Culture

Crime and punishment, by phone

BEIRUT: One of the ironies of today is that you’re constantly assaulted by information, but aren’t necessarily well-informed. The impression of omniscience is, of course, conditioned by “wireless interconnectivity,” hand-held technologies and all that. Our persistent ignorance arises from the root of all that “information” people who are more or less ignorant, agenda-driven or mad.

It’s that contemporaneity (“nowness”) of Gustav Moller’s “The Guilty,” 2018, that makes it an effective work of cinema. It also stands atop the shoulders of genre.

Though this Danish thriller is basically a redemption tale embedded within both the culture of chilly social democracy and the banal stuff of state surveillance it borrows from both the police procedural and film noir.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop working Copenhagen’s emergency services hotline. The sound of an incoming call rings out long before the screen opens upon the film’s switchboardlike location.

His first call of the film comes from a weeping man named Nickolaj all his details are on the screen before Holm’s eyes who knows he needs help but is in no state to say where he is.

“Nickolaj,” the cop eventually asks, “What did you take?”

It was speed, it turns out, and the cop’s interest in helping Nickolaj out of his predicament slackens a bit once it’s confirmed the injury is self-inflicted.

Holm’s personal mobile rings and he answers it to find a young woman on the other end who wants him to comment on a case he’s involved with. She doesn’t bother telling him she’s a journalist first.

“No comment,” he replies.

Emergency services receives another call, this one from a rattled-sounding man who says a young woman’s just mugged him. He won’t specify exactly where he is, but Holm’s screen informs him that the complainant’s in the red light district, so he surmises the guy was “mugged” by the trick he hired.

The cop rings the dispatcher anyway, only to find his superior officer is manning the phones today one of those Scandinavian management-rotation procedures.

Their jovial exchange shines a bit more insight into Holm’s character.

He ordinarily works in a squad car, not a call center, and his boss’ reassuring tones suggest he was temporarily reassigned until some procedure was got through. As he rushes to end the call, the senior cop doesn’t hear Holm say that Patricia (his girlfriend/wife) has left him.

Having set the scene, “The Guilty” shifts gears with the cop’s third emergency call. A woman’s upset-sounding voice calls him “sweetie” and reassures him not to be afraid. Holm smells a rat and a few terse questions reveal that Iben, the upset voice, is being driven somewhere against her will by some man she knows.

This sequence is legitimately compelling, with Moller’s DP Jasper Spanning moving the camera from close-up shots to extreme close-ups of Holm’s face as he works to prize information from a woman trying to contain her hysteria long enough to ask for help.

The cop informs the dispatcher that a woman is being kidnapped in a white van and, seconds later, finds Iben’s details on the state’s database.

He calls her house, talks with her young daughter Mathilde and gathers more information. Rather than passing the information directly to the dispatcher, he takes a few minutes to comfort the little girl.

For the balance of the film, officer Holm uses the resources at his disposal to resolve Iben’s predicament. In the process he clashes with his colleagues, steps beyond the bounds of his job description and the letter of the law. His reasons for chasing the leads so relentlessly, as the film gradually discloses, are a bit more tortured than those of your average comic book superhero.

“The Guilty” is a highly theatrical film whose narrative effectiveness hinges on its tightly restricted point of view and Holm’s (entirely believable) biases, which make him trust some of the voices he hears and discount others.

At the center of every scene, Cedergren’s portrayal of the guarded Asger Holm is an effective one. The cop comes off as a decent sort of guy, the sort who went into law enforcement not because he didn’t have the character for the military but because he actually wants to help people “to protect,” as he says. He’s also revealed to be severely judgmental a trait not unheard of among cops.

“The Guilty” is a crowd-pleaser of a film, having taken audience awards at Sundance, where it had its world premiere earlier this year, and several other festivals, including the Rotterdam film festival.

Its stand-alone Lebanon projection this week will open the Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival, the city’s festival of genre film, now in its third edition.

Maskoon promises a mixed bag of genre-watching and genre-discussing events. ALBA will host a series of master classes while Metropolis will project a competition of Lebanese-made genre-inspired shorts.

The cinema will also host a carte blanche projection of “The Nameless,” the 1999 horror classic by Jaume Balaguero, and Maskoon’s Arab Focus section will screen three Arab titles Damien Ounouri’s “Kindil al-Baher,” which debuted at Cannes’ 2016 Directors’ Fortnight, Fadi Baki’s much-lauded short “Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow” and Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s cannibalistic village people tale “Dachra,” which premiered at Venice’s Critics’ Week this year.

Many genre film buffs will be interested in Maskoon’s noncompetitive programming, which includes a number of titles that premiered at prestigious international events.

Most anticipated is “Burning” by Lee Chang-dong, which premiered at Cannes’ international competition and has been making critics swoon ever since. Next in line is the Berlinale competition favorite “Pig,” Mani Haghighi’s slasher comedy about a serial killer murdering Iranian filmmakers.

Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe will also be on hand to present his film geek doc “78/52,” a micro-macro dissection of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which debuted at Sundance this year.

The program also includes Gaspar Noe’s “Climax,” winner of the top prize in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year. Another notable Cannes title is Ali Abbasi’s “Border,” which took top honors in the Un Certain Regard section.

“The Guilty” screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Wednesday Oct. 31. The Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival continues through Nov. 4. For more information, see www.metropoliscinema.net/page/home/.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 31, 2018, on page 16.

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