In an unnamed country, Gregori (Vincent Cassel) rules over a clan of women and children with what could probably be best described as a gloved iron fist. He’s not a cruel person, rather he is attentive and caring, but as seen in one of Partisan’s best sequences, he is also not afraid to teach dissenters a brutal lesson while in another we’re shown what is perhaps the side effects of his tyrannical behaviour seen offscreen. The charismatic leader’s family as well as what appear to be a mass of runaway single mothers and their children are ensconced in a series of connected houses, built around and into a mountain as if they’re squatters in cliff-side dugouts from a distant war. They carry on their business away from the public eye while Gregori makes money by employing his own child, 11-year-old Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), as a hired assassin for local businessmen.
The talented first-time feature director Ariel Kleiman made a name for himself on the festival circuit with short films such as Young Love and the multi-award-winning Deeper Than Yesterday. Those films were set and spoken in Hungary and Russia respectively, but for Partisan he has given his actors English-language dialogue despite obviously being set (and vocally accented) in Eastern Europe and externals being filmed in Georgia. Maybe he made this decision to bolster its box office potential, although perhaps ironically, this film’s only noteworthy festival appearance has been Sundance. Staggering, really, consider it is a work of immense quality. I have no doubt that if it had been made in Georgian (or any other European dialect) that it would be spoken of in higher esteem with a healthier festival life. But, then again, what else is new for Australian cinema?
Many will compare Partisan to Luc Besson’s Leon – and at a stretch, the cult dramas of The East and Martha Marcy May Marlene – and while the two do share a similar narrative hook, Kleiman’s film is far from that stylishly violent French film. This is a film of great restraint, one that chooses to take its time observing through the eyes of its young protagonist as his world expends not only to beyond the confines of the compound – a sequence in a delicatessen wherein the boy encounters ordinary people is rife with tension, although a sequence with a local boy is frustratingly cut short – but also to the questions of morality around the actions of his father and himself. The cinematography of Germain McMicking, a winner at Sundance, is vital to this as the camera navigates their world of dark colours, but most importantly it’s up to Chabriel. One of the finest child actor performances to come along in some time, he perfectly matches the charming intensity of Cassel who is almost too well cast as Gregori. One can sense the bond between the two, which helps make their relationship, and thus the foundation of the entire film’s narrative set-up, all the more tangible.
I am sure many will be frustrated by the 30-year-old director’s perceived preference for mood over actual substance, but I found that feeling of deeply foreboding dread that the style of the film permits was entirely part of the substance. It’s a film of somber grey emotions, sure, but one that has keen insights into motivations of its characters. It’s a striking feature debut and one that, especially when coupled with his early short work, announces a major global talent in the making.