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Opens March 12.
-- Michael Sragow

LIFE OF JESUS (LA VIE DE JeSUS)
Written and directed by Bruno Dumont

The title of Bruno Dumont's debut feature is as provocative as it is misleading. There are no messiahs or biblical figures in this story of small-town youths who skip from boredom to violence without a second's thought; there isn't even anyone named Jesus. Christianity is invoked not as a subject but as an external structure, a set of ideas that the film challenges rather than illustrates. This isn't a religious movie in any traditional sense, but like the austere existential/moral dramas of Robert Bresson (who would appear to be a major influence), it has a powerful, unconventional sense of spirituality that resists simple interpretation. It's stark and simple, as strikingly beautiful as it is frank and brutal.

Dumont's film is about disaffected youth, a subject that I thought recent French films had thoroughly exhausted, but its concerns are universal, not merely contemporary. His hero, Freddy (David Douche), is a quiet young man living in rural Flanders, in a town where the primary sources of entertainment are the local marching band and games of "chicken." Unemployed and suffering from occasional fits of epilepsy, Freddy lives with his doting mother and spends his time hanging out with his pals, driving his motorcycle or having sex (shown with surprising explicitness) with his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel). As day after monotonous day goes by, the future grows darker for these young men. A friend dies of AIDS. The television, their only link to the modern world, sends nothing but images of war. Fueled by boredom and an underlying racism, they fall into acts of violence and cruelty so offhandedly that they barely even allow them to register, as if their morality had been dulled by the repetitiveness of their days.

Dumont has stated that he based Life of Jesus on a real incident of racial violence, using the film as an attempt to understand how horrible hate crimes can erupt in even the most banal environment. Much of the film's power comes from its sheer ordinariness, as Dumont hints at the forces raging within his characters so obliquely that he almost seems to be excusing them. He draws the viewer in slowly, conferring dignity to Freddy's half-innocent, half-loutish demeanor and forcing sympathy for his empty existence. Shooting in widescreen with impressive confidence (imagine a collaboration between Bresson and Nicholas Ray in his Cinemascope glory), Dumont fills the frame with haunting images that reflect the beauty of the area while still giving the impression that every road is a dead end. By the time Freddy and his friends erupt -- first in a casual rape, then in the violent assault of a young North African man who makes the mistake of showing an interest in Marie -- Dumont has allowed us to recognize them not as abstract villains but as painfully ordinary people who give in to terrible, yet terribly commonplace, inner forces. Dumont's gospel is about a kind of evil, but one that resists an easy definition. The ambiguous conclusion neither condemns nor forgives Freddy, leaving issues of morality and complicity to be determined by each viewer.

Plays at 7 p.m. March 12-14 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

THE EMPEROR'S SHADOW
Directed by Zhou Xiaowen

In a breathtaking opening ritual, Ying Zheng, China's first emperor, sacrifices racks of bells to a raging river. He grieves over Gao Jianli, his childhood "brother" and superbly talented court composer. In the first of many ironies, Ying implores his advisors, "Music is a base thing. After my death, execute anyone who supports musicians." But Ying adamantly refused for years to follow his counselors' advice to kill Gao, determined instead to force him to write an imperial anthem that would win over the hearts and minds of all Ying's subjects.

In an extended flashback, The Emperor's Shadow details Ying's allegiance to Gao, the shadow of the title. As infants of the same age, both were nursed by Gao's mother, one on each breast. As a child, Gao played his zither-type instrument while soldiers beheaded prisoners. Inexplicably spared execution, the boys buried a drunken guard alive and then listened to his death rattle. Cut to 26 years later: King Zheng is now a merciless monster alternating between ruthless brutality and manipulative appeals in his quest to conquer and rule all the Chinese kingdoms. Listed in history books as Qin Xi Huang-ti (known for burying Confucian scholars alive), Qin inherited the turmoil of China's Warring States period and did unite China into an empire. It lasted a mere 15 years, 221-207 B.C.

In The Emperor's Shadow, Ying prophetically states, "Death is my addiction," vowing to triumph even if he must slaughter a million people. He's well on his way when, after yet another assassination attempt, Ying orders everyone within one mile murdered. Then he thinks better of it -- make it within three miles. Later, when no one will confess to writing a particularly ominous prophecy, he orders guards to behead one group of workers after another. The river literally runs red with blood. Prisoners of war allowed to live are branded on their foreheads and tortured. Even Gao is tortured and blinded.

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