Director: Stephen Burke / Xavier Beauvois
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 1983, 38 members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provos) escaped from H Block-7 (H7) of the notorious Maze Prison in Belfast, the largest prison break in Europe since World War II from what was then considered the continent’s most secure prison. The logistically precise break was followed by a characteristically mucked-up rescue on the outside, and all of the escapees were eventually recaptured or killed.
The value of the break, what its main organizer Larry Marley hoped for, was to demonstrate to the British occupiers and Irish people that the republican movement was unbowed by the failed hunger strike unto death of 10 IRA prisoners. Stephen Burke’s Maze focuses entirely on the plans for and execution of the prison break, but the hunger strikers, so poignantly depicted in Steven McQueen’s Hunger (2008), are like guiding spirits in the background.
Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a hunger striker and “hard man” ordered by the Provos to give up the protest, comes into H7 wearing only a blanket. He showers, cuts his hair, and is given civilian clothing in deference to assertions that Provo inmates are political prisoners, not criminals. The British are trying to meet some of the IRA’s demands after the terrible publicity the hunger deaths caused them. Marley instantly starts planning the prison break, starting with an attempt to map the layout of the well-nicknamed Maze and a plan to get the warders to drop their guard by befriending one of them, Gordon (Barry Ward).
Maze shows an admirable patience in showing the plan develop and change, and in this regard, it compares favorably with perhaps the greatest prison break film of all, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956). The command structure of the Provos is interestingly drawn, as is the emnity between the Provo and Loyalist prisoners who share the cell block. Most of all, Burke humanizes the prisoners and offers a multifaceted look at the emotions and points of view of all parties to the conflict, from the wife of a dead hunger striker to Gordon, who wonder why innocent bystanders have to be caught in the crossfire, to an unrepentant Marley, who wants to keep his son out of the conflict and feels a connection, however tenuous, with Gordon. This film is emotionally satisfying while providing the action and suspense that the best prison movies do. Go see it.
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Xavier Beauvois, a prolific French actor, has also directed 10 films, many of which look at violence from unique angles. His last film, Of Gods and Men, put Trappist monks in the middle of sectarian violence in Algeria. His new film, The Guardians, comes at World War I largely from the point of view of the women left behind to keep the home fires burning while the men fight to keep the Germans at bay.
Beauvois turns again to his favorite actress, Nathalie Baye, to help tell his story. This time, Baye plays Hortense, matriarch of the Sandrail family, who is struggling with her daughter, Solange (Laura Smet), to keep the family farm going while her two sons and son-in-law are fighting at the front. The work is hard, and Hortense eventually goes to see Edgar (Xavier Maly), a town official, to find someone to help out. He suggests a strong young woman working at a home too far for Hortense to visit. Trusting Edgar, Hortense agrees. Francine (Iris Bry), a sturdy, 20-year-old redhead, arrives and soon makes herself invaluable.
Beauvois’s visual style calls to mind the old masters, particularly 19th-century French painter Jules Breton and his romantic portraits of life in rural France. He seems mainly interested in recreating life as it was lived, allowing the audience to see just how hard farm work was at the time with some nostalgia, it must be admitted, but without extraneous drama. At the same time, he draws parallels between the first truly mechanized war, which we see in younger son Georges’ (Cyril Descours) nightmare of mowing down scores of enemy troops with a machine gun, and the modern methods of farming, such as a mechanized reaper and a motorized tractor, that are starting to be introduced, illustrating the benefits of progress. His subtle touch is bracing and revealing.
Beauvois adds grace notes to the depiction of the sacrificial lambs—oldest son Constant (Nicolas Giraud), Francine, and the soldiers at the front. Indeed, the film opens on the aftermath of a battle, as Beauvois’s soft lens pans slowly across a field of dead soldiers. When Constant returns to the front from a two-week leave, he is shown walking away from his home, a figure that grows smaller and less distinct as he slowly disappears down a misty road. Francine does not die, but is betrayed to save the family honor. Her grace note is to be the only character to be introduced with music on the soundtrack, and she sings traditional songs throughout the film, her red hair, strong work ethic, and honest emotions symbols of the vitality and resilience of the country. Francine, now in modern dress a bobbed hair, sings us out of this film as she and we look forward to happier times.
Maze will screen Friday, March 30 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 1 at 5:15 p.m. The Guardians screens Sunday, March 25 at 2:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 29 at 6 p.m. Both films show at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
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