Film Review: Partisan

Dark, chilling, impressive film about the training of child assassins in a sequestered commune led by a charismatic figure, played to perfection by Vincent Cassel.
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Partisan is an atmospheric, unsettling and ultimately extraordinary depiction of life in a cult-like commune under the auspices of a charismatic leader, Gregori (brilliantly played by Vincent Cassel), who is at once an evil sociopath and a benign and loving father-figure. The film marks Australian director Ariel Kleiman’s impressive feature debut.

Set in an unidentified no man’s land, flanked on all sides by decaying, abandoned apartment buildings and sweeps of barren land, the isolated and self-contained community is home to single women and their children, who may or may not have been sired by Gregori.

In the first scene, Gregori surfaces in a maternity ward where Susanna (Florence Mezzara) has just given birth to a baby boy. He presents her with a flower, gently noting that since no one else has sent her flowers he will provide the gift, and she smiles with gratitude. It is unclear if they know each other intimately or are strangers. Either way, it feels slightly sinister.

Eleven years later, Florence and her son Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), now members of the commune, are celebrating his birthday with the others. Shortly thereafter it becomes obvious—though nothing is spelled out here—that, along with lessons in farming and raising chickens, Gregori is training the children to be little assassins. With guns in hand, they practice by shooting at paint balloons. Gregori doles out gold stars and conducts karaoke nights for jobs well done in marksmanship, among other subjects the kids are tackling under his tutelage and watchful eye. Nothing eludes him.

When Gregori rightly suspects Alexander has escaped from his room by climbing down a drainpipe, he asks him why he used the drainpipe when he had access to the stairs. “What do you call that?” “Forgetful?” Alexander responds. “I was thinking of the word ‘untrustworthy,’” Gregori says. It’s an interesting snippet, not least because it hints at Alexander’s impulse to commit a transgression even when it’s not necessary.

The turning point occurs when a newly arrived youngster (Alex Balagansky), who is appalled at the slaughter of chickens that routinely occurs in the commune’s courtyard, steals another bird in an effort to protect it. Gregori punishes him by locking him in the coop with the chicken, and within short order the child unaccountably disappears. “I know that some of you have never seen that kind of anger and aggression,” Gregori explains at a group meeting. “These are the acts of a boy with a troubled brain.”

Beginning to view Gregori in a new light, Alexander develops an intense distaste for poultry and refuses to eat it. In response, Gregori stuffs handfuls of cooked chicken down Alexander’s throat. It’s his only act of violence towards the child, though it’s evocative and the imagery potent.

Troubled by what he views as mutiny, Gregori explains that every one of his actions is an expression of love and protection. He only wants to forge a cohesive community, which he points out is in mortal danger from certain members of the outside world, who must be annihilated before they destroy the commune and kill everyone in it. His tone is that of a rational man, not a demented tyrant, and thus all the more chilling.

Though no specific country is named, according to Kleiman the film was inspired by an article he read on child assassins in Colombia. The film’s lack of specificity is no liability. On the contrary, it affords the creative team—Kleiman and his girlfriend/screenwriting partner Sarah Cyngler—the freedom to evoke the surreal scene and interpersonal “family” dynamics without being burdened with the demands for historical accuracy. The film could easily take place in the Middle East or Africa. And, interestingly enough, the exteriors were shot in Eastern Europe and that’s no violation either. The cinematography by Germain McMicking is spot-on in capturing a bleak and despairing universe.

In some ways Partisan is a coming-of-age story, as Alexander starts to separate himself from Gregori and experience the world on his own, nowhere more poignantly than when a local shopkeeper gives him a piece of chocolate and he eats it reluctantly and then with growing relish for the first time. One assumes Gregori would be enraged to know that Alexander ate the chocolate without his permission. Alexander’s pleasure is palpable as he gobbles it up.

Slowly it dawns on Alexander that Gregori is a dangerous figure and though he himself is already morally corrupted—he has matter-of-factly murdered one man, maybe more than one—his conscience is evolving, especially after Alexander’s mother gives birth to a baby boy (Alexander’s half-brother or perhaps brother) and he becomes determined to protect the infant from Gregori. The final confrontation, awash in menace, is left hanging. But, like every other scene in the film, the ambiguous lack of resolution is so artfully crafted, it works.

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