Directed by Ariel Kleiman

Starring Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mezzara

A child assassin beings to question the dictates of the father figure who sends him on his deadly missions in this sparse, closely observed drama from Australian director Ariel Kleiman (interviewed here).

In a strange, underpopulated urban milieu that feels like a kind of post-apocalyptic pocket of Eastern Europe, young Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) lives in a rundown apartment building with his mother, Susanna (Florence Mezzara) and a number of other women and children. The patriarch of their little community is Gregori (Vincent Cassel), stepfather to Alexander and, it’s implied, stepfather or father to the other kids as well.

Gregori is a warm, avuncular figure who showers the children with kindness and affection, but he keeps his little tribe completely cut off from the outside world – a dour, threatening place in any case. He schools the children himself, and it gradually becomes clear that he is, rather obliquely, imbuing them with the skills, will and loyalty to carry out murders at his behest. Bright, inquisitive Alexander is his best pupil, but changing circumstances bring him to start questioning Gregori’s formerly unimpeachable ideology.

Kleiman’s film gives up its secrets reluctantly, and the audience is trusted to parse the information that is slowly drip-fed to them and piece together what is going on. Our point of view is almost exclusively locked to Alexander, and so the film is a subjective one – and a work that largely functions on a subtextual level; if you need everything spelled out for you, you’re in for a bad time.

Dramatically, there is an implicit tension that mounts as we as viewers come to understand how Alexander and his de facto siblings are being indoctrinated and the violent acts they are being groomed to commit. Gregori gradually becomes a threatening, malevolent figure, especially when a new boy is introduced into the mix. Leo (Alex Balaganskiy), the son of another of Gregori’s female recruits, appears to be on the autism spectrum, and butts heads with Gregori fearlessly and instinctively – a challenge to patriarchal authority that cannot be countenanced. Add to that Alexander’s growing apprehension that his infant brother is also destined to become a killer, and conflict becomes inevitable.

Willfully obscure but not impenetrable, Partisan is a bold, unique thriller that richly rewards close viewing. In reducing his narrative and setting to its stark, brutalist, essential elements, Kleiman forces us to latch onto the raw power plays at the heart of the story and reflect on how they parallel larger societal forces, while never distancing us from the story’s drama. both sophisticated and insistent, it’s a brilliant opening salvo from a new Australian voice in cinema, and well worth seeking out.

TRAVIS JOHNSON


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