My review of “Concrete Night” at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival

On Saturday, September 7, 2013 I attended the gala World Premiere of Concrete Night (Betoniyö) at the Toronto International Film Festival. The screening took place at the elegant TIFF Bell Lightbox. The film was a selection in the Masters section.

Concrete Night is a provocative coming-of-age tale about a 14-year-old boy (Simo, played by newcomer Johannes Brotherus) uncovering uncomfortable truths about himself and the people around him. He shares a tiny Helsinki tower block apartment with his flighty family, including his party girl mother (Anneli Karppinen) and bad boy older brother Ikko (Jari Virman). The taut narrative primarily follows Simo in the last 24 hours before Ikko heads off to prison. This may be his last chance to find himself while in the presence of the one male role model in his life who he trusts. Yes, he does have a best friend, and there is that odd man who lives across the way in the next building (Juhan Ulfsak), but he’s torn between the known world in his head and the unknown one that surrounds him.

Helsinki-born director/co-writer Pirjo Honkasalo might not be a household name in America, but there’s a good reason this picture was in the Masters section. She holds the distinction of being the first female cinematographer to shoot a feature film in Finland. While this is only her sixth full-length narrative as a director, and first in 15 years (1998's Fire-Eater), she’s worked on dozens of shorts, narrative features, and documentary features as a still photographer, cinematographer, writer, editor, director, and producer, primarily in her native Finland. She’s won 19 awards, with an additional 10 nominations, at various festivals and national honors around the world. Honkasalo is a three-time Jussi Award winner, Finland’s equivalent to the Oscars. Concrete Night is based on the 1981 novel "Betoniyö" by her partner Pirkko Saisio, who co-wrote the screenplay with Honkasalo. There was no on-set improvisation as the decision was made to retain the dialogue directly from the book.

From the first dreamy moments of the movie, which hit the screen cold with no opening credits or titles at all, it’s clear Concrete Night is going to be a true work of art. In a surreal opening sequence that would make Buñuel and Dali proud, our young protagonist is gazing in childlike wonder as a railroad bridge collapses into the river. Not only does water look great on film, but it captures so much in its shimmering texture and becomes a recurring motif. Another main theme is established early on as we see the teen looking at himself in a steamy bathroom mirror. Body image is not an unusual concern among adolescents but it’s clear that Simo’s obsession borders on narcissism (and the camera doesn’t flinch either).

Stellar performances abound in this tight ensemble cast. As the jailbound older brother, Jari Virman is spot on in his portrayal of a sad shell of a role model. His scenes with Brotherus are poignant and heartwrenching. Notable in support are Anneli Karpinnen, as the spaced-out mom who’d rather caress a glass than her son, and Juhan Ulfsak as the enigmatic flamboyant neighbor. But Concrete Night rests squarely on the shoulders of young newcomer Johannes Brotherus in his debut film role. He is Simo, playing the confused child as if this was a documentary (not a coincidence given the creative team’s background in the field). With no positive role models in his life, Simo becomes a sponge, soaking up the philosophy of everyone around him. He’s as vulnerable and tortured as a boy can be, open to all influencers, making their lives his own. It’s a sweet yet shocking performance.

With Honkasalo’s extensive experience in photography and cinematography, it’s no wonder Concrete Night was one of the most visually and aurally stimulating titles at TIFF this year. The creative team was led by Finnish cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg, who has over 30 projects to his credit, and legendary Danish editor Nils Pagh Andersen. His resume of close to 60 works, primarily documentary features, includes the fantastic Toronto 2012 World Premiere The Act of Killing. I caught that doc at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and it’s racked up accolades wherever it’s played.

Shot digitally on the ARRI Alexa in the increasingly rare 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the black and white film has just an occasional splash of color here and there (think Rumble Fish). The highly stylized movie is filled with dream sequences and teenage fantasies that challenge the viewer and force oneself to ponder whether the action onscreen is in the boy's head or reality. Monochromatic doesn’t mean monotone. After all, there are 256 shades of gray, and the filmmakers use every one. For example, scenes bathed in white, oversaturated with angelic light, might indicate that what we’re seeing is strictly from an innocent child’s point of view. It’s a world of hope, promise, and purity. This is some of the best cinematography you’ll see all year, if you’re lucky enough to catch it. The music is unobtrusive and light. This is the second feature for composers Karl and Pär Frid, and their haunting score weaves in and out of Simo’s hybrid fantasy world, helping to blend the real and surreal imagery.  

The amount of trust that director Honkasalo placed in the inexperienced Brotherus is mind-boggling, as he’s on camera virtually every moment and had to stick to each line on the page. It would be a brave, risky role for any actor. He deals with difficult subject matter in awkward moments that are hard to watch from the audience’s perspective, let alone for a kid tackling a starring role in his first onscreen appearance. But he had to put at least as much trust in Honkasalo, knowing this movie could be a launching pad for a long, successful career – which it surely should be. A caveat: Concrete Night does contain some disturbing, perhaps even traumatizing subject matter. Those easily offended by violence and nudity should take note. But most viewers of this type of material ought to know that going in, and will be rewarded for their choice.

Concrete Night is a stunningly beautiful cinematic journey into the adolescent mind. Simo’s confusion is mirrored in the images themselves, and the audience is forced to enter his world, like it or not. But are we merely observing his actions? Or are we seeing life as he sees it? Or as he just imagines it? That’s the challenge, and fun, of watching Pirjo Honkasalo’s vision come to life onscreen. Bravo, Ms. Honkasalo. This is a film for the ages.

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NOTE: See my photos of the World Premiere Q&A. I selected Concrete Night for my Toronto International Film Festival Top Picks. It was produced by Misha Jaari and Mark Lwoff for Finland’s Oy Bufo Ab, co-produced by Erik Hemmendorff and Marie Kjellson for Sweden’s Plattform Produktion along with Lise Lense-Møller for Denmark’s Magic Hour Films ApS. Financing was provided by the Finnish Film Foundation, YLE, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, the Swedish Film Institute, and the Danish Film Institute, and DR. Since Toronto, it’s played in competition at the St. Petersburg International Film Festival and had its National Premiere at Finland’s Love & Anarchy Film Festival. Concrete Night is now at the Warsaw International Film Festival and is headed for the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. It opens in Finland through Cinema Mondo on November 1. The film has yet to be picked up for North American distribution.

The festival's official teaser trailer is posted below, along with several stills and a poster. The trailer contains NO spoilers.


CONCRETE NIGHT Trailer | Festival 2013

A fourteen-year-old boy in a stifling Helsinki slum takes some unwise life lessons from his soon-to-be-incarcerated older…
  • Video Release: August 20, 2013
  • Length: 1.12 min
  • Views: 2945

 



Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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