de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

Agnieszka Holland, the famed Polish director who is perhaps her nation’s best currently active filmmaker, has created both a film and a polemic, with her newest effort, Green Border. This brutally uncompromising look at the refugee crisis, shot in black and white, is not specifically about Syrian refugees. It is about the ways in which people seek help and are turned away. It is about how humanity has a great capacity for cruelty and choosing sadism over kindness. Telling the story of a group of refugees who have fled from Syria through Belarus to Poland, on their way, apparently, to locations in places like Sweden and Germany, the group finds itself captured by a military unit. That unit begins to mistreat the refugees. This is not precisely Salo, but there are moments in which you worry it might become such a spectacle.

Courtesy Kino Lorber

Holland is too gifted a filmmaker. Her great film Europa Europa, tackled difficult material with a humane touch, and she applies that here, as well. She allows each of the main characters-among the refugees-moments of quiet dignity and intelligence. She gives us a reason to care about and begin to know the players before the chess board opens up and funnels them down to hell. This is a film that asks a lot of its audience.

It asks patience, empathy, sympathy and tolerance. It wants you to question the world around you and to look at your own response to events in the world around you. It is not an easy watch, but it is a great one. Is it one of the year’s best films? Probably. It has elements of many other films, including not only Salo, but also Come and See, as well as 1900 and even Ivan’s Childhood. To dismiss this as a catalogue of atrocities is to ignore the great perils the film is aware of and with which the film is trying to engage the audience.

Courtesy Kino Lorber

For all the greatness and importance of the film, there are moments where it weighs so heavily as to suffocate itself and its audience. This seems proper, to a degree, given the subject matter, yet there are other films about equally horrifying events, which do not have such an oppressively leaden tone, by which is meant that the film occasionally seems to take itself too seriously, rather than just the topic. It is not that the film requires humor but instead of approaching this like a documentary, the film approaches the material where every instance is the most important and grievous occurrence in the lives of anyone participating.

For a film about refugees fleeing a deadly warzone, the fact they have gone from the frying pan and into the fire ought to be enough. Yet the film luxuriates in the misfortune of these desperate folk, veering at moments into torture porn. It is not enough to prevent the film from being great or worthwhile, but it is enough to perhaps give one pause as they view it. Indeed, a pause button may be needed, for some. This, of course, is about the harshest criticism that can be levelled at this otherwise topnotch work.

Courtesy Kino Lorber

The cast is excellent, each inhabiting their world and roles in which that make you buy in and, given the grim circumstances of the events of the film, avoid the cliches of melodrama, even if the film is otherwise tonally heavy. There are films you need to prepare yourself for-the films listed above, for one set-and things like Requiem for a DreamSchindler’s List and Son of Saul. This film joins those as both a harrowing experience and absolute cannot miss.

Green Border is now playing in select theaters.