Medal of Freedom, and proclaims, "The American people are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own."

Then the film proceeds to tell the story of the former Cassius Clay, the fancy-talking young man who won the heavyweight championship in 1964, converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, refused to submit to the draft, was stripped of his title and charged with draft evasion. Ali claimed he refused to fight in Vietnam for religious reasons. The resulting court case ended in 1971 with a decision in the Supreme Court. By then, Ali was a hero to many Americans, black and white. He had not fought for four years.

"The Trials of Muhammad Ali" contains a few rousing sequences in the ring, but it is really a movie about the spiritual and political growth of a ferociously bright and articulate but poorly educated young man from Louisville who insisted on thinking for himself. Much of the pleasure of watching the movie comes from watching Ali gain in eloquence and sophistication in the four years of exile from the ring. The movie, directed by Bill Siegel, turns a tad saccharine in the end, but it is highly recommended as a fine portrait of a key figure in one of the most chaotic periods in the history of America. (Harper Barnes)


Halima's Path (2012)

2:15 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac, also at 7:15 p.m., Nov. 21 at Plaza Frontenac

Truth and reconciliation can be a bitter process, especially after a devastating civil war or conflict. We've seen the personal and political toll it has taken in places far and wide -- South Africa, Argentina and Guatemala -- and we've seen how women, especially mothers, clamor for justice for the children they've lost. 

In the surprisingly understated and affecting "Halima's Path," director Arsen A. Ostojic gives a Bosnian perspective to the lingering effects of the civil war. Halima (a heart-breaking Alma Prica) is desperate to learn whether any of the remains in a mass grave belong to her husband and son. To discover their identities, she needs blood samples for DNA analysis.

That proves to be an arduous task. Halima's path is actually a journey through the past, one revealed in episodic flash-backs, that ultimately demands that the skeletons in a family's closet be revealed and acknowledged. Before the war, as the film makes clear, rural Bosnia was a place with deep divisions -- between Christians and Muslims but also between men and women. Separation, whether between the religions or the sexes or both, was the rule, a rule enforced through violence -- as a Bosnian Juliet and a Serbian Romeo find out.

The plot holds no big surprises for an attentive viewer, but the characters are drawn with such tenderness and sympathy that the movie never veers into  caricature. "Halima's Path" may be a sad one, but it's one that's hard to walk away from. (Susan Hegger)

The Last Sentence (2012)

6:30 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac, also at 1:30 p.m., Nov. 20 at Plaza Frontenac

Editor Torgny Segerstedt (an elegant Jesper Christensen) stands in the newsroom, surrounded by employees, his publisher Axel Forssman (Björn Granath) and the publisher's wife Maja Forssman (Pernilla August). The newspaper has received an angry letter protesting Segerstedt's critical coverage of the Nazis from no less than Hermann Goering himself. The letter is read aloud -- and then champagne is broken out.

Segerstedt, who's been crusading against the Nazis, accepts the cheers and accolades. But by the end of this biopick, he has become isolated and marginalized as Sweden prefers neutrality to war and closes its ears even as Segerstedt's prescient warnings become reality.

"The Last Sentence" is hardly a cinematic paean to a lonely prophet. It's a rich portrait of a complicated man, and the film never shies away from his shortcomings and flaws. This eloquent opponent to the Nazis is painfully cruel to his wife; engaged in a very public affair with Maja, embarrassing both his wife and his publisher; and is contemptuous of any opposing views, even treating the king with dismissive condescension.

Director >Jan Troell tells this fascinating story in a surprisingly old-fashioned way. The film is shot lovingly in black and white, and the soundtrack comes straight from the '40s. Of course, this being a Swedish film, there are some ghostly visitations from Segerstedt's past. As Troell would have it, both Segerstedt and Sweden have reason to be haunted by their decisions. (Susan Hegger)

Harper Barnes is a recontributor to the Beacon; Susan Hegger is Issues and Politics editor.